Congrats to the South-Islanders

Last night the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team to advance to the NHL’s final four, securing a berth in the East Finals by sweeping the top-seeded Washington Capitals out of the playoffs. For fans of the New York Islanders, watching the Lightning advance could very well be bittersweet; five of Tampa’s 20-man playoff roster (1/4) are ex-Islanders and they all have played a major role in upsetting first the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Caps.

Dwayne Roloson has been Tampa’s backbone and is now victorious in seven consecutive games after his team was down 3 games to 1 against the Pens. The 41-year-old netminder was traded to the Sunshine State on January 1 in exchange for defenseman Ty Wishart.

Sean Bergenheim was signed as a free-agent this past summer (August 17)and is making first-year GM Steve Yzerman look like a genius. The former first round pick has seven goals in his first 11 playoff games after tallying 14 goals in 80 regular season games. He is part of a great line with ex-Ranger Dominic Moore and ex-Flyer Steve Downie that has dominated this postseason.

Nate Thompson was claimed on waivers by the Lightning in January of 2010 and has done everything the team has asked of him as a fourth-line center. We used to joke that he was Isles’ coach Scott Gordon’s pet because he followed the coach from Providence of the AHL to Long Island; apparently now his teammates refer to him as ‘Nate Boucher’ because he does everything and anything that rookie coach Guy Boucher asks of him.

Marc-Andre Bergeron is a defensive liability on any team, as the Islanders found out during his 69 games with the club in 2006-07. He did score 12 power play goals during that time and it’s his rocket shot that has kept him in the league despite his defensive deficiencies. He only has one goal in seven playoff games with Tampa, and yes it was a PP goal; oh and it was the game-winning goal that eliminated Washington.

Eric Brewer hasn’t played for the Islanders since 2000, but after stops in Edmonton and St. Louis he was acquired by the Lightning on February 18. He has provided solid defense and some scoring (1g-5a), while adding some experience to Tampa’s bruising blueline.

Tampa has been fun to watch and hopefully they give us another entertaining week or two or three as these playoffs roll on.

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Off the Ice with…Martin Biron

Recently I was able to screen New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron long enough to ask him a few questions about the life of an NHL goalie, as well as his favorite movie, TV shows and what he brings with him on road trips. Biron is a 33-year-old from Lac St. Charles, Quebec, who was originally drafted by Buffalo in the first round (16th overall) in 1995. Over his 13 NHL seasons his record is 212-178-49 in 469 games, with 26 shutouts, a 2.63 GAA and a .910 save pct. He is considered one of the ‘good guys’ of the NHL, always a good interview and trust me — he has never met a microphone he didn’t like. His best season to date was probably in 2001-02 when he won 31 of the 72 games he appeared in for the Sabres and posted a stellar 2.22 GAA.

Biron finally made the Sabres roster as a regular during the 1999-2000 season, as the backup to future Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek and finished the year with a 19-18-2 record and five shutouts. In total he played parts of nine seasons in Buffalo, but never really had a hold on the number one goalie job. After finally taking over when Hasek left to play in Detroit, Biron broke his thumb and the Sabres called up Ryan Miller, who is still the starting netminder in Buffalo’s crease today (see: 2010 Vezina Trophy, 2010 Silver Medal for Team USA). During the 2006-07 season, Biron was dealt to Philadelphia and the following season he helped lead the Flyers to the East Finals before losing against Pittsburgh. He stayed in the Philly for a total of two and a half seasons and in 2009-10 he served as Dwayne Roloson’s backup with the New York Islanders, but he had only signed a one-year contract there. This past summer, he inked a two-year deal with the Rangers, to give All-Star Henrik Lundqvist (who has been overplayed) some more games off.

So far this season he has done exactly what the Rangers have asked of him — in seven games he is 4-2-0 with a save percentage of .907 and a 2.33 GAA. So just who is Martin Biron off the ice? Read on:

Dan Rice: What do you remember about your first win in the NHL?

Martin Biron: “Oh, I remember I got called up from Rochester (AHL) to play against Dallas at home, in Buffalo; I was having a pretty good year in Rochester, (my second year there). A bunch of my buddies from Pee-Wee hockey and Bantam hockey from Quebec City decided to drive up, so they were at the game. I remember Rob Ray made a joke, a funny comment before the game, between warm-ups and the start of the game, he said: ‘Don’t worry Marty, if it doesn’t go well, you’ll get over it; we all do.’ It was a subtle comment, but relaxed me before I had to play against the defending champion Dallas Stars. I played a solid game, we won 2-1; it was one of those days where I don’t remember what happened in the game. It was so crazy and I’ve played so many games between now and then, but I remember little things like that. At the end of the game — the excitement of having your first NHL win was incredible. Then we had a huge snowstorm, so the next day we got snowed in and didn’t have practice; so I got to sleep in and enjoy the first win a little bit more! A couple of days later we played Philadelphia and tied 1-1, so I had a really good week my first week in the NHL.”

DR: Do you have the puck from that first win?

MB: “I do. It’s at my parents’ place right now on a plaque in the basement. I’ve got a picture that my sister-in-law got me in a frame, and it’s engraved: first NHL win, Dallas 1, Buffalo 2 with the date. It’s kind of funny because I have my arms up and I’m on one leg celebrating the win (smiles).”

DR: What are your memories from the day you were drafted?

MB: “It was so exciting. It was in Edmonton in 1995, there was a lot of excitement in not knowing where you were going to be drafted. Was I going to go in the first round or not? I had talked to a lot of teams, but funny enough I hadn’t talked to Buffalo at all. Four picks before Buffalo was to pick made a trade — they traded (Alexander) Mogilny to Vancouver and in exchange they got (Mike) Peca and an extra first round pick. They picked Jay McKee with that pick and then about three picks later it was their time again and I was sitting there and saw the NHL people coming over to my section, cameras starting to get ready; I kind of had an idea that they may take me with that second, first round pick. I heard my name and when I went on stage I remember posing with the team’s personnel, just standing there and one of the guys said to me ‘You can wave to the crowd.’ I kind of just waved my hand and was shy, didn’t know what to do really. It was a very fun day — my whole family was there, it was a lot of excitement.”

DR: Do you have a best friend in the NHL?

MB: “Yeah, me being a goalie it’s kind of funny because a lot of guys are usually good friends with their D-partner or their linemate; for me as a goalie, you play with so many guys and you get to be good friends with your goaltending partner. Over the years I’ve gotten to be really good friends with JP Dumont, in Buffalo we were roommates together. I am really, really good friends with Danny Briere, we were roommates together in Buffalo after JP left for Nashville and then we played together in Philly for a couple of years. Some of the guys I have played with I stay close with in the summer like Jay McKee, Michael Peca — those are guys that in the summertime in Buffalo we do the family thing, going out together and always keep in touch; text or talk once in a while during the year. Those are probably the closest group of friends I have around the league right now.

DR: Do you have a favorite sport other than hockey?

MB: “I do, I’m a big golf fan; I like to play, but I don’t play as much as I used to. My little guy is six now and he wants to play, so it’s fun. We go to the range and go to the course a little bit. I love baseball; I’ve always been a big fan of the game. I loved it growing up; I still play slo-pitch during the summer. That’s so much fun during a nice summer day. I’d say those are my two top sports outside of hockey.”

DR: What’s your favorite movie?

MB: “Movies kind of change, they come and go. It depends on what kind of mood you catch me in. One of my favorite movies would be The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Every time that movie is on I get drawn to it, I like the excitement of it and the mental aspect of it; I think it’s a really well done movie. It’s one of those you pop into the DVD player once in a while just to watch it again.”

DR: What’s your favorite TV show?

MB: “I love The Office, my wife and I watch it all the time. Now she’s gotten me into Modern Family, that show is so funny; definitely one of my favorites. Another one that I like is Entourage, I got to meet the guy that plays E (Kevin Connolly) being in Long Island last year and he’s a huge Islanders’ fan. It’s kind of fun when you get to meet somebody and see them on the TV. Those are my favorite TV shows right now.”

DR: Typically, what do you bring on a road trip?

MB: “Typically I bring my iPad, my Kindle and I will bring a change of clothes depending on how long the trip is. My iPhone, my iPad, my Kindle are usually the things that I bring with me everywhere. I never liked to read much, and my wife got me a Kindle a few years back and now I’ve read so many books on that thing. I don’t know, I’m just a gadgety kind of guy, so I think that thing is kind of cool. I always have that with me and I always carry my Bible with me, we are a Christian family and with the kids; it’s always something I like to go back to. Those are the things that always stay in my bag and the rest of the things, they change around depending where we go and how long I am gone for.”

I hope everyone enjoyed learning about Martin Biron and if there is a player you’d like to read about in a future column or have a question you’d like to see a player asked, let me know:

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com

Hangin’ With Thomas Vanek…

Hangin’ With Thomas Vanek by Dan Rice

Recently I was able to obstruct Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek long enough to ask him about a few things off of the ice — like how big of a star he is back in Austria and his memories from his college days at the University of Minnesota. Vanek (6’2”, 205 lbs.) is a 26-year-old from Vienna, Austria, who was drafted fifth overall in the 2003 NHL Draft by Buffalo. He is arguably the most talented player to make it to the NHL from Austria, and he was able to refine his skills here in North America while playing college hockey for the Golden Gophers from 2002-2004. Vanek became the first European to ever play hockey for Minnesota and he didn’t disappoint by scoring 113 points (57g-56a) in his two collegiate seasons, while helping lead the Gophers to the 2003 NCAA title — he was also named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

During the NHL lockout of 2004-05, he continued to develop his game in the AHL with Buffalo’s affiliate in Rochester (68 points, 42 goals), and by the time the work stoppage was over, he was certainly NHL-ready. His rookie season he appeared in 81 games and accumulated 48 points (25g-23a) and by the following season he really became a player worth watching. Vanek netted 84 points in 82 games (43g-41a) and was a plus-47 during the 2006-07 season.

To date, his career his still blossoming, despite his slow start this season. In 404 NHL games he has amassed 320 points (176g-144a) and is Buffalo’s most lethal sniper on a nightly basis; he averages about 215 shots per season since he has been in the league and has led the Sabres in goals for four consecutive seasons. For more who Thomas Vanek is, read on:

Dan Rice: Describe what your experience was like at the University of Minnesota

Thomas Vanek: “It was great; I love college hockey. It matured me off the ice a lot, especially as a person because you don’t play as many games (as we do in the NHL). We had terrific facilities there and it is a great school. It was a great two years. I had some good memories there; we won the National Championship with Minnesota.”

DR: What do you remember about your draft day?

TV: “It was exciting; obviously I was hoping to be chosen in the first round. It didn’t really matter though; my dream was to play in the NHL. Once Buffalo selected me, that was it, I was in. I was happy to be a Sabre.”

DR: Do you remember your first NHL goal?

TV: “It took a while, 15 games into my rookie year, it was against Carolina.”

Vanek scored his first (and second) NHL goal(s) against Carolina on November 9, 2005 against Hurricanes goaltender Martin Gerber in a 5-3 Buffalo loss.

DR: How popular are you in your native Austria?

TV: “It’s grown. With my development and sticking here (in the NHL) year after year, I think it has opened some eyes back home. It’s nice, but for myself I don’t really care about it too much; for hockey back home, it’s great. I try to do as much as I can to help out any young guys that come over here. We are seeing more and more guys coming here and that’s great.”

DR: Who would you say is your best friend in the NHL?

TV: “Tough to say; I’m pretty good friends with most of the Minnesota guys around the league like Paul Martin, Alex Goligoski, Jordan Leopold, Phil Kessel, Keith Ballard and Blake Wheeler. We’re all pretty close and we all work out together in the offseason. We all come back in the summer and hang out, work out, it’s fun.”

DR: Are you a big fan of soccer and do you play at all?

TV: “Yeah I am still a big fan of the sport. I don’t play too much anymore; I don’t really have time for that. Growing up I played a lot, but I still follow it very closely.”

DR: What do you usually bring with you on a road trip?

TV: “It usually depends on how long of a trip it is; typically just my computer, iPod and my phone.”

To learn more about Thomas Vanek you can check out his website: http://www.thomasvanek.at/index.php?id=2&L=1 or visit sabres.nhl.com. Hope you enjoyed his story and if there is a player you would like to see interviewed in the future please let me know.

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Trade Talk [02.03.10]

There’s one month ’til the NHL’s trading deadline and the action should be heating up as we inch closer to the league-wide roster freeze for the Winter Olympics. Already Toronto made separate deals with Anaheim & Calgary, and the Flames completed a four-player deal with the NY Rangers. Not that anyone is keeping score, but — I called Jean-Sebastien Giguere going from the Ducks to the Maple Leafs over the summer; anyways here is a few things that I think we could see transpire between today and March 3:

Last week Atlanta GM Don Waddell took in the Kings-Devils game in New Jersey and was spotted conversing with LA’s GM Dean Lombardi; would a package of Alexander Frolov, Jack Johnson & and a no. 1 pick be enough to lure All-Star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk away from Waddell’s Thrashers?

The NY Islanders placed Brendan Witt on waivers and sent Martin Biron down to the AHL for some conditioning; we could see Witt resurface with one of his old squads — the Washington Capitals — if the Isles try to bring him back through re-entry waivers. As for Biron, none of the teams in serious contention for a playoff berth is in desperate need of net help (at the moment), so i believe GM Garth Snow will wait until the deadline to see what type of value the hard-luck goaltender could bring back.

Rumors have suggested the NJ Devils are looking to add a center and/or defenseman before the deadline, with Anaheim’s Saku Koivu and Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle as possible targets. Perhaps a deal for Koivu would include a package of Jay Pandolfo & Niclas Bergfors or Bergfors and defenseman Mike Mottau. I thought Matt Stajan could have been the center that GM Lou Lamoriello was looking at, but that ended when the Leafs traded him to the Flames in a massive seven-player trade. With Kaberle, I don’t see a deal on the horizon, mainly because he has a no-trade clause in his contract and I can’t see him waiving it to come to New Jersey.

In Boston, enigmatic winger Michael Ryder is supposedly on the trading block and I think Long Island would be a perfect destination — the Isles need another goal-scoring winger and maybe they can acquire him for a minor leaguer or two.

Murphy clears waivers, McAmmond also joins Lowell

Defenseman Cory Murphy cleared waivers today and was assigned to the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Lowell. Also, Lowell signed Dean McAmmond to an AHL contract today. McAmmond, 36, split last season with Ottawa & the NY Islanders and played for Albany (which was the Devs’ affiliate) during the 2004-05 lockout.

Murphy put on Waivers…

The Devils placed defenseman Cory Murphy on waivers today according to the Fire & Ice blog by Tom Gulitti.

GM Lou Lamoriello said that Murphy will be assigned to Lowell of the AHL if he goes unclaimed before Tuesday’s noon deadline.

The Devs are 0-3 with Murphy in the lineup and 4-0 with Andy Greene in the lineup.

New Coach is an Old Friend

The New Jersey Devils have announced that Jacques Lemaire, who led the franchise to its first Stanley Cup in 1995, (and coached the team from 1993-98) will return as he successor to Brent “quitter” Sutter. Personally, I like the move, because I feel it will give the team some stability — after about 5 coaches in the last six seasons. Maybe he can fix whatever was wrong with Brian Rolston last season — Rolston enjoyed some of his best seasons playing for Lemaire’s Wild in Minnesota, but struggled mightily under Sutter, providing zero offense. John MacLean was passed over again for the head coach job, and now he will be the head coach for their AHL affiliate in Lowell. Good job Lou Lamoriello, now start adding some players!  Alex Tanguay is still out there, Mike Grier, Manny Malhotra, and Robert Lang are available too as unrestricted free agents….or swing a trade with Boston for Phil Kessel