Rand: Minnesota sports fans, take heart

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2011 - 6:35 AM

The state's sports scene is improving.

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The Gophers' Nate Condon (16) sent the Sioux's Derek Rodwell into the boards in first-period action Friday night.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Minnesota sports fans woke up Oct. 28 with few promising prospects on the horizon. The Lynx had won the WNBA title earlier in the month, but those residual good feelings weren't going to be enough to warm the mood all the way through winter.

The Gophers men's hockey team was showing promise, but it was coming off a loss to Vermont. The new-look Wild seemed a lot like the recent vintage Wild. The Gophers football team was losing games fast, and fans were losing faith faster. Among the Vikings' season highlights was a closer-than-expected home loss to Green Bay.

It is stunning to think, then, just how much has changed on the local sports landscape over the past two weekends -- a span that also includes an NASL championship for the Minnesota Stars. The record of the Stars and the four above-mentioned teams over that span: 11-1. Here is a recap of the suddenly improving landscape:

Gophers men's hockey: An early road sweep of defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth fueled some optimism, but cautious fans were waiting to see more. Proof that this year's squad appears to have turned the corner from back-to-back-to-back seasons of missing the national tournament arrived in the form of impressive sweeps of Alaska Anchorage and North Dakota. The fifth-ranked Gophers have the depth, scoring, goaltending and intangibles to be dangerous. All four teams ranked ahead of them lost a game this weekend, meaning they could make another move in the polls.

Wild: Minnesota was 3-3-3 after an ugly home loss to Anaheim on Oct. 27, staring immediately ahead at two games against Detroit and one against Vancouver. But with Josh Harding in goal, the Wild has won four consecutive games and has moved into the upper part of the Western Conference standings. Harding stole the show in the first game against Detroit. Mikko Koivu was a beast in the rematch. And entire team efforts carried a suddenly red-hot squad to impressive victories over Vancouver and St. Louis. It's a long season, but the Wild could be in it for the long haul.

Gophers football: The only blemish on the multi-weekend record comes from a 31-24 loss at Michigan State -- and even that brought plenty of reason for optimism. Quarterback MarQueis Gray suddenly looks dangerous. The offensive and defensive lines are suddenly maturing. Other playmakers are emerging. And the hope that Jerry Kill could turn this thing around seems more realistic.

Vikings: The NFL is a third-down league. The biggest -- and frankly most surprising -- difference between hope-bringing rookie Christian Ponder and rally-killing veteran Donovan McNabb has been their performance on that crucial down. Ponder makes plays when his team needs it most, a confidence-inspiring trait for a team and its fan base. A three-point win last week at Carolina isn't a reason to think the Vikings will be a quick fix, but we'll take real victories over demoralizing losses any day.

MICHAEL RAND

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