Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chillin' and Thrillin'

Sitting here at home, you wonder 'how cool would it be to have my favorite team in the Stanley Cup Finals'?

Do you wonder that, also? Because, at least in Chicago and (I assume) Philadelphia, these are indeed heady times for Blackhawks and Flyers' fans alike. For the young and speedy Hawks, this is the culmination of years of lousy teams, high draft picks, and dogged perseverance, while the fan base in the Windy City was rebuilt, virtually overnight, from the days of 11,000 (announced) attendances in the cavernous United Center.

For the Flyers, it's been upset after upset -- first New Jersey, then Boston -- and then, a Montreal team who had pulled off two of the largest upsets in NHL playoff history, in back-to-back series (Washington and Pittsburgh), was eschewed by the Flyers in five semi-blowout games.

So now, it all comes to this series. If Game 1 was any indication of what's to come, we are in for a good series with which to send hockey fans into the summer. Don't underestimate what either team can do. They can play the other team's game if they need to. Saturday night in Game 1, Philadelphia played Chicago's game. The Flyers may need to get better at that for Game 2 on Monday night in order for this series to go much beyond the minimum, however.

Defense, anyone?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Now, they play for hardware

OK, the NHL has finally come down to the Conference Finals, which mans at the end of this round, there will be trophies to be handed out. In the East it will be the 'real' trophy, the Prince of Wales Trophy; and in the West, the Clarence Campbell Bowl will be somewhat accepted by one of the two combatant teams.

There are so many contrasts in these upcoming series. In the East, it will be the flash and speed of Montreal vs. the 'Beat up at any cost' attitude of Philadelphia. Never mind that the Flyers win the game by making actual hockey plays; that's been secondary since the days of Gary Dornhoefer and 'Battleship' Bob Kelly. The main goal of the Flyers, is to goad their opponents into getting beat up so bad, that they forget about their game. With Montreal, however, having already taken out two teams (Washington and Pittsburgh) by essentially not allowing their opponents to play their game in order to even get to THIS point, well, hopefully -- for them -- the Flyers will figure out that this should not be monkey business, as usual. Scott Hartnell really should concentrate on something other than trying to run Michael Cammalleri thru the boards and across the parking lot to Lincoln Financial Field, and maybe concentrate on their own defense, which nearly blew the Boston series, save for the epic collapse of the Bruins in Game 7 on Friday night.

In the west, the phrase 'speed kills' will be very much in vogue these next two weeks, as the young and speedy Chicago Blackhawks should blow by the aging San Jose Sharks, whose long-term future will be determined by these next round of games; the Sharks management will be less likely to blow the whole thing up and start over, should they actually get to the Stanley Cup Finals. On the other hand, the way that Chicago has rebuilt the franchise over the last few seasons (remember the days of attendance of 8,000 or so, for games at the United Center vs. the Wild?) to reclaim the franchises' past glory, has led up to this point in time. This point. Now. Not next season, not last year. This year. Now. The Hawks will have to figure out how to keep as much of their talent in the Second City, because with the contracts coming due for their top players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith) there will be a major upheaval on Madison St. this summer.

And whither the Sharks? Management has had one hand on the plunger for three seasons straight. How much longer will the fans in the Bay Area put up with this underachieving bunch? This season is the first time in six seasons that the Sharks have even made it this far, despite being the best team in the West three of the last four seasons. The Sharks defeated Detroit last Saturday, so this time there can be no excuses for being tired. Chicago last played in Vancouver on Tuesday night, so they too have had a bit of a respite, from the every-other-day playoff grind.

But don't ask me who I want to win. I don't want to jinx the team that I think will go on to the Finals. I've been an 0-fer on playoff predictions in the first two rounds. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the playoffs.

Because now, there's hardware on the line.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

WRT's This 'n' That

A column of facts, opinions and an occasional rant from the Wild Road Tripper (WRT)

We haven't done 'This 'n' That' in a while. So, allow me to comment on some of the NHL stories of the day...

1. Anyone else surprised that the San Jose Sharks haven't collapsed yet?

The fact that 'Little Joe' Pavelski has more influence on Sharks' playoff chances that 'Jumbo Joe' Thornton (still the softest player in the NHL, IMO) has something to do with it. The other thing the Sharks have going for them, are three lines that can actually play havoc with the opposition's defense. After having been thumped Thursday night in Game 4 in Detroit, the Sharks came back in Game 5 and closed out the Red Wings, getting another 800-pound gorilla off their collective backs. The fact it only took five games to eliminate Detroit is a reminder that the Red Wings can actually be beaten in their own rink. (Minnesota Wild: Are you listening?)

2. The Vancouver Canucks and Roberto Luongo are made for each other.

Two of the biggest crybabies in pro sports -- the Vancouver Canucks, and goaltender Roberto Luongo -- will be in high whine tonight for Game 5 of their Western Conference series at the United Center, as the usual 22,000-plus will definitely be in full throat as the Chicago Blackhawks look to close out the Canucks at home. Vancouver thought that they could play their normal, dirty style of play and whine their way thru this series. Chicago has found that the key to beating Vancouver, is to let them go to the penalty box and not to retaliate, when Messrs. Burrows, Kesler, Edler, Sedin & Sedin, and Co., do the stupid things that they usually do. When will Luongo quit working the referees, trying to get penalties called against the much speedier Hawks, and worry about his own Swiss-cheese defense? Two Blackhawks (Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews) scored hat tricks in the last two games, both of which were played in Vancouver, where this blogger has observed firsthand the aftermath of Canuck losses.

The planning for the 2010 Stanley Cup Parade on Vancouver's Robson St., can now officially end.

3. The NHL is asking the City of Glendale, Arizona, to help subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes' $30 million annual losses. The City and Ice Edge Holdings are in an exclusive negotiation agreement; meanwhile, after the most successful season in 12 years, will the 'Yotes move back to Winnipeg in time for next fall's season start?

As for the subisdy, in uber-conservative Arizona, to subsidize anything is considered repulsive, conjuring up images of Barry Goldwater to back their point up. The fact of the matter is that the City of Glendale can't afford to subsidize anything, much less a pro sports franchise. In a state that doesn't even want to subsidize public transportation, with "Massive" immigration problems (if you listen to what the Governor says,) to subsidize any pro sports team directly -- especially a team which is currently owned and operated by the league in which they play in -- is sheer folly.

As for Ice Edge Holdings, they are willing to split the losses with the City, but they will want an out clause to move the team after as little as two seasons. They want the 'Yotes at a bargain-basement price, something the NHL is loathe to do. IEH would also play as many as 5 Coyotes games in Saskatoon, Sask., which would lead to the 'Where is this game tonight' syndrome which permeated the KC-Omaha Kings of the NBA in the late 1970's.

The NHL could just flat-out move the team back to Winnipeg, where they came from in 1995. The MTS Centre, a 15,200-seat arena (with plenty of room for expansion) might just be the best place for the wayward franchise; at least there are HOCKEY FANS in Winnipeg, and lots of 'em! The largest problem with Winnipeg, as a city, is the lack of large corporate presence, as no large Canadian corporations are based there. Ticket prices (the NHL is still a gate-driven league) would have to be carefully planned in order to keep the tickets within reach of Winnipeggers' budgets.

As for the planned move, what would it do to the schedule? The fact is that the NHL would want to keep as many Canadian franchises in the same division as possible; one rumored plan would be to move the 'Yotes to the Northwest Division, and move Colorado to the newly re-constituted 'Southwest' division, with Dallas, Anaheim, LA and San Jose.

The NHL has given IEH and the City until May 21 to negotiate an agreement; otherwise, the League's Board of Governors will take matters into their own hands. You have to ask yourself: how much money is the League willing to continue to lose, in order to keep a franchise in Phoenix? The annual losses over the last three seasons has dwarfed the $100 Million mark. When is enough really enough? With at least four other franchises (Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay) in financial difficulty, how much of a drag on the sport has the Phoenix situation become?

Time to cut the losses. Move 'em back to Winnipeg. Welcome back the Jets. Plan the road trip to MTS Centre, Wild fans.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Onto the Next Round

Eight teams, four series, and one fan's opinions:

Eastern Conference --

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Montreal (8): The fact that Montreal pulled the biggest upset since the 1987 Minnesota Twins still doesn't help the fact that Montreal is under-sized, out-gunned and in way over their collective heads. The only way that the Pens lose this series, is if they beat themselves. Which, with Sidney Crosby on a roll right now, I really don't see happening.
Pens in 5.

Boston (6) vs. Philadelphia (7): The Bruins were happy just to get to this point, as they were not assured of a playoff spot until the last Friday night of the regular season. The Flyers had to go to OT vs. the Rangers to get in on the last day of the season. The lack of Bruins offense and the chippiness of the Flyers seem to cancel each other out, in a strange sort of way. This series will get physical, and the Bruins are the one team in the East who will dish out as much as they get. Bruins in 6.

Western Conference --

San Jose (1) vs. Detroit (5): I thought Detroit was going to show up for Game 1 of this series. Or did they not have enough $$ on hand, to pay the $2500 FAA fine for their too-late arrival at San Jose's airport? Whatever happened, the Red Wings sure made disbelievers out of me with their less-than-scintillating Game 1 'performance'. San Jose played probably their best game in April in three years vs. the Wings in game 1: the question now is, can they keep it up? Sharks' fans better hope so, for the sake of the franchise, as this team is one series defeat from 'Extreme Makeover: NHL Edition'. This is a tough one to call, but... Red Wings in 7.

Chicago (2) vs. Vancouver (3): Blackhawks came out to a thunderous ovation for Game 1 Saturday night, and promptly...laid an egg. But it was pointed out, the Hawks have lost game 1 of the last three series and have won two of the three series. So, hoping that last night was an aberration was not out of the question. Vancouver, on the other hand, did exactly what they wanted to do in Game 1; that is, run the Hawks ragged, and basically play keep-away with the puck. Hawks need some more 'grit' in order to slow down the Sedin twins and Mikael Samuelsson, who really has to be loving his hockey life right about now. Hawks need to pick up their pace to out-do Daniel and Henrik. But if this season is to be considered a success in Chi-town, they'll have to. Another toughie, but... Hawks in 7.


-- WRT