Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Stories You’re Not Reading

Wow. What appeared to be a game destined to be a snooze-fest with the difference in the Edmonton Oilers’ favour being a Toby Petersen blooper off a Ilya Bryzgalov gift turned into a 5-4 thriller that saw eight goals in the third period via a thrilling comeback by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks after they had “committed suicide” (the words of Harry Neale couldn’t have been more precise) with four straight penalties to start the third, with the Oilers prevailing 5-4. It showed that once again that while the series themselves have been snooze-fests (only one Game 7, four Game 6’s out of 12 series so far this post-season), the games themselves have not- 16 out of 33 games in the other series have been decided by one goal. Furthermore, the Edmonton-Anaheim series has been a lot closer than the results indicate, as the Oilers’ two 3-1 wins came with empty-net goals. This is not to downgrade any of the accomplishments of the teams involved, but several in the media (e.g. the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuck, a basketball columnist) have been off the mark in suggesting these games haven’t been exciting.

Of course, I think the major story of these playoffs has been something the rest of the media has been missing, and that is the Rise of the South. Of the four remaining combatants in the semi-finals, two of them- the Carolina Hurricanes and the Ducks- are based in the Southern United States, continuing a trend started ten seasons ago where at least one team south of 40°latitude has at least made the Conference Final. The last season where the semi-finals were all north of 40 was in 1994-95 (since 2004-05 was wiped out completely), when the New Jersey Devils knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks to set up a Stanley Cup Final won in four games by New Jersey over Detroit. In seven of those seasons- including the last six- at least one of those teams went all the way to the Cup Final, with four wins- the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and 2001, the Dallas Stars in 1999 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. In fact, I’d posit that of the four remaining teams, the team with the best chance of winning Lord Stanley’s Mug are the Hurricanes, who have the right mix of defence, physicality, speed, offence and leadership to go all the way. They’re also a joy to watch too, being an exciting team that embodies everything the “new” National Hockey League wants to be.

You’re probably not hearing any of this story because- like me- you’re in Canada, where the talk has been all about the Oilers. Don’t get me wrong- Edmonton is a deservedly great story, a plucky eighth seed who are now poised to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1990, when they last won it- but it’s saddening to know that the stories of the other three combatants are being ignored wholesale when they’re great stories too. The Ducks, ’Canes and Buffalo Sabres were all counted out before the season even began, while prognosticators were predicting these very Oilers to carry the Stanley Cup along Whyte Avenue (well, they were pointing more to the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators, but a lot were pointing to Edmonton after the Chris Pronger and Michael Peca deals). It’s funny how the media does a 180 and suddenly turns the Oilers into underdogs mere months after declaring them champions, although not even I saw their current run coming. These Oilers are special, yes, but let’s not forget they are but one of four teams left in the playoffs, all of which deserve credit for getting this far and should start receiving it.

I’ll start with Buffalo, my favourite team (besides the Vancouver Canucks). Theirs is a story similar to the Oilers, a plucky team that defies all expectations. They ran circles around a Philadelphia Flyers team with Peter Forsberg and then stared down the more talented but small-hearted Ottawa Senators and dispatched them in a five-game set that was more thrilling than it appeared. They’ve been fighting to get any kind of respect from the hockey media, especially from the Toronto Star who do laps every time the Sabres lose (I remember Damien Cox writing that the Senators had placed a “seed of doubt” in the Sabres after winning Game 4 in Buffalo to avoid elimination, but the Sabres came out flat in that one and Ottawa was still badly outplayed). They’re led by the brilliant goaltending of Ryan Miller and the amazing defensive play of defensemen Brian Campbell and Henrik Tallinder (two of the finest defensemen in the league), while Daniel Briere has started to become a genuine offensive threat. Still, they take too many penalties against a Carolina team whose power play is deadly, while Rory Fitzpatrick is proving to be about as thick as a brick in taking stupid penalties and giving away the puck, and Jay McKee- whose shot-blocking prowess has been great- is also proving to be a head-scratcher. Yes, he’s a great defenseman but I won’t mind if he leaves- Buffalo is better served acquiring an impact scorer, somebody like Cory Stillman, than resigning McKee, who plays the same game as Pronger does only that he can’t do it without taking penalties. The Sabres also don’t have an offensive impact player (unlike the ’Canes), somebody they can turn to in the clutch to score the big goal, although in these playoffs Buffalo has managed to find a new hero every night. Buffalo isn’t out of it though- despite what The Star would have you believe (who seem to treat every Buffalo loss like they’ve just lost the series), Game 2 wasn’t as lopsided as it looked (as Buffalo outscored Carolina 3-1 in the third period and would have won if they had more time), even though the game wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. All that game did was show the Sabres that the Hurricanes wouldn’t roll over like the Senators and Flyers did, in much the same fashion that Game 1 showed the Hurricanes that Buffalo wouldn’t be a pushover. The Sabres, like the Oilers, are defying expectations and the magic is far from gone.

They’re still in tough against a Carolina team that has been just as impressive and is deeper and more resilient than any other team the Sabres have faced. The Hurricanes are essentially the team to beat this postseason because they have the right combination of speed, physicality, defence and clutch scoring to bring them over the hump. Eric Staal has been a joy to watch this postseason, while Rod Brind’amour, Stillman and Bret Hedican have been workhorses, to say nothing about Cam Ward, whose goaltending has been an eye-opener these playoffs. Carolina’s power-play is deadly and their counter-attack is just as effective as Buffalo’s is. About the only Achilles’ Heel I can see in this team is a tendency- like the Sabres- to take too many penalties (and the Sabres’ power play woke up in Game 2), and Ward is looking more shaky, as he only made 16 saves in Game 2. The ’Canes, like the Sabres, also have a tendency to “let up” and relax once things get the way they want it (their urgency and Buffalo’s lack of it led to the ’Canes’ Game 2 win), but now that Carolina and Buffalo know they’re mirror images of each other, their series is going to be a chess match. Whomever blinks first will lose the series, which is headed for a Game 7 showdown that’ll be a toss-up. Still, I firmly believe it’s Carolina’s Cup to lose (as much as I’d like to believe otherwise), because they’re the most complete team still remaining, and I enjoy watching them so it’ll be fun to see them win.

Last but not least are the Ducks, who are in deep trouble down 3-0 to the Oilers. They’ve officially gained notoriety in Canada for defeating the Flames, but the truth is they’re a great team albeit very boring to watch. They’re a great passing team and position-wise, plus goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov- Game 3 against Edmonton notwithstanding- has been as much of a surprise as Ward has been for Carolina. Scott Niedermayer is one of the best skating defensemen in the league, while Teemu Selanne has really come into his own this postseason after being a write-off last season in Colorado. Other riveting storylines in Anaheim this year has been Joffrey Lupul (the first player to score all four of his team’s goals in one game and have the last stand up as the overtime winner) and Francois Beauchemin, a Columbus Blue Jackets cast-off who was traded for Sergei Fedorov and nearly didn’t make the Ducks because he was “overweight” but has now become a tower of strength on the blueline and on the power play. Like most of the Ducks’ guns, however, he’s been silenced by an Oiler defence that is more resilient, energetic, speedier and overall just more tough than the other defences the Ducks have faced. Anaheim’s 3-0 hole is really the result of too many penalties (an on-going theme this postseason for them) and their lack of offensive depth past Selanne, however, if there was a team that could bounce back from 3-0 down, it’s the Ducks. The Ducks stared elimination in the face against Calgary in Round One, and the Oilers looked overconfident in Game 3, which led to that game’s wild finish. The only reason why Edmonton didn’t lose the game is because Anaheim doesn’t have a Tim Connolly-type player who could lift the Ducks over the hump, though Lupul came close (Connolly- now out due to a possible concussion- let us not forget, lifted the Sabres to the tie in Game 1 against Ottawa with 10.7 seconds left that allowed Buffalo to take a 7-6 thriller in overtime after the Sabres had been behind for most of the game). I’m seeing a lot of comparisons between this game and Game 3 between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in 2004- the Yankees defiantly believed the series would be over after a 19-8 shellacking, but the Sox stormed back to win four more games and the American League Championship Series, and the same overconfidence may be spreading to the Oilers. The only difference here is that the narrow-win-that-shouldn’t-have-been may jump-start the resilient Oilers, and winning four straight under that kind of pressure may be difficult. Still, Calgary fans will remind Edmonton that it’s not over, and if they don’t, Anaheim probably will- if they can get their act together.

In short, what I really want to say here is that yes, Edmonton has had a great season and is a great story, but dig deep and you’ll see that there’s a lot of stories in the rest of the NHL that are dying to be told- and it won’t be bad. Us in Canada have a tendency to vilify the Southern US when we shouldn’t, because these teams are something special. Furthermore, those markets are as strong as they could be, even in Carolina where The Star’s Ken Campbell made it a point in his Game 2 recap to show how the Hurricanes didn’t sell out any of their playoff games because they’re “bad to their fans”, despite the fact that in every Hurricane game I’ve seen- and I’ve caught most of them- they play to a packed house that really gets into the game. So too do the Ducks, the San Jose Sharks, the Dallas Stars, the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche. What I’ve found is that the idea that the Southern U.S. cities haven’t latched on to hockey is simply a fable the Canadian media tells themselves just so they can feel better when their teams don’t succeed in the playoffs. Yes, overall hockey ratings in the US are abysmal- gymnastics on tape delay beat hockey several weeks ago- but in the markets where there is still hockey the markets are thriving. What I believe hockey needs in the US is a run by the Los Angeles Kings or the New York Rangers, big US markets that will make the whole country pay attention. That is what happened in 1994, when the Rangers made their Cup run, and hockey would have been handsomely rewarded with a TV contract had they not locked the players out. However, the NHL does have something to build on here, and let’s hope they do because hockey needs it. Yes, it would be great if the Cup came back to Canada, but we should want to grow the game too- and the South deserves a chance.

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