Sunday, June 29, 2014

NHL Draft Thoughts

This weekend was the NHL draft which is always one of my favorite events of the year. No matter how well or poor your team did this past season, you can get optimistic about the future as organizations choose players to stockpile and develop for the future.

Depending on where a team is, the excitement level is different. The Florida Panthers took Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick. He projects to be a very solid, all-around defenseman in the NHL. The Panthers continue to acquire young talent in the draft and have a bright future ahead assuming things go as they hope...then again, that sometimes doesn't happen.

For the NY Rangers they come in after losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to the LA Kings. It was an incredible playoff run but LA was, like in 2012, an absolute runaway freight train this year. The Rangers did have chances to win games but the Kings found ways to win and and never gave up the entire post season.

The Rangers gave up their first round pick this year and next in the Martin St. Louis trade. I will not get into that discussion too much but I will say the trade was worth it. The Rangers have been stockpiling for a bit and have a solid core. But at some point, you have to make a move to try and get to the next level. Was it hard for some fans to take? Of course it was. Ryan Callahan has been a big part of the NY Rangers for awhile. But with the way negotiations were going with his contract and the abilities that St. Louis brings, you had to do it.

With no first round picks, that means a team has to get creative. It certainly isn't the kiss of death for a team to have no first round picks. Most NHL players come from later rounds and that is where teams need to find diamonds in the rough. Are most of those players going to play? No but the ability to find late round gems is important. An easy example is Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers made seven picks this season after coming to the draft with five. With the Rangers only having nine picks over the last two years, this was a good time to restock the cupboard a bit. Were they going to get a top flight pick? No unless they decided to trade up. But there was value in the draft this season and the Rangers have a very savvy scouting staff led by Gordie Clark. NY left the draft with three defensemen, two goalies, and two forwards. Spreading the picks around is a great way to draft as the Rangers have mentioned they will draft the best player that they think is available and don't usually go by organizational need.

One way it worked out in both directions is the drafting of goalies. I have read fans screaming about the Rangers drafting two goalies. It is time for a reality check, folks...Is Henrik Lundqvist at the top of his game? Yes. Is he unreal? Yes. Will he be around forever? Absolutely not. Lundqvist is 32 years old and certainly has plenty of good years left in him. But goalies take a very long time to develop. The only goalie developing in the system right now, with any sort of potential, is MacKenzie Skapski who is playing junior hockey. The Rangers needed more depth in the system. It makes sense. These guys are all young and at least five to six years from sniffing the NHL. In that time Lundqvist will be 38 or 39 years old. These picks are not about replacing Lundqvist because he will leave to go somewhere else...these picks are in mind for when Lundqvist retires and the Rangers have to fill that crease. Its called preparation and its the smart thing to do.

Will this draft be a success? We will not know the answer to that question for a long time. All of these players need time to develop and will not be in the NHL for awhile, barring any sort of absolute steal. The good news is that some of the players picked do have potential to be solid NHL players. Whether any turn into star NHL players remains to be seen.

For now it is on to Free Agent Frenzy and what should be an interesting July...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

And They're Off...

Obviously one game does not make an entire tournament, even one as short as the Olympics. But if you are an American hockey fan you had to like what you saw from the United States this morning against Slovakia as they cruised to a 7-1 victory. The discussion up until this point had been all about the goaltending of Team USA and who was going to assume the starting role. By the end of it, the story was the solid play of the skaters and the kind of speed the team could bring on the large ice surface. 

When it comes to a team being on the larger ice surface there is a huge adjustment for guys who have, almost exclusively their entire lives, have played on a rink that is 200' x 85'. Adding an extra 15 feet of width may not sound like much but you may have noticed that the wingers on these teams had more room than you normally would see in a NHL game or even from the last Olympics when the games were held on a NHL dimension rink in Vancouver. The extra time and space for forwards is a trap for defensemen. As is taught to those patrolling the blue line in any hockey game, the faceoff dots are your guide as to where you should be. Straying outside of those dots and you leave your defensive zone vulnerable to plays to the middle of the ice and good scoring chances for the opposition. Team USA's first three goals were direct results of play outside the dots and it ended up being the downfall of the Slovaks. Defensemen have to be aware of where they are on the ice and you have to trust your goalie is going to make stops on shots from outside the dots. 

For the US, they certainly had their moments in the defensive zone where things broke down a bit and the Slovaks were able to get some chances. What was encouraging was just how mobile the defensive corps of Team USA is. In the last Olympics Team USA had names such as Mike Komisarek, Tim Gleason, Rob Scuderi, and Ryan Whitney selected to the roster (albeit Komisarek never got in because of injury). While all of them are solid defensemen in the NHL they are not quite as mobile as some of the other American defenders who have joined the ranks this year. Guys like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Cam Fowler have all made the team partly because of their mobility on the ice. Without that mobility, your blue line is going to have a tough time on the large surfaces, especially on the big ice. 

Now American fans shouldn't be thinking the gold medal is coming back to the USA right now. Slovakia did not play a very good game and got real sloppy at times. They lacked a strong offensive and defensive effort for the most part. Could Team USA do this to a team like Canada, Russia, or Sweden who are deeper defensively and have some high offensive power? Possibly but its not likely. What certainly won't be a question is if Team USA can skate with other teams and that is half the battle. We will see how the line combos change throughout the tournament and how Team USA will handle a strong team like Russia (who got a bit of a scare from Slovenia) on Saturday. But I don't think Team USA could have asked for a better start to their tournament and certainly have plenty of positives to build on.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Seriously? A Response to Peter Gammons

Well hello there, folks! Yes it has been awhile since I wrote something up on here but I felt that a response was needed to something I read this morning that I thought a simple tweet or Facebook status would not do justice.

No doubt you have seen the highlights of last night's Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames game. If not, you can check it out here. In a nutshell, Flames Head Coach Bob Hartley decides to start his tough guys for the game and, as only fair and I think he should have done, Canucks Head Coach John Tortorella responded by putting his team's equivalent out there. Obviously, by the highlight, things escalated rapidly. It didn't end there as Torts was at the Flames locker room at the end of the first period trying to seemingly get Hartley for what he did. Check it out on TSN here. In the end, Vancouver got the last laugh with a 3-2 shootout win.

So what got me to write about this? One of my biggest pet peeves as a sports person is when pundits of another sport chime in and make dumb comments about another sport they have no involvement with. I'll admit I have done it myself in the past and I'm sure other people have as well. It can be a foot-in-mouth moment where you make yourself look bad.

Of course, there is a bit of a difference when Average Joe or Jane fan does it and when a respected journalist and sports reporter does it. This time it was ESPN's Peter Gammons, one of the most respected sports journalists in the American landscape for his work on baseball. Apparently he saw the highlight of last night's brawl and decided to tweet this morning:

As a hockey person, I am used to people ragging on it and its shortcomings. Hockey is behind the NFL, MLB, and NBA (although maybe not basketball with this recent article) in the grand scheme of things. I'm not disputing that.

The issue that happened with the hockey game last night was because of what happened on the ice. Did it spill over? Yes. Things get out of control and they can spill over. I have personally been apart of and seen some epic spill overs in hockey during my time as a team staff member.

 One reason that fighting is allowed in hockey is because of the emotion that comes out in a highly physical game. As much as people may hate fighting in hockey, it has a place in the game. The staged stuff is going away but there are instances where a fight serves a purpose. That is the short, short version of my opinion on fighting.

But let us take a look at baseball Mr. Gammons. Is baseball without incidents of violence? How about these? Or this? Or this when a 70+ year old man was thrown to the ground? There are plenty of other examples out there I could grab off YouTube. The point I am making here is don't think baseball doesn't have its incidents of violence that can make it look foolish at times.

Secondly, you called hockey a "minor" sport. Revenue wise? Yes hockey is minor compared to baseball. But it was not too long ago back in the 1990s that attendance was a major issue and the most important factor in bringing back the fans was players who were using performance enhancing drugs. Whether it was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run race or Barry Bonds chasing records fans flocked to the ballpark to see guys hit home runs who normally were not hitting the levels they were hitting. It got to the point where Congress needed to get involved to try and figure out what was going on. And now some of the most talented players in baseball history will more than likely never see the inside of the Hall of Fame because of it.

Now what am I saying by pointing all of this out? I am NOT saying that hockey has not had or doesn't have problems now. Every sport does. Every sport has bad incidents and press. It comes with the territory of sports. I recognize that. The easy way out of this is to talk about NHL Lockouts or hits to the head or fighting or goons or whatever you want to bring up. Guaranteed someone throws the link of Mike Milbury hitting a NY fan with a shoe at some point here.

All I am saying is that someone as respected and knowlegable about the sports landscape as Peter Gammons should just think about the context from which he is speaking. I love the game of baseball and I think it is a great sport. But when you are a baseball person and start picking out problems of other sports, just remember that "America's Past Time" has had some of the biggest problems in sports in recent memory.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Depth Perception: Mike Ribeiro in Phoenix

Mike Ribeiro solidifies Phoenix centers
For those people who know me personally, I have somewhat of a soft spot for the Phoenix Coyotes. Having lived in Phoenix when the team came to town back in 1996 they traded for Jeremy Roenick, one of my favorite players, and the rest is history. Even after moving back east I followed the team and still do to this day.

I won't go into the ownership debacle that seems to have solved itself for now. Its been an exhausting topic that I stopped really following a few years ago because I knew it would play it out eventually to some end. Its nice to see the Coyotes staying in Phoenix because I do believe it can work as a hockey market with the right conditions. Whether it actually does again is a different story entirely.

What I want to talk about is the on-ice situation they find themselves in. Two years removed from making it to the Western Conference Finals the Coyotes have been a team that has found ways to make a lot out of very little. The ownership situation left the team cash-strapped and General Manager Don Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett have had to find creative ways to make the team successful. The "Pack Mentality" that was coined by the players and staff has worked for a while but as we have seen in the last few seasons, you need a bit more than that. One thing the team has lacked is an abundance of skill up front. If you look back over the last few years, you won't see a lot of highlight-reel goals coming from Arizona when it comes to hockey.

That may begin to change this season. But let me be clear, folks...I'm not predicting a Phoenix Coyotes Stanley Cup this coming season. I'm not pumping tires that may be on the flatter side. This is just what I see with the team shaping up...

The Coyotes were showing signs of becoming serious with their franchise when Don Maloney, Assistant GM Brad Treliving, and Dave Tippett all signed extensions with the organization. Goaltender Mike Smith signed a deal worth 5.667 million for each of the next six years They became even more serious on the first day of free agency when they signed Mike Ribeiro to a four-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $5.5 million.

Obviously Mike Ribeiro is not someone you look at as a signing and think "superstar". Ludicrous to think so. But that doesn't mean Ribeiro is not a solid player who can be a first line center. He has some great offensive instincts and can distribute the puck very well. He may be able to help an anemic power play that has been dismal the last few seasons. What is more encouraging is the fact he knows Tippett very well having spent some time together while Ribeiro and he were in Dallas. Ribeiro's best career year came under Tippett in 2007-2008 when he had 83 points.

What else this does is it increases the depth level of Phoenix, particularly down the middle of the ice. Ribeiro knows Tippett's system for the most part and will integrate in smoothly. Behind him you have twp very solid centers who may be able to get a little more room on the ice with Ribeiro taking the top spot. First is Antoine Vermette who has shown flashes of being a skilled offensive player but has had trouble with consistency. Having someone like Ribeiro who is a bit of a similar player may be able to get him going. Right there with him you have Martin Hanzal who is really turning into a solid two-way center in the NHL. Throw in a gritty fourth line center like Kyle Chipchura and you can see what I am getting at. A piece like Ribeiro anchors the rest of the center depth and that sort of stabilization can help define a player's role and make the game easier for them to focus on.

The strength of the Coyotes has been in their defensive zone as Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Rostislav Klesla, and Zbynek Michalek lead a young crop of rising defensemen. One of the bigger, if not the biggest name, on defense for Phoenix is young star Oliver Ekman-Larsson who is turning heads around the league and certainly could be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy sometime down the road.

Like I said before I am not saying that the Coyotes are going to be lifting the Stanley Cup next spring. However, looking at the last few champions and you see how depth plays a role in winning it all. The Blackhawks, Kings, and Bruins have had unbelievable depth and it allowed them to be champions. Phoenix is certainly not at the level those teams were but the signing of Ribeiro is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ilya Kovalchuk Leaving NHL

The big splashes of the offseason in the NHL are usually over by now. With the NHL Draft done and Free Agent Frenzy down to a crawl the headlines of the NHL summer will now resort to what Chicago Blackhawks players are doing with the Stanley Cup or how players are spending their offseasons in Vegas or some other party locale.

But today was an exception to that rule. Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils has announced his retirement from the NHL at just 30 years old, leaving 12 years and $77 million on the table. You can read the official team release from the Devils here.

When Ilya signed that deal back in 2010 and the Devils incurred all of the penalties they did, people assumed that Kovalchuk would never finish out the contract. No one could see Kovalchuk playing in the NHL until he was 44 or 45 years old. But it does not seem anyone saw this coming soon. What does it do?

For the immediate future, the biggest cog in the Devils offense is gone. Say what you will about this decision by Kovalchuk but he was a top player in the NHL. He could skate very well and had one of the very best shots in the league. It will be almost impossible for Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello to replace his presence on the ice at this point barring something drastic. Even worse, it seems the choice between Kovalchuk and Parise was the wrong choice at this point. With the Devils focusing on Ilya instead of Zach during a crucial time, Parise chose to go home to Minnesota. Now Kovalchuk has decided to go home to Russia.

..oh and don't forget all the pieces lost in getting/keeping Kovalchuk in the first place including Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, Niclas Bergfors, and two first round picks (one for the trade and one as a penalty for the obscene contract). We'll never know how things would have turned out for NJ had they stuck with Parise and never got involved with Kovalchuk.

However...while this situation is probably not very good right now there are some positives. The Devils are now out from under the yoke that was the Kovalchuk contract and even avoided the years where he would have made the most amount of money. Instead all they have to deal with is a cap recapture penalty of about $300,000/year for the next 12 years. It could have ended up much worse cap-wise having to actually have paid the full amounts or have a greater penalty for retiring later. Long-term, the Devils have a lot more options for signing players.

Another positive this may have is on the Devils' financial situation. The team has run into issues with refinancing and even delaying payments to players by weeks. Owner Jeff Vanderbeek now does not have to pay this large contract which could help the team financially. It may even help to the point that another investor would be interested in investing in the team. Worst case scenario for fans, but probably best for the league at this point, is if an investor buys the team and moves them somewhere they will be more successful financially.

One thing the NHL should be concerned about is if this will cause other players to leave. There are rumors abound that Kovalchuk will be signing a deal in the KHL for more money than any NHL can pay him. More than likely, he will become the highest paid hockey player in the world. The KHL has lacked star power when it comes to going up against the NHL but with a big name like Kovalchuk going over now there may be some more serious thoughts about players jumping over. Certainly this won't be an immediate impact but the thought that players may jump over to Russia for bigger rinks and dollars has to now seriously be in the back of every one's mind in the NHL.

The fallout from this will unfold over the next few years as the fate of the Devils occurs. The hockey world will probably never know the true nature of how this went down but it is obviously a big story not only in hockey but sports in general. Hockey is one of the few sports in the US that has to deal with attractive playing options outside the States. Will the KHL be used as leverage in contract negotiations in the NHL more often? Remains to be seen. What we do know is that a fanbase is seriously upset and the New Jersey Devils now have the most uncertain future in the NHL.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Championship Cruise

For those of you who do not know my experience in the hockey world, I spent two years as the Assistant Director of Player Personnel for the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League, a Single A professional hockey league with teams in the Northeast and Midwest.

In the first year we made it all the way to the finals before being swept in three games to the New Jersey Outlaws who eventually moved to Williamsport, PA for this past season. It was a frustrating end to what we thought was a great run. I still remember sitting in the office with Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Phil Esposito in silence. At that point it wasn't about the X's or O's of the loss but rather taking what was learned over the course of the season and use it the following year. That being said, coming so close to a goal and not being able to complete it is one of the toughest things to deal with.

But we certainly learned a great deal about what was needed to win. As is normal in most lower level leagues, there is a lot of player turnover from year to year. In fact on opening night of this year, only seven of the players on the roster were returning names from the previous year. There were a few younger players out of juniors and college who had to learn what it meant to be in professional hockey.

There are many ups and downs during a season. These are numerous and sometimes can make it hard to believe that a season started one way and ended up in a different place. But between the home games and the road trips and intermissions things seem to blend together and move fast. The season was 51 games long for Danbury and I can sit here and tell you that games blend together.

The preseason game that was held in East Haven, CT at the conclusion of training camp and the last home game felt like completely different lifetimes. But the journey between the two was remarkable to behold. For fans of a team, you see maturation on the ice, quotes in the media, and the occasional gossip story that gets out (mind you, these aren't always correct). But to be within an organization and see practice day in and day out as well as a majority of the games you see how players grow. It is quite an amazing site to see.

How the players grow into a successful team is a testament to each other and the Head Coach. Everyone is apart of a family that is there to support each other. Whether things are going great or terrible everyone is there to pick the other man up. I have to say that the kind

I won't go into great detail as what happens in a locker room stays there but I can specifically remember a few meetings between the players and hockey staff. Obviously when a team has an extended downturn things need to be aired out and the problem needs to be solved. No names and no specifics as I mentioned but I do remember everyone having constructive feedback for everyone. At that point it didn't matter if you had played hundreds of professional hockey games or just a handful. At that point everyone had a seat at the table in determining what needed to be done.

The team finished the year 28-23 which was good for second in the league and 86 points. The entire regular season is a preparation for the playoffs and by the time the postseason had started the team had a radically different look from the first game. It was a solid mix of veteran players who had the experience needed for situations like these and a group of hungry young players who had energy to burn.

This was the second year in a row that Danbury faced 1000 Islands in the first round and it was never an easy game against them. In the FHL it was two series of best-of-five to win it all. The first two games were at the lower seed's rink with the last three of the series at the higher seed. However all three games in the series were played in Danbury due to some kind of issues up at the rink in 1000 Islands (the nature of them escapes me at the moment). Regardless of what people may say, being able to play at home is much easier than on the road. It certainly helped us as Danbury outscored the Privateers by a total of 17-4 over the three games.

It was at this point that I remember sitting, once again, in Coach Esposito's office after the first round. The year before I remember we were excited and ready for the next round thinking that was the year. To be honest it was a very different vibe. Sure there was a small celebration after winning that round but the office was very business-like. We looked at the team we would be playing, the Dayton Demonz, and knew we had quite the test ahead.

Dayton had finished way ahead of the pack in the regular season. In their 51 games they went 42-9 and finished with 123 points. They had the top three point scorers in the entire league. You didn't have to be a sports genius to see that, on paper, Dayton was the favorite. They had a great group of veteran players who had won in other places.

That being said there was no doubt in our minds that we could compete with them. During the regular season we went 1-6 vs the Demonz but had played pretty well against them. There were a few occasions where we were tied or had the lead on them going into the third period and then fell off in the last frame. In five of the seven games played the Demonz were held to four goals or less against Danbury. So while they had the advantage in record we felt that our style of play was going to help give us a chance. We had a structure in place that, when executed, was a great system that focused on shutting down opposition offense and creating a quick transition for our offense.

In this series it was a 2-2-1 system for the games. The first two in Dayton with the next two in Danbury, followed by the fifth and deciding game back in Dayton if necessary. I unfortunately was unable to go to Dayton for the first two games as I had begun working at another internship. I do remember being at the rink the night the team left and packing up the bus. There was a cool level of confidence and calm that seemed to be over everyone. I shook Coach's hand and wished the players best of luck. I remember sitting in my car watching the bus pull away trying to figure out how the two games would play out.

Sitting in front of my laptop I was able to watch the games. Watching playoff games as a fan is a much different experience than when you are watching them as part of a team. The nerves are a bit more frayed but you are more positive than as a fan. Fans expect the worst because they focus more on the other team and their strengths over yours. When you work for a team, you know your strengths and how you can play against any team. Its almost nicer to have the positive vibe.

Game 1 was nerve wracking. The score ended up being 4-1 Danbury after two periods. The game was being controlled by our system and the team defense was solid, not to mention the goaltending. As many times before during the season, we were up against Dayton going into the third period. They were going to come out firing big time. They struck early in the frame with a power play goal to cut the lead to two. Danbury answered a few minutes later to restore the three-goal lead with Phil Aucoin getting the goal. The lead was cut back to two less than a minute later and it was a close game again. Dayton scored again with about nine minutes to go in the game to cut the lead to one.

In every playoff series, in any sport, there is always a point in time where one team takes the reins. In the Stanley Cup Finals, it was probably the Blackhawks winning 6-5 in overtime against the Bruins in Boston. In this series it was the last nine minutes of the third period in Game 1. The defensive play and goaltending was solid. I remember yelling at my laptop and probably scaring my entire family. When the buzzer sounded it was a sense of relief and happiness. It was a 5-4 win for Danbury and we were now up in the series 1-0. When you are the lower seed in a playoff series you have to win at least one game on the road if you want to have a chance at winning the series. Accomplishing that in the first game was helpful and it got the team in a mindset. With one game down I was feeling more comfortable about our chances but by no means was I relaxed. Dayton had controlled the play at times as they sometimes can do and they were going to be motivated to not come to Danbury down by two games. I spoke with Coach Esposito after the game. "One down, two to go" was the mantra.

There was not a lot of time to rest as Game 2 was the next night. It was not as I expected as we had a 3-0 lead before the game was five minutes old. I kept my hopes tempered as there was a lot of game to go against a high-powered offense but ours just kept coming. Goal after goal came until the final buzzer sounded and it was 7-2. Matt Puntureri had a hat trick while Cody Ayers and Matt Caranci had three assists each. Mike Brown stopped 37 of 39 shots. After the jubilation of the win I sat on my couch with my jaw dropped staring at the boxscore. My phone rang and it was Coach Esposito again on the bus ride home. We talked about the game and how it was one of the best ones we had played all year. The system put in place had worked wonders in Game 2. "Two down, one to go".

The fact there was almost a week in between games was tough but everyone seemed to stay calm. Being at work at my new internship I was not around the team as much as I was earlier in the year but I kept tabs as I texted players throughout the week. Everyone was feeling pretty good but by Wednesday and Thursday guys were chomping at the bit to get on the ice again.

Friday rolled around and I remember leaving work and flying back to Danbury. I got to the rink and thought I would be walking into a locker room with an air of excitement. Much like after the first round, it was very business-like. Talking to the trainers and Coach Esposito we all had that feeling of "Wouldn't it be great..." but the thought was stopped there. We had all watched hockey long enough to know that things weren't over until that last buzzer.

The time until the game seemed forever. Pre-game warmups went by and everyone was ready to go. I didn't want to say it to anyone at that point but I really felt that was the night we were going to do it.

Time out for one second. Before the game some league awards were handed out. Mike Brown won the Goaltender of the Year Award while Whalers Owner Alan Friedman won Co-Executive of the Year. The other winner was a member of the Dayton staff who was at the game and, despite the fact it was not her home rink, should have still been recognized for her work. Alex DiMuccio helped run the Dayton Demonz organization and worked as hard as anyone else in the league to make sure the new team was able to perform well. She helped create an entertaining product at home games and handled all the logistics for her team. She did my job, which was hard enough, and much more. It was a shame she didn't get recognized for her efforts. This little paragraph doesn't do her work justice but I felt it was needed.

The national anthem went on and the Danbury Ice Arena was packed. I had stood on the bench before but it was pretty awesome being in front of the hometown crowd like that. As the game got under way the usual focus that comes over everyone on the bench took hold. The first period was hard fought with the only goal being scored by Phil Aucoin giving us a 1-0 lead. The crowd went crazy as did the bench but focus was quickly regained. Being able to exhale after the buzzer sounded a bit was nice.

The intermission seemed normal enough. The period seemed to be a carryover from Game 2 in Dayton when defense and goaltending helped hold the Demonz scoreless. As time would grow shorter though the Demonz would be pushing and we knew we had to be ready for that.

The second period saw that push as Dayton scored just 1:29 into the frame. Fortunately, Danbury answered just 20 seconds letter with a goal from veteran Kelly Miller. The Demonz would tie the game back up a few minutes later.

Through all of this there was no wavering of confidence from the Whalers. It showed on the power play when a little over 30 seconds after Dayton tied the game for the second time Tyler Noseworthy put home a goal that would put the team ahead for good. No matter what Dayton did the boys in green were not going to let this slip away. They reinforced that point as Anthony Pisano and Cody Ayers scored late in the frame to give Danbury a 5-2 lead after two periods.

The intermission between the second and third was a bit surreal. On one hand it seemed like any other intermission but the level of focus was at an all time high. I watched as the timer on my phone ticked down closer to zero. Normally the break would be relatively quick. This one dragged for a long time.

You always imagine some kind of dramatic speech in an intermission like this. Coach Esposito gave a quick one that seemed on par with most speeches ushering encouragement and the mantra of not letting the foot off the pedal. As his speech finished I will never forget the next image which I kick myself for not taking a photo of. All the players huddled around the big Whalers logo in the middle of the room getting ready for one last period. As they finished up with yells and screams it was evident things were going to go our way just one more time.

The third period dragged on. It also didn't seem like we had a three-goal lead. Every shot towards our net put a lump in my throat. Every time I looked at the clock it seemed like only a couple of seconds had ticked off. Noseworthy scored another goal about 16 minutes into the third period which all but sealed the deal. The celebrations began in the stands even as Dayton scored in the final minute.

As the buzzer sounded it was chaos. I know I jumped into a pile with some of the trainers, shook a few hands, and went out onto the ice and started grabbing whoever I could. everyone yelling, screaming, hugging and shaking hands.

The Commissioner's Cup was presented and slowly passed from player to player and eventually to Coach Esposito and the staff. When I was handed the Cup I did pretty much what every other person who gets it does: Lift it over my head, let out a big "Woo", give it a big kiss, and drop something similar to what Mike Richter said when he was handed the Stanley Cup in 1994. All of the hard work put in finally paid off for everyone.

There is a ton more I could go into whether its getting showered in champagne, drinking from a Cup, staying out until about 5 AM enjoying the victory, or even the parade but those will be for another time. I want to thank all the players and staff for an unbelievable season and pushing through the ups and downs that occurred and making me feel welcome even after I had left for another position with the NY Rangers. The amount of effort that everyone put into producing a championship was extraordinary and should be applauded for it.  I'm not sure if I will ever be apart of another championship team in my career but this one will always hold a special place for me since it was my first.

As I finally got to bed that night I felt the exhaustion wash over me. That of course after doing the cheesiest thing someone who wins a championship can do...listen to "We Are the Champions".

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An Incredible End to An Incredible Season

Best Newspaper Cover I've Seen in Awhile
Unfortunately last night was the end of the National Hockey League season as the Chicago Blackhawks stunned the Bruins in the final two minutes of third period with two quick goals, thus capturing another Stanley Cup. Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, making it the third straight American to win the award and only 4th overall.

The end of the game was a microcosm of the entire season as things went from pretty bleak and surely another game for these players into an exciting sprint to the finish. The beginning of the season was mired in frustration after a lengthy lockout knocked out the first half. But once the games started fans flocked back to the seats and televisions for an unbelievable season that was capped off by one of the best playoffs in recent memory. The Finals series itself, while it did not go seven games, was an unbelievable contest between two franchises who have been near the top of the league the last few years.

What we learned during this playoff run is that depth is incredibly important. Sure having big names is a plus but as these two teams showed having a complete lineup top to bottom is more important. It was not the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin who were heroes throughout the playoffs but names such as Daniel Paille, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Shaw, Justin Williams, and Patrice Bergeron who dominated headlines on most nights. Even in a league as low as the Federal Hockey League where the Danbury Whalers won a championship, depth was the key element that won the championship. Stay tuned for an article on that at some point soon...

Speaking of Mr. Bergeron, it was reported last night that he played last night with a broken rib, torn rib cartilage, and a separated shoulder. Its no surprise that something like this happened as every year there are players who play through incredible pain and anguish to compete for the Stanley Cup but Bergeron was the face of the Boston Bruins throughout the playoffs. There were many other worthy players for the award but if the Bruins had somehow forced a game seven and were able to capture the Cup, there is no doubt in my mind that Bergeron would have won the Conn Smythe.

So what now for hockey fans? Fret not folks. There is going to be plenty happening in the next couple of weeks. Compliance buyout period will begin tomorrow, the NHL Draft is on Sunday, Free Agent Frenzy beings on July 5th, and the schedule will also be announced next year very soon. There is (hopefully) the culmination of the Phoenix Coyotes ownership debacle, the decision of whether or not NHL players will be in the Olympics next year, and many other storylines throughout the summer. The offseason will be shorter than usual and people can't wait for a full season of hockey to begin in October.