Three More Weeks Until Hockey is Back…

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote, so I will try to cover a variety of topics here:

Congrats to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 @ Vancouver. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were off the charts in that series, and Tim Thomas’ performance was legendary. That Claude Julien guy that coaches the B’s is pretty good, it’d be nice if the Devils had a coach like that…

The Atlanta Thrashers (and their fugly uniforms) are gone and the Winnipeg Jets are back! It’s a shame they won’t be wearing the old uniforms, but a new beginning does deserve a new look and I think I like what I saw from the logo and the uniform scheme.

My sincere and deepest condolences to the families of all of the hockey players that passed away this summer. I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Russia with the plane crash and I still cannot erase the images of Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek and Alexander Vasyunov’s faces from my mind; hopefully they didn’t suffer. They will all be missed and never, ever forgotten.

So the Philadelphia Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal this season, making him the 500th goalie they have employed since Martin Brodeur became a New Jersey Devil and the 1,000th netminder since they last won the Cup in 1975. They also traded their two best players — Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — in separate deals that did not bring back equal value and signed 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. Good luck with that.

It seems certain that Sidney Crosby won’t be ready for the start of the season, but could suit up at some point in 2011-12. Concussions are a delicate issue and Crosby’s career could be derailed like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya before him. Intentional head shots must be eliminated from the game, but certain players (ahem Criesby…) are also responsible for protecting themselves and need to stop admiring their passes.

Don’t be surprised if the New York Islanders (that’s right, I said it) make the playoffs this season. IF they can stay healthy! John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson seem primed to have big seasons and hopefully Evgeni Nabokov can add some stability to what has been a blue cross and blue shield crease the last few seasons.

The Rangers added the biggest fish in the free-agent pool in Brad Richards, but have we not learned anything over the past six seasons — the team that signs the top free agent never wins the Cup. They did make one right move this summer — naming Ryan Callahan their new captain.

The Devils had a semi-quiet offseason after selecting Adam Larsson with the 4th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They were able to rid themselves of Colin White and Brian Rolston’s ridiculous contracts, and they were able to re-sign Andy Greene and Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg. Both Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise have been cleared to start the season, but Travis Zajac may not be back until December after tearing his achilles tendon during an off-ice workout; Zajac’s team record consecutive games streak will end at 401. Cam Janssen is back with NJ and Petr Sykora could be too — he will be in training camp on a tryout basis. The new coach is Peter DeBoer who was fired from the Florida Panthers, the same DeBoer who helped the Cats reach 94 points a few years back — a remarkable feat in itself with the roster he was given. I predict Mattias Tedenby will net at least 20 goals this season and Jacob Josefson will have 30 assists as they help lead the Devs back to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup.

Boston begins defense of it’s Championship on opening night (October 6); the Rangers open in Sweden against the LA Kings the following day (October 7); the Islanders (vs. Florida) and Devils (vs. Philly) both begin their seasons on Saturday October 8; and the new Winnipeg/old Atlanta team makes it’s debut on Sunday October 9 vs. Montreal.

Rafalski and Weight Call it a Career

The NHL lost two veterans to retirement this week, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski (11 seasons) and New York Islanders center Doug Weight (19 seasons). Both American players had stellar careers, highlighted by winning every hockey player’s dream — the Stanley Cup.

Rafalski joined the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Wisconsin, whom the team’s scouts found playing over in Europe (for four years!). Perhaps his size (5’10”, 195 lbs.) was the reason he was overlooked by the other 29 NHL clubs, but he seamlessly fit in on the Devils’ blue line and partnered with legend Scott Stevens immediately and never looked back. As a 25-year-old rookie he helped guide New Jersey to a championship in 2000 and a return to the Finals in 2001. He was a major part of the Devils 2003 Cup win as well and also won silver medals with Team USA at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010. In 2007 he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent to be closer to his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan and the move paid off for both parties — Rafalski and Detroit hoisted the Cup in 2008 and made in back to the Finals in 2009. This past season he spent a lot of time playing hurt and missed a handful of games, which can be eye-opening for some athletes that the time has come to hang up the skates. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” he said at his retirement press conference, “That gets tiring.” He retired with one year ($6 million) left on his contract, citing that family is most important now, “What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family; I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that will be my focus.”

Rafalski’s career totals: (regular season) 79 goals, 438 assists, 515 points, plus-178, 833 games/(playoffs) 29 goals, 71 assists, 100 points, plus-42, 165 games/(olympics) 13 points in 17 games

Weight had a much different path to the NHL, he was drafted 34th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL Draft out of Lake Superior State University and made his NHL debut in a 1990 playoff game with the Blueshirts. He played parts of two seasons with the Rangers before being traded to Edmonton in a deal that helped New York secure the 1994 Stanley Cup. A scoring dynamo with the Oilers, he was part of one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with Bill Guerin and Ryan Smyth; Weight never reached the Finals in Edmonton and was sent to St. Louis in another blockbuster deal prior to the 2001-02 season.  After two and a half seasons with the Blues he was traded to Carolina in 2006 and finally lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after the Hurricanes’ amazing playoff run, topping the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game series. The following summer he re-signed with the Blues and played another 111 games before being shipped to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Prior to the 2008-09 season he signed with the Islanders, a place he and his family now call home. He provided leadership and guidance for the young Isles and was almost like a father-figure for their players; he even had John Tavares live with his family during Tavares’ rookie season. A severe back injury limited his time to only 18 games this past season, but at the end of the season he resurfaced  behind the Isles’ bench as an assistant coach, a preview of things to come. In announcing his retirement on May 26, it was also announced that he is now an assistant coach and special assistant ‘to’ GM Garth Snow (sounds very much like Dwight Schrute’s job!).

Weight’s career totals: (regular season) 278 goals, 755 assists, 1,033  points, 80 power play goals, minus-58, 1,238 games/(playoffs) 23 goals, 49 assists, 72 points, minus-13, 97 games/(olympics) 8 points in 16 games

Are they both Hall-of-Famers? Is just one of them destined for the Hall or will neither make it? Hard to say, but I think Weight could make it. They both will surely make the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d just like to add that I had the privilege of interviewing both players during their careers and they were both class acts who made my job fun and a lot easier.

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.

Devils-Islanders PostGame Quotes [03.30.11]

Here are the postgame quotes after the Devils 3-2 win over the Islanders last night:

Jacob Josefson:

Talking about his goal…

“It was a good play by Kovy and Nick there; the rebound came right out to me and all I had to do was put it in the net.”

Was it one of those, ‘Oh, look what I found?’

“Yeah, it was a lucky bounce for me and found myself looking at an empty net. It was kind of lucky.”

Your team was shutout the last two games, how much did it help for the team to get an early goal tonight?

“Obviously we wanted to come out and play a better game; we’re not happy when we’re not scoring. It was a big goal by Kovy, and it was a good feeling to have it come so early.”

Martin Brodeur:

Was it important to get back on the winning side of games?

“It’s definitely a different territory for all of us to go into the final seven games; we know it’s going to be over on April 10 at 6 o’clock. So you have to find that motivation to go out, I think the coaches have been really hard on us the last few days to make us understand that we need to work hard and take this seriously. I think the guys have responded to it, the way we have been working in practice and the way we had this effort tonight. I think it’s important to leave this season with a good taste (in our mouths). We’ve come a long way, played really well in the second half, so let’s not try to destroy that; I think that is the message they are trying to push us towards. It’s definitely tough, we just have to go and say ‘let’s play a hockey game, and we might as well try to win it.’ I think if we keep having good starts like we did today, I think it’ll be easier. If it goes the other way, that’s where we’ll be challenged as far as the effort is concerned.”

Despite the situation is the way that you played, for a long time now, satisfying?

“Yeah, personally he’s been playing me a lot, maybe a lot more than I expected (laughs) to play down the stretch here. But I think for me to feel the way I’m feeling, I feel that I make a difference every game; I just want to keep it up for my own sanity I guess, for the summer, to know that I was able to contribute and still be able to play and make a difference. It was hard on me early on in the season, so for me hopefully I have a few more games to go and I just want to play them well.”

Is it strange when you look at your stats this season and they don’t look like most of your other seasons?

“Well it’s just the wins really; the losses are about the same (chuckles). The goals-against average is the same as last year; so besides the wins, Heddy got the rest for me. But it is not satisfying at all; I’m used to better stats than that. I guess it was bound to happen one year and hopefully we turn it around next year. I’m reflecting the team because I play a lot of games.”

Do you think the shorthanded goal threw you guys back a little bit?

“Yeah I think so. We’ve been working a lot on breakouts, getting the right wing to come out and attack. I think we’ve done it before, but got a little confused and we just gave up a first-half of the season kind of giveaway.”

When you see a breakaway like that, do you immediately recognize who it is coming down on you?

“Yeah I knew exactly who it was. He scored on me on a shootout with that backhand, I knew he was going to go there and I couldn’t get enough momentum. It’s different when you do a shootout then a breakaway; I just didn’t get out far enough to get speed to really attack his backhand. I just kind of stayed flat and he was able to just raise it by me.”

It got a little hairy at the end there where you were sprawling on the ice to make some saves there…

“It got a little dicey there at the end, but we pulled it off. We were cruising, I thought we were playing real well, they had some shots, but the quality chances were really limited. After the breakaway goal they were feeling good about themselves and really came at us the last ten minutes, but we showed some nice character there scoring a goal after losing our lead like that.”

Nick Palmieri:

How much of a lift was it to get the first goal?

“After not scoring in two games, it was considerable. That was obviously a big focus coming into tonightto score some goals. I think it definitely gave us a confidence boost for the rest of the game.”

Jacques Lemaire:

Were you pleased with your team’s start tonight?

“I thought we played really well until the four-minute power play we had in the third period. The Islanders had some chances and they have some players that move the puck and can beat people one-on-one, they see the ice well; so they will get some chances. But I was pretty happy the way our guys played.”

Were you happy with the way they responded after allowing the tying goal?

“Yeah, definitely; after the power play they had their top line on and I put Patrik’s line out there to play against them and they did a good job. That was an important time in the game, because they just tied it and I thought Patrik and his line did really good against them.”

How important was it to get that early goal to kind of lift some of the pressure off of your team?

“Well we drove at the net, we made plays towards the net that gave us a chance to get these goals; and it’s always good when the game starts, you’re playing well and you get rewarded for it.”

How about Pamieri’s performance tonight?

“I thought he played good, the whole line played really well. They had some chances, the thing with a team like this, their defensemen are good skaters, and their forwards move the puck well. Every time we lose the puck it’s so important to get back (defensively) and this is one thing that we’ve been trying to work with Nick. Sometimes he forgets it, or feels it’s not as important, but he’s getting better and if he keeps doing it he’ll be a pretty good player.”

Greene Powers Devils Past Islanders

Devils 3           NY Islanders 2

For the first time since the spring of 1996 it appears that the New Jersey Devils will not be a participant in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something to play for over their disappointing season’s final seven games. “It’s definitely a different territory for all of us to go into seven games left and you know the season is going to be over come April 10 at 6 o’clock,” admitted Martin Brodeur afterwards. “I think it’s important that you leave the season with a good taste. We’ve come a long way, really (played) well in the second half and so let’s no try to destroy that.” After blowing a two-goal lead in the third period, defenseman Andy Greene scored with 4:56 left in the game and gave New Jersey a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night at Prudential Center.

The Devils had been shutout in each of their previous two games and their scoring drought eventually lasted a total of 178 minutes and 12 seconds when Ilya Kovalchuk gave his squad a 1-0 lead 4:17 into the game. Kovalchuk’s 28th goal of the year was set up by a nice pass from rookie Nick Palmieri to the Russian sniper in the slot. “Coming off of two shutout losses, it’s nice to bounce back and get a win,” said the 21-year-old Palmieri. New Jersey maintained the one-goal lead into the second period and extended that lead when Jacob Josefson found a rebound from Palmieri’s in-close shot and stuffed it past Islanders’ netminder Rick DiPietro.

The Islanders were unable to get a shot through Brodeur until they took a four-minute high-sticking penalty 7:57 into the third period. Isles center Frans Nielsen scored his league-leading seventh shorthanded goal on a clean breakaway after a turnover in the neutral zone. “We had a ‘first half of the season’ type of breakaway,” said Brodeur when asked what went wrong on the play.

“I knew exactly who it was, he scored on me in the shootout on his backhand; I knew he was going to go there. I couldn’t get enough momentum to make the save, different situation then on a shootout breakaway.” Nielsen’s 7 SH goals in one season tied a franchise record held by Bob Bourne 30 years ago. Four minutes and six seconds later it was Nielsen who scored again, getting credit for the tying goal after a goalmouth scramble in Brodeur’s crease.

The tie didn’t last long as Greene flipped a long shot past DiPietro from the top of the left circle, allowing the Devils to recapture the lead. Brodeur was the more active of the two goalies on this night and was able to make the crucial saves at crucial times, ensuring the victory with 27 saves. “He plays with a lot of confidence, a lot quicker in the net,” said coach Jacques Lemaire of his goalie. “I’m sure he feels good about his game.”

Besides pride and doing their jobs, another motivation for New Jersey is to finish the season at .500, meaning they must win the final six games; the last Devils team to finish below .500 was pre-Brodeur days, back in 1990-91.

Game Notes: New Jersey finished the six-game season series with New York 4-2-0. Nielsen has eight shorthanded points this season, also first among all NHL players, perhaps he should get some serious consideration for the Selke Trophy. Palmieri’s two-point game (2a) was the first multi-point game of his career. Devils forward Rod Pelley played in his 200th NHL game. Greene led all skaters in ice-time with 28:55 and defenseman Jack Hillen led New York with 23:40. Kovalchuk led all players with eight shots on goal; Nielsen led the Islanders with six. Devils rookie defenseman Mark Fayne led all players with five blocked shots and Hillen led the Isles with four. Josefson now has four points (2g-2a) in three games against the Islanders.

 

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Frans Nielsen (NYI) – 2 goals, sh (13)

#2 – Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ) – goal (28), assist (26)

#3 – Nick Palmieri (NJ) – 2 assists (7)

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

Hedberg, Devils Keep Rolling

Earlier in the season the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders were in a battle to see who had the worst record in the NHL. Now they are two of the hottest teams in the league, and the Devils continued to rise from the dead on Wednesday night with their fifth straight win, topping the Carolina Hurricanes for the second time in eight days. New Jersey is now 12 points behind the eighth place ‘Canes with 25 games remaining.

Johan Hedberg made 25 saves as New Jersey raced out to a 3-0 lead and then held on for a 3-2 win. Ilya Kovalchuk continued his torrid second half pace, netting his 20th goal of the season to get the scoring started in the second period. After a scoreless opening twenty minutes, it was Kovalchuk (20 goals for the ninth consecutive season) who beat Cam Ward with a dazzling shot at 5:41, giving his team a lead they would never relinquish.

In the early stages of the third period Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias scored goals 1:25 apart, leaving Carolina dazed, confused and in a 3-0 hole. Both goals came during 4-on-4 play as the Devils exposed the ‘Canes with the extra space on the ice. First Rolston converted Elias’ rebound for his ninth goal of the year at :34 and then Elias buried a backhand shot past Ward after taking a cross-ice feed from Rolston.

Hedberg lost his bid for his second shutout of the year when Sergei Samsonov scored at 8:17 and Tuomo Ruutu finished the scoring with 2.8 seconds remaining, making the game seem closer than it actually was. Next up for the Devils are the floundering New York Rangers on Friday night at Prudential Center, before a rematch with the Hurricanes in Carolina on Saturday night.

Dan’s 3 Stars of the Game:
#1 — Johan Hedberg (NJ) — 25 saves, win (10): The Moose was solid again, now has .500 record
#2 — Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ) — goal (20): Kovy continues his torrid pace, money well spent
#3 — Patrik Elias (NJ) — gw goal (14), assist (29): NJ’s leading scorer continues to lead.

Hedberg Stands Tall as Devils Outlast Flyers

Devils 2 Philadelphia 1 — shootout

Despite losing to the New York Islanders 2-0 at the Nassau Coliseum on Black Friday (snapping their modest two-game winning streak) the New Jersey Devils were able to rebound and beat the division-leading Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 2-1 in a shootout 24 hours later at Prudential Center. The Devils have now won four in a row at home and the last three of those can directly be attributed to the play in goal by Johan Hedberg who has surrendered only two goals in the three games, stopping 83 of the 85 shots he has faced. “He’s been incredible. It seems like he’s a goalie that the more shots he gets, the better he is,” said New Jersey’s Travis Zajac. “Today, they got a lucky one on him, other than that he’s been making key saves for us in key situations of games.”

Just 1:52 into the game the Flyers found themselves shorthanded for four minutes when Scott Hartnell smacked Brian Rolston in the head with his stick. Although the Devils didn’t score on the power play they gained some early territorial momentum and had seven shots on goal before Philly had registered its first of the day. Adam Mair scored his first goal of the season at 11:49, snapping a wrist shot past Flyers goalie Brian Boucher’s stick hand to give New Jersey the early 1-0 lead. “It feels great; I’ve had some chances,” said Mair afterwards. “As a hockey player, you always like to score; you always like to help contribute offensively.”

Philadelphia out-shot the Devils 41-18 for the game after the first eight minutes but they were never able to solve Hedberg until Daniel Briere scored the tying goal from behind the goal line 8:38 into the third period, his 12th of the season. “He just shot it at me,” said Hedberg. “I think he shot it from the side of the net, it bounced up and hit my thigh and went in. It’s just one of those things.”

After a scoreless overtime, the game went to a shootout where the first two shooters on each team were turned aside without a goal — Ilya Kovalchuk and Mattias Tedenby for New Jersey, Claude Giroux and Briere for Philly. Nikolay Zherdev beat Hedberg through his five-hole, putting pressure on Jason Arnott to keep the game alive for his fellow Devils. “I just had it in my head what I was going to do all along and it helps when you have it in your head what you are going to do,” confessed Arnott. “I knew Boucher was going down a little bit early, and I wanted to go (top) shelf; I wanted to make sure I got it off quick and hard…and it went in.”

Flyers’ captain Mike Richards rang a wrist shot off the post in round 4 before Zajac clinched the win with his sharp wrist shot that went by Boucher so fast it hit the back of the twine and popped right back out past the Flyers netminder. “I said to myself if I got a chance I would just fake a shot, and then try to go upstairs,” said Zajac. “To be able to come back today (after Friday’s loss) and get the two points against a very good hockey team, that was important for us.”

Game Notes: Devils winger Patrik Elias missed the game because his wife Petra was giving birth to their first child, Sophia Gabriella. Kovalchuk led all skaters in ice-time with 26:31, while Matt Carle led Philadelphia with 25:40. Jeff Carter, who assisted on Briere’s goal, led all players with nine shots on goal; Kovalchuk led New Jersey with eight. Flyers d-man Kimmo Timonen led all players with four blocked shots. New Jersey (8-14-2) is off until Thursday when they host Montreal (15-8-1) and Philadelphia (15-6-4) is back in action on Wednesday when they host Boston (12-7-2).

 

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Johan Hedberg (NJ) – 40 saves, win (4)

#2 – Travis Zajac (NJ) – g/w shootout goal

#3 – Daniel Briere (Phil) – pp goal (12)

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