THE CREAM OF THE CROP

 

Well, so much for the theory of the West being the stronger conference, no Detroit, no Colorado, no Dallas, no St. Louis, no Vancouver. 

New Jersey is back in familiar territory as Eastern Conference Champions, and if they have their way, Stanley Cup Champions.  They still have to play one series to get it done.  As unlikely a match up as this is, I think we have one hell of a dandy series coming up.  Iíve heard a lot made about how the winner of the Eastern Conference final series would walk away with the Cup.  Letís get real here.  The Eastern Final went to a seventh and deciding game and the entire series consisted of lucky bounces, the luckiest of them all ending up on Jeff Friesenís stick.  In hockey thereís a saying you have to be good to be lucky and you have to be lucky to be good.  We can make this argument for both teams who are here.  Forget all about the fact Anaheim is the seventh seed in the west going up against the second seed in the east.  Forget about the fact New Jersey was 2-0 in the regular season against the Ducks.  Just like in the Ottawa-New Jersey series, itís going to come down to who wants it more and who can prove it on the ice, period.

The 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs have certainly had their share of memorable moments.  Itís almost a crime weíll have to witness arguably one of the most boring final series ever, unless you happen to be a Devils or Ducks fan.  Boring if youíre not a fan of either team, but the most beautiful hockey youíve ever witnessed if you are.  Donít forget, the system these two teams play wins hockey games.  I can hear the hockey critics after this one: ďget the league realigned and do it nowĒ.  I read an interesting article which stated we are about to witness a Stanley Cup final without any stars.  Whoever wrote this article needs to wake up and smell the coffee and look at some of the players on these teams before making such a statement.

I for one think we witnessed the best playoff series of the year during the Eastern Conference Final.  Then again, I live in Ottawa, so why would I think any different?  Even though Iím not a die hard Senators fan, one couldnít help but get cup crazy over the playoff run they had.  The longer the series went on, the more hype was generated.  On the eve of Game 7, people either called in sick or went home early.  Senators parties were plentiful.  Fans were showing up at the Corel Centre in droves to try and get a ticket to the single most anticipated sporting event in the history of the city.  When they realized the tickets were long sold out, they stuck around and watched the game from outside on a huge screen which was set up for the remaining fans.  The Corel Centre has 18,500 seats, but apparently there were close to 30,000 fans who showed up.  When they lost, the most disappointed people were the Senators players themselves, who wanted so much to do it.  The fans appreciated the effort and for once in the eleven year modern history of the club were proud of their team.  Make no bones about it, the Sens will be back here and they will win it all, just not this year.  I said it before and Iíll say it again, you have learn how to lose before you can learn how to win.  Donít ask me why, itís just the way it is. 

I would imagine a similar vibe was felt in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Even though the Western Conference final ended in a sweep, the Wild made it this far in only their third year of existence, and should be very proud of their accomplishments.

My only hope is New Jersey and Anaheim carry the torch and open up play a little bit, stop clutching and grabbing, and go for it.  After all, this is the Stanley Cup Final.  Itís time to prove to all the critics hockey is not a boring game to watch and those who choose not to watch the final donít know what theyíre missing.  Use of the dreaded trap system should only happen when defending a lead late in the game.  Then again, if the first three rounds are any indication, getting the lead could be a task in itself.

This series should play out very similar to how the Eastern Conference Final series did.  A goaltender duel with very little given on both ends of the ice, a timely mistake or bounce which will lead to the ultimate big goal.  The argument can be made about experience prevailing in the end, but I disagree.  While I canít argue the Stanley Cup experience of the Devils, I also like very much what I see on the other side of the coin with Anaheim, a team believing in each other.

The Ducks are a young team with the right mix of veterans who have been here before but on the losing end (at least for the most part), not to mention a sizzling hot goalie.  Adam Oates, Rob Niedermayer, Keith Carney and Steve Thomas are all veterans who have been this far before only to lose.  Thomas scored a key goal in the Detroit series, and has been fairly quiet ever since.  Iím expecting him to come up big at some point in the series.  Oates has been here twice, and judging by his performance in game four of the Minnesota series, he intends to make third time a charm.  Niedermayer played against Sandis Ozolinsh, who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996, and his mid season acquisition was one of the keys to making this playoff run possible to begin with.  Rob gets to play against brother Scott which should make for an intriguing match up.  Captain Paul Kariya has helped lead the charge to this point of the season.  After hearing him state last season how sick he was of losing, how sweet this opportunity must be.  Even though he hasnít been nearly as dominant as weíve seen in the past, just his presence on the ice has paid dividends.  Steve Rucchin has been here since day one and is clearly relishing his role this time around, scoring a few key goals at key times, most notably the overtime clincher in game four of the Detroit series. 

Letís not forget the contributions of the younger stars Jason Krog, Mike Leclerc and even Nicklas Havelid, particularly Leclerc in not one, but two overtime games.  And of course, we canít discount Jean-Sebastien Giguere.  This goalie will remind many folks of a younger Patrick Roy, but he reminds me of a younger Bill Ranford in 1990, a goalie who got hot at the right time.  Forget the fact Mike Babcock is a first year NHL coach up against a veteran in Pat Burns.  It doesnít matter at this point in the game, so I wonít even go there.

This Ducks team has been criticized for playing a boring brand of trap, clutch and grab hockey, but in the games Iíve seen, it has been far from it.  They are a patient bunch who can really kill the offensive team if theyíre not careful.  As for clutch and grab, itís the old ďif-you-canít-beat-it-join-itĒ mentality at work, and if the critics are going to blame the Ducks for using this strategy, I can counter with at least fifteen other teams who use the same strategy, and all the teams who donít were eliminated in the first round.  Really we have the many officials of the game to blame for the state it is in, not the players.  The players are only doing what they can get away with to win, and when the rules change from shift to shift, what is one to do?  Players canít be consistent if the league isnít.  Maybe thereís a silver lining in all of this, and Iíll talk a little more about this after I finish breaking down the series.

Alas, then we have the Devils, a team criticized because they play in the swamps of New Jersey and donít attract a whole lot of fans.  I caught an excellent quote in one of the online hockey forums from a fan who lives near East Rutherford who blames the traffic and infrastructure around the Continental Airlines Arena for the low attendance.  Having been caught in traffic even in Ottawa to get to a Senators game, I can certainly relate.  Then again, if every fan made this excuse thereíd never be spectators at the games, but I thought it brought up a good point.  With every game of the finals starting at 8:00 PM eastern time means when the series shifts to Anaheim itís actually a 5:00 PM Pacific time start!  Oh well, I figure if they can do it for the Los Angeles Lakers, they can do it for the Ducks.  I'm sure the fans will find a way to make it.  Thankfully this time around we donít have a 3:00 PM Saturday matinee.  Matinees are for movies.

I look at the Devils and I canít help but wonder why they are criticized so heavily.  They have virtually the same nucleus of the Stanley Cup winning teams from 1995 and 2000, theyíve simply added to it.  It all starts in net with Martin Brodeur, winner of two previous Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal.  They have three bonafide veteran defensemen in captain Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Ken Daneyko.  Their style is emulated by younger Brian Rafalski, who has also played with this team long enough to be a factor.   Eric Lindros learned the hard way youíd better keep your head up when Stevens is on the ice, or youíll pay for it. 

Without defense, you canít have offense, and New Jersey, like Anaheim, has the right mix of forwards, old and young.  John Madden is having a career year, along with Jay Pandolfo, even though not too many outside of New Jersey have taken notice.  Who said the Devils havenít been scoring?  Jamie Langenbrunner leads the NHL in scoring throughout the playoffs up to this point.  Joe Nieuwendyk, who most likely wonít play game one, is as good a veteran leader as any team needs, and if he ever gets on the scoreboard, look out!  Grant Marshall has been in there for key plays at key times, like the overtime clinching goal in the Tampa Bay series, and the assist on Jeff Freisenís game seven goal in the Ottawa series.  If one needs two more Conn Smythe candidates, look no further than these two.  Jiri Bicek is in his first year in the majors, and already is playing for a Stanley Cup.  Scott Gomez is only four years into his career and is already going for cup number two.  If you canít say anything nice about the Devils, the one thing you canít deny is experience.  Question is, will it be enough?

Expect the final series to be low scoring, unless both teams open it up, which I hope they do.  Expect the first goal to decide a game or two.  When one team grabs the lead, expect them to sit on it and play patient hockey and send in that one fore checker and clog up the neutral zone.  You wonít see much in the way of mistakes, and like in the Eastern final, a timely mistake or bounce is what will decide a game and ultimately the series.  There wonít be a whole lot of room out there, but Iím confident the players who can make a difference will pull out all the stops.  Sure, offense is exciting, but defense is what wins championships.  Both teams will get their chances, and if they know whatís good for them they better capitalize on them.  As for special teams?  Forget about it.  There are bound to be power plays, but most of the time the folks in stripes will be all too content to simply let them play.

During the Stanley Cup final series between New Jersey and Anaheim, you can be sure Jean-Sebastian Giguere will be watched very closely and will get many votes for the Conn Smythe trophy, as will Martin Brodeur.  Make no bones about it, goaltending has stolen the show in the playoffs this year, along with a little luck and baloney along the way.  In any event, Iím getting ďGiggyĒ with it and picking the Ducks goalie for the coveted MVP trophy, no matter who wins.  Without him, Anaheim wouldnít be here, plain and simple.

I look at the roads both teams have taken to get here.  It plays out almost like a movie.  New Jersey had two relatively easy five game series and a grueling seven game series in the conference final to get here.  Then I see Anaheim with a sweep of the Stanley Cup Champions from last year, then, just when everybody thought it was a fluke, down goes the number one seed in the west.  Another sweep in the final four and here come the Ducks.  New Jersey will be a challenge comparable to what Dallas was.  If the Ducks were able to beat them, why canít they beat the Devils?  During the Eastern Conference final, it was said the pressure was all on Ottawa to prove they were the top team in the NHL.  I think even though they lost they were able to prove a few things to themselves and the league.  The Devils literally came within a bounce or a great defensive play of being on the sidelines here.  Now, the pressure ultimately shifts to New Jersey.  They come in the top seed and the expectation would be and should be since this is their fourth final since 1995 they will win it all.  Not so fast.  Enter Anaheim with absolutely no pressure whatsoever to win.  They arenít even supposed to be here, but they are.  Thereís something to be said about karma in the playoffs.  In baseball last fall, the Anaheim Angels had it.  This spring, the Ducks have it.  Even though theyíve managed to sweep two teams to get here, it would be unrealistic to predict they will do it again, but it would also be foolish to count them out.  Call them the Cinderella team to end all Cinderella teams, but at least the parent company of this team owns the rights to the name, not to mention the movie this very teamís name was inspired by.  Midnight is soon to come calling for one of these teams, but not before we witness a very interesting series, no matter what the so-called critics think. 

If you believe in karma, just have a look at the weather in Ottawa over the past few days since the Senators were eliminated, pouring down rain, weather only a duck could love. 

Quack!  May the best team win.

Prediction: Mighty Ducks in Six, the time has come to crown a new champion.

THE GAME BEHIND THE GAME

Over the past year as Iíve been writing this column, Iíve been slightly bothered by the fact hockey is not whispered in the same breath as sports like baseball, football or even basketball are, at least unless you live north of the border in Canada.  As a long time fan of the game, Iíve often wondered, why is this?  Why is hockey everything short of a cult in the nation of ice and snow, yet gets less mention than wrestling everywhere else?

If youíve been following the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, youíll know there have been upsets a plenty.  Thanks to Anaheim, there could be a new champion.  Why then do I still get the sense hockey is still the laughingstock of sports?  Do the fans not get it or do they simply not care?

If you talk to old time fans of the game, theyíll tell you itís no longer fun to watch the game, the best hockey was played before expansion when players werenít paid an arm and a leg to play.  I disagree.  Iíve seen some of the most interesting and innovative hockey since ongoing expansion has happened.  Teams are paying more attention to detail and coaches have developed winning systems.  All the money aside, is there a faster sport on the planet (save for maybe Nascar?)?  I donít think so.  Is there any other sport able to keep fans on the edge of their seat like hockey?  I donít think so.  I know many will disagree with me, and so be it.  If you look at the Stanley Cup final, only two of the NHLís highest paid players are here, Paul Kariya and Martin Brodeur.  We saw a team under bankruptcy protection with a modest payroll in the final four.  It all goes to show money is nice to have but it doesnít necessarily win.

Iíve been guilty of accusing the NHL of attempting to fix the Stanley Cup playoffs just to get T.V. ratings, based on the fact every couple of years there emerges a team or two which on paper has no chance of going anywhere, then before you know it theyíre in the conference finals or even the Stanley Cup finals.  Look at Florida in 1996.  Look at Carolina last year.  Look at Minnesota back in 1991.  Look at Anaheim this year.  Iíve been kicked out of online chat rooms for stating what seems to me like the obvious, and thanks to how the playoffs played out this year, it wasnít until Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final I started to think it again.  Then I started to think about it.  This game is simply a game of mistakes.  Three periods, twenty minutes long.  Not ten, not fifteen, not seventeen, not nineteen.  Twenty minutes, times three.  If a team makes a mistake or gets a lucky bounce with even one second to go, thereís the game.  So much for my theory on the game being fixed for ratings.  Itís being said the final will be the lowest rated in the history of the game.  This is really sad when you think about it, as it could also turn out to be one of the best.

Iíve quietly been checking many of the hockey forums out there since it was known what two teams will play for the right to have their name engraved on the cup.  Iíve learned a couple of things.  Everybody blames everybody else, and the officiating in the NHL is crap.  They definitely have a point there.  Hockey is the only sport I know where the rules change from shift to shift, from period to period, and from game to game.  Throw out certain referees (no names mentioned to protect the innocent), and change the entire complexion of the game versus what would happen if say referee ďYĒ were to have been chosen.  Iíve often wondered why a rule book even exists and why the NHL consistently says they will fix the problems, only to fall back on the same old same old.  Maybe what we need is a course in consistency for everybody involved, right down to the head cheese.  I wonít mention his name, he knows who he is, and Iíve picked on him enough this year.

Am I on to something or am I just blowing hot air?  My sincere hope and belief is once 2004 comes around and all the labor issues are worked out we can get some consistency into the game.  Then again, if the league canít be consistent with the game itself, how can we ever expect there to be consistency in the collective bargaining agreement, and how can we expect the fans to be consistent and continue to buy tickets?  Be afraid, hockey fans, be very afraid.  The prospect of no hockey in 2004 is real, and I find myself cautiously optimistic.  What do you think?  My E-mail address is puckin45@puckinaround.net

And thatís a wrap on the season.  Iíll be back next time around with the final results of the hockey pool and will be sure to find more ways to ďpuck aroundĒ.  For whatever itís worth, enjoy the final, as it will be the last games we will get to see until October.  Hard to believe another season is already wrapping up.

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