Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fletcher Riding Hot Streak

by NiNY

Now we're cooking!

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has earned my admiration and - arguably more importantly - my patience with his actions since the end of the '10-11 season.

First the Richards firing - though Fletcher was complicit in the creation and the proliferation of the situation that created the untenable environment that necessitated Richards' removal - indicated that, if nothing else, Fletcher was not going to sit idly by and wait this thing out.

That was a sin that Fletcher's predecessor committed far too often for my liking. And I am big enough to admit that I bought into Risebrough's entreaties for patience. But, fool me once, etc.

Second, Fletcher's handling of the Burns situation and subsequent trade was spot on for my taste. I assume the conversation with Burns and his agent indicated that Burns would at least be considerably expensive to sign to a new deal, and Fletcher was able to leverage Burns into the means to continue addressing the most critical need on the team (read: young, skilled players) in not-one-but-three pieces. Outstanding job of analyzing the team and moving to address weaknesses by dealing from strengths.

Third, what looks like the impending buyout of Cam Barker. Fletcher inherited a team whose fanbase had been stung by the previous GM's willingness to let impending UFAs walk for nothing. With under-appreciated defenseman Kim Johnsson getting ready to do just that, Fletcher pulled the trigger on a deal that brought back a former 3rd-overall draft pick. Yes, Fletcher had to include a high pick of our own to get the deal done. But the bottom line is he got something for his UFA. That the trade didn't work out is not immaterial to the story. But Wild fans would be remiss to ignore the context in which Barker came to be on the team in the first place.

Now, the trade didn't work out. And so Fletcher moving to close that door by (likely) buying Barker out - which in itself is also a very different situation than the Parrish buyout, given Barker's age and the rules pertaining thereto - indicates to me that Fletcher is both a realist and a pragmatist. Rare is the Wild fan who would associate Risebrough with either of those personality traits.

As I've said, I like the draft and develop bearing Fletcher has steered the Wild into now. I'm willing to give it a couple years - even if they are marked by poor performance in the win column. And actions like the Barker buyout only serve to make me more patient.

Even more impressive: two of the three things I mentioned above were Fletcher righting his own wrongs. Riser would have just told us we'd let our expectations get too high.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Blind Squirrels

by NiNY

It feels good to get one right every once in a while.

I've been out of town for the last four days. So I missed all the action around the draft.

But, honestly, I couldn't be happier.

The Wild is finally giving up the ghost. Finally accepting that you can't simultaneously try to draft and develop AND fill your cup to the brim with UFAs. Finally realizing that sometimes you DO have to take a couple steps back (in the wins column, perhaps) in order to start taking steps forward.

You know all the particulars. But we now have a coach coming off a year where he worked very well with our youngsters. And we have received a big infusion of young, offensive talent into the organization - critical steps needed to start closing the gap between us and the other young re-developing teams in the conference and league.

I've been all over lobbying for the Wild to "blow it up" and start over. That the Wild needed the kinds of high first round picks that become top scoring line players. Well they didn't go all in on "blow it up", but they certainly went farther down that path than I thought they would.

And it sounds like Leipold is on board (based on what Russo's reporting.) So that's great. I was afraid the main impetus to 'stay relevant' in the short term would come from him.

So, here's to Fletcher being frugal. Here's to buying out Barker and then keeping those spots open going into camp to give the kids a real carrot to chase around the rink between then and now.

And here's to hope.

Hope that the Wild may finally be on the right path for serious real.

To Chuck Fletcher: here's my promise to you. If the team stays committed to this youth movement and consistently tries hard next season. I won't complain if they go 0-82.

Morbidly curious


A month and a half ago, I bashed dopes on the Internet who called for and/or predicted the return of Jaromir Jagr not just to the NHL but to the Penguins.

On the eve of Free Agency Day, it's looking like it might happen after all. Color me surprised.

Ray Shero has not ruled out the prospect of signing Jagr. In fact, comments he's made suggest the opposite, that the team continues to have internal discussions about adding the one-time team captain. I still think Jagr ends up with Detroit, as Ken Holland can offer more money.

Should Jagr suit up in black and gold again, I don't know how I'd feel about it. I'm pretty much securely on the fence.

I think it could work well. Jagr could still be capable of 25 goals and who knows, 60 to 80 points. He'd likely infuse some new life into a tired, stagnant and predictable power play. Being on the tail end of his career, he's more likely to keep his head down in the locker room and enjoy one more chance at winning the Stanley Cup and not become an issue with the established hierarchy.

I also think it's very possible that the exact opposite will happen. We'll find Jagr can't adjust back to the NHL style after playing three years in the KHL, and his production will be on par with Alexei Kovalev's. If that happens, Jagr could start showing the prima-donna-ness that we've seen from him before, creating mass chaos in a locker room that's been very tight-knit for several years now.

One thing is for certain, though: He won't make the power play worse. That's impossible.

I know one other thing: I do not want to see Jagr in a Red Wings uniform. (Disclaimer: Unless Scenario B happens and he completely derails that team's season.)

There has been enough talk lately of Jagr returning that I've started to come around, and at this point, I'm very curious to see how he'll do, back in this league, on this team. I wouldn't be declaring the Penguins the favorites next season because of Jagr, but I also don't think it would be the train wreck that several people I know believe it would be.

It would be nice seeing Jagr retire as a Penguin though and smooth things over with so much of the fan base that has turned on him. He's still the second-greatest Penguin ever (though check back with me in 10 years) and was a critical piece in the first two Stanley Cup victories.

Jagr's return to the NHL, and possibly to Pittsburgh, is a complete unknown. I think I'd like to see how it turns out.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Draft Week: Wild SWOT Analysis Pt. 4

by NiNY

External threats are hard to assess when you're talking about a professional sports team. In the first place, every other team is theoretically an external threat. So, what's your metric (what are your metrics) for success, by which you would measure and assess threats? Is it winning a particular game? A winning record in a season? Making the playoffs? Winning the championship? You can't really control your opponent as a threat. You can try to neutralize the various components of that threat. But in hockey, which is more free form than, say, football, there isn't even an element of game planning and strategizing that can help your neutralization endeavors.

Nonetheless, THREATS.

*Edmonton and Colorado. These teams are both younger and more skilled than the Wild. Insofar as they're in the same division (for now), they will continue to both develop as thorns in the Wild's side and exist as a reflection of the Wild's own youth/skill levels.

The Wild is a lower-echelon team in terms of competitiveness, which is similar to Colorado and Edmonton at the moment. But the Wild is lower than Colorado and Edmonton in terms of youthful skill, which puts the Wild behind the 8-ball. The Wild can ill-afford for their fans to see teams like Edmonton - against which the Wild usually cleans up - start to pass the Wild in the standings, with no infusion of top-end talent to offset it.

*Core that is just getting into their salad years contracts. Mikko got his last year. Burns is due to get his now. Backstrom has two years left and will be well into his 30s when this one expires. Schultz has three left and is too expensive as it is. Bouchard has two left and is also too expensive. Cal two left.

Simply, the Wild isn't talented enough right now to make a meaningful run. So, in the few years it takes to properly increase the talent level such that a meaningful run is possible, you risk your "core" moving from "approaching peak" to "peaked." And getting more expensive along the way, assuming flat to improving production.

The Wild will have to be as cap conscious as Mike Russo is reporting they want to become if they're going to make the economics work out.

*The expectations of ownership/fans is the final threat. If "win now, or at least very, very soon" carries the day then Fletcher's between the rock and the hard place. And the team, in turn, is condemned to a long game of Russian roulette with the vagaries of the "trade assets and sign UFAs" mentality.

The last few years have taught Wild fans that this does not work. The teams that succeed in the NHL take time to draft and develop long term, even at the expense of short term success.

Fans should be mindful of this as this summer and then the 2011-2012 season progress.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Draft Week: Wild SWOT Analysis Pt. 3

by NiNY

We move on to the OPPORTUNITIES.

*Some cap room opening up this summer. Between the UFAs (Kobasew, Brunette, Miettinen, Madden, Harding and Theodore) who represented a cool $10.5M in salary last year, and the potential for buying out Cam Barker (saving an additional couple million dollars from his full cap hit), the Wild does have some flexibility. What they do with it is another matter.

They have nine forwards and either six (including Barker and Spurgeon) or five (disincluding Barker) defensemen returning from last year's team, as well as Backstrom in goal. At this point, according to, they have $51.27M tied up among those sixteen players, including the $927k they owe in the Parrish buyout.

The Wild is looking at needing to find three forwards, one defenseman (assuming Barker's gone) and a backup goalie to fill out the roster. Plus Burns and Zanon are both in their contract years. Brodziak and Staubitz are also in their contract years, but do not represent a threat to the salary cap even assuming a reasonable raise from their current salaries ($1.15M and $575k, respectively).

With reports that the salary cap ceiling will rise to the $64M range, the Wild certainly CAN fit a raise for Burns and Zanon into their $13M of available cap space (~$15M if they buyout Barker), but only if it is willing to go cheap with the rest of the spare parts. And that means kids.

*As I said in the weaknesses section, Yeo and Fletch are also both opportunities for the Wild. In Yeo's case, you have to like what he did with an under-skilled team in Houston this season. If the Wild commits to a younger team some of those kids he had success with this season will get some more time under his tutelage. Yeo's an unknown quantity at the NHL level. While the weakness part of that undeniably has its own gravitational pull, to ignore the opportunity side would be myopic. I simply will not entertain comparisons to Todd Richards beyond the 1st time NHL head coach part.

As for Fletcher, yes, he represents an opportunity. He has to be personally motivated at this point, he's got a glaring fail on his record already (Richards, not so much hiring him as having to fire him, in my opinion) and he's the head of a team that is lacking both identity and, because of it, cohesion and passion. Not a great start for a young GM.

But, if he can get this train back on the track and continue infusing the organization with energy (say what you want about Yeo, but the man exudes confidence and energy) and talent (Granlund is a good start - assuming he can stay away from the concussions - and Fletcher's willingness to dip into the college free agent pool, for example, is encouraging) then I believe the fans will come along for the ride. I also believe the fans will be willing to take a couple more years of non-playoff hockey as long as there's a clear goal towards which we're progressing. That's not the same as saying the fans will continue to sell the building out, but the angry fringe will always be the angry fringe.

*A more abstract opportunity is the possibility of realignment once the Phoenix situation is resolved. Even without a relocation of the Phoenix franchise realignment has to be coming. It's obviously untenable to have a team in Winnipeg playing in a sunbelt (USA) division. And, while we don't know anything factually yet, some of the ideas floated around (such as the Wild moving to the "central" division) could be beneficial to the Wild.

At some level, a reduction in travel wear-and-tear over a season has to be beneficial. And I like what the Avalanche and Oilers are doing in terms of young skill players, so not having to play them six times a year is attractive. The Wild hasn't had very good success against the Detroits and Dallases of the league, to be fair. But that's why this is an opportunity, not a strength.

Tomorrow: Threats

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Draft Week: Wild SWOT Analysis Pt. 2

by NiNY

Yesterday I talked about the Wild's strengths. Today I discuss the other side of that particular coin.


*Lack of top tier scoring. This is the critical weakness of the Wild. Every team would want more top drawer scoring. But at least the Edmontons of the league have a Taylor Hall. The Islanders have a Tavares. The Wild has absolutely no elite scoring. And nothing in the pipeline. As I've mentioned before: are there any Wild players you'd take in the first five rounds of your fantasy league draft? Q.E.D. And, this utter lack of high end scoring is simply exacerbated by....

*Stubborn refusal to deviate from the UFA model. The Wild has been trying to go the "patch up the lineup with a couple (high-priced) UFAs and sneak into the playoffs" route for several years now. It hasn't worked. In fact, it has back fired and turned into a weakness in that the team has finished just high enough to be out of the money picks in the draft. Not in the playoffs (three years running now), but just over the horizon of the kind of draft position that lands you a Taylor Hall.

So, it becomes a vicious cycle. Patching up the line-up, spending to the cap, begets mediocre team, which begets mediocre finish, which begets Colton Gillies...and the beat goes on da de dum, de dum, dada.

The weakness here manifests itself as an expensive, older team with a farm system that is still bereft of high end talent. As my friend GreenStar likes to say, the Wild does not have enough sub-$1M players on the roster. Not a pretty combination.

*An experienced GM who has, to date, accrued a spotty record is another weakness. I like Chuck Fletcher. I think he's a hockey guy, obviously good hockey genes, etc. And he has some successes under his belt (Guillaume Latendresse, John Madden, Mikko's deal, Rick Wilson, walking away from Boogaard *RIP* at the money the Rangers threw at him, Mikael Granlund, etc.) so far in his two years at the helm of the Wild.

But he also has some misses. His first head coach was put in an unwinnable position - too little talent and a mandate to win that was at least partly created by Fletcher himself. The Barker trade is a miss (and those of you who know me know that's not because Leddy's a Minnesotan). Kobasew was a miss (though Fletcher gets credit for trying). Nystrom is very expensive for what he brought last season. So is Cullen.

The jury needs to still be out on Fletcher. I think he might also be an opportunity, and I thought about making him a threat, but I feel like threats that are neutralized end up being non-factors. Whereas, if Fletcher can overcome his spotty record, there's more upside to the "strength" side. So labeling him a weakness is sort of like giving him a "needs improvement" on the annual performance report.

*Inexperienced head coach, again. I've already talked about the situation in which I think Mike Yeo as head coach could thrive. And I'm hopeful that's the way Leipold and Fletcher go (read: youth). But the fact of the matter is this is his first trip around the merry-go-round at the NHL level and Wild fans' last exposure to a first-time NHL coach didn't go so well.

For the record, I firmly believe Yeo is also an opportunity, and will discuss him as such in that section.

But there can be no denying that he is inexperienced and, as such, and with the same caveat that it's not a pure condemnation as with Fletcher, that is a weakness.

Next: Opportunities

Monday, June 20, 2011

Draft Week: Wild SWOT Analysis Pt. 1

by NiNY

I suck at mock drafts. In the first place, I might have actually seen a few of the eligible kids play - once - but not anything close to a material percentage of them. And, in any event, I'm no scout. And so I'd have to do a mock draft based on what I read from the same sources you read, so you don't want to read my regurgitations.

I like reading mock drafts, but I'm just no good at doing them.

That being said, the thing I like most about mock drafts is when people get into the SWOT analyses of the teams and cross-reference it when making the mock selection. I find that SWOT analysis to be more interesting than the projected pick. It's a quick reference to the high level state of the teams that I sort of lose sight of as the playoffs progress and you focus in on fewer and fewer teams.

I find that even my "Minnesota Wild" muscle has atrophied - you know, since they're never in the playoffs - by this point. So I thought I'd take a look at the Wild and offer my own little SWOT analysis.


*A stinking rich owner, willing to spend to the cap. This, in and of itself, is a strength. The opposite - a miserly owner barely willing to spend to the floor - would be a weakness.

While the application of the salary floor/ceiling dynamic to the NHL has had a homogenizing effect on the league overall, there is still variation from top to bottom within a conference, for sure, if not visible in an individual division. So owners willing to spend money are a boon.

*Goaltending is a plus for the Wild. Nicklas Backstrom is a quality #1. While the Wild had an enviable battery last year when Jose Theodore paired with Backstrom, by all accounts Theodore will get a chance to be a #1 somewhere else in the league starting July 1st - and he earned it; being the consummate professional with the Wild last season. While I'd love to have Theodore back (particularly if his very affordable $1.1M price tag from last year were still available), I hope he gets a job somewhere and am assuming he won't be back with the Wild.

Josh Harding, also a UFA, is sadly a deep value play right now. You just don't know where he is, coming off his injuries.

But, even without Harding, having Hackett, Endras and Kuemper means the Wild is well-positioned for the future. So well-positioned, in fact, that perhaps one of them is expendable in a trade scenario as the Wild tries to shore up a weakness. The Wild has always seemed to have either good goaltending or goalies who put up good numbers. That's still true today.

*Young defensemen is the third strength for the Wild. Obviously the Burns contract year situation looms large. And Burns' offensive capabilities are not easily replaceable. But between Schultz, Scandella, Spurgeon, Stoner, Bagnall, Cuma, Falk, Prosser and Genoway, the Wild has a strong stock of young, 3-6 defensemen. No clear Norris trophy types at this point, but scoring defensemen are in relatively short supply anyway.

*Best #2 center in the league, in Mikko Koivu. The Wild plays him on the first line. Because it has to. But I still believe Mikko's in the bottom half of top-tier centers in the NHL because he doesn't produce like the guys in the top half.

He was the 19th-highest scoring center in the league in '10-11. He was the 11th-highest scoring center in the league in '09-10. He was the 19th-highest scoring defenseman in the league in '08-09. The argument is that he hasn't had top notch wingers along side him - and that's true. But he likely won't have top notch wingers along side him in '11-12, either. At some point, he is what he is. And he is paid a lot of money.

On the other side of the coin, he's as good a defensive center as there is in the league. He's gotten better and better at faceoffs, he's as competitive as anyone he's willing to stand up for himself. All good qualities, and Mikko has them to spare. I have no problem with Mikko Koivu as the face of the Minnesota Wild. I just wish we had a legit scoring threat in front of him in the lineup.

*2nd and 3rd line forwards is definitely a strength. With players like Cullen, Clutterbuck, Bouchard, Latendresse, Havlat and Brodziak, the Wild has a solid stable of NHL-veteran secondary players. The downside is that group represents $17.63M in salary for next season, so it's expensive. But, if the Wild had a top line that put up consistent points, it has the secondary and even tertiary depth to supplement that top line that good teams have.

Tomorrow: Weaknesses

Friday, June 17, 2011

Random musings


A collection of random thoughts on the world of hockey.

--How hilarious will it be if Daniel Sedin wins the Hart Trophy?

--I hope the Penguins sign Jussi Jokinen. That, and re-signing some of their free agents, is all I'm asking from free agency this summer. Supposedly, Jokinen might be too "soft" for the Penguins; well, they need to soften their standards. Jokinen possesses actual skill, which the team sorely lacks up front.

--Speaking of Pittsburgh free agents, I like the re-signing of Craig Adams. I'd like to see Mike Rupp, Pascal Dupuis, Dustin Jeffrey and probably Tyler Kennedy back, but not if Kennedy's asking for a boatload. Max Talbot? It pains me to part with the 2009 Game 7 hero, but he just hasn't been doing enough to justify a raise in pay.

--Are all the Bob Luongo supporters still out in full voice? You know, the ones who criticized people for saying Luongo still isn't a clutch performer, despite his gold medal win in the Olympics? A friend of mine had the best line after Boston won the Stanley Cup this year: "Bob Luongo, so that's what happens when Team Canada isn't around to bail you out."

--Luongo was just along for the ride; Canada won in spite of Luongo, not because of him.

--Hang on, someone in a Canucks jersey just set my car on fire. Surely an anarchist, not a hockey fan. Anyway, be right back.

--I was disheartened to hear a couple weeks ago that Dallas won't/can't make an offer to keep Brad Richards. One, because that team needs him. Two, because Richards is likely headed East, and that's bad news.

--So, Mike Yeo as the new head of the Wild, eh? Good luck with that.

--Nah, seriously now. I'm not sure how good Yeo will be; his main duties as an assistant with the Penguins were the power play and.. I think the defensemen. Coincidentally or not, those were two of the team's biggest weaknesses the last year Yeo was here. Of course, the power play got even worse after he left. He was quite the scapegoat for the power play but he clearly wasn't the (only) problem.

--It turns out I eventually became a Bruins fan in the final. The extreme douchiness of the Canucks pushed me away from them, as painful as it was to see another Boston team win a championship.

--Brad Marchand is the only real pest for the Bruins, even though he's a Grade A asshole. I don't have too much of a problem with anyone else on that team. Pretty much everyone on Vancouver can go suck a donkey, though.

--I will not tune in for a second to any NESN broadcast next season, even if it means watching a game in standard def on Center Ice instead of HD.

--Some friends and I are doing a miniature golf tour this summer. We named this week's tournament the Rick Nash Classic. Yeah, what of it?

Until next time, folks.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pondering Yeo as Coach

by NiNY

I've been thinking about Houston Aeros coach Mike Yeo as a candidate for the open head coach job with the Wild.

Obviously he did a great job in Houston this year, his first with the team/organization.

And, you want to reward great jobs, and you also need a new head coach.

I'd like to see the Wild commit to a younger team. I'd like them to let the majority of their UFAs walk and NOT replace all of them with UFAs in July. I'd like the Wild to go into camp with several spots open, and with the intent to fill them with kids.

Yes, that likely means you're not going to go very far in the '11-12 season. Not taking anything away from the kids in our system, but they're still not the most offensively-skilled group of players. So they don't represent an obvious uptick in scoring at the NHL level.

And that's okay. But the Wild needs top-end scoring talent. Bad. Of course, every team would take more top-end scoring talent. But the Wild has basically none.

Think about it: how many Wild players would you take in the first five rounds of your fantasy draft? Any? Maybe Burns? Maaaybe Mikko? Maaaaaaybe Zidlicky? Q.E.D.

The Wild is massively lacking in top-end scoring talent. The Wild is well-stocked in role players and guys who could make a claim on a 2nd line spot, if the first line was a legit NHL scoring line. And goalies. The Wild is set in goal with Backstrom, Hackett, Endras and Kuemper right now. So set, in fact, that perhaps they don't all stay with the Wild very long.

But, all of that speaks to the Wild either needing to spend (read: overpay) again in free agency to make a splash - but still likely end up right in the same limbo they're in now where they're just good enough to finish outside the money picks in the 2012 draft - or going young and taking their lumps.

To me, we've done the UFA route. Did Matt Cullen get us to the promised land? We sure paid him a handsome amount of money. If we continue to go that route, continuing to spend to the cap in the process, and continue to end up in this low-double-digit draft position, then we're staying static. That's a self-perpetuating cycle. Maybe you sneak into the playoffs in the odd year. But that's about it.

So, I'm comfortable going with the kids, maybe finishing about where we would otherwise, but equally maybe finishing worse. But finishing worse means getting a higher draft pick and the chance at a stud who gives me someone to be really excited about immediately.

In other words, I'm hoping the Wild goes with a youth movement. If that's the case, then Yeo has certainly offered evidence that he can work with a young team. And he'd obviously know any players who get promoted from Houston next season. I think that would be a great environment for him, and I wouldn't have any problem with his lack of NHL head coaching experience (even following in Richards' footsteps, such as they are) in case Fletcher's worried about the optics.

But, if Leipold wants to try to get in the playoffs at any cost and instructs Fletcher to go after some legit scorers in July, then I'd prefer to keep Yeo in Houston where we know he can have a positive effect on the kids. If the Wild goes that way this summer, then I'd prefer we get a MacTavish or Hitchcock to try to put lipstick on the pig, and not waste Yeo. I mean, that scenario is essentially the same scenario Todd Richards was in and I think it's safe to say he was a lame duck from day one given the lack of talent he had to work with.

Obviously Yeo has earned the audition for Wild's head coach this season, and I'm glad Fletcher recognizes it and is acting on it. But I think there are pros to keeping Yeo in Houston for another season, depending on what Fletcher's marching orders are from the big man.

BSens Down Aeros, Win Calder Cup

by NiNY

Just go to T3I and read their coverage. It's comprehensive and awesome, as always.

Wild fans can also just go over there to thank them for the outstanding job they do, particularly this season, bringing Aeros hockey of today - and Wild hockey of tomorrow - to us.

Stick taps for T3I.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Aeros @ Bingo Game 3: My Road Trip

by NiNY

I left the house at 1:30 yesterday afternoon, and pulled back into my driveway at exactly midnight. In between, I drove 300 miles and saw the Aeros beat the BSens 2-1 to take a 2-1 lead in the Calder Cup Finals.

It's an easy 150 mile drive from Rochester to Binghamton. You go east to Syracuse and then south to Bingo. Easy. It was a beautiful day (by which I mean lower heat and humidity than Tuesday) and it was clear so, good driving weather.

I got to Bingo about 3:45. Got in touch with the most awesome Ms. Conduct and we hung out and chatted about the team, the game, Brusty, etc.

We walked over to the arena about 5:45 so she could go to work and so I could take the air with the locals. My ticket was waiting for me at Will Call and they didn't open the doors until 6pm so I got a chance to observe the street party scene outside the building.

First, the building is East Berlin chic. A paean to poured cement and bunkers. It also appears to date back to the days of Marx and Engels. But, to the BSens and their fans, it's home.

The street party was pretty solid. They had all the hockey street party games like shooting street hockey balls at the goalie screen thingy - and the lady who was running that particular game had a pretty nice wrister - and the obligatory radio station booths/vans, as well as some food and drink. There were a bunch of young kids with flags, a bunch of older kids with vuvuzelas and a guy walking around with a 12-pack of Yuengling. Ms. Conduct thought she'd heard that it had started at 3pm, which is a bit of a head-scratcher (it was Wednesday, afterall). But, I guess that's just how they roll in Bingo.

I went in a few minutes after six. I was wearing a Wild white sweater and I was interested to see the reaction it brought. On my way in I got my first comment "Hey! Is that an Aeros jersey?" To which I replied "Nope, it's a Wild jersey." This seemed to mollify the gentleman. Not knowing where exactly my seat was, my plan was to locate it, then wander around the building for a while and try to engage the locals in discussion to gauge their temperament towards their team, the series and me as an enemy fan.

When I go to a game as an enemy fan, I go out of my way to be respectful. I will represent with my team's colors. I will cheer when my team does something well, but I will not be boorish about it, and I will not outwardly cheer AGAINST the home team. But obviously the home team fans aren't familiar with my rooting predilections.

I found my seat - and let me tell you, it was a doozy. I went on Ticketmaster 45 minutes after tickets went on sale for this game and paid the higher price ($27) for the best available single seat, but I don't know the building obviously. So color me surprised to find out that my seat was two rows up, about three seats off of dead center ice. Now, it was behind the benches and normally that's a bummer if you want to watch the game. But, when they built Lubyanka West, someone had the foresight to elevate the seats (sink the ice surface?) so that even though I was behind the benches I could easily see right over them. The only thing I couldn't see was play right along the boards on my side of the rink. A very minor inconvenience. Fantastic seat.

Then I went out and bought a beer and found a place to post up to look for locals with which to commune. The concourse at Die Nueue Wolfsschanze is pretty accomodating to those practicing fellowship. And the outside wall is all window which is kind of cool too. That wall is ringed by a heating system which makes for a handy ledge for one's beer.

The first person I interacted with was a police officer who, when I asked him if he thought I'd need him to escort me out of the building after the Aeros won, responded "You won't need to worry about that, son." It was pretty funny.

I spoke with a nice lady and her teenage daughter. They are season ticket holders and come to all the games and are just so excited for the Finals. When I asked them if I was going to get beaten up for being an enemy fan, they said "No, that doesn't happen here." LA Dodgers fans, they're not.

One guy in a suit walked by, sized me up in my Wild jersey and said (sotto voce) "Nice jersey." I'm guessing he was somehow associated with the Aeros.

Mostly my jersey garnered a lot of double-takes, then a combination of bewildered consternation and something that might have been disbelief. I mean, it's not actually an Aeros jersey, and I can't believe there are too many Wild fans in greater metropolitan Binghamton to start with.

I went back to my seat for the warmup. I was seated next to a guy and his kid to my left and a lady and her friends to my right (they were on the aisle). Warm ups were warm uppy. I am not savvy enough to derive much of anything from warm ups. I did notice that #18 Z. Smith for Bingo was only interested in skating over or right on the center red line, hairy-eyeballing any Aeros player by whom he passed. Normally that's behavior indicating a desire to incite disagreement between himself and members of the opposite team. So he does that a few times, then went down to stretch his Gaboriks - about a foot inside the center line, looking towards the Aeros side pretty much the whole time, and then bee lined off the ice as soon as they opened the doors to signal the end of warm ups. Ms. Conduct noticed that he leads his team in PIM. More on Z. Smith later.*

Surprisingly the biggest chirp I got all night was from the lady's friend to my right. She and her husband are STHs and she was the hardest to read in terms of "I hate you. No, just kidding. Yeah, I do. But not really." when she found out I was there in support of the Aeros. Her husband kept looking at me and sort of grinning and shaking his head like I had just farted in church or something. This is not to say I felt threatened or that they were actually hostile to me. Just, more serious about their preference that I not be there than others I had encountered.

The pre-game was loud and whipped the crowd into a proper frenzy. The building looks like it seats up to around 5,000 or so, and it was, for all intents and purposes, full. And all those excited people making all those excited people noises - bouncing off all that poured concrete and was plenty loud. The building had been retro-fitted once video screens became inescapable, which is to say, they crammed them in to basically the only place they could which is opposite corners of the rink where there was basically a huge, concrete support structure built into the original design. But they served their purpose and the obligatory "how we got here/awesome moments of awesomeness" montage helped get the faithful all geeked up.

They lowered the mascot, Max, to the ice via a rope and pulley rig to the delight of the people on the other side of the ice from me initially. By the time we could see him on our side (after he was far enough below the scoreboard) it basically looked like they'd lynched him. In fact, Ms. Conduct and I both tweeted to that effect within moments of each other, which I thought was pretty funny.

Apparently Binghamton has a latin vein running through its history because the national anthem was performed by three trumpeters, in the mariachi style. El himno nacional! At least one guy in the audience offered up a "What?" when they announced who was to play the anthem. And not in the "can I get a what, what!" manner, either.

Man, but Terry Koharski looks like his old man.

The game started amid a mighty din from the assembled.

Then the Aeros scored.

Din doused. NiNY standing and applauding - which did not endear me to the locals.

As Bryan Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness (and neighborhood watch) fame remarked, I was the only Aeros/Wild fan in obvious attendance. Literally. But I got away with standing and clapping the goal. No yelling or pointing at scoreboards. Then I sat down again and the vacuum that was left behind wasn't too bad.

The BSens looked nervous. Passes missing, pucks rolling off sticks, going for big hits and missing as often as not (at least early, they connected on some solid hits as the period went on). And, credit where it's due, the Aeros were not looking nervous at all. The Aeros were doing such a good job on the forecheck and in the offensive zone in general that, by the time the BSens were able to clear it out, they had to go for a change which meant they were attacking with one or maybe two players max. So - not a lot of sustained pressure offensively at all. The Aeros were making quick work of clearing their own zone. This would be true for the majority of the game.

The Aeros just outworked the BSens, in all three zones. The locals were going on about a 1-3-1 trap, which I chose not to debate with them, but the effect was the same. Again, I think the BSens needing to change lines instead of pursue the breakout was a big part of that, and that obviously stems from the job the Aeros were doing in the offensive zone. But that all gets back to working hard. The Aeros won a majority of the little battles, keeping plays alive, breaking up attempted breakouts, tipping passes and shots out of harm's way. Just good, hard-working hockey. If the Wild played that hard - win or lose - they would be a much more entertaining team.

The arena commisar either couldn't figure out how to turn off the green lights behind the net or didn't want to during the first period. They figured it out for the second and third periods.

The Aeros fairly dominated the second period. Outshooting the BSens 11-5, and if the BSens had any legit scoring chances in the period they only had one. The Aeros scored again, and again I rose and applauded. This time I drew a more aggressive reaction. A couple "SIT YOUR ASS DOWN!"s and a "SIT THE FUCK DOWN!"

During the second intermission, a gentleman came down to my seat and asked if I was from Houston. He had tickets to games 4 and 5 that he couldn't use and would have liked to have sold them to me if I'd come all that way and was in need of a stub. This was definitely representative of the reaction I got from Bingo fans. Good-humored, sporting, kindly.

Remember I said the weather was nice? Well there's a difference between "January nice" and "June nice" from a hockey perspective, and specifically from an ice-making perspective. They did two promos on the ice during the second intermission which obviously meant the ice had less time to freeze after being cleaned. Which meant the ice was still wet when the players came back out. Which meant the ice stayed wet for the duration of the 3rd period. I realize sponsors may be hard to come by, so a team like the BSens needs to take care of those it has. But the ice was a factor in the third. Pucks bouncing, or slowing as they hit the standing water, then rolling and bouncing late as the BSens mounted their comeback attempt.

The Aeros took an early penalty (the refs did a good job of letting them play enough to keep the intensity up, I felt) and the BSens scored on the PP. From that point on, the tide steadily turned in favor of Bingo. They pressed and they pressed and they pressed. They didn't get a lot of chances, per se, until the last few minutes. But you could see the momentum shifting inexorably in their favor.

The last minute of play was crazy. The BSens pulled the goalie and created several primo scoring chances, most of which ended with mad goal-mouth scrambles. Credit to Koharski who was in position bang-on behind the net every time. Also credit to Koharski for showing great conviction when signaling "no-goal" in a couple of those instances. That conviction helped keep the fans from rioting - and they got fairly close by the end of the game.

Unfortunately "fairly close" did not mean they all took the final outcome (a 2-1 Aeros win) well. As the game ended and the Aeros met near the boards in the circle to Hackett's right to celebrate, some fans took to throwing beverages and other trash onto the ice. I saw several drinks spilling as they hit the ice - some very close to, if not on, Aeros players and the refs - and it was a disappointing and embarrassing finish by a group that had been, to that point, loudly and enthusiastically but still appropriately behind their team. OBVIOUSLY this was a very small sample of those in attendance and I really do not want to paint BSens fans in general in a negative light.

Nonetheless, because of that reaction I chose to stay in the seating area for a few minutes before heading out into the concourse to leave. I didn't want to present a "target of opportunity" to any ill-mannered (and, likely, well-lubricated) fans bent on further demonstrating their frustration and airing their grievances. This proved to be a prescient move when I learned that there had been an altercation involving fisticuffs in the concourse. I managed to escape unharmed.

Got to my car, back on the road, home by midnight.

It was my first look at Hackett in goal, and he was obviously very good. One thing that I noticed is that, remember he's a devout butterfly goalie, he does not direct rebounds off his pads at all. He just kicks them out. And that meant he left some rebounds that, had the Aeros not been so good at keeping the slot clear, and/or the BSens done a better job of supporting the puck in the offensive zone, might have caused some trouble. I would imagine that will be something they will work on with him as he progresses - it has to be among the finer aspects of playing goalie at the professional level. But otherwise, very calm and composed in the net. Swallowing long shots in his stomach with no rebounds. Not going down too soon. Reading the play well, tracking well.

I was impressed with Patrick O'Sullivan. He created chances, had a nose for the puck, was responsible defensively, was physical....all good things.

I had trouble noticing Casey Wellman. And one of the few times I did notice him, he was circling away from a check, at the expense of gaining the offensive zone. So, not a favorable impression.

Gillies was less-engaged physically than I wanted him to be. If the book on him reads something akin to "2nd or 3rd line power forward" then I honestly didn't see that last night.

Prosser and Scandella and Spurgeon were strong in front of their own net, and on the blue line when attacking. The Aeros broke out well (possibly aided by the late-arriving BSens coming onto the ice after a change) all night and, like I said, they cleared the zone with efficiency.

Peters had an on-going battle with the linesmen about faceoff protocol which resulted in him getting tossed as a matter of course by the end of the game. At some point you have to grant the point so that maybe you can stay on the dot for one of those faceoffs, guy.

Ortmeyer had a strong game. Earl was more physical than I thought he'd be. He was more of a perimeter/high slot player in the offensive zone that I thought he'd be too.

*Zach Smith is a bit of a fan favorite, no doubt aided by his surly demeanor. But he is also a pretty good little player. They have him on for key faceoffs, particularly in the offensive zone. He's the kind of player you could see in the NHL playing an Alex Burrows role and, frankly, probably playing it pretty well.

The difference in the game was that the Aeros dictated the terms of engagement for the majority of the game. Bingo barely had time to set up in the offensive zone for the first two and a half periods, much less create any kind of sustained attack. The Aeros were faster, stronger on and off the puck and not intimidated by the BSens physicality.

I can't imagine the BSens being able to play more physically - without getting into penalty trouble - so I would think this would portend good things for the Aeros for the balance of the series.

All in all, it was a great time and a fun experience.

My thanks to Ms. Conduct for the company, the BSens fans who were very cordial to me, the Aeros for a great performance and my wife for green-lighting my trip!



I don't know for whom to root in the Stanley Cup final.

I also didn't know who I wanted to win the Eastern Conference final. Whoever I started to side with immediately began to lose, so for Game 7, I just didn't care. I mainly wanted an 18-overtime game so everyone on both teams would collapse and die.

Once the final four was determined, I hoped San Jose would win the Stanley Cup. I knew the Sharks wouldn't, because, well, they're the Sharks. But they were by far the least evil of the remaining squads. Unlike many, I bear no rancor towards Dany Heatley, and people would have to explain to me who else is hateable on that team, besides Ben Eager.

In some alternate universe, surely, San Jose moved on to the final. I don't live in that one, however. So I'm stuck with picking the Canucks or the Bruins.

More likely, I'm picking no one.

I didn't really care about Vancouver a few years ago; my team doesn't play in the West, and with the unbalanced schedule, I rarely saw the Canucks play. Then they came to Pittsburgh a couple years ago and immediately vaulted into my top three hated teams rankings, given all the post-whistle and cheap-shot shit they liked to pull.

However, time healed those wounds because, again, there's just no consistent play between the two. Other teams leapfrogged Vancouver in my rankings, so it became, meh.

Despite that, there are still obvious reasons to hate the Canucks. Alex Burrows. Raffi Torres. Kevin Bieksa's kind of a dick. Alain Vigneault is so slimy he should star in the next Ghostbusters movie.

Then there's the xenophobia thing. U-S-A, U-S-A, and all that. Frankly though, I don't really care what country wins the Stanley Cup. Ryan Kesler, for all his American goodness, is also an effective douchebag. Then there's Roberto Luongo, the Italian-looking French Canadien with the Spanish-sounding name.

Actually, I can't say I hate Luongo either. He certainly didn't impress me in the Olympics - I think Canada won despite him, not because of him; he was just along for the ride - so I still question his big-gameness. He's been very good lately though, and the Bob Luongo jokes from me stop if he befriends Lord Stanley.

I won't make any apologies for this, but I can support the Green Men. I for one find them amusing.

I guess the biggest reason to root against Vancouver is the non-Green Men part of the fan base. I've heard a number of people make wisecracks - or perhaps, predictions - that after the final, Vancouver will be destroyed - and that's in celebration of winning the Cup, not the despair of losing it. So there's that.

On the other hand, I can't imagine the Boston fan base will be any better. Bruins games on NESN with Jack Edwards would be completely unbearable to watch; the over/under for how many times Edwards would reference the Cup win each game is roughly set at 234098743290. (I must not watch enough Vancouver games, but I don't think that team's announcers are nearly as bad as Edwards.)

Plus, hasn't Boston won enough shit lately? An NBA title, two World Series and three Super Bowls in the last decade.

I should root for former Penguins on Boston like Andrew Ference and Mark Recchi. But to hell with that. Ference I can support; not Recchi any more, as much as that pains me to say. Recchi was an awesome member of the Pens 20 years ago, and very valuable in winning the 1991 Stanley Cup. But his second stanza with the team ended poorly, with rumored vindictiveness towards Sidney Crosby. And don't say it was just a veteran trying to be a leader; when Bill Guerin was called in to perform a similar role, the team flourished.

Not only that, Recchi's kind of become a cranky old bastard in his dotage.

The biggest reason, for me, to root against Boston is ESPN's pop culture guru, podcaster and occasional columnist the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. A Boston native, Simmons - who I normally love, unless he's writing/talking about Boston sports - has apparently jumped on the Bruins bandwagon. Like, 10 minutes ago.

He'll diagram an entire quarter of some random NBA game in January, and spend hours poring over a Western Conference NBA playoff game, but the hockey talk from him is severely lacking. I get part of it; basketball is his preferred sport. It just irks me that now, of all times, he's talking hockey.

In fairness, Simmons used to enjoy hockey until owner Jeremy Jacobs started nickel-and-diming the team. I can support that. The drafting of Tyler Seguin is what apparently brought him back, though he claims the hard salary cap did as well. Not that he's followed the Bruins really since the lockout, at least not until this year.

Just as I don't care for the patriotism of rooting for the American team against the Canadian one, I also don't buy into the East vs. West conference thing. What, the Eastern Conference winning the Stanley Cup is supposed to make me feel better about the Penguins losing in the first round? Does it validate their season that they lost to the team that lost to the champion?

So the reasons for me rooting for the Bruins are severely lacking. I like Patrice Bergeron. I like Dennis Seidenberg. I'm ambivalent towards Tim Thomas. I can't really add anything else to the "pro" list. Just cons.

I guess one other reason why I might want Boston to win is because I feel a small measure of guilt over what Matt Cooke did to Marc Savard. However, I can argue that away by saying karma got us back in the form of David Steckel.

All I really know is I'm not going to like who raises the Stanley Cup. The best part about the 2011 final that I can say is at least it's not Detroit against Philadelphia or Washington.

Otherwise, I'd have to drive my car off a cliff.