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.

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