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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Reusse: Vikings need help, Fleck's sound bites, Twins free agency

The Vikings have a more-talented roster than the Packers. Mike Zimmer’s club will be a solid favorite when the teams play on Dec. 23 in the ZygiDome, in the 15th game on the schedule.

This does not change the fact the Vikings need help from one of three unimpressive teams to take away the NFC North title from the Packers and thus claim a home playoff game.

The Packers are 9-3 with a 3-0 record in the division. The Vikings are 8-4 with a 1-2 record in the division. Give the Packers that loss in the Minneapolis rematch and, if both teams finish 12-4, the Packers win the tie-breaker with a 5-1 division record compared to 4-2 for the Vikings.

Now, Mike Zimmer could pull a P.J. Fleck (“We’re Big Ten West co-champions!’’) and proudly declare the Vikings to be NFC North co-champions, but it still would mean going on the road for a first-round playoff game.

It wouldn’t be so much the challenge faced – with that road game likely to be either at Green Bay (winnable) or at Dallas (ultra winnable), but it would create the grind of needing three road victories for a Super Bowl run.

Yeah, life would be much-better if the Vikings could get assistance from a Packers opponent. The next two games are at Lambeau Field – Washington and Chicago – and then Green Bay’s schedule winds up at Minnesota and Detroit.

I’d go with Chicago as having best shot to give the Packers a required second loss. Of course, a victory like that might put enough life into the underachieving Bears to decide to bring some energy to the regular-season finale at the ZygiDome, and to see if they can get the Vikings to choke again.

As opposed to the 2018 season, the Vikings could lose two of the last four and still have a high likelihood of reaching the playoffs. The only team chasing them for the second wild-card is the 7-5 Rams, and L.A. has games remaining with the Seahawks, the 49ers and at Dallas (down, but desperate).

**

The aforementioned Coach Fleck’s genius as a promoter of himself was on display following Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, just as it was two weeks earlier after a loss at Iowa.

Fleck realizes that you can fool most of the people some of the time, and Gophers fans nearly all of the time, so he has developed this strategy after the disappointment of defeat (admittedly, not required often in Year Two, following Zero and One):

He takes full responsibility, while simultaneously taking none of it.

Fleck knows that the reaction comes from the sound bite and not from the substance being offered. He even manages to get headlines and laudatory comments when issuing the “I take full responsibility’’ spin, even though it couldn’t be more insincere.

As he was taking full responsibility following the Iowa loss, did Fleck admit that rushing to the middle of the field near the 10-yard line and drawing a 15-yard penalty was a juvenile act for a big-time coach?

No, he was doing so out of concern for receiver Tyler Johnson, who was reaching to be pulled up by a teammate a few seconds after a big hit and in no overt distress.

In addition to the “P.J. just loves his players too much to follow the rules’’ angle, the excuse-makers also claimed that it didn’t cost the Gophers anything of significance.

Of course, there was Iowa starting at its 22 rather than its 7, but who has ever seen significant field position as an advantage in a game vs. the Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes, right?

Speaking of which:

There were also Fleck’s now-familiar wasted timeouts and then a too-early onside kick (3:26 remaining) that took the pressure off Iowa’s mediocre offense to actually move the ball. The Gophers wound up at their 20 with 1:35 left and no timeouts in the 23-19 loss.

Fleck’s coaching crimes were more serious in what became a 38-17 thumping from Wisconsin last Saturday in Minneapolis. This time, he threw in the “blame me’’ with a soliloquy near the end of his postgame media session.

So, Fleck was admitting that punting on fourth-and-2 from Wisconsin’s 35, early in the game with the Gophers already leading 7-0 – he was admitting that research could prove that this was the most-absurd decision for the Gophers since 1905?

Of course not. Fleck offered his excuse for sending that cowardly message sent to his team, although that didn’t mean he was failing to take full responsibility.

So, Fleck was admitting that calling a timeout when down deep on third-and-10, and then agreeing to a zone run that had no chance for a first down, in order to kick a field goal – he was admitting that was the most-nonsensical journey to a field goal attempt since Glen Mason ordered that 50-yarder into the wind at Madison back when?

No, P,.J. isn't getting into that, but whatever you do, media friends, be sure to use this Coach Fleck classic in your game reviews:

“Our band, our alumni, our fans: we heard you the entire time. And I apologize to our fans for not being able to get it done, because it falls on my shoulders 100%. Nobody else: not staff, not players – me. I did not get it done for our fans.”

Zero percent of mistakes are admitted, but it 100% falls on his shoulders. P.J. Fleck has established himself as both a big success and a disingenuous genius with the Gophers.

It’s all on me, but no mistakes are on me, no matter how apparent. Spectacular.

**

Twins did not tender a contract to first baseman C.J. Cron. That has to mean Miguel Sano is moving to first base.

Forget spending big on pitcher. Bust the budget on whatever it takes for Anthony Rendon. I’d weep for the chance to watch Rendon hit and play third base every day. Most professional hitter on the planet.

Reusse: Last season's series of trades hasn't been what's haunting the Wild

Colorado went on streak with eight victories in nine games at the end of the 2013-14 regular season and finished at the top of the NHL’s Central Division with 112 points. This gave the Avalanche an opening series with the Wild, a division rival and the top Western Conference wild-card finisher with 98 points.

The Avs came back from two goals down in the third period and then won the opener 5-4 on an overtime goal by Paul Stastny. Colorado won again 4-2 in Game 2 and the Wild came home to face what looked to be the same first-round fate as suffered in five games to the Blackhawks a year earlier.

Then, Mikael Granlund scored his famous flying goal in overtime for Game 3’s only goal, and Charlie Coyle scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory for the Wild in Game 4.

Back in Colorado, Nathan McKinnon scored in overtime put the Avs in front 3-2, and the Wild squared it again by erupting for three goals in the third period (5-2, final) in Game 6.

The Twin Cities and the hinterlands were juiced now, and then Nino Niederreiter, emulating Andrew Brunette from Game 7 in overtime in Denver 11 years earlier, scored in overtime to eliminate the favored Avs, 5-4.

Game-winning goals came from Granlund, Coyle and Niederreiter, all 22-year-old forwards, all targeted to keep getting better and become centerpieces in thrilling playoff runs to follow.

The Wild pushed the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, to six games in the second round – winning twice at home and getting another game-winner from Niederreiter.

Granlund, Coyle and Niederreiter totaled 10 of the Wild’s 35 goals and 10 assists in those 13 playoff games.

The Twins were terrible, the Timberwolves were out of the playoffs for a 10th straight season, and unless mini-camp was your deal, this sports market belonged to the St. Paul hockey team.

The Wild and the Granlund-Niederreiter-Coyle wunderkinds made it through the first round again in 2015, although there was substantially less excitement: a six-game elimination of St. Louis was followed with a four-game sweep for the Blackhawks.

The Wild then went out in the first round to Dallas in six, to St. Louis in a five-game upset, and were overmatched in five games against Winnipeg in 2018.

Chuck Fletcher was fired, Paul Fenton was hired as general manager and he watched Granlund, Niederreiter and Coyle for over a half-season, and then sent them packing.

Who could have imagined this in May 2014 – that over a six-week period from mid-January to late February 2019, Fenton would get a return of Kevin Fiala, a wing with a chance to be productive, and two fourth-liners in Victor Rask and Ryan Donato for Granlund, Niederreiter and Coyle.

Owner Craig Leipold was so thrilled with those trades and a few other Fenton moves that he fired him on July 30 – replaced by Bill Guerin.

The Wild honeymoon with ticket buyers that was reignited when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed on July 4, 2012, and reached its zenith in that spring of 2014 … that’s over. The Wild has been put in the position of announcing inflated attendance figures – a tradition with pro teams and colleges in Minnesota and across the country.

Fenton still gets bashed as easily at Xcel Energy Center as Tom Thibodeau does at Target Center, but there is one defense for the small return on Granlund, Coyle and Nino:

Perhaps the rest of the NHL had seen enough to develop the opinion that they were better as 22-year-olds than they were as veterans approaching 27.

Coyle had a good playoff run with Boston, getting goals in three straight games as the Bruins lost to St. Louis in the Stanley Cup finals. Now, he has four goals and 11 points in 22 games for the potent Bruins.

Niederreiter had one goal in 15 games as Carolina made a push to the Eastern Conference finals. Now, he has three goals and seven assists in 22 games with the Hurricanes.

Granlund had one goal in Nashville’s six-game elimination vs. Dallas in the opening round. Now, he’s coming off a recent 12-game pointless streak and has three goals and five assists in 21 games for the Preds.

Fenton didn’t get much in his highest-profile trades. Maybe he didn’t give up that much, either. For sure, it would be overstating it to claim the Wild is haunted by Fenton dumping Granlund, Coyle and Nino.