Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wild recap part 3: Scorers are a must

This latest series was evidence that the Minnesota Wild still doesn't have the pure-scoring players. Plus, something seems to be askew with the entire team system. This isn't a new problem. It's not one that started with Mike Yeo, nor is it a reason why he should be fired, just in case any of those #FireYeo peeps are still at it.

Don't get me wrong, Minnesota has talent and a deep lineup. Zach Parise is one of the hardest working guys on the ice, and his grit and determination put pucks in the net. Jason Zucker brings his speed. Marco Scandella has a blistering shot from his defensive point.

But a pure goal scorer? They don't have one.

Same ol' system
Now back to the system that's been a relatively unspoken issue for a few years. I'm talking about the one the Wild plays which often focuses on passing lanes and spreading the wealth with teammates like it's playtime at preschool. To put it simply, the Wild pass too much and don't think "score" enough.

Instead, this team gets the puck and stops just inside the zone, slowing the play down. They'll wait for teammates to catch up or finish getting on after a line change. They'll pass the puck 17 times around the zone looking for that highlight-reel goal, forgetting that anything can happen when you put the puck on net. They've sent three players behind the goal line for puck battles, resulting in no one out front to pass it to when they get it.

There can be too much hesitation when a player does decide to take a shot, giving the defense enough time to prepare and block or deflect shots. I've also never been a big fan of the dump-and-chase scenario, even though I know how it works and the benefits. That's another story.

Just my opinion from The Stands
All this being said, I'm not a hockey coach. Maybe there are things I'm missing about how effective these above strategies can be for a team trying to score a goal. Or maybe the Wild could try more plays driving the net and firing off more quality shots. Take a page out of Patrick Kane's book, for crying out loud. He gets the puck and before you blink, it's in the net.

To sum up the Wild's season is a tough task. It was filled with the mumps, the usual illnesses and injuries, heartbreak for Parise and Suter as they mourned their father's deaths, a terrible losing streak, and an amazing comeback that fell disappointingly short at the end.

Still, it was fun to watch and follow. I'll be back to watch again next season. Because after all, hockey is just such a blast.

Wild recap part 2: Steps backward, when going forward seemed easy

Let me address how this Minnesota Wild season should be viewed and the spin some people have chosen to put on it. Quickly after the playoff exit, there was a consensus that the Wild had a good season because of a "look at how far they've come" mentality, thinking back to digging out of a December/January collapse.

This is ridiculous.

Yes, the second-half comeback after the trade of Devan Dubnyk was remarkable. Yes, no one thought this team was playoff-bound in mid-January. Yes, this was one of the greatest stories out of the NHL this season.

Here's your bottom line
But we must look at the bigger picture. The worst slump in franchise history should have never happened in the first place. The Wild took a step backward this year. Period.

It came off a year in 2013-14 in which the team won a playoff series and lost a six-gamer to Chicago after outplaying the Blackhawks for much of the series. This season, it was reasonable to expect the Wild to be a top contending team in this league. They should have been striving for a division title or to be one of the leading teams, not a wildcard.

Their core group of players had another year of experience behind them. This was the year to make a mark and move forward.

Let's not forget either that if the Wild wouldn't have taken their feet off the pedal in the season's final week, they could have passed the Blackhawks and gotten a top-three spot, which came with home-ice advantage. Maybe that's not much of a difference, but we will never know.

Chicago will now face Anaheim in the Western Conference Finals. Anaheim has only surrendered one game this postseason, and that was in overtime in Calgary. Here's something else I heard about the Wild's playoff fate this year: Well, they weren't going to get past Anaheim anyway.

In their heads
While I don't disagree with that, given the clutch talent and hard-hitting players Anaheim has, I think this isn't the key point. The Wild needed to beat Chicago, to show that they can do it. To show that they have it in them and that Chicago doesn't create a mental block for them.

Because now it does.

Yes, the longer the series went on, the more Tweets and comments I saw about comparing the Blackhawks/Wild playoffs to the Yankees/Twins. I didn't think so coming into the series, but now I think Chicago is in their heads.

We're going to keep hearing about these stats until the Wild changes the course to rewrite history a little bit. The Wild are 0-9 in Chicago in the postseason, the Wild are 3-12 against Chicago in the postseason. All Patrick Kane essentially has to do is breathe and he scores a goal against the Wild. The unflattering list can go on and on. And we'll hear about it again and again.

The frustrating aspect is that Chicago's stars are young and will continue to be around for Wild tormenting purposes. How can Minnesota compete with that? Against opposing straight shooters who are now commonly called "snipers" around these parts. I'm not sure how Minnesota counters that.

Wild recap part 1: What went wrong

In what turned out to be a four-game playoff series between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild played for a grand total of two minutes and 18 seconds. The final 2:18 of Game 4, to be exact.

The Wild scored two goals in this span and finally played with the fire and urgency it lacked all series. They lost that game 4-3 and lost the series 4-0. Having exited the playoffs three years in a row against Chicago, this was the worst series yet for the Wild, when it should have been the best. They lost in five games in 2013 and in six games last year.

It was a terrible way to start
Looking back, this series was doomed from the first few minutes of Game 1, when the Wild came out extremely flat and gave up three goals right away. I didn't have a good feeling then, and I still didn't by the end of the series, when brooms were necessary. The Wild didn't lead at any point and had trouble scoring goals. That's a problem.

Chicago goalie Corey Crawford was good, but he could have been breakable. He was yanked in the first-round series against Nashville. I think the Wild made him look better than he played. Oh, and the Minnesota fans didn't help matters, chanting his name annoyingly (CRAW-FORD) two seconds into the games at Xcel Energy Center. (Don't get me started. If you follow my on Twitter, you know how I feel about this.) It was as dumb as the wave.

Defense and turnovers were crushing blows for the Wild. Against an elite team like Chicago, a mistake will go in the back of your own net. That proved costly for the Wild in this series. Veteran and minute-munching defenseman Ryan Suter had some uncharacteristic struggles as well.

Where were you guys?
As good as Chicago is as a hockey team, the Wild didn't put forth its best effort. Thomas Vanek was an absolute disaster, skating around like it's practice on day three of the season and making poor decisions with the puck. Jason Pominville missed a couple wide-open-net chances that made us all cringe, though we weren't surprised. Mikael Granlund was less than impressive, too. Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle failed to score.

There was all this talk about the chances, missed opportunities and the number of shots for the Wild. After awhile, I honestly didn't care. The back-patting for chances needed to stop because the goals weren't there. That's what matters.

Time to point fingers, of course
Afterward, the questions start coming as fans, players, coaches and owners try to make sense of what happened. One thing that's been a black mark all year was the Wild's power play. It was OK during the playoffs (thanks, in part, to some empty-net goals) but was ranked 27th in the NHL for the regular season. That's not good.

The power play was awful from the beginning of the season when it went something like 0-for-27 to kick things off. I don't think it ever really recovered. The frustrating thing was that changes weren't evident. Time and time again, the Wild sent its "top unit" to the ice for the majority of the man advantage. The result was usually a passing clinic with little shooting, if they managed offensive zone time at all.

It was the second unit that, especially later in the season, seemed to have the edge, shooting and scoring ability. It's just too bad we didn't see these guys more often. Or as Suter put it during locker clean-out time: It's too bad they waited until the last game of the series to make changes on the power play.