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Monthly Archives: April 2011

We are only two days into the 2011 IIHF World Championships, but already each day has seen a traditional powerhouse fall to an upstart nation.

First, on Friday, Germany was able to defeat Russia for the first time in 33 games, dating back to 1954.  This snapped 0-32 streak included games between the nations when they carried out operations as West Germany and the USSR, respectively.  The Germans got a shutout from 25-year-old goaltender Dennis Endras, who plays for Augsburger Panther in his home country’s domestic league.  Russian starter Evgeni Nabokov was beaten only twice, but it was enough to give Germany the historic 2-0 win.  The win helps Germany to achieve its goal of finishing in the top 3 of the 4 team group, and avoid the relegation round.  The group also contains Slovakia and Slovenia.  Slovakia deafeated Slovenia 3-1 on opening night.

Then, earlier today, Norway won a 5-4 game in a shootout over Sweden.  This was another first, as Norway brought an 0-11-1 all-time record vs. Sweden into today’s game.  Former LA Kings backup Erik Ersberg was in net for Sweden.

For more information on the 2011 IIHF World Championships, click here.

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I’m sorry if this title misled you; but earlier today I’m told the Boston Bruins smoked the Philadelphia Flyers 7-3 in Game 1 of their series, which opened in Philadelphia.  The reason the title of this post takes the point of view of the loser is because I am of the opinion that these two teams find ways to lose to inferior opponents in spite of their own quality as hockey teams.

Based on the highlights I watched, Brian Boucher looks to have had a rough day finding the puck.  He was eventually pulled after allowing a 5th goal, and the Bruins tacked on 2 more on Sergei Bobrovsky before it was all over.  As I admit, I was not able to watch the game, but I don’t think this loss is devastating to the Flyers.  Sure, home ice advantage is on Boston’s side, for now anyway.  But these Flyers of the last two years have found ways to win games when necessary, and after losing Game 1 at home, the wins will become increasingly necessary again.  I expect Philly to come out in Game 2 with something more to prove, and try to establish their physical presence in the series.  The Flyers know they cannot rely on coming back from another 0-3 deficit.  And usually good home teams win Game 3s.  Therefore, it cannot be overstated how important Game 2 is for Philadelphia to ensure that no 0-3 comeback is necessary this time around.

As for the Bruins, it seems like they got as positive of an outcome as a team can hope for in a road Game 1, and they should feel free to go for it all in Game 2 and try to really grab a stranglehold on this series.  The same stranglehold that the Bruins faced in round 1 against Montreal, which of course they were able to come back from.  Boston will be keen to get as big a lead as they can in this series, since they know from experience that even the biggest series lead is not safe.  The one big advantage that they have is between the pipes, where they roll out a guy who is less than two months from scoring his second Vezina Trophy, which separates him from every active NHL goalie besides Marty Brodeur, who has 4 Vezinas.  Philadelphia, on the other hand, still seems to not have a dependable starting goaltender who can give the team a good shot to win consistently.  How much longer can the Flyers survive by trying to get winning performances from the guy with the least recent cold hand?  They certainly have the skaters to win hockey games, and I do think Boucher and Bobrovsky are good enough to turn in good games about half the time, but it’s going to be a lot to ask of these skaters to win four games in four series, when they are only given a realistic chance to win three games in that series.  Confusing?  My point is, either the goaltending has to give the Flyers more opportunities to win games, or the Flyers are going to fall short of their organizational goals this season.

Game 2 is Monday night, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. eastern time on Versus.

Passion. Urgency. Hatred. Love. Contempt. Desperation. Beauty.
Occasionally we get to witness competitors develop a rivalry while they are at the top of their games, and it elicits the above emotions, plus a hundred more.
Simply put, everything is on the line in this season’s series between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings.  Both have Stanley Cup aspirations, and secretly both would tell you that each other are the biggest obstacles to achieving that goal.  Sure, no player, coach, or front office member would be so honest as to publicly write off any other team, but make no mistake about it, these teams have prepared for each other all season.
Since last summer when Chicago was forced to dump many of its role players, including goaltender Antti Niemi who of course is now backstopping San Jose, both the Sharks and Red Wings knew they were on the short list of western conference favorites.  In fact, the only other two teams on that list just played each other, with Vancouver expending a lot of energy in knocking out the defending champion Blackhawks.  And while Vancouver was probably the most pegged team to win the west to start the season, I don’t think the Canucks strike the least bit of fear into either of tonight’s combatants’ hearts.
Detroit and San Jose have previously met four times in the playoffs, with the Sharks taking the first (1994) and the last (2010). Detroit got revenge in 1995, and also defeated the Sharks in six games in 2007 before falling to eventual Cup champion Anaheim.  Red Wings fans can take some hope out of the fact that the last time their team got a shot at San Jose the year after being eliminated by them, the Wings swept the Sharks out in the conference semifinals in that 1995 series.  The Sharks won’t only be trying to reverse that history, but it can also be noted that both times San Jose has defeated Detroit, the Sharks have gone on to lose the following series.
Aside from having very similar playoff experiences against each other, the Sharks and Red Wings possess very different playoff histories against the rest of the league.  Detroit has famously won 11 Stanley Cups, and captain Nicklas Lidstrom has been a stalwart in the last four of them.  This Red Wings team has essentially won one Cup, in 2008.  They nearly won another in 2009, but Lidstrom’s shot to tie Game 7 was turned aside by Marc Andre Fleury with a couple seconds left on the clock.  The Sharks, on the other hand, have gained a reputation as playoff disappointments.  This billing is perhaps a bit overblown, as many times they are defeated by a better team, but they have had some donkey jogs as recently as 2008 and ’09.  The Sharks are 0-2 lifetime in the western conference finals, losing in both 2006 and ’10.  The Red Wings are 6-2 in the same round since 1995.  
But many people, including myself, have seen something different in this season’s version of the Sharks.  They started out poorly, but came up from tenth place to grab another top two seed in the west.  Many people cited this upward trend as a reason why San Jose should prove to be more battle tested this year, but it is worth pointing out that it was the Red Wings who had to battle their way up the standings last year and suffered through a tough opening series, and that equated to a loss to the Sharks in which the Wings looked tired.  It could be possible that the Sharks are the more tired team this time around, as the Wings seem to have been resting forever coming into this series.
But the real reason this series is must-see television (or live in-person hockey) is that these teams know this could be their last golden opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.  It’s long been assumed that Lidstrom is playing his final season, and the Red Wings’ core isn’t getting any younger.  In fact, Lidstrom’s retirement itself might be enough to downgrade the Wings to the B table of the western conference.  The Sharks aren’t a whole lot different though.  The fans and management have shown great patience through all of the playoff disappointments, but there’s no telling how long the Sharks will continue to sit near the top of the west with this current group.  The big three forwards of Marleau, Thornton and Heatley have gotten some young help recently in the form of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, but championship windows usually are open for a finite amount of time.  The Sharks’ window has been open now every season but one since 2002.  Their star players are in the prime of their careers, with Thornton and Marleau at 31 years of age, and Heatley at 30.  And the feeling in the locker room should be that it’s now or never.  Nobody on earth thinks the Blackhawks aren’t going to improve next year, and they are led by a group of players that already have a Stanley Cup and can’t grow facial hair yet.  Additionally, the Sedin twins seem to be improving in Vancouver every year, and so logically that team should get tougher to beat in time also.  That is of course assuming that the Canucks hold onto their physical players and don’t revert back to the team that saw the “Sedin Sisters” consistently without playoff cover.
So as the Wings and Sharks take the ice tonight and look across the red line at each other, they will see the biggest obstacle and threat to achieving their professional goals now and forever, and that should make for a series full of passion and urgency.  The teams built a rivalry last year that should develop into contempt by the first intermission of Game 2, and hatred by Game 4.  Each team will have to fully trust itself and play each shift like it will be their last, because if they do not, they may not find themselves in the discussion again.  And that realization should incite some fear.  Not fear of the other team, or of the task at hand, but fear that this golden opportunity may never come again.  Both teams must seize the moment.  Only one team can win, but both the Sharks and Red Wings should give us the best theater that these NHL playoffs will have to offer.

Still to come tonight, but before the start of the series, will be my take on why the upcoming San Jose / Detroit series will be the one to watch throughout the entire NHL.  Also, a quick look at the IIHF World Championships from Slovakia, where the United States will open play Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. eastern time live on Versus (in the USA).

Until then, have a great Friday, and if you can’t watch the Sharks / Wings game tonight, set a recording or listen on the radio.  It has the probability of being the best theater that we will get out of any series this year.

At this point in the NHL playoffs, all series are worth watching.  We’re down to the final 4 in each conference, and both conferences have the top seeds playing the fifth seed.  Both matchups are interesting because of the varying styles of the 5 seeds.

On one hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning come into the series against Washington with a reputation as being offensively explosive, but lacking the defensive tenacity to win the east this year.  That reputation has been earned from the start of the season, and the Lightning didn’t leave their offensive game in the regular season either.  They scored 22 goals in 7 games on Marc Andre Fleury, who was very good at times, but ultimately didn’t do enough to get his thin squad a fourth win in the series.  But the Lightning’s reputation should probably change after a Game 7 victory on the road by a score of 1-0.  Sure, Pittsburgh didn’t have Crosby or Malkin, but they did fire 36 shots on Dwayne Roloson and had countless more attempts blocked, so it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  It was simply that Tampa Bay played the kind of game that nobody thought they could play, and that could get a little disturbing for Washington, who probably hoped that they’d be playing the risk-taking, undisciplined division rival that they thought they knew.

Conversely, Nashville’s reputation is the polar opposite of Tampa Bay’s.  Many people talk about the Predators’ defense and goaltending, and their trap style of play before ever mentioning a forward on the roster, and even that is usually to talk about Mike Fisher’s wife.  But Smashville, as they are now calling themselves, has shown that they are not limited to having to win 1-0 or 2-1 games in the playoffs.  In fact, the Preds scored 4 goals in each of their 4 wins.  In their two losses they added 3 goals a piece.  That’s a 3.33 goals per game number that actually outdid Tampa Bay’s total in round 1.  Granted, the Predators were playing against one of the worse defenses in the playoffs, but numbers are numbers.  Last night, the Preds lost a 1-0 opening game decision to Roberto Luongo and the Canucks.  I don’t think that result really changes much about the series, except to put everyone on notice that Vancouver is ready to play, and that Nashville will provide a great opponent.

As for the 1 seeds, I feel they are in similar positions.  Both Vancouver and Washington have huge expectations; probably anything shy of a Stanley Cup will be viewed by the supporters as a failure.  But both teams, as they are set up now, have never even been to the conference finals.  The Canucks won the west in 1994, and the Caps won the east in 1998, but those are such distant memories that they almost feel like different franchises.  Both teams have even changed their jerseys and color scheme since then.  So it is strange to see the de facto favorites in each conference be teams that have never even advanced past the round that we are currently in.  But, despite the historical disappointments by both franchises, I still think they will both progress to the conference finals on the backs of their renewed two way play and star studded lineups at the top.

Washington over Tampa Bay in 6 — I know, good teams don’t get eliminated at home. But I like Tampa enough to give them two games, and I like Washington on the road enough to think they will win that clincher.

Vancouver over Nashville in 7 — I know, you shouldn’t make predictions after the series has already started.  But I don’t think many people are actually taking Nashville to win the series, and I’m taking Vancouver in as many games as possible, so there.

The two most common first round upset picks league-wide seem to have been Buffalo over Philly and Montreal over Boston.  I picked both Boston and Philly to win in 6 games.  Neither ended up happening, as the results met in the middle — both home teams scored Game 7 victories.

But the troubling part if you’re a Bruins or Flyers fan is that your team made it hairy enough to go seven games in the first place.  Both teams had decided physical advantages, and Boston actually had solid goaltending.  And other than each of the Flyers’ three goalies having one donkey jog each, Bobrovsky and Leighton each turned in one good performance, and Boucher actually had four.  The only reason the Flyers didn’t take six of seven games is 1) two of the good performances came in relief of the starting donkey, and 2) the series would have stopped after four wins.
I think the disparity in talent was wider in the Philadelphia – Buffalo series, but the Flyers could look to either the suspect goaltending or the absence of Chris Pronger for 5.9 of the 7 games.  And in Philly’s defense, once Pronger was fully back in the lineup in Game 7, they never left any doubt as to who was the better team and who was moving onto the second round.
Boston, on the other hand, left doubt up to this very minute as to whether the better team actually prevailed in the series.  It’s true that the Bruins did well to win 4 of the last 5 games to take the series after falling behind 0-2 at home, but 3 of those 4 wins came in overtime.  That’s not to discount them, it’s just to say that Boston didn’t really assert it’s physical dominance like Philadelphia did when it came right down to it.  It could be that Montreal is actually a very good team, or that they have Boston’s number or something.  The Habs did win 4 of 6 in the regular season.  But the thing that would worry me if I were a Boston fan is that my team was unable to dictate possession against a team with woefully smaller forwards.  If Boston couldn’t beat up on these Montreal forwards, how are they going to handle Philadelphia’s reincarnation of the Broad Street Bullies?  Throw Pronger back into the mix, and suddenly Zdeno Chara is no longer the scariest, most physical defenseman in the series either.  All of this doesn’t add up well for the Bruins, and in this series between teams that like to let inferior opponents push them to the brink, I’ve got to think that the Flyers will get to four losses slower than the Bruins will.
Because I don’t like to pick good teams to get eliminated in Game 6 at home, and I don’t see this one going 7, I’ll take the Philadelphia Flyers over the Boston Bruins in just 5 games.

The series between Vancouver and Chicago was so analyzed by every facet of the media that I didn’t feel like focusing on regurgitating everyone’s takes on who was going to win Game 7.  I watched the game and wanted to enjoy it, and I did.

But after Alex Burrows potted the series ender to atone for his missed penalty shot, I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve seen a very similar story before.  Fourteen months ago, almost to the day, Vancouver was the site of what was being billed as the biggest, most needed win in Canadian hockey history.  The Canadian team slept through its pool play in the 2010 Olympics, but found its way into the gold medal game that everybody in the country said they had to win.  They were clearly a better team than the USA, albeit not by a whole lot, and they found themselves up by 1 late in regulation.  Last night, Vancouver was without a doubt the better team, and put as much pressure on Chicago as anyone has been able to do in two seasons.  Last year, Jonathan Toews scored a pretty goal to open scoring for Team Canada.  Last night, Jonathan Toews scored a shorthanded goal that would have instantly become part of a “History Will Be Made” commercial had Chicago won the game.  It also “opened the scoring” for Chicago; it was the goal that tied the game at 1 with just under two minutes to play.  Toews’ goal last night was a late one on Roberto Luongo to send the game to overtime and the crowd into anxiety.  Luongo allowed a similar goal last year, one to Zach Parise that brought the USA even at 2 with just 24.4 seconds to play.  That goal sent the entire nation into panic mode.  Both games saw Luongo do what was necessary to win, despite being crushed in the media for a week or so.  And both games saw the home team score overtime winners to unleash the unbridled joy of the supporters, both inside the Rogers Centre and watching on television around the nation.

           
All I can say is, credit to the Chicago Blackhawks for forcing overtime in Game 7 against the Presidents’ Trophy winners after losing so many key players from last year, and also falling behind 0-3 in this series.  Toews’ goal is one that should live on for a long time, despite the Hawks ultimately falling.  As for the Canucks, it was hard not to feel like we were witnessing something beautiful, what with the passion of the fans and the team being pushed to the utter brink before finally getting the Chicago monkey off their backs and moving on in their quest for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.  Their next series against Nashville shouldn’t be a whole lot easier, but it will be interesting to see whether last night’s atonement will give the team a new sense of freedom, or if the later we get the more the pressure will build for the team that was favored coming in.