Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Night Of Missed Opportunities

A Night of Missed Opportunities

On one end, you have the Nashville Predators and the Calgary Flames who both staged impressive comebacks only to ultimately fall short. On the other are head coaches Craig MacTavish of the Edmonton Oilers and John Tortorella of the Tampa Bay Lightning (respectively) running their mouths and refusing to look at themselves in trying to explain why their teams just didn’t have it.

First to Nashville and Calgary whose games displayed an eerie similarity. Both teams played solid hockey in the first period, emerging out of them tied, but utterly collapsed in the second. The Predators actually took the score to 2-1 in their favour before Patrick Marleau- whom Nashville is conveniently forgetting- burned them for two goals with speedy Mark Smith adding another to put Nashville in a 4-2 hole to close the second period. Then- after Marleau’s hat trick goal- Nashville stormed back to put the gap at 5-4 before Vesa Toskala stood on his head to close the door in the dying minutes to preserve the San Jose Sharks’ victory. In Anaheim, the Flames took three penalties and wound up in a 2-0 hole off goals from a beautiful breakaway goal from Ryan Getzlaf (who’s looking like he’ll be a special player one day) and a power play goal from Teemu Selanne. Then Jarome Iginla took it into his own hands to score two quick goals to square the score and send the game into overtime. However, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks had regained their composure in the overtime period, with Chris Kunitz setting up Sean O’Donnell whose blast from the point gave Anaheim the victory.

In both cases, they were rallies that fell short, but the circumstances are different. Nashville is now down 3-1 in their series but did show incredible resiliency to get the score to 5-4, so Game 5- back in Nashville- may be the Predators’ finest outing yet with momentum clearly swinging their way. I’m not sure if it’ll be enough to carry them through the series, but if Barry Trotz is correct in saying Nashville plays their best hockey with their backs to the wall- and they proved it in the dying moments of Game 4- then San Jose will need to be extremely sharp if they expect to win the series. As far as Calgary-Anaheim goes, the Ducks’ win ties the series at two games apiece, but it’s the Ducks who now hold the advantage. O’Donnell’s goal was a heart-breaker, especially for a Calgary team that battled back to tie after being down by two. However, it may not be much of an advantage- the Flames are returning home to Calgary in front of their fans, and the fact they won once in Anaheim means that Game 6 is very winnable. The Calgary-Anaheim series will be a battle of wits, with the hard-nosed Flames and the speedy Ducks both needing to be at the top of their games if they are to advance to the next round.

Two teams that probably won’t be in the next round are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Edmonton Oilers. With regards to the Ottawa-Tampa Bay series, this has really been shown to be a series featuring a battle of wits. Tampa Bay and the Ottawa Senators are essentially the same team, as both feature deep forward lines, good defence and tons of gifted superstars. The only difference is that Ottawa is performing and Tampa Bay is not. The Senators are playing with calm and focus, allowing the plays to come to them, while the Lightning keep on trying to force plays that aren’t there. They often look clueless on the ice and can rarely sustain any kind of pressure. Probably underscoring all of their problems has been the fact that in Game 4 they allowed Chris Neil- not known for his scoring touch- to score on a breakaway. Tortorella, meanwhile, has been cooking up more excuses than results, this time lashing out at game starter John Grahame- pulled after the second period in favour of the equally anaemic Sean Burke- instead of looking in the mirror. “Four goals on sixteen shots…can’t live with that 75%” he said at the post-game press conference. However, the reason why Tampa Bay isn’t winning and Ottawa is has nothing to do with Grahame- it has everything to do with Tampa’s lack of execution and urgency. There’s no reason why this series couldn’t be the other way around- Ray Emery isn’t the greatest goalie either, and the Senators defence has continually looked suspect against the gifted Tampa forwards. The only difference is that the Senators are executing and Tampa is not. I’m not holding the Lightning in high regard for Game 5- this was a team, remember, that allowed an eight-point lead for the eighth and final playoff spot to almost completely erode, and seeing how they’re sputtering against the Senators, I don’t expect them to come out alive. About the only thing working in Tampa’s favour is the fact Ottawa still has yet to prove they’re post-season contenders, but seeing how the Senators are playing with confidence and the Lightning can’t do anything, Ottawa should advance with a win on Saturday.

This brings me to the Oilers. Craig MacTavish unleashed a torrent of complaints today about the officiating trying to explain why Edmonton lost 4-2 today to the Detroit Red Wings (Edmonton was assessed eight penalties), but the reality is that there’s a lot more wrong with the team. Really, how did they make the playoffs? They stink. I watch them against the Red Wings and they always operate at half-speed. They play hard, which is half the reason for their success, but skill-wise about the only players with anything is Chris Pronger, Dwayne Roloson and Ryan Smyth- the rest have nothing. Why the Red Wings haven’t swept them yet is beyond me, and probably only explainable by the fact the Red Wings are also having problems executing- they’re like the Toronto Maple Leafs in a way- they have a lot of talent, a who’s who of hockey stars and they never play to their potential. The Wings seem to play like they “expect” to win and thus don’t go at full steam, which is why they’ve come out flat against Edmonton. Why they’re still in it is because the Oilers can’t capitalize on the Wings’ weaknesses because on paper the Wings are miles ahead of Edmonton. You know, I actually think Edmonton is well-coached: MacTavish had to be somebody in order to get them here, because under anyone else, the Oilers would have been creamed. I look more towards Kevin Lowe and a history of Edmonton mismanagement: this was a team that pretty much only had a few good draft years (in the early 1980s, when they drafted players like Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, etc.) and essentially nothing else since. They’ve cried poor when Ottawa showed that you can be dominant and not break the bank either. Really, the Oilers need a regime change, especially outside of their former Oiler ranks, because it’s clear that if MacTavish actually had a team to coach, Edmonton might actually return to their dominant days. If not, this could be a team that’ll be down for a while.


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