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A week ago, the Minnesota Wild was still in the first-round Stanley Cup series against the No. 1 seeded Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild had just finished a fantastic 3-2 victory in Game 3, sending a crowd of 19,238 into hockey ecstacy and leaving with them one of those wonderful emotional memories that would stay with the entire state for three reasons. First, the victory itself; second, it showed how far the Wild had risen in the midst of their current rebuilding process; and third, it gave hope to anyone and everyone that when circumstances seem darkest, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
You can form your own opinions, as hockey fans always do. But in the process, please discount the inane sensationalism of unknowing media types who are happiest when they rip, and happiest for certain when they can rip the sport they know the least about.
Here is the UpNorth breakdown. The Wild spent a lot of money to acquire Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer, knowing it would make them much more competitive and with a chance to win close games, not just compete. General manager Chuck Fletcher, whose wise and prophetic eye had secured an unknown man named Mike Yeo to coach this team to respectability last season, also acquired Jason Pominville late in this lockout-shortened season. Pominville is a character-type of player who can score 30 goals a season while providing extra leadership.
Yeo gambled on some of the Wild’s store of young players. He tried to force Mikael Granlund in as No. 2 center behind Mikko Koivu, and it didn’t work. Next he tried Charlie Coyle, and he not only worked out he became a fixture on the No. 1 line with Koivu and Parise. At the same time, while some of the clueless in the media ripped on Suter early in the season -- one even criticizing him for not scoring goals after his big contract, apparently not realizing he was a defense-first defenseman -- Yeo paired 19-year-old Jonas Brodin from out of the Swedish Elite League with Suter, and the tandem became one of the best in the NHL. Jason Zucker, another 21-year-old, got his chances, and did well, but Yeo sent him back to Houston several times to play more. At the end, he brought him up and he was one of the best forwards on the team.
But when the team struggled to win in the final two weeks, and wound up clawing their way to eighth, drawing No. 1 Chicago, the breakdown between the two was interesting. In total roster capability, the Blackhawks have four elite forwards who make the difference almost every game -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, while the Wild roster shows Koivu, Parise, Pominville and Dany Heatley as the likeliest gunners. On defense, Suter and Brodin give the Wild an edge, although Chicago’s balanced defense is led by rangy Nick Leddy, a one-time Wild draft traded, regrettably, while he was going through an unspectacular freshman year at the University of Minnesota, where he had never been the top Gopher defenseman, nor the top Gopher freshman. In goal, Corey Crawford is fully capable for Chicago, but Niklas Backstrom is a potential game-breaker for the Wild.
Now look at the reality of the harsh season. Heatley, having just started to play his best of the season, was thrown down rudely and required shoulder surgery; out for the rest of the season. Pominville, an every-night impact player since being acquired, was struck on the chin in a KO shot that left him sidelined with a concussion through the final three season games, and the first three playoff games.
Backstrom went down and snapped something in warm-ups, right before the start of his long-awaited playoff challenge. A pulled groin turned out to be a hernia, and he was out, needing surgery. Josh Harding, fighting multiple sclerosis but returning as back-up, went in and played his heart out, getting the Wild the victory in Game 3, and nearly becoming the top story in the whole NHL by nearly stealing Game 1 in Chicago before the Hawks won 2-1 in overtime. Tragically, Harding also was injured, in Game 4, and Darcy Kuempfer had to go in.
Here’s the point: If Heatley had continued to play the way he was playing, and Pominville continued to play the way he was playing, and Backstrom had his chance, the Wild would have been a formidible challenge for the Blackhawks. On the other side, if, instead of the Wild losing two of their top four forwards, the Blackhawks had lost two -- any two -- of the Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa quartet, the Blackhawks would have been far less imposing. And if Corey Crawford went down and out right before Game 1, then the Blackhawks also lost their backup goaltender, it might be the Wild who won the series.
Also, Matt Cullen has been an underrated over-achieving standout, and Devin Setoguche had started showing his true value with key goals down the stretch. Cullen, also, went down with an injury and missed key games in the final month of the regular season.
One last item in that scenario is that if Heatley and Pominville had not been rudely injured by NHL-quality cheapshots, and Cullen had been able to stay in the lineup, the Wild might have won their division, and they undoubtedly would not have lost those last few games in the regular season, and if they had just won one of the two they lost in the last week, the Wild would have finished higher than eighth -- and not faced the Blackhawks in the first round. And the Wild match up much better against Vancouver, the LA Kings, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, and even Detroit, than they do with the Blackhawks, a team nobody in the NHL matches up with very well.
So the Stanley Cup tournament broils on without the Minnesota Wild, but not without some incredibly tasteless, insensitive and clueless follow-up media coverage, which insulted the intelligence of the state’s hockey fans while slandering the valiant effort the Wild threw at the Chicago Blackhawks. This from media types who will boast about how much they dislike hockey, and who rarely set foot inside Xcel Energy Center all season. Now they emerge as self-appointed experts to fire unguided missiles at the club. Right after the lopsided Game 5, one reporter asked Yeo if he thought his job was in jeopardy. Yeo handled it calmly, saying he thought the body of evidence showed the team making good progress on its way up the standings.
A day after it was over, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher addressed the media, and so did coach Yeo. Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist and radio guy Jim Souhan accused Fletcher of “stating a bunch of truths to bolster a lie,” and went on to say the team collapsed in April, and that “this season was a failure. The team finished eighth in a 15-team conference, closer to last place than first, after choking down the stretch.” Well Jim, my math says in a 15-team conference, eighth is exactly halfway, with seven above and seven below. He went on to rip Fletcher for picking Yeo, and ripped Pominville, “who could become our Hockey Herschel,” meaning a phony and superficial name who can’t perform up to expectations. Chances are, Souhan never attended a game when Pominville played, although he wouldn’t have recognized his excellence even then.
Others ripped Koivu for not scoring a point, and Parise for not scoring every night. They overlook the fact that Jonathan Toews, a true all-star and the captain of the Blackhawks, also had not scored a single point until getting two assists in the fifth game. Do you think anyone at the Chicago Tribune, or Sun-Times, or on the radio in Chicago, ever ripped Toews for being inept? No chance. He’s an every-nighter, same as Koivu, Parise, Cullen, Pominville, Suter, and the emerging Brodin, Coyle, and Zucker.
Sit back and enjoy the rest of the Stanley Cup finals, and just hope that Fletcher can sign Backstrom, Cullen, and Cal Clutterbuck. Also hope he doesn’t wilt in the face of unfair media barrages, because he won’t ever see those guys again next season, until the Wild storms into next spring’s playoffs.
BASEBALL! AT LAST!
To the surprise of Northland baseball fans, there was a college baseball game played in Duluth this season. No, not UMD, because the Bulldogs never got to play a single game on snow-covered and frozen Bulldog Park’s field. It was St. Scholastica, an area Division III treasure.
Out there at Wade Stadium, the Saints were able to play host to the UMAC tournament last weekend. The Saints beat Martin Luther 10-0 on Friday, and came back to top a tough Northwestern team from Roseville 6-4 to gain the championship game of the double-elimination event. Northwestern, which opened by beating Bethany Lutheran 8-5, bounced back from the St. Scholastica loss to eliminate Martin Luther 5-2 and gain the right to try to unseat the Saints.
Northwestern led 1-0, but the Saints erupted for a whopping 10-run second inning, and ran off to a 12-8 victory. Jake Nystrom, who pitched three innings of relief, won the game, while Zack Farmer, a sophomore from Duluth East, closed out the Saints seventh straight victory, enduring a bizarre batch of snow flurries that came over the West Duluth hills in the final innings. Junior Parker Olson, another East grad at second base, went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles, and shortstop Jake
Casareto and catcher Jake Kuschke also had three hits each. Kuschke and first baseman Andy Schwantes each drove in three runs.
St. Scholastica’s championship was its 16th straight UMAC title, an incredible run, and it earned the Saints an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III regional at 27-9. Pretty amazing for a team that could never play a home game until playoff time. The double-elimination regional is going on this week in Whitewater, Wis., where the Saints were seeded sixth, of six, and had to take on No. 1 St. Thomas in Wednesday’s first round.
EAST FOR REAL
Duluth East proved that the high schools can also find time to get in a few post-blizzard games. The Greyhounds hammered Superior 10-0 Monday afternoon at East’s field. Wyatt Irwin, a stylish left-hander, pitched the shutout for East, and the ‘Hounds kept the scoring pressure on throughout the game.
Hogan Davidson got two hits, helping East gain a 5-0 lead after three, and making it 7-0 his next trip. And Justin Smith hooked a line drive to left field that went from a potential shoestring catch to a two-run triple.
Dare we say it? Maybe we’ve seen our last snow of the season.