To the fans: Thank You!
With the Stanley Cup Playoffs under way, let's give a shout out to the fans for their return and support during the regular season. Let the record show that patrons of the NHL returned to the rinks across North America in record numbers. And we salute you now, because the second season is all about you.
Not that this past regular season didn't have significant merit, because it most certainly did. In fact, I was enlightened as to the fans' perception of the extra divisional games and tight nature of the playoff races by a conversation I had with fans in March while out in Vancouver. Their comment was that "it gave fans an extra month of playoff hockey" which I thought was an accurate and telling assessment. Sorry for those Canuck fans, though, that this time around the stretch run amounted to their playoffs.
But other markets are ecstatic to be returning to the post-season. The New York Rangers have endured a seven-season playoff sabbatical and even a late-season swoon and a game one debacle in Jersey cannot dampen the euphoria of the Blueshirts faithful. The fact that they play their Hudson River rival New Jersey Devils makes that first round match-up all the more engrossing.
Same thing in Buffalo where Sabres fans tail-gaited hours before their teams' thrilling double overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the Sabres' first playoff game in five years and they were ready to hoot and holler. The hometown team didn't disappoint as they won in thrilling fashion.
|The Sabres and Flyers are meeting for the eighth time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.|
For the Sabres, taking on the Flyers in the post-season is nothing new. It is the eighth time they've met them in the playoffs, going all the way back to the first meeting in the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals in which the Flyers took the title in six games. More recently, the 2001 meeting was the last series win for the Sabres and in that matchup they won twice in overtime. In fact, the Sabres are now 7-1 all-time in OT against the Flyers, including the last six straight.
Returning to the present, this season's spring ritual has some other interesting footnotes. Four of the six Canadian teams made the playoffs, keeping in tact a stretch of 20 years since all six teams from north of the border made it to the chase for the Stanley Cup. Of course, that list included the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets, both now relocated to Colorado and Phoenix respectively.
And then there is the case of the Calgary Flames and Anaheim Mighty Ducks in a first round faceoff between the last two Cup bridesmaids. The Ducks lost in seven games to the Devils in 2003, while the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning beat the Flames in seven in 2004.
Speaking of the Bolts, all season long head coach John Tortorella maintained that his team wasn't defending anything yet -- that they were desperately vying for an opportunity to get to the playoffs. They eked into the eighth and final playoff spot in the east and lost game one in Ottawa to the Senators. But when the series shifts to Tampa, the partisan faithful will no doubt pack the place and get to cheer on, finally, the title defense by their Lightning.
Yes, this is the best time of year if you're a hockey fan -- no matter where you are, or whom you root for. Enjoy. You've earned it.
In praise of the 'tweener'
Steven Reinprecht winning player of the week honors is an "atta boy" for the "everyman" hockey player. You know, guys often overlooked in certain situations despite doing most everything well, labeled versatile under the right circumstances and expendable in others. Since coming to the Coyotes from the Flames, Reinprecht has been indispensable.
Success for a player of Reinprecht's ilk has much to do with the defined role on a particular team. Typically, these guys are good enough offensively to produce on a team's top two lines, but numbers may dictate that they don't necessarily fit in the top-six. And while these "tweeners", if you will, are well-rounded enough to fill a spot on a team's third line, they often don't score as much due to limited minutes and a lack of power-play time.
In Reinprecht's case, he is playing nearly four and a half minutes more in Phoenix than he was in Calgary and as a result has 11 goals in 29 games, whereas he totaled 10 tallies in 52 games before the trade. Not that he was playing poorly in Calgary, as his plus-10 would attest, just different team dynamics. To say he has found a home is premature because life for guys like Reinprecht is always about the next opportunity as personnel changes over time. At least for the time being, though, he is doing all he can in a favorable environment.
|Steven Reinprecht has 11 goals in 29 games with the Coyotes.|
The truth is, guys like Reinprecht are the lifeblood of the league. They aren't stars at this level because they aren't the biggest, fastest, strongest, or have the hardest shot. What they have as a defining quality is the ability to contribute in a variety of ways -- check if they must, with the ability to score given the right scenario. Think of Andrew Brunette for the Avalanche, Fernando Pisani for the Oilers, Jochen Hecht for the Sabres, Michal Handzus in Philly, Peter Schaefer for the Senators and Matt Cullen for the Hurricanes as a good sampling across the league. As well, two rookies whose first-year exploits similarly fall into the category of underrated are Brad Boyes in Boston -- already dealt twice in his young career -- and Colby Armstrong, who was a mid-season call-up of the Penguins.
Of them all, Brunette has to be the king of the undervalued. Throughout his career he has been the guy first bumped to give a younger player an opportunity. He typically begins on the third line, while maybe seeing some second unit power-play duty. By the last quarter of recent seasons, Brunette's diligence usually places him firmly in the top six and on the number one power-play unit. That's the case again this season in Colorado, as Brunette is contributing on a line with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk and excelling on the power play down low below the goal line, which has become his trademark.
In typical "tweener" fashion, Brunette wound up in Colorado via free agency, thought of as expendable by the Minnesota Wild despite scoring the biggest goal in Wild history in 2003 against... the Colorado Avalanche. His is the last goal surrendered by Patrick Roy -- an overtime game-winner that put the Wild in the Western Conference Final. The Wild may have forgotten the value of the moment, but the Avs did not, giving Brunette a chance on their side this season.
So it goes for guys like Brunette and the rest -- just good, honest, solid hockey players. To me, they're what the game is all about -- working hard and relying on hockey sense to make the most of any given moment. And in the cap era, the stock of the "tweener" is on the rise.