Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wild limp to the Break

Well, that’s one way to head into the All-Star Break.

The Wild (23-17-9) said good riddance to January, and a 3-7-3 record, with a 2-1 shootout loss at home Monday to Arizona. They had the game won. Almost. Up 1-0 on the power play with less than a couple minutes left looked pretty good. Instead, goalie Devan Dubnyk made a blunder playing the puck behind the net, resulting in the tying goal into an empty net.

Overtime resulted in nothing, leading to just the second shootout this season for the Wild. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle all failed to score. It was a pretty brutal way to lose and head into a full seven days off.

This will be a game to come back to if the Wild misses the playoffs. An unacceptable loss. And I don’t think anyone cares that they got a “loser point.”

No question: This is the slump
In my last post, I posed the question: Is this the annual mid-season slump for the Wild? My answer was, and still is, yes.

The Wild lost five in a row before a win in Los Angeles. Could things be looking up? As it turned out, no. They gave up the winning goal in San Jose with less than two minutes remaining. That hurt. Then, they returned home for one more game, a chance to get on the winning track. But despite a smattering of shots in the first two periods, the game against the Coyotes was scoreless.

They’re not scoring. Period. Sure, they had three in San Jose and three in the win against the Kings. But overall, the offensive numbers aren’t good. They were shut out twice in a row. No one is really stepping up to carry this team. Coyle is the only one who’s doing something at the moment, scoring three games in a row for a total of 13 goals on the season.

Not getting it done
Parise is stuck with linemates Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville, players who are taking more and more heat for their performances on the ice. Rightfully so. They are fixtures on the top line and power play, with terrible numbers to show for it.

Granlund has been a turnover machine lately, not to mention making bad decisions with the puck. I think there was one game where he was involved in three two-on-ones but somehow managed to screw up a pass or mishandle the puck each time. He has four goals this season, the last one being an empty netter.

Pominville has him beat with five goals. Not good enough for a guy that was brought in to score goals. He’s struggled from the start of the season, taking seemingly forever to enter his first tally.
While the whole team is slumping, it’s easy to point fingers at these two for what they are, or are not, bringing to the team. I’m seeing more and more fans turn against them.

Wanna get away?
The Wild has the longest break in the league with a week off. Just another great scheduling issue to discuss another time. So we’ll see how the break goes for them. The first game or two will determine a lot. It could be an All-Star Break hangover loss before they get back on track, they could start out with a bang right away or continue the skid.

They’re on the playoff bubble, after being in the top wild card spot for weeks. Not that being on the edge is anything new to this team. It’s what they seem to do time and time again; fight for a spot and sneak in. Would the Wild even know what to do with home ice advantage?

Anyway, last season, the Wild had Dubnyk come in and save the season. It was amazing and something that can’t be repeated. That kind of answer is not coming this season. The guys in the locker room need to find the answers.

If they don’t, they’ll miss the playoffs and take another step backward when they should be moving forward.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Women's tennis needs stronger competition

Upsets are part of sports. Sometimes the underdogs win and take down the top dogs. It happens.

In the case of the 2016 Australian Open, it actually happened 18 times on the women's side in the first and second rounds of the tournament. That's a lot, considering there are 32 seeds and 18 of them were gone before you could let your full jealousy of the Australian summer weather take over. 

This was historic, too, marking the first time that many seeds fell in these first two rounds since tennis went to a 32-seed system in 2002.

Who's in, who's out
Among those upset: No. 8 seed Venus Williams (most definitely past her prime in what I'll call her "advanced tennis age" of 35), No. 24 seed Sloane Stephens, Aussie Sam Stosur, the 25th seed, No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova and No. 16 seed Caroline Wozniacki. The No. 2 seed Simona Halep took her early exit in the first round. 

Who's still alive? Well, Serena Williams for one thing. She's still out there trying to break records and earn yet another Grand Slam. She already has 21. Serena is a beast. She's the No. 1 seed - shocker - and just knows how to win. Even when she drops the second set and gets down in the third, she crawls her way back. She's talented, no question. 

Serena - in a class all her own?
But let's take another look at things, remembering these upsets in the Aussie Open. I'll pose this question: Is Serena really that good, or is it that she just hasn't had the competition over her career? Yes, I know Serena is a talented player. She is. But just roll with me for a minute here.

I bring this up because of what I see as a weak women's field. On the men's side the past few years, it's been a great era with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. For the women, the real consistent name has been Williams. 

Venus is the older sister and perhaps the only true competition (not to mention storyline) for Serena over the course of her career. They've played each other 14 times in Grand Slams. But as I wrote earlier, it's pretty clear Venus is on her sunset tour. 

They all look promising
So who does that leave for great players on the women's side, ones that always show up in the quarterfinals of major slams? Um... anyone? There's Caroline Wozniacki, once ranked No. 1 in the world. The pressure must have gotten to her though, because she's faltered, hasn't won a major and has her fair share of early tournament exits. 

Stephens, 22, looked like a promising youngster for the Americans to root for when she came onto the tour a few years ago. She just hasn't reached that next step either. She was outsted in the first round this January, in straight sets.

I could keep listing names, but the stories aren't that different when you get down to it. Too often on the women's side of the draw, they're getting upset by unranked players early in tournaments. They're choking away opportunities in slams. That's the bottom line. 

You start to think a player might have the potential. The next thing you know, they've lost in the first round to some player you've never heard of and who will then promptly lose her next match.

Serena got lucky
So I guess what I'm saying is, Serena showed up in a fortunate time in the women's tennis era. She's had to show up and win her matches, of course, but the idea of facing the other top seeds in the quarters, semis and finals just doesn't happen very much. It's somebody new because the other top seeds were upset in earlier rounds.

It's kind of the opposite of Andy Roddick. Here's a guy that only has one Grand Slam title to his name, arguably because he arrived on the scene in the same era as legend Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Roddick was good but not good enough on that next level.

Going into a tournament, you know Serena has a strong shot to be there at the end. But who will she be there with? Nobody knows. Maybe this is all my bias as a non-Serena fan but whatever. (I don't deny her ability. It's her attitude I have a problem with, actually.)

Let's hope the women's field improves in the next few years.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Taking a look at slumps

So the big question is: Is this the annual mid-season slump for the Wild?

Yes, I know the team got back on the winning track with a 3-0 victory last night in Los Angeles, scoring goals at even strength, shorthanded and with the man advantage. It was a great win, but let's set that aside for a bit.

It still doesn't change the fact that January has not been a kind month to the hometown boys so far; the record sits at 3-6-2. Strangely enough, that includes a 2-1 win in Dallas, historically a tough place for the Wild to play. It also includes a recent five-game losing streak to lowly teams like New Jersey, Buffalo and Winnipeg.

On a positive note, they were only one of two teams (Detroit was the other) that had not been shut out this season. Until Jan. 15 when the Wild lost 1-0 at home to Winnipeg. They followed that up the next night with another shutout loss to Nashville, this time 3-0.

That streak continued into the game in Anaheim, racking up a total of 127 minutes and 36 seconds without a goal. That's a lot of hockey without seeing that red light go off. And that one goal against the Ducks came from an unlikely source, Jarret Stoll, marking his first tally with the Wild.

The past few seasons, the Wild has run into this slump in the bleak midwinter. Last season, they acquired Devan Dubnyk to save the season and make an unbelievable run to the playoffs. I think most of us out there agree a season-saving trade like that is pretty rare.

This year, the Wild showed some signs of a slump near the end of November, as some said they reached their annual slump a little earlier than usual. It seems like that was just a preview of what was to come in January: A lack of scoring and an abysmal power play. One that went 0-for-25 before Zach Parise's goal Thursday night.

Here's the deal about slumps. No team goes through a season and plays perfectly every time out. Losing streaks, injury issues and even flu bugs or the mumps plague teams.

The Wild doesn't just lose a few games though. When they have trouble winning games, they really go all out. It's not a few losses to tough teams or tight 4-3 or 2-1 defeats. Often times, the effort just isn't there. Especially last season, I remember reading player comments after the game. That locker room seemed at a loss for how to come out of such struggles.

Is that normal for teams year in and year out? Could be. Because the truth is, I've only followed the Wild closely, not other teams. Bias opinion or not, I say the Wild seems to fall off the rails a little more than everybody else.

I think some of us were a little surprised when the Wild - on the second night of a back-to-back - shut out the Kings on the road. The way things were going, how could you not be? Plus, they scored three goals.

Obviously, Saturday's game against San Jose will be a good indicator as to whether they've really got their game back.

To answer my earlier question, yes, I do think this is the annual slump.

Now let's see how the team pulls itself out of it this time.

This was originally posted at

Saturday, January 16, 2016

High school sports chanting controversy: Everybody cannot be a winner

"Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!" "Sea-son's ov-er!" "Score-board!" 

Eagan volleyball fans during the 2015 state tournament.
One of the biggest stories out of the high school sports scene this week revolved around sportsmanship. Specifically the reactions and backlash after the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) emailed its schools in December, with just a reminder about sportsmanship, listing some example chants like "Airball!" "Fun-da-mentals!" and "We can't hear you!"

As I read more about what happened, it seems the email was just a guideline or reminder. But phrases and headlines like "Wisconsin bans game chants" flooded the internet, resulting in a viral story that went national.

Another piece of the story was a 5-game suspension for a girls' basketball player who fired off a reactionary Tweet, including profanity, to show what she thought of the so-called "ban." It was the school that suspended her, not the WIAA, to be clear. My only real issue with this was the length of suspension. Five games seemed like a lot, but I'm not in a position to make those rules, obviously.

Slippery slope in our PC society
So, with all this floating around out there on social media - most of it being negative - I wanted to share my thoughts about the issue. Chants are a part of sports, and you'll head down a slippery slope if you want to start censoring what students can chant at high school games.

In a society that seems to lean more and more toward being (overly) politically correct about basically everything and worrying about not offending anyone, this story goes right along with it. It's also right up there with everybody being a winner and participation trophies.

There's nothing like a state tournament packed with student sections. They're cheering, they never sit down and are often drenched in school colors or interesting costumes. Then they fire up their chants. There are the common ones, of course, but it's also fun to see how creative they can get, too, especially when they challenge the other student sections to match them.

What's the big deal?
I just don't understand what the big deal is about these chants. I've never been on the athlete side of these, but as a fan, it's fun. It makes you feel involved in the game. It's really, just a part of the game. It's expected.

Bad sportsmanship? I don't know. If you're out there getting flack after completely missing the basketball hoop, there's also a good chance your fans will let the other team have it when they make the same error. It doesn't really justify it, if you think it's bad sportsmanship.

Do athletes feel bad when they hear something like "airball" or "you can't do that"? I don't know. I'd imagine if they make a mistake though, that they're not giving a thought to the chants. They're either moving on to the next play or mentally kicking themselves for failing to hit the rim on a three-pointer or letting in the fourth easy goal of the first period. If they took a bad foul or penalty, they'll know it (or argue with the officials).

I just think it's part of the game like anything else. Screaming out profanities for most of the game to players or officials, yeah, that's more along the lines of bad sportsmanship.

The only chant I'd be willing to reconsider might be "bullsh--," because yes, that is profanity. Not that I'm offended by that chant at all, but if you want to pick one that's a gray area, I'd say that's it.

Everybody cannot win 100 percent of the time
Really, it all comes back to how sports are about making everybody winners. Guess what? That's not real life. People lose and life is not fair. One team will always lose a game - you can talk about moral victories, sunshine and rainbows and participation ribbons all you want, but that fact is still true.

Maybe the students could respond with chants like "PC, PC (clap, clap. clap, clap, clap)" for politically correct. Or how about "No hurt fee-lings! (clap, clap. clap, clap, clap). Or "We're all win-ners!" Just a few ideas, if students would like to have a little fun about this sportsmanship thing.

Carry on, student sections.