Thursday, April 30, 2009

Let's See if I'm Better this Round

Second round prediction time!

Eastern Conference

Boston vs. Carolina
Carolina may be riding the momentum of their Game Seven victory and a couple of epic comebacks, but Boston is the top seed for a reason. Really, though, Boston is my pick because I can't ever bring myself to pick the Hurricanes to win anything (except ugliest NHL captain). If you're looking for real analysis, I hate to say this, but this series looks ripe for the upset.
Bruins in 7 (unbiased opinion: Hurricanes in 6 - I have to wash my hands for typing that)

Washington vs. Pittsburgh
Gary Bettman is still pinching himself right now over this series. I'm already bracing myself for the onslaught of Ovechkin vs. Crosby publicity that will be shoved down our throats in the coming weeks. Give me a break. No offense, Sid, but you are no Ovie, and I hope that will finally come out in this series. Anyone who really watches hockey can see that Ovechkin brings a palpable intensity and physicality to the game that Crosby just doesn't seem to have. In the "Battle of Bettman's Dreams," I'll take No. 8 over No. 87.
Washington in 6

Western Conference

Detroit vs. Anaheim
I think this will be a lot closer than people may think. Detroit may have the pure skill to dominate anyone, but the Ducks just proved that grit can dominate skill in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though this may be true, Detroit has what the Sharks did not - mental toughness and Stanley Cup experience from top to bottom on their roster. It'll be a battle, but I like the reigning champs.
Red Wings in 7

Vancouver vs. Chicago
Again, the NHL is trying to torture me by pitting teams I like against one another. Unlike Calgary, Vancouver has the speed and scoring depth to go toe-to-toe with Chicago. They also have the edge in goal, as I think Luongo will outplay Khabibulin. Plus, the Canucks will be getting an emotional boost with the return of Taylor Pyatt after the tragic death of his fiancee.
Canucks in 6

Agree? Think I'm nuts? Leave me a comment and let me know who you like!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

First Round Wrap-Up

Time flies when you're watching other teams play in the postseason.

It's hard to believe that the first round of the NHL playoffs is already over, but it's time to look back on my predictions and see just how terribly woring I was.

Eastern Conference

* Boston over Montreal (4 games): I predicted a sweep by the Bruins, and that's exactly what we got. I didn't watch much of this series; there were too many thoughts of "what if" the Sabres could have snuck in and faced a team that they had a winning record against.

*Washington over NY Rangers (7 games): I picked the Caps, but I thought it would only take them 5 games to overtake the Rags. I really didn't care how long it took them; it was actually a lot sweeter to see the "best leader in sports" Chris Drury watch his team lose a 3-1 series lead.

*Carolina over NJ (7 games): I was proud of myself for calling the seven-game series, but I was so unhappy by the way it ended:

I HATE seeing the Hurricanes happy over anything. This should never have happened. Never. I'm still to shocked and appalled to write anything else about it right now.

* Pittsburgh over Philadelphia (6 games): Just as with the last series, I predicted the right number of games, but was disappointed with the winner. I really liked the Flyers this season, but now we have to deal with endless Crosby vs. Ovechkin talk for the next round. Ugh...

Western Conference

* Anaheim over San Jose (6 games): Just further proof that any team I pick to win anything will lose in shocking fashion. Not only did I think the Sharks would win the series, I picked them to finally win the Cup. I should have known better; there just wasn't enough fierce competitiveness needed to drive those players to the greater toughness needed for the postseason. At least when the Sabres won the President's Trophy they made it to the Conference Finals...

*Detroit over Columbus (4 games): Just like Boston in the East, a sweep here was not too hard to predict. I really hoped Columbus would make it a series, but Detroit is a proven winner for a reason.

*Vancouver over St. Louis (4 games): I was pleasantly surprised to see this sweep. Vancouver is a dangerous team right now, and I really hope they can ride that far into this postseason. They have to do their damage this year; there are too many free agents on this team for success like this to be guaranteed again.

* Chicago over Calgary (6 games): Again, I picked the right length but the wrong winner. Chicago was just too offensively potent for a Flames team that took too many penalties in games when it mattered the most. As much as I love Patty Kane, Jarome Iginla has a lot fewer years left to win a Cup. I really hope someday he gets rewarded for all his leadership.

This round cemented my love for Jarome Iginla. No offense, Craig Rivet, but he is, without a doubt, the best captain in the NHL today. See Game Four of the series if you need proof. He took the team on his back - he wanted to win and he played in a way that ensured that he would get what he wanted.

Ok, now that my "Iggy love-fest" is over, it's time to turn my attention to the next round. Predictions should be up sometime tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

Until then, how did you do on your first round picks?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Alex Burrows Appreciation Post

I have a not-so secret confession to make...

I am in love with Alex Burrows and have been for quite some time.

Burrows has been my favorite Vancouver Canuck since I really started following them last season, but now he is challenging Colby Armstrong and Jarome Iginla for my favorite non-Sabre NHL player.

There are so many things to love about this 28-year old from Pincourt, Quebec. Because I am bored and tired of doing final projects, I will proceed to list them all:

  • He went undrafted, went to the ECHL, and then proceeded to work his way to the NHL. He now spends time on the top line of the Canucks and scored a career-best 28 goals this season.
  • The work ethic that got him to the NHL has never stopped and always shows itself on the ice, where he has become a never-quit force to be reckoned with...Much like a certain Sabre we all know and love (HONK!)...
  • He is the epitome of the kind of player I adore - all heart, penalty-killer extraordinaire, not afraid to stand up for himself or his teammates, and a good person on top of it all.
  • He has a dreamy French-Canadian accent...Who doesn't love that?
  • Like Goose, I loved him before I actually saw his face, but that face is certainly an added bonus:
You can imagine my excitement, then, when Burrows scored the game-winning OT to sweep the Blues last night. It was yet another example of his playing style that I have come to love - he may have been tired, the period may have been 19 seconds from ending, but he never quit.That goal gave me yet another reason to love Alex Burrows - he is incredibly thoughtful. In what may have been the biggest moment of his hockey life, when his emotions were surely clouding all thought, he took the time to remember his friend and teammate Luc Bourdon who died in a motorcycle accident last year.

Bourdon's goal celebration was a bow-and-arrow move, and Burrows added this to his own celebration last night, just as he did in the Canucks opener, which was dedicated to the memory of Bourdon:

Anyone else out there share my love for Vancouver's stalwart #14? If not, which players are you rooting for this postseaosn?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The one where I disagree with a lot of people

I've been relatively quiet throughout this whole discussion on the job security of Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier. That does not mean that I do not have an opinion.

It means that I understood that I would be seen as the voice of the supposedly mindless masses, and my point was already being stated by bloggers and radio hosts and journalists alike...only my point was the one that they were saying had no validity anymore.

I suppose I should just come out and say it...I like Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff and think that both of them have done the best that they can with what they have been given.

You can start cursing me for drinking the Kool-Aid now, but I am happy that both men are staying with the team through next season.

I feel like I am probably in the minority today with this statement. I know I shouldn't have been reading the message boards today, but I think I almost had a coronary at 20 reading some of the things that people are saying about this. One person went so far as to say that today is worse than the day we lost Briere and Drury; another stated that this move will have Thomas Vanek on the phone with his agent demanding a trade.

So today I feel like I need to make my case for Lindy and Darcy; it's time for me to come out of the woodwork on this issue.

I'll begin with Darcy. Has he made mistakes as a G.M.? Yes. I hate to bring up the "D and B words" again, but any conversation about Darcy nowadays has to deal with his handling of the Drury and Briere situations. In all honesty, my only complaint with Darcy there has been that he went after the wrong guy. He chose to court Drury, who was looking for the first plane to NYC, over Briere. I can't fault him on his choice (who wouldn't have taken Chris over Danny that summer?), but I do wish he could have seen that Drury was no longer interested in playing here.

The Campbell trade? No problems with that one: I didn't want to overpay the human spin-o-rama machine. Signing all the players who underperformed this year to long-term contracts? Over the summer we were all cheering about how solid our "core" was looking for years to come. It's not Darcy's fault that these guys chose this year to have slumps or ignore their coach.

This brings me to Lindy. Let me preface these comments by saying that I have an extreme bias towards Lindy Ruff. He was one of my parents' favorite Sabres, so I grew up with them talking about how much heart he had as a player and how happythey were that he was coaching here. In my opinion, Lindy is the only coach I want behind the bench for the Sabres. He gets the city, the people and the way we want to see hockey played.

That has become the problem the last two seasons. It seems as if many of the Sabres, and some of the best ones at that, have tuned out what Lindy is trying to teach them about hard-working hockey, the kind of hockey that Buffalo fans wany to see. Is that really his fault? Some of these players are so stubborn that they would do whatever they wanted on the ice, regardless of who is coaching them.

As for Lindy's supposed failure as the "great motivator"? These are big boys; if they can't motivate themselves, then there is a much deeper problem than coaching on this team. As Ryan Miller said in his last interview, if they can't kick themselves in the butt to compete every night, they should not even bother coming onto the ice.

This is where I think the problem lies - in certain players on this team who either slack off or "go rogue" (as Paul Hamilton likes to put it) in games when they are needed the most. I know that it's unrealistic to say that we should trade many guys on this team and expect to get comparable assets in return, but it's what I hope Darcy can do to some extent this summer.

If October rolls around and I'm still looking at the same underachieving roster, then I'll be in the unhappy place that some of you are in today.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Obligatory Playoff Prediction Post

The Stanley Cup Playoffs start tonight, so I suppose it's time to make my picks for the first round. I have approximately a half hour before class starts, so I'm afraid this won't be as detailed as I would like, but feel free to comment on them and add your own picks in the comments section.

Eastern Conference:

(1) Boston vs. (8) Montreal
The Bruins may have looked terrible in the season finale for the Sabres, but I really like what this team has to offer. Solid goaltending, team toughness, and a year's worth of stewing over last year's loss to Montreal will put them over the top.
Bruins in 4

(2) Washington vs. (7) NY
Lundqviust is no match for the firepower of Semin, Green, and a certain Number 8.
Caps in 5

(3) New Jersey vs . (6) Carolina
Toughest match-up in the East. Carolina's been hot, but the Devils have been consistently good all season. Plus, I never pick against Brodeur in the playoffs.
Devils in 7

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Philadelphia
I've become enamored with Philly's forwards this season -they're fast, chippy and everything I wanted the Sabres to be this year. Goaltending is the big question, but I think the Flyers are so much deeper offensively this year.
Flyers in 6

Western Conference

(1) San Jose vs. (8) Anaheim

It's time for this Sharks team to make a serious run, and they have the right mixture of talent, goaltending, and grit to do it. They're my Cup pick so far.
Sharks in 5

(2) Detroit vs. (7) Columbus
The Red Wings play beautiful hockey, and it's almost impossible for me to envision a scenario where they lose a game let alone a series...They're scary good.
Red Wings in 4

(3) Vancouver vs. (6) St. Louis
As much as I love Jay McKee, Vancouver is my team in the West. They have a fantastic goalie, scoring depth, and hunger from missing the playoffs last season.
Canucks in 5

(4) Chicago vs. (5) Calgary
This is a hard one for me. These two teams constantly battle in my head for my second-favorite team in this conference. Chicago has all the flash needed to offensively put on a show, but the question becomes: do Kane and Co. have enough experience? Calgary has that in spades, and a captain in Jarome Iginla that always tries to carry his team through the postseason. He'll have to try even harder this year, as injuries have decimated their roster, but I can't pick against the heart that team shows night in and night out.
Flames in 6

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Closing Time

Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end..."

This line from Semisonic's "Closing Time" perfectly captures the feeling in HSBC Arena during Buffalo's 6-1 win over Boston. Sure, the win was great, but there was a palpable feeling in the air that something was ending, something bigger than even the regular season.

Maybe it really was just the feeling that another season was ending, this time before my eyes. I've never been to the last game of the season before, so maybe this is how it feels when a playoff-less year concludes on home ice. However, there is no denying that big changes seem to be in store for this offseason, and the tension was evident all around the arena.

Last season, there were a myriad of excuses that both the team and fans gave for missing the playoffs - learning new roles, changes in how the game was being played, growing up...

This season, those excuses will fall on deaf ears if anyone is naive enough to even try and use them. There are simply no excuses for what happened this time around; if they aren't grown up by now, I have a feeling what we're facing is a case of terminal adolescence.

There's no doubt that some changes will be made this summer; nothing stays the same in professional sports from year to year. The pain of this season had me asking a lot of questions about what I was seeing:

Did I just watch Teppo Numminen play in his last NHL game? If so, there was a great sign across from our seats that said "Thank You Teppo," and it brought a sad smile to my face. That man deserved a Stanley Cup.

Did I just see Lindy Ruff's last game behind the Sabres' bench?

Will those people in the section over from me be right with their "We want Darcy fired" chants?

Did I just see the last game in a Sabres uniform by Jaro Spacek? Henrik Tallinder? Jochen Hecht? Who will be here when this ice is laid down once again in the Fall?

No matter the letdowns, I've come to love the guys on this team since 2005. In my mind, tonight is the end of an era. My gut feeling is that some part of this team that I've come to love will be gone by next year. There's going to be a shake-up, and I feel like this game was the last time all of the faces I've come to associate with the Buffalo Sabres will be in HSBC Arena together.

Make no mistake, I want changes to be made. I would not be satisfied to see this same team trotted out in late September. This team needs a "new beginning," but I know that it won't come without a cost.

When the team saluted the fans after the game, I'll admit to getting emotional. Did they make me furious at times this season? Yes. However, you can't tell me that this team doesn't know and appreciate the fans here.

In 2005, it seemed like we were just at the beginning of a great journey with this new "core" of young rookies. In 2009, that beginning has ended, but we have no idea what the next one will hold.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It Ends Tonight

It's over.

Tonight, despite a 5-1 win over the 'Canes, the Sabres were eliminated from the playoffs with New York's 2-1 win over Philly.

That has to be one of the most helpless feelings in all of sports - your team did its part to stay in the race, but its destiny was in the hands of someone else.

In the coming days, I'm sure we'll all have our theories and comments on the season that was. Too little too late, needing too much outside help - I know that I should have seen this coming. I knew that it would take a miracle for this team to reach the playoffs.

That doesn't mean that this still doesn't hurt.

It hurts for me to see Ryan Miller so sad, when he was one of the few players who really stepped up this season.

It hurts to think that Saturday could be Lindy's last game behind the bench as a Sabres coach.

It hurts to have to pick another team to root for in the playoffs; it never feels right when I do.

It hurts to say goodbye to this team until October.

But I don't have to do that just yet. I'll be at the game on Saturday, and I hope that they go out on a high note. I hope they play with the pride and fire that they showed tonight because I was really proud of them. Tonight, they did all that they could in a game I thought they would never win. I just sincerely hope that they will put it all out there again Saturday, give the fans something positive to take into the offseason.

Another year, another bittersweet night in Carolina. It's funny how the circumstances were reversed, though. In 2006, it was a loss that left us in tears but the memories of a beautiful season that took some of the sting away. In 2009, it's a win that should leave us jubilant but the memories of a turbulent season that have us depressed.

Saturday still matters - for the fans, for proving that there's still some fight left in this team. It may be over for us, but it should never be played like it's over for them. That game is going to show us a lot about how this team really sees itself, and I can only hope that it makes me go into the summer with some pride left in these boys.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So When Does the Apathy Set In?

I should have reached that point already. You know that point; I'm sure many of you are at or have long ago passed that point.

The point where you just can't bring yourself to care anymore.

It's the point when you know that your team isn't going to make the playoffs, and you've come to terms with that fact. You start analyzing what needs to be done in the offseason to make sure this doesn't happen again. You pick your teams to follow in the postseason. You watch the games your team plays with a sense of detachment, a sense that if they can't bring themselves to care about what they put on the ice why should you bring yourself to care about watching it.

God, I wish I was there.

The thing is; I really suck at goodbyes. And that's what these final games of the season are for me - one drawn-out, agonizing goodbye.

As Buffalo sports fans, we run on hope. This is the ugly point in the season when our supply runs out, and we're left bitter once again. Without that hope of making the playoffs and the hope of a championship that comes with them, we begin to turn on our athletes and each other.

I'm not saying that well-informed criticism isn't good and even necessary when it's so obvious that changes need to be made. It's when those criticisms get personal that I get defensive. If I hear one more "I hate Ryan Miller" after he lets in a soft goal or "Pat Kaleta's a pansy who has no place on this team" I'm going to scream.

Also, I get saying that this team lacks toughness, but I'm so sick of hearing "These overpaid jerks have no heart." Though it may not always look like it, there are guys on this team that have a sense of playing for us and playing with a purpose every night. The problem is, the guys that do show up to play every night don't always have the talent to make it count. My sister, who is a highly competitive high school athlete, always replies to the "heartless" comment in the same way. She tells me, "Do you honestly think that a professional athlete, who has been trained for years to compete at his highest level, doesn't want to win every night?"

I'll admit that, unfortunately, the question does give me reason to pause at times with this team. However, I've come to a conclusion about them. They're like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz - heart but no brains. They've shown how much playing for this city means to them - look no further than their charity work or the win over San Jose to see that. This doesn't mean, though, that I'm letting them off the hook. They need to grow up, to learn that their stubborn way of doing things isn't the best way, and I guess if that means letting some of them go or even letting Lindy go, then I'm going to have to accept that it's best for the team.

I guess all that I really want to say is that I'm not happy with this team right now, but I don't want to get rid of them all, either. I'm attached to these boys in an admittedly unhealthy way, and it hurts to see how quickly everyone has jumped off the bandwagon. Call me a homer; I won't deny it. I'm a fan but one who is trying to see a reasonable answer to the debacle this season has become. I'm mad, furious even, that they let this season slip away, but they're my team. Do I want some changes made? Of course. Do I want every guy traded and every front-office member fired? No.

What do I really want?

I want to stop caring.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Winning is the Best Medicine

I've been sick for about a week, but it's funny how something completely unrelated to my antibiotics can make me feel so much better.

I've barely made it off the couch since Wednesday, but once Jason Pominville's shot went into the net, ending overtime and sealing the 5-4 win over the Caps, I was jumping up and down in the living room.

So, I have a couple of thank-you notes to send out tonight:

Dear Buffalo Sabres,
Thank you for making me forget about my sinus infection for a few hours. Tonight, you played with heart and effort the whole game through. Did I like all those penalties? No. Did that game make me nervous at points? Of course. Still, you proved that you're not going to go away quietly. Four points out with a game-in-hand over the Rangers - tomorrow just got very interesting, indeed. That group hug after the win was fantastic; let that emotion carry over into another solid game against the Devils.

Dear Ryan Miller,
Please continue to punch Ovechkin in the face whenever you like (ok, so it was more push than punch). I love it when you get snippy. For that alone, I name you my Unsung Hero of the Game.

Dear Jason Pominville,
You're awesome. Remember how nice scoring goals is? Think you can try to do that even more? I know that I would love to see that goal-celebration smile more often; it's one of my favorite sights in hockey.

Dear Colby Armstrong,
Thanks for the two assists in Atlanta's 3-1 win over Florida, putting the Sabres only two points behind the Panthers! Does this note make up for all of the obscenities I was hurling at you and your team on Wednesday?
*Edit: Just heard the news about Carly Bragnalo, the fiancee of former Sabre and current Canuck Taylor Pyatt, who passed away in a car accident in Jamaica. The two had been together for 11 years, since they were high school sweethearts. This news is truly heartbreaking. My prayers tonight go out to Pyatt, the Bragnalo family, and the Canucks family.