Saturday, May 29, 2010

Someone Must Be Blamed

“This is all your fault. All you had to do was win a shootout. If the Flyers win the Stanley Cup, I’ll never forgive you.”

These were the words I sent to a good friend and Rangers fan in the aftermath of the Flyers Mike Richards lifting the Prince of Wales trophy after eliminating the Montreal Canadiens and advancing as the Eastern Conference representation in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

Forty-eight days ago the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers went to an overtime shootout in game number 82, the last of the regular season. With an overtime point apiece, both teams sat deadlocked at 87 points for the final seed of the Eastern Conference. The winner of the three round shoot out would advance to the postseason. The loser was done.

That was how close the Flyers came to not even making the dance. Tied at 1-1 in the third round, Claude Giroux beat Henrik Lundqvist, putting the season on Flyer’s goaltender Brian Boucher. He saved the Olli Jokinen backhand shot, and the Flyers made it into the playoffs on the last play of their regular season.

That was how close I was, as a Penguins fan deep in Flyers territory, from avoiding this whole ordeal.

Twenty-two days ago the Flyers entered overtime in game four of the second round series tied 4-4 with the Boston Bruins. After eliminating their Atlantic division rivals, the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, the Flyers had struggled mightily with the Bruins. After a tight overtime loss in the series opener in Boston, the Flyers dropped games two and three. Down three games to none, the Flyers entered overtime in game four in front of a home Wachovia Philly crowd, a single goal away from being swept into elimination.

In overtime the Flyers killed a two minute boarding call on Darroll Powe, and Boucher made nine saves. Each shot was a potential season ender. With less than six minutes left in the first overtime Mike Richards won a neutral zone face-off and the Flyers gained the offensive zone. Simon Gagne, back in his first game after injuring a toe in the Devils series, set up in front of Tuuka Rask at the top of the crease. Matt Carle unleashed a shot from a distance, Gagne redirected past the Boston goaltender and into the net, and once again the Flyers managed to stay alive.

A week later the Flyers skated back on to Boston Garden ice after an improbable comeback, overcoming the loss of Boucher, winning games five and six, and evening the series at three games apiece. But only fifteen minutes into the deciding game seven the Flyers again starring elimination in the face. Back-up goalie Michael Leighton had allowed three goals on 13 shots. Down 3-0, the Flyers had a seemingly uncermountable task in front of them when head coach Peter Laviolette called a timeout to address his team. And they responded.

After getting on the board with a late first period goal, the Flyers dominated the second period, tacking on two more goals, and tying the game at three. Seven minutes into the third period, the longest tenured Flyer Simon Gagne once again answered the call from the Philly faithful, netting a power-play goal, the eventual game-winner as the Flyers came back from being down 3-0 in both the series and the game to win both, 4-3.

Five days ago the Flyers completed the four games to one series win over the Montreal Canadiens, thanks largely to three shutouts by the back-up Leighton and the Flyers defense. Mike Richards lifted that Prince of Wales trophy, and the team that’s playoff involvement hinged on an overtime shootout in the final game of the regular season, a team that fell down three games to none and completed the unlikely comeback for the first time in 35 years, advanced to the Finals. Four wins away from engraving their names forever on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Now my Rangers friend was quick to point out that I was actually pulling for the Flyers to beat the Habs. Which is a low-down dirty,vile, and slanderous aspersion to cast upon my good name.

It is also absolutely true.

Of course I wanted the trap-playing Habs to lose. The closer they got towards winning the Cup, the more and more we ran the risk of setting the trend, a la the 1995 Devils, for lackluster teams to try their hand at succeeding by playing the trap. And most importantly of all, this would have been all my Penguins fault. After all, they were ones who failed to eliminate Montreal in back-to-back games when they were up 3-2 in the series.

But at the cost of the Flyers making the Cup final? Someone has to be blamed.

Tonight Philadelphia takes on the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening game of the Cup series, a high-flying team completely unlike the kind of which they have seen over the past seven weeks. The Devils were 19th in goals this regular season, notching 217. The Bruins were 30th, last in the league, with a measly 196. The Canadiens were 26th with 210. The Western Conference Champion Blackhawks finished third in the league, amassing 262.

The Chicago Blackhawks have tallied four or more goals eight times this post-season. But then again, the Flyers have held opposing teams to less than two goals eight times this post-season as well. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

If you put any weight into the predictions of NHL experts, the Flyers are once again facing long odds. Which, based on the last forty-eight days on their calendar, has become the status quo.

Which has me, understandably a little nervous, and looking for someone to blame.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seventh Times the Charm

One hundred sixty-five minutes and fifty seconds of hockey ago Milan Lucic flew down the ice, hit the right point and threw a wrist shot that beat Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton low far-side, putting the Boston Bruins up 3-0 in the first period of a decisive game seven. Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette called a rare first period time out and gathered his skaters and goalie around the bench and gave them two options. Either give up now, or get back in the game. The answer was obvious, especially for Leighton, who has made a career and filled a closet with AHL and NHL sweaters by not giving up.

The Flyers responded coming back in the final game, just as they had in the series, to win 4-3. In the over eight periods since then the Flyers and Leighton have yet to surrender a goal. Now, two games into the Eastern Conference Finals, a dominant Leighton has shutout the Montreal Canadiens in back-to-back games, the Flyers have scored 13 unanswered goals, and sit two wins away from their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1997.

This past December, when the Flyers picked Leighton off the waiver wire, he could have been had by anyone. Three seasons ago, he basically was.

A fifth round selection by the Chicago Blackhawks in1999, Leighton didn’t even see NHL ice until four years later in 2003. After six years in the Blackhawks organization and only 42 NHL games played, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Milan Bartovic.

Not exactly a transaction to put on your resume. If you haven’t heard of Bartovic, worry not, neither has anyone else.

After a season in the AHL with Buffalo, the Sabres let his contract expire and Leighton signed with the Anaheim Ducks for 2006-07 season. Less than two months into the season, and without seeing any time in Anaheims crease, the Ducks placed him on waivers, giving the other 29 teams in the league the opportunity to take over his contract for nothing in return.

Claimed by the Nashville Predators, Leighton played exactly twenty minutes for the team before once again finding himself on the waiver wire. Claimed next by the Flyers, he played four games, allowed 12 goals, and was waived again. The next jersey in his closet was that of the Montreal Canadiens, though he never wore it on ice. Before the season was out, and without playing a game for the Habs, Leighton was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 7th round pick.

In one season he was waived thrice, traded once, and a member of five franchises. Altogether, he played in five NHL games.

In Carolina Leighton found a spot backing up Cam Ward. Over two and half seasons he saw time in 29 games with less than impressive results. In his last two games with the Hurricanes this past November he allowed 8 goals on 57 shots, losing both.

On December 12th, 2009 the 28-year-old goaltender was once again placed on waivers, for the fourth time in his career.

And while as a hockey player approaching 30, being waived may not be a badge of honor, it’s not the end of an NHL career. But going through waivers without a single taker can be. Without an interested party, Leighton was assigned to the Albany River Rats.

Three days later the Hurricanes received a call on behalf of an old friend. Peter Laviolette led the 2006 Hurricanes on the back of the out coming of young franchise goalkeeper Cam Ward before being unceremoniously dismissed after a poor start to the 2008 season. A week into replacing John Stevens in Philadelphia mid-season, Laviolette was faced with finding another goaltender after enigmatic off-season acquisition Ray Emery went down with a torn muscle in his abdomen. Laviolette called on his former backup in Carolina to support veteran stop-gap Brian Boucher.

Six days into his time in Philadelphia Leighton took over goaltending duties when Boucher injured a finger. Leighton manned the crease for the Flyers until Emery’s brief return in January, and took back over early February when Emery left due to injury once again.

Continuing the season long trend for the Flyers goaltenders, Leighton himself fell to the injury bug in March, injury his left ankle. Boucher took back over for the Flyers, leading the team into the playoffs, and upsetting the number two seed and Atlantic Division rival New Jersey Devils in the opening round.

In game five of the second round series, with the Flyers down three games to one against the Boston Bruins, Leighton was called on once again to fill the net after Boucher collided with a teammate and torn his MCL.

And yet tonight, as the Flyers hit Montreal ice in front of the packed Bell Centre, with their fifth goaltender of the season, and their third of the playoffs, an aging often-waived goaltender that has bounced from team to team, one foot in the AHL one foot in the NHL, a goaltender that every team in the league passed on only five months ago, they are still alive largely based on the performance Leighton has put on in the crease. In four plus games he's amounted a 0.87 goals against average, a save percentage of .969, two shutouts, and five wins.

Nearly three hours straight of shutout hockey, Leighton has saved the last 70 pucks that came his way, and 120 minutes away from capturing the Prince of Wales Trophy and taking his team, the team that finally gave him his shot, if only because of a cavalcade of injuries, to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sideline Seats

As the puck drops on the Conference finals, don’t mind me if I don’t quite know what to do. For the first time since June 2008, NHL hockey is being played and the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t in on it. I feel lost.

Don’t get me wrong, no one should feel even the slightest bit sorry for me. Eleven months ago my boyhood team raised the Stanley Cup for the first time that it really ever meant anything to me. I am completely undeserving of sympathy, this I know. And yet here I am, maybe “struggling to find new meaning in the NHL postseason” is an over-dramatic way of putting it, but at the very least "settling into this new perspective".

The Montreal Canadiens v. Philadelphia Flyers series is a complete no-win situation for me. It’s bound to give me ulcers. I’ve looked at it from every possible perspective, playing out each scenario like the computer playing Tic-Tac-Toe in WarGames, and come to the conclusion that the only way to win is to not play the game.

So let’s start out West.

Repeating the story on the San Jose Sharks seems pointless. We all know the backstory. They have become so synonymous with playoff choking that when the President trophy winning Washington Capitals lost their opening round series to the Habs I mockingly called them “San Jose East”.

And, yes, I don’t know who coined the phrase “What goes around comes around”, but I genuinely despise that person.

The Sharks well-earned reputation for not being able to win the big games reminds me of pre-Super Bowl XLI Peyton Manning. But then 2007 came around for Manning, he finally did what Marino had never done, and he shook that “chocker” tag that had been draped around his neck.

Of course, he proceeded to get knocked out of the NFL playoffs by the rival San Diego Chargers in their opening games in 2008 and 2009, and then just this past February led the Colts to just 17 points in their Super Bowl loss to the New Orleans Saints. And yet, deservedly or not, that reputation is gone because he won the big game. That’s what the Sharks are playing for. A shot at redemption.

Can San Jose pull it off? They are certainly capable of it. Will they? I imagine just about every hockey prognosticator has been burned by past Sharks playoff performances. No one can be blamed for picking against them. Especially with the Chicago Blackhawks primed to make good on the promise they showed in their run to the ’09 Conference Finals. The Sharks could put together a solid series and not advance.

After all, let us not forget that with the offseason commitment to the Indian by transient star winger Marian Hossa, the Hawks have to make it on for Hossa to extend his consecutive Cu p Finals lost streak to three.

Regardless, it should be a great series. Without taking anything away from the two teams out East, I think we are looking at the best series we’ll see this postseason. We didn’t get the Penguins v. Capitals showdown that had Versus and NBC salivating, but we got a hell of a match-up. The more established really good team, with key players aging and heading towards free agency, making what should be one of their last attempts at greatness, at least in their current incarnation. And an up-an-coming team, revitalizing a once proud hockey town fallen upon hard times, and looking to go the distance after falling 3 wins short of a Cup appearance last May.

Back in the East, I believe I earlier made a comparison between it and nuclear holocaust. The Montreal Canadiens having eliminated my Penguins in the second round, and the Philadelphia Flyers being the Penguins archenemy. I’d say it’s like Vader v. Drago, but at least those two film characters had some redeeming qualities by the end of Return of the Jedi/Rockey IV.

To just call the Eastern Conference a mess does a grave disservice to the situation. The only time a higher seed has advanced in the East this postseason was the fourth seeded Penguins beating the Ottawa Senators in the opening round.

We have a number seven seed Flyers that started five different goalies during the regular season, three of whom played more than 25 games. Three tenders have seen postseason time. Picked off the waiver wire in December, Michael Leighton, who replaced Ray Emery before being replaced by Brian Boucher, now replaces Boucher to try and lead Philly to the Cup Finals.

Forget that the rest of the team is a powerhouse that flirts with juggernaut status when Daniel Briere is contributing. They were down three games to none to Boston before storming back and winning it in seven games. I have no clue what to make of this team. They might be Cam Ward and the 2005 Carolina Hurricanes. They might be Johan Hedberg and the 2001 Penguins.

Now the Habs, I know exactly what to make of them. Though I’m hesitant to say, lest I get tagged as a bitter sore loser. But in the famous words of Admiral Ackbar of the Rebel Alliance, “It’s a trap!”

I know it’s more than that. I know that Halak has been masterful. I know the Habs have made him look absolutely Patrick Roy-esque by limiting opponents to long-distance shots. I know Michael Cammalleri has outplayed both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. But let’s just call a spade and spade, they play the trap. And that scares the hell out of me.

To what extent the trap is back and to what end, who is to say. But if you aren’t thinking about the 1995 New Jersey Devils and getting just a touch concerned about the future of the game, well than you probably aren’t an alarmist. But I am.

And a bitter one at that.

Eventually I’ll get completely settled in to my sideline seats for the rest of the postseason. I’ll try and enjoy it, because after that it’s all Pirates baseball – they should have their 17th consecutive losing season wrapped up by mid-August – followed by Steelers football – led by serial (alleged) rapist Ben Roethlisberger.

Wait … when does the puck drop on the Penguins 2010-11season?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nervous Musings

How We Got Here, and How We Beat the Habs Rope-A-Dope Defense
A month ago, anxiously awaiting the puck to drop on the NHL postseason, I harped on two things to anyone that would even feign a lent ear. One, as a Penguins fan an eventual match-up with the New Jersey Devils would be our undoing. More than anyone else, they scared me. It was an individual match-up thing. They happened to play a system that corresponded almost perfectly with the Penguins. Remember when you were playing Nintendo Tecmo Bowl and your buddy on defense picked the exact right play call? The defense would tear through the O-line like it was wet tissue paper, slaughter any blocking back and decimate your QB. It was like that. Only uglier. In their six meetings this season the Penguins weren’t just swept by the division-rival Devils, New Jersey didn’t even yield an OT loss consolation point. It was a shellacking.

And two, I said any team facing Pittsburgh should pull the tapes from those Devils games. If they have the guys to play the system, even if for only one series, they had the Penguins number. I said this over and over, mostly just hoping to jinx it so that no team would actually follow through on it.

In our email Pick ‘em Pool, no one was surprised that everyone picked the Washington Capitals to advance past the Montreal Canadiens. I had the sweep, Caps in four. In fact, I though the entire Eastern Conference would go chalk. There just seemed to be a talent gap between the top 4 and bottom 4 playoff teams. By the time the Habs pushed the President Trophy winning Capitals to a decisive Game 7, the East, already openly acknowledged as the Nation League of hockey, had imploded.

Going into the first round against the Devils, the Flyers did their best to set an example for Earth Day by putting to practice the “re-use” policy.  Philly plucked Brian Boucher off the used goalie trash heap, throwing him, once again, between the pipes. Thus continuing a trend in the Flyers crease that only parallels behind Spinal Taps drum set.

And yet, while I was doing my best Chicken Little impersonation at even the slightest mention of the Devils, every Flyers fan I talked to liked the match-up. They had reason, Philly owned the New Jersey in their six division games. And Boucher turned in a baffling brilliant series, outplaying Martin Broduer, and dispatching the Devils in five games.

The third seeded Buffalo Sabres, backstopped by the man who led US to its Silver medalin Vancouver, Ryan Miller faced the woefully offensive challenged Boston Bruins. It had all the makings for a painless and forgettable first round series. I had the Bruins pegged for single digits in total goals. But the Sabres unraveled in front of Miller before the first puck hit the ice, and another top seed was left shaking hands at center ice, wondering just what went wrong.

By the time the Canadiens completed the comeback from being down three games to one, stealing Game 7 in DC, I joined my fellow Penguins brethren in treating the evening like a spontaneous holiday. I threw around the phrase “San Jose East”. I dedicated The Faints “I Disappear” to Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Alex Ovechkin. It was a free-for-all. I tweeted that I was going to do a “#Caps” search and spend the next three weeks reading everything from that night. The first round could not have possibly gone better. Down Goes Brown summed it up perfectly: The Penguins have to feel like a running back who breaks through a tough tackles, looks up, and sees all open field.

I exuded confidence going into the second round match-up against the eighth seed Habs. I chalked up their upset of the Capitals to two things. First, Jaroslav Halak playing completely out of his mind. And second, the much maligned build of the Washington roster. The go-to instant analysis was that the high flying Caps were built for the regular season, putting the puck in the net with a reckless abandon while playing a different team every other night. But when a team had time to prepare and make the necessary adjustments, the one-dimensional Caps were sunk. I bought in, mostly because as a Pittsburgh fan I was basking in the DC failure. I thought the Habs had to be tired after the long series. I though Halak might steal a game or two. I did not think Montreal could make it happen again. I picked the Pens in six.

Game one went just about as well as I could have hoped. The Penguins got to the net, hindered Halak, and put up three first period goals. By early in the third period they had chased Halak, who allowed 5 goals on 20 shots. They won handily 6-3. Even with Jordan Staal needing emergency surgery to repair a torn tendon in his foot, my confidence grew. Murmurs out of Montreal had Carey Price getting a look to start game two.

Game two started off the same. Halak got the call to return to the crease only minutes before the game. Max Talbot scored an early goal filling in for Staal as the third line center, and all the sudden that “everyone’s contributing” feeling sprang forth. Even when the Habs tied it back up at 1-1, things felt right. Over a stretch from the second period to the third the Penguins outshot the Candiens 30-5. It felt like that overwhelming offensive attack that briefly made an appearance in Pittsburgh coming back from the Olympic break. But as the game bled on without the Penguins scoring, it became a different type of game. The type of game that you dominate for 95% of the time, but fail to put it away, and lose it all on one bad break. Montreal scored on one of only three shots they had in the second period. Camalleri tacked on a third goal in the final frame, and Craig Adams five-minute boarding penalty sealed the game.

The Penguins had nearly doubled the Habs in shots, 39-21. They overwhelming controlled the puck. But Halak and the Canadiens withstood the attack, made good on their scarce opportunities, and the series was tied at a game apiece.

Take that formula and repeat it for games 3, 4, 5, and 6. Pittsburgh outshots Montreal, but the games were low-scoring affairs. The Pens took Game 3 2-0, but Montreal answered in Game 4. Again the Penguins controlled the puck and peppered Halak to no avail. Montreal took control in the third period, scoring twice for the 3-2 come-for-behind victory. The Penguins squeaked out a win back at home in Game 5, 2-1. Montreal forced a Game 7 with a 4-2 Game 6 victory in front of a ruckus Bell Centre crowd. Once again, after stifling one of the league’s most dominant teams, the Canadiens looked to pull off a historical upset.

And so there I sat in silence, after a 12-hour work day, having been up for nearly 24 hours, and after watching the Penguins being forced to the brink of elimination by an eighth seed, thinking to myself, “Just how exactly in the hell is this happening?”

The easiest answer is the same conclusion that we were too quick to arrive at after the Caps had their number called: Jaroslav Halak. The Penguins were putting it on net, and he was keeping it out. There was undeniably truth in that conclusion, but, like most easy answers, there was more to the story.While the Habs didn’t have the puck on the blade of their sticks, they had overwhelmingly controlled where the Penguins played the puck. Which all started with the neutral zone  trap.

Without pulling out the whiteboard, slipping on my tweed jacket, and going too far into Hockey 101, the Habs have eliminated the Penguins rush attack by bringing a forward back to play with the defense in the Montreal side of the neutral zone. By always having an extra skater back, odd-man rushes, which often yield high scoring shots between the circles, are eliminated.

The age old response to the trap is the even more boring “dump and chase”. Gain the blue-line, throw the puck into a corner, beat the defenders to the puck and attempt to establish possession. All of this is pedestrian, a rehashing of any game played against the New Jersey Devils or Minnesota Wild in the last 15 years. I hate the trap. Like reality television, we all know it’s bad for us. I know it. You know it. Everyone knows it. But it works, and so we’ll probably never get rid of it. But what Montreal is doing goes beyond the trap.

Even after the Penguins have established puck possession in the offensive zone, the Canadiens have dictated where the puck has been by absolutely shutting down areas of the attack zone, largely behind the net, along the low sideboards, and between the circles. In doing so, they have jammed a cog in the Penguins cycle, constantly making the only option the escape valve defender along the blue-line. But with the puck on the Penguins defenders stick, they back off into a “rope-a-dope” defense, daring the Penguins to pepper Halak with shots from 45+ feet.

Against just about any other goaltender Pittsburgh would be thrilled to have noted blue-line scoring threat Sergei Gonchar racking up 12 shots in the series. He’s made a career putting the puck in the net from long distance. But not against Halak. Not when Halak can see the puck and the Penguins have been unable to get the need deflections in front of the net.

Of the Penguins 37 shots in Game 6, only eight came from between the circles. Three came from the sideboards, and a whopping 25 came from beyond the circles and along the blue-line. Of the 25 long distance shots, only three were deflected on goal. Not surprisingly, none of those clean shots from long distance amounted to any scoring. All three of the Penguins goals came from those scarce opportunities between the circles.

Shots abound, the Penguins are playing into the same hockey game that the Canadiens used to send the Capitals to their early graves. DC outshot Montreal 134-66 in the seven game series. Their lowest total was 36. When the Canadiens were on their game, it was useless. In the three Capitals victories they scored 17 goals. In their four losses, only five goals.

Seemingly the answer for Pittsburgh goes against every hockey platitude ever uttered. “Every shot is a good shot.” “You missed 100% of the shots you never take.” Largely these are statements ring true. I’ve seen countless big goals come off pedestrian shots that found the back of the net from unlikely stickblades. I’ve seen Darius Kasparaitis seal a series with an OT goal. However, against Halak, pedestrian shots will not cut it. Not with the way he is playing, they are as good as turnovers - squandered opportunities. Everything thrown his way from 50 feet he is going to stop. So the answer: turn down shots.

In the Penguins three victories against Montreal they have amounted 24, 25, and 25 shots. In their 3 losses, they have shot 39, 35, and 37. But don’t let the high totals fool you, they are trash shots. Pucks thrown on the net just hoping something good might happen. Something you can except from the third or fourth lines. Something the Penguins top two scoring lines can no longer accept.

In the past Sidney Crosby has been accused of passing too much, overplaying the puck, getting too cute with the playmaking. Now? Now is the time to do all of the above. Attempt cross passes dissecting the Habs defense, force them. Attempt slap shot passes to the side of the net. Because those perimeter shots won’t cut it. They Habs are giving them to the Pens because they aren’t afraid of them. Take less shots, but take better shots.

In what may be the Penguins last gave ever skated on Civic Arena ice, they are just going to have to ignore that guy. Yeah, “that one”. The one that choses random moments of the game to stand up and drunkenly bellow “Shoot the puck”.

We don’t need more shots, we need better shots, more goals.