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.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jekyll and Hyde Bruins

The most difficult thing about being a hockey fan is truly understanding what's happening on the ice. Sure, a lot of people think they know what's going on, and that includes me sometimes, but the truth is that sometimes truly understanding why things are happening requires NHL experience and a time consuming break down of post-game video. For that reason I'm not going to try to analyze why the Bruins are facing elimination against the Hawks. But I can make some observations based on what we've seen so far.

All season long the Bruins have had a  "Jekyll and Hyde" personality, sometimes playing a strong defensive game that frustrates opponents, combined with a quick break out, razor sharp passing, and a deadly ability to cash in on mistakes.

At other times they have played like little old ladies. They turn the puck over in their zone, the forwards fail to get back quickly to back check, and their rushes come to nothing. This gets us back to why this happens. If your team plays badly, is it because they didn't show up to play or is it because the other team is taking away time and space? I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that during the regular season much of the poor play of the Bruins was not  the result of pressure from the opposing teams. The Bruins simply didn't play at their best. Whether or not the Bruins brought their best in game 5 is up for debate. My feeling is that they did not, but like I said, I can't be sure.

On a related note, for whatever reason the Bruins have not been able to shutdown the Hawks with their layered defense in the same way they did the Penguins. Whether that is due to the speed of the Hawks, the players not "playing their game," or as an intentional strategy of Julien's, I'm not going to pretend to know. It is entirely possible that we will see the Bruins shut the Hawks down in game 6. If so, then the Bruins have a very good chance of winning the series. Otherwise the Bruins will have to beat the Hawks at their own game, and while I believe they can, a Bruins Cup win is somewhat less assured.

I do know that the Bruins can play with much more desperation! Bruins fans can hope that game 5 was a momentary lapse of focus and determination in a long post season and the Bruins will be back in game 6, with or without Bergeron.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Moment the Penguins Lost the Series

First off... wow. I mean, wow. Who would have predicted that the Bruins would sweep the Penguins, outscoring them 12 to 2 over the series? In a word, it was impressive.

In a recent Bruins Blog they asked, "When did you realize the series with the Penguins was over?" Well I knew the series was over at 1:32 of the second period of game 1. That was the moment when Matt Cooke checked Adam McQuaid on the numbers into the boards. I was so angry I had to leave the room to hit something. When I eventually returned I told my kids that the series was over, and the the Bruins would not only defeat the Penguins but they would humiliate them in the process.

When you've seen these guys play as many games as I have you start to see what makes them tick. The one thing that stands out above all else is that the Bruins will not be intimidated. All hockey players are proud, and for this bunch their pride is rooted in standing up for one another. Sure, McQuaid got back up. But don't think for a minute that they don't remember Cooke's dirty hit on Savard (that ended his career) -- even those guys who weren't part of the team yet. The boys were already primed for payback over the Iginla trade, regardless of what they may have said publicly, and that hit was exactly what they needed to bring out their very best, and there is no better. So thanks to you Jerome, and thanks to you Matt; our Bruins are in the Cup Final!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bruins Play NHL Hockey

Despite a slow start as the two teams felt each other out, in game one against the Rangers the 2013 Bruins finally looked like they were playing NHL hockey. This game had a classic playoff feel to it, with strong consistent defensive play and opportunistic offense.

How could the Bruins play their best defensive game of the year with three rookies replacing veterans on the blue line? If you stop and think about it, there is only one answer: team defense. Maybe it was the wake up call of almost being defeated by an inferior Leafs team, or perhaps it had to do with the style that the Rangers play, but I think it just as likely that it took the loss of those three veterans for the forwards to finally buy into playing strong, consistent team defense. For the first time in 2013 I was truly happy watching the Bruins play, and their OT win was just the icing on the cake.

Will the Bruins beat the Rangers, as they did when I was in the 7th grade so many years ago? Will they go on to win the cup? I don't know. What I do know is that they are capable of doing both, it's just a matter of getting their act together... and a little luck.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Most Awful-Wonderful Game Ever

These Bruins are killing me. Seriously. We watched anxiously when they got behind by two goals in the third period of game 5. They played hard at the end but it was too little too late. In game six it was the same story. The Leafs got up by two goals and the Bruins struggled to catch up. They did manage to score a goal to bring them within one at the end of the game, but once again it was too little too late.

So when the Leafs were up by two goals in the third period of game 7, it felt like, "here we go again." When the Leafs scored to lead by three, it looked very dire. But what really got me was how the Bruins were playing at that point, fumbling with the puck, turning it over, and generally skating around like they didn't know what they were doing. As with much of their play this season it was physically painful to watch. In fact, it was so painful to watch that I did something I have not done since the end of the 2006-2007 season after the Bruins had failed to make the playoffs. I am loathe to admit this, but I was so upset at the way they were playing that I paused the DVR and found something else to do for a while. When I came back I fast forwarded through the game, just wanting it to be over quickly. But then I saw the score change. The fumbling bumbling Bruins had somehow scored! I ran it back a bit and watched Horty pull the Bs within two. Still probably too little to late, but at least they had got their act together. We all know what happened next. Lucic scored, then Bergeron tied it up, and Bergeron won it in overtime. How likely is it to come back from being down three goals in a game 7? Nobody had done it before in NHL history.

For me, the pivotal point in the game came when I saw Jagr limp off the ice. It was only then the Bruins truly got going. Throughout the series Jagr looked to me like an anchor, dragging the whole line he's on down with him. He's slow on the back check, unable or unwilling to make a good pass to set up a goal, and he's not capable of the physical play in front of the net that is required at this time of year. The only thing he brings to the team is his ability to protect the puck along the boards. I'd be happy to see him sit. Let Daugavins take his place on the ice.

So the Bruins did get their act together enough to beat Toronto. At times that series looked like a contest to see who could turn the puck over the most. In the end the Bruins found the offense necessary to come from behind and win big. Fine, but the next series will be against a real opponent. Despite outstanding goaltending from Rask, the Bruins defensive play gave up 2.5 goals per game. The forwards are still not consistently back checking and the defense gives the other team too much room when they cross the blue line. The Rangers have only given up 1.7 goals per game. Offense isn't going to win a series against the Rangers and it can't win a cup. The Bruins are going to need to figure out how to play defense again, and quickly.

Monday, April 29, 2013

These Bruins Had Better Get Their Act Together Quick

Quiz question: how many times this season have the Bruins risen to a challenge and been victorious? Answer: none.

Going into the final game of the season Tuukka Rask commented something to the effect that, "every game matters and that's good."  I had to wonder if he was fully aware of the irony of that statement. The only reason the final game mattered was that they had lost the previous game, which would have cinched the division title. The sad fact is that the only reason every game mattered this season is that every time a game mattered the Bruins lost it, right up to and including that last one.

Every game that pitted them against a top team to see how they measured up, they lost.  All four against Pittsburgh, and three of the four against Montreal. That one win against Montreal was in their first meeting way back on February 6, before it was clear that Montreal was going to pose a strong threat for the division title.

The Bruins even managed to lose against lesser teams when the division was on the line. We kept hearing how the Bruins could take first place in the division if they beat Washington, or Philadelphia, Ottawa, or Buffalo. The result was always the same. When the pressure was on and the challenge was thrown down, they lost every single time.

Near the end of the season we saw the Bruins improve their game, for sure. But sadly, the results have been the same. When it mattered against Washington and Ottawa, they did not find a way to win. They looked sharp, for the most part, but they have lost their ability to overpower a team and score when the game is on the line, and worse yet, they have lost their ability to play shutdown defense to hold on to a lead.

I am hopeful, of course. Some players have had a much needed rest in the past few days, and I am confident that the talent and coaching is all there to make a long run into the post season. But the playoffs are the ultimate test of finding a way to win when it matters, and the Bruins have yet to do that even once. Unless they finally get their act together they aren't going to make it past the first round. In fact, I'm picking the Leafs in five. Believe me, I don't take any joy out of this prediction.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Boston Strong

I awoke this morning to a radio station in Las Cruces, New Mexico, playing the audio from the national anthem at last night's Bruins game. Las Cruces is far removed from New England in every way possible, but as with the rest of the country our hearts are with the city of Boston.

Many more people should have died at the Boston Marathon, if not for the professionalism, preparedness, and skill of the emergency services of Boston and the northeast in general. As we saw with the hurricane last fall, they are truly the best of the best.

I didn't stay a Bruins fan since 1972 because of all the cups the team has won since then. I've held the Bruins close to my heart because they are a reflection of the city they represent. I respect and admire the humanity, humility, and unpretentious, hard-working determination. When people around the world think of Americans, too many think of an arrogant, self-righteous, stetson-wearing cowboy. But that's not who we really are, nor is it the source of our strength. If you want to know who we truly are as Americans, look no further than the people of Boston.

Even though I only visit New England from time to time, the Bruins have given me a life-long connection to the region. I am proud to be associated with the people of Boston, if only in a small way.

Monday, April 15, 2013

These Bruins are Not Made for the Playoffs

The lockout-shortened season has been an interesting experiment. If you had asked me before the season started I'd have said that once they got going the overall play in the NHL would be sharper and that it would be cool to focus on opponents in your own conference. Wrong, and wrong again!

A few teams were better prepared right out of the gate, and the Bruins were among them. The result was unusual. These few teams, such as Chicago, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Boston, quickly jumped out to a huge lead. They looked like the Oilers of old, skating three astride into the offensive zone, making quick easy passes, and scoring at will. Nobody bothered to play defense. Only now, with the season in the final stretch, is the gap between these top teams and the rest of the pack starting to fill in. But it started near the middle of the season as teams tightened their D, taking away all that time and space. That's about the time the Bruins started to look less like a team destined for the Cup and more like a team struggling at the bottom of the standings. I know they are still at the top of the standings, but they look like a below 0.500 team.

In all my years of watching NHL hockey, I've never seen anything like this. The Bruins are one point out of first place in their division -- a division that contains Montreal, which has seen a lot of success this season. Yet the Bruins suck. Yeah, I said it, they suck. I haven't seen them play this poorly since the last time they missed the playoffs.

How bad are they? I hardly know where to start. The list of things they have going for them is a lot shorter, so I'll start with that: goaltending and the PK. Rask has been getting stronger with each game and lately he's been as sharp or sharper than I've ever seen him. His backup has been excellent as well. If the Bruins played general defense as well as they play the penalty kill, they'd be leading the league in points. But that's it for the positives.

The Bruins play overall has been horribly inconsistent. In fact, I'd say they have been consistently inconsistent! They have blown more leads in the 3rd period than I can count. Lately they start each game as if they no longer recall how to pass. They carelessly throw the puck away in their own zone over and over and over. It's painful to watch. They have speed, but don't use it effectively. They have size, but don't use that effectively either. They often don't make the first pass out of their end, and when they do get out they all too often turn it over in the neutral zone. When they finally get the puck in the offensive zone they fail to hold down the forecheck, often never even getting off a good shot. As the puck is carried back through the neutral zone the forwards often fail to pursue aggressively, making it easy for the other team to enter the defensive zone as the defensive pair plays too loose. And despite all the work they've done and the addition of Jagr, they still have a lousy power play.

How a team that has been playing so badly can be near the top of the conference in points boggles my mind. But when you look at the stats a few things jump out. The Bruins have played Pittsburgh twice, losing both games. They have taken only one out of four against Montreal. It is clear they can't match the play of either of these teams. We have no idea how the western conference stacks up because there has been no inter-conference play. I wouldn't be surprised if the Stanley Cup wasn't a sweep this season, something we haven't seen in a long time. For which conference, who knows?

Anyhow, for Bruins fans it comes down to this: we don't know how well the Bruins can play, we only know how well they are currently playing. If they continue to play the way they have played all season long they likely won't get past the first round. If somehow they get their act together, who knows? Yes, it does look like both Bergeron and Marchand will be back eventually, and they have both been missed. But it is the team effort as a whole that is the real problem, not injuries or the play of any single player, including by the way, Lucic. Despite not being able to score and some spotty play from time to time, Lucic is like the team in reverse: playing well but not being rewarded for it.

To sum up, I am tired of seeing the same teams over and over, even in this short season, and this hockey fan is sick and tired of watching a team that no longer plays the game at the high level we have come to expect -- regardless of the standings.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jaromir Jagr will Never be a Bruin in My Eyes

I was reading about the possible pickups that the Bruins might make before the trade deadline the other day and Jager's name came up. My first thought was, "no way." Reading today that he's now on the Bruin's roster, I can't say I've changed my mind. In fact, I think this acquisition is a disaster, and I have lost a measure of respect for the Bruins management.

Jagr does not play like a Bruin. He's never had the work ethic and he's reportedly a compulsive gambler. I doubt very much that he will be a positive influence in the room, nor will he make much of an impact on the ice. People have compared him to Mark Rechhi; give me a break. Jaromir Jager is no Mark Rechhi. Why, one must ask, has a guy who had so much talent, spent most of his career moving from team to team like some hired gun?

What bugs me the most about this trade is that I doubt very much if the Bruins would have pulled the trigger on it if it hadn't been for the Iginla fiasco. I never thought they needed Iginla for that matter, although nobody in their right mind could have been against it, particularly for what the Bruins were offering for him. Iginla is one classy guy. But all they needed offensively was anybody who could put some pressure on Lucic and Horton. Jagr is going to be too much of a distraction. What the Bruins really need is more defensive depth. Hopefully that will happen before tomorrow. That, and for Kelly to come back, and for the playoffs to get under way to liven things up a bit.

So now we have Jagr, but he's not the sort of player that fits the Neely mold of what it means to be a Bruin, and it's not the sort of trade that made Chiarelli one of the most shrewd GMs in the NHL. It comes off as a desperate attempt to placate a disappointed fan base and to jump start a team with a morale problem. Only, I doubt it will accomplish either!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Make the Penguins Pay

The Bruins lost out on Jerome Iginla when he chose to play with his buddy Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Given that Iginla had indicated that he didn't want to be a rental, Boston had a better package to offer Calgary, and that the Penguins will be hard up against the cap next year, it seemed a lock for the Bruins. As hard as his decision is to swallow for Bruins fans, I would not want to be a Calgary fan this morning, because they really got screwed. By his choosing Pittsburgh, Calgary got much less in return for the trade.

So what do the Bruins do now? For starters, they can do what likely made more sense anyhow -- get some help on defense. With Boychuck and McQuaid both out and the Bruins already struggling defensively, that has to be a priority. I'd look for a smart signing of a defenseman. But I also expect the Bruins to sign a forward, if for no other reason than to put more pressure on the likes of Lucic and Horton, who could benefit from some looking over their shoulders.

Ultimately the reaction of the Bruins organization should be to focus on one thing: should they meet the Penguins in the post season, show them who the better organization is -- make them pay! Make Mr. Iginla watch the rest of the playoffs from his couch.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

First Quarter Report

After 13 games we are now past the quarter point of the season. It would seem like a good time to take stock of how the Bruins have fared so far.

First off, let's look at the standings. There is an unusually large difference in the number of games that have been played, so it is difficult to interpret the standings directly, particularly for the Bruins who have played the fewest number of games. A good way to look at the standings is to project the total number of points at the end of the 48-game season based on the current number of points and the number of games that have been played for each team. Here are those final standing projections for the top teams league wide:

87 Chicago
80 Ahaheim
74 Boston
69 Montreal
66 Pittsburgh
66 New Jersey

So the Bruins are in 1st place in the east, and 3rd place overall. But the really interesting thing about this analysis is what happens when you use these same numbers to predict the results of a normal 82-game season. Chicago ends up with 148 points, Anaheim with 137, and Boston with 126. For comparison, the highest regular season point totals for the last three seasons are: 117, 121, and 116. This is an interesting observation. It appears that a few teams (primarily those listed above) have dominated the play to a large extent. Most teams got off to a slower start, and some, such as Columbus and Washington, have been nothing short of abysmal.

Basically, Bruins fans should be very happy with the standings. In 13 games there have been 9 wins, 2 losses, and 2 overtime losses. They said they needed to get off to a good start and they delivered--with the best 10-game start in franchise history.

So far the most interesting games have been the losses. Both losses came against Buffalo--a team that was still reeling after last season's loss to the Bruins when Milan Lucic bowled over Ryan Miller and nobody stood up for him. This has given the Sabres a thirst to beat the Bruins and in their first meeting the game began with a rare beatdown of Sean Thornton by the 6'6", 270 pound John Scott. This game ended the Bruins season-opening winning streak with a final score of 4-7. It was closer than the score suggests, but the surprisingly poor play of the Bruins defensively was cause to worry. The next time they met the Bruins were triumphant 3-1, seemingly putting to rest the "Buffalo problem." But the Sabres came back to defeat the Bruins in their next meeting, dealing the Bs their only regulation defeats so far. The Bruins will play Buffalo twice more and these have become must watch games. A playoff series against the Sabres would be excellent, but with just 13 points in 17 games they may not make the playoffs.

Both OT losses were in shootouts against the Rangers. Some of the most memorable moments against the Rangers came from watching Rick Nash make everyone else look like minor leaguers in comparison. If the Rangers top line of Nash, Gaboric and Richards were to start meshing they could score a ton of goals. But for Bruins fans the biggest moment came when the Bs came back to tie up the second game, scoring 2 goals in the final 2 minutes. The Rangers went on to win in the shootout, but that comeback told us a lot about the caliber if this Bruins team. They aren't used to losing, and little seems to affect them. They showed they can come from behind if they need to--something very important come playoff time.

Now to speak to the things I said I'd be looking for at the start of the season. Both Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic have been playing like monsters. Marchand in particular reminds me of that "little ball of hate" that we came to love so much two seasons ago (I'll never forget the amusement on the President's face when he read those words at the White House--Timmy should have been there just for that!).

The news on the goaltender interference front is not so rosy. There have been at least three bizarre calls where a player was clearly checked into the goaltender by a defender, leading to penalties. Sure, if a goal is scored under these circumstances, maybe it should be waved off, but to penalize a player for being pushed into the goaltender is ridiculous. Not only that, but it could well put the tenders in peril because it seems their teammates have no qualms about doing it.

The Bruins power play has looked better, and has made the difference in a game or two, but it is still not up to the level of play of the team 5-on-5. They can be better, and I expect them to continue to improve.

Regarding Tuukka Rask, I have no complaints. He's let in a bad one here and there, but he's also made some key saves. Khudobin has been a solid backup. So far so good. Clearly, one person Rask had to win over was Zdeno Chara. In the first game Chara took a penalty when he hauled a guy down from behind rather than let him get a shot off. This happened again a game later. There is no way he'd have done that with Timmy back there. It wasn't until his attempt to stop a shot rather than block the pass resulted in a goal that he seemed to start trusting Tuukka (stopping the pass is in his job description).

Things have been going well enough that the media hasn't felt the need to dump on anybody (so far).

Nathan Horton has been playing at the level he played when the Bruins won the cup. We couldn't ask for more from him.

One of the biggest stories this season has been 19-year old Dougie Hamilton. He's not leading the league in any category, so he's not a superstar yet, but his ability to just slide into the lineup as if he'd been playing in the NHL for 20 years is astounding. This kid is going to be the best defensemen in the NHL some day, mark my words.

As for the new kids, Chris Borque has been solid and his play seems to improve with each game. The play of Lane MacDermid has been acceptable. The veteran Jay Pandolfo only recently signed, but appears to have brought the veteran depth that the Bruins wanted.

All-in all it's been a great start to the season!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Things to Look For in 2013

The lockout wasn't all bad. Some of us have long felt that the NHL plays too many games and the seasons drag on too long. Although I'd prefer to have seen the season start/end earlier, playing only 48 games will be interesting. And hey, we won't need to refer to this as the 2012-2013 season, given that it will only be played in 2013. So that's something.

I'll be watching for certain things early on and I'd thought I share them here. So without further ado:

1. Brad Marchand. "Marshy," as he's called in the room, is a well known pest. He plays hard and never stops the trash talk, getting under opponents skin. But it seemed to me that the NHL got under his skin last season when they suspended him for a monster hip check that led to an injury. I thought the NHL overreacted badly, and afterward it seemed like something was missing from Marchand's game, particularly in the playoffs. I understand that he also didn't play in the off season, which is going to mean a slow start. I'll be looking to see him get the edge back into his game.

At the start of the 2004 lockout I vividly recall reading that the Bruins GM had decided not to let their fine young goaltender, Andrew Raycroft, play in Providence. I am still mystified by this decision. "Razor" decided not to play in Europe and lost his edge (um, sorry). After struggling badly he was traded to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask. I'd hate to see the same sort of thing happen to Marchand.

2. Milan Lucic. "Looch" can be a powerful force on the ice who can be a game changer, with a big hit or a big goal at just the right time. But like Marchand he chose not to play during the lockout. His performance in last year's playoffs was a huge disappointment to me. He literally stood around in game 7, looking beaten. It reminded me of the last playoff game that Joe Thornton played for the Bruins. That's not good.

3. Goaltender Interference. The goaltender interference rule was created to stop players from intentionally pushing or blocking the goaltender in such a way that he would not be able to make the save. It was not intended as a safety measure. But after the Lucic hit on Miller last season this rule started to be enforced too broadly, in my view. As far as I'm concerned, when two players are out in open ice, fully aware of each other, and going for the puck, then contact is only fair. Last season we saw far too many penalties and suspensions that came on legitimate hits (see above) but resulted in injury. People get hurt. It's not always someones fault. The NHL should simply stick to their rules. One result of the "new and improved" interpretation of the goaltender interference rule was that far too many penalties were called on players who had been clearly shoved into the goaltender by their opponent. That needs to stop. More food for thought: many Bruins fans may not be aware of this story by ex referee Kerry Fraser about the goal that put the Bruins out of the playoffs. Consistency. That's all we ask. It it really that difficult?

4. Bruins Power Play. The Bruins may well have been the worst power play team to ever win a modern Stanley Cup. Last season they were no better, and it may well have been the difference in not making it out of the first round. Coach Julien has stated that they are going to work on the power play this season, so I'll be looking for innovation and ultimately improvement in this important area.

5. Tuukka Rask. A headline stated that the Bruins will be "just fine" without Tim Thomas. While this may well be true, some of us want more than "just fine." We want another Stanley Cup. Can Rask elevate his game? It's certainly possible. His talent is undeniable, particularly his speed from side to side. But his play has been inconsistent, he has suffered from injuries, and he has yet to prove that he can make the long haul. I was most impressed with his play when he first came to the Bruins. His positioning had machine-like precision and he had excellent control over his side to side movement. In recent years his style has changed to be more like that of Thomas, and I am not sure that's a good thing. I'll be watching for two things from Rask: consistently sharp play and some hint of the heart that made Thomas one of the Bruins greats.

6. The Bad Guy in the Media Eye. These days the Boston media have no more access to what's going on inside the Bruins organization than we do. This leads to some pretty poor behavior, one of which is the desire for a person to dump on when things go wrong. Tim Thomas made the perfect foil for them for years, but now he's gone. Who will they try to run out of town on rails now? Who will they make the snide remarks, innuendos and speculative trade rumors about? Will it be a player? Coach? The GM? The answer may be painful for some. My early guess is Tuukka Rask.

7. Nathan Horton. "Horty" was one of the reasons the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, even if he didn't make it to the end without being injured. He showed that he could be an unstoppable goal scoring monster in big games. But he has been plagued by injuries, including a season-ending concussion in January 2012. He claims he's back to normal, but the worry is that he's just one hit away from watching from the stands. His game requires a certain recklessness and I will be looking to see if retains his edge.

8. Dougie Hamilton. At just 19, this promising young rookie is looking to break into the NHL. He's played the last four seasons with the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL. It will be interesting to see how he performs and progresses, regardless of where he ends up playing this season. 

9. The New Kids on the Block. There are other "new" faces at training camp as well. They include Ray Borque's son, Chris, Jay Pandolfo, Lane MacDermid, and Aaron Johnson. Will any of these guys stick around and make a contribution?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bruins and NHL are Back (Finally)

I haven't posted here since June because of the lockout. A lot has happened since then (probably about 30 posts worth). There were times in the last few months when I was so mad at the NHL owners that I considered vowing to not spend a dime on the NHL in 2013. Even before the lockout I almost decided to quit this blog. I almost canceled Center Ice. It's been tough. Since the last lockout ended I have seen nearly every Bruins game. That's a lot of games. Some of them really sucked, but the 2011 playoffs made it all worthwhile. I have to admit though, that after finally winning the cup it was getting a bit old.

Then the inevitable happened. It was windy and biting cold and I was on an outdoor ice rink with my stick and a puck, wearing my Bruins hat; that's when I remembered just how much I love this game. A few days later the lockout ended, and, well, here I am again.

Before we get to the long and the short of the upcoming 2013 season, I need to address Tim Thomas. I doubt anyone reading this isn't up on the story. Thomas decided to take the season off to spend time with family and faith blah blah blah. I get that. I get that he wants to start for the US Olympic team. I get that his father has cancer. I get that he may have realized that the fire wasn't there anymore for him. I get that his snub of the President caused a lot of bad feelings and that he probably felt a bit of a pariah. I get that after so many years as a pawn it must have felt good to take control of his own career for once. And I get that he probably realized that he'd end up playing the season for some team out west, maybe Anaheim or Vancouver (ugh). Toss in a likely lockout and, like I said, I get it.

But he didn't need to be such a classless jerk about it.

Tim Thomas should have been a man about it. He should have called a press conference and read his little statement about family and faith. Then he should have told everyone how being a Bruin was the best thing that ever happened to him, that he'd miss the city, the fans, and his teammates. He should have stood tall and answered the questions from the press. People still would have been mad at him, but it least it would have been for the right reasons. The only good to come of his cowardly posting to Facebook and then slinking off to Colorado is that I am sure professional athletes all over the continent have taken note not to make a fool of themselves like he did.

And the politics! Don't get me started. He's a professional athlete in the public eye. He built his career on the ice and there is no place for politics on the ice. He should have donated to his causes and kept his opinions to himself. His hubris was astounding; it boggles the mind that he believed for a minute that his speaking out would make enough difference to make it worthwhile. But the same can be said of the people who have posted hateful things about him. They are making the exact same mistake by allowing their disdain for his politics to cloud their view of what he did on the ice. He won us a Stanley Cup for God's sakes! I read one blog over the summer that made it sound like the Bruins won the Cup in spite of Thomas, not because of him. I suggest people with such opinions go back and watch the 2011 playoff games for a dose of reality. Going into game 5 of the Cup Final the Bruins were facing elimination. Tim Thomas would allow only three goals in the next three games, against a team that had scored 242 goals in the regular season--an average of three goals per game.

Getting back to Tim Thomas on the ice, how does his decision to sit out the season affect the Bruins most? Some have complained bitterly about his 5 million dollar cap hit. Despite giving up his 6 million dollar salary, 5 million dollars will count against the salary cap for this season. Fortunately the Bruins are more or less under the cap and they have the option of putting Marc Savard on IR, which would cancel things out, leaving them with room to add a free agent should they need to. Others have suggested that he denied the team his value in trading him and that he was being selfish. But loyalty goes both ways. How much loyalty does he owe a management that wants to trade him? I say giving them a Stanley Cup should be enough "value."

The real loss for the Bruins is the one everyone seems too angry to acknowledge. Tim Thomas gave the team a chance to win games night in and night out. Sure, Tuukka Rask is a very good goaltender. But there is a key difference between a good goaltender and one of the all-time greats. It is in when the goals are allowed, not how many. A great goaltender rises to the occasion. The bigger the stakes, the more stingy he plays. There is a reason Thomas started most of the games over the last two seasons, and it's not some sort of misguided deference to the more experienced goaltender. When it's late in the 3rd and the Bs are down by a goal and Tukka lets one in--that's when we will miss Thomas. Or when the Bs are up by one late and the other team ties it up. No matter how well Rask plays, at some point the guys are going to look back there and think of what Thomas did for them night in and night out and they will miss it. I was about to write that they don't have a stat for that, but in fact they do.

It's called the Playoff MVP. In the years since the Conn Smythe Trophy was first awarded in 1965 only two Bruins have won it. Tim Thomas and Bobby Orr. So don't try to tell me the Bruins won't miss Thomas.