Saturday, April 12, 2008

Crappy beer, playoff hockey and you!

Ugh, I hate hangovers after tight playoff losses, and this series is not disappointing in the "stressful overtime hockey" category.

Going into Game 2 last night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul I got the strange feeling that I get just before the Avs blow a game. As in, “this is getting easy”. Chalk one up to overconfidence.

It was the Avs kind of game, as both teams seemed less interested in playing defense until late, providing the kind of fast paced, ping-pong hockey that we aren’t treated to very often in the Northwest Division.

The Avalanche did not face a must win game. In fact, they had no pressure on them last night. The team had done their job and earned the commanding win in the first game of the series. Last night it was the Wild that faced all the pressure. If the Avalanche pulled out a victory the series was all but over, as the Wild would then face the insurmountable task of winning at altitude.

But these are the 2008 Avalanche, and I should know better than to get too hyped up over a team that plays Jekyll and Hyde hockey.

Early it seemed as if the Avs might indeed pull out a win, and they hung on to an early Peter Forsberg goal despite being involved in a track meet with a grinding team. Note to Brent Burns and Minnesota, please continue to anger Peter Forsberg, as an angry Pedro is a dominant Pedro.

Again the game was abusive to both teams with Branko Radivojevic taking the brunt of the violence this time, after being steamrolled by a feisty Paul Stastny. “Stats” seems to be waking up to playoff hockey and was more involved in last night’s game, as was Ryan Smyth who was buzzing the net on many occasions. It is fun to see guys like Smyth playing for my team in the playoffs this time. The Avalanche have been missing the services of a front-of-the-net tipper and grinder of ability since the days of Adam Deadmarsh.

My question, and I always seem to have these questions after the Avs play the Wild in the playoffs is, Keith Carney is still playing?! What the?! If there is one thing that I will never forget about Jacques Lemaire it is that he likes to stock up on random grinders from the 90’s. Next up, Darby Hendrickson ladies and gentlemen!

Both goaltenders again faced a ton of pressure, with Nick Backstrom slightly outperforming Jose Theodore. Although the Avs act of shooting directly into Backstrom’s stomach wore thin by the end of the night. It is never a good sign when your boys can’t seem to shoot around a goalie.

It was a good game even if the Avalanche walked out with an overtime loss. Their ability to come from behind with the goalie pulled in the final minute of play continued, even though this time it didn’t come to fruition in the final period.

I’ve said it before, this thing should go seven even if it would have been nice for the Avs to come home up two games to none.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Definition of Clutch

In hockey there are plenty of numbers that mean things.

- 894g-1963a-2857p (Wayne Gretzky’s career totals)
- 50 goals in 50 games or less (done by 8 players, the first being Rocket Richard)
- 551 (Patrick Roy’s all time wins total)

And now, the number eight means something.

As in Joe Sakic’s career total, and all time record set with last night’s overtime game winning goal against the Wild. There can’t be a more important and significant individual number in playoff history.

Forget about the Conn Smythe. A panel of writers and experts didn’t vote on Joe’s record, it was earned.

Let it sink in for a minute. Sakic has now single handedly won eight games for the Avalanche in the playoffs, in overtime when it has meant the most. He now holds the record by two over Rocket Richard. And you thought Chris Drury was clutch? Please. Who do you think was feeding him pucks half the time he was an Avalanche?

This is a number that is going to stand for a while. Dare I say, it might be…unbreakable?

After a short week of contemplation, most writers and pundits, including myself, were pointing to Peter Forsberg as the answer for the Avalanche against the Wild. And in a case of realizing the obvious, the Wild did everything they could to contain Pedro and his band of misfits, holding his line to zero points on the night. They trapped, they hit, and they forced shots on net that required Roy-like saves from Jose Theodore. But once again everyone seemed to forget about one of the greatest players ever to set foot on the ice.

How is it that Joe Sakic has made it through a career as one of the best players in the history of the game, yet he always seems to play in the shadow of newer, flashier players?

Shame on us for taking our eyes off of Captain Clutch. Shame on Minnesota for seemingly forgetting about him during the biggest game of their season.

This may be Sakic’s last year with the Avs. He is old for a hockey player at 38, and he spent much of the season in the infirmary with a hernia. He has won every award and accolade hockey can provide. Joe has nothing more to prove. But every time we count him out Joe does something to make us realize that this is his game. That this is still his time.

Last night it was his eighth overtime game-winning goal…hopefully he sticks around long enough to go for nine.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Picking on the DNP

I realize it is the time of year when many hockey fans flip on the tube and realize that they haven't actually watched hockey in a while. Fine, fine. I'm coming to accept that from some of you. In case you were wondering...yes I did do some picks this year (insert me rolling my eyes).

So without further ado here is the official DNP playoff primer and my first round picks!

Yee Haw!
(As usual I expect all of these to be proven wrong in the next 7 days)

The Western Conference

This is the conference that beats the crap out of itself every year, with the last team standing usually winning the Stanley Cup. It is a brutal test of character and stamina, and after every season I'm shocked to find that nobody has been killed by a brutal hit or dehydration. There will be more than one upset in the West this year.

The Eastern Conference

Teams in the East are usually high flying and exciting to watch. They are loaded with fast, young players like Alex Ovechkin, and seem to never quite play defense. This is why a team from the East probably won't win the Cup this year, even though the uber-talented Penguins of Pittsburgh who feature superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marian Hossa will win a Cup sooner than later.

Here are the first round matchups and my picks (for the betting) which will probably be proven wrong over the next 5 days...

In the West:

Detroit vs Nashville
Detroit is Detroit and we hate them because they are Detroit. Even still, they are good and should cut through a soft Nashville team like (insert any scary 2008 skate related injury joke here)

Red Wings in 5

San Jose vs Calgary
With the wildly overdue for a title Joe Thornton at the helm, towards the end of the season SJ looked like the team to beat in the West. Calgary has some punch because their coach is an old insane guy named "Iron" Mike Keenan. Jarome Iginla, who is the captain of the Flames WILL get into at least one fight in what will be a tighter series than expected. Fun should be had by all. There will be balloons for the kids.

Sharks in 6

Colorado vs Minnesota
Okay...what if you took two teams that almost played the same and put a healthy Peter Forsberg on one of them? That is how close this series will be. Forsberg has scored 11 points in his last 4 games and is once again THE GUY in Colorado. Avs pull the upset in this one because they have a better offense.

Avs in 7

Anaheim vs Dallas
Last year's champion, the former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim will try to beat down a solid divisional foe in this round. Dallas is slumping and the Ducks play defense. Simple as that. Look for Ducks goalie, J.S. Giguere to find a way to cheat and wear even bigger pads during the playoffs, as he really isn't very good.

Ducks in 6

In the East:

Montreal vs Boston
Surprisingly these two teams did much better than expected this season. Boston was banged up since the first month and Montreal was mostly crappy. Yet both teams found quality play from unexpected sources and here we are, an Original Six matchup! Good times. Look for Montreal's strong second half play to continue in front of wunderkind goale Carey Price and the resurgent Alex Kovalev.

Les Habitants in 5

Pittsburgh vs Ottawa
Ottawa, last season's Eastern Conference representative in the Cup final has been a mess since their back up goalie Ray emery flipped out and got their coach canned sometime around midseason. I would give you an exact date except I'm still laughing. Yet because the East is the weaker conference they have managed to hang in long enough that they should be soundly thrashed by the Pens in the first round.

Thanks for playing.

Penguins in 5

Washington vs Philadelphia
Alexander Ovechkin has been the best player in hockey this season, potting 65 goals, which is good. Yet aside from a couple other good up and coming players, and the addition of a starting goalie (Cristobal Huet) at the trade deadline in February they probably don't have a talent to win the conference.

Philly on the other hand is young, has star players (Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter) and has no clue how to play defense...but they can beat people up! That's good...right?

This matchup gives me a headache.

Capitals in 6

NY Rangers vs New Jersey
This is another rivalry matchup featuring some of the best players to ever play like Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers and Martin Brodeur of the Devils. The games will be intense and a few players may get their feelings hurt. Make sure your kids watch this matchup so they will know how to properly fight come high school. The Devils are slumping and the Rangers are heating up, so this will definitely be a close one.

Rangers in 7

Temples of Boom

Going into tonight’s playoff opener, one thought that has been constantly running though my mind is that to advance the Avalanche must steal at least one game at the Xcel Energy Center. I use the word “steal” because the Avs are in the undesirable position of having to break down not only the Wild and their flotilla of lead-footed brawlers, but an entire state of rabid and arrogant hockey fans.

This didn’t really dawn on me until yesterday when I was explaining to my Dad (who lives in Minnesota) how Ian Laperriere was already in their heads, and this will cause the Wild to overplay the Avalanche. Especially because they will want to please the home crowd.

His response went like this:

“Mmmhmm. Okay. Sure.”

Thanks Pop. This from a man who a month ago felt that Minnesota didn’t have the defense to even make the playoffs.

Do you see what happens when you let the Wild win the Division, Colorado?

The normally defeatist State of Hockey is foaming at the mouth!

All of a sudden I’m re-living 1998 all over again. You remember 1998, the year that the Vikings went undefeated and won the Superbowl…right up until they lost to Atlanta in the NFC Championship. That season every Minnesotan I know turned into “The Most Excruciating Sports Fan on the Planet”. Seriously, they were like the zombies in “I Am Legend” only sporting Moss and Culpepper jerseys, pockets full of pull-tabs and car trunks full of Leinenkugels.

This is what the Avalanche are facing, and why I have confidence the Avalanche will win the series. For some reason, whatever reason, outside of a couple of Twins World Series titles, Minnesotans just can’t catch a break sports-wise, and are constantly miserable. I think this is because they have a way of becoming wildly overconfident in their teams.

This season’s version of the Minnesota Wild is no exception.

In classic Karl Rovian media manipulating fashion, some of the buzz this week has actually involved a now “potent” Minnesota offense. The last time I checked three people on that team do almost all of the scoring: Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston, and Mikko Koivu…with some assistance from Pavol Demitra, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

In other words, though spectacular for periods of time the Wild just don’t play offense. It is the Jacques Lemaire way. This is a team that once upon a time actually featured Richard Park as a scorer!

If I saw anything in the last game in St. Paul it was that the Wild are more than capable of shoring up the back end, but so are the Avs. The overriding factor in the Avalanche victory was that the Avalanche is deeper on offense, even if the win came in the shootout.

Once again, the Avalanche ride in to the big show with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, perhaps for the final time. They have plenty of help in Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth, Wojtek Wolski, a resurgent Milan Hejduk, and a host of feisty checkers. When you throw in the additions of Ruslan Salei and Adam Foote I believe the Avalanche have a team that can outlast Minnesota’s trap, if only because Peter Forsberg is now healthy and hot, Ryan Smyth lives to sit on goalies, and Adam Foote is angry.

This will be a close series. It will be tight checking. There will be times when both goalies are tested by bad bounces. But once again, the Wild just won’t have the scoring to beat an Avalanche team that ices enough talent to go far into the playoffs.

Avs in 7

Oh look! The Twins are playing again! They win stuff. Sometimes.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Cirque du Laperriere

Over the course of the regular season as well as during his tenure with the Avalanche, Ian Laperriere has become a fan favorite for his ability to get under the skin of opponents, and during overtime of yesterday’s game against the Wild the Avs favorite pest did not disappoint.

I have looked at the replays, and I have read the recaps from both teams. And what happened yesterday between Marian Gaborik and Laperriere is undoubtedly a classic chapter in the big book of hockey pestilence.

It was so important that if the Avalanche should win their first round series I’m pointing to the moment when Gaborik took the bait as the reason for the victory.

Lappy is in your heads, Minnesota. You’re welcome.

Tell me, at what point did Gaborik, the reason Minnesota can function offensively as a team, decide it was a good idea to, on more than one occasion take the bait?

Did he want to fire up his team?

Did he want to prove a point to the Avs?

Or, was Ian Laperriere making Gabby itchy?

Laperriere is like sandpaper for the soul.

My biggest question is if Lappy was becoming such a big problem, why was Gaborik even on the ice in a then meaningless overtime? Was Jacques Lemaire legitimately trying to get a goal out of his star? Really?

Maybe he was… I mean it is hard to score goals when half your roster is composed of fighters, and all your team does is play the kind of trapping hockey that is killing the sport.

This is going to be a long series for both teams. The term “bloodbath” comes to mind. Minnesota will grind, the Avalanche will try and find ways around it, both goaltenders will see a lot of traffic in front of the net, and there will be plenty of beatings to go around.

I don’t care about whatever unwritten book of hockey rules stated that it wasn’t okay that Lappy fought Minnesota’s star player. Actually, I’d like to find this mysterious book and the chapter where it says it is okay for Derrick Boogaard and the rest of the Wild (most of whom should be playing in the minors) to beat on Peter Forsberg. That has been happening for years. In fact, this season even Joe Sakic has seen his share of rough and tumble play out of Northwest division opponents. And if there is anyone who is considered to be universally untouchable it is Joe.

So go ahead Minnesota, bring the noise against the Avalanche in the first round. They can take it. I’m not worried, because Ian Laperierre is already in your heads.

Welcome to the playoffs.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In a Playoff State of Mind

Today while the Avs butt heads with the Wild to determine the final standings in the Western Conference, I plan on kicking back and enjoying the end of the Great Playoff Drought of the Aught Sevens.

The dark days are over!

Ahh yes, some day I'll tell my grandchildren the tale of the season the Avs didn't make the playoffs by a single point, and how this made everyone like the Rockies. Then we will all shake our heads and share a hearty laugh among us.

It is a good feeling knowing that your team is in before the last day of the season, because nothing says "impossible Cup run" quite like when your boys have to have help to make it into the big dance. Even better, this time around it appears as if everyone is actually healthy, including Jordan Leopold, who the last time I checked was being kept in a large jewel case so that he can avoid any scratches or chips.

Yet questions persist for this team that we've become aggravated by so many times this year.

Can Jose Theodore continue his run of strong goaltending?
Will Peter Forsberg and Ryan Smyth's bodies hold up under the constant hooking, slashing and crosschecking of the playoffs?
Is Joe Sakic healthy enough to produce consistently with the likes of Wolski?
How will Paul Stastny respond in his first playoff?

And most important:

Will an Avalanche team that really only came together over the last three weeks, find enough cohesiveness to absorb the ups and downs of what will be a difficult first round matchup?

I thought about that for a long time and the conclusion I came to is:

I have no idea.

Hold on to your hats you crazy spoiled Avs fans! We've been magically transported back in time to a playoffs where our team isn't a juggernaut to be feared by all. In fact most people don't know what this team is going to do after a season in which parity and injuries made even the most seasoned hockey experts look silly.

This time there is "uncertainty", and that is the most exciting part of the Avalanche's return to the playoffs.