Thursday, April 29, 2010

Conference Semis start up

Well, after a wild/unpredictable opening round, eight teams are left vying for the prize. The Conference Semis start up tonight with the Red Wings visiting the Sharks with faceoff an hour from now.

Can San Jose finally overcome a huge obstacle or will it be the same old story? They'll need much better production from Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, who were too silent in the six-game win over the Avs. Joe Pavelski certainly did his part as did Dan Boyle, who atoned for his giant Game 3 gaffe. Evgeni Nabokov was also steady. But if these Sharks are to do damage, their top line must step up.

You know Detroit's best Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen will. The Red Wings look to have a significant edge on the blueline boasting Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall. The Sharks' best is Boyle and vet Rob Blake. They'll need Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Doug Murray to be factors. Grinders Ryane Clowe, Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol help. Devin Setoguchi had a strong first round scoring the Game Four overtime winner that swung the series. It'll take a team effort against the Cup proven Wings, who boast Calder candidate Jimmy Howard in net. J-How held up well in the seven-game win over Phoenix. The goalie match-up is huge. Is this the year Nabokov conquers the demons? It all begins tonight.

The other three semi match-ups get going this weekend. Chicago and Vancouver don't play till Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada while NBC opted for Flyers-Bruins, meaning the Canadiens and Penguins kickoff tomorrow on CBC. Not much rest for the weary. It'll be interesting to see what Jaroslav Halak and Co. bring to the table at Mellon Arena. Stopping 131 of the final 134 shots making the Caps the first top seed to ever blow a 3-1 series lead in the first round was off the charts. Can it be duplicated against MVP nominee Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal? On paper, it seems like a mismatch but wasn't the same thing echoed about the Caps? Still, the Pens are defending champs for a reason and play a different style. They're more battle tested. What can Jacques Martin come up with to slow them down?

With it being one of the best opening rounds, the league had some noteworthy info. Here are the highlights courtesy the official media site:



NEW YORK (April 28, 2010) -- The entertaining and unpredictable opening round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded tonight with the Montreal Canadiens defeating the Washington Capitals 2-1, adding the latest chapter in the storied franchise's playoff history by becoming the first #8 seed to win a series from a 3-1 deficit.

For the past 15 days, NHL fans were treated to a roller-coaster ride of eight hotly-contested series in which no outcome was a given, no lead was safe and the margin between winning and losing was razor-thin.

Among the statistical highlights:

* Road teams won 27 games (27-22), the most ever in the first round. Three series tied the NHL playoff record for most road wins (five, Montreal vs. Washington; Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa and Detroit vs. Phoenix). The Boston Bruins were the only of the eight advancing clubs to clinch the series on home ice.

* There were comebacks galore: the winning team in 24 of the 49 games trailed at some point in the contest. Five teams won after trailing by two or more goals. A club trailing in the third period came back to win nine times.

* Teams combined to score an average of 5.90 goals per game, the highest for an opening round since 1996 and a 36% increase over 2004 (4.34), the last playoff year before the adoption of several rule changes designed to limit obstruction. The first-round scoring average also topped that of the 2009-10 regular season (5.53), marking the first time that's happened since 1994-95.

* Twelve of the 49 games were decided in overtime, the most in opening-round play since 2001 (14). Seven of the eight series had at least one game extend to overtime.

* Scoring the game's first goal wasn't as much an advantage as advertised. The teams scoring first lost five of the six games in the Vancouver Canucks-Los Angeles Kings series (VAN 1-2, LA 0-3). The Buffalo Sabres opened the scoring five times against the Boston Bruins, but went 2-3 in those games.

* Adding to the upset-prone lore of the first round, each of the top three Eastern Conference seeds was eliminated: the #1 Washington Capitals (by #8 Montreal Canadiens), #2 New Jersey Devils (by #7 Philadelphia Flyers) and #3 Buffalo Sabres (by #6 Boston Bruins).

Reversal of Fortune

Beyond the statistics, each series provided a compelling narrative. Whether digging out from an early-series deficit or losing key personnel, every club that survived the first round faced adversity over the past two weeks. Their paths to winning the series were punctuated by dramatic, series-changing moments.

* Down 1-0 in the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins were tied 1-1 with Ottawa late in the third period of Game 2 until Penguins captain Sidney Crosby conjured up some playoff magic. His dive through the crease to swat away an Anton Volchenkov shot that had eluded goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury preserved the tie with 9:13 left in regulation. Later, he repeatedly eluded checkers behind the Senators' net before setting up Kris Letang for the game-winning goal with 4:12 left in regulation.

* Down 1-0 in the series, the Boston Bruins surrendered the first two goals of Game 2 and began the third period trailing a Buffalo Sabres team that was 31-0-0 in 2009-10 when leading after two periods. The Bruins rallied for three goals and a 5-3 victory to even the series.

* The Philadelphia Flyers learned after Game 4 of their series against the New Jersey Devils that two of their top forwards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, were headed for foot surgery and sidelined indefinitely. With captain Mike Richards and young star Claude Giroux leading the way, the makeshift Flyers headed up the New Jersey Turnpike and blanked the Devils 3-0 to clinch the series.

* After dropping a pair of games at home to land on the brink of elimination, the Montreal Canadiens returned to goaltender Jaroslav Halak to get back in the series. Halak backstopped the Canadiens to three consecutive victories -- two at Verizon Center in Washington -- as Montreal became the first #8 seed to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1. In a performance reminiscent of famous playoff exploits by Canadiens goaltenders like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots in the three victories (.978)

* The San Jose Sharks were on the verge of trailing their series with the Colorado Avalanche 2-0 heading to Denver until center Joe Pavelski tallied the game-tying goal with 31.8 seconds remaining in regulation of what became a 6-5 overtime victory at the Shark Tank. "I'm sure a lot of people were going, 'There we go again,'" Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said. "I hope this will give us momentum. I think we showed the team's spirit." Pavelski didn't stop there -- he notched the overtime winner in Game 4 to square the series 2-2 and tallied the series-clinching goal in Game 6.

* The Chicago Blackhawks were just seconds away from dropping Game 5 of their series against the Nashville Predators to force a must-win Game 6 on the road, but center Patrick Kane scored a shorthanded goal with 13.6 seconds remaining to tie the score. Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa -- who was serving the penalty when Kane scored -- completed the Chicago comeback by scoring early in overtime. "Nothing tops it," Kane said when asked if that was the biggest goal of his young career. "That's why you play the game. From death to the door opening, it's a really good feeling. NBC in Chicago, there's no better place you want to be. That's why hockey's such a great game. You never know what can happen."

* The Vancouver Canucks trailed their series against the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 and fell behind 1-0, 2-1 and then 3-2 entering the third period of Game 4. The Canucks rallied thanks to a brilliant Roberto Luongo save, three assists from Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin's game-winning goal with 2:52 remaining in a 6-4 victory.

* The Detroit Red Wings trailed their series against Phoenix 1-0 and 2-1, and were beaten decisively by the Coyotes 5-2 in Game 6 with a chance to wrap up the series at home. Undaunted, the Red Wings came back two nights later in Phoenix with a flawless performance in capturing their first Game 7 on the road since 1964.

It certainly speaks for itself as to how good most of the games were. Now it's onto Round Two. In the first round, I went 5-for-8 nailing the West while taking it on the chin in the East with the top 3 seeds sent packing, including my roll of the dice on Buffalo. At least my Cup pick remains alive. Let's try our hand at what's left:


(4) Pens over (8) Habs in 5

(6) Bruins over (7) Flyers in 6

Analysis: Can't see the Canadiens having much left. Pitt has tremendous center edge and Fleury got better versus Sens, showing playoff form. Halak would have to repeat and every Canadien would have to play out of their head. More offense too would help. As for the B's, they're getting healthy with Savard returning. Things seem to be falling into place. Plus if I got a choice, Rask over Boucher, who figures to come down from an inspired first round revenge 10 years in the making. The bluelines are similar but can't see Philly overcoming no Carter, Gagne or Laperriere, who was key penalty killer. Just seems like too much.


(5) Red Wings over (1) Sharks in 6

(3) Canucks over (2) Blackhawks in 6

Analysis: Both series could go either way. I'm merely sticking with my picks. It will be difficult for San Jose to beat Detroit unless that top trio performs. They cannot have another no show. What they must do is attack Wings, who just went seven and have been playing playoff hockey for a month. Maybe they can wear them down. The Wings know what it takes. They get dirty and boast immense skill. Unless Thornton, Heater and Marleau can match Datsyuk, Zett and Holmstrom/Franzen, it'll be tough for the Sharks to win. You can make the argument Sharks have better depth in Pavelski, Setoguchi and Clowe but guys like Filppula, Helm and Cleary step up. Hard to see the latter getting shutout again. Canucks-Hawks for a second straight year. Last time, Patrick Kane ended their season. Vancouver is improved with best line in game plus Kesler, Raymond and Burrows, who figures to be more a factor. Can Toews/Kane/Hossa match The Sedins and Samuelsson? Patrick Sharp had good first round but Hawks need more from Versteeg and Troy Brouwer. Keep an eye on Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier, who had good opening rounds. For Chicago, Tomas Kopecky and Dustin Byfuglien. The bluelines are about even but we like Vancouver's balance that includes Ehrhoff, Salo, Edler and Bieksa over Keith/Seabrook, Campbell and Hjalmarsson. Goalie match-up pits Luongo vs Niemi. Can the Finn duplicate Rd.1 success against higher scoring team? The pressure's all on Louie here.

Quote Of Day: Hal Gill

Today's comes courtesy of vet Habs' defenseman Hal Gill, who assisted on Dominic Moore's series clincher and blocked half a dozen of his team's preposterous 41 shots in their upset of Alex Ovechkin's Caps last night. Gill finished with 36 blocks doing an outstanding job along with committed teammates of disrupting the league's No.1 offense. He had quite an interesting take on the series. One R.J. Umberger probably agrees with:

"I imagine it’s tough for them. They had their eyes set on bigger things, I’m sure. I think they thought we were kind of a bump in the road. That’s hockey, that’s playoffs. I think we played better as a team then they did.

He's right. In the postseason, regular season stats are meaningless. Playoff games are a different animal. Unless you're willing to go all out with every teammate pushing in the same direction, you won't succeed. It's about T-E-A-M. The Canadiens outexecuted the Capitals, functioning as one unit. Something Billy Jaffe alluded to while calling out the dreadful Washington power play for improvising too much. Such overthinking isn't a great recipe. Everyone needs to be on the same page. As was pointed out on NHL Network's postgame, watch the way Detroit runs their man-advantage compared to the Caps' organized chaos. It's much more simplified with every player knowing their roles. They know when to pass, shoot and make it difficult on the goalie.

Time for a philosophy change in D.C.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

All Over for Ovechkin, Caps

Amazing stuff in Washington as the Canadiens led by Jaroslav Halak pull off the unthinkable- holding on for dear life in a hard fought 2-1 win in Game Seven stunning Verizon Center. Halak makes 41 saves including 18 in a wild third that saw two goals wiped out correctly. In the final three games, he stopped 131 of 134 shots, permitting a goal in each Hab win as they rallied from 3-1 down upsetting the heavily favored President's Trophy winners.

It probably amounts to the greatest upset since the Sharks stunned Detroit in 1994. There's only so much that can be said about Halak, who was the one reason I felt Montreal had a chance. Even if remote. I also liked the Habs countering speed and that proved crucial. But who ever would've predicted how well their D played, blocking shot after shot, flustering Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and invisible duo Alex Semin and Mike Green? Amazingly, Les Habitants blocked 41 shots. By comparison, the much more attacking Capitals had only 11. Well, they did outshoot their grittier opponent 42-16.

Somewhat fitting was that with Marc-Andre Bergeron's first period four-on-three PPG holding up, the Habs got huge insurance when one-time Ranger Dominic Moore abused Green before beating Semyon Varlamov for the nail in the coffin with 3:36 left. Good thing because a diving Brooks Laich banged home a rebound slicing it to 2-1 with 2:26 left. Both Ovechkin and Semin assisted to make the final portion of this memorable series a classic finish.

A Ryan O'Byrne hi-stick gave the Caps their third power play. With 1:44 remaining, Bruce Boudreau pulled Varlamov for a six-on-four. It didn't matter. Halak wasn't going to allow another puck to beat him, getting just enough of a dangerous Ovechkin chance to push it wide. The Caps, whose power play was such a strength during the regular season, couldn't get it together to save their fans from ultimate embarrassment. A Habs clear wide of the net along with hustle wound time down. A desperate Ovie tried to get the puck in for one last shot but failed, with the buzzer sounding as the Habs mobbed Halak jumping up and down. Remarkable scene.

Even more so, after sports best tradition in which Andrei Markov had some words of encouragement for an emotional Ovechin, the electrifying Russian superstar still saluted the crowd with his stick- showing a ton of class. That had to hurt. Bottom line. They ran into a hot goalie and a team that did the little things well enough to pull it off. There will be a lot of soul searching in D.C. For as much focus as there's been on the Devils' craziness on and off the ice, just imagine what's in store for the Caps. A year in which they led the league with 121 points and 318 goals is down the drain.

Should Boudreau pay? Every series he's ever coached has gone seven and now, the Caps have three times been eliminated on their own home ice. The first year against a more experienced Flyer club who went to the Conference Final before losing to the Crosby Pens. Last year after beating the Pens in Pitt forcing the second round series back home, they were embarrassed. Now, the indignity of being KO'd by an inferior team who just squeaked into the postseason, scoring 101 fewer goals.

How is it possible? In NHL playoffs, anything can happen. Especially if you face a hot goalie along with a team that believes they can get it done. Despite being severely outplayed after the Game Two collapse, Jacques Martin's club still believed with even players saying how they played well in the first two and could win at Verizon. But they did it twice, stunning the Caps who became the first team in franchise history to blow a 3-1 series lead. This in a year where they went for it, thinking this was the team that could deliver the club's first Stanley Cup. Now, they'll have to play golf and rent Tin Cup.

Much credit goes to Martin who severely outcoached Boudreau, devising a great defensive game plan. Even if shots were lopsided, they made Ovechkin and the rest of the skilled Caps earn it. Also, the Canadiens never backed up in their end, instead aggressively getting in the lanes which was why so many shots never found their destination. To think he went to Carey Price in a Game Four loss before going back to Halak is probably the most amazing aspect of this upset. The way Halak responded was incredible, supplying the kind of heroic netminding necessary to shutdown the league's best offense. Their power play was abysmal, connecting only once in 33 chances.

Green got victimized at even strength with awful reads and even worse defense, not fitting of a Norris candidate. It was his ill advised offensive zone penalty that led to Bergeron's tally. And there was Green again out of position chasing instigator Max Lapierre for a meaningless hit while Moore snuck through and beat Varlamov for the crusher. He's a great offensive D but has he not learned anything about the playoffs? John Carlson showed much more composure and Tom Poti was severely missed tonight. Sadly, Green and Jeff Schultz were the worst Washington blueliners in the series. Something which couldn't happen. But then again, did anyone really see Semin not scoring one goal. True, he floats. But come on. When they signed Semin to that extension, I said they should package him and a No.1 for Ilya Kovalchuk. Even though he and the Devs came up short against the Flyers, the former Atlanta star played with much more passion. Think he wouldn't have helped Ovechkin? Instead, the Caps are going home much earlier than anyone expected.

Finally, it's hard to blame the goalies for this debacle. Varlamov was good after replacing Jose Theodore. He certainly wasn't at fault the final three games. It was the Cap offense that disappeared. They refused to get dirty. And by that, screen Halak. He saw too many shots. If you face a goalie in the zone as the talented Slovak is, he's likely going to stop shots he can see. Even with vet Mike Knuble having a solid series, there weren't enough guys in red who got the jersey dirty. Tomas Fleischmann was reduced to a healthy scratch while Scott Walker (6:47) barely played. Eric Fehr was one of their most effective players in the series notching three goals and an assist. So, why only 10:48 with it on the line? Even Laich had a quiet first round despite getting his second marker.

It's obvious that the Caps must take a hard look at what went wrong and make changes. More grit is needed up front and on D. They'll also need a better goalie to help Varlamov. Nothing against Theodore who overcame so much in losing his son which should earn him the Masterton but he just isn't reliable. His $4.5 million salary does come off. What will they do? Big names Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco are available but both will cost. What about a cheaper option like Chris Mason, Dan Ellis or Johan Hedberg? Whatever is decided, they can't go into 2010-11 with Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth.

Is Boudreau to blame? He certainly will get tons of criticism for not having his team ready to close out the Habs earlier. Will he be fired? Tough to say. Regardless, the offseason just got a whole lot more interesting.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thanks For The Memories

I do not have too much to say tonight, other then I have come to understand the only thing other sports fans besides Buffalo fans want:

To hear us suffer.

Well, I am here to tell you that the end has come for me. No more providing entertainment for other non Buffalo sports fans who no question take joy in the suffering. It ends now.

No reason to analyze the series or whatever you call that, it is what it is. I enjoyed my time writing about hockey, but that has come to a close for me. I don't have it anymore.

Best of luck to your teams in the future.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ousted Sabres taught lesson

Well, so much for one half of my Cup pick. As it turned out, maybe the Sabres knew that the Bruins were the wrong match-up. At least that would explain pulling Ryan Miller to try to get back in that final regular season showdown against the Devils. Regardless, it sure didn't workout for either as each bowed out in the first round disappointing each fanbase.

Tonight, it was Buffalo's turn to lose doing so by a 4-3 final against a hungrier Boston club who did all the little things that win in the playoffs. You know. The same kinda stuff the Flyers did to New Jersey. Indeed, Lindy Ruff's club was outgritted by the Bruins, who took the closely fought series in six. It'd be easy to argue that the Sabres could've/should've won, referencing the good start taking Game One and leading 2-zip in Game Two before the roof caved in. Twice in this series against a hated opponent, Buffalo couldn't put it away, blowing two leads after the second for the first time all season. One thing about those stats which we researchers used all the time up at Bristol. They're meaningless at this crucial time of year. It's all about who wants it most. No lead is safe. Especially in the new NHL. You just can't approach it the same way in the playoffs.

Sure. Ruff's club missed Vanek, who returned from a high ankle sprain tonight netting a late goal with Miller pulled to get them within one with still 73 seconds left. It only delayed the inevitable, allowing former Sabre Miro Satan to notch the series winner a few days after crushing Buffalo hearts with his sudden death winner in Game Four. How could this happen? To quote my good pal Brian, "It's Buffalo." Where anything unforeseeable takes place. No goal. Check. No goal II. Check. Injury after injury defying logic when the '05-06 seemed on the verge of winning it all. Of course. Now you can add a once great Sabre who was washed up to the point where the desperate B's took a flier on him. And no. Normally, I don't write this script because it's the one that shall be echoed by our Buffalo contingent. I can see it now.
"Just another chapter in Buffalo sports lore."
How can we argue? We didn't even include football. I got nothing. I really liked this Sabre team and felt they could go a long way. Especially with Ryan Miller standing on his head. If he doesn't win the Vezina, something's wrong. No disrespect to Ilya Bryzgalov or Martin Brodeur. But Miller's the best goalie this season. Though I'd also like to see Bryzgalov get recognized with the Hart because no player was more valuable to their team. Especially the Coyotes, who get their crack at history tomorrow in the Desert. As for Miller, even in a special season where he played out of his mind, he gets silver in Vancouver and falls in the first round to shafted rookie Tuukka Rask. To think that the Maple Leafs gave away the Finn for Andrew Raycroft, who now backs up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Wow. Being that Bri absolutely loathes Toronto, they're to blame for this. Even when that franchises misses again, they somehow screw Buffalo. Pretty whacked.

Nobody feels worse than Miller, who gave his team every opportunity. Bottom line. The Bruins were peskier winning many board/puck battles as was evidenced at TD Garden. Minus Vanek and Jochen Hecht, the Sabres couldn't finish enough. They got nothing from Derek Roy and Tim Connolly, who may as well have been ghosts. When Nathan Gerbe does more in two games, you got issues. How come the B's got much more out of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who torched Buffalo for two goals and a helper in the coup de grat. Ah. The power play. What a foreign concept that was for these Sabres, who may as well have had on half Devils and Rangers gear on. Special teams are so vital in playoffs. And like the other Battle participant, Buffalo failed miserably. If you're having trouble scoring and can't win the battle of special teams, you're screwed.

Why did Boston win? Because Claude Julien's club wanted it more. Forget how little they led until the clincher. They kept coming. One can't say the same for Buffalo, who seemed content to rely heavily on Miller to bail them out. That's not a good recipe this time of year. It'd also help if Toni Lydman could play his position. The Bruins got more out of journeyman Johnny Boychuk. And can anyone please tell me who the heck Adam McQuaid is. This ain't Total Recall. What else? Well, the Bruins had no trouble advancing minus Marc Savard. Grinders like Milan Lucic, Vladimir Sobotka and ex-Sabre Daniel Paille (Paille's Revenge???) owned the wall. Even Satan mixed it up. Their best players also were their best, meaning Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, Bergeron, Krejci and Rask did their thing.

How many Sabres could you say that for outside of Miller? Jason Pominville (2-2-4) was fairly quiet. Tyler Myers struggled, perhaps hitting a rookie wall. The aforementioned Roy/Connolly went into the tank. Oh. Buffalo's grinders showed with Adam Mair, Mike Grier, Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad, Cody McCormick and Tim Kennedy doing their part. But if there's one defining moment, it had to be 42 year-old dinosaur Mark Recchi knocking Matt Ellis off the puck and setting up Bergeron in Game Three. Brutal. Recchi knows what it takes and leads by example. How frustrating was it that deadline pickup Raffi Torres was reduced to a healthy scratch the last two? Only Buffalo.

It wasn't all bad as kids like Gerbe and Tyler Ennis distinguished themselves. Hell. Ennis came close to tying it. The miniscule 5-9, 163 pound center looked just fine putting up a goal and three assists in his first playoffs after tallying nine points in 10 games. With Myers the cornerstone of the blueline, the future looks bright. Problem is there are enough vets to challenge now. Miller's already 30. How many peak years does he got left? Buffalo can't afford to waste them which is why Roy and Connolly were so disappointing.

Maybe we're being too hard. This was their first taste of the playoffs in three years. Perhaps Boston's experience showed. Even though they went down fighting, it still was a tough way to end a good season. Hopefully, the lesson was learned.

Lemaire all class till end

So much for Jacques Lemaire still wanting to coach. A few days removed from the first round disappointment to the Flyers after a great season, the soon to be 65 year-old Hall Of Famer abruptly retired earlier today. Maybe the passion was really gone despite indications he still enjoyed being behind the bench.

The two-time Jack Adams winner ('94, '03) who guided the New Jersey Devils to their first Stanley Cup finishes with a 588-441-124-60 career record. Over 16 seasons with Montreal, the Devils and expansion Wild, Lemaire did outstanding work getting his teams to buy into his defensive oriented system. While he did win Lord Stanley in 1995, perhaps his best job came in St. Paul when he took the '02-03 Wild to the Conference Finals before losing to the Mighty Ducks. In the franchise's first postseason, they came back to upset both Colorado and Vancouver, each time rallying from 3-1 deficits.

Built around Marian Gaborik, the sum was greater than the parts with the quirky gum chewing affable coach getting them to buy in. Under Lemaire, journeymen such as Sergei Zholtok, Wes Walz, Richard Park, Jim Dowd, Jason Marshall, Antti Laaksonen and Darby Hendrickson shined while turning Willie Mitchell and Nick Schultz into shutdown defenders- earning them millions. He also revived Dwayne Roloson's career effectively teaming him with nephew Manny Fernandez. Would Rollie have gone onto the success with Edmonton nearly winning a Cup post-lockout? Probably not. Instead, the 40 year-old undrafted netminder remains in the league doing stellar work for the Islanders. Blueliner Filip Kuba also developed well morphing into a solid puckmoving D who contributes offensively.

A little over a decade later, Lemaire returned to the team he helped turn into a powerhouse. Re-teaming with Devil architect Lou Lamoriello, he looked to duplicate early success where familiar franchise piece Martin Brodeur was still in Jersey shattering goalie records. Former pupil Patrik Elias had become the franchise's all-time leading scorer. Even if his early days with Jacques weren't that great. There also was favorite Devil/Wild student Brian Rolston welcoming him back. Scott Stevens, John MacLean and Ken Daneyko were still in the organization and there was familiar friendly broadcast tandem Doc Emrick and Chico Resch. Plus Larry Robinson. It's how Lou operates, opting to run his organization like a tight knit family where you're always welcomed back.

For much of 2009-10, it almost worked. Despite injuries to Elias, Paul Martin, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus, Lemaire had a team some figured would take a step back atop the Atlantic getting standout performances from Andy Greene, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond. His best players also did their part with Brodeur, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner instrumental in a tremendous first half that saw them win 30 of 48 games before things turned.

Ironically as Hasan's alluded to plenty, inconsistencies showed once the club got healthier. Perhaps Jacques worked better with less talent because of his Wild experience. The constant line shuffling didn't help. Even Ilya Kovalchuk, who gave it everything, never seemed to fit in. You wonder why Lemaire went away from ZZ Popp or Triple Z's (Zubrus-Zajac-Zach) but part of it was to help Kovalchuk, who didn't have much chemistry with Elias. One combo he didn't try was Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise, instead opting to stick Zach on the second line. Might such a dynamic line have changed the outcome or was it doomed once Langenbrunner tuned out?

Breaking up Paul Martin and Martin Skoula for the slow and slower pair of Skoula and Salvador was a debacle. By sticking Martin with Greene, it hurt the rest of the D. There also was the odd continued dressing of Pierre Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who barely saw the ice. Might Lemaire have been better off using PK extraordinaire Jay Pandolfo? Especially in Games 4-5. Special teams hurt them all series. So, wouldn't it have made sense to insert the vet who's been through the wars with the team a la Dano in Game Seven vs Anaheim SCF '03? Experience matters. Pando could've provided a lift.

Whatever the real reason (likely PR), Lemaire will no longer coach the Devils. Looks like this really is it.
"It's a game I have been in a long time," he said. "I really have a thing for it and I still do. There is no doubt if I had the energy I would keep going because I love it.'

"It's not the team, it is not the result or the lack of result we had in the playoffs. It's not that at all. It's the end of the line. I'll be 65. It's just time."

But how could there not be a correlation? You know it had to kill Lemaire that it ended so miserably with him taking the team to task with the "playoff hockey" reference. He did go a little soft in his second Devil stint, opting not to throw players under the bus. Perhaps the fire was out. After that bizarre question about whether coaching was still where he wanted to go (talk about disrespect), he handled it with class. The man is too nice and definitely takes losses hard. Our Buffalo contingent can vouch for that referencing the bitter end to '95-96 when he interned for the Devils.

But why such a quick change? He could've taken more time. One thing about the Devs. Not everything is always what it seems. Only two men know the truth. Lou and Jacques. Regardless, congratulations to Lemaire on an outstanding career that totals 11 Cup rings dating back to the Canadien dynasty. He'll at least remain within the Devil organization in some capacity. Who wouldn't want a man with his knowledge and personality? All class till the end.

Lemaire steps aside as Devils coach

If you took Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire's statements immediately after last Thursday's playoff drubbing by the Flyers at face value, you would have believed that Lemaire would be back for the final year on his two-year contract in spite of the horrific results of the last three months. Common sense however, told a different story. After the reported Game 4 jelly-throwing incident where Lamoriello showed his frustration towards the coaches in the postgame, the writing was on the wall following the Devils' Game 5 loss.

Sure enough, four days after the team's desultory end to the 2009-10 season, the Devils are indeed looking for a new coach after Lemaire's reported 'retirement'. Make no mistake about it though, he was dismissed and for cause. You don't keep a guy on salary if he quits and there's no other way to reconcile Lemaire's contradictory statements on Thursday about how he'd be back and loves coaching to today where he claimed he was too tired for the NHL grind.

Whatever the case, the Devils are now looking for their sixth coach since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2003. Granted only two of them you could call actual firings, with the others having extenuating circumstances from Pat Burns' health to Larry Robinson's stress and Brent Sutter's cows at home in Alberta. Anyone who blames the GM entirely for the instability at coach is missing the boat a little, he's fired (including Lemaire) exactly two coaches since 2002 - well three if you want to count replacing himself as coach twice.

That said, Lamoriello clearly made the wrong choice here in bringing back his friend Lemaire. Most of the issues I had with his hiring came to fruition...he was too defensive as evidenced by being finishing in the bottom third in the league scoring-wise and only stopped matching lines once the GM brought in Ilya Kovalchuk and gave us two terrific (on paper) scoring lines. Our version of an 'offensive' system was the stretch pass which surprised everyone including me during the first half of the year but as teams adjusted and our players proved incapable of executing it consistently the coach never changed that up - although he changed the lines almost literally every shift. Although a supposed strength was his ability to coach special teams and even that failed dramatically in the second half.

All that combined with the players' spectacular dissapearing act down the stretch made today sadly inevitable. I say sadly partly from a personal standpoint, in spite of my professional differences with the man I'll always hold him in high regard for what he did with the franchise in the '90's and for being a likeable person who was a HOF'er as a player and a fine coach in his day. Clearly that day's passed, and he did term this a retirement as opposed to stepping aside, so it's unlikely we'll see the 64-year old Lemaire behind another NHL bench. Especially after being too emotional to address his team (who were cleaning out their lockers).
Make no mistake though, this team's needs don't stop with today. First off, Lamoriello has to pick the right coach for this team, one who's not going to quit and certainly one who's more in tune with the modern game. As I stated in my prior blog Chicago assistant Mike Haviland and current Lowell coach John MacLean are two people I'd consider front-runners for the job. As much as I like Johnny Mac and respect the job he did in Lowell this year, while he does have the qualifications to be an NHL coach maybe he isn't the right fit for this particular team, a team who still has at least four players on it that actually played with him including Jamie Langenbrunner in Dallas. That said, I'd still support his appointment now that he's pretty much paid his dues. Another year in Lowell would have been nice but maybe circumstances won't dictate it, and he did have a pretty good power play down there which helps.
Whatever Lou does though, please not another out-of-touch retread - the last thing I want to hear is Ken Hitchcock returning or god forbid Mario Tremblay being promoted to keep the seat warm until Johnny Mac is ready. I want the next coach to have a chance to be able to stick around, preferably someone who's good working with kids since there should be a lot of them coming up in the next couple years as we start phasing some vets like a Langenbrunner or Colin White out.
And also let's not kid ourselves, this locker room needs to be cleaned out too. Maybe it'll take a year but you can't let the players slide completely for this el foldo. Basically everyone knows the handful of players who did show up in the playoffs, they should be kept. A la 2002, I do see one major trade happening this offseason among other things but I'm not sure who, probably someone (meaning Langenbrunner or Brian Rolston) will have to waive a no-trade and have some say in where they go. Perhaps who says and who goes will be partially determined by what happens after July 1, when Kovalchuk and defenseman Paul Martin hit UFA.
Either way, it'll be interesting to see the next shoe that drops.

Round One Randomness: Lots To Cheer About

It's really been a tremendous start to the 2010 playoffs. When you get seven of eight Round One series going at least six games, that says plenty about how ultra competitive it's been thus far. The hockey's been some of the best we've seen in quite a while.

A lot of quality games which has lifted the NHL to higher ratings not seen since 2002 back when we were situated at Bristol researching games for ESPN. Speaking of which, they are interested in bringing hockey back. With the league committed to partners Versus/NBC another year, it'll be interesting to see what transpires. Kudos to both networks for delivering the best coverage we've seen in quite a while. Even when Versus screws up a graphic/playoff fact, it doesn't have the same sting due to improved telecasts featuring fan friendly coach/player interviews. Intermission/postgames include the lovely yet talented Charissa Thompson and sometimes more eye candy in Lindsay Soto, which never hurts.

As for segs between periods, they're okay. However, NBC wins hands down with the fun duo of Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury, who's always good for a chuckle. Love or hate them, they provide solid analysis while entertaining and playing off each other well. Still, nothing compares to Hockey Night In Canada's in depth coverage. From dynamic duo Ron MacLean and Don Cherry during Coach's Corner to Hotstove featuring Mad Mike, Glenn Healy and Pierre LeBrun to After 40 Minutes that includes former antagonist P.J. Stock, nobody does it better. Having good banter back and forth is something us puckers appreciate. It keeps us locked in.

Most notably, the games haven't disappointed. Outside of the Devils who shockingly mailed it in, the other 15 teams have competed at a very high level- giving fans like myself whose team didn't make the cut, incentive to watch. The added drama along with DirecTV subscribers finally back in play have been beneficial to the networks. Loose Translation: Hockey wins. Even if Colin Campbell gets it wrong on Marian Hossa's hit from behind on Dan Hamhuis, the action has been fast and furious. As much disdain as there is for inconsistent officiating thus far, these playoffs have been fantabulous. Those who don't watch/pay attention like Mike Francesa are missing a great Spring that potentially could get better. Haters are going to hate. Don't let them spoil the parade.

On what's been an outstanding opening round, some randomness:

-Unless you're a Pens fan, Sidney Crosby is the villain. Many observers can't stand the sight of him, which isn't all his fault. He's the Golden Boy. So, Sid The Kid is front and center 24/7. Even when he's a non-factor in his team's inspiring comeback elimination of Ottawa, there's Thompson interviewing him while another elimination game (Sharks-Avs) is in progress. Unfortunately, this is what we deal with. However, even if I dislike Crosby for some of his on-ice antics, the man is super. He's followed up 51 goals with 14 points (5-9-14), simply dominating the Sens. Not even Chris Phillips/Anton Volchenkov could deny him. At 22, the way he competes must be respected. The hard work is paying off.

-The goalie match-up between Tuukka Rask and Ryan Miller hasn't disappointed with each shining during an intense series between old Adams rivals. In a Game Four sudden death defeat, Miller was sensational robbing Bruins several times before ex-Sabre Miro Satan ended it. Rask was equally brilliant, showing incredible poise for a rookie. Just how close are they? Both enter tonight's Game Six with identical 2.03 GAA's and similar save percentages (Rask-.933, Miller-.936). Tremendous stuff. Can Buffalo get one in Boston for a do-or-die Game Seven? That would be fitting. Thomas Vanek would help but high ankle sprains are tricky.

-Huge kudos to Dan Boyle for handling his monumental Game 3 gaffe so well. It had to be extremely difficult for one of the most underrated defensemen in the game, who won Lord Stanley in Tampa. He didn't run answering every question while keeping perspective, opting to focus on Game 4. The big one that swung the series in San Jose's favor. All he did was score early setting the tone before series MVP Joe Pavelski won it in overtime. It was also Boyle's tying goal along with two helpers that sparked the Sharks to a 5-2 come from behind elimination over the pesky Avs, who had nothing to be ashamed of. They gave the Sharks all they wanted despite losing Milan Hejduk and no Peter Mueller. Craig Anderson backed up a breakout season with remarkable netminding, including the 51-save virtuoso performance stealing Game 3. If only Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart were more of a factor.

-If you didn't feel good for Brian Boucher, shame on you. Excusing Devil fans who probably still can't believe Bouch's Revenge came exactly a decade later following one of the historic comebacks en route to Cup No.2. The 33 year-old was cool throughout, realizing the moment. To get such a second chance following the Flyers' goalie injuries had to feel extra special for the journeyman. Full marks for riding a strong finish that saw him best Henrik Lundqvist in a shootout just to get his team in. Though the Devs didn't push Boucher enough, his focus was tremendous, making big stops whenever called upon. You can bet he'll be more challenged in Round Two.

-It's convenient to make Ilya Kovalchuk the culprit but last we checked, the electrifying Russian tried hard pacing the Devils with six points (2-4-6). No question he did too much, holding onto the puck instead of using teammates. However, there are many reasons New Jersey crapped out. Mainly disappointing showings from Zach Parise (1 goal), Travis Zajac (2 Pts), Patrik Elias (0 goals) and invisible captain Jamie Langenbrunner (assist) doomed them. Paul Martin also had a rough series. Is it the end? That along with Jacques Lemaire's baffling decisions plus dreadful special teams killed them. They also couldn't deal with the Flyers' speed and physicality, leaving a disappointed Lemaire to conclude that his team 'didn't play playoff hockey.' Even Martin Brodeur indicated that the urgency wasn't completely where it needed to be in another elimination game on home ice. Speaking of MB30, despite poor numbers (3.01 GAA, .880 Save Pct), he gave them a chance. Were there a few goals he'd like back? Absolutely. Two to Daniel Carcillo including the Game 3 OT winner in which poor coverage also played a role come to mind. However, he showed up. You could name the players on one hand. Sad.

-Already, the Canadiens are exposing the Caps. In taking them to Game Six back in Montreal later today, their team speed has wreaked havoc on Washington's shaky D with Mike Green and Jeff Schultz victimized often. Players such as Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brian Gionta are having success. The smaller, quicker guys in red, white and blue are winning battles in the offensive end. When Washington hasn't dictated, they've looked beatable. If not for Semyon Varlamov and Alex Ovechkin, they could easily be facing elimination. Coming off a flat performance, it'll be interesting to see which Cap team shows up. That also means you Alexander Semin. At least Ovie, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble along with emerging John Carlson and Tom Poti have done their part.

-Can't say enough about the tremendous fight the Sens put up despite Daniel Alfredsson banged up along with no Alex KovalevFilip Kuba and Milan Michalek. Promising rooks Peter Regin and Erik Karlsson stepped up and Matt Cullen again proved how valuable he can be on a playoff roster. Think his performance (3-5-8 incl. 5 PP Pts) opened some eyes? The Devils could use a versatile character guy like that. Tremendous stuff from Pascal Leclaire who after a dismal regular season relieved Brian Elliott, supplying superb goaltending to boost the Sens' chances. As long as the kids develop, Cory Clouston's club probably won't be going away. Figure Kovalev to come back with something to prove. Just wonder if Jason Spezza needs a change of scenery? Something's missing.

-The Kings gave the Canucks a run as expected. They really pushed Vancouver and were close to going up 3-1 but when push came to shove, the Sedins along with Mikael Samuelsson wouldn't allow it. Their brilliant play along with Ryan Kesler and surprise contributor Steve Bernier (4 goals) were enough to push past a feisty opponent who matched up well. A balanced D was active and Roberto Luongo overcame a shaky first four backstopping Vancouver to the next round. Now comes the true test. Are they finally ready for primetime? As for LA, nothing to be ashamed of. In their first postseason since 2002, they made for entertaining hockey that featured plenty of battles. From the ferocious hitting to end-to-end action, what a great series. He may have ran out of gas but Jonathan Quick made some strong saves early on making you believe they could string the upset. With Jonathan Bernier in waiting, the Kings will only get stronger in net. Drew Doughty, who deservingly is up for the Norris with Green and Duncan Keith- was good as was Jack Johnson. There's an awful lot to like about Doughty, who should win multiple Norrises. Dustin Brown, Michal Handzus and Freddy Modin were awesome. To do what they did against arguably the most dangerous line in the game is a credit to Terry Murray, who has disproved many. Wayne Simmonds was effective as was Matt Greene. Had they gotten more from Ryan Smyth and Jarrett Stoll, who knows? Anze Kopitar also could've been better. One thing's clear. A la Terminator, they'll be back.
-Preds and Hawks has been as advertised. Two very close Central rivals have taken turns controlling the series. Even minus Patric Hornqvist, Barry Trotz had his team in position to win their first series before the wheels came off in a wild Game Five that saw Hossa come out of the box and win it. If only Nashville had made him pay. Too bad Martin Erat (2 goals) made such a fatal mistake leading to Patrick Kane's clutch shorty that forced OT with only 13.6 ticks left. David Legwand (2-5-7, +5) has been brilliant. The solid two-way pivot who's the face of the franchise since they entered, is a smart player who gets the job done. Sure. He pales in comparison to Vincent Lecavalier but Legwand always leaves it out there and might have a better shelf life. Joel Ward has impressed and J.P. Dumont's a gamer. In order to push it seven, they'll need yeoman efforts from Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Colin Wilson and Steve Sullivan. Meanwhile, Chicago can thank their lucky stars that Erat tried to center the puck when all he had to do was sit on it. They're showing the same leaks we saw down the stretch. Peaks and valleys for arguably the most talented team is no way to compete for a Cup. If they're serious, then they'll clamp down tonight in Music City. Antti Niemi (1.98 GAA, .930, 2 SHO) has done his part. Duncan Keith, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer must step up.

-And finally, what a series between the Yotes and Wings. It's had a bit of everything. Surges from both clubs. Dominance from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who still make you feel they're the favorites despite an impressive Game Six stunner by Dave Tippett's club. The Coyotes have never reached the second round. Tomorrow, they get their shot at history with the first home playoff Game Seven since the Winnipeg days. All made possible thanks to an unreal effort from everyone in maroon red stunning The Joe. Lauri Korpikoski (pronounced Low---er--y by Doc Emrick) set the tone with a great shorthanded goal, providing a lift despite three consecutive times on the PK. Phoenix' power play sprung to life netting three goals including one by ageless Matt Schneider. While they won special teams, Ilya Bryzgalov demonstrated why he's up for the Vezina with an inspirational first stopping 13/14 including many early when the Yotes were under siege. Petr Prucha was all over the ice, setting up Wojtek Wolski's PPG while earning raves from Emrick. Why did we trade him again? Radim Vrbata finished off a great Robert Lang feed and one of our faves Taylor Pyatt got just reward when he deflected home a Keith Yandle shot. All leading up to a win or go home scenario at what will be a rocking Desert. Enough cannot be said about the job Tippett's done. Minus captain Shane Doan who remains a question mark plus Scottie Upshall, this team has been amazing. If they get it done, wow.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Another Rock-y ending to the season

Sitting here a day later after the Devils' disgraceful playoff performance in front of a sold out crowd I'm struck with one primary thought - that despite the high expectations and talent level on the Devils this kind of crash and burn was somehow inevitable. Through a second half of the season where the team was under .500 and played lifeless far too often, all I heard from fellow Devil fans was that the regular season doesn't matter, we'll turn it on in the playoffs. Well the regular season doesn't matter and it matters when it shows there's a larger problem at work here. Struggling for as long as the Devils have can't be ignored no matter what part of the season it comes.

So now here we sit, with the Devils' fourth straight season ending on home ice, each loss seemingly worse than the last. Five of the last six years the Devils have lost playoff series 4-1, four of them in the first round including the last three, all ending at the Rock. Home-ice which we worked hard for much of the season to attain got crapped on once again. Ten playoff games at the Prudential Center, all sellouts - and the team is 3-7 in those games. Absolutely disgraceful. 2008 was bad enough with Ranger fans taking over the arena and celebrating the Sean Avery and Scott Gomez-led Rangers beating us in five games. Last year was an absolute nightmare with what happened in the last eighty seconds and a comatose train ride home.

This year however, was even worse in the respect that the Devils completely embarassed themselves as a team from top to bottom. At least last year the team didn't quit in the end (merely choked in spectacular fashion), and even in 2008 they managed a final, futile stand in Game 5 before John Madden's missed penalty shot in the third period sealed our fate against the Rangers. In this series and far too often down the stretch this team didn't come to play at all. On the Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup championship highlight video one segment I remember well was after our Game 3 blowout of Detroit that essentially sealed the cup, then-Wings coach Scotty Bowman famously took his team to task in the postgame:

'I was embarassed actually, and humilated. I told them we didn't compete and they wanted it a lot more, there's no question about it. I told them some of 'em don't even need a shower, that's the way I feel'.

Basically that encapsulates my feelings perfectly after the Devils' loss last night and about this whole series in general, really about this team's second half as a whole for the most part. It's just too bad there aren't any people in this locker room that will express that sentiment, maybe what happened could have been avoided if bad habits had been addressed from the beginning.

As a fan who watched at least 85-90% of the games this year and attended thirty-two games in person (one preseason, three playoffs and 28 regular season) I felt cheated by this team down the stretch. When you go to sporting events, you're certainly not guaranteed a winning product, even with an organization where the bar's been set high over the last fifteen years. However when fans in many cases pay good money for tickets, you should be entitled to at least an honest effort. We didn't get that from the Devils, certainly not in Game 5 where the team - with few exceptions - laid down and died from minute one to minute sixty.

This isn't just about the fans though, even though we sold out every playoff game and many games down the stretch only to watch an underachieving team time and again, we're not the only ones who were disrespected last night. You think GM Lou Lamoriello was happy with last night's so-called 'effort'? He had a surprisingly out-of-character locker room outburst after Game 4 and his team responded in the most dreadful fashion possible two nights later. How about owner Jeff Vanderbeek, who has been hands-on with marketing and fan interaction yet completely hands-off and supportive when it comes to the hockey operations? In other words, he's everything you would want an owner to be but these early exits are costing him millions and leading to an increasingly jaded fanbase.

These players also disgraced former alums like Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch who were in the house last night working for FSNY (not to mention Scott Stevens and Chris Terreri, part of the coaching staff), and really the uniform as a whole. Among the twenty players who dressed last night and twenty-two in the series I can honestly say I only saw a consistent effort out of three - Martin Brodeur, Danius Zubrus and Andy Greene. Maybe Zach Parise too but it was hard to tell since he was rendered invisible by Chris Pronger in the head-to-head matchup. Even Ilya Kovalchuk - who guaranteed victory last night and led the team in points this series - didn't show up at all in Game 5.

Everyone else can either run suicides from now till next training camp or take a hike. While we talk about losing not being acceptable and there being a higher standard in terms of winning, lack of effort shouldn't be acceptable in any NHL uniform. To think, last night I actually thought the team would make a stand. Even after all the nonsense of the last few months, I figured at least Lamoriello's tantrum might light a fire in them long enough to avoid getting shamed at home yet again (not to mention the Flyers missing key forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne) but within the first five minutes everyone in the building knew this was an embarassment in the making...even the team themselves. Drooped heads, lack of emotion, mental mistakes - these are all the signs of a team that's packed it in and going through the motions.

I would even say they disrespected coach Jacques Lemaire except for one thing - I honestly don't know how much Lemaire cared either. Clearly we weren't going to get leadership or accountability from our so-called captain Jamie Langenbrunner or just about anyone else on this roster save Brodeur. We needed someone to step in and hold these players accountable and Lemaire never did this, always being an apologist whenever the team had another mail-in game, whether it was being tired or saying we played well when we didn't and that things would turn around without doing anything towards that end. Well, nothing other than changing the lines yet again after every five minutes and never letting anyone stay together long enough to get chemistry before another change for change's sake.

Even after he and the coaches got an earful from Lamoriello in the Game 4 aftermath, nothing changed. Lemaire's shocking move to experiment with Colin White in front on the power play for most of Game 5 seemed almost like a dare to the GM to fire him. I mean really, it's one thing to go the heck with it and put White or Andrew Peters in front for a day or two in January just to see what happens but come on now, use some common sense here. You'd have just as much chance getting a goal with a sumo wrestler standing in front. Putting Whitey in front of the net on the power play in a playoff game is just ridiculous.

Especially when there are far better candidates to stand in front of the net like Zubrus - who was in front both times when Brian Rolston suprisingly scored twice on the power play in Game 3. Or Parise, who the coach never ever ever sent to the front of the net despite the fact 98% of his goals come from there, he's got the best hands on the team and was utilized that way for Team USA in the Olympics with great effect. For a coach that had always been good with special teams in Minnesota, the team's shocking power play shutdown was a big reason for this team's el foldo from mid-January on, culminating in our 4-32 performance on the PP during the series to go along with a subpar PK as well.

Are there deficiencies on this team talentwise? Sure, I mean despite the fact we won the Jennings Trophy you're just not going anywhere in the playoffs when Greene and White are your best d-men and Paul Martin basically loses an entire season due to injury, unless you have good goaltending and lean on a talented core of forwards a la the Canes of '06 or Pens last year. And we never were able to produce a second-line center that could win faceoffs but we've lacked that for years. Trading for Kovalchuk basically drained our expendable assets to gain either and despite his point-per-game pace he had soft numbers in the playoffs. One empty-net goal, one five-on-three goal and some secondary assists don't convince me that this guy's worth the mega-contract he'll surely get from somewhere.

Still, every team in this cap era has holes. Talentwise this Devil team should still have been the best at least since the '00-01 team (exempting the '03 team which won a Stanley Cup on defense, goaltending and heart but certainly wouldn't be confused with the Red Army team talentwise) and all 'best on paper' got us was another ignominious first-round exit with opposition fans cheering. With Kovalchuk and Martin both UFA this offseason and players like Brodeur getting older, the window might already be slamming shut on this team being a true Stanley Cup contender.

Where to go from here? Well Lemaire out the door would have been my first move but apparently it isn't Lou's as he's already announced Lemaire will be back. Unless this is just a face-saving move to let Jacques retire on his own later in the spring...let's just say this is not a good start. And as far as holding the players accountable, as much as I want to see heads under the guillotine that might be difficult considering a couple of key offenders (Langenbrunner and Rolston) both have no-trade clauses and will be difficult to move, especially Rolston who's signed for another two years although you could at least punish Langs in one respect, by stripping the C. Even my boy Patrik Elias was completely invisible the last two postseasons but I don't see him going anywhere either, not with three years left on a big-money deal and a no-movement clause.

Really there should be few untouchables. Other than Parise and Brodeur, who should be allowed to retire a Devil if he wants, there better not be any sacred cows anymore and Lou can't let loyalty override his head - which he has in recent years. Granted, it would be difficult to move Travis Zajac considering he's our only legit center or let Martin walk since our D's already suspect but it's not like either distinguished himself in these last few postseasons and Martin will probably be overpaid, as most UFA d-men are.

Maybe you can stash Jay Pandolfo in the minors since he's on his last year and isn't playing anyway, that'll help a little with cap relief but deciding what to do with Kovalchuk and Martin will be key. I wouldn't keep Kovalchuk, he's not going to take a hometown discount at this point anyway. He might have, if he still believed this was a winning organization but I don't think he'll drink the Kool-Aid anymore after yet another Devil crash and burn. Martin I would keep, unless the price got too exhorbitant for too long. Then it might be time to move the page and insert both prospects Matt Corrente and Tyler Eckford into the lineup full-time next year.

Our most important RFA is David Clarkson, who looked out of sorts after coming back from injury but I do believe he'll have a bounceback next year so long as he doesn't let taking a late penalty in Game 3 (which was a tacky call anyway) get to him the way he did in this series. If you can convince Rolston or Langenbrunner to waive their no-trade and move them, that'll help more with cap space and maybe clear room for another kid from Lowell such as Nick Palmeiri. It would be too bad if it came to that for Jamie, who had been a good Devil for many years until just after the Olympics this year when something snapped and he became a me-first prima donna floater. You just can't have that from anyone, much less your captain.

Other possible departures include UFA's Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond and defenseman Mike Mottau. If McAmmond's a thirteenth forward (like he should have been this year) he can stay maybe, but other than that I really don't want any of the above back. After a good couple years as a Devil, Mottau wore out his welcome this year although unlike the rest of the team he was actually bad before the Olympics and improved thereafter. Still, there shouldn't be any room on a true contender for a thirty plus year old defenseman who doesn't play physical or move the puck, and has no foot speed. And Rob inherited the family trait of expending half-effort but unfortunately doesn't have Scott's talent to get away with it.

It's way too early for me to speculate who we should sign in case we do have any cap space when all's said and done to chase after the UFA class of 2010, I'd rather not look at a FA list until just before July 1. However if Lemaire is replaced as coach it would behoove us to get the transition underway before that point so any prospective UFA's know who they're playing for. I would consider two names at this point - Mike Haviland, an assistant for Chicago who has experience coaching in the minors, including an ECHL team in Jersey. Haviland was supposedly a finalist for the job last year before Lemaire agreed to come and is more in line with the up-tempo philosophy you need in this new NHL. Lowell coach John MacLean would be the other candidate I'd consider, given the job he did for our minor league team this year getting them to the playoffs in spite of the big club taking their players due to the early-season injury spree. Not to mention the experience he already has as the psuedo-coach in '06 and '07 while Lamoriello was running the ship.

I'm still not of the mindset to even discuss replacing Lou as the GM (only one guy can do that and I doubt Vanderbeek - a fan of the team even before becoming an owner - would ever take that drastic step) although if he does keep Lemaire and almost all of the rotten core that shamed everyone associated with the team this year, I will be honestly convinced he's gone into Al Davis world, a caricature of his former self clinging to the belief that you can somehow get different results doing the exact same thing. Still, I'd imagine there isn't long left for Lou here either way and I do appreciate all he's done for the franchise over these two decades.

Hopefully he will be able to do enough to turn things around and give us one last push for the silver chalice with Marty here...but it's more likely this spring's dramatic fall from grace is a sign once and for all that our run as a top organization in the NHL is over.

And then there were Fifteen

On this nice Spring day, there now are 15 teams remaining in the Cup chase. With the Devils bowing out in a wimper a third straight year on home ice to the dreaded Flyers, it really boggles. More on this later.

Tonight, it's the Sabres' turn to stave off elimination against the equally loathed Bruins. To quote Mel Gibson's William Wallace in Braveheart, "Will you fight?" Hopefully coming off a heartbreaking double overtime loss to Miro Satan, they will show a lot more than New Jersey did. Buffalo isn't the only team facing elimination with Montreal about to fizzle out against Ovechkin's Caps, who have stormed back to take three straight. Since that three-goal Game 2 comeback, they've answered the bell. San Jose also answered it the past two games with a Game 4 win in OT thanks to Joe Pavelski and a 5-0 Game 5 statement yesterday.

Lindy Ruff's crew will again be minus top threat Thomas Vanek, who's nursing a high ankle sprain. Got a text from Bri that Nathan Gerbe is in tonight. It's up to Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Tim Connolly to step up. All have had disappointing series. You know Ryan Miller will be ready. Will his teammates have his back?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Brodeur glove robbery on Gagne

Even in defeat, it's hard to ignore Martin Brodeur's remarkable glove stop committing highway robbery against Simon Gagne in Game Four. Listen to Comcast Sports Net's call with Bill Clement in particular giving kudos. Though Gagne did kinda shoot it in the one spot where Marty could get it. Still one for the highlight reel. The look on MB30's face after Stan Fischler asked about the save and why it didn't have a larger impact on his teammates said plenty. P.S. What was Travis Zajac thinking on that chaotic sequence?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Heartless and gutless

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I probably would have wrote the article I'm about to (or something very close to it) back in 2000 if I was blogging then at the point the Devils fell behind 3-1 to the Flyers. You have to remember then after our first Stanley Cup win in '95 we spectacularly missed the playoffs in '96 and then lost three times in a row as the #1 seed early in the postseason so it seemed like falling apart against the Flyers that year was part of this team's modus operandi post-Cup then the way gagging in the first round has been the last two going on three years.

And in a strange twist of fate, Brian Boucher is again in net for the Flyers after a strange career that saw him rise in 2000 and then flame out shortly thereafter, bouncing around the league before finding his way back in Philly this year. So I'm sure the media, fans and maybe even the team itself will play off the deja vu, thinking they still have a chance at 3-1. And there is deja vu at work here, but it's not the kind Devils fans want to hear or think about.

Why don't I believe a comeback is possible now where one occured in 2000? After all, that year we had to win twice in Philly and this time we only have to win once. Well for one thing, just look at how the teams match up. In the late '90's and early '00's we more than held our own against the Flyers including winning the '95 Eastern Conference Finals against them. Whereas this year, we're now 2-6-2 against them in ten matchups, with zero wins in five games in Philadelphia.

More to the heart of the matter though, the '00 team still had plenty of veterans who had been through the '94 and '95 playoff runs including Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Claude Lemieux. To paraphrase what Derek Jeter once said about the Yankees after a playoff loss a few years back...this isn't the same team. Only one defenseman - Colin White - ever played on a Cup-winning team, and among our top nine forwards only Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rolston have ever played for the Devils in one of their championship years and the latter two just do not look hungry anymore, even Elias has been largely invisible the last two postseasons though I do have a blind spot when it comes to him so I'll leave him alone.

Expounding on that point, some players really do keep the same drive and determination no matter how many championships they win. Even though Lemieux wasn't the best player by any means (especially on the '00 team) he had that same drive and determination through four Cup wins, including earlier in his career at Montreal and later in Colorado. Stevens and Daneyko were also of that mold, winning one was never enough. Whereas other players - say Jeff Friesen for example - fall off the face of the earth once they reach the mountaintop.

While Rolston, despite his two goals in Game 3 has largely coasted since signing a big-money contract with the Devils, Langenbrunner's fall in recent weeks has surprised me. I thought he was more in the Lemieux mold, especially after coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery in last year's playoffs. For whatever reason though, he's been out of it for weeks as evidenced by one play in Game 1 where he lost his stick in the attacking zone and instead of going to the bench for either a line change or a new stick he just stood in the attacking zone like he didn't know what to do for at least five seconds. I don't think he'll be traded (he probably has a no-trade anyway) but I wouldn't be entirely shocked if he lost the C on his shirt unless there's really something going on here none of us are privy to. Because his play and atitude have just been inexcusable over the last month.

To put it in a nutshell the difference between this team and the 2000 version is that team had players who wanted to win, this team doesn't have enough grit and enough players who will run through a wall to ensure success. Maybe Ilya Kovalchuk will, but can his style fit in with the rest of a successful team? We won't know until he actually goes to one. Brodeur's held up his end other than the disgusting third-period goal to Daniel Carcillo today that basically ended the game as a contest at 3-1 in the third, although you can make the case he was just tired of carrying the team on his back. I don't want to get into who's trying and who's not on an individual basis and I do think most of the team a point. To put it succinctly, there just aren't enough people out here who will throw a skate - the way Stevens once famously did towards Friesen - when things get tough.

Somewhat surprisingly you can even make that comparison with the two coaches. For whatever problems he had as the boss, Larry Robinson cared. He kicked a trash can in a famous out-of-character tirade in 2000 when the Devils fell behind to the Flyers in the aforementioned Eastern Conference Finals and resigned in his second tour of duty in 2006 basically because the Devils' inconsistency gave him a nervous breakdown. Maybe Jacques Lemaire cares too but something's changed in him since his first go-around in the mid-late '90's. Back then he didn't care who he ticked off, for his other problems near the end of his first tenure he at least cracked the whip when it was required.

Now? Well maybe being with an expansion team too long turned him patient to a fault. No matter how many times this team no-showed in the second half of the season, however many games they gave away with half-hearted efforts he would always preach the calm, positive approach. And there is a time and place for that, but there's also a time you need to put your foot down and that time long since passed for the Devils but no matter what - even in tonight's press conference - Lemaire's acting like he's in charge of the good ship lollipop. Even during the few occasions he did put his foot down, like with the late-season benchings of Rolston and Langenbrunner, he did it in a half-hearted way, claiming they were being sat for rest until it came out later it was more of a benching.

Maybe to a point it's bad luck that this team somehow managed to get the one team it matched up the worst with in the first round over the last three years - especially after we went for it the last game of the regular season all three times, but does this team really deserve any good luck? Not when you go 3-6 at home in the playoffs over the last three years, blow countless late leads (while never managing a similar last-minute revival themselves) and look like the District Five version of the movie Mighty Ducks on the power play. Not when you continue to believe your own press and think nothing's wrong even after months of inconsistent, gutless play.

And yes I do believe what I said in my last blog, that the Flyers are a good team themselves, certainly not fifteen points worse than us the way the standings say - although there's the Bill Parcells mindset that you are what you are - but in this age of parity let's be honest, this year's playoffs is showing there really isn't that much difference between almost all of the teams no matter where they finish in the standings. Still, you cannot allow yourself to go down meekly the way the Devils have the last two games in Philly, non-competing in the final period of Game 3 to the tune of being outshot 18-4 and the final two periods of Game 4. Especially after embarrassing playoff losses the last two years, at some point hunger has to kick in, right?

When you don't go to the net and fail to keep players out from the front of your net, that shows who wants it more. Compounding the effort level is the fact the Devils have managed to make another pedestrian goaltender look great in the playoffs. From Damian Rhodes in '98 to Kevin Weekes in '02 and Boucher now, this team does have a history of coming up small offensively in the playoffs most seasons but I can't say I'm entirely surprised here. We finished tied for 19th in the league offensively for a reason and have had one of the worst power plays in the league during the second half for a reason.

Look past the big names offensively like Kovalchuk, Elias, Zach Parise...this team just can't put pucks in the net. Even the final week of the season proved something of a harbinger - though the Devils won four of five, they managed to get shut down by the likes of Scott Clemmensen and Patrick Lalime. And for his part Boucher went into the playoffs with the high of beating the Rangers on sudden-death Sunday and confidence you wouldn't think he would have judging by his regular season numbers.

Maybe in a future blog I'll get into what of the many changes need to be made for this team going forward. Given the contract situation of most of the veterans the changes have to be more of a philosophical than actual roster changes but both need to happen for this team going forward. I'm sure there'll be plenty of time to go through all that after we go down on Thursday, or if we're lucky Sunday. I really don't want to see another elimination at home after our season has ended there the last three years (with me being in attendance the last two), on the other hand if it does end in Game 5, well this team will get the booing it so richly deserves after quitting on the season from mid-January on.

Either way don't expect to see me around for a few days, I'm just tired and weary of writing these post-mortems. Other than an overall recap which will probably come days or weeks (however long it takes me to get over this impending disaster) after the official funeral of the 2009-10 Devils, this is it for me for the season unless something dramatic happens this weekend. And anyone who believes that something dramatic is going to happen is either a better fan than I or just plain clueless.

BoNY Three Stars:
  1. Jeff Carter (two goals, one assist, +2 and 5 SOG)
  2. Brian Boucher (30/31 saves)
  3. Danny Briere (goal, two assists, +1)

Devils and Sabres facing obstacles

This year's first round has been unlike any other. Well, at least in recent memory. When's the last time so many higher seeds faced such tough opposition just to reach the second round? Of course, if you're our resident Devil blogger, you've seen this act before. If only it were that simple. Just ask San Jose's Dan Boyle and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.

Tonight, the Devils face a must win in hostile territory against the dreaded Flyers. Unless you really believe lightning can strike twice a decade apart, it's highly unlikely that they can rally from 3-1 down. Even if it's Brian Boucher. Thus far, it's the Flyers winning the little battles and burying their opportunities. Though it took sudden death and an odd hero in pugilist Daniel Carcillo, anyone can attest to it getting that far thanks to splendid goaltending from future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur, who did everything possible to steal Game Three. If only his teammates had been as willing. Following a much improved Game Two that drew them even, New Jersey relapsed. Instead of attacking at every turn, they overpassed- wasting precious opportunities on the power play.

Sure. The Devs cashed in twice thanks to the Ilya Kovalchuk-Brian Rolston combo with their best player Dainius Zubrus in front. No shots from Kovalchuk and two from Zach Parise just won't cut it. Neither will poor efforts from Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and invisible captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Those are the best players who should be making a difference in this series. Instead, it's Zubrus and Rolston carrying the load. Against a skilled team that features Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Claude Giroux, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen along with Daniel Briere and Jeff Carter, that just won't cut it. It's time for the big guns along with Paul Martin to step up and give Brodeur some help. It would also be nice if Jacques Lemaire remembered what worked. Changing D pairs and not going back to say ZZ Popp or Zubrus-Zajac-Parise is having an adverse affect. He needs to wake up as does his team.

While the Devs certainly have their work cut out for them, the Sabres need to find the back of the net. It hasn't come easy against bright freshman Tuukka Rask, who stymied them making 32 saves en route to a 2-1 Game Three win that steered the Bruins in front. After a hard fought one-goal win in Game One and a 2-0 lead early in Game Two, Lindy Ruff's crew looked to be in good shape. But then Thomas Vanek went down and everything changed. Over the last five periods, Buffalo's been outscored 7-2 and now face a critical Game Four tomorrow in Beantown. Are they up to the challenge?

For most of what's been a nice bounce back season that's seen the guys represent Western New York by making its first postseason since a Conference Final appearance three years ago, they've been a feisty, resilient bunch. We've seen them comeback to win games they looked dead in. Facing a bitter rival is always tough. Especially given how air tight Claude Julien's club plays minus offensive leader Marc Savard, who's getting close to returning. Without Vanek, the Sabres have struggled to finish. They're also minus Jochen Hecht, who certainly can help. Derek Roy has had a disappointing series and Tim Connolly has done zilch since returning. If they don't get more from their top two pivots, it'll be a very bitter end to such a promising year.

No Sabre has more than a goal including Jason Pominville, who finished strong. If Vanek isn't available tomorrow, he must light the lamp. Deadline pickup Raffi Torres has yet to score since coming over from Columbus. But he does lead the team with two assists- the same amount Henrik Tallinder has. Vanek also had two points- a goal and helper before going down. All year, Ruff's crew were a T-E-A-M who didn't rely on one player to score. How else did they score 231 goals when their offensive leader Vanek had 28? They'll need more from rookie Tyler Myers along with rugged forwards Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad and Matt Ellis, who can't be getting outmuscled by 42 year-old Mark Recchi like on last night's Patrice Bergeron winner. That simply won't cut it.

Drew Stafford and rook Tyler Ennis are also being looked upon for offense. They'll need to be more involved and aid Ryan Miller, who's been the heart and soul all season long. It goes without saying that Miller will do his part. Can his teammates come to the rescue against Zdeno Chara, Rask and Julien? It's time to dig deep.

Zuccarello-Aasen to sign with Rangers

It looks like Norway's invading Broadway this Fall. While it may not be a great Spring for the Rangers, they seem to have landed Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. The 22 year-old diminutive winger who's listed at 5-7, 161 pounds was a standout for Modo of the Swedish Elite League the past two seasons. He followed up a 40-point (12-28-40 in 35 GP) debut with 23 goals and 41 assists totaling 64 points over 55 games in 2009-10. 

Not only did Zuccarello-Aasen lead the SEL in scoring, but he also represented his country at the Vancouver Winter Games- tallying a goal and two helpers in four contests. His incredible wheels and skills were on display against the world's best, impressing scouts along with veteran Tore Vikingstad. Vikingstad is a former Blues property who's starred in the DEL over the past decade (Deutsche Eishockey Liga) in Germany. Both certainly did their best in representing Norway, proving that they could compete.

For Zuccarello-Aasen, that meant drawing interest from as many as five NHL teams including the Rangers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Blackhawks and Oilers. Per Toronto Stars' Damien Cox, he chose the Rangers, who certainly could use a little more skill and scoring to aid Marian Gaborik. The deal won't get announced until the World Championships conclude, due to the International transfer agreement.

The biggest obstacle for the Nord will be how quickly he adjusts to a more physical style in smaller North American rinks. By no means does his smallish frame mean he'll fail. Martin St. Louis and Brian Gionta are primary examples of small players who've succeeded in the NHL by using their speed and wits. Neither is afraid to mix it up. Zuccarello-Aasen might have to beef up to take the pounding. We'll get a better idea when he's in Ranger colors in camp. He'll turn 23 on September 1.

Video: Mats Zuccarello-Aasen practices with Forsberg and Dan Hinote

This seems like a solid move. Especially for an offensively challenged club that could use a spark. How much did they give him? Toronto offered a two-way deal. I'm guessing Glen Sather gave him a one-way contract, meaning they expect Zuccarello-Aasen to be on the roster. While Larry Brooks alluded to Euro failures Andreas Jamtin and Ilkka Heikkinen, who got screwed a la Jarkko Immonen, MZA sounds like the kinda player John Tortorella uses and comes on Markus Naslund's recommendation. It was under Tort's leadership that St. Louis flourished. I'm not expecting a Hart or Art Ross. Based on what I've seen, he's got some skillz.

Why not? It never hurts to try.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dan Boyle beats own team

There are playoff moments and then there are bizarre ones such as last night's Game 3 WC quarterfinal between the Sharks and Avalanche. A game that saw the West's top seed dominate Colorado to the tune of 51-17 in shots, including a ridiculous 43-8 discrepancy from the second period on. Yet they weren't able to solve netminder Craig Anderson, who was clearly in another dimension. It was his goaltending that gave the eighth seeded Avs a chance to steal a game they had no business being in.

How incredible was it? Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe combined for the same amount of shots (16) that the Avs fired on Evgeni Nabokov. Manny Malhotra attempted seven. Rob Blake, Patrick Marleau and Scott Nichol each took five. Even Jumbo Joe had three, matching Paul Stastny's team best on the home side. There were lengthy stretches where San Jose minus Dany Heatley (undisclosed injury) had Colorado pinned in but they couldn't get one past Anderson who saw everything.

When the game went to sudden death, anything was possible. It's just that no one could've predicted what happened next. On the period's first shift, Ryan O'Reilly pressured Dan Boyle, whose backhand pass attempt to partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic behind the net instead managed to sneak through a stunned Nabokov- giving Colorado the unlikeliest of victories. The 17th shot was Boyle's costly mistake that put him in the same company as Steve Smith and more recently Marek Malik, whose team at least won. A day later, it's still hard to fathom. Did it really happen?!?!?!?!?! Are the Sharks hexed? They went belly up in Round One last year to hated Anaheim. Can history repeat itself? Or are Todd McLellan's Sharks resilient enough to bounce back and get the required three victories in the last four needed to advance and temporarily get the monkey off their backs?

"We didn’t beat their goalie,” McLellan said. “We found a way to beat
” Replays seemed to indicate that Boyle's gaffe might've went off
O'Reilly's stick changing paths for the stunner of stunners.

I think so,” the unlikely hero said. “Some days you get breaks like

When you work hard and you stay positive, good results happen and you get
the lucky bounces,
” Anderson pointed out after saving his team's bacon and
getting loud chants of "Andy, Andy" from a pumped up crowd. “It’s

Whatever the reason, 51 turned out to be the Avs' winning number. The 51 saves from Anderson, who easily could've been up for the Vezina despite his higher GAA. And the wild sequence in which Boyle managed to do something Colorado couldn't. Beat his own team, with O'Reilly credited with the winner at 51 seconds of overtime. To the poor guy's credit, he faced the music afterwards at his locker and basically indicated it is what it is. They have to try to treat it as a loss and move on. Can a team whose fragile history has burned past Springs rise up? They'll have to.

The Puck Stops Here


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