Hockey Night: an occasional column #2
[Author’s note, 4.11.08—I wrote this article prior to the start of the Stanley Cup semifinals between the Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars in the west, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers in the east. Among other things, I cited the health of all teams involved—i.e. no major injuries to key players—as a benchmark for a couple of great series. Unfortunately, I think I may have jinxed a couple teams: Right before game 1 of the Flyers-Penguins series, Kimmo Timmonen, the Flyers best defenseman was diagnosed with a blood clot in his left ankle, which leaves him out of the playoffs indefinitely. Then, the Red Wings’ Johan Franzen, the forward who scored 10 goals in a sweep of the Colorado Avalanche in the last series, was scratched because of a concussion. THEN, in game 2 of the Flyers-Penguins series, Braydon Coburn, the Flyers other best defenseman, got hit in the face by a deflected puck and had to get 50 stitches around his nose and his left eye, which leaves him questionable for the rest of the series. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth quiet….]
By some miraculous turn of events and my own shrewd thinking, I am now leading my FFXI linkshell’s hockey playoff pool by the slimmest of margins. You may recall that in my last installment, which primarily disparaged the Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise for his wrong opinions on the Philadelphia Flyers and hockey in general during the Washington Capitals-Philadelphia opening playoff series, I had entered another level of nerd-dom by engaging in a hockey playoff pool played not with cash or credit, but with gil, the precious currency of Vana’ Diel, the world of Final Fantasy XI Online. You might also recall that only one other Philadelphia fan and I picked the Flyers to win that series, which they did, winning in seven games. Now, with the start of the Stanley Cup semifinals tonight, I alone sit atop the rankings with 12 points in the pool, while my nearest contender Sollie (the player name of the other Philadelphia fan) languishes in second with 11 points prior to the start of the Stanley Cup semifinals tonight in Detroit.
There are four teams left, whittled down from an even sixteen. Many hearts and minds have been boosted and broken. Apparel salesmen are alternately reaping/raping the masses with ugly t-shirts, while the other rapes Africa by shipping off his unused and flaccid bulk. Imagine: Somalian kids wearing Ottawa Senators Stanley Cup 2008 t-shirts, size double XL under their bandoliers. What a crushing sight, but I suppose no team wants to go into the playoffs thinking pessimistic. However, many teams must fall so that a few may stand, and what we have left should be enough to sate the hunger of any Hanes Beefy-T wearing hockey fan. In the Western Conference, we have the perennial powerhouse Detroit Red Wings playing the surprise contender Dallas Stars, while in the Eastern Conference, there’s the superstar-laden Pittsburgh Penguins playing the perennial disappointment (to me and most other Philly fans) and generally-loathed Philadelphia Flyers, another dark horse. Both series should make for incredible hockey: the teams are well-rested, closely matched on nearly every page, have no major injuries, excellent goaltending, and are playing some of their best hockey of the year. There will, many have said, be blood.
Detroit has the ignobility of possibly being the one city in the United States more miserable and meaner than Philadelphia. Detroit is, however, capable of winning Stanley Cups, taking three in the last eleven years (1997, 1998, 2002). The Red Wings are always a force in the NHL; to borrow a line from Atmosphere, “I’m not the greatest but I’m in the top two…” pretty much sums up the team’s recent history. This year they’re on a tear, with Johan “The Mule” Franzen nearly singlehandedly dispatching the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs. Detroit outscored their conference rival 21-9, with Franzen scoring 9 of those 21, with 2 hat tricks and finishing the series with 10 points. Winger Henrik Zetterberg added five goals and four assists in the series and Pavel Datsyuk is working his usual magic with 13 points. In goal, Chris Osgood, probably the last goalie who wore that face mask with the panoramic-looking cage (though he wears a slightly more updated model now) has it locked down with a league-best 1.52 goals against average. Detroit started the playoffs with 43-year-old Dominic “The Dominator” Hasek in goal, but pulled him in favor of Osgood after a couple of shaky outings in the first round against the Nashville Predators. Switching goaltenders during the playoffs can be a confidence-depleting move for both the team and the pulled goalie. However, it worked for the Red Wings. It didn’t work so well for the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, the goaltender who was supposed to take the number one seed in the East to the top. Detroit has a phenomenal offense, a solid, physical defense lead by captain Nicklas Lidstrom, and are anchored by the aforementioned top goalie, Chris Osgood. They are, in my opinion, the team to beat this postseason.
Dallas took a little longer than Detroit to finish its second round series against Stanley Cup champions the San Jose Sharks, finishing in spectacular fashion on a goal by captain Brenden Morrow in the fourth overtime of game 6. Like Philadelphia, few picked them to get this far. However, I picked them in both their series, mostly based entirely on the performance of goalie Marty Turco. The rest of the pick was based on them being the underdog. Turco had an outstanding series against San Jose, with an incredible 61 saves in game 6. He’s second among goalies in the playoffs with a 1.73 goals against average. Dallas lacks the superstar allure of Detroit, but makes up for it in offensive depth and solid defense. Four Stars forwards have 10 or more points this post season, and Detroit will have to keep a close watch on Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Modano, and Brad Richards. Defenseman Sergei Zubov is also dangerous on the o-ffense, as is Stephane Robidas, who has eight points.
I like this series: it has the makings of a long, gritty one with a lot for the highlight reel. As much as I like underdogs, and Dallas, who was the number five seed in the West and took down the number three and two seeds to get here, is very much the underdog in this series, I’m going to have to go with Detroit in this one. It’ll be a close, long series, and both teams will trade shots and hits; meaning it’s highly improbably Detroit will roll over the Stars like Hitler did to Poland—which is pretty much how Detroit blitzkrieged Colorado, not that I’m comparing Detroit to Nazi Germany. Dallas will take a couple games, but I expect Detroit to take it in six. Sorry, Brenden Morrow. I wanted this one to be yours but I don’t think it is to be. God, I hate picking the obvious.
Here is where things get interesting: intrastate rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Philadelphia Flyers. And so I don’t get too far ahead and before I drop the Third-Reich references altogether, talk about blitzkrieg: The Penguins are a league best 8-1 in the playoffs, and have seemingly had little trouble dispatching opponents, cutting a swath through them like men bent on conquering the (hockey) world. The shit-slinging has already started on message boards and spread to the teams themselves: Philadelphia fans accuse the Penguins of tanking the final game of the regular season in Philly, missing a chance to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference—which would have dropped the Flyers to the number eight seed, meaning a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia first round matchup. Further evidence, the fans cite, are reports from the sports writers in the pressbox wondering aloud if Pittsburgh was playing “strategically,” as well as seeing Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby as a healthy scratch that game. This scenario is plausible on some levels: Pittsburgh, with nothing to lose since they were already in the playoffs, sat Crosby, who recently returned from a long high-ankle-sprain injury, to ensure he’d be available for the playoffs. This season, Pittsburgh and the Flyers played eight games and amassed 431 penalty minutes between them. Their games take on a new level of physical play, the clean and dirty become gray areas, and the bitterness rises with every high stick that grazes a shoulder. Sitting Crosby out of an intense and highly physical, but essentially meaningless game for the Penguins, was a smart move by coach Michel Therrien—IF that was the reason for his decision, even though it just reinforces Philadelphia stereotypes of Crosby as a sissy (albeit a highly dangerous and one of superstar-talent-at-20-years-old kind of sissy).
The second part of that conspiracy theory, that the Penguins tanked the game to avoid the Flyers in round one, is also almost plausible: You play the playoffs for the win in the long run. Beating the Flyers in the first round may have been sweet victory for the Penguins, but would have likely come at a high physical toll, with possible effects lingering throughout the playoffs. Instead, also wisely by Coach Terrien, the Penguins took the second seed, pitting them against the injury-depleted Ottawa Senators, whom they swept like dust bunnies under a mean-looking timber wolf rug. In the second round, the Penguins finished off the New York Rangers in five games, and somehow avoided several calls like this one. The Penguins are widely regarded as front-loaded, with Evgeni Malkin (6 goals, 14 points), who thrived during Crosby’s absence during the regular season, and Crosby (14 points), who was last year’s league MVP at 19 years old. They’re both young, incredibly talented playmakers, dangerous snipers, and aren’t afraid to throw down the hits. They can be dominant at times, as superstars can, and, since they play on different lines, can cause havoc for the Flyers defense. The Penguins also have Marian Hossa, who scored the game-winning goal against the Rangers on Sunday, finally earning his paycheck with five goals in the post season, as well as Jordan Staal and Petr Sykora. On defense, there’s Sergei Gonchar, the offensive-minded, defensively-prone veteran, along with a mixture of the same who seem to able to make up for each others’ shortcoming on either end, including Hal Gil and Ryan Malone. In goal there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who is having a much better playoff run than last year, with 1.76 GAA and playing with a lot of confidence. Currently, Pittsburgh has the number one defense in the post season and can play as tough as any team out there.
On their end, the Flyers were the sixth seed, matching them up with Golden Boy Alexander Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, who the Flyers beat in seven games, after nearly blowing a 3-1 series lead. They took on the number-one seeded Montreal Canadiens in round two, stunning Les Habitants, by winning in five games. Still, the Flyers remain the Rodney Dangerfield of the postseason, with their successes usually attributed to lucky bounces or fortunate calls, although the Flyers, the most heavily penalized team of the playoffs so far, received far fewer power plays than the Canadiens, who had a few fortunate calls of their own, one of which lead to their first-game win before the Flyers sent Les Habitants and coach Guy Carbonneau, who comes across in the media as kind of an asshole, and his lucky tie, packing. The Flyers (and their fans) seems to relish the underdog role, as one poster on the Flyers message boards likes to write, “It’s all house money at this point.” The Flyers have two of the league’s top three playoff-goal scorers in Danny Briére (8 goals, 14 points) and Pittsburgh-native R.J. Umberger (9 goals), who scored eight goals in the Montreal series. Like Dallas, the Flyers roll with offensive depth, getting timely goals from all four lines and players young and old (ie. the 39-year-old center Jim Dowd) are stepping up their game. Goalie Marty Biron is playing some of the best hockey of his life (at 30 years old). His numbers aren’t the prettiest (2.72 GAA), but he’s been stellar against two of the top offenses in the playoffs so far. He’s usually in great position and gives up few rebounds, drawing recent comparisons to hockey greats Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent. Defensively the Flyers have Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, who were in charge of shutting down Ovechkin in Washington and Montreal’s top lines. Derien Hatcher and Jason Smith can lay down the hits and play the physical line, and the Flyers have much improved their shot-blocking abilities. If the defense, while generally solid, goes uneven, they might have to rely on Biron to power them through—and facing Crosby and Malkin on alternating lines, could get nasty.
This will be the most entertaining series out of two—perhaps out of the whole playoffs. The rivalry, the bitterness, the level of physical play, and potential for great playmaking outshines any previous series this year. The Flyers won the regular-season series 5-3, but considering Montreal owned the Flyers 4-0 this season, that figure is essentially meaningless. The Penguins beat the crap out of the Flyers 7-1 a few months after getting slapped for an 8-2 loss themselves (courtesy of the Flyers). Overall, the two teams are evenly matched, healthy [UPDATE 4.09.08: Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timmonen, arguably one of the Flyers MVP of the playoffs so far, was diagnosed with a blood clot in his left ankle and will miss the rest of the playoffs. The difficult task of beating the Penguins just got monumental…. Still, I’m sticking to my guns… —ed.], and hungry to put a physical and emotional hurt on the other. To say they hate each other is not an overstatement. Fans are also out for blood—Flyers fans are calling for the heads of Crosby and Malkin (though mostly Crosby’s because of his reputation as a whiner/diver/scorer of backbreaking goals). Pittsburgh fans are ready to pillage the Rocky statue and melt it down (to which some Philadelphia fans say, “Good. Then we can finally replace it with a statue of Charles Barkley on horseback eating a cheese steak). Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin has openly said he doesn’t like the Flyers as a team. Penguins coach Michel Terrien in an altercation with former-Flyers tough guy Ben Eager after the Flyers 8-2 win in December: Eager, passing Terrien in the hall, “You’re a joke.” Terrien: “Fuck you.” Pittsburgh fans are anticipating a laugher of a series. Pittsburgh in four. I couldn’t find anyone (Flyers fans included) who could say the same about Philly’s chances. Hockey experts are predicting the Flyers to lose as well and some preview writeups didn’t even bother updating their regular season assessment of Philadelphia. It’s okay. The Flyers and their fans like the underdog role; I almost think they revel in being hated, like Dave Chappelle’s character, hater-of-the-year Silky Johnson (“And as I sip my soda which I’m certain somebody spit in…”). Some of the other FFXI bettors are siding with the Flyers on this one, but I’m true to the end. I’m going with the Flyers in 7. Here’s to a great series, and maybe, a little bit of this.