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Blackhawks Still Target for Wild

February 07, 2017 - (0) comments

 

It will be interesting to see how the Minnesota Wild plays this week and throughout the month.

The Western Conference leaders are a confident team and have made fans wonder if this could be the best club since the franchise’s inception in 2000. Tonight the Wild play in Winnipeg against the Jets and then players won’t have much time to rest before they go on the ice at Xcel Energy Wednesday against the Blackhawks, the team tied with the Sharks for second most points in the Western Conference. Tomorrow night’s game is the first of eight consecutive at home and despite fatigue the Wild should be full of adrenaline facing the rival Blackhawks.

The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in Chicago last month and Minnesota has won eight consecutive games against the famous franchise. The two teams also have remaining games in St. Paul on February 21 and in Chicago March 12. More wins over the Blackhawks can only add to the Wild’s collective confidence and momentum.

But the Wild has a history with the Blackhawks that makes some fans anxious. Chicago has often dominated the Central Division during the past several years and has been a playoff pest to the Wild and other teams. Just two years ago, on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks swept the Wild 4-0 in their best of seven games playoff. In the second round series the Wild scored just seven goals.

Bruce Boudreau

However, this doesn’t look like the 2015 Wild team. New head coach Bruce Boudreau has brought leadership, including a calming presence, to his players. That leadership has helped make for a remarkably consistent team group that so far has been able to avoid long losing streaks while also winning close games.

Boudreau has a team playing effectively as a unit. That togetherness is exemplified by the Wild’s balanced scoring. The club has nine players with 10 or more goals. Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and Jason Zucker are tied for the team lead with 16 goals each.

This is a roster with depth and Boudreau is able to use four lines. That fourth line sometimes steps forward to make big plays and take pressure off the other units. Every game the Wild can count on depth and it’s something that distinguishes the roster from rivals.

Goalie Devan Dubnyk is among the NHL’s leaders at his position. He ranks first in the league in wins with 28. He is second in save percentage at .932.

The Wild has made a fast start without a lot of help sometimes from Zach Parise, the 32-year-old forward with the 13-year, $98 million contract. Maybe Parise isn’t right physically but even if that is a problem expect him to contribute to the team’s success by mentoring younger players.

The Wild could get another psychological boost with an impressive win tomorrow night. Are they better than Blackhawks? “I think right now they are,” a hockey authority told Sports Headliners. “But the Hawks are battle-tested. They have so much experience playing in big games in the past and are proven winners.”

The Wild hopes in a couple of years people will be saying the same about them.

Worth Noting

Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn has been named Big Ten First Star of the Week. Schierhorn held the nation’s top-ranked offense to three goals on 69 shots last weekend when Minnesota swept Penn State at Mariucci Arena. Schierhorn, a sophomore, was Big Ten Goaltender of the Year last season, and currently leads the Big Ten in wins with 17. That total is tied for second best in the NCAA.

The Wild’s TV deal with FOX Sports North ends after this season. Ratings are impressive and the two organizations are likely to make a new deal.

New Gophers coach P.J. Fleck will do the “Let’s Play Hockey” call at Friday’s Wild-Lightning game.

For those who missed or couldn’t get enough of Lady Gaga’s halftime show at the Super Bowl last Sunday, she is performing at the Xcel Energy Center August 21. Tickets go on sale Friday.

Rivals ranks the Gophers football recruiting class No. 51 nationally. That compares with a No. 51 ranking in 2016 and No. 53 in 2015.

P.J. Fleck

Among the best Gophers recruits in this year’s class is Marshall offensive tackle Blaise Andries who has known since seventh grade he wants to be an actuary, according to Fleck who joked about not knowing what the noun means.

Another recruiting prize could be tight end Jake Paulson from Louisville, who turned down a visit to LSU and has special parents in two former Navy pilots, per Fleck.

Fleck believes the “sleeper” of the class could be under recruited defensive lineman Austin Schirck from Carroll, Iowa. “He is special,” Fleck said. “I don’t know how he got out of that state.”

Fleck headlines the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 30-April 1. Other prominent speakers will include Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman and San Diego State’s Jeff Horton. More information is available by clicking on the MFCA advertisement on this page and visiting the organization’s website.

Look for the Gophers athletic department to host members of the 1967 football team later this year as part of a celebration for the school’s last Big Ten championship.

The 1967 team will be honored with the Murray Warmath Legendary Team Award at the Minnesota Football Awards event May 7. The event is organized by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation and will be at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Gophers basketball team could get its second home sellout of the season Wednesday night against Iowa. Minnesota’s win last Saturday over Illinois, combined with the Iowa rivalry and an 8 p.m. start, puts the Gophers in a potential sellout situation. The Wild and Timberwolves also have home games Wednesday night so there is box office competition.

Boys high school basketball fans could hardly find a more fun start to the week. Last night the state’s best team, Champlin Park, defeated (70-60) arguably the second best club, Maple Grove. Tonight prep powers Apple Valley and Lakeville North play at Apple Valley.

Mike Max said on WCCO Radio this morning that NBC TV’s Harry Smith is planning a feature story on Sid Hartman, the local radio and newspaper personality who turns 97 next month.

 

Dad Wants Amir Coffey to ‘Step on Toes’

February 05, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Amir Coffey has impressed in his first season of college basketball. The Gophers 6-8 freshman forward from Hopkins High School is second on the team in scoring and minutes played. Twice he has been selected as the Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

“He is one of the better freshmen in the country,” former Gophers head coach Jim Dutcher told Sports Headliners. “I’ve really enjoyed watching him play.”

Coffey is averaging 12.2 points and 31.9 minutes per game, ranking second in both categories behind junior point guard Nate Mason. Coffey is a versatile player who helps the Gophers in multiple ways including rebounding and passing. He is fifth on the team in rebounding average and only Mason has more assists.

That versatility and willingness to help teammates earns the praise of many obervers including Coffey’s dad, Richard Coffey who played four seasons for the Gophers in the late 1980s.

Amir Coffey

“Amir is a team guy,” Richard said. “He’s not selfish. He’s going to try and make the right basketball play. He sees the ball really well. He has a high basketball I.Q.”

During an interview with Sports Headliners, Richard expressed approval of his son’s first-year performance. “I think he’s doing extremely well. I didn’t come in with a lot of expectations, because I didn’t want to put that pressure on him. I just wanted him to come in and learn his teammates, learn the coaching staff, learn the offense and try to use his skill-set as much as possible in the game. He’s done that. …”

The older Coffey was a warrior playing for the Gophers. His on-court demeanor as a rugged 6-6 rebounder and defender fit his background as a former Army airborne paratrooper. He led Minnesota in rebounding all four seasons from 1986-1990. It’s not surprising Richard believes a mental adjustment is what his son needs to be more consistent and elevate his play.

“(When) Amir steps on the court right now, sometimes he might be thinking that I am a freshman and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Richard said. “He needs to learn that he needs to step on some people’s toes to get to that next level. When you’re not aggressive, you’re not only not helping but in some cases you maybe hindering because of your skill-set. This team needs Amir to be aggressive to win.

“When I say aggressive, I don’t mean shoot. I mean having the ball, make a play with the ball and create something for yourself or your teammates.”

There are times, though, when the Gophers do need Coffey to score, and that was evident in a loss at home to Maryland late last month. Minnesota led the nationally ranked Terrapins 33-26 at halftime and Coffey had 11 points. But the Gophers lost the game 85-78 and Coffey didn’t score a point in the second half.

Yesterday against Illinois Coffey played a team high 38 minutes in a 68-59 road win that stopped Minnesota’s five game losing streak. Coffey took only six shots but scored 13 points while holding the Illini’s leading scorer, Malcolm Hill, to 13 points on five of 18 shooting. It was a steady performance for Coffey who was a team leader including with his solid position defense against Hill.

Ups and downs are to be expected, even with a freshman as talented as Coffey who was the state’s 2016 Mr. Basketball. In a 2015 interview Hopkins coach Ken Novak Jr. told Sports Headliners Coffey was the most versatile player he has had in more than 30 years of coaching and he predicted that eventually Amir could become a dominant Big Ten player. That’s high praise coming from someone who has coached high school superstars Kris Humphries and Royce White—two players who became first round NBA draft choices.

Jim Dutcher

Part of that process will involve becoming physically stronger. At less than 200 pounds, Coffey needs more weight and muscle. “That comes with maturity,” Dutcher said.

Certainly a more physical body will be needed if Amir is to play in the NBA, but neither in the past or right now has there been family strategizing on reaching that destination. “Is that Amir’s dream? Of course it is, but we haven’t had those conversations for a couple different reasons,” Richard said. “

“I don’t want to put that pressure on him. I think that (NBA focus) will happen when the time is right—whether it’s two years, three years, four years. When the time is right, I think he will know, the coaching staff would know and I would know it. Then we’ll start having those conversations.

“But if a kid is going out there thinking I need to play to get to the NBA, that’s just a set up for disaster. Enjoy this experience. College was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my life. …Let’s do well where we are right now and then other things will happen.”

Richard spent a lot of time coaching Amir when his son was young. Among the development goals was to have Amir become similar to European professionals who often are versatile enough to play multiple positions and have varied responsibilities on the floor. Amir’s versatility will continue to help the Gophers and enhance his pro possibilities. He is a player who makes those around him better, even if his dad and others want to see more consistency in his total game.

Richard is optimistic about his son’s future including a possible NBA career. “I think he has a great chance if he continues to grow physically and grow mentally, and stay healthy.”

Amir has already shown his dad and others a willingness to work. That quality has much to do with achieving the success already in place including helping Hopkins to a state championship last year. His dad said more work must be done by the freshman including “stepping on toes.”

“He is a 6-8 kid right now that shoots the ball average—that can see the ball, make plays,” Richard said. “He has good ball skills for a kid that age. Now all of those things need to tighten up. His ball handling needs to tighten up. His shooting needs to tighten up. His free throws. Everything needs to get better, but…he’s working. …”

And impressing.

 

Super Bowl Security Puts Mpls. on Alert

February 03, 2017 - (0) comments

 

A notes column heavy with Super Bowl information:

A sports industry friend from Minneapolis was in Houston earlier this week. He was stunned by the security in place for Sunday’s Super Bowl and the events preceding the big game. The city blocks near NRG Stadium and other facilities related to the Super Bowl are so guarded it prompted the friend to say he has never seen such a security lockdown.

“It’s crazy. It’s almost like not welcoming,” he said. “I don’t even know how to get to stuff (places).”

From “eyes in the sky” technology to bomb-sniffing dogs, all kinds of security is being used by public and private agencies to watch for suspicious characters and activities in Houston. No doubt it will be a similar scene in Minneapolis next year when the Super Bowl and its companion events come to town.

U.S. Bank Stadium

It’s expected that the area surrounding U.S. Bank Stadium will be under “Big Brother’s” watch starting about two weeks before the February 4, 2018 game. A challenge for Minneapolis security planners is that the city’s light rail system runs right by the stadium and presumably will be operational.

Super Bowl related events are expected to take place at other sites in Minnesota including the Nicollet Mall for outdoor activities and at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I am told full planning for 2018 by the NFL doesn’t start until April of this year.

Minneapolis native Prince, who died last year, would have been an obvious choice to headline the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show in his hometown. Prince’s acclaimed performance during halftime of the 2007 Super Bowl in Florida is among the most remembered entertainment ever at the big game.

Minneapolis first hosted the Super Bowl in 1992. At that time Minneapolis became the second northern city in NFL history to host the event, which began in 1967.

Minnesota connections with Sunday’s game include Patriots receiver Michael Floyd who could become the third Cretin-Derham Hall alum to play for a Super Bowl winning team, according to a Tuesday Pioneer Press story by Chris Tomasson. Center Matt Birk and offensive tackle Ryan Harris won Super Bowls playing for the Ravens and Broncos, Tomasson reported.

It’s not certain whether the 27-year-old Floyd will see action Sunday. He was released by the Cardinals in December and picked up by the Patriots who were aware of his late season incident with alcohol. He has played minimally in four games with the Patriots, catching five passes including one touchdown reception.

Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill is now the offensive coordinator at Rutgers and he told Sports Headliners six Scarlet Knight alums are on the Patriots roster but he will be rooting for the Falcons on Sunday. That’s because two of his players as Gophers coach are key contributors to the Falcon defense.

Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a Minneapolis Washburn alum, is a player Kill refers to as a ”freak of nature” because of his imposing size and skills. The former Gophers All-American, 6-6, 318-pounds, was drafted by the Falcons in 2014 after a personal and football life filled with obstacles. As a child Hageman was neglected and he also struggled with academics, and although he matured with the Gophers it’s probably fair to say he still needs more consistency on and off the field.

De’Vondre Campbell, a 6-3, 234-pound linebacker who the Falcons drafted in 2016, was recruited by Kill out of Hutchinson  Community College in Kansas. “He is a kid that comes from a lower income family,” Kill said. “He worked hard. He went to Hutchinson because of adcadmics and got good grades. I always knew his best days were ahead of him.”

Kill said he will be “pulling for my guys” on Sunday and takes satisfaction in knowing Hageman and Campbell are late developers. “They will keep getting better,” Kill said.

This week ESPN Insider ranked every Falcons and Patriots player starting with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at No. 1. Hageman ranked No. 48, Campbell No. 74 and Floyd No. 82 out of 106 players.

Eden Prairie native and former Viking Carter Bykowski is on the Falcon practice squad as an offensive tackle.

It was about 40 years ago that the Vikings played in their last Super Bowl. The Vikings lost 32-14 to the Raiders on January 9, 1977 in front of 103,438 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The game was the Vikings’ third Super Bowl in four years and all were losses under head coach Bud Grant who also lost to the Chiefs in the 1970 game.

Ex-Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton had a good line as re-quoted in Ross Bernstein’s book Sixty Years & Sixty Heroes: “What we’re trying to do is run through all the American Football League clubs to see if there’s one we can beat. …”

Jim Dutcher

Former Gophers basketball coach Jim Dutcher talking about the current 3-6 Minnesota team that has lost five consecutive Big Ten games and now faces mediocre opponents against Illinois tomorrow and Iowa February 8, and then lowly Rutgers February 11: “They can’t have any hiccups.”

The Gophers hockey team, 6-2 in the Big Ten, has only league games remaining on the schedule. Minnesota is tied for first with Wisconsin in the Big Ten, just ahead of the 5-2-1 Penn State team that plays the Gophers tonight and tomorrow night at Mariucci Arena. The Nittany Lions men’s hockey program started in 2010 and like the Gophers is nationally ranked.

Minnesota is 27-5-2 all-time in home games against Big Ten opponents. This is the fourth season of Big Ten hockey.

Gary Trent Jr., who played for Apple Valley until this school year, is among those elite senior prep players who have been invited to participate in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago March 29. Trent, now at Prolific Prep in Napa, California, will play for Duke next fall.

WCCO Radio newsman Al Schoch is in his sixth school year of public address announcing for University of St. Thomas football, volleyball, and men’s and women’s basketball.

 

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