Archive for the 'Hockey' Category

Hockey! I Know Nothing, Nothing At All.

Thirty-five years of some degree of obsession with ice hockey, and I have reached a conclusion that I know nothing of the game, and I am beginning to suspect that nobody else does either.

Montreal’s last-place entrance into the Eastern Conference playoffs was followed by their eliminating the league’s first-place Washington Capitals, and then doing the same to the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Improbable? Inexplicable?

Then the hometown team, the Philadelphia Flyers caps a season of under-achieving by sneaking into the playoffs, defeating their old nemesis, the New Jersey Devils in the first series, and then… they come back to win another series, this one against the Boston Bruins in a Game Seven, after being three games down in the series and three goals down in the first period of the seventh game. It’s fun. It’s exciting, but it is also confounding. These things do not seem to happen in most other major league sports, or at least not as frequently as they do in hockey.

Now to add mystification to my confusion, the Eastern Conference Finals between the Flyers and Montreal open with the supposedly spent Flyers, playing on one day’s rest, zapping the supposedly rested and ascendant Canadians six-to-zero, and then three-to-zero in the second game. And then, they get to walloped five to one in the third game. And then… Fortunately, I’ve never been tempted to bet on an NHL game. At this writing the Flyers won Game Four beating the Habs three-zip, to take a series lead of three games to one.

This afternoon, the Blackhawks won the Western Conference Series and now await a Cup round against either the Flyers, or will it be the Canadians? I would not venture a dime on any predictions.

Some Thoughts On The Cup Finals

pittsburgh-penguins-stanley-cup-2009This year’s Stanley Cup finals went to a game seven, defining a razor’s edge difference between the winner and the loser. Only an overtime win could have shaved the outcome finer.

In the days since Crosby and Company hoisted the Cup for their Pittsburgh Penguins, I’ve been trying to understand why what appeared to be a superior hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings, hadn’t been able to do a reprise of the previous season’s series. I use the term “superior” in regard to the Wings because throughout the series, it seemed that in basic execution – breakout plays, passing, puck possession, puck protection – the Wings had the Pens scrambling. And yet…

The Pens pretty consistently out-shot the Wings, but most of those shots were low-percentage tries. The five-year average age gap between the two teams was cited with statements that the Detroit players looked tired. They never looked all that tired to me. And with the exception of the Wings 5-0 blowout of the Pens in Game Five, the series was marked by low-scoring, relatively close games. Over the series, Detroit actually outscored Pittsburgh 17-14.

Here’s what I think happened. In Games One, Two and Five, Detroit was able to play their Cup-winning system, effectively shutting down the Pens. Pittsburgh was out-skated, out-passed, smothered in the neutral zone and continually bottled-up in their own defensive zone. But in Games Three, Four, Six and Seven, Detroit’s allocation of resources, matching both Lidstrom and Zetterberg against Crosby, began to appear counterproductive. While Crosby was kept to a single goal in the series, Maxime Talbot was able to score three times, accounting for over twenty percent of Pittsburgh’s total scoring. For the series, less than half of Pittsburgh’s goals came from the starring triumvirate of Crosby, Malkin and Stall. It might be that Babcock’s emphasis on Crosby was what allowed journeyman players like Letang, Fedetenko and Kennedy to get under the Wing’s radar and score. It also might be argued that the Wings commitment to what had proven to be a winning system left them at a disadvantage against the more nimble and opportunistic Penguins.

Finally, goaltending – Chris Osgood is a competent NHL goaltender. That’s to say, he is a superb and gifted athlete, but his success as a Cup winner might have had more to do with the defensive skills of his teammates, and to the Mike Babcock defensive system, than to his being a true money goalie. Osgood made big saves, but he didn’t have to perform throughout the series at the same dazzling level required of Mark Andre Fleury.

It seems to me that on the whole, the Detroit Red Wings were a more accomplished and possibly a better hockey team than the Pittsburgh Penguins, but as two-time Cup winner Bill Clement once put it, the nature of the game is that a lesser team can beat a better team if they are willing to pay the price. The series certainly could have gone either way, but from what I saw, the entire Pittsburgh Penguins team stepped up and paid in full for their Stanley cup win.

A Credible Creationism

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Ten Reasons To Watch The Stanley Cup Playoffs

stanley-cup-playoffs-20091. Hockey is played on ice skates

2. Hockey is a contact sport

3. Hockey is the only team sport other than polo that’s faster than a man can run

4. Hockey is continuous – five or more minutes of unbroken play can occur

5. Hockey player substitutions can take place without a stoppage in play

6. Hockey rule infractions result in the offending team playing short-handed

7. Hockey players control the game – within defined limits fist-fighting is tolerated

8. Hockey has the impact and violence of football

9. Hockey has the grace and beauty of ballet

10. Hockey has dynamic complexities of quantum mechanics.

Finally, A Must-Read for Hockey Fans

Print“Blue Ice, And Other Stories from the Rink” a short-story collection by Frank Ewert is probably the best thing to come out of hockey since the elimination of the rule against the two-line pass. Ewert, a young Canadian writer of great ability, and a hockey player since the age of five, has an understanding of and a love for the game that comes through in every one of the six jewel-like and eminently readable stories.

In his introduction to “Blue Ice,” Ewert notes a Canadian tradition of “Hockey Literature.” I would argue that point, citing that while there’s lots of hockey writing in Canada, there seems to be damned little literature. In fact, I believe Ewert’s “Blue Ice” is the first literary fiction with hockey at its core since Peter LaSalle’s 1989 short-story collection, “Hockey Sur Glace,” and LaSalle is an American. That’s twenty years in between of a hockey literature populated almost entirely by fan books, team sagas and accounts of great games.

The dialog throughout “Blue Ice” has the the feel of effortless authenticity, always the fruit of talent and painstaking work. The atmosphere of the game, playing it, thinking about it, talking it, are delivered glitch-free. Ewert creates likeable, believably flawed, multi-dimensional characters with voices that reflect their self-awareness, like Wade, the narrator of the opening story, “The Protector.” A matter-of-fact junior hockey role player of limited talents, Wade explains his job of using physical intimidation to shield his team’s star player, a former friend Wade now can’t stand, and by doing so keeps his own place on the team.

The title story “Blue Ice” goes in unexpected directions. In what might have been just another sweet boy/girl unrequited puppy love story, Danny is the struggling goalie for his school’s contending hockey team. The tale turns when his once harmless, vicarious romantic dreams begin to threaten his team’s chances.

On their surface, the stories in Blue Ice might seem light, easy and commonplace, but under the ease of the story-telling, there is an implicit stable of serious themes. The half-American kid, Trevor, in the “Canadian,” his U.S.-born Mom “says the word ‘roof‘ funny,” over-compensates in his defense of “Canada’s Game.” And the three hungover Calgary Flames fans of “The Cup” in lamenting their team’s loss in the Cup finals to a Florida-based team, further address the issues of Canadian insecurity about the migration of hockey away from its roots. The usurpation of Canada’s game by a dominant American market, the rising ascendancy of European and American players and the failure of Canadian teams to bring home the Cup, seems to have undermined Canada’s sense of itself. Don Cherry nows makes news by demeaning any non-Canadian success in hockey, think Alex Ovechkin. Even a revered figure like Wayne Gretzky has been coming off sourly chauvinistic in his defensive “our game” public comments. Ewert very effectively captures this collective Canadian unease over the future of their national game.

In “Taking the Man,” Ewert tells a story of a player’s creative on-ice solution in dealing with a petty, arbitrary and egotistical official, and does so without ever explaining the hockey rule being exploited. Ewert assumes slyly and correctly that the reader already knows that a referee calling a penalty can’t blow play dead until a player on the offending team takes control of the puck. it may be “inside baseball,” but it’s fun when you realize exactly what is happening out on the ice.

And if as a non-hockey playing reader, you wish to get some idea of what it feels like to rush up the ice one-on-one against a defending goalie, Ewert includes a two-page gem titled “A Breakway.” You are inside the head of an uncertain skater named David who finds himself with a puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between himself and the goaltender.

I’d recommend that “Blue Ice” be declared a Canadian National Treasure.” Okay, it’s not the Stanley Cup, but it is first-rate literature that just happen to be about hockey. Here’s hoping Frank Ewert has lots more books in him.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: There Will Be Blood

images1The Flyers went into yesterday’s Game Three of the first round Stanley Cup Playoff Series against the Pittsburgh Penguins down by two games. They went on to win the game by a score of six-to-three.

In the third period, with the score at five-to-two Flyers, Danny Briere just getting rid of the puck along the right wing board in the neutral zone near the Penguins bench, looks up to see Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik coming at him like a fast freight. Briere instinctively braces for the coming hit, by raising his stick in against his chest. Orpik, unable to slow down goes full-force, nose-first into the shaft of Briere’s stick. Blood splatters the ice, and Orpik heads quickly up the tunnel to the dressing room and to whatever succor the Pittsburgh trainers can provide.

Because there is blood, lots of blood, Briere gets a four-minute minor penalty, during which Pittsburgh scores a power play goal cutting the Flyers lead to two.

Later in the third period, watching preparations for a face-off near the Penguin bench, I am jolted by an image. There’s something strange about one of the Pittsburgh players seated on the bench, holding his stick in front of him, looking like just another skater ready to jump out onto the ice. It’s Brooks Orpik, and protruding from each of his nostrils is two inches of those solid white cotton sticks, the kind the dentist wedges up under your lips to absorb moisture. Brooks Orpik, a true hockey warrior, sits ready to go back at it, looking for all the world like broken-tusked walrus.

Hey, that’s hockey!

Deconstructing a Corey Stillman Deflection

images6In the Philadelphia Flyers loss last Thursday night to the Florida Panthers, I watched the Panther’s Corey Stillman score a goal that spoke to a level of eye-hand coordination that approaches the miraculous. Stillman was a major contributor to the Carolina Hurricanes team that won a Stanley Cup in 2006.

In the first period, with the Panthers attacking in the Flyers zone, the puck bounced out to the Panther’s left point defenseman, Radek Dvorak who walloped a slapshot toward the right side of the net defended by Flyers goalie Marty Biron. As Biron moved to his right to stop the incoming puck, he, of necessity, opened space on the left side between his left shoulder and the frame of the net.

In the instant that Dvorak’s shot began whistling toward the net, Corey Stillman raised the blade of his stick to intercept that 90-plus miles-per-hour puck. Within that same instant that the puck hit Stillman’s stick, he directed it into the open side of the net to the left of Biron. The goaltender never had a chance. The entire wondrous sequence of events described above took place in a fraction of a second.