Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The GAME of the night
Hurricanes 2, Canadiens 1

Carolina wins series 4-2

“Saku is our leader, our best player. He gives us our punch, our desire. His loss was absolutely huge for us and we just couldn’t seem to make up for it.”
— Montreal defenceman Craig Rivet

I suppose that sums it up.

I can't really think of another player in this series whose absence would have had as big an impact on the series' outcome. No single player on the Habs or 'Canes means as much to his team as Montreal's captain.

Granted, Koivu's offensive production wasn't overwhelming this season, as Montreal is a fairly score-by-committee group, but that's not really all that factors into the equation. Sure, he's an excellent faceoff man and a strong defensive player, but what Koivu really brings is heart — a quality that, dare I say it, this Canadiens teams lacks a little without him.

It's a brutal assessment, but there can't really be any other conclusions after a team blows a 2-0 series lead, losing four straight games — three of those at home — and never looking like the team that was red-hot down the stretch.

Still, even with that said, the Hurricanes are lucky they had an ace in the hole like Cam Ward. I've heard more than a few pundits this year say Carolina would be hung out to dry if Martin Gerber couldn't get it done in the playoffs, but having seen Ward dominate the major junior playoffs with the Red Deer Rebels from 2002 to 2004, I'm sure most WHL followers knew better. Ward's numbers during the regular season weren't impressive at all, but he proved the difference in the series when Gerber faltered.

Even goaltending aside, Carolina's depth is impressive and it's part of what sets this team apart from Montreal. Veteran players like Doug Weight and Ray Whitney played just more than 14 minutes last night, while Oleg Tverdovsky warmed the bench as the seventh defenceman and Josef Vasicek didn't even play.

Vasicek, you say? So what? Let's not forget he led this team in scoring in 2003-04.

My how far we've come since then.

James's pre-playoff prediction: Carolina in 7

Sabres 7, Flyers 1
Buffalo wins series 4-2

"[I'm] shocked. It was over so quick. It was bang, bang, bang. Everybody was in shock.

"The air went out completely. The deflation was unbelievable."
Philadelphia head coach Ken Hitchcock

This series may have went six games, but the Sabres offered up quite possibly the opening round's most dominating performance. This team is for real, and they're going to be a handful for even the Ottawa Senators.

The real question you face in breaking down a series like this is — Where the Sabres really that fantastic? Or were the Flyers really that awful?

Of course, the answer lies somewhere inbetween, but I don't think it can be overemphasized how poorly Philadelphia played in this series. They looked absolutely terrible, and nothing like the team that dominated many opponents during the regular season. On paper, a top line of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble should have been able to really create havok against a smallish defence, but Gagne and Knuble were largely ineffective throughout. Forsberg managed to dominate the Flyers first two home games, notching four goals (two game winners) and six points in Games 3 and 4.

One of the main reasons the Flyers failed in this series was the lack of offence from supporting players, namely youngsters like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Fred Meyer — all of whom seemed to improve as the regular season went along. I was especially shocked to see Carter and Richards, playoff heroes for the AHL Phantoms last year, finish without a goal and a combined -9.

Buffalo's score-by-committee approach provided just the opposite. The Sabres had three natural centremen (Dan Briere, Tim Connolly and Chris Drury) finish as the top three point producers in the series, which is any opposing coach's nightmare. One of the most inexperienced teams in the playoffs, Buffalo sure didn't look it and some of their youngest, most unproven players were their best (Ryan Miller, Connolly, J.P. Dumont, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Brian Campbell).

There are a ton of fantastic players on this team who not a lot of hockey fans know much about, and I'm glad the Sabres advanced purely for that reason. If you get a chance to catch some of these games, be sure to keep your eye on Pominville in particular, who really impressed me when I took a trip to Buffalo in February.

Given his skillset, I think we could be looking at the next Martin St. Louis. He's that good.

One more quick Player to Watch pick: Jay McKee. The only player left from the Sabres unsuccessful run to the finals in 1999, McKee is the consumate playoff performer — even though we haven't seen him in that role since 2001. The Kingston, Ontario, native isn't going to get on the scoresheet often, but he led the NHL in blocked shots this season (241 — 34 more than the second-place player) and is also one of the Sabres leaders in hits. He's also quite the character, as evidenced by this quote after his defence partner (Campbell) rocked Umberger in Game 1:
"Big hits like that don't come around too often," McKee said. "It's not easy or you'd see them every night."

He almost sounded jealous.

"I think everybody was," McKee said. "I think everybody around the league would like to drop a hit like that one."
Himself included, to be sure.

Final thought: To be honest, I thought this series would be the best of the first round, and it turned out to be a 'Grade A' dud. I've never seen a Hitchcock-coached team play like that.

James's pre-playoff prediction: Philadelphia in 6


At 7:26 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

When will Bobby Clarke realize the importance of good goaltending? Year after year this team is betrayed by its latest journeyman netminder and goes out heartlessly in an early round.

Or is it that the black and orange destroys the confidence of goalies? But never fear, Flyer fans, as I understand Ron Hextall is available this off-season via free agency....

At 7:46 a.m., May 03, 2006, Anonymous Rob said...

alyosha, i respecfully and forcefully disagree with you. most games in this series Robert Esche was the Flyers' best player. And in those games where he wasn't (2 and 6) that's only because every single player on the roster played like a dog. This series could (should?) easily have been a sweep for Buffalo if not for a few sketchy goals allowed by Miller in gms 3 and 4. I will wholeheartedly agree that Bobby Clarke has issues with putting a team together but for other reasons - when one of your prized acquisitions (Derian Hatcher) gets burnt badly by Mike Grier (whom i respect greatly as a player but has the speed and moves of an ox), you have a problem.

At 8:09 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

I didn't watch much of the series except games 2, 4, and 6, I admit, but the numbers don't lie:

2-3 won-loss record
4.20 GAA
.875 save percentage

...and he was pulled twice, I believe. That is not quality goaltending no matter how badly the team plays in front of their netminder.

I have to agree with Mr. Mirtle about the disappointing performance of Gagne and Knuble, Gagne especially.

At 9:15 a.m., May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goalies do not play in a vacuum. GAA and Save% tell us little without knowing how the goalie's opponents and his own team played in front of him.

The tremendous emphasis focused by commentators on goalies is an annoying trait of playoff hockey. Cam Ward doesn't win these games by himself, and Turco doesn't lose them by himself. I try to avoid Devils games because all the broadcasters talk about is Brodeur.

At 10:50 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger John said...

The Flyers didn't lose because of the goaltender. They lost because they played like absolute garbage for most of the series, and Buffalo is great at making teams pay for their mistakes.

Unfortunately Hatcher and Rathje are both slow and both have been playing hurt for some time now. The team really missed Kim Johnsson on the blueline and the solid play and leadership of their captain, Keith Primeau.

It was a season that began with a lot of promise, and after an excellent 11-game road trip in December the club was at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Unfortunately the injuries (something like 330 man-games lost) caught up with the team in the second half and the performances really tailed off.

Hats off to the Sabres on their play over the entire season and in the series. They should give Ottawa a tough road.

At 10:56 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger Delicious said...

I'm looking forward to seeing more of the Sabres...or I would be, if they weren't wearing the ugliest uniform in sports, Arena Football and beer league softball included.

And to think of how good they'd look in the old blue and yellow...

At 11:00 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger John said...

And if you want to examine numbers, I think these speak to the overall poor level of play from the boys in Orange and Black...

Desjardins: 1-3-4, -3
Nedved: 2-0-2, -4
Hatcher: 0-2-2, -4
Handzus: 0-2-2, -2
Umberger: 1-0-1, -3
Savage: 1-0-1, -4
Gauthier: 0-1-1, -5
Richards: 0-1-1, -5
Meyer: 0-1-1, -5
Eager: 0-0-0, -4 (in 2 games)
Carter: 0-0-0, -4
Kapanen: 0-0-0, -4
Dimitrakos: 0-0-0, -2
Rathje: 0-0-0, -1

At 11:46 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

Goaltending is the most important position on a hockey team in the playoffs. Perhaps too much is made of their overall importance by breathless TV announcers (Chico Resch and Doc Emrick, I'm looking at you) but the fact remains that the hottest goalie in the playoff tourney usually gets to the semifinals at least. Look at Dwayne Roloson this year in Edmonton--that whole series came down to him vs. Legace, and Roloson won that one-on-one battle in a rout.

The Flyers seem to think that the only thing that matters are the 18 skaters in front of the net. No other team in the NHL in the last fifteen seasons has been so consistently betrayed in the playoffs by their lack of talent in nets. Brian Boucher, Sean Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Roman Cechmanek, Ron Hextall, and Garth Snow are not exactly the first names that spring to mind when great goalies are mentioned.

It's odd that a former player like Clarke cannot understand or respect one of hockey's simplest principles--nobody in nets means no visits with Lord Stanley's Cup.

At 11:57 a.m., May 03, 2006, Blogger Djlethal01 said...

Is it to early to wonder about the future of Gerber with the Canes?

At 1:22 a.m., May 04, 2006, Anonymous Nicanor said...

'Is it to early to wonder about the future of Gerber with the Canes?'

He will probably be the Flyers goalie in the play-offs next season.


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