Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wild beats St. Louis in six games, prepares for rematch with Chicago

The Wild won 4-1 Sunday, clinching a playoff series (4-2) in front of the home fans for the first time in franchise history. The game-six win sent St. Blues home singing the blues for its third first-round exit in a row.

I've never been more happy to be wrong.
Picking the series to go seven games really wasn't that big of a deal, especially if you look at the history. Before Sunday, the Wild have never won a playoff series in less than seven games, and those were all on the road, a couple after being down 3-1 in the series. But either way, the Wild won, and we can mark that in the history books.

Game six
The Wild got on the board thanks to a shorthanded goal from the hardest-working and grittiest player on the team, Zach Parise. He brought the puck into the zone all alone with speed, skated past defender Kevin Shattenkirk and finally took a sharp-angle shot from the goal line. It was a pretty soft goal for Blues goalie Jake Allen to let through.

About halfway through the second period, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock got interviewed for the national TV broadcast. He was asked about the soft goal and the possibility of pulling his goaltender. He dismissed that, saying you have to stick with the young kid.

A couple minutes after that, the Wild had a 2-on-2 rush into the zone, with Justin Fontaine as the puck carrier. He took a soft shot from the slot, and once again it somehow made it through Allen and into the net. That got Allen the hook.

You were saying, Hitch?

It looked like the Wild would lead 2-0 after two periods. Then I saw the fans at Xcel Energy Center start the wave. Next thing you know, T.J. Oshie, who was virtually absent on the stat sheets during the series, scored with four seconds left in the second, making it a 2-1 margin. I hope people at least learned their lesson about the wave.

Ugh. It seemed like a huge momentum killer, ala Minnesota sports. But then a minute into the third, the Wild did exactly what they needed to do: Parise scored his second of the game. As they say, the next goal is huge, and the Wild made sure they got it.

Another empty netter clinched the series for the Wild. Then the party was on. Time to celebrate the first playoff series win at home, ever.

Looking ahead
For the third year in a row, the Wild must face the Chicago Blackhawks to move forward in the postseason. Chicago ousted the Wild in five games in the 2013 first round and in six games in last year's second round. But if you remember last year, the Wild played a good series and didn't have the luck, apparently. It was a bad bounce off a stanchion that led to the series-winning goal. Ouch.

So far, we've heard that this year's Wild team is different. Obviously, it's been one of the hottest teams during the second half, thanks to the trade for goalie Devan Dubnyk (broken record, if you don't know that by now). I've also heard about the maturity and experience this Wild team has compared to the team a couple years ago.

It's all encouraging, and I do think the team is in a much better position than in the past. But I still don't like the Chicago matchup. Of course, they have the dangerous players that are just so talented. As I watched Chicago take down Nashville in the opening round though, I realized something: Chicago has a New York Yankee-like mystique.

Leading the series 3-2, the Blackhawks were down 3-0 in game six and pulled their goalie. But they came back to tie it up, then scored the game winner with something like three minutes left in the game. That's just a killer.

This team finds a way to win hockey games, whether they were the better team or not. They play physical, and they know how to score goals and kill any momentum for other teams.

Then there's Bryan Bickell, perhaps the biggest Minnesota sports killer ever. At least he's high on the list. He is not known for his offense when you look at his stats, except against the Wild. He has 15 goals in the past 22 regular season and playoff games against the Wild. He scored twice in the third period in a 4-2 Chicago win back on Jan. 8.

I don't know what it is, but it's gotten to the point where you feel like the Wild start the game already down 1-0 when he's on the ice. The Wild better be prepared to get that guy out of the way. Keep him off the puck, and get him out of the play completely. He's the kind of player where goals will bounce off his pinky toe and go in.

With this Wild team a little better, I'll say the series goes one more game than last year. I'm sticking with seven games.

My prediction: Wild beat the Blackhawks in seven games. #Becauseitsthecup

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A chance for Wild to clinch in State of Hockey

Minnesota hockey fans held their breaths to see how the Wild would respond after an awful game four at home against the St. Louis Blues. Or maybe it was just me.

The series was tied 2-2 as the puck dropped Friday night in St. Louis for game five. The start was a tad shaky for the Wild, especially when they got behind 1-0 on a goal from (who else?) Vladimir Tarasenko. That was tough because all we've heard about is the team that scores first has won every game in this series. That wasn't a good stat for the Wild in a pivotal game five.

The tide turned, however, just three minutes later. Marco Scandella fired a shot past Jake Allen, who saw the puck bounce off his glove and into the net. It was 1-1 after the first period, which was a victory for the Wild, since it only had a couple shots on goal.

In the second, it was all Wild. Nino Niederreiter gave the Wild a lead, and then Mikko Koivu scored a power play goal. It was 3-1 Wild after two periods. The other stat they bucked in this game was about leads. The team that scored first and also held the lead for the entire game had won each game in the series. Until Friday.

Late in the third, Charlie Coyle surprised Allen with his shot on goal. That gave the Wild a nice cushion and some boosted confidence. They responded well from game four, but possibly more importantly, they responded well from the tentative start. It would have been easy to get down after Tarasenko's goal.

Minnesota's goalie Devan Dubnyk came up huge, just two days after being pulled out of the 6-1 loss. He made 36 saves Friday, including at least one game saver where the puck went off his leg pad as he was on his side.

Looking ahead 
Once again, the Wild are in an unfamiliar position. It's the first time in franchise history the squad goes into a game six up 3-2 instead of down. They'll faceoff against the Blues at 2 p.m. Sunday in St. Paul.

Of course, the obvious thing to do for the Wild is finish off the series at home. But as Minnesota fans know, that's easier said than done. The big question is: Can they respond to a series lead better than they did in game four, when they blew a chance to go up 3-1 in the series with a terrible 6-1 loss? We'll see.

I'm not saying the Wild can't do it; I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic. I'll say it again that the Wild seem to rise to the occasion when the chips are stacked against them. With a lead? I'm not sure how that will go. Clinching a playoff series at home would also be new territory. That could be fun.

Games in this series haven't been close, another change from previous Wild playoff games with OTs and one-goal contests. But if I had to guess, I'd say game six is finally the close game in the series, with the Blues sneaking away with the win.

Because I still think this series will go seven games.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wild go from dominate to downright awful

First, I'm going to go ahead and focus on game three of the first-round series between the Wild and Blues. Because, let's get some positive vibes back into this Wild team.

But let's get the basics out of the way. The Wild and Blues were tied 1-1 in the best-of-seven series when the Wild beat the Blues 3-0 in game three. The Blues evened things again with a 6-1 hockey-clinic beating in game four. The series shifts back to St. Louis for game five Friday, all tied up at two.

Game three
Though Coach Mike Yeo didn't want to use the word "dominating" to describe his team's performance in front of the home crowd for Monday's game three in St. Paul, everybody else seemed fine with it.

The 3-0 win was the first shutout recorded in this season's NHL playoffs so far. Devan Dubnyk came through again.

It was a scoreless game until later in the second period, despite the Wild outshooting the blues by a significant margin. Chance after chance didn't go in for the home team, which was a bit nerve-wracking after awhile. Blues goalie Jake Allen kept coming up with the big saves. You just had the feeling that the Blues would strike first on some fluke bounce or rush, because that's often how it goes.

Jason Pominville finally scored to put the Wild up 1-0. He buried a Zach Parise rebound into a wide-open net. The second goal was all Parise. With the puck in the slot, he battled his way through a defender and tossed the puck past Allen for a 2-0 lead.

We all held our breath and then cringed as Granlund misfired a shot wide of the gaping-hole net in the third that would have been a dagger. Still, the Wild continued their strong play and Nino Niederreiter scored an empty netter with about two minutes left.

The Wild looked great and the Blues didn't. Through this point, some of the Blues key players were held off the scoresheets in the series. As a bonus, the Wild weren't engaging in the tough-guy act of the Blues. I think the best was when Steve Ott tried to engage Matt Dumba, who was on the Wild bench. Dumba just laughed.

Game four
But as good as the Wild looked in game three, the team left fans all across the state of hockey with a sour, maybe disgusting, taste in their mouths after a 6-1 implosion at home. It was brutal. If you didn't see the game, you probably helped your blood pressure in doing so.

Let's see, the Wild went down 1-0 just 5:34 into the game. It wasn't the best looking goal to give up if you're Duby. Things just got worse from there. About 90 seconds later, Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first of his two goals on the night to put the Blues up 2-0. It was 3-0 by the halfway mark of the first period.

The only glimmer of hope for the Wild came early in the second. They started out on the power play, thanks to our dear friend Ott, and did exactly what they needed to do. Jared Spurgeon scored to make it just a two-goal deficit again, trailing 3-1. After that, the Wild had some life again. We started to see a different team than the one in the first period, as at least three people in my Twitter feed noted. A little momentum went their way and with a lot of hockey left, we hoped for a turnaround.

That theory went down the drain two minutes after Spurgie's goal when Paul Stastny (a Wild killer in last year's playoffs in the Colorado series) scored to make the score 4-1. The game was already not going well, but to me, this tally was the real nail in the coffin for game four.

By the end of 40 minutes, it was a 6-1 lead for the Blues. Dubnyk got the hook, giving Darcy Kuemper a chance for some playoff minutes.

Dubnyk did not look sharp from the start, and I'm not sure why. Though after the way he saved the Wild's season, it's hard to get on the guy too much. Sure, he let in some bad goals. But he didn't have a team in front of him either. They gave him zero help.

I'm not sure what happened to the Wild. They came out flat and didn't seem to have any urgency all night. They couldn't get pucks through neutral ice effectively. When they had the puck looking to break out of their own zone, the made a bunch of non-crisp passes like they were the ones with a huge lead. They weren't making the same headman passes that worked so well for them earlier in the series. The list goes on.

Basically, they didn't show up.

It's never easy
Here's the other thing I know: The Wild just can't make it easy on themselves, for some reason. A win Wednesday would have meant a 3-1 series lead, putting them in a great position over the Blues, who must be feeling pressure to break out of the first-round slump they've had. This team has shown time and again that it plays well when backs are against the wall. This series is no different, I guess.

It's interesting, because throughout their playoff history, the Wild are usually the ones chasing. They've come back to win series down 3-1 multiple times. Now we've seen what happens when the Wild have a lead and momentum. If game four's play is a response to that, I guess I'll take being the comeback kids any day.

The Wild head to St. Louis for game five, and they will return to St. Paul for game six. It goes without saying that the Wild need a huge rebound response in game five, since they threw away momentum last night. But even if they lose, the series isn't over until it's over.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Wild leave St. Louis with a split

I guess Mother Nature wanted to welcome the Minnesota Wild back to town for game three of their first-round playoff series with the St. Louis Blues. Today's cold, windy weather feels more like a fall day at the start of hockey season. Good ol' Minnesota.

Anyway, enough weather talk. Let's get pumped up for game three tonight. The Wild returns home after skating to a 1-1 split in St. Louis Thursday and Saturday. The Wild took game one 4-2 and the Blues won the next one 4-1. I'd say both of those scores are slightly misleading as to how the games played out. 

Game one
The physical game of the Blues was much-hyped before the series began. It seemed the Wild were ready for it. They stuck to their game and even got out to an early 1-0 lead a couple minutes in on a goal from the red-hot Jason Zucker. 

It was a great play. Zucker had the puck with speed (obviously) and looked to the bench before entering the offensive zone on the far side. There was a line change going on, and you could tell he thought about dumping the puck in so he could change. Instead, he drove into the zone, let a sharp-angle shot go and then scored on his own wrap-around rebound.

The Wild's power play, which has pretty much been a low point all season, came through early in the second period when Matt Dumba scored his first playoff goal on a shot from the point to put the Wild up 2-0. 

St. Louis didn't seem ready to play in this one, at least not until maybe the third period. How could you tell? Well, if you weren't watching their play on the ice, the chorus of boos from their fans provided a clue as to how things were going for the home team. 

The final couple minutes got interesting. Mikael Granlund scored an empty netter with 1:13 left. Game over, everyone thought. But the Blues made it 3-2 just 14 seconds later on a shorthanded opportunity. Jason Pominville sealed the deal for real this time with a power-play, empty-net goal with 20 seconds on the clock. 

Game two
The Blues showed up from the opening faceoff this time. They brought their physical game and there were some more after-whistle feathers ruffling. Kinda-tough guy Steve Ott was out there doing what he does best, even petting Zucker on top of his helmet at one point. Vladimir Tarasenko put his team on top with two first-period goals, one on the power play. That second goal is one goalie Devan Dubnyk would like to have back, I'm sure.

Down 2-0 after two periods, the Wild did what it needed to: Score early in the third. Marco Scandella got the tally. It was great, but he also made a couple costly turnovers and defensive miscues. He wasn't the only one. Thomas Vanek and Pominville (maybe some others?) didn't have the best games either. I'll pick on Vanek because I like to; he couldn't seem to move his feet at all.

Some of the penalties were questionable, on both sides. The classic goaltender interference penalty was called on Zach Parise. I don't even know what's interference and what's not anymore with these calls. I'm also not saying the penalties had affected the outcome of the game. I'm just saying.

The Wild tried to battle back trailing 2-1 in the third. It had some unlucky plays, too. A couple pucks during the game hit awkwardly off the stanchion behind Blues goalie Jake Allen. Of course, those pucks nearly went in but didn't.

Perhaps the closest moment was a Charlie Coyle shot off the crossbar. The rebound ended up behind Allen on the goal line. Any further and it would have been in. But David Backes (Minnesota's own) came to his goaltender's rescue and cleared the puck out of the way.

Here was a reactionary Tweet:

With about two minutes left, the Blues put the game away with another goal. Then Tarasenko ended up with the hat trick with an empty netter.

Thoughts from the split
Afterward, there was some unrest on Twitter about the game the Wild played. When you lose, of course you can point to what went wrong. But I really didn't think the Wild played a bad game. I mean, they nearly tied it up. They didn't get run out of the building.

Besides, a 2-0 series lead would have been great, but did we really think that was the most realistic option? If we've learned anything about this Wild team, it's that they don't do anything the easy way. Look at the playoff series they've won. During their 2003 run, they came back from 3-1 series deficits against Colorado and Vancouver to win in seven games. Last year, they beat the Avs in seven games.

I think the big question right now is: Can the Wild regain the home ice advantage? Unlike the past, it's been a much better team on the road, especially lately, than at home this season.

The Blues and Wild have matched up well so far in this series. I think we'll continue to see good hockey throughout the rest of the series. But let's hope there's a little puck luck for the Wild.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

No doubt about it: Wild will be tested physically in Blues series

Playoff hockey is upon us. Time for the state of hockey to get excited. 

For the third year in a row, the Minnesota Wild will play in the postseason. The past two years the Chicago Blackhawks ended the Wild's run, in the first and second rounds, respectively. This year, the top-wild card Wild face Central Division Champion St. Louis Blues. Game one is Thursday night with an 8:30 p.m. (central) puck drop. 

There's been much speculation over the past few weeks about a possible opponent for the Wild and who the best matchup would be. In such a tight and competitive conference like the West, it's best to let the chips fall and see what happens. The Wild had a chance at snagging the third spot instead of the wild card, but that wasn't meant to be. 

Facing the Blues
So, it's off the St. Louis they'll go. The Wild better be prepared for a physical game. Over the past few seasons, I've watched as the Blues have thrown their weight around in the postseason. It's concerning as a Wild fan because I don't think this Minnesota team is extremely physical. They really need guys like Charlie Coyle and Chris Stewart to step up in this regard. 

The Blues have a ton of talent, including Minnesota's own T.J. Oshie and David Backes, who know how to score and throw the heavy hits. Trust me, they won't be thinking about their Minnesota roots when they're on the ice. Then there's also Steve Ott in a blue sweater, a veteran tough guy that could cause problems for the Wild. Plenty of potential for physical play.

At the same time, the Wild should focus on their game, too. Try to avoid those crushing hits as best they can, and hit the Blues where it counts: on the scoreboard. Zach Parise needs to continue his scoring, Jason Zucker needs to use his speed to dodge opponents and drive the net and let's hope Mikael Granlund can recapture some of his postseason magic he had in 2014.

The tough thing, too, is that whenever the Wild players battled back this season, get physical and stand up for their teammates, it often results in one-sided penalties. Maybe that's my subjective bias, but it's just what I see. Officiating in the NHL is far from perfect or consistent (as we found out in last year's first-round series against Colorado), so let's say an opponent throws a big hit after the whistle or puts a Wild player in a headlock. The Wild might retaliate and end up on the penalty kill or have a 4-on-4 situation. 

PP and PK will be key
Along with the physicality, special teams is another possible worry for the Wild. They're first in the NHL when it comes to the penalty kill, which is a big boost. However, their power play has struggled all season and ranks near the bottom of the barrel. Being able to score with the man advantage is magnified even more during the playoffs. The Wild did well on the power play last year in the playoffs, but the confidence isn't there this time around. 

Whether the Wild can pump in some goals on the power play could make or break their series.

On the positive side, the Wild have potential for more games on the road than at home. That's not a bad thing for a team that's played much better on the road lately than it has at home. That bit about home ice advantage might not come into play. 

It's still the playoffs; Wild's season is memorable
All analysis aside, we can't forget about how exciting the NHL playoffs are. It's fun to have so many good teams competing for the Stanley Cup, and it makes the outcomes really hard to predict. There's always more excitement with the playoffs, and players compare that first game to Christmas morning. 

We can't forget what an amazing second half this Wild team has had, either. I touched on it in my last post, about how Devan Dubnyk came in and this team went on an improbable run to make the playoffs. They looked very down and out in mid-January before Duby put on a Wild sweater. This really will go down as one of the most remarkable trades and season comebacks in Minnesota sports history. 

Still, I maintain what I said before the season started. If the Wild don't win two rounds in the playoffs, the season will be a disappointment. I think that's still true overall. But this season would obviously have been even more disappointing if the Wild didn't dig themselves out of that huge hole midseason. 

The Wild have played the past couple months in desperation mode, as if they were already in the playoffs. This could work against them if they fade early on. Or, it could keep propelling them deeper into the postseason and toward a Stanley Cup. 

My prediction: Wild beat the Blues in seven games. #Becauseitsthecup

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wild went from 'free falling' to playoff bound

Anybody who told you in mid-January that the Minnesota Wild would make the playoffs is a liar.

I don't think anyone (media, fans, even the players) could have predicted the amazing turnaround from the Wild in the second half this season. Because guess what? The Wild are in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

How did they get there? Ultimately they clinched a postseason berth with a 2-1 win Tuesday in Chicago. This came after a three-game losing streak and missed opportunities to clinch sooner. It seems like water under the bridge (what a difference a few hours makes...), but I know I wasn't the only fan nervous about this little slide.

Can they just make it easy for once? Maybe stop waiting for their backs to be up against the wall? They had a shot at trying to move up in the standings, but will likely take one of the wild card spots.

Now and then
Anyway, Tuesday's game was scoreless until late in the third period, when Mikael Granlund scored in a big moment with a great backhand move. Not long after, Jason Zucker scored a beauty that turned out to be the game winner. It was his first game back after missing a couple months with an injury. (Wild killer Bryan Bickell scored for the Blackhawks as time ticked down. And yeah, the grass is green and sky is blue.)

But that game is getting ahead of things just a tad. Let's rewind back to my Jan. 12 blog post, where I noted the Wild were "free falling." I was uncharacteristically harsh on the team, because at that point in the season, the Wild were in shambles.

They had just lost five straight games and held a 18-18-5 record. They'd gone through bouts with injuries, the flu, the mumps and heartache. The #FireYeo chatter got going again. Remember when coach Mike Yeo went on a tirade during practice in January? It almost doesn't even seem like the same season.

I called it one of the worst slumps in franchise history. I meant it. Now, this season seems to be the greatest comeback.

Best trade ever?
The Wild's amazing run started with a goaltender trade Jan. 14 when general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Devan Dubnyk from Arizona for a third-round draft pick. And the rest is history. Duby was the answer to what was ailing the Wild. The trade ranks right up there in Minnesota sports history with the likes of the Twins getting Shannon Stewart in 2003.

In his 38 games with the Wild, Duby has racked up 27 wins, has a .938 save percentage, a 1.73 goals against average, was the first Wild player to be named the NHL First Star of the Week three times in a single season and set a franchise record for most consecutive starts.

Not bad at all.

Digging their way out
More than anything, I think a new face in the locker room gave the team some renewed energy. Plus, when you have a goaltender playing well, the guys in front of him play better, too. The tide started to turn, they started winning games and eventually dug themselves out of that deep hole.

The Wild were something like 14 points or so behind Chicago and very clearly out of the playoff picture earlier this season. With a postseason spot secured, the Wild sit at 45-27-8 with 98 points. The penalty kill is ranked first in the NHL, I believe (even if the power play is the complete opposite). They've won 11 straight games on the road, one away from a record set in 2005-06.

In my lengthy rant about everything that was wrong with the Wild, I challenged them to prove me wrong. (Because, I'm sure each player was reading.) This is what is so great about sports. Anything can happen, it's not over until it's over, that's why they play the games. All the cliches apply.

We'll worry about the postseason a little later. Right now, let's enjoy the comeback.

Because in January, no one saw this coming.