Friday, May 21, 2010

Let’s end the World Championship farce and have a real world tournament

“To be or not to be– that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them.”

-William Shakespeare, “Hamlet” (1600)

Perhaps The Bard wasn’t writing those famous words to Sidney Crosby, but this May, Crosby could sure relate to them.

Caught in “the slings and arrows” of one Szymon Szemberg as a result of Crosby’s “outrageous fortune”, Crosby became a focal point on an wrote an article Wednesday (since taken down) on the International Ice Hockey Federation’s website entitled “Saying No To Your Country”. There, Szemberg- the IIHF director of communications- took aim at all the players who declined the invitation to the World Championships being held right now in Germany. The article chided the players not participating, insisting they had forgotten who had “raised” them (their national associations) from the depths of amateur hockey to the fame they now enjoy. To further his argument, Szemberg employed the “straw man” tactic, responding to (misrepresentations of) common player reasons for not participating, such as “I am tired” or “I promised to fold napkins at my cousin’s wedding”.

“How can a player who is 22 or 25 or 27, and who was just eliminated from the playoffs be tired? Tired is a miner who works in a damp pit in Miktivka, in the Donetsk Plateau in Ukraine, who never sees daylight and who provides living for a family of five in a modest two-room apartment. That is tired,” wrote Szemberg in one part of the piece, continuing, “tired is a divorced mother with two young kids who double shifts as a nurse assistant and cleaning lady to make ends meet.” He then takes aim at several National Hockey League players, including the stars of the Detroit Red Wings (Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Thomas Holmström, and Johan Franzén), Crosby (whom Szemberg wondered why he, at 22, couldn’t go but Ryan Smyth, 34, could), Washington Capital Nicklas Backstrom (citing Backstrom’s new $6.7 million a year contract extension) and New York Islander Mark Streit (who Szemberg is really pointed about, wondering how Streit could be “tired” after playing his last NHL game on April 11). Szemberg relates all this to the Russian NHL players who did decide to participate, such as Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and wondered how they weren’t “tired enough” to come to Germany while their teammates were. Szemberg then ended his article with quotes from Mikhail Grabovski (the Toronto Maple Leafs and Belarus forward who did come to Germany) about how much he enjoys playing in the tournament because he “loves hockey” and New York Rangers scout Anders Hedberg, who echoed Szemberg’s statement in that the players “wouldn’t be where they are without the federations”.

To be fair, Szemberg didn’t just take aim at NHL players, putting players such as Beat Forster (Switzerland) and Johan Davidsson (Sweden) in his crosshairs, but it was the NHLers whom Szemberg spilt the most ink for. As soon as the article itself was written, figures such as U.S. and Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Canada’s national team director Scott Salmond all fired rebukes of Szemberg, with Burke’s hitting the hardest. Never afraid to really state what’s on his mind, Burke continued his tradition of fine one-liners in labelling Szemberg a “paid flunky”. The IIHF, for their part, officially distanced themselves from the article and apologized for the remarks to Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, though Szemberg himself has yet to actually comment on the matter.

In terms of a regular article, it’s a very fair opinion. I personally don’t agree entirely with the opinion but I can see his side of the argument, because it is a concern that these national federations do so much for the players only for so few of them to participate for those nations at the World Championships. Still, this article is completely counterproductive for the IIHF, as this was an unequivocal PR disaster. It would be one thing if Szemberg wrote the piece on a personal blog or uttered the remarks after a spell at a Berlin pub, because then it could at least be said he’s not working in his official capacity for the IIHF and thus should be entitled to his opinion. However, he wrote this article while serving as an employee of the IIHF, an organization whose best interests are served by attracting top players to its tournaments, and it won’t do that by alienating its star attractions (yeah, Crosby needs thicker skin, but I don’t think you’d want to be part of an organization that openly and damagingly attacks your character). It can do that by making the World Championships relevant.

You see, while most players won’t admit it exactly, the reason why they’re not at the tournament is because they see no point in showing up. They won’t freely admit it because to do so essentially brands them as unpatriotic, but I don’t think there’s anyone in the hockey world who thinks competing in the WCs would be a great idea. The only reason why I’d want to go, if I were a player, would be if I had “something to prove” (for example, players like Jaromir Jagr or Zigmund Palffy could use the WCs as proof they can still play at a high level, or a player like Alexander Steen- who inexplicably didn’t show up- use it to bolster a case for a new deal), or to use it as a springboard to the “official” national team at the Olympics, like perhaps Steven Stamkos and Matt Duchene are doing (and perhaps how Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook got on the Canadian team). Otherwise, what’s the point? Take a guy like Crosby or Zetterberg and think about their cases- their places on their Olympic teams are assured, their places on their teams are assured and they’d gain zero notoriety if they won a WC gold medal, as the Stanley Cup is what they’re after. They’d earned the right to take the tournament off, if you ask me.

How do we go about making the WC’s relevant then? I think the first step is to eliminate it entirely. We already have a “world championships” in hockey and that’s the Olympics, it’s redundant to have another one. Sure the “Triple Gold Club” would need amending (more on that later), but other than that, I don’t really think most of us would miss the WC’s if they were gone. Besides, everyone can name all four winners of the Olympic tournament since the NHLers started to take part- can anyone name the defending WC champion?

(No looking it up on Wikipedia or Google now)

(Time’s’s Russia. It’d be their third title in a row if they won it this year)

To replace the WC’s, I think we need to have a “continental tournament” (which is where we amend the “Triple Gold Club” to members who have won their regional tournament, the Stanley Cup and the Olympic Gold Medal). It’s here where I take a page out of soccer, which stages its own hugely successful world tournament (the World may have heard of it) alongside highly profitable regional tournaments. The most successful of those is the European championship (the “Euro” tournament that’s really called the “Union of European Football Association (UEFA) European Football Championship”), which is held in the even numbered years when there isn’t a World Cup. The other regions don’t follow this same format, but I think in hockey we can follow the “every other year” format.

Unfortunately, developing this kind of tournament presents some challenges. First of all, the IIHF is home to 68 member nations, 43 of which are in Europe. Conversely, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s governing body, has 208 members, 53 of which belong to UEFA. Second of all, the quality of play across the FIFA regional associations is roughly equal, meaning each region can have a competitive regional tournament. In hockey, the only region with any real depth is Europe, so while we could be guaranteed an entertaining European tournament, there’d be hardly any justification- or even the numbers- to create other regional tournaments (for example, North America only has three teams- Canada, the U.S. and- believe it or not- Mexico). However, if we play with the positioning a little bit, there is a possibility to create two “regions” of relatively competitive play. I’d split them up as follows:

Europe Region

World Region





Czech Republic









Chinese Taipei

Great Britain



Hong Kong
























New Zealand


North Korea






South Africa


South Korea






United Arab Emirates


United States













“Europe” should be fairly straightforward, but the “World” region needs some explanation. It is essentially every hockey playing nation that isn’t in Europe or wasn’t once a member of the former Soviet Union. This means that nations like Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine are placed in the “World” group instead of the European group (where one could reasonably expect them), and I did this to “balance the scales”. See, if I followed a simple split of Europe and the rest of the world, what I’d be left with is a region with four “superpowers” (Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic), several “mid-major” powers and the rest, while the other region would essentially see Canada and the U.S. duke it out for the title with, arguably, only two other countries that could realistically be competitive (Kazakhstan, Japan (who gave us Yutaka Fukufuji) and South Korea, (who has sent players like Jim Paek and Richard Park to the NHL in recent memory)). If we at least combine it along the lines of “North America + Former USSR” you at least get some depth, because then Canada and the U.S. receive a legitimate rival (Russia) and a handful of competitive nations (Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Japan and South Korea). It’s still not as deep as the European tournament would be, but at least we’d be guaranteed with a tournament that won’t be filled with blowouts, which is important for the development of the tournament.

The other part of this would be to have a “visible” qualifying tournament for both the Olympics and the regional championships, just like they do in soccer. In soccer, each national team is required to embark on odysseys of around a dozen games played in the two years prior to the World Cup. The European regional tournament has the same qualification requirement, meaning that the European teams essentially play at least five times during the season; and these are not silly little friendlies but important games. The increase in games increases the visibility of these teams, and it would be vital if we are to have meaningful development of the international game. The Olympics are fun, but it’s a bit of a letdown to know that, realistically, we’d have to wait four more years to see Crosby, bandmate Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Jarome Iginla and the rest of the gang in Team Canada colours or Ryan Miller, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler and Team U.S.A. We should be able to see these teams far more often and, besides, the Olympic games are the highest quality hockey out there. Furthermore, the qualification games can serve as important “tune-up” games for the Olympics, allowing the national teams to tinker with the rosters before the games “really” matter (though teams would have to find chemistry in a hurry considering too many losses means they don’t qualify for the major tournament). We could even go a step further and stage actual “international friendlies” (just like soccer), giving teams more of a chance to build a line-up they’re comfortable before the games would actually matter (such as in the qualification tournament). At the end of the day, we need to have more meaningful international contests held, and held at more regular intervals, because that increases the visibility of the competition, the one aspect of the international game that is sorely lacking (outside of the Olympics).

The final thing international hockey needs is a real international club tournament. Above all else, the one thing the Olympics showed me was how close players in “lower leagues” such as the Elitserien or the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) are to regular NHL players, making me think that games between the European clubs and the NHL wouldn’t be as one-sided as people think. In fact, the 2009 Victoria Cup saw an upset of sorts when the Zurich Lions, who feature such luminaries as Ari Sulander and Patrick Baertischi, defeat the Chicago Blackhawks (yes, the same Blackhawks now up 3-0 on the San Jose Sharks in the Conference Finals). It is true that was just a meaningless exhibition game, but it at least shows that European teams aren’t the pushovers that we think they are. Furthermore, by staging a real club competition, it’d give a chance for the best players to be showcased around the world far more often and really cement hockey as the world’s second “global sport”. Finally- and this is open to debate- how many Swedes, Russians, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, etc. who could possess NHL skills at a young age choose to give up the sport because they don’t want to move all the way across the Atlantic to a different country? You may scoff at that notion, but it’s a *big* adjustment to make (one that I doubt many of us would make if given the chance to stay home), and if I was a player and faced with that predicament, I might just take up soccer because at least it gives me the opportunity to stay home more often. By giving the European nations an equal shot at the global championship, it means that prospects in those nations don’t have to “give up the game” because they can now compete at a high level at home. I recognize this means removing the NHL’s exclusivity on the Stanley Cup which is probably not going to happen, but I hope I can make this idea intriguing enough for NHL people to at least consider the idea.

I know a lot of my suggestions would require a restructuring of the NHL year and that makes them less palatable. However, if the NHL- and the IIHF- is serious about growing the international game, they should be series about reorganizing their competitions to make the international game more successful, because it would benefit both immensely if it would. Simply put, the international competitions have to be more meaningful and held more often, because that increases the visibility of that aspect of the game. I’m positive none of the players are refusing to play in the WC’s because they don’t like their country- they’re refusing to play because the WC’s are essentially meaningless. Having a complimentary “regional tournament” gives the players another meaningful international competition on top of the Olympics. Getting that set up should be the first step.

At the very least the IIHF has to get rid of its tired WC tournament and its whiny communications director. Because snippy articles like this won’t grow the game but limit it, since this article won’t inspire players to play for an organization that has openly declared their contempt for them. How is that for being counterproductive.


Monday, May 17, 2010

How much did the Flyers break the odds? How long will it be before it happens again?

Philadelphia Flyers Simon Gagne celebrates his goal on the Boston Bruins during the third period in Game 7 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final hockey game in Boston

I know time travel hasn’t been invented yet (presumably), but let’s go back to the morning of May 7, 2010. The Boston Bruins have dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in every possible way in building a 3-0 series lead and look poised to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1992. Boston outscored Philadelphia 12-6 (including a 5-4 overtime victory in Game 1 where Marc Savard scored in an emotional return to the ice), played smart and confidently in defence and received stellar goaltending from Tuuka Rask. Sure, David Krejci, one of the Bruins’ top forwards went down and Philadelphia was welcoming back Simon Gagne from injury, but, on paper it shouldn’t have changed the series much. The way Boston was playing it didn’t matter who was on the ice- the Bruin defence was efficiently handling the breakout passes the Flyer defenders were trying to hit and stifling any rush the Flyers tried to generate, and Gagne wasn’t going to make the Flyers any faster as a team. Rask, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, former Flyer Mark Recchi and the rest of the Bruins- as well as their fans- were so close to the Conference Finals they could taste it. Even if we fast forward to the end of the game, where Philadelphia won 5-4 in overtime, there was little to suggest that the Flyers had a comeback in them. After all, the Bruins did overcome two Flyer leads in the game (3-1 and 4-3) and scored late to tie the game- Gagne’s winner merely “rescued” the Flyers from a collapse. A series win for Boston was inevitable.

Fast forward to today and it’s the Bruins who are watching those very Flyers they were poised to put away romp all over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Conference Finals. That groan you heard was Chara, seeing the ease at which the Flyers were disposing of Montreal, and thinking “that could have been us”. How quickly things have changed.

I could go on with an analysis of just how the Bruins choked away their biggest series victory in recent memory, but that analysis- Krejci’s loss coupled with Gagne’s return changed the balance of offensive power in the series- has been done to death so I won’t do that. Instead, I’m going to give you a picture of just how much the Flyers beat the odds in defeating the Bruins, because that is truly remarkable.

First, let’s assume straight probability (which is never a given in sports) and assume that two teams enter a series evenly matched, which you could apply to Boston and Philadelphia when it began (though Boston had the goaltending edge with both teams only having slight edges elsewhere- Philadelphia on offence and Boston on defence). Assuming an even matchup, the probability of a team winning a game is therefore 50%. Multiply those odds over multiple games and it gets lower. The likelihood of winning two straight games is 25% (1/2=50%, 1/2x1/2=1/4=25%) and the likelihood of winning three straight games is 12.5% (1/2x1/2x1/2=1/8=12.5%). So the Bruins themselves appeared to “beat the odds” in claiming a 3-0 series lead, though the actual rate of 3-0 series leads in the NHL is an astounding 28% (161 times out of 558 total best-of-seven series, up to this writing).

The Flyers, therefore, had their work cut out for them, knowing they have nominal odds of 12.5% of just getting the series back to Boston for Game 7. The odds of going all the way were even longer. Continuing the above calculation, for one team to win four straight games, the odds are a low 6.25% (1/2x1/2x1/2x1/2=1/16=6.25%). So even against straight probability the Flyers knew they faced a significant challenge all from putting themselves in a statistical long shot.

However, the challenge turned out to be even greater. The Flyers became the 161st team to fall behind in a series 3-0, and, in the 160 other times it happened (as it would turn out with the San Jose Sharks’ defeat of the Detroit Red Wings), only two teams (the oft-mentioned 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders) had managed to come back from 3-0 down to win the series in seven. Worse, only five teams- in addition to the Leaf and Islander teams, the 1939 New York Rangers (against Boston), the 1945 Wings (against Toronto) and the ’75 Isles (a round later against Philadelphia- had so much as forced a seventh game in NHL history. Those odds translate to a 1.25% chance of winning the series (2 out of 160) and a 3.13% (5 out of 160) chance of just tying the series. For Philadelphia to succeed against NHL odds, they’d need to be the third team to win after being down 3-0 and the sixth team to force a seventh game in that situation, they would only bump the odds to 1.86% (3 out of 161) and 3.73% (6 out of 161) respectively, which are long odds indeed.

Yet the Flyers did it; and that just begs the question- how long will it wait before we get a chance to see it again?

I’ve already gone through the stats once before, but I’ll just repeat them to make it easier to follow this narrative. As stated previously, with the Flyers’ victory, it now means that in 161 cases where a team has fallen behind 3-0 in a series, three times has that team found a way to win the series. That’s a conversion rate of 1.86%, or roughly a conversion once every 53 times. Prorated over an entire NHL playoff year- indicating the likeliness of any series featuring an 0-3 comeback, including those where an 0-3 hole isn’t created- the incidence rate in the NHL is a imperceptible 0.54%, or an occurrence once every 186 series. Considering the current NHL format of 15 playoff series per year, each being a best-of-seven, 186 series covers a span of roughly 12 years, so if current trends continue to hold, it won’t be before 2022 playoffs before we see the Bruins someone blow a 3-0 series lead again. That’s only if the statistical trends continue- remember, in real time it took a team 35 years to overcome a 3-0 series deficit again, and it could be that long before it happens again, if not longer. It does bears mentioning that the NHL first adopted a complete best-of-seven format for its entire playoffs for 1987, so for much of the NHL’s history there weren’t a lot of opportunities for 3-0 series leads to occur meaning the incidence rate of 0-3 comebacks should rise with more opportunities in the coming years.

That just covers hockey- as we know, two other major sports leagues have a best-of-seven series format somewhere in their playoffs and that is the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The NBA’s playoff format is much like the NHL’s with 15 best-of-seven sets, though the decision to expand the playoffs only came in 2003, so this development is relatively new. MLB only has three playoff series being a best-of-seven- the two League Championship Series and the World Series- though it has been running best-of-sevens the longest, from the 1905 World Series to today, though not continuously- some series in the 1900s and 1910s were best-of-nine’s (the NHL, for reference, began best-of-sevens in 1939, whereas the NBA started in its first season in 1947). All told, though, the combined number of MLB and NBA best-of-sevens is 554, four less than the NHL total.

Amazingly enough, of those 554 series, just one- the infamous 2004 Boston Red Sox victory over the New York Yankees- was an 0-3 comeback. Before the Red Sox, no baseball team had so much as managed a Game 7 after being down 0-3, let alone win a series in such a manner. The NBA hasn’t seen one 0-3 comeback, and has played only three Game 7’s after that situation- the 1951 New York Knicks (against the Rochester Royals), 1994 Denver Nuggets (against the Utah Jazz) and the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers (against the Dallas Mavericks).

Key to those numbers is the low amount of 0-3 series compared to the NHL. The NBA has only seen 93 0-3 series in its history, while MLB has seen- surprisingly- eight series develop a 0-3 hole. That means that in the NBA and MLB, the incidence rate is a full 10% lower than it is in the NHL (18% from 101 series out of 554 vs. 161 out of 558 NHL series). The lower rate is particularly interesting considering that the NBA and MLB- combined- have roughly played the same amount of best-of-seven series as the NHL has, producing a rate that is closer to probability (12.5% chance of winning three straight games, with the MLB-NBA rate at 18%) than the NHL’s is (28%). It’s also particularly interesting that only one series of those 554 has seen a 0-3 comeback, though without multiple occurrences it’s hard to really formulate a statistical opinion.

All told, the statistics- if we combine the 1112 series the NBA, MLB and NHL have played, what we’re left with is 10 total series where a 0-3 hole has at least produced a seventh game and four series where the 0-3 team came back to win the series. If we take the numbers as they are and assume the leagues do not alter their playoff formats, then that leaves us with an 0-3 comeback across all the leagues in every playoff once every 683 series, or roughly once every 20 years (given 33 possible best-of-sevens). Of course, the lack of a NBA comeback skews the data, since it’s impossible for *every* team up 3-0 to win every time and thus we don’t know what the actual rate would be. Furthermore, the fact that the MLB and NBA don’t have the same number of 0-3’s as the NHL has is another impediment; since it is possible with the same amount of 0-3 the two leagues could have the same comeback rate.

The intangibles, though, paint a less rosy picture than the pure stats do, and it's here we pay particular attention to the last two 0-3 comeback kings, the Flyers and the Red Sox. For the Flyers, their comeback featured the simple luck of having one of their best players come back at the right moment right when a key contributor for the Bruins goes down. Granted, it’s easy to overplay the significance of a single player to a team and a lot of other intangibles went into play during the series (complacency vs. resilience, perhaps?), but the personnel changes had to change game plans. Simply put, it’s a confluence of events that isn’t very likely to happen again and that further reduces the likelihood of a 0-3 comeback occurring again. Furthermore, the Flyers were also lucky to have Michael Leighton come back from injury right when Brian Boucher sustained one and have Leighton perform above expectations. I don’t mean to take anything away from the Flyers because they were full marks for their comeback, but this team did get a lot of breaks teams down 0-3 aren’t likely to get.

The Red Sox, for their part, dealt with another intangible that other 0-3 teams may not get- in 2004 were playing their hated rivals the Yankees, meaning Boston had a “will to win” unparalleled throughout sports. Furthermore, this same Yankee team only a year before ended the Sox’s World Series hopes on an Aaron Boone walk-off home run in extra innings in Game 7 at that same point in the playoffs. Something tells me after getting beaten 19-8 in Game 3, the Red Sox weren’t going to allow the Yankees to beat them again. Boston eschewed the Yankees’ will to win in overcoming two straight tense contests in Games 4 and 5 (including a 9th-inning rally in Game 4) and smoked them in Games 6 and 7 en route to a dominating sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in that year’s World Series, ending the “Curse of the Bambino”. We can talk all we want about how, in the playoffs, you have to have a “will to win”, but none could ever compare to the will the Red Sox had in 2004. The only comparable feat would be if the Chicago Cubs found themselves in the same situation (which may be small solace to Cubs fans), because that would provide a similar inspiration to overcome such a hole. This isn’t to say that non-rivals without long droughts couldn’t come up with the intestinal fortitude to go on a comeback run (the 1975 Islanders come to mind), but it’s pretty hard to psyche yourself up if you’ve dug yourself a 0-3 hole, meaning a series against a rival or setting a significant team goal would make it more likely to draw the inspiration needed for a comeback.

So where does this all leave us? Well, it does show just how long the Flyers' odds were and how remarkable it was for them to achieve it. It also shows just how unpredictable sports are and how much of a fool’s game it is to anticipate everything, because lots of variables- many that can’t be seen- go into each victory. Yes we can discuss the numbers, but the numbers aren’t going to tell you how well a team performs on an upcoming night, who gets injured and who doesn’t and what the intensity level will be. Then we can bring up things like “resiliency” or some other kinds of intangibles, but that would ignore the tangibles each team possesses and ignores the fact other teams could possess those intangibles at a higher level than the 0-3 comebacker, only that they didn’t have the talent to pull through (or the talent not to get themselves into a 0-3 hole in the first place). Even in these playoffs, when the Flyers and Wings both went down 0-3, the pundits all believed the Flyers were done and the Wings would soar, citing the Sharks’ case of playoff yips and the Wings’ boundless playoff confidence. Instead, it was the Flyers who came back and the Wings bowed with a whimper. If that doesn’t show you how unpredictable a 0-3 comeback is, I don’t know what will.

In short, while I can’t give an exact date for the next 0-3 comeback, I can say, given everything involved, it’s safe to say one will occur within the next 20 years, if not sooner. With so many series going on, it’s bound to happen sooner rather than later just because the sheer number increases the likelihood, and, indeed, the number of years in between one has declined each time. The gap between the first and second ones was 33 years (1942 Leafs and the 1975 Islanders), while the gap between the second and third was 29 years (1975 Islanders and 2004 Red Sox) and third and fourth being a paltry six years (2004 Red Sox and 2010 Flyers). I don’t think the next one is going to occur quite as soon as six years because the numerical trends don’t suggest that, but I can’t ever say that for sure. As for what sport it will come in, that’s open for debate. Yeah, hockey has seen more 0-3 comebacks than the other sports, but I attribute that to dumb luck- there’s really nothing about any sport that prevents a 0-3 comeback- if a team can win four straight games in basketball and baseball, it can happen at any moment, even if they’re down 0-3 in the series. You might be able to say baseball’s propensity for allowing only the very best teams in the regular season in its playoffs makes 0-3 comebacks less likely in that sport but, again, if sweeps can occur in baseball so can a 0-3 comeback- besides, if the teams are so evenly matched, why wouldn’t one team be able to swing momentum back in their favour? The only explanation MLB’s playoffs gives are the lack of 0-3 series (since the teams are evenly matched in the first place) but that’s it. Having said that, I think we’re probably due for a NBA team to do it because it’s impossible for a sport to hold on forever but, again, who can tell for sure? All I know is that the Flyers have entered history, and can now say- win or lose in these playoffs- that they will be remembered.

After all, they now get to be included in this oft-repeated phrase:

“The only teams to come back from 3-0 down are the 1942 Maple Leafs, the 1975 Islanders and the 2010 Flyers.”

Maybe it’s not better than winning the Stanley Cup, but that’s a heck of a sentence to be in. Congrats Flyers- you deserve it.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nefarious Blackhawks hit new low in sending wrong player to the box in Game 1 victory

(Photo Credit: Sean Leahy, Yahoo! Sports)

As time was winding down in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final between the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago was desperately holding to a 2-1 lead. The Sharks were coming on strong and created several dangerous chances, taking advantage of an unusually sloppy Chicago defence. The final blow looked to come with 54 seconds left in the game, as an out-of-position Chicago defender was whistled for an obvious trip on San Jose’s Devin Setoguchi. However, the Blackhawks’ penalty killing unit would kill the rest of the game to preserve their team’s 2-1 win and take a 1-0 series lead against a San Jose team that they’d be fighting for top spot in the West all season long.

Yeah, yeah I hear you- teams get called for late game penalties all the time, what’s so special about this one? This one, however, is different from the other late game penalties because the referees sent Kris Versteeg to the box instead of the actual culprit, Dave Bolland, which was a key error in that it preserved Chicago’s best penalty killer for service. Bolland was no slouch either, since he broke up several Shark plays to kill the penalty, so the error actually did make the difference in the game that was intended. What made it worse was not just the fact the referees sent the wrong player to the penalty box but was a report that the Blackhawks themselves contributed to the error, purposely sending Versteeg instead of Bolland to the box with the referees failing to catch the mistake.

The source of this nefarious action came at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “iDesk”, where veteran insider Scott Morrison stated the incident happened because both Bolland and Versteeg went off on a line change. Since the culprit was on the bench, referees Brad Watson and Paul Devorski had to pull the offender off the bench, reportedly having to go to coach Joel Quenneville for help. Reports Morrison, noting that Versteeg’s #32 looked a lot like Bolland’s #36 because of the Blackhawks’ lettering, Quenneville sent Versteeg to the penalty box, saving Bolland for the penalty kill. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now, the fact that Morrison is the sole person to report this action- it doesn’t come up anywhere else on the Internet- and the fact that Sharks coach Todd McClelland didn’t raise it as an issue casts doubt on whether or not this shenanigan actually occurred. However, it isn’t a report that should be taken lightly. If the Blackhawks did, in fact, purposely send the wrong player to the penalty box, then it’s a form of cheating and the integrity of the game result is in question. Current rules on ineligible players in the National Hockey League are sketchy- the NHL rulebook doesn’t specifically mention a penalty for deliberately sending the wrong player to the penalty box, but it could be interpreted under a few rules, such as delay of game or “deliberate illegal substitution” (which calls for a penalty shot if the penalty time would be longer than the rest of the time in the game, which was the case on Sunday), so the Sharks could have had a 6-on-3 power play if they had spoken up. There doesn’t appear to be a specific penalty imposed for ineligible players after the fact, except for a line where the incident “must be reported to the Commissioner”, with no other specifics.

However, as TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported last December, when the Montreal Canadiens tried a similar gambit- call-up Ryan White was pulled from the game during warm-ups after referees ruled him ineligible- the penalty for using White during the game would have been a forfeit of the Canadiens’ victory that night. This isn’t the same thing as a player not on the team sheet being used in the game, but Bolland was technically ineligible to participate, and if the Blackhawks purposely “assisted” the referees’ mistake, it could be argued that Chicago could be forced to forfeit their victory as well. It’s not likely to happen, especially if the Sharks won’t raise the issue, but if Morrison’s report is true then it shouldn’t be brushed aside and something should be done. Considering that the performance of the officials has been spotty at best- recall Game 2 of the Washington Capitals-Montreal Canadiens series, Game 4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Montreal Canadiens series, the strange too-many-men-on-the-ice call against the Vancouver Canucks in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings, the light penalty on Marian Hossa after drilling Dan Hamhuis from behind, Game 1 of the San Jose Sharks-Detroit Red Wings series, the non-call on the head shot on Penguin Jordan Leopold by Ottawa Senator Andy Sutton, among other things- the NHL can’t afford anymore issues of integrity come up during these playoffs. This spring has been the best so far since the lockout- it’d be a shame if it was decided by shoddy officiating. Of course, considering this is the NHL, that just may be the course of action anyway, but I’m not holding my breath.

The NHL’s made a killing with those “history will be made” ads. It’s up to them to make sure the zebras don’t end up in one.


Into The Crystal Ball: 2010 Conference Final Edition

If Round 1 was the round of expectations, Round 2 was the Round of Surprises. At the time of prediction, I got seven of the eight first round series correct- the only one I didn’t was when the Buffalo Sabres lost to the Boston Bruins. Once the second round came, I only managed to get one series correct out of four- but the one series I did get correct featured those very Bruins, who became the third team to blow a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in losing in seven games. That’s what you get for busting my bracket.

All kidding aside, I doubt when you drew up your playoff brackets at the start of the season- or even at the start of the playoffs- you would have drawn up two Conference Finals like this one. The San Jose Sharks always impressed during the season but failed during the playoffs, but the team grew mightily in dispatching the Detroit Red Wings, who were the very definition of “playoff pedigree” over the past three springs. The Chicago Blackhawks had multiple issues with their goaltenders and seemed to have no hope against Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks, but Antti Niemi stood tall, outplayed Luongo and got people wondering if we’ve been overrating Luongo just a bit. The Montreal Canadiens...well, their story’s been beaten to death in their ability to dispatch first the Washington Capitals and now the Pittsburgh Penguins, and while the story’s remarkable (especially the play of Michael Cammalleri, Jaroslav Halak and Hal Gill), perhaps the Canadiens showed the hockey world they were too quick to think of either team as serious contenders.

Then we get to the Flyers.

It’s not, ostensibly, a surprise that they defeated the Bruins- we are talking about the #7 seed taking out the #6 seed- but the manner at which they did it was astounding. Not only were they down 3-0 in the series, the Flyers saw a Game 4 lead evaporate in the final seconds after former Flyer Mark Recchi scored to send the game into overtime. There, as we all know, Simon Gagne scored to extend the Flyers’ season, but the win gave no indication that a comeback was in the cards. Gagne’s winner just made it look like they escaped the inevitable, since the Flyers’ Game 4 win wasn’t the kind of dominating performance that you could inspire some real belief that you could come back. Instead, the Flyers outscored the Bruins 10-4 in the next three games, including a 4-0 Game 5 win that was every bit as dominant as it looked and the famous 4-3 win in Game 7 where Philadelphia clawed all the way back from 3-0 down in the game to send the Bruins home with all the questions. Key to those victories was the cumulative effect of David Krejci going down for Boston in Game 3 and Gagne’s return a game later, since it swung the offensive advantage decisively in Philadelphia’s direction. What also helped was that the Flyers played very relaxed over the last four games, realizing that the Bruins had all the pressure to close out the series. The only exception was the first few minutes of Game 7, where it looked like the Flyers realized they had pressure themselves and forgot their aggressive ways. Once the timeout was called by head coach Peter Laviolette, the Bruins were doomed- the Flyers again realized they had nothing to lose and buried Boston with the burden of a pressure they weren’t prepared to overcome. The fatal blow? Gagne’s goal on a power play generated by a too-many-men-on-the-ice call. The irony there runs deep on so many levels. First, it’s the “penalty-du-jour” of the playoffs, being called well over 30 times in these playoffs after only 17 were called all of the last playoffs. Secondly, Boston was burned on a too-many-men-on-the-ice call in the 1979 playoffs, where they held that infamous late game lead over the Canadiens. Of course, at that time then coach Don Cherry tried to play with too many men on purpose, unlike this time where it was an unfortunate brain cramp, but the similarities cut too deep for Boston fans that were entitled dared to dream big.

That series was the series of the playoffs. The Canadiens-Capitals series the round before was the series of the playoffs before that one. With two successive “series of the playoffs” in the first two rounds, it makes me excited to wonder what is in store for the playoffs’ second half. To the Crystal Ball™ we go.

Eastern Conference Final

(7) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. How do you pick a series where neither team seems capable of losing? The Canadiens won both of their series having to overcome series deficits (including 3-1 against Washington) whereas the Flyers overcame 3-0 down, the mother of all comebacks. The way this is going, multiple overtimes in Game 7 is inescapable. Furthermore, both of these teams are very even on paper. Montreal’s attack is led by Cammalleri, who has a playoff-leading 12 goals, but he is commendably supported by the likes of Brian Gionta (12 points), Tomas Plekanec (11) and Scott Gomez (10). The only drawback is that there hasn’t been a lot of production from the backend, although superb youngster PK Subban (four points in nine games) looks primed to have a big series against the Flyers. The good news is that the Canadiens’ defence has been rock solid, even after Andrei Markov went down, because Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have all done a remarkable job in their shutdown roles, which is a nice equalizer. The Flyers’ offence has one fewer forward with more than ten points (only Mike Richards (17), Daniel Briere (15) and Claude Giroux (11) have more than ten), but Chris Pronger has been a catalyst from the backend, being a significant contributor on offence (11 points and four goals) and in defence, eating up almost half the game in ice time. Also, Gagne looks primed to have a big series as well, with seven points in eight playoff games and three goals in his last four games. There is also a slight chance Jeff Carter gets to return in this series, though it’s not likely and not essential, as the offence looks set. The defence hasn’t always been ten-bell like the Canadiens’ but there are still several great pieces in Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle, which should stabilize the Philadelphia game. So with both teams even in front of net, the decider- as it always is- is in goal. Even though Michael Leighton has been stellar in relief of Brian Boucher, Halak has been nothing but extraordinary in the playoffs, so much so that his play has transcended the hockey world itself- the iconic “Halak stop sign” was spotted at the Madrid Masters tennis tournament on Thursday, a testament to the kind of buzz Halak has been generating with his play- and it’s all deserved. That will be the difference in this series, but again this series really could go either way- expect another classic and dramatic, overtime, Game 7 finish. Canadiens 4, Flyers 3

Western Conference Final

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (2) Chicago Blackhawks. The playoffs have formed with remarkable symmetry over the first three rounds. After Round 1, Round 2 saw all eight seeds represented over the two conferences, and in this one we see the “bookends”- the top two seeds in the West coupled with the bottom two seeds in the East; and there can be no complaints about the matchups- all four teams are full marks for their participation to this point. Both Chicago and San Jose come to this round having overcome numerous questions about their team- for Chicago, it centred around Niemi and for San Jose it centred on their intestinal fortitude, and both teams delivered. The Sharks finally received dominant production from its “Big Three” of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, all while receiving the same dominant production from its “Next Three” of Ryan Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski. Then we get to the defence and see the dominating play of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, which will be instrumental in shutting down the explosive Blackhawks attack. Chicago’s offensive depth may be unmatched in these playoffs, with players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews (the scoring leader with 20 points), Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Marian Hossa, big Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland to call on, to say nothing of Chicago’s dynamic defensive duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Again, to separate the teams we must go to the goaltending, and Evgeni Nabokov has been better than Niemi, though not as much as it should be. Still, it’ll be enough to send San Jose through, though just like the East Final, this one could go either way. Sharks 4, Blackhawks 3

Stanley Cup Final

(W1) San Jose Sharks vs. (E8) Montreal Canadiens. You can’t end the playoffs without continuing with the symmetry, and what better way to do it than have the 8th seed of one conference face off against the 1st seed of the other conference? This one will be more evenly matched than it looks, but it won’t go seven. That’s because it’s here where the Canadiens’ magic runs out, and does so against a much bigger San Jose team that will just wear the Canadiens down. That’s precisely what happened when the two teams last met in a San Jose victory in early March (when Maxim Lapierre pulled off his boneheaded move of drilling Scott Nichol from behind) and should continue here. Montreal will give San Jose a push, but the Sharks will emerge with the Stanley Cup that team has waited too long to deliver- but hey, better late than never. Sharks 4, Canadiens 2


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