Monthly Archives: May 2008

Game 3: Wait, That’s The Best You’ve Got? — Pittsburgh wins 3-2

Once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins put in a solid period-and-a-half of effort, only this time it resulted in them potting three goals and outlasting a furious and ridiculous rush from Detroit in the final 10 minutes of play to hang on for the victory.

I know lots of folks around the league are eager to trumpet the arrival of Sidney Crosby to the Cup Finals. Netting two goals will do that after all. Pittsburgh again followed Yours Truly’s Recommendations for Victory and were able to make turnovers happen against the more “suspect” Detroit defensemen. Pressure on Brad Stuart in the first period got him to fire a pass off the skates of Henrik Zetterberg in their own end leading to Crosby’s first goal. Poor defensive efforts out of Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda helped lead to the other two Penguins goals and now the Penguins won’t have to deal with being on the brink of elimination in Game 4.

What they will have to deal with is a defensive unit that doesn’t feature Andreas Lilja, Red Wings fans’ scapegoat for all problems defensively the last two seasons running. All signs are pointing towards Chris Chelios feeling healthy enough on his knee to get Lilja back on the bench. The Red Wings are a much more sound unit with Chelios out there and his steady play helps calm the nerves of a still somewhat green-acting Brett Lebda.

The Penguins also got the game they were looking for out of the Game 3 officials Dan O’Halloran and Paul Devorski, the latter of which stuns me as to how he’s made it all the way to the Finals as he’s been just awful all playoffs long. While he may not say it here, AOL FanHouse blogger and University of Minnesota-Duluth play-by-play man Bruce Ciskie has been highly critical of Devorski throughout the playoffs.

Don’t be fooled, penalty calls didn’t swing this game one way or the other. Both teams netted a power play goal a piece. Pittsburgh’s power play looked better at home while Detroit’s top unit still can’t quite get it together. Then again, whenever they do put one home, an official takes the time to waive it off. The folks at Abel to Yzerman have grumbled a little bit about the seeming lack of production from Mr. Universe Nicklas Lidstrom, but he’s had a couple of points taken from him by officials on a hellbent agenda.

Both coaches Mike Babcock and Michel Therrien made it clear that the NHL head office people came and talked to them about things they were absolutely going to crack down on. One of these things was clearly to turn the front of the goal mouth into the prison yard. Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill spent the better part of his shifts against the Red Wings top line burying the shaft of his stick into the back of Wings net clogger Tomas Holmstrom.

Gill earned two separate cross-checking calls which were called after Holmstrom finally got planted on his chest in front of the net while Gill fell on top of him to make sure he’d stay down. Gill as well as Brooks Orpik, who played the best game of his career last night, and Sergei Gonchar made it a habit of continually cross-checking Holmstrom as he camped out for position in front of the net.

The working over Holmstrom got from the Penguins defensemen as well as from Devorski and O’Halloran reminded of a story about this guy named Andy who got sent to prison wrongly and ran into this fella Boggs who had a group of friends called The Sisters. Perhaps you remember the story a little bit, they made it into a movie:

Paul Devorski (left) warns Tomas Holmstrom (right) what he’s got coming to him the rest of the game.

As I said, the officiating didn’t give too much or take away anything from either team last night, but the blind-eye taken towards what happened with Holmstrom all game long was, to say the least, shameful.

Holmstrom left the game in the third after being upended away from the play by Hal Gill. It’s unknown as of now what is wrong with Holmstrom, one early report had it as whiplash (no, seriously) but given that he was taken out at the knee, his bad knee, I’d suspect the issue is there. His status for Game 4 is unknown as of this writing.

For Detroit and their fans, a loss usually amounts to heading for the bridge to jump or to the bar to commence sorrow-drowning. Not this time says Bill Houlihan at Abel To Yzerman.

Confidence is high from the Red Wings. They’re convinced that the defense won’t have that bad of a game again. They also feel that Mike Babcock will whisper (shout, actually) all the sweet nothings they need to hear to make sure it won’t happen again.

With as poor of a game as Detroit played, and for how well Pittsburgh stuck to their plan, to have the difference in the game come down to one goal, and one unlucky post hit from Johan Franzen halfway through the third that would’ve tied the game at three, Pittsburgh has to find a way to stay as intense as they were and hope that Detroit lays a few more eggs. Detroit should also find a way to take those final ten minutes of play from the third period and be able to spread that out over 60 minutes – if they can do that, this series ends in a puff of smoke. Detroit has finally gotten tested here and they know they can’t sit back and I don’t expect them to get lazy now.

Game 4 will dictate the rest of this series. A Pittsburgh win and this thing can and almost assuredly will go seven.

If it’s a Detroit win… The season ends on Monday night.

Game 2: All Aboard for Uglytown — Detroit wins 3-0

I took notes on Game 2.

In my head, not on paper, I’m not that much of a nerd – and since I write online, I’m clearly not a journalist nor a professional.

So you’ll get this in stream of consciousness format – and it’ll look about as ugly as the Penguins have all throughout this series.

Game 2 saw Pittsburgh start following yours truly’s tips for victory, namely this little piece of information. Quoth me:


Pittsburgh’s plan of attack here has to be to push, pressure and force the
issue. Make Detroit get back on their heels and defend, to throw the puck at the
net and keep control of it themselves. Sounds like I’m talking out of both sides
of my mouth here, I know, but Dallas and Nashville both saw their greatest
success against Detroit when they forced the issue. While Nashville’s success
almost has to be given an asterisk since that came against current bench jockey
goaltender Dominik Hasek, the fact is they went after Detroit to score.

At about the 10 minute mark of the second period, the Penguins snapped out of the hypnotist-induced fog and started to forecheck aggressively and go after anyone in a Red Wings uniform. This was a positive thing. It’s one of the few positive things you can take out of a game that saw the Penguins not score for the second straight Stanley Cup Finals game. It saw frustration already starting to bubble over from Penguins players, namely Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and crotchety old man Gary Roberts, likely still ticked off about being a healthy scratch in Game 1.

Go ahead, just ask him about that, he’ll expound at great length about it.

The fact that the end of the game saw things unfold the way it did shows that Pittsburgh’s road to the Finals may have, in fact, been too cushy. Ottawa was a broken down and mentally challenged first round opponent. The New York Rangers were a scoring-handicapped team with one semi-rejuvinated superstar playing the wing and a key pain-in-the-ass out of the lineup. The Flyers were a more physical version of the Rangers sans an aging superstar. Pittsburgh faced little to no adversity along the way. None of those three teams offered any sort of offensive push nor any talent for passing or delivering the body.

Enter Detroit.

This also takes me back to something else I said in that now Kreskin-like Cup Preview piece I wrote. More from me:


If Pittsburgh does indeed decide to pile into their zone defensively and
rely on blocking shots and trying to stop Detroit at the blueline…they’re
going to spend a lot of time waiting for Detroit to just give up the puck to
them on a dump in or turnover. This series won’t last quite so long.

Pittsburgh is trying to play Detroit’s game…except that Detroit is better at it than anyone.

Period.

Worse yet for Pittsburgh, most, if not all, of Detroit’s power comes from their defensemen to set things up. No forecheck, no aggressive play = Detroit’s defense getting to play quarterback behind the greatest offensive line ever assembled. They’ve had all day to wait things out, to regroup, to gather…to get the forwards cycling again through the neutral zone and forward to attack. Detroit hasn’t really had to dump the puck in and chase it, not while the forwards are carving holes through the Pittsburgh defense and getting in behind those Penguins defensemen on the dump-ins.

Games 1 and 2 have certainly been a “Worst Case Scenario” for Pittsburgh. Worse yet, Penguins leadership refuses to accept this as fact.


Well, honestly, I truly believe the first game, our young team was
really nervous. We fell behind early in the game yesterday, and this is a
team that it’s tough to generate offense with the obstruction that they’re
doing.

But you know what, they’re doing it the right way. It’s like
there’s a dotted line. Sometimes they’ll cross it a little bit. And that
goes with experience. It’s tough to generate offense. And you need to score
dirty goals. The tic‑tac‑toe play, sometimes it’s going to happen. But most
of the time you’re going to put the puck at the net, and you’re going to
crash the net.

These quotes come from Penguins coach Michel Therrien – they’re far subdued compared to how fired up he was immediately after Game 2:


It’s really tough to generate offense against that team. They’re good on
obstruction. It’s going to be tough to generate any type of offense, if the
rules remain the same. So it’s the first time we’re facing a team that the
obstruction is there, and we’re having a hard time skating to take away ice.

We took two penalties tonight on the goalie. We never take penalty to
the goalie in the playoff. I’ll tell you something, I reviewed those plays.
He’s a good actor. He goes to players, and he’s diving. Took away our power
play. Got to get focused. I know our players are frustrated right now. It’s
tough to play the game. But Osgood did the same thing against Dallas under
Ribeiro.

Frustration I understand. It’s tough not to be frustrated with how badly Pittsburgh is being shut down by Detroit. The reasons for their failure in this series were not even mentioned at all by Therrien, however.

Nowhere did he accept blame for only playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for 18 minutes a piece in Game 1. You know those two guys, right? The two best players on the ice for the Penguins whenever they set foot on it. You know….those guys. At no point does he offer up reasons for his team’s failure to muster a shot on goal for the first 12 minutes of Game 2, nor does he talk about his team’s inability to score on the power play.

Instead, we’re treated to petulant excuses about how the Red Wings are playing hockey like that of the Devils in the 1990s (which they’re not) and about how Chris Osgood’s diving show is ruining the sport. It’s silly, but the two times he’s flopped have come either at the end of the game, like against Dallas or last night when Petr Sykora legitimately ran into him. These complaints do the job to fire up the fans in Pittsburgh and get the talking heads rambling about these supposed issues, however it does nothing to find answers for the problems the Penguins are having.

Osgood falling down on the ice with under a minute to play didn’t decide the game one way or another. Detroit playing keep-away with the puck sure as hell frustrates Penguins players and fans alike but the only way to fix that is pressure the puck carriers like crazy. Tiring job? You bet it is – but if you want your name on the Stanley Cup in couple of weeks, you better believe you should do it.

Instead, Therrien is playing the “woe is me” card to the press and using the media to beg for more calls to be made against Detroit. I’m having a hard time coming up with the appropriate historical figure or fictional character to describe him. No, wait, I’ve got a good one…

It’s not my fault! They told me they fixed it!

I’m not sure that I’d want to set the whining standard for my still very young superstars to take witness of.

All of this petulance from Therrien does no service to his guys on the ice. They’re working hard, they’re just being outworked and outplayed.

Referees aren’t costing them the games, poor planning and adjustment making is.

That said, the goals stay the same for Pittsburgh – pressure the hell out of Detroit and get on the board first. The scoreless streak means nothing once the game starts. If Osgood starts coming up with miraculous saves, the psychological hold over the Penguins will be in full force. The coach and some of the players already think he’s a diving creep and none of that stuff has had an effect on the game.

For those of you thinking Osgood flopped when Ryan Malone ran into him while on the Pittsburgh power play, good luck convincing anyone that Ryan Malone seemed to know anything at all of what he was doing in Game 2 – he was thoroughly abysmal and took three terrible minor penalties and the mix-up with Osgood was legitimate.

Instead of whining to the press, Michel Therrien would be better suited breaking out a bullwhip and a cattle prod in practice – these Penguins need a major league wake-up call to just stay in these games with Detroit.

Detroit, on the other hand, if you’re going to pick on something they’re not doing well the power play is it. They’re 1-out-of-14 on the power play and while they’ve had some solid efforts, they’ve only got one goal to show for it.

Improved defensive play and smoothness from Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja (filling in for a wonky-kneed Chris Chelios) are tall orders, but would help Detroit to become a thorough and flawless 20-man wrecking crew – but asking for those things in Detroit is pure greed at this point.

A Detroit win in Game 3 and it becomes a question of whether Pittsburgh wins one for pride in Game 4 or plummets into the tank completely. A Pittsburgh win will again tweak the resolve of Detroit and instill some confidence into a team that is in clear psychological disarray.

A Belated Self Pat-On-The-Back

And I certainly don’t mean Pat Quinn – if he were on my back, I’d probably demand to be traded.

I’m sure you all remember when I picked on Gary Bettman for being a moron about octopus gunk and how the “gunk” of which he speaks is a figment of his own imagination, to which he’s still prattling on about now, but that’s besides the point.

I’d like to put out a nice and belated “Thank you!” to Greg Wyshynski, he of the Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo Sports who linked this here slice of the Internet to the rest of the insane hockey-loving world back on April 27th.

It was that piece on Bettman’s crackdown on Al Sobotka and the proof given-forth by scientists that no such octogunk exists and that Herr Bettman just hates tradition but loves double-standards.

You might remember Greg as he was once the NHL Closer over at Deadspin.com and even in spite of him being an avowed New Jersey Devils fan…I think I can look past that for the time being in that he gave this blog done out of equal parts love and massive frustration with leadership even just a little bit of notice.

So thanks Greg, I hope to share more insights to be shared with the wider public in the future.

Game 1: Not Without My Nonsense! — Detroit wins 4-0

Turns out Herr Bettman did learn some lessons from David Stern while he was an NBA Goon. The NBA runs strongly on hype and made-up storylines and most importantly, controversy, has indeed shown Gary Bettman the way.

In a Stanley Cup Finals that features, arguably, five of the best players in the league, Bettman can leave things hanging in the air basically to just cause problems later on. Remember, this is a guy who thought Sean Avery dancing in front of Martin Brodeur was such a problem that he addressed and reaffirmed the rulebook the very next day.

However, Bettman figures that leaving a ruling up in the air, such as what is or isn’t interfering with a goaltender on a shot, is all set and taken care of.

Hoo boy.

We can’t have the players be the story – we have to make it up as we go along. Rather, in this case, we can let things fester figuring it won’t happen again.

Au contraire mon frere!

The issue set forth earlier this season and then again against Dallas is whether or not Tomas Holmstrom’s rear-end or mere presence in the offensive zone is a weapon of mass disruption for anyone wearing the tools of ignorance. The first two times this became an issues, you can attribute that to referee Kelly Sutherland not knowing the rules so well, as he was the official who ruled that Holmstrom was interfering with Jean-Sebastian Giguere earlier this season and Marty Turco in the Western Conference Finals.

Last night, Dan O’Halloran decided that Holmstrom was again getting in the way, this time with Marc-Andre Fleury. To O’Halloran’s credit I’ll say this: He instantly waived off the goal and actually put Holmstrom in the box for goaltender interference. At least he felt that strongly about things, especially since Sutherland’s previous efforts were made only to waive off the goal scored.

That said, O’Halloran compounded an already terrible issue by tacking on a penalty. In these three instances where Holmstrom was flagged for getting in the way, on zero of them did he either stand in the goaltender’s crease or make contact with the goalie. The interpretation of the rule that’s being passed around as gospel, and not eaten up by the folks in the media, is that Holmstrom is interfering with the goalie’s ability to make the save.

Sounds awfully….vague, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled, that’s done on purpose. It gives the on-ice official, who has all the control in the situation as much leeway as possible to make, or not make, a call. It’s an all-purpose bail-out. Leave it to the NHL to have a significant part of their rulebook, Rule 69 by the way (figures, doesn’t it?), to be neither black nor white but completely gray…

…except in the handing down of a ruling of goal or no goal – that’s written down in black ink.

No replay is allowed because Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman don’t want to be saddled with reviewing every goal or play involving the goal line. “It would ruin the flow of the game,” they cry out from the top of the mountain of crappy hockey and corporate suits.

Earth to Morons: Every goal or play of the puck around the goal line is reviewed automatically upstairs and in Toronto.

It’s incredible how quickly the goalie in hockey has half-heartedly become the same as the quarterback in the NFL…with the exception that I’d guess that goalies get hit more since sometimes its OK to steamroll a goalie. Confused? Yeah, I knew you would be, but that’s why I’m here.

What’s amusing about all this fretting about where a guy is standing and what he’s doing to a goaltender is it reminds me of this year’s Memorial Cup – it’s the championship tournament in Canadian Juniors. These are the kids that are on the fast-track to the NHL and it makes me think of an early game between Kitchener and Gatineau. The game goes to overtime and….well have a look for yourself at the highlights, specifically, 56 seconds into the video:

Note what the player in front of the net is doing. Note where he’s standing. Note how much room the goaltender has to move. Note how screwed the goalie was to begin with since Kitchener was on a 5-on-3 power play.

No referee sprinting in to waive it off. No goaltender screaming at the referee. Players celebrating a hard-earned victory. No B.S.

Amazing, isn’t it? It’d be fun if these kids could know that they’ll get the same treatment when they reach the pros, it seems pretty stupid that a goal like that would get nullified, don’t you think?

This is the situation I’m waiting for right now. Overtime. Crucial game. A shot on goal with the goaltender screened – it gets by – everyone is celebrating…and then it’s called off because of a phantomly judged rule.

Hang on, I saw this movie already in 1999 and I know how it ends – bitter feelings, a spruced up rulebook, a fanbase left permanently bitter at the ruling party and, worst of all…

This guy is still left in charge to further ruin the NHL. Incredible.

Thanks to NateA over at KuklasKorner.com for creating such a lasting image of Herr Bettman.

Despite Best Efforts – A Stanley Cup Preview

It’s amusing reading some of the things that have made their way to the Internet in the many days off leading up to the start of the Stanley Cup Finals between Detroit and Pittsburgh.

One of the more amusing things I caught stemmed from something that was summed up in the New York Times. In this story, it mentions how Herr Bettman actually jumped the gun to address something that was mostly being wondered about loudly in the blogosphere and amongst fans – that the league was rooting hard for and potentially conspiring in favor of a Detroit vs. Pittsburgh matchup.

As you’d know if you’ve read here all season long, I’ve made it a point to stress that Bettman’s leadership is so inept that he’d find a way to screw up instant pudding. Bettman is the kind of guy you can’t tell there’s a surprise birthday party coming up for a friend because he’d be the first one to ruin the entire thing by asking the person whose party it is if they’re going.

There’s no way in hell you can convince me that Gary Bettman was actively rooting for a Stanley Cup Finals that involved all of ZERO teams that have risen up from the Ziegler/Bettman Expansion Blunder Circus. This is the first Finals since 1998 (Detroit vs. Washington) that involves a Finals matchup involving neither a relocated or expansion team. You think this doesn’t bother Bettman? Go back and look at his Cup presentations at the end of the last three Cup Finals in Anaheim, Raleigh, NC and Tampa, Florida. In fact, I’ll save you the time and just present you his script right now.

“It sure looks like hockey is a success here in (Insert Name of Cup Winning City/State)! The fans here in (City/State name) have proven the skeptics wrong and hockey is now an huge success here in (City/State name). (Team Captain) come get your Stanley Cup!”

See? Same crap, different year.

This year, regardless of the winner, he’ll be forced to talk about such taboo things as: Tradition! Long time fans! Having existed for more than 10 years in a northern market! All of these things defy Herr Bettman’s plan of riding the coattails of seeping into a market that’s already been taken over by other sports (college basketball and football) and semi-sports (NASCAR).

It’s incredible to think that there are many people out there who think Bettman could trip and fall into rigging something to go his way when it’s been more than evident he despises the roots of the NHL and pisses on tradition whenever he’s given the opportunity.

This doesn’t speak so much to the foolishness of the everyday hockey consumer and writer and reporter but to the general ignorance suffered by the sports writers at the local rag who, likely, drew the short straw and are being asked/made to write about a sport they don’t understand nor care about in anyway. Haven’t seen it yet? Just wait – and in fact, the best source for uneducated material is ESPN. Hearing folks like Jay Mariotti on Around the Horn wax poetic on hockey ought to be the highest of high entertainment and ignorance.

What’s important here is that, all of Bettman’s ineptitude and NHL referee ineptitude aside, the game I grew up watching, loving, and adoring is back. Neither of these teams should bore us. Neither of these teams should play some foolish nonsensical garbage sit-on-it hockey. If anyone is going to get critical of these teams it’ll be for these reasons:

The Red Wings puck-control play, when they’re clicking, can seem unfair because they pass so well and essentially play keep-away. The answer to this, of course, is to forecheck the hell out of them. The Penguins have been somewhat guilty of packing in the defense at times but given how scoring inept the teams they’ve dealt with in the playoffs up to this point, it may have only seemed that way. To that end, Pittsburgh will be dealing with a team that scores much better than any of the teams they’ve played this year, same can be said of what Detroit will be dealing with as well, especially now that Crosby, Malkin and Hossa are all dealing.

That said, the extended layoff that Herr Bettman arranged for (that also pits the start of the Finals up directly against the NBA Eastern Conference Finals…in the same city on the same nights) may have benefitted Detroit more than anyone. Detroit’s top goal scorer Johan Franzen, who has been out since early in the Dallas series with a somewhat cryptic ailment being attributed to post-concussion syndrome, was/is a question for Game 1 of the Finals. He apparently skated and practiced on Thursday which points to him suiting up in Game 1.

The way Franzen fully frustrated Jose Theodore in the Conference Semifinals by scoring at will seemed to point the Conn Smythe his way should Detroit win it all but after sitting out most of the Conference Finals and coach Mike Babcock being even more secretive about Franzen’s status leaves everyone wondering both what Franzen’s issue is and when he’d be returning, if at all. If he is playing and seeing substantial minutes…Pittsburgh’s defensive assignment got that much harder in having to deal with not just Holmstrom parking in front of Marc-Andre Fleury but also Franzen. Franzen suiting up also means that Dan Cleary gets to slide down to the third line where he too can camp out in front. Provided there aren’t more phantom interference calls and the Red Wings can assuredly stay out of the crease, Pittsburgh will have to work hard down low and try to move these guys around while their other two wingers and defensemen whirl around making things very difficult.

Pittsburgh’s plan of attack here has to be to push, pressure and force the issue. Make Detroit get back on their heels and defend, to throw the puck at the net and keep control of it themselves. Sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here, I know, but Dallas and Nashville both saw their greatest success against Detroit when they forced the issue. While Nashville’s success almost has to be given an asterisk since that came against current bench jockey goaltender Dominik Hasek, the fact is they went after Detroit to score.

If Pittsburgh does indeed decide to pile into their zone defensively and rely on blocking shots and trying to stop Detroit at the blueline…they’re going to spend a lot of time waiting for Detroit to just give up the puck to them on a dump in or turnover. This series won’t last quite so long.

Lots of folks want to try to find a hole with either of the goaltenders. Don’t bother – they’re both playing solid and they’re both playing with house money considering what the opinions of both Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury were coming into the playoffs. Osgood was the backup behind the guy that chased him out of a job years ago. Fleury was coming off an injury as well as a history for coming up short on the spot and having not played very well at all earlier in the year, sitting for a while behind the at the time red-hot Ty Conklin. Both have emerged, both have been tested and both are now standing at the top of the heap. Don’t sweat these guys, they’ll be fine.

A lot of dopey writers are also spending time trying to compare and breakdown the top lines of these teams and entering into the eternal pissing match of “Who’s Better?!?!?!?!”

Enough already.

Malkin is an MVP candidate. Crosby is an all-world talent and likely soon to also be a Hart Trophy guy. Marian Hossa is gunning for the Stanley Cup and a nice, fat contract in the off-season. He’ll get that no matter what he does in the Finals and he’s the guy who’s been responsible for many of Pittsburgh’s back-breaking goals. Ryan Malone has developed into a blue-collar Pittsburgh folk hero with his yeoman’s work on the ice.

Comparing them with Detroit’s line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom is an exercise in futility. You’ll see these lines butt heads, you’ll see these lines trade “EVENs” in the plus-minus column when they do hit the ice against each other. Anyone expecting Malkin and Crosby to run roughshod over Detroit’s Swedish-Russian mixer line hasn’t been watching much hockey this year. In case you’ve missed it, both Datsyuk and Zetterberg are Selke Trophy nominees this year for best defensive forward. These are 90-point scoring forwards that also keep you from scoring. Zetterberg alone had two short-handed goals against Dallas. Top guys on the penalty kill?

Oh dear.

What this series will boil down to are the defensemen, and right now, Detroit’s got the best. That can all change at the drop of the hat with injuries, I know, but when you’ve got Nicklas Lidstrom logging 30 minutes out of every 60 for you…that’s hard to deal with. Nick Kronwall is currently the leading scorer amongst defensemen in the playoffs and he’s also been the highlight reel guy with his hits throughout the playoffs. Brad Stuart, playing on a winning team for the first time in forever, is reveling in the moment and playing outstanding for Detroit – so much so that he’s given up his love of the surf and sand of the West Coast to say that he even loves Detroit. Brian Rafalski too has been his normal steady and outstanding self and has enjoyed shaking off the shackles of being stifled in New Jersey for so long. That’s your top four right there. Brett Lebda and Chris Chelios have been the shakier set to put out there and look for Michel Therrien to exploit that as best as he can, especially when the series moves to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s set on the blue line gives me reason to pause. Sergei Gonchar has enjoyed once again being put at the helm of an offensively minded team, Brooks Orpik has avoided dealing out crappy dangerous hits and has been solid defensively. Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang, two young stud defensemen, have really stepped up well and provide a good unit to put out on the second power play. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill round out the top six and provide an equally stomach-quaking unit for Penguins fans to deal with. Look for the Datsyuk line to jump on the ice whenever Gill or Scuderi hit the ice.

On defense, Detroit has the names and Pittsburgh has the youth and both have played outstanding for their teams. They’re also going to be dealing with teams unlike what they’ve seen to this point in the playoffs. Then Penguins won’t be dealing with a broken and punchless Ottawa team, a scoring-allergic Rangers squad or a team destined for comeuppance like the Flyers. They’re getting the Swedish Flying Circus. Don’t buy into the hype that Detroit is a finesse team and they can’t body up.

Detroit isn’t facing off with a blue-collar nightmare from Nashville, a false-facade team with a suspect goalie and poor coaching like Colorado or a team that spent most of the series asleep at the wheel like Dallas. They’re getting the NHL’s Future. They’re getting the team that gets compared to the Gretzky Oilers of the 1980’s, even right down to the Pens starting off 11-1 just like the 1983 Oilers did. Detroit’s defense will have their hands full and they’ll have to be smart and not doing anything to get them thrown in the box. Pittsburgh’s power play unit is too dangerous to give too many chances to. Likewise for Pittsburgh, you don’t want to give Lidstrom two minutes to play quarterback and be able to fire off to his wideouts on a whim.

Sit back and enjoy the ride – this should be one to remember if all cards hold suit here. Just be sure to knock on some wood to make sure referee boners or mystic mandates from Herr Bettman don’t distract from the show we’ll be privy to on the ice.

Congratulations

Given that both Conference Finals series sit at 3-0 as of this writing with Detroit looking to end Dallas’ season tonight, I’ll offer up a jinx-proof congratulations to both the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, who lead the Flyers, a hearty, “Thank you” deep from the bottom of my hockey-loving heart.

I thank them for playing ridiculously good hockey of late. I thank them for showing that yes, indeed, skill can win out over blatant laziness and goonery. I thank them for carrying out my marching orders that neither the Sharks nor the Canadiens could take care of in the previous round.

Most of all, I thank them for giving me the game I love back to me and others like me with a vengeance.

Detroit has been nothing short of a cold-blooded monster of a team, carved out of the mold of the most bad-ass of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Pittsburgh has proven to be the most resistant and most opportunistic of teams, capitalizing on every turnover and every mistake offered up by the Philadelphia Flyers – and most notably, Steve Downie. Downie has had two crucial and demoralizing turnovers in the last two games that lead to cinching goals for the Penguins.

Karma is indeed a nasty trollup Mr. Downie and don’t you forget it.

What most bloggers are doing now is taking a look ahead at what the Finals will bring about, however, I’m not completely presumptuous and will save such a thing for when both the Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell trophies are presented and ignored by team captains.

These Conference Final matchups have provided something interesting amongst the potential double-whitewash. Philly and Dallas writers and fans both have had plenty to say about the officiating through the first two games, but Game 3 in both series silenced even the most ballyhooed complainers. Detroit and Pittsburgh both took care of business so thoroughly that any complaining from then out just rang hollow and very bitter, nevermind completely uneducated.

Every bit of momentum the Stars attempted to seize from Detroit was met swiftly with an answer – no more pointedly than Grossman’s goal in Game 3 that tied the game and got the Stars faithful fired up only to have Pavel Datsyuk score 37 seconds later to quiet the crowd. Pittsburgh has been nastier, jumping out to leads and not letting Philly get comfortable in any way. Philly would rather get ahead, sit back and beat the tar out of you. It’s tough to do that when you can’t get the lead and the injuries suffered by the Philly defense have rendered them tired and toothless. Even Derian Hatcher can’t muster up the strength to hit someone cheaply.

Not yet anyhow – there is still at least one more game to go.

Detroit’s work in Games 2 and 3 was even more pointed given that Johan Franzen, the latest Swedish goal-scoring sensation, was sidelined with something resembling concussion-like symptoms. Franzen single-handedly slapped around the Avalanche and got a taste of some more in Game 1 against Dallas before being benched for recovery. Valteri Filppula is banged up as well and Tomas Holmstrom is showing signs of all the abuse he dishes out/takes in front of the net as he’s clearly a step or two slower than his linemates Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Then again, with linemates like that, who wouldn’t look slow? Come Finals time, you’re looking at, potentially, a fully recharged and rested Red Wings team. My goodness.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has only seen the flu sort of take chunks out of the lineup, but not really. Gary Roberts sat out Game 3 and his physical presence wasn’t even necessary to beat Philadelphia. Players like Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere have taken plenty of abuse at the hands of guys like Hal Gill and even Evgeni Malkin, and what have they done to fight back?

Turn around and yell at the officials. They’re in your head boys, just play the game.

Nevermind that virtually every beat writer in Philadelphia has been yelling about one-sided officiating since the start of the playoffs, the players appear to have picked up the same poorly cynical attitude. All the complaining led to having the officials set the tone at the start of Game 3, tons of penalties early on on both teams which effectively neutered the rabid Philadelphia crowd. Talk about your slaps in the face – you get what you’ve been asking for but at the price of killing the buzz and emotion of the crowd.

What’s been most exposed about the Flyers though is their youth. A lot of the youth is in action thanks to injuries on the blueline, the rest of it is there because they’re supposed to be ready. The Flyers aren’t an old team and they’ll be back at it again next year, and perhaps even better. Dallas, on the other hand, has looked slow from the get-go and Dallas writers and VS. analysts have used that early on as a crutch; That the Stars aren’t playing like the real Stars because the series with San Jose wore them out.

That’s fine to say that and think that that’s true, but all those guys on the ice will tell you that that’s no excuse and they’re just getting beaten by a better team.

Well maybe Marty Turco wouldn’t say that, but his mental stability in regard to playing Detroit is, at best, extremely fragile given that Turco has managed only two wins in his career against the Wings, both of which came in Dallas. Detroit isn’t going away any time soon in the West and if Turco wants to get over the hill, well, he’d better start winning a few against Detroit – praying you don’t face them in the playoffs can’t work every year.

Let’s hope that Detroit and Pittsburgh can end the warm-up act quickly and we can get to the Main Event because we haven’t had a Cup Finals, potentially, this good in a very long time.

Someone Gets It

Adam Thompson, I’d like to thank you…and curse you a little bit.

I thank you because, unlike many hockey writers, you seem to get it. I know you’re a Wall Street Journal writer, and the WSJ isn’t exactly known for being a great sports writing haven – but you, my friend, have hit it square on the head. In fact, you must be a reader of this blog part of the time. Case in point:

The league and union ought to swallow their pride, retreat from a few markets
that have consistently failed to gain traction – the NHL remains an afterthought
in Nashville and South Florida – and, for the love of all things decent,
permanently table any talk of further expansion to hockey hinterlands like
Kansas City and Las Vegas. A game already taking positive steps would look even
better with a more concentrated talent pool free of talent-poor fourth-liners.

Fantastic paragraph. It’s straight to the point and hammers home that the league as it is now is a bit diluted. Of course, my argument that Herr Bettman helped that along by following John Zeigler’s starter-mission of collecting expansion fees is the root of the issue, but that’s neither here nor there right now.

The inspiration for the piece appears to be ESPN signing CBC’s Don Cherry to provide playoff analysis. This is rather curious since ESPN got out of NHL broadcasting after the lockout. Well, what I meant was Herr Bettman decided to show those lousy upstarts at the Worldwide Leader of Sports who was boss, especially after just about every anchor and commentator on ESPN opted to make fun of the league during the lockout rather than report the news in a mostly objective manner. He decided to show them up by jumping on board the Outdoor Life Network bandwagon.

Another ace decision from the fearless leader.

The way I see it, ESPN wants another bombastic personality on board to get fun quotes and potential ridiculous antics out of. At the very least they’ll get ridiculous suits from Grapes and should the Finals turn out to be Detroit and Pittsburgh, they might get some of the xenophobic maniacal verbage I’m sure they’re hoping for. A Cup Final with two teams heavy on talented Europeans would make the very Pro-North American Cherry go out of his mind, especially Detroit whose captain hails from Sweden (Nicklas Lidstrom). You could also bank on Cherry hammering away on the fact that a European captained team has never won the Cup.

That sort of talk is a long way off, however.

If anyone is looking at this move as anything resembling ESPN trying to get back into the hockey game, they’re sorely mistaken. Bettman, begrudgingly, makes good points whenever he’s grilled about turning away from ESPN. Sure, he privately and semi-publicly grouses about the treatment the league got during and after the lockout, you can’t blame him for that. He also points out that the NHL wouldn’t get the kind of prime treatment he’s looking for out of ESPN. You’d likely see the NHL be a mostly ESPN 2 program and since the NHL would be competing for airtime on the network with the NBA, NFL and college football and basketball…well, I think we all know where hockey would rank out in that pecking order – probably about on par with the Arena Football league.

Now, ESPN is all about the big personalities. Bob Knight doing NCAA Tournament coverage is a prime example of this. He’s a big name, he’s got no qualms about sharing his opinion and he’s not a made-for-TV pretty face either. He is the game, he is reality. Same thing with Don Cherry.

That said, Cherry’s opinions and antics on CBC are must-see-TV in Canada and there’s no one on TV in the United States that can come even remotely close to caring about hockey the way Grapes does and there’s not a guy at ESPN that loves the game nearly as much, save for perhaps John Buccigross. For this reason alone its worth it to bring Cherry to sports fans in the USA, its a shame it has to happen on a network that shrugs off the NHL so badly.

Round 2: Operation Failure

It was bound to happen.

When I first started setting goals for this year’s NHL Playoffs I knew there was no way to keep the happy momentum going along after a rousing success in Round 1.

Heck, I even cut down on the number of goals to be met in Round 2.

Alas, fate and incomprehensible failure on the part of two great and underachieving teams interceded and both the Stars and Flyers have moved on to put the Stanley Cup Finals in jeopardy of being dreadfully boring.

Well, maybe not that bad but certainly not as exciting as it could be.

Last year, we were openly rooting for Buffalo to beat Ottawa and Detroit to beat Anaheim in the Conference Finals because that would’ve presented us with perhaps the most wide open Cup Finals since Gretzky played in Canada. Instead, we got the team that played slow-it-down-clog-it-up crap hockey to beat Buffalo and the Ducks who set the rules of the game back 100 years.

This season, you’ve got two teams that do the same thing, just they come from opposite conferences. The Dallas Stars are more than happy to play at a snail’s pace and make skating anywhere on the ice impossible. Dallas isn’t really there to score, they’re there to keep it a one-goal game.

Literally, if it’s 0-0 going to overtime, Dave Tippett is doing cartwheels in the tunnel after regulation. Of course, that reaction might also be because Marty Turco hasn’t given up a back-breaking goal either. This defense-first style is no accident and a lot of that has to do with Turco.

Before last season, Turco had a bad reputation for getting ripped up in the playoffs and pulling the El Foldo. Enter the Vancouver Canucks and their non-existant offense and you have one cured head-case of a goaltender – even still, Dallas lost but Turco couldn’t be blamed. Go figure.

It was no accident though, Dallas’ defense helped keep an already toothless attack at bay for most of the series and still Dallas’ offense stunk it up. How bad were they? Goals scored by Dallas per game against Vancouver (wins are in bold italics): 4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2

Obviously, Dave Tippett blamed the defense for the losses since they’ve only managed to get more annoying and tougher on that end of the ice. That means that Turco giving up one or two is hard to come by since teams have to work even harder to get a shot off or get to the net. It also allows their suspect offense to win more games after scoring two or three goals.

Just ask the Sharks.

The Flyers, on the other hand, came into the playoffs with the reputation carrying all the earmarks of the Flyers teams from the 70’s and earning worthy comparisons to that of the Anaheim Ducks…and not the good ones. Over the season, I’ve covered all the issues with the Flyers and their cheap hits ad nauseum, so I’m not about to go bringing that back up. Suffice it to say, the Flyers, already a mostly unlikable team, came into this playoff season with an even worse reputation.

To make matters worse, they knock off the World’s Favorite Hockey Player in Alexander Ovechkin in the first round, much in part due to Martin Biron playing solid in goal as well as to what turned out to be very suspect officiating all series long. Given how it’s been all playoffs, it doesn’t seem as though this was unique to their series.

Up comes Round 2 and they get to deal with the Eastern top seed Montreal Canadiens, aka: Canada’s Last Hope. The last few seasons, we’ve seen Canada’s Last Hope make it into the Cup Finals before bowing out (Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary) and Flyers fans found themselves wrapped in paranoia after Game 1 convinced that the fix was in to have Montreal make it all the way. Nevermind that the officials assisted in getting Philadelphia past Washington, this was a new round with new conspiracies!

I’m convinced, however, there was a plot against the Flyers advancing if for no other reason than it failed miserably. After all, anything the NHL tries to make happen while Herr Bettman is leading the way manages to fall flat on its face. It’s for this reason alone I have this nagging feeling that we’re destined to see a Dallas-Philadelphia Cup Final. After all, you have to bet that the NHL and NBC are praying for arguably the biggest hockey fan market (Detroit) to face off with team with two of the hottest rising stars in the league (Pittsburgh) in the Finals. Detroit and Pittsburgh would provide for some high-octane

I’m also convinced we’re going to be having a healthy dose of deja vu come Saturday May 17th. Remember last season when Ottawa and Buffalo had their Eastern Conference Final overtime game get bumped off of NBC in favor of coverage of the Preakness Stakes? Well guess what…the NHL schedule has again set itself up for conflict, this time with the potential to get the Red Wings and Stars bumped off of NBC in favor of the ponies. The Wings-Stars game on the 17th is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. ET. Coverage of the Preakness Stakes will begin at 5:00 p.m. Dallas did just play a four-overtime game with San Jose and virtually every game involving the Stars is a one-goal game. I can’t help but figure this is going to happen again and the NHL will rightfully get slapped around for things being this way.

All that said, the only goal for this round is for Sid the Kid and Evgeni Malkin to get a date with Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the Stanley Cup Finals – it’s now the Dream Matchup for the league and for television. Canada doesn’t have a stake in things this year so they’re happy to have hockey to watch in general.

Anything outside of Pittsburgh and Detroit will be a letdown to some degree and a Dallas-Philly Finals will be extremely disappointing and not nearly as fun to watch. Since Round 2’s goal set was a complete letdown, we’re carrying it over to the Conference Finals in hope that it will be fulfilled for the betterment of hockey.