Saturday, February 28, 2015

Covering high school playoff hockey is a blast

It's the state of hockey. That mantra never seems to be more true than in late February and early March during the high school section playoffs and state tournaments.

The view from the Xcel Energy Center press box. 
I had the chance to cover some high school hockey lately. It's been a blast, mostly because I drew a couple of games with spectacular finishes. I mean, needing overtime to decide section championships seems pretty cool to me anyway.

A couple weeks ago, I covered Minnetonka and Wayzata in the Section 6AA girls hockey final. That ended with the Skippers heading back to state after a 3-2 overtime win. The coolest thing about this game, other than the exciting finish, was that Minnetonka tied the game with 5:26 left in regulation and then won the game with 5:26 left on the clock in overtime. Time to play the lotto.

I also covered the girls state hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center, which was a lot of fun. It maybe wasn't the most exciting or competitive tournament (for example, Blake won its quarterfinal game 9-0 and outshot the opponent something like 42-3), but I still loved the work I was doing. 

Boys puck: Overtime thriller
Last week, it was boys hockey section finals. Breck and Delano faced off for the Section 2A title. For most of the game, it had the feel that the final score would be 1-0. It was a scoreless game, despite chances, for nearly two periods. Breck got that all-important first goal with just 54 seconds left in the second period. 

Play went on throughout the third period, again with a vibe that the damage was already done and No. 1-seed Breck would return to state. Not so fast. Delano energized the building at Parade Ice Garden in Minneapolis with a tying goal with 3:41 left in regulation. OK, so we'll likely head to overtime tied at one.

Wrong again. 

Things just kept getting better
About a minute later, Breck regained the lead. Their fans went wild this time. This was already a pretty exciting turn of events, after a mostly scoreless game. There was more to come. Down 2-1 with less than a minute left and an extra attacker on the ice for the pulled goaltender, Delano tried desperately to make something happen. 

With 37.5 seconds potentially left in their season, the Tigers tied the game 2-2, raising the decibel level in the arena yet again. It was absolutely crazy. 

It also brought a smile to my face as I stood among other media and furiously scribbled notes. It wasn't a smile because I was happy for Delano, or Breck. After all, there's no cheering in the press box. No, I was content with getting to cover a game with such an incredible finish. I get to write about this; how cool is that?

Settle in for the extra session
The Breck boys hockey team celebrates a section title.
Then it was overtime. In high school, it's an eight-minute period, followed by an intermission before a 17-minute second overtime. Sometimes in hockey's overtime games, the winning goal comes really early, or the teams end up settling in and it becomes a battle of outlasting the opponent.

On this night, we were in for nearly 74 total minutes of hockey from start to finish. Both teams came extremely close in their overtime chances. So much so that at one point I threw my hands up behind my head in an "Ohhhhh! So close!" reaction that everyone in the stands seemed to share. 

Breck's Will Blake came into the zone and shot a puck that Delano's coach later said he thought was headed wide of the net. Instead, it beat the goaltender, sending Breck players onto the ice in the pandemonium of celebration that only section and state titles can bring. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Blake girls hockey should move up to play with the big schools

After a state quarterfinal victory, Red Wing girls hockey coach Scott Haley knew his team's semifinal opponent was The Blake School. He knows the opponent well. Not only had his team played - and been ousted - by Blake in the state tournament recently, but Haley played high school hockey at Lakeville with Blake coach Shawn Reid.

During the news conference Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center, Haley was asked if Blake, given its dominance, was still a good fit for the Class 1A state tournament.

"No," Haley said bluntly, then followed it up with some laughter.

"And I love Shawn dearly. They're good kids over there. But it's not really a fair fight."

Blake might be the best team
Even though he said it's cool to have the opportunity to get to play Blake, Haley almost looked mentally exhausted when he talked about Blake's success in the girls tournament. He also said the Bears might be the best team in girls hockey, including the Class 2A squads.

Blake has eight trips to the state tournament, five of those resulting in championships. The Bears (15-4 at state coming into this year) have won the title more than any other team; South St. Paul has four titles in 13 state tourney visits. Blake also had 67 goals for versus 35 against coming into the 2015 tourney.

The Bears went to state twice before winning titles in 2003, 2007, 2009, 2013 and 2014.

This year's tourney wrapped up over the weekend. Blake beat Red Wing 3-0 in the semifinals; the Bears also beat the Wingers in the same round last year, 5-4 in double overtime.

"Last year, it was a great game," Haley said.

Blake lost in this year's championship to top-seeded Thief River Falls, which made its tournament debut.

The opponents don't match the tourney class selection
Take a look at Blake's schedule this season. They went 24-4-0, including the section tournament. Of the 25 regular season games, they played 13 against Class 2A teams. Three of their four losses came at the hands of Class 2A teams, though they certainly weren't blowouts.

So that right there should tell you all you need to know. In this two-class system (which some still argue against in the first place), if a team is "playing up" more games than it is within its own class, that should raise some questions.

Then there's the debate of private versus public schools. Back in the day, or according to my mom, there used to be separate state tournaments for private versus public. It makes some sense, and Haley pointed it out Wednesday. He can only draw players from a small area around Red Wing.

"They're (Blake) pulling from the whole Twin Cities," Haley said. "But that doesn't mean that they're the evil empire."

Not a new topic in hockey
This debate about teams moving up to the big-school class is a familiar one for Minnesota hockey fans. On the boys side, it was the all-boys private school St. Thomas Academy that had the target on its back to move up, after it won four state titles in seven seasons. STA chose to move to Class 2A starting in the 2013-14 season.

Now, I'm usually one to cheer for underdogs or for the team that hasn't won a bunch of titles in a row. That's just me, but I think I have a lot of support on this. Is it really fun to play competitive games with the bigger class, and then have little competition in the section playoffs and state tournament?

They'll be back; will they move up?
Blake had a lot of youngsters on its roster, and I fully expect they will be back at the state tournament in 2016. But I really wouldn't mind seeing them move up to Class 2A. I guess if you leave the public versus private school debate alone and just look at the competition factor, I think it would be a good decision.

If you want to play more than half of your schedule against the big schools, then play them in the state tournament, too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bizarre dance finish brings a lesson in sportsmanship

My Valentine's Day evening was spent at home watching the Wild game. Exciting and romantic stuff, I know.

As usual, I had my Twitter feed open. Then a couple non-Wild-related Tweets got my attention from the Minnesota State High School League's John Millea, who was at the state dance meet. Here are a couple examples:

I didn't understand what was going on at first. I thought it was some rigid rule in place about lining up correctly, and if so, I thought to myself, why didn't the teams pay better attention to where they had to be?

At this point, the high kick dance controversy hadn't yet blown up social media and the internet. But it was the first story that popped up in my Facebook news feed when I checked my phone early Sunday morning.

Protest was unnecessary
By now, you probably know the drill on this. Faribault's dance team was awarded first-place in the state high kick competition after five other teams were disqualified because of poor sportsmanship for failing to lineup properly during the awards ceremony.

Once I heard that the MSHSL already investigated allegations against Faribault's routine earlier in the week and determined they did not break any rules, that was kind of all I needed. If the MSHSL gave the Emeralds the go-ahead for their routine, then that's that. Why the protest by the other teams?

It doesn't make sense to me. The decision was made, so move on. I'm not saying these dancers and coaches had to like it or agree with it. But the protest was uncalled for and indeed showed poor sportsmanship.

Should any rules be changed?
With the spotlight on this controversy, and as a result the MSHSL rules for the dance competition, we'll have to see how this plays out. Does the league take a look at the rules and make some changes in what's allowed or not allowed for dance routines? Maybe. I just hope changes won't be made simply for the sake of changes after such a high-profile protest.

Sports evolve, obviously, so if there's room to improve it with some rule changes, fine. Do what's best for the dance teams. There's a lot of talk about Faribault's routine being "original." The Faribault coach said something like it was a few counts here and there taken from another routine that inspired what the Emeralds competed with at state.

Going forward, I think there will be a lot more debate about "original" routines and defining that more clearly. What makes it an original routine? Can you take a few things here and there from different routines to, as they say, make it your own? Is it OK to use the same music along with a few similar counts?

The disqualified schools came out with statements Monday, many saying they're investigating or looking into what happen with Saturday's award ceremony. I think the real lessons here need to be in the sportsmanship. Hold these teams, especially the coaches, accountable for their display of basically being sore losers.

I wonder if *everyone* was on board with the protest
I know the five teams standing together obviously appeared united in their snub to the state champs. I'd love to know the thoughts of each individual dancer though. Did everyone feel the same way? Every single girl?

I could easily believe some of them did not want to stand there that night. They wanted to stand where they were told by the league. They did not want to take a stand or whatever the teams thought was being done. They wanted to be recognized for the season of hard work they put in to their routines and accept their award.

Even if some of them felt that way, who can blame them for holding hands with the rest of their teammates and other competitors? Whether it's right or wrong, that would be a tough decision for a teenage girl to make. Peer pressure at its finest.

Maybe I'm way off base here, but I guess I'd like to think some of the dancers on that floor felt this way.

Turn it around
It's too bad something like this had to happen. It's created an unwelcome spotlight to Minnesota and its dancers. Let's try and create a positive result out of this, "Bring It On" jokes aside. Use this situation as an example for younger dancers. Teach them about how important it is to be good sports and gracious losers, even when you don't agree with the decision.

There's no reason to let these participating teams think that what they did was OK.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wild rolling, trying to gain ground

You may remember a blog entry last month where I essentially ripped the Minnesota Wild to shreds in a lengthy tale of poor goaltending, frustration and a coach's tirade.

What a difference an All-Star Break makes.

Since the Wild came back from the Break in late January, they've built a five-game winning streak in front of newly-acquired goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Some trades are just the spark teams need. I'm thinking of the Twins grabbing Shannon Stewart in 2003 on their way to a division title.

Duby has quickly become a fan favorite and has already notched four shutouts in nine games for the Wild. He's been a welcome change in goal, after Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper struggled mightily in recent weeks. To keep going back to baseball, you need good goaltending to win in hockey just like you need good pitching in baseball.

Healthy, improving players lead to wins
The Wild swept a three-game Canadian swing for the second time in its history with wins in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. It shutout the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 at home last week. The Hawks looked like they weren't firing on all cylinders after the break, but still. The Wild played a great game.

Zach Parise still continues to produce goals, Charlie Coyle has made a couple strides in the right direction and Jason Zucker's speed hasn't gone away. I think I heard Zucker is ninth in the NHL when it comes to even-strength goals. He can beat just about anybody in a foot race.

The team is pretty much healthy again, too. Well, except for Keith Ballard and now Matt Cooke. Ballard is probably out for the season after a nasty hit earlier (I think he might call it a career, actually.), and Cooke just had surgery for a sports hernia. He might be back in time for a late-season push. He's had an injury-filled season, which is too bad.

But the Wild had healthy defensemen, which is huge considering the mumps, injuries and the flu kept at least one guy out of the lineup nightly earlier this year. It's nice to have all that nasty junk behind them, we hope.

Here we go again? Maybe.
Always making things interesting, the Wild were in a similar position last year. They limped through December and early January only to rattle off a bunch of wins to get themselves into the playoff picture. They're trying to get back to the playoffs this year, obviously, but I think many would agree that this time might be different.

The Wild dug themselves a very deep hole in January. I still believe it's one of the lowest points in the team's history, simply because confidence was so low and nobody seemed to have the answer to get out of the slump. The Western Conference is good, captain obvious says, and the teams the Wild are chasing are powerhouses.

All about that two points
So how do you gain ground? Chip away with two points of your own. It's cliche for players to not get into scoreboard watching. Cliches exist for a reason. The Wild need to build on the confidence they've gained from the win streak and just keep getting two points. They've put themselves in a situation where you can't look at other teams and hope they'll falter.

You got yourselves into this mess, Wild players, now you get yourselves out of it.

I'll admit I'm doubtful they can do it. Even with their recent winning ways, I just have a feeling that this hole is too deep to scratch out from.