Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wild keep on rolling – at the moment

The Wild have won eight games in a row, ranking second in franchise history as far as these streaks go. A 2-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at home Tuesday night was the latest in this string. Their last regulation loss was Nov. 29, and they’re 10-1-3 in their past 14 games, earning points in 13-of-14.

There’s depth to this success, too. Mikko Koivu (12 points in his last 14 games), Jason Zucker, Eric Staal (team points leader with 25 in 31 games) Ryan Suter (18 points, team leader at +22), Charlie Coyle (leads the team with 11 goals). Add your favorite guy to the list. They’re all playing some solid hockey right now.

Devan Dubnyk is playing some kind of amazing hockey in between the pipes, earning his fifth shutout of the season Tuesday when he really wasn’t even tested a ton.

The great thing about the two goals the Wild scored was the positioning of the goal scorers. On Coyle’s goal, it was Matt Dumba with the initial shot from the point, which bounced around Staal’s feet before kicking out to Coyle who easily scored on the doorstep of the crease.

Dumba grabbed a second assist on the second goal, which was credited to Koivu after he was right in front to pound home the rebound. Zucker was right there, too, sprawled on the ice trying to get his stick in there.

I just have a better feeling watching some of these plays develop. These were two goals that were finished off; they weren’t missed opportunities.

But back to the overall success of this team right now. They’re second in the Central Division with 42 points through 31 games, a mark that is second in franchise history by just a point. They started 20-8-3 in 2011-12. They’ve got the longest active winning streak in the league. Darn those Blue Jackets hogging some of the glory.

The home-win streak for the Wild has reached seven games, and they’ve outscored opponents 26-8.

This is all fine and good – and great hockey to watch – but there’s something else nagging me about it all.

Here’s the part in this post where I wave the yellow caution flag. I can’t help it. I’ve grown up around Minnesota sports, so this is what I do.

The holidays are coming up this week, and then January is just around the corner. This team has had a swoon for a few years now, including last year when the team performed with such a lackluster effort that it got its coach fired. A swoon should almost be expected, until the Wild prove they can get through a season without it.

The day after Christmas last year, the Wild faced the Pittsburgh Penguins at home. The Pens scored three in the second period for a 3-1 victory over a Wild team that appeared to have a holiday hangover. I was there with my family for one of the biggest crowds at the Xcel Energy Center last season, announced at 19,234. My dad still uses this loss as a benchmark for how much time he’ll invest into this team. It was a game where the Wild really didn’t show up to play, failing to execute passes, possess the puck or get any offense going.

The year before, the Wild lost the post-Christmas game at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets with a 4-3 overtime game. The Wild are 1-7-1 in their past nine games right after Christmas.

Looking ahead to the schedule coming up here, it’s not exactly full of easier customers like the Avs. There’s Montreal and the New York Rangers for road back-to-backs this week. Then they head to Nashville for that hold-your-breath after-Christmas game Dec. 27. New Years Eve is the setting for what could be a matchup of the league’s hottest teams with the Columbus Blue Jackets (won 10 in a row) coming to town.

We’ll see what happens in the next couple weeks and how the Wild will handle some stiff competition from the Eastern Conference.

The Wild players have proven they can play good hockey. This team has also proven it’s a master at limping into the playoffs after going into a midseason tailspin, then needing to play with backs against the wall. It really is fun to watch this team when it’s playing well. I mean, that’s obvious. I think the real X factor here is Bruce Boudreau. The Wild swooned with other coaches; will they do that with Bruce?

So, as I’ve cautioned in the past, let’s enjoy this Wild ride. Because at some point, it will end.

This was originally posted at

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Winning makes everything better

Originally, I thought about writing a piece about high school hockey. But when the Wild win five in a row, I suppose I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t write about these suddenly red-hot men in green and red. The Minnesota Wild are 16-8-4 overall, that includes three one-goal victories in the latest winning streak, an overtime win in Edmonton and a shootout (that probably went too many rounds) against Edmonton in St. Paul.

Times are good for the Wild. We need to be more positive when these situations present themselves. The other part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop because, well, a tough schedule and the month of January are coming up. Deep breaths.

Here are a few things that are going well lately:

Devan Dubnyk
You’re welcome, captain obvious.

Duby is simply on top of his game. He leads the NHL’s goaltending regulars in save percentage at .947 and GAA at 1.60. As much as I don’t like the “DOOOOB!” chant at the X for some of those routine saves, he deserves the love. Take the game against the Maple Leafs that the Wild won 2-1. Dubnyk pretty much single-handedly won the game, with 35 saves and 17 of those in the third period alone.

Another thing that’s been refreshing is not only is he not giving up many goals, but he’s not giving up the softies, either. (Thanks to Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune for reminding me.) That was one of his major flaws last season. It was almost like the Wild were always in a 1-0 hole from the start.

One-goal wins
It’s encouraging that the Wild are winning some one-goal games, whether it’s in regulation or otherwise. The Wild came into play Tuesday 25th in the league in winning percentages for one-goal games at .389. Calgary leads the way at .769. So getting those couple victories this past week helps that mark.

This isn’t scientific, but it just seems to me like the Wild aren’t historically on the winning end of one-goal games. All those 2-1 games can be frustrating.

Racking up the points
I’m not just talking about as a team. There’s the individual efforts, too. Jason Zucker has 10 points in the past 10 games, including a two-point effort in Vancouver and an assist plus the fifth goal in the 5-1 victory over Florida that chased Roberto Luongo.

Eric Staal leads the team in points with 20. He scored on yet another breakaway versus Florida. The look on his face during the celebration was just gold. Staal went a dozen games without a goal before scoring in that Toronto game. With the goal against Florida, that gives him two goals and three points in the last four games. Nino Niederreiter also has nine points in 11 games.

Mikko being Mikko
Mikko Koivu has three goals in the past six games, adding to his season total of seven goals and eight assists for the season. That’s great to see, but his biggest and perhaps most underrated value is in the faceoff circle. He’s third in the NHL in faceoffs won, with 364. He’s a guy that seems to have very passionate fans in his favor, or those that are overly critical and want to “strip the C.” I’m glad to see he’s contributing though.

I’m sure I’m missing a few of the key elements on the recent success streak. What sticks out in your mind about this team lately?

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Coyle: May I have some more, please?

As the Wild head into the final game of the very lengthy Canadian road trip, I decided to take a look at the player stats sheet. At the top, there’s a tie with 17 points between Charlie Coyle and Eric Staal. Coyle leads the team in goals with nine. I’ll admit, it’s a little surprising.

Like some others out there, I’ve been critical of Coyle the past few years. It’s like we’ve been waiting for the “kid” to develop his hockey chops. Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’d like to see more from him.

He’s in his fifth season in the NHL, though his first season he played 37 games in the NHL and 47 in the AHL with the Houston Aeros as a 20-year-old. So alright, he played 70 games the next season for 12 goals and 30 points. The last two years he’s played all 82 in the regular season, but in 2014-15 he only scored 11 goals in that full season. Last year was better, with 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points.

Now this year, too, he’s at the top of the team stats leaderboard. Granted, it’s not like he’s among the Blackhawks or Penguins, but it’s still worth noting. He’s done a good job so far this season contributing on the scoresheet. A bit of a quiet leader.

So why do I feel so underwhelmed?

He’s a little bit like Granlund in this respect: There are flashes of greatness. Why doesn’t that happen more often? There will be some great, athletic scoring play or a nice pass he makes. Something that makes you say “wow.” That’s what has me wanting more. If you can play like that sometimes, why not most of the time?

The big problem that many have acknowledged with this team is the lack of finishers. The lack of pure goal scorers. Coyle was supposed to be one of these guys, right? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe he still could turn into something, too. Even though he’s played in the NHL for a few seasons, he’s still a young guy entering what should be the prime of his career. Sometimes that’s forgotten as the fan base gets impatient with the lack of results from the team.

I’m encouraged by Coyle’s season last year and what’s he has done so far in 2016-17. I’d like to see him continue to elevate his game and continue to put points on the board.

There’s another thing that digs at me with Coyle, too. I think I also like to point the finger at him indirectly for the lack of toughness on the Wild squad. This fella is a 6-3, 220-pound hockey player who could stand to capitalize on his size just a bit more. I’m not necessarily referring to fighting. Just a few more aggressive checks once in a while, or this concept of standing up for your teammates after the whistle might be up his alley.

Thank goodness there’s Chris Stewart to help fill that void, I suppose.

I don’t mean to be unfair to Coyle. I’m not trying to be a hater and say he’s just terrible. He isn’t. But again, there’s just something about him that I can’t put my finger on and leaves me wanting more. Maybe it’s being greedy, or maybe it’s just another nice thing we’d like to have in Minnesota sports.

What are your thoughts on Coyle? Am I being too hard on the leading goal scorer?

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wild roller coaster keeps on moving

In a bit of an odd game, the Wild lost to the lowly Canucks on Tuesday, 5-4. Each side blew that dreaded, two-goal hockey lead, and Vancouver scored the game-winner with 2:35 left to get the two points. Jason Pominville scored two goals for the Wild, Jason Zucker scored on a breakaway and neither of the Sedin twins scored (unless you count the goal that was disallowed). See, told you it was an odd night.

Pommer scored the first two goals of the night, one being quite the sniper shot and the other being in the right place at the right time in front of the net. With that 2-0 lead in the second, the Canucks got even before the period was up with a couple on the power play. Don’t worry about the Sedins; they had three of the four assists on those two goals.

Tie game going into the third period, which seemed like it would be an overtime game waiting to happen. It didn’t take long (1:09 and 2:08) for Vancouver to go up 4-2. That’s right. Four unanswered goals.

Then Zucker comes through just more than a minute later with his beautiful breakaway goal. Yes, he hit the net. Yes, it appeared he copied the page right out of the Mikko Koivu shootout book. The roller coaster continued. Later in the period with the Wild putting on the pressure, Erik Haula scored his fourth of the season to get the game tied up again. Holla, third line!

But once again the excitement was shortlived. A shot from the point was deflected past Darcy Kuemper for the winner. There were a few bounces and tips on both sides during the game. Not an excuse for anything.

Needless to say when a final score is 5-4, that’s not a great example of good defense or solid goaltending. Especially in the closing minutes, it looked like the Canucks were on some extended power play. Kuemper, obviously not in the nets every night, didn’t look sharp a few times throughout the night. He mishandled a puck that should have ended up in his glove and another time couldn’t freeze the puck leading to a goal.

Going by the ol’ on-paper scenario, the Wild had the edge with an 11-7-3 record compared to the Canucks near the bottom of the Pacific Division. But the Wild haven’t exactly done things the conventional way. Not like that should be any surprise.

This one was frustrating because the Wild were in decent shape up 2-0 and with a shot advantage, too. Then there’s the four goals. Then the high of tying it up, before the low of giving up the winner late in the game. But hey, the Wild didn’t give up an empty netter. So there’s that.

Add it to the list of weird results for the Wild. At least this one didn’t give two points to a division rival, even if a conference foe isn’t exactly great either. The Wild started November with a 2-1 loss to Buffalo, following that up with a 1-0 loss to Colorado. They also lost 3-2 to Philly, another 1-0 loss (Calgary) and another defeat at the hands of the Avs, 3-2.

This is also the same Wild team that is 2-0 against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, outscoring them 10-4.

I’ve always been curious about how teams will lose the games they shouldn’t and win the ones they shouldn’t. It’s what keeps thing interesting, really. If teams always beat up on the lowly opponents they were supposed to, it wouldn’t be as much fun and frustrating to follow them.

So, we always just come back for more.

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