The second round of the NHL Western Conference playoffs is set. The Minnesota Wild beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1 in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon to advance and join Chicago, Anaheim and Calgary. Here’s a summation of how the Wild did it…
*It really starts with a complete goaltending breakdown by St. Louis in the final two games. This series was knotted 2-2 after four and neither team had gotten off as many as 30 shots in a game. The Blues were able to dominate shots on goal in Games 5 & 6, but goalie Jake Allen imploded and they lost both games 4-1.
The goaltender in the NHL is the most important position in professional sports–far more decisive than a quarterback in football and a little more so than a pitcher in baseball. You aren’t going to win when the goalie falls apart, especially when you’re a team built on discipline and defense the way the Blues are. Allen’s collapse continues a disturbing pattern of St. Louis goalies coming up small in the playoffs.
*The first four games were basically a battle between Minnesota’s Jason Pominville and Zach Parise, against St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko. The latter had two spectacular games, a hat trick in Game 2 and two more goals in Game 4, both St. Louis wins. Pominville and Parise didn’t have the flashy games, but showed very consistent aggressiveness with the puck, were involved in the offense and never more so than Games 1 & 3, both of which their team won.
I’m happy for the fans of Minnesota. This is a great hockey town that got screwed when the North Stars moved to Dallas following the 1993 season. The Twin Cities haven’t had a real Stanley Cup contender, but the Wild are getting closer, having won a postseason series for two straight years. Goalie Devan Dubnyk, a hero in this series, will have his hands full with Chicago, but there’s no question the Wild are knocking on the door.
As to the good people of St. Louis, another playoff heartbreak comes their way. It’s becoming clear that the Blues are the antithesis of what the Cardinals are in baseball in terms of being counted on when it matters most.
It’s now Minnesota-Chicago and Calgary-Anaheim in the West. Schedules have yet to be announced, pending completion of all first-round series in the East, which will end either tonight or Wednesday.
The Minnesota Wild have had a less than stellar history since their founding prior to the 2001 season. The franchise has only made the playoffs three times, the last of which was five years ago. But the strike-shortened year of 2013 has been good to the Wild, and they’re tied for first in the Northwest Division—with powerhouse Vancouver no less—and in third in the Western Conference overall. Today’s NHL analysis will look at whether or not the Wild is the real deal, after an offseason where they splurged on free agents.
Minnesota went into the market last summer aggressively and signed defenseman Ryan Suter away from Nashville and forward Zach Parise from New Jersey. Suter was important to a team that rode its way into the top four of the West on the strength of defense, and Parise was one of the key players on a team that came two wins away from taking the Stanley Cup. Parise has scored 15 goals, putting him in the top 30 overall in the NHL and Suter’s 25 assists give him a similar status in that category. It looks like money well spent.
What the Wild don’t have is great depth of talent—make no mistake, center Mikko Koivu is a points-producer, thanks to his exceptional passing skill. Matt Cullen is a good passer at the forward spot, and both Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley can contribute when it comes to scoring. But for the most part, when you look at the numbers on the second, third, and fourth lines, you see a big drop off.
To that end, it’s easy to understand why Minnesota just traded a couple draft picks to Buffalo to get forward Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. Pominville is a decent scorer and can also move the puck well. On balance, I don’t find this an overwhelmingly talented offense. But it’s fair to say that it’s at least as good—if not better—than we would have perceived the Los Angeles Kings’ lineup at this point in the season last year before they suddenly came together in the postseason. And Minnesota has players with postseason experience.
A bigger concern is the goaltending question, and that’s where the comparison to last year’s Kings starts to diverge. Niklas Backstrom’s save percentage is 91.3%, but this isn’t free throw shooting—that’s not a very good percentage, ranking just 22nd in the NHL. We’re now entering the point of the season where dominance at this position is vital to success and Minnesota not only doesn’t have dominance, they’re dealing with subpar performance. The defense overall is above average, ranking 12th in the league at limiting shots, but Backstrom has to do a much better job stopping what’s thrown at him.
Ultimately, this just looks like a team that needs to come together. The individual talent may lack depth, but it does exist. Overall though, the Wild have no teamwide stats that really jump out at you. They’re roughly in the middle of the league in most everything—scoring, defense, shots taken, shots allowed, penalty killing and 5-on-5 play. The only standout is a negative and it’s a 21st ranking when they’re on the power play.
It’s tough to see Minnesota as being better than Vancouver and the Wild’s contention for the division title is likely a product of a shortened season. Minnesota is a legitimate playoff-caliber team though. The need for the individual pieces to mesh better will take care of itself with time and this team will be better next year than it is this year. Ultimately they need better goaltending if this is going to be more than just a playoff team. Although given the franchise’s record “just a playoff team” is likely more than enough for the good people of the Twin Cities this time around.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago continues to be atop the conference, but Anaheim is only two points back, with both teams having separated themselves from the pack. Then you have the Minnesota/Vancouver joust for the 3-seed, and the runner-up is battling with San Jose and Los Angeles for the 4-spot and home ice advantage in the first round. Although given the history of the NHL playoffs, home ice probably means more in terms of revenue for the host team than it does for fans just interested in who’s going to advance.
Detroit is in seventh and is the most notable of several playoff teams from last year that are in trouble. At least the Red Wings are in the field of eight if the season ended today. The same can’t be said for St. Louis, Nashville and Phoenix—not only did all three make the playoffs last year, but they all won first-round series. The fall of last year’s leaders has opened the door, not just for Minnesota, but for surprising Edmonton, who’s holding a narrow edge for the final playoff berth. Maybe this year’s Oiler team can recapture some of the magic of 2006.
Editor’s Note:The Twin Cities are having a rough go of it in the sports world right now, and TheSportsNotebook asked contributor Isaac Huss, a native of the Minneapolis/St. Paul and diehard fan to communicate the distress the fans are feeling on matters big and small.
By all accounts, Thursday night should have been celebratory for Minnesota sports fans.
The longsuffering Minnesota Vikings had just chosen the best player available (Matt Kalil) as well as a player at their greatest position of need (left tackle). On top of that, they were able to get three extra draft picks out of the deal by trading down one spot so Cleveland could take a player the Vikings didn’t want or need.
But if you think Vikings fans were able to rest easy because of their team’s good fortune, think again. I think the mood of the night was aptly summed up by some dude at the bar who, immediately after cheering the Kalil pick, yelled out, “Great! Now, go ahead and move to L.A.”
And who could blame him? It’s hard getting excited about your team when in a few short months it might no longer be your team anymore.
Just a week ago, the Vikings’ new stadium plan was left for dead, presenting the biggest threat thus far that the franchise might become the next purple-and-gold-clad pro sports team to leave the great white north for Los Angeles, California.
And while there’s still a chance they’ll work out a stadium deal, you can see the reason for the muted enthusiasm regarding the Kalil pick. It’s a bit like trying to get excited about your high school girlfriend finally getting her braces off, knowing that her newfound perfect smile is soon gonna kick you to the curb in favor of the captain of the football team.
And that pretty much sums up life as a Minnesota sports fan. It’s not that Minnesota sports haven’t had any success in recent years, and there certainly are more cursed franchises and sports cities out there. But perhaps no sports region in America has had such a roller coaster ride of near-successes coupled with agonizing failures as Minnesota.
I was born in suburban Minneapolis in 1985, so I was just old enough to experience (as much as a 6-year-old can, anyway) the Twins’ World Series championship in 1991, the last championship among the four major pro sports teams in MN (other than the Twins, no other championships since the Lakers played in Minny circa 1950).
The Twins had also won in ’87, so all I knew at that point as a baseball fan was success. That quickly changed as the Twins suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons beginning in ’93, right about when I was old enough to realize what was going on.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were still figuring out how to play that sport called basketball, as it took them nine seasons to earn a winning record since their first game in ‘89. Then the North Stars hockey team left for Dallas in ’93, just as I was getting used to them posting seven straight losing seasons.
In terms of wins and losses, the Vikings were the shining stars, posting only one losing season from ’86-’00. And that’s about all you need to know about Minnesota pro sports. If the Vikings are your best sports team, you are in for a world of hurt.
And not because there weren’t successes. The Vikings have been to three NFC Championship games in my lifetime, 1998, 2000, and 2009. But since we were so high, it made the fall all the more painful. Those were perhaps the three worst losses of my sports-watching life, and each for different reasons.
Let’s start with 2000. The Vikings had a good, yet flawed team. But that team didn’t even bother to show up on that fateful January day, laying a goose egg against the Giants in losing 41-0. And when a 41-0 loss a game from the Super Bowl is only your team’s third-most-agonizing NFC championship game in a decade, you start to want them to leave town.
Much more agonizing was 2009, as the heartbreak was delayed until the waning moments of the game. Driving late, the Vikings had crossed midfield with the score tied and a chance to win against the favored Saints in a hostile Superdome. A 12-men in the huddle penalty and a Brett Favre interception sent the game into overtime, where New Orleans prevailed.
And the granddaddy of them all was in 1998 when the 11-point favorite Vikings team lost at home to the Falcons, blowing a 7-point fourth quarter lead thanks to a missed 38-yard Gary Anderson field goal (his first miss all year) and a curious decision by coach Denny Green to run out the clock with 30 seconds left, perhaps forgetting that he had the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL at his disposal (I hadn’t forgotten).
Since ’09, the Vikings followed Favre’s deterioration to win a combined nine games the last two seasons. And to add injury to insult, franchise running back Adrian Peterson’s knee was annihilated in a meaningless loss late last year, threatening the career of one of their few players who was worth watching.
So if the Vikings were a braces-faced girlfriend, my friends, family members, hell, even complete strangers would probably be screaming at me to dump her. But somehow I stick with her even though she might leave me at any time.
Because who else is there? The Twins have been the next-best local team of my lifetime, even with that near-decade of futility to finish the ‘90’s, thanks to a ten-year run which included nine winning seasons and six division championships.
But anyone who roots for the Twins, or the Yankees for that matter, knows where this is going. Four of those division championship seasons ended with first-round playoff losses to the Yankees, the last two being series sweeps.
Which offers a glimpse into the ever-growing inferiority complex of Minnesota sports fans in relation to big-market teams, specifically New York teams. It seems whenever we have something good going for us, we run smack dab into a big-market bully who beats the crap out of us and steals our lunch money for good measure.
In addition to playoff failures, which include the Twins’ v. Yankees and should also include the Timberwolves v. Lakers, no Minnesota sports fan can enjoy watching a young star rise on one of our teams without worrying that a richer franchise (not to mention one with a more appealing climate and market) will lure it away in free agency.
Torii Hunter and Marian Gaborik come to mind as players who fled town for L.A. and New York, respectively, simply for bigger bucks, while Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets for fear of losing him to free agency (which surely would have happened). More heartbreaking was former Wolf Stephon Marbury’s trade demand (before he went completely nuts) based on the fact that Minnesota is, in his words, “too cold.”
Even the contract extension the Twins gave to Joe Mauer, while refreshing at the time that we were able to keep a hometown hero from the clutches of the evil Steinbrenner empire, was driven up by the threat of losing him to the point he may prove to be too costly in the long run.
However, money may have been no object had Mauer not come down with a mysterious leg ailment last year which limited him to his least-productive year as a pro. Combine that with Justin Morneau’s concussion problems which have deprived him of most of his MVP-caliber productivity, and the Twins are spending upwards of $30 million/year on oft-injured former MVP’s.
Add that to a pitching staff which has gone into steep decline ever since Santana’s departure and you have a team coming off a 99-loss season which might be even worse this year.
But it wasn’t just Santana’s departure. A sometimes-forgotten but no less devastating event preceded the Santana trade, and seems to have set off a string of calamities from which virtually no Minnesota sports team has been able to avoid: Francisco Liriano’s elbow injury.
In the summer of ’06, Liriano had set the sports world on fire by posting a 12-2 record, a 1.96 ERA, and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings. He was arguably the most unhittable pitcher in the league already in his first season in the majors. But he injured his elbow in August of that year and required Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t been the same since.
The Twins won 17 fewer games the following year. Then, in 2010, posted 94 wins only to lose Morneau to a concussion for the rest of the season and bow out to the Yankees in three games in the playoffs. Since then, the Twins’ best pitcher, Scott Baker, as well as their best pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, were found to need Tommy John Surgery themselves.
And the Angel of Devastating Injuries struck elsewhere. The Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe, the aforementioned AP, and most recently Wolves star Ricky Rubio each tore ACL’s in a four-month span this past winter. Since Kevin Love suffered a concussion that ended his season eight games early, the rest of the Minnesota pro athletes have reportedly been afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and have been smearing slaughtered loons’ blood on their doorposts.
I can’t stress the catastrophic nature of Rubio’s injury enough. Here’s a franchise whose lone memorable player, Kevin Garnett, was traded for pennies on the dollar only to see him win a championship the following season in Boston, and continue to dump on his former team whenever he gets the chance.
Rubio presented an opportunity to forget Stephon once and for all, finally move on from KG, and to team with Love and try to reverse a legacy of losing. And he was doing it. Until an L.A. Laker named Kobe “inadvertently” (ok, fine, it was an accident..) destroyed his knee. We can only hope this isn’t Liriano all over again.
Nope, it’s hard to be a Minnesota sports fan these days. Just in case you’re wondering how the rest of our sports teams have been doing, the Wild just became the first team to have the NHL’s best record in December to miss the playoffs. Oh, and the Gopher football team hasn’t finished better than sixth in the conference since ’03, fourth since ’86, or third since ’67. But at least we have a sweet new stadium!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Minnesota Lynx’s 2011 WNBA Championship. But forgive me if it seems like celebrating your little sister’s 8th preschool “graduation” after her six older brothers all dropped out of high school. Yay Lynx!
Finally, the Gopher hockey team was admittedly decent again this year, which is great except nobody cares about college hockey outside of Minnesota and wherever the hell Ferris State is.
So you can see how one might be secretly hoping the Vikings put us out of our collective miseries and move to Tinseltown. But then there’s this: if the Vikings move away, that means we might have to start rooting for the Packers… And let’s be honest, nobody wants that.