Friday, April 29, 2011

Christian Ponder: Pros and Cons

As I wrote Thursday, the biggest thing I felt the Minnesota Vikings needed to do in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft was trust their board and pick the best available player.

You can't trust the ability to trade back, because you need a partner to do that.

(Actually, Vikings vice president Rick Spielman told the Fan Radio Network Friday that they called every team picking behind them in the first round, and no one was interested in moving into the 12th spot. So there's that.)

With no one moving up, the Vikings were stuck at No. 12. They had two choices. Either make a pick, or repeat the embarrassment of a few years ago, when they passed on their pick and had to get their selection in as other teams were running to the podium to get picks ahead of the Vikes.

The pick was made on time, and Minnesota chose Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. I tweeted earlier Thursday that I felt he was the No. 2 quarterback in the draft, and I still feel that way. I like his skill set and how it translates to the NFL a lot more than I like the skill set of Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, two guys picked ahead of Ponder.

That said, there is a downside to the decision by the Vikings, and it's fair to point that out. It's probably not fair to scream, boo, cry, or throw a chair in protest, but it's fair to say that you don't like the pick. I'm not sure I like the pick, even though I like the player.

As far as pros go, there's the idea that the Vikings had little choice. They could have drafted Nick Fairley or Nate Solder and solidified either the defensive or offensive lines, and not gotten a bad value. They could have gotten Prince Amukamara and added depth to the secondary. But it would have come at the price of likely not getting the needed quarterback of the future -- whether it be Ponder or Andy Dalton, a player the Vikings like.

The lack of a third-round pick would have made it virtually impossible for Minnesota to trade back into the first round without mortgaging much of this year's draft and/or part of next year's draft. That wasn't desirable for a team that needs help at as many positions as the Vikings do. If anything, Spielman probably needs to focus on moving down in the second round if he can, so he can re-acquire the third-rounder that some moron traded for Randy Moss.

I understand the fans' negativity, though. Ponder isn't a sexy pick, and it's hard to argue (Spielman intimated this on the radio more than once) that Ponder was in the Vikings' top 12 on their board. That alone makes this a less-than-great pick. The Vikings have too many needs to be reaching off their board for a quarterback. It's an undeniably important position, but Ponder doesn't help the Vikings much if he's flat on his back, and he doesn't help them much if he's constantly running for his life because Bryant McKinnie can't block anymore.

It also pigeonholes the Vikings a bit, in that they have to make a move for a veteran quarterback when free agency and trades begin, perhaps as soon as Monday. The options aren't great, but the Vikings can ill afford to start the season with Joe Webb, Rhett Bomar, and Ponder as their only quarterbacks, and it doesn't seem like anyone really thinks Brett Favre is walking through that door again.

Of course, with Webb and Ponder on the roster (along with the underwhelming Bomar), the door might just be open ...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: Vikings and Packers

Many have asked for my thoughts on the NFL Draft, and now that I've had some time to actually focus on it a bit, I'm ready to throw a few things out there with regard to the Vikings and Packers.

Of course, nothing's easy in the NFL anymore, and there's a chance we won't get through Thursday without a huge bombshell regarding the lockout that is no more but still kind of is.

What if players are allowed to be traded or allowed to enter free agency Thursday? How does that change the draft? Will there still be five quarterbacks taken among the first 12, as some pundits are predicting?

With so much uncertainty, it's hard to get into a ton of detail, but I'll throw a few thoughts out there.

The Vikings should be focused on taking the best available player. They went 6-10 last year, and should be seriously concerned about their secondary, offensive line, defensive interior, wide receiver, and quarterback positions.

The idea of reaching for a second- or third-round value at quarterback -- the highly-respected Rick Gosselin has them taking Andy Dalton in the first round (at least according to Twitter ... the actual mock is behind a pay wall) -- is pure lunacy and a move mainly coming out of panic. I understand the importance of the quarterback position. Every Packer fan does, because we haven't had a bad one since 1991 and therefore have only had two losing seasons since 1991.

Guys like Tyron Smith, Prince Amukamara, Robert Quinn, Da'Quan Bowers, Corey Liuget, and J.J. Watt are better "fits" for the Vikings, because they fill significant needs. They could all be off the board by pick No. 12. They're all good players who could start right away.

But the NFL is a quarterback league, no matter who is on the cover of "Madden '12" (Peyton Hillis). That drives teams to think they need to overvalue quarterbacks, which of course leads us to guys like Alex Smith, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, David Carr, Cade McNown, and a slew of other former first-round quarterbacks who never panned in the NFL, for a variety of reasons.

The league's image is one that is driven by one position. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger got all the attention before the Super Bowl, and the story coming out was how Rodgers so badly outplayed Roethlisberger and how Rodgers took better care of the ball. Forgotten was the job Green Bay's receivers did, overcoming drops to make big plays, or how guys like Sam Shields, Nick Collins, and Jarrett Bush made huge plays on defense while Charles Woodson was lost to injury.

The draft is no different. Former NFL scout Dave Razzano talked to Yahoo Sports' Mike Silver in a great piece about his "rogue" status at this point (how is this guy not employed in the NFL?). He also talked to Silver about what can drive a lot of the first-round busts you see in the draft.

Teams often reach for a perceived need, rather than selecting the player they’ve rated the highest. First-round picks, in particular, can be impacted by an owner and/or general manager’s desire to fall into line with media projections (and to therefore receive high marks from reporters who offer instant draft grades).

“If you look at the drafts from 2000 to 2007, 44 top-15 picks have busted out,” Razzano says. “Why is that? Well, for one thing, everybody wants to hit a home run. My attitude is this: Stay away from red flags; just take a solid player. The same goes for later in the draft. You know what guys look for in late rounds? Projects, guys with potential. Again, just pick solid guys. They’ll be productive.”

Razzano talked about a falling-out he had with the Rams in 2005, the year Alex Smith was drafted No. 1 overall by San Francisco. The issue stemmed from Razzano's unwillingness to give Smith a high grade, because he simply didn't think Smith could cut it as an NFL starter. He's not perfect, because he also downgraded Rodgers in that draft, but he's pretty sharp and consistent in his philosophy of trusting what you see from a player on tape.

The Vikings need to be smart and trust their draft board. It's eye-opening, but not surprising, to consider that some NFL teams bow to media pressure when it comes to draft picks. It's probably also not a stretch to suggest that the teams doing the bowing are the teams picking high in the draft all the time.

In the end, teams will do well in the draft if they trust their board and pick the player who is the best-rated when they have a turn to pick. Nothing else matters but that board. It's what you spent all those months building, and if you're not going to trust it on the days you need it, what the hell did you waste all that time for?

The Vikings were 6-10 last year. They're full of holes, so they shouldn't be reaching for a positional need. They also shouldn't be focused on just taking the new starting quarterback in the first round. There will be the chance to make trades and sign free agents at some point. There's nothing wrong with getting a guy like Nathan Enderle from Idaho in the third or fourth round and then signing a free agent to start a couple games while he gets acclimated.

Hell, I bet Brett Favre would even consider coming back at some point.

Oh, wait.

The Packers will not focus on positional needs in the first round, even though they have a couple. This shouldn't be a surprise to any fans, because Green Bay hasn't drafted that way since Ted Thompson came aboard, and that's one of the bigger reasons he's been as successful as he's been. The Packers could use some more depth at linebacker, and they need to find more help at defensive end since Cullen Jenkins really isn't expected back. Additional depth at cornerback and on the offensive line would be good.

While a guy like Akeem Ayers would be a great fit on defense, don't expect him to be on the board at No. 32, and don't expect Thompson to load the truck for a team so he can move up. It's not that great a value, I don't think.

Expect Green Bay to make a pick to finish the first round, unless they can find a team that wants to move into that spot for a price. I don't see them moving up any more than I see them reaching for a player of need.

And even if Thompson screws up the draft, we're not even four months into a five-year moratorium on criticism of the organization. Such is the reward for winning the Super Bowl.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'You Wonder Sometimes How Our Government Puts On its Pants in the Morning'

Our latest "Daily Show" video comes from Tuesday's presentation, when Jon Stewart harpooned Congress for a proposed amendment to the Zadroga bill that calls for those applying for 9/11 benefits to be checked first to make sure they aren't terrorists.

Yes, they want to check the 9/11 first responders to make sure they aren't terrorists.

Meanwhile, we continue to hand benefits to tons of other people without checking to make sure they aren't terrorists. It's apparently only the first responders we're worried about.

Great rant, as always.

2011 NFL Draft: Where is the Interest?

I've been cramming over some free time the last few days, because I realized it was NFL Draft week, and I had done virtually no prep since the college football season ended.


A few reasons ...
  • My overall interest is a bit low, largely because I don't think the draft can be top of mind when we still don't know for sure if we're going to have a season that starts on time.
  • The UMD hockey season elongated into April, and my focus through the national championship game was on those games and making sure I at least came as close as I could to doing a good job. The draft prep suffered as a result.
  • Anytime your favorite team is picking at the end of the first round, it makes everything else a little underwhelming. Don't be looking for the Packers to move up in the first round. If anything, they're more likely to move out of the first round.
It's a team effort.

Anyway, through the run-up to Thursday night's first round, it's come to my attention that the draft just doesn't have the juice it's had in the past.

I don't know if it's all lockout-related, or if it's because we don't have any real clear-cut franchise players in the top five of the draft, or if it's simply a cyclical thing resulting from the NFL and its partners hyping this to the point that everyone realized how stupid it was and got sick of it.

(NOTE: I don't think the draft is stupid, and I think it's still a watchable, newsworthy event. However, people were doing segments on the draft before the NFL playoffs even ended, and that seems a little -- er, a lot -- ridiculous.)

It was bound to happen, especially with this lockout drama. The league has ticked off a lot of its hardcore fans with this garbage, and the players have played a role in it, too.

Fans -- many of whom are experiencing their own economic struggles and still finding ways to buy tickets and merchandise for their favorite team -- don't like watching owners and players fight over a pot of money so big that no one can really fathom how big it really is.

That's not news to anyone, but yet the NFL seems caught off-guard by everything that doesn't go their way.

That alone infuriates me as a fan, because it's a clear sign that fans are being taken for granted by the league. We're not the only ones. The league seems to assume they're going to win every legal battle, and they probably assume that the players will give in and sign a deal on the owners' preferred terms.

The draft ends up suffering. Fans are going to watch, because that's just what they do. But in the end, the casual fans will watch something else Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The NFL is an afterthought to so many, because so many feel the NFL thinks they're an afterthought.

I guess it beats the hell out of thinking you have to work for the fans' support, huh?

Alex Burrows: Canadian Hero, and Other Hockey Notes and Thoughts

Classic Game 7 in Vancouver Tuesday night, as the Blackhawks and Canucks battled for more than 60 minutes to decide who would move into the Western Conference semifinals.

It was one of those nights where it looked like a greasy goal or some sort of fluky bounce would end the affair, so it was actually somewhat refreshing to see it end on a snipe job by Canuck forward Alex Burrows, whose line was so good, even going back to Game 6 in Chicago.

Video via Canucks Hockey Blog.

Good on Vancouver, and good on Roberto Luongo, who was on the verge of becoming the scourge of Canucks hockey if he couldn't keep the Blackhawks from finishing off this 3-0 series comeback.

It was a bit of redemption for Burrows, who had a chance to seal the deal in the third period on a penalty shot. He was stoned by Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who was matching Luongo save for save after Burrows scored early to give Vancouver the lead.

Chicago's effort was tremendous, but Luongo made some huge stops, including one on Patrick Sharp early in overtime. This wasn't a 5-4 game where Luongo was terrible but his team picked him up. He made huge save after huge save, and this game may end up being more significant than just exorcising the Chicago demons. It showed Luongo can play in the big games. There are no "But he was still shaky" excuses about this one. He was good, and he earned the win.

It was a sweet game and a great series ... also a much more entertaining conclusion to the series than Buffalo and Philadelphia were able to produce. In that game, the Flyers raised their game to another level -- just like they did for most of last year's playoffs -- and their opponent simply didn't have anything for them.

That's not a rip on the Sabres, because it's not like they didn't play hard, but the Flyers contested everything, and they were hustling all over the ice at a pace that Buffalo had no chance of matching. The Sabres' depth was attacked by injuries, and the one guy they did get back -- forward Derek Roy -- looked like he was sliding around the ice in a pair of Sorels instead of skating. He wasn't physically ready for this pace, and it was a huge mistake for Buffalo to put him out there.

Blame Ryan Miller all you want, but it should have been 4-0 in the first period. He kept them in the game as long as he could, but he had no help, and he was screened by teammates on at least two of the goals he allowed. That's not effective defensive hockey. Miller wasn't at his best in this series, but let's be honest. The only reason it went seven was Philly's own atrocious goaltending ... atrocious goaltending we can only hope bites them in the second or third round.

Two more Game 7s on Wednesday, and then we're off to a second round that has virtually no chance of being as good as the first round was.

Tuesday was the eighth straight day with at least one overtime game ... that sets an all-time NHL playoff record.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Game 7: Who's Your Hero?

There are two Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday night. Instead of lame previews that mean nothing, here's an old TSN video of the Top 10 Game 7s in the first round of the playoffs.

Capping it is probably the best Game 7 ever played .. in any sport.

We'll be around Wednesday to recap the night's events, as well as get ready for one or two more Game 7s in the Eastern Conference.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scott Sandelin Staying Right Where He Is

Easter Sunday was filled with fun, great hockey, and some grilling at the mansion. Hopefully, yours was just as enjoyable, whatever it was you ended up doing.

Easter also marked a historic moment in college hockey, as the newest and biggest startup program in years finally named its coach, after a week full of speculation, rumors, innuendo, and a small amount of actual information.

Penn State is starting hockey in 2012, and Sunday they announced that former Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky will be the man to lead them into a new era of college athletics at the school. Gadowsky -- along with UMD's Scott Sandelin and Wisconsin women's coach Mark Johnson -- were the top candidates, according to various reports.

Here is the straight poop from Happy Valley.

"Guy is the perfect choice for Penn State," said Penn State President Graham Spanier. "He has been immensely successful, is a great motivator, knows how to build programs, and has strong academic values."

"Pursuing success with honor. Building tradition. Achieving excellence. As we launch our hockey program at the Division I level, these are the on and off-ice expectations, and Guy Gadowsky has successfully accomplished these goals and more throughout his career. We welcome Guy and his family to Hockey Valley," said Curley.

"I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to lead Penn State hockey during this transitional period and into Division I," Gadowsky said. "I am truly honored to join Penn State and the spirit, pride, passion, class and professionalism found within its students, staff and alumni. I am humbled by the tremendous gift by the Pegula family and the commitment by Penn State. This is a very exciting time for college hockey and Penn State and our family is thrilled to be joining the Penn State family."

In September 2010, the University announced an $88 million gift from Terrence M. and Kim Pegula, the largest private gift in Penn State's history, which was intended to fund a state-of-the-art, multi-purpose ice arena as well as help to establish an NCAA Division I men's hockey program. In conjunction with the gift, Penn State will establish an NCAA women's hockey program.

"I am very impressed with Guy, his pursuit of the challenge at hand and plans for Penn State hockey, stated Terry Pegula.

"We are thrilled to have successfully courted a coach from such a strong academic institution with the passion, energy and the perfect demeanor for Penn State," commented Joe Battista, Associate Director of Athletics for Ice Arena and Hockey Development. "Guy has outstanding recruiting connections across North America and with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada and has built or revived programs in college and professional hockey."

Appointed to the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee through 2013, Gadowsky took over a Princeton program that had won a combined eight games in the two seasons prior to his arrival for the 2004-05 campaign. During his initial five seasons, the Tigers improved their win total each year, topped by a program record 22 victories in 2008-09.

Gadowsky led Princeton to two of its three all-time NCAA Championship berths in the 110 years of the program, in 2008 and 2009.

As a collegiate head coach, Gadowsky has helped develop nine players who have played in the National Hockey League, including three of his former Princeton players who have played in the NHL this season: Mike Moore (San Jose), Darroll Powe (Philadelphia) and Kevin Westgarth (Los Angeles). A 2011 Princeton senior, AHCA second-team All-American Taylor Fedun, signed with the Edmonton Oilers, after the Tigers' season was completed. 

As for Sandelin, the Duluth News Tribune notes that he'll meet again with UMD brass Monday about a contract extension, which seems like a forgone conclusion at this point. Sandelin has one year left on his current deal, and coaches rarely coach the last year of a contract.

Usually, there's a good reason why when they do ... as in, the school doesn't trust that they've got the right guy long-term. There are no such worries at UMD. Sandelin may have been bench boss through some lean years, but the Bulldogs have three straight 20-win seasons, and you may have heard about that national championship they won a couple weeks ago.

With this bit of news, hopefully the offseason can begin now. If there is any UMD news, you can obviously come here for information. But it seems like we can finally settle into a "normal" offseason now, while still floating on air over the national title.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Wisconsin Suffering at Quarterback

I didn't think Wisconsin had the chops to post that "best-case" 11-1 record last year. In the end, I was dead wrong about the Badgers.

They coughed up an early road game against Michigan State, but rebounded nicely to finish 11-1 in the regular season before losing to TCU in the Rose Bowl.

To be blunt, it was a much better season than anyone probably could have expected or asked for, especially given that the injury bug never really left this team.

With Scott Tolzien gone, along with John Clay, Lance Kendricks, and Gabe Carimi, the offense is getting a makeover at spring practice. One of the key pieces of that makeover, however, is quarterback Curt Phillips, who has undergone two ACL surgeries already, and apparently had another procedure recently.

"It shouldn't be anything major, hopefully," Badgers coach Bret Bielema told local reporters following Thursday's practice. "Kind of just deal with the cards after they are there. If it's something they can take care of and clean up, hopefully, he'll be back full-time in June."

It might not be a huge setback, but Phillips was already facing an uphill climb to wrestle the starting job away from Jon Budmayr. With only freshmen on the depth chart, it's key for Phillips to get healthy and stay there, but he may never be the same quarterback again.

Phillips -- more than any potential UW starter since Brooks Bollinger -- really likes to use his athleticism to make plays. Lately, the Badgers have used pocket quarterbacks like Jim Sorgi, John Stocco, and Tolzien to run the offense (the one athlete they had during this recent run was Tyler Donovan, whose competitiveness was greatly appreciated, but Phillips at 100 percent is probably a better athlete).

That's not to say either style of quarterback really gave Wisconsin any more or less success. However, they haven't started a redshirt freshman at quarterback in a long time, and having some experience pushing or backing up Budmayr -- whichever it is -- could be a big thing for his development and the Badgers' chances of having a good season to follow up last year's stellar one.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Nights Whatever I Missed

Some thoughts on NHL playoff hockey:
  • Been busy with real job matters and real life matters (nothing serious, I promise, but enough to keep me going and away from the blog a bit). Also trying to recharge batteries a bit after a hectic UMD season, and facing an offseason that hasn't really started yet and won't until we solve the coaching/early departures puzzle for good.
  • Anyway, you have to appreciate the gutsy road efforts we've seen in recent days. Boston in Montreal, San Jose in Los Angeles, Washington in New York, Anaheim in Nashville (though there was nothing gutsy about that hit on Martin Erat), and Detroit in Phoenix (though the crowd was split there). Road teams tend to do well in the playoffs for whatever reason, and this year has been no exception to that rule.
  • How much did Ilya Bryzgalov lose with his four-game performance against Detroit? It was, as Charles Barkley says, trbl. 17 goals allowed, plenty of softies, and Bryzgalov never was able to make that big, uplifting save, a must when you're giving out soft goals like Halloween candy. The pending free agent played some awful hockey when his team needed him most. That's hardly a way to close out the walk year, is it?
  • I don't root for franchise relocation, but if there was ever a situation where it was generally okay, it was in the Phoenix/Winnipeg drama. Yes, plenty of people in Arizona have taken to the sport thanks to that team's presence, and there are some really dedicated fans who will (probably) be out a team at some point this spring/summer. That's sad for those people. But this team never should have left Winnipeg in the first place, and if they're going to move somewhere, let it be to the place they never should have left. I can be okay with that.
  • Give Washington a lot of credit. Plenty of grit, effort, and intensity, and while it looked like they were on the verge of folding when the Rangers went up 3-0, they regrouped during the second intermission and came out strong in the third period. They were the better team most of the game, and deserved the result they got. It was also entertaining to see Marian Gaborik assist on the Caps' game-winner. Perhaps that wasn't so entertaining for Ranger fans, who spent most of the game taunting Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau with hilarious chants, including the top dog, a "Can You Hear Us?" blast late in the second period that had me in stitches. So the Rangers might not be that good, but their fans came to play Wednesday night.
  • Anyone else on the edge of their seat for a potential San Jose-Detroit rematch in the second round? I'm excited. Oh, and Pittsburgh-Washington looms if there are no upsets in the East. Yeah, that might be enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scott Sandelin to Interview at Penn State

If your head has been under a rock (I've been accused of worse over the years), you might not know that UMD coach Scott Sandelin confirmed to Kevin Pates that he's been contacted about the opening at Penn State, and will likely interview for the gig.

With one year left on his UMD contract, discussions were already underway on a contract extension when this news broke. It's simply not ideal -- or customary, for that matter -- for a Division I coach to work the final year of a contract. It's not ideal because it can make recruiting more difficult. It's not customary because most coaches are either released (perhaps it's a "resignation" or a real resignation) or have their contracts extended before that final year begins.

This is a no-brainer decision for UMD and athletic director Bob Nielson. They want to extend the coach, as UMD is fresh off their first national championship, and you don't want to start the offseason with the bad vibe of losing the head coach who helped make it all possible.

On the other hand, if Penn State -- which is using a large private donation to start their hockey program -- really wants Sandelin, can UMD do anything to stop them from getting what they want?

In the end, this is up to Sandelin and Penn State more than anyone else. However, I know a lot of fans have reached out to me, asking for advice on who they could try to communicate with at UMD.

At the risk of making myself look like a lackey, which I've tried hard to avoid, I figured I'd offer a little bit of advice.

It seems that Nielson understands the value of this coaching staff, but if you'd like to send him an email with your feelings on the subject, his address is

Chancellor Lendley Black might be the new guy, but he's really impressed me with his enthusiasm for the athletic teams. He was at the Frozen Four, and even donned a blond wig to fit in with the team theme. It was great to see. He can be reached at

I don't think I have to say this, but if you're going to write these gentlemen, please be courteous and tactful with your comments. We are lucky to have good people in leadership positions at UMD, and they will respond in kind, either through their words or actions on this issue.

So much for the offseason, huh? :)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Justin Fontaine Signs With Wild

More UMD stuff coming Wednesday, but I wanted to pass along news of an NHL team signing a UMD player.

This time, it's not an early departure, and it's not a shock.

The Minnesota Wild announced a two-year deal with former Bulldog Justin Fontaine Tuesday.

Fontaine capped a marvelous career at UMD by helping the Bulldogs win their first NCAA title. He ended his four years among the school's most prolific offensive players of all-time, ranking 16th on the school's all-time list.

In 159 games at UMD, Fontaine scored 62 goals and had 102 assists for 164 points. He is the first Bulldog player since Mike Peluso (1994-98) to average a point per game over a four-year UMD career.

Fontaine opted to stay in school after his junior year, deciding to take one more crack at a national championship. He got his wish.

Now, he moves on to an organization he impressed during last summer's rookie camp.

"I had a great time last summer, getting to know a little bit about their program," said Fontaine of his time at the camp. "I'm ready and happy to be a part of the organization. I've wanted to go there since last summer. I had a great time and met a lot of great people." 

Fontaine had a great college career, especially when you consider that he scored just 12 points during his freshman season.

It's expected that fellow senior and team captain Mike Montgomery has a pro contract waiting for him, but we have not gotten any word yet where or when he will put his John Hancock Mike Montgomery on a contract.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Nights 4-5

Some thoughts on the weekend of hockey action:
  • Taking a page out of the NBA's playbook, it sure seemed like officials in New York and Chicago were doing everything they could to extend series. It only "worked" in New York, as Vancouver overcame a ridiculous Chicago advantage in power plays to win 3-2 and take a 3-0 lead in their series. Chicago led in power plays 6-2, but Roberto Luongo and The Shot Blockers had a good performance, and the Blackhawks tried tinkering with their power play unit with big John Scott out there. Of course, what the Blackhawks learned is that big isn't always effective. Scott might have size, but he doesn't come remotely close to Dustin Byfuglien's skill set. Nothing Chicago did was really going to work, since it was proven in Vancouver that the Canucks weren't going to let the opponent bother them. This is a driven team, and when you combine drive with the kind of talent Mike Gillis has assembled, it makes a certain someone's upset pick look really freaking dumb.
  • In New York, a floating officiating standard clearly infuriated Bruce Boudreau, but in the end, the Capitals were outworked and outplayed by a desperate Rangers team. It was New York's best performance of the series, and while I thought Washington played all right, they didn't have enough of the second and third efforts necessary to get pucks past Henrik Lundqvist. I expect them to give more of that necessary effort in Game 4, because there's no way the Capitals -- clearly a better team -- can afford to let the Rangers totally back into this series. They need to avoid seven-game drama in the first round to help their end cause.
  • Has a coach ever been fired during a playoff series? Because Claude Julien could be a candidate. He wasn't exactly universally popular in Boston before the postseason started, and his team's pathetic one-goal-in-120-minutes-against-Carey-Price performance didn't win people over. Making matters worse, the absence of Zdeno Chara exposed guys like Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg as liabilities in front of Tim Thomas, who struggled to control his rebounds. While Boychuk was coasting in the defensive zone and staring at the puck like it was a stripper, Mike Cammalleri and Yannick Weber jammed home rebound chances. As it shifts to Montreal Monday night, Chara is not a lock to play, though you have to expect he will unless he was hanging around Joe Mauer too much. I also assumed he'd play Saturday night, but later learned -- again -- what you really get when you assume.
  • Best series so far? Undoubtedly, Nashville-Anaheim. I figured these two would slog their way through some ugly games, but they've had a little bit of everything. Pretty goals, greasy goals, good goaltending, ageless performances from Teemu Selanne, and some great puck movement by both teams, especially Nashville. To top it all off, since Anaheim is involved, we needed some dirty play, and we got it from Bobby Ryan Friday (suspended two games, so he sits Game 4 Wednesday, too) and Todd Marchant -- who threw a silly, late, dangerous, and relatively selfish hit from behind on Jordin Tootoo Sunday. I know. Todd Marchant threw a dirty hit ... whoda thunk? Anyway, this has been good hockey, and the crowd in Nashville Sunday was totally amped. I didn't think there was much chance of hockey working there, but the Predators have built a pretty crazy, loyal, fun, and vibrant fanbase. It might not be a franchise that can fill every seat every night just yet, and they won't threaten Detroit's or Pittsburgh's (or, for that matter, Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver) numbers in road venues, but it's growing, and it seems like a franchise that we don't have to worry as much about anymore. Good for them.
  • Will San Jose be made to pay for that no-show Saturday night? Looked like they thought it was December instead of April. I know I give that speech a lot, but it blows me away that experienced teams like the Sharks can throw a clunker like that in the playoffs.
  • If Buffalo loses this series to Philadelphia, they'll forever regret the second period of Game 2. They stopped moving their feet, couldn't generate anything offensively, took a gaggle of lazy and unnecessary penalties, and watched in horror as the Flyers built a two-goal lead. That the Sabres outplayed Philly in the third didn't matter, as you can't dig holes against good teams on the road. 
  • Speaking of digging holes against good teams on the road, where the hell were the Coyotes during the first period Saturday? Oy vey.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Night 3

Some thoughts on the night of hockey action:
  • Another suspension could be on the way. Friday, Los Angeles' Jarrett Stoll was banned for a game after a hit to the head of San Jose's Ian White. Friday night, Anaheim star Bobby Ryan decided that it would be a good idea to use his skate as a weapon during a battle along the boards with Jonathan Blum of Nashville. Instead of trying to get into the physics of what kind of damage Ryan could do with a stunt like that, let's just lay down the law. The skate is not a weapon, under any circumstances, and this is simply not an acceptable hockey play. Ryan should sit for Game 3 of the series in Nashville, which probably means he'll play. After all, the NHL got the Stoll suspension right, it seems, and the odds of them getting two in a row are not all that great. TSN says Ryan has a hearing Saturday. (For the record, Ryan has a Twitter account, but he made it abundantly clear Saturday morning he was not going to use it to comment on the incident.)
  • As for the game in Anaheim, it was full of 2007 flashbacks, as the Ducks inexplicably got away with flagrant penalties while holding on for dear life against what appears to be a more-skilled team. Yes, they won, and they took advantage of the opportunities given them. However, Predators fans have every right to be upset at how that game was officiated. We'll see how they respond as they get to play at home Sunday night.
  • Another great defensive effort for Washington Friday, and they rode it to a 2-0 win over the Rangers and a 2-0 lead in the series. The Capitals are going to go far if they keep committed to the defensive zone play like they've been so far. Things weren't going their way -- again -- on Friday, but they didn't panic through a rather sluggish first period. Instead, they regrouped during the intermission and got their feet moving more in the second. A goal and a dumb, dumb penalty by Ryan McDonagh later, and it was 2-0. From there, the Rangers -- who were not a good offensive team this season -- just couldn't do much right in the offensive zone. Opportunities were there, but they couldn't take advantage of any of them. Making matters worse, Marian Gaborik looks like he usually looks in the playoffs: gunshy and unsure of himself. Go win a battle, for crying out loud. That's how it works in the postseason.
  • Still waiting for the Penguins to show up for Game 2 of their playoff series. Tampa Bay made them pay for the 60-minute sleepwalk at Consol Energy Center. Now, Guy Boucher needs to get his team ready for back-to-back home games that will probably define their chances of taking down the injury-riddled Penguins.
  • Zdeno Chara, the hulking Boston captain, was hospitalized for dehydration Friday. I think the world of Chara as a player, despite the multitude of stupid things he does when his team is down and out of a game. With all that respect in mind, though, this is starting to look like the kind of unintentional setup for a big-time performance we sometimes see in the playoffs. Guys like Chara have a way of getting ready for must-win games like this, and despite the health issue Friday, I fully expect to see the big man play 25-30 minutes Saturday in a game the Bruins better find a way to win.
  • Looking at Saturday's four games, I think it's reasonable to say that Phoenix is the road team most in need of a win, while Boston is the home team that needs it more than any other. I know Philadelphia's in a hole, but as I mentioned the other day, I think the Flyers are in a better position to rally if they get down in this series because of their experience, firepower, and the fact that Buffalo just isn't good enough to blow someone out of a playoff series, I don't think.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Justin Faulk Moves On

The national champion UMD Bulldogs are up to two (2) early departures as the offseason gets rolling.

Junior forward Mike Connolly signed with the San Jose Sharks this week, and freshman defenseman Justin Faulk -- as was somewhat expected -- has followed him out the proverbial door.

Faulk agreed to terms Friday with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team announced Friday.

As a freshman at UMD, Faulk had a great season, quickly establishing himself as one of the league's best offensive defensemen. He scored eight goals -- including two game-winners -- and had 33 points in 39 games. He missed three games while with Team USA at the World Junior Championships.

“Justin is a gifted offensive defenseman who excels on the power play and has a big shot from the point,” said VP and assistant general manager Jason Karmanos. “He had a hugely successful year at Duluth and with his strength and build, we feel that he is ready to begin his professional career.”

Faulk got better as the season wore on, and he was simply a beast in the NCAA Frozen Four. He didn't score any goals, but he was a key player offensively in UMD's 4-3 semifinal win over Notre Dame, helping set up three goals while showing his improvement as a defensive player. Faulk routinely won physical battles and races in the UMD zone, preventing Notre Dame from getting players and pucks too close to goalie Kenny Reiter.

In the championship game, he struggled a bit with the puck, but didn't struggle nearly as much with his positioning or understanding of his defensive responsibilities.

To be blunt, Faulk wasn't going to get much -- if any -- better at UMD. It was time for him to move on, and UMD fans should simply tip their cap, thank him for making such an impact this season, and wish him well at the next level.

His three-year contract kicks in next season, paying him a signing bonus of $270,000, according to the Hurricanes. He will join the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League as they compete in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Charlotte upset two-time defending champion Hershey 5-4 Thursday night in the opening game of their best-of-seven series.

This Might Be My Favorite 'Daily Show' Video

Once in a while, I post videos from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Why? Because I think it's a funny show, and I enjoy posting the videos, in hopes that someday, someone who runs a major media conglomerate will start using some semblance of common sense and stop reporting with agendas and scare tactics.

Here's a classic from earlier this week, as an advertisement that features a boy with his toenails painted pink turns into a viral controversy. Apparently, our news outlets have nothing more important to talk about.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Night 2

Some thoughts on the night of hockey action:
  • After home teams dominated Wednesday, road teams turned the tables a bit on Thursday. Now, though, is when things start to get interesting. Anyone who lost Game 1 can -- no matter the matchup -- make a case for being right back in the thick of things by winning Game 2, and all eight Game 2s will be played either Friday or Saturday. Teams like Anaheim and Boston, which lost at home, need to win to avoid hitting the road down 2-0 in their series. Those are absolutely critical games, especially for these two teams (no offense to Buffalo, but I'll believe Philadelphia is in trouble when they're down 3-0 in the final minute of an elimination game). Nashville and Montreal are tough environments with great crowds, and they'll feel like hornets' nests if those respective teams go home up 2-0.
  • How about Carey Price Thursday night? Simply outstanding. You had to think he was really dialed-in mentally early in the game, when Dennis Seidenberg threw a slap-pass down low for Brad Marchand, looking to set Marchand up for a deflection. Price was out so far to cut off Marchand's angle that he almost could have intercepted the pass, and Marchand could only tip the puck into the middle of Price's jersey. Montreal already led 1-0, but that play showed me a goalie who was seeing the puck incredibly well and also adeptly reading the play in front of him. He saw the slap-pass coming from Seidenberg, and knew exactly what to do to snuff the play out. It doesn't look like a glorious chance on the video, but that's because Price played it so intelligently.
  • How nervous is Boston right now? That fanbase is ready to turn on Claude Julien -- if they haven't already. Not a thing he can really do about it, unless he has some sort of magic potion in his pocket that will turn Price back into a sieve. Julien is a good coach who has done a lot to help get this franchise going again, but they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead in their last go-round in the playoffs, and now they're down 1-0 after losing at home to an arch-rival this year. That's three home playoff losses in a row. Oh, and the year before last, they lost Game 7 at home to underdog Carolina. It might not be Julien's fault, but I tend to believe he's going to pay dearly if his team doesn't win this series.
  • With how the season went for the Los Angeles Kings after a great start, it's fair to say that things could have gone south in a hurry Thursday night, when Dany Heatley gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead at 28 seconds of the first period. What an awful first shift for the Kings, who came out like it was November 14 and not April 14. No intensity, no one moving their feet, no one even competing to win battles for position or win races to spots. Heatley snuffed out a scoring chance with a solid backcheck in the San Jose zone (yes, Dany Heatley was seen backchecking ... someone check the temperature in Hell), then raced up the rink ahead of everyone in white and got to a loose puck in front of the net after Jonathan Quick made a kickout save. Give Los Angeles credit, because they outshot San Jose after the first period, and they played much better. The Sharks found a way to win in overtime, which isn't a huge surprise, given that I think they're a better team.
  • Ryan Miller is pretty good. I liked what Lindy Ruff said after the game, when a reporter asked him about his team's defensive effort. I don't remember the exact quote, but it something along the lines of how he thought neither team was going to score for a while. It was the kind of game that had that feel to it, because the team defense both ways was outstanding. You might assume this is a surprise, given that Philly is missing Chris Pronger and they have so damn much firepower on offense. But the Flyers packed it in well when the Sabres had the puck, and Buffalo did the same to Philly. Miller was very good, but he had help in front of him. It was a great goaltending performance, but as much a team shutout as any you'll see. There isn't quite as much pressure on Philadelphia Saturday as you might think, because they've got such a large amount of offensive talent, and the Sabres can't afford to let this turn into track meet hockey.
  • How about the idiot reporter at Philly coach Peter Laviolette's press conference after the game? Asked the coach about Pronger and if Laviolette thought it was a key loss for the team to have to live with, and if he could have made an impact on the game. Really? Have you ever seen the Flyers when they have a healthy Pronger? What a stupid question. Laviolette handled it as well as he could, mumbling something about how Pronger "isn't available right now," and he wasn't going to spend time talking about how his presence would make things different. I mean, duh.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Night 1

Some thoughts on the night of hockey action:
  • I'm not surprised, but the Rangers really impressed me with their defensive commitment last night. They often kept a really tight pack around Henrik Lundqvist, and made his job as easy as possible by either partially deadening or completely snuffing out shots from Washington's offensive talents. Nicklas Backstrom looked especially frustrated at times with his inability to get pucks all the way to the net (he was credit with one shot on goal in the game). I know the Capitals want to go to the net and create problems for Lundqvist, and I'm not saying they shouldn't. However, they also need to find a way to spread the Rangers out a bit and create some open lanes to get pucks to the net. If the puck never gets to Lundqvist, all it does is create frustration for the offensive players.
  • That said, it's also hard not to be impressed with the Capitals' ability to shake off Lundqvist's play, as well as Matt Gilroy's third-period goal that gave the visitors a 1-0 lead. It reinforces an argument I've heard a few times about how this Washington team is different. The Capitals are obviously a better defensive team, which is evidenced by their 32 blocked shots in Wednesday's game (the Rangers, whom I just lauded for strong defensive play, "only" had 28). But it was their lack of panic at the other end of the rink that caught my eye. Just stick with the plan ... stick with what you do well ... and good things will happen. It's something Washington would forget in previous years, but something they did very well in the playoff opener this time around.
  • If you're a Pittsburgh fan, you're happy your team won. You're happy that they continue to grind out games without two of the best -- if not the best -- players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Not many teams would be able to consistently perform without such talents, but Dan Bylsma finds a way to get his team prepared and playing well. The Lightning had a lot of shots, and Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp, but the big thing was that they really didn't threaten much after the Pens took the lead.
  • Vancouver got two in the first and put a clamp on the Blackhawks. Roberto Luongo made 32 saves, and the Canucks showed all the things that made them such a dangerous team during the regular season, including a commitment to team defense that everyone needs this time of year. Game 2 is absolutely critical for Chicago, both in terms of planting a seed of doubt into the Canucks before the series moves to Chicago, and just getting some good vibes going in their own room. It's a long trip home, but probably not long enough for them to convince themselves that falling behind 2-0 in the series is nothing more than the home team holding serve.
  • Phoenix is terrible on the power play. As we learned with UMD's championship run, you can't afford to be poor in any aspect of special teams if you want to win in playoff hockey. Most of the time, five-on-three power plays in the postseason are quite the rarity. If you aren't good, it's a momentum-killer, and it's going to be tougher to climb out of that hole. Phoenix had a 1-0 lead, and the absolutely critical moment of the game was the five-on-three they had where they did virtually nothing of any positive nature. It's one thing if you pepper a goalie and he stands on his head. But the Coyotes only had one shot in 91 seconds of a two-man advantage. They'll be kicking themselves for that until Game 2 Saturday afternoon.
  • How about the save Pekka Rinne made on Teemu Selanne in the first period? This game is totally different if Selanne buries it, and at first I thought Selanne had simply whiffed on the shot somehow. Instead, Rinne made an unreal save.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

It's the best time of the sports calendar. 16 teams, one goal, and it's the greatest trophy in sports.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday, and it's time to make a fool of myself with more bad predictions.

(Note: My predictions are sometimes not terrible. I had seven of eight Western Conference playoff teams and 13 of 16 total correct in my preseason picks. I'll take that percentage.)

Anyway, we've had a good season, though scoring is down a bit, and that's a concern. The officials are going to call less and less -- unlike in college hockey, where games in the NCAA Tournament routinely came down to teams' ability (or lack thereof) to play disciplined. The more obstruction that teams get away with, the more easily inferior teams can pull upsets.

We'll start in the East, where things could have been much more interesting had the Devils not started so poorly. Then again, had they not started so poorly, they woudln't have hired Jacques to finish the season.

Never mind. I'm babbling.

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 New York Rangers

The big key to this series will be Washington's changeover to a defense-first mentality. Alex Ovechkin went down to 32 goals this season. If he were a baseball slugger who dropped from home run totals consistently in the 50s to 32, we'd probably assume he went off steroids.

Underrated here will be talk of the Rangers' resiliency. They're a tough-minded bunch that doesn't get down easily. Combine that with some good defensemen and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and you have a team primed to pull an upset.

They won't, but they're primed to do it.

Washington in five.

No. 2 Philadelphia vs. No. 7 Buffalo

Too much is likely to be read into Philly's struggle down the stretch, as they went from a near-sureshot No. 1 seed down to the second spot when Washington got hot. Now, they get to face a Buffalo team that looked dead in the water early in the season, but has been scorching down the stretch.

Oh, and they did a chunk of that without Ryan Miller in goal.

Buffalo in six.

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Montreal

The hype surrounding this series will be incredible before it ends. Hell, it's awesome now.

The Bruins have a deeper team, probably a better team, and their goaltending is a bit more solid than Montreal's. I think the intensity will be off the charts, and Montreal will steal a game in Boston to make this really interesting. In the end, the better team wins.

Boston in seven.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay

Pittsburgh has shown they have a strong team, because they probably would have missed the playoffs if they didn't, given the rash of injuries.

But without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, how will they fare in a playoff series? Tampa is tough, but will Dwayne Roloson hold up in goal?

I'm taking the Lightning to win a long series, because I just think they have more offensive depth.

Tampa Bay in seven.

Conference semifinals
Washington over Buffalo in seven
Boston over Tampa Bay in five
Conference finals
Washington over Boston in six

In the West, the race came down to the final day. While Vancouver might be pretending that they're happy to see Chicago in the first round, who can possibly believe them?

No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 8 Chicago

The idea that Vancouver would want this series to happen is beyond ludicrous. Sure, it might make things feel more special if the Canuckleheads can go through the nemesis Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup, but the Blackhawks are a tough, experienced, battle-tested team.

They're also one that was given a second lease on life by -- of all teams -- the Minnesota Wild.

Don't bet on them blowing this chance.

Chicago in six.

No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 7 Los Angeles

This is where the Sharks normally slip up, right?

I don't see it this year. Two things change the tide. For starters, San Jose got to the conference finals before running into a better team last year. Also, the Sharks slumped through part of this season before finding their stride. Just like Washington, they're dialed in and ready for playoff hockey.

The Kings were a darling early in the season, but they're just not ready for this moment. Or this opponent.

San Jose in six.

No. 3 Detroit vs. No. 6 Phoenix

I know this sounds crazy, but how is Detroit such a strong favorite?

Their best player is injured, and no one knows when he will be back. One of their best goal-scorers has all of two in his last 27 games. Their goaltending is a huge question mark.

Meanwhile, Phoenix played well down the stretch. They have a deep team with four lines that can contribute. They have a top goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov. They're well-coached and buy into what Dave Tippett is telling them.

I like the Desert Dogs, no matter what's going on around them.

Phoenix in six.

No. 4 Anaheim vs. No. 5 Nashville

The Ducks are stuck with Dan Ellis in goal because of Ray Emery being hurt and Jonas Hiller still having issues with vertigo.

That could lead to a slew of problems.

Nashville has never won a playoff series, but there's a first time for everything. Expect to hear more of Tim McGraw than you were bargaining on.

Nashville in seven.

Conference semifinals
San Jose over Chicago in five
Nashville over Phoenix in five
Conference finals
San Jose over Nashville in six

Washington over San Jose in seven

May we never hear about choke-artists in our nation's capital or in San Jose ever again.

Instead, we can all point and laugh at poor Vancouver.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

NHL Draft: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Wins Race to be No. 1 Overall Prospect

Last year, Tyler Seguin topped Taylor Hall in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau's final pre-draft rankings.

We all saw how that turned out on draft night in Los Angeles, when the Edmonton Oilers took Hall and left Seguin to go second to Boston.

It might not happen often that the CSB is wrong about the top prospect (at least when it comes to which player is actually picked first overall), but they were last year, and that might have Canadian junior star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins feeling a little uneasy on this day.

It's Nugent-Hopkins -- a star with the Western Hockey League's Red Deer Rebels -- who carries the No. 1 banner into June's NHL Draft, which will be held in St. Paul.

Nugent-Hopkins is best known for his playmaking skills, but his all-around ability is what has him atop the rankings.

He's got sick hands, great vision, and isn't too bad on a pair of skates. Simply put, he's the kind of center that bad teams crave.

And there are bad teams in the NHL.

Tuesday's draft lottery will determine which of those bad teams will pick first. While it might not look like Edmonton "needs" more young offensive players, and could opt for Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson with the first pick, there's also the "best player available" argument.

In other words, it might not behoove the Oilers to take a potentially inferior player. That's part of how organizations end up picking in the top five every year ... they don't draft the right players.

Same goes for Colorado, another team that needs help on the blue line, but also might have a hard time passing up a talent like Nugent-Hopkins.

The rest of CSB's top five in North America are mid-season No. 1 Gabriel Landeskog (Kitchener - OHL), center Jonathan Huberdeau (Saint John - QMJHL), and defensemen Dougie Hamilton (Niagara - OHL) and Nathan Beaulieu (Saint John - QMJHL).

Larsson is the top player in Europe, followed by countrymen Mika Zibanejad (center) and Jonas Brodin (defenseman).

As far as any local ties, Wayzata's Mario Lucia (34th) is the highest-rated Minnesota high school player. Teammate Tony Camaranesi (178) is the highest-rated UMD recruit.

Todd Richards: Fall Guy for ... Doug Risebrough?

In case you were under a rock or something, you may not have heard that second-year Wild head coach Todd Richards got fired Monday.

It wasn't a move totally unexpected. The team's March free-fall virtually locked management into this move, as you can't fire all the players.

Hell, with all these untradeable contracts, you can't trade most of the players, much less fire them.

This wasn't about Richards being incompetent. This wasn't about Richards not doing the best he could with the talent he was given. It also isn't about anything general manager Chuck Fletcher really did wrong. In all honesty, Fletcher has done a fairly good job over his two years at the helm, ditching as many bad contracts as humanly possible while also using college free agents to help re-stock the farm system a bit as the effort to compile more draft picks continues.

The bottom line is that Richards is taking the fall for the misdeeds of previous management.

It was Doug Risebrough who made the mistakes Richards paid for Monday. It was Risebrough whose mismanagement of the roster and farm system led the Wild to take the franchise in a different direction when Craig Leipold bought the team.

In short, Risebrough cost Richards his job, simply by putting the organization in a near-impossible position for Fletcher.

Risebrough routinely let free agents go without compensation, even though he knew he wasn't going to sign them. He traded draft picks like they were jellybeans, making it virtually impossible to bring in the kind of players who could eventually replace the free agents he was losing. He used first-round picks on guys like Colton Gillies and James Sheppard, players who might be capable at the NHL level but who were so rushed out of the gates that it hurt their development.

(Only now does Gillies really look NHL-ready, which would be fine if he hadn't been in the NHL two years ago. Sheppard might get thrown into the AHL next year when he's healthy again, a move that follows two full -- and trbl -- seasons in the NHL.)

The Wild now have a decently-stocked farm system, thanks to moves by Fletcher that gained them some prime college free agents like Nate Prosser and extra draft picks for players like Matt Hackett. He still has work to do at the NHL level, though, to fix a team that spent to the salary cap without anything remotely resembling that kind of production.

Does that sound like a team ready to compete at a high level in the NHL?

No. And it's unfortunate that Richards was placed in a position to do something that would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- to pull off.

Was Richards perfect? No. Does this mean Fletcher was wrong to fire him? No.

Instead, the point here is that Risebrough's awful work over his last few years as general manager is what put the Wild in such a difficult spot. While Fletcher is stuck trying to rebuild the NHL and minor-league rosters at the same time, Richards was coaching square pegs for his round-hole system.

From a coaching standpoint, there was more bending that the head coach could have done to help bring things along more smoothly. He was not good at matching lines to put pressure on opponents. However, it probably didn't matter much what he did. When players started dropping like flies, the Wild had nowhere to turn for replacements.

Now, Fletcher has to find a replacement. Unless he wants to hire a veteran coach like Ken Hitchcock or Andy Murray, or even if he does, he's probably taking a similar chance. If that happens, there's a good chance Craig Leipold will be the one talking in two years about how the person he just fired wasn't the right fit.

Monday, April 11, 2011

(Monday) Hockey Notes and Thoughts: This One Was Undoubtedly and Undeniably Earned

The officiating may have made Red Berenson crabby after the game -- though it also could have been the reality of another tough Frozen Four loss for his great program.

However, there was a reality expressed by Berenson at his postgame press conference, when he stated he thought UMD was the better team.

He wasn't as willing on Friday to say the same of his own team after its 2-0 upset of North Dakota. He said multiple times that he felt his team was fortunate to advance, and he felt North Dakota was a better team. They probably were, but Shawn Hunwick was a man in goal with 40 saves.

On Saturday, for the second time in a row at the Frozen Four, the Wolverines were not the better team.

This time around, they weren't fortunate enough to get a great goaltending performance or a fortunate bounce. They got the goaltending, but couldn't get the bounces to overcome a better team.

Some might say that the Yale and Michigan games went the way they did because UMD got fortunate breaks from whistle-happy officials. Of course, that's a pretty narrow-minded view of things, but it's your right to think that way if you do.

Reality dictates that there are different truths. Yale complained that the game was taken away from them with a five-minute major that was called eight seconds after a three-goal deficit was cut to two. But what they conveniently forgot was that Yale played nearly 15 minutes of five-on-five hockey in the third period, and mustered a grand total of four shots on goal.

As for Michigan, they had as many shot attempts (nine) in the third period as Mike Connolly had shots on goal in the game.

In overtime, UMD used their superior depth and skating ability to wear down the Wolverines. A couple of silly icings didn't help, and Berenson's decision not to use his timeout with Matt Rust's line stuck on the ice proved deadly for his team.

Was it a product of Michigan being too locked-in on matching up Rust's line with Jack Connolly's line? Was it a typical coach not wanting to burn a timeout when the game was starting to take the look of one that could last a while?

We'll probably never know.

No matter what, UMD deserves this. They were better than Michigan Saturday, outside of a stretch in the last part of the first period after the Wolverines took a 1-0 lead. They were good enough to beat Michigan, and would have been good enough to beat anyone else this tournament could have placed in front of them.

Simply, the Bulldogs were not going to be denied.

On this night, they didn't wait for a lucky bounce or a fluke bleeder goal to make it happen. They earned everything they got, and they showed why they set such high expectations for themselves when the season started.


If you're going to be in Duluth Wednesday night, you're invited (and encouraged) to stop by Amsoil Arena for the formal and official championship celebration. Doors at the arena will open at 5, with the proceedings getting underway at 6.


A few stats from the weekend:
  • Thanks to that one-for-nine Saturday, UMD's power play "only" clicked at nine-for-32 in the NCAA Tournament. Bums.
  • UMD's penalty kill was awesome throughout the tournament, but never better than at the Frozen Four. They went 23 for 26 in the tourney, but were nine for nine in the Frozen Four, holding Notre Dame and Michigan to a combined total of four shots on goal. Let that one sink in for a second.
  • I complained (well, I brought the fact up) during the first intermission that UMD had won just 7 of 20 first-period faceoffs. They must have heard me. The Bulldogs went 44-25 on draws the rest of the game, with Travis Oleksuk going 17-8 over the final two-plus periods.
  • The All-Tournament team included J.T. Brown and Kyle Schmidt up front, and Justin Faulk on defense. Michigan's Ben Winnett and Jon Merrill, along with goalie Shawn Hunwick, also made the team. Brown was the Most Outstanding Player.
  • Tip of the cap to all the people in St. Paul who worked hard at the arena, most notably Dave Fischer, Mark Bedics, Paul Rovnak, and Wally Shaver, who put up with my deaf ears not hearing the officials' names on Saturday. Also, hats off to everyone at the Embassy Suites for making the four-night stay as comfortable and enjoyable as it was.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Frozen Four: Kyle Schmidt For The Win

In 15 years of radio, and six years of calling UMD hockey games, I don't think I've ever had more people -- in barely 12 hours time -- ask for audio of anything I have done.

For those who haven't heard it on ESPN or WCCO or wherever else it's been played, here is the call from Kyle Schmidt's overtime winner in Saturday's national championship game.

Oh, yeah, UMD won the national championship. Has it set in yet?

UPDATE: Apparently, the method I tried to use to get this audio to everyone isn't going to work. For now, check out this podcast of WCCO's This Week In Hockey, and go to the 20:18 mark in the podcast to hear the call and then a short interview with your humble correspondent.

Frozen Four: Glory


More to come, including -- by insanely popular demand -- the audio of Kyle Schmidt's game-winner.

Hope someone in Duluth thought to burn their couch. ;)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Game 42: UMD vs. Michigan (NCAA Final)

ST. PAUL -- Since I took this job in October 2005, I've dreamed of this moment for this program.

You don't need to worry about the radio guy being ready. He's ready.

Are you? Pregame at 5:30 on 94X including special guest Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Wherever you tune in from, please enjoy this moment, as we will do our best to do here.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Fontaine
Schmidt - Oleksuk - Brown
Seidel - Hendrickson - Basaraba
Flaherty - Tardy - Grun

Faulk - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Palm

Reiter - Crandall

Hagelin - Caporusso - Brown
Vaughan - Lynch - Treais
Winnett - Rust - Glendening
Moffatt - Rohrkemper - DeBlois

Merrill - Langlais
Clare - Pateryn
Moffie - Bennett

Hunwick - Hogan - Janecyk

Frozen Four: Musical Interlude, Part Deux

ST. PAUL -- I think I've mentioned being superstitious in the past.

That hasn't changed.

It worked Thursday, so here are two more tunes to amp everyone up for what is to come in less than six hours.

Wow. Less than six hours.

Here is one of the Fabulous Mrs. Ciskie's favorites.

Frozen Four: The Building Blocks

ST. PAUL -- One of the extremely cool things about this experience in St. Paul has been the opportunity to talk to so many great former UMD men's hockey players, guys who have come together here with the current players and coaches and their families to celebrate a great moment for this long-proud program.

It came to mind that many of these players and coaches won't receive the proper accolades as we head into Saturday's NCAA final here in St. Paul. The majority of them flew under the radar during their careers, but it doesn't mean they have to now.

What follows is a list borrowed from the UMD athletics site, with help from this year's UMD media guide and my trusty young assistant, who read off names as I typed.

It's not meant to be a complete list, but instead a randomly selected group of names, chosen and listed alphabetically, regardless of their overall production in a UMD uniform. These are the people who each had a hand in building UMD's program. They are the building blocks without which we wouldn't have a team playing for the NCAA championship on this weekend in April.

As UMD supporters, we not only salute our current players and coaches and support staff, but we salute and thank all those who have worn this uniform with pride and dignity for the last 67 years.

Jerry Abelsen
Rod Aldoff
Colin Anderson
Nick Anderson
Rob Anderson
Greg Andrusak
Craig Arvidson
Mark Baron
Bobby Bell
Joe Biondi
Curtis Bois
Rob Bordson
Pat Boutette
Tyler Brosz
Ron Busniuk
Jerome Butler
Ernie Campe
Mark Carlson
Scott Carlston
Andrew Carroll
Matt Christensen
Keith Christiansen
Barry Chyzowski
Joe Ciccarello
Mitch Corbin
Dave Cowan
Mike Curry
Steve Czech
Gary DeGrio
Derek Derow
Curtis Doell
Ken Dzikowski
Lyn Ellingson
Chad Erickson
Brad Federenko
Jesse Fibiger
Dan Fishback
Rusty Fitzgerald
Jon Francisco
Pat Francisco
Cam Fryer
Jordan Fulton
Jason Garrison
Travis Gawryletz
Beau Geisler
Ryan Geris
Curt Giles
Guy Gosselin
Matt Greer
Bill Grillo
Mark Gunderson
Lyman Haakstad
Bill Halbrehder
Tim Hambly
Brett Hammond
John Harrington
Brett Hauer
Keith Hendrickson
Tom Herzig
Bob Hill
Phil Hoene
Ryan Homstol
Brett Hull
John Hyduke
Dale Jago
Pat Janostin
Brian Johnson
Jim Johnson
Josh Johnson
Monty Jones
Rodney Jones
Kevin Kaiser
Kraig Karakas
Scott Keller
Murray Keogan
Merv Kiryluik
Jim Knapp
Rick Kosti
Glenn Kulyk
Tom Kurvers
Bob Lakso
Dave Langevin
Brett Larson
Walt Ledingham
Dan Lempe
Junior Lessard
Laird Lidster
Norm Maciver
Chris Marinucci
Bill Mason
Bob Mason
Gord McDonald
Bruce McLeod
Judd Medak
Josh Meyers
Tom Milani
Kris Miller
Skeeter Moore
Jerome Mrazek
Rick Mrozik
Rob Murray
Darren Nauss
Tom Nelson
Chuck Ness
Mike Newton
Brant Nicklin
Matt Niskanen
Evan Oberg
Mark Odnokon
Bill Oleksuk
Bruce Olson
Drew Otten
Mark Pavelich
Mike Peluso
Marco Peluso
Bill Perkl
Derek Plante
Stu Plante
Shjon Podein
Shawn Pogreba
Mason Raymond
Isaac Reichmuth
Andy Reierson
Glenn "Chico" Resch
John Rohloff
Jay Rosehill
Ralph Romano
John Rothstein
Joe Rybar
John Santori
Kent Sauer
Evan Schwabe
Jeff Scissons
Mike Sertich
MacGregor Sharp
Sandy Smith
Todd Smith
Alex Stalock
Tim Stapleton
Luke Stauffacher
Joe Tamminen
Mike Tok
Jim Toninato
Sean Toomey
Doug Torrel
Steve Trachsel
Jesse Unklesbay
Dennis Vaske
Bill Watson
Max Wikman
Justin Williams
Marv Zilkie

This is just the start. Just a small sampling of the people who have built this program.

To all of you ... thank you.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Frozen Four: Justin Fontaine Going Out in Style

ST. PAUL -- We've talked a lot about the decisions made by UMD seniors Justin Fontaine and Mike Montgomery to stay when they could have turned pro. While it's nice to see them rewarded for their loyalty to this program, it's also great to see an offensive talent like Fontaine ending his career in style.

As the Bulldogs prepare for what they know is their final game of the season -- Saturday in the NCAA final against Michigan here -- Fontaine is making his final push for a shot at professional hockey when it's all finished up.

Based on how he's played as of late, Fontaine is well-prepared for that opportunity, one that is virtually inevitable.

On his way toward becoming the first UMD player since Mike Peluso to average a point per game over a four-year career, Fontaine carries a career-high 11-game point streak into Saturday's championship game.

Thanks to that run of 19 points in 11 games, Fontaine has improved to 164 career points on 62 goals and 102 assists. That makes him the 14th Bulldog ever to accumulate 100 assists (Jack Connolly is getting close, too). He's one point away from tying Skeeter Moore for 15th on UMD's all-time scoring charts (165 points). If he truly has the game of his life, former All-American defenseman Curt Giles had 171 points. That might be asking a bit too much, though.

Even more incredible, Fontaine did all this after posting 12 points in his freshman season. His production since then has been off the charts, and a huge part of this program's resurgence.

Coach Scott Sandelin has been singing Fontaine's praises all season, making sure everyone remembers that he's not exactly a weak link in UMD's top line.

While Jack and Mike Connolly garner All-American nods, and both were named first-team All-WCHA, it's almost like Fontaine does indeed lurk in the shadows.

In his four years at UMD, he's become a reliable penalty-killer, is certainly a top goal-scorer, and is capable of playing effectively in all zones. He was a quality talent when he showed up, and he has used his 158 (soon to be 159) career games to improve all facets of his game, making him a top free-agent prospect once his season ends in around 24 hours.

While he's been prepping himself for the next level, Fontaine has also shown what it means to end a successful career in style. He gets one more chance on his sport's biggest stage to show how truly valuable a player he is, and it's best that you not bet against him doing just that when the chips are down.

Someone is going to score the biggest goal of his life Saturday at the XCel Energy Center. And there's no better candidate to look at than Justin Fontaine.

Kyle Schmidt Wins National Honor

ST. PAUL -- On the eve of what he termed Friday as the biggest game of his life -- for the fourth game in a row -- UMD senior Kyle Schmidt has picked up a national honor.

Schmidt, from Hermantown, has been named the winner of the Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award, given out by the Hockey Commissioners Association. It's named after former Army player Derek Hines, who was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in 2006.

The award is in its fifth year, and is given to a player who personifies Hines' spirit and commitment, as he was regarded as a great team player.

In a release from UMD, Schmidt says, "Although I never met Derek or ever saw him compete, he sounds like the kind of player I have always strived to be. It is a tremendous privilege for me to be selected for an award named in his honor. Over the past four years, I have been blessed in so many ways while being part of one of the best hockey programs in the country. Receiving the Derek Hines Award certainly is at the top of that list of blessings."

Schmidt has overcome a broken hand on two separate occasions this season, including two weeks ago, when he was injured during the regional final win over Yale.

“Kyle’s been a great representative of our program both off and on the ice,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. “To me, he’s the ideal student-athlete, someone who has an undeniable commitment to hockey, academics and the community. It’s nice to see him being recognized with this award.”

Via UMD, here is a rundown of Schmidt's off-ice credentials, which certainly could make virtually any Bulldog fan proud:

Schmidt, who is majoring in statistics and actuarial science, owns a 3.70 cumulative grade point average and is a three-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete Award winner (a program first).  He has qualified for the School of Science and Engineering Dean’s List on three occasions and earned a spot on the UMD Athletic Support Center Scholar List for maintaining the highest cumulative grade point average of any Bulldog as both a freshman and sophomore. Schmidt has also made the WCHA All-Academic Team in each of the past three years, and has been a member of the UMD Actuary Club and a tutor at the UMD Tutoring Center since arriving on campus.

Schmidt has also been active in the Twin Ports community during his stay at UMD,  volunteering his time reading at local elementary schools and assisting at area youth hockey practices. Last month, he was bestowed with the 2010-11 Bulldog Fan Favorite Award for receiving the most votes in an on-line competition.

Schmidt and his Bulldog teammates will face off against Michigan for the NCAA title Saturday night here in St. Paul.

All-American Connollys

ST. PAUL -- The American Hockey Coaches Association announced its 2011 Old Time Hockey All-Americans Friday.

The West Region teams had a very Connolly flavor, as UMD's Jack and Mike were both on the list.

Jack Connolly is now a two-time All-American, as he was honored on the West first team this year. Mike Connolly is on the second team.

(No, they are not related.)

Here are the full teams.

First Team

Goalie - Keith Kinkaid, Union
Defensemen - Brian Domoulin, Boston College; Blake Kessel, New Hampshire
Forwards - Cam Atkinson, Boston College; Chase Polacek, RPI; Paul Thompson, New Hampshire

Second Team
Goalie - John Muse, Boston College
Defensemen - Nick Bailen, RPI; Taylor Fedun, Princeton
Forwards - Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack; Gustav Nyquist, Maine; Paul Zenette, Niagara

First Team
Goalie - Pat Nagle, Ferris State
Defensemen - Chay Genoway, North Dakota; Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
Forwards - Jack Connolly, UMD; Matt Frattin, North Dakota; Andy Miele, Miami

Second Team
Goalie - Aaron Dell, North Dakota
Defensemen - Jake Gardiner, Wisconsin; Zach Redmond, Ferris State
Forwards - Carter Camper, Miami; Mike Connolly, UMD; Carl Hagelin, Michigan

Frozen Four: Opportunity Knocks

ST. PAUL -- Close to 24 hours later, things are starting to sink in around these parts.

On Saturday night, for the first time since 1984, UMD will play for the NCAA championship in men's hockey.

The Bulldogs' 4-3 win over Notre Dame Thursday at the XCel Energy Center puts them one win away from history, the kind that will forever define this class of players.

For seniors Mike Montgomery and Justin Fontaine, it's the moment they dreamed of when they turned down chances to play professionally to stay at UMD.

60 minutes Saturday night stands between this team and the biggest achievement of their hockey careers.

The Michigan Wolverines, of course, also stand in the way. It's quite the formidable opponent for UMD, especially when you look at the historical chasm between the two programs.

While UMD coach Scott Sandelin made it clear Friday that his program has tradition and plenty of pride, they don't have 24 Frozen Four appearances, nine NCAA titles, or a coach who will likely hit 800 wins if he sticks around next season.

"We have great respect for their program," Sandelin said of Michigan, coached by the legendary Red Berenson, who held court in the media room before Sandelin.

Berenson told stories from his playing career. "When I played -- and this was in the 1950s -- the WCHA was Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado College, and Denver. That was it," he noted, while mentioning that Wisconsin, a great program in their own right, didn't even exist when he played.

Berenson has been at Michigan -- his alma mater -- since 1984. He has never beaten UMD while with the Wolverines, not that he's had a lot of opportunity to do so, since Michigan has been in the CCHA for some time.

On this one night in St. Paul, a night where UMD will be the visiting team on the ice but the home team when it comes to crowd support, none of that matters. All that matters is which team can bring enough of that extra effort to skate around with the NCAA trophy.

It's going to be a fun battle of small goalies. In an era where goalies under six feet tall are almost dismissed as having any chance to succeed at a high level, the NCAA final features two small-stature goalies who keep coming up big for their respective teams.

For UMD, Kenny Reiter may have allowed a clunker in the opening minute, but he made some huge saves, including a stop on T.J. Tynan on a partial breakaway in the final minute of the first period.

Michigan senior Shawn Hunwick was not a top prospect coming out of the North American Hockey League, the same lesser-regarded junior league Reiter (along with UMD captain Mike Montgomery and senior Kyle Schmidt, to name two) played in. Hunwick showed up at Michigan and simply outplayed a guy who was thought to be a better candidate to be Michigan's No. 1 goalie in Bryan Hogan. At five-seven, Hunwick doesn't look imposing at all, but his athletic ability and smarts make him as dangerous as any goalie UMD will see.

Words cannot describe the excitement in the UMD fanbase as this game draws closer. Bulldog fans far and wide are searching for tickets for Saturday's final, the first for UMD in 27 years. Many recognize the opportunity that awaits this program, and they certainly understand how significant this moment is.

For a fan, that's all you can do at this point. I can't sit here and tell you that guys like Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine will own the night, just like I can't tell Michigan fans with certainty that Matt Rust, Carl Hagelin, or Chad Langlais will be the most important players in the game.

Like most big hockey games, this is likely to come down to things that we can't predict.

Who will get the bounces?

Which goalie will have a better game?

Who will benefit from the officiating "beans" more?

Who wins the special teams battle?

The answers to those questions will likely determine if Michigan skates with their tenth national championship, or if UMD gets their first.

Unfortunately, they're just not very easy questions to answer. It's kind of like a coin flip.