Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two down...

The first round of the NHL playoffs are well underway and we've already seen two teams eliminated in four games straight, Montreal and St. Louis. I guess a long summer of golf lies ahead for these guys as they ponder their respective futures, but I will say that their teams seem to be going in completely opposite directions.

The St. Louis - Vancouver series was classic, exciting hockey. OK, the Blues didn't win a game, but after a nervous debut in game 1, they really ought to have picked up at least one, if not two, of the remaining three games. It's not their fault they ran into Roberto Luongo, who is looking unbeatable. Which is good for the Canucks, since the Blues seriously outplayed them in games 3 & 4, they just couldn't score. St. Louis, with its core group of young talent, is going to be in the playoff hunt for years to come. They play an exciting, offensive style of hockey that makes the final score almost unimportant.

My hometown Habs, however, WTF? It's no big surprise after the disastrous season they had, but really? This is what the 100 year legacy comes down to? A bunch of paycheck cashers and a non-existent defense that left their goalie hung out to dry, actually being booed by the hometown crowd? Appalling. I have some sympathy for Carey Price. Sure, he hasn't played as well this year as he did last year, but he was actually pretty good for most of the series with Boston. It is impossible for any goalie, even the revered Luongo, to stop every possible shot when nobody is playing defense, taking their man, or clearing the slot. At one point in tonight's game, a Bruin walked right in on three (!!) Habs standing still in front of Price, making no effort to do anything to stop the shot. No surprise Price was beaten from 20 feet out. And yet somehow, the crowd blames him alone. This will not be a fun summer inside the organization, and I expect next year's team will look significantly different from the team that lost tonight.

You'll notice that I said "hometown Habs" above, and not "my Habs". People often assume I am a Canadiens fan because I am originally from Montreal, but from the earliest time I can remember, it's been nothing but the black and gold of the Bruins for me. Now, when I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, the Bruins were the team of Orr, Esposito, Cashman, Buyck, Hodge, Cheevers and my all time favorite, Derek Sanderson. But for a long stretch between those glory years and now, it has been a cold, hard slog to support a team eking out barely 30 wins a season.

It's a dirty little hockey secret that there are many of us born into hockey towns who actually root for teams other than the hometown one. My dad, for example, was a lifelong Red Wings fan. In Montreal, Boston is a close second in popularity. It's an Original Six thing, I think, but going to games at the old Forum the jerseys in the stands were nearly 50-50. THAT makes for an atmospheric game! BTW - you will NEVER see a Maple Leafs fan who was born in Montreal. Just doesn't happen. Montrealers have standards when it comes to sports teams, unlike Torontonians.

This has been one of the best overall hockey seasons in the past 15 years. With the salary cap and some judicious drafting and player development, the parity between most teams is palpable. There are a half-dozen young teams who will be making noise for many seasons to come. Joining St. Louis on that list? Chicago, playing firewagon hockey with heart against Calgary; Columbus, currently being trounced by Detroit, but with the most exciting goalie to come along in a long time; Boston, who may well take the Cup this year; and two teams that didn't quite make it this season, but for whom I have high hopes - Edmonton and Phoenix.

After the dry, boring defensive trap system that made the 90s a jail sentence for fans, this plethora of young talent clustering in a few hot cities is making the game exciting to watch again. And that works out for everyone, especially the fans like me.