“Hogging” is a very special kind of blogging, in which I blather on about hockey at great length. How great? Well, let’s find out—but let’s keep it below the fold, out of consideration for the feelings of people who couldn’t care less:
Eastern Conference Playoffs
(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (8) New York Islanders. It was nice that the Islanders made the playoffs, even if they had to squeeze out the Canadiens and Maple Leafs to do it. I was kind of rooting for my ancestral Habitants, actually, partly because I have so few opportunities to practice identity politics, but I have very limited sympathies with teams, even French-Canadian teams, that blow late two-goal leads by taking a succession of stupid penalties in decisive games. And even though the Leafs are no longer coached by the thuggish Pat Quinn, whose playoff strategy consisted chiefly of telling his forwards to administer career-ending injuries to other teams’ stars, I think it will take another few years for the Quinnical stench to wear off in Toronto. So two cheers for the Isles, whose route to the playoffs was even stranger than the final weekend’s histrionics indicate: they picked up Ryan Smyth from Edmonton at the trading deadline (for those of you who don’t follow the sport, Ryan Smyth is one of those throwback “franchise” players who truly wanted to spend his entire career with the Oilers franchise, and the good people of Edmonton mourned his Islanderification in a collective threnody that recalled the departures of Gretzky and Messier), and just as they were poised to move up in the standings, they started to tank. Then their Chris Simon tried to decapitate the Rangers’ Ryan Hollweg, and drew a penalty that cost his team the game, along with a suspension for the rest of the year; almost apologetically, the Islanders proceeded to lose eight of their next eleven. Then, when their terrific young goaltender Rick DiPietro got injured, it was clear that the Islanders were done: by that point, they were reduced to playing an obscure backup goalie named Wade Dubielewicz—which, I realize, sounds only slightly less likely than “the Rolling Stones then decided to replace Mick Taylor with Wade Dubielewicz.” And guess what? They proceeded to win their final four games.
Dubielewicz, for his part, has played extremely well, and has made something of a name for himself by creatively poke-checking opposing forwards in shootouts. Nonetheless, the Islanders will not hang around for long. I would explain why, by saying something or other about the Sabres’ windburn-inducing speed, relentless eight-scoring-forwards attack, solid goaltending and underrated defense, but I have already grown weary of the misguided complaints of the Sabre-Rattling Left in these comment sections. Sabres in five.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Tampa Bay Lightning. Martin Brodeur is one of the greatest netminders ever to play the game, a truly formidable figure—so formidable that last year, he made me forget that I’d picked the Carolina Hurricanes to go to the conference finals, and persuaded me to take the Devils over the Canes in the second round. (That was a mistake: the Devils barely lasted five games.) And this year, Brodeur won 48 games all by himself—an NHL record, and more wins than twenty other teams managed to compile.
Because goaltending is so critical in the playoffs, it’s tempting to think that Marty can hoist the Devils into the second round by sheer force of will. I am doing my best to avoid that temptation. The Lightning have an untested goaltender in Johan Holmqvist, and an offense that consists basically of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, two insanely talented players who somehow manage to combine amazing upper-body strength with great speed and miraculous hand-eye coordination. Yes, I know they have two or three other noteworthy forwards (Richards, Prospal, Fedetenko) as well as a remarkable defenseman in Dan Boyle, but seriously—you could put me on a line with St. Louis and Lecavalier and I’d score thirty goals. (OK, maybe not. But I did wind up with 39 goals in 24 games in my local leagues—9 goals in 10 games in the A league, 30 in 14 in B. Not that you asked.) The Devils counter with a disciplined defense and an offense made up of five tiny guys who are fast and pesky. 22-year-old Zach Parise is especially dangerous. Still, I think it’s downright weird that only three Devils forwards are in plus numbers for the year, and two of those are at +1. And I think that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello needs to be punished by the Fates for trying to repeat his mind-bending stunt of 2000 by firing a successful coach just before the start of the playoffs. The Devils are a wonderful franchise, and I hope they like their new digs in Newark next year. But the Cult of Lamoriello has to end. Now. Unless Holmqvist melts down—and that’s entirely possible—I say Lightning in six.
(3) Atlanta Thrashers vs. (6) New York Rangers. Now we get to one of my two rooting interests. I have nothing against Atlanta or their fierce hockey-stick-wielding state bird, but I grew up with the Rangers. I went to every Rangers home game from 1970 to 1973, when I was not yet in my teens and the green mezzanine seats were still five bucks a pop. I went to Rangers summer hockey camp on Long Island from 1970 to 1972, spoke halting French to Rod Gilbert, got teased and poke-checked by Brad Park, and was personally told to stop scoring and pass the damn puck by Gilles Villemure. You don’t forget loyalties like that just because you don’t have any specific animus against the Other Guys.
As for the Other Guys: their offense goes like this. There’s Marian Hossa, scary good (43 goals, 57 assists). Slava Kozlov, fearsome good (28 goals, 52 assists), and hot young thing Ilya Kovalchuk (42 goals, 34 assists). The next guy in the Thrashers’ scoring table has half Kovalchuk’s point total and is almost as old as I am. Yes, they picked up Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik late in the year, but (and I know these words will come back to haunt me) I followed Tkachuk during his days in St. Louis, and I’m not that impressed. (I was afraid, actually, that the Rangers would bid for him, and pay dearly, and proceed to finish eleventh.) I think the Rangers match up quite well against these Other Guys offensively, and now that sparkplug and borderline-sociopath Sean Avery has brought some intensity to the forecheck and Brendan Shanahan has recovered from his skull-cracking mid-February collision with the Flyers’ Mike Knuble, the Rangers finally have two serious scoring lines.
The problem with the Rangers, as every schoolboy knows, is that they have these weird collective lapses in which they cough up two- and three-goal leads. I still don’t why that is, and as I used to say on my old blog, I am loath to psychoanalyze people at great distances because I believe that only Charles Krauthammer possesses that power. They’re not as defensively shaky as the Rangers teams of recent years, and their run of gritty 2-1 wins down the stretch suggests that they know how to close ranks and play a tight game (they went 10-2-3 in March, and six of those wins were 2-1; they also added two shutouts). Henrik Lundqvist has been sharp in goal, Michael Nylander is having a career year, and second-stringers like Ryan Callahan and Matt Cullen are playing with intensity and smarts. The Rangers aren’t in the Sabres’ class, of course. I don’t think they’re in the Senators’ or Penguins’ class, either. But it would be nice to see them try to play against one of those teams in round two, all the same. Rangers in six.
(4) Ottawa Senators vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins. This one is going to hurt, because both these teams deserve to advance. The Sens are looking to avenge a long series of playoff disappointments, including last year’s, when they were stunned by the upstart “hey, there’s still fifteen seconds left, we can tie this thing” Sabres. The Pens are feeling a bit giddy that they are suddenly among the Eastern elite after some very dry years (like last year, when they went 22-46-14 and finished dead last in the East)—especially since their rise to elite status took place entirely in the second half of the season, as the kids began to mature, the second-stringers began to gain some confidence, and the team began to take shape.
I took Jamie to two Penguins games this year. The first one, on October 14, turned out to be one of their worst performances all season, a 5-1 loss to Carolina. They were listless and directionless and Evgeni Malkinless. Sidney Crosby couldn’t carry the team by himself, and the role players hadn’t discovered their roles yet. The second one, on March 4, was vintage Late Penguins: down at home to the Flyers, 2-0 (Fleury had let in a fluke goal from 50 feet, sucking most of the air from the building), they came back to win in a thrilling 4-3 shootout. The turning point of the Pens’ year, of course, was the 14-0-2 run they put together from January 13 to February 18; but they finished the year on a 11-3-1 run as well, and most encouragingly, they seem to have weaned themselves from the desire to win in shootouts, because just as there isn’t any crying in baseball, there aren’t any shootouts in the playoffs.
Things to like about the Pens: they’re always exciting. It doesn’t matter whether they’re up three goals in the third or down three; they’ll find a way to make it close. Indeed, one of their more impressive wins involved pwning Ottawa on March 6—by scoring three goals in three minutes to erase a 4-1 deficit. In the third period. In Ottawa. And then, what else, winning in the shootout. They have one of the Best Players Evah in 19-year-old Crosby, who this year became the youngest player to lead the league in scoring (beating the record set by that Gretzky fellow); together with Evgeni Malkin (20) and Jordan Staal (18), Crosby is one of the Penguins who can single-handedly outfox some of the best teams in professional hockey but who cannot buy himself a beer afterwards. The Revolutionary Youth Brigade is supported by grandpa Mark Recchi, who at 39 has found that drinking the blood of virgins really does do wonders for the body and mind, and great-grandpa Gary Roberts (40), a brilliant trade-deadline acquisition who has been flying all over the ice like a young thing and doing for the Penguins’ forecheck what Sean Avery does for the Rangers’, minus the borderline-sociopathy part. And those role players now look like a junior version of the Sabres’ eight-scoring-forwards attack: Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Ryan Malone, and Maxime Talbot—any one of these guys can step up suddenly and decide a game, as the Sens will probably discover while they’re worrying about Crosby and Malkin.
The Pens’ defense is merely average and their goaltending is questionable; Marc-Andre Fleury can be brilliant, and then again he can be . . . well, sort of absent-minded. And sometimes he gives people huge, delicious rebounds, the kind that sharpshooters like the Sens’ triumvirate of Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza will gladly bury if given half a chance. But the Sens’ goaltender, Ray Emery, is just as questionable as Fleury, as he demonstrated against the Sabres last year; and once you get past that triumvirate, the Senators aren’t quite the team they used to be. Why, they’re not even the team they were last year, when they had the helpful Brian Smolinski and the imposing Zdeno Chara (where “imposing” means “seven feet tall with his skates on”). Peppy young Penguins in six.
Let the playoffs begin and let the playoff beards be shaggy! I’ll link to Scott Lemieux’s picks for the Western Conference as soon as he puts ‘em up.
Update: Scott is in the Intertubes! And since he stuck a bunch of Eastern picks at the end of his post, here are my unsolicited opinions about the Campbell Conference: Red Wings in 6, Ducks in 6, Canucks in 6, Predators in 7. And yes, I know my Lightning – Rangers – Penguins picks are controversial. That’s why it’s called “rooting,” folks—because these predictions are truly radical.