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If I had to pick right now, my first-round hunch says that sometime in June, when the final horn sounds to end the final playoff game, National Hockey League president Gary Bettman will hand the Stanley Cup to...the Philadelphia Flyers. While we’re at it, how about a Flyers-Blues final?
Who would have thought that any red-blooded hockey fan would live long enough to see the day when the Philadelphia Flyers would outplay the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Penguins, at the same time, tried to goon the Flyers?
That’s exactly what is happening. As of this writing, the series is not over yet, but the Flyers, led by the exceptional play and playmaking of Claude Giroux, went into Pittsburgh and won the first two games from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the rest of the Penguins -- right when many were saying that with Crosby back, the Penguins were favored to rise from their low seed to win it all. When the series shifted to Philadelphia, the Flyers won Game 3 to take a 3-0 lead, and Game 4 will be over by the time you read this.
If the Flyers do win it, my hunch is that they will have to beat the St. Louis Blues in the finals. The Blues are really a fun team to watch, because they are loaded up with guys we’ve watched star in college hockey. T.J. Oshie, from Warroad, starred at North Dakota about when David Backus was starring at MSU-Mankato, and they are the most effective forwards for the Blues, and goaltender Brian Elliott, who led Wisconsin to an NCAA championship, has emerged with the Blues where he alternated in the nets, but played enough to lead the NHL in both goals-against average and save percentage. The Blues have to finish off a tough San Jose team, but they are equipped to do just that.
With NBC in its new, expanded spinoff satellite/cable outlets, showing all or most of every game, it’s the perfect time of the year to sit down in front of the big-screen and realize how many great players and great teams have developed and emerged while we weren’t paying close attention. But while this year’s playoffs are the best of times, they also are the worst of times. The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs will go down as the most competitive, ever, where you could make a case for all 16 teams starting the playoffs to go all the way, but they are embarrassing the NHL with a shroud of cheapshots, cross-checks, penalties and suspensions that have taxed the referees’ ability to keep up, let alone get the calls right.
Never before have the playoffs opened with every series being a toss-up. The top teams in the regular season aren’t all top teams, because some outstanding teams, such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago, finished well off the pace because of injuries and other problems. That has given rise to some new teams, rising to jump to the top as if to establish a new order of supremacy.
Examples are everywhere. Vancouver was the top team in the entire league for the regular season, for the second year in a row. That gave the Canucks home ice advantage all through the playoffs, something they rode all the way to the finals last year, before the plan fell apart against Boston. This year, Vancouver again won the points race, and opened against the Los Angles Kings, the No. 8 West seed. I saw the Kings play a home game in November, and, frankly, they looked awful. But they’ve gotten it together, behind captain Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick. They had to play hard to the finish to make the playoffs, and they’ve kept on that pace when they went into Vancouver and won the first two games. They went home to L.A., and also won Game 3, with Game 4 next up. That left it squarely up to the ability of the Canucks to start a counter-surge, but these Canucks have proven they play a much more faint-hearted game on the road. Losing in the first round would be no disgrace; getting swept in the first round as the No. 1 seed against the No. 8 seed would be a stunning humiliation.
The Detroit Red Wings may be on the verge of falling in the first round to Nashville, an aroused and aggressive band of Predators who have shown no respect for the classy talent of the Red Wings, and have been impressive in outplaying the Wings to take a 3-1 lead in games.The teams were 1-1 in Nashville, then went to Detroit, where the Red Wings hadn’t lost two games in a row all season -- until the Predators beat them both games, to go up 3-1. Game 4 is back in Nashville, with the Wings teetering on the brink of elimination.
Yet that series set a bad scenario for the playoffs. Detroit is led by the superlative trio of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and defenseman Niklas Lidstrom. In Game 1, Zetterberg came in swiftly to forecheck, and Nashville defenseman Shea Weber took exception. He spun around and shoved Zetterberg up against the glass. That wasn’t enough for him, however. Weber grabbed the back of Zetterberg’s head, and smashed him, face-first, into the glass. He only partially got him with the first try, so he did it again, much more forcibly. There was no question Weber, who is Nashville’s top star and one of the NHL’s best defensemen, would be suspended.
The only question was in the mind of Brendan Shanahan, the man who decides on discipline for the NHL. Shanahan examined the evidence, and decided to fine Weber $2,500. In modern sports, that is pocket change. Shanahan had a long and sparkling career with the Red Wings, which makes me think he might have subconsciously been trying to prove that he wouldn’t favor his old team. He said he contacted the Red Wings and they said Zetterberg would play in Game 2, and that helped in the decision to not suspend Weber. In other words, a clearcut and dangerous assault with intent to injure was not worth a suspension unless the victim was tragically injured. There are a lot of incidental contact hits, and inadvertent injury hits, but when you grab a star player by the back of his head, and slam it into the glass hard enough to break his helmet, you are either hallucinating about trying to crack open a coconut on a desert island, or you are providing textbook evidence of intent to injure.
If the Predators eliminate the Red Wings, Shea Weber will be possibly the biggest reason, which means that if he had been suspended, the Red Wings might instead have a stranglehold on that series.
By contrast, Chicago, which is trailing Phoenix in their series, lost Andrew Shaw for a suspension for clipping Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith in the head in Game 2. In that incident, Smith was behind the net, playing the puck. Shaw, forechecking, saw the chance to block Smith’s clearing attempt, and came in at high speed. Smith started to flip the puck toward the right corner, and as Shaw swung behind the net and failed to block it, he continued on, leaning hard to his right to squeeze between Smith and the boards. But Smith used up all the space, and even though he tried to duck past him, Shaw clipped Smith, who went down and needed aid. At least we think he needed aid, and maybe it was just coincidence that as soon as it was announced that Shaw had gotten a major penalty, Smith got up, put his helmet back on, and stayed in the game. He said later that he never saw Shaw coming, which makes me wonder how dim a player can be to fling a pass to his right without even a glance to see if a teammate -- or a forechecking foe -- is there.
The New York Rangers were heavy favorites against No. 8 seed Ottawa, but the Senators have displayed a brilliant young defenseman named Erik Karlsson. The Rangers may well win that series, behind Brian Boyle, a big, impressive forward. But Boyle has a long way to go to be a true star, in my book. Boyle grabbed Karlsson in Game 1, and punched him repeatedly in the face. They weren’t hard punches, but more light taps that were clearly intended to humiliate Karlsson more than hurt him. Must have been a big laugh for the Rangers and their fans. I thought the lack of class deserved retaliation, and sure enough, in Game 2, Ottawa defenseman Matt Carkner went after Boyle, hammering and challenging him. But Boyle, the tough guy so eager to embarrass Karlsson, was too gutless to even stand up for himself, and Carkner pounded him into the ice. He went too far, and deserved the injection and suspension that was to come, but I’ll pull for Marian Gaborik, and Erik Karlsson, and you can have Brian Boyle.
Pittsburgh, which was supposed to feature Sidney Crosby’s playmaking wizardry, instead has featured Crosby alternately whining to officials and cheapshotting Flyers to instigate trouble, then somehow avoiding officials’ scrutiny. Pittsburgh went into Game 4 without three players, however, because while they were mugging everybody in orange, James Neal, Arron Asham and Craig Adams were all suspended. Asham got four games because he skated up to Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn and cross-checked him in the face, and when he dropped to the ice, stunned, Asham jumped on his back to punch him.
The games have been fast and tough and had some great plays, but the outrageous rough stuff and intimidation attempts, coupled with questionable penalties and missed penalties, and then compounded with suspensions here and non-suspensions there, have tarnished the whole playoffs. Some eye-opening play was featured when New Jersey surged to a 3-0 lead in the first period, but somehow Florida rallied for three straight goals against Martin Brodeur, and eventually beat the Devils 4-3 to take a 2-1 lead in that series.
But there may not be a more spectacular play than the rush by T.J. Oshie for the Blues. Oshie rushed up the right boards, ducked past a bodycheck and kept going, then button-hooked around a defender in the right corner with a deft move, before cutting toward the slot, beating one defenseman and attracting the other, only to pass across the slot for a one-timer goal. It was the best goal of the playoffs, and it was almost good enough to overcome all the ugliness that has escorted the excitement through the first round.
ST. SCHOLASTICA WINS
Beating opponents is no more of a challenge than beating the weather this April for the UMD and St. Scholastica baseball and softball teams. The Saints softball team is on the rise, and kicked off a nice winning streak by crushing Crown 22-2 and 27-1 last week. At home, rain and cold wiped out Friday’s chances. So on Saturday, St. Scholastica simply won, won, and won. The Saints beat Martin Luther 5-2 in the delayed finale of their series, while also sweeping a doubleheader from Bethandy Lutheran, 18-0 and 3-2. Shortstop Theresa Tauer socked a line-drive, 2-run home run over the left field fence as the key blow in the 3-2 victory.