The NHL Playoffs: Best of 8

In the NHL there’s only one thing better than a game 7. A game 8. Think about it.

1 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then as far as owners were concerned more playoff games means more beer and hot dogs and more beer and hot dogs means more stadium renovations and more stadium renovations means higher ticket prices and higher ticket prices means more corporate handouts and more corporate handouts means your ass is stuck on the couch surrounding by a wife, 2.5 kids and a Portuguese water dog named Sir Lancelot.

2 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then the postseason would end in August which means the start of the next season would be less than a month away and players could spend their entire offseason playing ping pong in the clubhouse instead of retreating to far away destinations like Moose Jaw and Minsk.

3 - If all playoff series were best of 8 then the NHL could have a Champions League style format where goals scored by the road team count twice as much as goals scored by the home team thus eliminating the silly need to score more goals then your opponent unless you’re at home. Or is it better to score more on the road? Hmmmmmmm….

4 - If all playoff series were best of 8 then non hockey fans would stop talking to hockey fans about how exciting game 7 was and how they swear they’re going to watch more of the NHL regular season next year that is until they realize that the NHL regular season, much like the NBA, is sorta boring.

5 - If all playoff series were best of 8 then Canada may have more than one team remaining in the playoffs. Actually, that’s not true, the Montreal Canadiens were the only Canadian team to qualify for the NHL playoffs and Montreal is in Quebec which means if they had it their way the province would be a part of France not Canada.

Olympic Hockey Is Good For The NHL

If NHL owners had their way then Saturday’s USA/Russia instant hockey classic would have never happened. At least not with players like Jonathan Quick, Pavel Datsyuk, and T.J. Oshie. That’s because owners are losing money. Or so they say. There is an argument however for these ongoing Olympic Games contributing significantly to the long and short term economic and cultural growth of the NHL.

Ratings reflect an enormous interest in Olympic hockey and it’s therefore only logical that the NHL will benefit from the increased exposure. History and financial data can be skewed to tell a different story but it’s very hard to accept what owners are saying which is that allowing NHL players to compete at the Olympics is bad business for the league. This is an acceptable point of view if the NHL is satisfied with its current fan base.

Hockey is after all in this country a niche sport with a devout, albeit limited, group of fans who consider themselves part of an exclusive fraternity many of whom would rather keep casual sports fans on the periphery rather than include them in the reverie. In this country, the Olympics offer momentum to a sport and league that has always battled the stigma of being America’s 4th major professional sport.

But hockey is a sports with a significant amount of main stream potential. There are stories out of New York City, which is to be fair a good hockey town, of sporting goods stores selling out of Team USA hockey gear after T.J. Oshie finished off the Russians on Saturday. To show you the influence this game had on social media – as accurate an indicator of growth and popularity in the 21st century – Oshie, the St. Louis Blues forward, gained 45K new followers hours after his stellar performance in the shootout.

Perhaps the NHL doesn’t look at these analytics and automatically see dollar signs but it should. An American player like T.J. Oshie becoming more recognizable is a marketing slam dunk, sorry…hat trick, for the NHL. How many non-devout hockey fans even knew who Oshie was before Saturday? Very few. But today, average fans can’t wait to get their hands on his jersey, or Google his wife, and if the NHL were smart they’d figure out a way for this exposure to translate at the box office. (How about buy 4 hot dogs get two more free in honor of Oshie’s 4 for 6 shootout performance?)

Also, the NHL needs to consider how much pride individual players take in competing for their respective countries. Bruins defenseman and team captain Zdeno Chara felt it was such an important honor to be selected as Slovakia’s flag bearer that he asked to skip Boston’s final two games before the break in order to be present for the Opening Ceremony. Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most dynamic goal scorer in the NHL has said that even if the Washington Capitals didn’t give him permission to compete in these Olympics that he would have played anyway because representing Russian, the host country, was that important to him.

There are certainly a fair number of NHL players in Sochi today who’d rather be home in the plush comforts of a five star hotel instead of the summer camp styled bunks of the Olympic village but if you look around the Bolshoy Ice Dome you probably won’t see many disgruntled faces. (Putin doesn’t count!) Players are competing at an incredibly high level and the speed of the game looks and feels like it has been bumped up several notches. (Think Stanley Cup finals on a larger surface and without fighting.)

Hockey really is a beautiful game to watch and the NHL shouldn’t cower from the exposure or hide behind the financials. The sport is in a better position today then it was before the lights went dark in NHL arenas across North America and owners shouldn’t run for this reality. Think of it as a gift. A gift from the Black Sea.

Those In The Know: Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Champs

Blackhawks ParadeThose in the know say that hockey players are some of the most down to earth, hard working athletes in professional sports. What does that say about baseball players or bobsledders?

Those in the know say that more than 2 million fans showed up to Grant Park Friday afternoon to celebrate the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup, their second championship in 4 years. Wish Americans cared as much about voting as they do parades.

Those in the know say that the Tuukka Rask and the Bruins were less than 80 seconds from forcing a game 7. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland must not be so good at math.

Those in the know say that the Hawks were the best team during the regular season. I guess they forgot to tell the Boston Bruins who proved to be more than adequate sparring partners.

Those in the know say that captain Jonathan Toews is the heart and soul of the team,  a competitor so determined to win a championship that he was willing to play through an upper body injury which kept him off the ice during the 3rd period of game 5. Patrice Bergeron and his punctured lung are not impressed.

Those in the know say that Corey Crawford could be beaten high, glove side. That’s better than directly at him.

Those in the know say that Bruins’ giant defenseman Zdeno Chara needed to be physically challenge by pushing the puck into his corner. Now that KG and Paul Pierce are off to Brooklyn the Celtics could use a power forward.

Those in the know say that Patrick Kane remains a wizard with the puck and an opportunistic goal scorer who came through when it counted most. Too bad he can’t grow a mustache.

Those in the know say that playoff beards starts to smell after about the second round of the postseason. Johnny Oduya could really use a bath.

Those in the know say that the “H” in Hjalmarsson is silent. No wonder the Swedes are so happy, they don’t have to waste valuable time and energy pronouncing unnecessary consonants.

Those in the know say that in hockey the post series handshake is the best example of sportsmanship. What then about the slashing, tripping, fighting, eye gauging, and fish hooking?

Those in the know say that this Blackhawks win has no karmic effect on other Chicago sports teams. Which means of course that it’s going to take more than a few Wrigley Field renovations to bring the Cubs their first World Series championship since 1908. Then again, you’re Cubs fans, you already knew that.

view from Grant Park courtesy of @TheHockeyProbs

Bandwagon Backlash In The World’s Most Famous Arena

Since when did New York Rangers fans become such elitists? All you hear from the 19,000 or so hockey diehards in NYC is how annoyed they have become by all the “new” Rangers fans that have started to emerge from the various high rises and brownstones now that the team has reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1994 . It’s like these precious few hardcore Rangers fans are all members of Skull and Bones each with their own Amex black card and a personalized Friars Club jacket. NHL Hockey is really not that hard to understand after all (even without the glow in the dark puck) thanks in large part to the soothing harmonic analysis of Doc Emrick who has a way of explicating even the most convoluted of scrums and line changes.

Furthermore, as a society we need to come together and do a better job of defining the term “bandwagon fan”. What exactly is the etymology of the term “bandwagon fan”? Is it similar to the root/story behind expressions like “dark horse” and “scapegoat”? Whatever the case may be, this phrase conjures way too many negative connotations and late arriving fans are generally underserving of such scrutiny and disdain. Is there really anything wrong with supporting a team only when they are successful? No offense to hockey “hardos” but it is not as if you needed to watch every single New York Rangers regular season game to be able to appreciate and understand the impressive run the team has been on en route to their Eastern Conference Finals series against the New Jersey Devils. There are certain things that even a “bandwagon fan” can decipher.

For instance, it doesn’t take a diehard New York Rangers fan to notice that Henrik Lundqvist isn’t just a pretty face. With all due respect to Bryant Gumbel, there is a whole lot more to the Rangers goalie than his steely blue eyes and perfect pitch strumming on the six string. Lundqvist has kept his team in games with some picturesque “pad stacking” and cat like reflexes obtained during long, cold winters on the fjord. The one knock on Lundqvist is that he can be beat glove side but it easy to overlook the Swedes shortcomings when he’s busy perfecting his newest look.

You don’t need to be a diehard with a Stefan Matteau jersey to tell that the Rangers boast one of the youngest, most talented rosters in the NHL. The strength of their team, beyond Hank, is a quartet of defenders: Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal. All of these blueliners are both spry and supremely gifted. Girardi, whose face is slowly beginning to resemble that of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein, has come up with several timely goals in the playoffs including an absolute laser beam of a slap shot in Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils.

Then there is McDonagh, the American with an Irish last name from the Twin Cities who played his college hockey in Wisconsin. Quite a memorable journey for such a dual threat who has been called upon to shutdown Alex Ovechkin and now Ilya Kovalchuk. Some people even think that McD has the type of offensive game to remind fans of Ranger great Brian Leetch. Marc Staahl and Michael Del Zotto have both logged a significant amount of time on the ice during this postseason because they play with the type of physical style and controlled aggression that John Tortorella loves and appreciates.

Speaking of the Rangers head coach, you don’t need to be a diehard fan to understand that Torts is an absolute lunatic. If you were to settle on just one adjective to describe  John Tortorella what would it be? Intense? Ornery? Combustable? Passive aggressive? Whatever the term, there are many players, or reporters for that matter, who do not want to end up on his bad side. Torts blood runs hot. Like eruption of Mount Vesuvius lava hot. His players are like the innocent Roman citizens of Pompeii who coexist peacefully until the moment their coach heats up and explodes with anger, burying the team in 10 minutes of volcanic ash and vitriol. Torts is also like that disapproving father that kids spend their whole lives seeking approval from. This phylum of coach works for a young team like the Rangers but the schtick can wear thin when dealing with a much more seasoned group.

Back to the youth movement for a second, you don’t need to be a Ranger diehard to see that Chris Kreider has the potential to be the most explosive player on the ice. When he picks up a full head of steam he looks like Devin Hester returning a punt. His speed is without parallel, perhaps only matched by fellow winger Carl Hagelin who might be just as fast as Kreider but lacks a lot of the same size and physicality and is often pushed off the puck by larger defenders. Again, even a bandwagoner can figure this stuff out.

You don’t need to be a Ranger diehard to notice that with his facial hair Brian Boyle looks like he should be filming Young Guns 3 with Emilio Estevez and Lou Diamond Philips or that Ryan Callahan plays with the same type of will and tenacity as a former Rangers captain who also happened to date Madonna. Just about any fan can tell that Brad Richards get super pissed off when the referees tells him to get out of the faceoff circle for premature “faceoffing” or that Mike Rupp is a high stick away from enciting a riot across the Holland Tunnel the scale by which we haven’t seen since the time Sylvester Stallone saved Judging Amy from the rising waters of the mighty Hudson.

And finally, you don’t have to be a Ranger or hockey diehard to realize that the Los Angeles Kings have gone 10-1 in the playoffs thanks largely to the play of their goaltender Jonathan Quick. The Milford, CT native, and Avon Old Farms alum, has stacked the City of Angels on his pads and led them to within 2 games of the Stanley Cup Finals. A Western Conference Championship would be the Kings first since 1993 when the team was led by the Great One and this great mullet. Not that the Rangers are already looking past the Devils but you don’t need to be a diehard fan to understand that in hockey the only thing that matters is the Stanley Cup. Even a bandwagon fan knows that.

view from Kings/Coyotes Game 2 courtesy of @tsontakislaw

A Little Game I Like To Call “NHL Game 7 or NFL Draft?”

Thursday night was a big night in the Big Apple as both game 7 of the Rangers/Senators NHL playoff series and round 1 of the 2012 NFL Draft are set to start at roughly the same time.

On the surface, it might not seem as if there are many similarities between these two major sporting events. However, if you look a little closer I think what you’ll find is that they share much more in common than you would have originally thought.

As I recount the action from both Game 7 and the NFL Draft, see if you can guess which sporting event I’m talking about.

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7:01 – Participants enter the arena on a scuff free red carpet to avoid any dings to their all important footwear.

A – NFL Draft: Since when did the NFL Draft turn into the Grammy’s? The crowd outside of Radio City looks like something you would find at a movie premiere. Looks like a good night to avoid Midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, head a few blocks down 7th Ave and we’re only minutes away from start of Rangers/Senators game 7. My bandwagon beard hangs in the balance.

7:08 – Attendees are being interviewed before the main event begins. These jocks remain the most humble, honest athletes in all of professional sports.

A – Game 7: Hockey players are such great interviews because of their congenial humility and self deprecating sense of humor. Football players are a close second. Baseball and basketball players lag well behind.

7:13 – Public enemy numero uno serenaded by the fans with the first “ASS-HOLE” chant of the night.

A: Game 7 - Give it an hour and these chants will be directed by Jets fans at NFL Commish Roger Goodell. For now, it seems Chris Neil has a way of bringing out the best in Rangers fans. For all his thuggery and hard nosed play, Neil has also been a difference maker on the offensive end this series. If the Rangers go on to win this series I hope Brian Boyle recovers in time to play against the Capitals.

7:20 – Great energy exhibited by all parties involved.

A – Game 7: First break in the hockey action reminds me of what an exhausting competition the playoffs are to watch on television. They barely even give you enough time to go to the bathroom. Speaking of energy or lack thereof, Bill Belichick was just interviewed on NFL Net and he looked like he was being held captive in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. For all we know he could have been discussing the terms of a hostage release instead of what the  Patriots are planning on doing with their two first round draft picks .

7:46 – Former star now fashion icon takes center stage.

A – NFL Draft: As much as I love Ron Duguay’s flair for the dramatic, no former professional athlete turned talking head sets the trends quite like Deion Sanders. Speaking of Prime Time, I’m surprised he was able to keep his composure during the telecast what with all the current commotion in his life.

8:07 -Here is one rookie who is guaranteed to make an immediate impact.

A – Game 7: Nothing against top pick Andrew Luck who, according to most pigskins soothsayers has all the requisite “measurables”, but the first year player generating the most buzz tonight is Rangers rookie forward Chris Kreider. And remember, it was only a few weeks ago that Kreider was still popping pimples in his Chestnut Hill dormitory. Second period has also just gotten under way and we’re still knotted up at double goose eggs.

8:10 - A young man in blue takes one giant step closer to Washington DC.

A – Game 7: Marc Stahl puts the Rangers on the board first with a nice looking one timer past Anderson. Meanwhile, RGIII to the Redskins is now official. Have to respect Griffin for his popsicle inspired blue raspberry sport coat.

8:26 - Commentator just referred to a player as a “pocket rocket”.

A – NFL Draft: No, this was not Sam Rosen referring to Maurice Richard. Mike Mayock apparently has nicknames for all players involved in the draft. “Pocket Rocket” refers to Baylor WR Kendall Wright who must now spend the majority of his rookie season in the NFL fighting to regain some measure of street cred.

8:36 - Nepotism on full display in the owners box.

A – NFL Draft: Was that Jerry Jones grandson lurking in the background of the Cowboys war room? Also, who thought it was a good idea to put cameras in these NFL team conference centers?  Might as well be showing us video from the main ballroom of the Radisson in Humboldt, Texas.  Of course Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett had a shit eating grin on his face after Dallas traded up to #6 for LSU corner Morris Claiborne. Back to MSG, Rangers maintain 2-1 lead after nice looking goal by the Senators Daniel Alfredsson.

9:00 -Some sporting events are just easier to follow on twitter.

A – NFL Draft: One of the more startling, albeit not that surprising, trends from the 2012 draft was that twitter consistently scooped the television broadcast. Most picks were announced in 140 characters or less nearly 5 minutes before Roger Goodell sauntered to the podium. Still doesn’t change the fact that the NFL Draft will draw a much higher television rating in NYC than the hockey. Football is king after all.

2-1 Rangers early in the 3rd but the action is starting to heat up. Chris Neil continues to finish his checks while back in Radio City some guy named Dontari Poe nearly makes out with Goodell.

9:24 – ACCESS DENIED!!!!!

A – Game 7: Hank is coming up huuuuge for New York. Anticipating the puck beautifully and denying Senators on the doorstep. 5 minutes remain and this one is coming down to the final whistle. Speaking of access denied, upon being drafted #13 by the Arizona Cardinals Michael Floyd takes a call on his mobile. I thought the NFL banned cell phones in the green room?

9:35 – Extended handshakes and hugs lead to a delay in post game programming.

A – NFL Draft: While it’s true that there is nothing in sports more honorable and authentic than the post NHL playoff series handshake, things are really getting out of control in Radio City. On average I would guess that each draft pick has taken approximately 5-10 minutes to hug and gyrate with every member of their constituency. At this rate the 2nd and 3rd round will take place simultaneously.

Up next for the Rangers are Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. Should be a fun series. My bandwagon beard rejoices!

view from MSG courtesy of @alanhahn