I always know when my 7-year-old son Jackson is tired and ready for bed.
He takes his right index and middle fingers, the ones you use to make a peace sign. He turns that peace sign upside down, puts his fingertips on the closest surface available, preferably a smooth one, and he will mimic the act of ice skating. Heavy on the crossovers. Once I spy this finger improv going on, I watch for five minutes, sound the final buzzer and then carry him up to bed over my shoulder. He never argues with Daddy Van Massenhoven.
But before he succumbs, the french fry-sized fingers slide across the kitchen table with Mike Modano grace. Jack is temporarily lost in a place in his mind far away. Finger food for thought. Out of his mouth comes the falsetto whisper of a play-by-play announcer describing the heated action and collective acts of desperation. The index finger turns hard on its outside edge as it avoids the box of Cheerios (no sugar cereals at night; vats of that come in the morning. The choice? Apple Jacks, of course). This happens every night. One last daydream a boy can control until his head hits the pillow.
Jack's actions are clearly genetic. When I was his age, I would take a Nerf football, hum NFL Films music in my head and play slow-motion football in the swath of grass between my house and the neighbor's. I would pitch entire nine-inning games off the garage door, hit the winning basket for the Boston Celtics and throw tennis balls off a concrete wall and be Tony Esposito with a baseball glove. Always Tony Esposito. What the style of Martin Brodeur is to Jack and his Mite buddies, Tony Esposito was to me.
The Stanley Cup playoffs leave nothing to the imagination. It is all right there in front of you. This season is no exception. Watching this extreme reality television on a nightly basis reaffirms what we already know: There is nothing like it. You know that feeling you get when you're next to a new sheet of ice and you can't tie your skates fast enough? That's how we feel every night at this time of year as we wait for the games to begin.
There are more games tonight, and these nightly soap operas can change on one game. But here are some initial observations after the first week of the first round.
No. 1 Sabres vs. No. 8 Islanders
I was shocked at the Sabres' lack of desperation in Game 2. I understand you can't win every Stanley Cup playoff game, but they were flat. They won't be flat on Long Island because the Islanders' fans will be so loud. I actually think this will help the Sabres. They are an excellent road team. Their 25 road wins were the most in the East this season; only San Jose (26) had more.
The Sabres need to realize there are no elite teams in the NHL. A Cup can only be won by playing fast, courageous and desperate hockey every night. I expect the Sabres to wake up, but the Islanders will not make it easy. They are well-coached and have veteran players who bring veteran playoff intangibles, like winning faceoffs (Mike Sillinger) and causing commotion around the net (Ryan Smyth).
No. 7 Lightning vs. No. 2 Devils
Geez, maybe Art Williams was right. Maybe Vincent Lecavalier is the Michael Jordan of hockey. Jordan didn't win his first title until he was 28. Vinny is 26 and already has one. We know hockey is a team game, yet Vinny is the most dangerous all-around offensive player in the NHL right now. It is very difficult to score goals in the NHL and no one makes it look easier. Vinny is now a man. Martin St. Louis lives for this time of year. We knew the Devils' defensive corps is vulnerable and Martin Brodeur is the world's largest gauze pad. Still, the Devils have enough offensive talent to repeat their Game 1 performance. Scott Gomez is flying, and I think he'll be a factor as the series goes along.
No. 3 Thrashers vs. No. 6 Rangers
The Rangers could not have asked for a better matchup, and they are taking advantage of it. Atlanta is not a great skating team and it is not strong on defense; that plays right into the Rangers' hands. Henrik Lundqvist is scary good in net. The Rangers are in complete control of this series and I see no reason why they won't close it out. The Rangers will root for the Lightning and the Islanders to pull off the upsets so they'll have home ice in the next round.
No. 4 Senators vs. No. 5 Penguins
Pat Verbeek has the greatest NHL nickname of all time after "Chicken Parm."
Verbeek was called "The Little Ball of Hate." God, that warms the cockles of my heart! (Say that last sentence again with a thick Boston accent.)
The Sharks-Preds and Sens-Pens have provided us with many balls of hate. The Senators are fast and are showing a tad more structure than the Penguins. Earlier this season, I went to a Penguins-Islanders game. Pittsburgh was set up in 1-2-2 trap mode as the Islanders brought the puck from behind their net. Three seconds later, the Islanders, not exactly the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, had a 2-on-1! That is almost mathematically impossible. I thought the Penguins would win the series because I believed they had the better goalie. I still think they do. But they are getting woefully outshot, taking away that net advantage. The Penguins have plenty of fire and passion, but they need to be smarter. The Sens could end this quickly if the Pens don't adjust.
No. 1 Red Wings vs. No. 8 Flames
Not a real surprise here. The Flames are a rancid road team. Now, they have to go home and have their amazing fans fill them with courage like a human shot of Wild Turkey. We are big Mike Babcock fans and he has his squad ready. Hands down, he would be my Canadian Olympic coach for 2010. His lines? Crosby-Heatley-Briere; Lecavalier-St. Louis-Getzlaf; Thornton-Marleau-Nash; Staal-Staal-Richards. Gold medal. Thanks for coming.
No. 2 Ducks vs. No. 7 Wild
Unless the Wild sign David Ortiz, this series will be over this week. It's early, but this playoff picture is playing into the Ducks' hands. If the top three seeds advance, the Ducks get the Canucks. A tough matchup, but one Anaheim should win. Then, the Ducks would get either a Detroit team who would have had a very physical series versus the Sharks, or the Sharks or Predators, who could be worn down.
No. 3 Canucks vs. No. 6 Stars
The joy of this series is watching Mike Modano skate and the Sedin twins operate around net. As this series and the playoffs continue, it will be interesting to watch Roberto Luongo's stamina. He's never played this long in an NHL season.
No. 4 Predators vs. No. 5 Sharks
This is the marquee matchup of the postseason. The Predators will sorely miss Alexander Radulov in Game 3. He is their most dangerous offensive player. (He will score 40 goals next season and is my extra early-bird fantasy special for next season. Be the first on your block to draft Radulov.)
The Sharks are the better team. They should dominate and win Games 3 and 4 at home. We will find out in the next two games if San Jose has the heart of a champion. Joe Thornton's playoff numbers -- eight goals, 21 assists and 29 points in 48 games. He scores a goal in one of three regular-season games and one out of six playoff games. He doesn't seem to understand you can't play perimeter hockey in the playoffs. You have to get to the front of the net. Sidney Crosby has three goals and two assists in his three career playoff games. Sid could have more goals in the Ottawa series than Thornton has in his playoff career when the first round is over. Why? Simple. He goes to the front of the net.
Every year around this time, you hear or read about how winning the Presidents' Trophy does not guarantee that you'll hoist the Stanley Cup come June. Of that, there is no doubt -- as they say, past performance does not guarantee future results. However, far too often it is portrayed that the team with the best regular-season record is at a disadvantage. Just today I read " there is one thing working against the Sabres: Only six Presidents' Trophy winners have gone on to win the Cup in the 20 years since the league began giving out the award."
Six out of 20 -- that's 30 percent. So, I looked back at the last 20 years, and it shakes out like so:
No. 1 Seed -- 6 Cups (30 percent)
No. 2 Seed -- 1 Cup (5)
No. 3 Seed -- 3 Cup (15)
No. 4 Seed -- 3 Cup (15)
No. 5 Seed -- 2 Cup (10)
No. 6 Seed -- 2 Cup (10)
No. 7 Seed -- 2 Cup (10)
No. 8 Seed -- 0 Cup (0)
No. 9 Seed -- 1 Cup (5)
The math isn't that hard. Please spread the word to those less enlightened in the media.
The biggest reason why this column is what it is -- you readers are funny and smart and I will endlessly strive for that. Right now, I am river-dancing, wearing a wrestling suit and top hat while reading Chuck Klosterman's book, "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas." Funny and smart.
My mother, who was 89 in December, probably went to at least 30 Penguins games this year, and she and my 87-year-old dad will be at the game Sunday. They were at the 5 OT game in 2000 against the Flyers. The next day, when I asked her if she stayed until the end, she said, "Yeah, where am I goin'?"
The complimentary bran muffins and tea probably didn't hurt. Grandma rocks.
A few questions from a Blackhawks fan from Norway:
1. The Hawks are finally in the position to pick first overall in the upcoming draft. Who should they pick?
2. Do you see any chance for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs next season?
I wish you still had the "NHL 2Night" show. They used to show it in between periods during late-night live games here (we're six hours ahead). Now, we can watch more games, but miss your musical references. My favorites right now -- Modest Mouse, Kaiser Chiefs and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
1. Since 1963, the Blackhawks have had the first overall pick zero times. They will undoubtedly select 18-year-old Patrick Kane from Buffalo, N.Y. This past season, Kane played Junior in Canada for the London Knights of the OHL and his numbers were 62-83--145 in 58 games. He turns 19 this November. If Coldplay had a Menudo-esque Coldplay group of teenagers, Patrick Kane would be the lead singer.
2. The Hawks had two problems this past season -- they couldn't score and they couldn't defend. In their last nine games, they scored more than two goals ONCE. They have a long way to go. Jack Skille is 21 and reminds some of Bill Guerin. He scored only 21 goals in 65 games at Wisconsin, but he should score more as a pro. He played in seven games for Norfolk in the AHL and had three goals and three assists in seven games. He should make the Hawks next season if he works hard this summer.
Kane is small, but very talented. He will be 19 in the fall and has a chance to stick. The Hawks have lots of holes. Still, if the young players step up and the team makes a good free-agent signing, it should make a move up. But I don't think the Hawks can get to a 90-point season in 2007-08. If Kane, Skille and Jonathan Toews score a combined 60-75 goals, I would give them an outside chance. It is very difficult to forecast young players because you don't know when they will make their physical and mental leap. Some take a huge leap over a summer, while others have it spread out over a number of years. Over the past few seasons, we've seen that young players can produce relatively quickly in the NHL. How quickly the Hawks' big three of Toews, Skille and Kane produces depends on how much of a leap they make. Also, if Tuomo Ruutu suddenly steps up and becomes a 30-goal, 80-point player and the Hawks can get their goal total up over 250, things could be fun in Chicago next season.
3. I love Norway.
I recently saw Jeremy Roenick on "PTI" saying he'd love to finish out his career next year with the Blackhawks. JR said he really wants to score No. 500 wearing No. 27 and that he wouldn't ask for a lot as far as money goes. I ask you -- is there any way we can get Dirk Graham to come back, too? Detroit can keep Chelios.
I would sign Jeremy Roenick for a season and see if he can get five more goals. It would be something to market over the summer and preseason.
"Buy two tickets and be eligible to win a car after Jeremy Roenick scores his 500th. Cut a deal with a local Ford dealer to give away a Ford 500 Limited the night Jeremy scores his 500th. To be eligible, you must buy two tickets on the Blackhawks' Web site."
This stuff isn't that hard people. It gives Ford a chance to get the Ford 500 out there. (I didn't know they had one. I'll need a car soon. Ford should make sure people like me know about their cars.) It gives the Hawks a chance to sell some tickets and celebrate one of the greatest Hawks of all time. As long as Jeremy assured management he would be a positive influence on younger players, take a low salary to help the cap and work hard, it would a prudent move by the Hawks. Buy some billboards, put Jeremy's giant head on them; have him throw out the first pitch at Wrigley and sing "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" the day of the announcement. Chicago, just try a little. If you want any more ideas, drop me an e-mail. You have a great brand name and you are very important to the overall health of the NHL.
Did you think that Hartnell hit on Cheechoo was intentional? When watching it from the side angle, he sure looked like he stuck out his right leg a little too far for it to have been an accident. The fact that he also elbowed Cheechoo in the face and knocked out his teeth does not help the case that it was not a dirty hit. Do you think the NHL will take action and suspend Hartnell? Where is the outrage? This hit may have not looked as bad as the Drury hit, but it has the potential to be 100 times more catastrophic, injurywise and timingwise.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
I would not be surprised if Cheechoo tore his ACL or MCL or both as a result of that hit. I must say, the few times I've seen the hit, it doesn't scream "dirty" to me. It certainly was a penalty for a high hit, but I thought Hartnell was skating straight head and didn't stick out the leg in a blatantly dangerous fashion.
I just got the news that my Flyers just won the No. 2 pick in the NHL draft. I feel like Charlie Brown flying through the air after he tries to kick the football that Lucy is holding. UUUUGGGGHHHHH!
The worst team in the league this year, the worst Flyers team in their 40-year history and they still can't be rewarded with the No. 1 pick. In 40 years, the Flyers have only picked first once, and that was in 1975. They took Mel Bridgman and we know what a great pick that was. You have to agree that every Philadelphia team is cursed. If there was any good that came out of this year, it's that Bob Clarke is gone so we don't have to worry about him trying to recreate the Broad Street Bullies again. At least Holmgren is signing some players with some speed. Maybe we will finally catch up to the rest of the NHL next year.
The Flyers will still get very good talent with the No. 2 pick overall. I'm thinking they will take Alexei Cherepanov with their pick -- a speedy, solid right winger to play with Jeff Carter. If the Flyers can swing a high-end center in the summer, they will make a major leap in the standings next season.
All the talk around here much of this year has been about Briere. I have to say, I watch him and go, "Hell yeah!" Then, I watch your little hockey gawd and think, "No, I want Drury." Do the Flyers really have a chance to get either (they have the money, but can they convince them they're close)? Does it help to have Briere's good friend Biron here and convinced the Flyers are close?
If the Flyers offer Briere six years at $7 million, he will probably be a Flyer. Perhaps the Sabres will go to Drury and Briere and offer them identical deals -- six years at $6 million. I wouldn't rule out a draft-day trade of Maxim Afinogenov as a way to create current and future cap space to get a young, cheap, blue-chip player. Would the Flyers bite at No. 2?
Think you could do me (and many other Sharks fans) a favor and make sure there is some mention of Warren Strelow passing on "SC" tonight. I know the NFL's schedule came out, but on the opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it would be nice to see a great coach in the sport remembered, even if it is something short and sweet.
Sharks in five,
Warren Strelow, goaltending coach of both the 1980 and 2002 U.S. Olympic men's hockey teams, passed away peacefully last Wednesday morning in Worcester, Mass., after a series of illnesses.
"He's an American treasure," Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey, said of Strelow. "He could work with the youngest amateur and the best professional equally well. He had a special gift that only the great have."
Strelow, under coach Herb Brooks, helped the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to an improbable gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y. He again joined Brooks for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where the team captured the silver medal.
"Warren was a true expert on goalkeeping," said Lou Vairo, director of special projects for USA Hockey and coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. "He was a man that not only trained his pupils, but also loved them. He is someone that American hockey will truly miss."
In addition to his work with USA Hockey, Strelow spent many years working in the National Hockey League. He was hired by the Washington Capitals in 1983 as the first full-time goalie coach in the NHL and spent six years with the organization before moving on to a similar role with the New Jersey Devils (1990-93). Strelow had spent the past 10 years coaching the goaltenders in the San Jose Sharks organization.
Strelow was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.
Why are Russian players always classified as European players? Last time I checked, Russia was in Asia. How about a little recognition for the players coming out of Asia?
Russia, the world's largest country, covers 11 time zones, all climate zones except tropical, with land that stretches almost halfway around the planet. Positioned in Northern Asia, Russia is in both the Northern and Eastern Hemispheres.
Props to Asia. Top 5 Asia songs:
"Heat of the Moment"
"The Smile Has Left Your Eyes"
"Only Time Will Tell"
I've never grown tired of any Asia song. I hear one and I'm in Goody's (high school friend) Chevy Cavalier driving around during the summer, looking for Sheryl Agresta. I never found her. Cue "Wildest Dreams."
I'm once again giving a hockey speech for my public speaking class here at Wake Forest, and I'm looking for your help again. The assignment is to persuade nonhockey fans to go to a hockey game. The reasons I've come up with so far -- hockey has all the elements of a good sport, it is an easy sport to understand, and hockey fans are very welcoming and want to spread the game to others. Do you have any additional insight?
Thanks and Go Thrashers!
Playing on the likability factor of the players and fans is the best way to go for the newbie fans. From there, they will slowly fall in love with the game. The heart, mental toughness and creativity of the players is a great model for kids and grown-ups. Always believe in yourself, never give up and think the game. Be humble, be passionate, be real.
Hey there John,
My name's Cam Black from Red Deer, Alberta. I was surfin' the net and I checked out games played for NHL players this season. It says Sean Avery played 84 games this season. I was wondering if you knew what the record is for most games played in one NHL season?
Bill Guerin played in 85 games in 2000-01 for Edmonton and Boston.
OK, the Coyotes fire Mike Barnett and hire John "The Maestro" Buccigross as their new GM. What moves do you make this offseason and what are your plans going into draft day (i.e., who do you pick if you have the first, second, third or fourth overall pick)? It seems to me the Desert Dawgs need some reliable scoring. I'm just curious to your thoughts on the upcoming offseason for Phoenix.
Thanks a lot,
The Coyotes will have an opportunity to select a center at No. 3, either Jakub Voracek or Kyle Turris. The Coyotes have selected a center in the last two drafts, but you can never have too many centers.
How about some props this week to my alma mater, Michigan State, for their win over your much-favored BC in the Frozen Four!? What a great game and an awesome tournament! The finals matchup was incredibly close with great plays and hard hits from both sides. And that was on top of the Thursday games, especially the end of the semifinal between ND and BC! Here's hoping the NHL playoffs are just as exciting!
The Sharks-Preds series is already turning out to be the toughest of the playoffs. Any thoughts on back-to-back games with back-to-back Predators being ejected with a five-minute major and game misconduct?
Also, the Predators fans might be the most ignorant in the NHL. Booing Cheechoo after he got kneed and elbowed and lost a tooth at the hands of Scott Hartnell for really no other reason than Hartnell can't skate that well in open ice? Niiiiice. Do I really need to listen to 60 minutes of "Ref you suck!" after their players get penalized for boarding? Wow. I'm jumping on the Modano "contraction" bandwagon.
Who says the Rangers aren't drinking from the Cup this year? Here is my 17-month-old son, Isaac, taking a sip from the Stanley Cup (OK it's not the Cup, but it looks almost life-size next to him!).
I'll drink to that.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.