Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Two Spartans show their true colors

I'm livid at the cheap shots, without question, but more relieved that Michigan defenseman Steve Kampfer is alright, considering he was the victim to an assault earlier this year that left him with a cracked skull and a broken vertebrae in his lower neck. Scary. Good for Michigan State to suspend the goons for the rest of the season.

Both Corey Tropp and Andrew Conboy were suspended for the rest of the year and could be leaving the program altogether, according to reports at the Detroit News.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bettman Whistles Two Wings for Disappearance

A few days ago, the NHL declared that both Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk would be suspended one game for skipping the All-Star weekend festivities in Montreal. What? Just because I wasn't timely about it, you thought I'd pass over such a huge issue involving two Red Wings? Not a chance. In fact, I'm coming at this with extra gusto since I've had a few days to think about it.

First, the reason behind Datsyuk and Lidstrom's absences: Datsyuk left the Wings' last game in Phoenix with a hip flexor injury and Lidstrom, who scored two goals in that game, cited an elbow injury in order to bow out of the All-Star exhibition. Neither injury would probably keep them out of a regular season game, but it was enough for them to pass over the All-Star game.

Problem is, a new rule that was implemented this year says that if a player is elected to the All-Star game but doesn't want to play because of an injury, he must show up at the festivities and participate to promote the league. (This is why Sidney Crosby, who won't play this afternoon because of a knee injury, wasn't suspended: he showed up and took questions and signed memorabilia for the fans in Montreal like a good little boy). I think the rule could be a good idea because it penalizes the league's stars if they don't help promote the league on one of its most important weekends throughout the year. But, the rule is terribly vague. If it is going to exist, it must have some sort of distinction for the type of injury.

I'm not going to argue that Lidstrom's "elbow injury" and Datsyuk's hip flexor are serious injuries: they're not. Lidstrom's is as real as Scientology and Datsyuk would have had no problem topping all challengers in last night's Skills Competition on two hip flexors. So, their choice to stay at home after the Wings' eight-day road trip and spend time with their families is fair game for suspension by the rule. The problem that I have is that if either of them were seriously hurt in that last game, perhaps with a broken bone or concussion, the rule makes no exception and they would still be suspended for one game. I take issue with that.

But in the same vein, the rule is too specific! It lays down the law for All-Stars, but not for YoungStars (the YoungStars game is a short, 18-minute contest between the league's top rookies and sophomores during All-Star weekend). Steve Mason, the star rookie goaltender for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Nicklas Backstrom, a strong sophomore defender for the Washington Capitals, decided to use their nagging-but-by-no-means-serious injuries to phone in their absence in the YoungStars game. Neither player will be suspended. And, considering that the one game that Datsyuk and Lidstrom will miss is Tuesday night's contest against Columbus, it seems kind of important that the Blue Jackets' league-leading goaltender can play but the Red Wings' two best players cannot. Especially if the Red Wings were to say, lose that game and come in second to the Sharks in the West at the end of the season by a single point. And don't underestimate that possibility. It's very real.

But, a rule is a rule. Bettman did the right thing for laying down the law on these two stubborn players! Right? Haha. Oh...sorry, lost my objectivity there for a second. That's a valid point you make sir or madam, but you are mistaken.

Nicklas Lidstrom has been one of the NHL's best ambassadors for broadening the game with his respect, leadership, and consistent winning. He's also competed in the All-Star charade for the past nine years straight. Give the man a break. Pavel Datsyuk has three consecutive Lady Byng trophies for most gentlemanly player on his resume. Yeah, those two guys just scream suspension-worthy.

And don't even try to argue that Datsyuk and Lidstrom "owe it to the fans to show up." Cry me a river, seriously. The fans vote for the All-Star starters, not the reserves. Datsyuk and Lidstrom were picked because they are great players, not because the fans wanted them in. If you think that there would be this much of a fuss if Thrasher's reserve Brian Little skipped All-Star weekend and was suspended a game, you've been spending too much time listening to Gary Bettman.

The end result is that the Red Wings will now have to play Columbus, a division rival who is only two points out of a playoff spot, without two of their best players. Then, they'll wait and see how it affects the rest of the season. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't. But that doesn't change the fact that in today's All-Star game, the defending Stanley Cup Champions will have no representation while every other team has at least one player in the game. I bet that's a first in history.

All-Star Boycott '09. I'm in. Are you?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Midseason "Mediocrity"

One week. Seven whole days. No Red Wings games. I guess now is just about the perfect time to review the first 46 games of the Detroit Cup Defense and summarize my thoughts about the season, just past the half-way mark.

Notable games thus far:
Oct. 9 - Banner raised for Cup #11.
Oct. 25 - Hossa's F-U slapshot in the shootout seals it against the pesky 'Hawks.
Nov. 11 - Penguins score four in the 3rd...win in overtime. I flipped a table.
Nov. 29 - Witnessed pain firsthand against the damned Bruins.
Dec. 18 - Took a huge bite out of the Sharks' credibility.
Dec. 30/Jan. 1 - Home-and-home with Chicago puts the Hawks in their place, Classic-ly.
Jan. 17 - Sharks fight back at home, win a real close one.

So, that puts the Wings at 31-9-6 thus far. I'm alright with that. I'm not happy about it, but I'm alright with it. That simple sentence should tell you how ridiculously high the expectations are for the Red Wings every year. They are 3rd in the league, only five points out of 1st, and I'm not even close to satisfied with their season thus far. Any other fanbase would say I'm insane, and maybe I am, but there are plenty of blatent signs that must be fixed in order to win Cup #12.

First, and foremost, is the goaltending issue. I have already addressed my worries about Osgood but last night's 6-3 loss to the Coyotes didn't do anything to strengthen my feelings about Conklin either. So, I'd like that to be resolved. I'm not calling for a trade or a free agent signing, I just want the goalies to play better. Practice harder, eat healthier, meditate, rub your lucky rabbit's foot...I don't care how it gets done. Just play better Ozzie, and play better Conk. You both need to step it up if the Wings want to have any chance in April.

The second issue is the defense. Lidstrom has dropped from superhero to mere mortal. I mean yeah, he's still the Dalai Lama of mere mortals, but a mortal nonetheless. People are actually saying he won't win the Norris this year. And it's not just Captain Nick either: Raffy has been slow, Stuart has been reckless, and Lilja has been making good passes, handling the puck well, and killing off penalties. Whoa. If that last part isn't a sign of the degradation of the Wings' blueline, I'm not sure what is.

In all seriousness though, the Red Wings have been good but not great. Right now, they're a milkshake without whipped cream. They're John Lennon without the rest of the Beatles. They're the 90's Bulls without Jordan. Their offense will take them into the playoffs as a high seed and probably through a couple rounds of the playoffs, but unless the defense improves and the goaltending turns the corner, this team will fall far short of its pre-season expectations. And I just can't have that.

So, make the changes Babcock, get those goalies in shape Bedard. I want to see results by March. Merry Mid-season. Go Wings.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Teetering On the Edge...

Okay. I'm pissed, I'm jacked on adrenaline, and I'm ready to write. I don't have any idea if I will regret this post in the future but I can tell you it will take every ounce of energy in me not to use profanity or break something in my closest vicinity.

I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, except my chant is: "It's only a loss in January. It's only a loss in January. It's only a loss in January." Because that is what tonight's 6-5 loss to San Jose was. A loss in January. The playoffs start in April and the big show starts around June. So, I shouldn't be this upset, right?

Wrong. The Sharks and Red Wings were separated by a single point coming into this game; winner takes over first place in the league. Sorry Bruins fans, but after the game I just watched tonight, there's not a single doubt in my mind that Boston would be outmatched in every category if they made it to the Finals and had to face either of these teams.

Back to the game. It was a battle. Back and forth, goal after goal. Feuds broke out, cheap shots were thrown, and hearts were pumping. This game felt like a playoff game.

At 4-4 in the third, the Sharks took advantage of a couple defensive lapses and had two breakaway opportunities on Osgood. They scored on both, and the crowd was rocking in the HP Pavilion Center. The Wings struck back in the last couple minutes and almost put the tying goal in...but couldn't do it. Game over, and the Sharks celebrated like they just won the Cup. *Cough* Pathetic *Cough*.

Now for my assessment of the Wings tonight: the offense was great and the defense was sub-par. Osgood managed to take most of the heat on Red Wings' message boards after allowing four goals through two periods but in reality, those first four weren't his fault. Those last two definitely were. Sure, they were breakaways, but both scorers didn't even try a fancy move. They just shot the puck. And Ozzie didn't even come close on either one.

I will be the first to acknowledge that there's a goalie controversy in Detroit because ever since I've followed the team, there's always been a goalie controversy in Detroit. But, with that being said, I must tread carefully because Ozzie has helped the Red Wings to two Stanley Cup championships. So first, thank you Chris Osgood. You have been great to the organization and you are a wonderful human being. But the difference between your playoff run last year and the 2008-2009 regular season is staggering.

You suck, to put it kindly. It was funny when you were posting the worst goalie stats in the league and still finding ways to win; I even mentioned how ridiculous it was in a post a while ago. But it's not cute anymore. Your .883 save percentage is last in the league and your 3.23 goals against average is only ahead of three goalies (two of which are the starters for the Islanders and Thrashers, who are both dead last in the NHL standings). I wish I could just hope for the best and pray for the 2008-playoffs-Osgood to emerge from a pile of pucks like a phoenix from the ashes. But I can't. Now is the time for me to start pushing for Ty Conklin as the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings in 2009.

Conklin's .922 save percentage is ninth in the league; his 2.21 goals against average is sixth and his five shutouts are only one behind the league leader. This is like the 2007-2008 season all over again, except Chris Osgood is playing the role of the struggling and aging Dominik Hasek (a little too well, I might add) and Ty Conklin is playing the role of the not-as-old-as-I-look, resurgent Chris Osgood from a year ago. The statistics don't lie; the torch needs to be passed.

Don't get me wrong: this is not solely about Ozzie's performance against the Sharks tonight. He played admirably for a while; he made 35 saves and kept the Wings in it for a couple periods. But he dropped the ball in the third and he continues to let in more and more goals with each passing game. The defense deserves some of the blame, surely, but a goalie cannot expect to consistently give up three or more goals and come out with a victory, especially in the playoffs.

I'm sick of it. I'm sorry that Osgood isn't having the year he wanted or expected to, but the bottom line is about winning. I love Osgood's history with the Wings and I know he played a major factor in their 1998 and 2008 Cup championships, but I want the Red Wings to succeed more than I want Chris Osgood to be their starting goaltender.

There. That's my rant about goaltending. It's definitely premature and in a month, I might regret all of it. But right now, I'm 100% fed up with the lack of respect for Conklin and the trust that Ozzie will get it together by playoff time. It's just hard for me to believe that right now.

As for the Red Wings and Sharks, they have both held home ice in their three meetings this season, and the final meeting is in Detroit on February 25th. These two teams are absolutely starting to hate each other and I expect the game in February to be another war on ice. I pray that someone on the Wings looks back at the game tape and sees the cheap shot that Joe Thornton laid on Franzen tonight, which sent Franzen out for the crucial third period and the rest of the game. A nice, concussion-causing hit right to Big Joe's pea-sized brain would please me greatly. Thornton is an overrated brute and he is an utter disgrace to the number 19. So, I want to see somebody drop a shoulder and lay him out like a ton of bricks come February.

But I need to go to bed. My heart rate is back to normal and I'm feeling worse about my violent wishes on Thornton and insults to Osgood by the minute; so it's best I sleep on this compassion and let the rage stay on the page. Goodnight.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Exhibits A and B

Pavel Datsyuk is a God among men. His set up to Holmstrom for the Wings' second goal tonight was unreal. *Update - It also managed to get #4 praise in Sportscenter's Top 10 Plays*

And his game-leading goal in the third period was an absolute gem. What this video can't show you is that he roofed the puck up in the top left corner from a ridiculous angle in a space so small even a mouse couldn't squeeze into. One of the announcers said after the goal that Datsyuk would be the "valedictorian of awesome school." That line right there pretty much sums up my whole argument from the previous post. I love it.

I'm still seething about their overtime loss though...an absolutely terrible call by the officials to give the Stars a powerplay with less than 4 minutes left and then of course, Dallas ties it up and wins it on a lucky goal in overtime. GRRRRRR! Such crap. Ozzie had such a great game in goal...he had multiple miraculous saves (see below) that were wasted by bad officiating and bad luck. I'll get over this loss soon enough but for now, I'm pissed. Enjoy the highlights...at least they made the game worth watching.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Now 'Dats' a Hell of an Argument...

The first nine days of 2009 have highlighted one important aspect of today's NHL: there is one player that stands above the rest. One player whose skill set cannot be equaled. One player who has been overshadowed by his talented teammates for too long. That man is Pavel Datsyuk.

Since his "wind-aided" goal in the Winter Classic, Datsyuk's name has lit up on hockey blogs and message boards across the country. He's been on a scoring tear for the past month and his shootout goal against Minnesota drew even more elevated praise. The guy is fun to watch, I know. But I'm not saying that Datsyuk has been the NHL's best player for the past nine days or even the past nine months; I'm saying he's been the best player in the NHL since the lockout.

I can already hear the "HOOOM-ER" chants coming. Yep, you said it. I'm a Red Wings fan; I love watching Pavel Datsyuk. I've been in awe of him ever since he showed signs of brilliance alongside Brett Hull and Boyd Devereaux in his first season, 2001-02. But I'm not making this claim without significant reasoning, without the proper statistics.

First off, he's automatically a top 15 player in the league. That much is objectively factual. His point totals in the four years since the lockout have been 87, 87, 97, and 47 (through 40 games of the 2008-09 season). Those ranked him as 17th, 15th, 4th, and 5th in the league by points alone. His goal production has been steady at close to 30 goals per year (28, 27, 31, and 18 already this season) and his assist numbers have been top ten in the league all four post-lockout years.

But many experts and hockey historians (is there such a thing?) will judge a player's overall skill by three categories: goals, assists, and total points. If that's the right way to do it, then I'm clearly wrong. Datsyuk is a step behind in each of those statisics. I argue however, that goals, assists, and points are not the only things that matter in a hockey game. You have to include all the intangibles (penalty minutes, face-off percentage, takeaways, average time on the ice, shots on goal, and even plus-minus ratings) to determine the best in the league. It is here where Datsyuk rises to the top.

Players that take a lot of penalties cause their teams incredible suffering. They might be good for momentum in the case of a fight, but they create a great chance for opposing teams and they're bad for a skill player's stat sheet. Datsyuk has totaled only 72 penalty minutes in the past four years combined; Jarome Iginla, Evgeni Malkin, Dany Heatley, Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, and Vincent Lecavalier all had more than 72 PIMs just last season and each of them are considered an integral part of the NHL's elite. In fact, Datsyuk has had by far the lowest penalty minute total among the top 30 point leaders in the NHL each season since the lockout.

Faceoff winning percentage and takeaways are huge factors too. To score goals, you need the puck. To get the puck, you need to win faceoffs or take the puck from the other team. It's that simple. Datsyuk is among the best in both categories, ranking 22nd, 8th, 20th, and 8th in the league in faceoff win percentage over the past four seasons (his highest being 57.0%) and he has been 1st in the league in takeaways three straight years. His takeaway numbers are staggering: 370 total takeaways since the lockout. The closest person in his rearview mirror is his new linemate Marian Hossa, who only has 259 in that same four-season-span. Don't try to tell me that doesn't count for something.

I know that by now, you're probably squirming in your seat waiting for some evidence to downplay the two biggest icons in hockey today: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. I certainly didn't overlook them; in fact, they were the main focus for the argument and I meticulously looked for any flaws I could find. As a couple of the best players in the NHL, they have very few but like the journalist I am, I jumped at the even slightest opportunity to drop them below Datsyuk.

For example, Ovechkin the Wunderkind simply takes too many shots. He just does. It might not seem like a bad thing because he scores so many goals (65 last year) but he took 446 shots last season and missed the net completely on 199 of them. That means that 45% of the time he is shooting, he could instead be looking to make a better pass or play. All the same, that's hardly a reason to drop Alexander the Great too far down on the list of top NHLers...simply one or two spots below the Datsyukian Delight.

As for Sid the Kid, he's about as airtight as they come. He's got Gretzky-vision and the ability to make something out of nothing. But while playing on the Penguins' top line has helped him create plenty of chances and points, it has also led to a lack of takeaways and plus/minus rating. Crosby's highest takeaways total was only 37, in 2006-07, and his highest plus/minus was a +18 last year. Datsyuk already has 49 takeaways through 40 games this season and was tops in the league with a plus/minus of 41 last year.

Throw in three consecutive Lady Byng trophies (and counting...) for the NHL's most gentlemanly player and one Selke Trophy for the league's best defensive forward, and the scale just keeps tip-tip-tipping in Datsyuk's favor.
So, how come his name never comes up with the Ovechkins, Crosbys, and Malkins? Well, he plays on the best team in world and is constantly overshadowed by the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and the aformentioned Hossa, who are all in that elite conversation themselves.

But not anymore. Datsyuk has reached the pinnacle. I hope I've convinced you too, but just in case you need one final note of confirmation...I'm 100% positive that none of the NHL's elite already have two of these:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Winging in the New Year

The tradition is only two years young but I must say, I couldn't approve of the Winter Classic more. I watched most of the original game last year between the Sabres and Penguins and I ate up every second of the Red Wings-Blackhawks matchup a few days ago. The mystique. The history. The nostalgic pond hockey memories. The skill, the weather, the new yet old memorabilia. The little things, like the layer of brick outside the boards to simulate one of the most famous parts of Wrigley Field. It's all good.

Obviously, I'm happier about the game because the Red Wings won but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the amount of money, work, and effort that goes into making this event happen. My point is that it's not just that the Red Wings won, it's that they got the chance to play in this game. I think everyone, including some nonchalant hockey fans, love this new tradition and will allow it to prosper in the coming years. Especially if the rumored Fenway Park game between Boston and Montreal comes together. That might even put this year's classic to shame with all the history between that park and those two teams.

I'm just glad that the NHL has at least one great thing going for them that is on national television and hyped up enough to grab people's attention. The league is moving forward, and I like that.

Speaking of things moving forward...how about Pavel Datsyuk and the Red Wings? They are certainly bringing the New Year's celebration to Detroit in style, with that impressive win over Minnesota last night. If you didn't see Datsyuk's shootout goal...watch the video below. His skill is staggering, jaw-dropping, eye-opening, and any other amazing adjectives you can throw in. I honestly would be hard pressed to find a better player with the puck anywhere in the world.

To finish off this Wings update, I like what Scott Van Pelt had to say about the Wings during last night's top ten plays on Sportscenter where Datsyuk's goal was #6 (WHAT?). He said, "Just give them the Cup now. I'm telling you, nobody beats them four times in the spring." I like that too. I wouldn't say it myself because, well, I wouldn't want to risk jinxing my team. But to have an objective observer like Van Pelt say that means something. It means watch out NHL, these Wings aren't ready to let go of Stanley yet. He's still ours.

One more thing before I go: the NHL All-Star Game starter voting. It's dumb. It really is. I assume that you think I'm only saying it because no one on the Wings was selected, but that's not it at all. It's dumb because the starters in a hockey game stay on the ice for a maximum of 60 seconds. Why does it matter? Let the coaches decide. It caught my attention because the fans can vote as many times as they want and essentially, "stuff the ballot boxes," which led to this: (the game is being played in Montreal, mind you).

Western Conference All-Star Starters
F - Patrick Kane (CHI)
F - Jonathan Toews (CHI)
F - Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)
D - Scott Niedermayer (ANA)
D - Brian Campbell (CHI)
G - Jean-Sebastien Giguere (ANA)
Eastern Conference All-Star Starters
F - Sidney Crosby (PIT)
F - Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
F - Alexei Kovalev (MON)
D - Andrei Markov (MON)
D - Mike Komisarek (MON)
G - Carey Price (MON)

I'm not sure if anybody from Chicago, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, or Montreal voted in these polls...but from the looks of it, the residents of those four cities spent the past four months in front of a computer clicking their votes in every second of every day. How else do you explain Crosby's 1.7 million votes? What a joke.

The game's in Montreal, so I can see why the Canadiens fans would want their players to start the game, but Chicago? Anaheim!!? Crosby and Malkin are obviously deserving, but how can players like Alexander Ovechkin, Tim Thomas, Phil Kessel, Marc Savard, Zach Parise, Jeff Carter, Joe Thornton, Dennis Wideman, and Dan Boyle not be in the running for starting positions? (Not to mention Wings players like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Hossa, and Lidstrom who are all amongst the tops in the league). It's ridiculous. How is it possible that the TOP FIVE TEAMS IN THE LEAGUE (San Jose, Boston, Detroit, Washington, Calgary) are left completely unrepresented? Doesn't make any sense. But, not to worry since all of those players I mentioned will be on the full squads anyway (I hope). So, just for kicks, here are my all-star starters just to spite the fan-voting process laid out by the NHL.

Cam's Western Conference All-Star Starters
F - Pavel Datsyuk (DET)
F - Marian Hossa (DET)
F - Jarome Iginla (CAL)
D - Dan Boyle (SJS)
D - Nicklas Lidstrom (DET)
G - Nicklas Backstrom (MIN)
Cam's Eastern Conference All-Star Starters
F - Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
F - Alexander Ovechkin (WAS)
F - Zach Parise (NJD)
D - Dennis Wideman (BOS)
D - Mike Green (WAS)
G - Tim Thomas (BOS)

That's what I'd do anyway. But seriously, leave it up to the coaches. There should just be an all-star team, not separately-decided starters. It's dumb. I hope I emphasized that.

I hope everyone's New Year's celebrations were fun and exciting. Since 2008 was great, I can only expect 2009 to be ever so fine. Stick to those resolutions!