by John Wiedeman
Bloomberg 1130's Voice of the Islanders
Orr Called the Oilers, Potvin the Sabres
It's strange how things turn out sometimes in the game of hockey. On St. Patrick's Day, March 17th, the Islanders were down in Sunrise, Florida for a game against the Florida Panthers. On my way down the hallway to our broadcast booth, I peered through an open door to the Panthers TV booth and spotted none other than Bobby Orr, who in my opinion was the greatest player in the history of the game. It turned out to be a conversation I'll never forget as Islanders legend Denis Potvin, Orr and I got together and talked hockey over a cup of coffee. Unless Denis or Bobby sought my opinion, I stood by and did a lot of listening.
The conversation centered around golf until Denis asked Bobby point blank: "So who do you like in the playoffs?" Bobby's answer made both Denis and I do a doubletake: "Well," Bobby began, "I like the Edmonton Oilers." At the time we had good reason to doubt the Oilers even making the playoffs as they were struggling just to land the last playoff spot in the West. Orr then proceeded to tell Potvin that he felt Edmonton had the best room of any of the teams going to the playoffs and liked nearly everything about them and felt they could go all the way.
I should also point out that in this same conversation, Denis said he liked the Buffalo Sabres chances for nearly the same reasons. So as we fast-forward a few months, we find that the Oilers are on the verge of eliminating Anaheim in the Western Conference Finals, while Buffalo stole the home ice advantage from Carolina and is back in Buffalo for games #3 and #4 with the series tied at 1-game each.
For the older, veteran players, surviving to the Conference Final and dealing with the cuts, bumps, bruises, strains, sprains and even fractures that tend to accumulate over a season or several seasons, is all part of being an NHL player. Staying motivated through all of the carnage at this point in the season is easy and one unspoken motivating factor for these vets is fear. Not the fear of a tough opponent physically battering their bodies during games, but the fear of never getting another chance to get this close to the cup. Each team still in contention has at least one of these veteran players who might be in a position they'll never see again. They are: Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks; Dwayne Roloson of the Edmonton Oilers; Teppo Numminen of the Buffalo Sabres and Rod Brind'Amour, Doug Weight and Glen Wesley of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Teemu Selanne, who at age 35 is in his second stint with Anaheim, might not get too many more kicks at the can. Nicknamed the "Finnish Flash" during his rookie year in the NHL, the 1992-93 season with the Winnipeg Jets, Selanne set a rookie record for goals and points in a season with 76 and 132 respectively. Things were great for Selanne until he sustained a knee injury in the mid '90s, was traded to Anaheim in 1995, then sent packing again to San Jose a few seasons later. Selanne then signed with Colorado for the 2003-04 season thinking he was finally joining a team that would win a Stanley Cup. But the knee injury that burdened him for eight years began to affect his play more than it ever had and he hit rock bottom with the Avs, registering career-low numbers. So instead of returning to Finland and playing hockey during the lockout, he opted for surgery to rebuild his knee. Now healthy, Selanne is back to his old ways, and if he has learned one thing through the ordeal it's not to take anything for granted. The only thing he cares about is a Stanley Cup, and now, he's closer than he has ever been.
At 36 years of age, Dwayne Roloson has seen his youth pass him by as he toiled in the Calgary, Buffalo and St. Louis organizations before catching a break in 2001 with the Minnesota Wild. Things came together for Roloson in Minnesota as he and Manny Fernandez were the goaltenders union that took the Wild to a first ever playoff run that saw the Wild go all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2002-03. That season helped establish Roloson as a bonifide NHL goaltender, so when the Oilers raised many an eyebrow by sending a #1 draft pick to the Wild in exchange for Roloson at the March trade deadline, it signaled to Roloson that he had arrived as a #1 goaltender in the NHL. At this writing he has his team in the driver's seat in the Western Conference Finals as the Oilers now lead the series 3 games to none and can close out Anaheim up in Edmonton with 1 more win. Roloson would then be in position to realize a dream he might well have given up on years earlier; his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.
In the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres are a team on the young side but one Sabres player who can only say that he's young at heart is 37 year old defenseman Teppo Numminen. By NHL standards, Nummimen is an old player, but has played competitively even though he's been diagnosed with a heart ailment in the past few seasons. Numminen has courageously gone about his work with the Sabres, by stabilizing the blueline and the dressing room with his veteran prescence. Checking the record, Numminen skated with the Winnipeg Jets for eight seasons, then moved with the team to Phoenix for seven more when the Jets became the Coyotes. In all Numminen spent 15 seasons with a team that never went past the first round of the playoffs, if they made the playoffs at all. One season with the Dallas Stars paid slim dividends and Numminen went looking for the right mix again. He believes he's found it in Buffalo, playing for Head Coach Lindy Ruff where the young Sabres have outgrown their doormat status and now are commanding respect around the NHL. His time with Buffalo can now be seen as something of a reward for toiling with teams that had little chance of playing for a Stanley Cup, so Numminen, like Roloson, Selanne and the others is now as close as he'll ever get to winning a Stanley Cup. Though he's been slowed by a groin injury, you'll probably see him playing through the pain as he plays the position like a man possessed. Given the circumstances, wouldn't you?
The Carolina Hurricanes have four players who are 35 or older. But Rod Brind'Amour and Doug Weight who are each 35 years old, and Glen Wesley who is 37, are all hoping that this will be their year. Weight has never played in the Cup Finals; Brind'Amour played in the 1997 Finals with Philadelphia and the 2002 Cup Finals with the Canes. Wesley, the senior citizen on the Hurricanes has played in three Stanley Cup Finals, two with the Boston Bruins in 1988 and 1990 and one with the Hurricanes in 2002. This group of veteran players combined with youthful enthusiasm, skill, speed and the solid goaltending of Cam Ward, looks to have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup this spring than in 2002.
The Islanders missed this season's playoffs but Islander fans should take heart and look at the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to see how a hockey team can bounce back after a down season. They missed the playoffs during the 2003-04 season, but the youth they'd drafted and developed, along with free agent signings have gotten them back into the hunt. Their roster looks very different from the year they went to the finals in 2003, as only 6 players remain from the 2002-03 roster. They are: JS Giguere, Vitali Vishnevski, Ruslan Salei, Samuel Pahlson, Andy MacDonald and Rob Niedermayer. Free agent additions Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne have helped Anaheim's ascent while their young players have risen to the challenge of playing in the NHL. As a team, Anaheim reached a level of cohesion and symmetry that is crucial down the stretch.
Where would the Mighty Ducks be if they did not unite the Niedermayer brothers, Rob and Scott? Scott said no to a lucrative deal which was offered to him by the Devils last summer so that he could play on the same team with his brother in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup. Without Scott Niedermayer, the Mighty Ducks would have been a good team anyway, but without him on their blueline, who's to say they'd have even made the playoffs. All in all, uniting the brothers Niedermayer was a good move by Anaheim for now and the future.
With Ilya Bryzgalov now the starting goalie in Anaheim, how long will Jean Sebastien Giguere wear a Ducks sweater? I think Giguere is headed out of Anaheim, possibly at the upcoming NHL Draft in Vancouver. In my opinion, possible suitors could be: Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and St. Louis. In case you forgot, Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP in 2003 when the Mighty Ducks were beaten by New Jersey in seven games. Giguere was incredible in those playoffs and should easily be considered a starting NHL goaltender.