Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back at 2014

As 2014 ends, I figured it might be nice to scroll through my entries and remember some of the notable sports thoughts. I'll go chronologically here, and keep in mind this isn't a be-all, end-all list when it comes to the top sports stories of 2014. It's just a few highlights I chose to write about.

The Sochi Winter Olympics
It's hard to believe this was in 2014. It seems like the games were such a long time ago; it's all relative, I guess. It should come as no surprise that I enjoyed following hockey the most. Too bad the USA women's team choked away the gold medal to the Canadians - the only squad even remotely considered competition.

The men's team didn't top the 2010 epic matchup with Canada, which would have been hard to do. Instead, it failed to make the gold-medal game and then lost out on the bronze. Oh well. Back to focusing on the NHL.

Wild make a playoff run
Yes, I'm calling a first-round series victory and second-round loss a "run." That counts when the Minnesota Wild hasn't won a series since 2003. This time around, the Wild played an entertaining - if not nail-biting - seven-game series with the Colorado Avalanche. Nino Niederreiter became a hero when he scored the series-winning goal in overtime at the Pepsi Center.

Then it was on to Chicago. The Wild battled and played well against the team of superstars. It was a much more entertaining series than the previous year, where the Blackhawks bounced the Wild in five games.

Alas, the run ended abruptly at home in game six. It was overtime when the puck took an unfortunate bounce for the Wild, landed on Patrick Kane's tape and found its way to the back of the net. Series over. But it was so much fun to watch and good to have the state of hockey excited about Wild playoff hockey again.

Instant classic for Indy 500
American Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indianapolis 500 in what I hope will go down as an instant classic. It was the second-closest finish in the race's history, with 0.0600 seconds separating the top two finishers. Hunter-Reay drove from 19th to the win, something that hadn't been done in 60 years.

AP gets himself in hot water
Like I wrote, I don't really write about the Minnesota Vikings. This was an exception, and many local media outlets pegged this lengthy saga as the sports story of the year. Star running back Adrian Peterson was indicted by a grand jury in September on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child for reportedly beating his 4-year-old son with a switch.

He didn't play much of the season with the Vikings as the case went on, followed by an NFL suspension and appeal process for Peterson. Most speculate that he won't play another down with the Vikings. It was an interesting off-the-field story that shed light on child abuse issues.

Twins change the leader
After four 90-plus loss seasons for the Minnesota Twins, it was time for a change. The club that has had exactly two managers since I've been alive fired Ron Gardenhire at the end of the season. Gardy had a good run of division championships in the past decade. Something needed to be done, whether it was solely Gardy's fault or not.

In his place, the Twins hired former player and St. Paul native Paul Molitor. He made it clear from his first news conference that he is here to win. It may be a tough task with the roster he has to work with, but I'm hoping he can bring a bit more toughness to the role.

Earlier in December it was announced that former Twin and most definitely fan-favorite Torii Hunter would return to the club. Everyone's worried about how much his defense has gone downhill for the soon-to-be-40-year-old. I say, it still has to be better than Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks.

We'll see what 2015 brings. Maybe a Stanley Cup, World Series trophy and another epic Indy 500. We can dream, right?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Tough calls and a bad bounce for the Wild in loss to Jets

Teams rolling in the win column get the lucky bounces. Struggling teams just can't catch a break.

That pretty much sums up my thoughts from Saturday's rival game in St. Paul between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets, a game the Jets won 4-3 in overtime. Ultimately, the Jets won the game on a lucky bounce off the end glass above the goal. For those keeping track, it's the second time the Wild has lost an overtime game thanks to a crazy bounce. More on that goal later. 

Anyway, let's start from the top. I attended the game with my family, and it was really an entertaining contest. I checked my Twitter feed during warmups to see about the goalie situation. Instead, the first thing I saw was the forward Jason Zucker, a favorite of mine, was scratched from the lineup with the stomach bug. That bummed me out.

I mean, seriously. Let's just make sure the entire locker room has some kind of ailment this season, whether it's the mumps, flu or general hockey injuries. Maybe next year the Wild can add rubella to the list.

What else can they catch?
While we're on this topic, it's hit the goaltenders hard, too. Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper each caught the stomach bug and had to fill in for each other at late notice. Saturday, Backstrom was placed on IR since he was so sick, forcing the team to call up John Curry from the Iowa squad to back up Kuemper. 

Well, then Kuemper gets sick close to game time, so Curry ended up getting the start. Turns out it was food poisoning. Just crazy. I'll give a nod to Curry for playing a solid game in goal on such a late notice. 

Let's go Wild!
With the personnel changes out of the way, let's get to the game. The out-of-the-playoff-picture Wild are chasing the Jets in the standings, so the home-and-home series they had Saturday and Monday was huge.

It was a packed house, the largest crowd of the season at 19,177 in the Xcel Energy Center, with tons of Jets fans among the Wild faithful. It wasn't as loud and rambunctious as I thought it might get, but there were definitely some chants trying to drown out the other. 

Things started off a little slow, which you might chalk up to the Christmas break. Stu Bickel pulled a guy out of a goal-crease scrum to fight him. Ryan Carter went to the box for tripping. Then a weird thing happened when he exited the penalty box: He touched the puck and the referee instantly signaled another penalty. 

Head-scratching call
You see something new everyday. Yes, Carter left the box when his two minutes were up. At the same time, a Jets player was skating by the box with the puck. Carter came out, appeared to steal the puck away with his foot, gain control and started to head toward the offensive zone. Whistle for interference.

I didn't get it. Neither, it seemed, did the Wild players, coach Mike Yeo and thousands of angry Wild fans who rang boos throughout the arena. Maybe there's some obscure rule out there for this interference call or something. It just seemed like a turnover, not a penalty. 

Once the Wild got back to full strength, Mikael Granlund got back in the scoring column with a goal with about four minutes left in the first period. The turning point came in the second period, when Winnipeg tied it up.

Can't touch the goaltender
The Wild could have had a 2-1 lead at the second intermission, but a goal from Zach Parise was quickly disallowed on the ice because of goalie interference. Never mind that the Wild player "interfering" was pushed into the goalie. This rule has come up before, both in favor and against the Wild. It needs to be looked at by the NHL. I also don't understand how the play is not reviewable. 

So, instead of leading, the Wild played catch-up the rest of the night, getting down 2-1 and 3-2 before coming back to tie it at 3 apiece on a power-play goal from Thomas Vanek (though the credit goes to Jared Spurgeon for the point shot that Vanek tipped).

It was Andrew Ladd that got credit for the game-winning goal in overtime. It was all thanks to a shot that rang off the stanchion and hit Curry, who couldn't find the puck. It went in as he ducked down and into the goal. Not faulting him at all.

Stanchion 2, Wild 0. If you'll remember, it was a bad bounce that ended the Wild's season last year, against the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the playoffs.

A tough ending to a well-played game (I won't get into the short-handed goal the Wild gave up.) for the Wild, a team that desperately needs to right the ship if it has any hopes of making the postseason. But as so often happens in sports, struggling teams just don't get those breaks. Winning teams do.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wild stumble into the holidays with 4-game losing skid

The last time I took a look at the Wild here, at the end of November, I called out a few players and the abysmal power play. Improvement was needed.

Well, folks. It's gone from bad to worse as the Wild stumbled into the Christmas break on a four-game losing streak and still sit out of the playoff picture in 10th place in the Western Conference. Among the past four games, there's been two losses to division foes Chicago and Nashville and two overtime losses. Too often lately they've needed to rally and come back in the third period.

As Tuesday night's 5-2 loss to Philly's Flyers wrapped up, I was reminded of a quote from the movie "D2: Mighty Ducks:" "Well, you better get the damn magic."

Thanks to Dana Wessel for correctly identifying the movie's character.

But seriously, this is very appropriate for the Wild right now. Earlier in the year, it was just that the power play wasn't clicking. Now it's turned into a big mess, from goaltending to lacking an offensive spark.

Goalkeeper shuffle
Youngster Darcy Kuemper really stepped up at the end of last season when Backstrom was out injured. He even started this season well, too, with a lengthy shutout streak. That was when the team in general was functioning on all cylinders.

It's another story with Kuemps these days. The more he plays, the more goals get past him and the more it seems the mental part of the game might be getting to him. Never has the Minnesota Wild pulled its goaltender so much. Kuemps has played terribly at home recently; I think he's gotten the hook in three of his past five home starts or something.

What's been hard to see is the leads quickly evaporating for the Wild. Against Boston the other night, the Wild took 1-0 and 2-1 leads before heading to the locker room down 3-2. That's not good. You obviously can't give up leads like that. It's not to say the defense hasn't had some break downs - it has - but the goaltending needs to be better.

Backstrom is the veteran who can still play well, but he's also getting older, and I saw his game start to slip last season. I don't think he's the answer as the No. 1 goaltender going forward either. Like pitching in baseball, hockey teams require good goaltending. I just don't know how to get it; which players are you willing to give up?

Get mad, or something
There was some press within the past month about Mikko Koivu playing as "Angry Mikko," where he took an aggressive attitude to the ice and notched some points on the scoreboard. I suggest he play like "Angry Mikko" all the time.

Coach Mike Yeo also deviated from his usual coaching style and gave his players some anger and choice words during practice a couple weeks back. It hasn't seemed to do the trick, for whatever reason.

I'd like to see Charlie Coyle use his size more and be a presence in front of the net. If that means getting a little more physical once in awhile, fine.

Turn it up a notch
The team in general needs to remember how long the hockey games last. It's 60 minutes of regulation play broken up into three, 20-minute periods. It may sound trite, but the players must need a reminder because they've had slow starts in a few of their games. Or they decide to take a period off, like they did against Chicago in the second.

Find a spark, something, to get your team going. Score some goals and stop putting yourselves in a position where you always need a third-period rally to win. It's good to know you have the ability to come back; you just can't rely on that ability too much.

Wild players have a few days to celebrate the holidays and gather their playing toughness again before it hits the ice for a home-and-home series against division-rival Winnipeg, starting Saturday in St. Paul. Needless to say, these are two very important games.

The Wild are 10th in the conference at 16-13-3 with 35 points. There's still lots of season left. The Wild needs a turnaround sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Torii's back in Twins Territory

Minnesota Twins fans have something to smile about. The charismatic Torii Hunter is back, and he made a promise Wednesday.
"This is my last stop. I'm not playing with anybody else."
The ball club officially announced the 39-year-old outfielder's return to Minnesota with a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The news broke Tuesday evening that the beloved Hunter would be back in his old stomping grounds with a 1 year, $10.5 million deal.

Hunter started his career with the Twins and played with the club from 1997-2007. From there, he spent five years as an Angel in California and then two years with Central Division-rival Detroit. He wanted a World Series title (who doesn't?), but he decided to come back to where it all started and finish his extraordinary career with the Twins.

By the numbers
Let's take a look at what he's done in his career. Nine Gold Gloves, five All-Star appearances, two Silver Slugger Awards, a career .279 hitter, 331 home runs and 1,310 RBIs.  In 2014 with the Tigers, Hunter hit 17 homers and knocked in 83 RBIs, a stat that would have led the Twins.

At 39 years old, it's expected that a player isn't playing as well as he used to. It's already been talked about that Hunter doesn't have the same running, fence-hitting catches on defense that we remember in Minnesota either. If this were any other free agent, Twins fans would justifiably be grumbling about paying $10 mill for a washed-up veteran.

But this is Torii Hunter.
"I can play a little bit. I got some bullets left. ... I'm here to win." 
New Twins manager Paul Molitor also said he's here to win. While I don't think the wins will come that easily for this team, I'm glad Hunter is back in Minnesota. My first reaction when I heard the news was that it was obviously a sentimental deal rather than one with a "he'll help us win" mentality.

That's fine by me, and it appears fine by Twins fans. Talk to us in June if the Twins are struggling in the division basement again and maybe the opinions will be different. For now, having a good baseball guy who's always showing off his pearly whites around Target Field is a good thing.

What goes around comes around
It's been widely publicized that the late Twins legend Kirby Puckett took Hunter under his wing as he worked his way into the majors. Puckett was a lovable center fielder for the Twins, and then it was Hunter's turn to take over that role. I think Twins fans were hoping that streak would continue with Ben Revere or Aaron Hicks. Maybe we were spoiled.

The Twins had Denard Span and Revere for a time, but after they weren't with the team anymore, there's been a hole in center and in that leadership role. (I still don't understand why the Twins got rid of Revere after Span. It didn't make sense to me.) There was hope that young Hicks would take over, however he's struggled both defensively and at the plate.

Maybe the biggest thing I'd like to see from Hunter in 2015 is to show Hicks what he knows in order to make him a better player. So that Hicks can one day become the leader in the clubhouse. Assuming the Twins don't deal him away, of course.

He's Torii freaking Hunter
It's already been thrown out there that the experiments of bringing Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett back did not go well in terms of on-field performance or leading the clubhouse. I don't really think you can compare the two though. Hunter is different, because he just is. I know, pretty good reasoning, huh?

But seriously, Hunter is a beloved player in this state. Regardless of how he does on the field, I think his presence will be a big draw for fans at the start of the 2015 season. Even if things don't go according to this plan, at least Hunter will (likely) finish off his career in Minnesota. That's pretty special and something you don't see very often in professional sports.

The additions of Paul Molitor as manager and Hunter are two items that could be key in boosting the organization's status with fans. We're not expecting a playoff run or anything, but I'd just like to see some better baseball and a step in the right direction.
"This is where I needed to be. This is home for me."
Welcome back, Torii.