Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Touching the trophy: Does it make a difference?

This year's Eastern Conference Final series seemed short on controversy, what with the Pens taking Carolina to the woodshed in 4 straight games. No surprise, then, that the buzz from last night's game concerned something relatively trivial: Sidney Crosby's decision to pick up the Prince of Wales Trophy and carry it off the ice.

But is there any truth to the notion that the Wales and Campbell trophies carry bad mojo?

The superstition appears to have arisen in the mid-90s, so this analysis begins in 1994 -- the year before the Devils shocked a Red Wings team that had paraded the Campbell Trophy after their Western Conference victory. In a couple of seasons (1996 and 1999) I couldn't find clear evidence based on a film clip or still photo. If you know what happened in those seasons, speak up!

In the final analysis, the numbers are ambiguous. Only 7 of 28 Cup finalists have refused to touch their conference trophy (not counting years in which both refused), and those teams have gone 3-4 in the Finals round. Between 1995 and 2003, 7 consecutive Cup winners had touched the conference championship trophy after the previous round. However, the past 4 consecutive champions were non-touchers.

Here are the specifics (the hyperlinks provide visual evidence, asterisks denote the Cup winner):

Pittsburgh (Crosby) - No
Detroit (Lidstrom) - No*

Ottawa (Alfreddson) - Yes
Anaheim (Niedermayer) - No*

Carolina (Brind'Amour) - No*
Edmonton (Smith) - No

Tampa Bay (Andreychuk) - No*
Calgary (Iginla) - Yes

Devils (Stevens) - Yes*
Mighty Ducks (Kariya) - No

Hurricanes (Francis) - Yes
Red Wings (Yzerman) - Yes*

Devils (Stevens) - Yes
Avalanche (Sakic) - Yes*

Devils (Stevens) - Yes*
Stars (Hatcher) - No

Sabres (Peca) - No
Stars (Hatcher) - ?*

Capitals (Hunter) - Yes
Red Wings (Yzerman) - Yes*

Flyers (Lindros) - No
Red Wings (Yzerman) - Yes*

Panthers (Skrudland) - Yes
Avalanche (Sakic) - ?*

Devils (Stevens) - Yes*
Red Wings (Yzerman) - Yes

Rangers (Messier) - No*
Canucks (Linden) - Yes

It'll be interesting to see what Nicklas Lidstrom does if (when?) the Red Wings close out the Hawks tonight.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hockey South of the Border: The Man Behind Big Z's Slapshot

Mike McGrath knows what it takes to put the puck in the net.

Quick -- make a mental list of the top 5 most important places in hockey.

Ok, time's up. Chances are your list included Toronto, Montreal, and three states that start with "M". Maybe you threw in Moose Jaw, just for fun. But as Mike McGrath can tell you, you're not a real hockey insider unless your list includes Tijuana.

Yes, that Tijuana. It's the birthplace of nearly 60% of the NHL's composite sticks, the space-age technology that has altered the boundaries of possibility for players as diverse as Zdeno Chara and Joe Sakic. Composite sticks are perhaps the most revolutionary piece of hockey equipment since the goalie mask.

McGrath has spent the past 10 years as Pro Hockey Product Manager for Easton, the world's largest composite stick manufacturer. He spoke with me via telephone from Easton's plant in Tijuana, which turns out 7,000 sticks in a typical week -- including personalized sticks for some of the NHL's biggest stars.

HCTB: The audience might be surprised to find out that the majority of NHL sticks are made in Mexico.

MM: You know, it's funny. Back when it was wood sticks, they were all made in and around Quebec. But since we've moved to composite shafts, there's been a shift toward San Diego, and across the border in Mexico. There's now a slow migration toward China, but for now most composite sticks are made in this area.

HCTB: What's the state of the game in Tijuana... are the locals aware of ice hockey?

MM: Not really. I don't think they have any idea about how important the area is for us... there are no ice rinks in Tijuana, just a little roller hockey.

*Easton isn't the only brand which has moved its operations outside of US and Canadian borders. Warrior also produces its sticks in Tijuana. Nike/Bauer and RBK/CCM make their composite sticks in China. *

HCTB: For youth and amateur players, composite sticks can be cost-prohibitive. Do you forsee a future in which they can be produced cheaply, and made more widely available?

MM: We're always striving to bring price points down. You kinda get stuck in providing the highest performing product, because that's where we get the most demand. But the retail side encourages our engineers to get passionate about providing products in the $29.99 range. Everyone's trying to pace themselves down so that we don't cannibalize our higher end products. Eventually you have to start using cheaper and cheaper materials. The challenge is to design less expensive equipment that can still perform.

*In this year's playoffs, several Bruins used Easton sticks: Zdeno Chara, Michael Ryder, Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward, PJ Axelsson, Steve Montador, and Vlad Sobotka. They combined for 28 points in 11 games. *

HCTB: If you're in a pro shop, what do you look for in a stick?

MM: I look at two things: durability and performance. You're going to get more mileage out of certain models. The size of the player and the style of play, even at the amateur level... some kids are so big nowadays that they have to get more durability out of a stick. The size of the players and the force of the impact really affects the durability.

Z, you might want to send Mike McGrath a Christmas card this year.

HCTB: At the All-Star Game back in February, the Bruins' Zdeno Chara broke the longstanding slapshot record using an Easton S15. What was going through your head when you saw that?

MM: We [at Easton] had done well on accuracy and skating already, so when we saw it was down to Souray, Shea [Weber] and Z, we got pretty excited because they all use our sticks. I was at the game with the general manager and when Z broke the record we were all very excited, to put it mildly.

Chara's stick is unique because of the length -- we have to engineer it for the full 60 inches. Basically the stick we build for him is two times as stiff as for any other player. We provided him with 20 sticks, with 3 flex models that he can change according to how he feels. So he uses a different stick at the beginning of the season, or when he's injured because his body feels a little different.

*The top 3 shooters in the Hardest Shot competition used McGrath's sticks. So did 5th-place Mark Streit. *

HCTB: Without revealing trade secrets, what is Easton doing to improve the quality of its sticks?

MM: There's a different stiffness to each model. We make a particular region of the shaft stiffer and softer to have a smoother and nicer feel. Each has a unique profile, and we always work back to a profile that the players like.

HCTB: Broken sticks have been a growing issue in the NHL. How do you respond to criticism that sticks are breaking too frequently?

MM: We had a horrible run in 2004 with the Wild, where a lot of shafts were breaking, and that traced to a materials issue. After that the NHL actually implemented a drop-test that the sticks now have to pass before they can be used.

I wouldn't agree that breakage has increased. When you see a stick breaking on a pass, something like that, you know it had to have been compromised already, and that was just the last straw. And right now the challenge is to provide lighter products, not necessarily more durability. That's what teams are demanding today.

"You know it had to have been compromised already." Either that or AO has really been working on his torque.

HCTB: Will we get to a point at which NHL players choose their stick based on the game situation, similar to the way a golfer chooses his clubs? For example, choosing a longer and sturdier stick during a penalty kill.

MM: We currently do make some situational sticks. I can't go into detail, but we're already doing it. There are more than 10 guys in the league right now using them. I hope it spreads because we have the facility to do it as a competitve advantage. It keeps us in the lead because we can go that extra mile. The higher level of customization I can provide my players, the more difficult it is for other companies to go after them.

HCTB: How do you feel about propositions to end the "illegal curve" rule in order to increase scoring?

MM: Ovechkin has what I consider one of the bigger curves. It really adds to the velocity that a stick can propel the puck. But Sid has a pretty flat blade and you see what he can do.

The thing that will keep it in check is when the owner sees a guy missing pucks, he'll go down and start asking questions. He'll want to know why a guy is missing passes, not able to make certain plays. I've seen it done. There are so many things you have to do in a game, you just can't get away with it [having an extreme curve].

HCTB: Which player has the most unusual stick configuration?

MM: Out of 370 players, probably 50 have a special designed blade or shaft. Joe Sakic has a special soft blade and a specially designed shaft. The only players who use it need to get special permission to use his pattern. Right now there are only 3 guys in the league who have done it.

*Note: Caps defenseman Mike Green used a Stealth S17 modelled after Joe Sakic's pattern... until it was discontinued during the playoffs. After scoring 31 goals in 68 games during the regular season, he tallied only once in 14 playoff games. *

HCTB: Finally, we're down to the Final Four. Who are you cheering for?

MM: You know, I'm really just cheering for the sport.... we get these millionaire guys on the ice, but when he scores a goal and you see his face up close, he looks like a 10-year-old kid on an ice pond. You don't really see that in other sports, not in the same way. These guys have a passion that is just different than anything you've ever seen. I really believe the speed and power and grace of this game will hook anyone if they can see it in person... that's why I cheer for the sport.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Now I'm Certifiable: HCTB jumps on the Blackhawks bandwagon

Well, this is awkward. As promised, today is the day that this blog announces its bandwagon endorsement -- honoring the readers' decision in the bandwagon poll to the right. And as Marian Hossa will tell you, a promise is a promise. (even though I was kinda hoping the Pens fans would rally at the last minute)

So, for the rest of the playoffs, Here Come the Bruins! throws its hat in with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Yes, I'm that crazy.

But not as crazy as this guy...

Chicago trails their most bitter rival 2-0 in their playoff series, the equivalent of spotting LeBron James the first two letters in a game of H-O-R-S-E. They got whipped in Game 1, and then punched in the gut as the Red Wings took Game 2 in OT. Ask anybody who knows hockey, and they'll tell you the Hawks are done.

Well, ask anybody other than the Blackhawks.

The great thing, and the worst thing, about this team of young guns is their attitude. Words like "maturity" and "humility" tend not to surface when guys like Adam Burish and Dustin Byfuglien enter the conversation. Chicago seems more like a college team than a pro squad on the verge of a Finals breakthrough. They have an infectious exuberance that has spread beyond the locker room, beyond the stands in the United Center, beyond the boundaries of die-hard Hawks faithful and into the greater Chicago consciousness.

A brief glimpse at their news clippings tells the tale:

  • Wayne Drehs' profile of Patrick Kane reveals that the budding star's private life still involves scooter races, pranks on his dad, and missing prom.
  • George Sipple reports that Colin Fraser's nickname is "Mario" -- a reference to the team's addiction to the Wii game Mario Kart.
  • According to the New York Times, the "veteran" task of mentoring 20-year-old Jonathan Toews fell to that grizzled veteran of many years, 24-year-old Brent Seabrook.
  • Toews' playoff beard, if you can call it that, is not exactly what you'd expect to see on Brendan Shanahan or Scott Niedermayer.
In a sport where a 25-year-old is considered a "kid", many of the Blackhawks really are kids. And not just the supporting cast, mind you, but the core of the team -- the Hawks sent 2 players under 21 to the All-Star Game this season (plus 29-year-old Brian Campbell) and sent 2 more to the Rookie-Sophomore Game. By contrast, their only regular skater over 30 years of age is newcomer Sammy Pahlsson.

And that might be their ace in the hole against the most experienced club in the league.

Don't get me wrong -- a Blackhawks rally is unlikely, a faint hope at the fringes of reality. But this is the NHL. This is hockey. Weird things can happen at the most unexpected times.

If the Hawks are to climb back into this series, it might not be in spite of their youth, but because of it. Kris Versteeg, a former Bruins prospect in his first full NHL campaign, said before the series began that:

"They know what to do, but we're not nervous. We're not worried. We're
excited. We don't know any better

That comment echoes one made by Kane several weeks ago:
"I think you look at our team and, yes, we have some young guys, and
sometimes it seems like we don't know any better [than to
succeed in the playoffs].
Call me crazy, but I believe the Hawks have a legitimate chance to win this series out of sheer ignorance -- they don't know that this series is supposed to be over now, that teams in their position frequently play not to be embarrassed, that the Wings are already written in pencil in the Finals portion of the playoff bracket.

The Blackhawks are too young and dumb, and that's why they'll keep coming. And when a team keeps coming in the playoffs, they start to get the breaks.

Last year the fresh-faced Penguins were a disaster in their first two Finals games, but nearly rallied to force a seventh game. It was home ice which allowed them to breathe, to play their game instead of sitting back and watching Detroit dominate. The Blackhawks are on the verge of a new lesson: the true importance of home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

There will be over 20,000 fans packed into the United Center tomorrow night to witness the most important Blackhawks game in 15 years. The Hawks will enjoy home-ice advantage, allowing them to manipulate matchups and win more faceoffs. And let's not forget who's pulling the strings in Chicago these days. Little things are sure to start breaking in the Blackhawks' favor.

The window is still open, however slim the gap might look from here. If there's any team young and limber enough to squeeze through, it's the Blackhawks.

Prediction: Chicago in 7.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Julien, Chiarelli win Sporting News awards

Maybe not as exciting as an Adams trophy (or a conference final berth, for that matter), but the Bruins' front office has something to celebrate thanks to the Sporting News.

Claude Julien was named Coach of the Year. I was shocked to discover that the previous three winners -- Lindy Ruff, Barry Trotz, and Mike Babcock -- have managed to hold onto their jobs since winning the title. In an NHL where both Eastern Conference finalists fired their coaches mid-season, that's a strong endorsement.

Also, Peter Chiarelli picked up the Executive of the Year title. Hopefully he'll do a better job of defending it than previous winners Bob Gainey and David Poile, both of whom enjoyed a very short moment in the sun.

Steve Mason won Rookie of the Year, giving him an opportunity to practice his Calder acceptance speech.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bandwagon time! Be sure to vote...

Hey, see that poll to the right of this article? The one that asks you to vote on which team we should support for the rest of the playoffs? Be sure to vote before you leave. Something really earth-shatteringly important depends on it.

Your vote decides who I endorse as my bandwagon favorite for the next 6 weeks.

This has been a weird postseason for me, because there's not really a clear-cut hero/villain dynamic any more. In years past, I'd rag on the Avalanche or the Ducks for being a team constituted of tools and goons... or I'd throw my hat in with a plucky squad like Edmonton which seemed to win against all odds. This year it's different. Look at who we have left:

Detroit Red Wings
Pros: The most professional team in the game right now, from top to bottom. Admirable leadership from guys like Lidstrom and Draper. Gritty self-sacrifice from almost everyone on the roster, game after game.
Cons: Unlike years past, this year's Wings leave me cold. Maybe they've spent too much time at the top of the mountain, but they lack that sense of destiny that was so enjoyable back in '97. It's like watching the Yankees, but with more octopus.

Chicago Blackhawks
Pros: A next-generation sort of team composed mostly of kids too young to drink (but you know they do anyway). Joel Quenneville rocks one of the best 'staches in the game. They are definitely the coolest team left.
Cons: They're like a rock band. Exciting and hip in small doses, but a tad pretentious when you get to know them well. WAY too much trash-talk makes it out of their locker room and into the media.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pros: If they won a rematch against the Wings, it would be a lot like Star Wars. You know, with Luke and Darth Vader. Or with Vader and Obi-Wan. Or Obi-Wan and... never mind, you know what I'm getting at.
Cons: Crosby is perhaps the biggest villain in the sport. Fleury is perhaps the most overrated goalie (though Osgood wins the lifetime award). Somehow, the Guerin trade just seemed wrong, very wrong.

Carolina Hurricanes
Pros: They're the underdogs, and also the "cardiac" team. Gritty, hard-working, and old-school in tone. Cam Ward is undeniably a beast and probably the best clutch goalie of his generation.
Cons: Screw these guys, they beat the Bruins. Paul Maurice is the kid that even the nerds wanted to beat up in the parking lot. Scott Walker's black heart can burn eternally in hell, right next to Claude Lemieux.

Vote early and often!

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Here Come The Vultures! Chiarelli getting heat for management decisions

Well, it's been almost half a week since the Bruins punched Carolina's ticket to the Final Four. In Boston Bruins fandom, that's plenty long enough to forget about the magical joyride of a #1 seed and sweep over the Habs -- time for some drawn-out 20/20-hindsight analysis of management decisions!

Deadline Blunder?

WEEI's Joe Haggerty (Big Bad Blog) rips Chiarelli for his biggest "mis-step" at the trade deadline -- trading for Ducks defenseman Steve Montador. The premise of the article is that there were numerous other defensemen available, Montador was... well, the shittiest one left.

(I should take a moment to air my biases. In my humble opinion, Montador was the worst player on the Bruins' playoff roster. He never came close to fulfilling his limited promise as a deadline acquisition. In fact, he was f.r.e.a.k.i.n.g t.e.r.r.i.b.l.e, to the point that he became difficult to tolerate. Offensively he's a turnover machine with an unintimidating shot, yet he still plays aggressively at inappropriate moments. Defensively he's advertised as "rugged", but has nowhere near the physical presence of a Wideman or Ward... or even a Ference.)

Still, there's little merit to Haggerty's argument that the Bruins should have shot the moon for an elite defenseman. After all, Montador was brought in to provide a little third-pairing depth -- nobody expected he would end up being a top-4 player and manning the point on the power play in a Game 7 playoff scenario.

Haggerty's idea of a "better" trade would have been something like the Pahlsson-Wisniewski deal that helped put both the Ducks and Blackhawks into Cup contention. But he fails to recognize that the Bruins weren't shopping anyone nearly as valuable as Pahlsson. In the end, they merely lost Petterri Nokelainen, a borderline depth forward who was obsolete the moment Byron Bitz pulled on a Boston sweater. Even offering a package of draft picks would be questionabe asset management for an organization one season removed from April elimination.

Avoiding the "impulse buy"

The true heart of the matter is in this argument:

The Bruins GM said several times during the year that the ”window” can sometimes be a narrow one for an NHL team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. The “window” way of thinking is a byproduct of the NHL salary cap. A team can change drastically from year-to-year given the financial situation of any particular team.

It’s also the best reason why Boston’s braintrust should have gone for broke this year.

This sort of thinking drives me crazy, because it's based entirely on impatience rather than strategic planning. Consider the teams which are still in Cup contention this season -- how many of them are operating as if on a one-year "window" to win a Cup?
  • Detroit has strung together 15 dynastic seasons by refusing to trade futures for rentals. They do their shopping in the offseason, when real bargains arise.
  • Carolina didn't panic during their post-Cup dropoff and have returned to the semifinals without moving any of their elite players.
  • Chicago is the Western equivalent to the Bruins, building chemistry between young core players with long-term contention in mind.
  • Only Pittsburgh has tried, and failed, to accelerate the process through trades. We saw how that worked out when Hossa signed with the Wings.
Even though Boston could have used a stronger counterattack against the Carolina forecheck, perennial Cup winners are built on Draft Day, not Deadline Day. Chiarelli's body of work happens mostly in the quiet summer months, when veterans renegotiate their contracts and prospects commit to working their way through a competitive farm system.

None of the other deadline-deal blueliners made the difference for their teams when the chips were down, and there's no reason to expect things would have turned out differently for the Bruins.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Bruins History 101: Seven Heartbreaking Game 7s

1952 - Semifinals vs. Montreal

Boston rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take a lead in the series, only to fall in OT in the sixth game. In the tiebreaking matchup, an injured and woozy Maurice Richard scored the game-winner to eliminate the 4th-seeded Bruins. The game is immortalized in an iconic photograph of a bloodied (and probably concussed) Richard shaking hands with black-eyed Boston goalie "Sugar" Jim Henry.

1959 - Semifinals vs. Toronto

The Bruins had been to the Finals in consecutive seasons, and that experience played a role as they quickly jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series. Leading 3-2 late in the third game, they surrendered a goal in the final minutes to Leafs sniper Gerry Ehman, and then saw Ehman score the OT winner to get the Leafs back in the series. The Bruins lost control of the series, falling behind 3-2 before forcing a 7th game. It was none other than Ehman who scored the series-winner with minutes to go in the final period.

1971 - Quarterfinals vs. Montreal

In the heyday of the Orr/Espo dynasty, the Bruins had dominated the regular season and looked well on their way to a second Cup. After winning the opening match, they took a 5-1 lead in Game 2, only to improbably allow 6 consecutive goals in a stunning loss. Boston regrouped to win the next two games, but Montreal closed out the series with consecutive victories. Rookie goaltender Ken Dryden played a key role in the upset.

1979 - Semifinals vs. Montreal

In perhaps the most heartbreaking loss of all, Don Cherry's Bruins looked to have finally solved the Habs in the 7th game. Rick Middleton scored with 4 minutes to play, breaking a 3-3 tie. In one of the most notorious moments in team history, the Bruins were called for too many men on the ice with less than two minutes to go; Guy Lafleur tied the game with a goal on the subsequent power play. Yvon Lambert scored the OT winner to send the Habs to the Finals, where they beat the Rangers.

1982 - Conference finals vs. Quebec

After a first-round sweet, the Bruins dominated the first two games and looked to be headed to a showdown with the dynastic Islander. The Nords, who had previously upset the rival Habs, spoiled the celebration by reeling off 3 consecutive wins to take control of the series. Boston forced a 7th game with an OT winner, but lost the final match 2-1 in the Nords' second straight stunning upset.

2004 - Conference quarterfinals vs. Montreal

The division-champion Bruins again jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series, but were steamrolled in games 5 and 6. The final game was scoreless after 50 minutes, with highly-touted (ha!) goalies Andrew Raycroft and Jose Theodore exchanging saves. Montreal's Richard Zednik broke the tie and added an empty-netter for a 2-0 victory, sending Raycroft and star center Joe Thornton down a path of notoriety from which they have yet to recover.

2009 - Conference semifinals vs. Carolina

The heavily-favored Bruins, top-seeded in the East and fresh off a sweep of the hated Canadiens, ran headlong into a red-hot Carolina team. The Hurricanes reeled off 3 straight wins to push Boston to the brink, but the Bruins recovered with two dominant efforts to force the tiebreaking Game 7. After 78 minutes of intense end-to-end action, Carolina's Scott Walker scored to eliminate the Bruins.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

HCTB Road Trip: Carolina's RBC Center

The introductory sequence before the game began. Skip to the 5:30 mark to see the crowd really get going.

The last time I followed the Bruins to a Carolina home game, the Hurricanes had been orphaned in Greensboro, North Carolina. Attendance was so paltry in the massive Greensboro Coliseum that the upper deck was hidden behind a giant black curtain. The rest of the arena was half-filled with Bruins fans, displaced followers of the Greensboro Monarchs, and a lot of empty green seats. Later that season, the Bruins would eliminate the Hurricanes from the playoffs.

My, how things can change in a decade. Arriving at the RBC Center two hours before gametime was nothing like that depressing experience in Greensboro.

Along the road leading to the arena, the highway patrol had posted electronic signs telling non-ticket-holders to turn back because the game had already been sold out. Thousands of fans congregated in the parking lots and lawns around the arena to tailgate -- and mind you, this was real tailgating as one might expect to see at a college football game. Full-sized grills, TVs with satellite dishes, and fans already starting chants.

One small corner of a huge tailgate party. Why doesn't every team do this???

Needless to say, by the time I reached the arena doors I was getting butterflies about the prospect of taking my family into the cheap seats. After all, the RBC Center is famed for its claim as the loudest building in the league, and I wasn't seeing a lot of Bruins faithful in the crowd. The last thing I wanted was to bring my wife and 2 children into the proverbial eye of the Hurricane.

So I taken totally off guard by what happened next.

Within a minute of walking through the doors, I was approached by a man decked head-to-toe in Hurricanes merchandise. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and told me how glad he was that I'd made the trip. For the next few minutes we swapped stories of hockey on the road, pondered the state of the game in Raleigh, and introduced our families to each other. As we walked away, I had a warm feeling from the good fortune of meeting a friendly Canes fan right away.

The RBC Center democratically allows all fans to visit the glass during warmups.

But he wasn't the last I'd meet. It seemed as though my Bourque jersey (and, to be fair, the presence of a 6-month-old wearing a tiny Bruins outfit) was a beacon for diehard Hurricanes fans to introduce themselves and welcome my family to Raleigh. It was like being a head of state on a visit to a banana republic which had just discovered oil under its beaches.

And this was in the moments before a playoff game!

Commitment to winning is the first step in building a fanbase.

Perhaps this is because the Caniacs recognize their role as the frontrunning fanbase of the Southeast. They are following a newly-arrived team in a newly-arrived city. They understand that there is still a steep uphill climb for their team before the "traditional markets" of the NHL recognize them as brethren.

But they also understand that they have experienced more Finals games since 1997 than the Bruins, Canadiens, Flyers, Penguins, Sabres, Rangers, Islanders, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Blackhawks, Blues, and Canucks combined. They know that they are a legitimate fanbase and no longer just a bandwagon mob.

And they want everyone else to know it too.

I'm impressed that, despite the intensity of this series and the fact that the Hurricanes blew open a close game in the third period, I didn't witness a single negative action towards any visiting Bruins fans. No fights, no drunken taunts, no thrown nachos.

But maybe that was because, unlike that pitiful atmosphere in Greensboro circa 1998, the arena wasn't half-full of Bruins fans. In fact, even the cheap seats (where it's usually easy for a visiting team to score a block of tickets) were a sea of red, interrupted only occasionally by a Lucic sweater. And the Canes fans weren't bandwagoners, either -- these were folks with signed Justin Williams jerseys. Real fans.

B's faithful were few and far between, even in the cheapies.

Overall, the atmosphere was electric and authentic. The crowd stood through much of the game and the noise level was like that of a Rolling Stones concert. On the rare occasion that the visiting fans managed to organize a "Let's Go Bruins!" chant, the home fans quickly overpowered it. I haven't seen such an active crowd since Friday nights in high school.

The finals few seconds tick off the clock, to the delight of the Caniacs.

Of course, the real test of the Carolina franchise's strength will be to carry this sort of support into the lean times. But it certainly appears as though Caniac Nation is going to be a permanent fixture in the NHL landscape, Dixie's answer to the playoff energy of Calgary and Detroit.

And having seen up close the warmth and dedication of their fanbase, the future of hockey in Carolina is starting to look pretty good.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is Scott Walker a liar?

Let this be the last I write on PunchGate:

After the NHL announced that Scott Walker's "automatic" 1-game suspension had been overturned, the Hurricanes released a statement containing the following from Walker:

Based on what was said on the ice as I was dropping my gloves, it was my understanding that I was engaged in an altercation.
We are left to infer that this was the basis for Colin Campbell's decision to let Walker go with a slap on the wrist. After all, who would blame a guy for throwing the first punch after a verbal invitation?

But wait... there's more. Go ahead to the 0:57 mark of this video:

Well, that certainly doesn't uphold Walker's end of the story. If anything at all was said, it was Ward jawing at Cullen from close range, while Walker was several feet away and charging into the scrum like a freight train. But Ward never even opened his mouth to speak to Walker directly, as is clear on the video.

Now we have public comments by Ward, calling Walker's explanation "a convenient story that the NHL accepted." He specifically denies any verbal exchange with Walker:

I don't remember a single word being said. I was looking at Matt Cullen. The moment I saw his right hand was when it was about a foot away from my face.

Ward also says that Campbell never contacted him during the review process.

In other words: Colin Campbell took Walker on his word that Ward had invited the fight verbally, without bothering to check with Ward. The absurdity of that process is hard to swallow at first, but it certainly doesn't seem that Ward would make such a claim if it weren't true.

Perhaps Walker thought he heard something like an invitation from Ward, but the video clearly disproves that story. Either Walker is mistaken, or he is a liar who took advantage of Campbell's irresponsible handling of the situation.

Either way, this is just another Walker-style black eye on the face of the league.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Random justice becoming the norm in the NHL

It's hard to know what to make of the NHL's latest foray into the realm of absurd justice.

Scott Walker's sucker punch of Aaron Ward at the end of Game 5 seemed to have all the necessary labels for suspension:

- Walker was the third man into a relatively benign altercation
- Walker rightly drew an instigator penalty, which carried an "automatic" suspension
- Walker dropped his gloves and punched a clearly defenseless Ward in the face
- Ward will almost certainly miss time with severe facial injuries

Seems pretty open and shut, huh? Since a one-game suspension is automatic in this circumstance, Colin Campbell didn't even need to make a judgement call in order to put an end to this situation.

But inexplicably, almost surreally, Campbell actually chose to overrule the automatic suspension and levy a trivial fine against Walker. This to the delight of coach Maurice and GM Rutherford, who joked snarkily with the media about the cheapshot.

It's such a bizarre, over-the-top-inexcusable ruling that all we can do is shake our heads and move on. The three questions that arise now:

1) Will Johnny Boychuk be anywhere near an adequate substitution for Ward against the intense Carolina forecheck?
2) Will Game 6 be marred by retaliation from both sides?
3) If Boston gets behind and a Bruin sucker-punches Eric Staal, putting him out for the Conference Finals, will Campbell have the balls to be consistent and also waive any serious discipline for that situation as well?

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Must-See Video: 16-year-old Lucic *boxing*!

If you haven't seen it yet, drop everything and watch this video of a teenage Milan Lucic crushing some poor young sap in the boxing ring. No word on whether the victim has stopped bleeding yet.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

HCTB goes into the eye of the Hurricane...

I'll be travelling to Raleigh tomorrow, with seats in the cheapies to see if Boston can muster a bit better effort than we saw last night.

This is my second time visiting the RBC Center, the first time being in their series against Montreal some years ago. The hype is true, you can't hear yourself screaming when the crowd gets excited in there.

I'll report back with musings and observations on the gameday experience in Caniac-land.

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Kryptonite for the Bruins: the middle period

Two games in a row, we've seen the Carolina Hurricanes pull the same trick: turn it on in the second period, score a couple of goals to take the lead, and cruise to victory.

I had a hunch that this pattern has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Whenever the Bruins lose, it usually seems to be the result of a mid-game letdown after a strong start. So I did a little research... lo and behold, the second period is an extremely strong predictor of the Bruins' fortunes. They have rallied to win only 4 games in which they lost the second period -- 4 of 58 total wins! On the other hand, of the 43 games in which they won the second period they have only gone on to lose twice. And perhaps most remarkably, they have a dead-even record of 6-7-6 in the second period in games which (you guessed it) ended up tied after regulation.

Here's the full breakdown:

In regulation wins
Won the 2nd: 35
Lost the 2nd: 4
Tied the 2nd: 12

In regulation losses
Won the 2nd: 2
Lost the 2nd: 10
Tied the 2nd: 7

In regulation ties
Won the 2nd: 6
Lost the 2nd: 7
Tied the 2nd: 6

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Showdown: Balsillie vs. Bettman

By now you've likely heard the news already: Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes unexpectedly filed for Chapter 11 bankrupty yesterday, and was even more unexpectedly offered $212.5 million US by Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie on the condition that the franchise be moved to southern Ontario.
What we're witnessing is the opening salvo of a power struggle that will be fought in the media and decided in the courts. The real conflict isn't about the future of the Coyotes, who have been an unqualified failure in every respect, but about the future of the NHL and hockey in general. The combatants are the most powerful men in hockey, and each has a lot to lose.

Bettman was reportedly irate at the news of Balsillie's power play on the Phoenix franchise, and owners around the league were caught off-guard by media inquiries on the subject. Clearly, Balsillie feels that he can win this game without the support of the hockey "establishment". That might be a fatal mistake in an industry ruled by personal connections and backroom deals.

For his part, Balsillie has cast himself in the part of "populist hero" to Canadian fans, publicly setting himself against Bettman and his vision of a more American-ized league. This exposes a sharp divide in the hockey culture: those who believe in the viability of Sun Belt markets, and those who would rather see the league contract to its roots in the Northeast and Canada.

In the process of resolving the fate of the Coyotes franchise, we might see these tensions begin to pull at the fabric of the league. Bettman has close alliances throughout the league's power structure, and will play all of his cards if necessary to get rid of the relocation threat. Balsillie has clearly cultivated a partnership with Moyes, and is already courting other owners to back his acquisition.

More importantly, Balsillie is extending his campaign to the fans and media -- and if there's anyone who understands the power of new media, it's a Blackberry entrepreneur. His viral campaign uses phrases like: "We want those Canadian voices... to be heard throughout the North American NHL market". The euphemistic reference to a Canadian/American divide is obvious.

The coming weeks could be a time of momentous change for the NHL. If Bettman repels Balsillie, it's unlikely that another franchise owner would consider becoming the next Moyes. If Balsillie is able to force a sale and relocation through in spite of Bettman's opposition, it will likely signal a tidal change in the culture and operation of the league.
In the end, the hockey world isn't big enough for both of these men, or the conflicting ideas that they represent.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A tribute to Markus Naslund

Pure class.
Lost in all the playoff hoopla is the quiet retirement of Markus Naslund, one of the league's truly underrated players.

Where does Naslund rank among his peers? Check out the top LW scorers over the past 10 seasons:

Markus Naslund - 724
Paul Kariya - 669
Patrik Elias - 664
Ray Whitney - 625
Brendan Shanahan - 611
Alex Tanguay - 580
Andrew Brunette - 559
Ilya Kovalchuk - 557
Ryan Smyth - 555
Dany Heatley - 543

Or First-Team All-Star nominations over the same time frame:

Markus Naslund & Alex Ovechkin - 3 each
Kariya, Shanahan & Elias - 1 each

There's really not much debate about it -- Naslund was THE left winger of the past decade, challenged only by Ovechkin's domination of the past 4 seasons. He'll be remembered in Vancouver, where he was captain and the franchise leader in almost everything. He'll be remembered by gamers as the face of NHL '05. He might even be remembered by Rangers fans for saving them several million dollars in cap space, rather than mailing in a "farewell" season and killing their chances of another playoff berth.

But there's little chance he'll be remembered by the Hall of Fame voters when his turn comes up. So let's take a moment out of our playoff adrenaline rush and recognize one of the quiet heroes of the 2000s.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Bruins: Deeper than a Zen monk.

One thing that every Cup-winning team has in common: depth. As we go deeper into the playoffs, it becomes more and more important to be able to match up all 4 lines and insert new players into the lineup to cover for injury.

Boston has been blessed with an embarrassment of riches this season, dealing away two solid prospects (Lashoff and Nokelainen) at the trade deadline and still retaining more NHL-quality players than can fit on a roster. Here are the guys who could have a big impact despite watching the occasional game as a scratch:

Shane Hnidy

Why he's on the bench: Lack of skill, mostly. Hnidy has a hard time moving the puck under pressure, especially when he's forced to make a quick and accurate pass. He also offers relatively little upside when he has the time and space to make a play.

How he could play a role: The "Sherriff" is a decent defensive player, but his most valuable contribution is grit. He goes into the tough areas with reckless abandon and is always the first to jump into a scrum. In a tough Montreal series he added much-needed snarl.

Steve Montador

Why he's on the bench: Since his deadline trade from Anaheim, Montador hasn't really found a place in the Boston lineup. He's not quite skilled enough to justify a regular shift on defense, and his time as a forward was unproductive.

How he could play a role: Utility players are more valuable in the playoffs, when substitutions are more urgent. Montador's ability to play at nearly any position could make him an attractive "band aid" when injuries start to pile up.

Byron Bitz

Why he's on the bench: Because he's redundant as long as Shawn Thornton is in the lineup. Both are cut from the same mold -- large, bruising enforcers with enough skill to justify a regular shift. Bitz is a little larger, but Thornton's skill set and leadership make him a safer play.

How he could play a role: Bitz and Thornton showed they were capable of playing effectively together, combining for a key goal against Montreal. If a Bruins forward goes down with injury, Bitz is likely Julien's first choice off the bench. He'll be expected to hit, hit, and hit some more to generate offense off the forecheck.

Vladimir Sobotka

Why he's on the bench: The Boston system has proven a bit too deep for the NHL-ready forward. Sobotka would most likely be an "energy" player in most organizations, but veteran forwards like Kobasew and Yelle have kept him in Providence for most of the season.

How he could play a role: Sobotka gives the Bruins a little extra yap when he's on the ice. If Kobasew were to go down, he might be a better replacement than Bitz or Montador. He's hardly a blue chip prospect, but can hold his own in the big leagues.

Tuukka Rask

Why he's on the bench: Manny's making too much money to be the towel boy.

How he could play a role: To be honest, if Tim Thomas gets injured it doesn't really matter what role Rask plays. We could hope for him to have an experience similar to Varlamov in Washington, but realistically it would be asking too much for him to carry a late playoff run.

Other depth options for Boston:

Johnny Boychuk - Stud defensive prospect, not yet ready for prime time.
Jeremy Reich - Depth winger lost in the system after blowing his chance in Boston.
Martin St. Pierre - Undersized but skillful, he won't sniff a callup unless something truly horrible happens.
Peter Schaefer - Remember this guy!? His massive cap hit will keep him safely in Providence, where he can do less harm.

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