Friday, April 18, 2014

The Bruins Fate Lies Out in Front of Their Net

How did the Bruins lose in the cup final last year? Yes, I know they were really banged up, but that's why they lost. The question is, how? What I saw happening was this: the Hawks threw pucks at the net, creating rebounds, and then beat the Bruins to the puck. It was that simple.

The regular season is a whole different game. In order to win in the playoffs, the Bruins are going to have to stop this from happening again. This is why the loss of Seidenberg and McQaid is such a big concern. They are two big guys who can clear the front of the net. Let's call clearing the front of the net "plan A.' Chara can't do it by himself. Without those two big guys, the Bruins are going to have to go with plan "B". Success is going to require strong back checking and Rask will need to limit his rebounds. That, and they will need to score a lot of goals, because they are going to be scored against.

Fortunately there is some reason for optimism. Remember that long winning streak the B's went on recently? It started with a game that was stolen by Rask. I think Rask is an excellent goaltender, but he has not stolen a lot of games in his NHL career. He's consistent and strong, but there aren't many times when you think, "this team should have lost, except for the amazing goaltending." In the game he stole, the puck kept ending up loose in front of the net, and the other team kept getting to it first. But Tuukka stood on his head and none of them went in. In the games that followed, this same thing happened again and again. After watching a few gazillion games you start to get a sixth sense about when a goal is going to be scored. Mine kept going off when there was a scramble in front of the net, yet time and time again the puck didn't go in. It seemed like some sort of magic. After a while it started to feel like the Bruins were invincible, and I think the guys on the ice felt that too. With a streak like this comes confidence, and with confidence comes strong, consistent, and resilient play.

The question now is, has the magic worn off? And if so, can Rask steal a game or two in the playoffs? Regardless, I think the Bruins fate lies out in front of their net.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

No Harm No Foul will Destroy the NHL

The ramifications of what happened in the Bruins-Penguins game are going to be felt for a long time. I think people are only just now starting to see how bad a day this really was for the future of the NHL.

Joe Haggerty has some chilling thoughts in, Thornton's penalty a green light to NHL predators. Everyone should read it.

To my way of thinking, what Haggerty is warning us of is the result of the absurd way that justice is handed out by the NHL. Too much attention is paid to the result (injury) and not enough attention is paid to the act itself. The idea seems to be that it is ok to violate a rule that was designed to improve player safety until someone gets hurt. Only then is the act usually considered an infraction. The "intent to injure" is another mistaken aspect of all this. Somehow the NHL department of player safety is supposed to look at the circumstances of a hit and infer the intentions of the players involved. Unless they have a way to read minds, this is simply not a practical approach.

An example of this was when Brad Marchand of the Bruins injured Sami Salo of the Canucks with a low check in 2012. Because Marchand had gone looking for Salo after an incident, the NHL deemed this an intentional hit meant to cause injury. The problem with this, is that players are always trying to hurt each other. It's part of the game. Shawn Thornton wanted to hurt Brooks Orpik. But he surely didn't intend to send him to the hospital (if for no other reason than he'd end up suspended). Whether it be sending a message with a big hit into the boards or a facewash in front of the net, they are trying to hurt each other. How do you tell if they are trying to actually injure someone seriously? There simply is no way to do that. So this "intent to injure" idea is just plain crazy. The NHL can't know what was going through a players mind. The result of this approach to discipline that the NHL uses looks haphazard and leaves people complaining of bias, undermining confidence and leaving the fate of players to the whim of chance.

But it's worse than that. The inconsistent way these suspensions are handed out, often with no serious call by the on-ice official, is hurting the game. If you don't punish the hits to the head or checks from behind, you are ensuring that someone is going to eventually be injured. It's a statistical certainty. And when the player is suspended for doing the same thing he's gotten away with repeatedly, he and his fans are going to rightly feel a long suspension is unjustified. For these reasons the NHL must start punishing the infractions that are in their rule book universally, not just when someone is injured or when they think the player had an intent to injure.

It should start with a major penalty called on the ice. The major penalty is a tool that is seldom used today, but it should be the first line of defense when it comes to player safety. All they need to do to make the game safer is to start calling the rules that are already in the book.

As an example, recently Brad Marchand checked Sean Monahan of the Flames into the boards from behind. It was a textbook example of a reckless hit that could result in injury, particularly because Monahan was facing the boards. Yet Marchand was only given 2 minutes for boarding. After the game his coach defended him, saying,

“I look at that hit and it’s a two-minute penalty. And I don’t think he was going in there looking to injure the guy,” Julien said. “He was going to hit and the guy turned and how he got him deserved a two-minute penalty but that’s as much as it is."

Here is the important part of the text of rule 43:
43.3 Major Penalty – Any player or goalkeeper who cross-checks, pushes or charges from behind an opponent who is unable to protect or defend himself, shall be assessed a major penalty. This penalty applies anywhere on the playing surface.
As a hockey fan first, and a Bruins fan second, I would have liked to have seen the major penalty called. It was reckless, no matter how the other player ended up turning or the intent of Marchand. I'd prefer this to seeing Bergeron or Krejci taken off the ice on a backboard, or for that matter, any other player.

It's time the NHL woke up to the enormous error they are making. If they don't, players are going to continue suffering preventable head injuries, and in turn that is going to mean that in ten years time we aren't going to recognize the game. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Punish the Act, Not the Result

Shawn Thornton was suspended 15 games by the NHL for his actions in the game against the Penguins, the longest suspension handed out by the league in a very long time.

As most people know, the incident was most unfortunate. Many people who didn't see the game have been led to believe that Thornton more or less jumped Brooks Orpik unprovoked, like an assault on the street. While it doesn't excuse Thornton's actions, if you think there is a problem in the NHL, and you truly want to understand it, understanding the circumstances is critical. In fact Shawn Thornton was provoked. The Penguins were playing very recklessly. Early in the game Orpik had hit Eriksson of the Bruins, who had already suffered a concussion earlier this season. It was an open ice hit of the sort that many hockey fans feel should not be penalized because it would take away from the physicality of the game. If you watch the replay, Orpik clearly drives his shoulder into Eriksson's head. You could claim that the initial point of contact was shoulder to shoulder or that Eriksson had his head down, etc. But I can't explain why nobody at the NHL has even questioned the legality of this hit. At the very least it should have been a roughing call on the ice, particularly given the fact that Eriksson had not yet touched the puck. With Eriksson injured in full view of the bench, and no penalty called, it put a lot of pressure on Thornton to take some sort of action. That's what he is paid to do. He tried to fight Orpik, but Orpik refused. Later in the game Brad Marchand was tripped by Sydney Crosby, and while on is knees on the ice James Neal skated by and struck him on the side of the head with his knee. This was in full view of the bench and Thornton. The tripping penalty had not been called, and neither had the hit to the head. In a cowardly manner, Neal had immediately skated off the ice. When Thornton saw the tussle at center ice involving Orpik he saw his chance to take some sort of action. He took Orpik down from behind and hit him several times on his face/helmet with gloves on.

Here's the thing that bugs me about all this. Had Orpik stood up afterward, what do you think would have happened? Would Thornton have been suspended at all? True, he went after someone who had not agreed to fight, but in a scrum, players hit one another all of the time, without there being a fight. In fact, by not dropping his gloves, Thornton's actions could be seen as just another pounding in a scrum, albeit a nasty one. If you look at the replay closely, you see that Orpik's head never hits the ice, even as Thornton hits him while lying on his back. One wonders just how hard those hits could have been. The worst thing Thornton did was take Orpik down from behind. So again, I ask, had Orpik skated off afterward, would there have been a suspension? I think not. But the sight of Orpik being taken off the ice on a backboard upset everyone. The way this injury happened was embarrasing for the league and hockey fans everywhere. That's the real reason they threw the book at Thornton.

And what of Neal? He was given a 5 game suspension prior to Thornton's hearing. But I doubt he'd have been suspended either, had Orpik not been carried off the ice. Even though this was a clear-cut hit to the head, was behind the play, and clearly malicious, Brad Marchand was not injured. Under Shanahan's system of justice, it is almost always injuries that are punished, not actions, and I think this is a mistake.

Prior to all this, Douggie Hamilton, the Bruins young defenseman, shoved an opposing player into the boards head first with a cross check right on the numbers. Thankfully the other player got up. Play resumed; even though this was a clear violation of rule 43, there was no penalty handed out and no hearing. Why? Because the other player survived this reckless hit. Had he been taken off the ice on a backboard Hamilton would have been fined, if not suspended. This is not an effective way to administer justice. It's too capricious. Take two identical situations like Hamilton's hit. In the first case the other player gets his hands up just in time to keep from hitting his head on the boards. In the second case, he doesn't. You can't have a system of justice that only punishes the second case. Doing it this way invites criticism and ridicule and ultimately undermines everyone's confidence in the system. For the players, it creates a random chance that they could be severely punished for doing something they have not even been criticized or warned about doing previously, all because the other player landed differently or was unable to get his hands up in time to protect himself.

Rather than wait for someone to get hurt, I believe that every player should be punished who drives his shoulder into someone's head, or pushes a player from behind into the boards, or knocks a player down and hits him repeatedly without first consenting to a fight. That's how you get these plays out of the game, with major penalties on the ice, and fines or suspensions off it. Stop the problem before someone get's hurt, rather than overreact after it happens.

At the Day's of Y'Orr blog,Greg Ezell wrote,
The sad thing is that if Thornton lined Orpik up and elbowed him in the head or went knee-on-knee his suspension would have been much, much less than it is now. That's where the hypocrisy in all this lies. A concussion is a concussion is a concussion, but the way it's delivered is the only issue. 

He's exactly right. Shanahan and the NHL are much more worried about how things appear rather than protecting the player's safety. They aren't even being consistent with their usual handing out of suspensions when people get hurt. That's because they are only doing what they think will make the league look good. No injury and nobody cares = no suspension. People are upset = big suspension.

For me, the scariest part of the NHL's perverse justice system was revealed in the Thornton mess. What's going to happen when a guy gets carted off the ice on a backboard after a fight? Are they going to suspend the other player for punching? And if they hand out no punishment at all, how is this going to play for those in Canada who want to ban fighting altogether?

Lastly, if the league is really serious about stopping head injuries, then it's time to get rid of the armored shoulder pads. These pads are doing a great job protecting shoulders, but it is coming at the price of much more serious head injuries. If the league was truly interested in player safety, first and foremost, this should have been their first move.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Penguins Win 2-1 in Boston in Final Regular Season Meeting

The scoring started early in the first when Brooks Orpik drove his shoulder into the head of Louis Erickson, who was not in possession of the puck, for a concussion. Later in the first the Penguins almost went up 2-0 when James Neal took a shot at the wide open head of Brad Marchand, but somehow failed to score. The Bruin's Shawn Thornton responded to tie it up soon afterward with a beatdown of Orpik that resulted in Orpik being carried off the ice on a backboard.

The game remained tied until Pascal Dupuis scored the game winner with a two-handed slash on Chris Kelly, breaking his leg. There was quite a bit of other action in this memorable effort, with the puck entering the net on several occaisions, resulting in stoppages in play, particularly late in the game.

But in all seriousness, once again the Pittsburgh organization has shown it is willing to consider injuring opposing players as part of their game. After all, this is the same team that continued to employ Matt Cooke after he put a blindside elbow to the head of Marc Savard, ending his career. In 2011 Cooke once again put an elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh. These were not simply hard hits that got up high by accident. Not only did the Penguins organization continue to employ him, but they even had the unmitigated gall to nominate him for the Masterton Trophy last season because he had supposedly changed his ways. The Masterton trophy is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

Did Shawn Thornton intend to injure Brooks Orpic when he knocked him to the ice after the play and pounded him with his fists? I doubt it. But can the same be said for Cooke's elbows to the head or Neal's knee to Marchand's skull? I doubt that as well, and there's the rub. Shawn Thornton is likely going to be suspended for a long time and become the poster boy across Canada for those who want to ban fighting. But I believe the real villain in this story is a club with a culture that confuses intentionally harming players on the other team with playing hard physically.

This was an ugly game that was not fun to watch, except perhaps in the last few minutes if you were rooting for the Bruins. Where was that entertainment factor? Watching a player taken off the ice on a backboard? I'm sorry, but these cheap shots are not hockey. It's about time the Penguins learned how to play the game.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bruins Lose in OT to the Stars

It was a bit hard to watch the Bruins lose to Dallas in the shootout last night. It's too bad because I thought overall they had a good game, or at least a better one than their previous outing. Their defense was better and they got more help from the forwards, who showed a lot of hustle on the back check.

But late in the 3rd I realized that should this game go to the shootout the Bruins would likely end up losing. Rask was not on top of his game, giving up two bad goals. Getting beat so cleanly on the penalty shot late in the 3rd did not bode well.

The shootout started well with a goal by Bergeron right off the bat. But when I saw Seguin line up at center ice I knew he was going to score. I wonder how many people there had the same feeling. But it was when Pevs lined up that I knew we were done! I miss that guy more than Seguin.

Speaking of Seguin, can we please be done with him now?  With all the attention his return was getting, I couldn't help but feel like I'd rather hear about people who actually play for the Bruins, such Erickson and Reilly Smith. I hate it when the news media "goes off" on a story line like this. Sure, Seguin is interesting, but hell, Smith seems to be having a breakout year, and he and Erickson were playing against their former team too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dear NHL: How Not to Treat Fans

I'm excited about the new season, as always. For the past several years I've subscribed to NHL Center Ice via DirecTV, but I decided to try something different this year. I started a subscription to NHL Game Center instead. The idea was to watch the games on the TV via XBox.

There is a lot to like about Game Center, but there was one deal breaker for me. I'm often away from home during game time so I record the games to my DVR and watch them later. Unfortunately the way Game Center works I'd have to wait 48 hours to view a game. So I decided to return to Center Ice and cancel my Game Center subscription.

Looking around their web site I saw no way to unsubscribe. This is where things started to go downhill. Eventually I discovered a FAQ with instructions to unsubscribe. They said I could unsubscribe within five days, and it had only been one. Ok.

But it turned out that even though I subscribed with a click of the button, I was going to have to call a phone number to unsubscribe. This is the old trick pioneered by AOL to maximize profits at the expense of their customers. Make it as difficult as possible to unsubscribe and many customers will just give up and keep right on paying. This is the tactic of a business who is willing to screw their customers to maximize their profits. Sure, all businesses are trying to make a profit. But many successful businesses treat their customers with respect, assuming that in doing so they will create good will, which in turn will lead to profit. The NHL claims to be one of these businesses.

I called the number and it took me several minutes to get through the button presses. Then this truly awful sounding music began playing. After 15 minutes on hold I started running out of things I could do at my desk while I waited. I just happened to be looking at my PayPal account and noticed the payment I had made for Game Center. There was a link to dispute the payment. So I decided that turnabout was fair play. If they were going to be assholes, then I'd return the favor. I figured it would take me five minutes to fill out the forms to dispute the payment, and if they hadn't answered my call by then (20 minutes after I had started) I'd go ahead and dispute it. Sure enough, I had the forms filled out and I'd been waiting twenty minutes, so I disconnected the phone and with the words, "Fuck you too, NHL" pressed the button. By doing so I initiated a chargeback, which is a black mark on their credit record, albeit a small one. My money was returned the next day.

This is a hell of a way to treat fans. Money grubbing assholes! They screwed the players last year and continue to screw their fans. Perhaps if more people spoke up about this sort of thing they'd stop.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Observations of the Cup Final and Tuukka Rask

It's been a whirlwind since those two goals went into the Bruins net a mere twelve seconds apart, bringing their Cup run to an end. I hadn't had the chance to comment until now and it seems like ancient history. Nonetheless I do have some observations about that final game, the series, and the play of Tuukka Rask that I think are worth setting down.

I presume most people, like me, thought that the Bruins had game 6 in the bag. That is, after all, the back and forth of how playoff series usually go. With reasonably solid play and the lead in the third, everything looked set for a game 7. However, I had an uneasy feeling. Although they had dominated much of the play, the Bruins seemed worn down and tired compared to the Hawks. I sensed that they were running out of gas and I was preparing myself to see them lose in game 7. Then those two quick goals came and it was all over.

In my opinion game 6 was not only lost in those 12 seconds. It was also lost in the second period on a Bruins power play. Up to that point the Bruins had completely dominated. They had the only goal in the game. Then at 2:24 of the second period the Hawk's Andrew Shaw took a 2-minute roughing penalty. Everyone had to be thinking the same thing -- go out and get another goal! But the Bruins came out like it was an opportunity for a vacation. They fumbled the puck in their own zone, and I have an image stuck in my head of Chara skating through the neutral zone with the puck like it was radioactive. I went ballistic, yelling at the TV as I had so often done this season when the Bruins lost their focus. I recall yelling, "Nobody want's the puck!" Sure enough, just as the power play ended the Hawks took advantage of the Bs Keystone Cops routine and tied it up. This sort of thing should seldom happen to a good team during the regular season. It should never happen during the playoffs. For them to fold up like this during game six of the Cup Final? Are you kidding me? Whether it was that lapse in the second period or the collapse in the third, in the end, the inconsistency that plagued the team throughout the season finally caught up with them.

Even though the Bruins did not play consistently enough to deserve to win the series, they still could have won it. It was very close and several of the games could have gone the other way. Some people aren't going to want to hear this, but there is no doubt in my mind that had Tim Thomas been in goal the Bruins would have won their second cup in three years. Rask played well overall -- just look at his stats! -- but he failed to steal the series. For whatever reason Rask got rattled. It started in game 4. The way to tell if Rask is on his game is simple. When playing at his best he looks like a statue, always in the right spot waiting for the puck in order to swallow it up or send it harmlessly to the corner. When in the zone his play appears effortless. But in game 4 we saw those cat-like reflexes of his on display and while he still made the first save, he started giving up rebounds. It was those rebounds that the Hawks pounced upon, first to take the lead in the third, and later to win the game in OT. In game 5 we saw more of the same, right from the start, and again, I believe it was the key difference in the outcome. 

Don't get me wrong here, I think Rask was the better goaltender in the series and I think he is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. I am happy the Bruins appear on the verge of signing him long term. The Hawks earned their rebound goals by overwhelming the Bruins defense. But, at his best Tim Thomas would have found a way to win those games, because popular to say or not, Tim Thomas was more than just a very good goaltender. Tim Thomas was one of the all-time greats.

In the end I can take solace in this thought: at least the Canucks did not win the cup in 2011. I can handle losing to the Hawks. They are such a classy organization, and other than those sole-less eyes of Toews, there is very little to hate about them. But the thought of those whiners in Vancouver winning the cup... that's unbearable.