Oh, what the hell: let’s talk about hockey. I can’t believe I haven’t written a hockey-related blog entry since opening night, especially since a, I’ve probably watched every single Toronto Maple Leafs game this year; b, I’ve attended seven NHL games so far this season, all of which have involved the Leafs (six in Toronto, plus the one disasterous game in Kanata); and c, look at where I work! With that, I figure it’s time. As we speak the Leafs are putting the nails in their own coffins as far as this year’s playoffs are concerned…and so with that (and because I don’t pretend to know the Western Conference half as well), here’s who I’ve got doing well in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year.
- New York Rangers. Yup, the Rangers. I’m convinced that they’re the real deal; watching them own the Senators in New York, then sweeping a home-and-home with the Maple Leafs showed what they’re capable of doing if Jaromir Jagr is scoring and Henrik Lundqvist is doing his 85/86 Patrick Roy impersonation. Someone needs to talk me out of this; the thought of the Rangers doing battle with the Calgary Flames for the Stanley Cup is just too weird for me.
- Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina reminds me of the 2003/04 Tampa Bay Lightining. Remember the 2003/04 Lightning? No one gave them any respect until they were hoisting the Stanley Cup; even then, people can’t seem to accept the fact that the Lightning were legitimate champions (a sentiment I hear expressed quite often at work, by the way). Eric Staal’s omission from Team Canada was egregious; the kid is a budding superstar, and he’s a fellow Westgate alumni. Carolina’s goaltending situation needs to be worked out–but so far, the combination of Gerber and Ward has been doing just fine. Again, this team reminds me of Tampa. Just sayin’.
- Ottawa Senators. Back on October 5, after watching the Senators beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 in the first-ever shootout in NHL history, I wrote the following: “…if I were a Sens fan…I’d be worried about Dominik Hasek. I could be completely wrong about this, but he just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. We shall see.” Well, we have seen: no sooner did Hasek start calling out his teammates for their inability to win close games (more on that in a second), then he pulled up lame in the opening game of the Olympics with an apparent groin injury. Every Ottawa fan knew coming into the season that the team’s Stanley Cup chances rested squarely on Hasek’s shoulders; if he’s gone for the season, then Ottawa’s window of opportunity is effectively slammed shut. (By the way, I hope he isn’t done for good: a player as good as Dominik Hasek doesn’t deserve to have his career ended up a wonky groin. I’d rather see him step down on his own terms…no, really, I would.) As for the close games…well, Ottawa’s top line is still a thing of terrifying beauty, but the Senators aren’t going to maurade their way to a Stanley Cup. Can they figure out how to grind out wins in time for the playoffs? We shall see.
- Buffalo Sabres. If goaltending wins championships, then Buffalo is in really good shape. Tim Connolly will be back in March; throw in the fact that the Sabres are one of the quickest teams in the NHL, and you’ve got a legitimate playoff threat. Here’s another tidbit. Back in October (I think…it could have been November), the Senators waltzed into Buffalo and beat the Sabres 10-4. A few weeks ago the Senators waltzed back into Buffalo…and lost 2-1 in a shootout. I feel as though this demonstrates the Sabres’ improvement as the season has progressed.
- Philadelphia Flyers. Losing Keith Primeau for the season is a massive blow; without him, the Flyers are suddenly a lot less frightening than they used to be (although admittedly, they haven’t been playing with Primeau since October 25). Also, Ken Hitchcock needs to settle on a #1 goaltender; Antero Nittymaki was the tournament MVP at the Olympics, and seems like a much better playoff goaltender than Robert Esche (although granted, Esche took the Flyers to the conference finals in 2003/04). I just don’t know about the Flyers. On paper, they’re a contender–but their form has belied their promise for much of the season. That said, I wouldn’t want to face them in the playoffs…and speaking of which…
The Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ve got an entire blog’s worth of writing to do about the Maple Leafs; much of it serves as rebuttal to Kevin Du Manoir and Bri Johnson’s hateful, anti-Leaf blog rhetoric, but as the season keeps slipping away I’ve been thinking more and more about what the Leafs need to do in order to contend. Most of them should be obvious to seasoned viewers: namely, two legitimate linemates for Mats Sundin, a top-4 defenceman and a new goaltender, either to replace Ed Belfour or to back up Mikael Tellqvist. Leaf fans are insane–all of us. You knew this; even Kevin Du Manoir’s blog picks up on this point, even while its characterization of Leaf Nation bears all the hallmarks of typical bustery Ottawa Senators boosterism. (Hey, speaking of the Senators: today, someone came into the Hall of Fame gift shop looking for a Dominik Hasek jersey, and just as I started uttering “sorry, we don’t sell hospital gowns here” I remembered my professionalism, and bit my tongue. Again, I don’t want his career to be over.) Right now, the vast majority are throwing the entire team under the bus; I feel like one of the few who’s able to objectively say, “Hey, we’re not that bad.” And we’re not. The team, clearly, has issues; right now, the playoffs are a stretch, and a prolonged run is a pipe dream. But the nucleus of a good team is in place; with a few more acquisitions, this team can be good. Four players can make all the difference in the world.
But I’ll save the eulogy for later. The Leafs, somehow, have tied tonight’s game at 2-2…and seeing as I’m a Leafs fan, that’s all it’s really going to take to get me right back on board the bandwagon. Debate these points as you will…and you will.