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New Pressure on Wild in Playoffs

April 11, 2017 - (0) comments

 

The Wild enter Wednesday night’s opening playoff series against the Blues facing expectations that are a franchise first. Coach Bruce Boudreau and his players produced the best regular season results in wins and points since Minnesota became a member of the NHL in 2000-2001. The results also created anticipation the Wild will make a deep playoff run.

“Expectations from fans to get past the first round and into the second are huge,” a pro hockey authority told Sports Headliners. “They (the Wild) are not used to the expectations that you’re really good and should advance to the conference finals.”

How the Wild reacts to the pressure of the playoffs beginning tomorrow night in St. Paul will likely be the biggest sports story in the state during the spring. The source quoted above asked that his name not be used, but he had a lot to say about the Wild and Blues including predictions regarding both tomorrow night’s game and the series winner.

He looks for the underdog Blues to be aggressive early in Wednesday evening’s game. “I think they will try to score early on (goalie Devan) Dubnyk and rattle his confidence. The Wild don’t (always) play well when other teams play them physical.”

The Blues finished third in the Central Division, while the Wild placed second to the Blackhawks. Odds-makers see the Wild, who had the second best record in the Western Conference, as a likely Stanley Cup Finals team but the Blues are a long-shot. Scoring early tonight figures to give St. Louis a lift to its hopes of winning one of the first two games in the series. Game 2 is in St. Paul Friday night before the games 3 and 4 in the best of seven series switch to St. Louis.

Even casual Wild and Blues fans will be watching Dubnyk closely. The Wild’s 30-year-old goalie was sensational much of the season but faltered toward the finish. “People in the industry think he was overused,” the source said. “Too many minutes and too many games. Is he fresh for the playoffs? That remains to be seen?”

Dubnyk played in 65 of 82 regular season games. He was the winning goalie in 40 of the Wild’s 49 victories and only seven goalies had a better goals against average than his 2.25. But only three NHL goalies played more minutes than Dubnyk’s 3,758, according to Hockey-reference.com

Bruce Boudreau

Boudreau’s handling of the team was often praised this season. The new coach brought strong leadership and a calming influence to a team that had played mediocre hockey in recent seasons. Several players produced career seasons and at times this winter the Wild looked to some observers like the best team in the NHL.

But Boudreau, fair or not, was labeled in other NHL head coaching stops as being a leader who couldn’t get his teams into deep playoff runs. The worst thing for his image would be an upset series loss to the Blues coached by Mike Yeo who was the Wild’s coach a little over a year ago.

Yeo certainly has incentive to show his former franchise, including general manager Chuck Fletcher, that letting him go was a mistake. The Blues were failing on February 1 when they fired Ken Hitchcock and replaced him with Yeo. He helped lead St. Louis to a 21-8-2 record while earning a reputation for being among the league’s best defensive teams.

But revenge for Yeo against the Wild will be a challenge. Minnesota is more talented and deeper than the Blues, and has home ice advantage. While warning the series could be close, the source quoted here predicts the Wild will win round one in six games.

That should keep the fanbase satisfied—temporarily.

Worth Noting

Wild total attendance for regular season home games this season was 781,915, for an average of 19,071. Both figures are franchise records. All 41 home games at Xcel Energy Center were sellouts, with 34 topping 19,000 in attendance. The previous total regular season attendance record was 779,974 in 2014-15, while the previous average attendance record was 19,062 set last season.

The Twins entered today’s game against the Tigers an MLB-best 5-1 but lost 2-1 to Detroit. All the games have been against Central Division teams. A year ago, the Twins who lost their first nine games of the 2016 season, didn’t earn their first win against a division team until April 25.

For now the Twins are going with rookie left-hander Adalberto Mejia as their fifth starter. In his only start so far he pitched 1.2 innings, giving up two earned runs in a earning a loss against the White Sox. Before this season the 23-year-old was named the sixth best prospect in the Twins’ system by Baseball America.

The WNBA’s draft Thursday night consists of three rounds with the first round televised by ESPN2 starting at 6 p.m. Minneapolis time. The second and third rounds will be on ESPNU. The Lynx hold the 12th, 24th and 36th picks respectively in the first, second and third rounds.

Draftsite.com projects the Lynx will select Baylor guard Alexis Prince, Kansas State center Breanna Lewis and Syracuse center Briana Day with their three choices. Forward Nia Coffey, the former Hopkins all-stater who was a dominant player for Northwestern, is projected going to Dallas as the 10th player overall selected in the draft.

The Timberwolves, whose specific draft position in June awaits the NBA Draft Lottery, will have a high pick and they need help at power forward. The 2017 draft could have several power forwards chosen in the first round and the Wolves may end up with perhaps the best of the group, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen.

 

Hall Talk Prompts Jim Marshall Stories

April 06, 2017 - 1 Comment

 

To hear Bob Lurtsema tell it, Jim Marshall belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of consistency and teamwork.

The Vikings are making a push to get Marshall, who played his last season in 1979, enshrined in Canton, Ohio. It might happen but if this were easy lobbying, the former member of the Vikings’ famed “Purple People Eaters” defensive line would already be a Hall of Famer.

Jim Marshall (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Two “People Eaters” are enshrined in the Hall, tackle Alan Page and end Carl Eller. In 1971 Page became the first defensive lineman in NFL history to be chosen the league’s MVP. He was a four-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year and also played in nine Pro Bowls. Eller was named All-Pro five times and was selected for six Pro Bowls.

Marshall can’t match the national honors accumulated by his two linemates, but he was an important contributor in taking the Vikings to four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He was chosen for two Pro Bowls but was never All-Pro. He held the NFL record for consecutive games started for many years until Brett Favre broke it.

Lurtsema was a reserve defensive lineman on Vikings teams in the 1970s. His admiration for Marshall continues until this day.

“He instigated the consistency for the ‘Purple People Eaters,’” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners. “He is a lot of the reason that Page and Eller are in the Hall of Fame.”

Marshall was a superb athlete and he excelled in sacking quarterbacks, but Lurtsema extolled the former Ohio State star’s willingness to play within the team concept. “You gotta realize how good he was,” Lurtsema said. “I couldn’t beat him out of his job. What he did the best was consistency.”

Marshall played at a reported 6-4, 248-pounds. He joined the Vikings in 1961, after one season with the Browns. He played 19 seasons for Minnesota and that service included those Super Bowls and 10 division titles for the Vikings. With a unit consisting of Marshall, Eller, Page and either Gary Larsen or Doug Sutherland, the “Purple People Eaters” ‘ defensive line was legendary for its dominance and it was the heart of Minnesota’s great teams.

Marshall was a team captain, and while greatly respected, he was also a character. He was one of the Vikings who built toy rockets and tried to launch them at training camp in Mankato. Lurtsema recalled the time Marshall added a “passenger” to his three-stage rocket.

The players placed bets on whether during the rocket’s third phase a frog would disengage while wearing a parachute. “Freddie the Frog never survived, I guess,” Lurtsema said. “We looked for him.”

Coach Bud Grant didn’t like to have his players arrive too early for games—believing that was a waste of time and energy. The policy was adhered to when the Vikings had exhibition games and drove their cars from Mankato to Met Stadium. Marshall kept a handgun during training camp and Grant saw a way to make a positive out of his leader having a firearm.

Grant told Marshall that no players were to leave for Met Stadium before 4 p.m., so on exhibition game days players gathered in a circle in Mankato awaiting the countdown. “He pulls that gun out and shoots that gun off, and off we go,” Lurtsema said.

There is no doubt Marshall ranks with the all-time Vikings characters. He is 79 now and has lived a fearless life on and off the field. His mental toughness enabled him to start and play in 282 consecutive NFL games, including 270 with the Vikings. At training camp he once accidentally shot himself, and he could have died after a 1971 snowmobile accident in Wyoming where cash was burned to keep bodies warm. He is also a cancer survivor.

Bob Lurtsema

Marshall’s infamous moment on the field was his wrong-way run with a fumble in a 1964 game against the 49ers. He ran 66 yards and into the wrong end zone, and scored a safety for the 49ers. Maybe the only saving grace was the game was played in San Francisco, not at Met Stadium.

Over the years Marshall has made Minnesota home. “Jim did all the charity work, always out there,” Lurtsema said. “Signed autographs, did everything.”

Marshall was inducted into the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor in 1999, joining a group that comprises the franchise’s best players since 1961. Now the Vikings ownership, management and alumni are hoping for an even higher honor. “There should be a place in the Hall (at Canton) for him,” Lurtsema said.

Worth Noting

Former Gophers assistant coach Mike Sherels, who was seriously ill last year, will receive the Courage Award at the Minnesota Football Honors event Sunday, May 7 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The 10th annual gathering is hosted by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. Numerous other awards will be presented including the Sid Hartman Media Award to Minnesota native and CBS sportscaster Brad Nessler, and the John Gagliardi Legacy Award to former Totino-Grace High School coach Dave Nigon.

Eight high school scholar-athlete award winners will be recognized: Jacob Brown, Hastings; Noah Carlson, Rushford-Peterson; Brad Davison, Maple Grove; Kellen Erpenbach, Norwood-Young America Central; Noah Gindorff, Crosby-Ironton; Timothy Johnson, Hinckley-Finlayson; Joe Russell, Totino-Grace; and Eric Wilson, Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Houa Thao from St. Paul Harding is the Stacy Robinson Leadership Award winner.

College football players being recognized are Carter Hanson from St. John’s with the Stein-Fallon Scholar-Athlete Award, and Peter Bateman of UMD with the Bobby Bell College Impact Player of the Year Award. Others being honored are Terry Carlyle for the Fred Zamberletti Award; Morrie Lanning with the Bud Grant Distinguished Minnesotan; and Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta Community for the “In The Game Award.” More information on the May 7 event, including tickets, is available at www.nffmn.org.

Congratulations to the Fitzgerald family for raising close to $2 million to benefit organizations locally and nationally that assist in HIV prevention, breast cancer awareness and urban education. Minneapolis sports journalist Larry Fitzgerald Sr. lost his wife Carol to breast cancer in 2003, and he and sons Larry Jr. and Marcus have honored her memory with the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Benefit.

The 13th annual CFMFB Gala will be tomorrow night at the Minneapolis Event Center and will raise proceeds for the cause. The sports-themed gala features NFL star Larry Jr. and headline entertainer Mike Phillips, who has played with Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder. Call 612-770-4575 for more information.

The Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Community Celebration will be held from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday at Martin Luther King Center in Minneapolis. Activities will include Larry Jr. signing autographs and also a silent auction. For tickets call 612-619-0102.

 

Twins See Catcher Castro as ‘Framer’

April 04, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Among the terms heard in Major League Baseball these days is “framing pitches.” Twins fans likely will hear the phrase used a lot this season when media talk about catcher Jason Castro.

The 29-year-old was acquired during the offseason with the hope he can help a struggling pitching staff. Castro’s skill for “framing” is supposed to help Twins pitchers receive more called strikes from umpires. He has a knack for positioning his glove so pitches look more like strikes.

Castro was the Astros regular catcher the four previous seasons, and he gained a reputation for his glove work framing pitches and being among the best in the majors at his craft. “He is one of those ones near the top of the list,” said former big leaguer Roy Smalley, now a Twins TV analyst. “That can be really, really significant when you think about how important counts are to hitters.

“For example, on a 1-1 pitch it’s a huge deal what the umpire calls on a close pitch, whether it’s 2-1, or 1-2. Huge difference on a 2-1 pitch whether it goes to 3-1, or 2-2. Those kinds of things happen five or six times in a ballgame. It can mean the difference between winning or losing a ballgame.”

Castro, signed as a free agent, replaces last year’s starting catcher Kurt Suzuki who the Twins apparently didn’t want back. That’s a savvy move, according to an online story Sunday by Sports Illustrated. The article said analysis from Baseball Prospectus showed Castro was third in the majors (+16 runs) in framing pitches last season, while Suzuki was seven runs below average. For the past three seasons Castro is a plus 37, Suzuki a minus 32, the story said. That translates to 2.3 more wins per season.

Castro, who hit .210 last year, had two hits and two RBI in yesterday’s 7-1 season opening win against the Royals at Target Field.  He also helped starting pitcher Ervin Santana hold the Royals to one run on two hits.

In his last 10 starts at Target Field, Santana is 5-3 with a 2.42 ERA.

Worth Noting

John Anderson

The Gophers baseball team opens its 2017 Siebert Field schedule tonight in a 6:30 p.m. game against North Dakota State. The Gophers and head coach John Anderson are 18-8 overall and 6-0 in Big Ten games. Sports Headliners reader Steve Hunegs notes that while the Gophers have had three different head football coaches in the last three years, Minnesota’s baseball program has three since 1948.

A Gophers athletic department source emailed that the 2017 salary pool for football assistant coaches is $3.1 million, compared with about $2.9 million last year. The top paid assistants are offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who each earn $700,000. P.J. Fleck, who was named head coach January 6, reportedly makes $3.5 million and is the highest paid Gophers football coach ever.

Newly signed Vikings reserve quarterback Case Keenum was a teammate of Minnesota starter Sam Bradford when the two played for the Rams in St. Louis in 2014.

Legendary ex-Vikings coach Bud Grant, who turns 90 on May 20, holds his annual garage sale at his Bloomington home May 17-19. “This will be his latest, last garage sale,” son Mike Grant told Sports Headliners with a smile.

Area resident and Sun Country executive Eric Curry didn’t officiate last night’s NCAA title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga, but he had another busy basketball season working games in various parts of the country. Curry’s assignments included the Armed Forces Classic at Pearl Harbor, the Mountain West Conference championship game and three rounds in the NCAA Tournament. He estimates flying more than 100,000 miles over a five month stretch.

Minnesota philanthropist Wayne Kostroski will help debut Taste of the Master Chefs in Augusta, Georgia on Friday. Kostroski, of course, is founder of Taste of the NFL (“the party with a purpose”) that has raised millions to fight hunger in the United States. The new event in the hometown of the Masters Golf Tournament will benefit the Salvation Army of Augusta.

“…My incentive has been that with all of the high-end parties and corporate hospitality during Masters week, I did not see one event that was geared to provide dollars and/or relief to local families in the Augusta area,” Kostroski wrote in an email.

Former Gophers football coach Lou Holtz is an avid golfer and has been a member of Augusta National Golf Club for almost 15 years. Holtz turned 80 in January and still plays the legendary course.

Holtz, who once was an assistant coach at Ohio State, joins Nike founder Phil Knight as guest coaches April 15 for the Buckeyes annual spring football game.

Michele Tafoya, the sideline reporter on NBC TV’s Sunday Night Football who lives in suburban Minneapolis, speaks to the CORES lunch group Thursday, May 11 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington, 1114 American Blvd. More information is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, dotseth@comcast.net.

 

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