Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Way The West Will Be Won

Now it's time to talk about Big Boy hockey. Enough with the Leastern Conference, this is where bodies will be banging and goals...well, they'll be hard to come by sadly. Yes, as much as we like to say how good the teams are in the West, often it's that sloppy D and fast skating East that provides more exciting hockey as last night's action proved.

Even so, the West will still produce plenty of thrills so let's have a look at how the series break down.

Teemu's Farewell 
vs. the Hartford Whaler Unis

Look, you have to have a heart of stone to not cheer for Teemu Selanne to go out a Stanley Cup winner. It may not happen but at least coach Bruce Boudreau knows how to ice an exciting team be it the Washington Capitals when they were actually fun to watch to this Ducks team.

Now the big news is starting rookie Frederik Andersen in net over veteran Jonas Hiller. Is it news really? Anyone who has seen how starting a goalie with minimal or even zero NHL playoff experience can pay off, it's well worth the gamble. Considering Andersen's sparkling .923 save percentage puts him 8th among the '13/14 regular season leaders vs. Hiller's .911 (and also his Olympic hangover and late-season mystery illness) Boudreau is going with the better goalie as of now.

Another weird quirk is how top heavy the scoring is on both teams. After Ryan Getzlaf's 89 points and Corey Perry's 82, the next top scoring Duck is Nick Bonino with 49.

Dallas has the Tyler Seguin (84 pts) and Jamie Benn (79 pts) combo and then we get a defenceman in Alex Goligoski's 42 points in 3rd on the Dallas Stars' scoring list.(So what you're saying is the James Neal trade did work out?)

It's not like both teams don't have scoring touch throughout their lineups, it's just this past regular season we really didn't see it balanced out much through the entire roster all that much.

The Tong War

Last season the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings had a seven-game battle for the ages. The problem is it was a "battle." This is not exactly attractive hockey to watch unless you enjoy low scoring although the hitting was tremendous. Now there is a certain train of thought that people seem to think the Kings are a "good" hockey team because they won a Cup two seasons ago.

When you look at their lineup they do look good on paper but in 2012 they basically got hot. Darryl Sutter has somehow managed to suck the goals out of this lineup. It can't be all Sutter's fault as the Kings were 9th in goals for last season...oh, wait, they only had to play 48 games of that grind-it-out style vs. 82 this season...never mind.

Look at how well both Jeff Carter (hat trick in one game and 4 goals overall) and Drew Doughty (4 goals as well and Team Canada's top scorer with 6 points in the tournament) played at the Olympics. Now look at their stats with LA.

Carter, a former 46G man got all of 27G this season with the Kings decent but nothing like the two other 30+ goal seasons he had in Philly.

Doughty was looking to be the heir apparent as the premier offensive D-man in the league after a 59-point season in his sophomore year plus winning a Gold Medal being arguable Team Canada's best defencemen at Vancouver 2010. He had all of 37 points this season. Yeah, yeah, yeah, points aren't everything but he's not Brad Park in his later years with Boston (who still was putting up 50-point seasons being more crafty than speedy by then). Doughty is 24 years old. Sutter needs to let the guy loose and it can only help the Kings maybe win a few more games more easily and rest the other "stars" so they're fresher for the playoffs.

Therein lies the problem. The Kings have to work so hard to score a single goal let alone two, they are exhausted come playoff time. Reminder: This is not the 2012 hot streak to end all hot streaks playoff team.

Sutter helped the Kings win a Cup because he was parachuted in at exactly the right time. He joined the Kings for the last 49 games and gave them that shot of adrenaline (plus he lucked out with Jonathan Quick impersonating Sutter's 2004 playoff version of Mikka Kiprusoff). Sure the Kings got to round three last season but what a slog! They went toe-to-toe with both the St. Louis Blues (a 6-game series) and the San Jose Sharks (7 games) playing 11 one-goal games in the first two rounds.

Compare that to their 2012 Cup run where they played just two one-goal games in the first two rounds and dispensed of the Vancouver Canucks in five games and the Blues in a sweep.

Yet can the Sharks finally do it. Getting home-ice advantage (although this is not the NBA, eh) now vs. not having it last season is probably important given last year's series saw the home team win all the games. Meaning most likely this year we'll see some road wins between these two, of course.

All I know is what are the ageless wonders Patrick Marleau (age 34, 33G, 70 pts) and Joe Thornton (age 34, 65A, 76 pts) drinking and can I have some, please? Plus, need I remind anyone after yesterday's column, Jumbo Joe did not have to play in the Olympics and the Sharks had a paltry four players at Sochi--the fewest of any of the top four seeds in either conference.

vs. Man Who Never Leaves Ice

Are you as confused as to how Patrick Roy with the addition of basically just rookie (albeit one most likely headed to become Nova Scotia's second greatest NHLer behind the Bruin Killer...or maybe, on second thought, that guy in Pittsburgh) Nathan MacKinnon managed to get the '12/13 last-place Colorado Avalanche into first place in THIS division over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the way way way better on paper St. Louis Blues?

There's a book in there somewhere especially if Saint Patrick becomes a god by leading the Avs to a Cup in the near future.

Now, sadly, the Avs are up against it in this series thanks to not only losing their top player Matt Duchene to injury but also losing their #3 center, the very useful John Mitchell, as well. They'll also be missing Cody McLeod and Tyson Barrie.

The Minnesota Wild really do have a shot at an upset here. With Ryan Suter playing an average of 29:24 minutes per game this season, guess who you Avs need to target hitting? Speaking of what Marleau and Jumbo Joe have been drinking.

Yet, here's the rub--Ilya Bryzgalov vs. Semyon Varlamov. You can stop laughing now and I'll throw this at you:
Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 after his trade from the Edmonton Oilers although his save percentage of .911 is very average. He's also either great or horrible in the playoffs. He hasn't been good in the playoffs since 2006 though so . . .

Team Very Injured 
vs. Team Now Healthy

Where oh where did the St. Louis Blues' season go? From Cup contender to Cup pretender is where.
We're seeing now why the Buffalo Sabres traded Ryan Miller rather than re-signing the upcoming free agent. He's been very average after a great start initially in a Blues' uniform.
The Blues are way too beat up with six regulars (Vladimir Tarasenko, captain David Backes, TJ Shootout, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrick Berglund and Brenden Morrow) out of the lineup.
The Hawks, on the other hand, have a rested Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane apparently ready to go after coming off their injuries.

So what looked like a terrificy difficult matchup may end up be a nice warmup for another Blackhawks' deep playoff run.

Also, to those out there enamored of Ken Hitchock. Here's his playoff record since leaving the Dallas Stars where he went to the Conference Finals in '98, won a Cup in '99, went to another Final in '00 among that team's 10 playoff rounds won in five playoff seasons:

w/ Philadelphia Flyers
'03 beat Toronto 4-3, lost to Ottawa 4-2
'04 beat New Jersey 4-1 and Toronto 4-2, lost to Tampa 3-4
'05 lost to Buffalo 2-4
'06 missed playoffs
'07 fired after a 1-6-1 start

w/ Columbus Blue Jackets
'07 and '08 missed playoffs
'09 lost 0-4 to Detroit
'10 fired after going 22-27-9

w/ St. Louis Blues
'12 beat San Jose 4-1, lost 0-4 to LA
'13 lost to LA 2-4

So out of nine full seasons since he left Dallas, Hitch's team have missed the playoffs three times, lost in the first round three times as well, lost in round two twice...and had all of one deep run to the Conference Finals way back in 2004.

I rest my case.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beware the Ides of Sochi

How many times do we have to have an 82-game compressed schedule thanks to the Olympics for any "experts" out there to figure out even weirder things happen in the playoffs in Olympic years?

Hardly anyone from Sportsnet to TSN to...OK, Puck Daddy has his pulse on this but who else?

Since 1998 when NHLers started going to the Olympics, the playoff teams with the least Olympians in their lineups won their first round series 17 out of 32 times. Not an overwhelming advantage until you break it down into Olympics held outside North America in 1998 and 2010.

Then we see 10 out of 16 first round series won by the team with the fewer Olympians.
Now we're talking.

So with that in mind let's have a look at this year's Olympian task of making it out of round one:

Boston (6 Olympians) vs. Detroit (10)
Tampa (5) vs. Montreal (8)
Pittsburgh (7) vs. Columbus (4)
NY Rangers (8) vs. Philadelphia (4)

Anaheim (8) vs. Dallas (3)
San Jose (4) vs. Los Angeles (6)
Colorado (5) vs. Minnesota (4)
St. Louis (9) vs. Chicago (10)

With the Olympics more than other seasons we're seeing those extra games have taken their toll with injuries to key players that will affect the first round. More on the fatigue factor later, here's how things could shake out:

Losing Finalist '13 
vs. the Grand Rapids Griffins
Can Boston overcome the curse of the Losing Finalist from the playoffs previous? Since '95, the Losing Finalists have missed the playoffs entirely six times and been bumped out in round one seven times. So 13 out of 18 playoffs have seen the Losing Finalist not show up at all for the playoff party or go home early.

In Boston's favor is they improved their regular season record moving up from 5th overall in '12/13 to the President's Trophy winners in '13/14. Of the teams who improved after their Finals' appearance, here's their results the following season:

Detroit '96 finished 1st overall again - lost in round three to Colorado 
Dallas '01 moved from 6th to 5th - lost in round two to St. Louis
Calgary '06 jumped from 12th to 7th - lost in round one to Anaheim
Philadelphia '11 long jumped from 18th to 3rd - lost in round two to Boston
Vancouver '12 1st again - lost in round one to Los Angeles

Other than the Flames, who we all know (thanks to the Curse of Trading Doug Gilmour to the Leafs (seriously, of all teams?) either go all the way to the Final or lose in round when they make the playoffs, and the Canucks who are a dysfunctional organization to begin with, the above failing Finalists at least got out of round one.

Just don't think the Bruins are pulling an '84 Oilers or '09 Penguins run to back-to-back Finals after losing unless you think the B's are a dynasty in the making or they're a Coach Q type Blackhawks in disguise.

There's also the Olympic goalie medalist curse. Other than Dominik Hasek (who was a Gumby and certainly not of this Earth) who managed to will a Buffalo Sabres team to round three in '98 and Roberto Luongo in '10 who managed to wait till round two to turn into Sievongo again vs. the Blackhawks, the rest of gold, silver or bronze medal-winning goalies lost in round one of their Olympic years.

The other factor that may scare B's fans is their regular season vs. the Speed Wings. You can't take too much stock in the regular season except when one team dominates the other. Detroit's 3W-1L is not all that "dominant" but that's out there.

Whichever you prefer Zdeno Chara and the makeshift Providence Bruins callup D or the Pavel Datsyuk's imitation of Stevie Y on one lag in 2002 and a possible return of Henrik Zetterberg's Swedish beard to end all Viking beards with the Grand Rapids Nyquist callups, just don't bet the bank on either getting to the Final.

Tampa Bay Stamkoses 
vs. Montreal Vanekiens
If Ben Bishop was playing you'd have to call this series in the 'Ning's favor no matter how much you think Carey Price has finally found his mojo. Remember the Olympics is one thing, the NHL playoffs are completely another.

Maybe Anders Lindback is no Bishop but sitting on the bench now and ready to stone any team is Latvia's goalie hero at Sochi, Kristers Gudlevskis.

Just once I'd love the Habs to get a dose of their own Dryden, Penney, Roy, Halak back at them. Script written. Tampa, you know what to do now.

Lastly, Thomas Vanek with his 15 points in 18 Hab games is hopefully going to feel the buzz in the Bell Centre and re-sign with the team. As much as most of us hate the Habs, we need a strong Habs just to give us more Habs vs. Bruins insanity now we've gone to the divisional playoff format. Mike McPhee insists on this!

Pittsburgh Fleurys 
vs. Columbus Toy Cannons
I don't know what's up with the Team USA knockoff jerseys but Columbus has to either take my idea and put the bug front and center or stick with their toy cannon jerseys. I'm just saying that if you want to sell jerseys, you need to think fashion forward, as Tim Gunn would say.

Anyway, the Pens dominated the Jackets (5W-0L) in the regular season so no matter how wonky Marc-Andre Fleury may be in net again, can anyone realistically see the Jackets even with The Bob standing on his head winning four games when they've yet to win one vs. the Crosby Malkins?

Dale Rolfe vs. Dave Schultz
You know someone will bring up this classic mismatch of a '74 playoff fight in the that Game 7 that has been overhyped and distorted out of all proportion. Rolfe did not get injured in the beatdown. He played the rest of the game. The Flyers did score three unanswered goals after the fight but the Rangers came back outshooting the Broad Street Bullies 15-9 in the third period and manged to clawback into the game only to lose 4-3 on Spectrum ice.

Enough history lesson, Mr. Peabody, would you bet against Claude Giroux in this year's playoffs? After the Flyers' horrible 1W-7L start and the coaching change from Peter Laviolette to Craig Berube, Giroux went from 0G 7A in 15 early season games to 28G 51A in the other 75 games.

Plus all this talk about how well the Rangers have done with the AV Club running the show, let's see how they stack up:

under Alain Vigneault as coach
'13/14 12th overall, 18th in GF, 4th in GA

under John Tortarella (the Funk Soul Brother)
'12/13  12th overall, 12th in GF, 4th in GA
'11/12    2nd overall, 13th in GF, 3rd in GA

I threw in that last full 82-game season that the Rangers had to give a little tang to the debate. Basically, the Rangers are happier under AV and finished exactly where they were last season with a poorer offence. In fact Martin St. Louis has gone from averaging almost a point per game (61 PTS in 62 GP with Tampa) to invisible on Broadway (8 PTS in 19 GP). Yes, the Curse of Gaborik is alive and well and not just affecting you Rick Nash, adds Brad Richards.

Seriously, as much as I love King Henrik, go with the Flyers. Giroux is on a mission and don't we all want another Flyers vs. Pens Tong War?

Tomorrow: The Way The West Will Be Won

Friday, February 21, 2014

Your Definition Of Great Differs From Mine

Well, have the real hockey fans who want to be entertained by seeing the best take on the best gotten sick of the hyperbole yet? I have no idea what these CBC announcers are watching but how they can call the Sochi 2014 Olympic men's hockey tournament "great" is beyond me.

If you enjoy "shot, save, whistle" or "shot, save, no rebound chances" then this is the hockey for you. If you enjoy offensive ineptitude, this hockey is right up your alley. Forget the 55 shots Team Canada fired at the Latvia net, this was an ECHL goalie stoning a team of supposedly the best in the world because those "best in the world" really just had no answer. Hey, if the Ron Tugnutt of Latvia can shut down an offence that thinks each shot on goal = a true scoring chance then so be it.

 Before Gudlevskis, there was Tugnutt

Honestly, after you've experienced two fairly decent Olympic tournaments (Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake 2002) and two above average ones (Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010) overall, I was expecting a bit more than this low-scoring non-action style even with the number of injured players (and even national team general managers) who could not make the trip to Sochi. Maybe that's the problem here. Without 100-percent healthy lineups for all teams, the goals go to die on the big ice in 21st century hockey.

We could blame the big ice but both Nagano and Torino were played on ice of the exact same dimensions as well, and there were some terrific games then. Can you imagine a 7-4 game in a semi-final? That was the score that Pavel Bure's five goals helped to create in Russia's win over Finland in 1998.

Hey, Ovie, you're no Pavel

That's not all. Fully 75 percent of the games in the first round and the playoff rounds that followed featured at least five goals in regulation or more.

In group play we had Sweden come back for a 2-1 deficit after one period to beat the USA 4-2. Russia and Finland first had a 4-3 group game before their all-time classic semi-final. Even the Czech Republic's 4-1 win over the US in the QF had plenty of action as Dominik Hasek stood on his head turning aside 38 shots.

In 2006 at Torino there was a fair number of good games. Slovakia upset Russia 5-3 in both teams' openers. Latvia and the USA tied 3-3 thanks to Arturs Irbe stopping 39 shots. The Swiss upset the Czech Rep. 3-2 behind David Aebischer's 40 saves.

It wasn't all great goaltending as one of the most fun games of the tournament was Slovakia's 6-3 win over Latvia. The Finns beat the Czechs 4-2 in a game that saw 71 shots on goal all tolled.

Then the first of what is now THE classic matchup of international hockey (sorry, Canada) Russia beat the US 5-4. Finland, though, caught the US in the next game 4-3.

One of the semi-finals (to repeat, a SEMI-FINAL) had Sweden take apart the Czechs 7-3.

So, it's not the "big ice" that is ruining play at the Sochi Olympics. It's more the overcoaching and teams being far too tentative overall. It's gigantic goalie pads still. It's the mentality of "don't lose" rather than go out and win it. It's the nonsense that a team thrown together two or three days before a tournament is the way to produce quality hockey. It's playing three games each day on the same ice with only one on fresh ice in the smaller arena. It's playing in Stanley Cup Final playoff temperatures that affect the ice especially at Black Sea level.

Yet all these things were pretty much the same in Nagano and Torino so why here and why now? These are questions for others to answer as, frankly, I don't care why. I just want goals or at least some breakaways or two-on-ones and some sustained action around the nets.

Look, I have always loved watching Canada in these tournaments. I get into the selection process. I debate the line combinations. Doing an Olympic hockey pool--cool. Yet, I'm tired of playing fantasy GM once the hockey starts. I NEED actual good hockey. Olympic hockey should not be more boring than watching the LA Kings or Vancouver Canucks struggle to score in another meaningless regular season NHL game. It just shouldn't.

Sacrilegiously, I'd sooner see a 4-3 loss to Sweden and a glorious silver medal in the upcoming Final than a 1-0 or 2-1 Canada borefest gold medal win like today vs. the USA. This is anti-hockey. It's soccer on ice. Try as the Canadians did, it's too frustrating to watch offensive ineptitude.

Explain to me, how someone who is supposedly the equivalent of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the game today can have zero goals in the tournament. Slow starts are fine but a "slow" tournament overall?

Please don't tell me it was all Jonathan Quick and the US D. It wasn't just that.

I can enjoy the odd 1-0 or 2-1 game, especially if there are tons of shots and actual scoring chances. It's just now with five 1-0 and three 2-1 games so far, enough already!

How many times did we see Canadian forwards come down and overpass?
How many times did we see them come off the boards and shoot straight into the crest on the goalie's jersey?
How many times did they try to jam or rugby scrum it into the net?
Not enough traffic in front of the goalie?
Too much traffic in front that you can't get the puck through?
Which is it?
Do I even care anymore?

Wasn't part of the selection process done with picking forwards who had proven themselves in the big ice in the IIHF World Hockey Championships? So, Rick Nash, where are the goals? Where are the amazing drives to the net? Where's that terrific shot of yours?

Remember when Rick Nash could do this?

Give me Guy Lafleur flying down the wing blasting away. Hey, give me Sidney Crosby slaloming through the D for the Pittsburgh Penguins over him wearing a badly designed Team Canada jersey and flubbing easy chances from two inches in front of the net. 

It's beyond bad hockey period. Stop telling me this tournament has been great. It plainly hasn't and unless this is addressed in a constructive way, what is the point of having a best vs. best tournament then? If this is the best hockey can do on the international stage, sorry, I remember 1972 . . . and 1976 . . . and 1987 . . . and 1996. Heck, I was at Nagano in 1998 when it was fun to be in the building not bored out of my skull as I am on my own couch.

Honestly, when these so-called "journalists" look back on Sochi 2014, they'll realize next to maybe the 2004 World Cup, this has been the most forgettable display of actual best vs. best hockey since it began in 1976.

Just don't bother waking me up at 4 a.m. on Sunday to watch GI Joe Head Hughson not do the actual play-by-play and just go on and on about the "great" hockey he's witnessing. I'll be up at 9 a.m. to fast-forward to the goals, if any . . . then I'm popping in my 1987 Canada Cup Final Game 2 (yes, even better than Game 3) DVD to remind myself what truly great international hockey is.

 Now, THIS is great hockey!