Friday, February 27, 2009

Could Boston win the East on Saturday night?

Pardon me while I shamlessly quote myself.

On February 5, I wrote:
If the Bruins can maintain a 10-point gap entering their 2/28 game against Washington, a win in that game would effectively clinch the conference.

Turns out that the Bruins will enter Saturday night's game with a 9-point lead.

So, is it really over if Boston beats the Caps for the second straight time? Not officially, but consider the following scenarios -- each of which assumes that the Bruins win Saturday's game outright:

- The Bruins could mathematically clinch the Eastern Conference title by going 13-5-1 over their final 19 games, a winning percentage of 68% compared to 67% for the season so far.

- If Boston simply cruises through the rest of the season with a .500 record (9-9-1), Washington would need to go 16-3-0 in order to surpass the Bruins.

- If Washington continues to win 62% of their games for the rest of the season, the Bruins would only need to go 7-12 in order to stay ahead of the Caps.

Even if the Caps win, their chances of rallying for the conference title are slim -- especially if the game goes to overtime.

But Thursday's game against Anaheim, in which both Marc Savard and Milan Lucic were injured in pointless late-game fights against the frustrated Ducks, should be a clear lesson as to the importance of closing out your opponents early. Far better for the Bruins to be able to spend the month of March fine-tuning their game and giving extra time off to the guys with bumps and bruises.

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Did Lucic Violate "The Code"?

From last night's 6-0 romp over the Ducks:

The obvious question is whether Lucic violated "The Code" by continuing to punch Mike Brown after he fell to the ice.

The pro-Lucic argument:
Moral and legal codes only work when everyone agrees to follow them. For example, nobody faults Darren McCarty for pummeling Turtle Lemieux even though he was in a defenseless position, because The Code allows for that kind of eye-for-an-eye retaliation.

Lucic made a legit play on the puck and got "the business" from three different Ducks for no obvious reason, which in itself is a violation of The Code. Furthermore, Brown dropped his gloves and punched Looch in the face without provocation -- even drawing the extra 2+10 for instigating. Therefore, Lucic was under no obligation to give Brown an easy-out once he slipped.

The anti-Lucic argument:
Even though Brown carries himself as a pugilist, he gives up 4 inches to Lucic and is clearly in a lower class of fighter (he has an unimpressive record against lesser opponents). Despite the initial shot to Lucic, it's not as though he jumped anyone from behind or made a truly dangerous play.

One or two shots after a player falls isn't that unusual, but it was obvious that Lucic intended to pound Brown until someone (Wade Brookbank, as it turned out) got in between the two. Of the two players involved, Lucic was the more likely to end up causing a serious injury or ugly brawl. That's a larger violation of The Code than a glove-punch.

My take:
Even though Brown's punch didn't cause serious damage, remember that Lucic spent the end of last season recovering from a broken nose... and taking a constant barrage of cheap-shots to the face during that time. No big surprise that he saw red when Brown sucker-punched him without obvious provocation. Regardless of other considerations, no normal person would be completely under control after being jabbed right in the honker. The Code allows for a certain level of retaliation under those circumstances, and Lucic didn't seem to go over the top by throwing a couple of "makeup" punches after Brown fell. I'm giving Looch the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Colborne for Cole: Pass or Fail?

Less than a week to go until the trade deadline... time to start sifting through the rumors and see what sticks.

We've known for nearly a month that the Bruins have a serious interest in Erik Cole. Oilers scout Dave Semenko has been spotted at numerous Bruins games, which lends this rumor a bit of weight. According to the rumor mill, the Oilers will want either Vladimir Sobotka, Matt Hunwick or Matt Lashoff in return for Cole. However, the Oilers are already loaded with defensemen and to be honest Sobotka is a borderline NHL'er and not much help in a rebuild.

The name that is beginning to emerge is that of Joe Colborne, the Bruins' first-round pick (#16 overall) in the 2008 draft.

So the hypothetical trade would be:

Erik Cole
6'2", 205lb, age 30
144g, 161a, 205p, 469 PIM, +9 in 478 career games


Joe Colborne
6'5", 195lb, age 19
6g, 15a, 21p in 27 games for Denver (NCAA)

Pass or Fail?

My take: Colborne is a steep price to pay for a rental player. But with the stars aligning for a long playoff run this season, Cole could be a difference-maker for the Bruins. Imagine a Cole-Savard-Kessel first line, and a Lucic-Bergeron-Kobasew third line in the third or fourth round.

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Ryan Whitney Traded

An interesting subplot to tonight's home game against the Ducks:

The Penguins just shipped Ryan Whitney to Anaheim in return for Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi. This gives Anaheim a pretty significant upgrade on the blue line in return for their top left-winger and a major future (Tangradi is only 4 points behind John Tavares for the OHL scoring title).

Long-term, this might be a steal for the Pens. If Tangradi turns out to be an A-list stud, he could be no small threat as a compliment to Crosby or Malkin.

Short-term, the Ducks are going to come into Boston missing a very significant player in Kunitz. They'll need to juggle their lines for a game or two, which could mean a few extra turnovers or missed forechecks tonight.

No word yet on whether Whitney joins the Ducks tonight, but I'm guessing not. The Pens play in Chicago tomorrow and I'd imagine they're already en route. [update: glove tap to Bobby Orr's Bastard for pointing out that Whitney left the Pens yesterday to "be with his family" (aka get fitted for a Ducks sweater) in the Boston suburbs. Guess that means he's playing tonight.]

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is Michael Ryder THAT good?

Take a trip down memory lane, to July 1, 2008. We were all still mourning George Carlin... nobody had ever heard of Michael Phelps... gas prices were at an all-time high and rising.

That was the day that Michael Ryder became a Boston Bruin, joining a scrappy club that had finished 8th in the East and gotten bounced by Ryder's own Habs three months earlier.

Reacting to the trade, the Boston Globe ran a painfully-titled article, It's Not So Easy, Ryder, quoting an anonymous scout as saying the Bruins had "overpaid big". Another scout said that Ryder is a "one-dimensional player that if he's not scoring, he doesn't do anything else. He started the year in a slump, and on a team that plays up-tempo, he became not a [Guy] Carbonneau guy because suspect work ethic and skating issues were magnified with lack of scoring."

Would anyone have imagined that the guy who was overpaid at $4 million, the guy who sat in the press box for 3 of those 7 playoff games... THAT guy could change the playoff landscape of the Eastern Conference?

Exceeding Expectations

Fast-forward to February 5, 2009. Ryder was on pace to break his career-high mark of 30 goals, and had led the league in game-winning goals for nearly the entire season. He had personally put 14 points on the board for Boston, which was leading the Eastern Conference by a breathtaking 12 points. He was a stalwart on the league's best +/- line, and had assisted on a Zdeno Chara goal in the first period.

More importantly, the red-hot Bruins had just ripped through the toughest part of their schedule -- 8 games without a regulation loss, including a 4-0-1 record against all the East's conference contenders.

Then everything changed. Ryder took an errant stick in the face, shattering his sinus cavity "like an eggshell".

While Ryder sat in the press box, the Bruins skidded to a 1-4-2 slump. They lost to juggernauts San Jose and New Jersey, as well as doormats Tampa Bay and Nashville. Despite an overwhelming advantage in shots over those 7 games, they were shut out twice. Their lead in the East, which once seemed unsurmountable, has shrunk to 7 points -- and second-place Washington comes calling on Saturday.

Making A Stand

Tonight is the first of 6 critical home games for the reeling Bruins. It's also Ryder's first game back.

Even though he'll wear a full face shield, expect to see an immediate change in the Bruins' fortunes. As it turns out, Ryder is much more than a "one-dimensional" player who needs to shoot early and often.

For one thing, Ryder does play defense. He hits, backchecks and fills passing lanes. His reputation as a one-way player was earned under Guy Carbonneau, whose reputation as a top-tier coach was short-lived. Ryder has thrived under Claude Julien, who has also overseen defensive improvements in Marc Savard and Phil Kessel.

For another, Ryder does a lot more than shoot. He's a big body and can crash the net, but more importantly he draws defensive attention due to his quick release. When a defender cheats toward Ryder, he opens up room for virtuoso playmaker David Krecji, and Calder hopeful Blake Wheeler.

But most of all, Ryder gives the Bruins offensive depth. Over the past 7 games, the team has leaned heavily on Phil Kessel to produce goals from the right wing. Though Kessel recently broke out of a long scoring drought, he is still not fully productive after a bout with mono. Ryder gives the Bruins a second option, and reunites the second line which was so vital to the team's success in the first half of the season.

So yes, as it turns out, THAT guy could be THAT good. Ryder, who has never come close to playing in an All-Star Game, is one of the most important players on one of the best teams in the NHL. When he returns tonight, he'll rejoin a Bruins squad that's in its worst slump of the year.

With a single roster move, the Bruins might find a solution to their offensive problems -- and in turn, a way to escape the mid-season doldrums. This July, we might look back at tonight as one of the watershed moments in a monumental season.

Who would've thought?

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Friday, February 20, 2009

The Difference Between This Blog And Alexei Kovalev...

... this blog takes a few days off whenever it damn well pleases.

Having taken a good mid-season breather, I'm back on board for the stretch run. New posts coming soon.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

How the NHL loses fans (or, Why I skipped the game today)

Of blogging's few benefits, the most valuable is knowing that the whole world has access to your experiences. I'm writing this in the hope that it'll trickle back, somehow, to someone with real influence over the operations of an NHL franchise.

Some context

I am a 20-something, middle-class male with a college degree and a white-collar job. I have a family of 4 -- my two sons are 10 years old and 3 months old. I live in southern Tennessee, roughly 90 minutes from Nashville and 3 hours from Atlanta. As I understand the NHL's marketing strategy, all of this makes me a juicy target for their product. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I'm practically the bull's eye.

For the past 15 years I have been a die-hard hockey fan. My family and I have poured time and money into the game: holding minor-league season tickets (~$2000/yr), subscribing to Center Ice ($170/yr), own half a dozen team jerseys (~$1000), traveling to see at least a couple of games per year (~$300), regularly buying NHL video games ($50 each), and purchasing all sorts of assorted merchandise. I pay attention to the sponsors. I talk about hockey to my friends and family. I spend too much time on message boards. I blog. Earlier today, my wife even gave me a Bruins jersey and two t-shirts for Valentine's Day.

As I understand the NHL's marketing strategy, this puts me in "jackpot" territory. They make a LOT of money off me each year.

The plan

Today the Bruins play in Nashville, the only time this season I will have the opportunity to see them within a convenient driving distance of my home. Earlier this season I traveled to Atlanta to see the Bruins; I have given some casual thought to seeing them in New York on a business trip next month; so needless to say, my ticket purchase for this game should have been a "gimme".

The plan: I would buy three tickets so that I could take my wife and sons (littlest being too young to need a ticket) to see this game. In the process, I'd pay for parking, concessions and souveniers. I was cool with that.

What went wrong

I might be a fan, but I'm not a fool.

Three lower bowl tickets: $128 x 3 = $384
Three upper bowl tickets: $55 x 3 = $165
Convenience charge: $8.70 x 3 = $26.10
Ticketfast charge: $2.50 *why am I paying to print the tickets on MY computer using MY paper?
Parking: ~$10
Concessions: ~ $30
Souveniers: ~ $30
Total cost: Anywhere from $264 to $483

That's right, I am supposed to think it's worthwhile to spend as much on 2 1/2 hours of entertainment as I could use to buy an IPhone or a week of summer camp for my son. I am supposed to shell out this much money on a franchise that advertises Jason Arnott and Shea Weber as its "stars". Did you know that Jason Arnott is still in the league?

I'm a fan, but I'm not a fool.

Salt in the wound

Remember when I mentioned that my Valentine's Day present was a Bruins jersey? My wife, who is incredibly supportive of what has become a very taxing hockey obsession, contacted the Bruins organization weeks ago to try and arrange for the jersey to be signed by the team. The plan was simply to meet a team representative tonight in Nashville (this was back when the plan was still to go to the game) and have it passed around the bus or locker room.

First, she got a run-around from a front office rep, who passed her along to one of the team's travel coordinators... who turned out to be another dead end. She went from one member of the organization to another, trying to find a sympathetic ear, even going so far as to have a Facebook discussion with one of the ice girls. All of this led nowhere. I can understand that, in this day and age, there's a lot of cynicism when it comes to autographs. I understand that an autograph request is not a pressing issue for a team which is, after all, more concerned with multimillion dollar TV contracts and corporate ticket sales.

But the double-frustration of being priced out of the game AND having a simple request ingored sends a message, loud and clear, that my family and I are not valued customers.


Needless to say, I am writing this from my couch at home because I no longer have any intention of going to the game. Nor will I see it on television, because the league blacks out Preds games where I live. So I will not watch the game at all -- instead I'll do something completely different with my evening.

The obvious cost of this experience is that the Predators and the NHL immediately lose money. I won't be handing over my hard-earned dollars, nor will I be paying any attention to their sponsors or telling my friends about the great experience I had. If anything, the opposite will turn out to be true.

But the long-term cost will be even worse. My 10-year-old, that most prized of targets for the NHL marketing folks, has told me not to worry because he's "not that into hockey anyway". He has a Preds jersey from his last birthday, but can't name a single player and has never asked for any other merchandise. He's trying to memorize the names of NFL teams because that's what has taken his interest.

I have no connection, financial or emotional, to the Predators and don't intend to form one if I never see their games. I can continue to follow the Bruins long-distance, but that means I won't be buying tickets... ever. The Preds average about 14,500 fans per game, good for 28th in the league (ahead of the Islanders and Thrashers, who at least bother to offer $10 nosebleeds). My family will never add to that total.

So I'm sitting here on my couch at home, wondering... why bother? The league obviously doesn't need me, so do I really need it?

I'm going to take some time off from this blog to try and figure out an answer to that question. Maybe in a few days I'll come back. I'm thinking probably not.

In the meantime, if you know anyone close to the NHL or either the Bruins or Predators organization, I'd appreciate you passing along this story. I'd like to think the NHL isn't losing its fans for nothing.

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Weekend Links

Better late than never!

The Goose's Roost has one of the best game reviews I've ever read, chronicling the Sabres' epic upset of San Jose last night in Buffalo. If you don't have time for anything else on the list, this one's worth a click.

TSN runs down the top 10 lines in the NHL. The Bruins get solid representation with 2 entires, including the "best second line in the league".

Also featuring 2 Bruins entires is Quick Hit's list of the "13 scariest masks in sports history" (just in time for Valen... I mean, Friday the 13th). Cheevers is automatic, but Moog's a nice touch.

Adam Proteau of the Hockey News reminisces about his final drunken experience in Maple Leaf Gardens. Fun fact: I attended the 10th-to-last game ever played there. The Buds dismantled the Pens 7-2. I sat in a creaky, tiny grey seat in the rafters.

Bruins fans take note -- Objective NHL says you're at a slight advantage if you lost your last game. If you're a stat junkie, or a hockey theorist, Objective NHL is the blog for you.

Speaking of stat junkies, the inimitable Brodeur is a Fraud gives us a detailed comparison of the Atlantic and Northeast Divisions' offensive production during the 1990s. In case you were wondering.

Tom Benjamin from Canucks Corner tells us why the Flyers are totally screwed if the salary cap shrinks next season.

Bangin Panger reminds us that the Pens aren't finished yet... Gonchar's back.

Somebody in the Isles' PR department totally thinks this was worth half their annual budget.

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Thinking Positively

Don't panic.

We knew February would be like this.

We're still up 10 points on the rest of the East, and 2 points on the West.

San Jose lost last night.

We play the Preds tonight.

Noke and Kobie should be back in the lineup. Ryder will be back in a couple of weeks.

Thomas might have left in a softie last night, but he was perfect otherwise.

The law of averages demands that the PP will improve.

Our last 3 losses have all involved fluke goals. Eventually we'll get some of those.

You can't win every game.

Don't panic.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Trade Deadline: A Plea For Sanity

My, what a difference a season can make.

This time last year, Peter Chiarelli played a conservative hand at the trade deadline -- no moves were made, as the team's biggest concern was to dump veteran salaries and make space for young talent.

Early this season, on the heels of an unexpected playoff berth, Bruins fans were talking about the possibility of making a long playoff run within 2-3 seasons. This year was to be a bridge between the past and future, and another road-ice playoff berth was the optimisitic outlook.

Now here we are reading articles speculating on the possibility that Chiarelli could make a blockbuster move for Chris Pronger, Keith Tkachuk or Erik Cole. All of these rumors assume that he would be willing to let go of promising young talent or high draft picks, and that the end-game would be a Stanley Cup run this spring.

Maybe it's time to stop and take a deep breath. We're moving a bit too fast, aren't we?

Some perspective: Phil Kessel (21), David Krecji (22) and Matt Hunwick (23) are all coming up for contract renewal this summer. The size and length of those contracts will set the landscape for the Chiarelli-era Bruins -- presumably for the next 3-5 years. At the same time, the Bruins will likely dump or cut the salaries of veterans Stephane Yelle, P.J. Axelsson and Shane Hnidy. And of course, in the process they'll work out a plan of succession for the goaltending position -- which is complicated by the fact that Tuukka Rask's contract is finished after next season.

Perhaps more importantly, next summer the Bruins will renegotiate contracts with Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, Mark Stuart, Shawn Thornton and Petteri Nokelainen.

All of this means that the Bruins are, effectively, still in the middle of the rebuilding process. As good as they may be at present, only a handful of players are locked up through next summer. It would be unwise to move prospects or draft picks under the assumption that they're expendable, without knowing for certain whether key players such as Savard and Kessel will be around for much longer.

Of course, it's difficult not to see this season as a now-or-never opportunity to bring home the Cup, with the Bruins playing their best hockey in 35 years. But let's take a lesson from last year's Pens -- today's rental player is tomorrow's lost scoring depth. For a team that's got such a bright future, that might be the difference between a dynasty and a bunch of 8th-place finishes.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thrashers Blogosphere -- Most Underrated In The League?

Ok, someone is going to have to explain this to me. The Atlanta Thrashers, probably the most crapped-on franchise in all of pro sports, have developed a startlingly large following of bloggers lately.

Factors that make a large Thrashers blogosphere unlikely:
- They play in Atlanta, a notorious black hole of sports fandom.
- I have seen high school basketball games fill more seats than the Thrashers.
- In franchise history, they have never won a game that could be described as "significant".
- Only one player on the roster is worth a trade in NHL '09.
- They wear these and these and these. In public.

In spite of all this, and the fact that the team has accomplished squat for the past two years and is headed nowhere as long as Don Waddell has anything to do with it, the Thrashers blogosphere is growing faster than Carey Price's GAA. What gives? Could this team be filling the niche left empty by the Whalers and Nords?

The Blueland Chronicle - Several posts daily, nice balance of seriousness and snark.

Bird Watchers Anonymous - Lots of insight on the Thrashers' off-ice issues.

Blueland Outsider - Straight up fandom. And LOL pics for fun.

Firewagon Hockey - "Fuck you, Thrashers. This isn't a team. It's a goalie and five monkeys trying fuck a football. Hey you know what? There's a league of deaf kids here that need a goalie." Yeah. Bonus points for Bruins fandom.

The Thrashers 411 - Everything you could possibly want to know in a game preview.

Blueland Roar - Epic road trip reviews and other die-hard goodness.

The Iceman Bloggeth - Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat because it's an Atlanta Constitution-Journal columnist's paid blog [retraction: this is a legit fan blog hosted by the ACJ site. My mistake!]. But I'll give him credit for a clever title [no retraction.]

Thrashers Recaps - Irregular, random thoughts on all sorts of stuff.

We Want Dunham! - I think this one might be dead, but I hope not... if only for the sake of keeping the awesome title alive.

Blueland Blog - Very regular, keeping the pulse of the team.

Chi-Town Thrash - Brand new, but pretty thorough so far.

Getting Pucks Deep - Lots of nice gameday photography.

Slightly Off-Topic - Only a week old, but like Chi-Town Thrash it's pretty good so far.

TheRussianOne13 - Tasty visuals.

Thrashers Prospect Annex - Former Hockey Futures writer still contributes occasionally to this prospect blog.

24/7 Hockey - Well maybe not considering it's only updated occasionally.

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Lessons From Last Night's Game

You won't get far against good teams without a power play.

Ryder and Sturm might not be superstars, but losing them has really hurt the Bruins at both ends of the ice... and particularly on the power play (see #1).

You can't plan for, or defend against, fluke goals. Don't put too much stock in a game decided by them.

You can't plan for, or defend against, fluke injuries. Don't plan your season around having everyone healthy.

If the Bruins are going to play only half a game, it's better they play the second half.

When two good hockey teams go head-to-head, it's a beautiful thing to watch... no matter who wins.

As a fan, don't put too much emotion into a February matchup, no matter who's playing. If you win, the buzz only lasts for a day or two. If you lose, it's not fun anymore. Either way, there's another game right around the corner.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bruins vs. Sharks: Preview Central

So much has already been written about this game, there's little left to say. See yesterday's post for some number-crunching and general hype. It's going to be an amazing night, plain and simple, even if the on-ice product falls short of expectations.

Here's a rundown of what others have written across the interwebs:


Stanley Cup of Chowder - "Maybe Milan Lucic or Shawn Thornton will recreate the famous scene where Claude Lemieux turtled and Cam Neely threw him like a ragdoll into the corner."

Hub Hockey - "The "Open Rink" chat session is now open for the game."

Hockey Journal - Chiarelli: "I’ve just looked at the Washingtons, the New Jerseys, the Philadelphias, and the San Joses, and how we match up against them. That’s going to be like playoff hockey against those types of teams. "

Mike McMahon - Interview with Tim Thomas. "And did I know it was coming up? Yes; basically only because the media keeps telling me."

Rink Rap - "The noise you hear tonight will be like a sound version of that No. 77, half-Bruin/half-Avalanche sweater."

Kynch's Korner - "Hard working Bruins take on the surfer dudes from Cali."

Caveman Strong - On Thornton: "He's like Marc Savard, if Marc Savard ditched the faux-hawk, got taller, stronger, and stamped a 'chokes in the play-offs' sign on his back."

The Hockey Blog Adventure - "Basically every category that there is in hockey, these two do well in."

Battle of California - "See if you can find the number of wrestling references in this post."

Fear the Fin - "Tonight is where the big dogs show who has the bigger bite."

Sharks Hockey Analysis - "Like the great David Bowie, the Sharks fortunes vs. Boston could go both ways"

Barry Melrose Rocks - This week's Versus drinking game. Drink... "If Claude Lemiex gets in a fight."

Mainstream Media

Versus' Adrian Dater - "if you're not watching it, don't call yourself a hockey fan ever again. Just don't."

NESN - "If the Bruins want any chance of walking off the ice with those two points they will need to tighten up their game when and if they get a lead."

ESPN - "The best of the West taking on the best of the East. A potential Stanley Cup finals preview?"

ESPN's Pierre LeBrun - "The man who traded away Joe Thornton can hold his head high."

The Sporting News' Craig Custance - "The evolution of Boston center Marc Savard into a more complete player has helped fans in Boston forget Thornton was ever there."

The Boston Globe - "All Joe Thornton wanted for Christmas was a surfboard." - Thornton: "There aren't too many ex-teammates over there, and it's just really an important game in the schedule"

San Jose Mercury News' David Pollak - "Though their teams are in different conferences, Sharks and Boston Bruins players confess they check each other out."

Game on!

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5 Coaches Who Could Use An Advil

#5 - Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix Coyotes

Only weeks ago it looked like the Yotes had finally turned it around. But blink your eyes in the Western Conference, and suddenly you drop from 6th to 13th. Phoenix has lost 6 in a row, by a margin of 10-25, and just got pounded at home by the Hurricanes. On top of all that, the franchise desperately needs a playoff appearance to keep its head off the chopping block. The Great One has been their coach since the lockout -- finishing another season in the cellar would be a blotch on his legacy.

#4 - Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh Penguins

Seeing the Pens get waxed 3-0 by the Red Wings was a reminder of how far they've fallen. No team has done less with more this season than Pittsburgh, who is dangerously close to slipping quietly out of the playoff race. Therrien will have a hard time finding another job if he can't get Crosby and Malkin into the postseason, so he had better hope that Sergei Gonchar is good for a 10% boost in the team's winning percentage.

#3 - Craig MacTavish, Edmonton Oilers

Strange to see this guy on the hot seat, but Oilers fans are getting restless with this team's annual bubble races. Despite management's failed gambles -- a huge contract to non-factor Dustin Penner, a Roloson/Garon goalie duo, $11m tied up in Visnovsky and Souray -- MacTavish will take the blame if Edmonton isn't in the postseason. And even if they squeak in as a 7th or 8th seed, the Oilers will be nothing but a warm-up for the Sharks or Wings. Classic case of "it's easier to change coaches than to change the whole team".

#2 - Guy Carbonneau, Montreal Canadiens

Imagine waking up in Carbonneau's shoes this morning. You are in charge of the most storied franchise in the game. You were behind the bench at the All-Star game in which they celebrated their 100th anniversary by sporting 4 Eastern starters. They are less than a year removed from a conference title, but still stinging from an early playoff exit. Many in the media considered them a Finals shoo-in this year.

But last night, they got hammered 6-2 for their fourth loss in five games. Your 21-year-old franchise goalie is starting to crack, the backup looks about as good as you'd expect from a guy named Jaro Halak, your moody "star" forward is being petulant about losing his captaincy, and the one overachieving player on the roster is out for the season. One more loss could drop you to 7th place in the conference, and 3rd in the division. This is why they put a mini-bar in the hotel room.

#1 - Tom Renney, New York Rangers

At least it'll be over soon for Renney. It's been a miserable post-lockout tenure for the guy who is only partially responsible for the Ragners' annual underachievement. Under his guidance they've never finished better than 3rd in the division despite a solid roster.

If anything, this might be the week that finally bails the poor guy out. Having played mediocre hockey since the New Year, the bottom has fallen out and the Rangers have dropped 5 in a row. Last Friday they left Dallas humbled by a shocking score of 10-2, then got waxed 3-0 by archrival New Jersey. Next up are games against the Caps, red-hot Panthers and Flyers.

Tom Renney, this one's for you!

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Monday, February 9, 2009

How Awesome Is This Game Going To Be?

The Bruins host the Sharks tomorrow. How awesome will it be? It'll be this awesome:

- Boston leads the Sharks by 6 points in the overall standings, but San Jose has 4 games in hand. Therefore, this matchup could very well determine the eventual President's Trophy winner.

- This is the first, and probably the only time this regular season that the conference leaders will play head-to-head.

- San Jose is mired in a "slump" (loosely defined) involving a couple of OT losses to playoff bubble teams. Boston has split a pair of OT games in its past two contests. Both teams are facing long road trips ahead and could really use a boost in confidence.

- This will be the second time that Joe Thornton has returned to Boston since the infamous trade two years ago.

- The first time he returned, Thornton was ejected after two minutes for this illegal hit.

- Goaltenders Tim Thomas and Evgeni Nabokov are 2nd and 5th, respectively, in GAA among goaltenders who have played 30+ games, and 1st and 12th respectively in save %. Yet both struggle to be widely considered top-10 at their position.

- These are the second- and third-highest-scoring teams in the league (the Wings are #1).

- These are the first- and third-stingiest defenses in the league (the Wild are #2).

- Marc Savard and Thornton are possibly the best passers in the league, along with Sidney Crosby.

- Four defensemen -- Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman for Boston, Dan Boyle and Rob Blake for the Sharks -- are in the top-15 scorers among defensemen.

- Boston and San Jose are 4th and 5th, respectively, among all power plays. San Jose has the league's 4th-best penalty kill whereas the Bruins are 10th.

- 6 of the league's top 10 +/- ratings can be found on these rosters.

- San Jose's Joe Pavelski and Boston's Stephane Yelle are 6th and 7th, respectively, in blocked shots. That's right, even the shot-blocking defensive forwards are elite in this game!

- The only bummer about this game is injuries -- former Shark Marco Sturm will not get the chance to face off against his former club. Michael Ryder will join Sturm on injured reserve after undergoing surgery to repair his fractured orbital bone. Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward is a gametime decision, but likely to return after missing a game due to the flu. The Sharks will be missing defenseman Brad Lukowich and geriatric chatterbox Jeremy Roenick.

- Both teams have suffered a bit from mid-season fatigue, so perhaps it's a good thing that they've both been idle since Saturday.

It's been the hottest ticket in hockey for months, ever since it become obvious that the Eastern Conference was a one-horse race and that the Sharks were set for a franchise-best season. Expect a lot of media talk about Stanley Cup previews and "setting the tone", but the coaches will undoubtedly do their best to maintain focus on getting 2 points in the here and now.

Regular-season hockey doesn't get much better than this!

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Weekend Links

This might be the hardest week of the season for the Bruins -- a 1pm matinee tomorrow against Philly, hosting their conference-leading counterpart San Jose on Tuesday, then off to New Jersey for the beginning of a 5-game road swing. I've stopped trying to predict how this team will respond... I'm just gonna kick up my feet and watch some great hockey.

Your weekend poutpourri:

Today's saddest story: Manny Legace was waived by the Blues. This guy is like a Western Conference answer to Tim Thomas. The league needs more old-school goalies.

Behind The Net has the top 25 fights of the year, as voted by users. Thornton/Cote is #2!

Pensblog is always a great source of chatter, but a thread about Malkin and bribery is just a goldmine. Definitely follow the Puck Daddy link.

Leafs fans love ragging on village idiot Damien Cox, but this is taking it to an entirely new level of throughness. Gotta hand it to Cox, he's professional enough not to respond with an anonymous, obscenity-laden rant.

If you think Cox-bashing is getting vicious, check out Melrose Rocks' demolition of Eklund.

If you like hockey, chances are you also like drinking. Here's both.

Hockey officiating is the best in pro sports? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Blueland Chronicle has discovered one of the Predators' awesome television ads, and rightfully identifies an example of how to market the NHL in a non-traditional market.

On Frozen Blog is one of the best-written blogs out there.

ESPN asked: who's the biggest whiner in the league? Guess who won?

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Death Watch: R.I.P Leafs

They managed to hold out till February, but it's time to add the Maple Leafs to the "Dead" list.

Wednesday's brutal 5-0 whipping by the Sabres was the last nail in the coffin for Toronto, who now sit 11 points out of the playoffs with 30 games to play. The Leafs would need to go 22-8 over that stretch in order to reach 91 points, the bare-minimum threshold for making the playoffs since the introduction of the shootout. Considering they only have 19 wins to date, that seems like too tall an order for this gang.

The season won't get any easier for Brian Burke, who is poised to be a seller at the trade deadline. Leading scorer Nik Antropov and top defenseman Tomas Kaberle are the most frequently-cited items on the trading block, though it's hard to imagine any of the Leafs are truly untouchable. Dark days ahead for a franchise that is lacking in leadership and direction.

Perhaps the worst part of their demise is the anitclimax of Curtis Joseph's career. Vesa Toskala has been arguably the worst #1 goaltender in the league, with a .883 save percentage, and young Justin Pogge has been shelled behind an uninspired defense. Yet the once-mighty CuJo will still be the odd man out in Toronto, watching from the press box as his career dies a slow and silent death.

Updated Dead List:
Maple Leafs

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Can Anyone Catch the Bruins?

Before you read, let me provide a disclaimer: I hate cocky fans who think their team cannot lose. I hate fans who jinx their own team. I hate announcers who say "shutout" with 10 minutes left in the game. The point of this analysis is not to ruin my own team down the stretch.

Nevertheless, we're getting close to that part of the season where we can cautiously project end-game scenarios for each team. Like the guy on CNN who plays with the map on Election Night, we can "call" certain races before all the votes are all tallied. With that in mind, I'm going to call the Eastern Conference race in favor of Boston against every team other than Washington and New Jersey.

What makes this decision interesting is that Washington has a 3-point advantage over the Devils (which is very significant when there is so much ground to cover), but the Devils have played one fewer game and still have two head-to-heads against Boston. In that respect, New Jersey is currently in a better position to make a charge for the Eastern title. For this analysis, I will ignore the head-to-head games (too many W/L scenarios to track) but I will include the Devils' games-played advantage.

Here are a few scenarios to help you handicap the possibility of a last-minute finish:

IMPLOSION: The Bruins inexplicably pull a Senators and fall off the face of the earth. They go 10-20 over their last 30 games.
To catch the Bruins:
Washington must still have a winning record at 16-14.
New Jersey must go 17-12-1, a very respectable stretch run.

MEDIOCRITY: For whatever reason, the Bruins lose their mojo and go an ordinary 15-15.
To catch the Bruins:
Washington would need to go 21-9, considerably better than their current win%.
New Jersey would need to go 22-7-1, or roughly the same win% as the Bruins have this season.

SLIGHT DROPOFF: Boston runs into some tougher competition and goes 20-10, a slight slowdown from their current pace.
To catch the Bruins:
Washington must go 26-4 to tie. Um...
New Jersey must go 27-2-1. Either of these would be legendary comebacks.

EVEN KEEL: Boston just keeps plugging along at its current rate, going 22-8. Based on recent results, this is the most likely scenario.
To catch the Bruins:
The Caps would need a 28-2 record to tie.
New Jersey would need a 29-0-1 streak, challenging the 1979-80 Flyers' record 35-game undefeated streak.

EVEN BETTER: Somehow, the Bruins actually step up their game and go 25-5. Neither the Caps nor Devils could mathematically catch up, even if they won all their remaining games.

Projecting forward:
For every Boston win, and for every Caps and Devils loss, the likelihood of a comeback drops significantly. If the Bruins can maintain a 10-point gap entering their 2/28 game against Washington, a win in that game would effectively clinch the conference.

If that were the case, Boston would play the final 6 weeks of their schedule without any pressure to jockey for playoff positioning. Their only motivation for winning would be to try and get the #1 overall seed from San Jose, to hone their execution in advance of the playoffs, and to keep the roster as healthy and productive as possible.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bruins vs. Flyers: Stuff To Look Out For

- Seriously, how are these teams meeting for the first time in February? It's more than an annoyance -- since the Bruins and Flyers face off four times in the next seven weeks, you better believe this is going to be one of those "message" games with plenty of extracurriculars after the whistles. And when that happens between the Bruins and Flyers, you know it's going to be a long night.

- Speaking of which, this is the first time that Patrice Bergeron will face the Flyers since being run into the boards and nearly dying right in front of 20,000 people. That's your mainstream-media storyline of the day.

- The Flyers are 1-for-23 on the power play over the past four games. Oh, and those were against Atlanta, Florida, Tampa and St. Louis. Ouch.

- Martin Biron is a ridiculous 8-0-1 in his past 10 starts against Boston. Yet Biron seems to have lost his job to Antero Niittymaki. Starting only once in the past 3 weeks, Biron looks to be a permanent backup... which has lead to public speculation that he's no longer part of the Flyers' plans. Coach John Stevens has an intriguing decision tonight when he chooses a starter -- and you better believe the press is going to be reading between the lines.

- The Bruins are still quasi-healthy, missing only Marco Sturm (done for the season) to injury. Matt Hunwick is still ill and won't make the trip, but some time off might be good for the kid who's struggling to find his game. Manny Fernandez should be back on the bench.

- The Flyers have been missing Danny Briere for a while and have adjusted to his absence already. Their blue line is also dinged up, with stud Braydon Coburn and the notorious Randy Jones as day-to-day decisions.

- A great chance for a revenge game by Bruins castoffs Andrew Alberts and Glen Metropolit. There'll probably be some chatter among the players, and Metropolit would make a good shootout gamble against Tim Thomas.

Otherwise it's your typical mid-season Bruins/Flyers bloodbath.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Death Watch Update

The Death Watch has been strangely quiet these past few weeks, as several teams are pulling a mid-season David Blaine act. Here's a look at how things have shaken out since the All-Star Game:

Nothing to see here. Move along.


It would take a Herculean effort for these teams to make the playoffs... but that's why they play the games!

Maple Leafs - On 1/14 I laid down an ultimatum: the Maple Leafs must win 4 of their 8 remaining games in January or be declared "dead". True to form, they racked up a record of 3-2-2, the equivalent of 4 wins but somehow less impressive. Nevertheless, they picked up 8 critical points and will play meaningful games for at least another couple of weeks.

Kings - It's a little unsettling that the Kings are still in the playoff hunt this late in the season. They're 6 points out of the final Western seed, with a logjam of teams ahead of them. Three consecutive wins against conference competition has kept the young Kings alive, but they dropped the first of 5 games on their eastern road trip. Keep an eye on them this week for signs of flameout.

Predators - The Preds nearly coughed up their shot at the playoffs last month, finishing January with an ugly 1-4-0 streak. A key win over Edmonton has temporarily lifted their spirits, but their next 4 games are against key playoff-position competitors. This could make or break the Preds.

Avalanche - How are these guys not dead yet? Despite the second-worst record in the West and having lost 7 of 8, Colorado is a mere 6 points out of the playoffs. It's unfathomable that this crew could actually pull it off, but for the time being they still have a fighting chance at making the postseason cut. Missing both Sakic and Forsberg will hurt them on the ice, but at least they won't have to listen to those stories about the '96 Finals again.

Your playoff dark-horses, scrapping and clawing for a shot at Stanley.

Canucks - Oof. Losing 10 of 11, mostly against playoff competitors, has really taken a toll on the spirit of this franchise. They have a ton of road games left, but to be honest it might be better not to play in front of home crowds for a while. Though a single win could slingshot the Nuckleheads from 11th all the way up to 6th, you get the sense that this is a 2007 Senators situation. As you read Sundin's stat line (9gp, 2-1-3, -6) lower your head and quietly remember: "There but for the grace of Mike Gillis..."

Panthers - Now, this is more like it! Riding a 7-season playoff drought, having not won a series since the '96 Finals (ask Joe Sakic, I hear he has some time on his... um... hand.), playing before crowds of literally hundreds of fans, and on the brink of losing their franchise cornerstone defenseman... the Panthers are thriving. They rang up an 8-game undefeated streak (counting SOLs as ties, old-school style) in January and have recently beaten the Flyers and Habs. Sitting only a point out of 8th place, the Panthers might literally be playing for the future of their franchise.

Pens - Oy vey. Back in the dumps again. The Pens seem fatally flawed, the victims of a little too much roster movement and a key injury to the league's most underrated defenseman. Still, they have a rare duo of world-class forwards who can singlehandedly carry a team. That's usually enough to be competitive... unless of course you're the Lightning or Senators or Penguins.

Coyotes - Just when you thought Gretzky was going to end up coaching the Winnipeg Coyotes, this young team (finally) starts to pay dividends on years of hope and patience. But like any young team, the Yotes are wildly inconsistent. They've lost three straight by a combined score of 11-3, including dual shutouts. They may have to use their weak April schedule as a back door into the playoffs.

Stars - Is this team really in 6th place? Really? These guys? These guys? I guess the Avery suspension was the right move after all. Don't be fooled, though; Dallas' recent surge in the standings has been fuelled by wins over not-so-tough opponents. Aside from a couple of wins over the Wings, they've feasted on other bubble teams to pull themselves up the ladder one seed at a time. It's a great way to get into the playoff bracket, but don't expect much out of the Stars if they end up matched with the Sharks. Now, if they draw the Wings...

Blue Jackets - Ask me again next week, when we know a little more about Mason.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

When does it become official?

Nothing shakes up a first-place team like the words "Goalie Controversy".

All season long, Claude Julien has artfully dodged the obvious conflict between having two starters. To watch or listen to Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez, they're the best of friends and simply enjoying their experience as co-number-ones. Everyone's acted the consummate professional -- Julien has shown no preference for either goalie, both have played well and stayed polite, and the Bruins have surged into an uncontested first-place position.

Wasn't all of this supposed to get easier when the deadlock was broken, and the Bruins had a clear-cut #1 again?

When Manny succumbed to nagging back issues just before the All-Star break, Thomas stepped in for 8 consecutive starts, ringing up an impressive 5-1-2 record against stiff competition. According to the playbook, this is where Timmy was supposed to take full control of the #1 position, and Manny was supposed to assume the role of reliable backup for the stretch run. Manny might sulk a bit, but he would be gone either at the March trade deadline or during the summer. Meanwhile he could be counted on to take over if Thomas were injured or rattled during the playoffs.

Enter Tuukka Rask.

Rask, who outperformed every other goaltender during Bruins training camp last fall, is the Bruins' answer to Carey Price -- young, talented, fully developed and simply waiting for his destiny to arrive. He is the future, 13 years junior to both Fernandez and Thomas and already playing at their level. For the past two seasons the Bruins have promised him the starting position as soon as the Thomas/Fernandez dynamic is resolved.

Rask upped the ante during yesterday's matinee against the Rangers.. With Fernandez in the press box and Thomas exhausted from 8 straight starts, the rookie stopped 35 shots for a 1-0 victory in his first NHL appearance in over a year. It was more than a promise of things to come; it laid down a mandate to Bruins management to clear up their goaltending situation immediately. Suddenly, the future is now for a team stocked with young talent and a salary-cap bubble about to burst.

So, perhaps it's time to make it official: the Bruins have a goalie controversy. Tim Thomas is an All-Star, a Vezina candidate, and a fan favorite. Fernandez is a former Jennings winner and has been a top-10 netminder all season -- but is injured and a potential time bomb in the locker room. Rask is a would-be Calder candidate, a legitimate NHL starter and the future of the franchise. All three are circling around the starting position in Boston, but at least one will be the odd man out.

How does Peter Chiarelli break the deadlock? He has three options:
1) Trade or waive Fernandez before the March deadline, clearing $4 million in cap space that could be used to pursue a rental player. Move Rask into the backup spot for the rest of the season, and use Thomas as a "mentor" figure for the next couple of seasons as Rask takes on the starting role.
2) Reassign Rask to Providence, and risk the psychological fallout of sending a young goaltender back to the minors after 2 years of promises that he could play himself into the starting position in Boston. Continue to rotate Thomas and Fernandez during the stretch run, and let them hash it out in contract negotiations this summer to see who stays and who goes.
3) Reassign Rask to Providence, with the explicit promise that he will start next season. Let both Thomas and Fernandez walk in the offseason, and use the roughly $4 million savings to secure long-term contracts for RFAs Phil Kessel and David Krejci.

If you were Chiarelli for a day, which would you choose?

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