Tag Archives: playoffs

Season of Joy

It’s a fall Saturday afternoon and I’m typing rather than lugging a telephoto lens up and down the sideline of a football field. High school football season has ended for our Montclair Kimberley Academy Cougars, after a semi-final playoff loss last night. To balance the feeling that last night was the last time some of the seniors will put on footall pads, here’s an open letter to this amazing group of young men.

Your teamwork created a gold standard. From a 1-9 season two years ago, to 5-5 with a playoff bid to 9-2 with a trip to the semi-finals, the journey began with teamwork that led you, consciously or not, to call each other “brothers.” Use that yardstick of measuring contribution, mutual re-inforcement and peer leadership in every situation, and you’ll always move the ball forward.

You had the benefit of outstanding, dedicated coaches who treated you with the love normally accorded your own children. You honored their preparations and advice, you corrected as needed, and you remained focused from the heat of August until a frosty late November night. There are no better courses in leadership and development than having an amazing coach; use them as role models when you evaluate management from any angle. Not many people would equate your coaches and Steve Jobs, but they both got their teams to produce results the rest of the uninformed and uncoached world thought impossible.

You will always play to your standard of integrity. Whether it’s on the field of play, in the sphere of public opinion, or in a closed door discussion, there will consistently be influences that are below or controvert the level of self-discipline and fair play to which you’ve adhered. Bring a high level of competition with even higher senses of fair play.

You will relive the joy. After the label of “last” is applied, it’s easy to fear that you won’t know the happiness that comes from a great team again. Individual memories of well-placed blocks, game preparation that made it seem you knew plays before they developed, flashes of brilliance from all corners of the turf – those feelings will return again and again because you know how to create them, and how to find them, and how to appropriately relish them, on and off of the field. If you doubt that, ask any of your parents how we felt every single week of this season, from spring weight training until driving home last night. We have the benefit of middle age, knowing that the end of the season is merely a pause in the happiness flow.

As I packed up my camera bag one of the fathers thanked me for capturing and preserving memories of the season. I owe the thanks to the team, coaches, and other parents, as I was merely a first hand, close-up observer of what a local newspaper called “the greatest MKA team ever.” The emphasis is on “team,” and I thank each and every one of you for allowing me to join you on the sideline with humor, hard work, humility and grace.

NJYHL Playoffs

As Disney fave Rafiki says, “It is time.” NJYHL playoffs start in about 30 minutes for the Bantams, continuing into tomorrow morning for first-round “A” games and tomorrow afternoon for the medal round games at the “B” level. 10 months ago, we picked a team based on tryouts, coach’s evaluations of the players, and what we knew about them as athletes and sportsmen. Nobody can predict what will happen with 19 hockey players (18 young men and one young woman) over the course of a summer, except to say that in September it looked like we’d have a good, 0.500 hockey team.

A few weeks after that, they became a team. Position hockey, talking to each other, working hard every shift of every game. I believe it was equal parts talent and coaching, and most important, very little parental influence other than saying “Have a good game” every weekend. I’ve never been with a group of parents that was this supportive, fun, and good-natured, and it shows in what the kids do on the ice. Six months after our summer camp, we’re in the NJYHL playoffs, and our only hope and expectations is that everyone continues to do what they’ve done for the last six months. To badly paraphrase Robert Pirsig, the journey was more valuable than the destination.

Reading Your Own Headlines

Last weekend our youth hockey team had a 4-0 lead and then stopped playing midway through the game. Our opponents out-played us, 2-0, down the stretch, leaving us with a 4-2 win but one that we honestly didn’t earn with a solid effort. Watching the Devils game last night, I could only think of what our head coach said: “These guys started reading their own headlines.” Nobody in the NHL gives up after 2 periods, not in a 2-goal game, not in a 3-goal game (anybody remember The Streak’s conclusion in Montreal, with a trio of goals in the third?). Blowing a pair of deuces on the scoreboard is embarassing.

Bottom line: the offense seems to work, and then it goes silent for long periods of time. Leadership is one part of it, but leaving the lines alone would also help develop some chemistry. Where’s the leadership on defense? Before that, where’s the motion on defense? If you’ve ever been in a car accident, you know that feeling when time dilates, and you’re pretty sure you’re watching yourself come close to getting mangled. I can only imagine what the Devils were feeling once the Habs scored in the first minute of the third. Spinning, spinning, just skidding around on the ice…..

Here’s a headline for the Devils to read: It’s time to start winning Eastern Conference games, and more than that, Atlantic Division games. So far this year the Devils are 8-8-3 against the Atlantic, 17-8-0 against the rest of the East, and 3-2 against the West. They have a losing record in their own division, and that’s one way to watch a high playoff seed turn into tossing grass seed on the tee box in mid-April.

For the remainder of the season, the Devils play 13 Atlantic teams, 15 other Eastern teams, and 5 Western teams. They’re one of only three teams in the East who have winning records against the West so far this year (Penguins are 7-1, Boston is 5-3, and somewhat laughably the Rangers are 0-7). Clearly, opening up a gap in the Atlantic division is a big deal, but it’s an even bigger deal to capture points in the East, as the #5-#8 seeds are likely determined by all of those games that were woulda-shoudla wins. Like the 3rd period meltdown against the Panthers, and last night’s Hab It Your Way mess.

The headlines I want to read are about wins, tight defense, and playoff runs. You know, Devils hockey.

Great Season

It’s over. Just like that, on a Sunday evening that feels more like October than May, the Devils are done for the season. No heads hanging down here, though, because it was a great season.

Who knew Marty would win 43 games and lead the NHL in wins?

Who knew Patrik Elias would recover from a case of Hepatitis A so bad that it would have literally killed someone like me? And he recovered enough to lead all scorers through two rounds of the playoffs.

Who knew that Cam Janssen would be so much fun to watch and single-handedly make many of us forget Bobby Holik (apologies to the 8 year old kids at the Little League fields yesterday; the guy I told you was Bobby Holik really isn’t, but I like having kids ask him for an autograph).

Who knew that Brian Gionta, one of the few (non-jockey) professional athletes shorter than me, would set a new season record for goals by a Devil?

And so this one is in the books. Now I can watch the playoffs a little more quietly, without packing my new Elias Metallurg jersey for this week’s business trip, and cheer for either the Ducks (with pseudo-cuz Vishnevski and former Devil Nieds) or San Jose (the work-related home team). I’ll follow the draft with one eye on the Yankees box score and one eye on the nhl.com website. Starting June 28th, I’ll begin worrying again about what trades, signings and contract flurries will fall around Lou’s office, and eagerly await the new NHL year on July 1 when we hope we have some new long-term franchise players.

On August 15th, Devils Youth Hockey camps start up, and the 06-07 season will officially be under way in our house again. I have merely three months off (from hockey, at least).

Thanks, Devils, for a great season. I’m already speculating about next year, because who knows?

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.

Brooms on Broadway

There are brooms on Broadway tonight and it’s not for a ticker tape parade in honor of the Rangers. The $10 bet I placed for a certain friend (sorry, Big D) was good money after bad hockey. Never been so happy to lose a Hamilton.

Devils 4, Rangers 2. Devils win the series 4-0, and are the only NHL team to sweep their first round opponents. Patrik Elias now leads all scorers with 11 points. I’m happy that I don’t need my tickets for home games 3 and 4 for this one. I’m happy that we’re looking at a few days off. I’m so happy I might buy the Sunday Star Ledger tomorrow.

Here’s what I wish:

  • I knew what Jamie Langenbrunner said to Elias after the 4th goal of the game, when Elias tipped his head back and laughed.
  • That the Devils get some nice golf weather tomorrow and Monday, before practice starts up again. Having nearly a week off before the next game is good (White’s groin can get less purple) and bad (competitive levels dip on the hiatus).
  • That Ottawa’s Jason Spezza gets shut down in his next game so Patty keeps the temporary leaderboard spot for a few days. He’s earned it.
  • That Round Two starts after my next business trip, and that the Devils have home ice. Allez, Montreal, allez Habitantes!. Or as they’d say in Boston, we want to be Hab’n a party (modulo Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes).
  • That the Sharks end up with home ice as well so I can catch bi-coastal hockey in a week.
  • Sharks-Devils, folks. You read it here first. You think Scott McNealy retired if the Sharks aren’t going four rounds?

    Flying and Foofing

    Phonetic phun with Dion Phaneuf is the latest phad in hockey coverage. The big Calgary rookie has turned heads — both sportswriters and some unprepared opposing wingers who were on the wrong end of a phreakin’ hit. Last night, though, Phaneuf was a playoff rookie, and it showed. Certainly his goal late in the 3rd period that brought Calgary to within a shot got a spur under the Saddledome fans, but it was his decision to pinch in and finish a check earlier than led to the 4th Anaheim goal. Check the replay: Phaneuf came in to about the hash marks to play the body, not the puck, a shovel pass went past him, and the Ducks scored on the resulting two on one. Dion foofed.

    To be phair, the Ducks were phlying. Nieds had a short-handed goal, showing some of the speed that’s earned him “fastest skater” honors at NHL All-Star Games (when there were such things). Lupul was lightning phast. And even Vitaly Vishnevski showed some some phlash. (Note to readers: we have a special soft spot in our household for Vishnevski, because that’s what we believe my wife’s family’s name was back in the Old Country. Not that we think we’re related, but it’s good copy).

    So, a request for writers and editors everywhere: let’s get the “f'” back to reality. I mean, I only know two other people with “Dion” as a first name, and both use a better phonetic spelling. One is a professional athlete (I don’t know him personally); the other is a hockey mom (and her husband is the source of much game-used swag, but that’s a story for a different time). Time to cut out the foofy stuff.

    Another Manic Monday

    As has been the case for the past few weeks, I’m on the way to California. Cranking up the Audioslave – Out of Exile on the tune machine, and reading email in the airport lounge, I spot today’s Star Ledger with our dear Patrik on the banner, his second front-page appearance in less than two weeks. Inside, there’s a half-page mini-poster of Elias, and once again there’s a foot of column inches dedicated to singing his praises. This is all great news – after all, the Star-Ledger incorrectly identified Devils D-man Brad Lukowich in a picture last week (he was listed as Richard Matvichuk, who was scratched for that game, making him an unlikely assist on Patrik’s goal).

    Way cool. Suddenly NJ is the Elias Sports Bureau, but with better accents and pronunciation. Sunday’s Star Ledger had Elias coverage worthy of a Giants game (a Giants win, even), today he gets his own poster, and who knows what’s next? Polite coverage from Sports Illustrated (I won’t hold my breath)? Cover of ESPN: The Magazine?

    Time out. As my late grandmother would say, “No ken-a-horas“. No early blessings, not even for Saint Patrik. Tonight is game two of the Rangers series, and what we saw yesterday (for those of us glued to OLN) was that the visitors went four-for-four, kind of an inverted Buffalo effect (at least when measuring Super Bowl wins). Tonight we hope that Buffalo inverts a streak again, holding off the Flyers, and that the Devils keep the home teams on top, sending the series back to the World’s Most Famous Arena where the Rangers and other circuses play.

    However, if Patty turns in another superstar performance like Saturday’s effort, maybe it’s time to fix some spelling. There’s no “c” in Patrik, but there should be one above the left Devil’s horn on his jersey.

    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.

    Playoff Dreams

    All of the sudden, the Devils are playing like a team possessed by the, uh, Devil. Or at least by Lou Lamoriello. Nice win over Buffalo, big win in Ottawa and today they took care of Philly in the City of Brotherly Battery-Filled Snowballs. First time the Devils have won in that building since my son was playing Mite hockey. Patrik Elias got his name on the scoresheet with an amazingly pretty assist to Sergei Brylin. We were happy.

    Tomorrow, the NJ Devils Youth Hockey Club 16U Team plays for the National Championship in Rochester. You read it here first, folks; Garrett Beckwith is the genuine article. Somewhat ironic that the Devils will square off against the California Wave — Garrett’s father’s team (which coincidentally had my son playing left “D”) lost in a tournament championship to the OC crowd. Time for payback, thinks the cranky armchair coach. Something symmetric involving coaches, fathers, sons and both coasts.

    And finally, in the late-night division, the NJ Ice Dragons make a run at a playoff spot tomorrow night. We’re currently sitting fourth in the division, but a win would lock down third place for the playoffs. Yours truly will be making an appearance at left wing and manning the post-game beer cooler. We’re playing the only team on which I’ve scored all season, in our very first game of the year, netting the game-winner with less than 30 ticks left on the clock. Symmetry in other forms, hoped for.