First Period -- Group Hug
Early in the second period of Game 3 between the Hurricanes and Canadiens, Niclas Wallin was chasing down Montreal's Tomas Plekanec, who was breaking in alone on goalie Cam Ward. Wallin made a beautiful play, using speed and body position, and slapped at Plekanec's stick. Not a two-hand Kirk Maltby special, but a tactical flick that broke up the play. The play was deemed a hook by referee Don Van Magnus Ver Magnusson Hoven. At that precise moment, my stomach felt as if it were digesting a 3-month-old oyster left in the Burma sun.
Listen, our game needed a serious lube job. And by creating a new standard of enforcement on the puck carrier and his attacking linemates, the NHL lubricated the game. And I know attempting to regulate the behavior of 10 grown men skating around the ice at 20 miles an hour after downing six Red Bulls is a daunting task. But, too many times this postseason, players have been playing tentatively because of the nature of the penalties called.
The statistics may only show a couple more penalties per game, but the aftermath of those penalties, at times, left the first round of the playoffs looking a lot like a regular-season game. And that's not good. The e-mails I have received and the players I have talked to share similar sentiments.
Let's face it, the regular season is a giant revenue-producing preseason that casts away the terrible teams and raises enough money to pay the players, coaches and executives' large salaries. The playoffs are where the real action is and where the true colors are exposed. The players are basically playing for nothing but boyhood dreams, while owners are playing for huge windfalls of cash and big profit margins. (Players play for free, fans pay outrageous playoff ticket prices and Stan Kroenke makes $2 million per home game in Colorado. Good times.)
Now, behind the scenes, constant adjustments on the game's officiating are being made. A game this fast will always have to be monitored. Forever. A constant give-and-take will have to be administered. That's what didn't take place for so many years. There were no active stewards.
Game 5 between Carolina and Montreal in Raleigh, N.C., seemed to better walk the line. The game was fast and rough, just a penalty here and there and no 5-on-3s. More was let go and the game had a constant tension. That's what playoff hockey is. Constant tension. If this continues to be the trend, we will see scores like we saw this past weekend, 2-1 and 3-2.
And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. What was bad about Game 5 was the 13 combined shots in the third period. If that trend continues, we will be back to that dreaded 37-and-0-when-leading-after-two-periods stat. We need comebacks, we need a few more goals, we need hope.
It is such a horrible dilemma. A subtle skate. My answer: Demand the game to be played like the talented, fast-skating teams play them. Penalize the teams who play a 1-2-2 defensive game who have too many instances of "inadvertent contact" away from the play, but let the boys be physical.
And while you're at it, make the nets a little bigger. Then, we could allow physical play and a few more goals: 4-3 instead of 2-1; 5-4 instead of 3-2. Everyone is happy.
You didn't think I'd let that go, did you?!
Second Period -- Pool or a Pond?
Gambling has become North America's national pastime. In the United States and Canada, cash-strapped governments realize it's better and more profitable to become the house. Casinos are popping up like Pontiac Grand Prixs in the early '90s. Somewhere along the line, the "action" became a necessity for entertainment.
As the continent became more affluent, there were more gaps to fill to keep us from shaving our eyebrows out of boredom. That's right, people are more bored nowadays than when they hunted for dinner, because there is more time to be bored. As Jeffrey Sachs writes in his must-read "The End of Poverty," all regions of the world were poor in 1820. In 1990 dollars, people made about $1,200 a year in the U.S. and Canada in 1820. Today, it is up to $30,000 on average. Slow, steadily, a 1.7-percent growth of the GNP for the first and only time in the history of the planet. Africa's economies have grown 0.7 percent during that same time. Not a big difference on the surface.
Over 180 years, we have seen what that small-percentage difference has wrought here and there. This is an excellent illustration of the power of compounding and why you should call your human resources department today and max out your 401(k) plan.
Many countries learned how to grow food better, someone invented the steam engine, and much of the world slowly opened societies until we reached the point today where we can eat microwave popcorn while watching Game 2 of the Rangers-Devils on our plasma TV that we TiVo'd while working on our laptop at work.
So, while Sachs and Bono work to end extreme poverty for the last few who live in dire conditions by the year 2025, we play poker, slot machines, blackjack, fantasy football and baseball, church bingo, Powerball, the stock market and playoff fantasy hockey to fill the gaps and to feel that thrill of beating the odds, or the field.
I am in a Stanley Cup Playoffs pool with 112 participants that costs $20 apiece to enter. That's makes the pot $2,240 dollars, or almost $1,000 more than the per capita income of an African in 1998. This is why we're so blessed and lucky to be born where we were. (Please go to www.One.Org after you read this column. My 13-year-old son, Brett, and I signed on at the Hartford U2 concert.)
So, here's what I did. I sent a $25 advance/donation to www.unfoundation.org to buy mosquito nets for needy Africans -- 3,000 kids die every day in Africa from malaria. And according to the World Health Organization, transmission of the disease would be reduced by 60 percent with the use of mosquito nets and prompt treatment for those who need it. I bought two nets that each can cover a family of four. If I win my pool, I'll buy more nets. Yes, perhaps the best motto for the 21st century is: Countries, corporations (hello, Exxon!) and countrymen, SHARE YOUR WINNINGS!
As the second round is upon us, I stand 20th out of 114. In striking distance. The rules of the pool are (use Dr. Evil voice now) ... pretty standard stuff, really. Before the playoffs, we picked one player from each team. You had to take two goalies, the goalies you thought would play the most games, er, get to the Stanley Cup finals. You also had to take four defensemen. Let's look at my team and see what kind of shot I might have.
TEAM KEN THE OTTER
Henrik Zetterberg: This was a good pick. Zetterberg has been the best wing, but I need him to play more games because my Oiler is...
Sergei Samsonov: Not a dud, but it is safe to say Zetterberg would probably outscore Sergei over the long haul. We get bonus points for overtime goals, so I need multiple goals from Sergei.
Chris Drury: I had to have him on my team with his penchant for overtime winners. He came close in Game 1 against the Flyers.
Patrik Elias: Not many in my pool have him, which surprises me. He has 11 points in four games. I needed a longer series to get more points from Elias. Conn Smythe leader, so far. I have glowingly written about Elias in this space for five years. I've always considered him one of the best players in the NHL. He will be very rich at the end of this summer, whether it is in New Jersey or with a team to be named later. If I'm his agent, his price is five years, $7 million per year, but I would stay in New Jersey for five years at $6.2M annually.
Jaromir Jagr: I figured the Devils would win rather easily, but I thought Jagr would be good for four goals and four assists. The shoulder injury ruined that.
Paul Kariya: This column is a big fan of this guy, as you know, cha-cha-cha. Had a good series against the Sharks.
Corey Perry: He's not playing enough, and for gosh sakes, he's playing less than Jeff Friesen! Hellloooo! He looks a little nervous and tight. I still love his size and hands and think he has great potential.
Peter Forsberg: Leading the way for the Flyers. Picking Forsberg in a playoff pool is like picking Tiger Woods at The Masters the last 10 years.
Eric Staal: Continues to grow before our eyes. He looked a bit unsure in his first few playoff games, but now he is flying again.
Rob Blake: Two power-play goals against Dallas. The more power plays they call, the better this pick is.
Dion Phaneuf: Like Staal, he has looked unsure early in his playoff career.
Iginla was the obvious Calgary pick here.
Dan Boyle: When I picked my defensemen, I picked guys on teams I thought would lose in the first round since forwards score more than D-men. Boyle was 1-3-4, so it was a decent pick.
Sheldon Souray: Good job through five games, two goals and two assists.
Ray Emery and Vesa Toskala: Well, this exposes my pre-playoff Stanley Cup finals prediction. You take the two goalies you think will make the finals. These are my guys. The Sens and Sharks are my impassionate, prediction-based teams. The only fear here is a Martin Gerber situation in Carolina. Seventeen teams in my pool have him, and even though Carolina is winning, the pool participants aren't getting his points. I need the Dominator and Evgeni "turn-your-head-and" Nabokov to stay right where they are.
So, that's my team. Here's hoping for victory, a summer cash infusion and, most importantly, a net gain.
Third Period -- A six-pack for Bruno
On Sunday afternoon in Dallas, Andrew Brunette scored the game winner in overtime to eliminate the Stars and put Colorado in the second round.
After interviews, a shower, a chartered flight back to Denver and a ride from the airport, he was sitting in front of his TV with a Bud Light watching ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball." That's where I caught up with him after I finished up my studio work on ... ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
Question from Bucci: What's it like to score an overtime series-clinching goal?
Answer from Bruno: "It's the best feeling in hockey. When it goes in, it's like a feeling of disbelief."
Q: What's it like on the plane ride home and does it in any way resemble the movie "Soul Plane?"
Bruno: The Avs have won so many times, it was more businesslike. Not when I was with the Wild and we won. The Avs have been there so many times, they know it's just the first round.
Q: So, no Joe Sakic running around the plane shirtless with a bandanna around
his head singing the Kaiser Chiefs' song "I Predict a Riot"?
Bruno: Ahhhh, no. We are into PSP World Series of Poker. We got about 15 to 18 guys connected and about two or three tables going on with a points system.
Q: If Edmonton and Calgary win their series, you will play San Jose in the next round. Will there be any preliminary planning on the Sharks with the Oilers so close to winning?
Bruno: Not yet. Anything can happen. I've been on teams that came back on 3-1. So, if you focus on one team, you are probably wasting thought. The coaches might begin preliminary preparation, but we players don't worry about that. Maybe if a team is up 3-0, but 3-2 situations are too close to call.
Q: You are a baseball guy. What is up with the Colorado Rockies' fast start?
Bruno: Wherever I play, the baseball teams do well. When I was in D.C., the Orioles did well, and the same thing in Atlanta and Minnesota.
Q: You should be commissioner of baseball.
The Mother of All Mailbags
I am one of a group of hard-core hockey fans living in Lima, Peru.
I've been staring at the sentence all week like a dog watching a human chew meat. I keep reading it over and over again.
As one with the prediction power, where would the World Junior Champs of 2005 have finished (in the NHL) this year?
31st out of 31.
I realize this is the "new" NHL, "my" NHL now, but I can't say I've found the game any more enjoyable. Penalties have emasculated the defensive zone. I always loved playing a physical game in my own end of the ice, and it's fun to watch, as well. Or rather, it was fun to watch.
I miss the "old" NHL more than I enjoy the "new" NHL.
I've received a lot of these e-mails.
You're probably getting tons of e-mails about the Red Wings right now, but would you agree with a statement saying that the Red Wings only had an amazing record because of their weak division? Granted, they are a good team, but are they really the team to beat in the West just because they won the Presidents' Trophy? Is the record misleading because they could rack up points by continuously beating Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus?
Moose Lake, Minn.
The Red Wings had a very good record against non-divisional teams. I didn't consider them the team to beat when the playoffs started. I had San Jose in that role. The Wings are playing a very well-coached team with a good corps of hard workers who have been playing playoff-intensity hockey for most of the season. And let's face it, the Wings were delusional to think they could win in the playoffs with their goaltending. They and the Tampa Bay Lightning should have a loser's bracket and should have traded for a goalie at the deadline.
You've had a whole season to watch and digest games now. You still think we need bigger nets?
I would like to see bigger nets and more physicality. Not hooking and grabbing, but rough, fast hockey. I think scoring will go down as the playoffs progress and into next season.
Do you think Marty Turco will be back next year as the Stars' starter? He is so valuable during the regular season, yet falls apart every year during the playoffs. I'm torn on this because Marty is a great guy and wants to win more than anybody else, but when does he run out of chances to perform when it counts?
Turco's playoff record is as baffling as Randy Carlyle's hair. He seems to have that perfect mix of eccentricity, nastiness and skill to be an ideal playoff goalie. He looks too relaxed to me. But your question of whether or not he could be dealt is a valid one. Would both teams agree to a Brad Richards for Marty Turco trade? It seems unlikely the Stars would deal Turco after just signing him to a four-year extension, but things change quickly and the Stars do have some key players who are aging. Mike Modano, Zubov, Stu Barnes and Bill Guerin turn 36 later this year. Jere Lehtinen turns 33 and Jason Arnott, 32.
I was looking over the 2003 draft and got to thinking about a few things. What is your opinion?
Will this turn out to be one of the deepest first rounds in recent memory? If Pittsburgh were given the chance to redraft tomorrow, do you think they still take Fleury? Or maybe Staal or Dion instead?
Nashville and San Jose must be kicking themselves for taking a defenseman other than Phaneuf with the seventh and eighth picks.
Who will be the best forward in this draft? Staal is in the lead at this point.
Just by looking, I see 10-13 players who could play in multiple NHL All-Star Games.
GO SABRES! Enjoy the new Pearl Jam record!
I have commented on the 2003 draft a couple times in this space. Yes, it will go down as one of the deepest first rounds of all time. I mean, it is that good. Upon further review, the Penguins would not have taken Marc-Andre Fleury first overall. With what we know right now, if the NHL threw all of the 2003 first-rounders in a hat and had the teams select in the same order after seeing the class of 2003 play, the first 11 picks would probably look like this:
Pittsburgh -- Dion Phaneuf
Carolina -- Eric Staal
Florida -- Nathan Horton
Columbus -- Ryan Getzlaf
Buffalo -- Thomas Vanek
San Jose -- Milan Michalek
Nashville -- Jeff Carter
Atlanta -- Nikolai Zherdev
Calgary -- Steve Bernier
Montreal -- Zach Parise
Philadelphia-- Marc-Andre Fleury
Joe Thornton scored 92 points for the Sharks; the three players traded to Boston (Marco Strum, Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau) combined for 88 with the Bruins. But the Sharks went 36-15-7 after the trade; the Bruins went 21-24-11.
The Boston Bruins traded Joe Thornton just as he was entering his prime. On the other hand, as I write this, Joe Thornton continues to be a nonfactor in the playoffs. There are times he plays with an extra burst of playoff emotion, but it doesn't last long. I understand he is a "pass first" center who likes to slow the game down and find the seams, but I think he can play a little faster and be much more productive.
I'm doing some research on the most important people of the 21st century, and when I went to click on your bio from work and home nothing comes up. Is it possible that you don't exist, but only in the mind of a believer? Also, how much can Panger leg press?
Crum Lynne, Pa.
What do you need to know? I'm 6-foot-4, 192 pounds. Mizuno MP 33 irons. Big Run-DMC fan. Love chicken parm. Once played golf with Ray Bourque and tried to intentionally three putt from 30 feet so I could say I shot a 77 playing golf with Ray Bourque. Instead, the slippery downhill putt went in and I shot a 75 not playing golf with Brett Lindros.
Panger's leg press max right now? For one rep? I'll say 315.
Seriously, take a look at the Buffalo Sabres. This team seems to be under everybody's radar, but they just might be the best team in the playoffs with Ottawa and New Jersey. They have four lines that can fly, hit and score. Their defense is respectable and their goaltending is hot. They also haven't lost in their last eight games. Think of them as Death Cab for Cutie, unknown, small-market, but great sound and the most loyal fan base you can find.
Cup in '06
If Carolina can close out Montreal and the Sabres can close out the Flyers, then the East semifinals will be Ottawa vs. Buffalo and Carolina vs. New Jersey. These are three fast and experienced teams for Buffalo to deal with. Much better teams than the Flyers. The Sabres' mountain is still very high. For personal reasons, I hope they win, but it would be a colossal Cinderella story.
I am stuck at school with no way to watch the best TV ever, playoff hockey. Is there any site that would allow me to watch the games? I would gladly pay for it, like baseball does with MLB.com? Anything? I'm dying.
CDT Matthew Hanlon
See the next e-mail, Matt.
I have just learned that games are being streamed on the Internet through comcast.net. So for those who do not have Centre Ice or OLN, like me, this is great. They air a game every night, it looks like. In your last mailbag, a lot of people complained about not seeing games. So maybe toss this in your article somewhere, and I'm sure some people will love to watch these games. Take it easy.
Niagara Falls, N.Y.
In keeping with the international theme, I come from Henty, Australia, population 1,100.
I feel you need to give some serious love to one of the great Aussie rock breakthroughs of 2005. Wolfmother are truly outstanding. More than that, I really think the NHL could have done far worse than to have a 20-second ad break around Super Bowl time (as you suggested), featuring open-ice hits to the sound of the opening track of their album, "Colossal."
"Can you remember the first time we met
Living together in colossal times
Some things are given with no reason why
Living together in colossal times."
Gutting guitar riffs, huge base. The first time I heard this song, all I could think of was footage of hockey players. It's just the perfect song to launch the new NHL. "Colossal" sums the game up so beautifully. If you've not heard these boys please, PLEASE, you are missing out big-time. Heck, I'll buy you an album and post it over the great blue sea. I really think you'll love these boys and their sound.
Where in Providence, R.I., did you work? I lived there for 30 years and never remember seeing you. Is Jack Falla's book "Home Ice" still the best hockey book going? What is the best hockey movie made?
Channel 12. I have a knack for not being remembered. It comes in handy when I go to a "clothing optional" beach. Yes it is, until my first hockey book comes out in the fall. On second thought, I'll shoot for second best. The best hockey movie hasn't been made yet. I plan to make it.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.