Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"The Knee Jerks", my weekly Blog Talk Radio gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience, made its return last night after a five-week hiatus due to Al recovering from major (and more painful that he thought) back surgery.
Al's stamina was impressive. After initially indicating that he wanted to do a 35-40 minute show, he stayed with me until 12:15 -- a full 75 minutes after we started.
You can hear us rehash the Red Wings' Stanley Cup run (including my experiences being at the Finals as a member of the media); listen to us talk about the team's future -- both on the ice and in terms of which building they'll play in; wring our hands over Magglio Ordonez; and talk glowingly about the Lions' new regime (no, it's not Kool-Aid sipping, promise!) if you click below.
We are now back on schedule -- every Monday night live at 11 PM ET. Click here for more details about upcoming episodes, including our special guest -- former Detroit broadcaster Bob Page -- on July 13.
The deck from which Dumars has been dealing cards to himself for the past several years must be crooked or stacked against him. Either that, or he's just simply a bad dealer.
Dumars, the Pistons' president and GM, drew Blackjack in 2004, when his team upset the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. A year later, his card total was 22, as his Pistons lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven hellish games.
Since then it's been a lot of bad hands.
But Dumars can blame no one but himself. He's been a one-man act at the table, functioning as both dealer and player. Joe D has played no hand that he hasn't dealt to himself.
Tonight, when the clock strikes 12:01 AM, the NBA free agency period begins. Dumars is about to play another self-dealt hand.
Armed with a boatload of cash -- thanks largely to expiring contracts coming off his books due to his pre-meditated moves -- Dumars will go shopping. He has, roughly, some $20 million of salary cap space with which to work. He fully expects to sign two impact players, adding to a roster that is in dire need of a makeover.
Problem is, Dumars' card sharking has left a lot to be desired since those 2004-05 Finals appearances.
It used to be that we looked the other way, politely, when Joe drafted, because his other personnel moves were so successful. Free agency and trades were his thing. The draft was something that he did because it came around every summer. Joe would make his pick and then we'd watch said pick either wallow on the bench, be traded, or both.
There were a couple of nuts for the blind squirrel: Tayshaun Prince in 2002 and Rodney Stuckey in 2007 come to mind.
I needn't run through the rest of them, because it's all been told before.
So we excused Dumars' misses at the draft -- and there were plenty of them -- because he was able to fortify the roster in other ways.
Now he can't even do that anymore.
It started, you could say, with his curiously large contract with center Nazr Mohammed, signed in 2006 in the wake of Ben Wallace's fleeing to the Chicago Bulls via free agency.
There were a lot of Tony Delks and Flip Murrays in there as well, and still we nodded in semi-approval, because the Pistons kept traipsing to the conference finals every spring.
But they were spinning their wheels, and by the time anyone realized it, not the least of whom was Dumars himself, the Pistons were helplessly stuck in the mud while their previously vanquished competitors in the East passed them by, gleefully.
Last summer, after the Pistons unraveled in the Final Four against the Celtics, Dumars told us that everyone was expendable. In a press conference laced with both anger and exasperation, Dumars vowed that there "were no sacred cows". His words.
But the summer of 2008 came and went with nary a peep from Auburn Hills.
Then, early in the season, Dumars made his big, bold move: trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, straight up -- a trade supposedly calculated in its making. The one where he gets all that money from Iverson's expiring contract should AI not be re-signed.
Well, the trade was a disaster, Iverson indeed will not be back, and so now Dumars has all that dough.
It says here that this off-season is the most important and crucial of Dumars' nine-year tenure as team president.
The Pistons, based disproportionately on what Dumars does this summer, will either return to prominence fairly quickly or will tumble into the NBA abyss, where they may remain for years.
Some say they are already dangerously close to that abyss. The roster doesn't strike a whole lot of fear into opponents. The front court consists of still-inconsistent Jason Maxiell, an aging Rasheed Wallace and an even more aging Antonio McDyess, neither of whom may be back anyway.
Rip Hamilton and Prince are the only two established NBA starters who are likely to return next season.
Don't come at me with Stuckey talk or Will Bynum talk. Neither point guard has proven a lick. Each of them has shown spurts, but neither has come close to producing, night after night, over the course of an 82-game schedule.
When Dumars took over in 2000, he was hit immediately with the Grant Hill defection. But Joe D took those lemons and made a big, refreshing pitcher of lemonade, vis a vis the Ben Wallace acquisition. He added Hamilton and Billups in short order, rooking the other teams in both trades. He acquired Rasheed Wallace for a pair of sneakers and a warm bucket of spit in 2004 -- a move that elevated the Pistons to title contenders.
So he has done it before.
He'll have to do it again.
The Pistons, as they stand right now, will be lucky to make the playoffs next spring. How Dumars does in his mini-spending spree this month will determine the future of the franchise.
The King Midas image of Joe Dumars has long ago faded away. His honeymoon in Detroit -- probably longer than any GM has enjoyed in this city's history -- is finally over with.
The natives are restless. And a little scared, too. We know all too well the 22-60 and 16-66 records that bad NBA teams can produce.
Dumars is shuffling that deck. At 12:01 tonight he starts to deal himself some cards.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
The Tigers brought a kid second baseman up from the minor leagues, along with his shortstop partner. It was September, 1977, after the rosters were allowed to burst at the seams—jumping from the 25-man limit to infinity following the end of the minor league seasons.
The shortstop was Alan Trammell, and his keystone mate was Louis Rodman Whitaker. “Sweet Lou”, we were told to call him for short.
Tigers fans, the next season, began to be regaled with the fine play of Trammell and Sweet Lou—the start of the longest-running double play combo in big league history.
The denizens in Tiger Stadium likely thought they had the market cornered on Sweet Lous, no doubt.
They’d have been wrong.
The original Sweet Lou came up through the Baltimore Orioles system, debuted in 1964 during one of those September cups of coffee, and five years later won the American League Rookie of the Year Award playing for the Kansas City Royals.
Lou Piniella, “Sweet Lou”, was a marvelous ballplayer.
He made his real mark with the Yankees, after the Bronx Bombers fleeced the Royals in a trade for his services in 1973.
Piniella was usually nosing around the .300 mark every year, and playing some fine outfield.
But his nickname surely must have been a joke, like when you call a bald guy Curly or a fat dude Tiny.
Sweet Lou was sweet, in reality, the way vinegar is.
You can chalk it up to his Italian heritage if you’d like. Whatever floats your boat. But Piniella was an angry man, playing baseball with a fury that was always threatening to burst into flames.
It started in the batter’s box, where Piniella would glare at the pitcher over his left shoulder, staring daggers at him as if the guy just cut him off in traffic.
It continued on the base paths, where Sweet Lou made up for his lack of speed by crash landing into unsuspecting infielders at second base.
It was on display in the outfield, where Piniella possessed a cannon of an arm. He even threw angry.
And it sure as hell was evident when an umpire dared make the wrong call, in Sweet Lou’s dark eyes.
Piniella played baseball on edge. Then he became a manager, and there were times when I thought the game just might kill him.
The Lou Piniella Outburst became a classic, ranking up there with those of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Bobby Cox.
When Piniella got going, it was “Katie bar the door,” to borrow an old hockey term.
Bases would be pulled out of their sockets and tossed. Dirt would be kicked. Caps would be tossed to the ground and stomped on. Then, after the expected ejection, no water cooler or bat rack in the dugout was safe.
The stuff of legend.
He ended up managing a few years ago in Tampa, his hometown. The Rays, then, were typically awful. But Lou took the job anyway, believing that ownership would do whatever it took to win.
They didn’t, at least not fast enough for his liking, and he took his gripes to the papers. He all but challenged his bosses to fire him.
But it appears that Sweet Lou Piniella might finally be mellowing.
It only took him about 45 years.
Piniella’s Chicago Cubs passed through town this week and the Tigers handled them, three straight times. All the games were close. The umpires didn’t always cooperate with Sweet Lou’s team.
His players didn’t always cooperate, either. Runners were left stranded. Mistakes were made defensively. One night, the closer served up a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, to a pinch-hitter.
But Lou didn’t pop a gasket. He came out to the field once in the three games, that I saw, to discuss a call with an umpire. And it was all very civil. The TV cameras even caught him in the dugout, sharing a chuckle with bench coach Trammell (ironically)—and it was the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were losing.
Now, in the irony of ironies, Sweet Lou finds himself managing a player very much like how he was, back in the day. And he’s not liking it too much.
Milton Bradley—not the game company—is an outfielder, just like Lou was. He’s edgy, just like Lou was. He’s prone to tantrums, just like Lou was.
Well, you get the idea.
Bradley has bounced around the big leagues, wearing out welcome mats in dizzying fashion. The Cubs are his seventh team in nine seasons. He’s talented but is higher maintenance than a 1966 Mustang.
Piniella is running out of patience, already, with Bradley, who’s in his first season with the Cubs.
Friday night in Chicago, the Cubs visiting the cross town White Sox, Bradley made an out, ran back to the dugout, and then proceeded to bludgeon a water cooler in his ferocity.
Piniella caught him in the runway, confronted Bradley, and told him to go into the clubhouse, get dressed, and go home.
"This has been a common occurrence and I've looked the other way a lot and I'm tired," Piniella said after the game about Bradley’s caustic behavior.
Imagine that—Sweet Lou tired of the very same fury that he himself played and managed with for decades.
Oh, they’ll tell you that it’s hogwash that Piniella has mellowed. His players will say that he still has that famous short fuse, at least behind closed doors.
Certainly, it’s still there to a degree. But it’s doing a slow burn out, befitting a man approaching 66 years of age. Time would have been when Lou would have shrugged off Milton Bradley-like behavior from one of his players. The “boys will be boys” mentality.
Before you know it, Sweet Lou really will be sweet, after all.
Then we’ll have to start calling him Sour Balls, I suppose.
Friday, June 26, 2009
The Red Wings have a gem in Babcock, and right now I'd say it's pretty darn difficult to imagine the team being coached by anyone else.
It's a measuring device I use--a yardstick, if you will. I look at the coaches around town and mentally insert someone else in their place. Then I see how easy (or hard) that is to do.
Jim Schwartz, still getting a feel for what he's gotten himself into with the Lions, is brand new so he doesn't really count.
Jim Leyland, despite the contract extension he just signed with the Tigers, still strikes me as someone whose flame might burn out instantly, with little warning. I've said it before: don't be shocked if Leyland, one day, maybe in the middle of May, pulls a Bobby Ross and quits, on the spot.
Just a hunch.
Michael Curry, learning on the job with the Pistons, is the easiest coach in town to imagine packing his belongings and being shown the door.
Steve Yzerman, the head of Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, yesterday named his old coach as his new coach for the pursuit of the gold medal.
It's a job that Babcock wanted badly, and now he has it.
There will be those who'll cry nepotism, in a broken arrow sort of way.
Let 'em cry.
Babcock is supremely qualified to coach Team Canada. Not just because of his unmitigated success with the Red Wings in his four seasons, but because of his experience coaching in the international arena.
Babcock led Canada to gold twice: at the 1997 world juniors, and in 2004 at the world championships.
In 2006, Team Canada foundered, finishing an embarrassing seventh in the winter games in Torino.
The scuttlebutt is that the expectation is to go from No. 7 to gold medalists, period.
Babcock is just the man to do it, according to Yzerman, who played for him for one season.
"I'm certain Mike is the right guy to take the reins and play a style of play that will be successful this winter in Vancouver," Yzerman said at the press conference announcing the hiring.
But back to his Red Wings gig.
There's a little bit of Chuck Daly and Jack McCloskey going on with Babcock and Ken Holland, in terms of coach and GM relationships.
Daly and McCloskey, who worked together for nine seasons with the Pistons, didn't always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes their contract negotiations were contentious. Daly even worked a couple of playoffs without a contract at all.
But they meshed brilliantly, if not always smoothly.
I can see the same kind of longevity developing with the Red Wings, when it comes to Babcock and Holland.
Holland, to his end, isn't going anywhere anytime soon. His feet are as firmly planted in the executive offices at Joe Louis Arena as the pillars in the concrete basement, holding up the stands.
Then there's the fact that the two men genuinely admire and respect each other. All that, plus Babcock has fallen in love with the city and its surrounding area. He wants his kids to go through school here, all the way to high school graduation. And one of them isn't anywhere close to that right now.
There was a time when I, no joke, couldn't imagine anyone managing the Tigers other than Sparky Anderson. But after the team was purchased by Mike Ilitch in 1992, and it became clear that the new regime didn't hold Sparky in as high of a regard as the Tom Monaghan ownership did, then the "name game" began.
It no longer was, "Will Sparky ever not manage the Tigers?"
It became, "So, who'll be the next Tigers manager?"
I find myself not being able to imagine someone else prowling behind the Red Wings' bench, besides Mike Babcock.
He's dug in deep here, and with the way the Red Wings replenish old talent with new, there's no reason to think that the team will suffer through any significant "down" years. At least not in the near future.
So why not stick with Babcock and see if he can be a sort of poor man's Scotty Bowman?
The Red Wings could do worse, you know.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Normally, it's "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Robitaille spun that a little bit and tried, "AFTER you beat 'em, join 'em."
It worked out. They didn't call him "Lucky Luc" for nothing.
Robitaille, along with sniper Brett Hull and All-World goalie Dominik Hasek, joined the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 2001. Robitaille and Hull were free agents; Hasek came to the Wings in a trade.
Robitaille's Los Angeles Kings had upset the mighty Red Wings in the first round in '01, yet when it came time to make a decision about where he wanted to land next, Luc looked beyond that playoff derailing of the Red Wings.
Robitaille was 35 and had never won a Stanley Cup. He made it to the Finals in 1993 with the Kings, but no champagne.
"My wife and I discussed it. She asked me, 'Luc, where do you think you'd have the best chance at a Stanley Cup?' I said, 'Detroit.' So that was pretty much our focus," Robitaille told me yesterday during a conference call.
But this wasn't just any conference call. It was the call announcing the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2009.
Robitaille, along with Hull, Steve Yzerman, and Brian Leetch, was among the four player inductees. Longtime New Jersey Devils executive Lou Lamoriello will also be inducted.
So add Robitaille to the list of superstar players who ventured to Detroit seeking that missing brass NHL ring.
"When my agent called and said that he was talking to (Red Wings GM) Kenny Holland, I got excited," Robitaille went on. "Then, he called and said a deal was done and my wife and I were very happy."
According to Luc, there really was no other team in the mix for his services eight years ago.
Some have called the 2001-02 Red Wings one of the best teams in NHL history. It's a hard point to argue, if you're going to simply compare rosters.
"Sometime during the season, someone said that we had maybe 10 future Hall of Famers on the team," Robitaille said. "And looking back, it was an amazing team, for sure."
The '02 Wings won the Presidents' Trophy for best overall regular season record, then eventually captured the Stanley Cup, ousting the Carolina Hurricanes in five tough games.
Not that the Cup run was a breeze. The Red Wings started things out by losing the first two games, both at home, in the first round to Vancouver. Hasek was a major culprit.
But Detroit re-grouped and won the next four games.
Robitaille (left) kisses the Cup in 2002 with Steve Duchesne
The highlight was a grueling, seven-game series with the Colorado Avalanche in the conference finals -- the last good playoff series the two teams have played.
Yzerman was also on the conference call yesterday.
As team captain, I wondered, was there added pressure to win, since ownership went out and secured such immeasurable talent that summer?
"You know, there's always pressure to win (in Detroit)," Yzerman said. "We won the Cup in 1998, then we kind of had trouble getting out of the second round the next three years. But that [2002 team] was a special team--and I think Luc would agree--in that we just played the games and didn't really worry about the playoffs until they rolled around."
I asked Robitaille what it was like playing with Yzerman and his exemplary leadership skills.
"I don't want to talk about Stevie while he's on the line. He might get cocky or something," he said, as everyone laughed -- including, and especially, Yzerman himself.
Hull wasn't present at the call, but it was pointed out by one of the writers that it's not too often that three members of the same Cup-winning team all go into the Hall of Fame together.
2002 was also the year that Yzerman had knee surgery and was in great pain for most of the playoffs.
"We had so many great players," Yzerman said. "We knew we had something special,and I wanted to be a part of it. But like I said, we didn't focus on the playoffs or put extra pressure on ourselves to win the Stanley Cup during the season. We kind of just let that (playoff time) roll around and dealt with it then."
And dealt with it they did.
Robitaille got his Cup, but despite playing in 81 games the following season, Luc wasn't so lucky, tallying just 11 goals and ending up in new coach Dave Lewis's doghouse. He re-signed with the Kings that summer, his original team, and finished there in 2006.
Robitaille has a sense of history, as he proved yesterday.
One of the men the NHL designated to announce the inductees was Pat Quinn, who read Robitaille's brief bio before announcing Luc's name.
After he was announced, Robitaille said, "Pat, you were my first coach (in the NHL). So it's great that you're the one announcing my name."
Hull teamed with his father Bobby to be the only father-son combo in NHL history to each score over 600 goals. Brett Hull won Cups in 1999 with Dallas--scoring the Cup-winning goal in controversial fashion, against Hasek, no less--and in 2002 with Detroit, obviously. He's currently in the Dallas Stars organization, having just been re-designated from his position as co-general manager.
Leetch, of course, was the brilliant defenseman for the New York Rangers, an American kid--born in Texas, no less. He won a Stanley Cup in 1994, helping the Broadway Blues snap a 54-year drought.
Lamoriello has been with the Devils since 1987, and has had a couple different stints as the team's coach. But he made his mark as one of the shrewdest, most adept GMs in the business. His Devils teams captured Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
For it's the post-season that stirs the hockey fan's blood -- and the hockey player's, too.
"This is the time of year I like the most. I live for this time."
The words were Chelios's, and he spoke them to the interloper sitting beside his personal space in the Red Wings' locker room.
The interloper was me.
The scene was just before the start of the 2007 playoffs. Chelios, then 45, and his teammates had just come off the ice after one of the last practices before the second season was to begin.
A bunch of us media types trudged into the dressing room after them, recorders and microphones and notepads in hand. Coat-tailers, all of us, in search of some memorable nugget to write about or talk about before the playoffs got rolling.
Chelios was peeling off his gear when I invaded.
My query was, "Do you still get excited about the playoffs, even after over 20 years as a player?"
Or something like that.
"I love hockey, and I love playing the games," I recall Chelios telling me. "But this, this is what I live for."
"This", of course, was the playoffs.
Goalie Dom Hasek was across the way, holding court with some more coat-tailers.
"That guy," Chelios said, nodding toward Hasek, "is the best in the business. I feel totally confident going to battle with Dom in net."
The Red Wings, in 2007, were trying to rebound from a stunning first-round loss to the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. The loss ended goalie Manny Legace's tenure in Detroit. Manny's collar tightened badly in the series, and with the talent the Red Wings had, his performance was unacceptable.
Enter Hasek, on his third tour of duty with the Wings.
Chelios couldn't wait to get started.
He played a decent amount in those 2007 playoffs, which ended for Detroit in the conference finals against Anaheim. And he played fairly well.
Chelios, 47, was officially informed yesterday by GM Ken Holland what had been suspected for quite some time -- that Chelly will not be back with the Red Wings next season.
Chelios is the Carlton Fisk of hockey.
For years, you thought of Fisk as a Boston Red Sox player -- even after he joined the Chicago White Sox. Then before you know it, he's been with the White Sox longer than he was in Boston.
Chelios was acquired by the Red Wings from Chicago, believe it or not, ten years ago -- at the 1999 trade deadline. He was considered old back then. No one thought that it was much more than the Red Wings acquiring another aging veteran, a la Larry Murphy in 1997. The idea of Chelios spending a decade in Detroit would have been folly.
He has played more years as a Red Wing than as a Chicago Blackhawk, and as a Montreal Canadien. Amazingly.
When Chelios signed yet another one-year deal with Detroit last summer, Holland said yesterday, it was with the understanding that it was likely his last contract as a Red Wing.
Now it's officially his last, but Chelly still wants to play. And Holland, for the record, believes he still can play.
But there's no room in Detroit, especially with the emergence of young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.
Still, Chelios, who's Hall of Fame-bound, did alright by spending ten years in Detroit.
Ten years in which he planted a second set of roots in Motown; another restaurant bearing his name, and community involvement. Plus very generous media availability.
As much as I would like to see it, I can't imagine Chris Chelios, at age 47, being signed by another NHL team. He played in the '09 playoffs briefly, and there were some "uh-oh" moments.
Senior moments, if you will.
But he dressed and took warmups before all the Stanley Cup Finals games in Detroit, probably out of deference. No doubt he was chomping at the bit to get on the ice, in some fashion. Even for warmups.
The Red Wings did alright by Chelly, too. Let's not forget that. They made it work to have him on the roster for the past few seasons, when other teams might have cut bait. When a tragic double murder took place in his restaurant the day after New Year's, 2007, the Red Wings told him to take as much time as he needed before returning to the ice.
The Red Wings treated Chelios well, and he did the same in return -- for both the team and the city.
For ten years -- longer than anyone could have anticipated.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Lions quarterbacks threw passes and he threw blocks.
Charlie Sanders doesn’t hold any team records for pass catching. Hasn’t for years. But no one who put on the Honolulu Blue and Silver put himself through what Charlie did every Sunday, lining up at tight end for ten seasons.
He’d take on Dick Butkus, block for Mel Farr, and make a couple circus catches over the middle, or in the corner of the end zone.
Sanders—and that surname is magic when it comes to Detroit football—didn’t put up gaudy numbers. No thousand-yard seasons.
All he was, was the best tight end to ever play in Detroit. Hell, he might have been the best of his time.
And, he was the franchise’s best receiver, as previously indicated.
Style, numbers, gaudiness be damned.
Fourteen long years went by, after Charlie Sanders retired, before we were again thrilled by footballs spiraling through the air and ending up in sure hands—on a consistent basis.
Herman Moore, from Virginia, arrived in 1991 and before long, he was trying to make us forget Charlie Sanders. And Pat Studstill. And the recently passed away Terry Barr.
Moore caught passes with pillow-like hands. Lions passers couldn’t hit him in between the numbers because Moore didn’t let the ball get that far. He snared footballs. None of this clutch-to-the-chest jazz.
Herman Moore is where you go to if you’re looking for numbers of the gaudy variety. He of the 100+ receptions and 1,500-yard seasons.
But if this was basketball, Moore was a perimeter player. Charlie Sanders was banging bodies under the basket. A big man in a big man’s game.
Herman Moore hasn’t played for the Lions since 2001. And in that time, the pass catching has been handled by hacks and scrubs. And draft busts.
Only Roy Williams, a 2004 first-round pick who was last year dispatched to Dallas, proved to be somewhat competent in the receiving department in the years since Moore departed.
That’s about to change.
Calvin Johnson is a freak of a football player, in that if you put a tank top and shorts on him, you’d mistake him and his six-feet-five for a small forward in the NBA.
He’s big and runs like a deer. Gallops, is more like it. He has the hands of Herman Moore and the physicality of Charlie Sanders. He’d just as soon run over you than around you.
In the 2007 season, when the Lions were sprinting to a very un-Lions-like 6-2 start, there was a moment that made my jaw drop. I don’t even recall who the Lions opponents were. Doesn’t matter.
Johnson lined up on the outside, then at the snap of the football, he eschewed running a pass pattern. Instead, he made a wide arc, toward the Lions backfield, and took a handoff. Your basic wide receiver reverse play.
Johnson took the football and proceeded to show one of the reasons why he’s going to own Detroit someday.
The poor defenders didn’t have a chance.
Johnson picked up steam as he rounded the corner, long legs reaching full gallop, and he didn’t seem to care who or what was in his path.
The other guys were the bowling pins, and Johnson was the 22-pound ball striking the pocket at full speed.
His strides could be measured in yards, not feet. It seemed that his prance to the end zone—and this was every bit of a 40-yard run—used up as much time as it would if he was crossing his living room.
I’d never seen a receiver run a reverse like that. Ever.
Earlier that rookie season, in September in Philadelphia, Johnson made a catch that had to be seen to be believed. I will attempt to recreate it here, but its justice won’t be done.
But I’ll try anyhow.
Johnson ran a fly pattern, down the sidelines. He was some 30, 40 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Lions quarterback Jon Kitna heaved the ball toward Johnson’s general direction. Such is Johnson’s deceptive speed that he had overrun Kitna’s pass, and therefore had to turn, stop, and leap. All at once.
The ball was still high up in the air when Johnson turned, so he jumped equally as high. The momentum of the leap, combined with the fact that the football was now just beyond his head, forced his torso back while his legs stayed forward.
The result was a crash landing, but not before Johnson brought Kitna’s pass in, from over his head to a cradle near his waist.
He landed with a terrible thud, on his tailbone. From several feet off the turf.
He made the catch, which was unreal, but the landing gave him a nagging injury that would bother him all season.
But he was still able to run through everyone on that reverse play, injury and all.
A healthier Johnson, in 2008, racked up over 1,300 yards receiving on 78 catches. He caught 12 touchdown passes—all while playing for the only 0-16 team in NFL history.
There’s a fluttering feeling in the tummies of Lions fans—and players and coaches—that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of Calvin Johnson.
He could be a one-man wrecking crew for years. He’s still a baby, in football terms. More like a bulldozer outfitted with a racing car engine.
Calvin Johnson could own Detroit. He’s the most talented, most physically gifted pass receiver to come down the Lions’ pike in, well...ever.
All the Lions need now is someone to throw the ball in his general direction with some degree of consistency.
That’s been a need for half a century—the biggest caveat to Johnson’s potential as a Lion.
They’d better find someone to chuck it, because the Lions have themselves something here.
Friday, June 19, 2009
In the regular season, he was all about scoring goals, generating assists, and making his opponents look silly on the ice.
In the playoffs, he struggled mightily. The grip on the stick got tighter. The net shrunk. Or maybe the goalies got bigger. Something.
He's a playoff choker, they said. And we have no use for those types in Detroit, a city that has turned into the 21st century version of Montreal: where only the Stanley Cup is acceptable.
It wouldn't hurt our feelings, the masses said, if you cashiered the playoff choking forward.
Thank goodness the Red Wings hung onto Pavel Datsyuk.
Datsyuk, a league MVP candidate this season--and who just won the Selke Award and Lady Byng Trophy for the second straight year--wasn't a playoff performer earlier in this decade. He disappeared, virtually, in first round losses to Anaheim (2003) and Edmonton (2006) and wasn't much of a factor in a second round exit at the hands of Calgary (2004).
Now, it can be said that the Red Wings might have had enough to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins and win a second consecutive Stanley Cup, if only Pavel Datsyuk was healthy in the Finals.
The Red Wings resisted the urge to trade Datsyuk, back when it might not have been very unpopular to do so, and in their recent long playoff runs (2007-09), they've been rewarded for their patience.
Those of you who thought I was describing Marian Hossa in my opening paragraphs, you're excused. Because the situation now, with Hossa, is similar as it was with Datsyuk several years ago.
But this time, there's more urgency. Hossa, the supremely talented forward who came to Detroit to win a Stanley Cup, and do so right now, is a free agent. This is not news to anyone not sleeping beneath a rock.
So the decision isn't whether to keep him or trade him, as it was with Datsyuk, once upon a time. The decision is whether to sign him or let him walk away, no compensation gotten in return.
Hossa could have made this a slam dunk for the Red Wings. He could have netted a ton of playoff goals, more commensurate with his regular season production of 40. He could have been a Conn Smythe Award candidate. He could have put the team on his back and lugged them through a couple of rounds.
He didn't do any of that.
So it's not a slam dunk decision whether to sign Hossa to a long-term contract, at age 30. It's more like a pull-up jumper at the foul line. Still high percentage, but not as much.
It says here that the Red Wings ought to look beyond Hossa's relatively disappointing playoff and sign him to several years in Detroit.
I have a hunch they'll be glad they did.
A guy doesn't score goals at the rate Hossa has (339 in 775 career games) and then totally forgets how to get them in the post-season.
Marian Hossa was not, by any stretch, one of the Red Wings' better players this playoff. Not even close. But his reputation still caused other teams to pay attention to him, because you never know when he might go off.
There were flashes.
A couple goals in Anaheim, in Game Four, when a Red Wings loss would have put them down 3-1 in the series. Two more in Chicago in Game Four in the conference final, including a short-handed dagger.
But that was pretty much it.
So the decision to reward him with a long-term commitment--and Hossa, for his part, would like to remain in Detroit--wouldn't at all be based on Playoffs 2009. It would be for what Hossa has the potential to do, and for the desire to not have him do those things wearing another uniform--perhaps even doing it against the Red Wings some spring.
Then what would everyone say?
"We should never have let Hossa go!"
That's how it works for the sports fan; their vision is perpetually 20/20, for they always look at things in hindsight.
So do ink-stained wretches and bottom-feeding bloggers, as a matter of fact. I ought to know, because I'm both.
The Red Wings, my hunch is, will sign Hossa to a long-term agreement. Even if it means not being able to keep other forwards, due to the salary cap.
Because those forwards who would be let go (Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, for example) cannot do what Marian Hossa has the potential to do. Period.
The 2009 playoffs were disappointing for Hossa individually, and heartbreaking, at the end, for the Red Wings as a team.
But the Red Wings are not better without him than they are with him.
That's pretty much what it should boil down to, right?
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Laimbeer, the now ex-coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, resigned the other day, saying he wanted to pursue a job in the NBA. Preferrably, roaming the sidelines, shouting instructions, as a head coach someday.
It's not a pie-in-the-sky thought.
Laimbeer has the chops, for sure, to be a successful NBA coach. They say he might have trouble getting along with today's players. But he didn't always get along so well with his Shock ladies, and they won three championships together and nearly a fourth.
And it shouldn't need to be drudged up again that he wasn't always kind to his own teammates, and that didn't stop rings from being attained, either.
Now, the irony.
Folks with some assemblance of knowledge of the NBA say that Laimbeer resigned his post--three games into the WNBA season--because he had his eye on something else, about to materialize.
Bill said at the press conference that he didn't have another job, and he might simply have been parsing words.
No, he doesn't have another job. Not yet.
Doesn't mean that he doesn't have a bead on one, though.
The irony is that the one job that Laimbeer might have had his good eye on, the one that now is suddenly and conveniently vacant, is the one in Minnesota, with the Timberwolves.
The seat that had just been warmed by Kevin McHale.
Once, Laimbeer and McHale were two of the biggest rivals in the game. There was no secret of the disdain McHale, of the Celtics, had for the Piston Bill Laimbeer. The disdain was displayed with words, with body language, and with the occasional fist.
The Pistons and the Celtics provided marvelous theater in the late-1980s. The rivalry grew, steadily but surely, like an expanding foil package of Jiffy Pop popcorn.
Then it would explode. Laimbeer would duke it out with Larry Bird. Robert Parish would slap Laimbeer across his pouting mug. And McHale laid a doozy of a punch against Laimbeer's face, too, one night in the playoffs.
Now Laimbeer might be the one to replace McHale as T-Wolves coach.
It could happen.
It could happen that Laimbeer leapfrogs the usual first step--that of serving time as an apprentice for another head coach--and takes the reins as No. 1 man.
And it could happen that it occurs in Minnesota.
The T-Wolves are bad. And young. They are nowhere near championship contention.
The perfect place for a rookie coach, but one who is no rookie to the NBA.
Laimbeer, as an NBA coach, and the T-Wolves, as a young team, could grow together.
And Laimbeer could have his way with them, as he molds them into something worth seeing.
It's possible that the timing of Laimbeer's resignation and McHale's "agreement" to no longer coach the T-Wolves are mere coincidences.
I know--I can't keep a straight face either, and I wrote the words.
Laimbeer is also a businessman. It's how he padded his already fat bank account after he retired as a player. He wasn't one of those ex-players who tried to make it on autograph shows or wearing a headset, gabbing into a microphone.
Laimbeer started a packaging business and made some good dough while he bided his time.
Then, in 2002, the Shock came calling, their team 0-10 and in desperate need of an ass-kicking.
Laimbeer was all too happy to ease himself away from his business, roll up his sleeves, and get the Shock into gear.
The next season, the Shock won the first of their three championships. Worst to first.
But Laimbeer doesn't have anything left to prove in the WNBA. It's time now for his true love, the NBA.
And funny, but I don't see him as an assistant.
Laimbeer was never an assistant anything. He's been used to, all his basketball life, being in the spotlight. Either as a co-captain or as a head coach.
If he's going into the NBA, me thinks, it's going to be as a head coach. Period.
"I made the mistake of starting the season," Laimbeer said at his press conference, referring to bailing on the Shock after three games. "I shouldn't have done that. I stayed longer than I thought I would."
Not sure if that last line refers to this season, or his tenure with the Shock in general.
In either case, he's right.
It's time to move on.
Replacing Kevin McHale?
Monday, June 15, 2009
OK, so what went wrong?
Why couldn't the Detroit Red Wings seal the deal? How did this team, so used to applying the choke hold, so adept at squeezing the playoff life out of you--let the Stanley Cup itself slip through their gloves?
It's easy to sound like you're excuse-making when you analyze reasons why a team lost a playoff series.
But there needs to be closure, and to get that, there needs to be answers to those one-word questions.
NBC won't ever admit it, but here's an educated theory as to why the Finals began so soon after the Red Wings dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference final.
In a case of bad timing, the new, Conan O'Brien-hosted "Tonight" show was set to debut the same week that the Cup Finals would be going on.
The Red Wings finished off the 'Hawks on Wednesday, May 27. NBC, which had the rights to Games One and Two (Versus had Three and Four), had themselves a quandary.
Knowing all too well how playoff hockey games can lapse into seemingly endless overtime (read: Game Five of last year's Finals, which went into triple OT), the network no doubt got nauseous at the thought of the little NHL bleeding into Conan's time slot during his opening week.
So what to do?
Under normal conditions, NBC probably would have allowed the NHL to set Game One for Monday or Tuesday night. As Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said on Media Day (the day before Game One), the Finals matchup was a compelling one; it could have used a few days of hype.
And, as Babcock noted, when you win a series in five games (as Detroit did over Chicago), you normally get a few days off before you have to prepare for the next round.
But with the Conan thing looming, the league had a proposal for NBC: how about if we get Games One and Two out of the way, over the weekend?
Since Versus was slated to carry Games Three and Four, there would be no Conan conflict, so those could happen during the week.
Game Five, carried by NBC, was on Saturday, June 6. Again, no conflict. The network successfully navigated through Conan's opening week without any possibility of being screwed by the NHL.
The schedule called for three games in the first four days, and five in the first eight.
Bottom line: as the series wore on, the cumulative effects of the Anaheim seven-game series, starting the Finals so soon after Chicago, and the Finals schedule itself, wore the injury-torn Red Wings down.
The "big boys"
Tigers manager Jim Leyland recently expressed concern about his team's struggling offense. He called out who he referred to as the "big boys" -- guys like Magglio Ordonez, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson. Maybe even Miguel Cabrera, to an extent.
The message? Unless they really get it going, then the Tigers will continue to struggle to maintain their fragile lead in the division, if they maintain it at all.
Here's what happened as the Finals unfolded.
After the first two games in Detroit, both Red Wings victories, the analysis was, "The Red Wings haven't even played their best yet. The big guns haven't shown up yet. Just wait till they do!"
The Red Wings lost Game Three in Pittsburgh, on a third period power play goal by Sergei Gonchar.
Everyone said, "The Red Wings haven't even played their best yet. The big guns haven't shown up yet. Just wait till they do!"
Game Four turned around in the second period, the Red Wings leading, 2-1. After a 5:37 flurry, the Penguins led, 4-2. They ended up winning by that score. The series was tied, 2-2.
Everyone said, "The Red Wings haven't even played their best yet. The big guns haven't shown up yet. Just wait till they do!"
The Red Wings were getting goals from guys like Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Brad Stuart, and Kris Draper. Which was fine, except that the front-line players weren't contributing.
The Red Wings exploded in Game Five, but it was mainly their defensemen who scored.
"The Red Wings haven't even played their best yet. The big guns haven't shown up yet. Just wait till they do!"
Game Six would be with two days of rest after Game Five, which was supposed to help the battered, tired Red Wings.
But they came out flat as a pancake, fell behind 2-0, and lost 2-1.
"The Red Wings haven't even played their best yet. The big guns haven't shown up yet. Just wait till they do!"
Game Seven would provide that final vindication; one last chance for the Hossas and Samuelssons and Franzens and Holmstroms and Hudlers to show up. One last chance to wash away, for good, the stench of the first six games of non-productivity from the "big boys."
You know the rest.
Bottom line: The Red Wings never did "play their best." The big guns never did show up. Their only goal in Game Seven came from another defenseman -- Jonathan Ericsson.
Jordan Staal's shorthanded goal
You want a turning point? I've got one that beats all: the shorthanded goal by Jordan Staal in the second period of Game Four.
The situation: Red Wings leading, 2-1, on a fluky point shot from Stuart early in the period. Red Wings on a power play. The Mellon Arena crowd uneasy. A chance for Detroit to seize a very valuable two-goal lead, which they could very well have turned into a 3-1 series lead.
But Staal changed all that.
He poked the puck away from Nick Lidstrom at the Pittsburgh blue line, outraced Brian Rafalski, and deftly slipped the puck past Chris Osgood, who was awfully deep in his crease.
THAT'S your turning point.
Bottom line: I'm telling you, the series could very well have turned out differently -- could have ended a week ago Saturday in Detroit -- if Staal doesn't make that play.
Puck not possessed
As the series wore on, the Red Wings' famous, vaunted puck possession game deteriorated.
By the end, in fact, it just about had vanished.
Whether due to the Penguins' adjusting during the series, or the Red Wings fatiguing, the result was that Detroit's attack turned into shot after shot from the point -- very little danger emerged from near Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Gone was the tic-tac-toe passing, the rink-wide stuff, the cycling deep in the Pittsburgh zone.
The power play, even, was dimly lit by the end.
Babcock admitted, in the series' aftermath, that his team was "gassed" and "running on fumes" in Game Seven.
He also acknowledged that his team never really got going and that caught up to them.
Bottom line: The Red Wings simply were not the same team that dispatched Columbus, Anaheim, and Chicago.
All that, and the Red Wings still came within inches (a Niklas Kronwall crossbar late in Game Seven) of tying the final game and sending it into overtime.
Anytime you lose by one goal in Game Seven of the Finals, you've had a pretty good season.
Not that it won't hurt this summer, because it will.
After the game, before I headed for the ice to interview happy Penguins, I passed the Red Wings' coaches room.
Inside, Babcock and his staff and GM Ken Holland, and assistant GM Jim Nill, plus other members of the team's brass, stood quietly, talking softly. Their faces were drawn. It appeared to me that they looked stunned.
Outside the room, chief pro scout Mark Howe spoke quietly with another front office type. Howe looked numb.
No more game plans to formulate. No more practice. No more videotape to hash over.
No more hockey.
Which would be all fine and dandy, if the Stanley Cup was sitting in that dressing room.
Instead, the Penguins frolicked with it on the Joe Louis Arena ice surface.
But the better team won. Let's not forget that.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
The words are Mario Lemieux’s.
The Penguins owner was on the Joe Louis Arena ice Friday night, taking in all the Stanley Cup-winning revelry surrounding him, when I sidled up.
I wondered how difficult it was for Lemieux to render the ziggy to coach Michel Therien, who was presiding over mediocrity when summoned to his boss’ office.
“Whenever the team is struggling, changes have to be made and it’s easier to change the coach than all the players,” Lemieux said, grinning a little sheepishly—as if he had stumbled onto a winning formula, which he had.
It wasn’t a grinning situation when the Pens were still struggling to keep ahead of the traditional mediocrity standard of .500, even after over 50 games had been played.
“I think Michel is a very good coach,” Lemieux said. “But when you’re struggling, changes have to be made.”
So Mario made one—a big one.
Enter Dan Bylsma.
Therien was cashiered in mid-February, the trade deadline approaching and the final turn of the season looming ahead.
If Lemieux was going to pull the trigger, it was then.
“I think it was a turning point,” acknowledged Super Mario of his swapping Therien for Bylsma as Pens’ head coach.
Lemieux didn't actually fire Therien--GM Ray Shero did--but he was very influential in the decision
Lemieux used the word “adversity” when discussing his team’s rocky season, and few know its meaning better than he—what with his battle with Hodgkin’s Disease and the Penguins franchise being threatened to be moved out of Pittsburgh—only a few years ago.
But then Bylsma was promoted from the minor leagues and things changed.
“We got more aggressive,” Lemieux told me. “We changed up the power play...the penalty kill. Dan’s very positive. He’s been great for the guys on the ice and off the ice. Then the players started buying in.”
That’s an understatement—maybe of the year.
Soon after Bylsma took over, the Penguins ripped off a 16-game streak in which they won 13 times and lost only thrice—twice in shootouts.
They were the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs.
Lemieux, as a player, is part of one of only two teams to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since 1988—the 1991-92 Penguins. So when he says he felt good about the team’s chances as the post-season dawned, he’s not some guy off the street.
“I think the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win,” he said with unabashed bias. “And to come in here (in Detroit), win a Game Seven, after all the adversity...it’s very gratifying,” he added.
But what’s it like as an owner?
I put it to him.
“Well, it’s great,” he said as he surveyed the scene from our location on the ice near the benches: champagne being shot from bottles into the air, players still skating the Cup around, their families very much a part of the whole thing—wives and girlfriends, and children with miniature versions of their father’s jerseys on their small torsos.
“It was a great feeling as a player, and to watch these guys, the way they hung in there....I’m very proud of them. It’s an incredible feeling.”
The coaching change in mid-season isn’t usually something that has a happy ending. The NHL was a treasure trove of fired coaches this season, but nowhere did things end up working out like they did in Pittsburgh.
Not very far from where Lemieux held court, I found Bylsma—just before he headed into the dressing room to enjoy the Cup with his players.
Was this moment ever, I asked, on his radar when he took over from Therien in February?
To my surprise, it kinda was.
“Actually,” Bylsma said, giving it some thought. “You know, there was a moment where I thought that this team could have a mural on Mellon Arena—a picture with them raising the Cup. But that was fleeting. We were more worried about just getting some wins.”
The coach agreed with the owner: the players “bought in” to the new system, the new way of doing things.
“This isn’t my victory,” Bylsma said. “It’s theirs,” he added, nodding toward the few players still on the ice.
The Penguins’ captain, Sidney Crosby, skated off in terrible pain after a hit early in the second period. It looked to be a knee injury—or something to do with the leg.
The score was 1-0, Pittsburgh. And there went arguably the team’s best overall player, doubled over in pain.
What was going through the coach’s mind at that point?
The deliciousness of the moment wasn’t lost on Bylsma.
“I just thought,” he said, truly giving his answer some time to formulate, “that it just made for a better story. That we didn’t have to rely on just one or two guys to win it.”
Bylsma adjusted his new Stanley Cup Champs hat.
“This is good stuff,” he said. “Good stuff.”
Friday, June 12, 2009
Stanley is slipping away, possibly to reside in the Steel City for the next 12 months.
The Red Wings’ will is there, but I don’t know that their bodies are.
It’s appearing that as this series goes on, the Red Wings are wearing down.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lead, 2-0, and are 20 minutes from their first Stanley Cup since 1992.
Max Talbot has both Penguins goals.
The first came early, at 1:13, when Talbot stole the puck from Brad Stuart behind the Detroit net, moved in front of the goal and slid a nifty shot thru Chris Osgood.
The second was the result of a bad luck deflection (for Detroit) near the Pittsburgh blue line that Talbot scooped up. He found himself on a 2-on-1, but used the other Penguin as a decoy and wristed a pretty shot over Osgood’s left shoulder, top shelf.
The Red Wings aren’t getting the loose pucks, they aren’t getting the bounces, and they aren’t getting anything really seriously dangerous around Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
But my observation is that the Red Wings are gassed. They’re trying, but the Penguins–again–look like the fresher, hungrier team.
The culprit? Perhaps the Anaheim seven-game series in the conference semi-finals. Maybe the whirlwind schedule in the Finals, even though Detroit raced to a 2-0 series lead.
Bottom line? It has the feel that it’s the Pens’ night for glory. Even with Sidney Crosby injured (he skated off the ice early in the period in obvious pain), the Penguins have enough, so far, to handle the grizzled Red Wings.
If they pull this off, you have to hand it to the Penguins. To win four of the last five games of this series, including a Game Seven in Detroit after being humiliated at Joe Louis Arena in Game Five, is quite an accomplishment.
They will have earned this Stanley Cup, without question.
The Red Wings and the Penguins are playing as if their very hockey lives depended on tonight’s Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Which, of course, is true.
Every rush up the ice, every turnover, every deflection, causes oohs and aahs from the Joe Louis Arena crowd.
Chris Osgood has caused a few of them as well.
Ozzie, the Red Wings goalkeeper, has been spectacular, especially during a Pittsburgh power play.
But the Red Wings are helping him, playing physical and getting in the way of the Pens’ passing lanes.
Marian Hossa, the beleaguered ex-Pen, current Red Wing who signed with Detroit to win a Stanley Cup but has yet to show in the Finals that he’d like to be a participant rather than a coat-tailer, has been flying.
Quick observation: Red Wings defenseman Nick Lidstrom, in addition to being the best defenseman in the NHL, maybe in league history, also possesses the “smartest” stick in the game.
Lidstrom, who doesn’t play physical, uses his stick and angles and smarts to disrupt plays. It’s subtle, it’s not sexy, but it’s effective as hell.
Nicky’s been at it in the first period, getting himself in the way and providing a calming influence on the ice. So what’s new, right?
Only one minor penalty, and that’s fine, but the Red Wings could have had at least one power play themselves in the first stanza. But this game isn’t being unduly influenced by the referees, and that’s a good thing.
Shots on goal: Pittsburgh 10, Detroit 6.
He can't spank Marian Hossa and send him to the corner.
He can't make Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson write, "I promise not to disappear in the Finals again" a hundred times on the chalkboard.
Maybe he can bring a sickle into Joe Louis Arena.
It's a legendary story in Detroit, though more of the cult-like variety.
The Pistons were set to play the Boston Celtics. It was Game Six of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons, trying to eliminate their longtime playoff nemesis, had won a stunning Game Five victory in the venerable Boston Garden to move ahead in the series, 3-2.
Someone noticed that center Bill Laimbeer was carrying a satchel into the Pontiac Silverdome.
"What's in there?"
"You'll see," Laimbeer said, looking like the cat who swallowed the canary.
The Pistons, in what was at the time the biggest game in franchise history, went out and dispatched the Celtics--finally. They would advance to the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
So what was in the satchel?
"We had to cut the head off the snake tonight," Laimbeer said, recalling what he told his teammates as he dramatically withdrew the sickle from his black bag. "As long as the snake is still twitching, you have to cut its head off."
Big, oafish Bill Laimbeer had deftly used three-dimensional metaphor to help inspire his teammates.
The Red Wings have themselves a twitching snake on their hands.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were fit for the slaughter before Game Six. The Red Wings drilled them, 5-0, in Game Five. There was an extra day off before the sixth game. It was a situation in which the Red Wings typically have thrived.
The Penguins spanked them, 2-1, in a game much un-closer than the score indicated.
The Red Wings had failed to lop the snake's head off.
Only tonight, there are two snakes showing up at Joe Louis Arena.
The Penguins probably look at the Red Wings much like the 1988 Pistons looked at the Celtics: older, and on top for too long now.
Time for a new King Snake.
Fitting that hockey sticks, if you look at them the right way, kind of look like sickles themselves.
Two heads are on the block tonight at the Joe: that of the younger, maybe hungrier Penguins, and that of the tradition-rich, Cup-happy Red Wings.
One head gets lopped off. The winner gets to slither around the JLA ice, the Stanley Cup in tow.
"I've actually never played in a Game Seven in the Finals," said the Red Wings' Kris Draper. "This is a first for me."
So there you go--experience is a bunch of hooey tonight.
The Penguins, in fact, have a few players who possess some sort of Game Seven/Finals background. A few more than the Red Wings.
As Casey Stengel once said, "You can look it up."
Game Seven. For the Stanley Cup.
It's what little skaters' dreams are made of.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Nicely done, whoever you are.
In what should have been potentially the biggest night of their season, the Red Wings came out flat as a pancake for Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals in Pittsburgh Tuesday night.
The 2-1 final score was about as representative of the entire game as the two digits after the decimal point are representative of Matthew Stafford's signing bonus check.
This was Game Six in Anaheim, only worse. How a team as experienced, skilled, and focused as the Red Wings usually are, could come out and lay a big, fat egg onto the Mellon Arena ice surface for the first 40 minutes is beyond me.
Then again, this entire series has been beyond me.
A look back, shall we?
First, we had the back-to-back boogaloo to kick things off: Games One and Two played on Saturday and Sunday in Detroit. This was supposed to be damaging to the older Red Wings, who were only a couple days removed from removing the Chicago Blackhawks from the conference finals.
The Red Wings won both games.
Then we had Games Three and Four in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins were supposed to be deflated and discouraged by their oh-fer in Detroit, despite playing some pretty damn good hockey at times.
The Penguins won both games.
So, naturally, the old, tired Red Wings were in trouble heading into Game Five. They looked staggered; the champs were on the ropes. Maybe one or two more punches could finish them off.
The Red Wings destroyed the Penguins, 5-0. Of course.
The stage was set for Game Six. Bottom-feeding, ink-stained wretches such as yours truly wrote that these stages were made for the Red Wings, or even vice-versa.
With the Stanley Cup in the building, I wrote, there's all the urgency in the world, right there. You didn't even have to manufacture it. Plus, there would be the extra benefit for the Red Wings of an additional day off after Game Five.
So, according to this zany script, the Penguins made the Red Wings look like that old, tired bunch from Games Three and Four.
Care to make a guess about Game Seven?
This series, so far, has been like six different plays of NHL '09 on your Playstation Two. None of the games have anything to do with the other.
It's a Finals series that only a Las Vegas bookie can love.
There's no smart money left. It's all been frittered away.
There really are only two sure things: death and taxes.
Take Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, for example.
The kid looks like a bad seed after some weird goals in Games One and Two. Then he bounces back in Games Three and Four. Then he's so awful in Game Five that he gets the hook.
So Fleury, natch, is the game's No. 1 star in Game Six, even stopping Dan Cleary on a heart-thumping breakaway with about 90 seconds to play.
Fleury is this series in a microcosm.
Want another series myth to bust?
How about the one that says the Penguins can't win if Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby aren't playing in stellar form?
The Pens got goals from Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy, and Malkin and Crosby were borderline milk carton material for long stretches. There was a Malkin sighting in the third period--when he was whistled for a penalty.
The Red Wings, meanwhile, played the first two periods as if they expected the Stanley Cup to be awarded to them after the game no matter what.
The Red Wings should have had the sense of urgency of a toddler crossing his legs while his mother dragged him through JC Penney's in search of the nearest bathroom.
Instead, the Red Wings played, maybe, their worst game of the entire playoffs. And I'm talking anything you got, from Columbus to Anaheim to Chicago. I'll even throw in Games Three and Four of the Finals, and I'll still beat it with the Red Wings' performance through the first 40 minutes of Game Six.
They were, simply, awful.
Thank goodness goalie Chris Osgood didn't believe the prank note, for he was the only Red Wing (OK, Henrik Zetterberg, too) who showed up on time.
If it wasn't for Osgood, the Penguins would have matched the Red Wings' five-goal win of Game Five, and maybe even have beaten it.
Detroit had three shots on goal in the first period. Three. About one every seven minutes.
Unless you plan on Fleury having a save percentage of about .566 for the game, then that's not going to cut it.
I'm done with trying to figure these Finals out.
I predicted Detroit in seven, before this goofball of a series began. After all I've been wrong since they dropped the puck to start Game One--and I'm not the Lone Ranger in that regard--I still have a chance to be right in the end.
So it's winner-take-all. There's no tomorrow. All the chips are on the table. One-and-done. Women and children first. Buckle up, it's gonna be a rough ride.
See, there is still something you can count on, between now and Friday night: the cliche train NEVER gets derailed.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Been there, done that.
Four times over the past 11 seasons, in fact.
They know what it's like to try to stay focused and play your game while the object of your affection sits crated somewhere behind the scenes at the rink, ready to burst out.
It's not overstating it to say that tonight's Game Six is literally why you dedicate your life to hockey, if you're a player.
It's why you wake up mom and dad at 5:30 a.m. on a wintry morning and remind them that it's time for hockey practice.
It's why you skate to school.
You heard me.
Red Wings great Steve Yzerman admitted to such, not long after he retired. Seems the path to school in Ontario was so icy that Yzerman, on some mornings, could lace his skates up and glide there before the first bell.
It's why you ride the buses and play in places like Peoria and Moose Jaw and Saskatoon and Hershey, all while keeping the dentists in business.
It's why you, if you're lucky enough to make the NHL, drag yourself to the rink to play the Minnesota Wild on a Thursday night in January when you'd rather just have the day off.
You do all that to have the chance that the Red Wings have tonight: to win another Stanley Cup and declare once again, unequivocally, that it was all worth it.
Coach Mike Babcock clarified something after Game Five's 5-0 win, which gave his team a 3-2 series lead over Pittsburgh.
"Everyone says that when you get to the finals that you have a shot at winning (the Cup)," Babcock said. "But you only really have a shot when you've won three games. We've won three games and now we have a legitimate shot."
Hard to argue with that.
It was my firm belief--even though I picked the Red Wings to win in seven before the series began--that if Detroit won Game Five after the whirlwind, 5-games-in-8-nights schedule, that they would take full advantage of the two days off before Game Six and find a way to win a game in Mellon Arena.
I stand by that.
This isn't Game Six of the Anaheim series, way back in the conference semi-finals, when the Red Wings had a chance to close out the Ducks. They played a shockingly lethargic game, and a late flurry of energy wasn't enough.
They had to dispatch the Ducks in the full complement of games. Indeed, almost the full complement of minutes. Dan Cleary scored the game winner with exactly three minutes to go in regulation time.
No, this isn't like that Anaheim series, because the most treasured trophy in professional sports wasn't lurking backstage, ready to be hoisted.
It says here that the Red Wings, buoyed by the extra rest and the continued improvement of a returning Pavel Datsyuk, will find enough in their tank to finally put these Penguins away in Game Six and win a second straight Cup--both in general and in Mellon Arena.
The Red Wings couldn't have made it more tantalizing than they did last year.
Just over 30 seconds remained in Game Five--Detroit up in the series, 3-1--and the Stanley Cup was literally being polished and about to be wheeled onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
I was there, notepad and recorder in hand, ready to zoom down from the press box to the ice, when the Penguins scored and an entire arena got slugged in the gut.
A few hours later, Petr Sykora won the game in triple overtime.
So yes, sometimes it doesn't work out, no matter how much the will and the drive is there.
But the Red Wings, not wanting a Game Seven, took care of the Penguins a couple nights later.
Just like, me thinks, they'll do tonight.
It won't be easy. It shouldn't be, when the stakes are this high.
It shouldn't be easy, when the team you're trying to eliminate is the same team you eliminated last year. It shouldn't be easy, when you're trying to win it--again--in their building, in front of their fans.
It shouldn't be easy, when a member of their team is now a member of yours.
If the Red Wings seal the deal tonight, I expect captain Nick Lidstrom, who has the honors of choosing to whom the Cup gets handed first, to pick Marian Hossa from the crowd of happy players with a "come hither" grin.
Last year it was Dallas Drake, the grizzled, about-to-retire veteran who'd never tasted champagne in an NHL locker room. Lidstrom handed Dally the Cup first, much to Drake's delight.
Hossa, who left the Penguins' pile of money on the table last July and signed a one-year, not-risk-free deal with the Red Wings instead, is another veteran who wants to win a Cup before he perishes.
You know, pretty much like every hockey player in North America, from Alberta to Newfoundland, from Maine to Oregon.
I can't imagine how the Penguins fans will react when they see Hossa, whom they've booed relentlessly all series, skating the Cup around the Mellon Arena ice, wearing a Red Wings jersey.
Stanley is in the building, for the first time in this series. And his travel plans are set, no matter who wins tonight: he's headed for Detroit after the game.
The Red Wings just as soon save the Penguins that trip.
Three's a crowd, after all.
Monday, June 08, 2009
Big Al continues to find the going slow in his recuperation from his major back surgery of May 27. So, tonight's episode of "The Knee Jerks" on Blog Talk Radio, with special guest Bob Page, has been postponed.
We hope to be back "on the air" in a couple weeks.
We'll keep you posted!
Sunday, June 07, 2009
It was also D-Day in The D.
Desperation Day for the Detroit Red Wings.
That was the theme as I traipsed around the locker room following Saturday night's 5-0 shellacking of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals.
But another D, defenseman Nick Lidstrom, had another D-word for me.
"I think determination also," Lidstrom told me when I asked if desperation was part of the Red Wings' mindset, coming off two less-than-Red Wings-like performances in Pittsburgh in Games Three and Four, which squared the series at 2-2.
"I thought we really stuck to our game plan for sixty minutes," Lidstrom continued. "We got the puck deep into their zone when we had to. All four lines skated really well."
And scored really well, too.
There was a feeling of nervousness from the madding crowd and the air seemed heavy when I walked into Joe Louis Arena last night. It didn't help matters that the Penguins came out of the hopper jumping, looking to carry whatever momentum they had in Pittsburgh into Detroit.
The Pens carried play in the opening minutes, and they got the first power play of the game.
The "uh-oh" feeling at the Joe was kicked up a notch, for the Red Wings' penalty killing in Pittsburgh was about as reliable as the price of gasoline.
The math in Pittsburgh seemed to be this equation: Red Wings penalty = Penguins goal.
Heck, the math even went Red Wings power play = Penguins goal, to show you how tough it was for the Wings in the Steel City.
But the Red Wings got the kill, and the JLA crowd breathed a little more freely.
Then Dan Cleary struck, and it was as if a giant window had been opened, letting millions of cubic inches of fresh oxygen into the building.
Cleary was set by...drum roll please...Pavel Datsyuk.
You know, one of the league's MVP candidates? The guy who hasn't played since the May flowers were still sprouting?
Datsyuk glided through the neutral zone, feathered a pass to Cleary, and No. 11 notched his first goal of the Finals when his wrist shot from between the face-off circles eluded Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
It was a stoppable shot, and it, at the same time, both ignited the crowd and made Game Four a more distant memory.
The games in Pittsburgh were the Red Wings' bad dream. The Cleary goal was the waking up.
If this was poker, the Red Wings called the Penguins' monumental second period of Game Four and raised it.
After Thursday's game, I wrote that the Penguins' scoring three goals in 5:37--which turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead--might have determined thru which team's hands the Stanley Cup will be passed this summer.
Check that. The Red Wings' second period onslaught likely trumped that.
Three power play goals chased Fleury as the Wings blitzed the Penguins for four goals and a 5-0 lead.
I served up the desperation theme to defenseman Niklas Kronwall, whose sweet curl from the side of the net to the front of the crease culminated in a pretty over-the-shoulder shot that beat Fleury for a 3-0 Detroit lead. Another power play effort.
"Well, absolutely," Kronwall said. "You don't want to go into Pittsburgh with a loss and down 3-2 in the series. We had that first (penalty kill) and our forwards did a great job going after their (defense)."
Cleary echoed the sentiment.
"We knew the importance of the game. We played desperate, we played hard. We didn't sit back. We kept skating, kept pressuring. We knew (the Penguins) would be excited after winning two games at home so we just tried to take that away."
Here's another D-word for you: Discipline.
As in, that thing that the Penguins didn't have much of.
Bad English, but this is hockey, eh?
Look, if certain folks want to accuse the Red Wings of being old (more on that later) and tired after the Pittsburgh games, then it's only fair to jab at the Penguins' relative youth and immaturity.
What's worse, the Penguins' two brightest stars were also their dimmest bulbs when it came to leading by example.
Evgeni Malkin, who seemed to only show up when he was skating to the penalty box, showed, once again, that he has a pretty nasty disposition when things don't go his team's way. He was whistled thrice for penalties, and the Red Wings scored once while Malkin was in the box.
Sidney Crosby, the captain no less, chipped in with an ugly slashing penalty.
Now, as promised, back to this "old" thing, which, if you listen to Detroit coach Mike Babcock, is getting, well, old.
"I keep hearing about how old we are," Babcock said in the post-game presser. "I don't think (Valtteri) Filppula is old. (Henrik) Zetterberg's not old. (Datsyuk) isn't old. (Marian) Hossa isn't old, so who's old?"
Someone from the crowd mentioned 47-year-old Chris Chelios, who hasn't even played in this series.
"Well, yeah, Chelly is older than me, I'll give you that one," Babcock said to chuckles. "But if you take a few guys out, like (Brian) Rafalski and (Nick) Lidstrom, I don't think we're that old.
"I mean, our goalie is 36...," Babcock said with a care-free shrug.
"The big thing for us now are the extra days off," the coach said, referring to the fact that, after this whirlwind schedule, Game Six won't be played until Tuesday. "Age has nothing to do with it. We have two days off and we'll be a better team [in Pittsburgh] and we'll be ready to go."
Desperation. Determination. Defensemen scoring (Rafalski added a power play marker). Discipline.
It was most certainly D-Day Saturday, and nowhere more so than in The D, Detroit, on Saturday night.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
It may have been the 20 minutes that ruins the Pens’ chances to win the Stanley Cup.
The Red Wings deposited four goals past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, chasing him to the corridor, and presumably to the locker room. Although if Fleury made a “Pitt” stop at the Alumni Room at the Joe for a couple of drinks, you could hardly blame him.
This wasn’t Fleury’s night, and the second period wasn’t the Penguins’.
As Pittsburgh did to the Red Wings in Game Four, Detroit stunned the Penguins in the second period tonight at Joe Louis Arena.
Four goals. A 5-0 lead. A goalie change, if only to rescue Fleury’s confidence for Game Six.
The Red Wings have returned to the series, which I had said was 2-2, Pittsburgh.
I don’t know who those impostors were in Pittsburgh wearing the winged wheel, but the real ones have been freed and they’re playing the Penguins this evening as if they need to remind them, and the hockey world, who are the defending Cup champs.
They say you have to knock the champion out. No TKOs, no split decisions.
The Penguins, though, showed up tonight with pom-pons on their hands instead of boxing gloves.
The only thing they knocked down tonight was their chance of stealing the Cup from the Red Wings.
After a rousing start in the first period by Pittsburgh, the Red Wings have settled down and went on one of those rolls that sends the women and kids out of the room.
This is an NC-17 game bordering on being labeled “X”.
The Penguins, on top of everything else, are taking foolish penalties borne from frustration, and only a 3-on-5 penalty kill has kept this from the aforementioned “X” rating.
But there’s 20 minutes left to “set the tone”, as they say, for Game Six.
No doubt it will be chippy and nasty and maybe the Red Wings can insert Aaron Downey and Darren McCarty for Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the third period.
I know, it doesn’t work that way.
By the way, calling Evgeni Malkin, calling Evgeni Malkin! Report to Game Five immediately.
Naah, forget it. It’s too late now.
As for the game itself, this was a period that the Penguins owned in the opening minutes, and the Red Wings counter-punched.
Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury blinked first, though, in the battle of netminders.
A few minutes after a key Detroit penalty kill, newly-returned Pavel Datsyuk (who’s playing on the same line as Henrik Zetterberg tonight) brought the puck up ice and feathered a soft pass to Daniel Cleary, who took a few strides over the blue line and snapped a shot from between the circles that beat Fleury cleanly.
That goal, on top of giving the Red Wings that oh-so-important 1-0 lead, was like a fresh supply of oxygen to the folks here at the Joe.
All was OK again, for the time being, in Hockeytown.
Was talking to longtime Detroit News columnist Jerry Green before the game, and Jerry told me that the fans in Detroit seem to think the Red Wings are the “chosen ones” every year, and should win the Cup every time they appear in the Finals.
We’ve become Montreal, in other words–the way Montreal used to be.
Maybe. But the Red Wings should win this series because, I believe, they’re the better team, overall.
I picked Detroit in seven, and there’s no use going back on that now.
The Penguins must be thinking, “Here we go again in Detroit. We carry the play and still we trail.”
That’s what the Red Wings can do to you–when they’re not dominating you and playing keepaway with the puck.
This hasn’t been a traditional Red Wings playoff series. They’re not so much playing a puck possession game as much as a “let’s wait for our opportunities and capitalize on them” kind of game. Been that way throughout this series.
Hey, whatever works, right?
Just a reminder to join me LIVE tonight during Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals as I, once again, Twitter during the game from the press box at Joe Louis Arena. I'll also post live blogs here and at www.GregEno.com during the first and second intermissions.
Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thegregger63
I enjoy Olczyk as the game analyst for Versus and NBC, but “Edzo” doesn’t talk about “B.C. two-handers” or “Katie bar the door” or declare that “school’s out.”
There is no “Johnny on the spot” in Eddie’s broadcast world.
Those are the colorful words of Mickey Redmond, who—and don’t look now—has just completed his 30th season of donning the headset and yakking, in his own inimitable way, about the sport he’s known for over 50 years.
Redmond’s popularity has pretty much reached cult-like status.
In football, you had John Madden, the former coach who wasn’t the first to use a Telestrator, but no one used it with as much vim and vigor.
“Boom! Right there!” Madden would scream as the television screen was showing us a wide, overhead shot of the football action, adorned with Madden’s circles and lines and arrows.
Madden just announced his retirement, only last month. He’ll spend more time with his family—the usual explanation for why someone walks away while their popularity is still high.
At his peak, Madden was almost bigger than the games he broadcast. And I don’t mean that literally, despite John’s famously large waistline.
Fans got jiggly and smitten whenever Madden was assigned to do a game involving their team.
For if Big John was doing your team’s game, then it must have been a very big game, indeed.
He traveled the country in a big bus, being deathly afraid of airplanes, and his time spent in a city was like that of a rock star.
Across the border, in neighboring Canada, there’s another loudmouthed ex-coach who elicits such response.
Don Cherry, the self-caricature, has shtick.
The outlandish suit jackets. Stiff-as-board shirt collars that occupy every square centimeter from neck to chin.
A legendary hatred for European players.
Cherry’s entrance into Joe Louis Arena for the CBC audience prior to Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals was a scripted, shlocky, overdone display more befitting a professional wrestling pay-per-view event than a humble little hockey game.
Cherry stepped off a boat that purportedly carried him across the Detroit River from Canada. He was accompanied by some female lovelies.
A voice-over accompanied the pictures, a take-off on the current Dos Equis beer commercials that trumpet “the most interesting man in the world.”
Cherry, through the years, has created a play-on-words term for his sport.
It’s the natural progression of time that can be blamed for why there are fans of Madden, Redmond, and Cherry who know little, if anything, about the careers of their heroes before blabbing into a microphone began putting food on said heroes’ tables.
Example: Redmond, to hear him call games, must have been quite the fighter and physical player, for as much as he gets excited over the rough stuff on the ice.
Or so the younger, more naïve kids out there no doubt believe.
It’s laughable, to me, to hear Mickey get his shorts in a bunch over why fighting has been legislated to near extinction, when Redmond never, that I recall, dropped the gloves and went at it as a player.
Mickey Redmond was, for a few precious years, one of the most prolific goal scorers of his time whne he played for the Red Wings from 1971-76.
He scored 50 goals in a season two years in a row—in 1973 and ’74.
I was there, in Olympia Stadium, the night he scored No. 50 in 1974.
Redmond lumbered over the New York Rangers’ blue line, playing right wing, and blasted one of his famous slap shots from the top of the face-off circle. The screamer beat goalie Eddie Giacomin cleanly, and the Olympia crowd went nuts.
But Mick’s eventual bad back got him, and he was forced to retire at age 28. He gave it a go at training camp at age 31 in 1979, but after a few days he retired again, for good.
Redmond was a fine player, and it was too bad that he had to hang up his skates so soon.
But he was not, by any stretch of the imagination, considered a physical player.
Not that you could tell, by the way Mickey screams whenever the gloves are shed and two players dance on the ice.
“There they go! Look out here!” Redmond might bark, and I must admit, his enthusiasm for the fisticuffs is rather contagious, as a viewer watching at home.
Then the linesmen step in, and heaven help them if they do so too early for Mick’s liking.
“Oh, come on! Let ‘em go! See? The linesmen, ruining the fun again.”
Redmond is another broadcaster whose fame was greater behind the mike than in uniform
I’ll call it the Jack Eno Syndrome.
My father, Jack, was as mild-mannered as they come. I don’t think I saw him so much as kill a housefly.
But get him in front of the TV when a boxing match was on, and it was, as Mickey would say, “Katie bar the door.”
My, how much my father loved his boxing—and his hockey fights, too, truth be told.
Clark Kent couldn’t get enough of it, in fact.
He’d seek out boxing every night, and on most evenings he found some, on some channel, somewhere on the cable dial.
Didn’t matter if he knew the combatants or not. As long as they had gloves on and the action was taking place in a ring, then that was enough for dear old dad.
Maybe Redmond was a wannabe fighter whose desire was forcibly suppressed so he could go out and score goals.
I don’t know how else to explain Redmond’s bloodthirsty veneer that has been manifesting itself for three decades in the broadcast booth.
Now, during the Finals, Redmond is relegated to post-game analysis with channel 4’s Bernie Smilovitz.
Teaming with Bernie might be enough to cause a non-physical broadcaster to wanna drop the mikes and have at it.
Friday, June 05, 2009
But here's one: five minutes and thirty-seven seconds of the second period of Game 4 are either going to be someone's house of horrors (Detroit's) or simply a really good, exciting stretch of play that turned the home crowd on (Pittsburgh).
That's how long it took the Penguins to, all at once, tie the game, lead the game, and take control of the game.
And maybe, just maybe, rescue their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. Or maybe ensuring themselves of winning the Cup, period.
The Penguins were trailing, 2-1. A rather innocent shot from the point had eluded goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first minute of the period. In fact, it looked as if Fleury had been screened by his own man.
The crowd was quiet. Nervous, even. The Red Wings, when they get playoff leads and sniff a road win, aren't ones to implode, usually.
Then came those five minutes, thirty-seven seconds.
It started with the Red Wings on, of all things, a power play.
All playoffs, the Wings have bemoaned their penalty kill. It has consistently ranked among the lowest of the teams in the post-season. A Penguin power play in these Finals has too often resulted in a Penguin goal.
But here the Red Wings were, with a man advantage of their own. An excellent opportunity to forge a nice little two-goal lead for themselves.
Turns out the Detroiters had trouble killing off their own power play.
Jordan Staal kicked things off with hockey's equivalent of a knife to the back: the shorthanded goal.
Staal outraced Nicklas Lidstrom down the ice with the puck after a nifty pass from Max Talbot at the Pittsburgh blue line, showing deceptive speed.
Staal then deked goalie Chris Osgood, going backhand-forehand before sliding the puck beneath the netminder, with Lidstrom draped all over the Penguins forward.
It was a back-breaking goal, and one that Osgood, truthfully, should have stopped. Ozzie was way too deep, it appeared on the replays, in his crease and thus gave Staal too much room with which to work. Some aggressive challenging of Staal might have worked better, especially with Staal being harassed by Lidstrom.
That made the score 2-2 and even though the Red Wings remained on the power play, the whole spectre of the game changed, right there.
As the Mellon Arena crowd roared, the Red Wings were reduced to being in survival mode--on their own power play. The Pens killed the rest of it off, and what ensued were several minutes of Penguins pouring over the Red Wings' blue line as if the Detroit zone was the Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving, and the doors had just been unlocked.
Osgood was left hung out to dry as first Sidney Crosby (remember him?), then Tyler Kennedy scored as a result of odd-man rushes. And when I say odd-man rushes, I mean it like, "Where the hell were the Red Wings on that play?"
Speaking of odd-man rushes, I know that Evgeni Malkin is a world-class player and he's not to be trifled with, but I've never seen one player breaking in on a goalie, whether solo or on 2-on-1s, as often as Malkin has in this series.
Malkin has had at least one clear-cut breakaway per game, and the fact that he hasn't scored on them shouldn't soothe the Red Wings. Because if this continues, he's going to stop not scoring and start winning this series all by himself.
Malkin has been dominating in the Finals, almost a man among boys on the ice. The Red Wings have paid so much attention to Crosby that you wonder where "cover Malkin" is listed in the team's playbook.
Because it sure doesn't seem like anyone on the Red Wings has that responsibility, or if he does, he ought to look up toward the clock to see if his jockstrap is hanging from it.
Malkin is killing the Red Wings--or at the very least, inflicting wounds at a devastatingly rapid rate.
These Finals, after the two games in Pittsburgh, are making the Red Wings look like a tired, old team and the Penguins a hungrier, faster, stronger one.
But there's always home cooking.
The Penguins can't win the Cup without winning a game in Detroit, plain and simple. Their best chance to do so would appear to be tomorrow night in Game Five.
Only one day off between games. That ancient word, momentum, supposedly on their side. A maybe tired, dazed bunch of Red Wings facing them.
But home ice can do wonders for a downtrodden team. The Penguins need only to look at themselves to prove that axiom.
They came home to Pittsburgh bemoaning their luck and their fate in Games One and Two.
Look at them now.
I still think the Red Wings have enough to stave off these Penguins (I picked Detroit in seven before the series), but they'll need to do more than just put all their eggs in the home ice basket in order to do so.
They can't get younger, but they can get back to their game.
I counted zero, zip, odd-man rushes in Game One for the Penguins. The Red Wings have to get back to that style in Game Five.
What happened in that 5:37 in the second period of Game Four is just sitting there, like a fat old pimple on the Red Wings' face.
Is it merely a blemish, or the beginning of a total breaking out of hockey acne?