Monday, August 26, 2013

Chasing That Elusive Grail

NHL players supposedly live and breathe the game but do they understand some basic truths about the game at all? Given evidence right in front of them, are they delusional when changing teams in an effort to win a Stanley Cup?

Let's start with some basic information that should be staring all of them in the face.

Norris Trophy Type D-men Get You Cups

This cannot be overemphasized as only one team since the '94 lockout has won a Cup without that elite level guy on the blueline be it a top scoring guy or a shutdown monster. The Carolina Hurricanes with a decent defensive corps of Frantisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, Niclas Wallin, Mike Commodore, Glen Wesley and Oleg Tverdovsky won the 2006 Cup. Kaberle led the d-men in scoring with13 points in 25 playoff games. Decent numbers but I doubt Paul Coffey was shaking in his boots about his single playoff record total of 37 points being in jeopardy.

Just have a look at this very good to elite group of top scorers and scary intimidators
Devils--the Scotts (Niedermayer and Stevens)
Avs--Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Foote, Rob Blake
Red Wings--Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Nicklas Kronwall
Stars--Sergei Zubov, Derian Hatcher
Lightning--Dan Boyle
Ducks--Chris Pronger...and Scott Niedermayer
Penguins--Sergei Gonchar
Blackhawks--Duncan Keith
Bruins--Zdeno Chara
Kings--Drew Doughty

So, did no one inform Daniel Alfredsson that Nicklas Lidstrom has retired?
Did he honestly think because the Red Wings pushed the eventual Cup champ Blackhawks to an overtime in Game 7 that means the Wings are close to a Cup?
Let me remind Alfie of his Sens' 2003 Game 7 loss to the Devils who took the Cup that season. The following season the Sens lost in seven to their old nemesis, the Leafs. Game over.

The '13 Wings pushing the Hawks to seven is no different than the Habs, Lightning and Cancuks all going seven with the '11 Bruins. Have any of those three teams won a Cup since then? Will any of them?

Almost ALL Cup champs get pushed to seven games somewhere along their Cup run. This has been happening pretty much since the '70s.

Now that Alfie has spoken about what when on during his attempts to get a new contract with the Sens, as well as the Sens thinking he'd be retired two seasons ago but they extended him an extra year last season . . . yeah, it's a mess. Anyway, as much as Alfie will be comfortable with the Swedish contingent (Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Gustav Nyqvist, Mikael Samuelsson, Joakim Andersson and even backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson--yes, The Monster himself!) the Red Wings still need a Lidstrom or at the very least a Brian Rafalski or Larry Murphy back behind the blueline.

All I can say, Erik Karlsson is in Ottawa and Craig Anderson is a pretty good goalie. If Alfie wanted to increase his Cup chances, he may as well have stayed put.

Losing Finalists Don't Take The Next Step 

Well, you say, the Penguins made it back in 2009. The Oilers did it too in 1984.
Sure they did but these two teams also had Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So unless you have a couple of superstar forwards, how likely is it that the Boston Bruins are headed back and will win the 2014 Cup?

So, Jarome Iginla, what were you thinking? You were on the right team. You moved to the Penguins, played well even if on your off-wing, in the playoffs. Did you think the Pens getting embarrassed by the B's in four straight was a sign Pittsburgh was done?

Obviously, the B's getting back to the Final in 2013 after winning it in 2011 prove they are no fluke. They also have no superstar scorer (Nathan Horton who left for Columbus does not count) so chances of them pulling an '09 Pens move are slight despite the presence of Chara back behind the blueline.

Look, Jarome, the teams that win a Cup often fail miserably the previous season. That failure most likely is a motivating factor in the Cup-winning run. Just look at the playoff runs the season previous to the last four team's Cup wins.

2012 Blackhawks
Lost in the first round to the Coyotes. Well, they actually lost to Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. Five games went to OT. The Hawks outshot the Yotes by a margin of 241-159 in that six-game series.

2011 Kings
Lost in the first round to the Sharks. Three OT games all won by San Jose in the six-game set really did in LA.

2010 Bruins
Managed to become only the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead in a series and lose. The Flyers not only won four straight to finish off the series but were down 3-0 in Game 7 after just over 14 minutes from the start of the game and still came back to win 4-3. Needless to say Tim Thomas won the #1 goalie slot back after Tuukka Rask took it from him in 2009/10.

2009 Blackhawks
So close but the young Hawks lost in the third round to the Red Wings in five. Three games went to OT but the Hawks also got blasted 6-1 at home in Game 4.

So where should Iginla have gone if he truly believed the Pens had no shot at the 2014 Cup?

The choices really should have come down to the Capitals, Wild or Blues. All those teams had their hopes crushed in the 2013 playoffs. All four teams have some or all of the component parts Cup winning teams usually must have.

The Caps have Alexander Ovechkin, of course (an all-star on both wings!). Now Mike Green is most likely going to be the key. If he can return to being a top scoring defenceman, the Caps are in with a chance.

The Wild have the top D-man in Ryan Suter who proved in this past playoffs he is truly a stud. Sure they could use more scoring overall but having that Norris Trophy level defenceman is more important as THE building block to a Cup.

The Blues have a terrific defense corps in Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman among others. The big question is: What is going on with Alex Pietrangelo's contract? This guy is a Norris trophy winner in waiting. He'll be 24 and going into just his four full NHL season. Throw in some real depth in net with Jaroslav Halak. Brian Elliot and Jake Allen, and St Loo is a strong choice.

Even so, did Iginla not trust Kris Letang? That really is all the Pens need as the fuss about their netminding was unwarranted. Tomas Vokoun, who has been an excellent goalie buried in Nashville and Florida for much of his career, proved he can play with the big boys. Marc-Andre Fleury--who knows, but you only need ONE goalie .

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Taking A Bite Out Of The Cup?

The Canucks hired a coach that knows how to win? He's won a Calder Cup and a Stanley Cup?

Wow, is Marc Crawford back? Oh, yeah, he only made the AHL Final when he was coaching the Baby Leafs in St. John's, but there's that Stanley Cup (thanks, Patrick Roy!).

So, Fonzie it is--John Tortorella (Right About Now, the Funk Soul Brother!). Of course, he last won a Stanley Cup pre-lockout-lockout back in 2004 during the dead puck era. Once he lost his Stanley Cup winning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in Tampa, not so much. Two first round exits and once missing the playoffs altogether which got him canned.

Onto New York where one assumes he was brought in to get them a Stanley Cup. How'd that work out? Well, the Shot Blockers in his first three seasons lost twice in round one and missed the playoffs in between those two one-and-dones. Then his 10W-10L .500 record in the 2012 playoffs got the Rangers to round three where they subsequently lost to the New Jersey Devils playing 90-year-old Martin Brodeur in net.

This past playoffs, we all know what happened. Torts decides to bench his best offensive player Brad Richards the last two games of the second round series vs. Boston and proceeded to lose to the Bruins.

I don't date bench players

Well, at least he'll have the Sedins killing penalties because we all know the slowest skaters on any team should be doing that. Plus didn't Mario Lemieux lead the league in blocked shots one year? Or maybe that was Phil Esposito? Howie Morenz?

OK, put them out there for the last 20 seconds a la Gretzky and Kurri on the '80s Oilers. That may work...if they can get the twins fitted with rocket skates.

Rocket skates made from golden baby seals

Not sure if the Canucks need any more biting given how Alex Burrows really only woke up the Bruins in the 2011 Final by adding more bite to his game. But, alright, let's give Mr. Bite the benefit of the doubt and look at the truculent positives. Yes, the Canucks need to get tougher BUT where are these players that will do that?  There's no Andrew Shaw or Bryan Bickell on this team (sorry, Zack Kassian). The defence is not exactly Chara scary or Keith steady.

The Nux are also moving to a way tougher division given three of the "larger" teams they struggle to beat--the Kings, the Ducks and the Sharks--are in that new division.

Yes, the window may have closed once the Canucks blew the 2011 Final, but there is that Carolina Hurricanes 2006 rebound back-to-the-Final and win it model? Can the Canucks learn anything from how the Canes did it?

Not enough really has been made of how the Canes lost in the 2002 Final and four years (but only three seasons given the '04/05 lockout) later clawed back to win it all. It's the one model losing Finalists should be looking at.

They did have a new coach in Peter Laviolette who had replaced Paul Maurice after 30 games of the '03/04 season.

The thing with the Canes is although their defence stayed virtually the same (Hedican, Wallin, Wesley and Ward) with just Frantisek Kaberle and Mike Commodore replacing Sean Hill and Marek Malik, the rest of the team had plenty of turnover.

The goalies in '02 were Arturs Irbe and Kevinturs Weekes. Yes, Canuck fans, the two and the same.

In '06 it was Cam Ward. Well, actually it was the #1 netminder Martin Gerber who flopped so badly in the first two games in round one that a change was warranted. Rookie Cam Ward proceeded to channel Patrick Roy and took home the Conn Smythe.

All the wingers changed bar Erik Cole who only got into two playoff games in '06 anyway. Given the '06 wingers were veterans Corey Stillman, Mark Recchi (a late-season pickup) and Ray Whitney with future multiple Cup winners Andrew Ladd and Justin Williams, that's a pretty strong group.

Rod Brind'Amour and Kevyn Adams were back as two of the centers but the additions of Matt Cullen and Doug Weight to go with 21-year-old Eric Staal in just his sophomore season leading the Canes in playoff scoring...and hello, Stanley.

So, there you have it. I guess the change of coach has been done. Now all the Canucks need to do is bring up some hotshot 21-year-old scoring center from the minors and change all their wingers bar maybe a veteran like Christopher Higgins.

That was easy. Next, I solve the crisis in Brazil. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before They Turned Into Pumpkins

Sure the Nathan Horton injury could really affect the Boston Bruins' chances but they did win the 2011 Stanley Cup without him in the lineup for the last four games of that series. Remember this:

The bigger problem is the loss in Game 1 in the third overtime at 11:59 pm local Blackhawk Time. History has shown up over and over the team that loses a long (we're talking over two overtimes) overtime game in the Final, does not recover.

Remember the "underdog" '90 Edmonton Oilers and Petr Klima's buckethead helmet:

Needless to say, that Klima goal happened in Game 1 also in the third overtime against the B's so cue the eerie ominous fate to come.

Anyway, just because we all know history does repeat itself, here's the list of all the three-overtime games in various Finals:
1931 Game 3 Black Hawks 3 - Habnadiens 2
Cy Wentworth at 13:50 of the third overtime (use the Pat Foley voice).
Montreal wins the series (wait, what?) 3 games to 2 (a five-game Final?).

1990 Game 1 Oil 3 - Bruins 2
Oilers (sans Gretzky in LA) take it 4 games to 1.

1996 Game 4 Avs 1 - Ratsters 0
Uwe Krupp from the point and the sweep over Florida is official.

1999 Game 6 Stars 2 - Sabres 1
Brett Hull puts his foot in the crease and a stupid rule is quickly erased as he nets the Cup-winning goal.
One Hull of a goal

2000 Game 5 Stars 1 - Devils 0
Wow, does anyone outside these two cities even remember this game? Plus what is up with Dallas and three-OT games? Oh, yeah, shots 48-41 over 106 minutes and only one goal. No wonder we forgot. Even the goal--Mike Modano. Here's a reminder.
The Devils win Game 6 in double OT so, hm, curse did not hold thanks to Jason Arnott. 

2002 Game 3 Red Wings 3 - Canes 2
Again the dead puck '00s. Points awarded if you remember Igor Larionov scored the winner. Wings take the series 4 games to 1. 

2008 Game 5 Penguins 4 - Red Wings 3
The summary of this one is wild. Read on here. Petr Sykora (those pesky ex-Devils are everywhere) with the winner.
Detroit went on to win Game 6 and the series.

So, I take that back, your team can recover from that devastating long-OT loss. It's nearly a 50/50 shot so advantage no team after Game 1.

Could we also stop going on about how many shots whatever goalie has faced/stopped through these long overtime games (or even the ones that finish sooner). Last night we kept hearing about how many saves Tuukka Rask had made. Great info without context. When you're on about his 59 saves the 63 shots worked out to an average of 33 shots per a regular 60-minute game. It's not like he was pummeled with rubber in OT. It was his play in the the regulation game facing 39 shots that kept Boston in it more despite the three goals Rask gave up (or should I say minus the one shot going wide that banked off Andrew Ference to tie it up).

This was not the 1987 Kelly Hrudey and Bob Mason mano-a-mano Game 7 Easter Epic. The shots in that 4OT game: Capitals 75-Isles 57. The Caps averaged 13 shots a period for periods 4 through 6. Then they ran out if gas and only had one shot through 8:47 of period 7 until Pat Lafontaine scored for the Islanders.

This was not that other insane game the Capitals were involved in. The 1996 3-2 loss vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins that had Mario Lemieux gets tossed, a penalty shot in overtime (that Joe Juneau of the Caps failed to convert vs. the Pens' Ken Wregget) before Petr Nedved ended it rifling a laser past Ollie the Goalie at half past the "Carson Daly Show." Shed a tear for both Michal Pivonka and Kelly Miller who were "experienced" both games as long-time Caps' players. 
Shots in that one over 79:16--Pens 65-Caps 55 with the Caps outshooting the Pens in OT 37-12. 

So, yeah, folks, long overtimes can be both frustrating ("Somebody please score!") or exhilirating ("They scored? They scored!"). The only thing is, too much of a long-OT thing and unless you're a diehard, it's bedtime.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Belieb In Your Teams

Oh, just in time for the NBA Finals (is there more than one Final?) comes Justin Bieber and his appearance courtside in Miami for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (yeah, I'm sticking with the singular now). I'm sure the entire globe has seen The Biebs in all his glory. If not, here he is for your scrutiny.


Yo, dat's da way u drink wadder, bay-bee

We'll leave the fashionistas to critique his headgear that suggests he might be channeling the Great Gazoo, the Mr. T starter kit and the leather shirt and pants (say, didn't Mr. Leather Pants himself Jim Morrison have a relationship with Miami as well?). The real buzz that has hit the sports fan is exactly what team(s) does this short lesbian icon frontrunner bandwagoneer actually root for? Thank you for this indelible Biebs' cap collage.

 Why must I choose only one when there are so many to enjoy?

Of course, no one expects any celeb looking to score prime seats to expand his fan base even wider than was thought humanly possible to actually care about sports so . . . why the comedic gold mining?

Well, as The Sports Guy Bill Simmons got on his soapbox and pointed out there are a few rules about sports team allegiances. Read the whole article here. The crux of the argument is apparently you're pretty much married for life to whatever team you first become attached to in any sport and cannot get a divorce or even sleep around with another team UNLESS that team moves and leaves you heartbroken first.

Yes, even a marriage contract apparently has more loopholes than this one.

Now applying that fave sports team contractual logic (and it is logical to most sports fans despite the fact we're basically cheering for laundry year after year as the song may remain the same but the players, coaches, management and owners sure don't while the laundry may even change for the worse) to other realms it makes about as much sense as the Biebs' sartorial choices--a San Francisco Giants cap with a Texas Rangers jacket? Oh, I see, he's got both major leagues covered.

Let's start with music. Say you're a teenager in the late '80s/early '90s and you fall in love with, say, Oasis. That's it. You better not buy any other bands' T-shirts, CDs (CDs? You mean those shiny coasters my dad has that apparently used to be vehicles to deliver music to our ears?) or see any other bands live unless they're backing up Oasis until Noel finally breaks it off with Liam.

Same with movies (or "fillums" if you prefer, Art). Let's say instead, you're a young whippersnapper in the late 1970s yet to discover punk rock. Along comes a small low-budget flick called Star Wars. You fall in love with the stylings of Mark Hammill. You best not be jumping ship and going to see Blade Runner a few years later with Han Solo in a futuristic trenchcoat. Nope, you've made your bed and now will get plenty of "joy" from Luke Skywalker's scintillating work through the decades.

What do I know? I'm still wearing Fred Perrys and Levi jeans, and it's 2013 although I do hope I've moved on musically and cinematically.

So why don't we all just embrace the Biebs's attitude in the 21st century. After all, look where loyalty gets Cub or Make Belief fans? Heck, look at America's Team now? The players can all be free agents, why can't we fans? You know the Biebs is probably ahead of the curve. It's no longer about what team we support in a deathlike grip until, well, death. It's about the Ws, my man, woman and child!

The New World was not created by loyally following what our Old World ancestors told us to do. It was formed by shifting alliances, pitting one tribe against another until the Earth was scorched so hipsters could tell us how we should live on it in this century.

So, ask not what "your" teams can do for you, ask yourself if the heartache of losing is worth any of it, Cleveland. Come on over to the Dark Leathery Upholstered Side of Team Bieber. Let the Biebs show us the way. Today the Miami Heat. Tomorrow maybe he takes a Riverwalk on the San Antonio Spurs' side.

To update what that great Metropolitan sports philosopher from the last century, Tug McGraw, said--Ya Gotta Belieb, baby, baby, baby.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Round 'Em Up!

Chicago Survivors vs. Lost Angles Can't Shoots

I heard Kelly Hrudey on Marek vs. Wyshynski (May 29th) actually say he thought the Los Angeles Kings could sweep the Chicago Blackhawks. He's probably not alone in that so many in the media seem to have lost the plot. Neither of the two Kings series so far have been (a) worth watching or (b) an indication that the El Lay Kings are actually any good at all. Oh, you enjoyed the way the Kings opened Game 7 at home vs. the San Jose Sharks but pouring all of 3 shots on net in the first and 4 on net in the third. This is a team that's going to sweep Chicago?

The worse thing is the Kings could actually win the Cup again and this time even more so thanks to having an insanely great goalie in Jonathan Quick. Once again, hockey is reduced to nothing more than--find a great goalie, skate and hit hard and score at least two goals a game . . . you too can go deep in the playoffs!

Hey, a little help offensively, please!

Sorry, if I prefer my blue collar hockey more Boston Bruins than LA Kings. I just do. I need actual action around the net not along the boards.

Let's break this Kings hype down. Not only are they scoring at an even slower rate than last year's playoffs through two rounds (2.0 goals per game in 2013 vs. 3.0 in 2012) but for all this "great" hitting they are supposedly doing, it's leading to virtually no offensive chances (24.1 shots per 60 minutes now vs. 28.5 last year) and Quick having to bail them out time and again. This is not your 2012 playoff Kings at all.
They had 30 shots on goal in all of one game out of the 13 they've played even with three of those going into overtime and one lasting over 13 minutes of OT. This is bad hockey period. End of story.

Nearly half of their games they've given up over 30 shots. This is Darryl Sutter hockey. Ride that Kiprusoff/Quick and hit everything in sight so you'll be so tired you can't even be bothered shooting the puck at the net (related philosophy see New York Rangers under Torts and replace hitting with shot blocking). That'll work and get you to the Final and even get you one Cup. Can it get a repeat Cup though when you have now played 13 games vs. just 9 through two rounds last season.

Plus the road warriors of 2012 are long gone. The Kings went 10W 1L on the road back then. This year they are 1W 5L on the road in the playoffs and have to start off in Chicago playing Games 1 and 2 on back-to-back nights this weekend. Good luck with that as this Blackhawk team has had their scare and should be raring to go in round three.  

So, yes, now that Blackhawk fans can breathe again, let's get real. Loads of eventual champions have to overcome being down in series be it 0-2 or 1-3. Do I really need to haul out the list? Unless you're the '70s Habs, you're going to have some tough series along the way to the Cup.

Also, enough with the Jonathan Toews not scoring. You do realize in the 2010 Final, he was the 11th leading scorer with just 3 assists vs. the Philadelphia Flyers? It's about "teams" not individuals otherwise where was Sidney Crosby in 2009? He was the Pittsburgh Penguins' 6th leading scorer with a paltry 3 points vs. the Detroit Red Wings in the Final.

So could we please turn off the panic mode every single playoff year and wake up to the fact, it comes down to matchups and sometimes best vs. best cancel each other out and it means your second, third or fourth best lines have to come through. That's playoff hockey since the days of Jean Beliveau.

Pittsburgh Iggy Want Cup vs. Boston Krugs

Since the Pens got their groove back once their goaltending situation got settled and the B's did the same once they pulled back from the brink in round one, round two was a cakewalk for both teams really.

Now how do these two match up? Well, judging from the two out of three regular season contests where Vokoun was in nets vs. Boston, he played very well with a .944 save percentage. The problem is the B's steamrolled the Pens offensively outshooting them 32-18 and 40-24 in both of those games.

Plus doesn't it seem to you that Boston is starting to look like that 2011 Cup team again? I mean, replace Tim Thomas with Tuukka Rask and Jaromir Jagr is Mark Recchi (maybe not points-wise yet but chance-wise Jagr is 4th on the team so far with 36 shots on goal) and really it's virtually the same team only maybe a bit hungrier to prove they can win it without Timmy.

The B's roll basically three lines who come at you in those swarming waves and their fourth line even won them a game last series vs. the New York Shotblockers. Zdeno Chara is basically a wall back on D. Even the injuries on the back end have not affected their team's D or offense.

What exactly is a Torey Krug anyway? 

Krug: (def'n) Divine Providence

Also, now that Sidney Crosby has been cleared to remove his jaw/chin guard, is he insane enough to do that when he has to play against this Big Bad Bruin now? 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wake Me When The Pens-Hawks Final Starts

Pittsburgh Vokouns vs. Ottawa Craigers
As other Hasek-edly as Craig Anderson has played in the net for the Sens in round one (.946 save percentage), it's not the first time. He was terrific for the Colorado Avalanche with a .933 save percentage facing a '13 Leaf-like 39.1 shots per game in their 2010 first round loss in six games to the #1 seed San Jose Sharks. With his .941 save percentage during the regular season, let's just say the Sens (and Team USA with Jonathan Quick as well in the mix) are set in goal.

Having said that, don't dismiss Tomas Vokoun as a glorified backup. In that same 2009/10 season, the Czech netminder was arguably the best goalie in the NHL with a .925 save percentage facing a league high 33.8 shots a game. I'd love to say his playoff performance was as good that season but he was playing for the offensively challenged Florida Panthers who finished in 28th place in the overall standings.

Needless to say, Vokoun a year later left as a free agent for Washington. Was Holtby-ed out in the Caps' 2012 playoffs and didn't see any playoff action. Anyway, despite being 36 years old (or maybe because he's 36?) his time is now. He has been a very good netminder in the playoffs. It's just he hasn't actually been IN the playoffs all that much.
His NHL playoff totals to date are:
14 GP
.931 save percentage
32.2 shots against per game

I'll also add The Craiger has not been so hot vs. the firepower of the Pens. His record the last three seasons:
2 W 5L
.898 save percentage

Boston Comebacks vs. New York Lundqvists

Not to harp on goaltending (and shot blocking) but this series could set new levels of dullness not matched since the 2012 Caps-Rangers series. Although the Rangers since the trade deadline were scoring at a league-leading pace, their shutdown game given the Game 6 & 7 shutouts of the Capitals in the last round doesn't bode too well for Boston.

After all Boston had a field day averaging close to 40 shots a game vs. the hideously porous Leaf D who stayed alive until Game 7 mainly thanks to James Reimer.

That's not happening vs. the Rangers. One can only hope in all these games that the B's score first so we can see these teams go toe to toe.

Honestly, enough about goaltending. Let's talk about Derick Brassard being so good that Brad Richards was centering the fourth line by series end and the Rangers potted five in a Game 7. Maybe being in Columbus, Brassard got lost in the mediocrity but this is a former number six overall pick. Pro-rating his QMJHL stats over an 82-game season and he was a 118-point man in junior (218 points in 151 GP). His playoff stats in the Q were 39 points in 36 GP (and that's counting the zero he got in seven games his first season there).

Face facts, the guy was a steal even if Marian Gaborik went the other way. Brassard's 25. Gaborik's 31. Brassard makes his teammates better--end of story.

Chicago Are-We-There-Yets vs. Detroit Not-Dead-Yet Things

An old Snorris Division battle that most likely will see the most exciting hockey in round two even though it could be quick. After all, no matter how much you like the Wings, this is a very special Hawks team. Hopefully, they get what they deserve (a dinner with Al Secord?) for the season they've had.

Detroit beating a very good Ducks team in round one could be a last hurrah of the post-Lidstrom missed-out-on-Suter era. After all, when was the last time the Red Wings were the lower seed and won in the second round. Try never (as, well, usually they are the higher seed). Even in 2011 when the team came back from 0-3 down vs. the San Jose Sharks, they still lost Game 7 in one of the best series in recent Wings history.

Here's hoping we see a hammer-and-tong war of hits galore like the St. Louis-LA series with as many shots-a-go-go as the Boston-Toronto series.

San Jose Next Gen vs. LA Still Kings

Fans of the Sharks are probably saying finally all the pieces are coming together. the oldsters (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle) are scoring as well as the youngsters (Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture). Their goaltending is reliable with Antti "I have a Cup!" Niemi. Brent Burns is finally playing the right position--power forward. (Since he played that in junior, why did that anti-hockey Jacques Lemaire have to mess that up after Burns got drafted by the Minnesota Wild? Where was the Byfuglien logic?).

Of course, all these pieces seem to be falling into place and the Sharks end up having to play the defending Darryl Sutters in round two with Jonathan Quick in Stanley Cup 2012 form.

San Jose just cannot win both literally and ironically.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

East Is Not Least

After that less than stellar start last night, here's hoping the East gives us some goals tonight. Sorry, but did anyone other than Jonathan Quick on El Lay realize the playoffs had actually started?

Crosby Malkins vs. Not Yet Brooklyn Islanders

The Isles' main rival over the years may be the New York Rangers and the Pens' have the Philadelphia Flyers (what about us, asks Ovie's Caps?) but the Isles and Pens have had some terrific history--both recent, past and back in the pre-HD age. Rick DiPetro, this is your life.

Everyone and their Ferraro knows of David Volek and the more than huge upset of the two-time defending champions in '93, but take the wayback time machine and see where the Isles' legacy of amazing 0-3 comebacks truly started here.

So, bring it on, baby!

Les Canadiens vs. House of Commons

How the Sens contain Howie Morenz in this two-game total goals semi-final will be key. The Sens are no slouches in the goal scoring department with Erik Karlsson feeding Cy Denneny. Still it looks like Carey Price's struggles in net are no match for Ottawa's outstanding netminder Alex Connell. I predict in this year 27 of the 20th century a victory for the King Clancys!

This should be one for the aged.

PJ, I'm open!

Washington Ovies vs. NY Shot Blockers

Yes, the Strangers were one of the most boring teams in last year's playoffs. Sorry, shot blocking may translate into wins, but it's not exactly off the charts on the entertainment scale. After all, let The Lundqvist do what he's paid to do...and what he does well. Maybe Torts woke up but after the trade deadline infused the Rangers with a bunch of bodies, they took off. At their scoring pace in April (3.57 goals per game), they were Pittsburgh-like (Pens averaged 3.44 goals per game over the 48-game schedule).

Throw in the revitalized Ovechkin under coach Adam Oates and it looks like the 2013 series will be infinitesimally more entertaining than last season's seven game snorefest.

Tarrana Kessels vs. Boston Trade Bonanza

No matter if you think Brian Burke was or wasn't a genius, the Phil Kessel trade will be his legacy in T.O. Let's remind everyone what the deal was exactly. The Bruins got in return three draft picks that turned out to be Tyler Seguin, a defenceman who has a fave superhero and Jared Knight. The former two are both playing for the B's and Seguin not only chipped in with a critical performance in their Cup run as a rookie but led the team in scoring in '11/12. Do the Dougie Hamilton has been impressive as a rookie this season on the Boston D. Knight--the jury's still out.
This trade was voted the best ever in Boston sports history (and remember the NBA Celtics got two cornerstones of an '80s dynasty in both Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale in a trade).

It doesn't stop there with Boston and the Centre of the Universe. Boston's outstanding goalie Tuukka Rask who's basically made most forget Tim Thomas's contract is on Long Island while his roly poly Gump body is on some couch in Colorado. The B's traded former Rookie of the Year Andrew Raycroft to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask. The Make Beliefs made this trade thinking Team Canada World Junior hero Justin Pogge was going to be their number one goalie. That Raycroft/Pogge tandem played all of 98 games with the Leafs. Pogge's only NHL games were the seven with the team and he had a sparkling .844 save percentage. Both are now playing in Italy. So, news flash, Maple Syrups, success at the World Juniors in net is meaningless. Yours, Jimmy Waite, Mario Gosselin and Mike Moffat.

You guys make me maple laff

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

West Is Best

The Western Conference gets to start the NHL playoffs for once with all three series on day one out West? See what getting a West Coast team as Stanley Cup winners does for us out here.

 Ride the mullet, baby!
Chicago Kaner Mullets vs. Minnesota Mild

Is there any doubt? When you have one of the all-time greatest seasons in NHL history, if you're going to get upset it's most likely later on (Ken Dryden 1st round heroics leading to a 1971 Conn Smythe performance aside).

The more interesting aspect is twofold. The Wild with their big name signings of Zach Pariseeeee (not Pariseez-eh anymore, eh) and Ryan Suter leapt from 24th overall last season to 15th. The two teams that lost those stars--well, they didn't fare so well with both missing the playoffs. The Nashville Predators fell from 5th overall to 27th. The New Jersey Devils (also thanks to losing Ilya Kovalchuk for a crucial stretch of the season) dipped down from 9th to 23rd.

The other fold is the Wild kept us from enjoying the Bob for another week or so plus would have rubbed even more poison oak into the Philadelphia Flyers' wounds. Ex-Flyer goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was insanely great for the Columbus Blue Jackets (.932 save percentage matching his .932 save percentage with SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout so we should have saw that coming). That other Russian goalie the Flyers pinned their hopes on. Well, at least he's funny.

So there ya go, why bother talking about the Blackhawks until they play some team that's actually scored more goals than they've given up. Sorry, State of Hockey, but when you have an actual exciting team, get back to us neutrals.

Anaheim One Cup Ducks vs. Detroit Dead Things?

Wow, how the mighty have fallen? All it took was losing one Norris Trophy defenceman.
Even so, ominous for the Dux is not so much all this vaunted experience the Wings have, it's the fact the Wings know how to win in Anaheim w/o Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings took both regular season games in the City of Disney.

Throw in the fact Jimmy Howard has outplayed the Fasth/Hiller tandem and maybe the Dux got one of the worst matchups possible despite a season that was truly terrific but overlooked a little given the Hawks' 23-game unbeaten run. 

Personally, I think the Gordie Howe Houston Aeros WooHA era movie more than made up for losing Lidstrom. Then again that's just me. (Say, was that one of Steve Sanders's girlfriends from "Beverly Hills: 90210"?)

Vancouver Sedins vs. San Jose Chokers

Talk about your classic underachievers. This is two for the price of one in this series. Vancouver will look to the fact it defeated the Sharks in 2011 in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks will look to the fact they maybe got unlucky in 2011 in meeting the Canucks that late. Usually, the Sharks are one team the Canucks have so much trouble with. From '07/08 through the '09/10 seasons the Sharks were 10W-2L vs. the Nux. The Nux turned the tables in '10/11 and '11/12 with 6W-2L as well as the 4W-1L in the '11 playoffs.

This season the Sharks are back on top of the Nux winning all three contests.

Don't even mention Sieveongo should Schneids not be 100 percent.

Luongo still hasn't been traded!

St. Louis Bouwmeesters vs. LA Defenders

Finally, Jay Bouwmeester gets to see if he can grow a beard and against the defending champions to start it all off. Sadly, LA won all three meetings between the two during the season. Defending Cup champs tend not to lose to any team in rd. one (the '12 Boston Bruins say what as do the '11 Blackhawks), especially if they improve over the previous season.

The Kings who became the only team lower than 9th overall (at 13th best in the '11/12 overall standings) to actually get to the Final and win the danged Cup. Let's strip back all the BS and that was one extremely lucky Luc Robitaille Cup run fueled again by insane Hab era Patrick Roy-like goaltending. Now on paper the Kings did and do have a good well-balanced team and leapt up to 7th overall. If they had Jeff Carter all season back in '11/12 maybe the Kings would have not had to put on that late-season blitz just to get into the playoffs.

Anyway, of the teams making a leap in the regular season after a Cup victory since '95 let's have a look:
'97 Colorado Avalanche
Jumped from 2nd overall to the Presidents Trophy and made it back to the Western Conference Final where the Detroit Red Wings avenged the Kris Draper face rearrangement.

'98 Detroit Red Wings
Moved up from 5th to 3rd overall and repeated as Cup champs even sadly without Vladimir Konstantinov on D but inspiring the Yzermans nonetheless.

'01 New Jersey Devils
Went from 4th to 3rd and got back to the Final where they lost to the Avs.
(Does anyone even remember this Final? Was it the one where Alex Tanguay got two goals in Game 7? Yep, the Bourque Cup.)

There you have it. Bet on the Kings getting to the Western Conference Final...or not. The only worrying factor is the Kings are still only 7th overall. They're not exactly the Avs, Wings or Devils powerhouses of the '90s and '00s yet.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Maybe Other Stuff Sucks

We've heard it straight from the goalie's mouth that his contract sucks. Roberto Luongo seems to think that is the reason he was not traded during the season. Yet is his contract really a hindrance to a fair trade that'll please Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks and whatever team wants him?

In September of 2009 with one year left on his then contract, the Canucks started renegotiating Luongo's contract. The end result was a 12-year deal for $64 million. At the time everyone seemed happy with this deal. The Canucks got cost certainty with a cap hit of $5.33 million per year over the length of that deal. That seemed a reasonable number to spend on an all-star goalie who was also slated to be on the Team Canada roster for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It's not like the Canucks were out there on some island throwing big money at a supposed big name goalie. Once the '04/05 lockout ended the Chicago Blackhawks signed free agent (and recent Tampa Bay Lightning '04 Cup-winning goalie) Nikolai Khabibulin to a record $27 million over four seasons to make him the highest paid netminder in the NHL. Khabibulin was so awful over the next three seasons (averaging out at a .899 save percentage)  the Hawks went out and spent another $22.4 million on a four-year deal for Cristobal Huet. So for the '08/09 season the Hawks had a cap hit of $12.35 million for their goalie tandem. They even put Khabibulin on waivers in September of that year but there were no takers.

Didn't get his right Khabi or left Bulin on that shot

Khabibulin, after that shock to his ego, re-established himself as the number one goalie on Chicago and the team went to the Western Conference Finals. Even so, the Hawks still let him walk for nothing in the off-season and the Edmonton Oilers got Khabibulin at a discount $15 million over four years. (How's that been working out for ya, Edmonton?)

We all know what the Blackhawks did in the '09/10 season with Huet and Antii Niemi in nets in taking home the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years. So, maybe letting Luongo walk via a buyout or even via waivers, even if he's not on the verge of free agency like Khabibulin was, is a possible way to go.

Anyway, you've all heard the arguments on the merits of signing any player to a long-term deal or spending a ton of money on a goalie. You can all read that elsewhere ad infinitum on the Internet.

Let's look at the onerous contention that it's Luongo's contract alone that is preventing a a trade happening.

For that we head to Philadelphia and the Flyers' general manger Paul Holmgren. Despite having signed Mike Richards in 2007 to a 12-year deal at $69 million and Jeff Carter in 2010 to an 11-year deal at $58 million, Holmgren was able to trade both players and get a very good return for each.

Carter was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and 2011 1st and 3rd round picks which turned out to be Sean Courturier and Nick Cousins. Voracek has been a solid offensive contributor (88 points in 118 games with Philly so far as well as 10 points in 11 playoff games last season), responsible defensively (finished a +11 in season one with the Flyers) and is just 23 years old at the moment. Courturier is only 20 and may have slipped in his sophomore season but was a solid +18 in his rookie year plus he gives the Flyers a nice 15 minutes a game as a second-line center. Cousins is described as a Scott Hartnell type and, if he makes the NHL, really is a third round steal given he's been the leading scorer on the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the past two seasons even cracking the 100-point mark this season. 

Richards was sent to the Los Angeles Kings along with Flyer prospect Rob Bordson (whom the Kings didn't even bother to sign and was signed as a free agent in the summer by the Anaheim Ducks) for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a 2012 2nd round pick. Both Simmonds and Schenn are playing with the Flyers. Simmonds is 24 and rounding into a fine power forward. He potted 28 goals last season and this season is on a similar scoring pace if you prorate his 11 goals so far over the course of an 82-game season. Schenn is 21 and right now is a 40- to 50-point a season player. Very decent given he, like Courturier, is averaging close to 15 minutes a game and in Schenn's case as a third-liner. Lastly, the 2nd round pick in that deal turned in to be Anthony Solarz, a goalie who has been terrific in limited backup play for the OHL's London Knights.

El Lay, we're here, ladies!

Speaking of L.A., Carter, as you well know ended up there to be reunited with his partying buddy Richards, and even the Columbus Blue Jackets made a very good trade getting Team USA defenceman Jack Johnson and a conditional 1st round pick from the Kings in the Carter trade.

So, to review, two players whose contracts are in the same length and price ballpark as Luongo's were not only dealt for some impressive pieces but one was even dealt twice within the course of a season.

Attention, Mike Gillis, it can be done.

So maybe the contract is not the problem at all. On the other hand, the actual play and age of Luongo could be. Let's face facts. Carter and Richards were both dealt at age 26. Luongo is currently 34 years old.

This is not to say Luongo can't play at a high level but look at his contemporaries in net.
Martin Brodeur did help the New Jersey Devils get to the Final at age 39 but the last time he hit the magic .920 save percentage mark in the regular season was at age 35.
Patrick Roy finished his career at ages 37 and 38 with unreal .925 and .920 save percentages. Then again miracles do follow saints.

Ed Belfour at age 38 had a .922 save percentage with the Toronto Maple Leafs (and this was the only time he cracked that magic Hasek-ian line).
Curtis Joseph never surpassed the .920 save percentage mark but did have his last decent season at age 35 with the Detroit Red Wings . . . although paralleling Luongo's struggles was unable to lift a very good team to the Cup (let alone out of the 1st round as the Wings got Giguered and swept by the soon-to-be Stanley Cup-ly Ducks of Anaheim in 2003)

Why no Cups for CuJo?

Luongo's had a .920 save percentage over the first five seasons of his career with the Florida Panthers. His first five seasons with the Canucks--a .920 save percentage.
Even last season (his sixth in Vancouver), he had a .919 save percentage. So we all know Bingo Bango Bongo brings it in the regular season and is as consistent as the rain is in this city.

It's the playoffs, other than the 2010 playoffs where he had an .895 save percentage, the other years his overall play has been solid to outstanding on the surface. But has it? Sure, everyone was all over Luongo's poor play in the 2011 Final after he got ventilated in Game 3 in Boston. Even with a bounceback shutout in Game 5 to put the Canucks up 3-2 in the Final, Luongo's save percentage Games 4 through 7 was an abysmal .873.

Shouldn't we have seen this coming? After all, this was the same goalie that when push came to shove melted down vs. the Blackhawks in two straight playoff series and also oddly was more concerned about being a ref than stopping the puck in the Game 5 overtime in the '07 Anaheim series.

Look at this "consistency" in crunch time playoff action:
'10 vs. Hawks Games 3 thru 6       .872 save percentage
'09 vs. Hawks all 6 games             .878
'07 vs. Ducks Games 1, 3 & 4       .882

Yes, in two series this is obviously cherrypicking the stats, but even in the '07 Ducks series where he finished up with a .930 save percentage thanks to a 43-save effort in Game 2 and the Game 5 overtime where he stopped 56 of 58 shots, Luongo has these major letdowns at incredibly crucial parts of playoff series. That is not news to Canuck fans nor probably to NHL GMs which is maybe the real reason it has been hard so far to trade the 2010 Olympic gold medal winning goalie.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Don't Lose That Draw!

Don't get me wrong I love stat analysis but one of the dumbest conclusions next to "you must have good special teams play to win in this league" (obviously, as that's why one of the teams with the worst powerplays ever in the playoffs won the 2011 Stanley Cup, isn't it?), is the so-called "importance" of winning faceoffs.

Logically, in one's brain you would feel the team that has possession of the puck is better off than the one that doesn't. What is left out of the raw faceoff winning percentage data is so many things.

All faceoffs are not equal.
Losing a faceoff in the neutral zone or the attacking zone is not the same as losing one in your own end.
Factor in the time of the game, the score, etc., and yeah, I'll take the guy with the low faceoff percentage who can win the one crucial draw when it actually means something.
In fact losing a faceoff is never the end of the world as how often have you seen the subsequent puck battle result in the "losing" team getting the puck back or just a typical English League midfield scramble circa 1975?
Often (shock! horror!) centers lose faceoffs on purpose early in games to suck their opponents in to get them overconfident later in the game on crucial draws.

Anyway, faceoffs (and I'm sure most hockey fans do not go to games to watch faceoffs hence the often heard screams of "drop the puck!") are vastly overrated, especially by media some of whom love this when needing something (anything!) to write about in often dull snoozefests.

Here's a list of the best playoff faceoff artists last season.
Out of this list the only faceoff guys who made the Final were ranked 15th (Travis Zajac, New Jersey) and 22nd (Jarret Stoll, Los Angles Kings).

Maybe this is just a one-playoff season anomaly. Let's have a look at 2011 then, shall we? We've got the Boston Bruins' Patrice Bergeron 3rd and David Krejci 16th. OK, let's say that's one for the pro-faceoff acolytes even if in the Top 20 of playoff faceoff percentage less than half (nine) were players on teams who went to the Conference Finals or the Cup Final.

OK, 2010. We have 5 of the Top 20 faceoff guys' teams as having made a significant playoff run of at least three rounds. We also have leader Eric Belanger's Caps out in rd. 1. So for every Brandon Yip we have a yang.

I'm no Gilbert

I could go on and on but faceoff winning percentage offers very little insight into the actual winning or losing of games. If it did where are the Cups for such all-time great faceoff men as Yanic Perreault, Mike Sillinger or Adam Oates? Heck, where are the deep playoff runs for any of the teams these faceoff greats were on? I'm sure Oatesy's "success" in the playoffs is more passing oriented than on the faceoff dotted line. Sure, for every Steve Yzerman or Joe Nieuwendyk you can argue your case but statistically you'd be tossed out of Stats 101 if that was your argument. To determine whether these stars are the norm or just the minority in this John Travolta of a B movie theory.

How about the regular season? Taking the past three seasons and looking at the Top 20 each season in faceoff winning percentage, how many of these faceoff specialists saw their teams make the playoffs?
Thirteen out of 20 players made the playoffs (San Jose Sharks had three centers in the Top 20 as well...and a lot of good it did them in rd. 1 but that's another story)

Eleven out of 20. Just FYI, the Washington Capitals topped the East and their best faceoff man was Nicklas Backstrom who was 33rd overall. Weirdly, San Jose had no one in the Top 20--hm, McSorley stick measurements, anyone after the '11/12 jump?

Ten out of 20. Actually, nine of the 16 playoff teams did not place a single player in the Top 20 in faceoffs. Plus the perennial playoff Philadelphia Flyers had none at all over the three seasons.

So over the past three seasons, just over 56 percent of the players in the Top 20 in faceoffs in the regular season have been on playoff teams. Pretty decent record but not mindblowingly overwhelming enough to win a hockey pool or even a Cup maybe.

Now, how about we compare the faceoff records to something that probably matters more than controlling the puck? Yes, actually putting the puck in the net whether you won the faceoff and scored off that "control" or you stole the puck back after a faceoff loss and somewhere along the line put the biscuit in the basket.

Top 20 in scoring from '09/10 through '11/12 regular seasons had 44 of the 60 players who are on that list (obviously, like on the faceoff dot, some multiple times over the three seasons in question) made the playoffs. That's a 73 percent return on your scoring vs. the 56 percent in faceoff investment.

But I sure am!

Hey, you believe what you want. There are still fans and media who believe that you need an "elite" goalie to win a Cup so for every flukey Jonathan Quick channeling Patrick Roy '86 there is an Antti Niemi or Chris Osgood. So to each their own. All I'm saying is faceoff stats should be taken with grains of malt.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Logical Divisional Realignment

Did you read about the radical realignment of the NHL's divisions and conferences? It's radical!

OK, arranging teams in divisions (or are they calling them conferences now?) where most every team is in the same time zone strikes most fans as the most logical realignment the NHL has ever done.

Remember this is the league that when the Vancouver Canucks entered in 1970 this westernmost team was placed in the Eastern Division. That started the Chicago Blackhawks (oops, sorry, Black [space] Hawks back then) on their westward divisional journey that has lasted to this day.Then despite two years later adding two expansion teams (the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders) based in the Eastern Time Zone, left the Canucks in the Eastern Division.

No, radical is further defined by what happened when the NHL decided from the 1974/75 to go with four divisions and two conferences and to heck with geography as follows:
Atlanta Flames
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers
Chicago Black Hawks
Kansas City Scouts
Minnesota North Stars
St. Louis Blues
Vancouver Canucks
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
Montreal Canadiens
Pittsburgh Penguins
Washington Capitals
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
California Seals (no longer Golden)
Toronto Maple Leafs

Sealing the deal

It doesn't stop there. When the Seals who had moved to Cleveland and were now known as the Barons merged (say what?) with the North Stars, the league folded the Barons and "moved" the North Stars into the Adams Family.

Then for the 1979/80 and 1980/81 the merger with the WHA became a free-for-all. A balanced schedule was set up (imagine that!) and the divisions were now:
Atlanta Flames
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers
Washington Capitals
Chicago Black Hawks
Colorado Rockies (the former KC Scouts and the now New Jersey Devils)
Edmonton Oilers
St. Louis Blues
Vancouver Canucks
Winnipeg Jets
Detroit Red Wings
Hartford Whalers
Los Angeles Kings
Montreal Canadiens
Pittsburgh Penguins
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Minnesota North Stars
Quebec Nordiques
Toronto Maple Leafs

Finally, from 1981/82 the NHL woke up from its most likely drug-induced haze (hey, it was the '70s, man) and created divisions from then on that had a semblance of geographical sense while still naming the divisions after founders of the league.

I won't even go into how the playoffs worked over those seasons as you may need serious medical attention in trying to understand the best-of-three series and byes in the first round to division winners.