THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND
A Hat Trick of Lists in the Key of 3
By Chad Huebner
Though I’m still not in favor of giving teams a point just for making it to OT, I have to admit since the NHL has instituted this rule, the playoff races have become absolutely mind-bending. To have this many teams involved in the playoff races at this late stage of the season, as well as having a few division titles and the top seed in the Eastern Conference all for grabs just blows me away. That, and if it weren’t for the three-point games, my beloved Blackhawks would have been more concerned with tee times right now.
But of course, this is nothing compared to the playoffs themselves, which gets started next week and probably won’t end until early June, a “mere” two months of that bug-craziness going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people in mental health institutions across the country, nay the world, were hockey fans. Size me up for a straight-jacket; I’ll take a 42 medium, if you please.
One more thing before we get into the 3 Lists in the Key of 3 (remember: a lot of things in hockey come in threes). I went to a Chicago Wolves game over the weekend. I thought I was going to see one of the best clubs, if not the best club, in the AHL. The Wolves were playing against the Houston Aeros, a minor league affiliate for the Minnesota Wild and a holdover for the International Hockey League days. Though the Wolves were coming off an OT loss to the Rockford IceHogs the day before (and in the midst of playing three games in three days-gotta love the minors), I was expecting a team that came right at you from the start, pouring on the shots and beating the other side by four or five goals. Instead, the Wolves came out flat like the ‘Hawks did in the game I saw a few weeks ago, and found themselves down 4-0 by the middle of the second period. You could say officiating didn’t help: well, really, it was almost downright criminal for calling phantom penalties (last time I checked, a “slash” meant the offending player had to hit another player with his stick, not hit the other guy’s stick), and basically letting the game get out of hand with numerous brawls (one of which could’ve been avoided had the ref blown the whistle right away instead of standing on the ice like a slack-jawed yokel). But really, the Wolves only have themselves to blame, though the replacement goalie was perfect (20-for-20) in net and they scored three goals, the last coming with only five seconds left in the game. Maybe I’m just a jinx now, I dunno.
Another thing I found out from the game: if you’re heckling the refs, players, etc, make sure you’re not yelling directly at the back of the guy sitting in front of you. All throughout the game, I had a few saps sitting right behind me, blowing my ears off with such classical witticisms like “ARE YOU BLIND?!” and “WHAT THE #@$! CALL WAS THAT?!” Now I know how other people feel when I do it at sporting events.
And now, on to the Lists. . .
Top 3 Pleasant Surprise Teams of the Season
3. Edmonton Oilers (40-34-6, 86 pts)
The fight for first in the Northwest Division has mostly involved the Avs, Flames, Canucks and Wild for the entire season, but lately, the Oilers are throwing their weight (not Doug) around. But though they won’t make the postseason again, the mere fact they’re even this close speaks volumes with not a lot of known stars, but plenty of rooks and young guys so that next year, the Oilers will easily be playing beyond April. They’ve been 17-10-1 since the All-Star break and have been a real pest not just to their own division, but the entire West. Dustin Penner is one of the few known names, but his numbers (23-23-46, -12 +/-) have looked quite ordinary compared to his time in Anaheim. If it wasn’t for Patrick Kane and Johnny Toews in Chicago, the Oilers could make a case for a couple of rookie sensations in Sam Gagner (13-36-49) and Andrew Cogliano (18-27-45) who are the third and fifth leading scorers on the team. Dwayne Roloson, the savior of the 2005-06 playoffs, is still with the team, but has given away to the “younger” Mathieu Garon (Rollie’s 38, Garon’s 30) in net, which has made quite a difference on a defensive-deficient squad.
2. Philadelphia Flyers (40-28-11, 91 pts)
They slipped from the top spot on my list of pleasant surprise teams at the All-Star break to number two. Why is that? Well, they’re not that much of a surprise anymore, in that they should (and I really emphasize that word right now when they’re the number eight seed, three points ahead of the Caps) make the playoffs, and they were a top team before this year. Still, it’s a bit of surprise they’re still very much in the playoff picture after tanking January (4-8-2), but I guess that Prospal deal has certainly made the Flyers. . . prosperous? Aside from my horrible pseudo-pun, the Flyers have rallied back into postseason form, and could be a real handle for whoever finishes first or second in the East, which could be Pittsburgh either way and would present a very favorable first round matchup.
1. Florida Panthers (36-34-9, 81 pts)
Sure, they’re not making the playoffs, but did you really think the Panthers would be this good and in the hunt until a few weeks were left in the regular season? Yeah, right. That 8-0-1 run to start March made things a little more jumpy in the East for a little bit, but regardless, this is a team that probably has no business with 81 placement points with three games to go in its season. The offense is basically Ollie Jokinen (33-37-70). . . and whoever decides to throw the puck at the net (Ollie has 336 shots, the next closest guy has only 224). The fans would have had more luck flinging toy rats in the goal then the Panthers do at scoring (maybe they should bring the rat back as a marketing campaign). Bringing in Tomas Vokoun to fill in the vacuum left when Luongo flew for the northwest corner of the continent has helped somewhat, but come on.
Top 3 Disappointing Teams
3. Nashville Predators (40-31-9, 89 pts) kinda sorta maybe
They’re on this list only tentatively, but if they blow their chance at nabbing the eighth seed, consider them a lock. Despite all the people that have left since last season, maybe they should have been playing even better than what they’re doing now. Okay, you know what? I gotta stop this part right here as I don’t have much of a leg to stand on after Tuesday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues. Up 3-0 in the first period, the Blues pretty much coasted the rest of the way, while the Preds got all the momentum (and a no-goal call by the ref on the Blues with a few minutes to go in regulation, even though it looked like the St. Louis player was clearly pushed into the net the time the puck went in) and won the stupid game in OT. The Blues were out shot 17-6 over the last two periods. Thanks for nothing, St. Louis, you just give me another reason to get pissed off at you. First it’s baseball with the Cards, now this. Miserable bunch of pukes.
Speaking of which. . .
2. St. Louis Blues (31-35-12, 74 pts)
I had them pegged as the second-best team in the Central Division, not for second-worst team in the West! Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps at the All-Star break, where the Blues were a possible eighth seed before stinking up the second half of the season (9-16-5 since then) and the month of March (3-9-2). It could also be that dead-last power play which is pretty much Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya over and over again. Really, can you call it a power play? No surprise the offense is near the bottom of the barrel (though Brad Boyes’ 41 goals-the first Blue to post 40 since Scott Young in 2001-are a bit of an eye-opener). It is somewhat a surprise that Manny “Legs” has a winning record (currently 26-25-12) in goal, even if the defense has all the bland, uninspiring consistency of tofu (witness Tuesday night’s debacle). Otherwise the “wait til next year” mantra has to be extended a year.
1. Atlanta Thrashers (33-40-8, 74 pts)
I get e-mail newsletters and whatnot from the Thrashers, and they always have this slogan in nearly every publication: “Believe in Blueland”. But really, what can Thrasher fans believe in? Probably that this organ-I-zation is in shambles, and has taken a few steps back instead of going forward from its first playoff appearance in franchise history last year. The Thrashers are coming up on their 10th anniversary (yes, friends, “The Matrix” is nearly a decade old), but there doesn’t seem to be much cause for celebration. First, it was the 0-6 start, so naturally, head coach Bob Hartley had to go, right? Then it was the Hossa deal, where the Thrashers tried to put the spin that they weren’t shelving the rest of this season, but rather making some feeble run at the playoffs. Even in the “weakened” Southeast, Atlanta couldn’t keep pace with the ‘Canes, Caps and even Panthers. There seems to be a bit of a difference in communication between Atlanta and their AHL affiliate, the Wolves, in that there’s a lack of it. The Wolves are more interested in winning and keeping the best players from making the trip down South, while those who do venture to Atlanta have little or no idea of the Thrashers’ playing system, because it really isn’t taught at the AHL level. Oh, but for heaven sakes, don’t blame GM (and interim head coach, and Exec. VP) Don Waddell for any of this. He’s only doing his job, but not that well-for the last decade-which means in the sporting world, he’ll never get fired. Can’t wait for next year, right?
Top 3 “I can’t believe they’re still playing these days, I thought they retired ages ago” Guys
(Note: I only counted currently active players, so no Amontes, LeClairs or Sean Burkes on this list)
3. Teppo Numminen-Buffalo Sabres
Well hello. . . Numminen. Not Nummelin. Or Nurminen. Or even Nuutinen. Just good ol’ Teppo from Tampere, Finland. Yes, there are other 40-year-old defensemen that aren’t named Chelios. But none can make the claim that Teppo can: he’s one of the few to play for the ol’ Winnipeg Jets, then made the move to Phoenix and the Coyotes. He also spent a season in Dallas before moving to Buffalo, where he’s in his second season now. And as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much of a drop off in his numbers. He’s usually good for 7-10 goals, 30-40 assists and 20-40 PIM a season. If he stays with the Sabres, or even moves on to another team, he’ll be playing his 20th season, yet he doesn’t get any pub like Chelios for his longevity.
2. Martin Gelinas-Nashville Predators
Again, a guy who’s putting up consistently solid numbers, yet keeps moving around from place to place like a wandering gypsy (and really, isn’t “wandering gypsy” an oxymoron? But I digress. . .). He’s played with six teams and counting, but his first club, Edmonton, has some historical significance in hockey, in that he was part of the deal that brought The Great One to Los Angeles, so he’s a Stanley Cup winner (Oilers won in 1989-90). After spending the first half of the 1993-94 season with the Quebec Nordiques (one of the most unique names in sports, by the way), he was claimed on waivers by the Vancouver Canucks, so he’s also experienced Stanley Cup heartbreak (also part of the 2001-02 ‘Canes squad that went to the Finals). He’s also the Preds’ finalist for the Bill Masterson Trophy. Who knows what’ll happen to him this year? (Well, of course I’m hoping the Preds won’t make the playoffs at all, but that’s just the ‘Hawk fan in me talking.)
1. Trevor Linden-Vancouver Canucks
He’s the reason why I came up with this list. I was just looking through the news headlines on NHL.com, and this one really took me for a loop: “Trevor Linden has two goals to lead Canucks over Flames, 6-2”. Really? That Trevor Linden? Now there’s a hockey name from the ‘90s. He was the face and voice of the Canucks for the first decade of his career. But Mike Keenan, who was the head coach of the Canucks in 1998, didn’t seem to think so and traded Trevor to the New York Islanders for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe and a third-round draft choice that turned out to be Jarkko Ruutu. Not a bad move for the Canucks. Linden spent two years in Long Island, then two up in Montreal, then another two in Washington, before coming back to Vancouver for good in 2001. He seems like he should be in his 40s, yet he’ll only turn 37 next week (before this season, he competed in something called the TransAlp Bike Race, a 600 km-373 mile-trek through the Alps over an eight-day period, so yeah, he’s still in great shape). Though the stats aren’t quite as spectacular as they were in the 80s and 90s, he brings a leadership presence the Canucks sorely need in times like, oh, right now.
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