All is not lost Rangers fans
After waiting almost a decade to enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden, Ranger fans should not lose hope before that magical event arrives Wednesday evening.
Sure, arriving back at MSG facing a 2-0 series hole against a team that has now won 13-straight contests and stolen the Atlantic Division title out of your team's grasp at the last possible moment is not the feel-good story of the decade.
But, it is also not the Armageddon many believe it to be.
To coin a slogan from the poker world, all it takes is a chip and chair -- and the Rangers still have a few chips stacked before them as they face down the monster stack piled in front of the New Jersey Devils. Aggressive use of those chips -- to put the Devils to the test, repeatedly -- could once again make this a series.
What chips, you may wonder, could the Rangers possibly hold after losing the first two games by a 10-2 margin and seeing a good portion of their stack frittered away with the catastrophic injury to star forward Jaromir Jagr?
Here are a few:
Home ice - Remember, the Devils won the first two games of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals against the Mighty Ducks, dominating Anaheim in every facet of the game. In fact, the Ducks left New Jersey without a goal to their credit. Yet, Anaheim took both home games that followed to make it a series, a series that was extended to an anything-can-happen Game 7. New Jersey won that deciding game, but they exerted a lot more effort than anyone envisioned after the first two games were completed. And, the Rangers did win 25 games at MSG this regular season and forced another six to the shootout. Plus, the blue seats, and the rest of the Garden, will be rollicking in an effort to play the role of 7th man to perfection.
Henrik Lundqvist - Benching Lundqvist for Game 2 may have been hasty, but it is over and done with. In his short career, Lundqvist has shown the ability to put the past where it belongs and move on to the future with a clean slate. Don't forget, in the Olympics, Lundqvist lost a 5-0 stinker to Russia in pool play and rebounded to lead his country to an eagerly anticipated gold medal. Plus, "King Henrik" has made MSG his throne this year, playing his best hockey before the faithful.
Tom Renney - Sure the coach has made some questionable strategic decisions -- benching Lundqvist, playing Jagr on the penalty kill where he was injured in Game 1, inserting Colton Orr into the game 2 lineup -- but he remains among the game's best communicators and motivators. If anybody can convince the Rangers that they can climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves, Renney is that man.
Last line change - For the next two games, the Rangers will dictate the matchups off stoppages, enjoying the opportunity to set the tempo and get their scoring line away from New Jersey's dominant checking line.
Time - The two off days between Wednesday's Game 3 and Saturday's Game 4 will give the Rangers time to heal. That will bode well for Jagr, Darius Kasparaitis and Martin Rucinsky, even if they play in Game 3. Plus, a win in Game 3 will give the Devils extra time to fret about allowing the Rangers back in this series.
Jaromir Jagr - The man is like pocket aces, which is what every short stack at a Texas Hold 'Em table prays for as hole cards when the end is rapidly approaching. Played right, those pocket rockets can lead to a big pot and a tournament-changing win. But, those pretty aces do not win by themselves, they must be played judiciously to inflict maximum damage. Jagr has already returned from injury once against the Devils, rejoining the Pittsburgh Penguins for Game 6 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. There, he scored the tying and winning goals to force a Game 7. In the deciding game, he had two assists in a 4-2 win that sent New Jersey packing.
So, all is not lost heading into Wednesday night.
The Rangers will have to play these remaining chips to maximum effect, using the guile and mental fortitude that distinguishes true champions -- at the poker table or on the ice. Plus, a few visits from Lady Luck, something that has undeniably been in the Devils' favor in the first two games, will certainly help the endeavor to claw back into this series. And, as any gambler must believe, such a visit -- the dream river card, to continue the analogy -- could always be just one turn of the cards away.
It won't be easy, but it certainly can be done.
I received quite a bit of polite e-mail in the past two days to point out that I had my Stanley Cup Finals confused in my last blog. Scott Stevens laid out Slava Kozlov in Game 2 of the 1995 Finals, not the 2000 Finals as I inexplicably wrote. I wish I could blame the after-effects of a punishing open-ice hit for my lapse, but that is not the case. Rather, it was just a mistake on my part. Some of you actually felt poorly for calling me out on my gaffe, but there is no need for that. A shouted head's up is far batter than silence in any situation, so thanks for keeping me on my toes.
Games that make the heart skip a beat
For most of the last week, the weather has been fantastic in the metropolitan New York area, spring creeping in slowly as the weather warms and green once again dots the landscape after a long, if unbelievably mild, winter.
At this time, the thoughts of most people turn to trips to the park, the soon-to-be-occupied summer houses down the shore (it's always "down the shore" here no matter its geographic location on the map) and long, lazy weekend barbecues with friends and family.
Those thoughts invade my head, as well, but only briefly. I know those summertime pleasures will have to be delayed for another two-plus months. There will be no beach houses, no parks and few barbecues for me in the next little while. Not that I am complaining. I have even better things on my spring agenda.
For me, at least for the last 15 years or so, spring has meant two things to me. The onset of a wicked bout of allergies, a condition that has surprisingly worsened since I have relocated to the mostly concrete landscape of the metropolitan area, and playoff hockey.
To enjoy the latter, I will happily suffer through the former. For, I know, as soon as the weather starts to warm -- and my eyes start to water and itch -- the greatest spectacle in all of sports, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is about to unfold.
Since starting my career as a journalist in 1990, I have been fortunate enough to experience playoff hockey live in every year since 1993. In each of my first two seasons as a hockey writer for a small North Jersey paper, I was fortunate to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning rivalry between the Rangers and the Devils.
In 1994, I covered the Rangers' historical run to its first Cup in 54 years. The next year, I watched as the Devils won the first of their three Cups. In 1997, I watched Detroit come into Philadelphia and thoroughly dismantle the Flyers.
Since 2000, I have covered the NHL for NHL.com and have reported on each of the last five Stanley Cups. Needless to say, I have lived a charmed professional live, one I am grateful for on a daily basis.
Obviously, I have seen a good deal of playoff hockey, yet I am never amazed at the passion, the determination, the courage and the heart displayed in virtually every postseason game I have ever seen. It is the reason why playoff hockey consistently produces the magic it does.
On my hour-long train ride into the office today, I pondered my lifetime of playoff hockey and the images of unforgettable moments hurtled across my eyes as the chain plodded slowly through New Jersey and then under the Hudson River.
The images were too many to recount in a simple blog entry, so I began the difficult task of narrowing them down to my five all-time favorites. Let me preface these picks by acknowledging my obvious metropolitan area bias in these picks. For the first decade of my career, I was a beat writer for the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers and my experiences were limited to the exploits of those two teams. Therefore, those games dominate my memory bank.
These are by no means the best playoff games I have covered. Rather, they are the ones that remain freshest in a mind cluttered with far too many hockey memories.
1. New Jersey Devils @ New York Rangers, 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7 --: This was the game that really delivered hockey as a major player on the New York landscape at the time. I still watch the occasional replay of this game on TV and get chills thinking about all that happened and how I struggled to deal with it as a green 26-25-year-old reporter with just two years experience covering a beat. It was exhilarating and enormously scary at the same time. "Matteau, Matteau" will live on in the memory of so many sports fans forever. But, I will also remember the fight put up by the Devils and their extremely young goalie, Martin Brodeur, who began stating his case as a star-in-the-making with a valiant performance in that series.
2. New Jersey Devils @ Buffalo Sabres, 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6 -- This four-overtime thriller was one of the most taut games I have ever witnessed, stretched out well into the following morning before the unheralded Dave Hannan, he of six regular-season goals, finally solved a brilliant Brodeur in the fourth OT. Dominik Hasek was equally brilliant in the game that was a testament to the cynical negativity of defensive hockey played at that time. For me, the exhaustion written on the faces in both dressing rooms will remain long after the game's details fade into memory.
3. Philadelphia Flyers @ Pittsburgh Penguins, 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4-- A confession, first. I was not in the Igloo on this fateful night. Rather I had drawn night shift, updating the NHL.com website, that night. Usually, long OTs are the bane of internet producers anywhere as the immediacy of the medium requires those people to stay the bitter end, a hardship not inflicted upon newspaper men, who can leave as soon as the paper's final deadline is reached. After cursing my fate deep into the second overtime and realizing that I would not see my home, and my bed, until the wee hours of the morning, I decided to sit back and enjoy the show. And, what a show it was. By the time it ended on Keith Primeau's game-winner, six hours and 56 minutes after it started, I was entranced by the drama and the finality of what was happening before my eyes. No longer did it matter that it was past 1 a.m., I could have watched this game forever. Ironically, it was also the second time I had witnessed Ron Tugnutt, then playing for the Pens, make at least 70 saves. The first came nine years earlier, when me and my father sat in front of our living room TV and watched Tugnutt, then with Quebec, make 70 saves in a 3-3 tie with the Boston Bruins. It is a game we still discuss anytime our conversation turns to hockey.
4. Detroit Red Wings @ Carolina Hurricanes, 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 3 -- It was my first trip to Carolina and it was a night not to forget. Not sure what to expect, I was greeted by ear-splitting, foundation-shaking noise as I settled into my seat for the game. The noise level never subsided as the upstart Hurricanes, playing their first-ever Stanley Cup home game, never ended until Igor Larionov scored in the third overtime to give Detroit a 2-to-1 series lead. Detroit won the next two games to claim the title and Carolina's miracle run that year thudded to a disappointing stop. I returned to the RBC Center for the NHL Entry Draft a few years later. Needless to say, it was much quieter, but when I closed my eyes, I could still picture the unforgettable frenzy of people and the rumbling, echoing roar that made the building on that night as electric as any I have encountered.
5. New Jersey Devils @ Detroit Red Wings, 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 2 -- A trip to Hockeytown is always special. For me, it was my first time to this magical hockey city and the four days spent in Detroit produced a melange of memories that I still savor. But, known, stands out more than the series-turning lowering of the boom perpetrated by New Jersey's Scott Stevens. The Devils big defenseman caught Slava Kozlov in a vulnerable position and buckled the flashy Russian's knees. As Kozlov wobbled precariously to the bench, the Joe Louis crowd, momentarily silenced by the vicious beauty of the check, began braying for Stevens' blood to be spilled. Stevens took it all in as he stood on the ice during the stoppage, his eyes twitching as they always did when he immersed himself wholly in the game. He listened to the threats of retribution issued from Detroit players leaning over the bench for a few seconds, before he faced the catcalls, tapped his shoulder menacingly and mouthed, "You're next!" to the Detroit bench. I still get chills whenever I see this replay, shuddering ever so slightly at the unmistakable menace dripping from his every pore. The tone of the series was set at that moment and the underdog Devils went on to sweep the series for their first title. At the time, Stevens savagery was eye-catching, but his ability to physically intimidate opponents soon became commonplace. Still, I will never forget that singular moment of an unadulterated will to win that propelled an entire team to play beyond itself despite the odds set against it.
Just recalling these games has me in the proper frame of mind for this year's Stanley Cup tournament. See you at the Finals!
A quick note to the readers from San Jose. No offense was intended by my geographic slight in my last entry. I can do nothing other than claim a temporary brain freeze and promise to consult an atlas the next time I work geography into my work. Until then, please accept my most sincere mea culpas for placing the Northern Californian city of San Jose in the southern half of the state.
Now, on to some other notes from readers:
Hey Shawn, how about (Miikka) Kiprusoff for MVP? Calgary is not that talented, and he steals games for the Flames on a regular basis. There is NO WAY Calgary would be where they are with Kipper.
Howard Robertson (yeah, I'm in Calgary)
Kipper is a fine choice for MVP, but he does not carry the cachet of either Jagr or Thornton, the two favorites. Plus, if you bring Kipper into the conversation, you must also introduce Martin Brodeur into it, as well. Brodeur had more wins than anybody this year and is the main reason New Jersey is in the playoffs, also.
It's sad to not see the Buffalo Sabres in (your last) blog about the playoffs -- I mean c'mon, it's been six years since they have been in the playoffs and you couldn't even mention them. NHL writers said they were going to be one of the worst teams in the NHL. Surprisingly not, they are the fourth-best team. That's a miracle, too.
I greatly admire the Sabres, Pam. I think Lindy Ruff is totally being overlooked in the debate about the Jack Adams Trophy and I love the way the team plays its hockey. It is fast and still technically proficient. It reminds me a little of the way George Lynx plays the guitar for Dokken and the Lynch Mob. I think the Sabres will make some beautiful noise in these playoffs.
Your blog about the Devils was right on. I believe nobody wants to get the Devils in the first round (or after). I watched the New Jersey vs. Montreal game in Montreal the other night (I am a Habs fan), and the one thing I noticed about the Devils is that they seem to be the only team not affected by the NHL rule changes. Most of the games I've watched have been pretty open and there has been a lot of back-and-forth action that is until the Devils came to town. They still play the most boring, though effective, brand of hockey in the League. I don't want them to go far in the playoffs, not because I fear playing them, but because I fear having to watch them play.
BJ, I have to disagree. The third-period comeback the Devils engineered against the Canadiens on the last day of the season is what the new NHL should be about. Three lightning-quick goals, with the last coming against the run of play. In its nine regular-season games in April, New Jersey has scored 36 goals, including a six-goal outburst against Pittsburgh and a five-goal explosion against playoff-bound Philadelphia. That's not too shabby, my friend. In fact, I will put New Jersey's top line up against any other top line when it comes to generating excitement each game. The passive, trapping Devils are no longer. They still play good defense today, and that should be celebrated, not dismissed as boring.
After being a Flyers season ticket holder for 23 years and loving everything that Keith Primeau does, I wish him all the luck in the world and just hope if he is able to come back for the playoffs that he does so after very thorough consideration. I would rather not see Primeau back until next season than watch him go down from a hit in the playoffs that would put him back right where he started from in the beginning of the season. Good luck and best of health, Keith.
Rosemarie C. Bambu
Well said, Rosemarie.
Make sure you check our latest blog addition, Brian Slagel, the CEO and founder of Metal Blade Records, a fantastic label with a roster of modern-day Heavy Metal heavyweights. Plus, he is a big hockey fan, to boot.
Until next time, be well and enjoy the playoffs!
East still up in the air
While things pretty well came into focus out West during Thursday's must-see night of NHL action, the East still remains somewhat of a crap-shoot with just five days left in the regular season.
Vancouver spit the bit Thursday, losing both ends of a home-and-home series to the feeding-frenzied Sharks, to fall out of the playoffs. As a result, Edmonton claimed its customary last-week berth into the postseason and Colorado also assured its place.
All that remains left in the West, it seems, is some last-minute jockeying for playoff position, particularly the much-coveted fifth-seed, which earns the right to play the Tomas Vokoun-less Nashville Predators in the first round.
In the East, it is a far different story.
The top seed is still up for grabs with Carolina trying to chase down a sputtering Ottawa side.
The eighth seed is up for grabs, with the Thrashers gunning for a desperate Tampa Bay.
Amazingly, the Atlantic Division title, and all the seeding permutations that go along with that, are still in play, as well.
New Jersey made sure of that with a dominant showing Thursday night against the Flyers that was coupled with a third-straight loss by the Rangers -- this time to the out-of-contention Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the win, the Devils caught the Flyers for second in the division, both teams lurking just three points behind the Rangers, who are surely praying for a return to health by "King Henrik". Philadelphia has three contests remaining, including Saturday's huge contest with the Rangers, followed 24 hours later by another trip to the Meadowlands. New Jersey and New York each have two games left.
Thursday, New Jersey showed why it is still a threat to win the division as it ran its winning streak to nine games. Since early January, the Devils have made up 19 points on the Flyers.
The Devils were dominant in every facet of the game Thursday, winning virtually every battle for loose pucks, cycling like whirling dervishes in the attacking zone, hitting anything that moved, backchecking with zeal and closing down lanes of attack in the offensive zone.
Marty Brodeur was brilliant, again silencing the whispers that he has regressed from his status as the game's best goalie. And, surprisingly, the Devils power-play was lethally effective -- and creative -- despite the fact it scored just one power-play tally in the 4-1 win.
"They played with a lot of confidence and Marty's at the top of his game," said Philadelphia's Mike Knuble. "It's pretty typical for them."
With New Jersey hitting its stride, they might be the team everyone in the East is looking to avoid in the first round. After all, the team has been playing playoff-intensity hockey for the last month (which does raise concerns about the effects of fatigue coming into play in a long playoff run by the Devils) and features a roster of playoff-tested players.
Rookie Zach Parise, who had two goals Thursday -- including one that robbed Brian Gionta of the opportunity to get his record-tying 46th goal -- has never seen the playoffs, but he has seen enough of the Devils in the past to say what others are surely thinking.
"With the track record this team has in the playoffs, nobody is going to want to play the Devils," he said, pointing to the lurking presence of Brodeur as the biggest factor. "They know they are going to be in for a dogfight."
As a native New Englander, I'm not always fond of how New York-centric the national media can be in sports reporting. Still, I never firmly believed there to be an out-and-out bias as many West Coasters suggest.
But, those feelings might change if Joe Thornton does not give Jaromir Jagr a fair run for the Hart Trophy.
For weeks now, it has been a foregone conclusion that Jagr will win the MVP Award. After all, he leads the league and goals and has more than 100 points. He is the biggest reason New York will taste playoff hockey in close to a decade. And, he has been a good soldier for coach Tom Renney this season.
All compelling reasons to give him the award.
But Thornton has put up some fairly convincing arguments of his own. The big San Jose center pulled the Sharks into the playoff picture after his trade from Boston in late November. Thursday night, he had three assists to pull into a tie with Jagr for the league scoring lead. Both players sit at 122 points, but Thornton has one more game than Jagr left to play.
Thornton leads the League in assists and he has turned the unheralded Jonathan Cheechoo into a 53-goal scorer and a burgeoning superstar.
But, he does more than just create offense. He leads in his own laid-back way, he backchecks, he penalty kills, and he takes -- and wins -- the majority of San Jose's key draws.
It's no wonder that Southern Californians are more than slightly irked that "Jumbo Joe" appears to be an afterthought in MVP discussions. Maybe the rest of the hockey world has listened too long and too hard to the cries from Boston that Thornton is overrated.
But, these are the same people who believe that the Bruins got fair value in the trade that sent Thornton to the West Coast. Yet, Thornton, by himself, has scored the same amount of points as the trio -- Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau -- that landed in playoff-less Beantown.
Coach Ron Wilson articulated Thornton's credentials most articulately after Thursday night's win in an article in the San Jose Mercury News.
"If this is about the best player, that's one thing," Wilson said. "But this is supposed to be about the guy most valuable to his team, who does the most for his team. I don't see how it's even close. Joe takes two-thirds of our faceoffs. He is one of our top penalty killers, our best defensive forward. ..." In the end, I have no problem with Jagr winning the award. He has certainly earned it. But, Thornton deserves to be a legitimate challenger and mentioned in any discussion about the hardware.
Uncertainty follows Primeau's comeback
Watching Keith Primeau skate with his teammates Tuesday morning at the Flyers' morning skate at Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J., was a surreal experience -- and it had nothing to do with the jarring red hockey socks he donned that contrasted mightily with the traditional orange leggings worn by the 15 or so other players on the ice.
No, it was surreal because you looked at the big center, smiling and sweating freely as he took part in shooting drills and bantered with teammates, and you saw Eric Lindros -- a big Flyer center from a past era -- laying prone on the Wachovia Center ice six years earlier after a thunderclap check from New Jersey's Scott Stevens turned the tide for good in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals that year.
Lindros, who laid curled in the fetal position that night as the home crowd was silenced by an oppressive feeling of dread, had to be helped off the ice that night.
Many believe Lindros has never been the same player since that fateful collision with Stevens' broad shoulder.
Now, Primeau attempts to traverse the same long and trying road back from a career-threatening head injury that Lindros could not successfully navigate.
Like Lindros, Primeau is trying to buck the odds and return to give his team -- his Flyers family -- a lift as the postseason approaches.
So, sitting on the cold, aluminum bench at the Flyers' practice facility Tuesday as Primeau underwent his second day of practice with teammates after months of individual workouts, still-crystal clear thoughts of Lindros laying curled on the ice, unmoving, six years ago fought for time and space in my head with the present-day images of Primeau clearly enjoying his time on the ice.
Because it is obvious from even the most casual glance that Primeau has missed the game he loves, the game he has lived for close to three decades. His body once again performing hockey-related tasks is enough to bring a quick smile across his face.
That simple joy is the root behind this comeback, the driving passion that can hold sway against the reality that Primeau has missed the past 70 games and announced to the world back in late October that his post-concussion syndrome symptoms were too severe to allow a return this season.
Next year, he said at the time, was the goal now. That deadline, however, is in the process of being moved up.
And, as his return continues to move from possibility to probability, the unsettling questions about Primeau's long-term health intensify in the minds of many observers, including myself.
If Primeau continues to feel better after each successive practice, he will push his healing mind harder and harder in an attempt to convince himself -- and others -- that he is ready to withstand the rigors of playoff hockey.
Primeau, like most athletes that battle the unforgiving demon of head trauma, appears OK with the inherent risks of a return when they are measured against the rewards.
It is a risk/reward ratio that few of us ever have to entertain.
Primeau freely admits to spending most of the winter chased by fear, unable to shake the realization that he may never get back to where he was before the concussions started to pile up fast and furious.
"For the longest stretch of time, after this one at least, that was the sense -- I was really scared," Primeau said. "I didn't see any marked improvement in my condition or how I felt, and it's not a good feeling."
But now that he is starting to feel better, he has buried those fears in the deep recesses of his mind, a compartmentalization process that is inherent, and necessary, in all great athletes.
"I guess I have short-term memory because when you start to feel a little better you kind of forget how awful you felt and how long it took to feel better. It's not as scary now, but a piece of it's always in the back of my mind."
That piece of remaining fear is now a small enough piece that Primeau can once again chase his dream of playing again this year, of suiting up in Flyers black and orange -- minus the red socks -- and hearing the roar of the home crowd with everything on the line.
Primeau also remains a realist for the most part, though. He knows that he needs to string together quite a few days of feeling good before his dream can become a reality. He also knows danger lurks around every corner on the path forward.
He knows another "big" hit -- or even a well-placed "smaller" hit -- could send him hurtling back into the darkness of post-concussion trauma.
Amazingly, he appears comfortable with that risk.
"You just gotta go," he said Tuesday. "I'm at peace with being out there. The organization has allowed me to approach this is I see fit. So, God forbid, anything did happen, I can go away and I can go to my family and say, 'You know what happened, I made those decisions, I made those choices.'
"That's the way it needs to be. I can't regret and say I was pressured into doing it. I'm doing it because I want to do it."
That realization by Primeau must be honored, despite the difficult and surreal nature of watching the player following in almost the exact footsteps of a teammate that never truly found his way back from the same place four years earlier.
In the end, all hockey fans can do is wish Primeau good luck and good health going forward and try not to hold their breath every time he wades into inevitable contact on the ice.
And, that is exactly what I did as I rose from the aluminum bench and made my way toward the dressing room. "Good luck and Godspeed, Keith."
NHL's dream duos
Let me start this first NHL.com blog of mine by saying I am a dyed-in-the-wool ink-stained wretch.
I have loved the world of newspapers for as long as I can remember. Raised on the sports pages of the Providence Journal, I wanted to one day be like the writers and columnists I devoured on a daily basis -- paid to travel the country, if not the world, to tell people about the big game or the latest superstar.
To this day, the New York Post remains my guilty pleasure on my hour-plus morning commute to the office.
Why, you may wonder, am I sharing these details? The answer is to set the stage for a confession.
Unlike many traditional journalists that have treated the emerging of "alternative" media streams and reporting with distaste, if not abject fear -- I embrace the freedom and cutting-edge voice these outlets provide.
Often, in fact, I have eyed with envy some of the articulate bloggers and non-traditional columnists that have taken the opportunities available in cyberspace and made the most of them while I remained confined by the restricting rules of coverage employed by more "traditional" journalists.
Beginning with this first blog entry, I now have the opportunity to exercise some of my creativity and voice opinions and ideas that previously had no outlet.
I plan to make the most of this chance and will strive to bring those who invest their valuable time to peruse my musings a product that is both entertaining and worthwhile.
I also hope to give my readers a chance to feel a sense of community, one of the hallmarks of a well-executed blog, in my opinion. So, I look forward to hearing from those that spend their time reading my assorted musings. Please feel free to drop me a line at any time: Roarkeblog@nhl.com
Now, onto the blog.
Last week, I ran across a photo of former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield posing with Ilya Kovalchuk in the Thrashers dressing room after a game in Atlanta against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Holyfield was not the only star in attendance for the April Fool's game against the Hurricanes. Comedian Chris Tucker and PGA golfer Davis Love III were also in attendance at Philips Arena.
|This talented duo sure packs a punch.|
In the picture of Holyfield and Kovalchuk, the subjects stand side-by-side in front of Kovalchuk's locker, brandishing fists and smiling for the photographer.
To me, it was the perfect picture as Kovalchuk is well on his way to becoming a heavyweight champ in his own right when it comes to scoring goals.
There are few in the game today -- perhaps only Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin -- that can rival Kovalchuk when it comes to pure goal-scoring ability.
In fact, I can see Kovalchuk and Ovechkin waging a long-running battle -- similar to the ones Holyfield had with Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis during his heavyweight heyday -- for the title of this generation's scoring heavyweight.
That picture's simple message of athletic greatness -- past and present -- got me thinking about other hockey/non-hockey twosomes that would make priceless photo opportunities.
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but here are some of the pairings that popped immediately into my head.
Tiger Woods/Jaromir Jagr -- Pretty self-explanatory. Woods is the biggest thing in the golf world, a prodigy that has delivered regularly on all of the potential his skills suggested. Jagr has followed a similar arc in hockey and is again at the top of his game in leading the Rangers to the playoffs.
David Beckham/Joe Thornton -- In his prime, David Beckham was able to serve exquisite passes from virtually anywhere on the soccer pitch to provide his forwards with countless scoring opportunities. He made scoring legends out of countless Man U strikers before moving to a more unsettled time with Real Madrid. Thornton is headed in the opposite direction, moving from an unsettled time in Boston to greener pastures in San Jose, where his deft scoring touch has put Jonathan Cheechoo on track to be a superstar.
Tom Brady/Steve Yzerman -- Simply put, these two are winners. Brady is never the best at anything as a quarterback, yet he finds a way to win, leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. Yzerman also does not dominate at any discernible skill, he just does whatever it takes to make the Red Wings better. Detroit's captain for two decades, Yzerman is the conscience of his team in much the same as Brady has become the driving force behind the Patriots.
Arturo Gatti/Donald Brashear -- Now, there would be some good fists in this picture. Both men know how to provide fans with their money's worth. Each attacks his chosen profession in a relentless manner, always pushing forward, never retreating, no matter the physical demands exacted on their bodies. Gatti has become a boxing icon in Atlantic City with his no-holds-barred fighting style, especially in a bloody trilogy with Micky Ward. Brashear, meanwhile, can elicit primal roars from the Wachovia Center's faithful as he rides shotgun for the Flyers' talented scorers.
Tony Meola/Martin Brodeur -- The two best goalies the state of New Jersey has ever seen. Meola has done it all in a soccer uniform, playing abroad, representing his country internationally and introducing professional soccer to the American mainstream. At his peak, he was the best goalie America had ever produced. Brodeur has followed a similar career path, although he did not introduce pro hockey to New Jersey, merely helped save it from extinction with his brilliance in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs.
Dwight Yoakam/Ryan Smyth -- Yoakam is one of country music's most underrated performers. He produces nothing but quality songs each time he puts out a record. His material is always simple and emotional, with hints of virtuosity in the guitar playing. That is the way Smyth plays his game in Edmonton. He is simple in the straight-forward way he plays the wing and drives the net. And, he is emotional, a sparkplug for the scrappy Oilers as they battle year after year for their playoff lives. And, like Yoakam, Smyth certainly has some understated virtuosity to his game that often goes unnoticed by the unitiated masses.
David Ortiz/Mike Modano -- These two men do everything their sport demands to be a superstar, and each enjoys many of the trappings that go along with being elite performers in their chosen sport. Yet, each are somehow left behind in discussions about the best player in their sport. Ortiz just missed out on the AL MVP Award last year and often has his accomplishments dismissed for their one-dimensional nature. Modano, despite his undeniable resume of greatness, is usually a second-tier superstar behind some of hockey's flashier names. And, both players are -- plain and simple -- clutch.
Alex Ferguson/Scotty Bowman -- Two coaching legends. Ferguson is the autocratic, often acerbic, mastermind behind Manchester United's climb to the pinnacle of Europe's soccer mountain. His achievements -- English Premiership crowns and a Champions' League crown -- speak for themselves and invite no dissent on his team-building decisions. He is revered by the team's army of fanatics around the globe. Bowman has a similar legacy in Detroit, establishing the Red Wings as one of the NHL's elite franchises. His often dictatorial ways were accepted throughout his tenure as the price to be willingly paid for the team's unquestioned success. Now, if Bowman could only earn the title of Sir that proudly precedes any and all introductions of his name.
Ronnie James Dio/Brian Gionta -- Little big men that have performed far beyond their physical gifts. The diminutive Dio has one of the "largest" voices on the hard-rock landscape, bellowing some of heavy metal's most popular anthems during his time fronting Elf, Black Sabbath, Rainbow and his own band, Dio. His royal roar is considered among the seminal performances in the history of heavy metal. Gionta, the shortest player currently in the NHL, is among the game's most prolific scorers, patiently stalking New Jersey's single-season record for goals -- 46, held by Pat Verbeek. Like Dio, he plays a game that belies his smallish stature, willing to take risks that make him stand out in a game dominated by much bigger men.
Enjoy the last two weeks of the regular season and get ready for what will be an unforgettable postseason. Feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts on the blog or hockey in general at Roarkeblog@nhl.com. Talk to you all again soon.