Friday, March 7, 2008

Admitting Your Goalie is Good

Going into last night I fully expected a street fight between the Avalanche and Ducks, and not to disappoint both teams made it their mission to hit each other as much as possible.

In true Ducks fashion they even made it a point to crank Super Joe on at least one occasion.

With all the playoff hockey around it was easy to see that it was a game that the Avalanche could have easily lost, had it not been for one French Canadian left hander between the pipes.

Let's get something straight, I was a fan of Jose Theodore for precisely one round of playoff action, when he and the Avs put Dallas out of the first round two years ago. Then the bottom fell out.

And for the better part of a year and a half Theo couldn't stop a drunk bantam league team.

So it was fitting that coming into this season the biggest complaint from fans and experts was that the Avalanche had no depth at goaltending. With some analysts predicting that this season would be Theodore's last in the NHL, considering Joel Quennevilles penchant for despising goalies.

But as it turns out we should have known better than to doubt a former Hart Trophy winner in a contract year.

For the better part of the last two months Theo has been not only one of the best players on the Avalanche, but one of the steadiest goalies in hockey. And last night in a 27 save shutout of the defending Cup champions, Jose may have regained his prominence as one of the preeminent goaltenders in the game.

(...and yes I just wrote hurt. I am having pain in the head and neck region now.)

In a year in which even the best goalies have had their fair share of rocky performances Jose Theodore since December has put up stout numbers, while not allowing his team to see any horrible blowouts.


So here comes the big admission, as I cannot deny it anymore: Jose Theodore is good.

There, I said it. I will now stare directly into the sun so that I may never see again...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

To Punch or Not To Punch

As Anaheim rolls in to Denver tonight I am wondering what will happen when the Ducks inevitably start hitting Forsberg and the rest of the Avs.

Adrian Dater of the Denver Post already brought this one up yesterday, so I'm not trying to copy...but it got me thinking.

While it is nice to live vicariously through our hockey compatriots, articles like Dater's may be a sign of things to come. And by that I mean, teams taking shots at the players, and the re-emergence of enforcers.

Coming out of the lockout we were told that the NHL's best players would be allowed to roam free and score at will. And this pretty much happened as the guys with the whistles actually called the game by the book. Yet here we are a couple of seasons later and almost since the beginning of the year, the stars in the NHL have been kicked around to a certain degree.

So this brings up my inevitable time saving assertion that enforcers should be thrust back into their eternally important role of policing the ice. Because it is important to protect the guys that score. Period. No amount of referee oversight will change this fact.

Yet we still have to deal with that annoying instigator rule and massive fines should any coach send out a guy to fight with less than five minutes remaining in the game. So what to do?

I'm not above accusing Commissioner Gary Bettman (or casual American hockey fans and columnists) of hypocrisy. I for one still harbor the belief that the lockout, in part, was intended to break up the "Super Teams" of the 90's, and wash out the talent pool. So for me to think that Bettman would roll back rules that don't work would be foolish. I mean, this is America and in America the status quo is to never admit mistakes, right?

But here's the thing. I've played enough hockey to understand that when it comes to people who skate professionally, rarely do they become so out of control that they accidentally cause say "accidentally" putting a man off of the end of the glass.

(I'm not sure if any of my hockey friends HAVEN'T thought of doing that to someone, assuming they didn't already do it at some point in their lives...)

Yet when things like that happen, there have to be repercussions. Granted Laperierre did try to fight Jack Johnson later in the contest on Saturday only to be foiled by Rob Blake, but what about the next time?

This brings us back to Forsberg. As it stands the Avalanche can not afford to lose another top player to injury. And as Dater mentioned, any time the Ducks roll around there are cheap shots aplenty.

But when the league is so staunchly against fighting (even in a year when penalty minutes for fighting are up) are we supposed to sit back and watch he refs bury their whistles as the stars of the game are buried on the ice? I don't think so.

Come on Bettman! Reverse rules and bring the enforcers back, something tells me you and about 50 of the top players in the world will be happy you did.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

When The Man Comes Around

Crank up the Johnny Cash!

"And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder..."

I'm certain of the exact moment when the rapture hit.
And when it hit, everything changed.

In an instant there he was, The Man.

Certainly any thinking person had to wonder about the effect of his presence. There were doubts. Was he the same as he was before? Could he do what he'd done in the past? Would he be able to carry the same responsibilities?

These were questions that could only be answered upon witnessing the return for ourselves. To see with our eyes what our hearts had been telling us.

We knew what would happen when The Man came around.

You could see it as he was charging down the far boards dropping passes to Sakic. And there it was as he was stationed behind the net sending gifts to Hejduk. And there it was again by the blue line as he was stealing the puck. The fluidity and efficiency of motion. The ability to be everywhere and nowhere at once. His effect so encompassing that it could only be witnessed in the eyes of the opponent.

You could see the fear and respect.

It washed over the faces of the Canucks when he emerged. And instantly they knew this battle would not be won. But in noble fashion they tried to stop him, again and again, unwilling to give ground when the odds were not in their favor. Yet the more the Canucks tried, the harder the Avalanche fought. It is difficult to contain the effects of a phenomenon.

Last night we stood for a moment in stunned silence and learned once again that Peter Forsberg's contribution is not just an ability to see his world like few others can. His effect rather, is emotional.

His return has spawned belief.

And in believing the Avalanche are saved.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts Around the League

So en lieu of writing an actual column today I'm just going to throw out some thoughts and predictions. I'll make this a weekly thing if it works out...

-It is a bit difficult when the last Avs game was Saturday. I can only write and read so many "whaddya thing Forsberg's gunna do" pieces before I want to stick my head in the oven...but here's my prediction:

Peter Forsberg will find a way to NOT play tonight. One thought though, is it me or did his English get a lot better since his last tour with the Avs? What happened? He almost sounds, excepting the donchaknows, kind of like a Midwesterner. Odd. A few more years of that and he'll be able to telepathically communicate with my Minnesotan relatives.

"So...ya comin' over fer supper? We got pop in the fridge...or Leinies if ya want..."

-Ovechkin got a trick last night to get to 52. That man is a god. If he keeps this up he's clearing 70 before the end of the season, and I may be forced to build a small shrine to him in the garage. What happens if he clears 80 goals? That would be unthinkable at this point, but hey it's Ovechkin.

-Alexander the 8's trick was a great thing to watch, but fantasy wise I'm hoping that it doesn't shatter Carey Price's confidence. He's been a boon for my team "The Iron Mullets" and has covered up for the fairly erratic play of Lundqvist and Backstrom.

-One more thing on fantasy. I'm stoked Brian Campbell went to SJ and didn't lose anything from his game. The trick with fantasy is to get defensemen who at least for periods of time score like forwards, and Campbell is keeping up the pace. If you have a "leeg" on Yahoo you might be able to understand the frustration surrounding Yahoo's policy of not counting hits and blocked shots, as finding consistently scoring defensemen is more difficult than finding a contact lens in the goalie crease...

-It might just be me but Joe Thornton scores like a super defenseman. All he ever seems to get are assists, and then seemingly only on the power play. Does anyone else see that?

-Don't look now but the Ducks are probably going to win the Cup again. A healthy Douggie Weight will allow them to roll two great power scoring lines. They have the defense to make Giguere look like a top 5 goalie, and Teemu is firing on all cylinders. I'm waiting for the first round of Brian Burke conspiracy books to come out wherein the tactic of having guys "retire" to save Cap room is discussed at length.

-Would it be too much to ask Detroit to get healthy and start playing well? I'd like a good match up with the Avs in the first round. An Avs upset would re-ignite the rivalry.

-This probably won't be the first time you'll hear it from me, but the Hawks are my dark horse favorite to win the Central next year...if they can hold on to Havlat and get him healthy.

Their glaring weakness is in net. Khabibulin is old and has a bad back so that throws the job to Lalime. And if I'm not mistaken wasn't that Marvin the Martian blowing the Conference Finals for Ottawa a few years back? My point is that the Hawks are young and will develop fast, they need a brick wall for a goalie if they are to develop correctly.

-Interesting Avs game tonight against Vancouver. The fever over the arrivals of Foote, Salei and Forsberg is starting to wane a bit, so it will be quite telling if the boys keep up the good work.

-I haven't seen one yet, but where is the yearly article lamenting how Olli Jokinen is still stuck in Florida, followed by umpteen blogs from "true" hockey fans demanding the Panthers be moved out of state?

-Innnnteresting 180 over the last week by the Toronto media about Mats Sundin. I understand that I might become a hockey reactionary if the Avs didn't win a Cup for a few decades, because I DID do this up until 1997 with the Broncos. But you can't go flipping on your Captain for sticking around. For the love of God, get management to load up the squad with talent and you won't be compelled to scream at Mats every 3 weeks.

-One final thought. I was leafing through Kukla's Korner yesterday and one of the columnists threw out the idea of sticking glass in front of the benches to prevent Ryan Smyth-like injuries from happening. My only problem with that is figuring out how to make quick line changes happen through the doorways, rather than having the guys leap over the boards.

Hockey is hockey and injuries like Smyth's happen. Sometimes they are very scary, but ultimately they are pretty rare. This season we've seen guys get cut by skates, run into crossbars and put off of lightly padded turnbuckles...but we still watch. I asked a few people why they watched the game, and hitting, scoring and fighting are thrown down as reasons to pay attention. Shoot, it's even a Tribe Called Quest lyric from back in the day, "When I watch hockey I just look for the brawl".

So until the day comes that we are all walking around in cushy bubble suits and eating nothing but rainbows and happiness hockey is going to be a violent sport because we expect it to be a violent sport. Lamentably we are having to deal with the consequences more this year than in others.

I'll be back tomorrow with my review of the Avs-Canucks game. Until then, puckheads.

Monday, March 3, 2008

So What Now?

As the news rolls in about the condition of Ryan Smith and Marek Svatos, the two men involved in the drive by checkings at the Can on Saturday, Avs fans are left wondering what will become of the team.

That got me thinking...well that and some really strong coffee.

-Will they win games?

Yes. Certainly the loss of Smitty and Svatos hurts. Especially Smitty. But as I've mentioned before, the Avs were cranking out a great team game before the great influx of talent over the last two weeks. They'll be fine. I'm convinced that they've turned the corner. But the big question is:

-Who will play with who?

I thought about this a long time

First of all, there are no changes that should be made on defense. Foote and Salei have turned that crew around, along with the team. I can't say enough how nice it is to have Adam Foote back, and even better Rusty Salei has a boomstick! learn something new every game.

(Here's an idea:
Just as Ruslan Salei is about to be introduced we get the PA guy at the Can to say "heeeeere's RUSTY!" and then have Rusty break out and do a lap while greyhounds chase him. Can we make this happen?)


As of now I don't see any reason why the Avs couldn't keep the same lines that they had in the 3rd period on Saturday. Laperriere should continue to see time on a line with Sakic. He has historically jived quite well with Joe and is more than happy to do the dirty work down low and along the boards. Plus, you gotta protect Super Joe.

On Joe's other side I have a feeling Wolski will be involved. This could be could also end with Wolski being demoted to the 4th line. The kid worries me along the same lines that Martin Skoula worried me.

He seems to think that he can control the puck through traffic, when he doesn't have the body to do that. Marek Svatos, or even better Martin St. Louis or Daniel Briere can do that. Wolski can't.

He is too lanky, and I get the feeling he may never fill out causing him to continue his apparent belief that he is actually quick. So he goes chugging straight into double teams as the announcers mention his "deceptive speed". Let's get this straight. Momentum is different than speed and quickness, please refer to Bertuzzi, Todd or Chara, Zdeno vs. Ovechkin, Alex and Gaborik, Marian.

But enough on the kid. If I know Quenneville he'll probably mix in Brunette as soon as Wolski starts bailing out on rushes.

Stastny should stay with Hejduk. They do good work. The big question seems to be whether Forsberg will play center or wing. Can he even skate fast enough to play wing? Is that even a good idea? Maybe they can just strap Forrest Gump leg braces to him and sit him in front of the goalie.

How many people out there have absolutely no idea what Forsberg is going to do? 99% of hockey fans? Everyone? I think I'll feel better when he finally steps on the ice. Part of me expects to see him in the owner's box three weeks from now, and part of me thinks he'll rule the playoffs. It can go either way and I wouldn't be shocked.

Ultimately I think the Avs will survive. Foote has the blue line under control and Sakic still has the best wrister in the game. The guys are grinding hard...and did I mention how happy I am that Footer is back?

Now if we can just get Theo to kick his game up even higher the Avs can keep playing long enough that Smitty and Svatos have a chance at returning.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Old Crow

It looks like the Avs came out on the short end of what would have been an easy victory last night at the Can. Any game can get nasty when your boys are playing a team with nothing to lose coached by Marc Crawford.

This was supposed to be a celebration of the return of Adam Foote, as well as the first home game for Joe Sakic upon return from injury...and it was.

The first period dragged a bit, but the Avs quickly found cohesiveness and began to bury some shots against Dan Cloutier. (Is it ever a good sign when your starting goalie doesn't have his helmet painted?)

Then things got ugly.

First Marek Svatos was shoved into the boards and came out with a bum knee.


It isn't often you see a guy get nailed into the stanchion at the end of the bench. But there was Jack Johnson on a perfectly legal hit, knocking Ryan Smyth off of the "turnbuckle". Hits off of anything around the bench area are often spectacular, but I have never seen a man get hit that hard off of the end of the glass.

Up to that point Smyth had been dominating. In true Deadmarsh-like fashion he was doing the dirty work around the net and had potted two goals, one off of a deflection of a booming slapper from Ruslan Salei.

Yet there he was near the end of the 2nd period, out cold on the ice.

What is it with Marc Crawford coached teams that an Avs player ultimately ends up motionless on the ice? Sure, the Johnson hit wasn't of the dirty variety, he didn't leave his feet, and he didn't end up with his elbows up on Smyth's head as it was bouncing off of the minuscule padding that covers the end of the glass. But this seems to be a developing trend with Marc Crawford coached teams.

Certainly "Crow" is a firebrand. Avs fans are quite familiar with Marc's battles against Detroit, especially Scotty Bowman. Then there was the Steve Moore. Now, we have both Ryan Smyth and Marek Svatos out of the Avs lineup for indefinite periods of time.

Would Avs fans have been satiated if Rob Blake had allowed Laperriere to fight Johnson? Would it have made up for everything had Joe Quenneville sent out Scott Parker to take down, say Anze Kopitar? What's the point?

Perhaps Crow still harbors anger against the Avs since he was fired so long ago? Maybe that didn't even come into play and the Smyth injury was just the result of a hard hit by an up and coming defeseman. But does it even matter?

Hopefully Smitty and Svatos will be back soon, and the Avalanche can continue to come together as a potential Cup contender. But after the events of last night, after already enduring lengthy injuries to their top three players, I think Avs fans are left asking the most valid question of all.

When is enough, enough?