Sunday, November 29, 2015

Wild blows 3-0 lead to Dallas, extending the annual slump

In my head, I had this blog already written before the game was over.

I was going to write about a great game from Darcy Kuemper against top-team Dallas, a couple beautiful goals at the hands of Thomas Vanek (1 goal, 1 assist), Jason Pominville finally scoring his first goal of the season Saturday and a bounce-back game for the Wild that pulled it up from the recent skid.

Yeah, well, then the third period happened. What was a 3-0 Wild lead after two periods turned into a 4-3 loss in overtime. No matter what happened in the game, that lead reversal is never a good sign.

It was the best of times...
Let's go through the good things anyway. The Wild came out with a little jump at the start, and Vanek scored his 10th goal of the season for a 1-0 lead. He shot from the circles and the puck made it through traffic. Off to a good start.

Later in the first period, we got a glimpse of why the team missed Justin Fontaine. His diving effort got the puck out of the Wild zone and up to Vanek, who drove into the offensive zone with Charlie Coyle. The 2-on-1 play was a beauty, with a great pass for a Coyle goal and a 2-0 lead.

Now, time for the moment of the night that will likely be forgotten. At the time, it was huge. In a chuckling sorta way. Pominville scored his first goal of the season. No typos in that last sentence. After a bit of a slumping year last season, Pominville has been under fire regarding the goose egg under his goals category.

At least he got the monkey off his back, for now. Pominville was in the box for a penalty in the first that carried over. I watched him exit the box, break into the zone, accept a pass from Mikael Granlund and blast a shot past goaltender Antti Niemi. To be honest, I didn't see it hit the back of the net (from the other end of the ice where I was sitting).

I'll also admit that I knew who had the puck and I just assumed Pominville's shot went wide and/or over the top of the net. That's just what he does. It was still pretty cool to see his first goal of the year though, at 1:11 of the second.

It was the worst of times...
Unfortunately, that's about where fun for the night ended. The Wild still went into the second intermission up 3-0, but I kept an eye on the shots on goal all night and didn't like what I saw. The Stars won that battle 44-26.

I had a bad feeling early in the third. The Wild came out like a team that was going to sit on a 3-0 lead for the final 20 minutes, rather than keep pressuring. It was 3-1 about five minutes in. Then there was a big turning point. The Wild had a power play after Johnny Oduya was all class in cross checking Zach Parise in the back of the head.

The Wild didn't get much going with the extra man, and this time the finger pointing goes in Granlund's direction. He turned the puck over twice, badly, which led to a breakaway and shorthanded goal from one of the league's best, Jamie Benn. His 18th of the season made it 3-2.

Then it just felt like the Wild tried to hang on, but you could feel it was only a matter of time before it would be a tie game. Sure enough, the Stars did just that. Coach Mike Yeo called his timeout and apparently was quite animated on the bench.

Whatever he said didn't work. The game continued on, with the Wild not generating much offense and Kuemper, who had an outstanding game, still standing on his head. With time ticking down to overtime, the Wild stood around and watched Dallas cycle the puck. That's such a frustrating thing to see; when a team gets caught watching like they're shorthanded. But they're not. It's 5-on-5.

Anyway, to overtime it went. I already knew that wasn't good, for many reasons, but also because the Wild have only won once in the extra session this season, while Dallas has zero "moral victory points" to its name.

Actually, the 3-on-3 overtime wasn't terrible for the Wild. They controlled the puck, but of course didn't shoot it as much as the 19,000 in the arena would have liked. I thought it would be over quick, but the Stars didn't score until the 3:57 mark of overtime, Tyler Seguin's 13th goal from Benn and John Klingberg.

Here we go again
Game over. Now sure, going in, you might think it'd be tough for the Wild to beat first-place Dallas. But the way they lost made it all the more concerning. The Wild dropped to 11-7-4, lost three games in four days at home and have lost five of their past six.

It's the usual, annual Minnesota Wild slump. The past few seasons it's been an issue, though I remember it being more late December/early January rather than late November. But it doesn't really matter. The point is that the same thing is happening again.

It's all about how you respond to bad stretches like this. Last year, it seemed the locker room was counting on some big trade to change things up. Then came Devan Dubnyk who single-handedly saved the Wild season.

You can't count on a trade, boys. Take a look around and figure out how to dig out of the hole. Again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Looking at the Wild so far, overtime and injuries

As the Minnesota Wild prepare for game No. 20, it's already been an eventful season filled with long schedule breaks, a new overtime format, injuries and the flu bug - again. We're all just crossing our fingers that the mumps haven't returned. Yet.
Nov. 5 v. Nashville at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild is 11-5-3 in the most competitive division in the NHL, the Central in the Western Conference. They've kept pace with Nashville about mid-pack. They've had one of their greatest starts in franchise history, points-wise. Still, it'll be a tough task to go strong for 82 games in such a tough division.

They've played well at home (with the exception of the Nov. 5 3-2 loss to Nashville that I attended.) Every point counts, so it's good they've started off so well.

The beginning of the season was a little weird. It just was. Not only did the team have plenty of lengthy breaks in between games - thanks NHL - but they also kept getting teams that were on some pretty bad skids. Their first regulation loss came at the hands of those pesky Anaheim Ducks, a talented team that was beyond struggling. Then Columbus came to town, winless on the season.

New OT is OK
One cool thing about this season is the new 3-on-3 overtime format. The Wild got its first taste against the Kings, which ended in a loss but got the "moral victory point." After that game, I almost didn't care that the Wild lost. For one thing, they were lucky to get to OT anyway, plus they still hadn't lost in regulation to that point.

But I loved the 3-on-3 play. End-to-end, fast skating, breakaways abound. It was so fun to watch. I could definitely see why the NHL made this move to try and avoid the shootouts, by ending the game in overtime.

Obviously, it's an adjustment for the players. Goalies have to be more prepared for odd-man rushes. I think we've seen now that even the timing of line changes is magnified. Get off when you can, otherwise you might get stuck out on the ice for the winning goal against.

The Wild were 0-2 in overtime before they finally got a win against Carolina. I think the sample size might be too small so far to tell how they do in overtime. But another part of me wants to scrutinize and point out the mistakes. We'll see how it goes. If they go 2-11 in overtime sessions or something, then maybe it'll be the time to evaluate.

Injuries and flu bugs, oh my
The truth of any sports season is that injuries are part of it. That's the deal. Sometimes when it rains, it pours, however. Zach Parise sprained his MCL in that Nashville game, courtesy of James Neal. It was right away in the game, and Parise could barely get to the bench. They did alright without him for a couple games, but his presence is obviously missed. He's Parise, so I'll expect him back about a week or two before other players would return.

Tyler Graovac has been out since basically the start of the season with a groin injury. Justin Fontaine also has a sprained MCL. Marco Scandella is out with a lower body injury. It's led to a parade of players coming and going from Iowa.

Then there's the flu bug. This has to be two or three years now that a flu bug has gone around the locker room. It's puzzling because it seems like it's a new thing. Every night you wait to see the lineup card because you never know who'll be in uniform. Or who might skate warm-ups but is too sick to skate the game.

It's just one of those things, I guess. But again, at least it's not the mumps.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thanks for the memories, Torii

It was the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Torii Hunter was an All-Star for the first time. He left his mark in the first inning with a homer-saving catch against the wall off the bat of Barry Bonds. 

Hunter had plenty of spectacular catches over his career, earning him nine Gold Gloves. But that one in particular is one of the most memorable that sticks out in my mind. I don't think I'm the only one either. 
Hunter addresses the crowd at the end of the season.

It's the end of an era now, as Hunter, 40, announced his retirement from baseball. He started and ended his career with the Twins, stopping with the Angels for five years and the Tigers for two in between. 

One of the favorites
Hunter is right up there when you think of franchise players for the Twins. Not necessarily for his baseball stats, although those aren't too shabby either. No, Hunter represents the heart and soul of the organization. He quite often flashed those pearly whites and just had fun. 

The Twins drafted him in 1993, with his debut coming in 1997. It was Kirby Puckett who took him under his wing as an outfielder, and then it came full circle as Hunter became the leader for guys like Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks.

He's a career .277 hitter with 353 home runs and 1,391 RBI. He won American League Gold Glove Awards from 2001-09. He was part of the Twins core that avoided contraction and won a string of division titles.

Coming home
He returned to Minnesota for the 2015 season. It was really a sentimental signing, I believe. It was tough watching him slump with the bat in late summer and to watch those miscues he had in the field sometimes. But overall, it was nice to have him back in the Twins lineup. 

One of the other memories from this past season that sticks out isn't the most flattering for him. It was his ejection from a game against the Tigers in June. It was after a strikeout when Hunter said something to the home plate umpire about a strike 2 call. He ended up taking his jersey off and throwing it onto the field, along with his elbow pad. It was quite the scene. 

"Just a lot of emotions," Hunter said after the game. "We have bad days, all of us. Hitters, pitchers, even umpires have bad days. He had one. So what can you do?

"All you need to do is look at the video and decide for yourself." 

That probably wasn't Hunter's finest moment, but it was certainly memorable. There were other things from this past season, too, like his solo home run in the 9th inning Aug. 7 in Cleveland to win the game 10-9. That was actually a weird game where the Twins gave back their 6-0 lead before rallying late. It was definitely a bright spot for Hunter though.

His story seemed clear to me: He was part of a great run of division titles for the Twins in the 2000s, but played free agency because he wanted that World Series ring. Who wouldn't? He had some playoff success with the other teams, the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, but he fell short of that final series. 

There was one thing he said during Thursday's news conference that I thought was great. He realized how fortunate he was to play in the playoffs for a number of years, since some guys never get that chance. "You get brainwashed into wanting a World Series," he said.

So he came home. Not his born-and-raised home like it is for Joe Mauer. But Minnesota is still home for Hunter. He wanted one more year with the Twins. One more year playing baseball. One more year where he could mentor the youngsters, and start a fun dance-party tradition. 

Thanks for the memories
Going forward, I'd like to see him on the desk for baseball broadcasts, maybe even up in the booth, too, especially for a few Twins games. He hasn't made any decisions about what path he will take in retirement, but I wouldn't mind if he wanted to coach. Or he could just hang around and mentor the young outfielders and pass on his Gold-Glove wisdom. 

Whatever he decides, it doesn't change what he's already given the Twins and their fans. Great catches, a signature home-run bat toss, leadership and just being one of the best overall fan favorites in team history. 

Thanks, Torii.