Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blackhawks on Inside Track for Cup Finals

The Hawks in game 2: A picture tells a thousand stories

In real-estate jargon, the slogan "location, location, location" is often put to use when a buyer isn't clear on what would give him or her the best return on their investment. In playoff hockey, where attempts to obtain precious property are often met with vicious blows to the body, nasty slashes, and thuggish high sticks, the same paradigm holds true.

You want to score goals? You want to win series and reach the holy grail? Then get bodies to that crease-sized patch of ice directly in front of the opposing goaltender and get to work. And if at first you don't succeed (or if you get a punch in the nose or a stick in the ribs), try try again.

In this year's NHL Western Conference Finals, it has quickly (and painfully in the Sharks case) become apparent that pretty passes and fancy power-play puck movement wont do the trick. Neither will determined cycling around the walls when it doesn't lead to the promised land - that precious and pricey 4x4 sheet of ice where the bulk of NHL playoff goal scoring is done.

The deeper you go in the playoffs, the harder it becomes to find ways to score against teams whose defenseman are prepared to kill you for a rebound.

But the Blackhawks, all playoffs long, have found ways to score. They know it's a dirty job, but unlike San Jose at the moment, they also know that someone - or better yet all of them - has to do it.

When it comes to crease-crashing, the Blackhawks are led by Dustin Byfuglien, a bruising 257-lb. power forward who doesn't just get in front of the net, he does it with strategical insight. But he's not the only one willing to skate the hard yards for Chicago. The team which is now tied for the longest string of NHL playoff road victories at seven, has a full cast of characters who are dead set on screening, nagging, bumping, and basically undermining the concentration of Nabokov. Patrick Kane, Jonanthan Toews, Troy Brower, Andrew Ladd - pretty much anybody that dresses for Joel Quenneville's squad knows what mission No. 1 is.

Meanwhile, the Sharks know that they need to match the Hawks intensity - but knowing it and doing it are two entirely different things.

Sharks messiah Joe Thornton by many accounts has played solid hockey in the series first two games. But he's a minus 4 for the series, and his superstar line that also features Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley are a combined minus 8. To the casual observer the Sharks top line looks dangerous, but are they really? They are throwing a lot of pucks at the net, but rarely do they find a way to corral the rebound and turn it into a score - a surefire recipe for frustration.

The Sharks goal a game pace has done more than leave them shaking their heads. Joe Thornton's ill-timed and penalized slash of Hawks center Dave Bolland midway through game two's final period was at best a show of unproductive frustration - he'd be much better served skipping the histrionics and taking his massive frame to the front of the cage where the real meat and potatoes are being served in this series.

Anything else is just scraps.

Scrappy teams win Stanley cups, not teams that survive on scraps - the sooner the Sharks realize this, the better off they'll be in this series.

But it already may be too late.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Habs: Hooked on a Feeling

Les Habitants are winning hearts and minds with their one-for-all brand of Playoff hockey.

When Jacques Martin was hired to the helm of the most scrutinized coaching position in hockey last June, a trip to they playoffs for the Montreal Candiens wasn't out of the question. Nor was it a guarantee. Martin, a former teammate of Iron Mike Keenan in college, and a long time coach of the Ottawa Senators during the late 90's and early 00's has taken teams to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals, but he'd also struggled at the helm of the Florida Panthers over the last few years.

But none of that matters anymore.

What is happening this spring in Montreal is that the fabled red, white, and blue sweater appears to be working it's magic again, and no matter how glorious the Habs past might be, there is no time like the present - especially this year.

After a stunning come from behind upset of the NHL's no. 1 ranked juggernaut Washington Capitals, the Canadiens buckled up and relentlessly pursued their style of collapsible defense, intrepid puck support, Patrick Roy-style clutch goaltending, and timely scoring against the defending Stanley Cup champs and their nationally deified poster boy for hockey sainthood, Sidney Crosby.

After last nights lopsided 5-2 victory, the last NHL game ever to be played in Mellon Arena a.k.a the Igloo, the Habs are half way to the most improbable Stanley Cup run that the NHL will have ever seen.

How have they done it? How has a team of forwards that are "too small" and defenceman that are "too minus" turned a city that has too many expectations into a frenzied and passionate band of chest thumping hockey craving lunatics?

They've done it the way all Jacques Martin coached teams have always done it. Except this time they seem to be doing it just a little bit better, and without the help of big-time stars like Daniel Alfredsson. They've done it with a refreshing blend of selfless team hockey that has gone unmatched thus far in the NHL's post season.

The Habs have become masters of doing the little things during these playoffs. On paper it shouldn't be happening, but on the ice, remarkably, it is.

If talent alone was responsible for playoff success, the Canadiens would have bowed out long ago to the Capitals. But we all know that talent starts to diminish in efficacy when the NHL's second season begins. There are intangibles that start to supersede, and Montreal has taken these intangibles to a whole new level.

Puck support on the walls has allowed this band of diminutive forwards to gain control of the game against two of the NHL's most powerful opponents. A disciplined style of defense that collapses together and is committed to keeping the puck in front of it has frustrated the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby, and Malkin. Uncanny positional play has allowed them to break out of the zone under pressure, and to eliminate odd man rushes.

And I haven't even gotten to the shot blocking.

Or the goaltending.

For a team like Montreal to find itself in the Conference Finals, everything has to be clicking. It's been 17 years since Patrick Roy and Vincent Damphousse brought Montreal it's 24th Stanley Cup. Last year's 100th anniversary team was a complete flop, and the Mystique of the The Habs appeared to finally be dying, just as the Old Montreal Forum (the original home for all 24 Cup banners) had died.

But Martin's band of warriors are proving once again that hockey is a team sport with roots in discipline, support, and valor. The prettiest pucksters in the Eastern Conference have all learned first hand.

Meanwhile, while we were all waiting for Sid and the Gang of Penguins to finally close the door on Montreal, a 5'9" hard nosed counter puncher named Cammalleri was tying the team record for goals in a single playoff series. He's now inscribed in Canadiens lore along with others to achieve the feat (Richard, Believeau, Lafleur, Geoffrion, and Bonin).

Maybe it's magic. Or it could be that Jacque Martin is finally getting what he deserves for all those heartbreaking playoff failures and near misses in Ottawa. Maybe it's the sweater, the city, and the energy.

Or it could simply be some good old fashioned hockey.

Whatever it is, it ain't done yet.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tasering Steve Consalvi Was an Excellent Idea

Special thanks to 17-year-old Steve Consalvi for playing his part in a debate that lingers in the mind of many rebellious teenagers the world over.

The debate being, should I act like a complete idiot to make my friends laugh at any expense, or should I behave like a decent and perhaps even mature young adult and enjoy the fact that my friends already like me for who I am?

By charging onto Citizens Bank Field last night during a Phillies–Cardinals game, and subsequently getting his juvenile butt tasered, Penn State-bound High School Senior Steve Consalvi has effectively taken the bat out of the hands of many a confused class clown.

The message to them is: that crap my fly in your homeroom or at your best friend's sleepover, but not on a Major League proving ground, and not in the new millennium, where images of bomb-toting terrorists and knife-wielding subterranean's are firmly implanted on our fragile post-modern psyches.

The fact that Consalvi spoke to his father about running on the field is strike two against this family. Mr. Consalvi, who said "I don't recommend him running on the field, but I don't think they should have tasered him at all," is guilty of that all-too-familiar flaw of modern American parents these days: wanting to be buddies with his child instead of wanting to properly prepare his child for the real world.

Why Consalvi's dad couldn't find the necessary words to talk his son out of his clown act is befuddling. He had the chance to save the kid from humiliation and he couldn't get it done. Allowing your son to soldier on in his delusion is not helping anybody. It's like letting your slowest runner try to steal home with no outs and the bases loaded. It simply shouldn't have happened.

But it did happen. It's happened before and when it happens it isn't always harmless. Need I mention Monica Seles' stabbing incident in Germany, or the strange and violent assault on Royals first base coach Ron Gamboa in 2002?

There is so much debate about whether or not tasering Consalvi was going over the top. Couldn't they just have cuddled him to the ground? Maybe they should have just let him run around until he fell down from exhaustion - isn't that they way most parents deal with their kids these days?

C'mon people. There is no debate here. I'm sure Consalvi is a nice kid, and apparently he didn't mean any harm out there on the outfield. But now way in hell can the security forces at the ballpark assume this. He's got to be tasered - AT THE VERY LEAST!

And now that this incident is making front page news all over the country, we can be thankful to Steve Consalvi for doing a valuable service for the rest of those class clowns out there. This is a lesson that everybody can learn.

Sports are religion in this country kids.

Stay off the damn field!