Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Finals' Thoughts




As anybody who frequents this corner of the interweb knows the boy started playing hockey last fall and in his first season he equalled the total number of championships I have won in ~ 40 seasons. The little bugger.

 He absolutely loved it and so he was pushing to play summer hockey. Personally I don't believe in such a thing and he wasn't too happy with me but then suddenly we lucked out and discovered that the hockey association he plays for also has a short spring season of about seventeen games compressed into a couple of months. So we signed him up for that.

It became clear pretty early on that his team was pretty good. They had two elite skaters, a big bruiser with a heavy shot and then a small speedy kid with old time stickhandling skills. Each could be counted on to score three goals a game (the league limits goals per player per game) and on top of that there were a couple of other pretty good players. There was one other team that could skate with them, they had the best player in the league plus a nice group behind him and a tremendous young goalie. They split their season series and pummelled the rest of the league and so they met for everything two weeks ago.

 (Did I mention that in around 40 seasons of hockey I have played for a championship twice, winning once?)

 Their opposition scored early but it was pretty clear from the beginning that my son's team was the superior team by far. His coach had doled out icetime evenly all year and had struck a nice balance in his lineup and so slowly but surely the ice tilted. There was just one problem. The kid between the pipes at the other end.

 In one shift our young shifty star went end to end FOUR TIMES and got in all alone, just to be turned away. After a period it was still one nothing but then they finally got to the young goalie and pulled ahead by one. From there it went back and forth. They tied it and we pulled ahead and then they scored a stinker as will often happen and while Jack's team had carried the play all game the game was in doubt when the buzzer went and the last shift started. And here, well here our coach proved his mettle. He had rotated five D all game and so whenever the opposition's superstar was out he faced one of our two best players. He had scored twice but had only one scoring chance (his second goal was a long ranger) so they had done their job. And now he came out for the last three minutes and the way the rotation came up neither of our top guys were up.

 Now I've coached for years and I believe in fair and even play for all but I also know I would have thrown one of the big boys out there with everything on the line but as I and other parents watched with disbelief my son's coach, with the season in the balance, did not.

 For two minutes it was an absolute fire drill as six guys tried to survive until overtime. Shots whistled wide or into the goalie. And then with just over a minute left 'the guy' got it in the slot and let it rip ... right into the belly of a diving defenceman.

 He was hurt and came off and so the big guy came on for us and still the last minute was bedlam and another player injured by a shot and then the buzzer went and it was sudden death.

 And it wasn't even a minute in and our little speedster picked up the puck in our end and wove through everyone. He had scored once and set up the other two and so now he bore in on the star of the game one last time and juked this way and that and then slid the puck into the open net.

 VICTORY!

 When Jack won his first championship he, like a lot of his teammates, didn't really know what to do. He was happy sure but after the buzzer he came off the bench, skated around aimlessly and then, not even knowing there were trophies, headed with a good part of the team to the dressing room, getting turned back as they tried to leave the ice.

 This time there was no doubt that he has this thing down. There were no FUCKING RIGHTS (as far as I know) but his face was red and he was screaming like a madman as he piled into his teammates as they streamed off the bench because on top of everything my little guy was on the ice when they scored the winner.

 Some guys eh? Lucky.

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 Best final I've seen in years, every game a one goal game, two ancient franchises, two fantastic teams with championship pedigree and probably a number of future hall of famers - Jagr, Chara and Hossa are sure things and certainly Toews, Kane and Keith will get there if they keep this up. I told my son after four games were done that while Chicago had carried the play for the most part there are bounces and hockey gods and it could have been, with luck, a Bruins' sweep.

 The better team won, I thought, and in the end it was the depth of talent Chicago has at its disposal that made the difference, as it usually is in these cases. Boston is a deep team as well but even if Campbell had played their 'best fourth line in hockey' was nothing compared to Chicago's. While Thornton and Daugvanins found themselves generally stapled to the bench, Frolik and Kruger and Bolland took a regular shift and indeed with the game suddenly tied and a minute left they were sent out to bring the game to overtime along with Oduya and Hjalmarsson against Lucic and all the rest and they did it one better and finished the series.

 So next time Mark Spector or any of that HNIC crew or any other dope tells you that a team needs facepunchers galore remember that moment. Depth of talent wins out everytime and if you choose to waste a roster spot or two on a guy like Hordichuk or MacLaren or Orr or Mike Brown then you're most likely not going to go very far in the playoffs.

 Get real hockey players and keep them. Works every time.

 I was a bit surprised in that after game one I thought the Bruins D would be run ragged, in that game everyone but Chara did not look up to snuff. Ironically Quenneville ended up shortening his bench on the back end as Leddy rode pine a lot but as the series wore on it became clear that while Julien wasn't benching guys he was riding Chara and Seidenberg into the ground. He had no choice really and anybody who saw the last three games could see that the Bruins' top pair was exhausted.

 And what didn't help at all was that up front the Hawks depth was far superior. With Campbell out and Thornton unreliable Julien was forced to go with three lines to Chicago's four and while Horton was at least available if ineffective so that Seguin did not have to move up and leave Julien with even less options the reality is that Boston could not keep up the pace. After they strangled the Hawks in game three the games began to open up as the Bruins tired and were unable to keep their shape and while Hossa and Handzus (and certainly others) nursed injuries, Bergeron and Horton more than made up for that on the Boston side.

 What is amazing about all of this is that the Hawks and Bruins are both built to last although the Bs need a D or two to step up and ease the load on Chara. The Bruins have a Cup and a trip to the Final in the last three years and they're in decent shape cap wise. They have to pay Rask but other than maybe moving out Peverley they probably can stand pat. Meanwhile the Hawks will not face another gutting like they did after 2010 (Niemi, Campbell, Brouwer, Versteeg, Kopecky, Ladd, Byfuglien - wow, imagine if they had kept that gang together!) and as a matter of fact they may need only minor tweaks this summer. I thought that Bolland and Oduya may have to be moved but its possible that buying out Montador may do the trick or at the very least limit the damage to Bolland. What happens to Bickell and Stallberg is another matter altogether but the Hawks have some more nice kids on the way and if Kruger and Frolik slide up the lineup they may be back again soon. There is some talk about Hossa getting bought out but its not going to happen. He's too big a part of the team and they need to take advantage of Saad still being cheap and Sharp, Seabrook and Keith all still being young enough to put together another run or two.

 It was a great playoffs and an astounding finish and I'm happy for my Dad and all other long suffering Hawk fans who waited nearly a lifetime between Cup wins and now get to enjoy another one. And its a nice legacy for a terrific core. Lots of clubs win one. Its a lot harder to win two. With all the talent they had the Forsberg/Sakic Avs and the Lemieux Penguins only won two and now this group joins them and in a thirty team league with a salary cap to boot. Very nice.

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