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May 24, 2018

Vegas, Ovechkin and My Belief in Hockey Gods

You would think by now I - and the rest of the hockey world - would have learned to stop betting against the Vegas Golden Knights.

But here I will publicly predict the Washington Capitals will win the 2018 Stanley Cup final.

I do so largely based on my belief in hockey gods. Vegas has had their time all season. But after years and years of greatness and struggle, the ultimate reward will go to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

In this day age of analytics in sport it seems like a silly notion to predict the Stanley Cup winner on some romantic idea that somewhere up above the likes of Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe are stewarding the game and rewarding those who deserve it at the right time. Though my belief in hockey gods was shaken terribly in 2011, the belief remains with me. It is my connection to when hockey was a simple game of my childhood.

The Vegas story is one for the ages.  But the hockey gods will now finally reward Ovechkin, the Capitals and their fans. The storybook ending will complete the saga for one of the greatest players of all time. It will cement his status as a future hockey god and future steward of the game.

This is Ovechkin's time. Only this time the whole hockey world is cheering for him.

May 21, 2018

Vegas, Baby!

From the NHL's Morning Skate press release:

The storybook season for the Vegas Golden Knights will end with a chapter dedicated to the Stanley Cup Final as the expansion club earned its fourth consecutive win to become the sixth team in NHL history to reach the Final in their first-ever trip to the postseason and third to do so in their inaugural campaign.
Three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves – and stopped all 19 shots he faced over the last 40 minutes – to backstop the expansion Golden Knights to another series-clinching road victory in Game 5 against the Jets.
* In the last 50 years, only one other club from either the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL/AFL reached the championship series or game in its inaugural season – the Blues represented the all-expansion West Division in the 1968 Stanley Cup Final. Find more historic comparisons below.

* The Golden Knights became the seventh team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Final after recording three series-clinching wins on the road. Five of the previous six went on to win the Stanley Cup. ICYMIFans back in Las Vegas gathered for a watch party outside T-Mobile Arena, just as they did when their club advanced with wins in Los Angeles and San Jose.
This is the third consecutive year that a team will make its debut in the Stanley Cup Final. Debutant teams own an all-time series record of 11-17 in the Final, with the last three instances ending in defeat – the Sharks (2016) and Predators (2017) both lost in six games to the Penguins, while the Senators (2007) lost in five games to the Ducks. The Lightning (2004) were the last team to win the Stanley Cup in their first trip to the Final.

The Golden Knights (12-3) became the 13th team to win at least 12 of 15 games to begin a postseason since 1986-87 when the Stanley Cup Playoffs became a four-round, best-of-seven format. Four of the previous 12 clubs went on to win the Cup (the three listed below and the 1993 Canadiens).
Vegas became the 20th team to post four straight wins in the Conference Finals/Semifinals and just the seventh to do so after losing Game 1 (since 1974-75). Tampa Bay can achieve both feats tonight as they aim to become just the third team to overcome a 2-0 series deficit to advance into the Final.

The Golden Knights became the 20th team from either the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL/AFL to reach the championship series or game in their first trip to the postseason (via Elias). Vegas is the sixth team in NHL history to achieve the feat, joining the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas1925-26 Montreal Maroons1926-27 Boston Bruins1967-68 St. Louis Blues and 1995-96 Florida Panthers.
* Like the Golden Knights, the Arenas and Blues advanced to the Final in their inaugural season, though under much different circumstances. Toronto did so in the first postseason in NHL history and St. Louis emerged from the all-expansion West Division during the first playoffs of the League’s expansion era in 1968. The Maroons (second), Bruins (third) and Panthers (third) all reached the Final within their first three campaigns.
* The 20-team list also includes the 2001 Baltimore Ravens – who began play as an NFL expansion team in 1996 after moving from Cleveland (where they had won four championships over 46 NFL seasons from 1950-1995) – and five NBA teams who joined from other leagues: the 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors1946-47 Chicago Stags1947-48 Baltimore Bullets1948-49 Minneapolis Lakers and 1949-50 Syracuse Nationals.
The remaining eight teams on the historic list started from scratch like the Golden Knights: the 1997 Florida Marlins (MLB; fifth season), 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers (NBA; seventh season), 1967-68 Oakland Raiders (NFL/AFL; eighth season), 1969 New York Mets (MLB; eighth season), 1968-69 New York Jets (NFL/AFL; ninth season), 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (MLB; 11th season), 1984 San Diego Padres (MLB; 16th season) and 1977-78 Denver Broncos (NFL; 18th season).
Ten teams have finished their first trip to the postseason as champions, including the Arenas (1918) and Warriors (1947) in the inaugural seasons for the NHL and NBA, respectively.
The Golden Knights needed 12 playoff wins to reach the Final, tied with the 1996 Panthers for the most of any of the teams referenced above. In fact, only four other clubs required more than five playoff victories to reach the championship series or game: the Trail Blazers needed 10 wins to make the 1977 NBA Finals; the Blues had eight wins entering the 1968 Stanley Cup Final; and the Marlins and Rays each won seven games before playing in the World Series in 1997 and 2008, respectively.
* As the NHL’s 31st active franchise, the Golden Knights are the third team to reach the championship in a league consisting of at least 30 clubs. The others: 2001 Ravens (NFL: 31 teams) and 2008 Rays (MLB: 30 teams).
 All-time for NHL and NBA; Since 1966 for NFL/AFL; Since 1969 for MLB

Marc-Andre Fleury 
(31 saves) made at least 30 saves for the fourth consecutive game to improve to 13-5 in 20 career appearances in theConference Finals and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight year and fifth time overall.

* Fleury and teammate James Neal return to the Final after facing each other in the championship series last year – Fleury with the Penguins, Neal with the Predators. Lightning forward Chris Kunitz – the only active NHL player with four Stanley Cups – could join the trio in this year’s Final after winning with Fleury and the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
* Entering 2018, 37 different players in NHL history reached the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive years with different teams. Six of those players won the Cup each time: Eddie GerardLionel ConacherEd LitzenbergerAl ArbourClaude Lemieux and Cory Stillman.
* Gerard actually won the Cup in four consecutive seasons from 1920-23. He played for the original Ottawa Senators in each of those postseasons, but was loaned to the Toronto St. Patricks for one game during the 1922 Stanley Cup Final, thereby earning his name on the Cup when the team defeated the Vancouver Millionaires in the best-of-five series.
* Fleury earned his 74th career win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to tie Chris Osgood for eighth place on the NHL’s all-time list, three back of Mike Vernon (77) for seventh overall. One of 14 active NHL players with three Stanley Cups, Fleury entered the 2018 playoffs with a team-leading 115 games of postseason experience and is the only Cup winner on the Golden Knights roster.

After losing Games 1 and 2 on home ice, Tampa Bay is now in position to join Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final as they take a 3-2 series lead into Washington for Game 6.
* Since 1942-43, when the final four began competing in best-of-seven series, only seven teams have won the Conference Finals/Semifinals after losing Games 1 and 2. Only one of those clubs did so after dropping the first two games at home: the Red Wings rallied to defeat the Bruins in seven games in the 1945 Semifinals.

Thanks to the NHL PR department for the information above.

May 19, 2018

Andy Bathgate's Unlikely Fan

Andy Bathgate retired in 1975 and passed away a couple years ago, but there is a certain five year old in Vancouver who is in love with the guy.

I love visiting my twin nephews in Vancouver. They're so much fun to be around, even though they live in a non-hockey family.

Yeah, my brother was never as cool as me.

Of course I try to sneak in some hockey content when I can. One nephew wears hockey pajamas, blue in colour with red players wearing number nine and white players wearing number 7.

I asked him if he knew who number 9 was. When he said he did not know, I told him it was Andy Bathgate! Ever since Andy Bathgate has been the kid's favorite player.

The kid and his dad were at a restaurant the other day. It must have been a cool restaurant because they were showing the Capitals/Lightning playoff game on the TV. The little guy was watching the big screen and ask his dad, "Which one is Andy Bathgate?"

There's hope for this kid! I'm so proud.

Now if I can only get the kid to remember that number seven is Phil Esposito.

May 18, 2018

Goaltending Is Always The Key

Marc Andre Fleury, goaltender of the Vegas Golden Knights, has had just an unreal post-season. Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning are all just as good, and have their teams within reach of the Stanley Cup.

Fleury's acrobatic play in particular reminds me back of days of more theatrical goaltenders. Grant Fuhr was perhaps the best big-game goalie - playoffs or international tournaments - that I have ever witnessed play. He helped backstop the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups and was unbelievable in the 1987 Canada Cup.

Here's the amazing thing about Fuhr - he never had a goaltending coach until he joined the Buffalo Sabres in his 13th NHL season!

That seems amazing today, but before the 1990s goalies never had coaches. And it was rare that team's head coach or couple of assistants knew much about goaltending at all. They just kind of let the goalies figure it out. That is pretty much how all coaches had done it since they first dropped the puck.

Teams used to make sure a young talent like Fuhr was backed up by a veteran goalie. He would be there to be the defacto-coach both on and off the ice. While everyone remembers the young tandem of Fuhr and Andy Moog in Edmonton, they relied on veterans, too, such as Gary Edwards and Ron Low.

"I had Ronny Low my first year," recalled Fuhr in his autobiography. "Which really helped the transition of playing in the National Hockey League, because he'd been there for a while. So I got a little bit of an idea as to what to expect. He taught me angles, travel, all that stuff. Stuff that he'd overlooked on the way up, which, as an 18 year old kid, you never think about. He made it comfortable and made it easy. He also had a great work ethic at practice. You'd see that and figure that's the way it's meant to be. That, you hope, wears off on you a little bit."

Veteran presence remains a great way to handle young phenoms, but coaching is what has taken the position where it is today. People like to point to all the advances in equipment, but coaching is the single biggest factor why goaltending has improved so much in the last 20 years or more.

What's In A Name?

When True North Sports and Entertainment purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and relocated them to Winnipeg, the company did not immediately re-name the team the Winnipeg Jets.

In fact, it took over a month for True North to announce the name.

Many believe the original intent was not to bring back the Jets at all, but to bring their other team's brand to the NHL. True North owned the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

True North chairman Mark Chipman said at the time that they were considering many names, and admitted to seriously looked incorporating the provincial name in the final unveiling.

Of course he will tell you that the Jets were the only real option. And he would ultimately be right, regardless of their original intentions. The fans came out in droves during that month of suspense and demanded the return of their beloved Jets.

Wisely, True North gave them exactly what they wanted.

Other than the Manitoba Moose, the Manitoba Jets and the Winnipeg Falcons - a nod to 1920 Olympic championship team - were said to be strongly considered.

I'm really not sure how True North was able to figure out all the legalities involved with using the Jets name. Look at their current opponents: The Vegas Golden Knights. Their name continues to be a controversy despite their success. They couldn't use Knights, or Black Knights, because of legal infringements. Even Golden Knights was being contested earlier this year by, of all people, the US Army's parachute team that goes by the same moniker.

I'm pretty sure the fans in both cities would be okay if it was the Manitoba Moose and Las Vegas Crazy Nights playing for the Stanley Cup right now.

May 17, 2018

A Matter of Time

How many minutes are there in a hockey game?

You just answered 60. You were wrong.

Players know, and every coach especially knows, there are 360 minutes in a regulation hockey game (not including any overtime).

There are six players (including the goalie) on the ice (or possibly in the penalty box) for each of those 60 minutes, and the coaches and players have to manage those minutes. 6 players times 60 minutes equals 360 minutes for the teams to work with.

The teams that do that best tend to be very successful. The coaches are able to give various players just the right amount of time to thrive in their roles, win games and survive the long season.

Goalies almost always get 60 minutes. Superstar forwards and the defensemen, since there is only six of them, tend to get 20-25 minutes. Support players may not even see 10 minutes.

"It's not about how many minutes I get," said Tiger Williams once. "It's about what I do with those minutes that matters."

So true. In the case like Tiger's, he needed to create energy, stir the pot, and change the momentum of the game. A good coach will have a feel for the game and know just when to release such players to impact the game. A great coach will make sure such players know exactly what their job is and how important of a their contribution is.

Such players play the game and, generally speaking, it does not really matter what they do with the puck. In fact they may only touch the puck for a combined few seconds per game.

That actually can be said about star players, too. Watch the game closely and aside from superstars and elite power play quarterbacks and you will be surprised just how little time most players spend carrying the puck.

Washington tends to rely more heavily on their top players, giving them more minutes. Makes sense. If you have superstars like they do, you give them more opportunities. Tampa has a little more depth and spreads the minutes out a bit more.

In the west Vegas really likes to spread out their minutes. Their team is so interchangeable with lines and players who are so similar. It allows them to come in waves. It's fantastic to see how they manage ice time with the lack of a true superstar outside of their goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury.

Winnipeg is more likely to rely on their stars, particularly the red hot goal scorer Mark Scheifele and the mountain on the blue line Dustin Byfuglien. When you can individually impact games like they can, why not?

Obviously these four teams are doing something right, since they are all still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It proves that there is no one right strategy when it comes to managing ice times. But there is one right strategy to best get the most out of each team.

May 14, 2018

Manitoba Flats: Wade Flaherty Chasing Stanley Cup Dreams

Much of Canada is cheering on the Winnipeg Jets to bring home the Stanley Cup to Canada for the first time since 1993.

I am also cheering on Winnipeg but it is so that the Stanley Cup can come to my hometown in British Columbia for the first time since 2009.

Jets goaltending coach Wade Flaherty is from my hometown of Terrace, BC. No one from Terrace has ever won the Stanley Cup, though the Cup visited nine years ago when the city was named as the Kraft Hockeyville winner.

It has been a long road for Flaherty. He bounced all over the minor leagues throughout his long career, enjoying his best years with the Manitoba Moose later in his career. He got into 120 NHL games, most notably with San Jose and the New York Islanders, and backed up many more. He even played in China.

He has been a goaltending coach since hanging up the blocker and mask in 2009. He was with Chicago when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, though he never got his name on the Cup that time. 

Should the Jets win the Cup, one would have to assume Flaherty would get his name on the Stanley Cup this time. He has played a big role in the success of young Jets goaltending phenom Connor Hellebuyck. The 2018 Vezina Trophy finalist has looked unbeatable in these playoffs. Should the Jets get to the final, he has to be a strong candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, though Jets' star forward Mark Scheifele would be the favorite at this point

When the Jets head to Vegas for game three, Flats will undoubtedly visit Vegas season ticket holder Jeff Sharples, assuming he's in town. Sharples and Flaherty were teammates together in the long gone IHL with Kansas City and Utica back in the 1990s, and well before that were minor hockey stars and boyhood friends here in Terrace. 

Sharples, who played several years with the old Las Vegas Thunder is now an airline pilot for Alaska Airlines and he has lived in Vegas for years now. Sharples is a former teammate with coach Gerard Gallant when both were breaking in with the Detroit Red Wings and is well connected with the Knights, but the childhood bond with Flaherty lasts forever.

Whether they talk about home directly or not in that meeting you know both will be thinking back to childhood dreams and the journey that took them to the NHL. And maybe the next time they will meet will be back at the old Terrace Arena.

May 09, 2018

Pucks On The 'Net

Some thoughts at this stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs

Vegas Golden Knights

- I keep expecting the Knights to bow out eventually, but here they are in the final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I always say "the clock strikes 12 on Cinderella eventually," but with this Vegas team I'm starting to think the rule is "the house always wins."
- I'm quite torn as to whether I should be cheering on the Knights or cheering against them. Their underdog and unlikely success is such a great story. But I've suffered for nearly 50 years through despair and heartbreak as a Canucks fan. It just isn't fair!
- George McPhee has to be named General Manager of the Year. He assembled a group of cast offs and in the expansion team's inaugural year has them in the final four and a serious threat to win it all. That being said, McPhee probably made the worst trade of the year when he dealt all those draft picks at the trade deadline for Tomas Tatar, a very overpaid healthy scratch of late. The franchise may regret that one day.

Winnipeg Jets

- Canada's team faces off against Nashville for game 7. That the Jets are on the verge of something really special here is undeniable. I selected Nashville to win this series partly because I believe the Jets year may be next year more than this year. Much like Nashville had to take that step last year. Game seven will be one last classic clash that quite possibly will usurp the Stanley Cup final. I will be happy to be wrong on this series and will be cheering on Winnipeg to win.


- I correctly picked Tampa Bay to win over Boston. All anyone is talking about Brad Marchand and his embarrassing antics. The guy can be a really good player, but he won't recover from the fall out from this silliness. He will always be known for what he is - a weasel - rather than for what he can be - a good player


- I picked Washington to win largely based on streaks. Pittsburgh had to lose eventually. Washington had to win eventually. I took my chances and picked Washington this time and it paid off. Good for Ovechkin. I hope he goes and gets his Stanley Cup at long last.
- I like Pittsburgh. I really like Sidney Crosby. A lot of people want to see someone new win the Stanley Cup, but I think there is nothing wrong with having great teams. Its good for the game to have great teams

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