Sunday, May 30, 2010

Goals A Plenty

How to describe last night's Blackhawk 6-5 home win over the Flyers in Game One? Unpredictably offensive. Never have I seen so many goals on such a big stage. You had to love it if you were an NBC exec. The exciting, edge of your seat opener earned the best rating in 11 years with the 2.8 turned in bringing back flashbacks of Sabres-Stars (3.7) on Fox. Heck. It was 12 percent higher than last year's Pens-Wings rematch. Sidney who?

The two traditional markets kicked off this year's Stanley Cup Final with a bang, combining for 11 goals and six lead changes with unsung hero Tomas Kopecky getting the last laugh by outwaiting Brian Boucher for the deciding marker with 11:35 left in the contest. The key sub was in for Andrew Ladd and paid huge dividends, giving Chicago its first win in the Final since 1973 when they fell in six to Montreal. Nearly two decades later, they were swept by the Super Mario Pens. Oddly enough, Pitt's Cup clincher to repeat was an identical 6-5 margin. Last night marked the first time that many goals had been scored since. Hopefully, a franchise that hasn't won Lord Stanley in 49 years will net a different result. If you didn't get enough of the goalfest, Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski has all 11 broken down.

A lot of action. Shootout at the OK Corral,” deadpanned Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. “Things settled down as the game progressed. Certainly, I don’t think anybody envisioned 5-5 heading into the third period.

Queeneville's deep club did it despite getting zilch from the top line of Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who went a combined minus-nine with Big Buff losing his first battle against Chris Pronger- who fared better tallying two assists, five shots, four hits, two blocked shots and finished plus-two in over 32 minutes. Despite not playing close to their best, Chicago still showed enough resiliency to pull it out thanks to big performances from Kopecky (G, A), Troy Brouwer (2-1-3), Marian Hossa (2 A) and Dave Bolland (SHG, A), Kris Versteeg (G, A) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (2 A, 4 blocked shots). The Hawks' biggest edge showed up, overcoming a four-point night from Daniel Briere (10th G, 3 A), who was the best player. With 27 seconds left in the first, he followed up his own rebound putting the Flyers ahead 3-2. Late in the second, it was his brilliant cross-ice pass to Arron Asham which tied it at five.

It still wasn't enough. The Blackhawks responded with a much better third, using their puck possession and speed to control the tempo. Eventually, it led to the winner. Thanks to an unreal diving keep by Brent Seabrook, the puck stayed in where Bolland and Versteeg combined to set up a wide open Kopecky, who calmly went around Boucher and hit the net. Great composure shown by the ex-Wing who played a whale of a game with Ladd out, also assisting on Versteeg's tally that made it 4-4 halfway through. From there, Antti Niemi shook off a poor first 40 minutes turning aside all six Flyer shots in the third, including a nice glove save on a long Briere try from 50. With Boucher pulled, a Pronger one-timer went wide as the final seconds ticked off giving an ecstatic United Center of over 22,000 strong victory.

Despite falling, the Flyers did many things well including establishing their physicality (40 hits to 37) while connecting once on four power plays while failing to take a single penalty. Though you'd definitely get some argument from the Hawk faithful. They did miss a couple. And as NBC's Doc Emrick noted, kinda odd that the road team got the only PP's. Don't expect that for Game Two tomorrow. But then again, can we really get a duplicate of the fun chaos that ensued last night? The Blackhawk stars weren't alone with the Flyers getting nothing from Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, who were a combined minus-seven. Claude Giroux wasn't any better going minus-two without a shot. Peter Laviolette's club got strong games out of Scott Hartnell (G, 2 A), Wing castaway Ville Leino (G, A), the aforementioned Briere, Pronger and Asham (G, A). Even former Ranger Blair Betts scored his first postseason goal since '06 when he rang one off the post and in from the right circle. Nice to see unless you're John Tortorella.

Not so nice was the performance of Michael Leighton, who was chased from the net after permitting five on 20 shots. Even if the last wasn't his fault, the journeyman's off day forced Laviolette to go to Boucher, who in his return since a Game Four injury versus Boston two rounds prior was solid, making 11 saves. Does the Cup experienced coach stay with him or go back to a shaky Leighton? We're banking on Bouch.
Hartnell is hoping the ice will be better.

It’s really chippy. A lot of snow accumulates really fast, so after the first couple of minutes you don’t see those nice crisp passes and things like that. It’s hot outside and humid and stuff like that so hopefully they’ll be able to do a better job for Game 2, the ice guys.

"It’s so hot outside, I don’t know if you could do anything about it,” echoed Versteeg while noting the difference after the first 10 minutes had been played.

The last 10, it heats up a bit. There’s nothing they can do about it. They’re not going to change the temperature or anything like that. They’re not going to tell the people to stop screaming and opening doors.”

But as Hartnell's experienced 'mate Pronger points out, it's something he's accustomed to.

“I don’t think it’s any worse than it was in Anaheim or Carolina. As you progress in the playoffs, the ice gets a little bit softer.”
Regardless, it's the same for both sides. Let's drop the puck for Game Two!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cup Preview: Someone Has To Win

Tomorrow night, the Stanley Cup Final finally gets going. It'll be a battle between two Cup starved franchises that haven't sipped from Lord Stanley in quite a while.

On one side, you got the surprising Flyers looking to bring the trophy back to Broad Street for the first time since winning their only two back-to-back in 1974 and 1975. The miraculous comeback from 3-0 down stunning Boston has Peter Laviolette's club looking like a team of destiny. Boosted by the return of Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere, they finished off Montreal in five. Captain Mike Richards has led the charge with 21 points (6-15-21) playing in every key situation. He's gotten plenty of help from Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux, who've combined for 17 goals. Chris Pronger (4-10-14) has been brilliant anchoring the D while actually making Matt Carle into a viable option.

Without Simon Gagne's amazing return (7 G), Ville Leino's (12 Pts in 13 GP) surprising contributions and the goaltending of tandem Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton, the orange and black aren't here. It all makes for a tremendous story. Something a Ranger blogger and Devil blogger hate to admit. If they pull this off, you have to tip your cap. We're sure the Rangers will be the main source of frustration. Damn Olli Jokinen and silly skill comps. At least Blair Betts is vying for the hardware. Silly Tort.

Standing in their way are the Blackhawks, who are searching for the franchise's first Cup since 1961 when Bobby Hull starred. They've made the Final four times since losing every single one. The last in 1992 to the mighty Pens, who swept them. Nearly two decades later, here are a different batch of Hawks focused on making history. Led by Conn Smythe candidate/captain Jonathan Toews (7-19-26, 3 GW), Joel Queeneville's club has backed up last year's run to the Conference Finals by taking the next step. They'll have home ice and face immense pressure in a city that's still haunted by Steve Bartman. Can a talented squad led by Toews and running mate Patrick Kane (7-13-20) deliver a fourth championship to the Windy City? They'll have to overcome the obstacle of Marian Hossa. The gifted Slovak has made it here three consecutive years losing with Pittsburgh and Detroit the past two years. Is the third time the charm for one of the biggest superstar teases? He'll have to do better than two goals in the first three rounds.

While much of the focus is on him, these Hawks boast incredible depth led by money performer Dustin Byfuglien, who's netted half his eight as deciders including two in sudden death. It should be fun to watch Big Buff battle Pronger in front. Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland have been instrumental with the latter scoring backbreaking goals on breakaways. Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer and Cup proven John Madden should give them an edge. Norris hopeful Duncan Keith (1-9-10) anchors the D along with Brent Seabrook (3-6-9 +8) who'll be severely tested by the Flyer forecheck. Brian Campbell could be a key. Meanwhile, Antti Niemi has silenced critics in net keeping Cristobal Huet as far away from ruining it. Can he ace the final test?

It really shapes up to be a good series. Both these teams boast speed and are very effective on the forecheck. The Flyers looking to control the back boards. The Hawks similar but with more skill. Keep an eye on their pinpoint passing. Both teams are effective on special teams. An area that figures to be a real key to who prevails. Of course, whoever can get to the goalie first should have an edge. Boucher returns if Leighton falters. Huet has only seen three shots the whole Spring. Never discount coaching. Laviolette has been here before guiding Carolina to the Cup in 2006. He usually pushes the right buttons and is a master motivator. Queeneville's a good coach but the edge goes to the Flyer bench.

Two big markets battle for the most prestigious trophy in sports. As long as it isn't onesided, figure the series to fare well. I see it going at least six. My heart says Blackhawks but my gut says Flyers. We'll start getting some answers tomorrow on this Memorial Day weekend.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

History Will Be Made - Philadelphia Flyers

History Will Be Made. That's the 2010 NHL Playoffs slogan. The Flyers incredible comeback from 3-0 down against the Bruins, including ironically enough a 3-0 deficit to comeback and win 4-3- is now part of the league's promos. A perfect storyline as the seventh seed preps to host No.8 Montreal in the Conference Finals starting tomorrow. While we love the video above, imagine if they could've combined the '42 Leafs and '75 Islanders into the ad. That would've been even better. Well, at least Versus didn't have the chance to screw this one up.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flyers Make History: Thirty Five Years is all it took

Who says History can't be made? It would be easy to give the Flyers all the kudos for a remarkable comeback that kinda makes up for 2004. But hey. Who are we kidding? So, without further due:

Congratulations Boston Bruins on making the wrong kind of headlines. Claude Julien. You and your Jacques Lemaire-esque system are indeed HISTORY.

Why do dinosaurs like CJ, JL and Ken Hitchcock still exist? I've echoed it many times. But in today's New NHL, no lead is ever safe. The playoffs are a different animal. Credit Philly for never giving up thanks to a good coach in Peter Laviolette who plays more aggressively. The best thing that ever happened to them was firing John Stevens. Then of course Simon Gagne playing the hero, with a Game 4 sudden death winner in his first game back from a broken bone in his right foot. Then scoring three more times, including the dramatic power play series clincher- cashing in on a Boston bench minor for too many men. You GOTTA BE KIDDING.

No Jeff Carter. No Ian Laperriere. Brian Boucher goes down. Michael Leighton returns and gives up the first three after permitting only one goal on his first 45. No problem. Laviolette calls a timeout and the Flyers regroup thanks to 21 year-old Jersey native James Van Riemsdyk, who scored the biggest goal before the end of the first that gave them life. Incredible poise shown by the rookie who hadn't done much. He saved his team. Then Scott Hartnell, Daniel Briere and Gagne did the rest. Four goals in four games for Simon, who's never played better. And Briere scoring money goals finally earning that paycheck with Carter out and Claude Giroux disappearing. An awful lot of H-E-A-R-T was shown by the guys in white, orange and black. They never gave up. If only a couple of other teams here had remembered that.

Outstanding work Philadelphia. And of course ditto for their eighth seeded opponent the Canadiens, who've slayed the Caps and Pens in seven. Btw...the Flyers' miraculous victory from three down and three back improved road teams to a perfect 4-0 in Game 7's this postseason. Remarkable. Hasan's said it plenty. Home ice just ain't the same. If you get a chance to put a team away, you better stomp on them. Boston just couldn't and were never the same after David Krejci's injury. Zero excuses. The Flyers were banged up and still got it done, making history.

1942 Toronto Maple Leafs
1975 New York Islanders
2010 Philadelphia Flyers

History Made.

A seven versus eight for the chance to play for Lord Stanley in what was believed to be a four-horse race. Somebody forgot to tell the Flyers and Canadiens, who just slipped into the playoffs the final weekend. Postseason is all about determination. Who wants it? Somewhere, the frontrunners lost their focus. This has been an extraordinary Spring. Now, we get a Conference Final nobody had unless you lived in Philly and Montreal. One will advance to meet the winner of a more traditional 1/2 between San Jose and Chicago. Great theatre.

Finally, we feel for Bruin fans. Kudos to them for continuing to support their team even when Gagne scored the fourth unanswered. They did their part, trying to rally their team. Unfortunately, the fans at TD Garden suffered the same cruel fate those at the old Stadium did six years ago to a Boston team. Irony. The fans have to be incredibly disappointed. Hey. At least ya still got the Celtics!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A piece of my mind - Playoff and offseason thoughts

It's been three whole weeks since the Devils' season ended ignominously on home ice and for me personally when my team's season ends, I'm not as big into watching other teams play as Derek or others are. Granted, I'll probably watch more of the NHL playoffs than any other sport but that generally entails a few minutes here, a score peep there and read a little of the recap next morning. Especially when it comes to the West playoffs, that requires some level of commitment to stay up late to watch games.

Tis the season for bandwagon jumping though, and in each conference there's a compelling team for me. In the West, it's the Blackhawks who are a fun team to watch led by offensive studs such as Patrick Kane, Johnathan Toews and Marian Hossa, defensive ace Duncan Keith and utility player extraordinaire Dustin Byfuglien - who's become my favorite non-star in this league. For those of you who haven't heard of Byfuglien, he can be a big defenseman with a rocket from the point by day or a bruising forward who can get under your skin by night. Just ask Roberto Luongo and the Canucks after Big Buff's Game 3 hat trick and edgy play gave Chicago a series lead they wouldn't relinquish. I dare you to find me another player in this league that can play 20+ minutes at either forward or defense and do both at a high level. During his day, Sergei Fedorov used to play a little on defense for the Red Wings and Capitals but clearly was a forward first.

As a team, the Blackhawks have ridden a high-wire, coming from behind in Game 5 with a shorthanded empty-net goal against Nashville, killing a five-minute power play at the end of regulation and the start of overtime then having Hossa come out of the box and score the winning goal which turned the series. Against Vancouver, the Hawks got wasted in Game 1 and trailed 2-0 in Game 2 before rallying, and then beating the Nucks badly in Vancouver three straight times. Now, they face the West's top team during the regular season, the San Jose Sharks - who finally have achieved playoff success commensurate with its regular season standing after beating the two-time defending West champion Red Wings in five games, all of its victories coming by one goal.

In the East, the story - even beyond Boston blowing a 3-0 lead to the Flyers and playing for their lives tomorrow night in Beantown - has to be Les Habitantes. Montreal's wild spring started rather inauspiciously as they were in a life-and-death struggle to get one lousy point in the final week of the season just to clinch a playoff berth. After upsetting the President's Trophy winning Capitals in an overtime finish to Game 1, the Habs were up 4-1 in Game 2 before the roof fell in as the Caps came back to force overtime, winning 6-5 and then smoking the Habs in the next two games in Montreal. Down 3-1 and with goalie Jaroslav Halak having been benched in Game 4, the Habs looked well on their way to fulfilling my Caps in 5 prediction.

Then, as the NHL's playoff ads would say - History was made! Montreal became the first eight seed ever to come from 3-1 down to beat a number one seed, as Jacques Martin's decision to restore Halak to goal in Game 5 proved to be key. Halak made an incredible 131 saves of 134 shots in the final three games (all regulation finishes), as the Habs held the mighty Caps' offense to a single goal in each of its last three games. How could they possibly follow that up for an encore? By beating Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in seven games, coming from behind three times in the series to win again in Game 7 on the road.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Habs' run have been the shot totals. During its eight playoff wins, Montreal has been outshot 331-194, for an average of 41-24 per game. Other than Game 1 against the Caps where Montreal was 'only' outshot by nine, the Habs have been outshot by double digits in their other seven wins and of those 331 shots, Halak's given up only 13 goals. You can stack any goalie run with an underdog team up against Halak you want - Jean-Sebastian Giguere and his Conn Smythe in 2003, Miikka Kiprusoff in 2004, Dwayne Roloson in 2006 - but through two series, you'd be hard-pressed to see a goalie who's had this kind of impact on the playoffs.

As much as Halak has dominated it's nice to see that ex-Devils Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have also had very good playoffs for Montreal. Gionta's success this year - both during the regular season and now in the postseason - when contrasted with his final couple years in New Jersey just proves he needed a change of scenery (and a coach who will actually let him play in front of the net, where he's supposed to be). And now that Gomez has been exiled from Manhattan, I can root for him again...then again I was one of the few who actually gave him the benefit of the doubt when he was on the Devils in the first place.

While both the ex-Devs have done well, Michael Cammalleri's been the Habs' most important goalscorer with twelve goals, just now showing his electric form again after a winter ankle injury made him a non-factor from mid-January on. And Montreal's embattled defense has actually held up rather well at times considering the fact that Andrei Markov went on the shelf for the season early in the Penguin series and big Hal Gill also got hurt late in that same series, though he would come back in Game 7 to get the last laugh against his former team.

As far as the Boston-Philly series goes, let me just say this on a personal note...Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has taken a lot of heat - including from me - for the fact that he fired current Bruins coach Claude Julien a mere three games before the playoffs in 2007. I felt Julien at least deserved a chance to coach in the playoffs for us, and Lamoriello's explanation of how the team wasn't 'mentally prepared' to go into the playoffs that year rang hollow during 2009-10 when Lou opted not to fire Jacques Lemaire during an even worse malaise than the '06-07 Devils ever went through. And nothing that happens tomorrow will change the fact that Julien got the rug pulled out from under him here.

That said, if Boston chokes away this series Julien will have proved once and for all that he's just not a championship coach. As a Devils fan I can't really sniff at winning in the first round two straight years, but facts are facts - Boston had the best team in the East last season and went down in Game 7 at home to Carolina in the second round and now might suffer an even worse ignominy this year. It's not that Boston lacks talent - although losing David Krejci hurts, let's be real - the Flyers are playing without Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere, missed Simon Gagne for the first three games with an apparent season-ending injury before (in something only hockey players do) he made a heroic return in Game 4.

Not to mention first-round hero Brian Boucher went down early in Game 5, forcing the Flyers to go back to Michael Leighton who did well for them in goal earlier in the season but hadn't played at all in the prior several weeks as he was recuperating from an injury and then watching from the sideline as Boucher became the hot hand. Despite all of that, the Flyers squeaked out an OT win in Game 4 to stay alive, dominated in Game 5 on the road then won another tight one in Game 6 to force tomorrow's decider. If I didn't hate them because of punks like Daniel Carcillo and Scott Hartnell (not to mention smart but whiny coach Peter Laviolette), I'd admire their pluck. Especially Laperriere, who showed more effort blocking a shot late in Game 5 against New Jersey than most of the Devils' team did in the first round.

Speaking of which, I wasn't exactly shocked over anything in Rich Chere's article this week about how captain Jamie Langenbrunner had to do some (cough) soul-searching this offseason. Was it lame that former coach Lemaire resorted to telling players during the morning that they were in the lineup, then texting them later on to tell them they were scratched? Of course. I've never been opposed to a coach playing mind games with his players, but you could at least do it face-to-face.

Also in that piece - recently in the Star-Ledger, Lemaire reportedly tried to give Langenbrunner's C to Colin White the game in Carolina which the captain was contreversially scratched and White declined to wear it, which was ironic cause the two had a couple of reported dust-ups in the past. That's what I call convenient leaking of a story, not to mention Langenbrunner already pitched a tent when Brendan Shanahan wore the C for a preseason game!

Sure I wasn't thrilled with what Lemaire did during the season, especially strategy-wise with the neverending shifting of lines (and not sticking with ones that did work), changing the defensive pairings on the eve of the playoffs but I don't want to go through all that again. With Lemaire gone it's pretty much piling on at this point. What is even more obvious now than it was after Game 5 is the article showed that this offseason is easily Lamoriello's most critical one since 2002, when Lamoriello realized he needed to make changes after a dissapointing first-round loss to Carolina which led to two coaches being fired - Larry Robinson during the season and Kevin Constantine after it - and former A-liner Jason Arnott being traded, along with long-time vet Randy McKay.

During that offseason, Lou traded fellow A-liner Petr Sykora, watched Bobby Holik go across the river in free agency and hired Pat Burns, with the end result being the 2003 Stanley Cup. Now changes are needed more than ever, with a team that was obviously in turmoil from January to the end of the season, culminating in an utter team-wide lack of emotion and effort during the playoffs. First, Lamoriello needs to decide who is going to stay and who goes. Hired gun forward Ilya Kovalchuk and top defenseman Paul Martin will be the key decisions come July 1, but even more than that Lamoriello needs to identify the troublemakers here and weed them out, whoever they may be and however hard it will be due to the cap, NTC's, whatever.

Of course, Lamoriello also needs to hire a coach at some point...normally I'd say before July 1 but honestly we might not know what kind of team we have until a bit after that when the dust settles over moves I expect to be made. That coach needs both to have a philosophy in line with 21st century post-lockout hockey and be given enough autonomy so that the players respect whomever gets hired. This group of players complained about Julien, mutinied on Lemaire and gave Robinson in his second tour stress anxiety. And why shouldn't the inmates feel like they run the asylum when coaches come and go every year but some of them stay around? That needs to change, right now this offseason Lou needs to draw a line in the sand.

If he doesn't, well let's just say I hope it doesn't get the point where I'm comparing Lou to Al Davis. A former great who is just a name now and a net minus for the team because he refuses to adjust to a changing game.

Halak, Habs oust champs, Flyers on verge of history

Sometimes, things live up to their billing. Such was the case tonight with two stunners taking place. First, the Canadiens backstopped by Jaroslav Halak (37 saves) eliminated the defending champion Penguins 5-2 in Game Seven- advancing to the franchise's first Conference Final since they last won the Cup in 1993. Another improbable run led by Patrick Roy. The eighth seeded Habs have now ousted both the President's Trophy winning Caps and Pens in deciding games on the road. While they didn't have to win three straight, this time they had to contend with a more experienced/better overall team. To accomplish what they have is remarkable. Kudos to Mike Cammalleri, who added to his postseason-leading goal total with No.12. Brian Gionta was equally great, tallying twice including just 32 seconds in to set the tone. Camms and Gio combined for 12 of the Habs' markers in the series.

More stunning was how well Hal Gill on one leg played after missing Game Six. The heart he demonstrated going back out there to lead his new team past the one he won with is something to behold. That's what it takes. It was nice to see the big guy prove us wrong. How about Scott Gomez netting two assists and playing to capability. Guess Bob Gainey wasn't so crazy reuniting Gomer and Gio after all. We'll take our crow barbecued to a crisp. There's only so much one can say about Halak, who made a huge stop on Sidney Crosby early in the third to thwart the Pens rally. The man was simply sensational, putting together some of the best goaltending since Giguere and Roy. Who says he can't keep it up?

They still don't know who they'll face. That's because the Flyers simply refuse to go home quietly. They have now rallied from an 0-3 hole to tie the series against Boston. Michael Leighton was terrific in his first playoff start holding the struggling B's to one late Milan Lucic tally with a minute left before the Flyers held on to win their third in a row. Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere came through for the home team, who now see the same light the Red Sox saw against the Yankees. Just the dejected looks on Boston's side as they exited told the story. Can Claude Julien and his leadership of Chara, Savard and Recchi possibly restore order for Friday? Or are the Flyers 35 years after the Islanders did it to the Pens destined to make history. It looks like it's going to be tough and not so much for the orange and black.

Finally, it's amazing to think that in a seven-game series, Crosby and Malkin combined for only two goals. It's a credit to how determined Jacques Martin's scrappy bunch were taking away passing and shooting lanes while limiting time and space. But we also saw both superstars pressing in a flat first that saw neither register a shot while both made uncharacteristic errors we're not accustomed to seeing. Sid was in the box for Gionta's early PPG for a mistimed rough. Malkin had several mystifying giveaways on power plays, passing up great opportunities to shoot. Though they combined for 11 shots the final 40, neither really distinguished themselves.

Stunning stuff in Pittsburgh on what became Mellon Arena's final night. Kudos to the fans who stayed and gave their team a nice salute as did the disappointed former champs. Thumbs down to the ones who left early. Especially on The Igloo's final day. A Cup winner that reached two straight Finals and delivered so many bright stars and some left. Unbelievable.

A great night for hockey regardless. Eye opening to say the least.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Great Theatre Tonight

If you're a hockey fan, then you're in luck. Tonight promises to be quite interesting. Great theatre is anticipated with the No.8 seeded Canadiens looking to repeat what they did to Ovechkin. This time, they're pitted against the Crosby/Malkin Pens. A larger task for sure.

Taking down the defending champs at what just could be the final game at old Mellon Arena would be astronomical. Les Habitants will need virtuoso performances from all actors led by Jaroslav Halak, series star Mike Cammalleri and Hal Gill. They'll need help from familiar ex-Devil duo Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Both have played well. Each has big game experience. Can they put it together in Game Seven? Tomas Plekanec has mostly been absent. If the soon to be FA wants to increase his value, this would be a great start. He was real effective in the Round One upset. Other key components of this improbable Hab run have been antagonist Max Lapierre, ex-Ranger Dominic Moore, former pick Tom Pyatt and Andrei Kostitsyn. Emergency call-up P.K. Subban has been stellar and Josh Gorges instrumental in teaming with Gill to blanker Sidney Crosby. Minus top defender Andrei Markov, do they have one more peak performance in them? Hopefully, it won't be as anticlimatic as last year's Conference Semi Caps dismantling.

While the Habs will still be heavy underdogs against Crosby, Geno, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Gonchar and Kris Letang, the Flyers are trying to do something that hasn't been done since 1975. Only twice in NHL history have teams rallied from 0-3 down to win series. The 1942 Leafs and most recently, the Islanders did it some 35 years ago, 33 years after Toronto. Is the timing right for the banged up Flyers to stun the Bruins? Simon Gagne has been remarkable coming back from a broken bone in his right foot scoring the sudden death winner to keep his team alive in Game Four and two more goals in a 4-0 Game Five rout.

All of Philadelphia will be behind their Flyers when the puck drops an hour from now at Wachovia. To even sniff the final part of something the Red Sox did to the Yankees in '04, Peter Laviolette's bunch must get off quickly against what should be a more focused and desperate Boston club that wants nothing to do with Game Seven. Even if it's in their own building, the pressure would be gigantic. The Avs tried this a few years ago against the Sharks winning two straight before falling in Game Six. The sixth game AKA third part is usually the biggest hurdle. If Philly can get through it, only then does it become possible. They'll need Michael Leighton to start where he left off in relief of injured Brian Boucher the other night. Remember, it was Leighton who was so brilliant before Boucher got them in. Now, he has a chance to help his team make history. The Flyers are still without Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere. That doesn't matter. They've shown heart all Spring.

It sets up to be quite the watch. Sit back, relax and crack open a Molson.

About those Canucks

Well, it looks like it's another wasted year for the Canucks. They couldn't follow up a fantastic season with a deep playoff run as both Hasan and myself foresaw. Ironically, each of us (Devils/Rangers) took them to the Cup Final with Has having them fall to the Ovechkin Caps while I had the 'Nucks winning it all over the Sabres. That collective thud you just heard was our predictions going right into the dumpster.

Hey. Who had the Habs over the Caps and pushing the Crosby Pens to Game Seven tonight? Did anyone take the Bruins deep and figured things were okay until the banged up Flyers woke up? Can they really comeback from 0-3 down?!?!?!?!?! You better believe the B's want no part of a deciding game even if it's in their building.

Yes indeed, these playoffs have been wackier than usual. At least the Sharks as Has accurately predicted are in their second Western Conference Final- not first Versus! Can they ever get their facts straight instead of making their talent look like morons? Almost as bad as having two games going at the same exact time in the East. Thanks for nothing NBC. Take your beloved golf and shove it. Especially Tiger. Thankfully, we won't have a repeat of Monday with the win or go home Montreal/Pittsburgh tilt going off at 7 while Boston/Philadelphia starts an hour later. Before I get to the original subject, let me just point out that the Bruins and Flyers are playing Game Six after the Canadiens and Penguins face off for their series conclusion. How does that work exactly? Okay. Enough about the Bettman-ization of the NBA errrr NHL.

Now to the latest Vancouver mess again proving what a fraud Roberto Luongo is. Like many including Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski, who also had these Canucks all the way, I thought this batch were better. It all seemed lined up. A dominant top line that featured probable MVP Henrik Sedin, twin brother Daniel Sedin and fired up fellow Swede Mikael Samuelsson. Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier and Kyle Wellwood along with a balanced blueline that included Sami Salo (insert balls joke), Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler and Shane O'Brien should've been enough to take them further. Even without top defender Willie Mitchell, this is a bitter pill to swallow for Alain Vigneault's crew which finished off a hat trick falling 5-1, dropping all three home games to the grittier Blackhawks in the series.

Make it two consecutive Springs Chicago has ended their season. Both in six. Last year as a lower seed highlighted by Patrick Kane's hat trick. This time, as a No.2 to Vancouver's No.3 coming back from a blowout home Game One loss to take four of the next five. Unthinkable. Not taking anything away from Joel Queeneville's talented bunch that prominently features Conn Smythe candidate Jonathan Toews (6-14-20), Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, series tormentor Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Antti Niemi. The Hawks are formidable and worthy of a second straight Final Four appearance where they'll battle the Sharks for the Campbell Trophy.

While it will be refreshing to see new blood vying for Lord Stanley, it doesn't take the Canucks off the hook. They lost to a more disciplined team who turned the series around thanks to Byfuglien. It was his first career playoff hat trick in a Game Three 5-2 win which shifted the momentum. The big 6-4, 257 pound American was moved up by Queeneville to the top line flanking Toews and Kane. Entering that pivotal game, he previously had no points in Chicago's first eight postseason games. From that point, Big Buff recorded four goals and two assists while racking up 10 penalty minutes. Even with it, he used his big frame to make life difficult on Luongo, doing whatever it took to get to the Vancouver netminder. Textbook screening, strong skating, grit that drove the Canucks crazy and finishing. It was in Game Four that the 'Nucks anger boiled over losing their heads by going after Byfuglien. The result was three power play goals allowed and an ugly 7-4 loss putting them on the brink. Though they responded with a 5-2 win in enemy territory, the Canucks couldn't follow it up with a first win in British Columbia. Instead, the 5-1 disgrace further teased their fans who roundly booed. In three home games, they were outscored 17-7. Just brutal.

So, what went wrong? Aside from Niemi outplaying Luongo, the Hawks got strong performances from Toews, Kane and Hossa who despite three points, was very effective on the forecheck. With Toews torching Vancouver for 12 points (4-8-12) including a five-point explosion that included a hat trick, it was one of the Olympic standouts who outshined The Sedins. They didn't get much help with Samuelsson and Daniel only netting one goal apiece, Kesler none and little from first round heroes Bernier and Demitra. Meanwhile, Chicago saw Byfuglien and Versteeg come to life while Dave Bolland also picked it up. Lineup addition Troy Brouwer notched his first goal starting it off yesterday followed by Versteeg 36 seconds later in the second. Louie had little chance on either but Bolland's shorthander with 45 seconds left was a back breaker. He was pressured from behind but still snuck the puck thru Roberto's wickets. One he definitely should've had. At that big moment, you expect a goalie of his caliber to make a momentum turning save. Instead, it flattened their chances.

Sure. O'Brien scored 3:44 into the third giving the league's best come from behind team life. However, despite tons of pressure, they couldn't get another past Niemi, who got help from his D. Before you knew it, there was Kane breaking in and beating Luongo with a change up, letting the air out of the balloon. Only 25 ticks later, Byfuglien broke in on the pedestrian goalie and easily whistled one upstairs for 5-1. On it, it seemed that Luongo gave up, totally off his angle. If he really did and only he knows, it was a sad display. He may have won Olympic gold in relief of Martin Brodeur on a stacked Canada but he was never the same afterwards. The five rebound goals he permitted in Game Three summed it up. For a goalie who always receives high accolades as one of the game's elite, Luongo has advanced past the first round three times. Three series victories before falling apart. Not the kind of playoff resume one would expect. Of course, it wasn't all his fault. His teammates didn't perform well. Perhaps this quote tells you everything.

"I don't think they're a better team than us, but maybe a smarter team."
In the playoffs, you can't just rely on talent. There's also work ethic and discipline plus consistency. Without those three, you morph into the Devils. The one team who didn't come to play. Though we're learning more about why they didn't bother. How is it that Jacques Lemaire resorted to text messages to inform players he earlier told were playing that he changed his mind? Is this the issue in Vancity? Hardly. Do they got the right mix? We believed they did. Was Mitchell missed that much? He sure wouldn't have allowed Byfuglien to run rampant. Right now, the Canucks are as much a mystery as the post-lockout Devs. Difference is one franchise has three Cups. When does it finally change for Vancouver? Will they ever make it back? 1994 is a long time ago. Try telling Dolan.

Until they get H-E-A-R-T, it looks like the Vancouver Canucks have officially replaced San Jose as playoff Tinmen. They sure had us fooled.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Conference Semi Banter

While things are pretty quiet around these parts, the second round is rolling along. Already, a pair of teams are ahead 3-zip, poised to make Conference Final appearances. The other two series are 2-1 and hanging in the balance. What are our thoughts? Here's some Conference Semi banter:

-The Sharks have to be the lead story. Especially the way they've played against the Cup proven Red Wings. Everyone's bought into Todd McLellan, who's well on his way to atoning for last year's first round disappointment. Ever since Dan Boyle's Game 3 blooper last round, all the guys in teal have done is rise up, winning the final three of the Av series and the first three in shocking fashion over Detroit by identical 4-3 margins. From Conn Smythe candidate Joe Pavelski's clutch finishing ability to linemates Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi's gumption, the much overlooked trio have relieved pressure from Jumbo Joe, Dany Heatley and Game Four hero Patrick Marleau- allowing them to play their game. It's always been easy to bash Joe Thornton but boy has he come to play in this series, tallying in two straight including the second goal early in the third that started another San Jose comeback. Following Logan Couture's clunker on Jimmy Howard, Thornton took full advantage of a wide Jason Williams shot catching the Sharks red handed, making a sweet dish to Marleau for a tap-in that stunned The Joe.

-Every Shark's contributing, including last summer's key additions Scott Nichol and Manny Malhotra. Both are spark plugs who provide energy. Their hunger is noticeable with each winning their fair share of board battles. Malhotra has also dominated in the faceoff circle, becoming one of the most reliable in that key department. Whether it's hitting, penalty killing or checking, they get the job done. Meanwhile, Evgeni Nabokov is silencing doubters with timely stops. Don't forget he's 3-1 in sudden death. Nice to see the much maligned Russian turning it around. The blueline led by Boyle and captain Rob Blake is getting it done. Both are logging big minutes along with Doug Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Rookie Jason Demers has also contributed offensively, turning a perceived team weakness into a strength. It all adds up to a 7-2 record, aiming for a sweep tonight.

-For the Wings, perhaps all the wear and tear has finally shown. They played all out down the stretch to get in all the way up to No.5 before being taken seven by the feisty Coyotes. By not finishing them off in six, it forced Mike Babcock's club to play an extra game. As Hasan noted in last year's preview, he felt all the games the past two years would catch up. Throw in how hard they've played and it might explain how they've blown two-goal leads in each of the last two losses, turning a possible 2-1 series lead into an 0-3 deep hole. Pavel Datsyuk has been held in check and all the starts are finally getting to Howard. Forget the conspiracy theories stemming from the Game Two penalty fest. Bottom line: The Wings have been outgunned by a fresher/hungrier foe. Right now, the Sharks look like a well oiled machine. Is this the year?

-Following a dominant 4-1 Game Three win turning Wachovia restless, the Bruins are in the same enviable position, looking to sweep the Flyers. At one time, these two old rivals were the best the Wales Conference had to offer with both taking turns as runner-up to the Oilers. Now, it looks like Boston finally will get back to the Conference Finals since those fun days when Oates, Neely and Bourque ruled Beantown. Amazingly, for a team that struggled just to get into the playoffs, they've turned it on. Getting healthy has helped but so have amazing performances from team scoring leader Miro Satan (5-5-10), resurgent defenseman Dennis Wideman and Johnny Boychuk. Since dropping Game One to Buffalo and falling behind 2-0, the B's have responded well showing their playoff mettle. Perhaps we overlooked last Spring. Claude Julien's bunch are demonstrating that they're never out of a game. Especially with Tuukka Rask standing on his head. But while the remarkable first-year Finn's done his part, enough can't be said about the Bruins' leadership with captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and wily vet Mark Recchi stepping up. David Krejci has been instrumental but was injured on a clean Mike Richards hit last night. They can certainly use the gifted playmaker for next round.

-The Bruins have also gotten excellent performances from Milan Lucic, Matt Hunwick and Andrew Ference. Lucic is healthy and doing damage while Hunwick's notched five helpers and Ference has played solid D. Even former Sabre Daniel Paille's played an important checking role, leading the league's top PK who once again stifled the opposition. Boston's special teams are only part of the story as they play airtight defense, forcing turnovers. Similar to the '95 Devils. It may not always be pretty but Julien's system is effective. Especially when you got a stud defenseman and future star in net. If they are to keep it up, they'll need more out of Marc Savard, Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler.

-For the Flyers, like Detroit, they look beat up. But when you lose your top scorer, a top six forward and a top penalty killer, it's nearly impossible to compete. Mike Richards and Daniel Briere have been most of their offense. Neither factored in yesterday. The well has run dry. Aside from that, Boston's had an excellent plan using their forecheck and tight checking to frustrate Philly. In Round One, the Flyers relied heavily on special teams to oust the Devils. It's been the complete opposite. The Flyers have also been unable to get to Rask. He made some critical stops in the second and then his teammates did the rest with Recchi netting the insurance marker via the power play and unsung hero Bergeron salting it away into a vacant net. With the B's clicking on all cylinders, it's hard to see Philadelphia extending their season.

-Give the Habs full marks for making it a series against the talented Pens. They can thank Jaroslav Halak, who continues his brilliant play, proving our Leaf friend Kayla right. She said Halak was better than Carey Price last year. He certainly hasn't disappointed, following up the stunner against the Caps by stifling the Pens in Game Two and nearly doing the same the other night in Montreal. Only Evgeni Malkin's power play goal early in the third solved him. It turned out to be enough thanks to some big stops from Marc-Andre Fleury, whose 18 save shutout in his home setting held up. While MAF was very good, he never faced any second chances partially in part to a sturdy D which did an effective job boxing out and keeping the Habs outside. It reminded us of some of Martin Brodeur's shutouts when Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and Brian Rafalski manned the Devil blueline. Even without Jordan Staal, the Pens did what they had to getting strong performances out of Matt Cooke, Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy. While Sidney Crosby and Malkin get all the accolades, it's gritty forwards like the trio along with Craig Adams, Brooks Orpik and Jay McKee who make the Pens a complete team. They're not just flash and dash. Don't forget. The checking line led by Staal was a huge component to last year's Cup. They don't win minus him.

-In order for the Canadiens to level the series giving themselves a realistic chance because the Pens aren't the Caps, they'll need to get to Fleury early later today. Mike Cammalleri (8 goals) is the focal point. He'll need help from Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Can an unsung hero like Dominic Moore or P.K. Subban step up? Jacques Martin along with the rest of a rabid Bell Centre sure hope so. It's amazing to think that they're doing this without Andrei Markov or Jaroslav Spacek. A credit to Martin. They'll need dominant defensive efforts from Hal Gill, Josh Gorges and Roman Hamrlik.

-I've said it before and I'll say it again. Why does Crosby embellish so much? For as gifted as he is, he shouldn't need to. Good for Gomez standing up to him after another abuse of his stick following a whistle at the end of the second in Game Three. When oh when will the game's Golden Boy be made accountable?

-Still not sure what to make of the Hawks-Nucks. It looked like Vancouver off a dominant Game One was poised to take a commanding 2-0 lead back home. Instead, Chicago showed a lot of heart fighting back from two down to pull out a gritty 4-2 Game Two win with Kris Versteeg netting the winner with over a minute left thanks to a great play by Duncan Keith. Patrick Kane added an empty netter. As he's done all Spring, Antti Niemi bounced back from a rough outing. The surprising aspect is he was sharper than Roberto Luongo in yesterday's 5-2 Game Three triumph, stealing the home ice back. Chicago jumped in front 2-0 and never trailed. Louie struggled with rebounds including the first of Dustin Byfuglien's first career postseason hat trick. Even if the third tally shouldn't have counted. Good old Toronto for you. Chicago's strategy was simple yet effective. Get shots to the net with traffic and bang home the rebounds of which there were plenty against a shaky Luongo. All five came the same way with the big Byfuglien doing significant damage. Kudos to Joel Queeneville for moving him up to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Kane. Even Marian Hossa got into the act, notching his second off a Patrick Sharp rebound.

-Niemi made the big saves, robbing Ryan Kesler of a shorthanded bid that could've made it 3-0 in Game Two. Instead, his huge glove stop allowed the Blackhawks to recover. Again last night, Niemi stoned Vancouver, thwarting Daniel Sedin and Steve Bernier on the doorstep. Obviously, that cannot happen for the Canucks in what amounts to a must win Game Four. Yeah. They can lose and fall behind 3-1 with the fifth game back in the Windy City. We just don't advise it. Luongo needs to come through as does Daniel and Henrik Sedin with help from Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson, Mason Raymond and Alex Burrows. This is their best chance to finally deliver the franchise's first Cup. Are they about to fold up again? We'll see.

-There's really nothing to say about Versus' technical issues during last night's first between the Bruins and Flyers. At least they had the common sense to pick up the CBC feed until it was fixed.

-Nothing against Joe Beninanti but I really miss Sam Rosen.

-That OT between the Flyers and Bruins last Sunday was epic. Classic playoff hockey. Unfortunately, it looked to be the last straw from Philly. NBC can have their Derby. We'll take the puck.

-Ex-Rangers certainly are having fun. Malhotra. Samuelsson. Gomez. Savard. Moore. Pascal Dupuis. Tom Pyatt. Jed Ortmeyer. Blair Betts. Ian Laperriere. Dwight Helminen. Paul Mara.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Savard's OT Winner

Throughout the postseason, the NHL has been running cool History Will Be Made promos. What if there was no Greatness, What if Yzerman didn't inspire Hockeytown and What if Mario weren't so Super are some of the best. Yesterday, Marc Savard added his name to this year's list by scoring the overtime winner lifting the Bruins over the Flyers 5-4 in an exciting Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on NBC.

It was Savard's first game back in two months since Matt Cooke's cheap hit which went unpunished. The Bruins' offensive leader made it a triumphant return when his quick high snapper beat Brian Boucher at 13:52 of sudden death- rescuing his team after they'd blown a 4-2 third period lead. The scene at TD Garden was classic, summing up what makes our sport so special. The chance for an athlete to comeback from serious injury or in Savard's case, a concussion. The coolest part was Savvy's celebration skating across the ice and then tossing his stick over the glass before it was returned. Terrific stuff!

If you didn't feel good for Marc Savard, then you're not a fan. So, what would the line be on Savard playing the hero in his return? What If there weren't heroic returns? History Will Be Made!

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