Monday, March 31, 2008

Why: ESPN is wrong, the Wild still have a chance, and City Pages sucks

Almost all sports coverage outside of the Twin Cities (and even some within) seems to be completely ignoring the Wild’s playoff bid this year (City Pages you’re going to run a cover story on Al Jefferson and ignore the Wild? Really? Cover one of the worst teams in the NBA and forget about the one Minnesota based team that is going to make the playoffs this year? Really? – though I guess we should be thankful that Village Voice hasn’t begun syndicating sports coverage). The discussion is revolving around Detroit, Dallas, Anaheim, San Jose and Calgary in the West, and the Canadians, Rangers, Devils, and Penguins in the East.

I like to think that I’m a realistic fan of any sport, and tend to assume that any team that I would find myself cheering for will just never win a championship (especially since the teams are generally from Minnesota and our sports teams have a reputation for choking that rivals the Cubs). But I think it’s hard to deny that the Wild are a serious contender this year, even though most of the major sports media are ignoring this.

At the moment the Wild are relatively healthy, a few sicknesses and they’ll be missing Curtis Foster for the post season with a broken leg (which somehow didn’t draw a suspension).

With one win they will clinch the Northwest Division championship, which will give them home advantage. Last year they were undoubtedly one of the best teams at home, given in large part to the fact that they have NEVER had less than a sell out crowd. This year their home record is not as impressive, but they’ve won their last five at home, and Backstrom is 5-0-1 in his last six. With the exclusion of the first period in their loss against Edmonton they’ve been playing their best hockey of the year.

They’ve always been a defensive team, due in large part to the coaching style of Jacques Lemaire, but they are also an offensive threat with many skill players like Rolston, Gaborik, Koivu, Bouchard, Demitra, and Burns. Who have all been outstanding in the last ten games. But their major weakness, all year, has been a lack of physicality, a criticism they’ve faced throughout the year, which was made especially apparent through the absence of Derek Boogaard. But with the acquisition of Chris Simon at the trade deadline and the return of Boogaard they have become one of the most physical teams in the West. Lemaire has been suiting Boogaard, Simon, Aaron Voros, and Todd Fedoruk, which has been combination that has made it tough for any team to produce offensively. This combination also seems to have produced a larger sense of team lately, everyone has been participating in the scraps and other teams enforcers have been apprehensive to take a shot at a skill player (and when they have their have been retaliations instantly – see the video below of Burrows taking a cheap shot at Bouchard and the instant retaliations of Burns, Carney, Simon and even Bouchard gets into the first fight of his career). Even Gaborik has been playing a much more physical style of hockey since Lemaire made him captain.

Furthermore, the other major players in the West lack the momentum the Wild have at the moment. Detroit clinched their playoff position too long ago and has been struggling, allowing Nashville to take them into overtime among other tight games that would have been a different story at midseason. They are also dependent upon good performances from either Hasek and Osgood. Both of whom have proven themselves in the playoffs before, and have had great seasons, but are aging and have had points this season when they’ve struggled pulling a solid game together dragging the whole team down with them. Dallas has been in a backslide since the All Star break. At one point the number two team in the NHL, they still have not officially clinched a playoff position. Colorado and Vancouver have both struggled playing in Minnesota and have not, as of yet, clinched a playoff birth (though surely both Colorado and Dallas will). The only team that has been giving the Wild trouble has been Calgary, but with what may be a preview of the first round match up taking place on Thursday the Wild have the opportunity to show that the can stop Iginla and the Flames. San Jose has been another tough team for the Wild but they won’t face them until the second round at the earliest, and Nabokov hasn’t been at his best in the past few games even though he is seemingly always hot against Minnesota.

Will they win the Stanley Cup? Probably not. But it’s to their advantage that no one is taking them serious as a Cup competitor, because they are. When they are as hot as they have been, playing with a playoff mentality since the All Star break, competing in the tightest division in the NHL, they have the ability to beat anyone. And with the guarantee that they will not be facing the Red Wings in the opening round, they have time to prepare for the teams that have given them trouble (though they have beat both Detroit and Dallas earlier in the year when they were missing both Boogaard and Koivu). They at least stand a chance (whereas Nashville, Vancouver, and Colorado seem to be up against much greater odds) and are not getting the respect that they are currently earning.

Their major weakness is that they are running thin at defense with the loss of Foster and Lemaire’s decision not to call anyone up from the AHL. An injury on defense could be detrimental to their post-season. This is putting a lot of pressure on veterans like Sean Hill (who has been hot since Foster went out) and Keith Carney, who have both stepped up but are facing a lot more ice time and a lot more pressure. Also Lemaire is faced with a tough decision if he is going to continue suiting all of his bruisers, which leaves less space for the finesse players who score more often like Shepherd, Puilot (who is untested but playing very well), Belanger, and Radivojevic. Playing all of these forwards means pushing Demitra out to a wing and having a lot less muscle on the bench, yet the suiting of Boogaard, Simon, Voros, and Fedoruk seems to be helping the finesse players put more points on the board. How this will play out in the post-season probably depends on who the first round match up is. Vancouver or Anaheim could mean Lemaire would start by suiting the Boogaard crew to help intimidate some of their more fierce rivals, whereas a match up against Calgary or Dallas could merit a few more skill forwards. That all remains to be seen, but it means that Wild are versatile right now and that most of the sports media is choosing to ignore their rise and that may be to their advantage, surely their opponent will take them more seriously than ESPN is, but for a division leading team there seem to be low expectations, which could easily be surprised in a record breaking season for the Wild (Lemaire is one win from 500 which has only been done by ten coaches I history, Gaborik broke both the team goal and point record, Rolston had his third straight 30 goal season, Burns has broken every Wild defenseman record and Backstrom broke the win and shutout records for the Wild).

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