|Main Index Page
About Your Host
Send Me E-Mail
Browse the Archives
Read My Work
Visit the National Post
Stanley Cup: game seven notes
It was a perfect ending to the NHL season, and perhaps to the NHL as we know it. I'm not saying that just because Calgary now has the dubious honour of being the first Alberta team to cough up a 3-2 lead in the Stanley Cup. Although, man, typing that sure feels pretty awesome. Wait, let me "console" the Calgary fans out there.
Aw--you came so close. I bet it hurts to have your boys choke like that. There, there. There, there.
But this outcome felt right for more reasons than that Calgary is now lying stunned on the foothills like a bear hit with a tranquilizer dart. Who had even noticed that Dave Andreychuk--surely the most underrated 600-goal man in the annals of the league--had never won a Stanley Cup?
I hope Jarome Iginla gets a ring someday with some other team, but Vincent Lecavalier, I think, has had a tougher road to respectability. He was the designated saviour of a joke franchise in an absurd place, and for years he was dogged with ridiculous expectations laid on him by a jackass owner. He never had a hardcore hockey town behind him, and he's never gotten much respect in English Canada. After round one, it looked like he wasn't going to be in a factor in these playoffs, but he could have been the MVP in the end if not for Brad Richards' gaudy stats. And Richards--who had all of tiny Prince Edward Island behind him--is worth mentioning here too. So is Martin St. Louis, who was written off as too small by the scouts, and then, after fighting his way into the league, released outright by the Flames (payback being an infamous bitch the known world over). St. Louis was asked after the game how he managed to take his play up to MVP-candidate level; all he could say was "I just kept improving." Well, golly, Martin, pardon me for suggesting it probably wasn't as easy as all that; if it were, more guys would do it.
There's also Nikolai Khabibulin, who saved Tampa's lead with about six minutes left with an all-world blocker save on Jordon Leopold. He had butterflied to make the original stop and had to cross to the opposite side of the net in a fraction of a heartbeat. (Even as it was, Leopold has a mostly open net he's going to see in his dreams until he dies.) There are, what, 20 starting goalies in this league who don't make that save? One of the odd things about international hockey in the post-Cold War era is the Russians' failure to find a successor to Tretiak, who was probably the world's greatest goaltender in the 1970s. Khabibulin is now the furthest along in making a case for himself.
Generally, the NHL has been a little slow to internationalize at the goaltending position. Coaches have distrusted European goalies in the past, and lord knows head cases like Roman Turek and Roman Cechmanek have given them good reason. You can't instruct someone in the oppressive high-church symbolism of the Stanley Cup; it has to be something you've grown up with. And while it's tolerable for a European forward like Peter Forsberg to disappear for twenty games a year, you can't afford that from your starting netminder, unless he's a god in the other sixty like Dominik Hasek. Khabibulin's Stanley Cup victory does a little more to make sure the door Hasek opened will stay open, although with a whole generation of Finnish goalies knocking on the door of greatness, it may be Kiprusoff's incredible season that is ultimately seen as the true foreshadowing here.
Sure, it would have made for a good story if Jarome had been able to finish that mind-boggling rush toward the net in the last half of the third--faking out two Tampa defenders so bad they flopped to the ice like they'd been shot, and threading two more with the subsequent shot, only to have Khabibulin make the save. If that puck had gone in you and I would be talking about The Greatest Clutch Goal Of All Time In Any Sport this morning. But they only count the ones that go in, game six notwithstanding (hahahaha).
A note about the post-victory celebration: the Stanley Cup ceremony has been allowed to go to hell and someone should put a stop to it. This business of letting the winning coach hoist the Cup, and then letting the plucky assistant coach do it, and then letting the director of player development do it, and then Christ knows who else, is really pushing established religious practice to its limits. Letting Scotty Bowman skate with the Cup wasn't a precedent: it was an exception, made for the greatest coach who ever lived. I suggest that Soapy Tortorella be allowed to lift the Cup over his head when he's won the thing eight more times, like Bowman. At the very least, let's have a little decorum and not give a victory lap with the Cup to the stick boy. It's a simple matter of issuing sidearms to the custodians of the trophy. They should also have a broad mandate to shoot the players' children, who now throng the ice when the Cup is won and wander around crying and confused, giving the whole thing the air of a GE company picnic. I can just about tolerate the players photographing one another like a bunch of Japanese tourists, but generally the intimate-family-gathering atmosphere is getting out of hand.
Anyway, I'm glad the whole thing's over--I'm only sorry we don't know when we'll see it again. But we've got the World Cup coming up in late August (whoa), and I'm looking forward to a chance to cheer for Iginla and Regehr. Starting now--or about a week from now, after I'm done savouring Calgary's hilarious Stanley Cup lipstand--we really are all Canadians.
Weblogging Stanley Cup Game 2
Pregame: I'll level with you. The reason the page has gone cold is that thinking about and looking at hockey depresses me now. I could just about tolerate a Calgary Flames Stanley Cup, which--it became clear to me halfway through the Western Conference final--is now probably going to happen. I can't tolerate them winning the last Stanley Cup before a possible year-long lockout. The Stanley Cup could end up living in Calgary for two years or more. It's just not right. I can't pretend to participate in Edmonton's sudden love affair with a "Cinderella" team we've always despised. I am angry with my fellow-citizens, whose behaviour will only make Calgarians more supercilious. I am angry at every misty-eyed nerd who says "Who would have thought...?" about the Flames. Granted, I didn't pick them to win the West myself, but that was plain cowardice. The data identified Calgary as the favourite to win the West right from the start: they were the strongest team in the necessary areas, particularly in net.
I'm having a lot of trouble dealing with all this, and I don't believe in the Lightning at all. Tampa started with two relatively easy opponents and almost gave the conference final away to a slow, injury-ridden club with mildly suspect goaltending. Calgary saw off a President's Trophy winner and demolished a Sharks team that may have been second-favourite in the league by empirical criteria. The city has been worth a game to Calgary in every series, even though they haven't had home ice once. Now they're coming home with, at the very least, a split. Kiprusoff has seen off the unjust doubts, and Iginla--unlike the Bolts' superstars--has not put together two mediocre games in a row through the whole playoff year. The perception that Tampa has more depth is plain mistaken; look how the Flames (even without the talented Toni Lydman) keep pulling defencemen out of their butt. This is going to end badly for me, and I never would have done this page if I'd believed it. There, happy now?
Anthems now (Sigh--O Canada is not a jazz tune. Didn't I see this blonde singer's mons pubis on FlamesGirls.com?). I can't really believe any team with a singular noun as its name is ever going to win the Stanley Cup. The trophy's impenetrable force field of pure class will prevent any such team from touching it, mark my words.
Yeah, and now they're talking about Danny Boyle's house burning down. Sheesh. Poor bastard. I'm not superstitious, but "Tampa player's house goes up in Flames" is a headline you'd have to be retarded not to consider an omen.
Tampa wins the opening faceoff.
18:50 remaining, 1st period: That playoff beard really brings out the French-Canadian in Martin Gelinas. He looks like he just got back from lumber camp in the Vermont woods. They should let him play in a mackinaw and a tourtière-stained toque. Here's another reason Tampa is going to lose: Tortorella has a beard, but it's neatly trimmed, which in Sikhism and playoff hockey is a big no-no. He looks like a soap opera star. "The truth, Ashley, is that your adopted mother, unbeknownst to her, was also your biological mother." Another strike against the phony team from the torrid zone. Take a lesson from Glen Sather: coaches with bad teeth, bad hair, and bad suits win.
16:00/1st: Good penalty-kill by Tampa, but they had to block an awful lot of shots. That only works for so long; eventually they just start skating around you. The '80s Oilers helped pioneer modern shot-blocking, but then those teams tended to give up about five goals a game, too. I'm more comfortable with it in the third period than the first.
12:49/1st: Fedotenko bangs in a Lecavalier rebound after about four minutes of Calgary dominance. 1-0. Lecavalier's the last survivor of my pool team: I should be thrilled with the marker. Sadly my pool was full of Sharks, haw haw haw. The joke's on me. When San Jose went out I was officially, mathematically eliminated from the pool: I might still finish second, but when I last checked I was three or four points behind another guy who also has Vinny. Christ, this is the worst hockey season since Bad Joe Hall died.
It would be cool if there were a folk song called "I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hall Last Night".
I dreamt I saw Joe Hall last night,
8:17/1st: Whom do you like for the Conn Smythe when Calgary wins? I can't think of a Lightningster who has an ironclad case, so it's got to go to a Flame. I'd be hesitant to vote for Gelinas just because of the timeliness of his goals, though I suppose he's the favourite. Kiprusoff would be a better choice--frankly, if you win the Cup, your goalie is just about the MVP by definition--but he has probably stolen fewer games outright than Khabi or Nabokov. (Listening to the Colorado broadcasters cry like toddlers during the San Jose series when Teal Fire was on his game is still the best radio comedy I've ever heard, bar none.) I think it should go to Iginla, along with the Calgary mayoralty.
6:17/1st: Tough high-stick call on Lecavalier to punish him for drawing a dodgy hooking call against Dave Lowry a little earlier. If you must dive, try to dive against guys no one likes. There goes Shean Donovan into the box now to even things up. Refs are cracking down tonight. This could end 1-0, but it doesn't feel that way right now.
1st intermission: Soapy Tortorella has been trying to line-change with neurosurgical caution this period, which can work great or make you look like an ass. A too-many-men call decided in favour of the latter, but Calgary's, what, 0-for-4 this period on the power play.
Here's an ad for Labatt's low-carb beer. How can you tell this company is owned by Europeans now. Is low-carb beer for the guys who don't feel like quite enough of a self-absorbed candyass drinking ordinary light beer? Labatt's Sterling: makes you drunk, tastes like cod-liver oil, but lets you keep the slender frame of a metrosexual twink.
Grapes just showed me something I missed from the Tampa marker--Lecavalier was being chased behind the goal and he faked the Calgary player out by banking it off the metal frame of the net, rearwards, and changing direction before the Calgary player knew what was happening. Beautiful!
Here's Cherry's annual feature where he does short introductions of his five favourite prospects. Whoa, there's Ovechkin! Is that the first Russian guy Cherry's had on here? Sasha says his favourite player is Jaroma Ee-geen-la. "You tol' me backstage it was Tie Domi!" shouts Cherry. But he's obviously impressed with the kid.
Cherry sends out condolences to Lee Fogolin's family... what's this about? Aw... jeez.
Ex-Oilers captain Lee Fogolin played cards with his 17-year-old son Michael on Tuesday, fed him some macaroni, watched him tape a couple of hockey sticks, then said good night to him. Later, in the early morning hours, Lee heard a commotion in his son's room and rushed in to see what was the matter.That's why Jim Matheson is in the Hall of Fame writers' wing... he knew to get the macaroni in the lede. Man.
14:00/2nd: Good start to the second period, with a shorthanded breakaway by Brad Richards (stopped by Kiprusoff with a stellar full-extension glove save) and a 3-on-2 rush by Calgary which ended in Khabi's ample bosom. Tortorella continues to throw away offensive-zone charges on speculative line changes. Is it just me or does he kind of look like an Italian Dennis Miller? "Hey refs! The Nurse Ratched act is getting old already! Whaddaya want me to do, hold a pillow over Lecavalier's face? [Disbelieving chuckle, hair flip]"
9:43/2nd: My Tampa Bay correspondent, Dan Boyd, keeps complaining to me that Canadians don't realize that Tampa is basically a Canadian colony, and that the Lightning's fans are almost as pur laine as, say, the Saskatoon Blades' bandwagon. I might believe it, but as a rule Canadian fans don't scream for a penalty every time one of their players trips over a skate lace. Pavel Kubina just sat down hard for no reason in the Calgary zone (it may be the ice--it's apparently 35° Celsius in Tampa Bay today), and the Tampa crowd bellowed for blood. Meh.
6:29/2nd: Endless dump-ins and back-and-forth in the neutral zone. Still 1-0, but Tortorella is one bad line change away from letting Calgary back in. There's Gretzky in the crowd. Looking vaguely haunted as usual. The super on the screen says "382 playoff points, career". That's the record (duh). The top five all-time in that category:
Why, yes, now that you mention it, we did have some good hockey teams in Edmonton.
2nd intermission: The second period ended up much like the first--a little action at the start and end, with a lot of nothing in between. Not that that's unusual. Ron Maclean's doing an interview here with butterball Tampa GM Jay Feaster about some AHL tournament from '98. Zzz.
Those of you who don't think hockey counts as a "major sport", let me ask you--do the New York Yankees have their own Russian-language web page? Hah?
Now here's a feature about Robyn Regehr... prrrrrobably the only Brazilian-born NHLer, I'm thinking. Regehr was the child of globetrotting Mennonite missionaries--the surname is a dead giveaway to Canadians--but a religious upbringing didn't stop him from having one of those career-killing car crashes in junior. The CBC shows us Regehr's impressively scarred legs, but doesn't mention Regehr's intriguing ethnicity and remarkable childhood, or the two deaths resulting from the accident (which appears to have been the fault of the other driver).
17:09/3rd: Well well. Brad Richards makes it 2-0. Calgary had just killed the second half of a two-man advantage, but Ference missed a hit on Martin St. Louis behind the net, MSL worked it out front, and Bolts just kept flowing in to pick up Kiprusoff's rebounds (the main weakness in his game throughout the season). I know the Calgary defence corps is depleted, but that does make you question the 30 minutes a night Ference has been eating. I have to say, he certainly finished the damn check--he just didn't actually hit his man.
16:00/3rd: 3-0! Danny Boyle's revenge! Boyle skates in diagonally, and unseen, from the point to the opposite side of the goalmouth, knocking a telekinetic Brad Richards pass behind Kiprusoff. Game over, ladies and germs. The sound guy should start playing Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House". What do you suppose all those laid-off NHL organists are doing nowadays? Interrupting Lutheran church services with "Doo-doo-doo-DOOT doo-doooooo! Chaaarge!"?
14:02/3rd: Ew. Suddenly getting ugly. Bolts still swarming over Calgary: Lecavalier and St. Louis play a bit of ping-pong before MSL pops the disc behind a bored Kiprusoff. Four-nil; the camera is starting to pan meaningfully over Roman Turek. Remember how Turek was the Kiprusoff of 2003 for about 30 games?
11:29/3rd: Chris Simon and Andre Roy throw down (shortly after a dustup between Ference and Stillman). Another questionable element for a supposedly "Canadian" crowd: nobody reacts to the fight, despite the fairly high calibre of the participants. Canadians know immediately when two heavyweights drop the gloves. Roy connects twice with Simon's face, and wins a split decision after the pair tumbles to the ice.
End of game: Ville Nieminen made it 4-1, scoring the game's prettiest goal (beating Khabibulin one-on-one high to the stick side). After that the penalties began to mount up again and there was no chance for a miracle finish. I should apologize to Tortorella for doubting his line-change strategy (whatever it was), I guess: but if it's what won him tonight's game, that's merely the worse for Tampa, who must now be plunged into the white-hot crucible of the Saddledome. The Lightning certainly put the Flames away convincingly the moment they got the upper hand tonight, but they didn't outplay them as impressively as the Flames outplayed the Bolts in Game 1. I'm still pessimistic. So what else is new.
Round two wrapup: the eye of the hurricane
I have to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs--in dying--made up for 13 games' worth of intermittently lackluster play in the seven minutes of overtime against Philadelphia Tuesday night. If I had to show a foreigner a short piece of hockey footage to help him understand the excitement this game can create, I'd show him that OT. It wasn't just the way things ended, although that right there is a story for the grandkids. Even before the all-century finish, the seven minutes were full of odd-man rushes, wildly bouncing pucks, great saves by Robert Esche followed by heart-stopping rebounds, and other terrific hits.
Then Darcy Tucker, our generation's Eddie Shack, flattened Sami Kapanen with the most devastating, gasp-inducing hit you will ever see in sudden-death overtime. It wasn't "Is there a doctor in the house?"--it was "Is there a priest?". Kapanen, only twenty feet or so from the Philly bench, staged an epic mini-drama--alas, seen only later in replays--as he struggled valiantly to leave the ice, falling three times and losing his grip on his stick. He didn't know his own name during those seconds, but he did the right thing. If he'd stayed down and tried to draw a charging penalty, play would have stopped. Instead, Kapanen was physically hauled over the boards by the off-ice Flyers, and Jeremy Roenick--himself playing with a shattered face and a largely fused spine--vaulted over him to set up a winning two-on-one. You don't get this kind of stuff in baseball.
Despite the Flyer win, the media are still making the familiar sound of one knee jerking: there is widespread pique that there was no penalty against Tucker--symbolizes everything that's wrong with the game, blah blah blah. Cam Cole, a Post colleague, described the unwhistled check as the result of Andy van Hellemond's "purge of veteran officials" in favour of young know-nothings. The lead ref for the game, Stephen Walkom, has been in the NHL since 1990: I bet he can't wait for his "veteran" certificate, signed by Cole, to arrive in the mail 14 more years from now. Mechanically the Tucker hit was completely sound, a textbook lesson in how to flatten someone lawfully. Charging is kind of a bullshit call at the best of times, and would have been an extremely inappropriate one under the circumstances, since Tucker was following the flow of the puck closely. It was pure luck that he had Kapanen in his sights as he chased the disc. This kind of opportunism is also called "competition". It's called playing the game.
It's not like Cole (who comes from rural Alberta, like Tucker and your correspondent) to sound like one of these guys who'd gladly replace hockey with North Korean-style displays of mass synchronized gymnastics. It may be that he was looking for an excuse to cheer against the Leafs--sample quote: "I couldn't wait for the Flyers to score, and win, and deliver the only kind of justice that could have made Tuesday night palatable"--and found one in that moment. Anyway, if he was pleased about the sudden interruption of the Leaf fans' parade planning, I'm ten times more so. Criminal fatuity isn't always rewarded so justly in this life.
Because I was too chicken to take Calgary over Detroit in the second round, I'm only eight-for-twelve in predicting the outcomes of the series held so far. A two-thirds hit rate is, I think, about what you could expect from any intelligent observer in the playoff environment. I don't even know whether it's consistently possible to do better, but you shouldn't do any worse. Shrug.
In the conference finals, I'm not going to argue with the numbers. I'm calling for the Flyers, so well coached and so well balanced from front to back, to end the Lightning's run. I've stuck with the Lightning, but so far--as a smitten nation of writers and broadcasters is rapidly forgetting--they've only been confronted with the East's #8 and #7 seeds. The team is being carried offensively by a changing handful of players; you can get away with this against the back-markers, but in a conference final it becomes tough. Subjectively I'd never bet on Esche to outduel Khabibulin--stylistically he looks, at times, almost as sloppy as Cechmanek--but he seems to get the job done despite the rebounds, the slow lateral movement, and the American birthplace.
And if you like the sound of a final featuring two cities with a strong hockey tradition, you're in for a treat. Out West the numbers give Calgary a very slight edge, and they agree with one's subjective sense that the Flames possess killer instinct--putting a President's Trophy winner away in six games--and the Sharks, who dithered in dispatching Colorado, don't. Normally I would never say this, but the pressure will be on San Jose to get two wins in the Shark Tank. As much as winning the first two at home is emphasized, it's not all that common and is rarely an absolute necessity for the better team. But if the Sharks have to go to Calgary tied 1-1, watch out. It's a special case.
The Flames of hell
Calgary just eliminated Detroit in the same way it eliminated Vancouver: by means of a Martin Gelinas goal (with an assist from Jarome Iginla) in overtime. Gelinas is now, apparently, the first NHLer with three series-ending OT goals on his resumé. I suppose that, at least, we now know the numbers don't lie (see the last sentence of this entry). It's kind of a tough lesson for Detroit, whose run with this lineup is now likely to end. On the other side--and I'm only going to say this once--nobody deserves the victory more than the Calgary fans.
There will be sad times in Hockeytown, but they won't last long, and the payroll will remain relatively huge. A lot of teams--mine, for a start--would love to have a nucleus of young talent like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Fischer, Hudler, and Kronwall. Detroit has done well in the homegrown talent sweepstakes despite years of bad draft positioning; don't start feeling sorry for them until you actually see your own team stomp their asses a few times.
I felt that the Wings had a good chance to reach the Stanley Cup with Manny Legacé. Manny flaked out a little in Game Four against Nashville, and CuJo put on a relatively good show the rest of the way; but then again, one notes that everyone is now celebrating the sad fact that Curtis Joseph "never gave up more than three goals in a game" throughout the playoffs. Hey, guess what: Manny can say the same thing. He was benched, essentially, on the strength of one bad goal. The fans might want to take a hard look at the coach's decision-making on that one, though it's always hard to tell when a goaltender will get mad that he's been pulled and when he'll get mad that he hasn't.
The real contemplation of seppuku should probably be taking place in the front office. It is hard not to feel that the whole débâcle goes back to the decision to bring Hasek back. Detroit had the rights to three goalies, and they put their trust in the lunatic and did their best to shatter the confidence of the other two. Plus, all three are getting on in years--even Legace is 31. It should be a cause of some grief at Red Wing headquarters that they were stuffed by a goaltender they could have had themselves, six months ago, in exchange for a worn-out jockstrap. Invest in young Finns, folks, while the stock is still affordable!
Actually, that's something I've been meaning to note about tonight's playoffs--the sudden change of the goaltending guard. Did you notice this? Last year the French goalies asserted their dominance, with Giguere, Brodeur, and Lalime leading three of the final four teams. This year Jiggy's team didn't make the playoffs and Brodeur and Lalime's lives took pretty ugly turns. Right now there are six teams left: their goalies are four Europeans, Manitoba's Ed Belfour, and a guy from Utica. The conference finals, it is now certain, will feature three European goalies. Lalime was even pulled for a Czech backup at the end of his series.
This is an extreme one-season turnaround, but I think it is symptomatic. It takes extra money, negotiating effort, scouting, and sometimes legal trouble to bring a European of the same skill to North America to play. A salary cap or luxury tax--or a simple reluctance to pay outrageous salaries--would have a disproportionate effect on the numbers of Europeans on NHL rosters. If goalscoring remains at relatively low levels, and most teams can only afford two or three franchise-level transatlantic players, one of them is likely to be a top-flight European goalie.
Anyway, let's not overestimate the one-dimensional importance of the goaltending duel. Before tonight, Jo-sieve was actually carrying a better save percentage through the playoffs than Kiprusoff. After the scoreless first fifty minutes of tonight's game, there was little doubt left about the outcome; Detroit was starting to give up rushes and to have serious trouble clearing its own zone, and Calgary was letting Kiprusoff see everything. The Wings never did find the magic key to Calgary's defensive scheme and its hot goalie.
I'm not ready to predict the conference finals yet, seeing as we don't quite know who's in 'em, but Flames fans should be warned that their man isn't quite the hottest goalie in the universe. Despite the fact that the Sharks have let the Avs back in the door, that distinction still belongs to Evgeni Nabokov: in the Colorado series he has given up 2, 1, 0, 1, and 2 goals, despite being shelled at times like the Boche at the Battle of the Somme. The Avs have stayed alive by working Joe Sakic like a Clydesdale; all I can say about it is, we'll see if it keeps working.
State of the union, Apr. 27
Suggested Bermanisms for Some Breakout Players: Matthew "The Best Offence Is A Good" Ference; Fredrik "Is That You" Modin; Matt "To The Finland" Stajan; Steve "Hiroshima" Montador. If you can think of one for Dmitry Afanasenkov, send it directly to ESPN.
How's the Pool Going?: at the start of play Thursday the team was in 17th. After Monday's game it was in a tie for 2nd; tonight it dropped to 3rd but kept pace. Hey, it was easy--I just had to have the best player in the league every night for most of a week (Vinny, Nabokov, and Marleau pretty much handled it between the three of them).
How Are the Predictions Coming Along?: Tampa, Philly, and San Jose are looking great, and there's still a better than 50% chance Detroit will help me run the round and raise my record to 9-for-12. And the Sharks, my outset pick for the Stanley Cup, are fast becoming everyone's darling. I'm no hockey expert, but living on the Western half of the continent does let you learn and see some things the guys in the northeast miss. (Such as: Martin St. Louis gets 900% of the ink that Marleau does for playing about as well, which is very well. And: Nabokov took his game to a new level this year--if you took him as your goalie in your pool, as I did, let's pat one another on the back.)
You Still Think The Wings Are Gonna Win?: boy, you've got to wonder after that game tonight, don't you? Calgary did just about everything better than Detroit--flawlessly implementing a slightly unorthodox defensive plan, poking holes in the Wings' neutral-zone defence, and making smart choices with the puck. Because their goalie is so much better than Detroit's, Calgary doesn't have to be stubborn about control of the neutral zone: at times they hang back, react, and tie up the middle where another team would crowd the left side. This allows them to break out more effectively with Regehr, Conroy, Iginla, and whoever else is particularly amped-up. It takes guts to do this against a team with as many threats as Detroit, and when it doesn't work you get a busted flush like the one on Saturday. But when it works, Calgary actually looks like the better team--an amazing thing for a club that was supposed to be the scrappy, emotion-driven underdog.
Darryl Sutter has found one way to play at par, over uncertain durations, with the finest offensive powerhouse in hockey--and, frankly, if they can do that, the Calgary fans will continue to come into play in games four and six. Before tonight's game, you could see the astonishing wall of coordinated sound in the Saddledome working its magic on the Wings. They were visibly smirking, trying to shrug it off, and clearly wishing they were back in their "Hockeytown", so-called.
And, then again, the brute facts of life: Detroit has about fifteen players who could pick up the team on their own and carry it past the Flames. Darryl Sutter is obviously a terrific coach, and just the right coach for this club, but the Wings only have to pick up the phone to bring Scotty Bowman back from scouting and get his brainpower working on this round. That's a call that's being placed right now, I imagine.
Don Cherry Watch: now I've seen everything--Canada's despised maestro of mayhem has actually been mocked for disapproving of an act of violence because it might have caused an injury. Take the floor, Herald columnist George Johnson:
Don Cherry, CBC's populist Mouth That Roared, spewed on about [Jarome Iginla's] foolishness for risking injury to his throwing hand [when he fought Derian Hatcher]. Others interpreted the outburst as an act of defiance, a message that neither he, nor his team, will kowtow to the might of the star-studded, President's Trophy-winning, Stanley Cup-worthy Red Wings.
I love it when sportswriters make fun of Cherry's "populism", as if they themselves were writing for Cahiers du fucking Cinema or something. I guess playing to masses of hockey-hostile and ill-informed sentiment with pleas for moral cleansing of the game isn't "populist". The word I use for what Cherry is is popular, but there you go. In any case, on the CBC broadcast in question Grapes acknowledged pretty clearly that Jarome was trying to inspire his team, that he couldn't possibly be asked not to do so, and that there were no circumstances under which a player with Jarome's heart would not do it. He was merely pointing out that someone else should have been available to step up. It's a problem, certainly, when the undisputed most valuable player in the league--compared to his teammates--is also the toughest S.O.B. on his team.
Strange New Respect Awards: Somehow, I had no idea Craig Conroy was this good. Not to take anything away from Jarome, but let's keep his largely unacknowledged Jari Kurri in mind when elevating him to the pyramid. Few are better, or have been better in my experience, through neutral ice.
And Ville Nieminen. Well, at the start of the playoffs, when I read the interview with this guy saying he intended to become the new Esa Tikkanen, I was so mad I wanted to spit. The temerity of the comparison to the most underrated Oiler of the championship years seemed even more blatant early in the series against Vancouver, when Nieminen had a nightmare period and had to watched three or four goals scored against Kiprusoff from the vantage point of the sin bin.
But, I have to say... yeah, the guy is kind of reminiscent of Tikkanen (who, apparently, receives his full reputational due as a player back in Finland). He'll never get away with as much cheap stuff as E.T. because he's so big, but he does bring the same multisyllabic chatter, the same dogged persistence, the same wicked shot. He can play for me. I feel comfortable admitting all this in the possible presence of Flames fans, because a new crack opens up in their hearts whenever I say the word "Tikkanen". The red sacks of crap remember Game Seven in '91, and E.T.'s resounding answer to Fleury's coke-tastic Game Six goal celebration, better than I do.
While We're On the Subject: there's a lot of local sentiment in Edmonton that Oilers fans should be pulling for the Flames, our homegrown Jarome, and "Alberta hockey" in the playoffs. I'm afraid I can't entirely sign on to this new concept of nationalistic decorum. Pulling for the other Canadian teams just because they're Canadian is just a recipe for adding more sorrow to one's hockey year: since only one team can hoist the Cup, it only makes sense to cheer against the teams you're bred to hate. (Is there a way both Detroit and Calgary can lose?)
Do Edmontonians really think they'd feel more than a brief moment of pleasure, or anything remotely like the joy of an Oilers championship, if Calgary actually won the Stanley Cup? You people (I'm looking at you, John Short, with all due respect) are deluding yourselves. That moment of cheap, borrowed, bandwagoneering pleasure--perfectly hypocritical, and no doubt revolting to Calgarians--would be paid for in years of cultivated insufferability anyway. We missed the playoffs, so we've earned the right to continue cheering unconditionally against Calgary, as we did four weeks ago when they occupied a space in the playoff bracket we might have taken. (They're still occupying it!) Fandom is about plunging into a stochastic attachment that coalesces into love over the decades; those who say we should discard our negative allegiances for some imagined concept of good form should go back to their macramé.
Don Cherry stole my material for tonight's "Coach's Corner"! After Friday's huge night for Lecavalier, which he replicated today, a lot of beat writers are talking about he and Martin St. Louis's huge incentive to perform well against Montreal, traditional vessel of the hopes and dreams of male French-Canadian youth. John Tortorella has paired them for the Montreal series, expecting them to take their game to a new level. It's looking right now like one of the great coaching decisions in memory.
What's interesting about it--and what Grapes brought up in such timely fashion--is that not so long ago both St. Louis and Lecavalier might well have ended up as Canadiens property. After the Second World War, Montreal GM Frank Selke became the first to introduce Branch Rickey's farm-system theory to hockey and quickly attained total dominance of Quebec's junior leagues. In the '50s Selke purchased the entire Quebec Senior Hockey League solely in order to acquire the rights to Jean Beliveau. (But Beliveau was earning more from French-language commercial endorsements as an amateur than all but a couple of NHLers, and Selke, after being stymied for a few years, had to literally let Beliveau name his own price.) For the rest of the Original Six era Montreal retained its hammerlock on French-Canadian talent.
When the first NHL draft was implemented in 1963, the Canadiens demanded, and obtained, a rule that they would have the right to make two choices from among players of French-Canadian origin before anyone else made a pick. This wasn't particularly onerous to other clubs at the time, because the draft wasn't the main source of talent. Since there were still no age limits on contracts, the very best players were being signed by NHL teams for "sponsored" junior clubs in their teens. (Bobby Orr was signed by the Bruins at the tender age of 14.) Finally such sponsorships were outlawed in 1969, but Montreal exercised its ethnic droit de seigneur for one last year, snapping up Rejean Houle and future WHA star Marc Tardif with their two choices.
After that, the rule was voted out. It is amusing, however, to imagine what the Montreal roster would look like if it were still in place. Funnily enough, it might not have provided an insurmountable advantage to them, since so many top French draftees who aren't goaltenders have been busts in the last couple decades. The Habs could have drafted both Martin Brodeur and Felix Potvin in 1990 if they so chose, but they obtained Jose Theodore in the normal course of business anyhow, and taking the last three seasons as a whole, I'm not sure there's anyone you'd rather have had. They certainly would have grabbed Alexander Daigle in '93, for all the good it would have done them. Only by an extremely expansive definition of "French-Canadian" could they have snapped up joual speakers like Haitian-descended Georges Laraque or Italo-Quebecois Roberto Luongo, but they certainly would have taken Lecavalier in '98, along with Alex Tanguay or perhaps Simon Gagne.
Arguably they could have made a case for ownership of Aneroid, Saskatchewan's Patrick Marleau, frontrunner for the 2005 Hart Trophy (and the 2004 Conn Smythe, now that you mention it). Likely 2004 Hart winner Martin St. Louis, of course, is the one that got away from everybody: he went completely untouched in his entry-draft year. Every goal he scores now is a warning to scouts not to overrate pure size, as they so blatantly do. (And in the Western Conference, similar warnings are being sounded quite often by 5'8" Steve Sullivan, drafted 233rd overall in '94.)
I didn't watch today's Montreal game, except to turn my head when the goals were scored. I did watch Toronto-Philadelphia, where the Flyers dealt a serious blow to Leafs hopes in a 2-1 win. The Leafs outplayed the Flyers through two periods, with Robert Esche holding Philadelphia in the game, and Tie Domi pulled a 1-0 game even in the second, scoring what can only be described, absurdly under the circumstances, as a goal-scorer's goal. (Check out the highlights if you can--Ol' Fistface tipped it in on the fly, over Esche's glove-side shoulder, with his back to Clarke Wilm's original shot. We'll remember that one.) It looked somewhat like Toronto was fixing to leave Philadelphia with a split and a decisive answer to Philly's Game One claim to dominance.
But the first six minutes of the third period must have carved the hearts right out of Torontonians; they reminded me, to my own horror, of the soul-starving forecheck of the Dallas Stars in last year's playoffs against the Oilers. Toronto simply could not clear its own zone; the play looked like one long and extremely effective power play, only the teams were at even strength. Philadelphia cycled the puck with inhuman efficiency and won every battle in the corners. Belfour made great save after great save, no doubt beseeching his teammates to do something. Finally Robert Reichel did do something--to wit, tackling Mark Recchi near the goalmouth. I would have been willing to bet my liver that Philadelphia would score on the ensuing power play; Toronto should be extremely proud that it took Philly 114 seconds of the 120 in the man advantage to do so. Game pretty much over. Series possibly also over. I make no categorical prediction here, but to win this thing, Toronto now has to take four out of five games--which means actually winning on the nights when they outwork the Flyers.
Skeleton in the closet
The second round is progressing according to script, it seems--so much so that in three days my pool team, thanks to the large-calibre Sharks scoring and the big night of Vinny Lacavalier, has surged from 17th out of 18 to 9th with a bullet. This was more or less the original plan: I always felt my advantage would be in the later rounds, but I never anticipated falling quite so far into the latrine first.
Calgary, having come out of Joe Louis with a 1-1 split, is doing what it needs to do to beat Detroit--which is not to say it's going to work; it certainly won't, if Yzerman and Hull are back for real. Toronto's problems with Philadelphia have me wondering a little about Canada's Toronto-centric media, which couldn't stop talking about the "pattern" of Toronto victories over Ottawa in 2000, 2001, and 2002--but completely missed the accompanying pattern: after the Leafs finished off the Sens, they lost the next series in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Here's the real pattern--neither of these teams have the royal jelly. Toronto is plagued, and will always be plagued, by the fan-perception and media-pressure problems that sports teams notoriously face in that other "Second City" of the New World, Chicago. I suspect the Leafs are labour under real disadvantages disguised as a mere superstition, like the Cubs and the White Sox. Ottawa solved its biggest problem by firing Jacques Martin, and thereby becomes, for my money, a favourite to win the 2005 Stanley Cup. If there is a 2005 Stanley Cup.
IMPORTANT DIGRESSION: you guys know we could theoretically have a Stanley Cup tournament even if the National Hockey League takes a year off, right? Maybe this is something we need to start talking about.
Richard Foot wrote a piece about the questionable legal status of the Cup for the Montreal Gazette in September. In 1892, Lord Stanley bought the Stanley Cup and appointed two trustees who were to award it annually to the hockey champions of the Dominion. It was deeded, in written trust, under certain conditions: one of them was that "the trustees [were] to maintain absolute authority in all situations or disputes over the winner of the Cup." As Foot wrote,
In June 1947, those trustees signed a memorandum of agreement with Clarence Campbell, then president of the NHL.
Foot asked two distinguished Canadian estate lawyers whether they felt this 1947 custody transfer was entirely proper under the law. Unsurprisingly, both found that it probably wasn't. The trustees had absolutely no real right to sign over the care and control of the Cup to anyone but their successors.
"The trustees were appointed to manage a charitable endeavour--a cup given for purposes beneficial to the community--and they gave the property away to a profit-making endeavour," [David Wingfield] said. "Trustees don't have the power to give away their duties. They delegated full authority to the league, and you can't do that."In light of the possibility that we will lose an NHL season to collective-bargaining troubles, the closing sentences of the piece are of increasing interest:
Whatever the true legal status of the hockey world's most important trophy, Wingfield and Stevens said no one is ever likely to question the issue in court.Who would question the issue in court? Well, if the NHLPA were feeling mischievous enough, it might develop half a mind to do so. What court would take the trophy away from the League? Any court, I think, that took a historically unprejudiced view of the situation: the League appears to have no legal right to hold the Cup hostage, and certainly has no moral right to do so under the will of Lord Stanley. A real court presented with the issue would probably be guided by the perceived desires of the intended beneficiaries of Stanley's gift--which is us, or us Canadians, anyway. I wonder what we'd want if, as might happen, there is a whole winter without NHL hockey and no prospect of it starting up anytime soon.
No crystal ball
Making public playoff predictions will humble you every time. I got only five of the first-round series right, getting the West perfect but calling only the Tampa Bay victory in the East. Five is scarcely any better than chance--but it's also better than average: the mean performance of the professional reporters in my encyclopedia of first-round picks was 4.9. Several got seven out of eight right, including the Post's Jeremy Sandler and Mark Spector. Most of the sevens, including those two, blew the Colorado series; a few had taken Dallas but also trusted Boston. Nobody went eight-for-eight, or got as few as two right. Sportsnet's John Garrett, who funked the East the same way I did and picked Vancouver and Dallas, is a good example of how somebody can end up getting three out of eight despite fairly uncontroversial choices. At my hometown daily, Jim Matheson, who is in the scribes' wing of the Hall of Fame, got four out of eight; so did John Short, who has been a hockey publicist, writer and broadcaster for about thirty years. Like I say--humbling.
But let the band play on. In the quarterfinals I'm taking Philadelphia over Toronto. I refuse to follow the herd and start believing in the Leafs now; even though their goaltender looks great, his "hot streak" has much to do with Jacques Martin's tactical ineptitude (big hint to Martin's successor: Spezza should not be a healthy scratch when your team is desperately floundering for goals), and forward of Belfour the team hasn't looked terribly convincing. It's unclear whether Sundin is going to be ready, whether or not he comes back. Darcy Tucker, normally a big spark plug for the club, is playing hurt and showing it, and Francis and Mogilny have just looked stale. The Leafs were outshot in the Ottawa series 238 to 154. This is a team that looks suspiciously like it might collapse at the first sign of stubborn resistance--and I'll never feel comfortable betting against Ken Hitchcock.
Montreal-Tampa is a tougher call. Montreal is the last Eastern team left alive that can claim to possess unquestionable Grade-A goaltending, and I suppose you have to be impressed by a series comeback from 3-1 down, even when the opponent held the door wide open. You know I have doubts about the Bolts. In the end, though, the difference in the standings is just too great to make Montreal the favourite. The Habs were +16 in goal differential over the season: they've now beaten the Bruins, who were +21, but the Lightning, at +53, are a much taller order. Irrespective of other considerations we would, on empirical grounds, expect one NHL team 37 goals ahead of another to win the series 75% of the time. When in doubt, trust the numbers.
Out West the Sharks and the Wings have given me no reason to doubt that they are heading for the conference-final date I predicted. The outcome of San Jose-Colorado depends strictly on which Evgeni Nabokov shows up: I'm expecting the good, focused one, but note that the Avs chased him from the net in the last regular-season game between these teams. Calgary is certainly going to make Detroit work, but that series is the rare case where you have to favour sheer depth of talent over superior goaltending. The Wings held Nashville to a pathetic 128 shots in six games, and the Predators actually have a better offence than Calgary. I have a pretty clear mental picture of this series: Iggy's maybe going to win Calgary a couple, and there's going to be lots and lots of overtime, but in the end the Flames are just going to be snuffed, slowly and inexorably.
Interlude: round one closure + mailbag
There's very little to say about Toronto's win tonight, and I'm almost too angry to write what little there is. Ottawa came out looking quite ready to get me back to the top of my pool and to a six-out-of-eight performance in calling the first round. But Lalime folded, letting in two cheap and almost identical goals against an onrushing Joe Nieuwendyk. I do not judge. Everybody who's followed this horrible Leafs-Sens soap opera knows that Lalime has carried the Sens, from time to time, in the past: remember how he shut out the Flyers three nights running in '02. The Senators owed him one, and they couldn't come across. I have to admit, bitter as I am, that Belfour has been amazing--a Zen jewel, outguessing shooters and stopping pucks without apparent effort. I am now officially terrified that Toronto may be the team of destiny in these playoffs--that many of the Eastern free agents on other teams just don't give a damn, and that the older guys who have assembled in Toronto for one last run before the Collective Bargaining Agreement ends are part of an open conspiracy to address Toronto's ridiculous Stanley Cup drought (and gain collective heft when it comes time for Hall of Fame voting, which, unlike the playoffs, isn't a zero-sum game). The one group that looks obviously capable of stopping the Leafs, on purely emotional qualities, are the Flames: and a Calgary Stanley Cup is even more horrible for me to contemplate. I may have a hockey mancrush on Jarome, but I'd poo blood for a month all the same if Calgary won.
There has been a lot of good reader mail lately: let's go to that, and I'll come back with my second-round picks later on. Scott "Fats" Chaffin writes:
I was hoping that you would address my beloved, and your hated, Dallas Stars at some point in the Hockey Page? As in, WT ever-lovin' F happened? I missed Game 5, thanks to eating and drinking my [way] through the French Quarter and the severe lack of hockey fandom amongst the remote controllers on Bourbon Street. When I saw the score I was happy not to have witnessed the debacle -- I would surely have heaved plates and flatware at the tube, and ended my day in a NOLA jail cell or hospital room.
The only part of that series I saw was the Steve Ott overtime game, and despite the Stars win, it looked about like what it was--two equally motivated teams, one overbrimming with talent and one that is past the end of a dominant cycle. Dallas just has too many guys on the wrong side of thirty. Mike Modano is a great sportsman and a Hall of Famer, but he's not the player he was two years ago. Guerin is 33, Turgeon 34, Young 36, Zubov 33, Corson about a million... it's getting time to rebuild that team around Brendan Morrow, if the will to do it exists. The fans had better get used to the idea sooner rather than later, because this is a sport where GMs don't screw around about this stuff, and hockey hasn't put down the kind of roots in Texas to allow the team to miss the playoffs for five straight years, like Edmonton did once, or seven, like Calgary. If Dallas doesn't retool soon, they'll be the Winnipeg North Stars in the blink of an eye.
This letter's from Mike Dea in Calgary, sent after Gelinas won it for them. Confuckyougratulations on the win, Mike...
As a Flames fan, I was in ecstasy last night and after reading your notes can definitely second a lot of your thoughts. Game six and seven of this series were as intense as Iíve seen in a long time. Iím reminded me of the old Oiler/Flame wars of the middle '80s. This series didnít have quite the atavistic tribal rivalry that ANYTHING Calgary and Edmonton compete for does, but it was close and may be developing still. But what was amazing was not the high points of the spikes of intensity but the duration of the background intensity. Game sixís third period plus all the overtime was like a storm that just kept ratcheting up, the wind howling faster and louder. It seemed both teams had furious comebacks; Flames in 6, Canucks in 7, but then were denied in OT. Can you imagine the karmic withdrawals that both teams have made? A four-goal comeback! A goal with 5.7 seconds left! I think both teams are going to have to suffer a lot of goalposts, bounces off the glass, and unjust penalty calls before the accounts are back in balance.This is a really good letter, despite the weird libel about the Edmonton Eskimos, who are always somehow presumed to win Grey Cups because they are on a first-name basis with the gnomes of Zurich. (DIGRESSION: Yes, Jauch flooded the club with young talent, but he was gone before the five-Cup run started, and the Esks' approach was to eschew signing college stars like Joe Kapp, Joe Theismann, and Willie Burden in favour of teaching the game to lower-priced but physically gifted guys like Larry Highbaugh. Yeah, they bagged Warren Moon, who won a Rose Bowl, but for two years after Moon was in the league, all you ever heard was that Dieter Brock was better. Hey--any of you assholes still want to make that argument? It wasn't a question of the Esks breaking rules, but of being the first franchise to realize that the Canadian game had diverged stylistically from the American one and couldn't compete head-to-head for players anymore.)
What can one say about Jarome? What I keep saying to myself, while shaking my head, is that the Oilers had the chance to draft him out of their own backyard and missed it. We had the sixth pick in '95 and we used it on, drum roll please, Steve Kelly (now sucking up a whole lot of AHL time as a Kings property). Jarome, the 11th pick, went to Dallas and was later shopped to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk. In the entire history of professional sport, you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the archetypal "trade that both sides won".
If it's the trajectory of Jarome's life we're wondering about, Edmontonians are abundantly familiar with some of the answers already. I'm as tired of Canadian fairy tales about diversity and the special energy of immigrants as the next fat white guy--and, at that, Jarome's probably way more tired of them--but, sorry, this is a case where the fairy tale is 100% true. Jarome's dad, Elvis, is a Yoruba from Nigeria; a convert from Islam to Christianity, he came to attend law school at the University of Alberta with the Protestant work ethic a fresh-stoked fire in his belly. Today Iginla & Co. is one of the biggest personal-injury firms in town; Edmontonians would know the surname even if it didn't belong to the man who is, intermittently and right now, the best player in the NHL with the possible exception of Martin St. Louis. Dad taught Jarome that you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough for it; Mom's family, which lives in St. Albert (seat of the county where Mark Messier and I grew up), introduced him to hockey. Race might have gotten in Jarome's way in another metropolis at another time, but the Edmonton area is a remarkably colour-blind place, and local deity Grant Fuhr, a biracial role model for the young Jarome, had already blazed the trail. (Here's some ambivalent news: the major junior team that gave Mark Messier to the world, the St. Albert Saints, is moving back to Fuhr's nearby hometown for next season to play in the Grant Fuhr Arena.) I don't know anything about Mike Jefferson/Danton, but I can tell you that Jarome had a lot of help fulfilling his potential as a sportsman, and not too much standing in his way. All we care about here in Northern Alberta--God preserve it!--is whether you chase loose pucks and skate backwards well.
Playoff notes, morning of Apr. 20
I was not only dumb enough to put two Bruins on my pool team (Gonchar and Samsonov--superb choices, wrong uniform), I was dumb enough to declare Montreal dead after they got down 3-1 in the series. Tonight they finished Boston off 2-0--with considerable help from Boston, to repeat what most every other hockey commentator is saying. I never imagined that the Habs could be out-imploded, but everything that's being written about the Bruins is true: they played worse with each consecutive chance to eliminate Montreal, and Thornton's gutless display should cost him the captaincy. His lack of mobility is excusable, but his whining to the refs, his visible indifference to the outcome of the game, and his fear of the puck in the offensive zone are not. Glenn Healy got him dead to rights in the second period--another great CBC moment--when a Montreal player jerked his stick out of his hands and he stood around complaining about it, right next to the Boston bench, when he could have hastened off and allowed an armed Bruin onto the ice.
For much of the third period tonight, Thornton's torpor seemed to have rubbed off on his teammates--and that's what a captain is for, after all: to set the pace. The low point was surely Martin Lapointe's boarding of Jan Bulis at 16:23 of the third, a pointless and undisciplined act of frustration that took place during a mindboggling moment when every Bruin on the ice, including Lapointe, was standing stock-still. Calgary didn't give up the other night when they were down 4-0; what's Boston's excuse for giving up on a 1-0 game?
Mike Sullivan--Coach of the Year, my ass--is defending his man Thornton by saying "Most players wouldn't even have been out there with his busted rib cartilage." Most players wouldn't have needed to have a wheel man permanently joined to their hips, either; if Sullivan is going to stand by his player, he's got to take responsibility for the decision to leave him out there, and for the consequences of the player's dispiriting effect on the team. And--if you want to go to the root of this--for making his highest-skilled player the team captain. There is a logic to doing so, because all things being equal, the team will follow the skill guy's lead; it makes the work of the captain easier if he is a dominant player. But when that guy gives up--when he sets a bad example--what then? Then you get humiliation--the kind that sticks to you like chewing gum. Bruins fans should be hoping for a lockout, because this team badly needs to forget tonight.
Calgary and Vancouver, meanwhile, provided an immaculately scripted OT ending to one of the most absurdly dramatic first-round series ever played. I mean, are you kidding me--Vancouver evens up a Game Seven with 5.7 seconds on the clock? Who writes this stuff? Altogether too much of this page is devoted to patting my own back, but when I called Jarome Iginla "an All-Star among All-Stars" and highlighted the difference in magnitude between him and Markus Naslund, I really had the Muse of Hockey on my shoulder. The thing about überplayers like Jarome is that they're always in the middle of events, whether the events are good or bad. Jarome gets the first goal, Jarome gets the second goal, Jarome gives up the 2-1 lead when he stumbles over his own stick, Jarome leaves Martin Gelinas with a gift rebound to make Cowtown go disgustingly ballistic. It's no wonder athletes like this refer to themselves in the third person, really, though Jarome is too sweet-natured and affable ever to do that. He makes it hard to hate the Flames: I have to remind myself how sickening it's going to be if they win a Stanley Cup in the 21st century.
Marty Gelinas makes it a little hard, too. I remember him eternally as the wispy, scrappy, unilingual-French main gauche of the Oilers' Kid Line, thrown into the Gretzky trade with a gym bag and a wad of cash; somewhere in there, though, he actually became a scarred, wraithlike veteran. It's actually kind of hard to believe he's only 33: he's already well past 1,000 league games, and, correspondingly, he possesses the authentic "thousand-yard stare" described by Gustav Hasford in The Short-Timers.
Speaking of hard to believe, Igor Larionov is retiring from hockey, which means that we're losing the last of the great Soviet Bad Guys. What a thing to absorb: no more Larionov. it almost humbles the playoff year in its significance. Of course Larionov has long since stopped being what he was to my generation of Canadian kids: the impassive, implacable representative of a brutal social system whose alienness was asserted even in the crazy Cyrillic letters on the jerseys. The Wall came down, and we learned that these fellows were actually quite jovial and lucre-loving--not to mention somewhat lazy, on the whole, once freed from the heavy yokes of Viktor Tikhonov and the Red Army. But I have never been able to shake the creepy feelings which are inspired by the names of the Russian Green Unit; for me, those guys can never escape the stuff from which they are made--the scratchy, jumpy matter of European satellite-TV broadcasts circa 1984.
There were Larionov and his linemates, Krutov and Makarov, perhaps the greatest front three who ever played. The defencemen, Fetisov and Kasatonov--how horrible Fetisov's very name, Vyacheslav, always sounded in the mouths of Canadian announcers; it sounds just like a sword disemboweling a Tartar. In America, of course, he is now and forever the unthreatening, easy-to-pronounce "Slava". Most terrifying and enigmatic of all was Tretiak, he of the wire-cage mask, the superhuman training regimen, and the uncanny gymnastic flexibility. How happy we all were whenever the Russians trotted out the hapless Vlad Myshkin instead. (What perverse machinations of the Politburo could ever have made Tikhonov do it? ...was there ever a better advertisement for Soviet Man than the steely, chiselled Tretiak? I still remember reading his book as a teenager, freaked out by trowelled-in paragraphs--soon to have all their menace dispersed to the wind--about the "all-triumphant truth of Soviet morality.")
Somehow, the Slavic names of our boys never had the same cold martial music about them: nobody ever stayed up nights in fear of Dale Hawerchuk. (Perhaps Gretzky, Poland's and God's secret revenge on Russia, made them tremble a little.) The crumbling of the Iron Curtain was, to be sure, a glorious ending to the Cold War drama of the Canada Cup tournaments. But it was also deeply unsatisfying. A 17-year affair of hatred as crowded with history as any marriage dissolved into a lukewarm puddle of platitudes about global brotherhood, and we learned that the dread Russians really were human after all. How unforgivable of them. And now the last of them is passing into the post-athletic mist, to become just another fat, golf-loving old gent in want of teeth. This isn't how I expected it to end.
Playoff notes, April 19
Can I be the only one who thinks the Calgary-Vancouver triple overtime game the other night provided a pretty decisive argument for the artistic superiority of Western Conference hockey? As I've mentioned here before, the East is now equally effective in head-to-head competition--an interesting development which perhaps reflects the league-wide absorption of the neutral-zone trap, combined with the trap's visible but unremarked transformation into a more nuanced, situation-dependent strategy. (Why did New Jersey get bounced so quick this year? Because--as at least one Devil came close to admitting in a CBC postgame interview--they got behind in every game of the series, and they don't know anything but how to hold a lead. The magisterial exponents of the trap have failed to change with the times.)
We don't talk about "trap teams" anymore, just as we don't talk about "butterfly goalies" much. The trap, like the Allaire-Roy style of goaltending, has just become part of the way things are done, and is thankfully subject to a myriad of tactical implementations and new opposing strategies. But if the East has changed the foundations of the game, it seems like its soul still resides in the West. I think the Flames-Canucks classic, in which Vancouver pulled to a 4-0 lead, was beaten back to 4-4, and won on a pretty Brendan Morrison goal after midnight, contained more excitement than the whole first round of the Eastern playoffs. Compare the effort put out by either team to Ottawa's abused-wife Game Five performance, or Boston's hopeful attempts to win Games Five and Six without really skating, or New Jersey's befuddled showing in the face of elimination. Vancouver-Calgary has been on a different plane all along, and on Saturday it ascended to the high mountain of legend; who's going to forget Nieminen's OT shot off the crossbar, or Jarome's loss of the puck on a two-on-one in the late stages of Period Five? I think it was the greatest league hockey I've seen since the 1994 lockout.
Unfortunately people in the Eastern time zone would have had to stay up until about 2:30 a.m. to see the finish. One wonders yet again if complains about the state of the game are influenced by a preponderance of stiff, overcoached play in the big media markets of the East. I notice the Flyers are a little more mobile this year--some kind of invisible leash seems to have been taken off Mark Recchi--but as a fan you'd still rather watch Columbus or Anaheim. Vancouver and Calgary may be in over their heads in the second round, so if you only watch one game this playoff year, you'd better make it their Game Seven tonight.
A broadcasting note: I know there are a lot of Kelly Hrudey-haters out there, and God knows he had a fixed place in my pantheon of hatred as a player, but he wins the Conn Smythe for game exposition, based on Saturday's CBC broadcast of the Devils-Flyers decider. Jersey came out pinging all these long shots from the point off Robert Esche, even when the offensive attacker wasn't been challenged too hard: clearly it was an intentional strategy, but I had no idea why they were doing it. Hrudey solved the mystery elegantly in the first intermission, producing footage that revealed a weakness in Esche's technique. Most modern goalies who go down to stop a long shot from one point are capable of digging in a skate and switching to the other side without having to come to a fully upright position. Esche, apparently, isn't: he drops down in the butterfly, and when the rebound comes out he has to stand up, move laterally, and drop back down if necessary. It takes him long split-seconds to do this and obviously New Jersey was hoping to capitalize. It's something most of us civilian fans wouldn't spot because when there's a long rebound we naturally watch the puck. Hrudey was on top of it.
What's most shocking is how rarely ex-jocks provide this kind of understanding, and how superficial their apparent feel for the game they played can be. The theoretical benefit of having them in the booth is usually more than neutralized, if it's present at all, by their grudges and biases, their need to reassert their hard-won insider status, and their tiresome espousal of cliches originally developed to ward off reporters. Since most booth athletes were winners on the field of play, they share a general interest in favouring disingenuous character-based explanations for losing and winning rather than technical ones. For some reason--perhaps it's their profound susceptibility to the whims of fate--goaltenders seem to be less prone to all this: Darren Pang is a pretty decent illuminator of the game, and the CBC has, with great effectiveness, hired enough old netminders to staff the whole Adams Division circa 1988. The CBC game-callers have great fun taking the mickey out of Glenn Healy, Greg Millen, and Hrudey: near the start of the playoffs, the network's chief statistician discovered that the three men played 181 NHL playoff games between them and recorded a grand total of zero shutouts, and there was a lot of ha-ha about that. But it's probably the kind of thing that actually works in their favour.
Reader Nick Taylor provides this correction to an earlier entry--thanks, Nick:
Just wanted to point out that it was indeed Peter Schaefer and not Chris Phillips who did the little flip-move to kill the penalty time last night. He's been doing that kind of thing all year, he's a very clever player. Schaefer scored that marvelous flip-shot goal on Marty Turco earlier in the year too. He plays with a bizarre stick curve, it's almost completely straight except for a sharp hook at the end.
Playoff notes, morning of Apr. 17
I don't have much to say about the last couple days' action: one thing I wish I'd done was to publicly forecast that Detroit was going to finish off Nashville, starting immediately, despite being locked up 2-2. Remember, two years ago they got into a similar pickle against Vancouver, a much better team, and coasted onward to the Cup. The Game Four shutout Detroit suffered awakened memories of last year, but it appears nobody's memory stretched any further back than that. Instead, everyone in search of "this year's Jean-Sebastien Giguere" started looking closely at Tomas Vokoun. Clearly Vokoun is not Giguere, and anyone who'd studied the regular-season stats could have told you so. There doesn't need to be a "next JSG", necessarily, but if you're looking, Andrew Raycroft is a much better choice despite his off-night in Game Five of the Boston series.
Having trashed Marc Crawford, I should observe that his brave decision to start third-string goalie Alex Auld against the Flames in that Game Five worked out pretty well, with the Canucks losing a tight 2-1 battle. Can anybody identify the last time a team started three different goalies in the first round of a playoff year? Has it ever happened in a team's first five games of the playoffs?
My pool team now appears to have terminal cancer: it stands 15th out of 18, and while it's still a good bet to move to the front if Toronto loses, Ottawa's lackluster performance last night doesn't leave me with much hope. The one guy who looked like he wanted to win was Spezza, and Jacques Martin could only find eight minutes of ice time for him. Martin preferred to try winning the game by ordering Zdeno Chara to charge towards the back boards whenever possible. If my team had a coach who couldn't (a) figure out that Chara's rightful place during a desperate game is in front of the net, (b) identify the young player who could have won him the game single-handed, or (c) get his team motivated for a Game Five in the other team's rink, I might start asking some hard questions. Among the hard questions would be (d) why won't Peter Bondra break a sweat for this guy? And (e) how come Radek Bonk has turned into such a mediocre player under his tutelage?
It's hard for me to see what I did wrong in the pool, exactly: right now it looks like I called six of the eight first-round series correctly, and the only players in danger of elimination are the two from New Jersey. I will defer in predictive capacity, of course, to anybody else who thought Martin Brodeur was going to look so ordinary this postseason. Vinny Lecavalier ends Round One for the Cosh poolsters having amassed zero (0) points despite nearly 100 minutes of ice time in five games and 15 shots on goal. ColbyCosh.com's Tampa Bay Lightning correspondent Dan Boyd wrote in on Thursday to explain my frustration.
[Vinny] is playing excellent defensively, and has finally started to use his size to create some space for his linemates... all of which helps you none, I realize. Torts moved St. Louis to the Richards/Modin line, where he played earlier in the season. Stillman was moved onto Vinny's line to play with Fedotenko and promptly got injured on the first shift. Vinny is currently playing with Fedotenko and Dimitry Afanasenkov, a rookie who looks like he'll be pretty good, but hasn't quite learned how to finish yet. SO, Vinny is now the focal point for shutdown and, if I remember correctly, has been matched up against Scatchard; but I could be wrong on that one. Vinny will pot some soon, but I think he's gonna have a rougher go of it than the guys on the first line.(Remember, folks, e-mail about a series you're watching closely is always welcome here; last year's playoff page benefitted much from it.) I wouldn't have picked Lecavalier for my pool team if I hadn't thought the Bolts had a solid chance of making the Stanley Cup. Their big immediate problem was that, as the #1 seed, they seemed to have an early date scheduled with Martin Brodeur. Now it appears that's not going to happen, and it's not going to be as much of a concern even if God takes pity on me and it does happen. Boston is still my favourite in the East, but it's now a much closer thing.
Playoff notes, Apr. 14
Have you noticed that Tampa Bay has three unassisted goals in its series against the Islanders? This is the kind of thing you notice while you're following a pool and waiting for Lecavalier to get his first goddamn point. That "Unassisted" marker on the scoresheet, nine times out of ten, means that someone screwed up. If I were a Tampa fan I wouldn't be happy that 33% of my team's offence is coming off mistakes by the weakest club in the postseason. What possible second-round opponent will be so obliging against the Lightning? Well, Montreal, maybe; but after this business with Souray, Kovalev, and Claude Julien, I'm comfortable counting Montreal out. I find myself offended that Kovalev is even on a team called "Canadiens", though of course I take the Neanderthal view that soccer-style prima donna foolishness is a bigger threat to the integrity of the game than almost any amount of bloodshed. Between Kovalev and the Ribeiro dive, we're really witnessing a low point in Habs history here.
There was a marvelous play by Jason Spezza halfway through the 2nd period in the Sens game tonight; it went unnoticed by the CBC commentators but it made me sit up with a start and annoy the cat. Paint Shop Pro is having fits so I'll have to diagram it the old-fashioned ASCII way:
(a) ______ ______ / \/ \ (b) (c) / / (S)
The S is Spezza charging in from the left front corner of the Leafs zone; a, b, and c are Leafs. Spezza could have cut right and tried to beat c guarding the goalmouth, but instead he skated right into the middle of the triangle formed by the three Toronto players. Converging on Spezza wasn't really an option for the Leaf defenders (unless they wanted to leave two guys to cover the rest of the Senators, and maybe flatten each other in the process); Spezza showed the puck to b, quickly backhanded it between c's stickblade and skates, and was out of the triangle in a heartbeat, blasting behind the net between a and c for a very nice wraparound chance against Belfour. It didn't lead to anything right away, but wow.
There was another nice connoisseur moment in the second period when Chris Phillips [UPDATE, Apr. 19: actually Peter Schaefer--see this entry] entered the Leafs zone down the right side on a penalty kill, was held up by a Leaf, put the puck on his stick Sidney Crosby-fashion, and flipped it almost straight up in the air, from whence it plopped down into the corner. That killed a couple of seconds, and Phillips proceeded to reach the puck first and fend off three Leafs for a little while longer. Sens games are full of this sort of stuff.
Come to think of it, the common denominator with these two plays is that the Leafs could have prevented them if they had a good intuitive sense of what their teammates were going to do. On the Spezza play, a, b, and c didn't know which of them was supposed to knock the kid on his ass. Phillips was able to take seconds off the clock on a penalty-kill in a close game because three guys stood around watching him and picking their noses. Perhaps this shows the risk of building a team from scratch at the trade deadline--it honestly hadn't occurred to me even though I'm fond of Ottawa and dislike the Leafs. (Remember, though, that there is a level beyond "dislike" which is reserved for L.A., Dallas, Colorado, and Calgary.)
Long weekend playoff notes
I doubt I watched sixty minutes of any game this weekend, but I absorbed a lot of hockey. Got to see some ESPN coverage (feh) of the American games. My pool team has benefited heavily from the Patrick Marleau hat trick, but not much else: I would have been shut out on Monday if not for Jonathan Cheechoo's goal, which they didn't even light the goal lamp for. That was Cheechoo's first point, and I've got nobody amongst the scoring leaders but Samsonov, but I could hardly be better positioned for the long haul, which is the key to winning a playoff pool. With all the series split 2-1 (sweeps seem like a thing of the past in this league, Detroit vs. Anaheim '03 notwithstanding) only two of my eleven guys--the two from New Jersey--are behind. I will take that.
The radio play-by-play guy in St. Louis called Cheechoo "Choochoo" strictly by accident at the top of Game 1 of that series. It's probably my Canadian programming, but I thought he was pushing it when he recovered by laughing and making train noises. God help this guy when Cheech's younger brother breaks into the league and we have a Jordan Cheechoo and a Jordin Tootoo. And probably dozens more coming up behind them. Anybody familiar with northern aboriginal hockey knows these kids above the treeline are dramatically underdrafted. Toots going 98th overall was an acknowledged absurdity, given his evident talent. I suspect there's a fear, justified or not, that your $3M investment is going to have a drunken snowmobile accident. But the Sharks and the Preds have been rewarded pretty amply for their courage; both teams were immensely improved this season and the reasons start, in both cities, with the guys with the funny names. You know Fred Saskamoose is loving it.
Even though he got two of the goals against my pool goalie, you have to be happy for Mike "Suitcase" Sillinger, who picked up a hat trick last night. For St. Louis, I mean, and don't be afraid to admit you didn't know what city Sillinger was playing in these days. He's got NHL service time for--you'll be seeing a lot of this list today--Detroit, Anaheim, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Florida, Ottawa, Columbus, Phoenix, St. Louis, and the Cleveland Barons. Ha! Just seeing if you were paying attention. He's been with ten teams, by my count (ESPN made it nine during the broadcast), which would be a record if he were a baseball player. I was just thinking about the relative frequency of player moves in the NHL the other day; it seems to me they're considerably more common than in other sports, which is odd, as hockey players generally don't last quite as long as baseball players (though longer, I think, than football players). We think nothing of an elite player like Brett Hull having worn four different uniforms, though that would earn you a "clubhouse cancer" tag in baseball. Though I guess technically Hull is more of a "clubhouse lawyer". Mark Messier was with four teams if you count the Rangers twice. It's much easier now to find future Hall of Famers who've skated for five or six teams than it is to find somebody who has played for only one. It's Yzerman and Lemieux, and that's about it--and Lemieux owns his team.
This suggests to me that the trading deadline in hockey is too late in the year, and the flurry of activity this March would seem to settle the issue. "Fire sales" still enrage baseball fans, but in hockey they have become the norm. I'll grant that it's frustrating for a fan of a team stuck in second gear to watch the annual churn, but even Edmonton got in the game this time out by renting Petr Nedved. The elite players accept these trades quite happily because they have a chance to play for a contender every year, in theory. What's weird is that the fans don't complain: when Ray Bourque was sent to the Avalanche as part of a naked (and successful) attempt to buy a Stanley Cup, everybody thought that was just the most charming fucking thing in the world. The effect on the home life and well-being of the guys who get traded downward--or just all over the damn map, like Sillinger--doesn't seem to get much consideration.
This may, one supposes, be Jim Bouton's principle in action: Bouton wrote in Ball Four that the influence of what you have to say in a team sport is in direct proportion to your statistics. Lord knows we fans have traditionally treated Wayne Gretzky, a man whose IQ is probably in the neighbourhood of about 110, as though he were a cross between Socrates and the Buddha. When you think of outspoken, lucid current players, the guys who come to mind are Jeremy Roenick and Brett Hull: it's no coincidence that they have 1,200+ goals between them. For all we know, Murray Baron spends his summers researching quantum computing.
General comments on the series: statistically, Dan Cloutier going down isn't good for Vancouver, but subjectively I'm a believer in Johan Hedberg. He kept Pittsburgh in some close games against the Oilers and shut them out 3-0 in October, not that it was hard at the time (only 14 saves). He's not someone, anyway, who seems eternally on the verge of letting in five goals on eight shots, the way Cloutier is, to me, anyway. You know I have trouble figuring Vancouver out. For starters, how does Marc Crawford style his hair in a way that seems to perfectly accentuate what a tiresome prick he is? Don't get me wrong, everything about the guy from his Master of the Universe shirt collars to his cold piscine gaze symbolizes assholism, but the hair seems particularly to say "wife abuser". Is there a gel you can buy for that? Don't get me wrong--make me a GM and I'll hire the sadist every time. But at least a guy like Mike Keenan seems to enjoy playing Hitler somewhat. Crawford's a joyless prick whose daddy issues would make Pat Conroy blush.
Jason Blake's return gives the Islanders some hope, but not too much: don't be fooled--the Bolts are going through. Joe Thornton isn't adding anything to the Bruins attack so far (though Jose Theodore certainly is); he's wearing some sort of flak jacket, which gives us a clue to that "upper-body injury". How does it help the guy to cover up the injury, anyway? Is anybody going to have second thoughts about running Thornton just because they're not sure where the booboo is? He'll have to get a little more mobile before anyone goes to the trouble.
Is anybody out there still mystified that I respect Tie Domi? Fine, he ran like a bear from a forest fire at [insert your team's favourite goon here] and he butt-ended [insert your team's skill player here] six years ago or whatever. Trade him to me: I'll give him 15 minutes a night until his knees come off. I still think Ottawa is one goal at the right time away from grabbing the momentum in that series. Belfour just likes to make me look stupid, that's all. Somebody prints off my website for him and he puts on a little show--that's his M.O. He's still a crazy drug casualty with a bad back. One of these nights he's going to snort the OxyContin too close to game time and Hossa's gonna have a Darryl Sittler night. I promise.
Latest Good Sign Disguised As A Bad Sign: New Jersey beat Philly with only one line functioning at anywhere near 100%. Seemingly Meaningful Trend Likely To Change As Soon As You Notice It: home teams have 18 wins, 6 losses so far this playoff year.
Playoff notes for Apr. 8
Well, the Leafs fans' planning of that parade route was interrupted to the tune of 4-2 last night, and predictably enough they're blaming the ref instead of the team's lack of jump. How they're going to solve this problem, I don't know. They certainly tried to outhit Ottawa, and it was effective in the first period when they were still able to do it with some alacrity. During the first intermission, with the Leafs up 2-1, Don Cherry--who is of course a clueless old fart who knows nothing about hockey--described the Leafs as "pokey", noted that the Sens came to play, and all but predicted the final result. The Leafs' slow legs weren't visible to the untrained viewer yet, but soon enough you could see the Over-the-Hill Gang struggling for oxygen out there as the Sens skated circles around them. That's why Grapes is on, and belongs on, our public broadcaster. Oh, and I should mention that the retrograde, bigoted old bastard devoted a big chunk of Coach's Corner to celebrating Canadian women's hockey, as he's been doing for years.
For the benefit of those who didn't see the game, you should know that the Leaf fans' special pleading is B.S. The outrage they're citing this morning is a pair of minor penalty calls nine seconds apart in the second period. During Ottawa's two-man advantage, the pride of Hillmond, Saskatchewan rang up a goal from the point over Ed Belfour's glove, and Marian Hossa added one shortly after, with Bryan McCabe still in the box. The hooking call against Renberg was a little weird, but the replay showed that Mats Sundin was getting away with murder, hooking some Senator, at the exact same moment. The refs did Toronto a favour in that case by sending off the weaker player. The slashing call against McCabe, who two-handed Hossa's stick and turned it into firewood (note: space-age graphite may not offer a clean burn), was obviously right and would have been recognizable as such from the frigging parking lot of the ACC. Neither call was as dodgy, on the whole, as the de Vries penalty on which McCabe got his goal. The second Sens goal on the two-man power play was readily preventable: to give Hossa one point-blank shot is carelessness, but to let him pick up his own rebound is definitive suicide.
Toronto, your team was outskated, outworked, and outthought; Jacques Martin tried to hand you the win by scratching Jason Spezza, just like last year (Spezza insists he's healthy: will this happen every year as long as Martin is coaching the team and Spezza is on the roster???), and you couldn't convert. Start praying, and overload the neutral zone.
Playoff notes for Apr. 7
Watched the Montreal-Boston and Vancouver-Calgary games last night. Red Fisher wrote in the Montreal Gazette that "It always comes down to the goaltenders at this time of the year--and there was no better example of it than last night [in Boston]." Uh... golly, Red, there are lots of better examples. Jose Theodore actually had a pretty terrific first period, stopping 21 of 23 shots. If he'd stopped 21 of 23 over the whole game, and Montreal had won, he'd probably have been third star. Raycroft was good, but the game was ultimately decided by Montreal's inability to support the puck, by an endless series of stupid Habs penalties, and by Boston's ability to create 23 shots in a period. Somebody said "Smart money is on Boston and their league-best 30.5 shots a game" a few days ago, and whoever that was looked pret-ty clever last night. (Especially if he has Gonchar and Samsonov in his pool! Excelsior!) Raycroft hasn't proved himself bulletproof yet; I hardly saw a tough save all night. If Montreal can get some help for the solitary forwards they were using to probe the offensive zone like the Voyager spacecraft tickling Uranus, and if they can stop cross-checking people in the face for no special reason, they'll make a series of it.
I would also advise Mike Ribeiro to shave off the Johnny Depp pirate facial hair. What is this, fencing? I know he's Portuguese, but this isn't 1476! If he's not careful they're going to start calling him Mike "Dr. Nick" Ribeiro. Also, am I the only one who is starting to have nagging suspicions that Cancer Boy Saku Koivu is overrated? I've seen plenty of these Canadiens pick up a game and run with it--Souray, Ribeiro, Ryder. I've seen Zednik do it a half-dozen times. I've never seen this supposedly scrappy, courageous Finn do it, but maybe I've been watching the wrong games. What's the deal? He's wearing the "C" hallowed by Newsy, the Rocket, and the Roadrunner; did the magic rub off over the years?
The Calgary-Vancouver game was a surprising 5-3 goalfest--a pure coaching victory by Marc Crawford, who threw out his regular-season power-play set and daringly put one guy on point, one guy in behind the net, and three in front of Miikka Kiprusoff. The three almost added up to one Todd Bertuzzi, if you do the math. Calgary had adapted admirably by the game's end, so this series isn't over.
Over in Detroit, it sounds like the Wings played lousy and still won. This is a good sign for Detroit, not a bad one. Did anybody notice that the San Jose-St. Louis series is a battle of saints? Yo, who do you like, the French king or the Jewish carpenter?
What the world thinks
For your playoff pleasure, I've provided a chart of some of the sporting media's first-round series picks. Note that James Duthie of TSN is in complete 8-for-8 agreement with your correspondent. Some patterns in the data: Canadian outlets seem to overwhelmingly favour the Stars over the Avs; generally, Montreal did not get the love I expected; no known sportswriter on the continent is picking Nashville, unless you count the random selections from the Hockey News' in-house chimp. The Blues and the Sens are relatively popular with the THN staff. And the Associated Press made an oddball consensus pick by taking the Isles over the Bolts. After the first round we'll go back and see who did the best handicapping job. No, I don't think it will be me (and Duthie): if I get six of eight I'll be ecstatic.
My hockey-pool picks (on the off chance you're interested)
John Madden, NJD
Thank goodness for hockey pools: they give you a reason to care when the hometown club gets pipped at the post. (Also, they are an excellent pretext for mucking about with spreadsheets.) The only reasonable choices in net, unless you're looking to come from outside with a secondary set of wild-ass picks, seem to be Nabokov, Raycroft, and Brodeur. I don't hold his rookie status against Raycroft: as Don Cherry pointed out, this would be a pretty silly thing to do if you were a fan (or, say, a sportswriter) old enough to remember Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy or Ron Hextall. But there's a greater chance of the Bruins stumbling in the first round, and I'd hate to try and win without having a goalie in the conference final. I sure hated it last year, when I had Turco.
The pricks who really left me in second place in last year were Niedermayer and Martin St. Louis (how did the chick who won the pool know? She certainly earned the big trophy). I've co-opted Niedermayer, who is the drink-stirring straw on a solid finalist candidate. With all the Hart Trophy hype, I'm counting on the Bolts' opponents to step on MSL and give big Vinnie some room to maneouvre and show off that "next Mario Lemieux" form. Actually, it occurs to me I'm combining safety with speculation by picking Lecavalier, which may be dumb. But I did want the 11th man to come from Tampa. Heartfelt apologies are in order for Jarome Iginla and Brendan Shanahan.
Playoff prospect: West
Here's something to note for those of you who might be handicapping the Stanley Cup: the Eastern Conference, much the weaker half of the league last year, has now pulled almost exactly even with the West. In inter-conference games this year the record was 119 West wins, 118 East wins, and 33 ties. All those years of high draft picks (which Eastern teams generally seem less shy about angling for in the late season with fire sales) are finally starting to firm up the Southeastern clubs; meanwhile the West is growing some real promising problem franchises, some real good-looking headcases.
Is anybody else a bit uncomfortable with Washington winning the Ovechkin lotto? I don't want to throw out the lottery system, but Kenneth Arrow-style imperfections seem inevitable, and for the Pens to lose out on Ovechkin despite conducting themselves with a modicum of pride down the stretch seems tough.
But we're here to talk about the Western side of the bracket. Out East you've got this kind of wacky, complicated situation where the wild card, New Jersey, is squatting in the sixth-seed position and waiting to turn things topsy-turvy. In the West I see #2 San Jose and #1 Detroit as the big dogs--the most likely contenders for a Cup berth. I make that final about a one-in-three chance at the moment. Neither team should have any trouble dispatching their weak first-round opponents.
Detroit is especially solid against Nashville. I wasn't as right as I'd like to have been last year, but I did flag Anaheim as underrated and Detroit as way overrated going in. This year Detroit has shaken off the doubts: the Wings were as good as their record, they don't rely quite as heavily on the power play, and Legace is going to get a shot to stay in the saddle. I respect Nashville, and I don't want to seem like I'm beating a dead horse I have some kind of really intense, lingering grudge against, but it's a goddamn fact that Nashville scored fewer goals than it allowed this year while the Oilers were +13 overall. The only goal-differential category they're better than league-average in is shooting accuracy, which, you'll recall, is a near-zero or an outright negative in the playoffs.
Anyway, that won't be news to anybody, and San Jose should squirm easily past St. Louis, who also backed in past the Oilers despite a -7 goal differential. I like Colorado about 2-1 over Dallas; the only thing driving Dallas over .500 was an airtight defence (league-low 23.2 shots per game against) which disguised the mysterious reversion to mediocrity of Marty Turco. Dallas needed to finish with a higher seeding to take advantage of their outrageous home-road differential: away from their building they were 15-21-5 during the season, and to get to the Cup final they'll probably have to beat both Detroit and San Jose while conceding home-ice advantage. Ecchh. Their weaknesses became painfully apparent in last year's playoffs, and this club isn't as good as that one. If the Avs start Tommy "The Swedish Sieve" Salo, of course, all bets are off.
The tough series to handicap is Vancouver-Calgary. Vancouver, of course, has very impressive personnel, and it's a wonderfully balanced team front to back--but they're weakest where it counts most, in net. In two series last year Cloutier tried his best to throw one away and succeeded magnificently in the other. The attention being devoted to Miikka Kiprusoff's undeniably amazing performance this year (memo to sports editors: seriously, it's two I's, two K's--I've gotten it wrong too, so let's shape up) has disguised the emergence of one of the finest defensive six-packs in the league. And there's Jarome, who you know is just itching to write his name in the sky. I think it's a big plus in the playoffs to have a guy like this who is an All-Star among All-Stars--somebody you can focus on obsessively and still not stop. Markus Naslund, who has looked distinctly human without Bertuzzilla around, is not a player of the same order. A lot of people are making this series kind of an obvious upset call just because they feel the need to make one, and while I'd really rather see Calgary humiliated--let's be more specific: my dream is for them to lose a Game Seven when a Flames defenceman banks a shot off his own goalie's leg into the net--I'm going along with the consensus.
I see Detroit-San Jose meeting in the final, like I say, and I make the Sharks a slight favourite in such a matchup. That may be anti-Wings sentiment talking, but Lord knows there's enough of the opposite kind about. An interesting but disturbing note: if you weight the various goal-differential subcategories as I've suggested elsewhere on this page, Calgary is actually the top playoff team in the conference.
Playoff prospect: East
(You should probably read the previous entry before you plough ahead in this one, but if it looks a bit daunting, just skip back here and keep going.)
These Leafs fans are an awfully bulletproof lot, aren't they? I can't believe how many times I've heard "This is our year" from these people. I've read at least eight printed references to "planning a parade route." Some guy wrote to me randomly the other day, responding to my midseason comments dismissing their chances: "WTF U talkin bout d00d? This is our year!" Can I be forgiven for thinking that all reveals the essential dimbulbishness of Toronto and environs? You people think renting old guys from crappy teams is going to guarantee you a Stanley Cup? Isn't anybody asking himself why those teams were so bad? Clearly somebody in Toronto is hoping for a movie script to happen, some kind of Major League/Slapshot triumph of tough-as-jerky codgers. Ed Belfour is 38 and has a bad back; Ron Francis is my dad's age; Joe Nieuwendyk was scratched for parts of last year's playoffs with gerontological ailments, when he was a year younger; Calle Johansson is 37 and didn't even want to play hockey anymore until a few weeks ago (I guess it was that Leafs magic that brought him back!); Owen Nolan is out with knee trouble. I'll grant you that the Leafs had a good stretch run against a bunch of clubs jockeying for home ice and whatnot. But why would any Leaf fan even care if these eight-week heroes win a Cup in borrowed uniforms?
I suppose the partisans are just happy somebody's apparently trying to win. Anyway, there are no less than seven teams with 100 points in this conference, and all of them have better playoff indicators: they rely less on the power play, they have better goaltending, and most didn't get past 100 points on good luck in close games. Ottawa actually has a vaguely similar profile (league-leading 80 power play goals: danger, Will Robinson, danger), so they're the best opponent Toronto could have hoped for. I still like the Sens a little better in the first round. Aside from the Islanders, who are like chum in the water in this conference, Toronto is the weakest team on that side of the tournament.
Ottawa seems trapped in some sort of psychic torture chamber--that was another letter I got; a guy wrote me saying I was lucky to be an Oilers fan because I wouldn't have to suffer being beaten by the Leafs. He's already given up. Well, I'm a big believer in preparing for the worst myself*, and while I expect Ottawa to get by Toronto, on balance, I wouldn't be holding my breath for a visit from Stanley.
Montreal-Boston is going to be a great series: makes me feel like a kid seeing those two paired up. It's almost a shame a goaltending battle like that has to come off so early (both teams are +22 in extra goals saved). Smart money is on Boston and their league-best 30.5 shots a game (and this guy Ted Donato seems like a good candidate for a Chris Kontos-style playoff explosion), but without a healthy Thornton it's going to be closer. I don't know any better than you how to evaluate his "upper body injury". The beat writers were actually quizzing him about what "upper-body" means--does it include the arms? The head? "Everything above the waist," Joe sez. Tampa Bay should annihilate the Islanders, and the Flyers are going to be out-goaltendered no matter who they start, although note what a good job they're doing of creating a crisis of confidence over the decision.
If Boston can get past Montreal, which they should, they've got an excellent chance of winning the conference. Their possible second-round opponents are New York, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Toronto, and I figure those are really the four weakest teams of the eight. And look what else happens in round two if they win: top seed Tampa Bay runs smack into sixth seed New Jersey. You've solved one of your big problems right there no matter what. Overall I make Boston the favourite at the outset because there's easier opposition in the Bruins' path, but if the Devils get to the conference final against them, they're the favourite, Scott Stevens or no Scott Stevens. I didn't even notice Stevens in the playoffs last year (note: this is an exaggeration for effect) because I was too busy watching Madden and Pandolfo pull rabbits out of hats.
*This is the unsuspected benefit of being an Oilers fan. Sure, five Stanley Cups and all, but remember, I had to watch the Miracle on Manchester unfold at my aunt's place when I was ten years old--hand to God, I had "Oilers 5, Kings 0" in the pool--and I was at the Steve Smith Game, as in physically present in the building, at 15. That's how I spent April 30, 1986: standing (SRO tickets) beside a row of fat, drunk, loud 35-year-old Flames-jerseyed human ninepins with Lanny Macdonald moustaches. It was so traumatizing that this is the most I have been able to write about it for any audience, ever, even though the experience was the equivalent of having a personal version of Maus inscribed into my skull with a dentist's drill. So, being an Oiler supporter from year zero, I know how fans of the Red Sox and the Yankees feel. That's been the team's great gift to me in this life: character-building suffering, generously rewarded.
Before we get down to previewing the first round of the playoffs, I should talk about some advances I've made on the research described below, particularly the goaltending stuff. I gathered stats and playoff results for the last three years, extending the original findings beyond last year, and broke down goal differentials into all four of the categories I described--shooting accuracy, shot creation, shot prevention, and goaltending.
The goaltending category was a little less important in the two previous years than it was in '02-'03. Judging only by last year, you'd have to make goaltending about twice as important as any other category. Judging by the three years as a whole, and looking at all the categories, what you find is equally interesting. Shot creation turns out to be almost as important as goaltending. Defence is less so, but still important. But to retrospectively predict the last three years' playoffs correctly, you actually have to consider giving shooting accuracy a negative importance.
Teams which shot more accurately won 24 of the 45 series played in those years, compared to only 26/45 by the leader in each of the other categories; that's a little more than half, obviously, so on that basis it's arguably better to be a better-sniping team. But if you give the other three categories anything like an equal weight, you can't obtain the most accurate retrospective predictions unless you discount for a higher shooting percentage.
In my search for the most accurate coefficients of weighting for each of the four categories, I couldn't consider anything but a linear weight, and I found lots of local troughs and crests in the data. But it seems like the strongest retrospective prediction is obtained when you use coefficients in this neighbourhood: count goals from shot accuracy as -1, goals saved on shot prevention as 1, and goaltending and shot creation as 2 apiece. A proper factor analysis would be in order here if I were capable of one.
Another half-baked hypothesis: last year I discounted teams that generated a lot of goals on the power play because fewer penalties are called in the playoffs. Detroit was hit particularly hard, which turned out to be appropriate. And can anyone tell me how highly ranked the power play of league champion New Jersey was? Bueller? Anyone?
That's right: 30th. New Jersey had the worst power play in the league during the '02-'03 regular season, running at a paltry 11.8% clip. As anecdotal evidence goes, that's the kind of thing that will get your attention. In truth, the number of man advantages only declined 7% from the regular season to the playoffs last year, but the number of goals a team has created from its power play is still, perhaps, something to be aware of. (Important note: discounting for power-play reliance and shooting accuracy is probably double-counting.)
The Flying Scotsman?
Now that the playoff picture is beginning to coalesce, watch for an update on mid-season research and a first spate of playoff forecasts starting Monday. Maybe even tomorrow, depending on how easily my newspaper column consents to write itself. At 10 p.m. Eastern the Oilers begin the last game of their season in Vancouver. If they win tonight, Nashville must beat Colorado tomorrow to snatch the last playoff spot from them. If the Oilers tie, they still qualify with a Nashville loss in regulation time. If they lose, out come the golf clubs.
I've got the last period of the Ottawa-Toronto blowout on in the background. I like all Russian defectors, but a further point in Alexander Mogilny's favour must surely be the pronunciation Canadian broadcasters give his name. He sounds like a Nova Scotian who grew up squid-jigging--there goes good old Alexander MacGillney. Even the first name is right, "Alexander" being just as popular with the Scots as it is with the Russians. (Though the favoured Scottish diminutive is "Sandy" rather than "Sasha".)
It's a remarkable reminder of the world-historical impact of Alexander the Great, whose name is stamped on every corner of the globe 23 centuries after his death. I doubt that, say, CIA operatives in Alexandria, Virginia, ever give much thought to the fact as they monitor the shufflings of warlords in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The last of the wall-jumpers
A Czechoslovakian athlete with dreams of playing in the National Hockey League defected in Calgary Monday.Nedved's defection ruined the fun for 29 teammates, who missed a chance to visit Calgary's Winter Olympic sites and West Edmonton Mall when Czech--hah; make that Czechoslovakian--officials cracked down on the group. The Communist Czech government fought to have Nedved repatriated, Elian-fashion: various class acts in the Canadian media took up their cause, some arguing that Nedved was "abusing" Canada's refugee system by eluding his secret-police minders. Nedved's father gave an interview in which he said his son would face "no political persecution" if he came home, which was no doubt true (and no doubt uttered under considerable duress); as Western supporters pointed out, young Petr merely would have been tried with the crime of defection and given a job in a coal mine. On June 5, Nedved was granted permanent refugee status in Canada. Six months later the Czech government, unable to formulate either a rhetorical or violent response to the growing crowds in Wenceslas Square, gave up and turned the presidency of the republic over to Vaclav Havel.
One of the pleasant things about the Oilers' playoff run is that the season began with Edmontonian Mike Comrie loudly declaring his intention never to play another game in an Edmonton uniform, but it's ending with a love affair between the city and Nedved. Last night's game against Phoenix called attention to these bookend events, each one unprecedented in its own way.
In his second game back home, Comrie was once again booed every time he touched the puck: clearly, like Denis Potvin in Madison Square Garden, he will be booed every night here for what should be a long NHL career. I hope the money is adequate compensation for being universally despised in his hometown. Although Comrie picked up an assist (BOOOO!), I'd say most of us paused to relish the strange zig-zag course which brought Comrie to such a curious pass: the autumn trade to Philadelphia ("I'm really glad to be playing for a Stanley Cup contender") and the karmic winter exile to Phoenix ("I'm really glad to be... uh... whatever").
Meanwhile, Nedved is playing the best hockey of his life, is proving most nights that it was a mistake to ever separate him from Radek Dvorak, and seems to be blown away by the atmosphere at Rexall Place. No wonder: it seems like the team hasn't had a sniper of his type and calibre since the Stanley Cup had its own apartment here. (Miroslav Satan was still a kid finding his way when he skated for the Oilers, and Ales Hemsky can bring the crowd to its feet but seems destined to cost more goals than he creates for the immediate future.) The local press is talking half-seriously of the possibility that Nedved will sign a long-term contract with the Oilers in the off-season: the Sun advanced a figure of five years as a joke the other day, then argued that three was within the bounds of possibility. Only the caveat that Nedved's Sports Illustrated-swimsuit-model wife would have to sign off on any such arrangement makes one shudder: Janet Jones is still commonly remembered as Edmonton's Yoko Ono.
After long and depressing years in New York, Nedved is so thrilled at playing for appreciative, motivated fans that he heaved a stick into the stands for a young autograph-seeker after he was named first star against Phoenix. From Jim Matheson in the Journal:
"No suspension. Happened after the game," grinned Nedved, obviously remembering Mats Sundin helicoptering his stick into the crowd and getting one game off a few months ago. "I just wanted to give something back. The fans have been through thick and thin with this team. I didn't want them throwing it back at me."
I wouldn't approve of handing Nedved $5M a year to score what might, if we were exceedingly fortunate, be 25 goals; and I certainly wouldn't approve of a long-term deal. But this brief time, in which the Oilers seem to wake up every morning in ninth place and greet the final horn in seventh, is a remarkable little honeymoon--with all expenses paid by the New York Rangers.
New business and old
On Thursday Nashville and St. Louis took advantage of Wednesday's Oilers tie with Dallas to shoot past Edmonton in the struggle for the West's last playoff spots. Did the Oilers lie down and die on Friday with the L.A. Kings in town? They did not. Their 3-1 victory was a raw display of dominance that Idi Amin could have appreciated. The Kings, given one last chance to climb back into the playoff race, rolled over: they didn't want it. The Oilers--who have now earned points in 15 straight games--have made it a three-team race now and seized 7th place back from Tennessee and Missouri. "All hail... the Edmonton Oilers." I couldn't agree more, ESPN's Jim Kelley, even though you were 180 degrees wrong on the Bertuzzi thing.
This cartoon by Hockey Night in Canada's Charlie Teljeur is pretty hilarious, even if events have superseded the subject matter.
I've officially gone mad with Bertuzzitis: I now see people talking metaphorically about violence in the NHL even when they probably couldn't tell Whitey Widing from aluminum siding. E.g., the outro to Bill James' long interview with the The American Enterprise:
TAE: What do you see when you compare baseball's past to the present?Maybe there really is a chorus of conservative voices out there... ESPN's John Buccigross, probably the most entertaining hockey writer in English, was on vacation during the post-Bert NHL-bashing, but returns just in time to take dead aim at the "glass is half empty, and the half is Steve Moore's blood" crowd:
Todd Bertuzzi. I think the video says it all and raises debatable issues on fighting in the game. I have no problem with the suspension length. As far as hockey's image after the mainstream media ignorantly assessed the sport and commented on it? I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't care. If the sport doesn't attract another fan, the game will be a billion-dollar, international industry with hip, fun, friendly, fans who love their game. And TV critics, please stop with these Bowling, Arena Football, blah, blah, blah comparisons. When the PBA and Arena Football are billion-dollar industries, with millions of fans worldwide, come talk to me. I am so insulted when Arena Football is compared to the NHL. Look at a picture of Rocket Richard's eyes. A province, a nation, a league, a planet of hockey fans, lives inside those eyes. NOT ONE Arena Football player or fan will EVER have eyes like that. The Stanley Cup playoffs is the best two-month tournament in the world. We have the coolest and most revered trophy. We are unified, passionate, and lovers of life. PLEASE don't let anyone foist his or her ignorant, misinformed drivel upon your soul. I am ECSTATIC about the future of this game, from Mites to Martin St. Louis. The economic landscape will hopefully be tweaked, the rules finally fixed, and the young talent only getting better and better. THESE ARE THE GOOD OLE DAYS.
For an Oilers fan, the good ole days were unquestionably 1980-90, but the point is taken.
The G Spot
I guess the best way to introduce this unnerving discovery is to retrace the steps that led to it. It starts with me trying to decrypt the meaning of last year's NHL playoffs--but before we can start to discuss it, before you can share the same weird concepts I think with, I have to show you how I treat hockey statistics.
The secret to winning hockey games is no secret at all: you have to score more goals than the other guy. Over a large number of games, the teams that perform better in the standings outscore their opponents by more. There's a strong, simple linear relationship, which I've discussed before: at the current offensive levels, every 2.8 goals you add gain you about a point in the standings over time. So goal differential--your goals scored, less your goals allowed--is an important stat. On its own (and to put it roughly), goal differential determines about 90% of your place in the standings.
Gradually I've come to think of teams in terms of their goal differentials almost as much as I think of their actual standings points. Detroit right now is a +61 team. My Edmonton Oilers are +5, and not surprisingly they're around .500. Calgary is a little better (+9) both in the standings and in goal differential. Pittsburgh is an abyssal -120; they're actually much worse than the standings show them to be.
If you understand that, you shouldn't have any trouble with the next step, which is realizing that you can distribute team performance among various aspects of the game. Just for starters, you can break it down between offence (meaning goal-scoring) and defence (meaning goal-prevention). Right now, this season, the average NHL team has both scored and given up 174 goals. Some of the good teams have below-average offences but great defences, like--and this will not surprise a hockey fan--New Jersey (scored 169, given up 137). Conceptually you can break New Jersey's +32 goal differential into a -5 for offence and a +37 for defence. Phrased in English, the Devil offence is just average but the defence is outstanding. You could say the same of San Jose (+2, +26). Similarly you can point to a team like Toronto (+22, +2) as being outstanding up front but weak at preventing goals.
But you can break offence and defence down further. Let's concentrate on the latter for a moment. We know how many shots on goal each team has given up in the season, and we know how many goals its goaltenders have surrendered on those shots--that figure is just one minus the save percentage. So, if you believe that save percentage is an accurate indicator of a goaltender's performance--most sportswriters, commentators, and goaltenders now seem to think so, and so do I--then you can allocate defensive goals prevented between the team's defence (including backcheckers) and its goalies. A sample calculation, taking Dallas for our example:
How many goals did Dallas's defence prevent, compared to the league average? +26
What's the average save percentage of the league? .909
What's the save percentage of Dallas's goalies? .906
So Dallas's goalies have given up 3 extra goals for every thousand shots... how many shots have they faced this season? About 1,540 (the SOGA numbers I pull off ESPN only go to three significant digits, but that's fine)
In other words, the Dallas goalies have given up how many more goals than league-average goaltenders would? About five. They're a -5 on their side of the goal-prevention accounting.
And since Dallas overall is +26 at goal prevention, their defencemen must be? +31. Which is just about what you get if you do the calculation the other way, assigning the defencemen credit for shots on goal prevented above league average (about 330) and count that as being worth the same number of goals a league-average goalie would let in (league-average save percentage is .909, so the average goaltender lets in .091 goals for every shot--on 330 shots, ta daaa! That's thirty goals.)
This is an elaborate but, I think, undeniably effective way of distributing credit for goal-prevention between the defence and the goaltenders. Every hockey writer on the continent will tell you that Dallas has a marvelous defensive scheme but that the team's been let down slightly this year by Turco. If you recall that 2.8 goals translate to about one point in the standings, you can say the same thing in quantified form: the Dallas defencemen dragged the team 10 extra standings points past .500, but Turco and his backups gave a couple away (and, in fact, it's mostly the backups--Tugnutt's been kinda lousy in relief).
And you can do the same thing for the offence, though the meaning of it would be less clear... maybe. A team like Anaheim generates a large number of shots (29.7 per game, about two above average) but can't put the puck in the net (shot percentage of .076, markedly less than the .091 figure I cited a couple paragraphs back). There are teams like Atlanta that don't create many shots (25.9/g) but convert on a huge fraction of them (.104). What does it mean? In Atlanta's case, I'm inclined to attribute it to Ilya Kovalchuk and some other wingers having great years as snipers. And I notice that over in Anaheim, Petr Sykora is throwing a ton of shots at the net to no great effect. As far as a general interpretation of the figures for "accuracy" and "shot creation" goes, I'm at a loss, but that's all right--we're going back to goaltending.
Goaltending is important in the playoffs. Yeah, yeah... we know that. But have you considered just how important it might be?
We've found a way to make a concise statement about the number of goals saved above average (or below average) by a team's goaltenders over the course of a season, or any convenient length of time. Now I'm going to show you a version of the chart that got me thinking. It's the teams that made the playoffs last year, sorted according to their "extra goals prevented by goaltenders" figure for the preceding 2002-03 season as a whole. Nothing else.
Minnesota +42 Anaheim +30 Philly +28 Dallas +28 Colorado +23 New Jersey +18 Detroit +18 Toronto +18 Ottawa +9 Washington +9 Tampa Bay +7 Vancouver -2 NY Isles -14 Edmonton -19 Boston -19 St. Louis -33
Unless I'm completely nuts, you probably noticed, like I did, that the two completely disregarded teams which went on legendary, eye-popping playoff tears were the ones that had the best goaltending statistics in the regular season. And notice that the eventual champion, New Jersey, had the second-best numbers in its conference; through good luck, it didn't have to face a better goaltending team until the league final.
In fact, if you go back and check, you'll see that the team with the "better" goaltending by this measure won 10 of the 15 postseason series. But the truth is more remarkable than that: the five "upsets" involved teams that were behind their opponent in this category by 2, 10, 9, 12, and 12 goals. Nobody in the whole postseason was able to overcome a margin greater than 12; there were six such series (all in the first round except Det/Ana, TB/Was and Phi/Tor, plus Van/Min in round two) and they were all "decided" by "goaltending" in this sense.
As the difference by this measure gets stronger, the effect gets more reliable: with any advantage in goals saved, teams won 10 of 15 series (67%), but with a five-point-or-greater advantage, they won 9 of 13 (69%); with 10 or more they won 8/11 (73%), and so forth.
So I checked the previous year's playoffs, and it had happened again, though the change in the curve was less dramatic. Keep in mind this is a small sample space, and it would be a lot of work to make it bigger. For the two years combined, teams with any advantage won 19/29 (66%); with a five-goal advantage it was 17/26 (65%), a slight dip, and at 10 it was 14/21 (67%)--but at 15 it was 12/15 (80%), at 20 it was 10/12 (83%), and at 25 it was 9/10 (90%). The data seem to be pointing to some sort of sinusoidal relationship: any advantage is important, and your chance of winning approaches 100% asymptotically as the size of the advantage gets greater.
Is this happening because better teams normally have "better goaltending" by this measure? There's no correlation between "goals saved by goaltenders" and goals saved and scored by everyone else: I checked. Actually, it's a modest negative correlation, probably because teams which give up more shots give their goalies a better chance to do well, aggregately, in this stat.
Moreover, you don't see this "sinusoidal" shape when you compare disparities in "non-goaltending goal differential" to the chance of winning a playoff series. The effect of superiority in respects other than goaltending, amazingly, seems to get smaller as the advantage gets greater. This is the mindblowing part of this whole turgid eructation, here. Teams with a non-goaltending advantage of zero goals or greater won 19 of 29 series over the two years (66%). With ten extra goals, they won 15 of 24 (63%). At 20, it was 11/19 (58%); at 30, 8/15 (53%), at 40, 5/10 (50%), or, in another words, a crapshoot.
Teams that were sixty goals better than their opponents in categories other than goaltending won only two of six series over the two years. Just to clarify matters, look at those actual series--the four that went the other way were huge upsets. One was Anaheim's shock victory over Detroit in '03, and one was its second-round defeat of Dallas. One was Minnesota's win over Vancouver in the conference semifinal last year. And one was Montreal's surprise defeat of Boston in the '02 playoffs. All of them teams riding a hot goaltender to victory.
[UPDATE, 10:10 pm: This paragraph is slightly newer than the rest and has replaced some mystified head-scratching.] So why would teams be more likely to lose playoff series as their edge in non-goaltending categories gets greater? Are the data telling us that being a better team in non-goaltending respects is at an active disadvantage? No--you have to remember (as I failed to at first) that the playoff-qualifying teams are ones who came up to a certain base standard of quality in the first place. Their overall goal differential basically has to be greater than zero, because about half the teams make the playoffs. So teams with a huge non-goaltending advantage are more likely, because of this selection bias, to encounter a team with much better goaltending. But the data do seem to be telling us that goaltending (or whatever the "goaltending" metric measures here) becomes vastly more important in the playoffs--because teams with great goaltending should be more likely to meet teams with a huge advantage in other areas. And they win most of the time anyway.
So, if you've absorbed all that, and it's my fault if you haven't, you're probably wondering how the 2003-04 teams shape up in the apparently-insanely-important "extra goals prevented by goaltenders" category. This is the list.
San Jose +33 Florida +32 Minnesota +25 Montreal +20 Boston +20 Colorado +18 New Jersey +18 Anaheim +11 Vancouver +10 Detroit +6 Calgary +6 Philly +5 Ottawa +1 Columbus +1 Tampa Bay -1 Nashville -5 Dallas -5 Islanders -7 Carolina -7 Washington -7 Toronto -9 Buffalo -9 St. Louis -9 LA Kings -10 Edmonton -10 Chicago -16 Phoenix -16 NY Rangers -20 Atlanta -22 Pittsburgh -49
What conclusions do I draw from this data about the upcoming playoffs, assuming the numbers hold pretty steady to the end of the season? I would suggest to you (but don't take this to the bank yet) that:
And a sad postscript: with the changes in the rules planned for next year, a concomitant shattering of statistical norms is likely, and so this research is likely to be of little use beyond June, if it's useful at all.
Leftovers: an unscientific exercise in parsing hockey statistics
As you know I sometimes do, I've been fiddling with stats tonight. All of the work of a hockey team--understood as a team rather than a business enterprise--goes into winning games, which is to say it goes into scoring and preventing goals. Broadly speaking, teams have better records as they do better at scoring and preventing goals. In fact, there is a pretty solid linear relationship between goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed) and points in the standings. Real solid. If you make a scatter diagram of the two things, the points line up nicely and you can see that goal differential can "explain" (or perhaps more properly, "account for") most of the variance in standings-points. More than 95% of it, in fact, for the whole 2002-03 season, if you go by the traditional R² measure.
This suggests that adding a certain number of goals to a team will yield a highly predictable number of points in the standings--about 2.8 goals per point, as it happens (and the figure is almost exactly the same so far this year). If you ignore the extra points from overtime losses, which I'm not recommending except for the purpose of grasping the idea here, your favourite team should be X points above .500, where X is goal differential divided by 2.8. And most are. Detroit right now is +49; +49 divided by 2.8 is 17.5; so they should have 55 + 17.5 = 72.5 points after the 55 games they've played so far. They actually have 70. My Oilers are -5, so they should have about 52 points through their 54 games. True total: 51.
But some teams diverge pretty wildly from the levels of real success predicted by their ability to score and prevent goals. The most dramatic case in this season is Ottawa. As I write these words, Ottawa has very nearly the best offence in hockey and very nearly the best defence. They have scored 61 more goals than they've allowed. 61! Nobody else is close to that! Detroit is in second, with 49. So Ottawa should be at the top of the league standings.
But of course they're not. Having played 53 games they should have about 53 + (61/2.8) points, or 75. If you account for overtime losses, it should be more like 78. In fact they only have 66 points, which leaves them behind division-mates Toronto (69 points, goal differential +20) and Boston (67, +10).
No team in the NHL has remotely as much negative "residue" as Ottawa does in this sense. They are about 12 points lower in the standings than their GF/GA totals would predict. Why has this happened to Ottawa? Easy answer for anyone who's studied baseball sabermetrics: it's because, in the real world, not every goal is worth 1/2.8 of a point in the standings. Goals in blowouts are worth less, and goals in tight one-goal games are worth more. Put simply, Ottawa has been very very bad at scoring the high-leverage goals in tight games. How do we know? They have a shockingly bad record in one-goal games. Right now that record is 4-13, counting overtime losses as "losses" and forgetting ties.
I haven't checked to make sure that residue is connected to one-goal performance up and down the league. I know Pittsburgh and Nashville have the most positive "residue" in the league (7.0 and 7.4 points respectively), and they do much better in close games than in others, Pittsburgh being 9-11--which is pretty good for a team that only has 11 wins of any kind!--and Nashville being 15-8. There is really nothing else the residue can be but a reflection of performance in close games. For your interest, here's a list of the top and bottom five in residue, as of this evening.
POSITIVE Nashville +7.4 Pittsburgh +7.0 Boston +5.6 Toronto +5.1 Dallas +4.9 NEGATIVE Ottawa -11.5 Detroit -5.3 Chicago -4.4 Edmonton -4.0 Minnesota -3.8The important question to answer is this: what is the right name for this residue? What actual factor makes teams perform worse or better in close games than "mere" goal-scoring and goal-preventing would allow for?
The temptation for a student of baseball statistics is to assign the residue to luck. This is not something that's done fancifully. If the residue isn't luck, then it has to be a reflection of some ability or quality on the part of the team: "guts" or good coaching, perhaps. But if that were so you would expect the same teams that had high residue last year to, by and large, have it again this year. Most of the teams have the same coaches, after all, and largely the same personnel: the effect, whatever real quality was causing it, should have some persistence--if the quality were real. (Warning: this form of argument may be more philosophically controversial that it's normally taken to be in baseball.)
I can tell you that, between '02-'03 and this year, it hasn't. A scatter diagram of the residue in both years is a random cloud of bugs, without apparent meaningful correlation. Of the 14 teams that had positive residue last year, only 8 have it now. Of the 16 negatives, only 9 still have it. Better than chance--but only a teeny tiny toony bit better.
The residue didn't seem to have any predictive quality in the playoffs, either, though you might expect good performance in close games to be very important to playoff success. The four semifinalists--New Jersey, Anaheim, Minnesota, and Ottawa--were ranked 9th, 5th, 13th, and 21st in the league, respectively. When you consider that low-residue teams were less likely to reach the playoffs in the first place (i.e., they did poorer in the standings than they ought to have), this is less than impressive.
My guess--and given that I'm an amateur statistician, it can be only a guess-is that the residue really is a product of luck. If so, outliers like Nashville and Ottawa should be far more likely to rebound to their "true" level of quality than to persist in very good or bad luck. Nashville is seven points above .500 despite being outscored 128-137 on the year; is this truly tenable? My very strong suspicion is that it isn't, and that they will collapse somewhat. It's certainly apparent that Ottawa is a great team playing in some kind of black cloud; I believe they are an extremely strong bet to overtake Toronto and Boston, and take the place every reasonable fan assigned them at the start of the season on grounds of talent. (Plus, this: no team at all had a negative residue of -11 for the whole season last year. League worst was San Jose's -5.2.) Show of hands: who thinks the Leafs are really, really better than the Sens? Congratulations, you have just self-diagnosed Down's Syndrome.
But maybe it's not entirely luck. If you can think of something real and specifiable that the positive-residue teams have in common, something which the negative-residue teams lack completely (or vice versa), you have the key to an especially important factor in high-leverage hockey situations. Hide it well, and get thee to Vegas! I'd be willing to entertain the suggestion that the Senators are coached by a jackass, after last year's playoff near-fiasco with Spezza, but in '02-'03 the jackass had the team playing almost exactly at its level of goal differential (-1.7).
What we have here is a potential framework for the equivalent of what is called "Pythagorean standings" in baseball. At the end of a season, you could identify the teams that had especially bad luck and pick them to improve. With what exact confidence could you do this?--I don't know.
Looking at last year, the "unluckiest" five teams were San Jose, Nashville, Buffalo, Dallas, and Vancouver. Not all bad teams, certainly!--just the unluckiest by this measure. How many have better records so far this year? Four--Vancouver's record is slightly better--and Dallas's decline is no surprise on other grounds (and is more profound than the standings show, if you believe all this tommyrot).
Last year, the luckiest five teams were Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, and Anaheim. How many stand worse now? Only three: Florida and Tampa have improved. Atlanta's only slightly worse, despite being a very special case. So maybe the predictive value of this "luck" isn't so great on its own. Bill James used the baseball equivalent as one weighting factor among a whole set of pre-season indicators, and team age could certainly be another factor you could use. Then again, maybe age enters into what we're calling "luck" here. Sadly, hockey statistics don't exist in the readily-manipulable forms in which baseball's stats can be found, so checking such things as these would be a full-time job, and not one, really, for the likes of me.
BACK TO MAIN INDEX PAGE