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A building that was nervous … and a team that was tentative … suddenly united with the rarest of Minnesota displays: confidence.
Some might even call it swagger.
From the point Zach Parise found Jason Pominville for a tap-in goal to the final whistle, that’s what I saw on the ice at Xcel Energy Center. And as someone who wondered going into this game how the Wild and its fans would respond to the pressure of expectations … well, consider me impressed.
The Parise/Mikael Granlund/Pominville line was simply dominant, particularly in that second period. The first goal was set up by great stickhandling by Granlund before great vision by Parise and the easiest finish of Pominville’s life. The second goal was classic Parise, outworking a defensive player in the slot for a loose puck and banging it past goalie Jake Allen in one quick motion.
Still, after Granlund missed a bad-angle tap-in that would have iced the game in the third period, the veteran hockey minds around me concluded that it would be a nail-biter at the finish – that the Blues would score and threaten to tie.
These folks have seen a lot of Wild games. They’ve seen a lot of Minnesota sporting events. It’s a natural reaction. But again, there was that swagger.
The Wild closed it out with ease, never being threatened before adding the empty-netter that sealed the deal with 2 minutes left. Minnesota gave up just 17 shots all game. Vladimir Tarasenko, one game after notching a hat-trick, was a minus-3 and had zero shots.
If that wasn’t enough confidence for you, how about Jason Zucker, one of the smallest Wild players, mixing it up with every Blues player he could find – including one shift in the second when he and Alex Pietrangelo jabbed at each other for at least 20 seconds.
Or Matt Dumba, playing in his first playoffs, laughing at Blues chief goon Steve Ott for whiffing on a check near the Wild bench.
Or even the Wild fan on the giant scoreboard hoisting a faux Stanley Cup.
After the game, Wild coach Mike Yeo had the most #Minnesotan quote ever: “We have pretty decent confidence that we’ve been working a long time to get.”
This confidence … it’s so unfamiliar. Maybe we could all get used to it?
Even after losing Game 2 against St. Louis on Saturday, the Wild holds a position of playoff control against the Blues — a strange position for this franchise in the playoffs and for its fans (and Minnesota fans in general).
Every series the Wild managed to win in the past has come with an air of desperation. Even in the only other series in franchise history in which the Wild won Game 1 — 2003 against Colorado — things took a quick downward turn when Colorado won Games 2, 3 and 4.
Minnesota needed to rally from a 3-1 deficit in that series; it needed to do the same to win the following series against Vancouver. Last year, of course, the Wild trailed Colorado 3-2 before winning the final two games.
Three series victories, all finalized in Game 7s on the road.
So this business of being tied 1-1 after a road split … this is new. This is a best-of-5 series now, with three games in Minnesota. The Wild doesn’t have to win another road game, and it can still win the series.
The questions now become: Can the Wild handle it, and can you — dear fans — handle this?
It is different to play when you are the one with something to lose, and it is different to watch when there are expectations vs. hopes.
The Wild’s best work in the playoffs last year and during the regular season this year came during desperation. I’ll be curious to see how the team reacts in Game 3, and I’ll be similarly curious to see the tenor of fans in the stands and on social media.
Is everyone ready for this? We’re about to find out.
I’ll be live at the X, ready with some postgame thoughts on the blog right after the game ends. Expect postgame videos with myself and hockey guru Michael Russo, as well as the best interviews from the locker room, postgame as well.
Saunders used his opening statement to talk at length about how he thought the team had a good mix of veterans and young players at the start of the year — a group he hoped would compete for a playoff spot — before injuries derailed the season. At that point, he and the Wolves had a decision: keep playing some of the non-injured veterans or go with a wholesale development movement.
The Wolves obviously chose the latter and won just 16 games while also developing Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine (and securing a pick guaranteed to be no worse than No. 4 in this year’s draft).
“I felt we accomplished what we set out to do,” Saunders said when talking about the franchise’s revised strategy.
If the rebuild is to mean anything, though, this year’s draft is crucial. Whether you think the Wolves were tanking or merely just that bad with all the injuries this year, the end result is a high draft pick. Here is what Saunders had to say when I asked him about how he and the Wolves will approach things as the May 19 lottery and June draft draw nearer:
“We’ll go through both individually and as a staff and see a lot of players, watch a lot of film. A lot of it has to do with what background checks you have on players — and communications with them when we sit down and talk to them. … It’s a daily process you go through evaluating, and it can change.
I believe this: I believe when you draft in the top four or five, I believe you’re going to get a good player. This is a pretty deep draft, and it’s a pretty top-heavy draft really compared maybe to some of these past years. What you have to do at that point is take the best player available and not be as concerned with what position he (plays). Usually teams that have made major mistakes in this league have drafted for position high rather than drafting who the best player was. … I’ve always had an order in my head.”
That’s nothing revolutionary, of course, but in a draft in which so many people seem focused on big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor as the possible top two picks, Saunders said on multiple occasions that he believes the Wolves will do well regardless of where they wind up picking (anywhere from No. 1 to 4).
“Whoever we draft will be a piece (next year),” Saunders said. “The draft is that good.”
Maybe he has to say that now, but it’s also worth noting that Flip has done a pretty good job so far in evaluating draft talent. Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine are his first-round picks, and all of them seem to be rotation players at worst. Andrew Wiggins, acquired for Kevin Love, could be a superstar.
Still, I have to imagine that deep down, knowing the injury history of Nikola Pekovic, Saunders has to be hoping to have a chance to draft one of those big men.
Instead of spending money on one good pair of headphones, I have four or five pairs of headphones lying around in various stages of repair. One of them is missing a right earbud. Two of the pairs are the old iPhone model that never seems to stick in your ear right without hurting, particularly if you sweat (which happens to people when the exercise). I just bought two new pairs on Amazon for like $8 each, and I’m sure that within a couple of months something will be wrong with them. I’ll put them through the wash. I’ll lose them. One of the sides will sound worse than the other.
I don’t know why I do this, but it does help me perhaps gain some keen insight into the mindset of Eagles coach/personnel guru/football genius(?) Chip Kelly. He is not a mediocre headphone collector (at least to my knowledge), but he is a mediocre quarterback collector. He already had Sam Bradford (been through the wash), Mark Sanchez (earbud missing) and Matt Barkley (on the cheap). But he just couldn’t himself. Now he’s added Tim Tebow (no stars on Amazon review) to the mix as well.
What could go wrong? Well, here’s what ESPN Stats/Info says:
Tebow would join Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford among the team’s signal-callers. The three each rank in the bottom five in Total QBR among those who started at least 30 games over the last five seasons. Tebow ranks lowest with a 33.4 Total QBR. Sanchez is fourth-worst (40.4) and Bradford ranks fifth from the bottom (40.7).
Tebow’s completion percentage (48 percent) ranks the lowest in the NFL over the last 10 seasons. All three quarterbacks tend to overthrow or underthrow their passes quite a bit.
Perfect. Kelly had a perfectly nice quarterback in Nick Foles. I have no idea why he would blow that up in favor of having four quarterbacks of questionable repute. Deadspin has some working theories — some humorous, some logical — for signing Tebow, but it doesn’t explain the big-picture of just what Kelly is doing.
Maybe this is some grand experiment that those of us who never played the game (copyright) just wouldn’t understand. Maybe he knows how to play to each of their strengths and turn them all into monsters in his system in various situations.
Or maybe he’s just like me, figuring if you have a bunch of faulty options lying around, what’s the harm in adding one more?
Welcome back, Nuclear Warheads!
Kind of an odd weekend in the Premier League with the FA Cup finals taking place. I only took a look at one PL match (bet you can’t guess what it is) and touched on the FA Cup semifinals. There really is only one match of interest in the league this week. I don’t plan on watching Manchester City/West Ham, do you? OK, fine. I’ll probably watch it. But that doesn’t mean I wanted to write anything about it.
Onto the matches!
No. 1: Chelsea vs Manchester United at Stamford Bridge
When: Saturday at 11:30AM on Big Boy NBC
Last year: Chelsea won at Stamford Bridge last year 3-1 behind a hat trick from Samuel Eto’o, of all people. Chicharito had the lone goal for United.
Ahhh, Chelsea vs Manchester United. A fixture that will always have a soft spot in my heart. I love this rivalry. I have so many great memories from these match days, both good and bad.
But no time to wax nostalgic! You can usually bank on it being a big match whenever these two get together, even more so when they play this late in the year.
United head into Stamford Bridge with a full head of steam, hoping to get three points in what has basically been the room from Saw for them the last few years. United basically have a top four spot in the bag at this point. A win gives them the slightest faint of a glimmer of title hopes, but lets not get carried away. They would be doing Arsenal more of a solid if they can grab the full three points in a building Jose Mourinho has only lost in once.
Chelsea will be hoping to extend their lead on top of the league to 10 points. Arsenal are playing in the FA Cup semis this weekend but Chelsea have a game in-hand over the Gunners so they’ll both be level on matches of Saturday. The Blues need 11 points in their final seven matches to guarantee the trophy even if Arsenal wins out.
Both Chelsea and United are pretty beat up right now, with Chelsea still missing forward Diego Costa. The good news for them is it sounds like Loic Remy is fit to start Saturday. He missed last week with a leg injury that forced Didier Drogba into the lineup. Now, my feelings on Drogba are well documented (I want to quit my job and drive around the world in an RV with him playing pickup soccer and sampling wings from all over the globe), but he didn’t have the best match of his career a week ago. But to be fair, the 37-year old was not brought back to Chelsea to start matches. So no Drogba bashing!
United have like one or two healthy defenders and Jonny Evans is still serving his suspension for hocking a loogie. But that shouldn’t concern them too much. Jose Mourinho obviously won’t be releasing the attacking hounds in this one. We know his style at this point of the season. A draw is a win for him in a fixture like this. Defend, defend, defend.
A tie seems like a reasonable result here but who knows. I don’t wanna make a prediction. Lets just hope both teams try their best and have fun. And Chelsea wins.
I am going to the Twins game Saturday so I plan on getting there early and watching from Hrbeks or Barrio. Come say hey if you see me.
FA Cup Semi-Finals
Saturday: Reading vs Arsenal at 11:20AM on Big Boy FOX
Sunday: Aston Villa vs Liverpool at 10:00AM on FOX Sports 1
How about this? Reading vs Arsenal kick off at 11:20AM on Big Boy Fox and Chelsea and Manchester United kick off at 11:30AM on Big Boy NBC. Two English soccer matches on at the same time on over-the-air television in America. What a world. Never in a million years did I think this would ever happen.
Pretty cool! Except for the god-awful, head-shaking scheduling from the FA. It is one thing to have these matches on the same day, let alone at the same time.
Oh well, nobody wants to watch Arsenal v Reading anyway. They are just saving us time.
I kid! I kid! The FA Cup semifinals are a blast. Wembley rocks and the crowd support with both teams equally represented on each end makes it feel like a big high school game. There really is no equivalent in the US. Imagine watching a Packers/Vikings game at a big-time neutral site with the stadium basically split down the middle with Purple and Gold on one side and Green and Cheese on the other. Actually, don’t imagine that. It is a parking lot riot waiting to happen.
It appears we are heading for an Arsenal/Liverpool final here but it seemingly never works out that way. Whenever you can spot a dream final with four or eight teams left in the FA Cup it barely ever comes to fruition. Something goofy always happens. It is, as they say, the magic of the FA Cup.
One of these teams will lose simply because the soccer gods will do all the neutrals a favor. Imagine watching a final where the storylines are ‘Can Arsenal repeat as Cup champions?’ and ‘Can Steven Gerrard push the sun back up in the sky and give Liverpool one last trophy in the last match in his storied Liverpool career?’ Good lord. Gag me with a selfie stick. Come on underdogs! Us neutrals want a rooting interest in the final!
Alright, that will do it for this week. Supposed to be beautiful in Minnesota on Saturday. Bring the TV out on the deck and have yourself a pre-nooner cold one. You earned it.
Until next time, keep your cards yellow and your runs to the far post.
|Baltimore - LP: W. Chen||1||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: J. Masterson||7|
|Chicago Cubs - WP: J. Arrieta||5||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - LP: A. Caminero||2|
|NY Yankees - LP: C. Sabathia||1||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: A. Simon||2|
|Cincinnati - WP: A. DeSclafani||6||FINAL|
|Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta||1|
|Cleveland - LP: C. Allen||3||FINAL|
|Chicago WSox - WP: D. Robertson||4|
|Minnesota - LP: K. Gibson||1||FINAL|
|Kansas City - WP: E. Volquez||7|
|San Diego||14||Bottom 7th Inning|
|Oakland||4||Bottom 3rd Inning|
|Houston||2||Bottom 3rd Inning|
|New Orleans||28||2nd Qtr|
Poll: How confident are you that the Wild will win its playoff series?