Number of People Nice Enough to Stop By....

Friday, May 7, 2010

More to Come....Not Done Yet

Yeah it's horrible when your team gets bounced earlier than you figured or wanted.  And as a Caps fan, yes I've seen more than my share of early summers.  But this season things are different.  I'm not saying I'm glad my team is out, but it gives me a chance to step back and enjoy...the rest of the league.  Let me tell you something, there's a lot of great hockey still left to be played.  Here's my take on the series that are left:

Penguins/Canadiens (Tied 2 each)

Going to get this one out of the way...the annoying little team that bounced us against the team we all love to hate.  So who to back in this one?  Some say it's obvious---the Habs, but I have to admit I was torn at first.  And I think all of us Caps fans got a mixture of pleasure and some "why-the-hell-couldn't-WE-have-done-that?" when the Penguins blew up the Habs for FOUR Power Play goals and chased Halak in Game One. (Were you watching and taking notes, Bruce?  If you want to keep your job after next year, hopefully you did!) But you gotta love Montreal's determination and grit; they're playing Pittsburgh pretty close.  I don't think too many people figure this series would go six games, but it will.  And you know I'm loving Sidney Crosby breaking his stick in frustration after not getting his calls.  Fun to watch, no matter who ends up winning.  But if Halak stands on his head again and single-handed knocks out the Pens, I can be happy with that.

Bruins/Flyers  (Bruins lead 3-0)

Now I thought this one would be much closer than it is.  But if you look at it, nobody should be surprised.  Flyers have pne of their key guys, Jeff Carter, out and they look like they're out of gas. Besides, when you're relying on Aaron Asham to give you second line scoring, you're screwed.  Right as I'm typing this they're going into OT in Game Four--they've already blown three leads!  They're putting up a good fight and it's awesome to watch, but the Bruins are playing too well to let this one get away.  I just hope I'm half the man Mark Recchi is when I'm his age!

Canucks/Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead 2-1)

This is the one series I can't figure out, probably because it's so evenly matched.  Roberto Luongo...I had him on my fantasy team so I know what he can do. But I can't figure out why is he so great one night and so bad on others?  Sounds all too familiar.  Vancouver happens to be my favorite team from out West, so I'm backing them.  Hoping they'll even things up tonight.  They've got too much talent not to at least make this go the distance, which I'm sure it will.  But if they don't put a body on Dustin Byfuglien, it may be over before the next cheer of  LOOOOOOOOOOO!

Sharks/Red Wings (Sharks lead 3-1)

Have to tell you that seeing San Jose go up 3-0 made me feel better about things.  It gives me hope for future Caps playoff ventures.  But that 7-1 loss last night wasn't pretty, and it was easily the least fun game of these playoffs to watch.  Johan "the Mule" Franzen is wide awake and scoring again--big trouble for anybody.  But not even San Jose can blow this one.  Detroit could possibly steal another one, but they won't win all four.  The Big Joe and little Joe show are keeping the Sharks humming for now.  I'd really like to see them make the Conference Finals...could be a success story my team ends up copying.

So there you have it, but don't just take my word for it.  And if you agree or disagree, either way, let your feelings be known down below.  We're witness to some pretty close and exciting hockey going on here.  The experts all agree that this is one of the best playoffs in a while and the TV ratings offer more evidence of that.  If you're a new fan, good to have you aboard. You'll get to know why we love this thing so much as it's the best time of the hockey year.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Hits Keep Coming...Let it stay that way!

So much has been made this year of all the injuries caused by some hard hits this year.  The debate has already been aired and the new rules have been laid down.  But I still think it's worth talking about because we're in the playoffs.  As any hockey fan knows, things get kicked up a notch or five in the playoffs and that includes the hitting.  And hitting has been a part of the game since day one.  That's right, when the soldiers on that frozen lake in Kingston, Ontario 150 years ago recreated the game they learned from the Natives, they figured out that one of the best ways to get the puck away from somebody was to separate their body from it.  Literally.  No reason it should change now.

Those that have been paying attention know what I'm talking about--the guys that have been getting hurt because of (sometimes) questionable hits.  And yeah I'll admit that one of our guys, Ovechkin, has been caught up in it too, but maybe too much so.  Look, I'm not just some Caps fan crying foul at too many suspensions.  All I'm saying is there have been punishable hits that went unpunished, and there are those that were punished that were nothing more than clean hits that are part of the game.

Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard comes to mind as the obvious example of the former.  We've all seen how he laid out Savard, clearly targeting his head and leading with the elbow.  I'm still amazed that neither an on-ice penalty nor an off-ice suspension was applied.  What's even more ridiculous is that Cooke's history, which is far more extensive than Ovechkin's, wasn't even taken into consideration when the play was reviewed by Colin Campbell's office.  Conversely, Ovechkin was issued a two-game suspension for his hit on Brian Campbell for that very reason--because of his history.

The best example of a hit that was clean, and also went unpunished was the Andy Sutton hit on Jordan Leopold in the Ottawa-Pittsburgh first round series this year.  It was, as the Versus commentators mentioned, clearly a "North-South" hit.  What this means for some of you hearing of this phrase for the first time is, Sutton did not come from behind or from the side to hit Leopold.  Rather, he approached Leopold head-on and within his line of vision.  What made the impact worse was the fact that Leopold happened to have his head down at the time, something you never do when in open ice, or ever for that matter.  Not saying Leopold got what he deserved, but rather sometimes things like this happen and you have to do what you can to protect yourself, if not at least by being aware.

Now what I'd like to see dealt with more harshly is the knee-on-knee hits.  There's no way you can defend yourself against these.  Before anyone says anything yes I know OV got nailed with a kneeing call this year too. And rightly so.  I happen to know a little something about this--you mess up your knee, there's a pretty good chance you never walk again.  So a hit like that, you not only risk ending a career, you alter someone's life for the worse; possibly forever.  I've seen careers ended and interrupted because of hits like that, you never want to see it. With something like that it may be warranted to give a suspension that equals 20 games or the length of the injury, whichever is the shortest.  That might make someone think twice before leading with a knee.

I realize that with the "fast-tracking" of the new rule regarding this kind of hit, we're coming to a reexamination of  what we can do to protect the players.  No one, save for a few sickos, wants to see anybody get hurt as a result of a play like this.  But I for one don't want to see the nature of the game changed because of this either.  Nobody talks about all the times players happen to get up after a big hit--it's not a big deal.  Yes, it's important to protect the players, but not at the expense of the game.  Is it worth punishing one group of players for having a particular skill in favor of everyone else?  I think not.

I bring this up because of a concern for my favorite player.  After his last suspension of the season, it seemed to take OV a while to get back in the swing of things.  Personally, I think his hit on Campbell affected him more than he let on.  I truly believe he had no intent to injure him, but ended up doing so anyway.  And so, in either an attempt to stay on Colin Campbell's good side, or because he may have gotten a case of  "Oh my gosh, I better slow down before I kill somebody," type of remorse, his play seemed, well, watered down.  It's a valid explanation as to what took him so long to get kick started in this year's playoffs.  Not to make excuses for the man, but his play just seemed different, like his mind wasn't totally in it.

This and other reasons add up.  I don't want the league and the Competition Committee to overreach when it comes to this rule.  There's got to be a way to protect both the players and the integrity of the game.  What would make the most sense is to make an example out of the worst offenders; those being the ones that go out of their way to hurt people.  Thus far, the NHL has done a so-so job in applying this new standard.  Like all experiments, we're just going to have to wait for the end result.  I just hope it doesn't totally change the game for the worse.

Not an Ad for Visors, Just an Advisory

It looks like Tom Poti will be just fine after a scary incident in Game Six of this past playoff  disaster round.  Poti suffered the injury when he was hit by a wicked backhander from Mike Cammalleri.  It seemed to be touch-and-go for a while, but Poti has announced that the doctors "are 100 percent confident I'll make a full recovery."  Good thing too, because he truly stepped his game up for the playoffs and could teach the rest of the team a thing or two about playoff intensity.
Getting something out of the way before going on with the rest of the story...the whole big deal about Boudreau having coached Cammalleri in the minors.  You would have thought that, given that previous relationship, the coaching staff would have figured out how to stop him in the series, but they didn't.  Just saying.

But this injury conveniently heats up the ongoing debate about the use of visors by all NHL players.  Poti, of course, wasn't wearing one at the time.  Supposedly he's "thinking about" wearing one for next year.  Let me tell you something...if it was me and I temporarily lost my sight and basically had to have my face surgically reconstructed, there would be any "thinking about" it at all.  But the fact that he realizes there is a good reason for it is encouraging., more than any other major sport, has earned a reputation for being played by the toughest of all athletes.  You can debate it all you want, but I offer as proof our very own Eric Belanger and what he did to make sure he kept on playing in this series.  (Note to Caps management--please re-sign this guy and make sure he's on the dental plan) Think about that next time you get a toothache or a cold sore. So you can understand to an extent if someone who felt he had no need for extra protective gear might feel a bit less, uh, manly.  I know all about the rule about fight instigation while wearing a visor--so TAKE THE THING OFF if you're going to fight, it's that simple!  It won't make you any less of a man, in fact it'll make you better than Matt Cooke, that's for sure.

So at what cost do you have to prove your worth?  Now I'm not one of these alarmists that says we have to have a rule right now to make these players start wearing visors.  What I'm saying is the players need to start, if you'll pardon the expression, looking at things differently.

Take the case of legendary defenseman Al MacInnis.  He suffered an eye injury late in his career and barely considered using a visor after that.  You want to know what changed his mind?  His son asked him how come he hadn't worn a visor before he got hurt.  He couldn't come up with any answer, let alone a good answer.  I'll never forget when I read about that in The Hockey News.  Unfortunately, his injury caused permanent damage and he now has to wear a special contact lens to correct a blind spot.  It also forced him to eventually retire, although thankfully he had had a stellar career before that.

Poti should consider this and other aspects before fully deciding.  Yes, it may affect his play a bit at the beginning.  Yes, it will take some time to adjust.  But is it worth losing an eye over should it happen again?  Only you can decide that, Tom, but I know what most people would say.  And given that, come playoff time he may be one our best players both on and off the ice it would only magnify this one decision. This is a decision that many players face season after season and quietly put off instead of truly thinking it through. This fan of the game is asking those players to think about it clearly.

For your career.  For your life.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bon Voyage Jacques, and Please Stay Retired!

I'm still licking my wounds from the playoff  loss, so I'm taking comfort in just about anything I can take as a positive.  One of those things happened a few days ago when New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement from coaching.

While I'm ardently anti-Devils (I still curse John MacLean sometimes), that's only a tiny piece of why this move makes me happy.  We're talking about a man who shrouded the NHL in darkness for nearly a decade.  We're talking about a man who tried to ruin the sport of hockey.  A coach who made more of a mockery of the game than anybody.  Ever.  Well almost anybody as there's one other I'll mention later.  And I know I'm not alone.  The commish himself, Gary Bettman, has to be ecstatic about this as well.

For those of you who haven't followed the game for that long, let me give a little history lesson here.  Jacques Lemaire had been a middling coach for a few years in the mid- 80s, driven away by the French press after a mediocre two years in Montreal.  Oh yeah, while he was there he pretty much drove Guy Lafleur crazy...and into early retirement.  A decade later he resurfaced as the coach of the Devils and guided them to the Cup in 1995, the infamous lockout shortened season.

And what was his secret?  The dreaded neutral-zone trap.  In other words, boring defensive hockey. The kind that puts fans to sleep and drives people away.  And the league, which already had a black eye because of the lockout, suffered for it.  Hockey was turning into a joke--people were starting to call it soccer!  The Devils became synonymous with the type of clutch-and-grab, defense first hockey.  But it turned a lot of potential new fans off and bored diehard fans to tears.  It was so bad that Bettman spent the next 10 years figuring out how to get rid of it.

So he won one Cup.  Big deal.  Lots of coaches have won just the one Cup, it doesn't make them geniuses.  What I think is the funniest (and by funny I mean ironic) note in his career is that the Devils actually led the league in goals in his first year there.  You know he put a stop to that the very next year.  An offensive team coached by Lemaire? may as well have said that Tiger Woods slept with (?????).

It took another lockout for some drastic changes to be considered.  Changes that would make the game into the more exciting product it is today.  Like the legalization of the stretch pass and making the hooking-holding-clutching-grabbing style of defense made popular by guess who?  Right.  Jacques Lemaire and his clones, namely Ken Hitchcock.  Ever wonder why hockey was so made fun of in those years?  It was because it was boring and NO ONE was going to the games.  No wonder they had two labor disruptions in ten years, one of which killed a whole season.  You want to know why I'm glad to see Lemaire retired and Hitchcock fired?  That's why.

Lemaire made a mockery of the Captain's importance by using it as a month-to-month "reward" when he was with Minnesota.  Can you imagine?  The captain is supposed to be the one that leads his team on the ice and sets an example, not the one kissing up to the coach. Hitchcock nearly drove one of the game's most incredible players, Sergei Federov, into retirement.  Fortunately, Hitchcock's ineptitude was our gain in 2008.  Because of these and other atrocities, if there were a lifetime disservice to hockey award, these two would be the co-winners, hands down.

The league is nowhere near the days of Wayne Gretzky's record-breaking 1984 Edmonton Oilers team who scored an all-time highest 446 goals, but it's headed in the right direction.  Since the game is evolving away from what was called the Dead Puck era, there will be no use for coaches like Lemaire and Hitchcock. With those two out of the NHL, it definitely signals a new era for the game.  One fans have waited over many years to come.  The game is ruled by exciting offensive-minded players and intense action, which is as it should be.  It is no longer ruled by coaches who tried to take the individuality and excitement out of the game.  It is ruled by players that truly love the game like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who know that fans come to see a good game punctuated by many scoring chances and great skating.

Hitchcock doesn't seem to be done with the game, but after his disastrous run in Philadelphia and leading  Columbus (why that city even has a team, I'll never know) to a whopping one playoff appearance in three years, his services aren't exactly in demand.  But Lemaire, at age 65, has seen the game pass him by and knows the time is right to leave.  You've done enough damage, Jacques, pack your bag and don't look back.

And don't let the door hit ya, where the Good Lord split ya!

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