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Last-place Twins shakeup Gardenhire's staff

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Last-place Twins shakeup Gardenhire's staff

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For decades the Minnesota Twins have been known as one of baseball's most patient and loyal franchises, sticking with managers, coaches and members of the front office in the belief that stability is a key to long-term success.

Two straight last-place finishes in a gorgeous new ballpark appear to have gone a long way toward changing that approach.

The Twins fired longtime bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, third base coach Steve Liddle, first base coach Jerry White and head athletic trainer Rick McWane on Thursday while reassigning bench coach Scott Ullger and hitting coach Joe Vavra in a significant shake-up of manager Ron Gardenhire's staff.

Owner Jim Pohlad, President Dave St. Peter and GM Terry Ryan planned to address the changes at a news conference on Friday, but the message was delivered a day early. Gardenhire campaigned to keep his staff in place earlier in the week, but 195 losses in two seasons gave him little bargaining power.

``I have all the faith that they can do the job,'' Gardenhire said on Sunday. ``But some of these things aren't going to be left up to me. It's going to be left to ownership and Terry.''

Pitching coach Rick Anderson was the only coach on Gardenhire's tight-knit staff to retain the job he had. Ullger will oversee outfield instruction while Vavra, who joined the staff in 2006, will work with the infielders.

Changes to a manager's staff are commonplace in the big leagues, seemingly in every city outside of Minneapolis. Aside from Vavra, the entire coaching staff has been together since 2002, an incredible run of stability that presided over six AL Central championships, one run to the ALCS and the misery of the last two seasons.

Stelmaszek has been with the organization since 1978 and joined the Twins coaching staff in 1981, becoming a beloved figure in the clubhouse and notable prankster.

But the stability may have also played a role in the decision to shake things up, with the front office looking for some fresh voices in the clubhouse. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who has worked with the Twins minor league system for years, has expressed an interest in joining the staff, while Triple-A Rochester coaches Tom Brunansky, Bobby Cuellar and Gene Glynn have all been mentioned as possible replacements.

McWane's firing came as little surprise. He has been with the organization for 24 seasons and served as the head trainer for the previous eight years, but several former players have grumbled about what they perceived as substandard treatment and diagnosis of injuries in recent seasons.

It's the second straight offseason where the once-patient Pohlad family has made significant changes. Jim Pohlad fired GM Bill Smith after 99 losses in 2011 and replaced him with Ryan, the man credited with building the organization into an AL Central power.

The Twins finished this season 66-96, 22 games behind AL Central champ Detroit and the worst record in the league, and more changes could be on the way.

Ryan made it clear that most players outside of Joe Mauer, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, could be discussed in deals that would replenish the Twins' dilapidated starting rotation.

``When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn't be too many untouchables on the club,'' Ryan said. ``You've got to find a way to get better.''

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the 2012 season is how many things went right for them this season. Mauer and Justin Morneau stayed healthy for the entire season, with Mauer bouncing back from a nightmare 2011 to contend for another AL batting crown. Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit delivered career seasons, Scott Diamond became a mainstay in the rotation and closer Glen Perkins and setup man Jared Burton gave Minnesota a formidable back end of the bullpen.

``That just stresses the importance of the rotation,'' Ryan said. ``We've had some guys that have had very good years. And unfortunately we're still losing 90-some games.''

The rotation was a disaster from opening day. Scott Baker was lost before the season began with Tommy John surgery, Carl Pavano battled injuries for most of the year and only pitched in 11 games, and Francisco Liriano was traded. Jason Marquis and Nick Blackburn were both designated for assignment after struggling and youngsters Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries, Liam Hendriks and P.J. Walters vacillated between mediocre and ineffective.

``Of course, you'd love to be able to keep all your players and get starting pitching, but that's really almost impossible,'' Gardenhire said. ``There aren't that many free agents out there that are going to be able to step in and do what we want them to do, and that's fill out the first few spots of our starting rotation.''

For what it's worth, Morneau wants to stick around and thinks the team is a lot closer to returning to relevance than some may think.

``There's been a lot of positives you can look at,'' Morneau said. ``I don't feel like we're that far off. We dug ourselves such a big hole at the start that we were running uphill the whole way. When you're playing catch-up it eventually wears on you.''

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Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Tom Wilson stayed on brand in his return from a long suspension.

The Capitals’ big man scored a goal and took a penalty on the same play in his first game of the season, a 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night. 

Wilson won’t get the 16 games back he missed for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. But he tried to make up for it in his debut. 

Wilson scored Washington’s second goal at 19:32 of the first period when he drove the net hard and deflected a pass from teammate Dmitry Orlov past Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk. But this being Wilson, nothing is totally uncontroversial.  

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was moving fast. There was no stopping him. Wilson, with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, collided with Dubnyk. The puck was already in the net, but the referee decided Wilson needed to go think about what he’d done after Dubnyk got clocked in the head. It was a two-minute goalie interference call. 

That’s an odd play rarely called. Either the goal counts or it doesn’t, but maybe because Wilson had already scored before running into Dubnyk both calls could stand. 

“It was a first for me to score and get a penalty on the same play,” Wilson told reporters in St. Paul. “I was just going hard to the net and Snarls [Orlov] put it right on my tape. It was a great pass at full speed. I was trying to do everything I could to get out of the way. I’ll take the goal and the kill went out there and got it done. It was good to see.”

It was far from Wilson’s only contribution in his first game back. He also fought Marcus Foligno at 11:58 of the second period on the faceoff after Minnesota cut a Washington lead to 3-1. He didn’t back down when asked to go by Foligno. 

“He’s a key player for our team, brings so much energy both on the ice and off the ice,” forward Andre Burakovsky said. “Huge lift for the team to get him back earlier. Didn’t expect that and I think he had a really strong game today. Obviously, he got the goal in his first game back and then some dirty works. Obviously, I think he’s a huge guy for us in PK and it showed today.”

Wilson didn’t get the assist on the goal that put the game away. Alex Ovechkin found Orlov for a one-timer on a pass from the left faceoff circle to the right. But it was Wilson driving hard toward the goal that kept a Wild defenseman with him and allowed Orlov the space to finish Ovechkin’s pass. Those little things have been missed in the 16 games Wilson was suspended. He was relentless. 

One big issue for the Capitals: The penalty kill. Wilson has been a big part of that group in recent years and without him – and, to be fair the departed Jay Beagle and the injured Brooks Orpik – Washington entered the game 29thin the NHL in penalty kill percentage (71.7 percent). Wilson wasn’t eased into anything. He played 5:23 on the penalty kill and the Capitals killed five of six Wild power plays. 

[Wilson] does a lot not just on the ice, but in our room. Adds a ton of energy. Well respected player for how he trains,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden. “Going through a tough time and obviously kind of a surprise for us to get him back today. We were hoping to at any point here and we were able to take advantage of a fortunate bounce for our team before even the game started. But I didn’t expect him to have as strong a game as he did." 

"Obviously able to convert on a great play on a line rush, but just the other things he did. Our penalty kill, the opposition scores a goal and, you talk about shifts after goals, not giving the team any more momentum than they’ve already gotten and he gets in a fight there. There’s a lot to like about Tom Wilson and I thought he had a strong game. It was great to have him back.”

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

Think the Caps missed Tom Wilson? It sure looked like it.

Washington looked like a completely different team with Wilson back in the lineup Tuesday in a dominant 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Here are four reasons the Caps won:

Tom Wilson

Wilson made his season debut Tuesday after his suspension was reduced by a neutral arbitrator earlier in the day. Wilson’s addition to the lineup had two effects. One, it made the lineup a lot deeper. Without Wilson, Todd Reirden was having trouble putting together the right lineup. Several players cycled on the top line and every line behind the top had to shuffle. Wilson came back onto the top line and immediately the rest of the lineup fell into place.

The top line looked better, the second line looked better and the third line looked better with their regular lineups back intact.

Wilson’s return also brought a lot of energy to the team and that was evident from the very start of the game. The Caps outshot Minnesota 12-6 and took the 2-0 lead in the first period of the game. Compare that to the rather lethargic game we saw on Sunday, clearly, Wilson brought a spark.

Oh, yeah, Wilson has also had a pretty darn good game too. He scored in the first period of the game in a typical Wilson play. He completely blew past Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter and tipped in a pass from Dmitry Orlov as he crashed the net on goalie Devan Dubnyk.

Somehow Wilson was also given a goalie interference penalty… but the goal still counted? Regardless of what was an obvious reputation penalty, it was a good return for Wilson, who also had a fight with Marcus Foligno and helped set up Orlov’s second goal by crashing again and drawing the defense over to him.

Dmitry Orlov

Orlov broke a 19-game goal drought with a goal just 7:23 into the game.

Lars Eller had the puck and cut to the blue line in the offensive zone turning to the middle. Minnesota got caught puck watching as the defense shifted with Eller, leaving Orlov open on the left. Eller found him and Orlov took advantage of the extra space to score his first goal of the season.

Orlov would add an assist on Wilson’s goal and a second goal in the third period off a beautiful pass from Alex Ovechkin.

The typically reliable defensive pairing of Orlov and Matt Niskanen struggled at the start of the season prompting Todd Reirden to switch up the pairs and place Orlov with John Carlson. Clearly, the move had the desired effect in Tuesday’s game.

The schedule

Tuesday’s game was the Wild’s first at home since Oct. 27. Minnesota was coming off a seven-game road swing and they looked a bit weary at the start of the game. As mentioned above, the Wild were outshot 12-6 in the first period and then 15-8 in the second.

Really, this game was a perfect storm. Not only were the Wild tired from a lengthy road trip, but they also were dealing with a Caps team that was pumped up by the return of Wilson.

Part of what made Sunday’s loss to Arizona so disappointing was the fact that the Coyotes were on the second leg of a back-to-back with their starting goalie on IR. The Caps were not able to take advantage, but they certainly took it to a vulnerable, road-weary team on Tuesday.

The penalty kill

Washington’s porous penalty kill was the reason the Caps lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday and a major reason they fell to Arizona. The PK finally stood tall on Tuesday as the Caps were able to kill off four out of five penalties on the night. The lone power play goal the team gave up came in the third period when the Caps were already up 5-1 and the game was no longer in doubt.

You can add the penalty kill to the long list of things that Wilson instantly improved in his return. Wilson logged 16:47 of total ice time on Tuesday and 5:23 of that came on the penalty kill.

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