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Just When It Can Get No Worse

It gets worse.

I love Chico’s comment: “This team might not be together next year.” Of course they won’t be together next year, because short playoff runs are depressing.

Colin White: miss your guy, then reach instead of skating. And his guy was Carcillo. Kind of sums it up.

Mike Mottau: Three words: “Where’s my guy?” Three of the best words fans can hear: Unrestricted Free Agent.

No even strength or single man advantage goals. Too many uncontested shots. When Paul Martin doesn’t close the gap and pressure the guy coming in, you know the team is played conservatively, scared and badly. Sure, the officiating was inconsistent, but that can’t possibly be a factor when you can’t score, don’t skate, let the Flyers run rampant and look like you’re in cement. Another three power plays wouldn’t have mattered.

Yes, the Devils might win three in a row. But they’ve been so badly, badly outplayed in three of the last four periods of hockey, it’s hard to believe they can sustain nine good ones, including scoring some goals. I am not giving up hope, and I’ll cheer until the final horn of the last game of the season, but it would be nice for the Bubba to see the Devils actually produce in the playoffs before he goes off to college (their last 3rd round or better series was when he was completing the ever-challenging 2nd grade).

The good news, if there is good news, is that sharing defeat through sports brings families together. When we pass on fan loyalty to our kids, we give it to them as another form of genetic material that can make us grow as easily as it makes us susceptible to disease. We cheer, and share the pain when our teams lose, and find ways to console each other until the season starts again. I just really want the Devils to win another Cup before I am taking my grandchildren to games.

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Positional Mess

I’ve attempted to follow some of my youth hockey guidelines and wait close to 24 hours (ok, twelve hours) before saying anything about Saturday’s game. At this rate, the emotional roller-coaster resulting from watching Devils games is going to either result in significant weight loss (I’m so riled up I can’t eat junk food) or significant health defects (high blood pressure, stroke, hoarseness, shortness of breath, and blunt object trauma on the wall where the TV sits). No matter how you slice it, the Devils are a positional mess right now. I can attribute some of this to a “change in system”; when you go from a trapping style to one in which offense and puck movement is more important (and if someone says “western conference offense”, please move there), it’s going to take time to figure out who picks up which assignment. And despite what Brent Sutter says about the long road trip not being a factor, it does eat into extended practices. This isn’t the kind of thing you pick up in a morning skate before a game; it’s one or two hours of repeating the same positional drills (interspersed with sprints) until the defense pairs learn to talk to each other. Fortunately, the Devils have booked a long practice today (sorry if you were expecting to go to public skating at South Mountain, but Brent and his boys have usurped the pond).

The ever-fun folks at 2 Man Advantage point to Oduya as the root of many of our defensive worries. They’re mostly right. Take Guerin’s last goal as an example. Normally, defensive positioning is for the strong (puck) side defenseman to play the puck carrier in the triangle formed by goalpost, edge of the trapezoid, and some spot in the face off circle (depends on how big/fast the defenseman is, and how good the wingers are at coverage down low). His (or her) partner should be on the weak side (where the net is left partially uncovered by the goalie, who has shifted to square to the puck carrier). Watch Guerin’s goal – granted it’s on a power play, but with two D out there, Martin and Oduya, somebody wasn’t in position. Martin has the winger camped on the strong side, and Oduya is chasing behind the net. Guerin had just gone to Subway and was enjoying a toasted sandwich on the weak side, probably contemplating which of the desserts he’d have once the puck came to him. Either Martin and Oduya weren’t talking, or Oduya botched by chasing behind the net. With under 10 clicks left on the clock, you worry about the puck getting in front of the net. As coaches from Mites to Midgets say to the kids, “Nobody can score from behind the net, let’em go there.” Who cares if the clock winds down with the puck behind Weekes, but not surrounded by twine?

Defensive positioning, part two: Of the four Devils penalties, three were on the defense. If you have position, you won’t be tempted to hold, hook, grapple, or land a boarding party on the opposing wing. Strength helps, too (Let’s all send Paul Martin barbells for the holiday season, so that Satan doesn’t barrel over him again).

The positioning problems show up on offense, too. 18 blocked shots? 3 of them from Elias (who at least had 4 that went on net)? Either that’s too much point-bombing or one pass too few (yeah, yeah, yesterday I complained about one pass too many, but that was different).

I dunno. I’ll wait another game and see what happens with the Rangers. At least I can yell at Gomez and the Devils D without switching channels (increasing the likelihood that the remote control goes airborne).

Top Ten Hockey Books

I love books. I buy many more than I read, and lately I’ve been buying out of print or gently used editions from amazon.com to add to my collection. Typically the used tomes fill in from days when spending $15 on a book would have put a serious dent in my spending money. Now that I can dabble in books and have somewhere to put them other than a cardboard mover’s box, I’m able to build up small libraries in obtuse topics such as Lake Placid, New York, hold’em poker, cryptography, and 70s art rock group Yes.

Without any further introduction, here’s my current top ten favorite hockey books:

Last Season, Roy MacGregor. The only fictional book in the list, and one of the few sports-related books that’s ever made me profoundly sad. Perhaps it’s “Bats” discovering his limitations as a man and player; perhaps it’s the surprise ending.
Ice Time, Jay Atkinson. A book for hockey dads by a hockey dad himself, who also happens to be an outstanding sports writer. Atkinson follows the trials, travails and training of the Methuen, Massachusetts high school team, but this book truly digs into what it means to be a good youth sports parent.
Boys of Winter, Wayne Coffey. Of all of the content scribbled about the Miracle on Ice, this is far and away my favorite collection of insights and stories. Coffey takes a look at each player, and how their lives were shaped before and after the famous 4-3 game in Lake Placid. I quote from the introduction frequently as our youth hockey season winds down, as Jim Craig’s few pages alone are worth the cover price.
Blades of Glory, John Rosengren. Sort of the foil to Ice Time, Rosengren follows big-time high school hockey in the first state of hockey (Minnesota). Another great look at a season from deep inside the locker room. Casual references to players from rival high schools read like a who’s who of young NHL players, with the New Jersey Devils’ own Zach Parise and Paul Martin making cameo appearances as themselves.
Home Team, Roy MacGregor. He’s so good he gets two slots. Non-fiction and closer to home (literally). Blend Last Season with Ice Time and you get this book, a look at fathers and sons in and around NHL draft events. Expectations, met, exceeded, undershot or crushed, and how hockey families sometimes are more about family than hockey.
They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven, Ken Baker. You’ve probably never heard of Ken Baker, as he was a goalie for Colgate but never “made it”. I only discovered this book after reading Kathyrn Bertine’s All The Sundays Yet To Come (figure skating and anorexia in South America, but quite funny), as she and Baker were friendly at Colgate. As an adult league player, and someone who has met many guys who always wondered if they could have made it in the ECHL, this is a great read: Baker tells a story of fulfilling his dream of playing professional hockey well after he had hung up his skates, and the result has the poignancy of a Disney movie blended with the rough edges of “Slap Shot.”
The Game, Ken Dryden. Stanley Cup, Montreal Canadiens, Cornell University, and now big-time Canadian politician. Awesome read, and in a newly released reprint.
Beyond The Crease, Martin Brodeur (and Damien Cox). Not at all what I was expecting. Rather than the usual “I was taped to the goal by my older brother who fired pucks at me from a carbon-dioxide powered air gun” story of his life from 3 years old to 3 Stanley Cups, Brodeur’s book focuses on much more recent events, including his relationship to the Devils management and the league, how he sees the sport evolving, and what it was like to represent his country in the Olympics. His reflections on playing in Torino, and echoing his father’s footsteps on Italian Olympic ground, are alone worth the purchase price.
Breaking the Ice, Angela Ruggiero. So this one is about brother-baiting and boy-badgering, but it’s about the only book I can find that addresses women’s hockey.
The Hockey I Love, Vladislav Tretiak. Yes, the Russian goaltender, who was pulled from the Miracle on Ice game. The book ends in the late 70s, a few years before the Lake Placid Olympics, so you don’t get Tretiak’s views on the game for which he’s probably best known in the States. What you do find is a discourse on playing in some of the most famous international hockey series of the 70s.

What’s missing? A book about Jeff Halpern . Something focused on hockey diversity, featuring Scott Gomez and Jarome Iginla, perhaps. The hagiography of Saint Patrik (Elias), with a whole chapter on how he can consume dumplings and kolachi and still be pure muscle.

Reversal of Fortune

I learned many things today: Continental Airlines Arena can be quite loud when the fans are hungry for a win. Scott Gomez’ rear end is the cause of good deflections (it wasn’t his leg, it was his butt, the play was in front of us). Tommy Albelin is an exemplary over-40 hockey player (and he’s one of the humblest, nicest guys you’ll ever meet). But perhaps the most important thing I learned today is to never, ever wear open-toed shoes into the men’s room at the arena when the Devils score a goal. Most wives and girlfriends will profess that our aim isn’t great when we’re focused on the game. And when the game permeates the bathroom via the foghorn, well, a warm feeling is shared by all.

I didn’t build a huge prelude to the game. We weren’t there for the opening face-off because we were finishing a Little League game. I wore my brand new Elias Metallurg jersey, which got some great comments and stares from the Section 232 crew. I ate my pretzel before the chicken since the pretzel was a sort-of lunch leftover from Little League, and the chicken was an early late afternoon pre-dinner snack.

Oh yeah, the Devils put three goals in during the first period, two more going the long way away from our seats, and our house was broomless. Lou did an amazing job juggling the lines, keeping everyone’s legs fresh. Paul Martin led all skaters with 24 minutes on the ice, and nobody looked tired (except for Kozlov, who looked like he just left the Metallurg cement factory with free samples in his skates).

I didn’t foreshadow this one, but the Devils players did: their cars were parked in the South Mountain lot today, just as they are for any other home-and-home series. What I’ll do, however, is remember a bit of the 2000 playoffs, when the Devils were down 3-1 to Philly, and I was forced to listen to Game 5 via out of market radio broadcast from a hotel room in Boston. The hotel manager still has no idea why I was screaming “Freakin’ Brylin” loud enough to wake the people in the next room.

I’ll be in a hotel the night that Game 6 is scheduled. Coincidence?

Streaking

I will admit to a bit of a work detour today to check out the Devils boards hosted by the Newark Star-Ledger. The fans have not given up yet.

Every streak begins with one thing going the opposite way. Deflections. Soft goals. Power plays. Passes up the middle (ask the Joffrey Lupul of the Ducks). The Devils have had streaks of 9 in a row (anyone remember that from early in the season), then 15 in a row, so four in a row isn’t out of the question.

Who wants it more? When it came down to overcoming a 3-goal deficit in Montreal, it happened, clinching the division. When it came down to annihilating the Rangers at the Garden, it happened. Last night, when it came down to a game-tying goal, it happened (thanks Patrik, and Lou, please remember that around June 30th at 11:50 pm).

The series now alternates between arenas. In a way, good for the Devils, as they’re pretty tough when it comes to playing consecutive games with funky travel schedules. Notch a win on Saturday, and then a new streak can begin.

If not, then we’ll end the season with dignity and our heads up, after having seen great hockey and the emergence of true grit from Elias, Gomez and Gionta, as well as the maturation of Paul Martin and David Hale on the blue line. Who thought Elias would be a consistent leader in hits per game? There’s a whole off-season to ponder these things and I’m hoping it doesn’t start until mid-June for our Devils.

It only takes one thing to reverse a streak. Even the Red Sox figured that out.

Devils Over-Rotation

It has been classic over-rotation in the hockey media: Coverage of the Devils sweep of the Rangers, of Elias’ comeback from his battle with Hep A, of the team winning 15 games in a row. Patty and Klee are on the cover of the current issue of The Hockey News in a game-winning embrace. How cool is it when you have your hero and a snowman in the mainstream media?

But it’s pure over-rotation. The Rangers were done before the playoffs began. The Devils had too long a hiatus coupled with a trip down south where they historically struggle. The winning streak had to end at some point, and I’m happier that it was when there was still momentum to be shed from the over-rotation rather than lost going into the middle of a series.

But tonight’s game was a heart breaker. 20 seconds to go, and we’re dancing. 17 seconds later, we’re watching the Zamboni again, clicking through movie channels waiting for overtime. And then they coughed it up, coming home down 2-0 in games and having been thoroughly out-played, out-hustled and out-positioned. Both the game-tying and game-winning goals were the result of bad defensive positioning: Pandolfo lost sight of Staahl on the knotting goal, and Ken Klee looked like he was out having a sandwich on the game winner. Sure, Paul Martin made a nice move, but where was the defense getting back into the house before that was necessary?

Whitey, we miss you.

If the Devils can even this up 2-2 at home between now and Mother’s Day, it’s a 2 out of 3 series, and they only have to win one in the state where tobacco is a vegetable. Then again, that’s what I said last weekend, when the Devils flywheel had momentum. Time to step it up, across the board: players, coaches, equipment managers, fans, broadcasters, kids, everyone who wants to see this go six games.

I still believe, but my Devils-loving heart can’t take much more rotation.

Picture Perfect Ending

What an end to the Devils’ regular season. After being 19 points behind the Rangers, they win the Atlantic Division title in the last game of the year, in the 3rd period, coming back from a 3-goal deficit. The Rangers lost, the Flyers didn’t matter, and the Devils are given their due: their 6th division title of the last decade.

The game was full of delicious moments, like Gionta netting goals 47 and 48, squarely giving him the Devils record for most goals in a season. Then there was Patrik Elias, putting in the game-tying goal as the clock wound down. And Jamie Langenbrunner put in the game winner, 82 full games after the season started and fans were calling for Lou to trade Lags due to his slow start.

Here’s my recap of predictions, ruminations and commentary:

  • Superstition is not over-rated. Yesterday I wore my Minnesota Golden Gophers T-Shirt, in honor of Jamie Langebrunner (Gopher), Paul Martin (high school in MN) and Zach Parise (ditto). Today I put the vintage 2003 Stanley Cup Champions shirt on for the plane ride to California. And people noticed – and wished me luck. As if I had any influence on the outcome.
  • Good guys get good returns. There’s no earthly reason to believe that having Brian Gionta sign an authentic Boston College jersey (given to me as a gift by the good folks at Gio’s alma mater) would put him on a scoring tear, but it did. And as soon as Patrik Elias signed my son’s Czech Hockey Team hat, he produced a hat trick, a 3-point game, and the division title game-knotting goal, all within two weeks.
  • Trade carefully. Initially I compared the Lukowich trade to Elwood Blues giving up the Bluesmobile for a microphone, but he just took time to learn the system. He’s been the assist-master the last two games. On the flip side, everyone calling for Jamie Langenbrunner to hang his jersey west of the Delaware is happy that he’s still a Jersey boy.
  • Zach Parise had a great freshman year. Who wouldn’t, playing alongside Gionta and Gomez? He didn’t quite outshine Ovechkin or Crosby, but Parise is in the post-season. Now we’ll see who earns the rookie stripes in the second season. We were pulling from him from opening day, when he notched his first goal.
  • Nedved’s wife really does call the shots. After a few months in the desert, he’s back on the east coast where he can down cheesesteaks while she does (bathing suit) cheesecake. You read it here (actually it was here, in mid-November). Won’t matter after the Flyers are turned into Buffalo burgers.
  • Jeff Halpern remains one of the most under-rated, under-recognized captains in hockey. He continued to lead the Capitals through a fairly miserable season, coming within a point of a career-best year while only playing in 70 games. I’ll venture one reason Ovechkin had such a great year is that he was playing for a great leader on the ice.
  • The Rangers suck. I’m sorry, but I called this one back on October 30th. The wheels were going to fall off eventually. I’m betting on golf by May 1st for the blue shirts.
  • At this point, the first 82 games are just table stakes. What counts now are momentum and fun. The Devils (and Sharks) have both. The Flyers and Rangers have neither. I’m secretly hoping for a New Jersey-San Jose Stanley Cup, so I have a shot at seeing all of the games in the correct time zone given my work schedule.

    Number 9, Number 9

    It is a Devils revolution. Elias has 4 goals in 8 games played (he missed one with a cold), along with six assists for a total of 12 points. He’s on pace for 20 goals and 60 points, not quite another 40-goal season but given what he’s been through health-wise this year, extremely impressive. Nine in a row, coming up on lucky 13, the franchise record for wins set in January and February of 2001.

    Meanwhile the rest of the horn and tails crowd has stepped it up, especially Jamie Langenbrunner, Paul Martin and David Hale. I’m wearing my Golden Gophers hockey t-shirt, alternating with my North Dakota Fighting Sioux shirts, in their respective honors.

    I’ve been goofing with one of our Devils youth bantam players that Langenbrunner’s scoring seemed to pick up since she “borrowed” one of his sticks and cut it down. Those pro stock sticks have a great feeling of heft in the hands, especially when they say “Lags” on the model stripe — mine says “Niedermayer”, although my dumpster diving doesn’t seem to have helped Scott one bit in Anaheim.

    Don’t know whether it’s a new stick or some other voodoo-shaking move that has pumped up Zach Parise, but he’s also on a tear. His cross-crease backhander to Brylin today was the kind of thing you wish you could do if you play this game, but instead end up shackling your hands as the puck slides between your skates and you crash into the end boards. Number 9, indeed.