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2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Primer

So, once every year — let’s call it, “spring time” — people remember that not only is hockey going on, but it’s playoff time. Now every sport’s playoff time is better than its regular season (take note, BCS) due to the increased stakes and the ratcheted-up intensity that results from it. Out of all of the major sports postseasons we see in North America, the Stanley Cup Playoffs stand out above them all as the best.

Don’t buy it? Let me count the ways.

1) That marathon quality

Both the NHL and NBA have postseasons that last four full rounds of best-of-seven series that whittle 16 teams down to one, and there is certainly an argument to be made that the NBA is a physically grueling experience. Just ask a 6’7″ man how it feels to pound his knees by jumping for 48 minutes every night on a hardwood floor for two straight months. But all that said, the sheer exhaustion and physical nature of the game of hockey truly creates a situation with speed, strength and durability, which allow the cream to rise to the top over those two months. It is a brutally exhausting experience to get through four rounds of postseason hockey. And that’s probably why seeing the smiles — and frowns — on the faces of the teams in the Finals is that much more remarkable once its over. Oh, and these guys are all making these world-class moves on quarter-inch thick pieces of metal. Food for thought.

2) Playoff beards

Is there any postseason superstition cooler than the refusal to shave until you’ve been eliminated or won it all? Not only does it provide some of the best beard and hair combos ever, but in the game of hockey it’s nearly impossible to see a player looking whiskery and not know it’s playoff time. It can accentuate the experience of the greats and sometimes, it just looks so damn awesome.

3) Multiple overtime games

There is almost no postseason that brings overtime to such a fever pitch of excitement quite like the NHL’s. The difficulty of scoring in the NHL, as well as its sometimes precarious nature, combine with sudden death rules to make marathon events in that can sometimes reach a level of greatness. Sometimes, you never want them to end, and sometimes it feels like they never will end. Games reaching double overtime are so common place in the postseason that it almost doesn’t warrant a mention, but every year has a game or two with four or five overtimes that bring an epic importance. And what’s even greater, the cathartic explosion when a team finally ends one of them is a moment unlike any other in sports.

4) The Stanley Cup

I mean, come on. What sport can boast a trophy like this? There is no other prize in professional sports that can come close to the beauty, grandeur and the symbolism embodied by the Stanley Cup. Does anyone remember how uncomfortable Raymond Berry looked when he awarded the Lombardi Trophy to the New York Giants after they won the Super Bowl this February? Well, you should since it was hilarious, but you probably don’t and that’s because no matter how hard the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball try, there is simply nothing on this level.

So there you have it. These are four solid reasons why this is the greatest postseason in professional sports and if I were you, I’d be trying to watch as much of it as humanly possible. And in case you were worried, you’ll get to watch as much as you want this time around because for the first time in NHL history, every single playoff game will be broadcast live on a national network Read more...

Oh. Hey. We’ve Got a Second Half to Play.

I’m going to be brutally honest in admitting that with the Giants playing in this football game you might have heard about this coming Sunday, I’m a little preoccupied with my own emotional anxiety this week. Really. But I was still able to look past the looming specter of next Sunday, not just to take the rockin’ good time that was the NFL’s annual touch football beauty pageant last night, but to notice that earlier in the day we had this thing called the NHL All-Star Game.

There was, granted, very little defense in a game that more or less devolved into superstars trying to set each other up for crazy two-on-ones without applying any actual hockey strategy. After all, we wouldn’t want to risk committing penalties on a weekend when the players almost certainly had no practice running a penalty kill with each other. Despite the fact that really only half the game was played, we did get to see some pretty cool goals and some sweet celebrations to boot. And let’s not forget Claude Giroux’s attempts to knock down his Flyers teammate Scott Hartnell because he promised to donate $1,000 every time he fell to the ice.

But now that Hartnell’s donated $4,000 to charity, it’s time to focus on some more pressing matters, namely the second half of the NHL season, which will get underway Tuesday night when 26 teams take the ice. As per the NHL’s usual situation, the playoff races in both the East and West are looking particularly tight at the moment. Of the 30 teams in the League only eight are more than five points out from a postseason spot, which means we’ll have 22 teams fighting for 16 spots as the calendar starts to approach April. However, if we’re going to be more specific about this than simply who might be headed for early spring tee times with old Jewish authors (Goodbye, Columbus! Get it?!), you’re going to need a list of what the big stories are as we head down the stretch of the 2011-12 regular season.

Here’s your primer. Or at least the best one I can muster.

Pittsburgh’s Sid-uation
Most of the hockey world has kept its eyes on Pittsburgh this season not for who is there, but for who notably isn’t. When he’s healthy Sidney Crosby is according to most accounts — including mine — the best player on the planet. Ever since he suffered a concussion more than a year ago however, he has spent far more time rehabilitating and seeing chiropractors than he has playing hockey. Crosby had a much publicized — and enormously successful — return earlier this season when he scored two goals in his first game in more than 10 months and wound up tallying 10 points in 8 games. However, the headaches returned and he’s been off the ice ever since, leading to much speculation which was complicated this weekend by two startling revelations, the first being that Crosby was determined to also have suffered an injury to his neck in addition to a concussion, and that Sid is apparently good friends with Tom Brady. Because of an otherworldly season by Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have managed to stay afloat despite injuries to numerous players in addition to Crosby, most notably Kris Letang (who has since returned) and Jordan Staal, but there is no doubt that Crosby brings Pittsburgh to a different level. While the Pens expect him to return for the playoffs, questions will linger until he returns to the ice and in the worst way possible, the NHL could feasibly have found its own Peyton Manning.

Stanley on Broadway?
The New York Rangers are clearl…

NHL All-Star Game: Like you in the school yard, but cooler.

Depending on your perspective when it comes to these things — that is to say the “right” perspective or the “wrong” one — the best part of each sport’s annual midseason break is almost certainly never the All-Star Game itself. When it comes to that yearly talent showcase, each of the four major sports is prone to injury replacements, popularity contests and local host ballot stuffing that denigrate the game at its finest. And did I mention that they don’t exactly play defense at these things?

As a result, the best event of the weekend gets trumped by what’s around it. The MLB All-Star Game is never as fun to watch as the previous night’s Home Run Derby. The NBA All-Star Game can’t possibly match up to the Slam Dunk Contest. The NFL Pro Bowl is always completely inferior to, well, anything else that’s on TV that night.

When it comes to my favorite All-Star weekend of the four major sports — the NHL — the game itself, while periodically entertaining, is nearly devoid of physical play and often results in goofy scores like 12-9. The Skills Competition on Saturday night, however, is almost always a safe bet for some impressive moments (let’s see you fire a hockey puck 105.9 miles per hour), or at least some highly goofy and entertaining ones. But of all the events and innovations that the NHL has introduced to its All-Star format — and there have been many — the clear-cut greatest thing the League has done — and arguably the greatest aspect of any sport’s All-Star format, will be on display tonight in Ottawa.

Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, the NHL will put on its second annual NHL All-Star Fantasy Player Draft. The NHL has come up with several different All-Star formats to attempt to drive up interest, be it the obvious of Eastern Conference All-Stars against West, the more inventive version of the defending champion against the rest of the League or the North American players against the rest of the World. But as Leagues always scramble for ways to breathe fresh life into a stale product, they have come up with plenty of incredibly stupid ideas, but the NHL has come up with a phenomenal one.

All of us played sports as children, all of us have experienced the long-entrenched process of two captains alternating picks for their teams and all of us have known how awful it feels to be picked last. Or perhaps that final one was just me. But seeing it done with athletes this superior is a fresh and exciting change to an All-Star Game — and it makes for phenomenal television. At the NHL’s first Fantasy Player Draft a year ago, the very real drama that unfolded as captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal selected their teams was fascinating to watch.

What is equally as fascinating are the numerous debates that ensue, whether or not the captains should pick teams for the purpose of winning the game or skills competition, or whether they should be wary of miffing their own teammates and maintaining peace in the locker room after the weekend because feelings might be hurt. The latter was certainly the strategy taken by Staal last year when he selected his goalie Cam Ward with the first selection, a somewhat onerous strategy considering goalies are largely useless in the All-Star Game. In the case of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, who was sitting all by himself in the galley as the last pick of the 2011 Draft, the implied insult isn’t terribly awful — at worst he is the 50th or so best hockey player on the entire planet — … Read more...

State of the Devils: The Trouble with Marty

By all accounts, the New Jersey Devils are doing quite well relative to their expectations this season. The 2011-12 NHL regular season is roughly halfway over, and while the Devils’ place in the postseason is far from assured, they’re currently sixth in the East — a better mark than expected Cup contenders like Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Ilya Kovalchuk, with 38 points in 38 games leads the team in goals and is playing like his contract requires, Zach Parise has overcome a slow start to put up 38 points himself, Patrik Elias is playing like he’s 26 again, putting up a team-leading 40 points, and the Devils may have uncovered diamonds in the rough both old (Petr Sykora has turned a training camp invite into 22 points) and young (All-Star rookie Adam Henrique’s numbers — 13 goals, 21 assists, plus-9 have him looking like a future star).

After some rocky beginnings, the Devils appear to have bought into new coach Peter DeBoer’s system, and his aggressive penalty kill is so impressive that New Jersey not only leads the League at 90.4%, but with an NHL-best 11 shorthanded goals in 70 opportunities (15.7%), the Devils are actually more likely to score down a man than on the power play, where they’ve scored 22 of 148 times with the man advantage (14.9%). That may say more about how bad their power play is than anything — and it is fairly bad — but the point is they aren’t handicapping themselves with mistakes, and their aggressive forecheck is creating opportunities, which are leading to wins. Need an example? Look no further than Wednesday night, when Kovalchuk displayed just how effective New Jersey can be at forcing chances off its defense.

But as any dedicated Devils fan could tell you, the positive signs the team has display are encouraging, but with the team unlikely to compete for a Stanley Cup this season, they are just background noise for the two biggest weights that hang on New Jersey’s shoulders. The first is Parise’s uncertain contract status, but as neither side seems to be talking during the season, with little news to report, there is little to talk about. The more prominent concern, however, is the uncomfortable process that every team must deal with eventually, that of an aging superstar losing his skills but needing a face-saving ride off into the sunset. The Devils have never really dealt with that before. It’s unusual that one of their star players remains with the team through the end of his career — particularly since New Jersey has never seemed particularly interested in cultivating “stars” — but the closest approximations the Devils have dealt with so far are the three men whose numbers hang in the rafters.

Of those three, none of them ever presented the Devils with the uncomfortable quandary. Ken Daneyko retired when his skills had clearly eroded (though not before providing an emotional boost by playing in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final after being a healthy scratch through the first six games), Scott Stevens had his career end due to a concussion and Scott Niedermayer played the last five seasons of his career in Anaheim. While the retirement of their numbers is warranted (though some could argue Daneyko’s place in that lot), none of them represented the awkward situation nor the titanic stature of Martin Brodeur.

No one can argue Marty’s on-ice achievements. He is the NHL’s all-time career leader in regular season wins, shutouts and games played. In his career he… Read more...

You Guys Missed A Hockey Game On Monday

The smart money here says that BockerKnocker’s biggest moment of sports-centric anxiety on Jan. 2 came when the New York Knicks suffered an awful early-season home loss to the immortal Toronto Raptors, a franchise whose claim to fame is Vince Carter winning the 2000 Slam Dunk Competition, those stupid head bands they all wore in the first round of the 2001 playoffs and that Isiah Thomas didn’t completely destroy that franchise for the next decade.

Frankly, you’d think Steven Spielberg could have made their nearly 20-year history more dramatic by now.

It is worth noting however, that the Bockers’ unfortunate loss to Toronto came after what was really the top sporting event of the day, at least for New Yorkers. Sure the Rose Bowl wasn’t bad, and the Fiesta Bowl was entertaining, too, but I enjoy sporting events that don’t end because of spiking a football after the clock hits zero and a kicker missing two game-winning field goals.

We celebrate achievement, not ineptitude.

This is where the 2012 Winter Classic comes in. Even if we want to put aside the awesome and historic atmosphere and history that comes with having an annual outdoor hockey game, though this, admittedly, is hard to do, what we had Monday night was a game that had everything. Excitement, physicality, drama, rivalry, back-and-forth action up and down the ice, picturesque snowfall — anything the NHL could have hoped for it got Monday afternoon when the Rangers rallied from a two-goal deficit to upend the Flyers at Citizens Bank park.

In many ways, the NHL got the game it was hoping for a year ago when the League leveraged every ounce of sex appeal it had in the 2011 Classic at Heinz Field, pitting Pittsburgh and Washington against one another in hopes to showcase the personal rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, arguably the two biggest stars and best players in the game. Mother nature didn’t cooperate that night, bringing unseasonably warm rain that forced the game’s faceoff to be delayed until the evening and created ice conditions that were acceptable but far from ideal.

This time around, despite the a slight two-hour delay in puck drop, we had an ideal setting, an even better game and even a little controversy before and after on both sides. The Flyers mixed things up by robbing us of seeing Ilya Bryzgalov pontificate on the universe mid-game when Bryz himself revealed during a press conference that backup Sergei Bobrovsky would be getting the start. On the side of the Rangers, head coach John Tortorella turned some heads when he intimated that the games dramatic final minute was perhaps orchestrated by the refs and American broadcaster NBC in hopes of pumping up ratings, a suggestion that is both ludicrous and almost certain to earn the coach a hefty fine — though it should be noted he apologized Wednesday.

And just what was so dramatic about that final minute you ask?

So glad you did. See in hockey a defensive player is allowed to hand pass the puck forward if he is in his own zone, but he is not under any circumstances allowed to cover the puck up intentionally with his hands. And if any player other than a goalie does that in his team’s crease, well that results in a penalty shot, the single most dramatic moment in hockey. And what’s the most dramatic way to have the single most dramatic moment in hockey? Probably a potential game-tying penalty shot in the final 30 seconds of the NHL’s biggest regular season event. Unfortunately for the Rangers, with 19.6 seconds left and the Flye… Read more...

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ilya Kovalchuk

I believe it was one of the brightest, most gifted poets of our time who gave us the immutable, profound maxim of “Mo’ money, Mo’ Problems”.

Few in the NHL can come to grips with that concept more significantly than New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, a man so gifted as an offensive weapon that no one equaled his scoring prowess over his first seven seasons in the league, and a man whose contract was so controversial that it literally warranted a re-writing of the book on contacts in the League. For all of his goal-scoring gifts — and with 380 goals so far in his 10-season career, those gifts remain potent — there is an undeniable weight that sits on his shoulders considering that he has one of the biggest contracts in the history of the game.

At times that can make his rough public moments all the more brutal, as it did in New Jersey’s last game, a 4-2 loss to Carolina Monday night. The Devils had already fallen behind 3-0 before coming alive in the third period and closing to within 3-2. With the team pressing for the tying score in the final minute after pulling its goalie, Kovalchuk wheeled with the puck near the left corner of the offensive zone and attempted a pass up to the blue line where center Adam Henrique was jumping on the ice following a line change. The pass missed Henrique and cleared the zone, a happenstance that isn’t particularly rare in the game of hockey, but in this case Kovy’s feed was so unfortunately aimed that it drifted all the way to the other end and into New Jersey’s open net, sealing the game for the Hurricanes.

Those are the types of moments that cause New Jersey fans to quickly bring their palms to their foreheads, and it isn’t the first time they’ve had to do it with Kovalchuk. The Russian sniper initially came to New Jersey as the big fish of the 2010 trade deadline, an impending free agent set up for one of the biggest paydays in NHL history, who had been lost in the obscurity the hockey hotbed that was Atlanta, Georgia. With the Atlanta Thrashers unable to come to a long-term deal with Kovy, he was shipped to New Jersey in a surprising gamble for the typically stingy Devils, who thought he might be the missing piece of the fungible roster’s fourth Stanley Cup in 15 seasons. Once he arrived, Kovalchuk continued to have a solid season (he finished with a total of 41 goals and 44 assists in 76 games), but once in the postseason, the team went cold in a five-game first-round loss to the rival Flyers. That series featured Kovy, who was never used to playing with anyone else who could score, hot dogging so much on the rink that it’s a shock Takeru Kobayashi didn’t try to eat him.

The uninspiring performance left many Devils fans willing to simply let Kovalchuk walk at the end of the postseason — myself included. After all, the price paid to Atlanta in the deal, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, a first-round pick and a swap of second-round picks, hadn’t worked out for the Thrashers as well as they wanted. The expected best player in the deal for them, Bergfors, is now with his second franchise since the deal, and while Oduya is still with the team, the team itself had such a dysfunctional ownership that they shipped up to Winnipeg as the reconstituted Jets this past offseason.

So with not that much lost and the noble Kovy experiment over and not particularly successful, it wouldn’t have been so rough to move on. Devils controlling partner Jeff Vanderbeek, however, instead saw a prize acquisition that … Read more...

Mambino Does Hockey?

The closest I came to writing about hockey was a post about the kid who netted a shot from center ice, only to have his prize money taken away from him. The NHL requires some actual knowledge about hockey, and maybe about Canadatoo, two things I don’t particularly care for. Therefore, enjoy this guest post from my buddy Pucklius (He has a nickname that we all know and love him by, but if I were to repeat it here, I wouldn’t be breathing tomorrow morning). It’s a preview of tonight’s 24/7 – Road to the Winter Classic on HBO. HBO does some fine work with this stuff — Hard Knocks and the 24/7 Boxing series are as good as it gets. Personally, I wouldn’t have cared to check this out tonight, but now I feel morally obliged. A small victory for the NHL in its never-ending pursuit to attract more fans.
Oh, and the guy went a little overboard with the youtube links, but some of them are actually pretty epic.

Hey kids. For those of you who have been coming to The Great Mambino to see what Dwight Howard’s choice of sandwich today says about where Orlandois going to ship him, I have some mild disappointment for you. That’s probably going to be the last basketball reference I make today because one of the administrators of this fine site has approached me to whip up something about hockey.
See, I like hockey. It’s cool.

And I’m not even talking about literally, which, if you’ve ever covered a morning skate in an empty arena, you know is definitely true. No, I’m talking about the kind of cool where you see totally bonkers forehand/backhand diving scores in the rookie game, indescribable on-ice blunders, or maybe some dazzling passing by some Swedish twins. It’s that kind of stuff that makes it the coolest game on Earth after all.

As a result of this fandom, I watch hockey. A lot of it. Like, way more than the daily recommended amount. I’m not sure I’d expect all of you to watch as much as I do, least of all the progenitors of this blog, you should know that it’s not too late to get yourself in the game, and tonight HBO just might be providing your gateway drug. That’s because tonight will be their second annual forage into hockey with its premiere of
24/7 Rangers-Flyers Road

to the Winter Classic.

For those of you who don’t remember, HBO did this series for the first time last year, when the League was poised to pit its two biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, against one another. While most of the spotlight was initially intended to be on them, the two who really made the biggest impact were cerebral Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and the then-head coach of the Capitals Bruce Boudreau, who recently endured the shortest unemployment in NHL history. Even if Boudreau wins seven Stanley Cups in a row in his new Anaheimgig, however, he will almost certainly be remembered most for his tendency to, as Lewis Black might put it, use “fuck” less as a word than a comma. This, it should be noted, did not sit well with his mother.

But what makes this show amazing isn’t just the amusing swears or close up camera work. Last season it gave fans a keen insight into the people who make the game, from how players, even superstars, talk on the ice, to the way the refs handle and encourage a fight, to penalties for losing shootouts in practice, to rookie pranks, to Boudreau’s anxiety about getting his wife a Christmas present, and perhaps most remarkably, into the refs’ locker room during their postgame beer.

The access granted and the view int