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Phil Hughes was coming off a great 2014 season; new free agent Ervin Santana was going to be a stabilizer; Ricky Nolasco was primed for a bounceback after a nice spring; and Kyle Gibson looked ready to make the next step.
A few hours later, Santana was nailed with an 80-game suspension. Then the season started, Nolasco had one bad outing and went on the disabled list. Hughes hasn’t had a terrible start in three outings, but he hasn’t had a particularly good one, either, taking losses in all three decisions. Gibson had one nice start and two bad ones, and his early line of 15.1 innings pitched, 9 walks and just 3 strikeouts is cringe-worthy.
Combined, the four pitchers who elicited the cause for rotation optimism are a combined 1-6 with a 6.57 ERA in seven starts spanning 37 innings. It’s a small sample size, but it’s quite bad.
Conversely, the pitchers the Twins were counting on the least — the guys, really, who were battling for the fifth spot — have performed the best. Tommy Milone, who won the No. 5 job, is 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA in three starts. Mike Pelfrey, who grudgingly went to the bullpen when Milone won the spot but quickly was summoned back to the rotation when Santana was suspended, has a 2.65 ERA in three starts after going seven shutout innings last night. Trevor May, summoned from Rochester when Nolasco went down, pitched into some bad luck his first start but looked solid last time out in defeating Cleveland. Combined, those three pitchers are 4-1 with a 3.45 ERA in eight starts.
Again, it’s a small sample size. And you can look at it one of two ways: the Twins would really be onto something if the top of the rotation was performing … or they’re really lucky to have more depth than in past years because those are the pitchers at least keeping them afloat right now.
Reckless challenge? Check.
Punch in the face? Check.
Pretend nothing happened the tune of an immediate protest to the ref? Check.
And he got away with it.
Shameless. Just shameless.
Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, the savior of this season, was blasted Wednesday for six goals on 17 shots. On a couple of them, he had little to zero chance. A couple were softies. And a couple were toss-ups — the kinds of saves he made far more often than not during his incredible regular-season run with the Wild.
There were far more things wrong with the Wild on Wednesday than Dubnyk. An all-around mess is to blame for that 6-1 loss. But lurking within that loss was an extension of a troubling trend with Dubnyk: he simply hadn’t been as otherworldly lately, even before Wednesday’s disaster.
In Dubnyk’s first 32 games with the Wild, he posted a 93.9 save percentage, putting him among the top 5 goalies in the league in that span.
In his final seven regular-season games, he posted a 92.5 save percentage — still quite good, but a mark that ranked 14th among NHL goalies with at least 240 minutes played during that span.
In his first three playoff games, it was more of the recent same: a 92.2 save percentage. The number in the playoffs obviously looks a lot worse when factoring in the six goals Wednesday; now, through four playoff games, Dubnyk’s save percentage is a dismal 86.4.
War On Ice tracks the quality of saves a goalie is making, dividing them into high, medium and low danger. In those final seven regular-season games, Dubnyk was still stopping the high-danger shots at around the same rate as he previously had (around 86 percent). It was the medium and low-danger goals that were getting in more frequently. In the playoffs, the sample size is too small to draw many conclusions, but he has allowed seven goals on 24 high-danger shots (70.8 save percentage), a bad number that was hurt further Wednesday but was already down from where it had been earlier this year.
The Wild didn’t need Dubnyk to be great in the final handful of regular season games, since his MVP-level work before that had all but guaranteed them a playoff spot, nor did they Minnesota need him to be great in the first three games of the playoffs because its overall play was so sharp that it could take a 2-1 series lead.
And again, it wasn’t like Dubnyk was bad down the stretch or in the playoffs before Wednesday; he was just closer to earth than he had been, and frankly he just wasn’t tested a ton during many stretches of the first three postseason games.
But with St. Louis seeming to have found its legs and another gear Wednesday, and with the Wild needing to now get at least one more road win to take this series, I dare say Minnesota needs MVP-level Dubnyk to resurface. That means stopping those “high danger” shots at an impressive rate. And in general, it means being sharper not just than he was in Game 4, but also in the 10 games that preceded it.
(Amazing photo of the Blues’ third goal by Strib photog Carlos Gonzalez).
The last I personally saw of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, he was abruptly ending an unhappy postgame news conference following a 3-0 Game 3 loss to the Wild. He wasn’t rude. It was just clear he didn’t have much more to say after his team was thoroughly outplayed. There were far more questions than answers, and with his team trailing 2-1 in the series it was his job to bridge the gap.
Now: too much can be made of the influence of coaches in sports — particularly in the pro game, when motivation, preparation and strategy can only go so far because the talent of individuals often carries the day.
Maybe Hitchcock had nothing to do with Wednesday’s butt-kicking at the X. But I’m going to guess he did and give him credit for playing some wily veteran coach cards prior to Game 4.
The two main things: Showering the Wild with praise and juggling lines.
Before Game 4, Hitchcock said the Blues needed “Messier, Gretzky, I’ll take an Anderson, Kurri’s fine,” to beat the Wild, harkening back to the Oilers’ juggernaut of the 1980s.
“We’re playing a team that’s played the best hockey in the league since the goalie change and everybody is trying to catch up to them,” Hitchcock said. “I knew they were playing like this when we came in here and got beat right at the end of the regular season. It was our first experience at watching them play. They’re on top of their game and it’s our job to catch up.”
Classic coach stuff. Wild players didn’t read those quotes and think, “Man, we’ve got this one. They’ve quit. Might as well not even try hard.” But don’t underestimate the psychological battles that go on in sports. Anything that might cause an opponent to lose an edge or slip just a little can be critical, and making them think they’re better than they really are is a tactic.
The second thing, juggling lines, is a minor tactical ploy and often the mark of a desperate coach. It can be overrated. But Hitch tweaked the lines, going back to some groupings that had good chemistry earlier in the season, and the proof of effectiveness was in the results. Every Blues line contributed, while Hitchcock also minimized the role of Steve Ott — chief Wild villain, who had been doing the Blues more harm than good. Ott had just 7:02 of ice time in the first two periods, the second-lowest total of any St. Louis player.
Now it’s up to Mike Yeo to decide how to counterpunch. He’s a “slow and steady wins the race” guy in general, believing in his system and trying to be even keel. I imagine he’ll treat Game 4 as a terrible mulligan and hope the Wild’s road pedigree (which starts with Devan Dubnyk) shines through in Game 5. I’m betting he’ll resist any major changes or tactics (other than to remind his team that the hard way seems to be the Wild way and this is no time to panic).
Maybe that will be the right button for him to push. In Game 4, it sure seemed like Hitchcock was the one who could do no wrong.
Is that a good idea?
Five Thirty Eight doesn’t seem to think so. Maybe Nate Silver is right, but his logic doesn’t quite seem right, either:
According to my previous research, the six current NHL markets with the fewest number of hockey fans are Nashville, Miami, Raleigh, Columbus, Phoenix and Tampa. Those franchises lost a collective $51 million in 2013-14, according to Forbes. Now there’s momentum to place an NHL expansion team in Las Vegas, another idea that makes little sense. Our 2013 analysis estimated that there are just 91,000 NHL fans in metro Las Vegas. That’s tiny even by comparison to the six smallest NHL markets that I mentioned before, which have between 146,000 (Nashville) and 279,000 (Tampa) hockey fans. And it’s well below Seattle’s 241,000 or Quebec City’s 530,000 fans.
Silver also argues against an NHL team in Vegas because the city hasn’t supported minor league teams well in the past, while concluding that an NBA team makes far more sense.
On that last part, I agree. But the minor league reasoning seems far-fetched. And to a larger degree, so does the argument about a small base of NHL fans. Any team based in Vegas in any major league is going to be more about capturing the tourism crowd than the locals.
Yes, the NBA is a better fit than the NHL — and probably the ideal draw in Vegas. But even without a full house night after night in an NHL arena in Vegas, the league exposure in Sin City would be worth it. I’d put a team there before I’d put one in, say, Kansas City.
(Photo of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock in Vegas for 2012 league awards was a wonderful bit of serendipity).
|Kansas City - WP: J. Vargas||6||FINAL|
|Cleveland - LP: C. Kluber||2|
|Toronto - LP: M. Castro||5||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: K. Uehara||6|
|Tampa Bay - LP: B. Gomes||1||FINAL|
|NY Yankees - WP: J. Wilson||4|
|Washington - LP: D. Fister||4||FINAL|
|Atlanta - WP: E. Stults||8|
|NY Mets - WP: C. Torres||3||FINAL|
|Miami - LP: S. Cishek||1|
|Milwaukee - LP: J. Nelson||6||FINAL|
|Cincinnati - WP: J. Marquis||9|
|Pittsburgh - LP: V. Worley||0||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - WP: J. Hammel||4|
|Seattle - WP: T. Walker||3||FINAL|
|Texas - LP: Y. Gallardo||1|
|Detroit - WP: D. Price||5||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: T. Milone||4|
|Philadelphia - WP: C. Hamels||4||FINAL|
|St. Louis - LP: J. Lackey||1|
|Colorado - WP: T. Matzek||5||FINAL|
|Arizona - LP: C. Anderson||4|
|Houston - WP: P. Neshek||9||FINAL|
|San Diego - LP: J. Benoit||4|
|San Francisco - LP: T. Lincecum||3||FINAL|
|Los Angeles - WP: C. Frias||8|