Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Times That Try Men's Souls

It's not easy being a hockey fan in Minnesota these days. The inconsistent Wild are struggling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the wild Western Conference. Their scoring is spotty and their defensive effort--usually a hallmark of a Lemaire club--is sporadic; at times stout, at times sieve-like. Even all star goalie Niklas Backstrom has looked shaky at times lately. Meanwhile, the once high-flying Gophers are still mired in a second-half of the season swoon (3-6-1 in conference play in '09). They too have trouble scoring and their defense too often plays soft and looks worn out. And goaltender Alex Kangas, who was the foundation of the team's first half success, has been ordinary so far in 2009. You know things are bad when taking three of four points from Alaska-Anchorage at home is hopefully viewed as a turnaround.

To add insult to injury for local pucksters, last week's rain and above average temps did a number on the outdoor ice rinks and pretty much ended the season in most communities. While there's still a lot of winter to endure, playing hockey outside is no longer an option to help make it more bearable.

If all of the above wasn't bad enough, we must also endure the bizarre machinations of the hockey scheduling wizards. It seems like the Wild have played more back to back games on consecutive days than ever before. And they're almost always a home-road or road-home combo. Nothing wrong with that in principle. But then we also have the inexplicable gaps in games to deal with. For example, on Saturday night the Wild coughed up a 3-0 lead and kicked away a game to the Senators at home. The next time they take the ice? Thursday against Calgary. At home.

So right in the thick of the season, with 27 games left and the team fighting for a playoff spot, fans have to wait four days between games? Inexplicable. How are you supposed to stay interested and engaged when you have gaps like this? Gaps that often alternate with flurries of back-to back games. You either have nothing or a deluge. There's got to be a better way to schedule than this.

But don't look to college hockey for the answer. One of the nice things about following WCHA puck is you don't (or at least shouldn't) have to worry about the vagaries of the schedule. With a few exceptions, your squad plays on Friday and Saturday nights. After a long week of work, you know that when you get home on Friday night you can crack a beer, flip on the tele, and catch a game. Or at least you used to.

This year it seems like there have been more "off" weekends for the Gophers than in recent memory. The long December-January break is bad enough to go through (who do these guys think they are anyway? students?), but this year the Gophers came back from said break to play the Dodge Holiday Cupcake Classic, played North Dakota one weekend, SCSU the next, and then were off. Why? There are ten WCHA teams so there should not be a need for byes.

This schedule plays havoc with the rhythm of the season and also complicates the standings at a critical juncture of the season. With three weeks left in the WCHA, this should be a time of high drama with teams fighting for the conference title, home playoff seeds, and favorable matchups. But when you look at the standings, you can't just worry about points, you also have to consider the dreaded "games in hand."

Right now, four teams have played 24 conference games, two have played 23, and four have played 22. Considering that nine points separate the first place team from the ninth place team, there is still a lot of movement possible within the standings. The Gophers for example are one point behind SCSU and CC for fourth and fifth place (and a home playoff seed). And they've also got one game in hand against CC and two against SCSU. So of those three teams who's really in the best position? Who knows? You can't just look at who they play the rest of the way, you also have to work the schedule differences.

Life is already complicated and chaotic enough already. Is it too much to ask for a little order and symmetry in our hockey?

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