…and, we’re back.
I think I’ve got everything re-arranged for those of you out East. Now to get back into character–
What? No, I didn’t see the Madness today. That’s kind of the point of this, isn’t it? My news feed told me that there were almost a couple of Cinderella stories, but I was distracted by the Women’s World Curling Championships. No, seriously. The U.S. team defeated Russia Thursday to force tie-breaker games Friday, and U.S. skip Erika Brown had a sick shot to seal the game in extra ends.
But we’re getting off-topic. This is about evangelizing for hockey, spreading the Good Word from the puck. We’re over in the East tonight, testifying about Crosby and the Pens, bringing light to the darkness in New York and Philly, illuminating the success up in Canada. The East is in an exciting race, with teams like the banged-up Ottawa Senators fighting mightily for points in the standings with every game.
What? No, they didn’t literally ‘fight’ for every point. I mean, yes, there have literally been fights in some games, but… Oh, dear. We’ve reached that topic, haven’t we?
The Ups & Downs of Pugilism
It’s difficult to maintain an over-the-top timbre of this article, if we’re going to try to talk about fighting in the NHL this season. The topic gets very polarizing, very fast. Either you’re painted as an effeminate writer-type who’s probably a coward and never really played the game… Or you’re a bloody savage who doesn’t actually like hockey, just the violence, and are the reason the sport is derided.
Not much room for discussion between those two, is there?
Here’s the thing… I think it comes down to semantics, which is the un-sexiest type of unsexy opinions. When I see someone try to argue that fighting is integral to the game, I can’t take him seriously. There are plenty of games or that don’t have fights break out, and leagues that don’t allow them. If fighting was integral to the game, it couldn’t function without it, and that’s damn-near impossible to prove or justify.
On the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree that fighting is an important part of the game. Besides being a means of recourse, blending the skill of solid hockey and the physical edge to your game is important in a sport that itself is a marriage of beautiful skill and brute force (see also, the Boston Bruins of the last few years). And there’s importance in the fact that it’s good for team chemistry and morale to know that a teammate will (literally) fight for you.
Which is why the staged fights and concussions are so frustrating. It devalues the importance of fighting if you’re doing it just to give your team “a boost.” it’s even worse when it happens “just because,” or because “it’s what the fans want.” And if we’re being honest, it really seems to be happening a little too often this season. It stops being important if every little thing (or nothing at all) is a reason to fight.
I’ve seen more than a few instances where an opponent levels a good, clean hit on a guy who wasn’t paying attention. Next thing you know, the hitter is being called out to fight for just playing the game the way it’s meant to played. At this rate, players will start fighting because someone didn’t get the right coffee from Tim Horton’s last week.
When fighting is about putting a nuisance in his place, or calling out a cheap-shotter, or otherwise keeping your opponent honest, it has an important place in hockey. When it’s done maliciously, or to injure, or to get your guys fired up, it’s not integral to the game. It’s simply assault.
Hrm, that was a heckuva tangent. Let’s get off the soapbox and head back to the pulpit, shall we?
Insanity in the East
I told you about the chaos enveloping the West — up is down, whipping boys are winners, everybody’s streaking, the dead (or at least Jagr) rising from the grave, ‘Hawks and Ducks living together — mass hysteria! Real Revelations type stuff.
Over in the East, there’s some weird and unexpected goings-on, as well, but it’s a bit more subtle. If the Western Conference is all Savonarola with its topsy-turvy nature this season, the Eastern Conference is a bit more Richelieu. (I overreached with that Catholic history reference, didn’t I?)
At a glance, the East appears as expected. Pittsburgh and Boston are amongst the top teams, the Southwest Division is still horrendously bad, and Alex Ovechkin continues his descent from hockey godhood to mere mortal. This would seem to indicate that everything is in order, that there’s nothing to see here, pay no mind to that team behind Rick Nash.
Who’s Rick Nash? Well, um, remember when I told you yesterday how the Columbus Blue Jackets traded their franchise player, and got BETTER? Yeah, that player was Nash. They traded him to one of the NHL’s best teams. What? No, he’s having a great season. What about the rest of his team? Aye, there’s the rub…
See, the New York Rangers were one of last year’s best teams — and that was before they acquired Nash. On paper, the Rangers looked so dominant this season, sportswriters found New York irresistible when talking about Stanley Cup contenders. Whatever they were going to be this season, they were certainly not going to be desperately just trying to hold onto the final playoff spot. Certainly not.
Which means, of course, the Rangers are exactly in that spot at this stage of the season. In hindsight, everybody is noticing that, to pay for the beautiful upgrade to the Rangers mansion, the architects may have unwittingly sold off the support beams and load-bearing columns. Opponents are finding that it doesn’t take the Big Bad Wolf to blow down the impressive facade of the Rangers, but just the right breeze at the right time.
And yet, for all the faltering expectations, it could be worse for the Rangers… they could be the New Jersey Devils, or (shudder) the Philadelphia Flyers. Conventional wisdom had these three teams from Atlantic Division (along with the Penguins) as making up half the Eastern playoff picture. The Devils are a Jekyll & Hyde team (depending on if Brodeur is in the net), still desperately grasping onto the edge of the cutoff. The Flyers, though…
Look, I don’t know what happened to the Flyers. Someone must have urinated in the Holy Water, or pissed off a powerful gypsy shaman, or played with a black cat in the shards of a broken mirror. Something. There’s no reason a team this good should be this far out of the playoff picture. Which is why it must be a curse. Trust me, I can smell such things. I do, after all, live just down the street from Wrigley Field.
To fill the void left by the Rangers and their kin, we have our neighbors to the north. Canada is rising, my friend, and appears ready to make its presence felt in the playoffs. There are four Canadian teams in the East, all of which would be in the playoffs if the season ended tomorrow.
The Montreal Canadiens aren’t necessarily a surprise, though seeing them this high in the standings is. A bit. And the Toronto Maple Leafs could still bomb out in the next 18 games — let’s not count our chickens before they’ve pecked out our enemies’ eyes. But the Ottawa Senators? This team shouldn’t be where it is. They lost their top young scorer before the season started. Then they lost arguably the NHL’s best defenseman. The injuries keep mounting; the Senators have lost more pieces than a rusted-out car in an earthquake. If the Senators missed the playoffs this year, nobody would think less of them. Injury-riddled seasons happen, and derail even the best of teams. The Senators, however, are having none of that. They’re kept their place in the midst of the playoff picture by sheer moxie and grit. It’s impressive, and more than a little bit inspiring.
Then there’s the Winnipeg Jets, who are more than a little bit of a shocker. The former Atlanta Thrashers don’t have a great track record in recent years, and the shortened intra-conference season screwed them harder than any other team. Then again, they’re part of the sorriest division in the NHL. Somebody has to win it, so why not a plucky team that doesn’t belong there, geographically?
What? Yes, I know that Winnipeg (the city) is nowhere near the East. They’re stuck there for the rest of this season because… okay, let’s back up.
The East Gets East-ier
Once upon a time, the NHL had a brilliant idea for how to grow the game and the league. What if, and stick with me here, they move a bunch of ice hockey teams to the southern U.S., where ice is non-existent? That sounds like a great business plan, doesn’t it? Why have teams in Minnesota, Connecticut, Quebec, and Winnipeg when there’s plenty of opportunity in the ice-starved realms of Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas, or the Carolinas?
(To be fair, yes, there are signs that this long-term view — the “Sun Belt Strategy” — may be helping to grow youth hockey in the U.S. Though it’s hard to credit a league for having great long-term vision when they’ve had THREE lockouts since Minnesota lost its team to Dallas. Meanwhile, 3 of those 4 northern cities either have, or are being considered for, a new NHL team. *facepalm*)
As a result of this southern migration, there was a team called the Atlanta Thrashers, which was part of the now-abysmal Southeast Division. It was sold to a group that moved it to Winnipeg, replacing the franchise that city lost in the migration. Thus, Winnipeg is stuck in a ridiculous situation until the NHL re-aligns its teams.
Oh, hey, guess what just got approved?
Next season, the Winnipeg Jets (finally) move west, while the Detroit Red Wings and the strangely surging Columbus Blue Jackets will move east. There is much rejoicing, until we read the fine print about the playoff structure.
And Finally: The Kid
Let’s start with those same words: Once upon a time…
… There was a hockey prodigy known as Sid the Kid. Barely into his 20s, he’d already lead his NHL team to the Stanley Cup, lead his country to Olympic gold, and lead sports writers to hail him as the second coming of Gretzky and Lemieux.
Then came the concussions, and a lot of time off the ice. Sure, Sidney Crosby was still good, but who knows what can happen to a kid after two straight years of concussion issues? Could he still dominate the way he did before the head injuries?
By all the gods of ice and cold, yes. Holy sheets of frozen water, yes he can. Watching Crosby this year ought to make an evangelist out of anyone. It’s true that he has a lot of help from the rest of the Penguins: Evgeni Malkin is one of the game’s top forwards, Chris Kunitz is a veteran scorer having a great season, and Kris Letang is a candidate to win the Norris Trophy (for the NHL’s best all-around defenseman). The Penguins would still be a good team without Crosby. But the 25-year-old captain has guided his team through injuries to Malkin and Letang, through what was supposed to be the toughest division in the NHL, to the best record in the East. The Penguins are riding a 10-game winning streak… Not a “haven’t lost in regulation” streak — an honest-to-goodness winning streak.
And those comparisons to Gretzky and Lemieux? They’re back, with a vengeance. Preach on.