Thursday, May 29, 2014

Final thoughts on the Wild's playoff run

Now that the wound isn't so fresh, I suppose I should write a little something about the Minnesota Wild, since the season came to an abrupt end.

It happened so fast that it left Wild players and fans stunned. A bad bounce, a fluke bounce, really, caromed right to Patrick Kane's stick. He buried the overtime goal in game six to send the Chicago Blackhawks to the Western Conference Finals. I had a delayed reaction to that goal, too, as I sat in my bedroom and simply said, "no," with a bit of saddened anguish.

It was evident watching the postgame interviews that even the players were in shock over how that game, series and season ended. A bounce like that? it just couldn't be true.

Just good, quality hockey
Still, when you reflect back on the postseason for the wild, it was one helluva ride. They put on a great show in a thrilling seven-game series versus the rival Colorado Avalanche. Then it was on to Chicago, except they didn't win there (to paraphrase a famous quote from the late Robert Kennedy).

The difference between the series from last year and this year between the two clubs was clear right away. In 2013, the eventual-champion Blackhawks didn't have much trouble disposing of the Wild four games to one.

Honestly, I think game two this year was the only one where the Wild struggled throughout the game and just didn't have the magic. Game one was the one that got away. The Wild came back strong with decisive wins at home, and game five was only decided by a goal. In an overtime-game six, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford really stole the show. There most definitely would have been a game seven without his solid performance in game six.

Of course, I wanted to see the Wild move deeper into the playoffs. But it was great hockey, they didn't get blown out and it was just generally exciting. Good enough.

Focus on the positives
Lots of positives came out of the Wild's playoff run this year. For one thing, youngsters stepped up and starting scoring goals in key spots. Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. Keep those two on a line together next season, maybe with Jason Zucker, when he returns from his injury. Then there's Mikael Granlund. Who can forget his sliding overtime winner in game six to send the first-round series back to Denver?

It was great to see some of those plays from guys who hadn't done that all season. It's also nice because I don't think this is a team that will be broken apart through the offseason business of free agency and contracts. For the most part, the Wild will have many key players putting on the sweaters again come fall.

I also enjoyed seeing the Wild bandwagon get bigger and bigger throughout the state of hockey. It's no secret for me that hockey isn't one of the most popular sports at the professional level. You've got football, baseball, basketball. Hockey can get pushed to the side. I just hope some of these fans stick around to show support for the team next year as well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 Indy 500 added to list of classics, close finishes

If you missed Sunday’s 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, you missed out.

No, really.

The greatest spectacle in racing was filled with strategy, drama, tension and excitement. Oh yeah, and the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history. Just 0.0600 seconds separated first and second place.

It was the first Indy 500 win for Ryan Hunter-Reay, 33, the IndyCar Series Champion in 2012. He drove from 19th to first, something that hasn’t been done since 1954.

The brickyard has had its share of photo finishes over the years. Take 1982, when Rick Mears made a move on the last lap but couldn’t get past winner Gordon Johncock in time. Mears went on to win a record-tying four Indy 500s in his career.

That race was the closest finish until a decade later, when Al Unser Jr. edged out Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in 1992 for what still remains as the smallest margin of victory ever at the historic race.

With Sunday’s finish, it was the first time an American won since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. passed then-rookie Marco Andretti just before the yard of bricks as the checkered flags were waved. That’s now bumped to No. 3 on the list of close finishes at the Indy 500, with a .0635 margin.

Green-flag finish this year
What was particularly exciting about this year’s finish was that it was green-flag, full-speed racing. It might not seem significant, but this is a race that has ended under caution the past four years, a disappointing sight for fans, as drivers reduce speeds and are not allowed to pass under caution conditions.

Sunday, the yellow flag didn’t come out until well over halfway through the race, which is a bit unusual. It was out again with less than 10 laps to go for a crash and debris. But the powers that be quickly threw the red flag, stopping the race until the track was clear, in hopes of getting that green-flag, high-excitement finish.

It turned out to be a great move.

I was on the edge of my couch, face in my hands, and then standing when the field went for the final restart and rattled off the last few laps.

Hunter-Reay led the field, followed by Helio Castroneves and then Hunter-Reay’s teammate, Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay and Castroneves traded the lead before the eventual winner made a pass that nearly had him down on the infield grass. Castroneves tried to pass on the main straightaway before the checkered flew, but his fourth Indy 500 victory, to put him in elite company, wasn’t meant to be.

For Marco and his third-place result, it was another heartbreak-ending as his family’s Andretti Curse at the Indy 500 showed it was still alive and well. His grandfather, Mario, won 45 years ago.

That’s the lone victory for any Andretti at the 500, and the family has had terrible luck at the speedway over the years.

Marco’s father, Michael, never won the race as a driver, though he’s led the most laps of drivers who have never won the event. But he’s won it three times now as a team owner, which has to be a nice consolation.

Actually, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Michael’s shoes Sunday.

Marco led during the race, had a good car and was consistently in the hunt for the win.

But Michael is the team owner for Marco and Hunter-Reay, and he’s also the race strategist for Hunter-Reay.

Either way, he was in a good situation with those two, of the five, cars he had in the race.

Still, it had to be a tough call, deep down. His focus during the race is Hunter-Reay, but then there’s his son, trying to do something that Michael was never able to accomplish.

Instant classic
ESPN Classic usually runs a string of classic Indy 500s in the week leading up to the race each year. It’s really fun to watch those, too. It’s like a time capsule to see how the race, the cars and even the television broadcasts have changed, and I love it.

With the amazing finish we saw this year, I certainly hope the 2014 Indy 500 gets added to that classic list.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wild's second round series similar to first

Another playoff series, another string of home wins and road losses, and another must-win game six for the Minnesota Wild.

Here we go again.

This second-round series against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks has a lot of similarities to the Wild’s opening round against the Colorado Avalanche. The Wild, without home-ice advantage, started each series going down two games to none, only to tie the series with two home wins. Then, it’s been a pair of losses in game fives.

As we all know, the Wild rallied to win games six and seven against Colorado to move on to this series. The obvious question is: Can they do it again?

With a 2-1 loss Sunday night in Chicago, the Wild need to continue its dominant play at Xcel Energy Center in game six. If it doesn’t, the season comes to a close for the state of hockey.

Every team is different, so really, every playoff series should be a little different. It’s been great so far to watch the Wild make this a series, unlike last year’s 4-1 series loss that seemed much more one-sided.

The home games this year have been especially entertaining. I continue to be impressed with youngsters Justin Fontaine, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula, who have scored pretty goals and dazzled with their speed.

The Wild won games 4-0 and 4-2 at home after being in a familiar 2-0 series deficit. Those were a couple of impressive games that showed me this team is capable of playing on the same level, or better, as the Blackhawks.

Still, the Wild are up against a tough Chicago team that has all kinds of star power. For me, that’s always been in the back of my mind as the possible difference in the series. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint why, exactly.

Yes, the Wild have played well enough to win games, score goals and play a strong defensive game, as they have held Chicago to 22 shots or less in the first four games.

But if there is something that worries me, it’s Chicago’s talent and veteran experience winning the Stanley Cup twice in four years. I’m talking about Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Those guys are great goal scorers.

Not to mention Bryan Bickell, who with six goals in the playoffs has demonstrated that he plays his absolute best hockey in the postseason.

The Wild have done a good job of containing these opponents at many points during the series. After letting an early 1-0 lead slip away in game five, Minnesota needs to recapture what’s made it such a fun team to watch when it returns home Tuesday night.

If it does that, I know there’s a great chance the Wild will get another win and force a game seven back in Chicago.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Blackhawks/Wild series more entertaining than previous year’s

I hope you all enjoyed that game seven between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche as much as I did. Now it’s time to focus on how to win round two.

The Wild knocked off division-champion Colorado, but it has a big test ahead in this second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s a rematch of last year’s first round, and the defending Stanley Cup Champions already came away with a game one victory.

The final score Friday in Chicago was 5-2, but to me that’s a little deceiving. The Wild came back from being down 2-0 to tie it up, but that was quickly erased as the Hawks took the lead again and didn’t look back.

Patrick Kane showed why he’s one of the most dominant players in the NHL, as he tallied a pair of pretty goals. Bryan Bickell, who had a strong series against the Wild last year, also had two goals. In Patrick Roy fashion, Wild head coach Mike Yeo pulled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov early, and the Hawks finished it off with an empty-netter.

This series will definitely be a tough one for the Wild to win, but I think it might be more competitive than last year’s 4-1 tilt in favor of Chicago. The Wild has some confidence and momentum after an exciting series versus the Avs. Another year of experience doesn’t hurt either.

The Wild competed well in game one, especially in the final two periods. It outshot the Hawks 17-3 in the second, but a lot of shots also missed the mark. To pick out one player, I’d like to see Jason Pominville find his goal-scoring abilities again. He teed up a few shots, only to have them go wide of the cage; two were right in a row on the power play. He wasn’t the only culprit, but there are some of those chances you’d like to have back, so the pucks are getting to the net.

The Hawks had a few days off after its first-round win over the St. Louis Blues, and it seemed the Wild surprised them or caught them on their heels slightly. Still, this talented Chicago team found a way to score goals and win, even on a night when it didn’t have its best effort.

I liked that Yeo seemed pretty critical of his bunch after the game. He said some of his players were below average and the urgency wasn’t there. I hope it sparks some energy into the team, because game one was not out of reach.

I don’t think the series is either.

Goalie injury tales continue
It wouldn’t be the 2013-14 season for the Wild without a little goaltender-injury drama in the playoffs, too. Darcy Kuemper left game seven with an upper body injury, so Bryzgalov looks to be the guy in between the pipes right now. John Curry is the backup, but I also heard Josh Harding was on the ice for practice the other day. Harding, who has multiple sclerosis, has been out for a good chunk of the season.

I’m not really sure how this situation will shake out in the series. I wouldn’t be surprised with anything at this point. I mean, Niklas Backstrom got hurt in game one warmups last year in Chicago. We could see Curry get a shot, especially if Bryzgalov struggles. Or maybe Kuemper will be back. Maybe Harding will finally be ready for a start, too.

It’s anyone’s guess.