Monday, December 29, 2008

Bruins' First Semester Grades

Holiday over... blogging starts again today.

While I was gone:
- The Winter Classic was so popular, my in-laws watched it.
- Crosby had the second-most embarrassing fight of the weekend. So far.
- The Bruins discovered you can't win 'em all, though you can certainly come close.
- Americans celebrated the annual "remember that the NHL still exists and think about watching a game this season" holiday weekend.

In honor of all the kids enjoying their winter break, it's the Bruins' report card through the New Year:

Kessel: A+
Suddenly, the best wrist-shot in the league.

Savard: A+
Still waiting for recognition as a contemporary Adam Oates.

Thomas: A+
Is it possible that this guy won't even be on the roster next season? Stay tuned.

Fernandez: A
A bigger surprise than Thomas. The perfect backup early on, now he's the perfect 1B.

Krejci: A
The NHL's most improved player?

Wideman: B+
Remember when we were willing to trade a promising young forward for a reliable #2 blueliner? Me neither.

Wheeler: B+
Not all Calder candidates pan out in the long run. Wheeler will.

Ryder: B
A frustrating start, but he's justified the contract so far.

Lucic: B
A great season statistically, and full of highlight hits... but still a sense of untapped potential.

Chara: B
His B-game might be awesome, but it's not good enough for the captain of a contender.

Hunwick: B-
After a startlingly strong debut, he's back down to earth as a struggling rookie.

Yelle: B-
As long as he wins key faceoffs, we can overlook his 10-goal pace.

Sturm: C+
Another year of waiting for him to blossom -- unless he turns it up this month, consider him late-season trade bait.

Kobasew: C
Not to hold his injury against him, but Kobie's taken a big step backward this season.

Ward: C-
No goals and three assists in 29 games? Really?

Axelsson: C-
Even a defensive specialist has got to pose some offensive threat to justify a roster spot.

Stuart: D+
See: Alberts, Andrew

Nokelainen: D+
Even before the shoulder injury, he'd done little to secure a permanent callup.

Hnidy: D
The most waiver-worthy player on the team, except that his contagious toughness is hard to replace.

Thornton: Alligator
The guy you'd want in your foxhole.

Bergeron: I
The big question: how soon is too soon?

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bruins vs. Thrashers: Takeaways

For the first time this season, I got the chance to see the Bruins live tonight. As good as NESN makes them look, there's nothing like the real thing.

- Philips Arena is a fairly nice, though character-free, place to see a hockey game. It's part of the CNN Center, which is basically a mall/hotel complex, which makes for a Whaler-esque gameday experience. Go to the mall, grab a taco, see a hockey game.

Believe it or not, there are a decent number of Thrashers fans who really support the team. Unfortunately they are a minority in their own building -- more than two-thirds of the crowd is either visiting fans or casual attendees. Though the game presentation is sharp and the hardcore fans are dedicated, the overall atomosphere in the arena (even on a holiday weekend with a smoking-hot Original Six opponent) is muted. Well, muted is a soft word. Let's use "dead" instead.

Does the NHL belong in Atlanta? I think so. But only when the Thrashers organization gets its act together, and connects its fans with a promising and exciting team, will we see any rewards from this gamble. If the league decides to cut its losses and the Thrashers move, it won't be without collateral damage to the fanbase who continue to support them in spite of a mountain of challenges.

- Make no mistake, the Bruins didn't play winning hockey tonight. They were sloppy with the puck, especially in their own end, and took foolish penalties at bad times. Manny Fernandez stood on his head but was also very lucky not to let in 3 or 4 goals. With 10 minutes left in the game, I had that "We're playing right into their hands" feeling.

For their part, the Thrashers played very conservatively and spent the evening looking for a game-breaking play. Their problem isn't a lack of effort or coaching, but a lack of talent from top to bottom. This is not a roster that would be fixed by upgrading one, two, or even five roster slots. What can you do when you're in that position? I wonder how their fans feel about the second half of the season.

- David Krecji's assist on the game-winning goal was truly a thing of beauty. Only a truly special playmaker would've had both the vision and the skill to identify Michael Ryder's charge to the net and deliver a perfectly flat, precisely-timed pass across the entire zone while skating full speed and dodging a defenseman. It's becoming more and more obvious that the addition of Krecji is the single greatest factor in Boston's improvement over the past 12 months.

- Great to see Aaron Ward on the ice again. His game was mostly quiet, though he threw a crunching check in the 2nd. It'll be nice to start hearing scuttlebutt about Andrew Ference's return as well.

- Next up: Pittsburgh in a home-and-home to close out 2008 and open 2009. We've won 4 of 5 on this roadtrip so far and will be heading into our biggest homestand of the season. Should be a barn-burner at the Igloo.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bruins vs. Devils: Lazy Takeaways

Hey, it's Christmas. Give me a break.

- The Bruins' 2-0 win over New Jersey was worth more than any 7-3 win over Atlanta. Not because they dominated, not because they built an unsurpassable lead in the first half-period, but because it was the closest thing we've seen all season to playoff hockey. Both teams were disciplined and playing as if they knew that it would be a one-goal affair. Winning games like this can make the difference in May.

- When they were called up, we expected Vlad Sobotka and Matt Lashoff to be NHL-ready players. I didn't have the same feeling about Martin St. Pierre. Scoring a point a game in the AHL doesn't bear any relevance to NHL success, and St. Pierre didn't exactly explode off the Bruins' depth chart. But he's played pretty well in his two games, forechecking hard and making safe plays in difficult situations. He's also taken faceoffs with occasional success.

- Speaking of which, take a closer look at the faceoff numbers from that game: Savard was 2-10, St. Pierre was 1-6, Yelle was 8-16. Not so great, right? Then you get down to David Krejci, who was 10-12. Have I mentioned how incredibly pleasing it's been to see that guy develop into a legit star?

- Manny says: "Touche, Timmy."

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bruins vs. Devils: Stuff To Look Out For

- reports that the Bruins are letting Patrice Bergeron have a week of R&R before making any decisions about a timetable for his return.

The article optimistically suggests that Bergy might be back in mid-January but... here it comes... also floats the idea of shutting him down for the long-term and using the cap space to sign Brendan Shanahan. Thus proving that there is indeed an esoteric rule requiring the press corps to always have a will-they-sign-this-free-agent-veteran storyline on queue.

- The Devils still have this reputation as a lull-you-to-sleep trapping team, which is odd considering they are 6th in the conference in both offense and defense. That's just good, well-rounded hockey. They play a solid all-around game and will definitely pose a test for the Bruins after a pretty soft schedule so far this month.

- The only other good team the Bruins have played lately were the Caps, which also accounts for their only loss in 11 games.

- Patrik Elias was the NHL's third star of the week, with 3-5-8 in 4 games. Perhaps more significantly, he and David Krecji of the Bruins were both nominated for's "Fan Fav" award this week. I don't think that one comes with a salary bonus.

- The Devils are nothing special at home, with a record of 11-5-1. Perhaps it's got to do with averaging less than 15,000 fans per game -- less than the Lightning, Kings and Panthers.

- Scott "Martin" Clemmensen will start for the Devs. Still no word on a Bruins starter; my heart says Manny but my head says it's Tim-Tom time.

- This is a particularly important road game for the Bruins, who nicely timed their long road trip to include a four-day break for Christmas. A win tonight would make the possibilty of 4 wins in 5 games very realistic.

Other previews:
The Bear Cave
Stanley Cup of Chowder
In Lou We Trust (Devils)
Fire and Ice (Devils)
Beast of the East (Devils, lots of links)

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Monday, December 22, 2008

What Does Bergeron's Injury Mean To The Bruins?

Ok, we've all had a couple of days to square with reality: Patrice Bergeron will never have a normal career in the NHL. He's still got the skill to be a 30-70-100 sort of player, but there is simply no escaping the fact that recurring concussions don't go away. Despite the cheery tone from the Bruins' front office, this isn't about his recovery from a single hit; it's about his ability to go out and play the game without becoming a perpetual IR listee.

Even worse for Pat is the fact that his game revolves around physical contact -- he's at his best when he's throwing shoulders in the corners and absorbing crosschecks in the crease. But if he's unable even to throw a garden-variety bodycheck in open ice, the rest of his game becomes marginal. If you have any emotional ties to the notion that Bergeron will make a triumphant return as a top-level player, now is the time to start weaning yourself of those hopes.

Long Term

It's hard to predict what this means for the Bruins in the long run. Bergeron might be serviceable as an occasional contributor, like Eric Lindros in his latter days, the sort of guy you try and bring back for the playoffs in the hope that he'll push you over the cusp. But try to project any farther than 2-3 years into the future, and the image becomes murky -- it's doubtful that he'll stand alongside players like Lucic, Wheeler and Krecji as they mature into their prime.

Short Term

In the short term, the Bruins will be without their second-line center pending Bergeron's evaluation and possible return in the spring. This might have been a devastating loss, except that he is no longer considered indispensable to the roster. Last season the Bruins made a suprising Bergeron-less charge into the playoffs, after most pundits assumed they couldn't compete without him. This season they sit atop the Eastern Conference, despite a tepid output of 4 goals and 14 assists in 31 games from Bergeron. He'd been snakebitten early on (Pat's 5.8% shooting is the lowest among all Bruins except P.J. Axelsson and Shawn Thornton), but lately he hadn't even been generating chances. Despite manning the point on an intimidating power-play unit, Bergeron hadn't scored a single goal on the man-advantage this season.

So, Habs fans, don't start printing division-championship t-shirts just yet.

It's a safe bet that Claude Julien won't tinker with the red-hot first line of Lucic-Savard-Kessel. Likewise, he's been getting great results from the "third" line of Wheeler-Krecji-Ryder. If anything, that "third" line has now become the Bruins' second-best offensive unit and further marginalized Bergeron and his linemates (Axelsson and Chuck Kobasew). As they say, when one door closes, another opens.

So, Julien is now faced with contructing an entirely new third line in Bergeron's absence. In St. Louis, he went with Axelsson-Yelle-Kobasew, but I don't see that lasting long. Yelle has been very solid, but his contributions are not as significant as the development of AHL callup Vladimir Sobotka, a high-energy center who seems a natural fit with Kobie. Axelsson is a bit of an offensive drag, but he only needs to fill in until Marco Sturm returns from IR; he seems a more natural fit on the fourth line with Yelle and Thornton.

As an armchair coach, I'd go with the following third and fourth lines once Sturm's ready to go:

In the meantime, get used to the name Martin St. Pierre -- the guy who was considered a spare part only a few weeks ago, and now looks prepared to challenge for a center spot.

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One of the best goals you'll ever see...

Blake Wheeler. Jeezus. We signed this guy as a free agent, so it didn't even require a shitty season or trading a prospect to get him on board. He's locked up at $2.8m through next season, and is an RFA after that. As a rookie he's on pace to score 30, and on a team with Savard and Krejci you know he's headed to 40-50 goal territory in a couple of years.

Last night Wheels scored a shortie for the ages, making it clear that he's going to be a name in the Calder discussion. Check it out:

Wow. It might not be quite as well-known as this one...

... but it'll definitely make the career highlight reel. Thank god this guy came into the league during the Youtube Era.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Beginning A New Phase Of The Season

Lots of new beginnings for the Bruins tonight in St. Louis:

Step Six - According to my 12-step season breakdown, the Bruins are wrapping up the first half of the season with a brutal holiday roadtrip. Tonight's game in St. Louis is a good warmup for tough games in New Jersey, Carolina and Pittsburgh before the New Year.

The post-Bergeron era - Not to jump to conclusions, but Patrice Bergeron's concussion in last night's game cast a shadow over any hopes that he would return to have a "normal" career. Even if this turns out to be a relatively minor injury, and he makes a quick comeback, it still drives home the reality that he can't play a fast-paced collision sport without serious risk of permanent damage to his grey matter. It's hard to imagine that, given the style of play that makes Bergeron effective, he won't continue to suffer concussions every few months, following a career arc similar to that of Brett Lindros. This would be an appropriate time to adjust any dreams of him growing into the mold of a 30-goal, 100-point player.

The Fernandez era - Manny will have his third start in four games, and his second in as many nights, breaking the simple rotation that had been standard over the past couple of weeks. For the time being, he has effectively usurped Tim Thomas as the #1. How long will he be the hot hand?

The injury bug - Up until recently, the Bruins had been one of the league's healthier teams. But like everyone else, they won't succeed without a little mid-season adversity. Aside from Bergeron, the Bruins look to be missing Marco Sturm and Andrew Ference for the long-term. Aaron Ward and Petteri Nokelainen will be out as well for tonight's game. So we get to see guys like Martin St. Pierre, Vladimir Sobotka and Matt Lashoff take their shot at a big-league career.

Adversity is tough to deal with, but it's a good thing in the long run. Let's see if this team's ready to fight through the sort of tough road games that are ubiquitous during the playoffs.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

You Really Just Have To See This Stuff

My random thoughts for the day:

1) There should be a rule against goaltenders letting go of their sticks during the shootout. This is one of many incidents that could be avoided with more straightforward rules.

2) Sundin's choice of Vancouver's mega-money offer should surprise no one.

3) Moment of self-reflection: After years of wishing for more contests with scores like 8-5 and 7-3, I have nothing but worries after seeing the Bruins actually play that kind of game.

Ok, on to the lazy-Friday linkage. For some reason, this week has been full of stuff that you just have to see to make your hockey life complete:

- Check out this indescribably bizarre "If X mated with X" experiment. Chris Soppel looks like someone you'd run into at a deserted rest stop in Alabama.

- Brodeur Is A Fraud produced this insightful and detailed analysis of Tim Thomas' season to date, with the thesis that he will come back to earth very soon. The next day he allowed 5 goals in 2 periods....

- Blueland Outsider links to one of the best hockey commercials I've seen all year. Too bad I had to get it from an amateur blog instead of a major TV network. Way to go, NHL Marketing Department.

- If you're going to tomorrow night's game, bring Stanley Cup of Chowder's "Whale Watch '08" scoring sheet. There has got to be a way to convert this to a drinking game.

I'll try to get a preview put together for tomorrow night's tilt against the Canes... but just in case I don't, here's a brief summary:

Bruins > Hurricanes

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bruins vs. Leafs: Takeaways

What happened in this game? Better question: what didn't happen in this game?

Prediction validated: This morning, in the game preview, I prophesied:
The Bruins have consistently jumped out to large leads this season, only to let off the gas later in the game. If that happens again against Toronto, it might be costly.
Well, we might have gotten away with it, but when you're up 5-1 you shouldn't have to look over your shoulder at the end of the game.

Credit where it's due: Toronto is a much better team than they ought to be, and have shown a knack for surprising arrogant powerhouse teams. The Bruins are a young, flashy, slightly overconfident squad -- most nights those are good traits but not against a crafty team like the Leafs.

Criticism where it's due: While I'm glad to take the 2 points and run, we should keep games like this in mind as we get closer to April. Playoff-ready teams don't squander 4-goal leads to inferior opponents. Playoff-ready goalies don't relax when they feel like their teammates are going to carry them to victory.

Speaking of goalies: Let's hope Tim Thomas was simply in a funk after having played only three games in the past 23 days. Perhaps Julien let him accumulate a bit too much rust while Manny Fernandez was the hot hand, but it certainly has looked lately like Thomas is falling back to earth. Meanwhile, Manny plugs along having allowed only 5 goals in his last 4 full games (Timmy has allowed 14 in his last 5 games).

At what point does a goalie rotation become a goalie controversy?

Cringe-inducing moments:
Marco Sturm returns from a long injury, scores a goal, then leaves the game moments later with another injury.
Mike Van Ryn gets crunched by Milan Lucic, and looks wobbly as he heads back to the bench adjusting his helmet.
NESN generously allows a couple of young Jimmy V Foundation patients to provide play-by-play during segments of the first and second periods, but is unprepared to handle the sheer badness of the play calls. The only thing missing was a "Boom goes the dynamite".
1 game, 4 goalies. Ugh.

Looking ahead: The Bruins host the streaking WhalerCanes Saturday, before embarking on a crucial 5-game roadtrip to finish the Year 2008.

Other reviews:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
Hub Hockey
Hockey Journal
All the Leafs blogs are too busy talking Sundin to bother with a recap.

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Bruins vs. Leafs: Stuff To Look Out For

Once again the Bruins have to shake off the rust of a half-week layoff, as the Maple Leafs ride into town on a 3-game winning streak. Stuff to watch for tonight:

The Sundin Saga continues - You've heard so much more about this than you ever wanted to. It's fair to say that Sundin has outdone even last year's Niedermayer Saga, by hemming and hawing away nearly a third of the season schedule. Meanwhile, several franchises -- especially the Rangers, Canucks and Leafs -- are effectively at a personnel standstill while awaiting The Bald One's final decision.

Let me get this off my chest, because I haven't had time to write a full article about it (yet). Screw Sundin. Last season I defended his choice to remain in Toronto against the popular consensus, because I felt he'd earned the option to finish his career as a Leaf if he so chose. And let's not be naive about his rights as a free agent; he's got leverage over the whole process and is only doing what's owed to him after a decade and a half of outstanding play.

But really. Screw this guy. The whole "team first" ethic went out the window when it became clear that he's willing to disrupt an entire season for several teams by dragging his feet through negotiations. More importantly, wherever he lands there's now going to be a media hurricane... and good friggin' luck to whatever coach has to integrate him into a locker room and convince everyone that he's good for the team's chemistry. This whole situation has set itself up to be the biggest letdown since Forsberg decided to make yet another comeback. Oh, wait.

Blake's revenge - I'm pretty sure THN had already gone to press by calling Jason Blake the 10th-most-overpaid NHL'er (#1 -- JovoCop!) before he busted out this wicked spin-o-rama to beat the Devils in the shootout. Let's avoid going to the shootout tonight, shall we?

Toskala sucks - That's actually just a personal opinion. The buzz around Toskala is that he's on a hot streak and almost has his GAA under 3.00 now. But seriously, why is this guy still wearing the Leaf?

Too tough - To be honest, I think the Maple Leafs are a little too good this year... too good for their own good. It seems like ever since the lockout, they've been expected to blow up the roster and start over. Every year they come out, fight just hard enough to get out of lottery contention, and then fizzle. Part of the problem is that they're actually not a half bad team -- they've beaten the Wings, Bruins, Rangers, Habs and Flyers this season. Part of the problem may be that the players actually feel pressure to perform in Toronto, as opposed to a town like Miami where they can just quit on the coach and get away with it. Either way, the Leafs are not an easy game and the Bruins would do well to play a full 60 minutes this time (as opposed to letting them back in a game... see below).

Home cookin' - Toronto is the only team to beat Boston at home this season, and one of only two teams to beat the Bruins by two points (though, to be fair, both games involved an EN goal). Meanwhile, the Bruins are eyeing a 5-game road trip in the second half of the month, so expect them to really fight for the home points.

Keeping a lead - If there's anything that can be said about Toronto this year, it's that they're tenacious.
Game one: Boston up 2-0 after one period, lose 4-2.
Game two: Boston up 3-0 after two periods, Leafs pull to within 4-2 in third.
Game three: Boston up 2-0 after half a period, stave off comeback to win 3-2.
The Bruins have consistently jumped out to large leads this season, only to let off the gas later in the game. If that happens again against Toronto, it might be costly.

Playing or Not?
Sturm: Maybe
Ward: No
Nokelainen: No
Fernandez/Thomas: Conflicting reports. My money's on Tim.

Other previews:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
Rink Rap
Bruins Hockey Blog
The Bear Cave
Pension Plan Puppets (Leafs linkage)

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Most Obscure and Unlikely 50-Goal Scorers Ever

Vic Hadfield, New York Rangers, 1971-72
78 games, 50g-56a-106p

Hadfield enjoyed the double-edged advantage of playing on the famous GAG (Goal-A-Game) line, alongside legends Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. On one hand, his Hall-inducted linemates helped Hadfield nearly double his previous career-best of 26 goals. On the other hand, Hadfield remains an obscurity to most fans, and the only member of the GAG line not to be enshrined in the Hall. Hadfield is better remembered for his role in the 1972 Summit Series (leaving Team Canada on good terms as a healthy scratch but being skewered by the Canadian media) and for throwing Bernie Parent's mask into the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Ray Sheppard, Detroit Red Wings, 1993-94
82 games, 52g-41a-93p

If Shep was as good at hockey as he is at golf, he might've scored 50 every season. Unfortunately, he simply couldn't skate worth a damn and found himself bouncing around the sunbelt after leaving a super-stacked Wings team just before their dynasty got off the ground. Nevertheless, a guy who scored 50 goals after being traded for $1 has got to be smiling at the end of the day.

Craig Simpson, Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers, 1987-88
PIT - 21 games, 13g-13a-26p
EDM - 59 games, 43g-21a-64p

Unlikely? He was the 2nd overall draft pick in 1985, won 2 Stanley Cups in Edmonton, scored a Cup-winning goal, was traded for Paul Coffey, and posted a solid 35 goals as a followup to scoring 56. Yet what makes Simpson's achievement unlikely is that he was actually traded in the midst of his career year. The move from Pittsburgh to Edmonton, where he was placed on a line with two guys named Messier and Anderson, accounted for the last 43 goals of his season. He later retired due to chronic back injuries and became the annoying color-commentator on the EA video game series.

Al Secord, Chicago Blackhawks, 1982-83
80 games, 54g-32a-86p

As one of the NHL's early-model power forwards, Al Secord always had the tools to score 50 -- he broke the 40-goal mark three times despite struggles with a severe hip disorder. What makes Secord exceptional is that he was actually on the ice often enough to score 50, despite also being one of the league's elite brawlers. In the '81-'82 season he managed to score 44 goals and an arresting 303 PIM. The following season he put up Cam Neely numbers -- 180 PIM, 54 goals -- a decade before Neely's prime. Sadly, Secord slipped slowly into obscurity and finished his career in the minors.

Jonathan Cheechoo, San Jose Sharks, 2005-06
82 games, 56g-37a-93p

Of course, Cheechoo's career is far from over at age 28. But it's safe to say, based on his play since he won the Richard Trophy three years ago, that he will likely never match his 56-goal output of the 2006 season. 20 years from now we'll consider his '06 season a footnote to Joe Thornton's banner year -- unless, of course, Cheechoo once again finds himself skating alongside another Hart-winning center.

Rick Kehoe, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1980-81
80 games, 55g-33a-88p

The epitome of quitting too soon, Kehoe actually retired as the Pens' all-time goal scoring leader... 6 games into the debut season of a rookie named Mario (in his defense, the decision was forced by a neck injury). Kehoe was the centerpiece of the lovably awful early-80's Pens, earning a Lady Byng alongside his 55-goal tally in '81. Despite his record-setting outburst that season, Kehoe never did better than 33 in any other season.

Dennis Maruk, Washington Capitals, 1981-82, 1982-83
80 games, 50g-47a-97p
80 games, 60g-76a-136p

"Pee Wee" Maruk is the Rocket Richard of obscure superstars, following his 50-goal season with an astonishing 60 the following year. A familiar figure only to Caps fans, who have him to thank for numerous team records, Maruk skated alongside legends like Jean Pronovost and Mike Gartner in Washington. In the '83 season Maruk recorded an eye-popping 136 points and 128 PIM, perhaps one of the greatest unheralded feats in hockey history. Numerous injuries derailed his career, and he faded away as a consistent 20-goal scorer in Minnesota. Still, he deserves extra credit for sporting one of hockey's best handlebar 'staches.

Wayne Babych, St. Louis Blues, 1980-81
78 games, 54g-42a-96p

At face value, it seems startling that Babych scored twice as many goals in '80-'81 as in any other season of his career, and especially that he never again eclipsed 20 goals. But longtime Blues fans can tell you what a missed opportunity Babych's career represented for their franchise. He was one of the league's best up-and-coming players when he severely tore his rotator cuff during a preseason fight, an injury from which his career never recovered. Babych suffered the indignities of the waiver wire, stints in Quebec and Harford, and finally a 6-game exile in the AHL before succumbing to injuries.

Danny Grant, Detroit Red Wings, 1974-75
80 games, 50g-36a-86p

By dropping the name "Danny Grant" into a conversation, you can instantly separate a casual Red Wings fan from one who might slash your tires for wearing a Blackhawks jersey. Grant was a decent sniper for Minnesota, fives times scoring at or near the 30-goal level (at a time when scoring 50 was much less common). But his surprise trade to Detroit turned out to be the seminal moment in his career -- upon arriving in the Motor City he was placed on a line with Marcel Dionne. Dionne exploded for 121 points, Grant scored 50, and the Wings looked to have the basic tools for a dynasty despite a lousy record. But the next season Dionne was in Los Angeles and Grant was suffering the first of numerous leg injuries; five years later, the "Little Beaver" was in the middle of five consecutive 50-goal seasons, and Danny Grant had retired.

Guy Chouinard, Atlanta Flames, 1978-79
80 games, 50g-57a-107p

Playing for the Flames during their Atlanta days automatically labels any player as obscure, since it's a fair bet that no more than a few thousand people can actually remember seeing you in person. Chouinard had the distinction of breaking pretty much all of Atlanta's scoring records at the tender age of 23, when he abruptly doubled his scoring output from the previous season. Despite the promise of his young career, Chouinard quickly slid into mediocrity and retired before the age of 30.

Gary Leeman, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1989-90
80 games, 51g-44a-95p

This is the entire summary of Gary Leeman's career, as offered by Wikipedia: "Gary Leeman (born February 19, 1964 in Toronto, Ontario) is a former professional ice hockey player in the NHL". Leeman is probably the unlikeliest of all the 50-goal scorers, struggling for years to crack the 30-goal plateau while on a line with Russ Courtnall and Wendel Clark. Enter Eddie Olczyk, and inexplicably his scoring total nearly doubled... but he never got past 17 again. It was during this magic season that he engaged in the greatest non-fight of all time. His best-recognized legacy is that he was traded to Calgary for Doug Gilmour.

Honorable mention:
Rick MacLeish, Philadelphia Flyers, 1972-73
Rick Martin, Buffalo Sabres, 1973-74, 1974-75
Pierre Larouche, Pittsburgh Penguins/Montreal Canadiens, 1975-76, 1979-80
Danny Gare, Buffalo Sabres, 1975-76
Blaine Stoughton, Hartford Whalers, 1979-80, 1981-82
Mike Bullard, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1983-84
John Ogrodnick, Detroit Red Wings, 1984-85
Stephane Richer, Montreal Canadiens, 1987-88, 1989-90
Hakan Loob, Calgary Flames, 1987-88
Jimmy Carson, Los Angeles Kings, 1987-88
Brian Bellows, Minnesota North Stars, 1989-90
Kevin Stevens, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1992-93
Milan Hedjuk, Colorado Avalanche, 2002-03

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bruins vs. Thrashers: Resisting A "Sloppy Seconds" Reference...

It was a crazy one last night, with the B's flattening Atlanta 7-3. Can't believe I passed up the opportunity to see this game, in favor of the 12/28 matchup. On the other hand, live games don't have a rewind/slow-motion option for replaying awesome goals and fights.

You've gotta give respect to struggling teams who put up a fight. The Thrashers lost primarily on the basis of awful goaltending; having played a decent first 5 minutes and still finding themselves down 2-0, everything just fell apart from there. Ondrej Pavelec was F-minus bad, Johan Hedberg (what happened to this guy?) looked on the verge of a mental breakdown, and the rest of the team was playing with a pretty large chip on its shoulder. Unlike certain other teams, the Thrashers didn't just fold up their tent and wander off into the night. They played hard and fought hard, and a lot of it felt like old-time hockey.

Hard to know what to expect tonight in Boston. If past blowouts against struggling Dallas and Tampa are any indication, the Thrashers will have an internal meltdown on the team plane and arrive with no desire to play hockey anymore (Hedberg certainly looked like he was heading in that direction). But from what I saw last night, I wouldn't be surprised to see them come out with their foot squarely on the gas -- they've scored 7 goals in 2 games against the Bruins' top-ranked defense, and with an early lead they might stand a chance of pulling off the upset.

Items of interest -- Milan Lucic picked up a Gordie Howe hat trick last night. In his previous game against Atlanta, he scored an actual hat trick. Are there any other kinds of hat trick he could score tonight... perhaps a natural one? Also, the Bruins were the first Eastern team (2nd overall, behind San Jose and beating Detroit by a matter of minutes) to score 100 goals this season.

Other news -- Aaron Ward played only a minute before deciding he wasn't in game condition just yet. After seeing a pretty poor outing from callup Matt Lashoff against the Caps, I'd kinda like to see Johnny Boychuk dress for this one. [update: Patrice Bergeron will take the night off with the flu, which throws a monkeywrench in the Bruins' lines. For one thing, it opens up Bergeron's spot on the PP, where he plays the point. Best guess is Mark Stuart gets a chance, after scoring twice last night. Also, this means that Stephane Yelle will move up to center the second line, and Martins Karsums will make his NHL debut as fourth-line center. Karsums will skate with Shawn Thornton and Vladimir Sobotka, who will replace Petteri Nokelainen, who injured his shoulder last night. Got all that?]

Manny Fernandez starts tonight. He had won 7 straight until losing to the Caps, and Tim Thomas allowed 3 goals to a mediocre offense. Guess why Timmy looked so pissed off after that last goal? Manny is in a great position to pick up a few consecutive starts if he plays well tonight.

You could probably make some money by running a betting pool around who will be starting for the Thrashers tonight. Do they start Pavelec, who gave up 4 goals on 5 shots, or Hedberg, who was the backup AND got pulled in the same game, and went off on his teammates in the process? (anyone else catch his "fucking stupid" directed at Boris Valabik, accidentaly picked up by the NESN mikes?)

The Habs got bad news, as they have been bitten hard by the injury bug. They have lost 2 of 3, have a tought week coming up, and are now 7 points back of the Bruins. But forget all that... check out this awesome blog post from Four Habs Fans.

Meanwhile the Rangers lost a crazy game to the Devils, coming back from 5-1 and still losing 8-5. That puts the Rangers a solid 4 points behind the Bruins, with 4 more games played. Right about now, we should be looking out the corner of our eyes at the Flyers and Pens instead of the slumping Rags. As I type, the Flyers lead the Pens 2-0.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Link Cleanup and Adds

I've rearranged the blogroll by division, for your convenience (I hope) in finding what you're looking for. Also, I've cleaned out a bunch of old links to sites which are not regularly updated.

If you have an NHL blog and it's not on the list, leave the URL and team affiliation (if any) in the comments. The only thing I ask is that you reciprocate.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bruins vs. Thrashers: Stuff To Look Out For

The Bruins' easy December schedule continues tonight in Atlanta, in the first game of a home-and-home with the Thrashers. I don't like to write off any team, least of all one with a player as explosive as Kovalchuk... but let's be honest, the Bruins should be shooting for 4 points this weekend. Otherwise we'll get to April Fool's Day and kick ourselves for being 1 point behind some schmuck team like the Pens.

Stuff to watch tonight:

Goaltending rotation: It's a safe bet that Tim Thomas will start this game. He and Manny Fernandez are back on an alternating schedule, and will probably stay that way until one of them cracks. On the other end, it's tough to say who will start -- Johan Hedberg is the "starter" but has a vomit-inducing GAA of 3.55. To his credit, his past 2 games against the New York teams looked much better: 1.50, 95% saves.

Early decision: The Thrashers have been involved in only one shootout this season, a win on October 18th.

Obscure but good: Everyone knows that Ilya Kovalchuk is being wasted on this team, but there are other quality players on the Thrashers roster who get virtually no recognition leaguewide. Toby Enstrom is one of the better young defensemen in the conference, and will have a large role in any future successes in Atlanta. Bryan Little is a promising 21-year-old from Edmonton on pace for a 40-goal season. And... yeah, that's about it.

Kovie watch: Kovalchuk isn't exactly known for being a gritty player -- in fact, he rather sucks at defense -- but he has been playing with some extra snarl lately. Perhaps it's frustration, perhaps it's showcasing to get the hell out of Atlanta. In any case, he remains one of the league's most dynamic goal scorers, so pissing him off is not a good idea. Furthermore, rather than lose him for 2 or 5 minutes, the Thrashers would be wise to protect him with some muscle... which leads me to...

Goon watch: Atlanta's enforcer is Eric Boulton. He's close to my heart because I remember seeing him rack up 325 PIM in only 44 games in Charlotte a decade ago. I mean, this guy fought in literally every game and frequently more than once per game. Crazy and fearless. The Bruins don't fight a lot, so it might not come to anything, but a bout between Boulton and Shawn Thornton would be an instant middleweight classic.

On the forecheck: This game will probably boil down to good forward pressure by the Bruins. Atlanta has a pretty weak defensive corps, and no elite puck-mover, and therefore spend quite a lot of time in their own zone. If the Bruins forecheck aggressively, they should be able to cause turnovers and use their skill to score early and often. Then again, they played a pretty solid game against the Caps and simply couldn't beat the goalie. That's why they play 'em.

Other previews:
No other previews up yet, but you can check the links to the right side of the screen to see them as they roll in.

Thrashers blogs:
The Thrashers have a surprisingly strong blogosphere following, for a struggling team in a so-called non-hockey market (pfft.). I am guessing that at least a few of these will offer previews.
Thrashers 411
Blueland Chronicle
Firewagon Hockey
Blueland Outsider
I have no idea if Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons? is planning to do a preview, but his last one was pretty good and it gives you a ton of insight into the inner workings of the Thrashers roster.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 10 Worst Plays Of The Past 10 Years

Sometimes your team makes a play that transcends badness and breaches the realm of comedy. We've seen some real doozies this year -- Scott Hartnell's glove throw, Ryan O'Byrne's own-goal, Barry Melrose's coaching career. It got me thinking, and we all know what happens when I start thinking: a top-10 list.

10) Wideman shootout topple

I hate to throw Wides under the bus, but this was ridiculous. This is funnier than 90% of prime-time network sitcoms.

9) Toskala 175' goal

It's a minor miracle Toskala's reputation recovered (sort of) after this one; Dan Cloutier wasn't so lucky. To the best of my knowledge this is the longest goal in NHL history against a guarded net. The only reason it isn't higher on the list is because the puck did bounce a little on the way to the net, which can be challenging for a world-class goaltender. Especially when he has several seconds of advance warning to prepare himself.

8) Conklin's Finals nightmare

This one is exceptional because of its magnitude. The last minute of a tied Finals game is no time for tomfoolery behind the net. Conklin should have consulted Grant Fuhr re: staying the hell in the net during the playoffs.

7) O'Byrne shoots and scores

There were a lot of own-goals in consideration for this list, but most did not qualify for reasons of compassion. Everyone makes mistakes occasionally. For every 1,000 bouncing pucks in front of the net, one might be accidentally knocked in by a defenseman. For every 1,000 passes during a delayed penalty, one will squirt away and go dead-on into the empty net. It's understandable. But what distinguishes O'Byrne's play was that it was an intentional pass, not a mistake. It simply did not cross his mind that the goaltender might not be in a position to receive a blind pass at that very moment -- unfortunate, because Price was 40 feet away at the bench.

6) Hartnell glove throw

The inspiration behind this list. We will never know what was going through Scott Hartnell's mind at this moment. Did he think he was being clever? Did he think he was going to get away with it? Did it just smell that bad?

5) Kovalev Oscar clip

For many fans, this was the defining moment in Alexei Kovalev's career. Faking an injury is against the moral code of hockey. Faking it in the playoffs, at center ice, during an offensive rush, and floating around shaking your hand afterward, and screening your own backchecker out of the play because you're not paying attention to anything other than your own selfish need to have your boo-boo recognized, thus allowing the opponent to score, thus leading to a double-OT defeat... that's an affront to the Hockey Gods. Only the '04 Bruins could have failed to put away a team with that sort of 'leadership'.

4) Phaneuf drops the gloves, his ass

So many things went wrong on this play. First, Phaneuf manages to get leveled by the most annoying player in the Western Conference at the time. Then he misinterprets Ruutu's yapping as an overture to fight; Dion's gloves have barely touched the ice when Ruutu's butt touches the bench. Then, naturally, Phaneuf falls flat on his ass at the very moment that everyone in the hockey world is paying attention. But worst of all is the humiliation of having to pick up his gloves right in front of the Vancouver bench, one of which fell right in front of Ruutu. Imagine if Ruutu had been mike'd for THAT one. Finally, the refs really could've called him for unsportsmanlike conduct... if they wanted to really rub his nose in it.

3) Statue of Liberty

This was the precise moment when Patrick Roy's legacy began to fade. He had made a career and a legend out of his unique combination of arrogance and "money" play. So it was arresting to see him, with less than a minute to go in the first period of an elimination game against the arch-rival Wings, mindlessly waving his glove over his head as Brendan Shanahan scored the game-winner.

2) Patrik Stefan's career microcosm

Buckner. Webber. Norwood. Some players make a single mistake that overshadows an outstanding career. But Patrik Stefan didn't even have a track record to fall back on -- the biggest draft bust of the millenium also happened to play the starring role in what is arguably the worst play in the history of the sport.

"Grandad, can we watch a highlight of you back when you played in the NHL?"

1) Elisha Cuthbert

'Nuff said.

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Bruins vs. Caps: Stuff To Look Out For

Tonight there is a marquee matchup in both conferences: Boston (#1) vs Washington (#3) in the East, and Detroit (#2) vs. Calgary (#4) in the West. One gets the sense that all of these teams will wake up tomorrow with a slightly different sense of self, depending on how these games go. Fans with access to the NHL Center Ice broadcasts will be able to watch the landscape changing before their very eyes -- what a great time to be a hockey fan.

Washington is happy to host this game, because they are far better at the Verizon Center (10-1-1) than anywhere else (5-9-2). I am always suspicious of teams that play a completely different game in one building than they do elsewhere. I am also suspicious of any team which is leading its division with the 6th-best record in the conference. The Caps are a talented team, to be sure -- but they're also one of the streakiest in the league.

Things to watch for tonight:

To make things uncomplicated, you can just stare at Alex Ovechkin the whole time. Chances are, all the interesting stuff will involve him anyway.

This game will feature two of the East's three best power-play units. The Bruins penalty-kill is slightly uncertain, pending news on whether Stephane Yelle plays tonight. If not, Julien is apparently considering Phil Kessel to be PK material these days (the most unlikeliest of turns), which should be a huge red flag to the Caps defensemen to keep an eye out for shorthanded rushes. Meanwhile, the Caps are missing power-play stalwarts Mike Green (6 ppg from the blue line) and Alex Semin (6 of 27 points on the PP), and former Selke winner Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov is one of those great two-way players whose absence will be felt in every part of the game.

The Caps have a slew of other injured players, frankly too many to list or try to keep track of. Suffice it to say: they are playing with about half their normal quality players. The Bruins are still waiting on good news from Marco Sturm or Aaron Ward, whose replacements (Nokelainen and Lashoff, respectively) have been more or less silent.

RUMOR ALERT: Semin apparently took part in a closed morning skate and was upgraded to a game-time decision. Bruce Boudreau is a smart coach and might bring Semin in for limited action in this key game.

The goaltending matchup is slated to be Manny Fernandez vs. Brent Johnson. Manny's start confirms that we are back to a 1A/1B rotation, an extremely impressive feat on his part and a testament to Julien's fairmindedness in handling the Bruins' goalie (non)controversy this season. Johnson is one of those guys who you know is good, who can beat you any night, but you just don't think about when someone asks you to name the top 30 goalies in the league.

TIDBIT: Fernandez' 7-game winning streak is the longest for a Boston goalie since.... wait for it.... Jon Casey. Half the Bruins couldn't even walk when Casey was a B-list starter for the Bruins.

Things got a little heated last season, when these teams were in fierce contention for a playoff berth. Both lost in the first round, but took a big step toward legitimacy in the process. Both are still using each other as measuring sticks, but now from the other end of the playoff bracket. Expect this one to be feisty and fast-paced, and to make some waves in the power rankings.

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Yelle Suffers Injury to Upper Body, Dignity

In the course of the season, you expect to deal with injuries -- but not like this. Stephane Yelle collided with linesman Mark Shewchyk during the second period of Monday night's game against Tampa, and let's be honest... he made Shewchyk look like the second coming of Scott Stevens.

Yelle is currently questionable for tonight's game in Washington, as he seems to have triggered muscle spasms in his ribs. First reports suggested he might be out for weeks, but the diagnosis has lightened and it looks like Yelle will be back in the lineup much sooner.

In the meantime the Bruins have recalled Czech pest Vladimir Sobotka from Providence on an emergency basis, with the intention of inserting him into Yelle's spot on the 4th line. Sobotka is not the most talented guy in the world, but he adds a healthy dose of sandpaper and has a knack for stirring the pot when the team needs a lift. More importantly, he has a legit NHL skill-set and Bruins fans have been waiting for him to get another shot at life in the big league.

Sobotka seems unsure whether he'll play tonight; I would assume Julien would play it safe with Yelle tonight and give Vlad the nod. That being the case, the Bruins PK unit would be shaken up slightly against the conference's third-best PP unit... which could have a significant effect on the outcome of this important game.

But it's not all bad news for Sobotka if he gets sent back down -- Friday night is Sobotka Bobblehead Night in Providence.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lightning Get A Kick In The Nuts From Bruins, Melrose, Their Own Goalie

What a day to be associated with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

First, Radim Vrbata leaves town after more or less saying that his career with the Lightning is causing him psychological distress.

Then, Barry Melrose publicly excoriates everyone from Len Barrie to Steve Stamkos. This guy is pissed about being a scapegoat, and is not afraid to say so. Furthermore he is a media professional, and therefore knows what to say if he wants to make headlines without setting off lawsuits or suspensions (Sean Avery, are you listening?).

Then, Vinny Lecavalier is forced to "lead" his team while sporting a first-class shiner on his left eye... courtesy of the notorious brawler Jochen Hecht. For the record, Hecht gave up 3 inches and 20 pounds in that matchup. He has had 4 fights in his 8 seasons, compared to Lecavalier's 18 fights in 9 seasons. Nice, Vinny.

Then, the Lightning get absolutely whipped by the Bruins. Yes, it was a 1-goal game with 17 seconds left. But the game confirmed that the Lightning are no longer a competitive team -- they looked timid, confused, psychologically broken. They are in a doormat death-spiral, when they ought to have been jostling for playoff positioning by now. If not for the Bruins' blink-of-an-eye 3-0 lead, which pretty much sucked the energy out of the contest, Boston might have won this game by 6 or 7 goals.

To top it off, goalie Mike Smith ripped his teammates after the game... offering the possibility that they might just be a "dumb team". Meanwhile, on the other side of the locker room, Rick Tocchet suggested he might dress only 8 skaters in the future. This is all eerily reminiscent of the Dallas Stars' locker-room implosion after they faced the Bruins last month... is Claude Julien using psychological warfare to crush the spirits of his opponents? Stay tuned.

What does all of this mean for the rest of us? First of all, it confirms that playoff berths must be earned, not bought. Tampa seems to have even less chemistry than last year's Sens and this year's Stars. Turns out there's a difference between building a Stanley Cup champion and casting for a bad horror flick.

But more importantly, it effectively takes the Lightning off the map for the rest of the season. It's inconceivable that, even given an entire season to try and turn things around, this team could get it together and make a run at the 8-seed. Sooooo... time to start thinking "fire sale" when you think of Tampa.

The Lightning have a slew of vets on contract for-this-year-only, including: Gary Roberts ($2.4m), Mark Recchi ($1.5m), Chris Gratton ($1.25m), Marek Malik ($1.25m), and Olie Kolzig ($2.5m). If this franchise has any common sense at all, it will unload all of the above before the trade deadline for draft picks and prospects. This would clear a large amount of cap space and allow Tampa to begin a true rebuild -- presumably with another #1 pick this summer.

But, like a star dying, a Lightning implosion/rebuild might affect the entire solar system. Roberts and Recchi could offer veteran leadership for young contenders like Boston and Chicago. Kolzig might conjure up one last run at glory for a desperate bubble team like Edmonton or New Jersey. Chris Gratton is as adept as anyone in the league at filling a jersey and collecting a paycheck, but might be willing to chip in some secondary scoring if asked nicely.

[update: Never mind about Gratton. He was placed on waivers, a pretty sure sign that he no longer carries trade value.]

Keep an eye on these guys as we get closer to the deadline... it's not like they've been afraid to pull the trigger in the past.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bruins vs. Panthers: Stuff To Look Out For

Continuing the Sunshine State road trip, the Bruins head to the NHL's southernmost destination for a rematch with the Panthers. Last time these teams met in Boston, with the Bruins winnig 4-2. The highlight of the game was when Nick Boynton dropped the gloves with Lucic and got a little, uh, fucked up.

Things to keep an eye on tonight:

M.A.S.H. Unit: It's that time of year when you can't really avoid minor injuries any longer. The Bruins will be missing Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward tonight, and Dennis Wideman is still questionable. That means the Providence Bruins will be supplying half of our defensemen: budding star Matt Hunwick, average reserve Matt Lashoff, and Johnny Boychuk (who, judging by his name, is a comic book sidekick in his spare time).

But far be it from us to complain. The Panthers are the poster children for crippling injuries. They will enter tonight without the following forwards:
David Booth (top goal scorer with 12. twice as many as the next guy)
Nathan Horton (4th on the team in points with 13, right behind Booth's 14)
Cory Stillman (near the top of the team in +/- when he was injured)
Richard Zednik
Rotislav Olesz

Ouch. It goes without saying that both teams will have to deal with personnel issues in this game.

Better than you think they are: Not to put too fine a point on it, but Florida sucks almost every year. Like the Isles, they are the kind of team you can get used to thinking of as a doormat.

But the Panthers really aren't that bad. Currently they're tied with Buffalo for the 9th spot in the conference, only 1 point out of the playoff bracket. They've beaten the Sharks, Ducks, Caps and Rangers (a 4-0 curb-stomping last week) and played close games against Montreal and Detroit. This is all counter-intuitive and based mostly on the otherworldly goaltending of Craig Anderson, who is the only guy in the league who can challenge Tim Thomas' stats this season. He starts tonight, so be on the lookout for a goalie-driven performance by the Panthers.

Speaking of goalies: Manny Fernandez starts tonight. Manny is doing everything in his power to keep from being relegated to a true "backup" status. He's won 6 straight including 1-goal showings against Detroit and Montreal. The Bruins play well in front of him and he's incredibly re-established himself as a 1A next to a guy who has every right to win the Vezina.

Look out for: Expect Jay Bouwmeester to have an impact. Incredibly, it took the guy 21 games to score his first goal in the biggest season of his career (in the sense that he's being shopped openly to other teams). In their 5 games since, he's scored 7 points as the Panthers have gone 3-0-2. Considering their massive injury issues they're facing to their forward core, it's highly likely that this guy will have the puck on his stick at every possible opportunity.

Letdown game: Ok, I've made this prediction a few times lately... but this time I feel pretty sure about it. It is highly improbable that the Bruins will continue to win games at the pace they've been going lately. There has to be a stop eventually, and this game represents a likely chance for it to happen. Road game with injury issues in front of a small crowd against a team that's got no reputation but isn't half bad and has a phenomenal goaltender. It's gotta happen tonight, right?

Other previews:
Cornelius Hardenbergh
Stanley Cup of Chowder
Kynch's Bruins Korner
Cat Scratch (Panthers)

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bruins vs. Lightning: Stuff To Look Out For

Begin Step 5 of the Bruins schedule, otherwise known as "Bruins vs. the Southeast Division". The upcoming schedule reads: Lightning, Panthers, Lightning, Caps, Thrashers, Thrashers, (Leafs), Hurricanes. 14 points on the line against some of the East's most tepid opposition... this will be critical to any conference championship hopes that may have started to glimmer for the B's. It begins tonight with a road game against the imploding Lightning.

Some storylines to follow:

- Coaching disaster: Let's face it, Barry Melrose took a huge bullet for the Lightning front office when he was fired. Coming into the season, all the buzz around the Lightning concerned the risky moves they had made by reinventing the roster practically overnight and hiring a 15-year studio analyst as head coach. To say the least, a weak start was written on the wall -- the hope was that they'd gel by Christmas and be a playoff dark-horse.

So much for the plan. At the time Melrose was fired, the 'Ning were 5-7-4, but playing .500 hockey after a slow start. Under Rick Tocchet, they've gone 1-3-4. Whoops. Changing coaches doesn't change the fundamental need for a team to become cohesive over time. Melrose did a decent job with the roster he was given, which was ultimately not a team of his own design anyway. Now the Lightning are simply a mess, and saddled with loads of veteran players who will need to be dumped before season's end. Finger-pointing, begin!

- Minor league affiliate: To make matters worse, Tampa's ECHL farm team (the late Augusta Lynx) folded this week, creating a scheduling nightmare for the surviving franchises.

- Overtime: The Bruins have never lost to the Lightning in overtime, in 15 games. Meanwhile the Lightning lead the league in OT/SO losses this season. Of course, all trends must come to an end...

- Injuries and replacements: Boston is hitting the midseason doldrums, losing depth players nearly every game to injury. The latest casualty was Aaron Ward, out with a "lower body injury" (looked like a hip flexor to me). Marco Sturm is still out with a concussion. Tim Thomas will start in net, but is recovering from a brief illness. Defensemen Matt Lashoff and Johnny Boychuk (great hockey name!) were recalled from Providence -- expect Lashoff to get the first opportunity to play, with Boychuk as a scratch. Lashoff will probably not be the next Matt Hunwick, but he is a decent depth blueliner.

Meanwhile the Lightning are dealing with numerous injuries to vets like Gary Roberts, Jeff Halpern and Chris Gratton. According to the Tampa Tribune, expect mediocre center Ryan Craig to return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch. Mike Lundin and Evgeny Artyukhin will not play for the Lightning, and Matt Smaby has been recalled to play tonight. I have no idea who any of these people are...

Basically, it's easy points on the line for Boston. The Lightning and Panthers are on the skids and quite vulnerable to a strong offensive attack. You simply cannot lose games like this, if you want to be considered "elite". In 3 games against Tampa and Florida, the Bruins should shoot for 5-6 points. Anything less and we're looking at a harsh stumble going into the holiday schedule.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sean Avery Is A Stain On The Compression Shorts Of The NHL

I don't really need to introduce the topic, because you've already been thinking about it for the past 24 hours. So let's just skip all the chit-chat and get down to business.

Sean Avery's indefinite suspension is absolutely, unequivocally the correct judgment by Gary Bettman.

Yeah, I said it. Bettman got one right. And you know what? I will still respect myself in the morning.

There's been an opinion-flood of Biblical proportions in the blogosphere as everyone dogpiles onto this topic. So I'm just going to go through and cherry-pick a few arguments that I ain't buyin', and then explain my stance at the bottom of the post. If you don't care what others have to say on the topic, because I am your sole and unquestioned authority on world affairs, feel free to skip to the bottom now.

Still with me? Ok, let's get started.

Hockey guru PuckDaddy sez:
In the end, suspending Avery proves Avery correct that this League is disinterested in creating a compelling product to which fans want to pay attention.

Which "fans" are we talking about? Is a 6-year-old Stars fan going to become more engaged, or less, with his team based on this incident? To be certain, the Sportscenter/American-Mainstream-Media crowd will suddenly become more interested in our little niche sport if there are a bunch of smack-talking sideshows involved. The Calgary/Dallas game will surely have a larger contingent of shitfaced meatheads cheering for blood.

But frankly I think the NHL can do a little better than selling that type of product.

The Forechecker chips in:
If Avery gets more than a single game suspension out of this, the NHLPA should call the league out on the carpet for prioritizing PR above player safety.

Undoubtedly so, and this should be a major talking point in the disciplinary reform that the league needs so badly. Nevertheless, as far as we know at this time Avery will get only a single game suspension. "Indefinitely" in this case translates to "until we can review and make a decision".

Going Five Hole writes:
Sometimes you need a little controversy to intrigue the casual fan and even the hardcore fan at times.

Brett Hull's toe in the crease is a controversy. The instigator penalty is a controversy. But this conversation is not about a controversy, because it is a clear case of right and wrong -- there is no rational way to argue that Avery should be allowed to hold press conferences in order to launch slurs at another player's girlfriend without the league intervening. The question in this case is simply the degree of punishment.

Interchangeable Parts:
You can get suspended in the NHL for saying “sloppy seconds”? And they call the NFL the “no fun league”.

Prior to this incident, the hot topic in the hockeyblogosphere was a spat between fans of the NBA and NHL over which currently has the most fan support. The thrust of that argument was that the NBA has seen a sharp dropoff in support compared to the NHL's gains -- largely driven by the emergence of respectable young stars like Crosby and Kane in the NHL, at the same time the NBA is trying to rein in petulant prima donnas like Iverson and Marbury.

So I have a very hard time believing that the NHL would be wise to put itself in line with other pro leagues by turning its media into a sounding chamber for overpaid, underperforming players to stir up self-serving scandals. Leave that "fun" to other sports.

Is that term any more offensive than Michael Nylander dropping the s-bomb on national TV in the middle of the day? Or are we supposed to believe the NHL is suddenly concerned about players portraying women as possessions?

This misses the point entirely. The slur alone is one thing -- we have already seen Avery do worse by calling Georges Laraque a "monkey", not to mention his Franco-phobic comments about Denis Gauthier. The issue here isn't only what was said, but the deliberate and contrived way in which it was delivered. There's a big difference between an ad lib and a prepared statement.

Battle of California thoughtfully considers:
I think it's a dangerous path to discourage personality in front of the microphone without any specific guidelines, and we're probably in for a blander NHL as a result (though in fairness, we were probably in for that anyway).

While I agree that specific guidelines would be welcome, we'd be underestimating the players' intelligence to suggest that they don't understand the notion of "detrimental to the league". I would much rather see the league take the dangerous path of discouraging Avery's behavior, at the risk of becoming too bland, than take the even more dangerous path of letting it go unchecked by the commissioner, and therefore become a media circus with egotists like Avery as the ringleaders.

My thoughts on how Bettman got it right:

For starters, the league had to step in and keep Avery off the ice last night. There are two overwhelmingly strong arguments for doing so:

1) Under no circumstances can a player exploit the media for nefarious purposes without a league response. This is even more important when insulting a member of the general public, as opposed to simply calling out a fellow player, because it opens up all sorts of legal issues. Regardless of what the Stars may choose to do internally, it's imperative that the league keep a tight rein on this sort of situation.

2) There was no reason for the league to reward Avery by allowing him to drag Phaneuf (and, let us not forget, Iginla) into a potential game-misconduct situation. Imagine if Phaneuf had chased Avery to his locker room Mair-style... that would put the league in an absurd situation when trying to decide on appropriate suspensions. Considering Phaneuf and Iginla are the pillars of Calgary's playoff hopes, putting Avery on the ice could have put Calgary in a position to sink their entire season while pursuing personal vendettas. That would be unacceptable.

Bettman has to look at the big picture when making these decisions. In this case, the personal rivalry between Phaneuf and Avery is part of the little picture. Even Avery's personal history, which certainly weighs in on the subject, is little-picture material.

The big picture is that we've got a case of a player undermining the league itself. Avery knew what rules he was breaking when he decided to hold his "press conference", and knew that suspension was likely. He took a calculated gamble that the suspension would be short and that the media fallout would be worth his while. The NHL must call that sort of bluff, or risk losing its authority over its own players. If you don't think it can happen in the blink of an eye, take a look at Terrell Owens or Allen Iverson... putting on kid-gloves with these egomaniacs simply doesn't work.

If Bettman delegates Avery's discipline to the Stars, if he provides nothing but a passive shrug of the shoulders and wiping of the hands, we would see the floodgates open wide with Avery-type players. Every cellar-dwelling team with nothing to lose would have to deal with this sort of unprofessional, undisciplined misconduct from its Roenicks and Hulls. Bettman sent a clear message to not only Avery but the rest of the players in the league -- you are here to play good hockey, represent your franchise as a professional, and sell tickets. If you want to be a media sideshow, start practicing your layups.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

How the Bruins Beat the Red Wings

Aside from being a major statement of legitimacy, last night's 4-1 victory over the Red Wings was a fascinating window into the Bruins' formula for success -- a formula that's resulted in a sterling 11-1-1 record in the month of November including wins over Detroit, Chicago, and Montreal, and a regulation/OT tie against the Rangers.

The Red Wings are a puck-possession team in the strictest sense -- they beat you by denying you the opportunity to dictate the terms of engagement. This strategy works more often than not, especially against shallow or streaky teams, by giving Detroit more opportunities than their opponents. This was in full display for the first 5-10 minutes of last night's game, when the Bruins were so far back on their heels that it looked as if they might just keel over and surrender.

But then a funny thing happened. The Bruins didn't buckle under the pressure. In fact, they flourished. By the end of the first frame they had scored enough goals to win the game. Despite a 10-7 advantage in shots, the Wings trailed 0-2. Even more startlingly, they rang up a 15-5 shots advantage in the second period but could only manage a 1-1 draw in goals.

Though this seems counterintutive at first glance, it points to one of the driving factors in Boston's hot streak: quality of shots. Take a look at the shot chart for this game, and imagine a box extending from the goal line to each faceoff dot, to the top of the circles and across the slot to the other side.

Now, note the number of shots that were taken inside this box: in the first period, the Bruins outshot the Wings in this area by a count of 5-4, including a goal. In the second, the Wings held a 7-4 advantage... but the majority of their shots were at the outer edge of the box or at sharp angles from the side of the net. In the third, Detroit managed a paltry one shot from inside the box, whereas the Bruins took 4 more and scored another goal.

Of course, there are other factors at play -- the Bruins blocked 15 shots to the Wings' 3, suggesting that a defensive wall around the crease was a major factor. The Bruins also outhit the Wings and created more turnovers, by slim margins. And ultimately they benefitted from better goaltending, as Manny Fernandez continued to challenge Tim Thomas' claim to the #1 position.

But the game boiled down to something simple: the Bruins found an antidote for the Wings' possession-based strategy. By forcing low-quality shots and diligently blocking as many as possible, they turned Detroit's leverage into a disadvantage -- nullifying long possessions, creating confidence for Fernandez and creating opportunities for quick-strike breakouts. What should have been a statistical advantage for the Red Wings (more opportunities = more goals) actually began to favor the Bruins, and by the 10-minute mark of the first period that theoretical advantage had turned into hard results.

It was a statement, all right, but also a shift in the philosophy of winning hockey games -- a curiously Zen approach to allowing the opponent's strength to become his weakness.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Red Wings vs. Bruins: Stuff To Look Out For

It's a clash of the titans tonight in the marquee matchup of the weekend: Bruins vs. Red Wings in Boston. Each team is #2 in their conference, with games in hand on the #1 seed. Needless to say, this is a true measuring-stick game for both sides and a very possible Finals preview. The matchup is so good that it speaks for itself, but here are a few items to chew on as we lead up to gametime:

- Boston is tied for 2nd in the East in goals-per-game, and is tops in goals-against. The Wings are 2nd and 11th, respectively.

- Detroit's power-play operates at an astounding 32.3%. Boston tops the East at 23.3%.

- Word is now out that Marco Sturm is sidelined with a concussion. Apparently he suffered it in the 11/12 game against the Hawks, played three more matches (scoring two against the Habs) and was finally told to sit. He expects to be back soon, but this is the sort of injury that saps your scoring depth.

- Milan Lucic owned up to throwing an illegal hit from behind against the Isles' Tim Jackman, apologizing via the media. Though it was a relatively minor incident (Jackman was close to the boards and was not injured), Looch says he needs to be more careful in the future. IMO, the NHL is going to have to address this issue as soon as the Cup is paraded off the ice in June, because it's getting worse daily.

- The Wings called up Darren McCarty for last night's game against Columbus, but he reaggravated his groin injury and will not skate. Also, keep an eye on former Bruin d-man Brad Stuart, who is skating with 9 stitches in his leg after being stomped by Alex Tanguay.

- The Globe reports that Manny Fernandez will start in net -- an unusual move but not unprecedented considering Julien has gone with the hot hand so far this season. Chris Osgood has been brutal for the Wings and was not sharp last night against Columbus; don't be surprised if Conklin gets the nod.

- In the past three games, the Bruins' opponents have opened up the game with a lot of body contact -- and it appears to be working in their favor. Montreal outplayed the Bruins through most of their game, Buffalo pulled off an upset win and the Isles kept it close for 40 minutes. Expect the well-coached and very-physical Wings to come out hitting hard tonight.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008 Hearts the Bruins

Go figure. After years of ignoring the NHL to focus on 24-hour coverage of the Patriots and Red Sox, is actually starting to produce some decent hockey coverage.

All it took was for a Boston team to start winning. We should have figured this out years ago. Expect wall-to-wall Bruins coverage as long as they can stay on top of their division.

Scott Burnside's article on the renaissance of Bruins hockey
Part I and Part II of Burnside's "The Long Road Back" series on Bergeron and Fernandez
John Buccigross' annual Thanksgiving article, which always features Cam Neely in a prominent place. Bucci is one of the good ones.
Burnside give the Bruins an "A" for the first quarter.
Pierre LeBrun reports that readers want to give Timmy the Vezina instead of an All-Star appearance.
Terri Frei has no love, placing Claude Julien alongside Joel Quenneville and Andy Murray in the NHL coaching ranks.

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Bruins vs. Sabres: Stuff To Look Out For (plus other items)

Bruins play in Buffalo tonight after a long layoff. The opponents get much easier after this game; with the exception of Saturday's date with the Red Wings, we won't see another top-5 team until after Christmas.

Things to keep in mind tonight:

- The Sabres will wear their classic road jerseys. It's good for the soul to see them looking like a team that plays on ice skates and not rollerblades.

- Not to make any crazy predictions before Thanksgiving, but a regulation win in this game would put us 13 points ahead of the Sabres with a 3-1-1 record against them head-to-head, and only two matchups left (1/3 and 4/11)... that would pretty much mean we no longer have to worry about them catching up. Not that we should be thinking that way just yet. But I am.

- The Sabres have lost 5 straight. After this game they have the Pens and then the Habs. They play Pittsburgh 3 more times before Christmas. If they don't turn it around in this game, it might not happen at all.

- Ryan Miller usually plays pretty well against us, but last time he melted down and got chased. Will he be intimidated or motivated? We'll see tonight. I suspect he'll play lights-out.

- Buffalo rolls out an outstanding top line, but that's about it. Afinogenov has only scored once this season. Craig Rivet is a -5. Numminen is a great story, but -7 after 20 games is ugly. Still, they're not an easy team to defeat because Lindy Ruff is a great coach. This is a must-win and they should come out fast and furious.

Thoughts on other goings-on leaguewide:

Interesting to see how chippy the Leafs and Thrashers got last night. Combined, these two teams are a veritable chowder of suck, but that just brings frustration to the table and leads to extra intensity. Apparently the Leafs were running Kovalchuk, who finally snapped Bure-style and stood up for himself. Later in the game Jason Blake got explodified by a very illegal jump-check, something we're seeing far too often lately. Check out the highlights here. Leafs fans are now beginning to clamor for an enforcer. Meanwhile, the Thrashers are perhaps the worst-run franchise of all time, at least in terms of player movement.

Patrick Roy's son got suspended for 15 games. No, not that son. The other one. This happened 4 days after Roy's number was retired. Five days after he broke the all-time wins record, the police had to investigate him for domestic battery. Karma has a way of catching up, sometimes quickly, and the way a man runs his family is the truest window into his soul. There is no doubt that Roy was an all-time great. But his legacy shrinks almost daily.

Great writeup on Felix Potvin by Pierre LeBrun. If you liked hockey in the '90s, you probably liked Felix the Cat.

Darren McCarty is now playing in Grand Rapids of the AHL. Claude Lemieux is playing for Worcester. Tragically, Worcester does not play Grand Rapids at all this season.

Keep an eye on Habs/Wings tonight. A win for us and a loss for Montreal would open up a very nice cushion, while the reverse would draw them within striking distance. Meanwhile, we have the Wings on Saturday and it would be nice for them to be a little banged up by the typical Montreal cheapshottery.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Are The Bruins For Real?

Whether or not you're a Bruins fan -- but especially if you're a Bruins fan -- you're probably asking yourself that question every time you look at the league standings. Improbably, almost inexplicably, the B's have rockted to the top of the Eastern Conference by beating or tying every opponent in the month of November so far. They are now 7 points ahead of Montreal in the division, with a steep advantage in tiebreakers.

Considering the Bruins were widely picked to either miss the playoffs or just make the cut as a bubble team, this is a bit of a shock to the dynamics of the East. Suddenly the Habs are struggling to stay ahead of the Devils. Suddenly the Sabres are on the outside of the bracket looking in. Suddenly the Bruins are playing for home ice in a hypothetical Cup series against the Sharks. To say the least, this is not what we expected to talk about while watching the Lions lose on Thanksgiving.

Let's hang on to that last thought -- it's only Thanksgiving. The playoffs start just after April Fool's Day. It's a long road, a difficult one that will be filled with injuries and momentum swings. Things will almost certainly change, especially if it turns out that this team is just a wintertime mirage. So let's look at a few key factors to see if we can spot the potholes in the road to June Hockey:

Goaltending: The #1 element that can kill a team, and it seems to be completely under control. Tim Thomas is in the wonderful position of performing at an elite level AND approaching each game as an underdog. The All-Star snub works quite nicely for motivation, though it stings less when the selection process is a joke. Manny Fernandez has played brilliantly for the most part, and has not become the locker-room cancer I had expected. It will take a major reversal for this to become an issue.

Schedule: Taking the 12-Step Program approach to the schedule, the Bruins are right on track for discharge. We've almost gotten through Step 4 with flying colors, and are approaching the relatively soft Step 5. But look ahead -- extremely tough stretches in December and Februrary could send this young team off the rails. A distinct lack of long road trips will help, but rest and maturity are going to be much needed in those months. One day at a time...

Distractions: Thankfully, there are none. The biggest "distraction" we've seen this season was Lucic choosing to score a goal instead of fight a goon. This will not be a problem for a well-disciplined squad with good team chemistry.

Return to Earth: Sometimes an individual's overachievement can lift the entire team; usually this ends in heartbreak when reality sets in over the course of the season. Fortunately, the Bruins are not seeing a lot of overachievement at the individual level; other than Thomas, everyone seems to be pretty much on a normal track. This team wins with good coaching, good chemistry and good defense. That doesn't leave much likelihood of a reality check.

Injuries: So far the Bruins have been very, very lucky. Chuck Kobasew was out for a month, but his replacements were adequate and he came back with a vengeance. Ference is out for 6 more weeks, but Matt Hunwick might earn a permanent roster spot in his absence. Those situations won't happen every time. There is still talk that Chara's shoulder is less than 100%; we still hold our breath when Bergeron goes into the corners; Lucic's right fist looks like it got caught in industrial machinery every time he fights. This team is deep and disciplined, but could not survive a major injury to Savard, Thomas or Chara. And that can happen at any time, to any player.

Hot opponents: To begin the season, the B's were in the unenviable position of sharing a division with two of the top three teams in the conference. It looked like it would be one of those frustrating seasons when your team is amazingly talented and focused, but has to settle for a 4th place finish and road ice in the second round. Since then, both the Sabres and Habs have stumbled. The Bruins could put a stake in Buffalo's division-title hopes on Wednesday, but Montreal will be a season-long nemesis. There will also be intense competition in the conference from the improving Penguins, surging Flyers and schizophrenic Rangers. Eventually the winning streak will end, and losing streaks will happen, and that will naturally tighten the race.

So from where I sit, two things are pretty clear:

1) Yes, the Bruins are for real. They are not the sort of front-loaded, streaky team that is likely melt down in the home stretch.

2) The most likely "backslide" scenario is for the Bruins to hit the tough December-through-February schedule, suffer a key injury or three, and start feeling the heat of trying to stay ahead of more media-friendly teams in Pittsburgh and New York.

But for the time being, we've got something pretty sweet to be thankful for on Thursday -- a hard-nosed, hard-working team getting its due.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Thoughts on Bruins/Sabres, Bruins/Panthers

All good things must come to an end, but this hot streak just seems to stretch on and on. Therefore, I believe, we should be prepared for a major letdown very soon. All things considered, I'd rather it be tonight than on Saturday. But first, the positives:


- For most of the season so far, Zdeno Chara has had no room to operate. Even on the PP, he always has a defender stuck to him like glue. That's why he's rarely able to unleash his nuclear slapshot, and hasn't been much of a factor as a pointman. So it's odd that the Sabres (who should know better, since they play him 28 times this season) gave Z so much room -- he scored twice, so don't expect them to do it again Wednesday.

- At their best, the Lucic/Savard/Kessel line is just dreamy to watch. Lucic and Savard are to the 2000s what Neely and Oates were to the 90s. Kessel is something different altogether, a pure goal scorer like the Bruins haven't seen in a long, long time.

- One door closes, another opens: Matt Hunwick has a goal, two assists and a +2 in relief of Andrew Ference. He's got great foot speed and a sense of when to jump into the play. Though he still makes the occasional rookie mistake, his career arc will be a lot like Ference's... which makes this early experience invaluable.

- Games against the Sabres are important enough anyway, but after Wednesday the Bruins will only play them twice -- January 2 and April 11. So winning a 4-point divisional game is huge for a team now eyeing a division title.


- The Panthers are astonishingly low-powered on offense -- Nathan Horton leads them with 11 points (Savard has 25 for Boston).

- Though his stats are poor, Tomas Vokoun is one of the league's elite goaltenders. He can shut you down no matter how you play. Putting him up against Tim Thomas is a great matchup of underrated netminders.

- Jay Bouwmeester still hasn't scored yet this season. Think he's squeezing the stick by now? You better believe he will shoot the puck at every possible opportunity.

- The Bruins have to be very careful not to look past this game to Saturday night, when they visit Montreal for Roy's number retirement. The Montreal media will be on them as soon as this game is over. In a sense, I'd almost rather they lose this one if it helps relieve some pressure against the Habs.

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