Wednesday 07 Dec 2016

NHL Playoffs 11:2
Clobber Samson

"If that's all there is my friends then let's keep dancing"

Polly Jean Harvey, Songwriter

For all those old duffers out there, it might be hard getting tee times at your favourite golf course in the coming days. The fairways might be occupied by, and crowded with, Sharks, Canucks, Red Wings, Hawks, Bruins and assorted others.

What a plethora of first round 'upsets' in the NHL annual dance! The ole Clob had his most disastrous first round ever, something dramatically out of whack with his crystal balls. I only got 2 of the 8 series correct, picking Phoenix in the West, New Jersey in the East. 

Well, as Lady Macbeth once opined "if it be done let it be done quickly". And so it came to pass. Many of the supposed old guard hardly had time to smell the roses before they were lying still and under them. (By the way, did anyone notice that the Hawks, Detroit, San Jose, and Vancouver lost all of their home games!)

Shades of 1982, thirty years ago, when a lot of the top seeds fell, paving the way for my beloved but underwhelming Canucks to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

Results in 2012 to date: No Canadian teams in the second round; only one Original Six team - da Rangers - survives. And, thanks to Joel Ward and the Capitols, there will be a new SC Champion and thus a chance for one of their players to snub a re-elected Barrack Obama when they're invited to the White House.

The over-reaching reason for what happened would be 'Parity'.  The divide between top seeds and bottom-feeders gets thinner every year.

A good thing in a way but I confess that I was really getting worried that Gary Bettman's most treasured southern strategy dream, but TV Execs most dreaded nightmare, may unfold! How'bout the excitement of a Phoenix-Florida Final folks? Shudder. Thankfully, we dodged that banal but deadly bullet.

I'm sure you've satisfied yourselves with all the post-series analyses so I will only focus on the demise of two teams, the Canadian ones, the Canucks and the Senators.  The former team, finished first over-all, the latter finished last among the play-off dancers. One wanted a chance to get to the promised land - again - and win, the other surprised everyone by making the play-offs in the first place, with team management preaching the rebuild mantra, just happy to be where they were when the final buzzer sounded on the regular season.  

Le this scribe - born in Ottawa, living in Vancouver - this story then is a Dickensian tale of two cities. 

What happened? The Canucks folded in 5 games against the 8th place Kings; the Sens took the Rangers, the top seed in the East, to the edge of elimination. Ottawa fans were going nuts over their team's surprising performance; Van City fans were going nuts while looking for ropes with which to hang themselves. Fourty years of looking into the desert for a svaiour and, yet, another mirage.

Why did it happen?

I must say that having been in Ottawa for the past three weeks, I understand more than ever the adulation that Sens fans have for the one simply called "Alfie."

The best comparison here in Vancouver would be Trevor Linden. However, the praise for Alfie surpasses even that. It is legendary; it is more than well-deserved. Unlike Linden, Alfie has never played for any other team. No matter where I went or whom I talked to, the conversation began with and/or ended with reference to "Alfie". At every home game, when the stadium clock reaches 11:11 in each period the count down begins - 11, 10, 9... and the chant chant goes up - "Alfie, Alfie, Alfie". If hockey players could be knighted, or confirmed by the man with the funny hat who "talks to invisible cloud people" - the Pope - as saints, Alfie would be the first to be so ordained. 

Alas, despite his Messiah-like presence both on and off the ice, even Alfie can not skate on water. And, s so it came to pass - or back-pass to no one in particular! - that his most beloved disciples, Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza aka "Space Cadet", apparently denied ever knowing him. Wonder Kid Erik Karlsson was masterfully curtailed by the Rangers. And, Gonchar and Kuba were sporadic at best and will, hopefully, be left out of the 'rebuilding' equation next year. 

Well, I digress from my intended themes - mixed messages and hockey gawds.

At end of the day/season here in Lotus Land, Roberto Luongo stated that whatever happens going forward, he knows hockey is a business. 

Right-on Louie. 

In that sense, and given that hindsight is 20/20 vision, let me propose the following as it first pertains to the Senators.

The Clobber turning point for the Sens was Game 6. 

The toughest lesson GMs have to learn is to not fall in love with their players. "What have you done for me lately?" has to be their mission statement or they'll find themselves sitting with you and I in front of the TV. 

There is another 'rule' in sports - you don't change your underwear etc when you're on a winning streak. You also don't change your horses in mid-stream. Having won a huge game in New York to take a 3-2 series lead and put the Rangers on the ropes, the Sens changed the playing field by deleting/adding new skate-footed soldiers, including Alfie. That decision turned into a big mistake. 

I do not wish to ruffle Sen fans feathers above their broken wings, nor pour salt into their newly inflicted wounds, but the legendary story of Alfie - and the possible end of his career - made management et al forget the 'rules' noted above. 

Having, and rightfully so, fallen in love with Alfie, it would have been hard for any coach to sit him one more game, especially a game at home, a game that potentially would end the series, and possibly Alfie's career.  In reference to another old adage - "you tell him!". Who indeed was going to suggest that Alfie wait at least for Game 7 to return to the line-up? 

Before the game, I confess I was torn about the decision to insert him back into the line-up. I worried that the team might sag, instead of being inspired by his presence. Any takers on that debate? 

Moreover the addition of Silfverberg was another boo-boo by the Sens' brain trust.  The team had inserted Mark Stone in Game 5. 

The apparent rationale for those moves? The brain trust wanted to give all its upcoming stars a chance to experience the play-offs - i.e. still preaching the "we're re-building" mantra. 

Message sent to team, including, and especially to, those players who'd busted their butts all year with and for the team but who'd now be watching from the press box?  This may be Alfie's final hurrah at home, so he's dressing.  We want to expose all potential Sens to the play-offs. Ergo, it's okay to lose, we're rebuilding. 

Instead of exhorting a confidence that this team was indeed special, that this team would get to the 2nd Round, that there'd be plenty of opportunities left for Alfie and his new Swedish friend to strut their stuff, at home, the underground railroad message continued to be one of 'we're just happy to be here', thanks for coming, book your tee-off times

Whatever the reason(s) for what transpired that night, the team sucked dead bears and forced a Game 7 in the Big Apple.

Of course, if last night in Game 7, Zach Smith gets that puck on his stick, or Foligno's shot doesn't hit a bit of King Henrik's sweater, we may be having a whole different conversation, but we're not. 

That said, if you believe as many do in the hockey gods, maybe them thar gods decided that the Rangers deserved to move on because Ottawa itself had decided it was 'rebuilding' and had thus blown their chances to win the series in Game 6.

And what then of the Canucks?

The Canucks made the mistake of thinking that the experience of losing had taught them how to win. Having re-won the President's Trophy, it seemed logical to them that they would get that second chance at Lord Stanley's mug, just like Pittsburgh did a few years ago.  The world was unfolding as it was meant to be. Alas, I love Spock and the world of logic but ya gotta put it on the ice, ya gotta rip into it like Scotty  and put the peddle to the metal like a 57 Chevy. Their eyes too focused on the long-term prize, the C's missed the obvious: the mission of going where no Canuck has gone before - hoisting the cherished Cup - starts with Game 1, Round 1. If you look too far into the future, you will wind up, Lickety-Split, Jonathan Quick-ly,  a part of the past.

Last year the whole organization and city felt that there was some kind of magic in the air. There was indeed that special feeling to their season. It seemed 'destiny' was about to deliver the city's first-ever Cup. Didn't

That element of belief in 'destiny', deluded in the end last year, had disrupted the team's perception or performance before. 

Going into the hockey season after Luc Burdon had been killed in a motorcycle accident in the summer, the C's felt that 'destiny' was in their corner, that the hockey gods would balance the cosmic books as it were.  Didn't happen. The hockey gods opted for the Chicago Black Hawks and deign goalie Roberto Luongo to undergo the worst meltdown since Three Mile Island.

So, the Canucks, once again, have to learn that while it is not a bad thing to believe in the hockey gods, it is best not to put too much faith in how they make their choices. As the Greeks learned long ago, the gods can be very fickle and give ya the eff-ing finger.

My friend Eva asked me if the absence of Daniel Sedin was the reason the C's lost to the Kings. No, I replied; while it was one factor, there were others, many others. A lack of scoring from the second line - some guys had been 'missing-in-action' for some time. Our defence is not built for the play-offs, certainly not against bigger teams like L.A.  Contrary to my pre-series analysis re depth, we had no fourth-line.  None. The C's came out of the gate - or not - poorly, at home, playing like pukes in the first game, then giving up not one but two short-handed goals in Game 2. The Fat Lady was doing her vocal exercises. The series was already over.  The mantra, the faith in destiny, continued.... even after we went down 3-0, and more so after we made it 3-1 and were returning to Vancouver for Game 5, with Daniel back in the line-up. Alas, while many Canuck fans will string me up outside the Art Gallery for saying this,  the C's made a mistake not going back to Louie for Game 5, despite how well Schneider had played in Los Angeles. 

Again, it's all about signals. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Agreed. But did the C's management panic or not accept their fate, too focused on an elusive goal - 4 wins in a row against a stingy Kings' goalie/team? Any takers on that debate?

Like Ottawa in Game 6, perhaps the C's sent the wrong long-term message, another mixed one, in the middle of a play-off series, that Cory was now our number one goalie, that Louie was done in Vancouver. I don't care how 'professional' players have to be under such pressure/circumstances, they're not robots. If Ottawa erred in playing Alfie at home in Game 6, his potential last home game ever, maybe the C's erred in not playing Louie at home, one last time here in his career. Er.. any takers?

Well, hindsight is for losers.  And, my opinion plus $2.50 will get you on the bus here in Vancouver.

Speaking of my opinion, let's get to Round 2.

In the West,

Any GM who still believes that you can't go deep in the play-offs without great goal-tending - hello Chicago! - is sadly misinformed. Quick, Rinne, Elliotte, and Smith. Nuff said. Arguably the best keepers in the West led their teams to a date in Round 2. 

Nashville Predators vs Phoenix Coyotes

Going into Round One, as you might recall, I flipped a coin and chose Detroit over Nashville. Did Detroit lose the series or did Pekka Rinne steal it? Answer: the latter. 

Without Mike Smith, his unbelievable heroics against the Black Hawks, Phoenix would never have won their first-ever play-off series. Can he do the same against them Nashville Cats? Perhaps, but this time it is the Yotes' opponent who has the alleged advantage of home-ice.  Okay, that wasn't a factor against the Hawks with Phoenix winning three times in Chelsea Dagger land. The Coyotes will not be worried about where the games are played. Nashville lost in Round 2 last year to the Canucks. A much better team going into this year's dance, experience may be the decisive factor. With a tad more experiencedd offence and an excellent defence, the Preds will be hard to master, but their road to the next round will not be an easy one.  Yet, how can a country music fan not cheer for Carrie Underwood's hubby Mike Fisher?

Nashville in 6.

L.A. Kings vs St. Louis Blues

I confess that I did not see many of the Blues' series against the Sharks but acknowledge that a still fairly potent offence from San Jose lost its' way - again. The Blues continue to impress with a solid defence and the ability to push to the net in the offensive zone. On the other side, the Kings probably surprised not only the Canucks but a lot of pundits with the strength of their 3rd and 4th lines. They may not be blessed with a ton of speed but they're gritty and patient. Where's that coin? Seriously. The sympathy vote has to go to the Blues. With ownership as well as financial problems, the Blues could make no significant moves at trade deadline. The hiring of Ken Hitchcock might be one of the best coaching changes ever in NHL history. Well, in the end however, this time, for Round 2, I'm going with my heart. I love ex-Canuck, L.A. d-man, Willie Mitchell. If the Canucks can't hoist Lord Stanley, I'll settle for seeing Willie bringing the Cup to BC in the off-season.

Los Angeles in 7.

Meanwhile, back East,

Washington Capitols vs New York Rangers

Continuing to see the world through foggy disappointed Vancouver eyes, let's have one more cheer for Joel Ward who put a fork in Bruins' chances of repeating as SC Champs.... and right in Boston! Will Washington be one of those resurrected teams that, after suffering a shaky season to sneak into the play-offs, find their game and possibly challenge for the Cup? Of course that's a possibility. But if Gaborik was AWOL in the Rangers-Sens series, how'bout Semin and Ovie for Caps against Boston? Ya can't go forward w/o your best players being your best players. Which multi-millionaires will show up this round? The Rangers know, or should know, that they dodged a huge bullet against Ottawa. Over the hump? As long as King Henrik keeps them close, I like the Rangers over-all balance. Their forechecking, neutral ice clogging, and shot-blocking may make them a tad boring but they know how to pounce when opportunity knocks. The Bruins looked tired and had several key injuries. While young Holtby was great in nets, he will be under a lot of pressure, presuming he plays, against the Big Apple boys. This will be a fun series to watch but I like New York in June, how'bout you?

New York in 6.

New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers

The best goalie of modern times versus a very leaky Russian ship in Brysgalov. Two very potent offences with equally underwhelming defences. The net-minders will be busy! I doubt this will be the scoring derby we saw in the first Flyers' series - wasn't that a pip! - but nor do I think these will be low-scoring affairs. Let's suggest that the Flyers stumped and stomped on and over the mighty Penguins; the Devils, on the other hand, just survived against the Panthers. While I felt going in that the Devils were a serious dark horse, unless they find a way to keep teams from coming back in games - a flaw in the Penguins ointment - this might be a short-lived series for the Joisey boys. They might need Tony Soprano's help stopping the well-named Flyers. Alas, while I'm getting tired of hearing the very late Kate Smith sing 'America the Beautiful', she's good to go for another round at least. And then my nostalgically-oriented friends, there's JJ - Jaromir Jagr.

I love those old farts on ice.

Philadelphia in 5.

Hoping I didn't send too many mixed messages.

But.. it's okay now to get those drinks mixed!

Clobber Samson is a highly opinionated sports commentator, especially when it comes to Vancouver "Canucks," of the National Hockey League. Expect no balance in his columns. This is good.

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