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So long, NHL. See you in September

In Hockey on June 23, 2011 at 11:53 am

One week after the Stanley Cup Finals ended with what will be remembered more for the mayhem that took place in downtown Vancouver instead of an outstanding effort by the Boston Bruins to win the Cup, I’m still having trouble coming to grips with the fact that the NHL season is over. The last two seasons have delivered so much entertainment and drama that the rest of the USA is starting to jump on board with the game of hockey. Add in the fact that the NFL and NBA are currently in labor disputes and baseball is seeing attendance drop like the mercury in December, and hockey has done pretty well for itself lately. That being said, I put my brain to it (since I’m not doing anything else with it right now) and came up with what I will miss and look forward to in the NHL for next year.

Even a week later, this is still satisfying.

I loved the spirit that each team showed in the Stanley Cup Finals this year. Say what you want about the Canucks, but watching that team when they were at the top of their game was as impressive as any team I’ve ever seen on skates. However, the right team won the big silver chalice this year. Boston battled through three seven game series to win the Cup, losing a major part of their team (Nathan Horton) and relying on Tim Thomas to constantly slam the door shut on the opposition. What I loved most? The way the Bruins stood up for each other. You did not mess with this team and get away with it. And of course, Vancouver is on the opposite side of the coin. For a team that had everything at their disposal to win, their skill couldn’t beat Boston’s will. That’s how it works in hockey. You don’t dive, bite, taunt and run your mouth to your opponent, and you stand a chance. Vancouver broke all of those rules and got what they deserved. Part of me wouldn’t be surprised to see them come back next year and win the Cup. But until they quit pissing off the Karma Police and Hockey Gods, they won’t be ready to win the Cup. Got that Vancouver? Play the game, don’t try to take shortcuts, and you’ll be rewarded.

I also couldn’t be more excited about the influx of young, unbelievably talented hockey players in the game today. We all know about guys like Crosby and Ovechkin, but the young guard is about to take this game over. Guys like Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Stewart, Michael Grabner, Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture, Matt Duchene and others already in the league. I’m not even counting the guys that have yet to come over to the states to play, such as Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund (and this goal is the reason why). The talent is fresh, fast and exciting and now is a great time to be a hockey fan.

I had a front row seat for seven games to the one-man show that is Pavel Datsyuk. As much as I was cheering against the Red Wings, I couldn’t help but marvel at Datsyuk for the series. With all the talk of Crosby as the most skilled guy in the game, I have to disagree with that. I have to think that Datsyuk gets bored during games and just messes around to see what he can get away with. Add on top of it that he’s one of the best defensive forwards in the game, and that’s a recipe for one hell of a hockey player. Goals like this one are just unfair. The only negative thing I can say about the guy is that his broken English makes Alex Ovechkin seem like he’s got the English language down pat.¬† If that’s his biggest downfall, he’s doing all right for himself.

To stick with the Detroit theme, I’m actually pumped for another year of Nicklas Lidstrom. He’s a class act, great leader, and makes the game look easy, even at age 41. He keeps Detroit in the talks as a Stanley Cup contender, and is one of those talents that is so rare, you won’t realize how much you miss him until he’s gone. back to Sweden with his family. This means you too, Blackhawks fans. If you’re a hockey purist, all the years of watching Lidstrom is something you shouldn’t be ready to give up yet. (Note: I would include Teemu Selanne in this paragraph as well, but he’s yet to make up his mind on whether or not he will hang around.)

Get excited for Winnipeg. A market that will love and support a hockey team that got virtually none of that while in Atlanta. Is it a shame that a city is losing a team? Of course it is. But this is the second time that Atlanta is losing a team, and their ownership group did nothing for that team when they were there to generate any interest. I understand the purists don’t feel that hockey should be played in warm weather climates, but there’s a catch. Teams that have set up shop in Dallas, Nashville, Anaheim, Tampa, San Jose, LA, and Carolina have had success and have tried to get kids into the game. Atlanta failed to do that and paid for it. Hartford and Quebec would kill for the chance to have a team back, and I couldn’t be happier to see another Canadian team in the league.

Thank you for bringing it all playoff long, Jumbo. You earned the respect you’ve been seeking for years.

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: I feel like I have hope for the Sharks next year. Call me a lunatic (people already have), but after seeing Joe Thornton show up for an entire playoff and the emergence of Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe as big game players, I’m jacked. They need to get another puck-mover on D (like I suggested they do last summer, although Ian White did a nice job) and get someone who can stay at home and make life miserable for opposing forwards (Robyn Regher, anyone?). The window for the Sharks is closing, so Doug Wilson needs to get this team to the Cup Finals soon.

I miss overtime hockey already. I know it will always be there, but with the amount of games that went to OT in this year’s playoffs and the way that hockey fans are on the edge of their seat during the extra frame, it’s a feeling that is hard to capture. It’s also easier when you have no stock in a team that’s playing, but I digress. It’s next goal wins, no ties allowed. No other overtime in sports is as good. And of course, I can’t forget the regular-season overtime games. If nothing, for the beauty that we are treated to in the shootout. I already think that hockey players are more skilled than most athletes, but it’s on display for everyone to see in the shootout. So much fun to watch. The reigning king? Mr. Pavel Datsyuk. YouTube his shootout goals, you won’t be upset.

I had the chance to see, what I consider, the greatest playoff series of all time this past year between Detroit and San Jose. Six of seven games decided by one goal. World-class talent on both sides. Up-and-down action for minutes at a time. Coaches with great minds (and heads of hair). Rabid fan bases (games six and seven are two of the most unreal environments I have ever heard in a hockey arena, and I was watching on TV). One team battling back from down 3-0. The other team avoiding history by winnings game  seven. It left me exhausted and glad it was over when the Sharks were able to win in the seventh game. It was Stanley Cup quality hockey, two rounds early.

The best in the business today: Dr. Mike Emrick.

I don’t care what anyone has to say regarding your favorite broadcaster, Mike Emrick is better than all of them. It’s not even close. Emrick has mastered the English language and uses his wide vocabulary to broadcast each and every game. He could make a meaningless Rangers-Flyers game in the regular season feel like a game seven for the Stanley Cup. Am I all right with Emrick sticking to just hockey? Absolutely. He’s ours and no one else can have him! To quote my friend TJ, “I wish Mike Emrick could narrate my life.”

I feel like I would be cheating our friends north of the border if I didn’t include them. I had a chance to catch the CBC and TSN feeds of some games in the playoffs, and our neighbors to the north are as good as it gets. Harry Neal, Bob Cole and Jim Hughson (even though he’s Vancouver’s version of Jack Edwards) bring it every night, and need recognition from the American crowd. Throw in the outstanding job the two stations do in their pregame and intermission shows (TSN’s Bob McKenzie is the best analyst in the game today), and it’s a hockey lover’s paradise to listen to great minds talk about this great game.

The reigning champion of hockey hair.

Let us not forget something about the game that is often overlooked: the hair of the game. Hockey has given us some of the greatest bodies of hair in sports today. It begins with the best of the bunch: Barry Melrose (left) and his legendary mullet. It’s less of a mullet now than when he took the Kings to the Stanley Cup in ’93, but it’s got personality and charisma unmatched by anyone in sports. The number one contender to the Melrose Mullet? Detroit head coach Mike Babcock’s flawless Caesar salad. So perfectly crafted, I could hit my 7-iron off of it. I would include more pictures, but I think I’ve hit my maximum for a paragraph, but there are many more that need their love. We have Chicago coach Joel Quenneville and his legendary Q-Stache. It puts the “Man” in Manitoba. We also have former Dallas coach Marc Crawford and his nearly flawless dome. It was at its apex when he won a Cup with Colorado back in ’96, but still very impressive today. With all the love for coaches, I can’t leave out the players! We have Blackhawk Patrick Sharp and his impressive head turf, Shark defenseman Douglas Murray and his flowing locks , and the newest facial feature that swept the hockey nation this past playoff season; Shea Weber and the manliest playoff beard of all time. Plenty of hair to be marveled at and if I slighted anyone, please let me know. (Note: Ryan Getzlaf comes in dead last in this category.)

I know it’s been well over a year, but who’s ready for the next Olympic hockey tournament? I know I am.

Hockey players are also some of the funniest personalities in all of sports, and social media has helped us get an insight to just how funny they are. Phoenix’s Paul Bissonnette is the reigning king of tweets, already having one account shut down, but picking himself back up with his revamped BizNasty2point0. His posts have less to do with hockey and more to do with the life the Biz lives. Awesome. Other players such as Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan, Toronto’s Colby Armstrong and San Jose’s Logan Couture also provide entertainment with their words.

And finally, I will miss watching every player give up their body for the good of their team every night for nine months. Hockey players truly are a different breed of athlete. You won’t find many players that think they are above the team or above the game. When was the last time you heard of a hockey player acting in a selfish way to the media? I can’t think of one, where that kind of act happens in basketball, baseball and football. I thought it would be easy to put into words just how watching 20 men throw their body in harm’s way, play hurt and don’t complain, and always look to make their teammates better. I was wrong. All I can say to all of the warriors that play is thank you for giving everything you have to win the greatest trophy in sports over nine long months.

My name is Ryan Thomas, and I approve of this game.

See you in September.

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Previewing the Boston-Vancouver Stanley Cup Finals

In Hockey on June 1, 2011 at 1:53 am

Doesn't she know where the lips on that thing have been?

It has all come down to this. After an entertaining month-and-a-half of playoff hockey, it’s time to decide the Holy Grail of sports trophies; The Stanley Cup. This matchup is sure to be an entertaining one as well with plenty of fire power and stars all over the ice when the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks lock up on Wednesday night. Since I missed out on the last two rounds of playoff previews, I figure now is as good a time as any to take a look at what it’s going to take for one team to get four wins and raise Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Vancouver Canucks will have it all in their favor heading in to this series. Red hot power-play, tons of confidence and rest, home ice, you name it and it is tilting things in favor of Vancouver from the beginning. But as we saw in the Chicago series, they are prone to having a few bad games. Good thing that was in the first round, because they disposed of Nashville with minimal trouble and San Jose with almost no resistance (If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to slam a car door on my hand before I continue). The Canucks are clicking in all aspects of the game, with the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and company coming in waves every game at the opposition. They’re deep up front with a perfect combination of speed and grit. Add in the fact that Manny Malhotra could play in this series, and the ‘Nucks are set to go. Defensively, they lost Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome for some time in the San Jose series, but there is no reason to think they won’t try to give it a go in the finals. Even if those two can’t go, the Canucks are deep enough to handle their losses. Kevin Bieksa was a force to be dealt with in the Sharks series, and he should continue to be the same in this series. Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and Sami Salo are no slouches themselves on the back-end, and as I saw in that back-breaking game four, Salo can absolutely bring it when he tees one up. The one guy under the biggest lens, Roberto Luongo, has been great since Game Six of the Chicago series. He was as good as it gets in the San Jose series, and looks like he’s finally found his way in these playoffs with the pressure on.

Boston is coming off a phenomenal series with Tampa Bay, and they’re back in the finals for the first time since 1990. It hasn’t been easy, as the B’s had to endure two seven-game series to get there. That may cause some problems for the Bruins in the first game because on the rest Vancouver has. However, I do feel that the Bruins provide an interesting matchup for the Canucks because of the matchups that they can throw at Vancouver, as well as future Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas in net. Boston is going to have to have their big guns show up against the Canucks, and the good news is their top two lines were effective against both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. However, the Canucks will present more of a challenge than Tampa’s defense because of the skill that exists on the Vancouver blue line. Boston is going to have to be physical all around, especially against the Sedins, if they want to slow down Vancouver’s high-flying attack and play a game that’s better suited for them. Tim Thomas could easily be the key to the series. If he can turn in a performance that made him the best goalie in the league in the regular season. He battles hard and never gives up on a play, but he was exposed a few times against Tampa in some of the high-scoring games.

That’s how the two teams stack up, let’s look at five keys to the series:

1. Each Team’s Top Lines Will See a lot of Each Other. This is directed at the forwards more than anything. We all know that the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows are the trio that the Canucks depend on for offense. That will draw the matchup of Boston’s trio of Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi-Brad Marchand most likely. This line might not be thought of as a defensive line, but Bergeron is very solid in his own end and can match either Sedin with his speed. Marchand will look to drive Burrows crazy (more on him later), and this isn’t Mark Recchi’s first rodeo. On the flip side, Boston’s top offensive line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton will see all of Ryan Kesler they can handle. Kesler had a great offensive season, but he’s at his best against the opposition’s top line both with his defense and his mouth. Whichever defensive line has the most success has the best chance of coming out on top.

2. Special Teams Success. This is directed more at Boston than it is at Vancouver. Vancouver has been very good on both the power play and penalty kill. Boston has been decent on the PK and atrocious on the PP. This does a lot with the way the two teams will play. Vancouver can come out more aggressive than they might be otherwise because of Boston’s inability to burn them with the man advantage. Boston is going to attempt to counter by putting Zdeno Chara in front of the net. Think Luongo had trouble with Dustin Byfuglien? This could be worse because there is no one on the Vancouver blue line that will be able to move Chara. Where this is an issue is that it takes Chara’s big shot off the point and it put Tomas Kaberle at the point. Kaberle hasn’t been good in these playoffs, but will get a chance to redeem himself. No pressure. Boston also needs to be careful not to give up too many power plays to a Vancouver PP that is as unstoppable as I’ve ever seen one. Give them too many chances and they’ll be behind awfully quick.

3. Pest Control. Each team has their fair share of pests that are not well liked around the NHL. Vancouver has been criticized in past playoffs for doing too much yapping and not enough winning. That’s changed this year, but the Canucks still have guys that can talk some junk at the opposition. Ryan Kesler leads the way, and is generally hated by every team outside of Vancouver in the league. However, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, and uber pest Max Lapierre are also good at getting under the skin of their opponents. It should be interesting to see if any of those guys can goad Boston’s players, most notably Kesler matched up against Lucic and Horton, into taking bad penalties. On the flip side, Brad Marchand has made a name for himself early in his career as one of the most hated players in the league. And if Marchand is matched up against Burrows, a hot head at times, he could do the same to him and yap at the Sedins all he wants. Boston doesn’t have near as many pests as Vancouver, they prefer to drop the gloves than run their mouths.

4. Bottom six play. Each of these teams have players in their bottom six forwards that can set a tone and put the puck in the net. Each team’s top two lines probably won’t cancel each other out, but if the games are close and physical, a garbage goal by an unlikely hero could swing a game or two. Boston has the better talent for goal scorers in their bottom six because of Mike Ryder, Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin. Vancouver counters with Malhotra, Lapierre, and Raffi Torres to do the dirty work and score the occasional goal. Vancouver’s bottom six forwards don’t have the offensive skill that Boston’s do, but they’re energetic and they get after it.

Roberto Luongo will play a big part in this series.

5. Which Goalie Will Bend First? Each goaltender is up for this year’s Vezina Trophy. Each goalie has been critical in their team’s run to the finals. That’s where their similarities end. Luongo prides himself on positioning and his large frame to keep the puck out of the net. Thomas battles as hard as any goalie I’ve ever seen and makes up for his lack of size with an abundance of heart. Luongo still hasn’t completely shaken his label as someone who isn’t mentally tough enough. Thomas is as cool as it gets between the ears. There have been times in these playoffs where each goalie has looked mortal though. Luongo had his near meltdown against Chicago in the first round and wasn’t spectacular in Game Three of the San Jose series. Thomas sputtered at times against both Montreal and Tampa, but he was a rock when he needed to be. If Boston can find a way inside Luongo’s head (installing Chelsea Dagger in their music lineup might not be a bad idea), or if Vancouver can fire away the way that Tampa did in two of their wins could determine the series.

Prediction: Had the Lightning and not the Bruins won the East, I would pick Vancouver in a sweep. Since Boston is a better defensive squad and has the probable Vezina Trophy winner, that will give them a better chance to win it all. However, the way the Canucks top two lines are clicking, and the fact that the Bruins don’t have six Charas on the blue line, they are the favorites to win it all in my mind. The goalies essentially cancel each other out, and the Bruins may not have what it takes to win a shootout if they need to, like they did against their first three matchups. Too much Vancouver means the Cup finally comes back to Canada. Would I like it if Boston won a Game Seven in Vancouver? Absolutely. Will it happen? Not this time. Sorry Chowds. Vancouver in six.