Michael Rand started RandBall with hopes that he could keep lies from conquering the minds of the weak. So far, he's only succeeded in using the word "redacted" a lot. He welcomes suggestions, news tips, links of pure genius, and pictures of pets in Halloween costumes here, though he already knows he will regret that last part.
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A group of players who held their sticks so tightly down the stretch of the regular season that there were likely fingerprints on them through their hockey gloves played with poise. An emergency start by Josh Harding in place of Niklas Backstrom galvanized the team's defensive effort, while Harding was superb. And the mighty Hawks were getting more flustered with every deflected pass and blocked shot.
If Jason Zucker's shot is an inch lower in overtime, into the net instead of off the crossbar ... or if Zach Parise's point-blank attempt hadn't caught a piece of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, the script would have been finished as a fairy tale and a stunner.
Instead, Chicago scored its second pretty goal of the game late in the first overtime, and all the Wild has to show for its effort is a 1-0 series deficit.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
1) Harding can still rise to the occasion. Given Harding's diagnosis and significant rust, what he did Tuesday was nothing short of amazing. He was tremendous, and if he gets the Game 2 start as well there is at least something to build on going in.
2) Zucker belongs. He was the most dangerous forward on the ice for the Wild -- partially because Chicago's top line almost completely neutralized the Wild's top line, and vice-versa -- and created great chances with his speed and quickness.
3) As if we didn't already know this, winning will not be easy. The Wild did the necessary work to create some favorable bounces -- slight deflections that caused Chicago to be off-side numerous times on dangerous chances, for example -- but even playing air-tight for much of the night, the Wild still allowed plenty of opportunities.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO FIND OUT?
1) Can the Wild bounce back mentally from such a tough loss? As encouraged as players must be by the effort, the outcome still stings.
2) Can the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line generate more offense? Coyle's physical play was basically bottled up by good stick work and body work by Chicago in the corners. When that line is clicking, he is controlling plays along the wall while Koivu and Parise are cycling like mad to create chances. The stakes are higher now, and the opponent is better. They must find a way.
3) Will Jason Pominville return? Having Pominville and Heatley out at the same time re-establishes how few natural goal scorers the Wild has. Heatley is out. Pominville, though, would give instant credibility to the second line and add much needed scoring to the lineup.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
The Wild's first playoff appearance in five years is a strange double-edged sword. The team played itself into the postseason with a victory on Saturday over Colorado, but it also played itself into the predicament of having to face the No. 1-seeded Blackhawks in the first round by virtue of a late-season slide.
If there is good news here -- aside from just making the postseason -- it is based on history. Seeding has often meant little in the NHL playoffs of late; when the Wild made the 2003 West finals it was as a No. 6 seed, where it lost to No. 7-seed Anaheim. Also: The Wild played Chicago three times this season -- a 3-2 shootout victory, a 5-3 loss that involved one horrible period and a 1-0 loss earlier this month.
Our brain tells us that, based on the way the Wild played down the stretch, a Chicago sweep is as likely an outcome as anything. But the collective exhalation that seemed to occur after the Wild potted the empty-netter against the Avalanche to finally guarantee their postseason berth makes us think there could be more to this series.
As such, we arrived at this:
Game 1: Playing fast and loose, and with good goaltending, the Wild stuns Chicago in a 4-2 victory.
Game 2: Chicago comes out hot and never lets up in a 5-1 victory.
Game 3: Chicago keeps momentum going with a 3-1 win at the X.
Game 4: In what amounts to a must-win game, the X is rocking and the Wild steals a 3-2 victory.
Game 5: Back in Chicago, there are some tight moments but eventually Chicago takes a 3-2 victory.
Game 6: Back at the X, backs to the wall, the Wild runs out of gas in a 4-2 loss.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Actually, we're saying there's way more than just a chance the Wild makes the playoffs. There's a 97.3 percent chance the Wild makes the playoffs, according to Sports Club Stats, after a 2-1 victory over the Kings last night.
The Wild is two points clear of Columbus and three clear of the Red Wings (who have played one fewer game). Even if the Red Wings win their next game against the Kings, the Wild will still have a 96 percent chance of making it. Any Wild win or any Columbus regulation loss clinches a berth now.
So what does this mean?
Well, plain and simple, it means the math is on Minnesota's side when it comes to brining postseason NHL games back to this state -- heck, postseason winter sports playoffs of any kind, for that matter. The Wolves haven't made it since the 2003-04 season; the Wild hasn't made it since 2007-08. When late April/early May rolls around, and other cities are gearing up for potentially long playoff runs, we have been mere spectators.
Just getting in this year -- and likely being the No. 7 seed and likely playing Anaheim in the first round -- is meaningful in many ways, but the biggest from a fan perspective might be at least participating in these things known as playoffs. It's been too long, and now the Wild is oh-so-close.
As it seems like they have done many times lately, the Wild and Wolves played on the same night Wednesday. For a viewer, this can be a tricky proposition. For a comparative lesson, however, it couldn't have been more perfect.
A Wolves season that began with tons of promise and potential faded quickly because of injuries and roster holes. They have also had an alarming ability to lose close games. We saw a stat the other day that, at the time, the Wolves were 22-11 when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. That might seem decent, but really 11 blown leads is not good at all. Against the Lakers last night, Minnesota trailed late, mounted a furious comeback and had a chance to tie ... except that Ricky Rubio's desperation shot fell short after he was hacked -- no foul called -- by Kobe Bryant. Even so, Kobe has enough swagger, particularly against the Wolves, to say this afterward about what would have happened if a foul was called and Rubio made all three free throws: "We would have gone into overtime and won the game. It’s as simple as that.” Is there anyone that doubts that? Poor Ricky.
The Wild, on the other hand, jumped out to a comfortable 2-0 lead early, gave up three stunning goals to fall behind against the last-place Coyotes ... and then rallied to tie with the goalie pulled in the final minute -- similar to a desperation shot in hoops -- and decisively won in overtime just as many inside the building would assume they would. These are two franchises on opposite trajectories, and it was never more obvious than it was Thursday night.
Jon Marthaler bakes up a delicious batch of links for you every weekend. Other times, you can find him here. Jon?
Chip Scoggins wrote an NHL column in the paper this week, the upshot of which was, "Hey, the season is so short that the regular season actually matters this year, isn't that great?" Left only partly mentioned, though, is that next year - assuming Gary Bettman and Jeremy Jacobs can control themselves - the regular season will go back to 82 dull, drab, ho-hum games. This week, though, the NHL also approved a fairly dramatic realignment, one that puts Minnesota in a division with traditional rivals Chicago and St. Louis, geographic grudge match Winnipeg, and a history-based grudge match with Dallas. And best of all, the first two rounds of the playoffs will at long last again be a (mostly) intra-divisional affair. This is wonderful because more than anything, the two things that create rivalries in sports are a) geographic proximity and b) playoff history.
Part a is why college hockey is more exciting to watch than the NHL, a lot of the time; part b is why Todd Bertuzzi is, after all these years, still universally hated in Minnesota, and why the words "Dan Cloutier" still bring a smile to Minnesota hockey fans' faces. So yes, next year's NHL regular season might be a little bit boring. And the next one after that could be, too. But I'm hoping that the Wild get a playoff series or two with the Jets during that time, or the Blackhawks, or the Avalanche, and pretty soon, more and more of those regular-season games will start to feel like Gopher-Badger showdowns or Gopher-North Dakota wars, and we'll see columns in the paper about how the NHL, despite the 82-game schedule, still has pro sports' best regular season. And hopefully, other sports will take a lesson from hockey, because I couldn't be more excited about this setup.
*On with the links:
*Here's a semi-heartbreaking story about former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who has a disease that's robbing him of the memories of everything he accomplished, and is making him unable to remember his old players - something that's just as hard for the players themselves.
*Charlie Pierce writes about Providence College and the birth of the Big East, and the death of the Boston Phoenix, and really both of these articles are equally good and I can't decide which one you should read first.
*And now, a reminder that umpire Angel Hernandez is just the worst.
*I'm not sure what my favorite part of this video of a double-fake shot in a squash tournament is: the shot itself, the British commentator failing to find the correct words to express enjoyment of the shot, or the fact that there is apparently a channel, somewhere in the world, called "Squash TV."
*And finally: Watch a Greek player hit the post four times with a single attempt at goal.
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