Sunday, May 16, 2010

R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

Dead at 67 Sunday morning.

May the music live forever in memory for the Godfather of Heavy Metal.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tamer Opening Weekend of NCAA Hockey Tourney

The breaking news last Friday regarding Frank Mazzocco’s firing from FSN North’s Gopher hockey broadcasts trumped NCAA Tournament coverage. However, the weekend featured several intriguing matchups, some wild finishes, and one shocker. However, in comparison to the craziness that was the 2009 NCAA Tournament, this year’s version seemed somewhat tame.

In the East Regional, top-seeded Denver seemed poised for a virtual cakewalk to the Frozen Four, but ran into the freight train that was Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT scored first and never let the Pios in the game and bounced George Gwozdecky’s club from the tournament with a 2-1 victory. The Tourney’s first game provided the first shocker, and Denver was bounced from the Tournament for the third-consecutive season in the first round – all the while DU held its bracket’s top seed. Third-seeded New Hampshire throttled Cornell 6-2 with four third-period goals setting up an RIT/New Hampshire regional. In a matchup nobody expected to see, RIT controlled the play for much of the night and notched three goals within 1:34 of the second period to take the regional 6-2. In just the squad’s fifth season of Division I play, RIT was headed to the Frozen Four and became the first Atlantic Hockey club to qualify for the final group.

In the West Regional, St. Cloud State and Northern Michigan met in the first matchup and the Huskies were looking for their first NCAA Tournament victory in the program’s Division I history. In seven prior appearances, St. Cloud compiled an 0-8 mark. Northern didn’t make it easy on SCSU, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game on a goal with 3:49 remaining in the third period, and St. Cloud needed two overtimes to beat Northern Michigan 4-3 on a goal by Tony Mosey. Top-seeded Wisconsin held off Vermont in the nightcap 3-2 to set up an all-WCHA Regional Final the next night. Red-hot Sconnie avenged the defeat by St. Cloud a week prior in the WCHA Final Five to take the Regional with a 5-3 victory, returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since winning it all in 2006.

In the Midwest Regional, #1 overall Tournament seed Miami (OH) matched up against plucky Alabama-Huntsville in the first game. UAH was quite a story; playing in a lame-duck conference and being the only school which did not find a conference home for the 2010-11 season (they’ll play as an independent). Huntsville was also looking to become the first team to win an NCAA Tournament game despite fashioning a losing regular season record, and they gave the RedHawks all they could handle before Miami held them off for a 2-1 victory. In the second semi-final, third-seeded Michigan continued its hot streak with a 5-1 drubbing of Bemidji State. The Wolverines stretched their winning streak to seven games – all with walk-on goaltender Shawn Hunwick in the nets, replacing starter Bryan Hogan – with the victory over BSU and made the Tournament only because of that winning streak, stretching their incredible Tournament appearance mark to 20 consecutive seasons. An all-CCHA final ensued with Miami facing Michigan, and the battle was incredibly spirited. Save for a 10-minute stretch toward the end of regulation where Miami controlled play, Michigan buzzed all night long and put constant pressure on Miami goaltender Connor Knapp, but the netminder stood firm and turned aside 55 shots in the game which went into double OT. In the second extra session, Miami’s Alden Hirschfeld scored to send the RedHawks back to the Frozen Four for the second-consecutive season.

In the Northeast, top-seeded Boston College was not terribly impressive in beating Alaska in the opening game 3-1, but they got the ‘W.’ In the second semi-final, Yale started out fast and grabbed a 3-0 lead over North Dakota and survived a furious Sioux rally in the third period to hold on for the 3-2 win. That set up a wild Regional final which eventually saw BC survive 9-7. The Eagles put on an impressive offensive performance and opened up a 9-4 lead with less than 13 minutes remaining in the game. Yale actually played three goaltenders in an effort to stop the bleeding, but it was largely to no avail. Yale stormed back and netted three-consecutive tallies to cut the margin to 9-7, but the basketball game on ice finally ended and BC was headed to the Frozen Four.

So, three of the Tournament’s top seeds advanced to Ford Field in Detroit and the other spot was filled by a Cinderella team – RIT. Denver’s failure to advance was somewhat puzzling, as the Pioneers featured college hockey’s best goaltender and largely the country’s best overall talent. However, Denver's struggles in the Tourney continue for a third-straight season and only one WCHA team is left standing.

Hype week concludes this week, and it’s down to business starting on April 8, as Wisconsin faces RIT and Miami plays Boston College. A full preview will appear next weekend.

However, I’ll give you a quick hint: Rico Blasi.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mazzocco's Firing Simply Disgraceful

Fox Sports North announced Friday that the contract of longtime Gopher hockey TV play-by-play man Frank Mazzocco was not going to be renewed for the upcoming season, ending his nearly 20-season tie with the team.

Mazzocco had worked in the FSN booth with former Gopher coach Doug Woog for the past several seasons, and FSN announced that Woog's role would be different next season. Mazzocco will be replaced by Anthony LaPanta in the booth for next season.

LaPanta has received some exposure doing high school hockey games on FSN and called games on the radio for the State High School Hockey Tournament. He is also the lead studio announcer for FSN's Twins, Gophers, Wild, and Timberwolves coverage, and may be familiar to some fans as one of the Twins radio announcers in the 1998 season. He'll likely do a fine job in the both.

Woog served as the team's head coach for 14 seasons and has been a popular broadcaster since leaving the bench prior to the 1999-2000 season. He has slipped somewhat over the past few years, but his homespun observations have been much appreciated by Gopher fans over the years. Nobody cares more about this program than the "Wooger." 

Moving Woog to more of a studio role leaves the opportunity for others like Darby Hendrickson, Tom Chorske, and Kevin Gorg to move into the #2 slot in the booth. Former NHLer Derek Plante also had some exposure in March and would be a decent possibility. Each of the named individuals would be fine alongside LaPanta, except Gorg, whose incessant talking seemingly makes him a decent candidate for a studio spot.

All this is well and good, but the firing of Mazzocco is a horrible decision by the suits of FSN. Minnesota hockey fans know "Francois's" style very well from his days as a North Stars' announcer in the mid-80s, and his subsequent seamless transition to Gopher hockey. He is anything but a homer and makes honest evaluations of the team while clearly wanting the team to do well. He is an energetic announcer, but clearly lets the game stand on its own. It's a style perfected by the great hockey announcers of modern times like Mike "Doc" Emrick, Dave Strader, the late, great, Tom Mees, and the incomparable Al Shaver. I recently ranted about the hysterical hockey announcers of the modern times and how their histrionics would not work in this market. Mazzocco personified what an effective hockey announcer is like in his area.

This is going to backfire huge on FSN. The comments section of the StarTribune article is littered with negative comments about the move. There is a Facebook page set up to lobby for his return to the booth. Don't hold your breath, however. This decision is made.

Mazzocco is far too talented to not be working next season. I could easily see him on the ESPNU broadcasts for the NCAA Tournament next spring. This blogger would love to see Francois working with another FSN castaway, Clay Matvick, to provide some quality broadcasts. Also, with the Big Ten Network likely to make a bigger splash in the WCHA, he would be a perfect addition to the staff. We'll see Frank again; just not on Gopher broadcasts for a while.

FSN has clearly made a decision without consulting the most important people, and that is the fans of Gopher hockey broadcasts on FSN North. If management had asked us, they would have found out that the fans love the coverage, would wish that Wooger would seem more lucid at times, and would be looking forward to new gadgets to add to the already fine broadcasts. Most importantly, they would have requested FSN leave the booth as-is. Instead, management has decided to bring in a new announcing team and will likely see its quality suffer.

FSN North GM Mike Dimond (pictured left) stated that he wants a revamping of the Gopher broadcasts and he has certainly invited some backlash among the faithful by replacing not one but two popular announcers in one fell swoop. Not a good move in my book, and this has certainly been met with a lot of disdain from fans across the state.

While Dimond is in the mood for firing folks, why not address the awful Wild broadcasts with Dan Terhaar and Mike Greenlay? They can certainly go. I've also been highly critical of Twins' announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven (I'm fine with Bert in a role, but Bremer needs to go and Roy Smalley absolutely needs to be in the booth full-time).

Clearly, the replacement of the Gopher announcers is a short-sighted, knee-jerk, management decision which hurts the fans the most. Then again, what's new?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

About Ness....

I am a New York Islanders' fan, as I have mentioned many times prior, and I really enjoy reading the Point Blank site of Chris Botta which covers the team independently. However, this post appearing last Friday about the apparent departure of defenseman Aaron Ness struck me as somewhat odd and utterly wrong.

The article suggests that Ness wanted to turn pro if the Isles wanted him and that he needed to get away from the U program in order not to hamper his development. The post was denied by Ness's father that evening and it appears Ness will stay with the Gophers.

Ness has been a disappointment in Minnesota. As a sophomore, he netted just 2-10-12 in 39 games, coming off a 2-13-15 freshman season. A big scorer in high school, Ness has looked tentative throughout his career at the U and seems gun-shy when needing to pull the trigger from the point. Arguments can be made that Ness has stalled under coach Don Lucia, but the truth is that Ness came in struggling and hasn't changed much at all.

He's a bit undersized for a defenseman at 5-10 and 170 lbs. and his future is as a finesse-type guy. The Isles took him in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft, one season after the Kyle Okposo fiasco.

Everyone remembers the Islanders signing Okposo midway through the 2007-08 season. The Gophers were struggling somewhat and Okposo was in a bit of a funk. After teaming up with linemate Ryan Stoa to score 19-21-40 as a freshman, Okposo was off to a 7-4-11 start in 18 games during the season in which he left. Stoa was hurt in the team's opening game and Okposo's scoring chances were fewer. Islanders' GM Garth Snow signed the player mid-season and then ripped Lucia for stalling Okposo's development. Of course, Snow then turned around and took Ness the very next draft, showing just how big a problem Lucia was for Snow. (Sidebar, Botta talks a lot about Okposo being the Islanders' next captain, which I find interesting, given that he completely bailed on his team mid-season once before).

Now, Ness's development may have been stalled under Lucia. I wrote in a previous post that the Gophers should seriously consider bringing in a new assistant coach to work exclusively with defensemen and/or the defensive zone game (I tossed out Mike Guentzel's name specifically). However, maybe the Islanders over-rated Ness from the get-go? Is it possible? Definitely.

Botta's comment about the Gopher program being in "shambles" is a bit hyperbolic as well. Yes, the team missed the Final Five this season and finished seventh in the league, but this was the first time the team hadn't advanced to the Final Five since 1998 and just the second time in 34 seasons that they haven't passed the first round of the playoffs. They were hit by injuries last season (Jay Barriball mainly; Taylor Matson to a much lesser extent) and were hampered by inconsistency. Yes, Jordan Schroeder left for the NHL, but he was a first round pick for chrissakes, and this stuff happens. That is hardly the personification of a program in shambles.

As I wrote before, next season will be a make-or-break season for coach Lucia at the 'U.' Many Gopher supporters would probably like to see him gone right now. I choose to preach patience for a guy who has won over 60% of his games here and has two National Championship banners hanging from the Mariucci Arena rafters. I wrote earlier that I expected Ness to potentially leave anyway, and if the Islanders choose to "save him" by sending him to Bridgeport, CT, then so be it. They own his rights, so it's their (and Ness's) call. However, Ness's development will be far faster and better in the WCHA, which I have argued is the second-best league in the world in terms of intensity of competition. That Lucia counsels players against the long bus rides in minor league hockey is simply stating reality. The money is obviously much better in the professional ranks, but one rides buses for a while before the bright lights shine. And, it's not like the prospects on Long Island are very bright, either. Snow's team made the playoffs in his first season as GM (2006-07), but has missed each year since. The Isles finished with the fourth-fewest points in the league one season after that and had the fewest in the entire NHL last season. This year, the stand tied for 27th out of 30 NHL teams. Obviously, Snow has assembled quite the juggernaut on Long Island.  Add to that the craziest owner in the NHL (Charles Wang), the worst building in the NHL (Nassau Coliseum), and an unsettled situation surrounding their long-term whereabouts, and everything comes up Milhouse with the Islanders.

As I said earlier, Aaron Ness may indeed decide to start his pro career next season and forego his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility. That's his decision, but it is clear that he needs further seasoning. Let's hope he (or Chris Botta or Garth Snow) does not take any cheap shots on his way out the door should be decide to leave early. The hit piece courtesy of Islanders Point Blank on the Gopher program was simply misguided and misses the likelihood that Ness's development wouldn't be any faster in the AHL than it is in the WCHA. For further evidence to this point, see Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard, and Alex Gologoski; defensemen all coached by Lucia at the University of Minnesota.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gopher Hoops' Season Ends in Familiar Fashion

The Gopher basketball team saw its season end against Xavier on Friday in the NCAA Tournament in a familiar form as many other losses during the 2009-10 season. The team looked strong early on but ultimately struggled shooting the basketball in losing 65-54 in first round action.

Minnesota shot just 31% from the floor for the game, including an anemic 7-26 from three-point territory. The Musketeers didn't shoot much better (34% for the game), but shot 56% from the floor in the second half, compared to just 26% for the Gophers. 

Senior Lawrence Westbrook led the team in scoring with 19 points in his final game in maroon and gold, but he only achieved four points in the second half. He was the only Gopher to reach double-figures for the game. Paul Carter grabbed a team-leading nine boards for the Gophers, who were out-rebounded by Xavier 50-41 for the game.

So, in a season marked by inconsistency, the Gophers could not follow-up its inspiring run in the Big Ten Tournament with any post-season victories, meaning the drought continues. Minnesota has not won an "official" NCAA Tournament game since 1990, since the wins of the 1997 Final Four team were wiped from the official NCAA records. The Gophers finished 21-14 on the season, which was viewed by many as being optimistic from the outset. However, off-court issues marred this club, and they struggled for an identity in Big Ten play. Still, coach Tubby Smith did lead his team to the big dance for the second-consecutive season, the first time that has happened since Clem Haskins's tenure. Despite the good play in the Big Ten Tourney, Gopher fans have to be disappointed with the ending to this season and wonder what would have happened if Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe would have played at all this season.

Of course, "what if" questions are becoming commonplace in the athletics department at the University of Minnesota.....

BTW - I'm not doing an official post-mortem of the Gopher season, since I believe I have done this on many different occasions down the stretch when things started taking a turn for the worst. Please check in here for continued coverage of the NCAA Tournament - hockey, that is.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

NCAA Field Set; WCHA Leads Way

The NCAA Hockey Tournament field was unveiled Sunday morning, and the WCHA leads the way once again, placing four teams in the field of 16. Of the four teams, two (Denver and Wisconsin) qualified for #1 seeds, and the other two (North Dakota and St. Cloud State) captured #2 seeds.

The bracket is here, but here is the breakdown by region:

East (Friday/Saturday in Albany, NY):
  • #1 Denver vs. #4 RIT
  • #2 Cornell vs. #3 New Hampshire
West (Friday/Saturday in St. Paul, MN):
  • #1 Wisconsin vs. #4 Vermont
  • #2 St. Cloud State vs. #3 Northern Michigan
Midwest (Saturday/Sunday in Ft. Wayne, IN):
  • #1 Miami vs. #4 Alabama-Huntsville
  • #2 Bemidji State vs. #3 Michigan
Northeast (Saturday/Sunday in Worcester, MA):
  • #1 Boston College vs. #4 Alaska
  • #2 North Dakota vs. #3 Yale
There are some pretty good matchups in this field. I believe all of the 2/3 games could be very good, and I am especially intrigued by the Wisconsin/Vermont matchup in St. Paul. If this year is anything like last year's craziness, it should be quite a tournament.

Stay tuned to DP for analysis leading up to Friday's face-offs.

UND Captures Broadmoor

The North Dakota Fighting Sioux became the second team in WCHA history to win the Broadmoor Trophy from the play-in game spot on Saturday night, defeating St. Cloud State 5-3 to win the WCHA Tournament. The Siouxies won three games in three days and joined UMD as the only two teams to accomplish this feat. The Bulldogs did the deed last season.

UND survived two SCSU goals in the game's first minute to take a 4-2 lead into the third period before St. Cloud's David Eddy lit the lamp for his second goal midway through the third. Although St. Cloud controlled play for much of the third period, Matt Frattin's empty-netter sealed the fate and gave UND the tournament crown.

North Dakota put itself in a good spot to snag a #1 seed with the victory, but Boston College's win in the Hockey East tourney gave the Eagles the final #1 seed.

The Final Five lacked much intensity all weekend, mostly because Minnesota wasn't there. It's amazing how attendance fluctuates depending on the Gophers' fate, isn't it?