Monday, December 12, 2011

Vexing Wild Driving Eggheads Crazy

by NiNY

A look through the various pre-season prognostications before this NHL season would have told you the Minnesota Wild was not going to be a very good team. New coach, young defense, upgraded offense, but still a bottom-heavy forward corps.

Sure. Made sense to me. A 3-3-3 start only served to reinforce this analysis - as well it should have. But 17-4 since then has presented the cognoscenti with a bit of a dilemma: what the hell do we do with the Wild?

Certainly the Wild's play the last twenty games is not sustainable for 50 more games this season. Same with Boston's play since the beginning of November. Or Vancouver's play over the last 10+ games. Parity in the NHL is such that the majority of the teams are competitive with each other on a given night. The Wild is just not a 117 point team.

And the desire to tear them down by some of those same people who had them pegged as a bottom-third team coming into the season must be great. Certainly, it's been the mind frame of the sports analyst since humans first started practicing organized sports. The famous Greek journalist Archidonis, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfather to George Plimpton, noted this about the first Olympiad "By Hector I tell you, he had no right to win that marathon."*

Anyone who repeats the vulgar "Those who can't, teach" line around me stands to get an earful (my wife is a teacher - no way most people who utter that phrase could do what she and her colleagues do). But, too often in the sports reporting world, it could be said that, "Those who can't, write." I'm not talking about the retired-jock color analysts. I'm talking about the ink-stained wretches whose skill with the pen far outweighs their skill with the ball, as it were.

Look, I'm far more like the latter than the former. I can't throw a 100 MPH heater, dunk a basketball or run a sub-4:00 mile, and my slapper, well let's just say it leaves a lot to be desired. And I note the irony (duplicity?) of me complaining about those who write - on my blog.

But, you see, I'm not even really complaining about them. As a human who is not possessed of the physical attributes necessary to compete on the field, all those poor scribes have is their ability to prognosticate, villify or beatify with their words. Take that away, well you've got a moist, warm petri dish of insecurity, don't you? So I get the sportswriter's angst when a team produces results that so greatly diverge from their academic analysis. That's the danger in being overly slaved to academics in general, I believe. Sometimes the visceral trumps the academic.

A sportswriter can't fall back on his or her athletic prowess when their analysis proves faulty. Their perceived reputation is all they have. So, when they're wrong, they almost HAVE to find some way to wiggle off that hook. And the statistical argument method of hook-disentanglement is as convenient and efficient as any in that instance.

I think, though, that you run the risk of losing touch with what sports really is, at its essence, when you go down that road.

Sports is the moment when you put aside the playbook, and the chalk talk and the video screening and have at it. Hockey, specifically, is a constantly-evolving kaleidoscope of activity and action, relying so little on set plays as it does.

Statistics are inherently backward-looking metrics. And applying them into a future-looking analysis is fraught with peril since there are so many variables than can and will come into play between prediction and outcome that it is very hard to say "the reason the outcome was what it is can been seen in the statistical-based predictions I made before!"

Statistics don't allow for injuries, or trades, for example. You can't straight line something that is so inherently organic as a sports team's season. Statistics are black and white. But sports are played in technicolor.

Of course, the savvy sports writer tries to tear down an anomaly like the Wild not for the instant gratification but to set him or herself up to be able to say "I told you so" when the mean reversion occurs.

But, here's the thing about all this: it doesn't matter. You can run a counter to every statistical analysis that purports to convince you that the Wild shouldn't have won all these games.

For example, the Wild gets outshot with regularity. Well, despite getting outshot they're winning all these games. What if they started shooting more? Would they win by more goals than they're winning by now?

The Wild's also been pretty beaten up so far this season. Nine callups already, etc. So they're eking out these wins despite the poor metrics and the injuries. So, maybe, when they get healthy, they continue to win and the metrics improve, right? Can you say for sure that WON'T happen? Of course you can't.

Pointing out that the Wild is winning despite taking so few shots, or whatever, simply doesn't tell you what's going to happen in future Wild games. They've won 20 games this season-to-date, with crappy statistics. How have those statistics helped you predict Wild performance so far?

To the people who are professing their staunch distrust of the Wild's ability to sustain their current pace because the numbers simply say they won't be able to: fine. I agree with you. I don't hold your ill-fated predictions against you. You're not a bad person because you thought (as I did) that the Wild would struggle to stay in the playoff hunt this season. It's all good, man.

Can we just watch the games, now?

*Okay, so obviously that was a bit of fiction there.

Yeoism Taking Root, Converts

by NiNY

Let's keep the good vibes about the Minnesota Wild rolling. Minnesota sports team fans know better than most just how quickly the tide can turn, so you have to enjoy it while you can. We've certainly done our share of wandering around the desert, so to speak. Maybe we're due for a return to Canaan.

Mike Yeo's passion, his steely-eyed determination and his results have created a bit of a cult following that's gaining momentum. There's a whole twitter account dedicated to this movement (@churchofyeo) and the brilliant Ms. Conduct offered an expose on it in her Backhand Shelf piece yesterday.

This is certainly a topic that's worth celebrating, so here's my gold, frankencense and myrrh:


Holy Trinity: Father (Leipold), Son (Fletcher) Holy Ghost (Yeo)
Holiest Site: 175 Kellogg Blvd. W
Vatican: 317 Washington St.
Cardinals: Flahr, Mill and Harder
Bishops: Wilson, Sydor, Mason and Hendrickson
Apostles: Bombardir, Mackasey, Lapointe and the rest of the scouts
Fiery Local Preacher: Walz

Henceforth shall time before the 2011-12 season be referred to as years BYE (Before Yeosian Era), and, starting with the 2011-12 season be referred to as years AH (After-Hiring).

For example, "In the 10 seasons BYE, the Wild were really never a comeback threat if they gave up the first goal. Thanks be to Yeo."

Any nascent religion needs people, scratch that - believers - at the grass roots level spreading the word.

So, Wild fans and Yeoism converts, I ask you how you would build upon this religious movement?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Aeros @ Amerks

by NiNY

Last Friday night I took in the Houston Aeros professional ice hockey contest against the Rochester Americans.

It was my first AHL game of the season.

I've been to a few Amerks games and they're fun, if generally sparsely-attended.

Theirs is an older barn, two tiers of seating, not a bad seat in the house for hockey. It's beer-stained and well-used. I've never seen it anything approaching full for a hockey game. But, until this season, the Amerks were not associated with the "local" Buffalo Sabres during my tenure in Rochester, to be fair. It did seem like the building was more full than it had been for my previous Amerks games, so maybe a combination of the new Pegula-era Sabres/Western NY hockey craze and Friday night. Either that or the people just wanted to see the Calder Cup Runners-Up live and in action.

I had family duties that meant I was unavailable for pre-game fellowship with the locals, which is too bad. But I did wear the trusty white Wild jersey that has brought me so much luck, most recently at the Aeros/Baby Sens game I attended this spring. It wouldn't let me down, even if I didn't get a chance to see how the home team fans reacted to it.

Not a lot of pre-game pomp and circumstance at the Amerks game. Mostly just "sing the fuckin' song(s)" and get on with it.

My seat was nearly perfect. Lower section, center ice, top of the section, just inside the center red line, on the aisle. The only drawback (and it's a minor one) is that the view of the corner to my right was obstructed by the railing around the wheelchair-accessible seats to my right. But even I am not going to complain about wheelchair-dependent hockey fans.

The Aeros had on road sweaters that were decidedly ugly. Unless you're into sort of a Euro-transformers mash up, paean to industrial might kind of theme in your jerseys. They were dark green and gray. Yeah, exactly.

It was goalie Darcy Kuemper's first start of the season, which was among the interesting tidbits I learned from the irreplaceable peeps over at T3I - not even at the game, and they're still schooling me and adding value. That's some seriously awesome awesomeness, sports fans.

I endeavored to keep an eye on Kuemper.

The Amerks were geeked to start the game, and came out with gusto. They were skating right around the Aeros defense on the entries, and creating chances off of that pressure. Kuemper was a little nervous perhaps to start the game, and his inability to handle rebounds along with poor play-reading set up the Amerks twice fairly early in the first. I noticed how Kuemper's feet never seem to get set. His footwork hurt him on the first Amerks goal when he was late to see the play move from his right to his left and then took an interminable amount of time moving over, and not before the Amerk winger buried it in the half-open net.

Torch took his time out after the second Amerks goal and, while he was visibly excited, did not appear to be tearing guys heads off and crapping down their necks.

The last negative thing I'll say about Kuemper is that he was too eager to give up the high part of his crease. I don't know if that's the way he plays - relying on his size - or if he was somehow back on his heels in his first start in the AHL this season.

However, the whole team reacted positively to the time out. Including Kuemper.

The Aeros transition to offense in a flash, and attack with numbers wide across the zone. The alacrity with which they move up ice with the puck is impressive. Play had evened out by the end of the first period.

In the second, the Aeros make quick work of evening the score. First with a greasy goal then creating a chance out of good work below the goal line.

Sidebar: in the seat across the aisle from me was an elderly lady who appeared to be a regular at Amerks games. She was sitting with either a much younger daughter or a granddaughter, or an orderly or something. This lady was possessed of great spirit, if poor dental hygiene habits. Her joie de vivre manifested itself in her literally yelling obscenities at people who ran afoul of her sense of decency at the hockey game.

The list of infractions was as long as the threshold for inclusion was low. For example:

*Standing up
*Sitting down (too slowly)
*Booing an *Aeros* goal
*Descending/ascending the stairs too slowly
*Cheering too loudly within a 50-foot radius of her
*Being an usher
*Being a human being
*Having more teeth than her

These were all offenses that drew an immediate, forceful and profanity-laced verbal correction from her. One exchange with a 20-something gentleman (bald, leather jacket and jeans, if you take my meaning) who was insensitive enough to walk down to his seat when she did not want him to went like this:

Crazy Mabel (my nickname for her): "HEY! Sit the fuck down, what are you stupid? This is a hockey game, not a..."*
Butch (my nickname for him): "Excuse me?"
Crazy Mabel: "You heard me! Move your ass, asshole!"

*It almost killed me that she didn't finish her sentence. "Not a what?!?!"

Honestly, "Butch" regarded Crazy Mabel with a "am I really going to have to kick this old lady's ass?" look for a minute before discretion overwhelmed his baser instincts and he just proceeded down to his seat.

She was really something to behold.

Anyway, the Aeros and Amerks would trade goals from that point and the 2nd would end at a 3-3 deadlock. But, looking back, the tide had turned against the Amerks. Their third goal was also the result of them beating the Amerks D wide with speed. But, for whatever reason, the Amerks stopped doing that, and it seemed like the Aeros made a backchecking adjustment that made it harder for the Amerks forwards to build up speed through the neutral zone in the first place.

Regardless, the Amerks attack really atrophied and stagnated in the third with the result being that the Aeros had little trouble batting them aside until the big push by Rochester at the end of the game.

Once Kuemper settled in, he was very solid. I still didn't love his footwork, but he was on his angles, limiting rebounds and showed enough athleticism on broken plays that you can see why he's a highly touted pro.

As for the Aeros in general, I was impressed. They just ground the Amerks down over the course of the game. They got down early, but didn't panic. Torch was wise to call the TO when he did and the team focused and rallied from there. Maybe the Aeros' legs weren't all the way engaged at the start of the game, but once they got going it was like the scene in "A Fish Called Wanda" where Ken is running down Otto in the cement roller. Slow, inexorable, awesome.

In fact, it was very much the type of stubborn refusal to deviate from the game plan and fervent conviction that the Wild exhibits.

Harmony between the NHL team and its AHL affiliate, who knew?