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A Banged-Up NHL Midseason Review

Injuries are ravaging the NHL as teams are playing without their best players.

We’re in the NHL’s second half; you know what that means… a New York Rangers second half slide… I mean the NHL Midseason awards.

 

Look I shouldn’t be shocked that the Rangers are having another January swoon. The Rangers are like Tom Coughlin’s stepchild but only worse. They do this every season, start fast, struggle in November, get hot in December and then go on a two-month bender of not scoring goals, losing one goal games and cause Henrik Lundquist to wonder about the benefits of committing Hara Kiri.

 

I should be used to it by now, but I’m a New Yorker, I’m crazy. I want the Rangers to play consistent hockey and I’ve wanted it for years. However, you see the beginning to this piece. The difference in this year’s team is that I can see the drought coming but not from inconsistency. This time it’s injuries. Right now the Rangers are missing 6 starting forwards including leading goal scorer Brandon Dubinsky. Due to the injuries the slide began last week as the Rangers lost three out of four games and dropped to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

 

With the Rangers struggling to score goals, losing our number one guy isn’t exactly the best news in the world right now.

 

If think its bad for us how do you think the Penguins are feeling? Sidney Crosby took a head shots from David Steckel in the Winter Classic and then from Victor Hedman several days later and has been out since. Before his injury the Pens were the best team in hockey and Crosby was Megan Fox in a thong hot since then they’ve been 3-3 and fell from 1st to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

 

Same for the Detroit Red Wings; name a Wing and he’s banged up, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Chris Osgood, Jimmy Howard (yes, both goalies) and Pavel Datsyuk all missed their recent loss to the aforementioned Pens and 3 of their last four.

 

The Colorado Avalanche lost leading scorer at the time Chris Stewart 18 games ago and slipped, The Blackhawks lost Jonathan Toews for three weeks and have had a devil of a time staying in the playoff race, The struggling Kings just lost Wayne Simmonds and have been banged up all year, Montreal… IT AINT SAFE PLAYIN HOCKEY I TELLS YA!!!

 

Fact is if you can stay healthy then you’re hard to beat. Philadelphia, Vancouver and Tampa Bay are all examples that if you stay healthy you stay on top. Right now it’s a toss up between the Canucks and the Flyers for the title of best team in the league. I got a front row look of each team last week as each of them faced the Rangers and I really like the Flyers.

 

Granted there are goaltending issues (It’s Philly there’s always goaltending issues) but the team they have is loaded with guys all playing their best hockey. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux and company are leading a balanced attack that could get better when Chris Pronger returns. They’re proving that last season’s cup run was no joke and that getting back there and winning is all that’s on their mind.

 

I do not doubt the Canucks at all though, not with Daniel and Henrik Sedin playing at a high level and Ryan Kesler scoring goals like crazy. The Sedins are in the top five in scoring and Kesler is number five in the leagues with 25 goals. What does worry me about them is Roberto Luongo tends to give up a few softies in goal. Luongo was the reason that the Canucks lost their Western Semifinals series versus the Blackhawks last year in one of his worst stretches ever.  So to say everyone is a little worried about him possibly sliding back into that form is like saying the Trail Blazers are a little worried bout their entire lineup being injured (Sorry Marcus Camby).

Why is Vancouver number one in the league right now? Ask these guys.

Then there’s Tampa freaking Bay in third place in East (thank you Washington slump in late December.). They couldn’t stop a goal from going in until they acquired 41 year-old Dwayne Roloson, and outside of Ryan Malone, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos they have gotten NOTHING from anyone. However, the guys have all been healthy outside of Vinny Lecavalier (not that it matters because he’s been dead weight.), and Simon Gagne (which doesn’t matter because no one expected him to play more than 50 games anyway.) and they have played consistent hockey and have played within their skill set. No one is being asked to go out of his way to do things that they can’t do and it’s worked.

 

Stamkos has returned to form after a quick start and slow stretch in December and has returned to the MVP that I thought was all but guaranteed in November. If the Lightning are going to be active in the trade market then he should be getting some help to move him closer to the Hart trophy and the Lightning to the playoffs.

 

Speaking of awards at the mid-way point who has the upper hand in the most of the major honors in the league? Well…

 

Hart Trophy- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Now you know I love Stamkos, and I have been watching the Sedin twins, but none of them had a 25 game point scoring streak and had 49 points during the streak. Without Crosby the Pens are a totally different team and it shows. If they want to win it all they need Sid the Kid at 100% and nothing less.

 

My Bad: Stamkos, both Sedins and St. Louis

 

Norris Trophy- Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers

Ok, so Lidstrom might win the thing, but how about the job big buff has done in going back to his natural position in Atlanta? He’s got 41 points, which is second amongst defensemen, and he’s brought the Thrashers alive with his toughness and energy. I actually want to watch a Thrashers game now just because of him (well him and Evander Kane, just saying.).

 

My Bad: Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara and Kris Letang

 

Vezina Trophy- Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

So much for Tuukka Rask taking his job. That’s not happening with Thomas leading the league in GAA and save percentage and is fourth in wins. Because of him the B’s are sitting pretty in second place in the East.

 

My Bad: Henrik Lundquist, Jonas Hiller and Carey Price

Tim Thomas is zeroing in on his second Vezina with the Bruins.

Calder Trophy- Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes

So right at the end of October the Hurricanes come to the Garden and from what I remember from last year I’m thinking this is an easy win. Then comes this Jeff Skinner kid with a three-point game that totally kills us and leaves me stunned. I’m thinking that was a fluke… yeah, um, no.

 

He leads all rookies in points, second in goals to San Jose’s Logan Couture and looks like a great number two to Eric Staal. I guess I was looking at a sign of things to come.

 

(Side note: I really like this year’s class of rookie forwards. There’s Skinner, Derek Stepan, Couture, Taylor Hall and Brian Bickell and they all look good. For years the young defensemen have bean all of the rage in the league and maybe starting with this class the scorers might catch up with them soon.)

 

My Bad: Stepan, Couture and Hall.

 

Jack Adams Trophy- Guy Boucher

Yeah Peter Laviolette has the Flyers in first, Mike Babcock has the Red Wings playing great, but did you think the Lightning would be in the top 3 in the NHL ahead of the Pens, Caps and Habs this year? Yep, exactly.

 

My Bad: Babcock, Laviolette, and Marc Crawford

 

Presidents Trophy- Philadelphia Flyers

Scary good. They’re clicking on all cylinders with Pronger coming back soon. This may change if the Pens get Crosby back but for right now no one has an inside track on these guys.

 

However, that’s the story of this season so far. Injuries are killing lots of teams right now from my Rangers to the Habs, Pens and Blackhawks. As the races tighten up and the season winds down hopefully guys like Toews, Crosby and Datsyuk get back and return to form quick so these games continue to have great meaning. Well, except for the Rangers. I already know what they’re going to do so I’ll just sit back and not worry about it and watch them battle for the 8th seed. I mean I’m used to it by now anyway.

 


Your Wacky Week In Sports Recap

The Isner-Mahut match was one of the many crazy things to happen this week

And you thought that once the NBA Finals ended that sports would go into a deep sleep with the long slumber of the baseball season, oh what little you knew.

The annual conception of sports is that once David Stern’s rig-a-thon of a finals ends yearly in June that we just sit around and twitter our thumbs until the baseball trade deadline then football season begins.

Tennis isn’t as big as it once was, golf lulls you to sleep (Tiger or not) and NASCAR—well NASCAR isn’t a sport. So there is baseball and when you talk to people they all have complaints about the length of games, season, the lacking continuous wow factor and just the slowness of the sport in general. So honestly the 6 weeks between the end of the NHL and NBA playoffs and the beginning of NFL training camps are usually repetitive, slow and boring… then this week happened.

It looked like just a normal week for sports fans; two drafts (NHL and NBA), interleague baseball, Wimbledon Tennis, the U.S. Open and World Cup soccer. Nothing big, the names all match the faces, you know what happens, who wins, loses, etc. There was a huge curveball thrown this way this week, weird things were happening everywhere to the point that if you turned away from your TV you probably missed seven different things in an hour.

SUNDAY

Tiger was in striking distance at the U.S. Open as was Phil Mickelson yet Dustin Johnson was the headliner heading into the final round. At 6 under, Johnson held a 3 shot lead over Grahame McDowell and a 5 shot advantage over a lurking Tiger. Then he threw it all away in three holes on Sunday and finished with a final round 82. Johnson buckled under the pressure with triple and double bogeys on no.2 and 3. He was so bad the NBC golf analyst caught fire this week for saying that Johnson wasn’t using his brain during his meltdown… OOPS!

McDowell wasn’t exactly stellar either; he finished at even for the tournament after a final round 74 to become the first European golfer to win the open since Tony Jacklin 40 years earlier. Yep Colin Montgomery never did it, nor Nick Faldo, or Paddy Harrington.

It was also the tournament that may have ended the notion that Tiger Woods is the most feared player on the planet. That tends to happen when you go from totally focused to whining about the holes to anyone that listens, and blasting your caddie in public. Apparently Tiger lost some since of class when he lost half of his money.

MONDAY

The Federer fiasco.

If Federer wanted people to pipe down about his fading skills, then this was not the way to do it. His near collapse is only topped by his opponents. Alejandro Palla had Federer beat, twice. He had the opportunity to break Federer for the match twice in the third set and he blew it. He eventually went on to lose in five sets including a 6-0 beat down in set five. Palla could’ve pulled off one of tennis’s biggest upsets; instead he is a great dinner date for Dustin Johnson this week.

Then there was the Phil Jackson conundrum in L.A. during their parade. Jackson skipped out on the festivities for a previous doctor’s appointment that he said he couldn’t reschedule. Keep in mind that he’s Phil Jackson; he could do whatever he wanted when he wanted. You couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment rescheduled? I’m broke and I get appointments redone all the time.

There couldn’t have been a more telling sign that Jackson is on way to retirement. This might be his way of riding off into the sunset like a lone cowboy. He could’ve done it in a less discreet way, maybe.

In a side note, the Yankees continued their plan to kill their young starters by skipping Phil Hughes because he’s pitching too many innings. Ask Joba Chamberlain how that worked out for him.

(Also Hughes is 10-1 with a 3.13 ERA! He’s the best pitcher on the staff right now. Yet he gets skipped for a start and A.J. Burnett continued his implosion by allowing 7 earned runs on Monday for his umpteenth unimpressive start lately. I’m starting to wonder if Jeffrey Luria knew what he was doing when he fired Joe Girardi…)

TUESDAY

… Until he fired Fredi Gonzalez Tuesday after their win against the Orioles. Luria says that he feels that the Marlins have every necessary tool to compete in the NL East. Yes Jeff except that you have no bullpen, no reliable cleanup hitter and no reliable starters that are not named Josh Johnson. Very true.

WEDNESDAY

Landon Donovan Saved the U.S. yet again

Wednesday was exhausting. I had to start a new job Wednesday and the was the least exciting thing in my life on that day.

First off U.S. soccer almost got jobbed again by a ref in their game versus Algeria. Clint Dempsey got the Maurice Edu treatment when a phantom offside call robbed him of a goal early in their match. Added to that was the pressure that England placed on the Americans. Jermaine Dafoe’s goal in the 23rd minute against Slovenia placed the U.S. squarely on the edge of elimination where it stayed until the extra time of the second half. Then after an amazing outlet pass from keeper Tim Howard Landon Donovan saved our hopes of a World Cup title with a rebound put back that put the U.S. up 1-0 and into the knockout round on Saturday against Ghana. Easily the greatest goal scored in U.S. Soccer history. The feeling was amazing for a nation that isn’t easily influenced by soccer but loves a champion. Even I was speechless as Donovan saved the U.S. in the second straight match when all hope seemed lost.

That reminds me; doesn’t this team reek of destiny? Let’s be real, the U.S. should easily be eliminated with one point as they are the winners of their group. Their slow starts against England and Slovenia could’ve easily been losses if not for Robert Green’s butter fingers or Michael Bradley’s right place right time goal. For all of the talk of the U.S. being screwed out of goals, we have just as easily lucked into two or three of them. Makes you wonder what will happen next on Saturday.

That brings us to after the match and the wonders of the American language. My buddy Will Whatley introduced me to a word called fooleywang a while ago. He uses it to describe certain instances of ridiculousness that you view on a daily basis. It’s a play on foolishness, and adjective, here it is used in a sentence; the match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut on Wednesday was pure fooleywang. How does that happen? When Wimbledon instituted that they would have no tiebreakers in the fifth set of their men’s matches they couldn’t have possibly expected this.

I began paying attention to the match at around 30-29 Isner. Which turned into 34-33, 38-38, 40-39 and then I began to wonder, is this ever going to end?

It was pure will and endurance by both Isner and Mahut. They just couldn’t break each other to take control of the match. When Isner pulled back for an ace, Mahut followed. Winner after winner, ace after ace neither man was budging. Isner had three chances at match point but each time Mahut fought back with a great first serve and winner to keep his hopes alive. The crowd at the 18th court went from 100 people to 1000 with spectators stopping to watch the epic fifth set for hours, not budging for anything. They watched Isner and Mahut battle like prize fighters praying to make it to the next round.

The most telling point of the match came when Mahut dove for a ball well out of reach and watching his racket fly across the court in agony. He just wanted it so badly. He didn’t want to lose. Who would? When you’re on a court for ten hours and still at a draw you can’t lose. Both men took it to the extreme and both finally gave in as darkness set in and it was clear that they would need another day to settle this epic. 59-59 after two days, 150 aces and ten hours of tennis, still no winner. In other words I started a new job, wrote a blog, cleaned my room, Germany won soccer match, the Reds reclaimed first place and one tennis match didn’t end. Wow.

Then after that hockey just had to make no sense at all. The Blackhawks traded 3 of their most important role players due to financial restrictions Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Dustin Byfuglien… DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN!?!?!?! You mean the guy that made Kane and Toews fly, the guy that scored eleven goals and five winners in the playoffs you traded him! Really?

I understand that the market isn’t great now and you have to save money, but to trade your third best forward and most important force on offense? Really Rocky? Byfuglien is going to command lots of money next offseason based on his clutch performing in these playoffs which meant the Hawks couldn’t afford him anymore. Byfuglien’s big body and presence will be missed but in these economic times you’ve got to do what you got to do to save money. I just don’t get trading one of your most beloved players. Makes no sense, sort of like Henrik Sedin winning MVP over Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, but I digress.

Thursday

The sad afterlife of Lawrence Taylor continued.

Lawrence Taylor was officially indicted on felony sexual assault charges for having sex with a 16 year-old prostitute; if this wasn’t rock bottom for LT then I couldn’t tell you what it will be. Funny thing is that two months ago at the NFL Draft Taylor was all smiles speaking about what the Giants needed to get back to on defense, and his legacy. Now Taylor’s latest misstep just punctuates what has been a mess of a post career.

I’ll never understand why Taylor continues with this type of behavior when it has caused so many problems including his Hall of Fame selection. He never learned when it was a good time to slow down. Even when it seemed like he was getting it, he didn’t. You’ve got to wonder if the judge will put an official end to this behavior with a lengthy sentence that will all but end with LT being a shell of the person that we once knew as the most feared man in football.

Then there was a bore of a NBA Draft, well except Wesley Johnson’s pants those were the most exciting things of the evening. Except for Utah reaching for Gordon Haywood at 9 (insert racial joke here) and the Grizzlies reaching even higher for Greivis Vazquez at 28 the draft was highly irrelevant because it was just a set-up for free agency.

Think about it, Miami traded out of the first round to save money as did Chicago. The Knicks did their prep work by packaging deals out of the next two drafts for this year’s free agency period. Really all the draft was, was just an appetizer for July 1st. teams close to contention clearing room for Bron and Wade or Bosh or Amar’e or Dirk. Teams don’t just want one star they want two because they believe that will put them over the top.

David Stern for all of his lauding about how he wants Bron to stay in Cleveland because it would be better for the league is facing a huge problem, and that is the competitive balance of the league. Really the league is just 6 good teams with everyone else there for fun factor. You don’t expect Golden State or Indiana to contend for anything anytime soon, it makes the league less relevant and makes the draft a sham.

Think about this for a second; Dwyane Wade and LeBron James set a precedent by signing shorter deals 3 years ago to get to free agency with no strings attached quicker, pretty much they now dictate who they want to play for. Who’s to say 6 years from now John Wall DeMarcus Cousins and Wesley Johnson won’t do the same and put Minnesota, Sacramento and Washington in similar situations like the one they are in now? Stern has to find a way to make the league more competitive so teams like New Orleans and Memphis won’t feel like they can’t compete with larger scale teams because of their attraction.

(But will Stern do it? Of course not. He’s more concerned with that $400 million dollar debt his league is in. not knowing that spreading the balance will help alleviate some of that debt.)

Oh and Isner-Mahut just ended 70-68 Isner. Eleven hours, 220 aces, 1000 points won, 183 games, an 8 hour 30 minute fifth set and finally a winner.

FRIDAY

  • Quickies from weeks end: Clijsters-Henin match setup for Monday
  • Rasheed Wallace retires. Referees rejoice.
  • Carlos Zambrano threw a fit in the dugout after getting hammered in the first inning against the Chisox. He got suspended and rightfully so. I love Zambrano but his temper is ridiculous. The guy has to find a way to slow himself down and regain his form before he finds himself out of baseball.
  • Taylor Hall was the number overall pick for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL Draft. Tyler Seguin was second for the Bruins.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays host the Philadelphia Phillies… in Philadelphia. So you couldn’t play in another stadium in Canada, really? C’mon Son! You know that’s three extra home games for the Phils Bud. Don’t lie.

    Edwin Jackson threw another no-hitter, but who hasn't this year?

Oh yeah and Edwin Jackson threw a no-hitter against the Tampa Bay Rays— WITH 8 WALKS! Ok what should be the story here; a. the no-hitter itself, b. the fact that this is the fifth no-no of the season (yeah I’m still counting Armando Galarraga’s) or c. the fact that Tampa has been no hit three times in the last year?

I understand that no-hitters are a big deal, but come on 8 walks? That’s eight base runners plus a hit batter, that takes away from the luster of the no hitter big time. It’s still an accomplishment to not allow a hit over an entire outing but Jackson’s wildness makes it less of a big deal. The same goes for Ubaldo Jimenez’s 6 walk no-no in April. They weren’t great performances like the Halladay, Braden or Galarraga games because those guys were in complete control from start to finish. I think we make a big deal out of no-hitters because we never used to see them a lot, but now that were entering a pitcher’s era in the sport maybe we should hold up a higher standard of how to celebrate no-no’s because Jackson’s to me isn’t that big of a deal.

What is a big deal is the fact that there are all of these no-hitters flying around like hotcakes. With the steroid era being cleared away you have to wonder that the use of PED’s really did amp up the last 15 years of baseball’s run production, who knows how many more of these things we’ll have this year, 2? 4? It is highly possible.

And please Tampa, learn some plate discipline. 3 times in 140 games? You get a big Ed Lover C’mon Son!

Oh and today, Saturday there’s another A.J. Burnett start, U.S. versus Ghana, Rafa trying to avoid another five set meltdown and whatever else could possibly happen as a crazy happenstance in this crazy week of sports. Just stay tuned because you might miss something special.


Chicago And Philly Look To End Cup Droughts

Can the Hawks run continue?

Think of the names for a second. Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Bill Clement… think of where those men stand in the annals of folklore of hockey history. The popularity of those faces and their playing style made them who they are and how respected they are today.

We know about the Broad Street Bullies, The Golden Jet… we know about how these two hockey crazy towns embraced them for their style of play, we also know that ever since these men took the ice, that was the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup. Philly in 1972, Chi town in 61’ the longest current drought in the sport.

Since then there has been hope on both sides of the ice. The Blackhawks had the Chris Chellos and Jeremy Roenick combo in the 90’s while the Flyers put faith in The Legion of Doom in the late 90’s.

Both teams made appearances, both teams ran into the steamrollers known as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings respectively, both teams haven’t smelled championship success since then,

The Blackhawks have been in shambles under the ownership of Bill Wirtz, the Flyers couldn’t get over the hump with the conservativism of GM Clarke. The Hawks traded Roenick and Chellos and went into a 15-year slump where the city of Chicago fell out of love with the Hawks. The Flyers saw Mikael Renberg come and go, as did Rod Brind’Amour, the Hatcher twins and watched injuries ravage fan faves like Keith Jones, Keith Primeau and Lindros.

They’ve watched their divisions become controlled by dynasties in the making in Detroit and the New Jersey Devils. In essence, both sets of fans, huge hockey fans, seemed to fade away with the occurrences in their cities and were swayed by their newly minted baseball champions in the White Sox and Phillies (except for the Cubs, their fans are still bitterly holding on for a hope that seems so far away its Katt Williams funny).

Yet here we are, May 29, 2010, two championship starved franchise on the verge of ending their droughts in resurgent markets in a resurgent league.

The teams mirror themselves in so many ways: Young Captains who lead by example with a calm but furious demeanor (The Hawks Jonathan Toews and Philly’s Mike Richards). Playmaking wings who are dreams to watch (Patrick Kane and Jeff Carter) absolutely bruising backliners who are great both offensively and defensively (Duncan Keith and Chris Pronger) and goaltenders, who three months ago you couldn’t pick out of a police lineup (Antti Nieme and Michael Leighton). The similarities are endless.

Flyers fans are just as starved for a championship.

Their playoff fortunes have been formed by star-making performances by mere role players. Dustin Byfuglien’s breakout has been chronicled over and over, but the Flyers Claude Giroux has been just as big, if not bigger. Giroux was dominant in the Montreal series including a two-goal performance in game 4 which all but sealed the series. As for Byfuglien, well lets just say if not for his two game winning goals in games 3 & 4 against San Jose, or his hat trick against Vancouver in Game 3 or his great work as a defenseman in the Nashville series (he’s a winger just to let you know)… you get the idea.

Then there have been stories of perseverance that have transcended certain individuals. Look at Simon Gagne of the Flyers. Earlier in the decade he was a deadly goal scorer that helped Canada win gold in the 2002 Salt Lake City games. He then suffered a rash of injuries that damaged his career and made him an afterthought in Philly. In this postseason he has returned to form of sorts. He’s scored seven goals including 2 in the historic game 7 clincher versus Boston and he had a great series against Montreal scoring a goal in each of the first three games of the series.

So how can you tell these teams apart this series to decipher a winner? Well you can’t. All you can do is look at certain aspects of each team to see where each side has an advantage:

  1. The Byfuglien factor. Vancouver couldn’t figure it out, nor could San Jose. Byfuglien as you’ve seen is a monster. He’s 6’4” 260 and has quick hands. His presence around the net gave Evgeni Nabakov fits last week and lead to multiple power plays for The Chi in both series. However, the Flyers have a big monster in Pronger who at 6’6” can help shift Byfuglien out of Leighton’s way.
  2. The Briere factor. I hate Daniel Briere. I hate his facial hair, his size (5’6”) and his style of play. However, dude’s a baler. His play against the Bruins was the reason the Flyers came back to win that series and why Montreal couldn’t keep up with them. It’ll be interesting to see how the Hawks can maintain what he does when he’s on the ice.
  3. Who’s going to contain Kane and Toews or Richards and Carter? Both backlines have challenges in containing the high scoring lines that have been killing teams all postseason.
  4. Who’s got the better x-factors? What are Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd, Ville Leino and James Van Riemsdyk going to do? Each of those aforementioned men has at one point or another come through with big plays for each teams. Ladd is out with an injury this evening yet the role players for each side could have as much to do with the factoring of the Stanley Cup than the big guns.
  5. Goaltending. Remember when Chicago’s main issue was between the pipes? Yes it was an ongoing story all season but Antti Niemi has done everything to stop those fears with a 2.33 GAA and a .921 save percentage. The Flyers are no strangers to goaltending problems; they haven’t a steady goaltender since Ron Hextall in the 80’s and early 90’s! Yet no one knew what to expect out of Leighton who has been huge for the Flyers. He’s only allowed 11 goals in 9 games including 4 shutouts. Both men weren’t even on the roster at the start of the season and could have their names on the Cup at the end of next week.

Speaking of the cup, who wins and why? I said Chicago would get there and lose at the start of the season I said they were too young and needed one more year. Yet I didn’t know that they would be playing a Flyers team that just two years ago was the worst team in the league and had no real help in net. Yet I can’t change now, I like Philadelphia in six. Why? I mean they came back from 3-0 down against Boston; they made the playoffs on the last day of the season and have been unstoppable with a backup goalie in net. They’re a team of destiny and there is no stopping right now. I know Chicago has the more well-known and respected team, but you can’t go against the hottest team in the league.

So there you have it. In a match up of two teams that haven’t seen a title in a combined 88 years, the legends of the Broad Street Bullies will come through. Whatever happens it’s going to be a great series and someone will join the legends whose shadows they skate in front of every game.


The Blackhawks Turnaround Is Complete

Chicago is a hockey town once again.

As bad as it sounds to say, but after the Blackhawks defeated the San Jose Sharks to go to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992 I couldn’t help but wonder how bad of shape that the Blackhawks would be in if Bill Wirtz were still alive.

If you remember, once upon a time long ago the Chicago Blackhawks were not that good and nobody cared about the Hawks at all, namely because of the actions of one William Wirtz. He cut corners to save money, turned down plans to help Chicago contend for titles for years, never paid players, and the most unforgiveable sin of all, he blacked out all home games so you couldn’t watch them at home.

All of this made Chicago, an original six city, the home of the Golden Jet, Stan Mikita, and the spin-o-rama forget about hockey and the men that wore the Indian headed sweaters.

Fast forward to yesterday where in front of another sell-out crowd at the United Center and you wouldn’t even believe that The Chi was a dormant hockey town just three years ago. The Fratellis “Chelsea Dagger” blared over the entire arena as Jonathan Toews accepted the Clarence Campbell trophy for the Western Conference Champions. Fans waved red towels like rabid wolverines screaming at the top of their lungs with nearly everyone still in attendance. Hockey in Chi town was back.

It started five years ago after the NHL lockout and the league searching for any positives. The Hawks took Toews in the draft to begin a rebuilding process and hope that the team would pull itself out of oblivion. The next year they drafted Patrick Kane, the perfect attention grabbing compliment to Toews’s laid back demeanor. Together they began to draw attention due to their skill and age. The city slowly began becoming re-engaged to the Blackhawks though they were still a ways away from being anything significant.

Then came the death of the elder Wirtz and the turnaround officially began. Rocky Wirtz for years pleaded with his father to change his ways but it always fell on deaf ears. Now in charge, Rocky did things his way and began a transformation that is more and more impressive to fathom.

He held a fan convention in February of 2008, the first in the team’s history, possibly to rejuvenate the significance of the team to the city. Four months later, it was announced that the team would be hosting the newly implements, and annual Winter Classic from the historic Wrigley Field. After the success of the event at Orchard Park in Buffalo, a crazed hockey town in itself, it was a shoe in to be a great event.

Though they lost it, the Winter Classic was a huge part of Chicago's revival.

Next was the hiring of successful coach Joel Quenneville, who guided long playoff runs for the St. Louis Blues in the early 2000’s. His hiring gave great leadership to a young rising team in the league and it came with immediate returns. His first order of business, and the team’s for that matter, was to award the Captain’s “C” to Toews to officially make him the face of the team as well as Kane.

The Winter Classic was the beginning of on ice success though it was in defeat. The Wrigley experience of their 6-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings made the Classic a huge event for a national audience and it let people outside of Chicago know who these boys were. Then came the playoffs and great showings from Kane, Duncan Keith and guys like Kris Versteeg and Brent Seabrook.

It all culminated into this season.  A turn around four years in the making that led to pressure that these young men, or the city hadn’t seen since the days of Jordan and the Bulls. ESPN the magazine had Kane, Toews, Keith and newly acquired winger Marian Hossa on the cover chronicling the pressure that they would face and the troubling offseason that accompanied the success (Hossa’s injury and Kane’s run-ins with the law). Critics were quick to place the young untested core at the top of their yearly predictions over more proven teams like Detroit, Vancouver and San Jose. You wondered whether this team was ready for such exposure, if they play larger than their age and let their talents take over for a full 82 game season.

It was funny because Dave Bolland said in an interview after the game yesterday that the celebrations that came with wins last year had been replaced with a cooler temperament this year and more focus, and it showed.

Despite lingering questions about the subpar goaltending, the Blackhawks finished second in the West, first in the Central division (the first champion this decade not named Detroit) had 6 20-goal scorers and became the talk of the town. These playoffs added to their luster with break out performances by Dustin Byfuglien, Antii Niemi and Bolland in addition to the stars on the team. Every night a new Hawk steps up and takes over while Kane and Toews calmly and spectacularly guide the ship.

Yesterday’s win more than anything showed the grit, toughness and talent that has followed the team all year. Niemi shook off two early goals to deny any other San Jose advances, the Seabrook and Keith led defense held the Sharks to 3 third period shots, Keith also lost 4 teeth on a puck deflection yet stayed in the game for a fierce 20 plus minutes on the ice (he’s a hockey player come on). A Toews blocked shot led to Bolland’s game tying goal and then “Big Poppa” (Byfuglien) came through with another clutch goal as he parked his wide-bodied frame in front of Evgeni Nabokov to put the Hawks up for good. Just another jaw dropping game from the most talented team in the league that knows how to use their talents to their advantages instead of playing lackluster in big games and expecting to turn in on whenever (ahem Geno Malkin, Alex Semin and Milan Lucic).

The end result was an amazing scene in the United Center; fans going crazy in anticipation of ending a 50 year Cup drought, with Stan Mikita in attendance funny enough. A young Captain refusing to touch the Clarence Campbell trophy because of the bigger prize that waits in the wings. Rocky Wirtz jumping around like a kid in a candy store as the final horn sounded. A far different scene from what the town has been used to for the years leading up to yesterday. No more Eric Daze disappointments, no cutting corners, no selling out the fans, just sellout crowds and a large sea of red jerseys with that infamous Indian chief on the front and a range of names from Kane to Toews to Keith on back. Just like it should’ve always been in a hockey crazed town, hockey is back in Chicago and its return has been welcomed arms, open hearts and Champion starved fans. Even Bill Wirtz has to smiling at this scene.