DETROIT (May 11) – I should have known better.
The Detroit Red Wings had me fooled with their lax defensive play in the final half of the National Hockey League regular season. Blowout losses to Columbus and Nashville, in which the Wings yielded eight goals, were ominous signs that the defending champions had lost the appetite and conviction to ramp it up for another playoff marathon.
Damn, I should have known better.
Consecutive man-handlings of the Anaheim Ducks this week showed me the folly of doubting the best franchise in professional sport during the past decade. Yes, fans of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Lakers will argue that contention, but it’s a no-brainer. The Red Wings have been so good for so long that it’s almost impossible to remember when they were ordinary. You have to go back more than 20 years… when the Detroit clubs of Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert, Gerard Gallant, Adam Oates and Petr Klima were the forerunner to a dynasty. Since that time – in the late-‘80s – the Wings have soared well beyond even their closest competition and are now steaming toward a fifth Stanley Cup title in 12 seasons.
Detroit thoroughly toyed with a good Anaheim team here on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. Though the score remained close until the waning moments – when the Wings pulled away for a 4-1 triumph – it was nothing short of total domination by the home side. A veteran Anaheim squad, with future hall of famers Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, appeared almost frightened to assert itself in the opening 30 minutes at Joe Louis Arena, and the Red Wings – sensing the kill as only they can – ran up a 22-5 edge in shots on goal. No statistic could better indicate the one-sidedness of this pivotal match, and you’d have to search far and wide today for someone willing to bet a plug-nickel on the Ducks extending the series at the Honda Center Tuesday night.
When the Red Wings are at the top of their game, they overwhelm the opposition by simply refusing to yield the puck. If Sunday had been a football game, the time of possession would have been humiliating to Anaheim. Remember, this is a Ducks team with many of the same components that prevailed in the 2007 Stanley Cup tournament, knocking off Detroit in the conference championship. But, there’s an impenetrable calmness about the Red Wings in the 2009 playoffs that not only carries them through, but must have a terribly deflating effect on their opponent.
“We are able to play relaxed hockey when we face pressure,” understated defenseman Nick Lidstrom when I spoke with him after the victory in the Wings’ dressing room. “In Game 4 out there, we had our backs against the wall [trailing Anaheim 2-1 in the series] and had to win in order to avoid putting ourselves in a really tough position. We ended up playing really relaxed and got some goals from guys that don’t usually score as much for us. It was the same thing today. We didn’t get uptight, even though it was a close game until the last minutes. We were still making the plays and hanging onto the puck at the right time.”
Resilience is another attribute of a true champion and the Red Wings have displayed it in the key moments of this series. A lesser team might have folded after a quick whistle robbed Marian Hossa of the tying goal in the final minute of Game 3, leading to the Red Wings falling behind on enemy ice in the opening moments of Game 4. Since that time, it’s as if the Detroit players looked at one another and said, “Enough!” The Ducks have fared like a minor-league team against the Red Wings in the past 5 ½ periods and I doubt that any opponent can do otherwise when Detroit gets serious.
That’s why I blew it, big-time, in questioning the mettle of this incomparable hockey club. Dynasties are not supposed to prevail in the salary-capped NHL. Tell that to Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom and company. Then get out of the way.
The battle for control of the Phoenix Coyotes has simmered for the moment, but will pick up with a vengeance when the opposing sides re-convene in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona on May 19th. If Judge Redfield T. Baum rules that the Coyotes belong to Jerry Moyes, and can therefore file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and be sold to the highest bidder [Jim Balsille], the NHL will surely appeal the decision, delaying not only the potential movement of the franchise, but the timely completion of a schedule for the 2009-10 season.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how the dispute will be settled, but I'm most intrigued by Balsillie’s accusation in a separate lawsuit that the NHL is operating an “illegal cartel”. For years, I have wondered about the unilateral territorial claim that is common in all professional leagues, but doesn’t appear to be constitutional. In a free-enterprise system, competing factions are encouraged to exist in proximity to one another; it’s the reason a Burger King restaurant can set up shop across the street from an existing McDonald’s franchise. Such an arrangement satisfies anti-trust regulations by discouraging monopolistic tendancies.
Professional sport, however, is largely built on monopolizing lucrative territory; its clubs command astronomical indemnification from groups that wish to invade turf that is already “owned”. It is believed that team and league executives liberally collude to prevent competition – a charge, in the NHL, that is frequently brought against the Maple Leafs and the commissioner’s office. This appears to contravene the rules the rest of our society lives by and it isn’t clear how it might withstand a vigorous legal challenge. What is clear is that such a challenge could be fashioned by money-bags Balsillie, and there’s no telling how it might impact the accepted rule in pro sport.
The reversal of such a long-term practice could affect the most routine elements of sport – those which are overlooked in legal circles for being internally policed. If you smacked another person on the street, or rammed that person into the side of a building, you’d quickly be charged with assault. But, hockey players can fight one another and rigorously hammer opponents into wooden boards that surround the playing surface. If you sprinted toward a stranger during a walk in the park and violently propelled that person to the ground, you’d quickly be in handcuffs. But, football players are encouraged to tackle opponents with all the brutality they can muster.
In a friendly neighborhood baseball game, purposely winging the ball at an individual’s head might get you in loads of trouble if it connects, causing serious injury. In the major leagues, such action – though frowned upon – is considered legitimate strategy. The most profound anti-societal sport is boxing, but matches are sanctioned by commissions that are loosely affiliated with government.
It’s interesting to imagine what could transpire if someone challenged the minute legalities of sport.
Loud whispers throughout the NHL claim that Brian Burke can have Tampa Bay’s No. 2 draft slot this June if he’s willing to trade Luke Schenn, Tomas Kaberle and the Leafs’ No. 7 slot. Burke would then either nab London sniper John Tavares, or be in a much-stronger position to talk the New York Islanders out of Tavares in a subsequent deal. But, a couple of elements are in play here. First, there’s a growing faction of scouts and managers that believe Brampton Battalion center Matt Duchene has emerged as the most complete prospect available in the draft. Second, it’s fairly well known in hockey circles that Islanders’ GM Garth Snow has no use for Burke, and will not have any dealings with him on June 26th in Montreal. Snow is apparently furious at Burke for what he believes was a grandstanding performance at the Air Canada Center during the Toronto GM’s season-ending news conference – the gathering in which Burke insisted he’ll pursue the No. 1 draft selection, and refered to Tavares by name.
The rumored trade with Tampa Bay may seem excessive, until it is viewed by component. Kaberle is approaching the stage of his career where he’ll be most useful to a team on the verge of contention, and Burke would be wise to consider all offers during his eight-week window of opportunity this summer. Any deal with Tampa Bay to move up in the draft order will obviously involve the Leafs yielding their No. 7 position. This brings us to the debate over Schenn – one that seems to have a polarizing effect.
Leaf fans are smitten by anything that resembles a top prospect, and most are unwilling to even consider the notion of trading the big defenseman. But, if Burke truly wants a legitimate shot at Tavares, he’ll have no choice but to dangle Schenn as bait. An argument can be made that Schenn is likely to evolve as a facsimile of veteran Adam Foote – a solid, reliable blue-liner that can diffuse opposition advances. Such players do not grow on trees, but neither has a club ever built a team around Adam Foote. A natural goal-scorer such as Tavares could provide the Leafs the caliber of building block they’ve lacked since drafting Darryl Sittler almost 40 years ago.
That’s why I believe Burke is serious about pursuing Tavares. And, why he may have to consider all options at the draft table.
For an oldster such as yours truly, it’s incredible to think that Bobby Orr’s legendary Stanley Cup overtime goal against the St. Louis Blues happened 39 years ago yesterday (Sunday, May 10th, 1970). I remember watching it unfold as an 11-year-old in the basement of my parents’ home in Downsview, Ontario. The photo of Orr flying through the air after beating Glenn Hall with the Cup winner remains among the most iconic in all of professional sport.
Carolina Hurricanes’ broadcasting legend Chuck Kaiton – undeniably, one of the best in the business – is known for speaking his mind as radio voice of the hockey club. He did so again on Sunday night, as the Hurricanes were being throttled by the Bruins in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal at the TD Banknorth Garden. The game temporarily got out of hand in the third period, with several physical uprisings after the whistle, and Kaiton felt it was the fault of the two referees.
“There’s no reason for players to act like this unless they have no respect for the officials,” Chuck claimed. “And, that seems to be the case here tonight with Brad Watson and Tim Peel. Let’s hope the NHL does a better job of assigning officials for Game 6 in Raleigh on Tuesday.”
Which is where I’m headed on Monday afternoon
I don’t share Kaiton’s opinion of Watson and Peel, both of whom I think are competent referees. But, the Chuckster is sure as hell entertaining to listen to.
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