Saturday, December 4, 2010

Calgary Flames 3 at Minnesota Wild 2 (SO) - December 3, 2010


I'm in Minneapolis for a weekend of sports. The main reason I returned here is to see my first Bills game as well as catch Brett Favre in what should really and truly be his last season. Fortunately, the Wolves and Wild were also home, so it turned into a 3-sport weekend. The first game was Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where the visiting Calgary Flames were taking on the Minnesota Wild in a battle of Northwest Division rivals. My friend Marcie had recently moved to Minnesota from Japan and was happy to accompany me to the game, which would be her first NHL contest.

Xcel Energy Center


Located in downtown St. Paul, the Xcel Energy Center has been the home of the Wild since they began play in the 2000-01 season. The arena is at the corner of Kellogg Avenue and 7th Street, near the RiverCentre complex. There are pay parking lots around, but I'd recommend street parking nearby as the meters are free from 4:30 pm. With game times at 7, this is a perfect set-up as you can park for free, then enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants just south of the rink on 7th Street.


Gates open an hour before the game and as you enter, you should be impressed with the wide-open concourses on both levels. There are 4 seating levels, with the lower 100 sections and upper 200 sections being separated by a suite level and club seating. This leaves the upper seats a bit far from the ice, as you can see in the picture above, but it is a great sight with all those forest green seats below you.


Minnesota calls itself "The State of Hockey" and the arena recognizes this with a collection of every high school hockey jersey in the state on the club level. Take an escalator up to the 200 level and you will find a number of interesting features as you wander around. The history of hockey rinks in the state, the development of women's hockey, a tribute to the St. Paul Athletic Club (above), and a few Peanuts characters dressed in Wild colours (Charles Schulz grew up in St. Paul) dot the concourse. I'm not sure that associating with all-time sports loser Charlie Brown is good for the Wild's Stanley Cup chances, but it is a great touch nonetheless as you can see below.


Each of the four corners on the upper deck has what is known as a Crow's Nest which sticks out above the seating area. One of these contains a modified Zamboni which houses the organ, another has the lighthouse where the horn is blasted before the game and after every Wild goal.

You'll also notice banners for each team in the NHL, organized by division. In the picture below, it looks like Toronto is in first place, but in reality it's backwards and in alphabetical order. Coincidentally, Toronto is last not only in the standings, but alphabetically as well.


On the 100 level, there is a display with the Hobey Baker Award for the best player in the NCAA (below). There's also a small memorial to Sergei Zholtok, a one-time Wild player who died while playing in Russia.


There were a number of eateries with the most interesting being the Iron Range Grill next to Gate 4. It's a full-service restaurant which is open 2 hours before the game. As we had eaten elsewhere before the game, we didn't try any of the food so can't comment on that.


The scoreboard is 8-sided, with 4 video screens and 4 dot matrix boards. One thing I liked is that they showed the ice time for players, which I haven't seen before at an NHL game.

This may be the friendliest facility I have visited, every single staff member greeted us with a smile. There were no ticket checks and we were able to sit down low for the 3rd period without any hassle. Of course, a massive snowstorm kept many fans away from the game which made it much easier to find empty seats.

One final note is that each level has what is known as a drink rail. These are standing seats where you can rest your drink and actually provide great views on the lower level. With hockey games lasting only 2.5 hours these days, it is definitely worth considering this option if you don't mind standing for that length of time.

Overall, this is a great venue for hockey. I'd like the upper level seats to be a bit closer, but otherwise there is little to find fault with. Earlier this year, ESPN voted this as the best hockey stadium experience (and 3rd overall), and it is tough to disagree. Definitely worth visiting for any midwest winter road trip.

The Game


The big surprise was that Calgary started backup Henrik Karlsson (making a save above), only his 5th start of the season as Mikka Kiprusoff has been seeing the lion's share of work. Minnesota went with #1 goalie Niklas Backstrom (below in warm-ups). For the Wild, it was Pierre-Marc Bouchard's second game back after a 14-month absence due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome.


These two teams are known for low-scoring defensive battles and it was no different here, with the game still scoreless midway through the second period, with few good chances for either team. It was rather dull for the most part, until finally, with 7:17 left, Bouchard was left alone beside the net and was able to poke home a rebound to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. It was Bouchard's first goal after his extended absence and doubtless a huge lift for him.


But his teammates couldn't hold the lead as Calgary tied it with just 33 seconds left in the frame as Mark Giardano scored on a similar play to Bouchard, putting a rebound past a sprawling Backstrom.

Cal Clutterbuck, the leading hitter in the NHL

The 3rd period is when things really got going. Both teams came out strong, and Alex Tanguay gave the Flames the lead as he snapped home a perfect pass from Matt Stajan at the 4:39 mark. But Minnesota's Martin Havlat scored a beautiful goal exactly 8 minutes later, getting past a Flames' defender and deking Karlsson before sliding a backhander home to make it 2-2. The rest of the frame was frantic but neither team could find the winner and overtime was the next order of business.

The five-minute period was exciting with Calgary dominating the shot count 5-1, but Backstrom was equal to the task and the game would have to be decided by a shootout.


The Wild went first and Mikko Koivu missed with a backhand (below).


After Tanguay scored on his shot, Bouchard missed and the Flames needed Niklas Hagmas to score to win. But he missed, and Patrick O'Sullivan scored on the Wild's last chance (below) to make it 1-1 in the shootout.


This brought Rene Bourque out with a chance to end things and he made no mistake, beating Backstrom with a snap shot and giving the Flames the extra point.


Despite a dull first period, the rest of the game was entertaining, with some good plays by both teams, particularly in the third period and overtime. It's about the best you can expect as the NHL hits the mid-season doldrums which last until the playoff push in early March.

Notes

One of the referees forgot where he was. These days in the NHL, the refs announce penalties by stating something like "Calgary #23 2 minutes hooking" but when Minnesota's Kyle Brodziak took a delay of game penalty, the ref said "Columbus #21...". What was funny is that nobody seemed to pick up on it, although I tried to be helpful and yelled at the ref that he was in Minnesota.

A local college had a giveaway where you would spin a wheel and win one of four prizes: a foam "We're # 1" finger, an ice scraper, something useless I don't recall, and a high-five (i.e. you lost). With the snow piling up outside, the ice scraper would be a useful prize, so we lined up to spin. The kid in front of me won an ice scraper and looked so disappointed - he'd have no use for that for several years at least. When I spun, I got a foam finger, the best possible prize. For a kid that is, not for us. So we went to the kid and offered a trade: one foam finger for one ice scraper. The kid didn't need to think twice about that one and was quite happy to get something out of it. So the bartering system still survives!

Thanks for Marcie for driving me to and from the game despite the snowstorm.

Minnesota Sports Craptacular

When you do a road trip, you are limited by the schedules, so you can't always get great games. But I wonder if this weekend in Minneapolis can be beat for a worse collection of teams. The Wild and Flames were 13th and 14th in the Western conference, the 7-11 Cavaliers are in 9th in the East while the 4-15 Timberwolves are 14th in the West, while the Bills are 2-9 and the Vikings are 4-7. The combined winning percentage of all 6 teams was 0.352. I think it would be hard to find a weekend where a single metro area hosts a six different teams with a less impressive combined record. So I'm calling this weekend the Minnesota Sports Craptacular. Hey, we even got a snowstorm to top things off!

Next Up

The Cavaliers are in town tonight after their embarrassment at the hands of LeBron James on Thursday. Then tomorrow it's the Bills and Vikes in what might be an interesting game despite the poor performance of both teams so far. Check back for updates on both on Sunday evening.

Best,

Sean

4 comments:

  1. Sean,

    It was a blast, thanks for taking this novice with you to the start of the Sports Craptacular! Safe travels and I look forward to reading more of the blog as you go.

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  2. Thank you! Without your capable driving, I'd have been stuck. Glad you enjoyed it and have a great holiday in Minnesota!

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  3. I had a great time when I went to Xcel Energy Center a few years ago. Loved the customer service and the history of hockey at that arena.

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  4. Sean,

    I'm so happy you decided to go through with your "craptacular" weekend. Those can be better than the over hyped ones like the game I saw Monday night in Foxboro. The Jets looked like "crap" and that's an understatement. Most importantly, you met up with a good friend there. That's the main reason to make the trip. The quality of games and participants should always be secondary.

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