Sunday, May 31, 2009

Post Game 1 thoughts


Just some quick hits. Been a long and not too pleasant night. Also, some of these thoughts I had before Game 1.

**First and foremost, let me say history schmistory, OK? Can we stop with the comparisons of the Penguins to the 1984 Oilers? In sports, and hockey in particular, there are few things more irrelevant than history.

To paraphrase former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino from a famous rant of his, Wayne Gretzky is not walking through that door, Jari Kurri is not walking through that door, and Mark Messier is not walking through that door. Even if any of them did, none of them would be suiting up to play for the Penguins right now.

So what if the 1984 Oilers earned a rematch in the Cup finals and won the second meeting? Exactly what benefit is that going to be to the Penguins?

"History is on their side" is pure nonsense. The Ghosts of Hockey Past are not going to take a hand in this series - and if they did, then they're obviously helping the Red Wings with those first two lucky goals and the third that had an element of luck to it. (Note: I'm not complaining, I'm just making a point that the past means nothing.)

Even last year's series shouldn't factor too much into the conversation about this series. The Penguins have a new coach, several new core players and a new playing philosophy. The Red Wings...OK, they're the same except for one more superstar. About the only thing I feel should be written about is Pittsburgh shouldn't have the deer-in-the-headlights look to them this year.

Too often, writers and fans want to do nothing but compare current players or teams to the great ones of the past, in any sport. I don't know if it's lazy reporting (thus not looking for anything else to write about) or what, but it's usually an exercise in silliness and often a waste of time.

I suppose part of it is just the sheer oversaturatedness (I don't know if that's a word) that pervades the sports world these days. With so many television stations, so many writers and so much Internet space, there has to be constant discussion of everything, and inevitably comparisons become the way to go.

Is Sidney Crosby - or for that matter, Alex Ovechkin - better than Wayne Gretzky? You know what? We'll never know unless someone invents a time machine and puts Crosby - or Ovechkin - in Gretzky's position at the start of Gretzky's career. When Gretzky played, it was a different time, a different era, a different league and with different rules.

Can't we just let Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, et al. create their own identities?

(OK, the above wasn't so quick.)

**The Red Wings are beatable, and the Penguins can do it. Two lucky, fluke goals and a third that had some element of luck (Justin Abdelkader's rebound came right back to him) is what mainly separated the two teams Saturday night.

Detroit had a little bit more of a territorial edge and a huge advantage in faceoffs, sure, but I don't think it would be correct to say the Red Wings dominated the Penguins overall. The Wings were better, yes, and deserved the win.

**Did I actually hear talk that the Penguins should be the favorites in the series? More nonsense. To be the champ, you have to beat the champ. (This was a pre-Game 1 thought.)

**Chris Osgood is the most underrated, unappreciated, and most disrespected goaltender in the history of the NHL. He's approaching 400 career wins, is top 10 in playoff wins, top four in playoff shutouts and has backstopped two teams to the Stanley Cup, plus a third as a backup. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Yes, he's benefited from playing much of his career in a top-notch organization with some high quality teams. But a reason why those teams were so good was because of Osgood. You can't be a bad goalie and put up the numbers he has.

Do people remember Detroit started with Dominik Hasek in goal last year, but coach Mike Babcock yanked Hasek after four games? Would it be fair to say Hasek's a good goalie? Well, Osgood proved to be better last season.

Osgood might not need to make many saves, but he makes the big ones when he has to, as evidenced by the saves on Malkin and Bill Guerin in the second period. Pittsburgh could've been up 3-1 in the second but instead ended the period down 2-1. And Osgood has done it the entire postseason.

That's all for now.

Friday, May 29, 2009

WRT's This 'n' That

A column of opinions, some facts and an occasional rant from the Wild Road Tripper (WRT)

Well, we hockey fans have finally made it. The eve of the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The penultimate event on our favorite sport. And, there is one burning question I bet most of you have been thinking long and hard about:

"What have the OTHER teams been doing since April?"

Hopefully, you have followed the antics of the Minnesota Wild after then-GM Doug Risebrough made his now-infamous 'managed expectations' comments after the Jacques Lemaire farewell press conference. If not, I wholeheartedly invite you to either the website or the site for the Pioneer Press and get caught up. The thrill ride isn't over yet, as there still is a head coach to be hired, and with the NHL draft less than four weeks away, well, the staff has some catching up to do.

But what about everyone else? What has the rest of the NHL been doing? Let's see...

In Anaheim, they are getting ready for an equipment sale, on Saturday, June 6, at their Anaheim ICE practice facility (same day as the Wild's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, have theirs in Sugar Land, Texas). Who knew you had to go south for hockey equipment?

ESPN's John Buccigross has agreed to do some appearances on behalf of the Los Angeles Kings, including one later in August prior to the start of training camp.

In Montreal, they are getting ready to host the NHL draft June 26-27, then dreading the beginning of free agency on July 1; nine front-line players will become UFA's that day.

The New York Islanders are still unsure of their future in regards to the Lighthouse project, what owner Charles Wang sees as the key to the team's financial future.

In Columbus, the Blue Jackets seek to have ownership of Nationwide Arena, currently owned not by the Jackets, but by Nationwide Insurance (whose headquarters are across the street) turned over to a public authority (like most NHL arenas, including the 'X'). The Governor's office across town has been contacted...the 'sin tax' that has been proposed to pay for the arena's purchase has raised eyebrows in St. Louis at the headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, a major NHL (and Jackets') sponsor.

In Dallas, the Stars expanded and remodelled practice facility in suburban Frisco will officially open on June 1. The name belies the area: Dr. Pepper Arena...

And, what of the Phoenix Coyotes? Their website goes on like everything is normal off-season, except for one item about a relocation hearing on June 9. Hmmm...and they really want to sell season tickets. Right.

Enjoy the Finals!


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Close - not clean - sweep


When "4-0" appears next to any series as the final result, it's easy to say the team with the goose egg didn't stand much of a chance in the series.

A short time ago, Pittsburgh completed a sweep against Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, but it was far from an easy series victory.

Final scores can be misleading. The Penguins won Game 2, 7-4, and Game 3, 6-2. While they dictated much of the play in both games, goalie Cam Ward - whose ears will get even hotter as people discuss how he "gave the series away" - did just about everything he could to keep his team in each game.

Pundits will point out the soft goals he allowed to Bill Guerin to close Game 3 and the Max Talbot tally in Game 4, but from game to game, Ward was, in my opinion, Carolina's best player. Pittsburgh pummeled him with puck after puck and he made a number of incredible saves.

In the second period of Game 3, Ward stood tall and made 15 saves after a couple unlucky (per Carolina fans' perspective) bounces landed on Evgeni Malkin's stick that turned into a couple goals. Ward received little help from his teammates in the middle frame but still kept it from becoming a blowout. Then Sergei Samsonov scored early in the third and Ward again held the fort until Ruslan Fedotenko restored the two-goal lead with eight and a half minutes left.

An empty-net goal made it 5-2 and Ward gave up a soft, meaningless goal to Guerin with just over a minute left. By that point, I think Ward's spirits were crushed, as he'd made 34 saves in the game and 97 for the series up to that point, but was staring at a 3-0 deficit anyway.

In Game 2, Pittsburgh's first three leads each lasted less than two minutes, as Carolina bounced back for quick goals each time. After the first period, and the Hurricanes leading 3-2, the game was all Pittsburgh, which finished with a 42-28 shot advantage. Had Malkin not taken over a five-minute stretch that turned a 4-4 game into a 6-4 Penguins lead, Carolina might have won.

Ward wasn't tested as often in Game 4. He finished with 118 saves in four games. Yes, he did allow a softie or two, but he wasn't why Carolina lost. At some point, the Hurricanes had to help their goalie. They waited until Game 4 to try it, but their performance was too little, too late.

A more culpable icon is Eric Staal, who played his best game of the series by far in Game 4. But his Game 4 goal was his only one of the series, and the Hurricanes managed two goals or fewer in three of the games. Erik Cole's goalless stretch in the playoffs is over 30 games. Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen might as well have been wearing Atlanta sweaters for as much impact they had in the series.

As great as Ward has been for such a long stretch for Carolina, he cannot be asked to allow just one goal a night, every night, particularly against the potent Penguins, to win a game.

Of course, he wasn't battling just Pittsburgh's forwards. Marc-Andre Fleury was the best Penguin in Games 1 and 4, making 23 saves in the opener - including a number of startling stops - and topped it by stopping 30 of 31 shots in the closer, which was Carolina's best game overall.

The Hurricanes showed an ability to possess the puck in the attacking end and earn scoring opportunities against the Penguins. But rarely could they finish. And, given enough time, the Penguins can get to any goalie, and they got to Ward.

Carolina's desperation and energy were evident for much of Game 4 and really, Pittsburgh had trouble matching it. Malkin was a nonfactor and Sidney Crosby offensively was nearly as silent until making a nice play to set up Guerin's goal. The Hurricanes scored quickly for the second straight game but, also for the second straight game, failed to capitalize on the momentum and build the lead. The Penguins converted the chances they created, played a strong defensive game and got superb goaltending from Fleury.

Overall, Pittsburgh was the better team, getting clutch performances from both stars and role players, and that's why they're moving on. To pin the series loss on just Ward would be easy and incorrect. The game scores would've been much more lopsided if not for Ward's efforts.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dawn Breaks Across Wild Land

With the hiring of Chuck Fletcher to be the second GM in team history, Wild owner Craig Leipold has served notice: The King is dead; long live the King!

How else can you interpret comments such as these from Russo's Rants:

"This is the guy right now for this team to develop our players. His system and the way that he’s talking is exactly what I think we need at this time. I’m incredibly excited. I think he’s going to be able to take this team to another level that maybe we didn’t think we could get to."


"In the past I’ve been frustrated not knowing why those unrestricted free agents wouldn’t choose this as their home. We have everything to offer here. I think the system might have been something that held them back. I believe Chuck feels that way. Other [candidates] that came through felt that way so I think this is like the missing piece."

The boss took a year to survey his kingdom, and found it wanting.  So he dumped his Viceroy, and then searched far and wide for a new Viceroy befitting the boss' own Candidian vision of the best of all possible worlds.

That he seems to have found and successfully wooed the right man for the job appears to be the common wisdom.


But before Wild fans get giddy with anticipation of Gretzky's Oilers or Croskin's Penguins flying up and down the ice at the Excel Energy Center next season, they may want to consider the question of on-ice personnel, the question of off-ice personnel having been answered to their liking.

Simply, Fletch's job ain't done.  Far from it, in fact.  While he (wisely) talks about not just playing a run-and-gun style and acknowledges what seems obvious to most hockey people: that everyone plays some kind of trap, if only when leading late in a game, nowadays, the bottom line is that he has not inherited a roster capable of opening it up without suffering more losses than they did under the outgoing, more-defense-oriented system.  

In other words, just because there is a new GM, and will be a new coach, it does not mean Stephane Veilleux will suddenly become a 20-goal scorer.  It will not make Marian Gaborik's hips/groins/malady de semain any less a threat, nor will it make gentle Pierre-Marc Bouchard any more likely to wander into the slot area.

Some say that Lemaire and his system held the Wild back.  I think the Wild didn't have enough offense to be coached in any other way, that is, if wins were the goal.

So I welcome Mr. Fletcher with open arms.  I am happy for the change of pace, the changes in style and the new perspective on the old roster.  I am hopeful that he can implement his style and leave his imprint on the team in short order.  But just getting hired isn't enough.  Now it's time to roll up his sleeves and get to work.


More on the Fletcher hiring


OK, first off, contrary to popular belief, Chuck Fletcher had little to do with building the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, at least in terms of draft picks having an impact. He joined the team in July of 2006, after the selections of top-five picks Ryan Whitney (fifth overall in 2002, later turned into Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi), Marc-Andre Fleury (first, 2003), Evgeni Malkin (second, 2004) and Sidney Crosby (first, 2005).

That's not to say he isn't any good at his job or won't be any good in Minnesota. Just that any success attributed to him for this year's Penguins team - and let me again re-emphasize this year's Penguins team is misplaced. Which is not to say any of the past three draft classes or free-agent signings of which he was a part won't be helpful in the future. More on that later.

It's hard to determine exactly how much of an influence Fletcher had in terms of scouting and other things, but it's certainly possible he played a hand in bringing Kunitz and Tangradi to Pittsburgh, since he used to work for Anaheim. That was a move that played a big part in Pittsburgh's turnaround, but I don't know for sure if his fingerprints were on it.

What Fletcher did in his three years that has immediate quantifiable success was continue the Pittsburgh organization's recent trend of having a fairly successful AHL affiliate. As the builder of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Fletcher finished no worse than third in the division (two points out of a three-way tie for first in that season) in his three seasons, including a division title in 2007-08. The Baby Penguins won at least one playoff round each season, reached the Calder Cup finals in 2008 and lost a road Game 7 in the second round this year.

Fletcher's first head coaching hire, Todd Richards, became a top assistant for San Jose, which proceeded to win the President's Trophy. (Though we won't mention how well they did in the postseason.) Richards' success was in addition to the good work he did with WB/S.

Among the signings and draft picks made during Fletcher's time with Pittsburgh with promising futures are Luca Caputi (fourth round, 2007), Casey Pierro-Zabotel (third round, 2007), Dustin Jeffrey (sixth round, 2007), Ben Lovejoy (free agent), Brian Strait (third round, 2006), Keven Veilleux (second round, 2007) and Nathan Moon (fourth round, 2008).

People with whom I've spoken (yes, I have people) say this has the potential to be a significant loss for the Penguins. That means Fletcher is very, very good at what he was doing. Fletcher's replacement, Jason Botterill, appears capable but lacks the experience Fletcher has.

All in all, it looks to be a very good hiring for the Wild and it would appear to be a 180 from the previous management's style.

But a word of caution to fans: No matter how good Fletcher turns out to be, it is somewhat unlikely that he immediately turns the franchise around. He'll need more than one season to do it. He has to get all his people in place and the players he drafts will need time to develop. So I wouldn't exactly be planning the parade route for next June if I were you.

Still, Craig Leipold got the man he wanted and the consensus is Fletcher will do a fine job.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fletcher assumes the position, is named Wild GM

by Wild Road Tripper

Fletch lives.

On a day where the Minnesota sports landscape was significantly altered, Chuck Fletcher officially assumed the position of General Manager of the Minnesota Wild with a late-afternoon press conference at Xcel Energy Center.

The 41-year-old ex-Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM flew into the Twin Cities Friday morning and immediately set to work, naming former assistant GM Tom Lynn Fletcher's right-hand man, a title he held under the previous administration of Doug Risebrough.

What to think about the new regime? Let's talk a bit...

1. It should be clear who is in charge here, and that man is Fletcher. He will negotiate the contracts, a position that Lynn held in the Risebrough regime. As the chief contract negotiator for three different teams (Florida, Anaheim, Pittsburgh) Fletcher will have his hands full almost immediately.

2. A change in style, to a somewhat more 'open' offense. Fletcher even said during the presser that 'the will of our team will be forced' onto opponents.

3. I may be somewhat guilty of looking thru the rose-colored glasses at this point; but when the owner, employees and assembled players (including Niklas Backstrom and Brent Burns) all applaud when the question and answer session starts and ends, both, you know you have done well.

Now, the job is to convince offensively-minded players (yes, including the one getting ready to leave Minnesota on July 1 -- Marian Gaborik) to come and play in Minnesota. That will be up to Fletcher and his new head coach, a process that will begin early next week, after other stakeholders (players, Hockey Ops staff, other trusted individuals) have been contacted for their thoughts.

The top two contenders are the ex-Carolina coach, Peter Laviolette, and current San Jose assistant (and, for you rodent lovers, ex-Minnesota Gopher) Todd Richards, whom Fletcher had as head coach of the Pens' Wilkes Barre-Scranton AHL affiliate.

The immediacy of the coach search was enjoined late Friday afternoon after the Calgary Flames dismissed 'Iron Mike' Keenan after two seasons as the Flames' bench boss.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fletcher to be introduced as Wild GM Friday

The search is finally over.

The Minnesota Wild have called a press conference for 4:00 PM (CDT) Friday, to announce that Pittsburgh assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher has been named GM of the Wild.

The press conference will be carried on all Wild media outlets, including streaming video live from the Xcel Energy Center on, televised live on FSNorth, and will be carried on WCCO-AM 830, the team's radio originating outlet.

The announcement comes 36 days after Doug Risebrough was notified that his contract was not being renewed by Wild majority owner Craig Leipold.

In an ironic twist, the Wild announcement will come just four hours after the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves are to announce their new Director of Basketball Operations (12 Noon, CDT) at Target Center, 10 miles away from the 'X'.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Appreciating the underappreciated


One of the unsung stars on this year's Penguins team is defenseman Rob Scuderi.

Scuderi is not flashy. He doesn't often hit people. He doesn't score. He rarely shoots. He's not going to throw 100-foot passes to spring a teammate on a breakaway. He'll even have trouble keeping the puck in the attacking end at the blue line and he's not a particularly adept skater.

What he does, and does well, is play steady, solid, dependable defense. He'll give himself up to block shots, leading the team and ranking 12th overall in the NHL with 164 blocked shots, tied with Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen.

He is the prototypical "stay-at-home" defenseman. He is a top penalty killer and is phenomenal at defending the 3-on-5. Scuderi is a type of player every NHL team needs at least one of, if not two. He knows his limits and accepts them, never trying to be more than he is. He's a player you tend not to notice unless he makes a mistake.

Scuderi hasn't been very noticeable this season. However, he did an admirable job of keeping Alex Ovechkin relatively in check this postseason.

People who choose only to look at goals or shot totals or hits tend not to appreciate players like Scuderi. (I have two friends who are like this, and it infuriates me when they belittle him.) But the Penguins would be in a much tougher situation, perhaps not even playing right now, without Scuderi.

And he might be getting too expensive for Pittsburgh to keep.

Scuderi, 30, is an unrestricted free agent after the season. According to one report I saw, industry sources are setting his value at $2.5 million. His current contract pays him $725,000 this season with a cap hit of $713,000.

Pittsburgh's salary cap situation isn't much of a secret around the league, with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Sergei Gonchar earning some big bucks.

Another player in that mix is Mark Eaton, who basically played like Scuderi before Scuderi played like Scuderi. But Eaton suffered a major injury each of the two seasons prior to 2008-09 and it took him some time to regain his form. While he has basically returned to being the player he was before the injuries, right now Eaton could adequately be described as a poor man's Scuderi, though Eaton did have 148 blocked shots in just 68 games, while Scuderi appeared in 81 games to record his 164 blocks.

Except Eaton is making $2 million per season. So he's a rich poor man's Scuderi.

The Penguins re-signed Eaton prior to this season to a two-year contract despite the injuries limiting Eaton to just 71 games the past two campaigns. It wasn't much of a surprise Ray Shero gave Eaton a new contract. My initial thought was the signing was insurance in case Brooks Orpik chose to join a new team. Reports originally indicated Eaton's contract was for $2 million total, a much more reasonable contract considering his injuries.

When I heard it was $2 million per season, well, I swallowed my tongue a little bit.

That contract is likely going to factor into Scuderi's negotiations. The two players are basically the same, and Eaton's recent goal-scoring binge (he has four in the postseason after having just four in the regular season) is unlikely to "justify" Eaton having a larger contract. Plus Scuderi's 15 assists to Eaton's five would cancel that out anyway.

The point is, Scuderi should be getting a nice little raise come July, and one contract Shero handed out to a similar player will play a factor. Whether Scuderi chooses to take a hometown discount remains to be seen. Should he choose to sign with another team, his loss would be a painful one.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Young promise on the blueline


One reason why Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero was willing to trade offensive-minded defenseman Ryan Whitney was the belief that the Penguins had capable replacements either in the NHL already or about to break through from the AHL.

One of those players is 22-year-old Kris Letang, a 2005 third-round draft choice.

While Letang had 10 goals and 33 points in 74 regular-season games, and has netted three goals with nine points in the postseason so far, it's my opinion that he has barely scraped the surface of his offensive potential.

The talent is there, of course. Letang appeared in 63 games last season as a rookie and registered 17 points, including six goals.

For much of the season, Letang seemed hesitant or even unwilling to get involved in the offense. By choice or by instruction, he seemed to focus more on the defensive side of things, which is by no means a bad thing. He emerged as the Penguins' second-best hitter among defensemen and has shown no fear stickhandling the puck in his own end, even in front of the goal. Often he's successful at a breakout, though still occasionally turns the puck over.

Something happened to him at the all-star break. Letang scored nine of his 10 goals this season in the second half. His three postseason goals came in the last five games of the second-round series with Washington, which included the overtime winner in Game 3.

That goal came on a one-timer, which is encouraging, because that is one area I think Letang needs to improve upon.

Letang still seems hesitant to shoot, despite now being on the top power play unit, particularly when he has a one-time opportunity. There was a glaring example of that in Monday night's Game 1 against Carolina. Sidney Crosby won a faceoff after Pittsburgh was awarded a power play and slipped around a defenseman. He threw the puck across the ice to Letang, who with an accurate one-timer likely scores. Instead, Letang settled the puck, allowing Cam Ward time to re-position himself.

Letang's subsequent shot was, naturally, saved easily. It was the latest of a string of circumstances where a well-placed one-timer would have served much better than settling the puck. One would assume Letang will improve on that facet of his game. Sometimes, Letang even has trouble with receiving the pass. But, again, he's only 22.

When Letang does decide to one-time a puck, more often than not he fires the puck well wide of the target. Unless his target is a specific pane of glass behind the goal, in which case he's dead-on accurate.

Which segues into the next facet he needs to work on, which is his accuracy. He has already shown he has a goal-scoring touch and has often been used in shootouts. The trick is knowing when to fire a one-timer and the little detail of aim.

He's worked on his willingness to shoot. He registered twice as many shots on goal this regular season compared to last and is averaging almost three shots per game this postseason, nearly three times as many as in last year's playoff run.

According to one report I've seen, Philippe Boucher has become something of a mentor to Letang, and there is no one better suited to that role on the Penguins roster. Just two years ago, Boucher, who is also a right-handed shooter, scored 19 goals with 51 points, and the prior season - 2005-06 - he had 16 goals and 43 points.

Now that Boucher is in the lineup for Pittsburgh - a byproduct of the Sergei Gonchar injury from Game 4 against Washington - I'd prefer Dan Bylsma to use Boucher on the No. 1 power play unit instead of Letang, so that Letang could watch and learn from Boucher in a game setting. But, maybe that's why I'm writing on here and not behind the bench. OK, maybe it's just one reason.

But Boucher scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in Game 1 Monday on the power play, albeit not on a one-timer.

Hopefully he's teaching Letang how to score goals, and hopefully Letang is listening. Each of Letang's postseason goals had something of a pretty characteristic to them. In fact, two were one-timers, the Washington Game 3 winner and what at the time was a go-ahead goal in Game 6 of that series.

Scoring goals isn't the only part of hockey, of course, and Letang's defensive play also needs work. But it's more ahead of the game considering his age and projected role as an offensive player.

Letang is one bright spot on the Penguins and, based on some reports, was considered an untouchable at the trade deadline. He's already displayed signs of being a valuable defenseman, on both ends - to the point that one friend said the Penguins should sign him to a 10-year contract. Mastering the one-timer and hitting the target will be key factors in his growing further as a player.

Then he needs to teach Alex Goligoski the same things.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Carolina-Boston Game 7 analysis


The NHL's final four is set. Chicago and Detroit play for the Campbell Cup while Pittsburgh faces Carolina for the Prince of Wales Trophy.

Finally, of the three Game 7s, the last one provided the excitement and drama the other two didn't. Of course, the Pittsburgh-Washington game was one-sided from the start, and there was some tension in the Anaheim-Detroit game, but it did not have what Carolina-Boston did.


Boston goalie Tim Thomas was tested more often early in overtime, but Cam Ward needed to make a big save on David Krejci six minutes in. Thomas matched it with a save on Scott Walker with 9:54 left, then came up big again on a late chance by Walker.

Walker wouldn't be denied, however.

Thomas couldn't control a shot by Ray Whitney and Walker barreled in and whacked it out of midair past the Boston netminder with just over a minute remaining for a 3-2 win, sending Hurricanes fans into a frenzy and stunning the Boston faithful.

The victory seemed unlikely for Carolina given how it played in the third period.

The Hurricanes played a strong second period, limiting Boston's chances after grabbing a 2-1 lead. The Bruins picked up some power plays and couldn't get anything going on any of them, a credit to the Carolina penalty killers.

But in the third period, Carolina mustered very little attack while the Bruins, while not exactly relentless in their offense, did maintain constant pressure. Finally, Milan Lucic broke through with a sweet backhand-forehand play at the edge of the crease to tie the game at 2-2.

You could sense the desperation from the Bruins. They knew their season was on the line. They kept attacking after tying the game while the Hurricanes seemed content for much of the final 20 minutes to play for the overtime point. But, of course, there's no overtime point. Eventually Carolina put together a couple good shifts in the Boston end but never seriously tested Thomas.

Boston did catch a break when a point shot hit off the post, rolled along the goalline and was cleared by defenseman Aaron Ward.

Paul Maurice said the right things to his team during the third intermission, as Carolina controlled play in the extra frame. Finally it paid off in the waning moments.

Now, on the heels of Crosby-Ovechkin, we get Staal vs. Staal.

Congratulations to the Hurricanes and their fans.

Anaheim-Detroit Game 7 analysis


Not long ago as I began writing this, the Detroit Red Wings finished off the Anaheim Ducks, 4-3, in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference finals and setting up a matchup of Original Six and Central Division-rivals with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Red Wings of course are a very deserving series winner and a very strong team. Chris Osgood made a number of clutch saves in key moments and Detroit received invaluable contributions from role players, getting goals from Darren Helm and the winner with three minutes remaining from Daniel Cleary.

But I can't help but feel Anaheim should've won the game.

The Ducks had some golden chances to score and failed on most. An awful turnover eventually led to Cleary's game-winner. Therefore, the Ducks should not have won the game.

Anaheim had two 5-on-3 power plays, including one early in the game that lasted 1:10, but the Ducks skaters seemed content to pass the puck lazily around the perimeter. There was almost no movement nor anyone even looking to shoot. Finally, Scott Niedermayer wristed a halfhearted attempt towards the goal that was easily cleared.

Later, the Ducks had a lengthy 4-on-3 advantage that became another 5-on-3 for a short time and again, Anaheim achieved very few scoring chances.

Against a team like Detroit, it is imperative a team converts its scoring chances. That's one reason why Detroit is moving on and Anaheim is setting up tee times.

Prior to the first 5-on-3, a centering pass found Anaheim defenseman James Wisniewski, who instead of one-timing the pass decided to control the puck. Had he one-timed it on goal, it seems highly likely the puck would've gone in as Osgood was out of position. Instead, the hesitation allowed Osgood to center himself in the crease and make a great save.

Now, to the egregious turnover.

The Ducks are skating the puck up ice when Corey Perry attempts a cross-ice pass at the Detroit blueline. He turns the puck over, the Red Wings take the puck up ice, possess the puck in the Ducks end, and eventually Cleary knocks in the loose puck.

An awful play by Perry. You cannot afford to make turnovers like that against Detroit. The Red Wings' transition game is just too good.

The game was much more even than some of the games in the series and could've gone either way. They probably should be preparing for overtime right now. But they're not. In the end, Detroit was better, and considering how much of this series the Wings have outplayed the Ducks, it is fitting that Detroit advances.

If I'm a Ducks fan, however, there are a lot of "What ifs" going through my mind.

Finally, congratulations to the Red Wings for the victory.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Debate settled, for now


Player A: 7 games, 8 goals, 5 assists, 13 points, +5, 32 shots, 1 GWG. Game 7 performance: 2 goals, 1 assist, +1, 3 shots
Player B: 7 games, 8 goals, 6 assists, 14 points, +4, 41 shots, 1 GWG. Game 7 performance: 1 goal, 0 assists, -1, 3 shots

Player A's team: 4 wins
Player B's team: 3 wins

I assume you've guessed by now that Player A is Sidney Crosby and Player B is Alex Ovechkin. Very similar personal statistics, not so similar team statistics.

And when the series mattered most, it was Crosby delivering three points, including two goals, while Ovechkin scored his goal after goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury badly misplayed a puck right onto Ovechkin's stick for an easy empty-netter.

Speaking from the impartial, professional part of me, I can just add on to what a lot of other people have said: This was a very entertaining series. Just about everything the NHL could've wanted, save for a closer and much more competitive Game 7 Wednesday night.

Two superstars playing at their absolute best, two teams going back-and-forth for much of the series, and a series that went the distance. Whether it has the effect on the NHL that Larry Bird-Magic Johnson had for the NBA is unlikely, because, let's face it, the mainstream media/public just don't like the NHL.

Now, back to the fan side of me.

I spent the entire series, even much of Game 7, on the edge of my seat. No lead the Penguins got felt safe when going against the potent offense of Washington. Even Game 7, after Kris Letang scored to make it 4-0, I thought, "Holy crap, there's still 17 minutes left in the second period."

Only after a few minutes elapsed did I sort of begin to feel safe. When the second TV timeout came in the second period, I sort of started to breathe a little more calmly. Then Jordan Staal made it 5-0 and I started prancing around a little.

After Fleury gifted Ovechkin a second time in the series, I, well, swore. Fleury had earlier made a terrific glove save on an Ovechkin breakaway in the first period, a save Fleury hadn't been making in this series. If Ovechkin scores there, then obviously it won't be a 6-2 final. The game would've been totally different.

Shortly after the Ovechkin goal - maybe even the next shift, I can't remember - Fleury made a big save on Alexander Semin that could've made it 5-2 entering the third. That would've tightened things up a little.

Once the period ended and it was still 5-1, I was feeling fairly good. But I have seen the Penguins blow big leads, especially in the third period, and Washington's attack is not to be taken lightly.

However, the aforementioned Semin continued his disappearing act. After earlier in the season calling Crosby "deadwood" and saying he didn't see anything special in Crosby, Semin failed to score a goal in the series. He had six assists - he was originally credited with a goal in Game 6 but it was later changed to Brooks Laich.

Crosby's stats I listed above.

Mike Green, meanwhile, he of the 31 goals and 73 points during the regular season, registered only four assists and was a minus-5 in the series.

I kept waiting for both to start scoring, and I tried like crazy to never think, "We haven't heard much from Semin/Green so far," believing that those thoughts would lead to the players scoring (superstitious much?)

But I had nothing to fear, as it turned out.

Again, it was a fabulous series to watch. Any game, except for Game 7, could've gone either way. The Penguins dominated, by my count, at least four of the games but won only three of them. Simeon Varlamov held the fort as long as he could before finally fading over the last four games, with his team bailing him out in Game 6. And even then, despite giving up a number of goals over the last half of the series, Varlamov still made a number of clutch saves.

Unsung hero nominations from Pittsburgh are Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, whose task it was to keep Ovechkin in check, and they did it as much as they could. As overpowering as Ovechkin was in the first two games - with 21 shots - he was held to five shots per game after that, a low number for Ovechkin.

It should be a fun series the next time these teams meet in the playoffs.

(One last note: Crosby scored twice in Game 6 to eliminate the Flyers in the first round. He scored twice in Game 7 Wednesday to eliminate the Capitals. Both games were on the road. Ovechkin played in two games where his team could eliminate another on home ice and got just one goal, which was a result of a boneheaded move by a goalie.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

As the Series Turns


It's easy now to say Detroit will win its series with Anaheim after a thorough 4-1 win Sunday, but the series began to shift during the third period of Game 3, and the quick whistle had nothing to do with it.

Starting with that period, the Red Wings have simply taken it to the Ducks over and over. Jonas Hiller and the quick whistle stole Game 3 for Anaheim. Game 4 was a rather one-sided performance by Detroit, which is able to maintain incredible pressure in the Anaheim defensive end. Conversely, the Ducks have struggled to mount much of an attack at all, let alone sustained possession with multiple chances. Much of the same in Game 5.

Chris Osgood has been good when needed, and Hiller has held the fort as long as he can. But he can't do it alone, and that's been much of the story over the last seven periods.

Pittsburgh fans are sitting back and sending sympathetic thoughts towards the Ducks fans, as Ryan Whitney - who became quite the whipping boy with the Penguins - has been struggling the last several games. But he's not the only one. Ryan Getzlaf has been a shell of his old self since the three-overtime game, but he is still one of the most dangerous Ducks, along with Corey Perry. But that's basically been it.

Anaheim hasn't been able to generate much of a forecheck, allowing Detroit easy breakout after easy breakout, and can't keep Detroit out of its defensive end. Randy Carlysle needs to make some big adjustments to get the Ducks back on the winning track. But he's running out of time.

I used to think Anaheim was capable of knocking off the Red Wings, but that changed after Game 4. Now I doubt the Ducks can win Game 6, though theoretically they'd get a boost from it being an elimination game and at home.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Yes, it was a bad call, but...


It's not often when a hockey story leads ESPN's TV show, "Pardon the Interruption." It's even rarer when that story is about anything good.

Such was the case in Wednesday's episode, which led with the no-goal call near the end of Game 3 of the Detroit-Anaheim series. And let's be honest, it was a really bad call.

The hockey talk on PTI isn't often all that educated - a fact that hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon readily admit - and while they were correct in their criticism of the call, they chose to overlook a few things.

First and foremost, Detroit still had one minute left to score, which is enough time when you need just one goal. Second, perhaps more importantly, PTI talked about the injustice of Detroit being down 2-1 in the series, failing to acknowledge that Detroit could already be leading in the series if it hadn't lost Game 2 at home not to mention the fact that there was zero guarantee that the Red Wings would've won Game 3. It's not like the goal would've put Detroit ahead only to have Anaheim win in overtime; it only would've tied the game, and as I just said, Anaheim might have ended up winning anyway. To say Detroit is trailing 2-1 because of the officiating is foolhardy.

About all that can really be said is maybe the Red Wings were denied the opportunity to get to overtime, but...

Detroit had 58 minutes leading up to the controversial call and managed to score just once. The Wings had two power plays late in the game, one which shouldn't have been because Tomas Holmstrom got away with a blatant elbow on Anaheim defenseman James Wisniewski that left the blueliner bloodied and eventually taken off on a stretcher - though the elbow wasn't the sole reason for that. The Red Wings converted the first power play - Scott Niedermayer was called for hooking Holmstrom in the same sequence when Holmstrom elbowed Wisniewski - but failed to score on the second power play.

One bad no-call in Detroit's favor, one bad call in Anaheim's favor. These things even out.

The PTI hosts also didn't seem aware that the timing of the whistle plays no part in when a play ends. It's when the referee decides the play is dead. There is a delay from that point until he blows the whistle. This is not the NBA where the referees stand around with their whistles in their mouths.

PTI called for a rule change, but I don't see that happening. As Minnesota fans can attest, bad things can happen. They'll need to tell me which game it was exactly, as I forget, but Nik Backstrom once had the puck clearly covered, referee Steve Kozari, rather than blow the play dead, tried to find the puck, allowing the opposition to hack away at it and eventually jar it loose for a goal.

In situations like that, injuries can occur, and that is why there shouldn't be a rule change.

This will be of no comfort to Detroit fans, but this is also not the first time a play like this has occurred. Officials are human, mistakes happen, and players and coaches - and fans - have to deal with it. Officiating should rarely, if ever, be blamed for a loss.

Play your best game, convert your scoring opportunities, limit your opponent's capability to score, and take care of business before the waning moments of a game when a call might go against you. Detroit didn't do that, and it didn't win.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 of our own

In the great, vast wasteland which is the hockey blogosphere, many times actual achievement can be easily overlooked. Such is not the case here.

Congratulations to 'our own' Ms. Conduct, she of her own blog right here at Blogspot, as she 'went legit' by covering Monday's Milwaukee Admirals-Houston Aeros AHL playoff game at Houston's Toyota Center for the Houston Chronicle, when the person assigned to cover the game could not fill the assignment.

Follow the link on the right side of this blog to get to her story via her own blog. Way to go there, Ms. C!

Good on ya, girl!!


Friday, May 1, 2009

Breaking down the defense


Earlier in the week, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league's top defensive forward. They are Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Philadelphia's Mike Richards and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.

A numbers look at some of their credentials:

Datsyuk: Second in the league in takeaways with 89; third in plus/minus with a +34; ninth in faceoff-win percentage at 56.0%; 76 hits; 33 blocked shots; one shorthanded goal.

Richards: Third in the league with 83 takeaways; had 147 hits and tied Chris Drury for most blocked shots by forwards with 90; won the third-most faceoffs in the league but only at a clip of 49.0%; +22 which put him 28th in the league; league-high seven shorthanded goals including his third career 3-on-5 goal (an NHL record.)

Kesler: Eighth in the league with 74 takeaways; seventh among forwards with 70 blocked shots; 72 hits; 54.0% faceoff percentage; two shorthanded goals; only a +8.

Pretty good numbers and tough to argue against any of their selections, if you ask me. In an earlier post, I'd picked Richards to win it, and looking at these numbers, nothing is changing my mind.

A glance at some of the local (to this blog) talent:

Sidney Crosby: 80 hits, 42 blocks, 51.3% faceoffs, 56 takeaways, +3, no shorthanded goals
Jordan Staal: 156 hits, 55 blocked shots, 47.0% faceoffs, 45 takeaways, 1 shorthanded goal, +5
Mikko Koivu: 45 hits, 36 blocks, 52.7% faceoffs, 63 takeaways, 4 shorthanded goals, +2

Solid numbers for each, and each of the above three has an advantage over someone else in that list. But really, none compare to the three finalists. Numbers rarely tell the whole story and they probably don't this time, but they seem to be sufficient evidence that the league did a fair job picking the three candidates.