Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gonna Fly Now...

Hello, everybody, and happy Olympics from a very unusual place. We're in Vancouver in Canada. I'm Stu Nahan at rinkside, and this promises to be the most-watched event in hockey history. The Rampaging Bear from Russia, Ovey Balbovechkin, and from Cole Harbour in Canada, Sidney Dragsby.

Since that tragedy in Detroit and the death of the Red Wings’ reign as Stanley Cup champs, Dragsby has been nicknamed ‘Death From Below.’

The Prime Minister is here and other members of Parliament…they have made their way to their seats high above the rink here at Canada Hockey Place…

I know you're busy just now...but I want to tell you some things I never told you. I know sometimes I act stupid and take stupid penalties. But you kept me around when others would have said, ‘Drop that bum.’ You give me respect. It's hard for me to say these things because that ain't my way... but if I could just be someone else, I'd want to be you. You're all heart.


Now blast this guy's teeth out!

I'll try.

Balbovechkin is starting to make his way toward the ring. Listen to this crowd! This borders on pure hatred.  Ovey's face is absolutely like stone. He is the picture of concentration. The booing crowd here does not seem to bother him one bit. The champ has a look tonight that can burn through lead.  Listen to this crowd. It sounds insane... Now the entrance of the darling of Canada... Sidney Dragsby, a man with an entire country in his corner.  Look at the expression on the face of Sidney Dragsby. He seems impervious to the madness of the crowd. He's like a volcano just waiting to erupt.

I must break you.

Remember what I said back there about wanting to be you?


Forget it.

There's the opening face off. Balbovechkin picks up the puck at center ice… the Canadian following him into the corner… Once more, it's Dragsby backing up Ovey with a poke check… Balbovechkin is not staying on balance because of the Canadian’s stick.

Balbovechkin is pounding away at the midsection of the Canadian defense!

He hit him with everything he's got! - Dragsby just smiled at him.

Dragsby is continuing to punish Ovey Balbovechkin!

Ovey Balbovechkin is just trying to get through this first period.

He's not only fighting what appears to be an invincible opponent... he's also fighting a very hostile crowd.

What's happening out there?

He's winning.  I see three of him out there.

Get the one in the middle.

There's the bell for round two, uh, faceoff to start the second period. It's been a one-sided fight so far.

It will take more than luck for Ovey to survive this period.

Ovey Balbovechkin has taken Sidney Dragsby's best punches so far.

He's hit! - The Canadian’s hit! It's a huge hit!

Now it's Ovey Balbovechkin coming after Sidney Dragsby! The Canadian wants to go on! He hits Balbovechkin in the [edited for younger audiences, but it’s somewhere south of the navel and north of the knees]. It's a gutter war! No holds barred in Vancouver! This is shaping up to be a personal war. Right now, it's anybody's boxing match… uh, hockey game.

You're doing good. I couldn't do better myself.


You got him hurt bad. Now he's worried. You hit him! You hurt him! You see? He's not a machine! He's a man! You want it more than he does! No pain! Take it to him! Get up!

This place is ready to explode. Lethal punch after punch! Amazing willpower! Neither man backing off. Ovey Balbovechkin's determination is actually winning over the once-hostile crowd. This is incredible.

What period is it?

Third. One more period.

There's no stopping us now. This is our period. No stopping now! You start, and you don't stop! All your strength! All your power! All your love! Everything you've got! To win, you have to knock him out! Shoot ‘til you can't shoot no more! This is your whole life here! Knock him out! Do it now!

Which one of these fighters will be standing at the end of this period? Dragsby snaps out a wrist shot, and another. Ovey taking punishment, trying to get inside the Canadian defense! He's completely exhausted. Balbovechkin is chopping the Canadians down! He SCORRRRRRRRRRRRRES!!!

Ovey Balbovechkin has done the impossible!!!... and these people love it! It is absolute pandemonium! More than ever, Ovey has proven himself a true champion!

Thank you. I came here tonight... and I didn't know what to expect. I've seen a lot of people hating me... and I didn't know... what to feel about that, so... I guess I didn't like youse much either. During this fight, uh, game... I seen a lot of changing… the way you felt about me... and the way I felt about you. In here... there were two guys... killing each other. But I guess that's better than million people watching ice dancing. What I'm trying to say is... if I can change... and you can change... everybody can change!

I just want to say one thing to my fans in Washington... who should be home sleeping…

We’re gonna win the Cup, too!!!

Questions, Questions... Part 2

In the first installment of looking at the big question facing each team, we looked at the Southeast Division. Next up, the Atlantic…

New Jersey: Can you see the end from here?

If Team Canada roars back to take a gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and it is Roberto Luongo thrusting his arms skyward in triumph between the Canadian pipes, then there is going to be something more than a murmur asking the question about whether now, as he approaches his 38th birthday (May 6th), Martin Brodeur is coming to the end of a glorious career. Not this year, certainly, or even next year, but in terms of his being on the short list of goaltenders considered the best in the NHL we might be in sight of the end.

Truth be told, Marty’s been giving signals that this might be happening long before an iffy game against the Americans in the preliminary round of Olympic men’s ice hockey. Since Christmas, Brodeur is 11-12-2 in 25 appearances with a 2.61 GAA and .906 save percentage. It gets worse. Since he shut out Florida, 2-0, on January 20th, Brodeur is 4-6-2, 2.95, .879, and he has allowed fewer than three goals only three times.

And it is not as if this is a new development. Marty staggered to the close of last year’s regular season, too. In his last 11 games last season he was 4-6-1, 3.25, .897. Then, he and his Devils lost in the first round of the playoffs, Brodeur allowing four goals in three of the last four games of that series (each of those three games lost by New Jersey).

In 11 of 12 seasons before last year, when Brodeur was sidelined with an arm injury for much of the season, he finished his regular season well to the north side of 4,000 minutes played. With almost 3,400 minutes played this year, it would take an injury or an act of God (or Jacques Lemaire) to keep him from another 4,000 minute season, with his Vancouver minutes on top of that. New Jersey has the problem of being in something of a seeding bind. They are only one point ahead of Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division lead (with the top-three seed winning it would provide) and two points ahead of Buffalo, which occupies the number five slot in the top eight at the moment. The Devils could find themselves looking at losing home ice advantage for the first round. It might not mean much, though, unless Brodeur’s recent results are merely an in-season slump. But if it’s another weak finish in store, well, it might not matter where Jersey plays.

Pittsburgh: Is more Sidney “too much” Sidney?

Caps fans will argue otherwise (emotionally, but that’s why we’re “fans”), but there is much to admire in the still-young career of Sidney Crosby. Not least among those things is an attitude that will not let him cut corners – he addresses weaknesses in his game critically. In his rookie season he was weak on faceoffs (45.5 percent). Since then he has become one of the best of that art in the league (11th as of the Olympic break). He was seen as primarily an offensive player early in his career, but has made himself, if not “Selke-class” on defense, then certainly an honest two-way player. The one thing that seemingly, given the high bar set for him, hadn’t yet come around was his ability to finish.

Well, he is on his way to putting that one to rest, too. At the break he is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals (42), already setting a career best mark. But the question going forward is whether more goal scoring from Crosby is too much goal scoring from Crosby. So far this year, he is responsible for 22.3 percent of the total number of goals scored by the Penguins. That, too, would be a career high (surpassing the 16.0 percent of Penguin goals he had in his rookie year). The trouble is, even with Crosby’s increase in goal scoring the Penguins are on a pace for the second lowest total of goals of Crosby’s tenure (248, which would best the 240 they had in 2007-2008).

A persistent problem, or so the narrative goes (with no small amount of truth), is that while the Penguins are strong down the middle with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, they have been persistently weak on the wings. On the other hand Crosby is, as an accompanying narrative goes, the preeminent set-up man of this era. As evidence, he did help make Colby Armstrong a 16-goal scorer (in 47 games) in Crosby’s rookie year. Is it reasonable to expect that he could elevate the production of most any winger he has flanking him?

He’s had to deal with the absence of his regular left winger – Chris Kunitz – for much of the year, and it is true that his other regular winger (Bill Guerin) isn’t a spring chicken anymore. Perhaps it is a case of Crosby taking advantage of what openings are provided, with a dash of weakness on the wing thrown in. But are the Penguins a lesser club for Crosby’s assuming more of the goal-scoring burden? Offensively, this is (at the moment) objectively true in terms of their goal production. For the Penguins to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, they might have to find a way for Crosby to score fewer goals himself and take greater advantage of his playmaking gifts (which is perhaps the Penguins’ true “character,” much as the Caps character is defined by Alex Ovechkin scoring bushels of goals). If they don’t, and the Penguins become more of a one-note band, instead of a symphony, they’ll be singing a sad song this spring.

Philadelphia: Can a team go far without a “page one” goaltender?

The “page one” term refers to the statistical tables at the website. The goalies take up two pages of information, and to be a “page two” goalie in any statistical ranking (wins, GAA, save percentage, etc.) is to be among the lesser producers at that position in the league. While the Flyers’ goaltenders are not, strictly speaking, “page two” goalies, Ray Emery and Michael Leighton are not a pair to strike a lot of fear in the hearts of opposing shooters. Emery ranks 24th (of 45 goalies ranked) in goals-against average, Leighton ranks 27th (combined with Philadelphia and Carolina). In save percentage they rank 30th and 31st, respectively.

Philly hasn’t been able to win consistently with goaltending.

This has been a recurring theme for the Flyers ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups when Gerald Ford was President of the United States. And while one could argue that the tandem of Emery and Leighton is statistically better than Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov/Michal Neuvirth for the Capitals, the Flyers also average almost a full goal scored less per game than do the Caps. For the Flyers, there is less room for error among their goalies.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that Emery was 5-2-0 going into the Olympic break after losing five straight decisions in six appearances (the last decision coming in his first turn back after missing six weeks to injury). He also has a 1.73 GAA, .936 save percentage, and two shutouts to round out the numbers. If a healthy Emery is a productive Emery – more reminiscent of the goalie who started the year 11-4-1 in his first 16 decisions – the Flyers will have to be reckoned with.

New York Rangers: Can’t anybody here shoot this puck?

Except for Marian Gaborik, of course. Gaborik has accounted for 22.2 percent of the Rangers’ goals this season (35 of 158). But it gets more ominous for the Rangers. Since January 1st Gaborik has nine goals in 20 games, itself a drop-off in his pace in the 2009 portion of the season. But three of those nine goals came in a single contest – a hat trick against the Avalanche on January 31st. As Gaborik’s pace has fallen off, the Rangers aren’t seeing anyone picking up the pace. In 22 games since the start of the new year, Rangers not named “Gaborik” have scored a total of 45 goals (2.04/game). And yes, it does get still worse. 14 of the 54 goals the Rangers have since January 1st were scored in consecutive games in mid-January – a 6-2 win over Montreal and an 8-2 pasting of Tampa Bay. That’s two goals a game otherwise, even with Gaborik in the lineup.

The Rangers have been shutout four times in their last 17 games and have scored a single goal on four other occasions. Henrik Lundqvist can’t pitch a shutout every time out. The Rangers simply have to find scoring from somewhere… anywhere. If they don’t, they will go quick and quiet into the off-season.

New York Islanders: Can pluck and luck get them unstuck?

The Islanders, bless their souls, are one of the hardest working teams you will ever see this season. Yes, they have a glorious prospect in John Tavares – third on the team in scoring at the moment – but he is a minus-18 for the year, too (tied for second-worst on the team). Kyle Okposo will be a top-notch power forward someday, but today isn’t that day. He’s good, and will get better, but he isn’t yet at the point where a team can lean on him to carry them for long stretches. Mark Streit is one of the best power play point men in the game, but he’s getting next to no help on the blue line. The Islanders have a number of other young guys who have promise as well.

For the time being, while the young guys develop, the Islanders have to be better than the sum of their parts, work harder than their opponent, and get the bounces to win games. The trouble is, they haven’t been doing a lot of that lately – not unexpected at this time of the year for a club that has gotten by on guile and effort to this point of the season. The Islanders are 3-10-0 in their last 13 games going into the Olympic break since a four game winning streak in mid-January.

On paper, the Islanders have not lost contact with the top-eight teams. They are six points behind eighth-place Montreal with a game in hand. But as a practical matter – five teams to climb over and 20 games to do it with a thin roster – it is almost a betting certainty they will not accomplish the feat of making the dance. They will have to be content with the knowledge that better days do lie ahead, just not this year.

The Other Matchup

Tonight the Canadians and the Russians meet in the long anticipated Olympic men’s ice hockey matchup. It is taking place sooner than most might have thought, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of the contest – whoever wins will become the gold medal favorite (with all due respect to Team USA and Team Sweden).

Most of those watching might view this as the next installment of the Alex Ovechkin-vs.-Sidney Crosby wars. We’re thinking that this is about something else, about two other people. The Russians are perhaps the most explosive offensive team in this tournament. Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin. These are among the most dynamic and prolific talents in the sport. The fault line on this contest might not be Crosby/Ovechkin as much as it is the Russian forwards/Canadian defense.

It is with this team and this kind of offensive talent in mind that the Team Canada defense, we suspect, was constructed the way it was. Chris Pronger, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Keith Seabrook, Drew Doughty, Scott Niedermayer, Dan Boyle. The six players out of this group who dress tonight are going to have to be good in their own end to keep Ovechkin and Company out of Roberto Luongo’s way and off the score sheet.  They are going to have help make those Russian forwards play defense to try and keep play out of their own end.

Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman said a couple of weeks ago...

I just think the defence we put together can generate offence almost to the same level as Mike [Green], and yet be stronger in other areas. We just thought the seven that we chose are a better fit for us.

This is the reason Mike Green is watching at home instead of skating on Canada Hockey Place ice. This is the reason Yzerman went in another direction.

Tonight will showcase Crosby and Ovechkin, but this about Green and Yzerman, too, and whether decisions made in late December were the right ones for the games in February.