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Devils in heaven
The presentation of the Stanley Cup is always thrilling even when you get stuck with a dud Game Seven, when the new league champion has enjoyed a relatively easy path to victory, and when commentators are giving forth with damnfool talk of a "dynasty" because one franchise has won three cups in nine years. It's thrilling even if the hometown fans in New Jersey don't seem to care all that much: an hour before game time last night, the building was still a thousand tickets short of a sellout. Pat Burns, of all people, displayed the deepest feeling for the drama of the moment by choosing to suit up Ken Daneyko, 18-year New Jersey Devil and grizzled Walter Brennan lookalike (fun fact: both Brennan and Daneyko were born in 1894). Daneyko occupies a special position in the game's history. As you would expect, most of the guys who have played 1,200-plus games in the league were, or are, very good players. They tend to have 300, 400 goals under their belts: Daneyko has all of 41, if you count the playoffs, and once went 255 straight regular-season games between goals, which is the record. In the late '90s, Daneyko's boozing became a problem, and he had to choose between hockey and alcohol: he didn't possess the Theoren Fleury talent that would allow him to embrace both. He could have quit and been vaguely remembered as a "fan favourite" who was handy with his fists, but he chose to dry out and stick around for a couple more Stanley Cups instead.
If you wanted to attribute this to the restorative supernatural power of that ten-guinea silver golem, you'd find a lot of agreement in Canada. Only in a half-Catholic country (the Cup has been used as a christening font at least once) could a physical object have aspired to such psychological dominance of a sport. No one would think to put the World Series Trophy or the Vince Lombardi Trophy on a pedestal in a "cathedral", nor to give them two full-time guards (and if they did, it's unlikely the guards would become recognizable national figures and chivalric symbols).
A lot of people will quarrel with the selection of Jean-Sebastien Giguere as the playoff MVP. Don Cherry made a good case for Martin Brodeur: over the playoffs as a whole Brodeur was arguably better (his seven shutouts are a new playoff record), and while Giguere starred at the beginning, Brodeur threw his game into high gear when it counted most. On the other hand, it would almost have been insulting to the Devils to single one of them out, and if it had to be done, the connoisseur's choice has to be John Madden. Brodeur was the margin of victory this year much less often than Giguere; his three shutouts in the final are impressive--indeed, they eliminate the last doubts about his worthiness for the Hall of Fame--but they were all 3-0 wins. Without Giguere, Anaheim definitely doesn't get past Minnesota in the conference final. In all likelihood, they wouldn't have got past Dallas: all four Duck victories over the Stars were one-goal games. You can argue, I suppose, that Brodeur shouldn't necessarily be penalized because his teammates got him a lot of goals on his good nights. At any rate, I feel that the New Jersey fans' tactless behaviour during the presentation of the Conn Smythe trophy to a visibly devastated Giguere was enough justification for the choice.
Kariya career chorea
Yeah, I'm aware that I've let the hockey page go to seed something awful, and now there's only one game left. It became apparent early on in this series that the scenario which has unfolded--viz., the home team winning every game--was quite likely, because Mike Babcock refused to take a chance on putting his best offensive talent together when he didn't have the advantage of last line change. In fairness to Babcock, the risks of doing so were demonstrated, sort of, in Game Six, even though it was played at the Duck Pond. Babcock had Oates and Sykora skating with Paul Kariya: Kariya suffers from the contemporary habit of watching the puck after he lets go of it, and that's what allowed Scott Stevens to commit lawful attempted murder in open ice in the second period. Kariya lay as flat and still at one of Detroit's octopuses for a little while, then was helped to his feet and into the dressing room. Five minutes later he stunned fans and players alike by returning to the ice. Supercharged by the spectacle, the Ducks coasted to a 5-2 win.
In sports, the answer to the question "How far are you willing to go for a league championship?" is always supposed to be "all the way, and then some." But on a purely commercial level, it's not clear that a Stanley Cup for Anaheim is really worth as much as the remainder of Kariya's career--and Kariya is an established member of the high-risk group for concussion, an injury you can't just skate off or rehab your way past. I believe that Anaheim has a more talented hockey team than New Jersey, and that the basic drama of this series has been about the decision confronting Babcock: when to turn Kariya loose with offensive help in the road games, and maybe get him as good as killed for hockey purposes?
Well, Game Seven is a road game, and whatever his corporate masters are telling him now, Babcock's probably not going to hold back when he's this close with a team that visibly wants to steal the Stanley Cup. So the man to watch tomorrow night is still Kariya. It's actually high drama, and will probably be remembered as such, even if the hockey hasn't always been of what you might call supreme quality. And even if actually finding a reason to care about Anaheim or New Jersey is an insurmountable challenge. Against boredom, the gods themselves, etc.
I missed the Saturday night game for reasons I may eventually get around to discussing on the main page... I did think it was rather cruel of them to have an exciting contest the minute my back was turned, and you know I'm bitter about missing one of the weirdest fluke goals on record.
What's clear is that Kariya finally began to shine playing alongside Oates; he's still missing the net but at least he was a factor. Brodeur, who shouldn't be expected to dwell unhealthily on the accident of geography that put Anaheim up 2-1, was forced into making highlight-reel stops. If Babcock continues to insist on stranding Oates in the road games, the Ducks will not only have to win Game Four but find a way to steal one of the two New Jersey games. They're still pretty badly up against it.
Don't just sit there, hurry up and lose
You know, I really enjoyed last year's Stanley Cup finals. Yeah, they involved the Carolina Hurricanes, who were a bit of a joke team when you got right down to it, but the quirky atmosphere in Raleigh was part of the fun, and Detroit was well-cast as the Darth Vader-like overwhelming favourite. You can't say that Bates Battaglia, Erik Cole, and Bret Hedican didn't deliver on entertainment. This year we have two clubs who, for all intents and purposes, should be about evenly matched. And there have been a few outbursts of excitement, mostly supplied by Jeff Friesen. But Anaheim's been such a dud so far that the whole league--perhaps even the Devils--must feel let down after a playoff year of crazy upsets and nailbiting comebacks. What an anticlimax it's been. The series was sold as a goaltending battle, but one of the goaltenders hasn't been given any work to do, which is sort of a prerequisite.
Anaheim just doesn't look motivated: I half-expect rumours of hippodroming to start flying around, with some modern-day Ring Lardner chomping a cigar in the press box and circling suspect Ducks with a big red pencil. But maybe it just comes down to coaching. When Jersey was about to win the conference finals, Mike Babcock was asked in a postgame presser whether he'd be tailoring his strategy to the eventual Eastern winner. His answer (a not uncommon one) was that he didn't really give a damn who Anaheim was going to face: his tactics would be the same either way. I respect his right to dance with the girl what brung 'im, but the Devils are running his offence into the ground. Ottawa's performance was pretty uninspiring, too, until Jacques Martin took a chance and began to beat the trap by overloading the left wing and sending the last man into the rush in even-strength situations. They got within three minutes of the final this way. Shouldn't it at least occur to Babcock to try the same thing, or something similar? His team is playing like it's afraid of the New Jersey red line. The sine qua non for a daring, storm-the-ramparts offensive strategy is having a rock-steady goaltender, but how often does Babcock expect to have a goalie as steady as Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been this year? If it's more often than "never" the man's got sedimentary rocks between his ears.
And how often does he expect to have an offensive player as gifted as Paul Kariya on his roster? He's been vocal about refusing to play Kariya with Oates and Steve Thomas in the road games, because he doesn't have the last line change. That's obviously working out real well for ya there, Babs. Imagine the disgrace if you lost a game 5-3 instead of 3-0 one of these nights.
No gray area
Selected hyperbole from the day of Patrick Roy's retirement:
Roy's greatness in goal is unmatched... Is he the greatest ever? The statistics speak from themselves... -Jacques Demers, USA Today
Et cetera... I don't want to rain on the big ass-kissing parade, but I'd like for there to be one person to point out the following. Roy and Dominik Hasek were both born in 1965. They played in the same league for eight full seasons. Hasek was voted the best goalie in the league after the conclusion of six of those seasons. Roy was voted the best goalie in the league after zero of those seasons. How can Roy be the greatest goalie who ever lived if he wasn't the best goalie born on the planet in 1965?
Oh, I know: four Stanley Cups. And no one would dream of pointing out that the third one came about when he threw a tantrum and jumped the Montreal Canadiens after letting in nine goals one night, blackmailing his GM into making a trade with the Avalanche. I've argued, or passed along the argument, that Roy's vaunted Cup runs with the Canadiens rarely involved upsets of truly stronger clubs, that one of them was attributable to Steve Smith as much as anyone, and that the licking handed to him by the Minnesota Wild in his final series was hardly unprecedented. But even leaving all that aside, can anything Roy accomplished in the playoffs honestly compare with Hasek dragging the Buffalo Sabres--a team certifiably one-quarter as good and professionally run as any Roy played for--to the conference finals in '98 and the disputed-goal Stanley Cup in '99?
Al Strachan at least tried to get it right in Canada's Sun papers:
Now that Patrick Roy has decided to retire, the debate will rage as to whether he was the best goalie in the history of the NHL. But debates of that nature depend too much on recollections, which are often flawed, and interpretations, which are often biased. Who is to say whether Bill Durnan or Georges Vezina or Jacques Plante, goaltenders who dominated their eras, were better or worse than Roy?
The power of concentration
Boy, games like tonight's are why I'm glad I don't write sports for a living... it wasn't a dull game so much as an undistinguished one whose final outcome wasn't much in doubt after Friesen scored the first New Jersey goal. For pre-game drama you had the questions whether Giguere would continue to play all but perfectly, whether the Devils would miss the injured Joe Nieuwendyk, and whether the long rest would hurt the Ducks. Giguere was largely blameless, but did get touched up for two goals, which is plenty under these conditions; the Devils didn't miss Nieuwendyk much, creating loads of offensive opportunities in the second period especially; and, clearly, the Ducks were thrown off their game by the long rest. One reads with astonishment, for instance, that Paul Kariya's frenzy of shots in the first period all missed the net (his one credited shot-on-goal came in the third period). Let the smug cries of "You'd think he could aim properly for ten million dollars" commence.
Perhaps the postgame focus should be on Martin Brodeur, who tomorrow will formally succeed Patrick Roy as the presumptive/consensus greatest goaltender still playing the game (although I suppose we must remember that Hasek is idling away the quiet hours physically assaulting referees in Cezch roller hockey--but he's reportedly not playing in net). Brodeur isn't flashy, he hasn't yet won the Vezina, and he will always have his reputation somewhat diminished by the fact that he's played behind the Devils' tight defensive net. But he answered his critics in 1995, when some people thought he should still be carrying water for Chris Terreri, and in 2000, when people were saying he could never take a team to the Cup after playing so many games in the regular season. And, while we're on that subject, his regular-season games-played totals since '95-96--not counting two Olympic Games-es--have been 77, 67, 70, 70, 72, 72, 73, and 73. This is as close as an NHL goalie can come to Cal Ripken durability.
But if anything can truly etch Brodeur in people's minds forever, it's this postseason, particularly. He separated from his wife in December after he got caught having an affair with her sister. Throughout the season, Mrs. Brodeur took revenge by phoning him shortly before every game to tell him exactly which man she intended to screw that night. In April this nuptial fiasco reached the pages of Photo Police, one of those infinitely nasty and semi-pornographic Quebec tabloids which don't quite have any analogue on Anglophone supermarket shelves (alas). Melanie waited until the playoffs to file for divorce, and reporters barraged the goalie with questions about the legal proceedings after his Game Five loss to Ottawa. She is seeking custody of their four children. Folks, I don't know how success is measured at your place of work, but if you could do as well as Martin Brodeur under the circumstances he is in, my hat is off to you.
Two minutes, seventeen seconds. The Ottawa Senators were down three games to one in the Eastern Conference final (today's presentation of the Prince of Wales Trophy to the victors was a nice reminder of the conference's proper name) and they battled back to be on even terms with 2:17 left in Game Seven. And calling it "even terms" would be exceedingly generous to New Jersey, considering that the Sens were 4-0 in overtime games this playoff year. But Wade Redden, of all people, dropped the basket of eggs. He picked the wrong time to make one of his rare bad decisions, abandoning the path to the net to help Martin Havlat cut off Grant Marshall charging up the left wing. To provide the feeble defence Redden was unable to in a physically sickening postgame interview--one in which he "responded" to a replay of the goal mostly by making dry noises from his throat--Marshall did have a half-step on Havlat and probably could have got a shot off. But that's what you have a goalie for, isn't it. Marshall threaded a pass between Redden's skates and found Redden's fellow northwest Saskatchewan stubblejumper, Jeff Friesen, bearing in alone on the helpless Patrick Lalime. And just like that, the spine was ripped out of the last Canadian team in the NHL playoffs.
One tries to console oneself, in this ninth consecutive year of all-American finals matchups, by trying to mentally recast the National Hockey League as a thinly-disguised extortion racket which works to the benefit of the mostly Canadian players. (Look, most of these so-called "New Jersey Devils" are guys from Peterborough and Winnipeg and places like that anyway!) The plain fact is, Ottawa iced the best team in its history, and should have got through; and Vancouver sent out the best team in its history, and was filled full of holes by an expansion team that went on to score one goal in the next round. There have been years in which the Canadian clubs had good excuses for early exits, but this wasn't one of them. Ottawa's failure to deploy Jason Spezza earlier is going to hang over Jacques Martin like the sword of Damocles, if there's any justice, and one hopes Dan Cloutier's dark night of the soul is a long one.
The good news is, the Canadian dollar has gained, what, about 15% in the last two months? The team owners who have been justifiably bitching about the decline of our currency during the nine-year dry spell have no excuse any more. Your budget for payroll just grew by 15% with respect to the Americans, fellas. Canadian teams should not just be involved in the free-agent market this summer, they should dominate it. If they don't, we fans will know we're being sold out. But then of course you've got the 2004 labour negotiations to consider and blah blah blah... there's always another excuse in the pipeline, isn't there.
I haven't seen enough of the Ducks to handicap this finals matchup intelligently. The unprecedented 11-day rest they're enjoying will help them a lot. The Devils have been relying on John Madden, or the Madden-Pandolfo tandem anyway, almost as heavily as the Ducks are on Giguere. Devs fans have to be concerned about the injury which sent Joe Nieuwendyk to the dressing room early in tonight's game. At age 36 Nieuwendyk has found a new gear every night against the Sens--he was scintillating, as Danny Gallivan would say, in Game Six--but whatever pain he's suffering has finally caught up with him. If he weren't seriously hurt he never would have left the bench in a Game Seven. If Nieuwendyk isn't available to take crucial faceoffs, that responsibility falls to Madden, and suddenly your key guy is stuck in a sort of designated-hitter role.
Arguably Nieuwendyk won New Jersey tonight's game from the dressing room. Pat Burns was boasting in the post-game about how he snuck back in the first period to check on Joe's condition and found him in the locker room with a single, glittering tear running down his face. Or so goes the myth. Burns went back to the bench and gave the rest of the Devils the inspirational win-one-for-the-Flying-Dutchman speech. He seemed pretty pleased with himself, so much so that you almost wanted to smack his fat ex-cop face.
Ron Maclean observed shrewdly, after the dust settled, that this Stanley Cup final can only serve to enhance the legend of Wayne Gretzky. New Jersey was the league's biggest joke back in the '80s until one night Gretzky, then still in an Oilers uniform, popped off to a reporter that it was a "Mickey Mouse franchise"--little suspecting that one day the Devils would be matched in a league final against a real Mickey Mouse franchise. Without Gretzky's comment and the soul-searching it provoked, there wouldn't be hockey right now in New Jersey. And it's a given that there wouldn't be hockey in Anaheim, either, if not for Gretzky's trade to the West Coast. There'd be no Pat Burns in the league without Gretzky: Burns had actually returned to policing when Gretzky hired him to run the Hull Olympiques, promising him that he had the talent and the character to be a coach in the pro game. Nieuwendyk might have hung up the gloves if Gretzky hadn't given him a massive vote of confidence last year, choosing him for a Canadian Olympic team that had no room for Joe Thornton. Every year, Gretzky's legend seems to grow a little brighter; I know for certain the man's no saint, nor any kind of a genius intellectually, but it's amazing what he's done off the ice, just being Gretzky. He was one of a handful of twentieth-century athletes who existed on what William Goldman called the "pyramid", a place completely beyond (not necessarily always above) the ordinary hierarchy of talent--the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali place. Of all those athletes on the pyramid, he's maybe the only one who has actually been able to perpetuate his godhood and put it to use instead of dwindling into some kind of living joke, or at least a negligible, impotent heap of ruins.
The other day in the National Post, local sportswriter Mark Spector churned out a pathetically familiar "Hockey sucks these days" column, pegged to his seven-year-old son's frustrating inability to get as interested in the televised game as his old man. Lead sentence: "The hockey has become unwatchable."
And that's a shame, because it would have been quite nice to sit back on a burly May long weekend out west and watch some playoff hockey with my seven-year-old son, enjoying that feeling a Canadian father gets as his boy begins to take interest in our game.Having presented us with these two possibilities, Spector writes 800 more words strictly about the latter. How does one reply to a column like this? Trying to be sensitive to Spector's plight is a better strategy for winning the reader over, and after all, there are plenty of people in CanWest World who read this site. On the other hand, the whole thing makes me want to cross-check Spector squarely in the upper lip. I'll try to be reasonable about pointing some things out:
· First of all, this column ran on the sports page. I understand that saying "Even my kid knows hockey is boring now" to people who just maybe bought your paper to read about hockey gives you an aura of wounded integrity. But from another perspective, it's also analogous to spitting in the reader's face, nay?
· Second... the kid's seven. Seven! I had no interest in hockey, or in sports of any kind, when I was seven either. What kind of creepy, intense seven-year-old can devote three hours of sustained attention to anything? Jeez Louise, give the kid a few more years with the G.I. Joes, Mr. High-Pressure Parent.
· Third: anybody want to fill me in on what characterizes a "burly" long weekend? Does this word have some meaning I'm not aware of?
· Fourth: what happens if the kid never does come around to hockey? Sometimes, when your dad has a real passionate interest that he's kind of a dick about--not that I'm suggesting anything here--you switch off for life. It's nobody's fault necessarily. It's one of those things that happens. The rule is, you gotta love the kid anyway, and you aren't allowed to blame the neutral-zone trap.
But hey! Anyone who saw the Devils-Sens game tonight knows that there may be dull low-scoring games hither and thither, but sometimes hockey delivers a barn-burning barrelpalooza of raging roustabout excititude. The Senators, with their backs to the wall, have discovered the potential key to unlocking the Devils' use of the trap; it seems to involve turning pretty much all your forwards into left wingers for the purposes of breaking into the offensive zone. This is a dangerous strategy; it gives up half the width of the ice surface for the Devils to break out, and they did, quite a lot, tonight.
Jacques Martin knows that if Patrick Lalime is on, he's going to make the first save. The burden falls on the defensive corps to hustle back and clear out rebounds quickly. And tonight, they won because they did that. You saw tonight--I hope you saw--how often the puck was sitting alone near the Ottawa crease, like a forlorn hamburger dropped onto the pavement, waiting for some charging Devil to throw it into a gaping net. Thanks to some Vimy Ridge-level heroism by Redden, Bonk, et alia, none of those pucks found their way past Lalime.
Ottawa has henceforth been afraid to play wide-open hockey (and despite the 2-1 final score, this was some pretty damn wide-open hockey) against the Devils. But all throughout the series they've been getting to loose pucks first, and tonight they were able to turn that into a win. On the winning goal, Marian Hossa's pantsing of Scott Stevens flummoxed the Jersey defence so bad that Vaclav Varada had about five minutes to stand nose-to-nose with Brodeur, trying to batter the puck past Brodeur's pads. WHUMP! WHACK! WHUMP! WHUMP! WHACK! That little display was remarkable enough in itself, but it was far more remarkable that the second player on the scene was Chris Phillips, and not somebody in Devil silks. That is exactly the kind of goal New Jersey must have had five chances to score tonight--but they never converted. New Jersey's offensive strategy, insofar as they even have one, is to shoot from everywhere. This often gives them good chances to follow up because Lalime gives away so many rebounds. Somewhere in the last 48 hours, someone on the Ottawa side seems to have realized "Well, Patrick's not going to stop giving up rebounds, and trying to sneak into the offensive zone like a safecracker doesn't seem to be doing much good, so let's candidly realize that it's going to happen and deal with it. We've got as good a defensive six as exists in this league, so let's play some end-to-end hockey and turn loose our flashy Europeans." The result was exactly the sort of classic game that Mark Spector was just telling us no longer happens in the NHL.
Game Seven goes off Friday night in Ottawa--the first palpable reward the Senators have been able to claim for winning the President's Trophy, aside from, I suppose, the physical trophy itself. The Big Spreadsheet favours the Sens, at home, 59%-41%.
He's a sharp one all right
Inane comment of the day comes from Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun:
[Last night Jason] Spezza, inserted into the lineup with Chris Neil sitting out, made coach Jacques Martin look like a genius by scoring the club's first power-play goal of the series.
I must apologize to Jacques Martin; clearly he intended to let the Devils get ahead 3-1 in the series before putting Spezza on the ice. He was just, y'know, lulling them into complacency!
The Senators don't make it easy to cheer for them, do they? Down 3-1 in the conference final against a team with half their talent, they finally flashed the bat-signal at Jason Spezza today. All the kid did, in his first NHL playoff game, was deliver a win single-handed: he got the key assist on the tying goal, knocked home the winner himself, and won seven of eight faceoffs. The Sens' Charles Comiskey-esque treatment of Spezza this year reminds you why hockey players have a labour union. Spezza's agent--a certain Bobby Orr--let the Sens off with a fairly modest $565,000 signing bonus in exchange for a $400,000 Calder Trophy bonus that should have been easy cheese. And would have been--but coach Jacques Martin put Spezza in the lineup for just 33 games, which, conveniently, was not enough to put him in the serious running for this year's Calder but just enough (the cutoff is 25) to spoil his Calder eligibility for '03-'04. Spezza scored two picture goals March 18 to give Ottawa a 6-5 win over Carolina; he was benched the next game and back in Binghamton before you could say "Fire the coach"--as some bristling Ottawans did.
If there were any remaining doubt that Spezza is ready to play in the NHL, tonight should have dispelled it for good. (If the team's 21-9-3 regular-season record with Spezza in the lineup didn't already.) Without Spezza, the Sens weren't within a mile of being able to penetrate New Jersey's underbelly. Teamed with Spezza tonight, Peter Schaefer and Martin Havlat suddenly started playing a lot like Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson are supposed to. (While knocking Alfredsson, one should point out that the Swede has taken Spezza under close personal tutelage on those occasions when Spezza hasn't been on a bus to or from Binghamton.) Some ethical provision must be made for the fact that the Sens did file for bankruptcy this year. Spezza earns about a thousand dollars a game with Binghamton and ten times that amount on the Ottawa roster. But it's hard to escape the additional suspicion that Martin's simply got some kind of grudge against the kid. At the post-game press conference Martin was asked a question along the lines of "How do you feel about having finally found the necessary catalyst for this team to play up to its fucking talent level?" Martin's instantaneous non sequitur response was basically "Well, the kid's still got a lot of work to do before he's ready to perform at this level." If you saw Martin's noncommittal, grouchy answer, I'm sure you were as astonished as I was (or as Ron MacLean was on the CBC broadcast). If Spezza still has a long way to go, I can find you about ten Senatorial no-shows in this series, some of them 25 or 30 years of age, who have a lot further still.
Yeah, that's just great. When I said I needed a big game from Alfredsson I didn't mean I needed him to have a big game for New Jersey. Now, if you want to hang this 5-2 loss on Lalime, I'm not gonna disagree with you: he had semi-plausible excuses on every goal but Pandolfo's, but the excuses wear thin when you string them all together. "Oh, that one was a knuckleball. Oh, Chara deflected that one a little bit. Oh, the stars were aligned wrongly on that one..." Screw it: Lalime looked slow and out of it the whole game. But the guy who's really feeling this one is Alfredsson. I missed the first New Jersey power-play goal, which came with Alfie in the box (for tripping). I didn't miss the second New Jersey power-play goal, which came with Alfie in the box for a glaring failure of temperament.
Yes, Alfredsson was retaliating very mildly for basically being power-slammed by Scott Gomez. But the officiating in this game was not strait-jacket refereeing. Koharski's not a fascist (it's one of the deep, startling revelations, for me, of this year's playoffs: Koharski is now the best ref in the league night-in and night-out). He will let you protect yourself. After he got up from Gomez's egregious molestation, Alfie instinctively punched Gomez in the back of the head and nobody called it. Then Alfredsson took a few moments to reflect and apparently thought something along the lines of Damn! and punched Gomez in the head a second time. NHL referees are simply not going to overlook malice aforethought.
Having put himself on the hook for two power play goals, Alfredsson then made a play with the team down 4-2 that is right up there, in cringe quotient, with the Yugoslav ski-jumper who used to crash on every episode of Wide World of Sports. If you didn't see it, watch a highlight broadcast tonight: you will. Alfie was hovering on the Jersey blue line when Devil Bryan Rafalski dug out the puck along the boards and flipped it out directly towards him. Keeping that puck in the offensive zone is, of course, as basic a skill to the game as skating. But the puck skittered between Alfredsson's legs, and while he was standing still, trying furiously to process the datum, John Madden and Jay Pandolfo--who played like the Jagger and Richards of hockey tonight--simultaneously went "Heyyy!" and blew past Alfredsson on either side. If Alfie had been a car he would have got his doors sucked right off. Result: a shorthanded two-on-nil against Lalime, with Alfredsson desperately trying to get back in the play and presumably screaming "No no no no no no! Mulligan! Mulligan!". The CBC announcers were rightly wonderstruck. How many shorthanded two-on-zeroes do you see? Game... over.
Duck, he said
I'm sorry about the lack of hockey weblogging here. The fact is, things just haven't been working out very well for me to see any games. The Anaheim-Minnesota series, now concluded, was broadcast on TSN in Canada. CBC has the Ottawa-Jersey games but I've ended up, so far, being busy every time one comes on. But today's starts at 1:00 local time, and I intend to (almost said "promise to") watch it and take notes. There's just not that much hockey left!
Anaheim's 50% chance of winning the Stanley Cup, shown at left, will move up or down as the East final is settled--if Jersey wins it'll be 54%, if Ottawa wins it'll be 44%. (With its 2-1 lead, New Jersey is favoured 62%-38% to win the conference.)
Things have gone pretty badly pear-shaped in my pool, I must say. The team is still at the top of the table, but only by two points. It's probably a familiar situation to those of you who've been in a lot of pools; this is really only my second or third one. My remaining guys are Hossa, Alfredsson, and Redden. The second-place person is really the only one who can catch me, but she also has both Hossa and Redden, so they're essentially taken out of the play. She also has Scott Niedermayer and Patrick Lalime (who earns a point for each win and two more for a shutout). So if Ottawa wins the series with New Jersey, I have to somehow arrange for Alfredsson to outpoint Lalime from now until the end; and if the Devils win, my whole team will have been benched and Niedermayer can put my opponent in the lead if she's not already there. It's a nightmare. My future hinges on getting just one big night out of Alfie, and I'm not certain he's up to it.
Reader mail time--Thomas Schauer writes in about Fox's glowing hockey puck:
Just read your blog about the Fox glow puck. Gotta disagree with you about it being merely "silly". No, what was silly was the little fighting robots Fox showed whenever a goal was scored. But I could put up with that. Silly I can ignore. But perhaps, being in Canada, you weren't subjected to the glow puck on a regular basis (for which consider yourself blessed).
I wonder if American readers ever heard about the Canadian beer ad that made fun of the glowing puck... I think it was a Molson spot. It showed a marketing weasel in a huge boardroom trying to win over some (presumably Canadian) TV executives to the idea. At the end of the ad you see the outer doors of the boardroom open and the weasel gets tossed physically into the hallway--surrounded by a bright, streaky red halo, à la the Fox comet-puck.
Fallout: Rick dissects the Canucks' loss to Minnesota here (and discusses the international ice surface). He lets Dan Cloutier off the hook way too easy, I'm afraid: yeah, he let in "some" bad goals, if by "some" you mean about 12-18 over the seven games. Dave Himrich watched Game Seven and said, in a bitter little note to me, "I was left to wonder how flu-ravaged were my Blues that they couldn't finish off this one-line pack of choke artists." Funny but scarcely fair, unless the Sedin line is the "one line" meant; Bertuzzi, at least, didn't exactly disappear in the final three games. (In other news of bum goalies, CBC reported the other day that Roman Cechmanek is probably going to leave the NHL and return to his vowel-deprived homeland in disgrace.)
From Boston, Jason Ford writes "I KNEW I was right to be pessimistic about Vancouver...". But he has more to say:
Re: the concern about falling American ratings for ice hockey. If this is true, then good. Falling American ratings mean two good things.So much bitterness, still, over the Fox Network's notorious "blue puck". Look, I see the silly side of the blue puck, fellas, but Americans' inability to follow the play is the problem in hockey marketing. It dwarfs all other such problems--the only comparable one being that Americans don't dominate the world in the game--and unless you've come up with a better way to solve it in under two or three generations, please don't rip Fox too badly.
Ice, ice, baby
Not much to say about Minnesota-Anaheim tonight, some of which I heard on the radio. I enjoy listening to hockey on the radio, but I have to admit: when it's the Wild and the Ducks, the urge to nap becomes overpowering. Is anyone out there feeling embarrassed yet at cheering for these low-scoring underdogs to reach the conference final? Minnesota's game is actually kind of fun to watch: they play a style far more fraught with danger than the classic, standard-issue trap that looked to become a dominant paradigm in the sport five years ago. Like Philly, Minnesota is a counterpunching team, only they've got a Gaborik on the roster, which Philly doesn't. You don't score 13 goals in two games, like they did against the Canucks, playing the trap.
Rick Hiebert asks me what I think of this Ed Willes column in the Province:
If you watched the third period of the gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden from the world championships on Sunday, you saw more action than fans will see in the entire Anaheim-Minnesota series.The answer is, international-sized ice is a good idea, but an argument like this in its favour is silly in any number of ways. All right, what number? Let's count:
One: it's bogus to cite an international all-star tournament as an example of hockey that's more exciting because of the larger ice surface. Of course the hockey is going to be exciting: you've got the best Canadians from 22 of the 30 NHL teams playing against the best Swedes from those same teams. No pro club can assemble that level of talent--not unless the NHL is contracted back down to the Original Six clubs--and it's not remotely fair to judge an NHL game according to that standard.
Two: there isn't any mystery as to why the NHL "refuses to see" that a larger ice surface might be better for the game. The mysterious part is why a columnist would think the league hasn't studied the issue. It's not cheap to upgrade 30 arenas, most of them built in the last ten years, and tear out several rows of the most profitable seats in those arenas. Sure, if offence increased as a consequence of larger ice, it might help market the game--but enough to make up for the initial cost and the lost ticket revenues? Ed Willes can't pretend to have crunched those numbers. It's pure supposition.
Three: "TV ratings [for the NHL playoffs], which have always laboured in the States, are now falling through the floor." And how big were the U.S. TV ratings for the thrill-a-minute World Hockey Championships? What--you mean they weren't even shown on U.S. TV? Why not, if Americans are so hungry for that great hockey on big ice?
Four: Why is it necessarily the fault of the league or the game if televised NHL hockey isn't reaching an audience? Doesn't ESPN have some responsibility to do this work, to take on some of the marketing burden? As I've complained before, they have refused to treat NHL hockey with the overwhelming seriousness they reserve for women's college basketball. Yet sports columnists persist in arguing on ESPN's behalf that hockey needs a facelift in order to make money for the Mouse. Surely this is like telling a battered wife that her husband roughed her up because she let herself get too fat.
Five: And if declining American viewership for hockey were caused by a "stagnating" game, then surely we would expect to find that Canadians were tuning out too? Yet hockey--and this is astonishing to me--gets more popular with the Canadian public every year. CBC seems to have no trouble finding new viewership levels with each succeeding year's playoffs, and Don Cherry's place in the culture has transcended the merely totemistic. Far from tuning out, Canadians appear to be tuning back into hockey after a period of disenchantment in the 1990s.
I could probably find more absurdities to chalk up in Ed's column, but five in 180 words is a pretty impressive rate. And having said all that, I do believe a bigger ice surface would give us a better game of hockey, on the whole. But when I say "I believe", I only mean I think it's more probable than not; you lose some good things about the game, too, when you upsize the ice. You think Todd Bertuzzi is still going to be able to cream three or four guys a night on a bigger ice surface? You don't think power plays are going to be a little more ineffective, a little more boring, if you make the ice wider and give the penalty-killing team more room to ice the puck? Most sportswriters--and this is why I'm annoyed by most sportswriters--have smart solutions for every problem, and absolutely no sense of just how haunted rule-bound systems are by unintended consequences. Because they're too busy meeting deadlines to control their rants--and I sympathize, believe me--we end up getting 50 print guys pleading for kneejerk changes which then hurt the game, usually in small but noticeable ways, when they're adopted. If I had to choose an exhibit A I'd probably pick these stupid four-part won-loss records (the Jacksonburg Jackals were 15-10-5-2 on the road this season, kids!) that have come about because of the new point-scoring scheme.
A quite night in the NHL playoffs, but a busy day at the World Championships in Finland, where Canada won the gold medal after a five-year podium drought. I imagine a lot of Canadians and Edmontonians were following the championships more actively than they were the Stanley Cup playoffs. No fewer than six Oilers were on Team Canada, which was captained by Ryan Smyth. Myself... yeah, I find it a little hard to take the "What Country Has the Best NHL Playoff Losers?" tournament seriously. The gold-medal winner last year was Slovakia--not that Slovakia is a joke country in hockey like Switzerland or anything, but come on. Slovakia?
But I'm glad Canada won, and of course I'm of the opinion that Canada bloody well should win. What concerns me is the 13th-place performance of the United States. They finished behind Ukraine and Denmark this year. Partly it's because American players don't care as much about wearing their country's uniform--which sounds like a funny thing to say about Americans, but have a look at the team USA roster. The one really good player who could be convinced to turn up was Phil Housley. A year ago, at the Olympic tournament, the USA gave Canada a pretty good run for the gold, but at the worlds, Phil Housley and nineteen journeymen doesn't stack up to a roster that features Sean Burke and Roberto Luongo in net, Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Brewer, and Steve Staios on defence, and a gang of forwards featuring Kirk Maltby, Dany Heatley, Anson Carter, Mike Comrie, Ryan Smyth, etc., etc. The turnout is particularly extraordinary when you consider that Canada followed a conscious policy, this year, of not browbeating guys who wanted to start the off-season early.
But then you look at the roster of that 2002 U.S. Olympic team and you start to wonder if maybe the other part of the problem isn't simply that the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" is a long, long time ago. Who among U.S.-born hockey players is a rising star still in his prime? Drury and Deadmarsh are terrific, and you know I like Mike York, but nearly everyone else on that USA team is at least 32 years old now--Modano is eternally young, but his birth certificate says he's 32, and so's Doug Weight. And guys like Housley, Hull, and Chelios are getting to be my dad's age.
You compare the team Gretzky picked for Canada, and you see there's talent at every age level--especially if he'd picked Joe Thornton. (Gretz was given merry hell for leaving him off, but all has been forgiven. In fact, Thornton stayed home from the worlds, perhaps still in a snit over his Olympic non-selection. It's starting to look like the guy may be Canada's personal good-luck charm as long as he stays the hell away from the national side.) Simon Gagne, 23; Jarome Iginla, 26; Paul Kariya, still just 28; Smytty's 27; Ed Jovanovski's only 26; Pronger and Mike Peca are 29. Even Eric Lindros is only 30, you know--he just started out real young at being a royal pain in the ass, so he seems older. Below the age of 32, American depth of hockey talent isn't nearly this deep. I don't think it's a coincidence that those 32-year-old Americans would have been aged nine in 1980.
On a practical level, the coming American drought--which one hopes will be alleviated over time by the NHL's marketing efforts and expansion in the U.S.--isn't a good thing for hockey. It helps hockey if the Americans are credible in high-level international play, particularly the Olympics. And right now it's hard to see the Americans doing as well as silver at the next Olympiad.
News from nowhere
I could weblog the news you've all heard about today's games, but frankly it's news that merely prolongs the story of this year's playoffs: Minnesota and Anaheim met and attained a Zen state of goallessness, and Ottawa tried to give a game to New Jersey but then came to their senses. But get this: over dinner tonight one of my parents, I can't even remember which, mentions that Wade Redden is from Hillmond, Saskatchewan. I can hear you asking "Where?" Well, exactly. Hillmond's a "Where?" kind of place. But it's where my dad grew up, and it turns out he went to school with Redden's old man, who later played in the Red Wings' farm system. Redden still apparently goes back in the off-season to muck around the family farm, just up the road from ours. I'm kind of astonished nobody ever mentioned this to me. If anyone from my hometown had made the NHL I'd almost feel obliged to pull for their team full-time (and even as it is, I think it's kind of nifty that I've got Redden in my pool). But Saskatchewan, I think I must admit, produces more hockey talent per capita than Alberta does. I was a rink rat for years and I saw exactly one NHL-calibre prospect play in my home arena. At 14 he dominated the play like a giant among infants, yet to describe his NHL career as that of a "role-player" would be absurdly generous. I can only imagine what kind of destruction Redden, a 2nd-overall draft pick who's played in the All-Star Game, wreaked against his age-matched mates.
That's why they play the games
As I sit here with mouth absolutely agape at the prospect of a Minnesota-Anaheim Western Conference Final, I am reminded of the words of our Bermuda correspondent, Jefferson N. Glapski, who told me less than a week ago that I was a fool to give Dallas a significant chance of coming back from 3-1 down against Anaheim because those comebacks are "virtually impossible." Sure, Dallas didn't do the job: but now Minnesota has, twice in one playoff year--doing it the second time against a team that had itself come back from 3-1 against St. Louis. Of all the collapses this year by high-seeded Western teams, Vancouver's has got to be the most painful by a mile or more. Anaheim and Minnesota had cleared the road to the Stanley Cup for the Canucks: Detroit, the defending champion, killed--Dallas, with Stu Barnes on its freaking fourth line, killed--Colorado, with two of the five best players in the world, killed. This was the best Canucks team anyone's ever seen, they were in the driver's seat after Game Four, and they were in the driver's seat tonight with a two-zip lead. They couldn't seal the deal. Kelly Hrudey, behind me, is working desperately to exonerate Dan Cloutier right now. He wasn't so kind to Roman Cechmanek, and Roman Cechmanek has a lot less to answer for.
You knew the game was over for the Canucks on the first Minnesota goal, when Cloutier, faced with an admittedly disastrous defensive collapse, had Wes Walz bearing down on his glove side and simply abandoned the goal to Walz in order to fling himself across the crease to stop a pass that hadn't been made--hadn't even been faked. Wes Walz, for Christ's sake--Wes Walz, a man of such blinding offensive skill that he was playing for Lugano in the Swiss League this time three years ago, at the age of 30.
Not that Walz isn't terrific. He's a Selke Trophy finalist, and Jacques Lemaire reportedly says he's worth as much as a 50-goal scorer--"he'll get you 15 and prevent another 35." But far more than the giant-killing Ducks, who are something of a mini-giant themselves, the Wild inspire thoughts of phrases like "ragtag collection" and "stones that were rejected by the builder." Yeah, Cliff Ronning was golden tonight, but on other nights in these playoffs he's given off a distinct sour smell (he was a healthy scratch in Game Three of this series), and if you're an expansion team with a Cliff Ronning hanging around like a hipster doing a fourth year of high school, you obviously haven't completed that transition from initial credibility to new team with an independently-constructed nucleus. We all love struggling, passionate, hardnosed guys in their sunset years, yadda yadda, but the Oilers didn't start winning Stanley Cups until they had gotten rid of the Bill Fletts and the Al Hamiltons. What Minnesota's doing here shouldn't be possible. The power shift in the West is happening way, way ahead of schedule. Anaheim-Minnesota in the final? Haw haw--that's a good bet in 2005, all right. Sometimes the great game of hockey makes delirious fools of us all.
A Mighty wind
Don't know what to tell you about tonight's weird events. Philadelphia ran out of gas--that, at least, was in accord with the natural order. But then Dan Cloutier collapsed Roy-fashion--and yes, it was that bad--against the Wild. Vancouver lost 7-2. Until tonight the Minnesota franchise had never scored seven goals in a game. The Canucks have two more chances to seal the deal yet, and team's ability to overcome its goaltender's mental shakiness must be considered a tribute to its greatness in other respects. I note that Cloutier came back after his bad game against the Blues with a world-class performance.
And now Dallas is dead after a bizarre third period of play against the Ducks. Down 3-2, the Stars equalized on another Stu Barnes special coming out from behind the net; but video review showed that the goal had come off the moorings a split-second before the puck broke the goal line. No score. Then with five minutes left Morrow deflected in a Zubov shot from the point, and again it seemed--if the Ducks radio broadcasters can be believed--that the goal was going to be called back; I haven't seen the footage but apparently it went in off Morrow's skate. The video judge relented and counted the marker, perhaps on the theory that two half-goals deserve to add up to one whole one.
Or perhaps the sheer metaphysical inevitability of the Stars' comeback persuaded him. I was pulling pretty hard for Dallas by the end of that game. Everyone I've talked to is hoping for the Anaheim Cinderella story to continue, but the team, after all, is owned by those sinister bastards at Disney--and isn't a World Series enough for one suburb in one year? My team in the hockey pool is full of Dallas Stars, and of course the Big Spreadsheet's reputation among the punters would have been enhanced by every increment of their success. I had begun to dream--and my dreams were shattered like an egg with 1:06 left by Sandis Ozolinsh, a terrific defenceman who until tonight was largely invisible in these playoffs. Anaheim 4, Dallas 3.
Is anyone still in serious doubt that we're going to see French-Canadian goalies on all of the NHL's final four teams this year? Brodeur, Lalime, Giguere, and, if he can get his act together, Cloutier. ColbyCosh.com's assignment desk is calling out to you, sports editors of the world!
Since the Big Spreadsheet numbers have been shaken up so seriously by Dallas's exit, let me expand a little on the new numbers at left. In the Ottawa-NJ Eastern final, the Sens are favoured 61-39. Again, I get the impression from reporters that Ottawa is supposed to quail in the face of the insuperable Devils: note, however, that Ottawa won the season series handily, winning three games and losing one. The odds of a Canadian team reaching the Stanley Cup final are now 84%; of two reaching it, 36%. Minnesota is given a 15% chance of finishing its comeback against Vancouver. And in the conference head-to-heads, Dallas' absence now makes the West only a 59-41 favourite.
Decoding the Flyers
May 3: Ottawa defeats Philadelphia, and Dallas wins the first of the three straight games it needs against Anaheim to stave off elimination. (Is anything but playoff elimination ever "staved off" in the English language? Is "staved" even the correct participial form of "stave"...?) Goalies were pulled by the losing team in both games, and by the way, didn't Robert Esche look good in the Philly net? It's always nice to see a guy come in cold and not crumble.
As promised, I tried to watch the Ottawa game with particular attention to the Flyers. What struck me early on was something I'd heard about before but never put much stock in: Ken Hitchcock's talent for timely line changes. For the first seven minutes of the game he always seemed to have fresh legs out there because he's willing to take players off at the strangest junctures in the action: not for Hitch is the habit of leaving the trailing defenceman to revolve in lazy circles while inbound and outbound players bustle about changing places on the bench. He puts huge, huge stock in counterpunching, and will use those line changes to sneak a guy behind the defence unseen. His team's quality of relying on defensive mistakes is so extreme that Philadelphia never does seem to carry the puck out of its own end all the way into Ottawa's.
But--as I say, about seven minutes in--Hitch's clever-clever line changes broke his team's back. With the Flyers up 1-0, something went screwy, there was a traffic jam at the Philly bench, and Bryan Smolinski raced to open ice unfettered and popped a slapper past Cechmanek high on the glove side. Yeah, it was deflected very slightly by a Flyer defender's stick, but only by about two degrees: lots of goalies would have made the stop. Patrick Lalime would have, for one. About four minutes later a charging Flyer forward fired at the same spot in Lalime's net and he made one of the quickest glove saves I've ever seen--SNAP! Whether crossing from side to side or merely thrusting out a limb, Lalime has to be one of the three or four fastest goaltenders alive. He cradled the puck on that save with visible satisfaction. Soon the Flyers were down 4-1 and Cechmanek was riding the pine. Lalime has yet to lose two consecutive games in these playoffs: is it time yet to anoint a new St. Patrick?
Anyway, a related quality of the Flyers offence is that they're incredibly immobile in the neutral zone. Whether Jeremy Roenick simply can't skate anymore, I don't know, but when the puck comes to him in the middle of the rink, he's almost always standing still, poised like a quarterback; other Flyer forwards seem to have a similar role, with fast wingers like Simon Gagne and Sami Kapanen serving as "wide receivers" (and hanging around sneakily behind the play, waiting to jump on a mistake, if the puck is turned over). Hitch's team is playing football out there! Is he the Amos Alonzo Stagg of hockey? In the era of the trap, mobility through the neutral zone is generally strongly emphasized: Hitch seems to have concluded that since the puck inevitably moves faster than the defender, it's better not to try to crash through the trap using pure speed. There's something to this, perhaps, but it still makes me feel queasy when I watch it. Nobody on the Flyers ever skates toward the net! This isn't hockey!
One could even speculate that the Flyers' passive, individual-effort-discouraging style is required to knit together a rich Eastern team full of aging malcontents. Just stay within the system and wait for a mistake! You can be replaced by anyone who can dump the puck, pally! There are no Bertuzzis or Gaboriks here!
An evening of decisions
So farewell then, Tampa Bay Thunderbolts or Powerbars or whatever... let's all take a deep breath: the last wholly bogus Eastern playoff qualifier has been booted out of the playoffs, and now only really good teams are left. Not that I'm entirely comfortable assigning that status to Philadelphia, but you can't argue with the results. Somehow Ken Hitchcock is behind this--I'll have to focus on the Flyers tomorrow and develop my impression of them, because I'll bet they're doing something different that I haven't spotted. Have you noticed, by the way, that Hitch is putting back all that weight he lost? Makes you worry--I'd hate to be the guy's wife. You know, despite all the years of Stars-Oilers business, Hitchcock never became a hate figure in this town, because he's from here: he went from minor hockey in Edmonton, coaching midget players (note to Americans: not literal midgets), to the major juniors, pro minors, and on to the NHL. The kind of pay-your-dues pathway you'd expect a lot of head coaches to follow, though of course almost none do.
Hitch is real good at keeping the media on his side--he's candid and lucid, and reporters gravitate naturally to a guy who, like them, never played the game. And he knows his psychology. After Martin Havlat accidentally got his stick up and gave Kim Jonsson a 25-stitch booboo in Flyers-Sens Game Two, Hitch went straight for the jugular in the post-game presser, calling Ottawa "a dirty team" and singling out Havlat for particular abuse. Havlat, a soft-spoken 22-year-old still trying to get comfortable in a foreign country. shrugged it off as a media tactic, then went out and played Game Three like he was trying to hatch duck's eggs in his skates. Philly lost, but the Ottawa papers had to admit that maybe Hitchcock had won the mental game. Here's Allen Panzeri in the Citizen:
Reminded that he was the one who orchestrated the verbal onslaught, and then asked if it had been contrived, [Hitch] didn't say no.Ah yes, the '85 final. Sather said at the time that he didn't intend to let Lindbergh "set out a lunch buffet" on the twine. Reporters snickered and printed the story, and Lindbergh, coming off a Vezina Trophy season, came comprehensively apart--he was pulled for Bob Froese (!) after a Gretzky outburst in Game Three, gave up four power-play goals in Game Four, and suddenly discovered a "sore knee" that forced him to sit out Game Five, which the Oilers won 8-3 to take back the Cup. Not to ascribe too much to Sather's needling, but within six months Pelle Lindbergh was dead, having tried while drunk to persuade his Porsche to occupy the same space as a brick wall.
I hope the Canucks fans out there got to see Vancouver beat Minnesota 3-2 in overtime tonight. The game was tremendous. Minnesota was having good success with Minnesota-brand hockey until 2:09 of the third, when they got careless with their 1-0 lead; three Wild players found themselves staring at each other behind the Vancouver net while the Canucks broke out and beat Fernandez on a four-on-two rush. (The CBC's Chris Cuthbert and Greg Millen more or less hung that goal on the Wild's Andrei Zyuzin, which was a tad unfair. Yeah, Zyuzin coughed up the puck, but he was the first Wild player behind the Canuck net, so he had bragging rights--it was Cliff Ronning, whose actual position varies according to barometric pressure, who was really caught short on the play, as I saw it.) About a minute later Marian Gaborik stepped up and brought the Wild back to 2-1 by finding and ravaging Cloutier's five-hole: for those keeping track of "playoff experience" at home, Gabby just turned 22 and this is his first year in a pro playoff. Oh, and he got the first Wild goal, too.
At this point things looked a little grim for the Canucks, but the refs handed them the game. All right--this is a mild overstatement. But I don't think I'm alone in having perceived a surreal quality to the events of the closing minutes. At 16:25 Bertuzzi finally settled Willie Mitchell's hash--their struggle for the Wild goalmouth has been the undercard during this series--with a perfectly clean hit that somehow--well, I don't know what the hell was wrong with Willie, but it looked like he got his wrist caught awkwardly or something, or maybe Bertuzzi's inhuman momentum had caused his liver to explode. It shouldn't have been relevant: the hit was legal. But one of the officials saw Mitchell hunched over like a wounded Marine trying to hold in his intestines, and concluded with split-second logic that something penalizable must have taken place. (This happens to Bertuzzi a lot.) Bertuzzi got frogmarched off for boarding, but through that silent consensus they reach by means of the force field that binds refs together (their striped shirts act as a psychic resonator), the other three officials decided that they had blundered and would have to make it up to the Canucks. Poor Zyuzin was sent off 43 seconds later on an equally phantasmagorical hooking call, and it was another mere 46 seconds before Vancouver tied it up. Four-on-four simply isn't a good situation for the Wild, or anybody else, against a team like Vancouver which can attack you so many different ways.
The game was decided in OT by a high-sticking call against Filip Kuba--a fair cop, as he clearly got his stick blade up in Bertuzzi's face, but it was unclear why it was a double minor, since Bertuzzi showed no sign of being cut. There was blood on the towel, but I've always suspected that trainers may keep pre-blooded towels on hand for such occasions; and besides, the blood was red like a human's, which means it couldn't possibly have come from Bertuzzi. Q.E.D.
The Timelord and the buffoon
That's real great, gods of hockey: if I weren't at the top of the table in my pool already, I'd be seriously reaming you out for throwing back-to-back one-zip shutouts at Dallas and Ottawa when the remnants of my team consist of Dallas (3 players) and Ottawa (3 players). What was the deal with the Sens tonight? It almost felt like a replay of the Dallas game... none of the offensively dangerous Stars had a particularly bad game last night, and I wouldn't say any of the Sens did tonight, either. As so often in the playoffs it came down to luck--luck, and the hotter two of four very hot goalies. Lalime's the one I really feel for, because there's an unjust reek of playoff failure following him around and I'm hoping he'll shake it.
The funny thing is that you couldn't pick two more dissimilar goaltenders than Cechmanek, a stylistic slob who sometimes appears to be trying to stop a whole other puck than the one in play, and Giguere, whose simply lets pucks hit him in the chest as if he had master control of the curvature of spacetime. Giguere reads his opponents' minds (though he's not above the occasional acrobatic act of larceny); Cechmanek occasionally seems not to even possess one.
It's nice to see stylistic distinctions re-emerge at the goaltending position: it adds some flavour to the game. Sometimes I think of them like baseball pitchers. Marty Turco's willingness to play third defenceman adds a dimension to his team--notionally--like the expert fielding of a Jim Kaat or a Greg Maddux. (One of the bizarre uncommented aspects of the Oilers-Stars series was the way Tommy Salo unconsciously but visibly began to imitate Turco, roaming further from the goalmouth as the games went on. This may, however, have been on instructions from the coaching staff: Turco was getting cheap goalie-interference calls thirty or forty feet from his net, and possibly the Oilers wanted to even the score.) Garth Snow, with his pads that come up to his chin, is the lovable cheat, the Gaylord Perry/Phil Niekro figure (though there's no actual rule against Snow's equipment). For an ageless, overrated Nolan Ryan figure, you could do worse than Patrick Roy. And maybe, with his stumbling and tumbling, Cechmanek has a bright future, if he wants it, as the Max Patkin of hockey.
I suppose it's time to update the hockey page here, though to be honest I haven't had much more luck in seeing any games, or, alternatively, I've been busy enough socially that I haven't sat home and watched much hockey. I did catch nearly all of last night's action on Internet radio, which may make this a good time to praise NHL.com for putting radio feeds of all the league's action online for free. As I've noted before, Gary Bettman takes a lot of crap for his work as commissioner, and gets no credit for real achievements--like, for example, allowing for the Oilers' continued existence under a dodgy management structure. We would all like for the NHL to have preserved all the hitherto existing Canadian teams, I know, but at least Bettman recognizes that you can't have a credible National Hockey League without five or six Canadian clubs (I say "five" because I still think Alberta is eventually going to be left with one team in the long run). If the NHL vacated every Canadian city but Toronto, as it might have if the owners were given a free hand, a competing Canadian league would arise within weeks--and whether or not it would survive itself, it would do a staggering amount of damage to the existing league. Bettman knows this; he's just got to convince the Players' Association of it.
Anyway, continuing the free online radio broadcasts is another fine, level-headed accomplishment for the league. Major league baseball won't give the fans anything if it thinks it can squeeze a penny or two out of them; to receive MLB radio broadcasts you have to pay an annual fee, then re-up for the playoffs (and hope that the mandatory RealPlayer doesn't entirely overload your OS with crud). Of course, baseball works better on the radio than hockey does, so MLB's different valuation of its product is not entirely unjustified, but from a marketing standpoint it does not make sense for you to erect that many barriers between the fan and the game--especially if your game is sloughing tons of popularity every year. It's only radio, all right? Maybe, just maybe, if I can follow my favourite team on the radio for free, I'll continue to give a crap about baseball and spend money on it in other venues. The NHL understands this. It behaves as though it has a sense that all its fans are important.
Unfortunately, it seems American radio tandems rarely come equipped with a good colour man--there just aren't enough lucid ex-players like Darren Pang to go around, and TV gets first pick of the lot. So listening to Dallas-Anaheim or Tampa Bay-New Jersey on the Internet gives one only a poor idea of the flow of the game. (Anaheim's broadcaster does do one interesting thing, which is to have injured Ducks players sit in and do colour. I guess Disney owns those guys on and off the ice.) The one thing that stood out last night was Giguere's theft of Game Four, and possibly the series, from Dallas. The Big Spreadsheet gives the Stars a 37% chance of coming back from 3-1 down, but there was absolutely nothing encouraging in Dallas's loss last night, unless the apparent tendency for the Stars to back off their forechecking scheme until they are in considerable danger counts as an "encouraging" thing. The Stars cannot be beaten if they work hard, but will they work hard? I've got to think, subjectively, that 37% is an overestimate.
As you can see, the updated Cup odds now make Vancouver the favourite to win the whole thing. I'm sorry if this is psychically disconcerting to Canucks fans: it may be an outright historic first. There is now a 70% chance that there will be at least one Canadian team in the Stanley Cup final--and with Dallas in such deep doo-doo, we must take note, for the first time, of the very real chance (20%) that there will be two Canadian teams at the last dance. (Ottawa-Vancouver is currently the most likely finals pairing, with New Jersey-Vancouver in second place at 17%.) We will hear a lot, if that happens, about what a "disaster" that is for ESPN or whomever. We will hear nothing at all--because the numbers aren't quantifiable in the short term--about how much that would do to restore the NHL's credibility in Canada, where the pro game still must ultimately stand or fall.
An encouraging loss
Well, Ottawa and Vancouver both lost tonight, but nothing I saw convinces me that either is really likely to be beaten in this round of the playoffs. This is particularly true of the Vancouver-Minnesota game, where the astonishing Game One comeback combined with the near-replay tonight seems to me to constitute a convincing refutation of Minnesota's system. Yes, the everybody-stay-at-home style seems well designed to win about half of the games--if you're up by two goals with about two minutes left. And with Marian Gaborik on your club, you can count on that happening surprisingly often. But, really, you should win a lot more than half of those games, and anyway, what are the Wild going to do if they ever get behind?
It might be argued that they need not ever get behind, with Roloson and Fernandez rotating in the net. Maybe so, but let's not forget that Markus Naslund is simply the league's leading destroyer of goalies. I've always been impressed with Manny, but Roloson's holding the hammer right now, and in the final seconds tonight he showed us what would be about a week's worth of technical horrors for some goalies. On Ohlund's goal he left half the door open because his whole body weight was on his right knee: it was almost touching, a hint of a lost Golden Age, to see a goalie trapped in such imperfect balance in an era when everybody's a Baryshnikov. Human, all too human! Later, as the clock was ticking, Roloson gave the puck away at the right side of the goalmouth after it took him precious seconds to decide whether he wanted to cover--and risk having his team lose another faceoff to Trevor Linden--or play it and eat valuable seconds. He played it, and was lucky to scramble back before one of the rampant Canucks took advantage of the unattended net. He ended up turtled over the puck as his teammates struggled to clear the crease of men twice their size. He looked positively prayerful, and--at a guess--probably was.
Reader mail: my salvation when I don't have the strength to weblog! I didn't watch Saturday's games (I don't even know if CBC bought the rights to one or not), and I missed Friday's because I was at my sister's housewarming. I did track the official scoresheet of the Vancouver game at the party, and embarrassed myself by announcing a Minnesota victory with, what, ten whole seconds left. Silly me.
Laura Demanski, still-stunned Wings fan, is further stunned by the way the Stars-Ducks series is panning out:
I think I saw this movie already. The plot so far in Dallas could hardly be a better replica of the Detroit series. The extended game 1, with Giguere frustrating the other team's shooters... game 2, looking to be a close Dallas victory late, but they can't capitalize on their chances to stretch the lead and then Anaheim cashes in to tie, and again to win...and? Dallas should note that this is the point in the previous series when the Wings started passing when they should have been shooting, doubting themselves, getting outplayed. They're in a dangerous spot (though they can look to Guerin's return, if it comes soon, to divert the first-round plot in some new direction). Color me stunned. Future's looking bright for the Canucks.
Maybe Dallas shouldn't be in such a hurry to rush back injured players; Pierre Turgeon hasn't been a hell of a lot of use, and if Guerin's not going to be either, they shouldn't waste the bench space on guys who may have to slog through a couple more long OTs before this thing is through. Whose turn it is to wear a suit so Guerin can play--Manny Malhotra's? Manny's not anybody's idea of a skill player, but if Guerin is too tender to handle forechecking duties you're just opening the door a little wider for the Ducks.
I see Turco as being the key to putting that series back on its foreordained track. The Big Spreadsheet, as you can tell from the Cup numbers at left, is starting to perspire a little. Nonetheless, Dallas is still favoured to beat Anaheim 50.9%-49.1%. Concerning the sheet's oraculations, Jason Ford writes:
As a Vancouver fan, I hope your updated spreadsheet is right (showing the Nucks with a 26% chance of taking the Cup), but I am worried your system is severely underestimating the Devils. I can see them having a low-ish number, given that they may have to face Dallas in a potential final... but if Dallas fails to make it out of the West, wouldn't the Devils honestly be favoured over Vancouver?
Now here is a genuine pessimist! You see, even Western Conference fans have trouble believing the facts of life. The final season standings, you'll recall, had New Jersey earning 108 points (46-20-10-6) and Vancouver earning 104 (45-23-13-1). Can we agree that those are pretty darn similar records, almost indistinguishable? I think we can. But of course, the near-equality of the season records means little or nothing, because each of these teams played 60 of their games against opponents in their own conference. And, as it happens, the Eastern Conference is certifiably a bush league compared to the West. Western teams as a whole were 160-109-38-22 against Eastern teams this year. If you count those overtime losses as losses (and you kind of have to, since the overtime wins count as wins) there's still a clear, large advantage. 160-131-38: that works out to a .544 winning percentage.
If Team A has the same record as Team B, but Team A plays in a league that plays .544 hockey against Team B's league, how much room do you have left to argue that Team B is better than Team A? Not much. The sheet makes Vancouver a 72%-28% favourite in a hypothetical Cup final against New Jersey (and says there's about a 1-in-7 chance of that actually coming off). That may be somewhat unkind to New Jersey, who play a style well suited to the playoffs. But New Jersey also had no 60-point scorers this year, at all; and I'm not persuaded that their success so far is any reason to doubt the assessment. What, they beat Boston, they're gonna beat Tampa Bay, and suddenly they're the Second Coming? If you merged Boston and Tampa's rosters, you could maybe make one team almost as good as Vancouver.
Butterflies are free
In case you missed it, I posted last night on the main page about the amazing Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the health difficulties he has to overcome to play in these obscenely long games. Some time ago, I think it was before the playoffs started and this separate page was created, I mentioned something to the effect that of the three significant species of human hockey goaltender--Anglo-Canadian, French-Canadian, European--I should much prefer, on intuitive grounds, to have a French-Canadian goalie going into the playoffs. I hadn't worked out the reasons I feel this way; still haven't. But take a look at the results of the first round this year. The only team that beat a French goalie to get into the conference semis was Minnesota--and it took them until overtime in the seventh game to do it, against the goalie with the most miles on his odometer in the history of the game. In other relevant series we saw J.-S. Giguere humiliate Curtis Joseph; Danny Cloutier outplay Chris Osgood; Patrick Lalime beat Garth Snow; and Martin Brodeur walk past Steve Shields plus whomever Boston threw in at the end, there. If we could step back and get some perspective, this might be one of the big stories of the playoff year.
Young French goalies do tend to go higher in the draft than their European counterparts, I believe, and scouts will occasionally express the same vague feeling I did. The main reason may, ironically, be Patrick Roy, the only French goalie who has been seen off from this year's playoffs after a culling of half the qualifiers. Roy, despite my frequent cavils against him, must be admitted to have changed the game of hockey to a greater degree than any player since Gretzky, and perhaps has done so more, or more permanently, than Gretzky in the long run. Gretzky was rather sui generis as a talent; you can't just imitate his puck sense (although players can, and do, imitate his creative activation of the space behind the goal line, for example). But Roy's refinement of butterfly technique has been imitated so broadly as to have become absolutely universal in the game; the last goalie anyone would describe as "stand-up" is probably Arturs Irbe, who was waived late in the year and faces a uncertain professional fate. The French kids like Cloutier and Giguere come from a generation that has admired Roy the longest and most intensely, and perhaps it can be said that they have pushed his stylistic discoveries to the furthest pitch of perfection; they learned and absorbed his tricks practically with their mother's milk.
The question to my mind is whether there will not, inevitably, be a relaxation of the trend. The Roy style of goaltending has well-understood vulnerabilities with respect to the top half of the net and the five-hole; the Columbine discovery of Roy was that these vulnerabilities can be safely ignored in a game which depends so heavily on deflections and front-of-net traffic for scoring. There are changes to the rulebook, suggested but not yet adopted, which would put more stress on these Roy-esque goalies; widening the ice surface to Olympic size is one, putting some kind of reasonable limit on the height of goalie pads is another. But the first is commercially unpalatable, or thought to be so, and the second poses a potentially impossible challenge of rule-formulation. I wonder if it won't just be a matter of some guy from B.C. or Slovenia coming along who has studied Roy as closely as all these Gallic magicians have, and who can find the holes preternaturally well, and who scores 80 goals some year as a consequence.
A night to remember
David Janes offers an eloquent visual comment on the Leafs' loss last night.
I guess they got the help
Rick Hiebert wants to see the Canucks win just one Stanley Cup before he dies. (Entry features your correspondent as a special guest star.)
Names and numbers
Uh... wow. I don't know about you guys, but up here in Canada we got to watch the two of the three Game Sevens that weren't down to the wire, and it was still a heck of an exciting evening. How often are you gonna see two teams gas 3-1 series leads simultaneously? And--leaving aside the lopsided Toronto result--could anything be sweeter for Canadians than to have the Canucks rally against the high-payroll Blues, and for Olympic traitor Patrick Roy and the stolen Quebec City franchise to collapse against an expansion team? Hope you enjoy the shit sandwich, Avs fans. For the record, Colorado had 43 shots on Manny Fernandez; Minnesota had 27 on Roy.
Hey, at least Roy kept it close. Tonight's Toronto broadcast featured a lot of huffing and puffing about how Ed Belfour--an almost equal hate figure in my demonology, although I wanted the Leafs to win--had been let down by his defence. There's no question that various Flyers had enough time to pitch a tent on Ed's doorstep tonight, but can I get a witness to the two irresponsible, dumb penalties Belfour took in the second period? Both of which led to goals? Without which that was a perfectly salvageable game for the Leafs? You're going to hear that Belfour played well in spite of the 6-1 score, which he did, and that none of the goals were particularly bad ones, which is true, but if they don't tell you about his two needless, fairly blatant minor penalties in the pivotal period of the series, you're not getting the whole story.
As for the Blues-Canucks game: boy, did the Canucks play good hockey. In the end, the Blues were let down by a brave but, under the circumstances, overmatched defence. If anybody had told you at the start of the season that a defence led by MacInnis and Pronger--two guys who will probably go to the Hall of Fame without stopping for a burger--was going to find itself run out of the arena, you might have snickered. But MacInnis was only in the lineup tonight because he apparently decided that an early comeback from his horribly separated shoulder would provide some much-needed Game Seven dramatics. What the Blues really needed was a defenceman who could retrieve pucks behind their goal line--MacInnis couldn't; his shoulder was too dodgy--and who could stay on his feet without falling down alone in open ice--MacInnis couldn't--and who could clear a puck without putting it directly onto the stick of a Sedin twin--which MacInnis glaringly didn't in the first period, thus bringing about the first Vancouver goal (it was credited to Sedin from Sedin, but I don't remember which was which: does anybody?). Pronger, meanwhile, was still feeling the aftereffects of the flu that reportedly had him trembling like Michael J. Fox after Game Six. Not only that, but the Blues' #3 and #4 defencemen were fighting for their lives out there. Bryce Salvador, who is now on my list of players to watch, apparently had some nagging, unspecified injury tonight. And Marc Crawford, despicable genius that he is, found a great way to deal with Barret Jackman, the much-touted Calder candidate: having the last line change at home, he made damn sure that Todd Bertuzzi's double shifts coincided with the presence of the Blue defence pairing of Jackman and MacInnis. Perhaps the goal was to have Bertuzzi neutralize MacInnis if necessary, but with one good arm, MacInnis was self-neutralizing. This left Bertuzzilla free to abuse Jackman, and in hockey you don't get a standing eight count. By the third period Jackman looked ready to burst into tears.
In a way the whole spectacle was quite touching, with MacInnis feebly trying to inspire the troops. And in another way it was like watching one of those gory "Drunk Driving Kills!" movies from high-school driver-ed. Seriously, whatever technology was used to create Bertuzzi needs to be banned, even if the "technology" was just ordinary intercourse between gigantic, hairy Italians. Did they find this guy in the jungle? I've never, never seen such a physically dominant power forward. If you're not a hockey fan, think of Bertuzzi as being the NHL's Shaq: a horrifying, unstoppable man-mountain. The effect isn't so much geophysical, as in Shaq's case, as it is psychic: Bertuzzi's only 6'3", after all--there are guys who'll have three inches on him nowadays. But there are basketball players taller than Shaq, too, and they just don't seem to have the volcanic implications he does. Same with Bertuzzi. When he collides with anything, the "anything" always gives way. If he sets out to injure somebody, you get the sense it's a done deal. He's even kind of handsome in a prognathous, prickly-bearded apemanchild kind of way.
Time to look at the Big Spreadsheet now that the first playoff round is behind us. If you've had a chance to absorb tonight's scores the new Cup odds shouldn't surprise you too much; ladies and gentlemen, we've just dropped the third and fourth likeliest teams to win the Cup, as of last night, down to zero. Vancouver picks up almost all the slack in the West: Dallas "knew" already that its fated second-round opponent was Anaheim, but the Canucks learned they'd be playing Minnesota only with about two minutes to go in their game. Despite the early exits of Detroit, Colorado, and St. Louis, the West is still favoured in the Cup final 82%-18%. The sheet's "thinking" on this is that Dallas was strongly favoured to go through anyway, so all the excitement in the West just makes their path smoother. And even if one of the lower seeds get through--well, you have to remember that these low-seeded Western clubs would still look a whole lot better in the East: Anaheim, for instance, is rated as being roughly on par with New Jersey, and better than everyone else but Ottawa.
A quick rundown of the favourites and underdogs in the next-round matchups (favourite is listed first):
Dal-Ana 89%-11% Van-Min 74%-26% Ott-Phi 62%-38% NJ-TB 69%-31%
Doesn't this seem like an odd sort of President's Trophy "reward", by the way? Tampa Bay, as the champion of a weak division, is seeded third in the conference, and Philadelphia was seeded fourth even though they finished the year with 107 points to Tampa's 93. Ottawa, seeded first, now has to play Philadelphia. New Jersey's "punishment" for finishing behind Ottawa is to play Tampa Bay. Tastes like injustice to me.
This won't help you in your pool anymore (and I hope you went long on Dallas and Ottawa like I told you, kiddies: I know a guy who developed a hard-on for Avs instead of Sens and is regretting it right about now), but here's everyone's current odds of going to the Stanley Cup.
Dallas 71% Ottawa 41% New Jersey 30% Philly 20% Vancouver 21% Tampa Bay 9% Anaheim 4% Minnesota 4%
Note that the Eastern clubs stand in an almost perfect 40-30-20-10 ratio--a Keplerian harmonic of deep astronomical significance, no doubt. Odds of a Canadian team appearing in the final: 53%. A little worse than yesterday's, but not much worse. Having one frostback representative in each conference makes things nice and simple.
Down to the wire
I've updated the Stanley Cup chances. By pushing Colorado to the edge, Minnesota helped everyone else in the West; Minnesota's overall chances doubled, but so, for instance, did Anaheim's--because Anaheim now has to get past Dallas to reach the conference final anyway, and if Colorado joins Detroit in the graveyard the outlook improves markedly for them.
Minnesota's got to finish the job first. I didn't see any of the Wild-Avs game except highlights, but what I did see was almost as good. On the CBC, MacLean and Cherry were waiting for the OT to begin in Toronto--it had already begun in St. Paul--and they were jawing about the Red Deer Rebels, of all things, when, suddenly, MacLean broke off and both men leaned visibly towards a point offscreen. What the hell? Then they both shouted, almost simultaneously, "Minnesota scored!" They had the Minnesota game playing on a monitor while they were broadcasting the intermission. All I can say to the Patrick Roy fans out there is "Where's your messiah now?" Of course, it's not like he could possibly blow a Game Seven single-handed or anything, now is it. Oh, and way to finally show up at the dance, young Master Marian Gaborik--we've been waiting.
The game I did see part of was the Leafs' double-OT win. The Leafs showed a lot of jump in the first OT period, but by the time of Green's goal I had written them off: Gary Roberts and some of the other guys were starting to look like slow-motion replays of themselves out there. I knew if the Leafs had any chance that Darcy Tucker was going to have to be involved, and sure enough he was in on the game-winner. Darcy Tucker is the hockey love child of a ninja and the Energizer Bunny. With maybe some of Esa Tikkanen's sperm mixed in there: I'm no geneticist or anything.
So we've got three Game Sevens scheduled for tomorrow night. I already talked about what the Big Spreadsheet makes of the Canucks' chances, though since the Big Spreadsheet has never heard of influenza I think you have to make Vancouver a slightly better favourite than it advises. It gives Colorado a 66%-34% edge at home, slightly less than two-to-one, against the Wild. Obviously this must be considered an accurate reflection of the true state of affairs, however much we like Minnesota's grit; yes, Gaborik emerged as a factor tonight, but so did Joe Sakic's puck release--for my money, the single most beautiful phenomenon in current hockey. (Like a Nolan Ryan fastball, Sakic's shooting and passing can make your brain cut out for a second as you wonder did I really see that? Unfortunately for goalies, it has the same effect on them.) Philly and Toronto is basically another crapshoot: it's rated 55%-45% in Philly's favour, which also feels about right. Incidentally, don't you love those none-more-black Flyers road uniforms? How did they get them that printer's-ink colour?--it looks amazing on TV. If the Leafs-Flyers game is decided by who wants it more, it won't be close: watching Philadelphia tonight strongly confirmed my half-assed impression of that lot as a bunch of precise, talented players who radiate the approximate intensity of a busted E-Z-Bake Oven. What's Tony Amonte doing out there--his taxes? Fourier transforms?
Current odds of a Canadian team reaching the Cup final: 54%, a new high that reflects Toronto and Vancouver's remarkable, but still incomplete, comebacks. If both the Leafs and the Canucks win, that puts three Canadian teams in the final eight and raises the chances to 67%. Tuesday will truly be Hockey Night In Canada, a mari usque ad mare.
Pro and contra
Reasons to Cheer for the Flyers Tonight:
· The hockey pool I'm in (though I'm not the legal owner of "my" team--I made the player picks in exchange for a big cut of the gross) is based in Toronto: most of our opponents are therefore based in Toronto, and filled their rosters with Maple Leafs, probably not out of stupid, blind, arrogant optimism per se, but because that's just the team they know the most about. A Flyer victory would make the pips squeak very satisfyingly.
· The few Leaf fans in Western Canada are mostly baby-boomers who were watching hockey for years before Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg got NHL clubs. Anything that makes those sniveling liberal hippies feel bad is ipso facto desirable.
· Also, anything that will plunge the city of Toronto into a cycle of misery and black sadness is also ipso facto desirable, from a Western standpoint. All right--maybe SARS is an exception.
Reasons to Cheer for the Leafs Tonight:
· Look, I was raised on free-skating firewagon Oiler hockey, but even I have sentimental feelings about Darcy Tucker and Tie "Face Like a Fist" Domi when my team's not playing against them. And as a Cold War baby how can I not love Alexander Mogilny?
· The Oilers literally have no playoff history against the Leafs. Over the years I've acquired reasons to hate plenty of teams--the Flames, the Kings, the Islanders, Dallas, Colorado; and you'd better believe I wasn't overbrimming with love or respect for the Ron Hextall edition of the Philadelphia Flyers. While time has relegated Hextall to being merely one of Gretzky and the Oilers' more distinguished and tenacious victims, he's still owed a blanket party in this town for what he did to Kent Nilsson. (For younger fans: he chopped Nilsson down like a tree in the '87 finals and broke his leg: Nilsson was never again the same player. Hextall is generally recognized, I'd guess, as the dirtiest, most sadistic goalie to play the game, with Billy Smith a close second.)
· Of all these bogus Eastern teams that don't really have to bust their nuts trying to make the playoffs because they happen to be on the same half of the continent as the cockamamie tropical franchises, the Flyers just kinda feel like one of the most bogus. I don't quite know why this is, but for some reason I react exactly the same way to guys like Recchi and Roenick as I do to the sight of a way-too-old whore plying her toothless trade on 95th St. Sure, the Flyers are having a relatively easy time with the adversity-ridden Leafs, but give them even a little bit of real static and they'll start pining for Pebble Beach; we know this.
· Canadian team vs. American team. Pretty simple really. If I had to choose a Canadian team to go back to the Cup final at long last, Toronto would probably be the very last in line. But at this point in history, all six of the Canadian franchises are ahead, on that list, of all the American teams.
Blood, sweat, toil and tears
I do hope some of you got to see that terrific Blues-Canucks game tonight; Vancouver walked into the Savvis Center (doesn't that sound like a name for a quiet, discreet little suburban clinic where particularly nasty venereal diseases are treated?) and forced the Blues to Game Seven. And, let me tell you, the Blues left the ice tonight half-marching, half-scuttling--looking like they'd just lost Game Seven. The Blues have been brutalized by a flu bug and they're playing without their Norris/Hart candidate, Al MacInnis. You knew just what every man on that team was thinking: that they needed to put this one away at home, if only to earn the extra rest.
Under the circumstances, the Blues' apparent shame was undeserved. They opened the third period down 4-1, seemingly unable to cope with a Canucks offence whose engine is finally running in smooth, singing form. As a digression, I hadn't been watching anything but the Oilers-Stars games for the past few days, and that's a brand of hockey that's significantly, even famously, short on finesse. The Stars' power play is nothing special; they just put Modano (or whomever) near the goalmouth and pepper the goalie with seeing-eye pucks from the point. The Oilers' power play can barely even be said to exist; at some points during the series they actually seemed to improve suddenly when the other team got back to even strength, as if the calculus of the 5-4 advantage was too much for their brains to bear. So seeing the Canucks in action tonight had me wondering if I'd inadvertently ingested some amazing pharmaceutical with my pizza: what flair! I watched them smuggling wingers forward of the goal line in tandem and overloading one side of the offensive zone at psychologically crucial moments, and I just thought: wow, so this is how it's done.
So when the third period opened 4-1, like I say, you had to start wondering whether it wasn't going to end 6-1 or 7-1. That it did not is entirely attributable to Doug Weight, who started visibly kicking asses right about then. At every stoppage in play you could see him trying to win the game by sheer moral force; cajoling, hectoring, going over to his bench to bang a fist on the boards and wake everybody up. Weight assisted on the Blues' second goal and got the third himself, firing Scott Mellanby's pass into the open net. There was no fourth goal, but because of Weight, that period should stand as one of the memorable scenes of the playoff year.
Whom do I like in Game Seven? The Big Spreadsheet says these teams are very closely matched; on hypothetical neutral ice it likes St. Louis a little better, but in Vancouver the Canucks creep ahead 52%-48%. It's a crapshoot, in other words. If I had to bet, I would go with the Canucks because they don't have influenza rampaging through their ranks, and because, as I say, the Blues left the ice looking awfully lost and scared. If they get behind on Tuesday and Weight tries to rally them again, will they believe him this time?
Mithridates, he died old
People probably want to know what I think of the Oilers' elimination tonight at the hands of the Stars... why, I'm far too busy feeling about it to think anything at all. I was at a sports bar tonight, a mega-bar where 300 or so Oilers fans were congregated to watch the game. Indescribable. It made me wonder whether there were 300 people in the whole of the Dallas-Fort Worth area who give that much of a damn. But the players certainly do, and that's what counts, in the end. The Oilers threw just about their best game of the season at Dallas, as you had to know they would, and the pure talent differential killed them. I could console myself with the thought that the Oilers are possibly to this season as the Canucks were to last season--a first-round opponent which dragged the eventual Cup winner to six games, then exploded the next year--were it not for the fact that the Oilers have a mentally questionable goalie obviously past his prime instead of a young goalie well short of his prime. Cloutier's prime, I hasted to add, may never be as good as Salo's, but it's the sign of the rate of change that counts. Salo, aged 32, let in cheap goals in every night of this series and finished with a frankly risible .888 save percentage; during the season the average NHL goalie was above .900, which tells you all you need to know, really. Yet in the local press Salo is being blamed by nobody, since six games was as many as anyone could reasonably expect out of this series (my own initial prediction would have been "Dallas in five"). That means we're probably stuck with Salo for another year, which is too bad. Backup Jussi Markkanen, aged 27, has a lifetime 1.95 GAA in this league; if I were the GM I'd be promising him 55 starts next year, with Ty Conklin as the backup and Salo traded away for a big defenceman (hey! Maybe we can get Niinimaa back!). Maybe Kevin Lowe has the guts to make this happen, maybe not; the Oilers have traditionally been quite ruthless about superannuating goalies past their prime, or even well before it, as when a teenaged Grant Fuhr came along to challenge still-youthful local favourite Andy Moog.
Heartaches by the number
New odds at left, nothing very surprising in the ostensive results... the deep guts of the spreadsheet are a little more interesting. Because Ottawa was always the strongest Canadian horse, the overall odds of a Canadian team reaching the final have reached 52%, the highest total yet. Assuming Ottawa gets through, they stand ready to receive a second-round opponent that will either be Boston (not bloody likely), Washington (a 50-50 tossup assuming Boston doesn't upset NJ), or the winner of the Toronto-Philly series. Sens fans are probably (or should be probably) pulling hard for a Washington victory, which would inoculate Ottawa against the tougher matchup with the Toronto-Philly winner.
Among the teams that are down 3-1, here are their estimated chances of a comeback:
Canucks 12.2% Bruins 10.0% Isles 6.6% Wild 5.2%
If you run through the math, that gives about a 31% chance of at least one of those teams coming back to win. I point this out because we tend to underestimate the chances of one event emerging from a pool of events that are themselves individually unlikely... given the course of the postseason so far, I think it would be hard to convince yourself that any of these teams have what it takes to recoup--no specific scenario for a wondrous comeback is convincing, but there's a fairly good chance that at least one of these clubs will make it interesting. On the strength of the regular-season record the Canucks are the best choice, but even the most diehard Canucks fan must be groping in vain for optimism right about now.
The spreadsheet rates the Oilers as being almost as badly screwed as these teams, with a 16% chance of holding off the Stars. This is a good example of why I built this thing: if I didn't have a sort of stabilizing estimate created by means of an objective (but methodologically semi-bogus) process, I'd sit here, flipping back and forth between two views of that series: (1) "Oh, God, the Oilers have to beat Dallas two times out of three." [vomits] (2) "Yeah, baby, Dallas has to beat us two times out of three to advance! Never happen!"
I've dropped to third in the hockey pool, but the Detroit loss is like a sudden SARS outbreak among my opponents, and most of them are carrying more Maple Leafs than I am, so there's no great danger lurking in that series. If the Oilers beat Dallas I'll be screwed, of course. Screwed but ecstatic.
There was nothing very complicated about tonight's Dallas victory over the Oilers. Dallas got a cheap goal two minutes in; the Oilers outworked Dallas for forty straight minutes and got it back; and then, a metaphysical karate chop to the back of the neck. Scene: the Oilers kill off a hooking penalty to Brad Isbister, who skates back into the play and traps Stu Barnes behind the Oilers' net. Barnes is in the office, holding the puck, stalking just over Tommy Salo's right shoulder, trying to figure out what to do, as the Oilers are converging on him. I'd like to know where he got the idea that he could get the puck into the net from there, because it should have been impossible. Jason Smith, Oilers captain, the oft-stitched-up Crocodile, was guarding Barnes' path to the goalmouth with perfect technique, facing Barnes with his right foot just behind the goal line, to prevent any crafty deflections; and Salo, too, was anchored to the right side of his net with his own right skate up against the post, just like you'd teach an eight-year-old kid to do. Somehow, Barnes commanded the puck to scuttle up to Smith's skate, crawl over it, and find the sliver of space between Salo's ankle and the right post. This is either superlative technique, a trick Barnes has been saving for that uneasy hour when some playoff series could go either way when it shoudn't by any rights ought to, or it is the claw of Satan acting upon the world.
Twenty-three seconds later, as the Oilers tried to regroup, Niko Kapanen sauntered onto Salo's doorstep and flipped the puck over Salo's shoulder and into the Oiler net jauntily. Howdy, neighbour, I'm new to this league, do you mind very much if I...? No? Oh, my, you're too generous. After that, the Oilers could have come back--have come back many times this year, in precisely that situation--and you can't say they gave up, but Turco finally decided to get serious, and with a stubborn indifference to entertainment, Dallas kept icing the puck, over and over again, until the clock showed zero and the fans began to spill Brownianly out of the building.
This Oilers team is not of a character to be broken by Barnes' goal, and for the majority of the night they were the clear superior of the Dallas Stars. Their penalty-killing was exemplary, they hit harder, they were quicker to loose pucks. Until tonight I maybe hadn't quite known how good this team really is. This is chilly comfort, facing a best-of-three that kicks off with a return to Dallas Thursday night.
Are you experienced?
Time for some reader mail, which saves me some effort hereabouts. Tom Schauer, Red Wings supporter, writes from the abyss:
The Red Wings have a 9% chance [of still winning the series]? Heh, only if Giguere stops playing so well (has he given up any rebounds thus far?). His save percentage is over 97%. That's hard to overcome no matter who you are. Admittedly, I've not felt the Wings have been taking the best shots. I've seen a bunch of shots hit Giguere in the chest (but a lot of that may be simply that Giguere has been in perfect position every time).That's why they call them the playoffs, old sock--and that's why talk of "playoff experience" is almost wholly odious to me. There'd be a lot more 50-year-olds left in the league if experience counted for as much as fast reflexes and youthful testosterone levels. CuJo self-evidently has not been terrible--but "not terrible" is not good enough in April. Who on the Detroit roster has been terrible, per se, in the three losses? They're not terrible, they're just a little too old.
New correspondent Ben Kauffman writes in about his "theory of overtime". Ben is such a serious Flyers fan he's got a Fred Shero quote in his .sig file. Ah, man, don't mention the Fog, I get all misty-eyed. They were giants in those days--giants.
In replaying last night's Flyers-Leafs game in my mind, I'm struck by the fact that in my world, when Kim Jonsson hit the post in OT, the Flyers would not be able to score until the Leafs ALSO hit the post on a shot. Unfortunately, they didn't--they hit the net.
Well, I had about an hour's worth of torture in the last Stars-Oilers game when Pisani had one go off the post and fly through the crease behind Turco in the second period. They had a beautiful shot of it from the net cam, so they kept showing it over and over and over again until I thought I'd grow an ulcer. But the next goal was George Laraque's and then Pisani went five-hole on Turco about a minute later, so I don't think there's much to the theory. Next time a Flyer hits the post, just think of it as an exercise in artillery rangefinding.
Odds have been updated to reflect tonight's games. Hey, I know you all agree with me by now that Anaheim went into the playoffs underrated and Detroit went in overrated, but don't call them Dead Things until they stop breathing. The Big Spreadsheet still gives Detroit a 9.5% chance of winning that series. Basically, Detroit's favoured 60-40 in home games and it's considered a tossup in the Pond, so the Wings are fighting odds of 0.6² × 0.5². And while you can talk about "momentum" until the cows come home and make their own beds, Detroit's certainly not going to leave anything in the locker room Wednesday night. Curtis Joseph, for one, is going to find himself playing south of the Mason-Dixon line next year if he doesn't shape up... what do you think about the theory, incidentally, that teams shouldn't steal Ontario-born free agents from the Maple Leafs? These guys get positively sloppy about wearing the sacred flannel: Gretzky still gets a tad choked when someone asks the inevitable question "Are you sorry you never played for the Leafs?" (I imagine the Leafs are sorrier than he is.) Maybe CuJo just doesn't have the fire anymore 'cause he's already been to the mountaintop.
The fault lies in our Stars
After Oilers-Stars Game One, I still refused to think the Oilers had a chance at winning this series. After Game Two it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that the Oilers had a chance at winning this series. They converted me thirty seconds into Game Three. By "they" I don't mean the Oilers; I mean the Dallas Stars... The opening faceoff ended with the puck being thrown back into the Oilers' zone; Eric Brewer, I think it was, went back into the corner for it; and I waited for the inevitable Dallas player, Lehtinen or Kapanen or DiMaio or Matvichuk, to come charging in and get in Brewer's face immediately...
One beat. Two beats. Three.
Even Brewer seemed to be standing still, waiting for Dallas's full-court press to show up; after a while he sort of gave an invisible shrug and started skating out of the Edmonton end, wholly unimpeded. For some reason, with the series transposed to Skyreach Centre (or, to give it its true non-commercial name, Northlands Coliseum), Dave Tippett had called off his dogs.
If the players on the ice had suddenly fallen upward and landed on the ceiling, I couldn't have been more surprised. For the first two games of the series, when the Oilers won a faceoff, they didn't really win anything, because some Dallas forward hopped up on goofballs would be right there in three-tenths of a second to challenge, and usually strip, the puck-carrier. For the first two games of the series, the Oilers played entire ten-minute chunks of hockey pressed against the boards in their own zone, as if they had travelled to Dallas only to find that the gravity on Planet Texas was somehow 20% greater and ran in the general direction of Tommy Salo. For the first two games of the series, all Oiler offensive chances were the apparent result of Dallas backing off for two or three minutes, almost insultingly, like Sugar Ray Leonard preparing to execute his bolo punch. Dallas, it seemed, had found the key. Edmonton might have contested the issue as far as five games, maybe six, but in the end, the forechecking was going to get them...
And then Tippett decided, y'know, hey, guys, let's see what happens if we decide not to forecheck. I rose from my chair in the sudden realization that Dallas is an unstoppable army of superhumans led by a madman. After that, the actual game itself was merely an epilogue, like World War II after the Battle of Britain. Well, perhaps I exaggerate: Dallas is so talented that there was still a good deal of uncertainty involved in the contest. But the approach used tonight is tactically untenable (though it would have worked in the days before the Oilers found a few guys--Comrie, Pisani, Dvorak, York, Hemsky--who can put a puck behind a goalie), and tonight's Oiler victory guarantees them a third home game--unless they themselves settle the issue in five.
No, I don't think that will happen, but I suppose Tippett must have some reason for putting an end to the full-court press. The absence of Derian Hatcher doesn't account for it. Is it a question of ice? Consider these issues:
· The last Stars-Oilers contest in Edmonton was spookily similar to tonight's game, right down to the flurry of scoring, the relatively large number of shots that Dallas allowed, and the timely Radek Dvorak goal.
· Dallas enjoyed a relatively large home-ice advantage this year, as they do in many or most years: they were 28-5-6-2 at home, 18-12-9-2 on the road.
· Traditionally the Dallas ice surface has been, or seemed to be, a secret weapon for the Stars in their Nietzschean eternal recurrence of playoff series against the Oilers. Edmonton has always had hockey's best ice, period: it suits, and perhaps positively skews the perception of, the team's pure speed. The ice in Dallas has always been like a bad road, giving expert snipers like Modano and gigantic atrocious thuggish bastards like Hatcher an advantage. For the new arena in Dallas, they replaced the icemaking team and supposedly improved the surface--but the Oilers testify that the new building is almost as much Slush Central as the old.
And what happens if you commit to an overaggressive forecheck against a fast team in a rink with well-tended ice? Odd-man rushes galore, that's what happens. A nervous breakdown for your goalie. I'm guessing here, but what I suspect, in my victory-greedy little heart, is that Dallas can't play Dallas hockey outside of Dallas, and especially not in Edmonton.
And you know what that means? That means, my friends, that Game Four on Tuesday night is wide open. Dallas has twice the pure talent of the Oilers, but they're beatable on Tuesday. And if they get beaten on Tuesday, the Oilers will have them by the throat.
Game One is now looking bigger and bigger--a game the Oilers had no business winning, probably wouldn't have won nine times out of ten, and a game that wouldn't normally have meant much, except that it's thrown the whole equation out of whack for Dallas by yielding up home-ice when they needed it most. Or, perhaps I'm dreaming, and Game Four will be another débâcle for the Oilers, followed by a breezy Dallas victory in the sludge in Game Five. We'll know soon enough.
Who cares if she breaks a hip
The Stanley Cup odds have been updated... the Oilers took a 2-1 lead in their series tonight, about which more later. If you have to shove a little old lady to see footage of Radek Dvorak's game-winner, do so.
My dentures are stuck in this humble pie
The Stanley Cup odds have been updated to reflect tonight's results; I didn't see any of the games because I was socializing. Non-participants in the East were helped more, in their overall Cup chances, by the Detroit and St. Louis losses than they were hurt by Washington and Ottawa victories. New Jersey is the most likely team in the East to reach the conference final (47%); the most likely East final matchups right now are Ottawa-New Jersey (20%) and Washington-New Jersey (11%)... In the West it's still all Dallas, Dallas, Dallas.
Did I mention I'm in a pool? Well, sort of--I picked players for a friend's office pool entry, in exchange for a hefty percentage of the prize. Competitors were asked to pick four defencemen, six forwards, and one goalie, with a max of three from any one team. I chose these guys--Turco; Jackman, Zubov, Redden, and Svehla; and Mogilny, Hossa, Alfredsson, Modano, Forsberg, and Demitra. I haven't heard yet how we're doing. If anybody went for all three of Bondra, Jagr, and Gonchar, they're probably in the lead--for the moment.
To be honest I didn't spend too much time reflecting on hockey-pool philosophy. I wanted to keep the conferences balanced, I wanted to get three guys from each of the likely conference winners, and I wanted to avoid New Jersey, which plays low-scoring games--that's about as far as my thinking got, I guess. The teams that can punish me by going far are Vancouver and Washington.
Right now I make it close to an even-odds proposition (47% probability) that at least one Canadian team will make the Stanley Cup Final.
Just looking at tonight's recaps, the key plot development in the league-wide novella looks like Canucks-Blues, where Cloutier stood up just like I asked him to and Bertuzzi apparently turned Al MacInnis's arm to matchwood. What do I think about the Red Wings? Hey, we already knew that there's no senior's discount at the Stanley Cup buffet.
Night of a thousand penalties
(Well, OK... there were actually only 38...) I suppose I should give an account of my team for those who've seen only the score of that game. Let's ask a philosophical question here. What are the bad errors a referee pair can make? I can think of a few:
· A simple blown call.
The refs in the Stars win tonight (Dennis LaRue, Don VanMassenhoven) committed all of these, and more. The last is particularly incredible; I've maybe seen it three, four times in a life of watching hockey, but it unquestionably happened in the third period tonight when Ethan Moreau got binned for an Ales Hemsky slash. As Ron MacLean quoted Glenn Healy as saying after the game, "What was that?"
Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying the Oilers were beaten by the refereeing; Dallas was just incredibly dominant at even strength tonight. Future Dallas opponents beware: this is the best forechecking hockey team you are ever likely to see. If you want to know why my Big Spreadsheet had (and has) them as a heavy Cup favourite, you'd better start finding a way to watch the CBC feed of these first-round games.
That said, the character of this game could have been considerably different. The first goal tonight was Marty Reasoner's for the Oilers. "This," I thought to myself, "is what they needed: to challenge the Stars, to show they're not content just to go home to Edmonton with the series tied." And then, at 8:57 of the first...
Let me digress for a minute. One thing that has always surprised me in hockey is the number of physically impossible dives that succeed in fooling the refs. Any referee can be fooled sometimes; the difference between the good ones and the bad ones is that the bad ones are taken in by frauds that just make you chuckle in the instant replay. At 8:57 of the first period tonight, Mike Comrie was called for hooking Rob DiMaio. What actually happened was that Comrie was chasing DiMaio and, granted, had his stick close by DiMaio's midsection. Somehow, this caused DiMaio's skates to fly backwards into the air. Until this moment, it had been a while since Comrie's stick could be suspected of having magical properties.
That's part of the game, one supposes. But one minute later, with the Oilers shorthanded, Ethan Moreau was chasing a loose puck in the Dallas circle when the goalie, Turco, appeared in Moreau's path, literally thirty feet from his own crease. Turco got between Moreau and the puck, and Moreau, who had no time to stop and no room to go around, collided gently with Turco's padded ass. He was not between Turco and the net; in fact he specifically avoided cutting between Turco and the net, which would, I can hear you saying, have been goaltender interference. He did not knock Turco down or break Turco's stride. Yet he got... you guessed it: two minutes for goaltender interference. You can perform surgery on Rule 78 for 78 straight days, and you won't come up with a way to defend that call. The equalizing Dallas goal followed quickly, but offered no relief because it followed a legitimate delayed penalty, drawn in the chaos of the 5-on-3, against Scott Ferguson. The two-man advantage thus continued, and Scott Young's game-winner was not far behind. The Oilers had no wheels left to defend against the overwhelming Star attack, and Young's second goal basically cooked their goose.
It's too bad. As I say, the Oilers almost certainly weren't going to win tonight even if they made it out of the first period tied at 1-1. But these teams have a very long record of playing close, exciting games; it would have been nice if there had been some doubt for, say, forty minutes. To avoid getting hammered in the next three, the Oilers will need breaks, and one of those "breaks" is sober refereeing. Come home, Don Koharski, all is forgiven.
The Cup odds have been updated on the assumption that this 6-1 Stars lead is going to hold up. Which I think is safe; it's probably going to end 10-1 sometime tomorrow morning... -9:29 pm, April 11
Sax and violence
Let's talk some hockey while we're waiting for Stars-Oilers Game Two to start. For those now following Edmonton, the Oilerspundits are always there for independent news and views on the team. In today's entry Jeb Runquist adds his voice to the chorus of complaint over the CBC's broadcast choices: poor bastard's in Saskatchewan. He also complains, wrongly, about the saxophone version of "O Canada" played in Dallas before Game One. The sax player had all the right instincts, playing the song respectfully without jazzbo vibrato, legato, or noodling. His "O Canada" was ten times more appropriate and pleasant than B.J. Thomas's airheaded, tearjerk, three-miles-an-hour, stretch-every-note rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner". Elsewhere, Nathan Waddell wrongly pokes fun at Turco for rookie jitters after a game in which he was about one inch--on Horcoff's shot--away from being entirely blameless. But for the most part the Pundits saw the same game I did, and I'm hoping their posting volume stays high.
Laura Demanski writes in on the DuckWings triple-OT nervewrecker:
...One thing we can say is that it wasn't Cujo's fault. He was quite good, if outplayed. Detroit's domination of the greater part of the first two OT sessions was so thorough, the best way I can think of to convey it is to say that it wouldn't have seemed totally bonkers of them to pull the goalie. They were breaking up absolutely anything the Ducks tried to put together instantly, with no apparent effort. It really was reminiscent of their best defensive games in the Cup run last year.
What did I say about French goalies in the playoffs? But jeez, even I never said the Wings would be better off without anybody in net. Laura also notes:
Seems like a good sign for the Wild that they got Roy making excuses, blaming the bounces. After last year, that bit of folklore about him inevitably playing like a wall (a mad, spiteful wall) in the game following a bad loss has looked like, well, moribund folklore.
Our Bermuda correspondent, Jefferson N. Glapski, wrote in the other day with a barrage of numbers purporting to show that Roy has been on the wrong side of far more upsets than he's been on the right side of. It was a one-sided argument, pushed way too far for me to reprint in its entirety, but JNG definitely has a point. In his four marches to the Cup Roy has beaten only one or two teams that were distinctly better in the standings; he's occasionally looked bad and had his butt bailed out against equally good teams (e.g., vs. Quebec, '93); and his record in other years is dotted with ignominies--two early Montreal losses to Boston, the turfing by the Oilers in '97, etc. He won a Conn Smythe in '86 that, as JNG says very cruelly, probably should have gone to Steve Smith. [Memo to JNG: Don't mention that series to me again, you Sabre-loving fucker.]
Surveying the lay of the land before Game Two against Dallas, I can't see that any of the Oilers' potential problems have been solved. Salo hasn't been tested seriously, which is a tribute to an Oiler defence that held a 2-1 lead very courageously until the Stars started imploding, but still worrisome. The Stars have no reason to clean up their physical act as long as the Oiler power play remains cold. The Oiler penalty kill was good, but they shouldn't tempt fate by switching to a dirtier game. We saw the positive results of eschewing retaliation last night, and when your job is to figure out Marty Turco, you can't afford to be playing half the game a man down even if the Dallas power play isn't a threat. What's the opposite of "winning ugly"?
The great thing about cheering for the Oilers is that, by and large, they never do beat themselves. In this sense, I have to admit the presence of the "intangible", in the talismanic form of unparalleled Stanley Cup experience amongst Coach MacTavish, Kevin Lowe, and Charlie Huddy. As usually, the "intangible" in this case is actually perfectly tangible on the ice. The sons of bitches honestly believe they can beat the Dallas Stars. If they win tonight, the question will become whether Dallas believes it can beat the Edmonton Oilers.
We are all Torontonians now
Memo to the CBC: the fans really hate your decision to show the Oilers-Dallas games only within Alberta and the same old Leafs nonsense to everybody else, including B.C. I've had, what, six to eight e-mails from various Canadian fans since the playoffs started. Not one has failed to say "I sure wish I could watch the Oilers instead of the Leafs." I understand that the Leafs have strong traditional support everywhere in English Canada, or I suppose that is the theory, anyway; come to think of it, Montreal supporters outnumber them at least five to one in Edmonton, without question. But doesn't the increasingly legendary status of the Oilers-Stars matchup count for anything? Doesn't the fact that the Oilers are objectively a better team than the Leafs count? By all means show the Leafs in Ontario, but let Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and B.C. watch a Western team. Would it kill you?
Well, I'm sure the CBC has its own revenue numbers and has crunched them thoroughly to make that decision, but my correspondents are unanimous about wanting to see the Oilers play before Dallas sees them off. I suppose I should be thankful they're not making me watch the Leafs here in Edmonton.
Kind of Blue
[Dan] Cloutier could improve, but Canuck goalies usually do this in other cities.
The quote is from, er, me, writing on October 5. I didn't get to see the whole of the Blues' merciless beating of the Canucks tonight. It's just as well--I don't like horror shows. But it seems to me everything pivots around Cloutier now. He ripped the heart out of the Canucks tonight, and while I do not approve of a team deciding to float after it gets down a few goals, the necessary cardiac surgery is in Cloutier's hands.
It's a funny thing--I was offended by Dallas's Clockwork Orange response to falling behind against the Oilers, but, hell, at least you could see that Dallas cared about things going pear-shaped. Claude Lemieux's open-ice elbow on Steve Staios was the kind of thing that should get a guy released, if not executed by lethal injection, but let's face it--that emotion is one reason the Stanley Cup was following Lemieux like a puppy for a few years there in the '90s. Tonight's display of droopiness from Vancouver was somehow more objectionable that Dallas's attitude of "If you can't beat them, kill them." That team needs Cloutier to make the next move, preferably with a shutout.
The player of the night was, without question, the rookie, Barret Jackman. He really cut the lungs out of my MacInnis-for-MVP argument tonight. Last night the guy who really blew me away was Jere Lehtinen of the Stars. I'm a secret fan for life after this damn series ends; I've rarely seen a guy forecheck a whole team like that, just through some sort of weird magnetic repulsion combined with an apparent ability to teleport from corner to corner. With Lehtinen on the ice, Oiler power plays were basically even-strength situations. He stayed clean while the rest of the Stars were wading in blood, too.
Am I happy with the playoffs so far? Are you kidding me? Dallas, Detroit, and Colorado all lose the first game? Did I die and go to heaven? For just one night this tournament has busted wide open. It will close up like a wound soon enough, of course. But the oracular Big Spreadsheet now says there's an 80% chance that at least one of those teams will not be going to the second round.
The live Stanley Cup odds at left have been updated on the assumption that that six-zip St. Louis lead is going to hold up. -11:04 pm, April 10
Let me deal as quickly as possible--since I'm on deadline in real life--with some of the comments I've received since the games ended last night.
I exchanged some e-mails with Laura Demanski but I can't possibly put them all here because she and I are equally prone to neglect our real work to write 600-word missives. But I can paraphrase some of the points we discussed. I had to correct her on the impression, obtained from press accounts, that Smyth's first goal was a "cheap" one. It was certainly tough for Turco to stop, being batted out of mid-air as it was (Turco was more or less perfect last night except for the one inch too many he gave Horcoff on the second goal); but have you tried to bat a hockey puck out of the air and direct it at a target? Smyth is extremely gifted at this (and almost all NHL players could show you amazing feats with a tennis ball and a stick in the driveway), and in fact scored a second goal the same way last night. You didn't see it on the scoresheet or in the news, because it came with three seconds remaining, and was called back because Smytty struck the puck a little bit above the crossbar.
Laura also noticed an apparent anomaly in my original "predictions" from the Big Spreadsheet: St. Louis has far less chance of winning its first-round series than Detroit, and is quite likely to face Dallas in the second round, yet has a better overall chance of reaching the Cup final than Detroit. What's up with that? Short answer: the sheet rates St. Louis as being better than Detroit, but Detroit gains an early advantage, by virtue of high seeding, that washes out over the full three rounds. (With Dallas such a favourite, almost everybody is expected to have to go through them to win the conference.)
Then she started in on me for ranking St. Louis above Detroit, of course. With Detroit's distinct superiority in the standings, this required an explanation which may--should--interest the general audience. As I explained before, I paid a lot of attention to goaltending in adjusting regular-season records to reflect playoff strength. Basically my approach was to filter out games played by backups who are unlikely to appear in the playoffs. This adjustment hurt Detroit badly, because Manny Legace had better numbers across the board than Curtis Joseph--better won-loss, better GAA, and better save percentage, which is the indicator I rate highest. (Why? Because the number of "trials" is the thousands; because ex-goalie commentators consider save percentage important; and because a goalie's save percentage is partly independent of his opposition's offensive strength, since a good offensive team scores more partly by means of earning more shots on goal. Over the past ten years statistical assessments of goalies in the serious press have abandoned GAA and adopted, to some degree, SvPct.)
Now, I anticipate objections from CuJo-lovers that Legace probably faced weaker opposition. If so, this should be more or less true of all backup goalies, and I made the same adjustments for every playoff-bound team; it should even out, or one hopes it would. But if the "weaker opposition" point is really true you would expect backups to outperform starters, statistically, quite often. And what you find if you look is, they don't. Moreover, on the rare occasions they do, it's usually because the starter is some stumblebum like Steve Shields, or the backup is an underrated guy like the Oilers' Markkanen (who outdid Salo on the numbers last year, as I recall, and almost did so this year). Strong starting goaltenders will, most of the time, have better stats than their backups. When they don't, the difference tends not to be great, and so is potentially explicable by natural random variation.
Yet in the Detroit case, Legace had distinctly better stats than Joseph; among playoff-bound teams none other was hurt nearly so much by the goaltending adjustment. I could have written this off as a statistical fluke, an outlier, and indeed I would have been tempted to, if I had not been aware that (a) there's been a controversy about this all year in Detroit and (b) based on what I've seen with my own eyes, CuJo is a shadow of his former self, especially his Edmonton Oiler self. So as things stand I've treated Detroit like a team that is trying to win a Stanley Cup with its second-best goaltender. I'm sorry if that offends anybody unnecessarily.
Turning to other matters, Andrew Johnston writes:
If I were an Ottawa Senator fan right now, I would not be at all surprised [at last night's loss to New York]. However, I'd be a tad upset that Alexei Yashin picked tonight to finally show up in the playoffs. Where was that a few years back?
The answer, of course, is that it wasn't there because Yashin was a lot younger. This is the eternal danger of trying to build around youth: if you don't wait out your young players' crises, they will very often burn you when you set them free. "A change is as good as a rest" is one of the wisest of human maxims. If the Oilers had lost last night I could file a similar complaint about Jason Arnott, who was run out of Edmonton when it took him too long to find his game. He's a fine centre now, even if he hasn't quite lived up to the early promise. The Ottawa fans' treatment of Yashin was particularly ugly and, frankly, a little hard to understand from this distance. Whether any city learns a lesson from such a karmic experience, I don't know.
Hope is the thing with feathers
Well, jeez. If Dallas is just going to give up, then of course all bets are off.
A familiar script was followed in tonight's Oilers-Stars game. In the first period Dallas looked unbeatable; in the second period they looked vulnerable; in the third period they looked ridiculous. For the first ten minutes the Oilers looked like the victim of a lakeside wasp swarm. There seemed to be no prospect of them using their speed against Dallas forechecking. Craig MacTavish had obviously ordered them to try beating the Dallas trap in a counterintuitive way for a speed team, with long passes that mostly disappeared into the aether. A questionable strategy, perhaps, for a young club working out Game One jitters. First period ended 1-0 Dallas. In a three-minute space in the second period, Ryan Smyth batted down a lob and got a shortie, and Shawn Horcoff beat Turco low stick-side with a seeing-eye shot on a two-on-one that rang in off the post. PLUNGGG!
And just like that it was pretty much over. It was a clean, undeniable coaching victory. Dallas, with enough talent for two playoff teams, started boarding, high-sticking, punching, looking for blood. A one-sided, clock-devouring beerbrawl. The Oilers had the man advantage for the last six minutes because Claude Lemieux and Darien Hatcher lost their cool in a one-goal game. Edmonton took their licks and turned their backs and accepted the win gratefully. Dave Tippett, you had the horses and they ran wild. Shame on you.
Dallas is certainly good enough to beat anybody--even themselves. Still, I'm going to try not to forget the first ten minutes of tonight's game. Any playoff team should be good enough to take one win off any other. Tonight, through luck and superior discipline, the Oilers got their one win. You can't start believing until they get two, is what I'm telling myself, over and over and over.
How wonderful to see the highlights from Toronto's 5-3 win tonight--they kept cutting into the Edmonton broadcast with shots of pucks flying past Cechmanek, followed by Cechmanek bellowing and screaming and whacking his stick and generally exhibiting every single evidence of emotional instability that you don't want to see out of your goalie. My guess is, Philly's dead; the grave just needs digging.
Note the update to Stanley Cup odds, incorporating the results of tonight's action, on the sidebar. I'll try to maintain the updates for the duration. The general effect of the upsets of the #1 seeds was, naturally, to boost all the dark-horse teams a little (and the two winners a lot). But the overall picture, suitably, hasn't changed overwhelmingly. The big, notable single-game swings tend to take place in games between evenly matched teams.
Can't make any promises about the editing here--game's almost on
Hey, kids! Let's pinch off one last loaf of mail before the Oilers game begins. Paul J. Cella III writes to say that I haven't talked about Colorado much--"except for a (somewhat deserved) shot at St. Patrick for his "gutlessness" in last year's Western Conference Finals." Somewhat? I must have been watching a different game. And I didn't even mention Roy's craven (but secretly beneficial) refusal to step to the plate for Canada at the Olympics. I was trying to be nice.
Might it be possible to solicit a more thorough opinion? My own view is that it mostly depends on Roy's performance; and on that question I wouldn't bet against him (I'll never forget his reposite to Jeremy Roenick's needling in 1996: "I have trouble hearing Jeremy--I have these two Stanley Cup rings in my ears"). And Forsberg, barring injuries, seems unstoppable.First of all, I thought the "two Stanley Cup rings" rebuttal was actually pretty clumsy and lame. I wish Mark Messier had said "Gee, I think Roenick has a point, and I have Stanley Cup rings in my ears, my nostrils, my bellybutton, and my rectum. Maybe Patrick's hearing is going."
In my view--biased: I dislike Roy--three years ago Roy was not the best goalie day-in-day-out but was still capable of being such on any given day. It is not possible anymore--not possible for him to go toe-to-toe with a Turco at his best, a Khabibulin at his best. Roy is coasting on the dimming glory--again, not exactly overwhelming to an Edmontonian, I'm afraid--of two championships. Anyone without 60,000 goaltending minutes under his belt would have been the subject of unprecedented scrutiny after the Colorado cave-in last year. But it is still taken for granted that Roy is a "money goalie". There appears to be a gentleman's agreement not to mention one of the most preposterous mental meltdowns of modern times in sport. Well, I'm no goddamn gentleman.
As for Forsberg--all European players are subject to the suspicion that their brain is luxuriating, far away, in a fjord or dale somewhere back home. With Forsberg it's not a suspicion but a proven fact. And the "barring injuries" is a big caveat for a man with dodgy ankles and Incredible Exploding Organs. All right; too much can be made of all that. He is the greatest hockey player in the world unless Dominik Hasek has stayed in shape.
How do I size up Colorado, basically? Sakic and Forsberg can drag an AHL team to the Cup if they get it together. Moreover, the Avs were arguably a little better than their season record, and will certainly be better now with Sakic back (if we get the genuine article). And Roy is still a top-ten goalie, maybe top five. But where's the beef on D?--they gave up considerably more goals than Dallas (194-169), even though Roy was healthy all year and Aebischer did surprisingly OK when called on. Have you got an explanation? I don't, really--I have massive esteem for Morris, Blake, and Foote. But renting big names doesn't necessarily make a team jell; ask the Rangers...
We also have a letter from Thomas Schauer:
I have to admit, I hadn't really thought of the Hart as being "most valuable to his team". By those standards, one could argue that Danny Heatley is more valuable to his team than Joe Sakic is to his (after all, the Avs did OK sans Sakic, but take out Heatley and you close to dry up the Thrashers offense), but I doubt many of us would stay Heatley is a better player than Joe Sakic is.I wouldn't, but I have faith that if you replace Heatley with Sakic on any team, that team is bound improve (slightly!--Heatley is terrific!) overall. That's the kind of possibly-bogus mental exercise you kind of have to go through to choose an MVP. The issue is not necessarily the number of wins the players did contribute: although we might take the language of the Hart standard that way, or talk that way as a casual shorthand, it wouldn't be fair to guys with very strong supporting casts, like that in Colorado.
Tom also asks if I took late-season records into account in adjusting team strength for the spreadsheet. I couldn't see a logically compelling way to do that, Tom. How far back do you go: ten games? Twenty? All-star break? I'd also want to assess the strength of teams faced in that part of the schedule--a team like Tampa would have had a lot of late-season games against weak divisional opposition. It was just too complicated for me to take into account, and I don't have a strong intuitive warrant for doing so, frankly. Some teams have an important goal to fight for in the late season, others don't. Some teams rest their big guns, others don't. I don't see a consistent way to interpret late-season records as a way of helping our understanding of the playoffs, though with the lateness of the trading deadline, one certainly might like one.
Out of curiosity, what does your spreadsheet say about a Detroit-Dallas head-to-head, given that they tied all regular season meetings?
Likeliest outcome: Dallas in five. Overall favourite: Dallas, 82% to 18%. The regular-season record is a pretty small sample space, but would seem to contradict that opinion. You can take this as a reason to totally ignore the spreadsheet. Hell, I'm almost tempted to. But that won't stop me taking credit if Dallas really does face Detroit and win in five.
Gotta run, game's almost starting. But first: Lord, look with favour upon Your Oilers; make Georges Laraque to grow in size and smite the cruel servants of Mammon; give deftness to the hands of Ryan Smyth and Mike Comrie; let thy Holy Spirit inform the every movement of Tommy Salo; don't do anything to Todd Marchant, though, he's perfect just the way he is. Amen.
Questions about the monster
Dave Himrich writes:
I am fascinated by your description of the Big Spreadsheet, but I noticed that you didn't say anything about how well it has worked in playoffs past. Any notable hits or misses?
· NOBODY could actually have been fascinated by that description.
· The sheet has only walked through one year's playoffs. The sheet's even-odds favourite was Detroit: Detroit won. That was kind of a no-brainer though.
· The sheet outputs probability statements: what would constitute a "hit" or a "miss" exactly? It doesn't say Tampa Bay cannot win the Stanley Cup, it only says that if we played this playoff year in 243 different universes, Tampa would win in about one of them. This is the problem, you see--it's inherently untestable, or nearly so.
· Last year I did do an informal, inferential kind of test by using the sheet to output predictions of series length and favourite: "Phoenix in six", "Carolina in five", that kind of thing. This is really the only kind of prediction ordinary sportswriters do, and I gathered them from a few sources. The sheet was better at making those calls than any of the hockey writers, but that's a small sample space, and I don't trust the experiment. The sheet is really pretty conservative about ordering teams within-conference in any other way but by the standings, and it hardly ever predicts four-game sweeps when you ask it to look at series length. (Sweeps should actually become increasingly rare as competitive balance increases in hockey with time; they were quite scarce last year, as I recall.) The sheet outdid the writers, basically, by being less daring: they have a paid duty to be contrarian, not to make accurate predictions.
· The real test would be to use it to cook up a betting strategy over a series of years. So if the world insists petulantly on a test, well!--we can start right away, I suppose. AmericasLine.com has updated its Stanley futures. Assuming we could get these prices from an actual house or bookmaker, you could target the bargains by betting heavily on Dallas at 5-to-1 and throwing a small sum, for hedge purposes, at St. Louis at 18-to-1. If Dallas breezes through the playoffs with relative ease as Detroit did last year, I will certainly take that as a modest validation--though of course every cell of my body is hoping Dallas doesn't survive round one.
Laura Demanski, a Wings fan mentioned infra, writes with a philosophical inquiry:
Does it really go without saying that a defenseman who's league MVP is also the best defenseman? I thought your case for MacInnis as MVP was convincing, and trumped the case for him as Norris winner, if you admit a difference between "most valuable" (context-sensitive) and "best" (objectively), anyway. I don't think MacInnis is in the end a "better" defenseman than Lidstrom, though he had a banner year and close to single-handedly kept the Blues in the playoff picture. Does it mean anything that Lidstrom scored two game-winners against MacInnis's team?
Has a defenceman actually ever won the Hart Trophy without also winning the Norris? The answer turns out to be "no"--but that could just be because few defenceman have been named MVP. Funny, isn't it, how everyone says of pretty much every sport that "defence wins championships", but the offensive stars always win the MVP awards? The only defencemen to win MVP honours in the post-Norris era are Bobby Orr (1970-72) and Chris Pronger (2000). Orr won the Norris in those years (plus five more times) and Pronger won it in 2000.
Even so, Laura has a point that's more than theoretical. The official lingo concerning the Norris is that it goes to "the defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position". Rather barbarous locution without a couple of extra commas, but we'll let that pass. The Hart, by contrast, is "given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team".
So there really are ostensibly different standards being applied here. One award is for "value", the other for "great ability". The question is, is there a reasonable concept of "ability" in hockey which doesn't correlate directly to delivering value to the team? The answer is clearly yes: you can deliver value to a team by fighting, exhorting, teaching, intimidating the ref--all things we don't naturally associate with "ability", or ability specifically at the position of defence. The problem I have is that if we're going to give the Norris to the defenceman with the most "ability", maybe the right winner is someone with an immense amount of raw, unformed ability, like Jay Bouwmeester, or somebody who plays at a very high level of ability throughout the season but combines it with inconsistency and/or lapses in attention, like Roman Hamrlik. Once you depart from a strictly operational concept of ability you're getting into some weird territory.
And yet I'm sympathetic to the argument, because if you point to the individual components of a defenceman's work, Lidstrom probably combines them at as high a level as has ever been seen in the game. In a way it would be a nice tribute to both guys to give MacInnis the Hart and Lidstrom the Norris. But no one person decides these things, and a campaign in favour of that "slate" might leave MacInnis with neither award.
Incidentally, I don't place much stock in game-winning goals; it is only superstition that ascribes mystical status to the third goal in a 5-2 win.
Laying it on the line
It's time to get candid with you about the numbers from the Big Spreadsheet. The games begin tomorrow, and I'm just about to go into the office, and I might be stuck there until then. So I can't run and hide anymore.
What is the Big Spreadsheet? The Big Spreadsheet is not a simple thing to explain, but I'll try to list the components.
1. First I take the season records of the teams, convert them to a winning percentage, and make subtle adjustments to those percentages to make them conform to playoff conditions. I try to be real conservative about the adjustments: some people would suggest penalizing teams for a large number of regular-season overtime losses, for example, but I believe that figure partly, perhaps almost wholly, reflects a strategic choice by the coach which isn't relevant to the playoffs.
I believe the biggest difference between a team in the regular season and the same team in the playoffs is that normally such a team will use its best goaltender in every playoff game, if he is available. That goaltending adjustment--correcting a team's record for the assumption that the backup will get no work--is the second largest adjustment I make. The largest is the adjustment for the relative strength of the conferences, which is easy, as their head-to-head record is known. There is an adjustment for "luck" as expressed by the difference between a team's expected record, based on its goals for and against totals, and its actual record. I have no scientific warrant for including that in the model, nor indeed for anything else in the Big Spreadsheet: the sheet is just a fun way for me to learn things about the playoff structure, and to make a sort of Ptolemaic first approximation of how my feelings about the teams translate into probability figures. Anyway, other very minor adjustments can be made for teams which have important personnel returning to the lineup, and for other factors, though I can't think of one offhand.
2. The second part is estimating the chances of each team winning its first-round matchup, where the pairings are known. Using the Bill James/Dallas Adams "log5" method, which should be true in principle for every sport, you can take the winning percentages of two opponents and find the chances of victory, for each, in a single game on neutral ice. Using that figure, you can calculate each team's chance of victory in a seven-game series. The model accounts for home-ice advantage and knows which team has it in every case. Not that it means a whole lot: over seven games home ice doesn't count for much. The fact that there are seven games is a lot more relevant, in fact: if Team A can beat Team B six times out of ten games, Team A will win a seven-game series 70% of the time, even if Team B has the home-ice advantage.
3. The third part is taking every team, listing its possible opponents in the second round, finding its chances of beating those teams, and deriving an overall chance, for each team, of surviving round two. Using Minnesota as an example: the embarrassingly-named Wild, as sixth seed in the West, have four possible second-round opponents: #1 seed Dallas, #7 Anaheim, #5 St. Louis, and #4 Vancouver. You can work out for yourself why those are the only possible opponents.
Minnesota will face Dallas only if both Dallas and Detroit win in the first round (because then the lower seeds than Minnesota will be gone, and they'll have to face the #1 seed). This is actually pretty likely: I make it a 58% chance. On the other hand, if both Dallas and Detroit lose, Minnesota will play #7 seed Anaheim (and Edmonton will play the winner of St. Louis/Vancouver). This isn't likely at all--about a 3% chance. The remaining 39% of cases are split between St. Louis and Vancouver, the other possible opponents, according to their (roughly equal) chances of beating each other. So you have a table of possible second-round opponents for Minnesota (number may not add to exactly 100% due to rounding):
Dallas 58.1% Anaheim 3.2% St. Louis 20.3% Vancouver 18.5%
And you can, using the techniques in step (2), build a column next to that of Minnesota's chances of beating these teams:
Dallas 9.4% Anaheim 47.2% St. Louis 23.7% Vancouver 26.5%Multiply the figures along the row, add up the products, and you've got the team's chance of making the third round (here, about 17%)--if it gets past the first round. We already estimated Minnesota's chance of beating Colorado in the first round--it was about 26%. The product of those probabilities is the total chance for the team to make the conference final. About 4%, for Minnesota. Sorry, Wild fans.
4. Then you repeat Step (3) for all possible third-round pairings. This yields a table of conference championship chances for each team in both conferences. I'm making this sound way easier than it is.
5. Using that table you can create a matrix of probabilities for all 64 possible Stanley Cup finals. (I estimate a four in 10,000 probability of an Edmonton-Islanders final.) For each cell in the matrix, you reallocate the probability of victory for each team in the matchup represented therein (Edmonton is favoured 59-41 against the Isles, so Edmonton gets 59% of the 4/10,000), add the totals for each team, and voila, you have a summary of each team's Cup chances.
Did I miss anything? One thing, I suppose: I also have a part of the spreadsheet which allows me to recalculate the chances of series victory according to any possible state of the series. That make sense? For instance, I have Detroit favoured 64-36 to beat Anaheim in round one. What if Anaheim gets on a tear and wins the first three games? Then, if my initial estimates of the teams' strength are still any good--a big assumption--Anaheim will be favoured 90-10. I can take that figure, enter it into the main framework of the spreadsheet, and re-estimate the Cup chances not only for Anaheim but for everyone else as play proceeds. If Anaheim gets a big lead on Detroit, that helps St. Louis, Colorado, and everybody else in the conference--and it would probably be a net help to the other conference too. The spreadsheet allows me to account for those effects.
Yes, that was the short explanation. The only advantage the Big Spreadsheet really confers is consistency--it makes sure, for you, that all the exhaustive and mutually exclusive probabilities add up to 1.000, all along the way. That isn't a small advantage necessarily. Often you'll see, say, political commentators giving probabilities of victory for a field of candidates that add up to 160% or something. The spreadsheet prevents you (me, that is) from making that error in subtle forms. It won't save you from making a lot of others.
But all you're really interested in is hearing is what I "think", in a machine-assisted sort of way; and maybe not even that. Here are my estimated chances of victory for the first-round matchups, with the favourite listed first.
Dal-Edm 91%-9% Det-Ana 64%-36% Colo-Min 74%-26% StL-Van 52%-48% Ott-NYI 68%-32% NJ-Bos 55%-45% Was-TB 53%-47% Phi-Tor 52%-48%
Here are each team's chances of winning its own conference. Useful for hockey pools...
Dallas 59% Ottawa 30% New Jersey 16% Philly 14% Colorado 13% Toronto 12% St. Louis 10% Boston 9% Detroit 8% Vancouver 8% Islanders 7% Washington 7% Tampa Bay 5% Anaheim 1.5% Minnesota 1% Edmonton 0.7%
Here are each team's chances of winning the Stanley Cup, in odds form.
Dallas 2-1 Colorado 11-1 St. Louis 14-1 Ottawa 14-1 Vancouver 18-1 Detroit 19-1 New Jersey 36-1 Philly 42-1 Toronto 52-1 Boston 75-1 Islanders 119-1 Anaheim 120-1 Washington 148-1 Minnesota 214-1 Tampa Bay 243-1 Edmonton 283-1
These numbers don't look like what a bookie would give you because you don't need to offer less likely teams at the real odds to attract longshot bettors. If you're working with real money, you'll get plenty of guys throwing their money away on Tampa at 50-1; no need to undersell and risk going broke if there's a miracle. I'm frankly a little surprised that so many clubs come in at under 1%; far fewer did last year. That's mostly a consequence of the heavy weight I gave Dallas--but I think that's justified.
If you were to crunch the conference and Cup numbers above, you'd see that they incorporate an unstated assumption that the Western Conference has an 80% chance or so of winning the Stanley Cup. I'll stand by that. If you look at the head-to-head record of the conferences' teams, you can't reach any other conclusion but that Ottawa is the only serious contender in the East. (The East, by the way, has won just one of the last seven Stanley Cups.) I've explained this before, but look at Toronto and St. Louis. Toronto finished with 98 points, St. Louis with 99: they're about equal in the standings. But Toronto played 60 games against conference opponents who, as a whole, have something like a .460 winning percentage against the West. And vice versa--so can you possibly claim that Toronto is substantially equal to St. Louis? On the whole, Toronto is probably a lot closer in quality to Chicago, which missed the playoffs in the West. And similarly, Ottawa at 113 points can't claim to be the substantive equal of Dallas with 111; on the whole they're probably a little worse than Detroit, a little better than Anaheim.
That should give you something to chew over. Must run, more later.
Inmates seize control of asylum
This hockey weblogging thing is great! As this rate I may never actually have to do any thinking or writing of my own. Here's an e-letter from another traitor in Chicago--Blues fan Dave Himrich:
I feel less optimistic about this year's Blues playoff run than at any time in the past 15 years. I think the whole goalie situation has gotten inside their heads and they are not going to be up to speed for the Canucks. I felt really good about this team through about January: I thought they showed extraordinary toughness in dealing with all the injuries. You made a good case for Al MacInnis for the Norris as the major source of that ability. [Actually, I wrote that MacInnis should be the MVP, though it goes without saying that a defenceman who wins the Hart should probably also get the Norris. -ed.] They had a tremendous come-from-behind record and third-period goal differential. In recent weeks, they have not measured up. I believe they got one point out of Detroit all season. Dallas whipped them soundly last time out. I think Dallas is a clear notch above Detroit, and Detroit is a clear notch above the others in the West, and after that are bunch of pretty good teams. But I think the Blues may be mentally beaten as I write this.Handicapping rookie-of-the-year candidates is tough; it asks us to make fine-grained value judgments that require real expertise of a sort I don't know how anyone obtains, since there's a practical limit to the number of games you can see even if it's your full-time job. Obviously any rookie who establishes himself as the clear number-two defenceman on a good team is a strong candidate, and Jackman is the leading candidate by consensus. On the other hand, if the award is about "Which rookie's most likely to end up in the Hall of Fame?", we may look pretty stupid to future generations if we don't choose Rick Nash. If poise is your thing you've got to look at Zetterberg... Anyway, we'll know pretty early on whether the Blues are a basket case, or whether people like me are right to rank them very highly among the West also-rans because of the returning personnel.
Longtime reader Grahame Young also wrote in overnight:
As much as I reflexively dislike both Toronto and Philly, I think that could be a great series. ...My pick for the Cup: Tampa! No, not really. My real pick for the Cup: ugh...Dallas...hard to bet against them. Next up would be Colorado, followed by Jersey and Detroit. I don't think there are any real contenders after that. Much like last year, if Jersey stumbles early, the East is wide open.My question about Colorado every year is why they didn't walk off with the conference despite having two of the five best players in the universe, though of course Sakic was hurt for a while. Have people forgotten the gutlessness Patrick Roy displayed in the Game Seven against Detroit last year? If he still had something to prove, that was the time to do it. As for Toronto... don't stay awake nights expecting them to make any noise. I'm sure the Leafs fans aren't.
Grahame obviously isn't convinced that Ottawa is the real deal. I am, though I don't know that they'd be seeded any higher than fourth in the West. New Jersey's patented style is well adapted to the playoffs, but in a long series of one-goal games, the team with Hossa and Alfredsson on it still seems like the sensible bet to get the one goal.
The Andrew Johnston entry has been updated slightly. And Laura Demanski--Wing fan and Chicago resident; I guess they don't hold lynchings in the Windy City anymore--is posting regularly on the Red Wings Blog, and invites comments most especially. The Wings' final-game choke in the top-seed race wasn't much noticed after Vancouver imploded, but it didn't hurt them too much--as an Oiler fan it hurt me a lot worse, serving up a heaping plate of Dallas Star.
Reader mail, Tampa Bay edition
More reader mail! Dan Boyd, Bolts fan and former Cory Cross detractor, writes in with his two cents.
I must now dine on my fair share of Cory Cross-style crow. Even though I have a Center Ice for my Dish, I have yet to see the Oilers in action (hey, my wife gets pissed off enough, thanks). It's good to see more small-market teams, especially Canadians, in the playoffs. [Editor's note: Toronto and Vancouver aren't really small-market teams; call 'em sixty-cent-dollar teams.]Well, if you're an aficionado of goaltending duels, that's a recipe for a classic right there, because you've got Kolzig, the big mattress, going up against Khabibulin, the ballet dancer. Dan has told himself a very impressive array of stories, here, to convince himself that Tampa Bay has a crack at glory. "Another Southwest team rode their goalie into the finals last year..." Ah, I take my hat off as a fellow master of self-delusion--it was really two goalies, not one (Weekes and Irbe split the work, establishing a fertile rivalry that took both guys to new heights), and dragging Carolina into the discussion only seems desperate to the casual observer. I have Washington as a slight favourite (53-47) in the first series.
Reader mail already?
Reader Andrew Johnston has already discovered the hockey page and writes to ask if there will be a comments section. Reader Andrew Johnston obviously does not know how ColbyCosh.com works. No, there will be no ungardened comment-kudzu hereabouts; but I hope readers with comments will e-mail them in, especially if they disagree with something I've said or they're following another team closely. Here are Andrew's thoughts--he's a Canuck rooter in Abbotsford.
I CANNOT believe what I saw today. Despite the awesome regular season, it is a sad time to be a Canuck fan. In two days, Naslund went from Art Ross, Rocket Richard, and potential Hart to none of the above! DOH!!! I would much rather see the Canucks play the Wild in the opening round, primarily because the Blues have way more combined playoff experience. My big hope is that Brad May will introduce himself to Pronger in a meaningful way in game one.You see how stricken the Canucks' fans are, despite the finest regular season in franchise history. I'll deal with a few of Andrew's points seriatim:
· "Playoff experience". I'm a huge skeptic about its value. Yes, despite what you've heard, playoff hockey is the same game, played a little more intensely. I've seen too many young players grow a foot taller in the playoffs over the years to believe that experience counts for anything next to plain talent. Just sticking to the Oilers, one could cite Andy Moog, pretty much the whole '84 team, Billy Ranford, Esa Tikkanen, the Kid Line of Murphy, Graves, and Gelinas, Todd Marchant... all guys who made their first noise on this team in the playoffs, and God willing Ales Hemsky is about to join their ranks. I mean, the Oilers have not exactly had trouble winning Stanley Cups with young, relatively inexperienced players. There is no question that older players should, in principle, handle playoff pressure better; there should also be no question that younger players may be looser, less aware of the pressure, less fearful of the consequences of a playoff choke, more eager to make a name for themselves in the league.
· The Oilers' trade-day additions: I like all the ones who are in uniform, though not as much as I liked Niinimaa and Carter. Cory Cross has done much to shame his detractors, though as I noted somewhere recently he does show some slender evidence of attention-deficit disorder. Dvorak gives me the impression he knows this is the last stop before the AHL. And Lord knows I think "size up front" is a tired trope, but there is no denying the effect of having Brad Isbister approach the net with a sniper holding the puck at the top of the circle. This team is, at the least, nearly as good as it was before; and it presents a whole new aspect to its opponents, which can't hurt. The Oilers already humbled Dallas last month with the new personnel.
· Canadian teams. In my youth there were seven, but in a 21-team NHL; now it's six out of 30, and none of them are year-in-year-out powerhouse franchises. As a consequence of this, and of the rise of other nations (particularly the U.S.) as hockey powers nearly equal to ourself, there is perhaps more fellow-feeling amongst Canadian fans than there used to be. Or that's the way it looks to me. Back in The Day, you had Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and Winnipeg all crowded into the same little Smythe Division. (If I hadn't called my weblog ColbyCosh.com, good names would have included "Smythe Division" or "Rupert's Land".) It was eat or be eaten: I never felt much sympathy for the frustrations of Flames or Jets fans, because their team's exit from the playoffs usually coincided with an Oiler stomping.
Starting the playoff year, as I usually do now, with my Canadian team a distinct longshot to win any silverware, I end up following the other Canadian teams in their progress to oblivion. Indeed, without cable TV I could hardly do otherwise. Canadians in the various cities have had their expectations lowered radically--at least they didn't leave town--and will now be happy to see any Canada-based team hoist a Cup. This year Ottawa and Vancouver are very real contenders, as good as any two Canada has put forward in a while. My hopes for them are part of the reason I decided to hockey-weblog semi-seriously.
I hope, incidentally, that no one thinks my cheering for the Oilers is going to be any less than ferocious, despite my pessimism. Don't think I don't fill my head with scenarios for victory over Dallas, a team which over the years has taken secure second place on every Oiler fan's hate list. And as far as the Calgary Flames are concerned, it's hard to work up hostility towards such a bunch of sad sacks. Dallas is a team worth hating--which raises the question...
· Will Salo show up for the playoffs? Salo's performance down the stretch last year, after he became a modern-day Fred Merkle in the Olympic tournament, should have put to rest any questions about his nerve. Here's somebody whose family is phoning him from back home in Sweden: "They're pelting the house with eggs now, Tommy... I called the police but they showed up with fresh cartons and joined in..." He pulled it together, somehow, and carried the Oilers to within a point of the last playoff spot--for which, you may recall, they were contending against that same Vancouver club that is now feared far and wide. It was an astonishingly admirable performance.
Yet if Salo's commitment is unquestioned, he's still got that European-goalie habit of turning into a sieve for days on end; if he'd been consistent throughout the year in '01-'02, the Oilers wouldn't have needed such a Herculean effort from him. Is it the depressive Scandinavian-Slavic-Baltic temperament that makes these guys so flaky? So many seem to exhibit this pattern (even Hasek, who is made of microchips and polymers), and while no one wants to denigrate Europeans, I have to admit I might be more comfortable heading into the playoffs with a goalie named Smith or, even better, Gauthier or Levesque. (I'm just as glad, however, that our goalie is not named Belfour or Joseph.)
Perhaps we cannot reasonably expect Europeans to feel the Ragnarokian gravity of the NHL and the Stanley Cup tournament as we do. But I don't recall my own favourite European position players being so streaky. Esa Tikkanen was the same hydrophobic rodent out there every night. Jari Kurri was as consistent a performer as you could ask for. Janne Niinimaa never phoned in a game when he was healthy, as he was discernably not for much of this season. Maybe Finns are mentally tougher: Roman Hamrlik and Boris Mironov were all notorious head cases at times, and Igor Ulanov was unspeakable, almost all the time.
Yes, I am rambling! This is the place appointed for me to do that! But now I must stop, and work on other things!
[UPDATE, 4:40 pm: Andrew does point out that the '84 Oilers had to be the '83 Oilers first before they could win the big bowl... but of course even the '83 Oilers saw off all comers pretty convincingly in their own conference.]
Up to speed
Just in case this hockey page draws in new readers, I figured I'd better give a brief set of links to hockey writings which won't be migrating over here from the main page. These links will be slightly unstable, but I'll try to remember to keep the URLs updated:
And there you have the compleat prehistory of this page.
Last day of the season; first day for this page
Welcome to the hockey page! Does anybody else consider it a hate crime that ESPN.com is featuring women's college basketball--women's, college, basketball--on its main page on the last day of the NHL schedule?
I'll warn you now, this isn't going to be anything like a comprehensive NHL news source; I just needed to park the occasional hockey entry in a different place because so many people pull faces when I wax hockey-istic on the main page. And I can understand that; I'm here to confirm your suspicion that hockey is a substitute for religion in Canada. Here, even the people who aren't interested get interested at playoff time, just as an Anglican might find his way to a church at Christmas or Easter. Leaving aside, of course, the odd cranky village "atheist" who can't stand any mention of the sport.
The last day of the regular season was rather upsetting. Vancouver completed its giveaway of the Northwest Division championship in a 2-0 loss to the Kings that shattered the fans, and the CKNW radio broadcasters, who sounded like condemned men trying to die bravely. "Bring on the Blues! We're not scared! Ahahahahuuuuuughhh!" If the Canucks had picked up even one point today, they'd have been seeded third in the conference and would have led against Minnesota in the first round. Minnesota is certainly a somewhat frightening opponent because of its goaltending strength (although fans shouldn't confuse Roloson, a B goalie on a hot streak, with Fernandez, who is genuine prime rib), but now Vancouver has to face St. Louis, and frankly I have them as a slight underdog against the Blues, especially the way they went in the tank with an important seeding issue on the line. In one lousy day, the Canucks have reduced their chances of making the conference final by 20% or so.
That hurt, because the Canucks are my fallback rooting interest. But comparing that to the effect of Dallas's capture of the number one seed is like comparing a stubbed toe to a sucking chest wound. The Oilers now have the Stars in the first round, and I'm not gonna lie to you: I think the Oilers are completely doomed. Probably neither team is especially thrilled with the way things have turned out. Dallas now faces a traditional first-round opponent that always finds it necessary to Put On The Foil against them. And Edmonton, I think, would have been much more comfortable facing Detroit. Even if you don't think Dallas is a better team roster-wise than Detroit, Reunion Arena is the hardest place in hockey to win when things are going right for the Stars. As it happens, and as you know if you've been reading the main page, I think Dallas is very much better than Detroit or anybody else. I make them an even-odds favourite to win the Cup, and if I can bring myself to swallow the treasonable aspect of it, I'll be looking for co-workers to bet that way with.
That's it for now. More, including gnomic forecasts from the Big Playoff Spreadsheet, as events warrant.