Showing posts with label Boston Bruins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boston Bruins. Show all posts

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flyers Complete Historic Comeback Against Bruins

Flyers logoBruins logoThe Philadelphia Flyers have completed the greatest comeback in best-of-seven series history—not only in NHL history, but also in all major North American team sport history. While the 1942 Maple Leafs also came back from 3 down, the 1975 New York Islanders accomplished the same feat, and the Boston Red Sox came back from 3 down in 2004, this comeback from the Flyers tops them all.

Remember that not only did the Boston Bruins take a 3-0 lead in games in this series, but they also were one goal away from eliminating the Flyers as the fourth game went to sudden death overtime.

And on the wretched flipside, the Bruins can lay claim to the biggest collapse in best-of-seven history for all major North American team sports.

To compound the shame for the Bruins, the Flyers came back from a 3-0 goal deficit in the seventh and deciding game.

The Bruins came out flying and pounded in 3 goals within the first 15 minutes of the opening period. Milan Lucic had two of those goals, and together with the offensive explosion, the Bruins were hammering every Flyer in sight.

But Philadelphia stuck with their game, and slowly chipped away at the Bruins' lead. In many ways, the deciding game was a microcosm for the entire series. The Bruins didn't lay back after they took the lead so much as they just didn't have what it takes to keep up the offensive attack.

The stunning early assault on the Flyers' net by the Bruins yielded 13 shots in just under 15 minutes of play, yet in the remaining 45 plus minutes of the game, the Bruins would manage only another 10 shots.

And of course, the Flyers simply did not give up.

To cap off the monumental choke the likes of which we will likely not see in the NHL for years to come, the Bruins took a to0-many-men-on-the-ice penalty at 11:10 of the third period. That allowed Simon Gagne to score the winning goal with 7:08 left in the game. The biggest nightmare of a game for Bruins players, and one that will take them a long, long time to live down.

In the words of the great Freddy Shero, regardless of what happens in the remainder of the 2010 NHL playoffs, these Flyers will walk together forever.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fragments and Viscera from Around the NHL

NHL logoWith few or no consequences there is little motivation to change or moderate behaviour.

On the heels of the season-ending injury to Patrice Bergeron, a Philadelphia Flyers' player has once again laid an illegal hit on a member of the Boston Bruins.

There was at least some valid defense of the Randy Jones check from behind on Bergeron. But this recent incident, in which Scott Hartnell drove the head of Andrew Alberts into the boards, together with the Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice gutlessness, adds up to some habitual nastiness that deserves punishment. No longer can it be brushed off as incidental and unintentional.

And more importantly, it is becoming difficult to say that this reckless style of play doesn't represent a pattern. It's still hard to argue (and even harder to prove) that there is a specific Flyers' strategy to cheap shot opposing players and intentionally injure them. But it does appear that a lack of control and respect for opponents exists to a dangerous degree.

The lunatics will offer up the usual crap that "never respecting your opponents is a sign of a real competitor. " That notion taken to its logical conclusion would mean that absolutely anything goes without regard for restraint, limits or rules.

The NHL should sort Hartnell out with a reasonable suspension and assess the Flyers a fine that sends a message about this latest cheap shot. Fail to ramp up the official response and the on-ice payback will inevitably turn uglier


Crap jerseys don't seem to be negatively affecting the play of many of the teams wearing them. Maybe the designs are so boring that they're putting opponents to sleep.

Dallas and Anaheim have two of the blandest get-ups in the league yet the Stars are leading their division and the Ducks are within the top eight teams in the Western Conference. Similarly, the Canucks and their awkward looking threads are at the top of the Northwest division.

But the Florida Panthers and their capes are currently out of the top eight in their conference, as are the Edmonton Oilers and their apron strings and the Maple Leafs and their sweaters, which are devoid of any design whatsoever.

Damien Cox of the Toronto Star pointed out a few weeks ago that the Leafs' white jerseys look like the untucked shirts of the frazzled suits who attend Toronto games after a hard day at the office.


13 Canadians, 3 Russians, 3 Swedes and 1 Czech make up the current top 20 point scorers in the NHL.


In the "attributing diabolical genius to make life more exciting" department, is the claim that Brian Burke released goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov knowing that the Phoenix Coyotes would pick him up off waivers, thus allowing the Coyotes to move beyond the Oilers in the overall standings. And that in turn would increase the quality of the draft pick the Anaheim Ducks will get as compensation for not matching the Dustin Penner offer sheet.

Well, Burke is known as a crafty and knowledgeable manipulator able to fleece lesser mortals within the ranks of NHL GMs. But this stretches plausibility just a bit. If it is an incidental consequence of letting Bryzgalov go, he certainly won't be unhappy. But let's not dramatize things beyond what is the more plausible and likely explanation.

On the other hand, if that's actually what he had in mind...

Friday, November 16, 2007

NHL Hockey Fights: Milan Lucic vs. Mark Bell

Leafs logoBruins logoThe fight took place early in a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins on November 15th.

With the Bruins already leading 1-0, perhaps Mark Bell sensed an opportunity to provide a spark for the Leafs and turn around the momentum. If that was his intention, he picked the wrong 19 year-old rookie to tangle with.

As the Bruins chased the puck into the Leafs' end, Bell and Lucic were jawing face to face as they headed into the corner. Mutual agreement and the gloves went flying.

The first few seconds of an NHL fight can determine the outcome as both players grab each other's jerseys and start swinging.

Milan Lucic tied up Mark Bell's punching arm with a rigid and unyielding gripful of sweater and that set the tone for this scrap. As they were positioning themselves, Lucic's helmet was pulled off by Bell.

Lucic hammers five or six body blows into Bell's side as Bell tries to gain leverage and get his right arm free. Lucic starts throwing some hooks, connecting a few glancing blows on Bell's face and then adds an overhand blow that lands solidly. They are up against the boards now and some re-positioning takes place.

Lucic shows his strength in controlling and moving Bell forward out into open ice. Bell is bent forward and being held down by Lucic. Bell straightens himself and now his helmet is slightly askance, tilted forward and possibly affecting his vision. Lucic backs Bell up against the boards and then Bell does throw one hard punch that connects on Lucic's face.

That's all he can muster for now. Bell leans away from his opponent as Lucic drives another fist into the side of Bell's head. Bell is clearly being overpowered but still manages to set himself and come up from his off balance, hunched over position and in one motion delivers another good overhand shot to Lucic's face.

Lucic quickly counters with another hard shot to the side of Bell's head. The two combatants are slowly pirouetting together as Lucic still has far better unfettered control of his punching arm. Bell's hold of his opponent's jersey is superficial and not hindering Lucic at all.

While holding some fabric near the collar of Lucic's jersey with his left hand, Bell manages a quick left jab into Lucic's face. Lucic drives a well placed punch into Bell's jaw, buckling his knees and ending the fight. The refs move in and break it up.

Definite TKO for Lucic in this one. With the poor set-up by Bell he still had the guts to stay in there and absorb some hard shots, all for the chance of getting in a couple of his own clean punches.

And he made those punches count as other reports indicate Lucic was cut, though of the two, Bell was the one who needed immediate attention after the fight was over.

A solid scrap, the kind hockey fight fans love. Both players willing and able to take a punch and unconcerned by any injuries they may absorb. They're only driven on by the desire to do damage to their adversary, get the win and give an edge to their team or at worst hold their own.

An impressive win by a 19 year-old in his first season in the NHL. Lucic showed some impressive power and was able to dominate Mark Bell in this fight.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews November 3rd

Leafs logoHabs logoThe Leafs skate into Montreal on Saturday, continuing one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history in terms of length, passion and polarizing effect. At least in Canada. More than just two hockey clubs playing each other, in many ways the rivalry is symbolic of the dual nature of Canada's founding and the ongoing struggles that involve Quebec and the rest of the country.

Earlier in the week there was another reminder of just how important the language issue is in Quebec when Habs' captain Saku Koivu was criticized for not learning how to speak French. The comments against Koivu came from a Quebec lawyer during public hearings about religious minorities in the province.

It's always ironic that any group feeling threatened (Quebec within Canada in this case) will usually end up taking out their frustrations on other minorities that have even less power in society. There have long been questions about how new immigrants to the province are treated and these hearings are looking at how new-comers are being discriminated against based on religion.

In an obvious attempt to shift the focus, the grand-standing lawyer launched a public attack on the Canadiens' Finnish captain.

Koivu took note and delivered the pre-game announcement of players mainly in French (albeit taped...he had done opening night's all in English which provided the kind of opening the language fascist lawyer was looking for) in the game against the Flyers on Friday.

He then promptly served up another response in the "actions speak louder than words" manner as he had a solid game and received well-deserved cheers from the Montreal crowd for both efforts.

Back to the Leafs/Canadiens game tonight. The Canadiens have been playing extremely well over the last seven games or so, earning at least a point in each of those contests. The story with these two teams is the contrast in special teams.

The Habs' power play is on fire at the moment, with a league wide best when it comes to converting extra man chances. When opposing teams are taking loads of penalties it usually is indicative of team speed and effort for the club being given the man advantage. A huge 21 goals on 68 chances for Montreal when on the power play.

The Leafs on the other hand are still having some problems when their opponents have a player in the box. They are at the bottom of the league when trying to make use of their chances. They have converted a measly eight out of 64 opportunities.

Add to that woeful stat the fact that the Leafs are worst in the NHL for coughing up short-handed goals with four. They gave up one against New Jersey on Friday night. The goal broke a tie, shifted the momentum towards the Devils and helped them to win 3-2 against the Leafs. Second loss in a row for Toronto after previously winning two consecutive games on the road. The Buds are taking plenty of bad penalties as well.

If those trends hold up tonight, it won't be good for the Leafs.

Bruins logoSens logoThe game in Ottawa could be an interesting match-up. While the Senators have been rolling along, they did let up the other night against the worst team in the league (Atlanta Thrashers) and the game ended much closer than it should have.

With the exception of the shellacking the Bruins absorbed from the Canadiens 12 days ago, they have been playing well and winning some close games, with an overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday.

However, Boston hasn't fared too well against teams higher than them in the standings and obviously this will be the best team they have faced this season.

An all important divisional game will make this a close one I believe.

Zdeno Chara versus Brian McGrattan in the fisticuffs department perhaps?

Devils logoRangers logoTwo disappointing under-achievers in the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet in the Big Apple. Both clubs have equally mediocre 5 and 6 records with the Rangers holding the dubious honour of being the lowest scoring team in the entire league.

The Devils have been putting the puck in the net at a better pace than the Rangers but have still been blanked three times this season. One of those shut-outs was delivered by the Rangers in a 2-0 win in the teams' first meeting of the season.

Maybe they should skip the preliminaries. Just head right to overtime instead of playing what's likely to be a bland, scoreless regulation.


Some other interesting match-ups amongst the eight other games being played on Saturday night. Phoenix coming off a big win against Dallas could highlight just how far the Ducks have fallen if they can handle Anaheim at home.

The Canucks must be thankful to get back on the road after they continued their dismal play at home in a loss to the Nashville Predators. Regardless, they'll still have to ratchet up their shots on goal (though they did manage 29 against the Preds) or they won't fare too well against a strong Colorado Avalanche team who are unbeaten at home so far this season.

The Sharks and Kings finish off a home and home series in Los Angeles tonight with the Kings winning the first leg 5-2 on Friday. Battle of California has some insight on that match-up and a preview of the Ducks and Coyotes game as well.

Pittsburgh travels to Long Island hoping that the re-energized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can keep scoring the way they have in the past few games. Though they'll want a better result than they had in their loss to the Avalanche on Thursday.

Florida in Carolina, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Calgary in Minnesota and Chicago visiting St. Louis are the other games being played.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

NHL Suspensions: Randy Jones Hit on Patrice Bergeron

nhllogo.gifBruins logoFlyers logoThere's widespread relief at the news that Patrice Bergeron suffered nothing more than a concussion and broken nose after the nasty hit from behind by the Flyers' Randy Jones in the Bruins/Flyers game Saturday night. The fact that a head injury and broken nose are met with relief is a sign of how bad it initially looked and the length of time Bergeron lay motionless on the ice.

The guessing, spinning and closing of ranks began almost immediately after the game ended, accompanied by the contrite, humble apology from the perpetrator that has become a requisite part of each subsequent incident.

Bob McKenzie has offered up his take on the hit at TSN, concluding that the suspension that Jones is likely to receive will be far less than those handed out to his Flyer team-mates earlier in the year (Jesse Boulerice tagged with 25 for his cross-check to the face of Ryan Kesler and Steve Downie with 20 for his hit on Dean McCammond.)

McKenzie's sound and reasoned interpretation of issues and incidents in the NHL have made him one of the most respected hockey pundits in the game. To the point that he probably has the ability to influence those within the decision-making ranks of the NHL or at least give them pause for second thought on occasion.

However, I disagree with him somewhat regarding the hit on Bergeron and what the appropriate (and probable) response should (will) be. Mainly for the reason that he bases his analysis of what happened and the likely consequences on the prevailing reaction of players and GMs around the league following the incident. No doubt there is a collective understanding and wisdom about the game within that group that doesn't exist elsewhere, and the weight of that view can't help but have some effect on the final decision.

I sense a kind of annoyance and "here we go again" exhaustion from other players and GMs after their reactions to a number of previous incidents. The mostly genuine responses at the time came at least partly because of outside pressure. The extenuating circumstances, arguable lack of intent and relatively little physical damage have made it easier to offer up the traditionally callous, "that's the way it goes" response this time around.

There's a mentality within hockey and sports in general, that injury equals weakness. It's right there alongside losing and is seen as a shortcoming of those on the receiving end as much as anything done by those inflicting the damage. "It's the fault of the injured player," narrative gets more play in hockey than most other sports. Most such claims beg the question and rarely is there an articulated or detailed explanation of exactly what the player did wrong. McKenzie at least addresses this somewhat in his editorial:

"Bergeron contributed to his own demise by turning away from the hit and going low into the dasher board, which led to a broken nose and concussion. "

I have to say that in the video I don't see at any time Bergeron turning away from the hit. It appears he went in blind and if anything should have turned to increase his awareness and line of vision of opposing players following him into the boards. The turning away from a hit becomes an issue when a player is in a position of peripheral or full vision and turns away from that to avoid a potential collision. However, McKenzie is right regarding the going in low and stopping with that dangerous few feet of space between the boards.

So, the partial blame theory has some credence . But, if blame is to be assigned, far more has to be shouldered by Jones because of the position he was in, the recognition he must have for the potential danger of such situations and the responsibility he has for being able to pull up. Similarly, if the accidental nature of Jones's actions should be given weight when deciding on a punishment, surely the unintentional and accidental aspect of Bergeron's less than perfect positioning should further lessen any blame he has for his own injuries.

I believe the kind of thinking offered up by Allan Maki in his response to the hit will get more consideration from the league. The suspension to be handed down from the NHL is an opportunity to highlight the responsibility players have to play within some kind of limits and to recognize the increasing speed and potential for these situations to develop. The NHL seems conscious of the changing nature of the game and have made certain that suspensions mean something this season. An insignificant number of games for Jones will simply validate the "things happen" story-line.

While it's hard to argue that this fits in with a particular culture and style of play advocated by Flyers coaching and management, the optics still don't look good on the heels of the prior incidents. I expect at least some coded warnings in the language used by NHL brass to address this, though I don't see any fines being assessed.

I believe the suspension will be less than the ones handed down to Downie and Boulerice but more than the handful of games expected by others.

My prediction is 10-12 games.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Week Four Headlines

JFJ Tries to Entice Tavares, Tlusty Tallies Two

Ferguson is thankful for the distraction that Tlusty's early pair provided. The Leaf's GM tries some creative coercion to improve his credibility.

Are Jerseys a Joke? RBK offers Patch, Pleads Patience

Still being discussed whether remainders from factory to be used.

Oilers Fans Push Penner to Produce

Does a lummox like Penner simply appear lethargic? Or is the "lazy" tag legit?

Visor Usage Vaults

50% of players now wear them. (When this son-of-a-bitch laced on skates in his first organized game at seven, shield use was scattered and still optional.)

Modano Yearns to be Top Point Scoring Yank of All Time

Needs five more to accomplish feat.

Two Swedes on Top in Scoring Race

Sundin at 36 is stunning.

Boys from Broad Street Head into Boston

Flyers and Bruins put their identically respectable 6-3 records on the line Saturday night. Two of the most improved teams so far this season, they've both shown toughness and determination in surpassing early predictions.

Sens Finish Siesta, Skate into Jersey Saturday

In the inaugural game at the new home of the New Jersey Devils, the Senators will play for the first time after a juicy seven day break. Will the Devils christen the Prudential Center with a win or will the Sens improve their league-wide best record?

Buds on Broadway

Two struggling teams with different problems tangle tonight as the Leafs take on the Rangers in New York.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

NHL 2007-08: the Year of the Hockey Fight?

NHL logoDucks logoBruins logoA hockey journalist made the astute point recently (I believe it was in the Globe and Mail's hockey blog) that the amount of fighting in an NHL game is commensurate with exactly how important the game is. In other words, pre-season games are littered with clutching and flailing while the playoffs are almost completely free of fisticuffs.

That is demonstrably true as shown by the 2006-07 post-season but there are some compelling indications that this year may in fact see a rise in skate-to-skate punch-ups during the regular season.

First, the Anaheim Ducks were the most penalized team last year and also had the most fighting majors. There is a half-baked theory that states the rest of the league will look to emulate the most recent Stanley Cup champions in terms of what style of play led them to the post-season title. As seen by recent Cup winners, this does not alway play out. An easily identifiable single aspect that resulted in Cup glory for a particular team may not always be present. Also, when there is one or two team strengths that can be pointed to, they may not alway be so simple to implement in the short term.

Not only are intimidation and fighting far easier to integrate into a team that may have been lacking such elements previously, but many decision makers on NHL clubs feel those aspects are highly important to winning. Fighting has been marginalized somewhat in recent years due to rule changes, with much talk about the possibility of token fighters becoming obsolete. This shift has created resentment for those who came up through a system where fighting was more prevalent and accepted. The success of the Anaheim Ducks will once again validate the belief for many that fighting plays an important role, albeit a limited one, in icing a winning team.

The potential for penalties and suspensions may now no longer outweigh the benefits of making fighting a green-light option for certain players on a team. Another factor may also have tipped the scales for some teams in terms of deciding to make intimidation and fighting part of their overall strategy. Two years after the rule changes in the NHL that have somewhat altered the flow of the game, injuries in general, and especially to the head, seem to be on the increase. The grey area of head shots, which the NHL hasn't exactly figured out how to eliminate or even adequately defined in terms of legality, has resulted in important players missing plenty of games.

This is even more reason for NHL clubs to cut loose a few thugs and let it be known that if there aren't sufficient preventative measures in place to protect their players then they will take matters into their own hands. When a swift and brutal response is guaranteed, it is certain that there is at least some moderating effect on other teams.

The Boston Bruins, among others, have shown during the pre-season that they plan on making intimidation a more important part of their game plan this year. Bruins Insider has been going into some detail regarding the new/old face of the Bruins as they seem determined to return to the tradition that brought them success so many years ago. Here's a small excerpt:

"The Bruins then showed off the most improved aspect of their game this preseason, displaying both their physical play and willingness to stick up for each other. After Brendan Witt went knee-on-knee on Krejci, Andrew Alberts immediately dropped the gloves with Witt. It was a solid showing for Alberts, who has struggled in past bouts. He landed several punches and scored the takedown, though he was given an instigator and had to sit for 17 minutes..."

Some of the better first-person descriptive accounts of hockey fights to be found at Bruins Insider.

Indications from many pre-season games is that the increased fighting is league wide. As mentioned, fighting is usually more evident during exhibition games as players desperate to make the team show what they are made of and the consequences from penalties hold no real weight. However, if only the same degree of drop-off occurs heading into the regular season, there could be more bouts for those who enjoy a scrap or two as part of their hockey viewing experience.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Predictions: Eastern Conference

Sens logoPens logoTampa logoDevils logoSabres logoRangers logoThrashers logoLeafs logoFlyers logoCaps logoBruins logoHurricanes logoPanthers logoIsles logohabslogo.gifOK, here's the requisite prediction post wherein I make studied and reasoned comments (offer up a bundle of paraphrased rationalizing) on why I've placed various teams in my projected final standings. In the end I'm going to make at least some wild assed guesses with the knowledge that many well articulated forecasts are no more accurate than the looping swings in the dark variety. Regardless of how someone arrives at their choices, at least a few teams will surprise and insanely over-achieve while one or two clubs will disappoint.

I'm going with conference predictions for the simple reason that they're a helluva lot easier to post. But because of the heavily weighted intra-division play, the only way to make any kind of pick is to look at those groupings first and decide who improved the most and proceed from there. Of course, by working backwards, you could ultimately determine what my picks would look like if sorted into divisions.

You may have read an article I posted last month in which I described the various teams I have cheered for over the years. After a fairly long absence away from regularly watching games (which could continue this season depending on how the online viewing situation plays out) I come to this season as a hockey fan with relatively few biases. Some of you may consider this unthinkable, a bland, second-rate way to watch the game. I'm perfectly content to watch the season unfold in this way and I think it will make me a better observer who is relatively uninfluenced by emotion. At the same time, I'm looking forward to being drawn in by certain teams and situations and will no doubt have some favourites by the end of the season.

First, the Eastern Conference:

1. Ottawa Senators
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Buffalo Sabres
6. New York Rangers
7. Atlanta Thrashers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Washington Capitals
11. Boston Bruins
12. Carolina Hurricanes
13. Florida Panthers
14. New York Islanders
15. Montreal Canadiens

The Senators haven't done much in the off-season but really, they had no need to. Coming off a season in which they surged in the last half and were dominant throughout the playoffs with the exception of the finals, they have every right to leave things as they are. Bryan Murray as GM will no doubt be looking to add the final piece before the trade deadline and John Paddock behind the bench as coach could provide a nice jolt. Ray Emery had his wrist and a new contract sewn up in the off-season but I wouldn't be surprised if Martin Gerber plays a more prominent role this season. A 52 save shut-out, regardless of whether it's in the pre-season, bodes well for his potential in 2007-08. Emery still has some technique issues to sort out before he's ranked as one of the league's elite netminders. He also has a tendency for off-ice antics and any further melodramas involving him together with average play could see his stock plummet.

Many have picked the New York Rangers as the most improved team in the entire league with the signings of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. And the addition of Brent Sutter could improve the perennially solid and well-disciplined Devils. But I'm still going with the Pittsburgh Penguins to take the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference for no other reason than I like to be a contrarian son-of-a-bitch on occasion. But really, it's not much of a stretch to think they will in fact finish ahead of the Rangers and Devils. The explosive talent they have, has, in my opinion, the greatest potential for further improvement this season. Another year of playing together under their belts and the disappointment of an early playoff exit will spur them on to greater heights.

The Buffalo Sabres are going to see their "goals for" numbers take a hit with the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and that will cause them to slip somewhat but not as much as many are predicting.

I see Tampa Bay leapfrogging Atlanta for the Southeast crown and thus being positioned 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Just like last season, I believe the mediocre Southeast will field only one other playoff team with Atlanta taking the 7th position. I well may have ranked them higher but my research on the team has been abysmal. That lack of recognition factor alone is why I have slotted them in based on a quick look at last season's final standings. Sad, I know, but I'm doing this for kicks and can afford shameless admissions such as that. (Imagine one of the well-paid hacks at the Globe and Mail's sports section dropping a line like that?)

I must admit that I've bought into the rationalizing regarding the improvements made to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season and have thus awarded them the last playoff position at 8th in the conference. Despite the 2 poor performances so far by Vesa Toskala in net during the pre-season, I can't help but feel they will see an improvement overall at the position, whether it's with shared duties or perhaps with the unexpected development that sees Andrew Raycroft step up. They have added some scoring with Jason Blake despite having been quite strong in that area last season. Unfortunately, they've already been hit with some pre-season injuries though it's unlikely things could be as bad in that regard as during the 06-07 campaign.

I can't see the Leafs missing the playoffs for a 3rd straight year, not only because of their mild improvements but more for the fact that there will be hell to pay if it even looks like a possibility approaching the midway point of this season. Pressure in the nasty pit of hockey insanity in which the Leafs lurch wildly about is surreal and larger than life.

At least 2 key individuals, GM John Ferguson Jr. and Leafs icon Mats Sundin, will be riding hell bent for success in their respective off-ice and on-ice roles this year. Ferguson will orchestrate at least one final Hail Mary if his job looks like it's in jeopardy and Sundin will haul the team into the playoffs alone even if he's jacked up on enough cortisone to kill a buffalo. Surprisingly, not much has been said as of late (relatively, relatively) by the Toronto media about Sundin's final quarter season slump in 06-07. It could either be painful or inspirational to see how Sundin winds up his career in Toronto this year.

The columnists and journalists who weigh in on all things Leafs related have been braying loudly about everything else though. I believe the sports writers on the hockey beat at Canadian papers, especially the Globe and Mail, are so conscious of being branded as having a pro-Leafs bias, that they go ricocheting in the opposite direction as a way to compensate. Sure there are many informed and often prescient views offered up on the Leafs but so often it's a skewed picture that is presented in the sports sections in many rags. The shrill pronouncements are already flowing from some on the demise of the Leafs this season with the regular season not even underway. They are so extreme in some cases that a person can only lean at least slightly in the other direction and be confident that that is a more likely possibility.

And finally regarding the Leafs, I do buy into the argument that they were hammered beyond normal limits in the injury department last season. Look at where they were at about a month into the campaign in 2006-07. Sure they had some games in hand, but still, they were off to a fairly good start. If anything, I see a reverse of last year with them having a slow start and then improving during the final stretch.

Philadelphia could well be one of the most improved teams this years. It will definitely be a fight for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and if it isn't the Leafs, I'm sure the Flyers will be right there. The Flyers shipped out their favourite whipping boy (at least he was for some of the fans and a columnist or two) Joni Pitkanen in exchange for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul from the Edmonton Oilers. A big unrestricted free agent signing saw the addition of Daniel Briere. He should provide a boost to their scoring, which was horrid last season. The Flyers also grabbed another pair of players from Nashville who were set to become UFAs, when they inked forward Scott Hartnell and defenseman Kimmo Timonen. If not the most improved, the Flyers have at least altered the face of their team more than any other club.

However, they absorbed a bludgeoning in that pre-season game with Ottawa a few days ago, losing four players to injuries. It looks as though Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul both damaged their wrists though only Upshall's injury is serious enough to require surgery.

Washington and Boston are 2 teams that have people throwing around that catchall phrase "You'll be surprised." Having been a Bruins fan many years ago, it would definitely be nice to see them break out of their years long average to terrible play. They've got a new coach in Claude Julien who has made it clear the Bruins will be a more physical team. For some real in-depth parsing of the Bruins at every position and the kind of substance and minutiae that can only come from years of following a team, check out this excellent blog.

Well, that's it for my Eastern Conference predictions. I'll offer up my Western Conference forecasts within the next day or two.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Years in the Wilderness

Bruins logoLeafs logoJets logoCanucks logo

Years in the wilderness…I’ve always liked that phrase as it relates to sports. It evokes the notion of a team that hasn’t won anything for years but keeps on persevering. It has a nostalgic feel to it. Images of beleaguered players with the thousand-yard stare, half empty barns and the significance of lesser things that otherwise get swept away when a winning aura surrounds a team. For the fans especially, it means someone who loves the game and rides out the storm no matter if it’s 4 seasons or forty.

The hardcore fans make a virtue out of losing. With the requisite rage, disappointment and heart break that goes with losing, they somehow grasp some remnants of enjoyment and pride from the depths of the accompanying shame and embarrassment. They learn to live with the possibility that they might die without ever seeing their team win it all.

The true, the proud and the never say die-ers who make the best of losing and standing by their team. The ragged warriors who cheer each little victory, whether it’s a hard-earned win, a thumping laid on an opposing team’s goon in a loss or simply limping into the playoffs only to be eliminated in the first round.

The phrase is part of the tradition of romanticizing the teams you follow and the path your own life has taken. It definitely reflects on my life for the past number of years as I’ve been in a position that has made it quite difficult to follow hockey with any degree of meaning. My own journey regarding hockey that brought me to this point started over 30 years ago.

That was the year I received my first Boston Bruins jersey, and for no other reason they became the first team I cheered for. The thin material and the stiff, felt logo stitched on the front had a far less authentic feel than the replicas of today but it was luxury to me. Even as a 7 year-old I considered it a special day when I donned my Bruins sweater in the morning before heading off to school. I continued to acquire various Bruins garb over my childhood years, including pyjamas, bedspreads and numerous jerseys.

A few years later, our family moved to Winnipeg and with the proximity and thrill of attending the occasional game, the Jets became my primary team. I still wore my Bruins jersey with pride and cheered for them once the Jets were eliminated in the playoffs (which was early and every year.)

At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had drifted onto my horizon as a team with some kind of special attraction and mystique. We made the trip to southern Ontario to spend Christmas at my grandfather’s farm every few years. The atmosphere and surroundings helped those few Leafs games televised over the holidays take on a significance in my mind. In the lead-up to Christmas or in those few days before New Year’s, there was usually one or two games shown on television. The seriousness with which my grandfather would sit in his chair and watch the game while others were sure to remain silent or stay in another part of the house added to the mystery of this team with the royal blue jerseys that contrasted so starkly against the ice. I never became a Leafs fan in any sense of the word but those fleeting images are still burned in my brain.

I continued to follow the Jets through the years they iced some truly competitive teams but had the misfortune of sharing the Smythe division with the Oilers. Hawerchuk came and went and then Selanne arrived and with him a new sense of hope. I left Winnipeg in 1994 and have never been back since with the exception of a brief few days almost 10 years ago. I watched from a distance as the Jets packed up and left town for good as well.

I was living outside of Canada and had little opportunity to follow hockey. I worked in Switzerland for a few winters during that time, lacing up the skates on one occasion as the employees from the mountain where I worked played another group of workers from a neighbouring town. I witnessed a great international game played between the Swiss team and Slovenia one evening in Chur, a medium sized town in Switzerland. Those were my only connections to the game at that time.

The internet wasn’t in full swing yet so no real outlets existed for the overseas fan, especially one not remaining in the same place for any length of time. Together with the departure of the Jets I told myself that I wasn’t really interested anyway. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the game changing, “it’s all about the money,” etc. but it was probably just a way to deal with something that I actually did miss.

In 2000 I returned to Canada and lived in Vancouver. With the hassle of getting settled and finding a job, funds were tight and during my 2 years there I failed to see a game at GM place where the Canucks play. I watched NHL games on the big screen at a few pubs I frequented but it was hard to feel the passion I once had for the game. A few years later I left Canada and haven’t been back since.

This past season I started to take a renewed interest in big league hockey. Watching games online and the wide availability of quality websites and discussion boards devoted to the game helped things along. In the interim, during the time when I first left Canada almost 15 years ago until now, other things that were once important to me have fallen by the wayside.

I haven’t looked forward to a hockey season with this much interest for a long time.

It’s good to be back.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book Review: Open Net by George Plimpton

Open NetThe thought of playing professional sports ranks up there as one of the most common childhood fantasies. It’s one that continues long after a person has grown and often takes on other elements including regret and longing. To even have a brief chance to know the thrill of competing at the highest level in front of thousands of people is one of those dreams that can fuel adolescence and keep us sports fans long after.
George Plimpton was an author who, amongst other more literary endeavors, carved a niche out in the 1970’s and 80’s by playing alongside professional athletes and then writing books about his experiences. Open Net details Plimpton’s brief time with the Boston Bruins in the late 70’s, as he trained with the team and played as a goaltender in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

From the eyes of a relative neophyte as both a spectator and player, Plimpton offers a detailed rendering of all appealing aspects of the game. The visual aesthetics, the sounds, atmosphere, the feel of the equipment, sticks, pucks, ice and the fittings in arenas. Plimpton articulates things life-long fans may not consciously reflect and the result is likely to be captivating for those who have always loved to watch and read about the game and those who may be new to its attractions.

Many of the legends detailed in the book come to us via the use of dialogue between Plimpton and various Bruins’ players and the coach at the time, Don Cherry. Plimpton has that skill that so many writers lack; writing crisp, realistic exchanges that make you feel you are reading exactly what was said, though no doubt things are polished up and “narratized.” Reading the quotes from Cherry alone are a reminder of the same kind of statements he makes today, though with the luxury of not having to listen to his loud abrasive voice.

Though not formally divided as such, there are 3 sections (periods) to the book. The lead up and preparation with the Bruins for the exhibition game, the game itself and an extended period following his experience where Plimpton interviews numerous people and players involved in the game.

While essentially a publicity stunt that gave the Bruins some exposure and allowed Plimpton to write the book, he no doubt went through some serious anxiety and angst in the process. His good nature and self-deprecating view of the whole affair make the farcical aspect of his lack of any skill and comical performance part of the enjoyment of the book.

The pre-game preparation and his 5 minutes in net are written about with a tension and attention to detail that will make readers feel they are right there. After Plimpton completes his 5 minutes in net he vacates to a lounge in the Boston Garden to talk about his experience with other sports writers. As he sits there sipping a beer, a massive brawl breaks out between the Flyers and Bruins. When Plimpton learns that he missed the spectacle he curses himself and this regret is mentioned throughout the rest of the book, almost as a metaphor for the bitterness of lost dreams that is so much a part of professional sports.

The 3rd part of the book spans a number of years as the author offers some reflections on his experiences and has time to seek out those he briefly trained with now that they are out of the game. A great section on player’s wives offers insight into that rarified world. Again, the ability of Plimpton to relay people’s thoughts in entertaining prose and dialogue is one of the most memorable aspects of Open Net. A multi-page discussion with Harry Sinden offers some concise musings on what it takes to make a great hockey player. Finally, things come full circle in a nice satisfying way .

During the early part of the book, tales of Bobby Orr were relayed to Plimpton on numerous occasions though the Bruins’ legend had long since retired. Plimpton finally gets a chance to interview him in the closing pages. He also straps on the goalie equipment again and practices with the Oilers and Wayne Gretzky. It’s a fitting way to wrap up the book in recognizing that the mantle of hockey greatness has been passed from Orr to Gretzky.

A subtle underlying theme throughout Open Net is the appeal of ice hockey as an antidote to the existential drudgery of everyday life. The bland minutiae of life often doesn’t match the dreams and fantasies that occupy our minds. Hockey as a spectator sport (as with many other pastimes) goes some way in bridging that gap. When even the sport itself falls short, the anecdotes that get embellished and passed on and the books and columns that record them take up the slack.

Plimpton tips his hat to this notion with a tale relayed to him by a Bruins hockey player about, strangely enough, NFL linebacker John Matuszak. When Plimpton phones Matuszak for confirmation, he is told the tale is nothing more than an urban myth but agrees it should be kept alive in the spirit of posterity and boosting his own reputation.

The meta aspect of including the tale --- a yarn about the retelling of a sports legend, (in a sports book that is in a large part about the telling of yarns) that in the end details the agreement to keep the myth alive but in the process really dispels it --- is as close as Plimpton comes to telegraphing to readers what appeals to him about the whole subculture of sports.

The double filter, of athletes who exaggerate tales, and writers of non-fiction books who engage in the same practice to mythologize and entertain, likely results in something less than the absolute truth. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all about contributing to the magic and lore of the games that we love to watch.

This book will be especially interesting to those with an affinity for goaltenders or anyone who may have actually played the position. I can’t help but thinking that Plimpton captures some of the visceral aspects involved in such a unique position in professional sports. Open Net is already 20 years old and is now a nostalgia piece at the same time as evoking the aesthetics and emotions of the game. Not often mentioned when a discussion of hockey books come up, it is well worth a read for all fans of the game.

(While I don't usually clutter reviews up with tales of how I bought the book, this one was too good to leave out. Heading into Bangkok one day with the sole intent of buying a book about hockey, I didn't hold out much hope. After scouring some of the big high-end bookshops with no luck, I walked into a used book store in the centre of the city. As I was ready to give up I noticed the spine of a book with "Plimpton" in bold letters. Knowing the sports books he was famous for, I pulled it out and there he was in the Bruins jersey. Beautiful!)