Monthly Archives: May, 2007

The 2007 Stanley Cup Finals

I was hoping to write a lengthy, insightful preview of this series. A blitz at work and more Memorial Day cook-outs than you can shake a stick at have forced me to change my plans. Instead, I'll just give you the short, short version, my prediction, then wrap up the games as they're played.

If you had told me in November that Anaheim and Ottawa would play for the Cup, I'd tell you that you were half right. Anaheim got off to a torrid start this season, then weathered a storm of mid-season injuries, most notably to Chris Pronger, to finish with the 2 seed in the West. Ottawa, on the other hand, stumbled badly out of the gate. They staggered into January just barely ahead of .500, then went on a hot streak of their own. They were too far behind Buffalo to win the Northeast, but they were able to out-race the Penguins to the 4 seed in the East.

In the playoffs, the roles seem to have reversed a little bit. Anaheim has had moments of total disorganization, especially in the West finals against Detroit. Ottawa has decisively disposed of Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Buffalo, each in 5 games.

I believe Ottawa has bigger question marks than Anaheim. Have the Senators truly been tested in these playoffs? The Pens were inexperienced, the Devils had no scoring depth, and Buffalo, for lack of a better word, collapsed. The Ducks may be the first team to truly challenge Ottawa this year. At the same time, however, Anaheim can't afford another game like Game 3 against the Red Wings. The Senators are too opportunistic for that.

In the end, I think Jean-Sebastien Giguere is far more likely to steal a game than Ray Emery, and that will be the tipping point of the entire series.

Prediction
Ducks in 7

Game 1
Well, now we know how Ottawa would handle an aggressive, physical opponent: Get beaten to loose pucks, suffer a 14 minute shot-on-goal blackout in the first and second periods, and watch their goaltender get burnt to a crisp. Anaheim had an uneven game. Sami Pahlsson may begin searching the world for a Phillip K. Dick Plot Device that can erase the second period from existence. Ryan Getzlaf was pretty much invisible, until he suddenly appeared in Ray Emery's kitchen. Getzlaf's game-tying goal never should have happened, but Emery got beat while moving laterally, as he usually does.

The Ducks seemed to have a better game plan: Forecheck aggressively on offense, bend without breaking on defense, and bank on Giguere's experience. If it wasn't for some odd bounces, the Senators could easily have been shut out in this game. They were pretty good when momentum had swung their way in the second, but they were overwhelmed when the ice was tilted in Anaheim's favor.

With the Ducks holding home-ice advantage, Ottawa will need to win at least one game in Honda Center. If they don't make Game 2 that road win, they may have to hope for Anaheim to have one of those bad games at Scotiabank Place. That's a dangerous situation to be in, so I expect Bryan Murray to have the Senators back on track Wednesday night.

Game 2
Emery almost stole it. For 2 1/2 periods, Razor was out of his mind. For much of the second period, he had to be, because Anaheim's attack was overwhelming the Senators. He was finally bested when Pahlsson stole the puck from Heatley, charged to the net from the right wing, and snapped a quick shot to the far post while Joe Corvo was turned around. That goal, the only one of the game, came at 14:16 of the third.

The Ducks played a more disciplined game, with only 4 minor penalties. It helped that the refs swallowed their whistles sometime in the second. And the lack of goals wasn't for lack of hustle. It was a total team effort for the Ducks tonight.

Bryan Murray's roster moves were ineffective. Patrick Eaves was out, and Oleg Saprykin was brought in for experience. He racked up a barely-noticeable 7:31 of ice time. Breaking up the Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley line did nothing for the Sens' offense, as Ottawa only got 16 shots on Giguere.

Now the scene shifts to Ottawa for a right proper Saturday night game, and the Senators' last chance to save this series.

Game 3
Bryan Murray got the bad game he was hoping for. The Ducks' propensity for bad penalties came back from the dead, giving Ottawa plenty of opportunities to get momentum back in this series. They didn't get any help from the replay officials. Argue all you want about Alfredsson's kick-in. It doesn't matter if it was intentional or not. When Sidney Crosby and Karel Rachunek had pucks bounce off their skates in previous rounds, the goals were disallowed. Suddenly, they're allowed in the finals? (For the record, I think it was a kick. Alfie changed the angle of his skate after he saw the puck coming.)

Chris Pronger's elbow was the icing on the cake. A one game suspension wasn't enough, especially after Pronger was suspended for the same thing in the Western Conference Finals. However, giving him the two or three games he deserved would create the impression that the league was trying to position the Senators to win the Cup.

Game 4
So much for Pronger's suspension. Ottawa threw everything and the kitchen sink at the Ducks in the first period, and Giguere came within 0.3 seconds of completely demoralizing the Sens. While Anaheim settled down and played a more disciplined game, Ottawa started diving and taking cheap shots, peaking with Alfie's intentional shot at Rob Niedermayer in the closing moments of the second period. Dustin Penner's easy 2-on-1 tap-in, on a beautiful pass from Teemu Selanne, pretty much sealed Ottawa's fate. Now the series returns to Anaheim, with the Ducks needing one more win to claim the Stanley Cup.

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Allow myself to re-introduce… myself.

How often do I not write about hockey? Exactly. I believe an obscure Penguins reference is in order here.

"Rants'n'at" is dead. Long live Vinny T!

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An open letter to NBC, the NHL, and American hockey fans

Setting the Stage

On Saturday, 20 May 2007, the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Buffalo. That game was on American broadcast television on NBC. The stakes were high in this game. An Ottawa victory would end the series, giving the Senators their first berth in the Stanley Cup Finals since the team’s pre-Original Six incarnation. For Buffalo, a win would force a Game 6 in Ottawa on Monday night.

NBC had scheduled coverage of the Preakness Stakes at 5:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. The third period of the hockey game had already run long, and the score was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. Without returning to the studio, the play-by-play announcer stated that, due to the Preakness, overtime of the Ottawa-Buffalo game would switch to Versus, except in the Buffalo viewing area.

Viewers who switched to Versus found that the cable network had not yet joined NBC’s intermission report. They were still showing a strongman competition. The intermission was almost over before Versus picked up the NBC feed.

NBC obviously had no way to predict how long overtime would last. This season, there has already been one three-overtime game. Last season, a playoff overtime lasted only 90 seconds. As it turned out, Ottawa scored to end the game before the post time of the Preakness itself. NBC was still covering the pre-race festivities and interviews, even after Versus had shown the Prince of Wales Trophy presentation and the post-game studio show.

How to Kill Your Already Low Ratings

By switching the hockey game from NBC to Versus, a number of viewers had no way of following the game:

  • Viewers who don’t have cable or satellite were lost entirely, as the hockey game was taken off broadcast television.
  • On Dish Network, Versus is only available on their $90/month top-tier package, the America’s “Everything” Pack. Dish customers who have a less-expensive package were lost.
  • On DirecTV, Versus is available on their $45/month second-tier package, Choice Xtra. DirecTV customers who have the least-expensive Choice package were lost.
  • Versus is owned by Comcast, so most Comcast customers have Versus in their basic service. On many other cable providers, Versus is part of an up-market package if it is available at all.

To compound the problem, high-definition viewers probably had to switch from NBC’s HD feed to the Versus standard-definition feed, since Versus HD has limited market penetration.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal’s other cable networks, which have better coverage than Versus, were showing the following at the 5:00 pm hour:

  • USA: Movie: 50 First Dates
  • Sci-Fi: A rerun of Heroes
  • MSNBC: Documentary: Blood Ties
  • CNBC: Paid Programming

Insult upon Insult

To American hockey fans, this is a blatant slap in the face. NBC had an obvious monetary reason for dumping the game on Versus. There are no TV time-outs in overtime, so NBC would lose the commercials scheduled during the Preakness pre-race show.

However, the way NBC managed the switch displayed nothing but contempt for hockey fans. A perfunctory announcement, then boom, we’re at Pimlico. There was no apology in the announcement. NBC didn’t wait for Versus to pick up the feed before switching to the Preakness.

Worse, Sunday’s broadcast of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals between Anaheim and Detroit made no mention whatsoever of the mismanagement of overtime on Saturday. Neither the pre-game studio hosts nor the game announcers acknowledged the situation.

On NBCSports.com, there has been no mention of the situation. On NHL.com, there has been no mention of the situation, either. There has been no statement at all, from any of the parties involved. No attempt at placating irate hockey fans.

Dick Ebersol, you owe us an apology. Gary Bettman, you owe us an apology.

If you are a hockey blogger willing to excuse NBC’s decision as “good business,” you have no self-respect.

Backbone

NBC, your silent treatment speaks volumes about your attitude toward hockey fans. You apparently consider us so far beneath contempt that we’re not worth apologizing to. Your actions on Saturday demonstrated, in a nutshell, the decades of disrespect that the sport of hockey has suffered at the hands of the American media.

Had this been any other sport, you wouldn’t have left the game in the first place. Even if you had to cut away for the race itself, you would have bent over backwards to keep as many viewers happy as possible. Instead we were disregarded and dumped on Versus without so much as a by-your-leave.

Of course, your insistence on showing games on Saturday afternoon doesn’t help. Saturday prime time is the lowest rated night of the week, so NHL games wouldn’t do much worse than the drama reruns you air now. Ratings might even (gasp) improve in prime time! Saturday night also allows CBC to have more Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts during the playoffs. Best of all, it would give you room to handle overtimes without running into other sporting events. Saturday Night Live is in reruns by playoff time anyway.

Gary Bettman, you and the NHL look desperate to allow NBC to run roughshod over your games. Yes, the Lockout weakened your bargaining position with the American media. (Not that it was strong in the first place.) Allowing your broadcast partners to cut off overtime on a whim, however, is inexcusable. You should have protected HNIC by pushing NBC to air Saturday night games. You should have, at the very least, made sure you weren’t running the end of a playoff hockey game up against another sport’s biggest events.

Hockey bloggers, if you give enough of a damn about the game to write about it on a regular basis, you should have enough pride to put the screws to everybody involved. Aren’t you insulted by this? Aren’t you embarrassed by this? Don’t you feel just a little bit of humiliation when you have to justify your continued support of hockey to all the haters out there?

Allan Muir, I’m calling you out specifically because you’re toeing the corporate-synergy party line. “Just don’t make NBC out as the villain here.” Are you serious? Count the Peacock icons on the front page of SI.com, and then ask yourself why you’re giving NBC a free pass. There is more than enough blame to go around. Nobody should be getting away unscathed.

I fully expect hockey-hating tools like Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti to pounce on this in their columns and on ESPN’s screaming-head talk shows. Every word they write or utter about hockey is an insult in the first place. But I also expect typically reasonable national columnists to show no sympathy whatsoever. They’ll fall back on their dog-eared copy of the American Sports Writer Book of Clichés, trotting out the usual passive-aggressive insults of the game and those of us who love it.

I’m tired of this. Aren’t you?

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Conference Finals Wrap-up

East
#1 Buffalo vs. #4 Ottawa
Prediction
Sabres in a bloody, brutal 7

Results
Ottawa in 5

Buffalo may have gotten the wake-up call they needed, but it was too little, far, far too late.

(Original post follows for posterity)

I'm getting a head start on this series, because it's already over. Somewhere between Manhattan and Buffalo, the Sabres lost their heart. Whatever speed they carried into the playoffs ran out. Ryan Miller is the only reason Game 3 wasn't a blowout, and the one goal he did give up was a fluke. And I don't see any signs that anybody in the Sabres' locker room is trying to shake this team out of its funk. Lindy Ruff sounds exasperated in the post-game press conferences. He already sounds like he's been defeated. (Ruff : Adams Award :: Nowitzki : NBA MVP) Somebody in that room needs to deliver a passionate rally cry, or a stick-slamming, paint-peeling tirade to wake his teammates up, or something. I just don't know who's going to do it.

Ottawa, on the other hand, looks unstoppable. Their defense has taken over every game in this series. Buffalo has been frustrated at every turn by the Sens' blueliners. Even when Ottawa has fallen into penalty trouble, as they did in Game 3, their penalty killers have completely derailed the Sabres power play. Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley have dominated the ice at times. And Ray Emery just keeps building up confidence.

West
#1 Detroit vs. #2 Anaheim

Prediction
Ducks in 6

Results
Ducks in 6

This series came down to who had more aggression. Anaheim has it in spades, but Detroit was more than capable of fighting back. Unfortunately for Hockeytown, they had to empty the tank in the 3rd period of game 6 just to get within one goal. In the end, the youthful energy of Ducks like Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner wore the Wings out.

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The Conference Finals

East
#1 Buffalo vs. #4 Ottawa
On Bill Clement's signal, unleash hell.

If ever there was a series that demanded a soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails, this one is it. Division rivalries always have a little extra grit, but this is ridiculous. If anybody needs a reminder, think back to 21 February.

Ottawa's Chris Neil blindsides Chris Drury. The rest of the game is mayhem. Fists fly everywhere. Martin Biron finds himself in a fight with Ray Emery. Emery is laughing. Buffalo thug Andrew Peters finds himself in a fight with Ray Emery. Emery is still laughing. Emery is a goalie, by the way.

Note to the Sabres: All goalies are a little bit nuts, but Ray Emery is another kind of nuts entirely. He's also the better goaltender in this series.

However, Buffalo has more scoring depth. Ottawa relied on Heatley, Spezza, and Alfredsson for most of their offense against New Jersey. Then again, the Devils have a better defense than the Senators.

OK, I'm just talking in circles because I have no idea who is going to win this. The teams are that close. My original pick was Buffalo, and they have home-ice advantage, so I'll stick with that.

Prediction
Sabres in a bloody, brutal 7

West
#1 Detroit vs. #2 Anaheim
Two top goaltenders in Dominik Hasek and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. All three Norris Trophy nominees: Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger for the Ducks, Nicklas Lidstrom for the Wings. You know what this means, don't you? Every game is going to end 6-4. That's how these things usually go in the playoffs.

The Red Wings are a little more banged up right now. They're really going to miss Mathieu Schneider, who is done for the year after breaking his wrist in the San Jose series. Not that Anaheim is fresh as a daisy. Have you seen Teemu Selanne lately? His face looks like 10 miles of bad road. If he has to play 14 more games this post season, he'll look like Gerry Cheevers' old mask. And he doesn't mind it a bit, because he's hungry, he has a bright young team around him, and two of the best blueliners in the game at his back.

Detroit has experience on their side, but sooner or later, they're going to run out of gas.

Prediction
Ducks in 6

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Round 2 Results

The Conference Finals start on Thursday. I'll have my picks up by then.

East

#1 Buffalo vs. #6 NY Rangers
Prediction
Sabres in 7

Results
Sabres in 6

The way this series was going, I had a feeling that the first team to win a road game would win the series. Both teams held serve on their home rinks through Game 5, and with the exception of Game 1, every game in the series was decided by one goal. That put the pressure in Buffalo to win Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, especially after the Sabres were :08 and one Chris Drury goal from losing Game 5. Jaromir Jagr played the most inspired post-season hockey we've seen from him since his days in Pittsburgh, but the Sabres found a way to stay one step ahead.

#2 New Jersey vs. #4 Ottawa
Prediction
Senators in 6

Results
Senators in 5

Hey, Lou! Guess what? Your system isn't so automatic that any old fool can coach it. Not that Claude Julien would have helped against a Senators team that just keeps building momentum. The goaltending match-up turned out backwards: Ray Emery brimming with confidence, and Martin Brodeur getting beaten glove-hand way too often. Scott Gomez boosted his free agent value with his scoring touch, but a lack of scoring depth hurt the Devils.

West

#1 Detroit vs. #5 San Jose
Prediction
Sharks in 6

Results
Red Wings in 6

For the first time in years, Detroit showed some killer instinct in the second round. After losing Game 1 at home, they bounced back. Taking Game 4 in San Jose gave them all the momentum they needed. Even an uncharacteristic soft goal that Dominik Hasek let through to give the Sharks the first goal of Game 5 didn't make a difference in Detroit's attitude. The Sharks, on the other hand, couldn't get out of the Wings' slow, steady grip. San Jose couldn't find the grit down the stretch, and allowed Detroit to out-hustle them.

#2 Anaheim vs. #3 Vancouver

Prediction
Canucks in 5

Results
Ducks in 5

So much for sticking with my original picks. Score, Canucks. You have to score. Your power play can not be that pathetic. Your top lines can not cruise through the offensive zone. You can not hang your goaltender out to dry. Game 5 would have been a 7-1 bloodbath, not a 2-1 double-overtime thriller, if Roberto Luongo hadn't played lights-out. At least until Rob Niedermayer interfered with a Canucks player on the boards. Then Luongo finally let his guard down, too busy complaining to the refs to notice that brother Scott had just fired a wrist shot from just inside the blue line. But the rest of the team let Luongo down long before Luongo let them down.

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Handicapping the NHL awards

The NHL announced the finalists for their annual awards today. Some usual suspects, some new faces, and a first-ever tie in the nomination voting.

First, for the statistical awards:
Art Ross (total points): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh (120 points)
"Rocket" Richard (goals): Vincent LeCavalier, Tampa (52 goals)
William Jennings (team goals against): Nicklas Backstrom and Manny Fernandez, Minnesota Wild (183 GA)
President's Trophy (best regular season record): Buffalo Sabres (53-22-7, 113 points)

Now, for the voted awards:
Calder (Rookie of the year)

  • Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
  • Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh
  • Paul Stastny, Colorado

Staal earned his place on this list with his solid 2-way play and exceptional penalty killing, leading the league with 7 short-handed goals. But this award is Evgeni Malkin's to lose. Stastny had a rookie-record 20 game points streak, and he needed that just to get close to Malkin's lead in points among rookies.

Snubbed: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles. A combination of injuries and Stastny's streak bumped the young Slovenian from the finalists.

Frank J. Selke (Best defensive forward)

  • Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina
  • Sami Pahlsson, Anaheim
  • Jay Pandolfo, New Jersey

Brind'Amour is a safe pick, and the defending winner. Pandolfo may lose votes because of New Jersey's system, but Devils have won in the past, so don't count him out. Pahlsson, like most west coast players, has flown under the radar, but that's true of most Selke candidates, anyway. John Tortorella's mantra may be "Safe Is Death", but Lightning players don't vote for this award. Call it for Rod Brind'Amour.

Snubbed: Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh. This is one of the toughest awards for a rookie to get nominated for, so it's no surprise that Staal missed the cut.

Hart (MVP)

  • Martin Brodeur, New Jersey
  • Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
  • Roberto Luongo, Vancouver

It's difficult for goalies to win the Hart in general. It's even tougher when two nominated goalies split the vote. Add Sidney Crosby to the nomination list, and… well, Brodeur and Luongo don't stand a chance.

Snubbed: Vincent LeCavalier, Tampa. Once, everybody laughed when a Lightning exec called Vinny "the Michael Jordan of hockey." Maybe it's still hyperbole, but LeCavalier, with sidekick Martin St. Louis, carried the Lightning this year.

Jack Adams (Coach of the year)

  • Lindy Ruff, Buffalo
  • Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh
  • Alain Vigneault, Vancouver

Ruff is the defending winner here, and raised the Sabres' game this year, leading them to the best record in the league. Under Vigneault, the Canucks had the best second-half record in the league. Therrien's Penguins had the 4th best season-to-season improvement in NHL history, gaining 47 points over 2005-2006. Ruff and Vigneault are strong candidates, but Michel Therrien, Bellowing Moose be damned, is going to win this award, having done a masterful job of managing lines and motivating young players to exceed all expectations in Pittsburgh.

Snubbed: Claude Julien, New Jersey. That's right, a coach that got fired 5 days before the end of the regular season. That firing had nothing to do with Julien's performance, and everything to do with Lou Lamoriello's ever-expanding delusions of grandeur.

James Norris (Best defenseman)

  • Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
  • Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim
  • Chris Pronger, Anaheim

Holy usual suspects, Batman! A most unimaginative list, this one. I'll go with Nicklas Lidstrom, if only because the Ducks players will split their votes.

Snubbed: Marek Malik, NY Rangers. +32? On that defense?

Lady Byng (Sportsmanship)

  • Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit
  • Joe Sakic, Colorado
  • Martin St. Louis, Tampa

Ah, the old "Hit Em With Your Purse" Award, where nominations go to guys with lots of points, but few penalty minutes. Usually hard to read, because there's not a lot to set the nominees apart, and this year is no different. I'll go with experience and say Joe Sakic.

Not Snubbed: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh. If he didn't have such overwhelming talent, he'd be a sober Theo Fleury.

Lester B. Pearson (Players' Association MVP)

  • Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
  • Vincent LeCavalier, Tampa
  • Roberto Luongo, Vancouver

The players like to vote for guys with overwhelming talent. Witness last year, where Joe Thornton won the Hart, but the players selected Jaromir Jagr. I think there's a consensus this year: Sidney Crosby.

Snubbed: Chris Drury, Buffalo. Hard to believe that Lindy Ruff is the only man on the Sabres' payroll to be nominated for anything, given their tremendous performance this season. Drury consistently performs at a high level, and is well-respected around the league. What's a Little League World Series champion gotta do to get some respect around here?

Georges Vezina (Best goaltender)

  • Martin Brodeur, New Jersey
  • Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary
  • Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers
  • Roberto Luongo, Vancouver

For the first time since this voting system was put into place, there was a tie for third, leading to four candidates. King Henrik was solid, and Kipper carried the Flames at times this season, but this will come down to Brodeur and Luongo. Brodeur was out of his mind this season, but I don't think he's going to win it. Roberto Luongo had toiled behind poor defenses in the hockey backwater of Sunrise, FL for years. With the Canucks, he had a chance to prove his mettle in the Canadian spotlight, and he seized that opportunity. Getting shelled almost as often as he did with the Panthers, Luongo posted stellar numbers. The knock on Brodeur is that New Jersey's defensive system has as much to do with his numbers as his own skill. It's hardly fair, but it may just keep him from besting Luongo this year.

Snubbed: Ryan Miller, Buffalo; Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim. Gee, you'd think goaltending would have something to do with finishing the regular season with 110+ points.

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