Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Hockey is Better -- Reason No. 3,298

Today's reason why "Hockey Is Better"... in the other major professional team sports and in some individual sports, on-field exploits are chronicled exhaustively, adding to the legend of such figures as Peyton Manning in professional football, LeBron James in professional basketball, and Derek Jeter in major league baseball.  All of them and many others are athletes who deserve praise for their on-field/court achievements.

But in those sports we see chronicled just as exhaustively the 'off-field" problems of too many of the players in those other sports -- substance abuse accusations in professional football and major league baseball, run-ins with the criminal justice system, behaviors that might be described charitably as "immature."  Those problems are those of a small minority of players, to be sure, but they are problems that seem to persist and damage their respective sports.

Meanwhile, in these last two weeks hockey fans have basked in the joy of seeing the best athletes the sport has to offer playing under their respective national flags.  Almost without exception, it has been an advertisement to the grace, skill, and grit that is hockey.  But it is not without its off-ice interruptions, and here is where the sport parts ways with other professional sports.  Over the last two weeks, perhaps the biggest off ice story of the Olympics was a certain player being surly with the media.  One commentator, in fact, stated that for the player in question, "it's unacceptable for a player of his stature not to fulfill his obligations as a spokesman for the game."

Gee, that's it?  That's all you've got for "controversy?"  A player not speaking to the press on demand?  A couple of seconds with a camcorder?  Truth be told, I would have wished that Alex Ovechkin had been a little more accommodating to the press; I think it is in his interest, the NHL's interest, and the interest of the Olympics (including the 2014 Games in Sochi).  But I don't stand in his shoes.  I don't know what pressure he feels to get ready for these games on the international stage, where the burden largely lies on him for the results of Team Russia (I could say the same for Team Canada and Sidney Crosby, but that is a much deeper club and better able to take the performing pressure off of the young center).

If this is the biggest "off ice" problem hockey has at the moment -- or Canadian women celebrating a gold medal enthusiastically (like I'd bet a lot of the press did when they were in college and their sports teams won big games) -- then hockey is in pretty damn fine shape.

Questions, Questions... Part 3

Now that we’ve covered the Southeast and the Atlantic, we’ll finish our tour of the Eastern Conference with a look at the big question for each of the teams in the Northeast…

Ottawa: Has the clock struck midnight for “Cinderelliott?”

Starting on December 10th, when he shut out the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-0, at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Senators goaltender Brian Elliott went on one of those runs that players dream of. Over a 20-game stretch starting with that shutout in Philly, Elliott went 13-5-0, 1.97, .927, with three shutouts. Only twice did he allow as many as four goals in a game. With Elliott leading the way, the Senators climbed through the standings, close enough to division-leading Buffalo to see the hairs on the Sabres’ necks stand up.

The last game in that 20-game run for Elliott was a 3-1 win against Vancouver in which he turned away 29 of 30 shots. However, since then, one wonders if the coach has turned back into a pumpkin for the netminder. While Elliott is 3-2-0 in the five games since his win over the Canucks, he’s done so in somewhat ugly fashion – a 3.65 GAA and .893 save percentage. Perhaps even more ominously, only one of those games was played against a top-tier offensive team (he allowed five goals in a 6-5 win over Washington). Three of the games were played against teams in the lower third of the team scoring rankings (Detroit, Calgary, New York Islanders).

You might think Elliott was somewhat gassed after having assumed the mantle of number one goaltender, but going into that five game slide he played in only nine consecutive games, and before that played in six of the previous 15 games.

The schedule sets up well for Elliott and the Senators coming out of the Olympic break in that they don’t have to face a lot of offensive powerhouses. But if Ottawa is going to finish atop the Northeast and make any dent in the playoffs, Elliott has to find that glass slipper – uh, goalie skate – again. Being on the north side of three-and-a-half goals a game allowed won’t do it.

Buffalo: Has there been too much “Miller Time?”

Ryan Miller has been on the ice for 3,078 minutes this season, eighth among NHL goaltenders. He has been between the pipes for each and every one of the 240 minutes played by Team USA so far in the Vancouver Olympics. He will be there on Friday to face the Finns, and he seems a sure bet to be there to face either Canada or Slovakia on Saturday or Sunday in one of the medal games. So, add 360 minutes to his total for the year. That will bring him to 3,438 minutes of ice time this year, just five minutes short of his entire total for the regular season last year with 22 games left to play this season for the Sabres.

The comparison to previous years might have some relevance as the Sabres move forward after the break. Let’s assume Miller would get 15 starts in the last 22 games in an effort to give him some sort of break from his recent workload. In his final 15 games last season, Miller was 8-5-2, 2.72, .916. Those numbers are consistent with his season-long numbers. But this year he has the Vancouver workload and a stretch run that could push his total minutes – NHL regular season and Olympics – past his career high of 4,474 two seasons ago, and that season did not end especially well for him: 7-7-3 in his last 17 games with a 3.34 GAA and .877 save percentage.

Boston: Who is the go-to guy here?

Marco Sturm leads the Bruins with 18 goals. There are only five other Bruins with as many as ten goals for the season. There are 57 NHL players with more. Since January 1st, the Bruins have averaged 2.14 goals per game in going 7-10-4. They scored more than three goals in a game twice over the 21 games of that period. They are averaging 1.6 goals a game at home over that period and have not scored more than two in any of them.

One might say that goalie Tim Thomas is having problems, and one might be right. But you could recombine the DNA of Terry Sawchuk, Gerry Cheevers, Patrick Roy, and Martin Brodeur and not have a goalie who could win consistently behind this cohort of skaters. This is a team that hasn’t scored more than two goals in consecutive games since early December. They simply do not give their goalies any breathing room. Boston is rumored to be interested in the Blues’ Keith Tkachuk, Columbus’ Raffi Torres, and the Kings’ Alexander Frolov. None of those players is a solution for the systemic lack of offense that plagues the Bruins. Even if they add one or more of those players, the Bruins might have enough defense and goaltending to outlast teams beneath them to land a playoff spot (they are two points ahead of the Lightning and Rangers, three ahead of the Thrashers, all with their own problems), but they would be a prohibitive underdog in a first round playoff matchup.

Montreal: How long can they live by the sword before dying by it?

And by “sword,” we mean “power play.” Montreal is second in the league in power play conversions (24.6 percent), but they are brutal at 5-on-5 play (tied for 17th). Here is perhaps a useful comparison to shed light on the problem for Montreal. Since January 1st the Canadiens have scored 49 goals in 20 games. Of that number, 16 have come via the power play (32.7 percent). Compare that to the Washington Capitals, who have scored 102 goals since January 1st, 26 of which have come on the power play (25.5 percent). The Caps are the NHL standard for 5-on-5 play this year, true, but outscoring Montreal by 76-33 when not on the power play still points to a full-strength problem for the Canadiens. Put another way, The Canadiens are dead last in the league in power play opportunities. If they can’t unleash the sword of their power play more often and Montreal scores 1.6 goals a game without the benefit of what the power play contributes, it could be a problem as the regular season winds down.

Toronto: “Deal” or “No Deal?”

The only question left for the Maple Leafs this season is “who goes and who stays?” The Leafs certainly haven’t been shy about using the trade route to retool the roster. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, J-S Giguere are the big names acquired via the trade route this season, which leaves only the mysteries of whether Alexei Ponikarovsky will be moved (that seems close to a betting certainty) and whether Tomas Kaberle will offer the club a chance to trade him (since GM Brian Burke has stated he won’t ask Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause). Other than that the only performance question concerning the Leafs is whether they can play spoiler. On that score, it is worth noting that they play Boston, the Rangers, and Montreal in the last week of the season. Given that those teams seem likely to be fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch, the Leafs will be in a position to play precisely that role.