After all these years, I still don’t understand calculus very much. But I have gotten a better handle on how I calculate which NHL teams to root for during the playoffs.
My favorite NHL team, the New York Islanders, hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993. They have only been to the playoffs four times since then, and — damn you Darcy Tucker — lost a seven-game thriller with Toronto in 2002. (Shawn Bates and Jason Blake were key players in that year.)
So generally speaking, when my team isn’t there, rooting interest comes down to this:
* other people in the organization, or on the team, that I know well
* teams with a lot of college players in general
* what’s good for hockey, in the sense of a) wanting the best players to play on the big stage; b) seeing teams that haven’t won before, or recently, win; c) seeing teams in non-traditional areas do well
* making a bold prediction and wanting to be proven right
Putting all that together, the Eastern conference is largely a yawn right now. Who cares if Montreal, Boston or Philadelphia win? And Pittsburgh, which is fun to watch, has already had plenty of success in the last 20 years. I blame Jaroslav Halak for this conundrum.
As purely a hockey fan, putting aside all allegiances, I feel like we were robbed of a Washington-Pittsburgh rematch by Montreal’s miracle run. I really don’t even blame Washington. I know that the Capitals have a bad history, and that people questioned all year whether they would be “playoff tough” despite having the NHL’s best record in the regular season. But after dominating three straight games of that series, I really think they just ran into a goalie and a team that got monumentally fortunate for three straight games. Jaroslav Halak took the proverbial phrase “stood on his head” and made it more pertinent than ever, and the team just didn’t make a mistake. Washington poured everything at the Canadiens, and dominated the territorial play. It wasn’t like the Caps went in the tank. They just ran into a one-in-a-million three-game stretch of unbelievable-ness.
So it will be easy to dump on the Caps, but as a hockey fan, I feel robbed of that Ovechkin-Crosby matchup.
Yeah, yeah, I get the hate towards those guys, in the sense that, when you’re a fan of another team, you want so badly for them to lose. But stepping back purely as someone without a team in this hunt, it’s a delight watching those two go at it, and people who really believe that “Ovechkin sucks” or “Cindy Crosby’s a whiner,” are really just being ignorant, jealous or silly. And, yes, I know — I don’t like that Ovechkin acted like a punk at the 2005 World Juniors, and yes, I hate that Crosby scored the gold medal game winner against the U.S. this year. But those two constantly work their rear ends off, and are just brilliant — a treasure to watch.
So, consequently, I’m having to dig really hard to figure out what to do in the East.
My thinking right now is going like this — the only team that will be remotely interesting in the finals is Pittsburgh, so at this point, I guess I have to root for it to make the finals again. Even though Montreal has a Harvard guy (Dominic Moore) and a Cornell guy (Ryan O’Byrne) playing well, plus Brian Gionta (BC) and Mike Camalleri (Michigan) — who thinks he’s Wayne Gretzky all of a sudden — I’m having a hard time rooting for them. I think it’s a combination of the old rivalry with the Islanders for “dynastic supremacy,” combined with their Yankees-like history, and their fans’ booing of the U.S. national team in games vs. Russia. I don’t forgive easily.
As for the other series, I think I’m rooting for Philadelphia, just so it will get its butts handed to them by Pittsburgh in the semis. You see, I’d already been saying that Washington would crush the Flyers, but now I’ve been robbed of seeing that. And it will really bug Flyers fans to have Crosby do it to them again.
Two years ago, the Flyers were in control of the series against Pittsburgh when it decided to goon it up a bit. This thrilled the Flyers fans, who — along with the organization as a whole — like to live in the past, like it’s 30 years ago. And they sure got a hoot out of getting all over Crosby’s But all that fighting did was inspire the Penguins, who came back and swept the rest of the series. So, as someone who hates the goonery, and thinks the Flyers are doomed to keep falling short until they get out of their 1970s-era mentality, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing that all blow up in their face.
So I’ll enjoy seeing that happen again.
I used to have some affinity for the Flyers, but that has disappeared. Actually, no fan base bugs me more than the Philadelphia one, especially when I moved to the area in 1993 and got to see them up close. But I took an affinity to the Flyers for a while. First off, I can appreciate any fan base that are die hard hockey fans. For that, it’s a big thumbs up to Philly — though that passion has waned in recent years, but that’s another article. Second, when they traded for John Leclair and Eric Desjardins in the mid-’90s, I’d known LeClair from his Vermont days, and I always liked Desjardins. My friends didn’t think it was a good trade, I told them it was, and nothing is a better motivator for rooting interest than wanting to be right. I also always liked watching Eric Lindros play, and thought he was unfairly criticized. Third, I got a job in the Flyers organization in 1999. I had my ups and downs, pluses and minuses with that job, but I did get to know a lot of the people, especially John Stevens and Paul Holmgren. At the time, they were the AHL Phantoms assistant and the assistant GM to Bob Clarke, respectively. Later, Stevens became head coach (he was fired this year), and Holmgren is GM. I also have friends in the PR department, including one that I hired.
With Stevens fired and a lot of my favorites gone, it’s easier to root against the Flyers. Especially since the Phillies’ success has now made the Philly sports fan even harder to take. But I do want to see Philadelphia hockey continue to thrive, despite the corporate mentality of its Comcast owners trying to kill it, one marketing gimmick at a time.
And on the other side, we have a Boston fan base which has won far too much in the last 10 years, so boo on them. Tim Thomas, who I loved watching in college at Vermont, isn’t even playing. And warming up to Blake Wheeler isn’t exactly easy. There’s no one to love there.
For Philly, it has Hobey winner Matt Carle, plus Princeton grad Darroll Powe, who I’m still amazed made it to the NHL. Paul Holmgren upset me with comments he made about James van Riemsdyk deciding to stay at New Hampshire for a second year, and I am glad van Riemsdyk has proven me right for defending him, by jumping straight to the NHL this year precisely because he stayed in school one more season. And with injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter (yawn), the Flyers had to call up enigmatic former St. Cloud State Huskie Andrea Nodl, and Alabama-Huntsville grad Jared Ross.
The West is far more exciting, and the calculus is far easier — anyone but Detroit.
The Red Wings violate everything — great hockey town, they have some great old college guys, but they have won too many times, and they don’t need it. I do enjoy seeing Brian Rafalski, Jimmy Howard, Kent Huskins, Patrick Eaves and Justin Abdelkader, but that doesn’t overcome the other stuff. Especially because San Jose has plenty of college guys too, and is a market that I would love to see finally get some satisfaction after many close calls. San Jose also have former Badger Joe Pavelski (how can you not love that guy?), Dany Heatley, and my boy Douglas Murray, who I knew well when I was broadcaster during Cornell’s 2003 Frozen Four run.
How could you not love this series, though, with three Wisconsin products scoring in one game — Rafalski, Pavelski and Heatley — the first time that’s ever happened in the NHL? (And it was reported by a Wisconsin grad in the Versus studio, Brian Engblom.) Was happy to see San Jose move on.
The Vancouver-Chicago series is just fun to watch, because either way, it will be nice to watch that team advance. Chicago has former college guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, and American Patrick Kane, but Vancouver has other pluses in its column.
Did you know, by the way, this is the most goals per game scored in the postseason since 1996. The skill has been back for a few years, but it’s just exploding now. Great to see. The ’80s and early ’90s were the last heyday, and that was still a great time. But the game is ridiculously faster and more intense now.