Monday, April 30, 2007

Agony and Ecstasy Pt. II: The Internet Hates Me

My internet connection has been crap all day so who knows when this will finally post. For the record, I wrote this Sunday night.

I missed most of regulation because of my second job – curse you, credit card debt! – but I'm not as upset about that as I'd usually be because I hate watching our struggling power play more than anything else. How, how, how can a power play be so good one season and so darn crappy the next season when there wasn't a drastic change in personnel? Did J.P. Dumont really make that much difference? Are we missing Jay McKee? (Kidding.) I don't get it. I'm ready to blow up the whole thing and start all over. Throw guys who have never played on the power play before out there. Let Ryan play the point. I don't know. I do know this: One, it can't get much worse. Two, we're not going to beat Ottawa/Jersey/Anaheim/San Jose by going 1 for 10 every night.

A few random thoughts:

- Despite the loss, I feel pretty good. It sucks to play for that long and lose but I don't think anyone really expected us to take both games at MSG. Kudos to the boys for pulling themselves together and battling as long and hard as they did – I do love that you can't ever really count them out – but it's probably about time we lost a game like this. We've been living dangerously.

- I can't believe yet another goal review went in our favor. That alone is almost enough to make me believe it's our year. Honestly, I could've seen that review going either way and I'll admit I'm fine with it because it favored my team. But I do agree with Ray Ferraro that the kicking rule should be done away with. Is there really that much difference between a guy using his foot and using his stick? If it goes in the net, it goes in the net. The skater could head it in for all I care. I think Ferraro lost his mind a little with the whole "a review shouldn't take more than 2 minutes" argument though. What are they supposed to do at the end of two minutes, Ray? Poll the war room? Flip a coin? I can't believe Brett Hull was the voice of reason but he was absolutely right – take as long as it takes if it means getting the call right. Incidentally, you should've seen the look on my husband's face when he realized he was agreeing with Brett Hull. I'm sure minds across Buffalo were short circuiting at the sudden disconnect with the usual Hull related thoughts.

- How about Old Man Numminen stopping that shot from going in? NBC's 1800 replays might've been overkill, but it was a heads-up play nonetheless. I love Lydman and Tallinder and I think they've done an outstanding job this series (glove tap to NBC for giving them a little love), but I was a tad disappointed that no one got a stick on the goal that rolled lazily between Ryan's legs and across the goal line. I loved Emerick and Olczyk going on and on about Teppo's "homemade" sticks. Guys, he owns a stick company. He's not whittling them out of the trees in his backyard. Anyway… maybe the Teppo haters will back off for a day. I haven't decided how I feel about Teppo coming back for another season when Nathan Paetsch is waiting in the wings, but I don't understand how anyone can criticize Teppo for what he's done in Buffalo these last couple of years. I don't think it's any coincedence that a couple of our young defensemen have really come along while playing with him.

- Good lord, enough with Jaromir Jagr. If I had to listen to anyone on NBC rave about how much Jagr seems to be enjoying the playoffs this year and how involved he's been in the play this year, I might've put my fist through the TV screen – and I missed the first two periods of regulation. Guess what, NBC? Jagr is not a 19-year-old kid who's playing over his head. He's a 35-year-old veteran who is in the 16th season of his NHL career. We shouldn't be jumping with excitement and praising him for finally playing with a little passion. We should be wondering what the hell took so long! You can tell me he's grown-up and matured all you want. I'm not buying it. It looks to me like he's in a situation where the organization and coach have given him whatever he's asked for. I'm not impressed that he's suddenly happy and excited. Jagr absolutely had a good game today and he's had a very good career but I can't help but feel that he's wasted a lot of talent over the years. If you put his skill into the body of someone with the heart and passion of Chris Drury then you'd have a player worth celebrating. I'm almost afraid to imagine the career that guy would have. Until that happens, shut up.

Even though we lost, I was reminded today that there really is nothing else in all of sports like overtime in the playoffs in the NHL. Nothing. I've mentioned before that I grew up in Alabama, not exactly a hockey-centric area. The Sabres' playoff run in 1999 was my first real dose of the NHL, and the excruciating, agonizing excitement of overtime really helped suck me into the sport. I'll never forget totally ignoring my babysitting duties during the first OT of Game Six, scooting to the edge of my seat every time the Sabres took the puck into the offensive zone and leaping up with every shot or sinking into the couch and covering my eyes every time Dallas had the puck in our zone. I'll never forget jumping in the car and breaking every speed limit between the Hamilton's house and mine in an effort to get home before the second OT started. I'll never forget the knot in the center of my stomach and the devastating suddeness of the loss. Things were going, going, going and boom! Just like that it was all over. Even though the Sabres lost, it was largely the memory of the fun and agony of that night that led me back to hockey when the next season started. Basketball's overtime scoring goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Baseball's extra innings are, with the exception of a walk-off homer, long and slow. Runners move progressively around the bases, the other team often has a chance to tie the game back up. You can see it coming. Same with football. Even though it's sudden death, play generally moves slowly down the field. Overtime hockey isn't like that. Guys fight and scrap, leaving everything they have on the ice, and with one shot, it's all over. Someone's a winner and someone's a loser. It's an amazing high when you're the winner and completely heart-breaking when you're the loser, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Agony and Ecstasy

Quick thoughts because I just got home from the game and I'm way too worked up to really think right now:

- This probably goes without saying but Ryan Miller stole game 2. Not only did he steal it, he stole it and then waved the goods around in the Rangers' faces for good measure. I don't know if it made the TV broadcasts or not but after the last save he made on Jagr in the waning seconds of the game, there was a shot of Jagr where he looked absolutely defeated. Just totally done. It was awesome.

- Can we please keep Dainius Zubrus? Because I think I love him. You can keep your Ryan Smyth, and your Peter Forsberg, and your Gary Roberts. I don't think any of those guys made the difference to their team that Zubie has made here.

- Since when is the penalty for punching a guy in the face getting tossed from the face-off circle? What the?! I'm down with the whole planned ignoring response to Sean Avery's antics - I know getting no reaction kills guys like that - but in the final minutes of the clinching game, I hope somebody just pounds his head in. I elect Zubie.

- That was one of the best crowds I've ever been a part of. It was loud and everyone was involved. I'm choosing to ignore the guy behind me who kept screaming, "Go play in Philly and count your millions, Briere!" every time Danny touched the puck.

- While we were in line for ice-cream during the second intermission my husband and I were discussing how we thought Stafford should be moved back to Roy and Vanek's line and Max should be put with Timmy and Mair. And what do you know, when the third period started that's what the lines were. Clearly someone overheard our conversation and relayed it to Lindy. Thanks for listening, Lindy!

- Overall our game was terrible tonight. Nine shots over the first two periods, especially when one of the periods included a 4 minute powerplay, is just wretched. But sometimes you have to win ugly games. Good teams find a way to do it. I'm just hoping I don't have to watch too many more games like this because it's torture.

- Did I mention that Ryan Miller was awesome?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is It Over Yet?

I'll tell you what, this series hasn't even started yet and I'm already tired of the Rangers, the Rangers' coach, and the Rangers' fans. I'm feeling like I may need to avoid major message boards for the next week or so because fans on both sides seem to be in a lather already. Settle down, peeps. Let's atleast wait until the games start and we actually have good reason to hate each other, okay?

Got our order forms for tickets to rounds 3 and 4. In a word, ouch. The price for our 300 level seats jumps to $113 for round 3 and $153 for round 4. Add in the fact that we have to buy tickets to all 8 home games and that's a whopping $1064 - $2128 for the two of us. And this is in addition to what we already paid for the first two rounds. The price itself doesn't bother me. For a pro sport playoff ticket, I think that's a darn good price actually. I've been to regular season sporting events where I've paid that much or close to it. But I really don't understand why we have to buy tickets to all 8 games. I guess maybe orders are easier to process that way, but I don't know, shouldn't a ticket office be able to handle individual games? Isn't that what they do all year? It's not like they're not going to sell the games we don't buy.

The hubby and I talked about it for a long time. We had the money to pay for the first two rounds but the new charge would go on the credit card. I took a second job at the beginning of the year with the goal of paying off our credit card debt by the end of the year so it didn't seem like a very good idea to slap $2000 on there. For a while it looked like maturity and fiscal responsibility were going to win out but in the end frivolity and sports madness took over. We'll sell a game or two in each round to friends and family like we've done so far and that'll give us some of our money back. What the hell, you know? You gotta enjoy something once in a while.

In action for the first time tonight will be my shiny new, never been worn jersey:

That, my friends, is one bad-ass jersey. (My photography skills on the other hand? Horrible.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Postseason Heartbreak

I like Roberto Luongo and I picked Vancouver in my playoff pool so I was technically cheering for them... but damn if I don't feel horrible for Marty Turco right now. Three shut-outs in the series? Allowing only 2 goals in a game where his team took eleventy billion penalties? And he still loses? I can't remember the last time I felt so badly for a guy who wasn't on my team. Geez.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Blah Blah Blah

Okay, well the Sabres and I had our day off... Now what? When can we start playing again? How long do we have to sit around? I've been watching some of the other series, but it's not the same, you know? Let's move on with Round Two! Forget these other slow pokes who haven't finished yet!

Random thoughts that are floating through my head as I watch the end of the Calgary-Detroit game (go, Flames, go!). I'm down with the flu so as you read, please remember that I'm currently full of various medications:

- The Rangers, eh? All right. They have some firepower but I'll take our depth. The series, like many, might come down to which goaltender plays better, Miller or Lundqvist. I do think it's hard to get a handle on the Rangers however because the Thrashers were just not there at all and got thoroughly outplayed and outcoached. I do think it'll be a tight series, but I say we pull it out in 6. This is totally off-the-cuff so maybe that'll change after I put some thought into it. Special note to Tim Connolly: Please tighten up your chinstrap and please, please, please keep your head up. (Sidenote: Ooooh, 4 minute penalty against Calgary in OT. That's not good.)

- Ottawa vs. NJ should be an interesting series. NJ is definitely going to play the Sens better defensively than the Pens did and it goes without saying that Brodeur is a totally different animal than Fleury. I think this is the round where we see if there really is a new mental toughness to the Sens since NJ is bound to put up more of a fight than Pittsburgh did. I'm going to have to noodle over this one for a few days before I make the final pick for my playoff pool.

- I've officially decided that I don't like Mike "Doc" Emerick. He was a little better during the NJ-Tampa Bay game today than he usually is, but most nights he doesn't even seem to be watching the play. He spends way too much time telling precious stories about players' childhoods and sharing oddball stats and anecdotes that really aren't that interesting. (Sidenote: Detroit had 17 SOG to Calgary's 5 in the first OT. Geez.) That would be okay I guess except that Emerick doesn't seem to have any ability to go with the flow. Once he starts a story, he's gonna finish it even if someone is currently onscreen taking the puck from end to end, making everyone on the ice look foolish in the process. It's like he's reading a script and he can't break away from it until he's read the whole thing which doesn't work well for a game that moves and changes as quickly as hockey does. Of course, I'm probably spoiled. Almost every hockey game I've ever watched has been announced by Rick Jeanneret who is a true play-by-play man. He may actually call TOO much action if that's possible - it's obvious he started on radio - but I'd rather a guy give me more detail than I need than appear to not be that interested in the game.

- I'm a little sad to see Tampa Bay go out for a couple of reasons. One, I've loved watching Vincent Lecavalier play this year. He seemed to play with an all new fire, atleast to my eyes, and even when he was scoring on my team it was really fun to see. Thanks for all the points you rang up for my playoff team before being eliminated, Vinny! Second, I would've really enjoyed seeing Tortorella and Ruff battle with each other. They're two of the most entertaining characters in the NHL. (Sidenote: Calgary, you'd probably have a better chance of winning if you'd get the puck away from your OWN GOALIE. Good grief!)

- I can't even put into words how tired I am of the Labatt Blue fish commerical. There are so many things that bother me about this ad.
- How does the fish get from the lake to the phone?
- How does the fish get the phone off the hook?
- How does the fish dial the numbers?
- Why does the fish call Steve at work and then act surprised that he's... at work?
- Why would a fish want more fishermen at the lake?
It's possible I'm overthinking this but seriously. Am I alone here?

- Brian Campbell's commericals for The Center For Excessive Sweating and Veins, Veins, Veins, on the other hand, are comedy gold. I give Soupy credit for injecting a little personality into his pitch (there's a Jason Pominville ad on the radio that features the most stilted, robotic reading ever - it's awesome in its awkwardness) but he totally comes across as a used car salesman. If you replaced the doctor's office background with a car lot and changed, "Your insurance WILL cover it!" to "We WILL finance you!" you'd never know you were looking at a hockey player. I smell a second career! (Sidenote: Detroit won AND Dom didn't seem to pull anything. The fans are chanting "Kipper!" as they darn well should be doing. There goes that pick.)

- If UPS tracking is accurate, I should have a shiny new jersey tomorrow! Yippee! (You'll have to come back later if you want to know what/whose jersey it is.)

Geez, I guess it was a good thing I was already planning on calling in sick tomorrow. It's really late.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Closing Thoughts

Okay, so one round down, three to go. I'm glad to get this wrapped up in 5 so the boys can get in a couple of days of rest. Some randome thoughts:

- All the kudos in the world to the Islanders. I think Buffalo was clearly the more talented team, but I have no problem saying that the Islanders played more desperately and with more heart for most of the series. It would've been awfully easy for them to pack it in after the second period last night and instead they came dangerously close to forcing a game 6.

- It's never been more clear that Buffalo starts to look very average very quickly when they're skating and moving around. Use those feet, guys. That's what God gave 'em to you for.

- Buffalo definitely didn't play up to the level they're capable of. While it's a little concerning to see efforts like last night's third period and game 2's first period in the postseason, I'm not super, super worried yet. Playing down to less talented teams and tanking games that should be won has been an unfortunate trend with this team all season. On the flip side they've almost always been able to get up for big games against tough opponents. And hopefully they did learn a little something about underestimating the guys on the other side of the ice.

- As poorly as we played at times, I'm not ready to say Ottawa and the Rangers played light years better than us. The Islanders played tougher, smarter hockey than the Penguins or the Thrashers did and I think they would've given Ottawa and NY some scares just like they did us.

- The defensive game of the Afinogenov-Roy-Vanek line was absolutely frightening at times. They all need to show more hustle in our end but especially Roy who is capable of being one of the best two-way players on the ice. He needs to be the one carrying the defensive responsibility on that line.

- I hate to say it because I love him so, but Henrik Tallinder had an average series overall and "average" might be generous at times. He looked very good in the first game but unlike himself during other stretches. He and Lydman do put in the most time against the opposition's top line along with the most short-handed time, but I'd have to agree with those who think Hank is playing like he's scared of getting hurt again. That's worrisome because it seems like when guys play tense and tentative like that they're actually more likely to get hurt. That said, the penalty kill was very strong in the series. I'd just like to see Hank play a little more consistently and use that size every once in a while. Brian Campbell and Dmitri Kalinin had a very strong series.

- The powerplay remains an enigma. Some nights it looks very good, some nights it looks like they're not moving the puck and scared to shoot.

- Tim Connolly has looked better every game. He had the stick handling skills pretty much from the second he stepped on the ice (geez, that penalty kill last night), but his legs are coming back slowly but surely as well. Words cannot express how happy I am to see him out there again.

- Ryan Miller had a strong sereis. Overall he outplayed DiPietro and that made the difference in the series. Ryan may never have great individual numbers (though some of that is playing for a team that prefers to play run-and-gun and gives up a lot of odd man rushes), but he's going to win a lot of games. He almost always seems to be able to do just enough to pull out the victory.

- Jason Pominville, Daniel Briere, and Jochen Hecht make up the worst line of postseason beards in the entire playoffs. These three look like 14-year-olds trying desperately to grow enough facial hair to shave. I love it.

Not a tremendous effort but an effective one and at this point I supposed that's all that matters. I'd prefer to see Tampa Bay over the Rangers because their defense/goal tending is very suspect and St. Louis and Lecavalier are playing a ridiculous amount of minutes and almost sure to start feeling that... But I think we can beat either team for sure.

I'm off to curl up on the couch with my box of Puffs Plus and a bag of cough drops and the Calgary/Detroit game on the TV. Flame on, Flames! Man, I love playoff hockey.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

True Confessions

One of my favorite things about the playoffs is the ability to watch teams I don't get to see regularly during the season. Throw in the extra heat and passion of post-season play and you're almost always seeing them at their best. (Sorry, Calgary and Atlanta.) It's during this time that I end up forming attachments to players who don't play for the Sabres. It's when I first took notice of Jarome Iginla. It's when I fell in love with Scott Niedermayer. It's just so fun to see other players in a new and different light. Well, the same thing has happened this year and the new love is... Sidney Crosby.

Yeah, I said Sidney Crosby.

First of all, it's made a HUGE difference watching the Ottawa/Pittsburgh series on CBC instead of NBC or Versus. On the latter two networks, they never stop talking about Crosby. Never, ever, ever, no matter how well or not well he's playing. At the end of the season a Pittsburgh/Buffalo game was on Versus and even though Crosby had no points, a -1, and got suckered into a really bad, poorly timed penalty, he was the center of every conversation. The Sabres played a very good game, their best in a while at that point, almost completely shutting down the Pens' vaunted offense, and won the game 4-1. About all they got from the broadcasters was, "Whoa, Henrik Tallinder saw Sidney Crosby coming and fell right over! Hahahahahhahah!" Gimme a break, dudes. I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I would enjoy watching Crosby more if people would shut up and let me watch him and lo and behold, it was true. On CBC they point him out when he's involved in the play and of course comment on how talented he is but if he's not on the ice they do a pretty good job of leaving him out of things. And they don't go on incessantly about Sid and Mario having pancakes and eggs together every morning. Thank you for that, CBC.

And you know what? Having the chance to watch him without having him shoved down my throat has really allowed me to see that he's pretty damn good. He's skilled, he's strong, he has the ability to take over the ice no matter who's on the ice with him. I have to keep reminding myself that he's 19 years old. Nineteen! I'm also super impressed with his maturity level. He's so young (19!) and he came into the league with so many expectations: He was expected to be great right away, he was expected to give the league a marquee star, someone who could compete with LeBron James and Tom Brady and Albert Pujols on the pro sports scene. For the most part, he's done it and done it with a semblance of grace not found in a lot of young athletes. He seems to patiently and happily answer question after question from reporter after reporter. Yeah, there's usually a hint of media training in his answers which tends to stop him from saying anything overly interesting but he's more than accepted his part in putting the NHL out there. I mean, I could only handle situations like the below so many times before I started grumping at people to just leave me the heck alone.

Does he sometimes embellish? Yeah, maybe. But let's be honest, people, we all have that guy on our team. Even if we don't like it, have you ever been upset when it drew a penalty that led to a powerplay goal? Is he whiny? Yeah, sometimes. But I'm willing to cut him a little slack for a couple of reasons. One, he's young (1!9!) and I think he'll learn to deal with officials better with experience and maturity. Two, he is getting the stuffing pounded out of him. I never really understood what Pittsburgh fans were complaining about in this regard but now that I've watched their playoff series, I'm starting to get it. Don't get me wrong... The opposing team should absolutely be targeting Crosby, especially if it's going to put him off his game. But the "new NHL" (how long before we can quit calling it that?) is supposed to be protecting quick, skilled players and the maddeningly inconsistent officiating must be extremely frustrating. It ticks me off and I'm only watching. Crosby's getting grabbed, hooked, and tripped all over the place. While I was writing this, number 5 for Ottawa practically latched on to Sid's back and Sid carried him halfway around the rink, keeping possession of the puck the whole time I might add. Are you kidding me? That's not a penalty? I might whine too.

My very favorite thing about Sidney Crosby though is that he plays with a very clear fervor and love for the game of hockey. Considering that he's been the next great one since he was 8, it would've been really easy for hockey to become a job, something he merely worked at. It would've been really easy for him to lose touch with the little boy who started playing hockey because he loved it. But he hasn't. And I hope he never does.

So yeah... I love Sidney Crosby! Wanna make something of it?!

(x-posted to HLoG)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dear Chris Neil...

"Well I think it was late and he nailed our guy who was in a defenseless position. I won't forget that."
- Chris Neil on Colby Armstrong's hit on Patrick Eaves

Dear Chris,

Perhaps Eaves should've had his head up and his helmet properly affixed.


Should we break out the stopwatch and time exactly how late the hit was? Okay seriously, I know this is largely posturing on Chris Neil's part. He has to take the side of his teammate. And I know, regardless of what people want to think, it is different when it happens to one of your boys. But still... sounding a taaad hypocricial there, Chrissy. I know Armstrong is developing a reputation but atleast he had the decency to look concerned about Eaves afterward.

Quick thoughts:

-Briere and Pominville need to be a lot more noticeable than they have been.
-Miller needs to tighten it up a bit. The team held the Islanders shot-less for 16 minutes and in minute 17 he let a terrible softie in.
-Afinogenov and Vanek need to start burying some of their chances.
-The forwards need to just throw shots on net without worrying about them being perfectly placed.
-Everyone in Sabres' Nation needs to chill the heck out and take a deep breath.

See you after the game!

Friday, April 13, 2007

One Down...

Fifteen to go.

Game analysis is not my strong point (I'll direct you to Sabre Rattling and Bleeding Blue and Gold for that), but I will make some very brief comments about tonight's game:

Things were pretty close for most of the game on the scoreboard, but I think Buffalo outplayed the Islanders overall. We had a lot of chances we weren't burying - it's just a matter of time before the Vanek-Roy-Afinogenov line explodes if they continue to buzz around the way they did tonight - and the Islanders got very few real scoring opportunities. Very little got through to Ryan and even then, he didn't have to make any spectacular saves. Just a very good defensive game all the way around, a couple of big turnovers aside. The Islanders hung in there for a while, but I think it was made pretty clear that they're simply overmatched in this series.

The special teams were very strong, thank goodness. The powerplay was 2 for 6 with a third goal coming seconds after an advantage ended. The penatly kill looked particularly good and at times it seemed we were getting as many scoring chances on Islanders' powerplays as they were.

Dubie played fine. He looked a little shaky at first but settled in well and kept the game from being a rout. I guess I can understand wanting to put your starter in once he's cleared, but how long has it been since DiPietro played? How rusty is he going to be and what are the chances of him getting roughed up and ending up with another concussion? Dubie isn't the reason the Islanders lost so I don't think it's necessarily smart to pull him. DP has 14 more years to play for the Islanders in the playoffs, you know? (Hee.)

And... that's all I got.

The mood before the game was a lot of fun. The crowd was crazy at the beginning of the game but tailed off some when the score stayed so close. Everyone was a little nervous, I think and stayed that way until Chris put us up 3-1. Things loosened up then although people started leaving not too long after that so they didn't even really get to enjoy it. I'll never understand leaving a game early, especially a playoff game. The only time I've ever left a game early was when I had to catch a bus home. And even then I only left because it was the last bus of the night and I didn't want to spend the night downtown.

The one real negative about the Sabres being so popular in Buffalo right now is that I really think there were a lot of people in the building who were just there because it was the cool, happening place to be. They weren't there because they love hockey or care about the team, they were there because everyone wanted to be there. The three people beside me had clearly never been to a hockey game and had no idea what was going on. And not in a "I'm a new fan and I'm still learning" way. That I can handle. Hey, I've been there. I knew very little about the workings of a hockey game when I moved to Buffalo (almost seven years ago) and I had to ask things like, "What's icing?", "What's the difference between a shot on goal and a scoring chance?" and "What's a trap and why do we hate it?" But these people barely paid attention to the game and spent most of the 60 minutes walking back and forth to refill their beers. (And my disgust is not even taking into consideration how many times the girl right beside me smacked me in the face with her pom-pom.) They could've spent the evening in a bar and let real fans have their seats. Last year a couple friends and I decided that anyone buying playoff tickets should have to pass a quiz about the basics of hockey and the specifics of the Sabres (yes, we were upset that we couldn't get tickets). Here's a short version of what we came up with (yes, we did waste a day's work time doing this):

61, 23, 45, 30, 19



Jochen Hecht
Toni Lydman
Teppo Numminen
Ales Kotalik

Henrik Tallinder and _______________
Jason Pominville, Daniel Briere, and ____________

penalty kill

Maxim Afinogenov, Henrik Tallinder, Brian Campbell, Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Spacek*

I don't think this is asking too much.

In closing, one of the things I love most about Brian Campbell is how darn thrilled and excited he looks when he does something good. No calm, collected celebration for Soupy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


:::clap, clap, clapclapclap:::

I'm off for the day - pizza and wings at La Nova, party in the plaza, hanging with some friends, and then off to game one with the hubby, my first playoff game ever. In case you can't tell from the (very unflattering) photo above, I'm stoked!

Go Sabres!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ode to 26

I'm trying to take these few days before the playoffs begin to relax, take a deep breath, and reflect on what a fun, exciting regular season it was. I know if the Sabres don't win it all, the season is going to be considered a disappointment on some level so I want to enjoy this moment while I can.

A couple days ago a friend and I were discussing what we thought the best story this year was. We came up with a lot of things, obviously. Was it going wire-to-wire in the Eastern Conference, winning the President's trophy, watching Ryan Miller continue to mature as a player and a leader, or the team finishing with 7 guys with 20 or more goals (and an 8th sitting at 19)? The winning streak to start the season, the obvious appreciation and love between the team and the fans, or the Sabres taking over the NHL merchandise sales? Definitely a tough pick. I was tempted by the Rochester babies stepping in during our stretch of injuries and keeping the team afloat. If you'd told me that halfway through the season we'd start losing guys, at one point playing without 8 regulars, and still finish the season at the top, I would've told you you were crazy, especially considering some of the injuried parties. But God bless those kids, they came up and played their hearts out. They left everything on the ice every night and they competed with players much older and more experienced than them. (A glove tap to the regulars who stepped up their game during this stretch, Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht coming to mind immediately.) As a non-Buffalo fan friend of mine (yeah, I have a few) said, "You guys are $#!#!&*# cylons. Kill one and another one pops up in its place." It was a ton 'o fun to watch.

But, as entertaining as the kids were, the story of the year for me is Thomas Vanek. For those not in the know, Vanek, after a pretty solid rookie season (25 goals, 23 assists), found himself benched for most of last year's playoffs. I don't know that Lindy Ruff ever gave an official reason outside of, "I felt other guys were playing better" but the most popular theory was that Ruff was displeased with Vanek's lack of effort in the defensive zone and his tendency to coast at times. Vanek worked his butt of in the off-season, came into training camp noticeably slimmer and quicker, and improved every single aspect of his game this season. He skated hard, he backchecked regularly, he even played on the penalty kill (my husband, the first time this happened: "I'm sorry but am I seeing Thomas Vanek on the PK?"). Vanek learned to use his size more, took a beating in front of the net night after night, and pulled out some beautiful moves. He finished the season with 43 goals, 41 assists, and a league leading (!) +47. Now, for the record, I think plus/minus can be a misleading stat - it doesn't take into account how strong (or weak) the teammates or opposition on the ice with you are for one thing - but to go from a -11 one season to a +47 the next season? The mind, it is boggled. That shows a huge committment to change in work ethic on Vanek's part, plain and simple.

Here's the thing. This really shouldn't be that big of a deal. Athlete is challenged by coach, athlete steps up and proves his worth. It should happen all the time. But in this day and age of pampered athletes and undermined coaches, I don't think it does. Vanek was used to being successful, particularly in big situations and suddenly he found himself on the bench when his team needed wins the most. That had to sting. I really think a lot of athletes used to being the number 1 guy wouldn't have handled the situation as well as Vanek did. Some guys would scream and argue with coaches about it. Some would complain to teammates, maybe causing some dissension. Some would whine to the media, making a big deal about how he, a former first round pick for cryin' out loud, was riding the pine. Some would go over the coach's head to another coach, or the GM, or the owner with complaints about how the coach clearly didn't know what he was doing. (Glove tap to Darcy Reiger and Tom Golisano for trusting their coach to do his job, by the way.) Some - many - would've pouted all through the playoffs, into the off-season, and carried that grudge right into the next season, sure that there was nothing he could do or needed to do to improve his game. But Thomas Vanek didn't do that. There were many reports of he and Lindy having long, long conversations during practices throughout last season's playoffs, but that's where the discussion stayed. I can't recall Vanek ever saying anything about the situation publicly, even this season, outside of a very mild, "I didn't think I was really playing that badly." He recognized that despite a very solid rookie year, there was room for improvement. He recognized that the only way to prove Lindy wrong was on the ice. He recognized that a gauntlet had been thrown down and he picked it up and skated off with it at full speed.

Vanek's second goal against Boston on April 5 is pretty reflective of what kind of player he became this season. He was back in the defensive zone, pounced on a loose puck, hauled it down the ice, out-muscled a defender who was doing everything he could think of to stop him, and finished it off with a beautiful move, pushing the puck from his forehand to his backhand - hustle, muscle, and skill all bundled up in one 10 second clip. All in all, Vanek was a total joy to watch this season and it's a little scary to think that he's probably still learning. Here's hoping this kid is wearing a Sabres uniform for a very, very long time.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

There is a God!

Not only did Timmy Connolly FINALLY play today (scoring a goal and looking pretty darn comfortable for a guy who hasn't played in 11 months), it appears that he came to his senses and shaved that ridiculous fu manchu he was sporting earlier in the season. Talk about your Easter miracles! I'm just so darn happy right now it hurts.

(x-posted to HLoG)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

No game tonight so I'm going to re-post something I originally wrote for HLoG. Okay, technically it is now Tuesday which is indeed a game day but just work with me here. I'm itching for the playoffs (when oh when are my tickets going to arrive?!) so this post seemed fitting.

The question, inspired by one of John Buccigross's columns was, "What is your favorite thing about the NHL?" Here goes:

The playoffs. No other sport's playoffs come close to touching the NHL's. We get four rounds of skilled, physical, intense competition. I love the way the playoffs are like a whole new season, the slate wiped clean. I love the surprise of the 8th seed that had to scrap its way into the playoffs upsetting the 1st seed that coasted through the regular season. I love the way guys like Chris Drury get that extra shine in their eyes that time of year. I love the extra effort guys seem to put out - the pounding hits, the hustling after loose pucks, the diving in front of shots. The last team standing at the end of the NHL playoffs absolutely deserves the title of champions. (Unless you're the '99 Dallas Stars. And you probably deserved it a little though I will deny having ever said this later.)

And then the winner is presented with the Stanley Cup, the greatest trophy in sports. I love that it's given directly to the captain and not the owner or the GM. They're important but in the end, it's all about the guys on the ice and I love that the NHL gets that. I love that every member of the team gets his moment with the Cup on the ice and during the off-season. And I love that the trophy is so rich with history and tradition that every player in the NHL has dreamt about what he's going to do with the Cup when he gets it whether it's drinking beer out of it with his childhood buddies or eating cereal or popcorn out of it with his wife and kids. Even when it's not my team doing the celebrating (hopefully that day will come very, very soon) I can't help but get a little teary-eyed and sentimental watching all those grown men skating around willy nilly looking for someone to hug, laughing and screaming and dog-piling in the middle of the ice. For a moment, they're all little boys again. Totally awesome and the best ending in sports.