Archive for April 2007

Hockey Night in Jersey

April 30, 2007

Since the NHL lockout finally and mercifully came to an end in the summer of 2005, my son has become a bit of a hockey junkie. He’s been skating and playing since he was in pre-school, and he has always enjoyed collecting hockey cards and playing NHL (insert year here) video games. But it’s only been since the lockout ended that Mack warmed up to watching entire NHL games on TV.

During the 2005-06 season, he would check the Center Ice menu daily and would watch whichever games piqued his interest, giving the remote a healthy workout if his initial game of choice didn’t meet his expectations. Whenever I was home and the Caps were on, we’d watch together. He began the normal fan processes of having favorite players and teams around the league, and having others he despised. Towards the end of the 2005-06 regular season, I told him about the playoffs.

“Just wait until the playoffs start,” I said. “You think this hockey is good, you won’t believe playoff hockey. It’s the best.”

Then I had to explain to him that the Caps wouldn’t be participating in the playoffs, and that it might be a while before he would actually be able to see a live playoff game locally. He said he wanted to go to a playoff game, even if the Caps weren’t playing. His birthday is in May (he was born right between the Ottawa and Buffalo series the year the Caps went to the finals), so I pitched him an offer.

“You can have a party at the house with eight or 10 of your friends, or I’ll get tickets and you and I will go to a Stanley Cup playoff game somewhere.”

He didn’t flinch. Playoffs, baby.

So I bought a couple tickets (had to pay the usurious Ticketmaster juice on the ducats, too) and we drove up to the Jersey swamps last May for a second-round matinee contest between the Devils and the Hurricanes at Continental Airlines Arena.

He loved it. For better or worse, he has become quite the Devils sympathizer (apologies to Jagger-Richards) over the years. Loves Marty Brodeur and Scott Gomez. We happened to go to the only game the Devils won in that series. Brodeur came reasonably close to a shutout, Gomez scored twice and the Devils won going away. Throw in a Brodeur t-shirt and it was a big hit.

Big enough that he wanted to do it again this year for his ninth birthday. With the Caps again out of the postseason picture, I’ve been anxiously watching the playoffs play themselves out, wondering where we might be able to go for a game. I also had to work around my work-related hockey obligations, like covering the Hershey Bears’ postseason exploits and jetting over to Moscow for a portion of the IIHF World Championships.

This year, we also decided to expand the trip a bit. One of the kids from Mack’s youth hockey team, Steven, is also a hockey nut from a family of hockey nuts. They’re all Islanders fans, but that’s okay with us since Mack’s mom is also an Islanders fan. So we decided to look for five tickets: Mack, me, Stevie, his older brother Sean and their dad, Tom.

We wanted to go to an Isles’ first-round game, but it didn’t work out with our schedules. Rangers tickets proved to hard to come by, especially since we needed five. Once the Bears eliminated the Albany River Rats in Game 5 of their East Division semifinals series in Glens Falls on Wednesday, three boys back in Baltimore began celebrating. My weekend was suddenly free, and they’d be going to Game 2 of the Devils/Sens series at Continental Airlines Arena on Saturday.

We again paid the Ticketmaster juice for five on the aisle, way up in the upper bowl. Time to issue a word of thanks to Devils CEO/president/general manager/interim head coach/chef/head bottle washer/Zamboni driver Lou Lamoriello here. Initially, the possibility of a weekend game in the Jersey swamps looked bleak. The NBA Nets were slated for playoff tilts on Friday and Sunday, and some figure skating competition was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at 3. It looked like the Devs would be playing the first two games of the series at home on back-to-back nights, namely Wednesday and Thursday. But as you may have heard, Lou has some pull in those parts.

Lamoriello got the figure skating stuff moved up to noon, freeing up the Devils to play an 8 pm game on Saturday rather than the customary 7 pm contest. So thanks, Lou.

Our fully equipped chariot left stately Vogel mansion in Baltimore shortly after 3 pm Saturday afternoon. We were in the CAA parking garage shortly after 6. The kids watched “Miracle” in the back while Tom and I drank coffee and talked hockey up front. The doors opened at 7, and in we went. We bought some reasonably priced rink cuisine and settled into our seats for warm-ups.

The game turned out to be New Jersey’s first sellout (19,040) of the year. That may be because that game had the potential of being the last hockey game ever in that building. Had the Devils lost Saturday’s game and gone on to get swept in the series, it would have been the last NHL game at CAA. The Devils are moving into a new building in Newark for next season.

I’m old school, and CAA is an old school rink with an old school atmosphere. The sight lines are great, and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. They play mostly organ music, and there is no constant bombardment of ads and other assorted goofy video board shenanigans. None of us missed it; the kids weren’t begging for a mascot or anything else to fill time between face-offs or during TV timeouts. One of the lengthy video board features was a 10-4 New Jersey drubbing of the Capitals in the 1988 Patrick Division finals, a series the Devils won in seven games.

The Devils got on the board quickly when Brian Gionta scored with New Jersey’s first shot of the night. The fans were great; loud, passionate and very much into the game. During one TV timeout, a guy in front of us called his Rangers-fan buddy, and had our section loudly serenade him with a rousing chorus of “Rangers Suck!” The kids got a kick out of that, and Tom and I liked how fans would spontaneously signal for the same chant with a series of whistles. Very well-choreographed. It’s not unlike the “Potvin Sucks!” chant at Madison Square Garden.

New Jersey dominated the first period, and we got another jolt of excitement late in the first when Sergei Brylin scored on a 5-on-3 power play with less than a second remaining on the clock. The kids were happy, their team was up by a pair after the first 20 minutes.

Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson halved the deficit with a power play goal early in the second, and a goaltending duel developed. It was mostly Brodeur with the netminding gymnastics. Ottawa dominated the play in the second and third, but Brodeur turned in a vintage performance. All five of us were continually issuing “ooohs” and “aaahs,” as were the thousands of others in attendance. No goals were scored for more than 30 minutes of the game, but the hockey was far from boring. There was end-to-end action, lots of skating and flow, and great scoring chances met with great defensive plays and/or goaltending.

Dany Heatley evened up the score with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee we bought at the end of the second seemed like an even better investment at that point, given the drive that awaited us whenever the game ended. During intermissions, we sat and talked animatedly amongst ourselves about what we’d witnessed, and what might lie ahead. With every great save, we exchanged wondrous looks and amazed glances. We knew the game had to end, but we weren’t really looking forward to it. It was just too good.

Of course, it finally did end. Travis Zajac made a nice play to get the puck to Jamie Langenbrunner in the neutral zone, and he took off on a breakaway. “Oh, look at this!” I heard myself say, and soon we were mobbing each other and the strangers around us. We had witnessed a great one, one we’ll not forget no matter how many more are to come.

It’s after midnight when we pull out of the garage with three hours worth of road stretched ahead of us. Tom and I talked and drank coffee again while the kids alternated between listening to their i-Pods and watching “Talledega Nights.” Every once in a while, one of them would say something like, “I can’t believe that game!” or “That was the best game I’ve ever seen!”

My daughter has always been a night owl (like her dad), but Mack rarely can keep his eyes open past 10:30. Not tonight. Sporting a brand new white Devils jersey, he’s grinning like the devil and looking at the clock. It’s after 2 a.m. “Hey Steven,” he says. “Can you believe how late we’re up?”

Me, I’m thrilled to have been able to watch a memorable game with my son. And to sit in a “real” seat (instead of the press box) with jeans on (instead of a suit) and to have a beer while watching the whole thing unfold. I’m half-expecting to find a bill from Ticketmaster when I get home. They’re probably gonna want some more juice for that extra 21:55 of playoff hockey, right?

Next year, we hope to do it again. Here in Washington.

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Russia Dumps Denmark

April 27, 2007

Team USA got goals from six different skaters in its 6-2 win over Austria in opening day action at the IIHF World Championships today, but Team Russia trumped the Americans. The Russians got nine goals from nine different players in a 9-1 pounding of Team Denmark in Moscow today. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin chipped in with a goal and an assist, and Caps center prospect Ivan Nepryayev (the Caps’ fifth-round pick, 163rd overall in 2000 NHL Entry Draft) had a pair of assists. The 25-year-old Nepryayev had a career-high 17 goals with Yaroslavl Lokomovit of the Russian Super League this season.

With Chicago’s Nikolai Khabibulin electing to sit out the Worlds for Russia this year, Team Russia is relying on a pair of relatively unknown netminders this spring. Vasily Koshechkin is a 24-year-old who was Tampa Bay’s eighth-round pick (223rd overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Koshechkin has yet to play in North America; he has spent the last four seasons with Tolyatti Lada of the RSL. Koshechkin started and won against Denmark on Friday.

Koshechkin is being backed up by Alexander Eremenko, a 27-year-old vet who played with Ak Bars Kazan in 2006-07. Eremenko has never played in North America and was never drafted by an NHL club.

Team Russia is carrying just those two goaltenders at the moment. After the first three games of the tournament, clubs have the opportunity to add as many as two more players to the roster.

Worlds Underway

April 27, 2007

The IIHF World Championships got underway in Moscow today with a slate of four games. Team USA got off to a rousing start with a 6-2 win over Austria, giving it three standings points for a regulation victory under the tournament’s new points system. The youthful USA team got a goal from Caps captain Chris Clark and an assist from Washington defenseman Brian Pothier. The Americans outshot the Austrians by a 47-16 count, and six different Team USA skaters scored to support John Grahame in goal. Nineteen-year-old Phil Kessel started the scoring for the Americans, and Kessel accounted for 11 of Team USA’s shots on goal

Team Finland blanked Team Ukraine by a 5-0 score. Timo Parssinen scored twice for the Fins, and netminder Fredrik Norrena made 25 stops for the shutout.

In other action on Friday’s opening day, Belarus takes on the Czech Republic and Russia faces Denmark.

As a reminder, you can watch the action live on your computer or television. World Championship Sports Network (WCSN) will cover every Team USA match as well as the quarter, semi, and final rounds of the world championship. Log on to www.wcsn.com for more information. WCSN has also partnered with Dish Network to provide television pay-per-view packages of the Worlds. Visit www.dishnetwork.com/hockey for more information.

Watching the Worlds

April 25, 2007

From USA Hockey:
Team USA’s games at the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship will be available to viewers on Pay-Per-View through the World Championship Sports Network on DISH Network and on a subscription basis at http://www.wcsn.com. The U.S. Men’s National Team will compete at the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Moscow, Russia, April 27-May 13.

DISH Network’s all-inclusive package, which contains 14 total games, including all of Team USA’s contests, is $39.95. Visit http://www.dishnetwork.com/hockey for more information.

Fans will be able to watch all 56 games online at http://www.wcsn.com, where live and on-demand video of the tournament will be available for a $4.95 monthly subscription fee.

Clark, Pothier Help Pace Team USA to Exhibition Win

April 25, 2007

Capitals captain Chris Clark scored a power play goal and Caps defenseman Brian Pothier had an assist for Team USA in a 5-3 victory over Team Sweden today at Globe Arena in Stockholm. The game was an exhibition tuneup for both clubs as they prepare for the IIHF World Championships in Moscow, beginning on Apr. 27.

Clark was one of five different goal scorers for Team USA. Caps prospect Nicklas Backstrom was held off the scoresheet for Team Sweden.

John Grahame, at 31 the oldest player on the Team USA roster, earned the victory with 12 saves on 13 shots in two periods of work. Vancouver netminding prospect Cory Schneider saved 13 of 15 in the final frame.

At 31 (a few months younger than Grahame), Clark is the oldest of the dozen forwards on the Team USA roster. The 30-year-old Pothier is the oldest of eight defensemen for the Americans.

Boston’s Phil Kessel paced Team USA on Wednesday with a goal and two assists. Team USA scored two of its five goals on the power play, going 2-for-6 on the night. All of Sweden’s offense came with the extra man (3-for-10).

Bears Can Get it Done Tonight/Lake Placid Pilgrimage

April 25, 2007

Game 5 of the East Division semifinal series between Hershey and the Albany River Rats takes place here in Glens Falls tonight, and the Bears are hoping to finish the business of this series right here and now. Of course, the plucky Rats have made every game a real battle. Hershey may have played its best overall game of the series in a 3-1 Game 4 win on Monday, but they’ll need to bring that intensity and effort — and then some — if they’re to get the weekend off.

The Bears had an off day on Tuesday. A handful of players skated at the Glens Falls Civic Center while Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau regaled radio voice John Walton and I with some great stories of his days in the World Hockey Association.

Later in the day, Tim Leone and I made the 90-mile drive through the winding mountain roads of the Adirondacks to Lake Placid, site of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game where the US Olympic Team staged an upset for the ages, downing Russia 4-3 on its way to a gold medal. The arena has been renamed Herb Brooks Arena, and the 1932 Olympic hockey rink is still there as well. It’s quite a feeling to pass through those doors, a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My knees buckled a bit, and I could feel the tingles and the goose bumps immediately.

We went down to the benches, walked the perimeter of the rink, and stood in the tunnel where Brooks walked off after the game, letting his players enjoy the spotlight on the ice while he celebrated alone in the bowels of the rink. It felt like a church in a lot of respects.

It’s stunning that a sleepy little mountain hamlet like Lake Placid could host the Olympic Games not once, but twice. It’s a beautiful area, and the drive up was also breathtaking. There is still snow on the ground up in the mountains, and some of the streams and lakes up there still have ice floes on them. Driving through, you could see the water rushing down the sides of some of the mountain faces as the snow melted and spring muscled its way into the region. I’d recommend a trip up to Lake Placid for anyone who finds themselves in the area.

We got back just around dinner time, just as the Bears’ team bus was pulling out to take the boys to a team dinner. Let’s hope their evening around the table together brings a the tight group even closer, and that spring turns to summer for the Rats tonight.

Game 4 Looming

April 23, 2007

It’s a beautiful day up here in Glens Falls, but the Hershey Bears would much prefer a beautiful night. Game 4 of Hershey’s East Division semifinal series with the Albany River Rats will be played here tonight at 7 p.m., and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of game we get.

The first two games at Giant Center were relatively low-scoring, tight-checking affairs. In Sunday’s Game 3, the Rats ran loose and were all over the Bears in the offensive zone. Thing is, as well as the Rats have played in the first three games, they’re down 2-1 in the series. And we still haven’t seen the “real” Bears yet, the Bears that blasted Norfolk at Giant Center and Wilkes/Barre Scranton at Wachovia Center in the waning weekends of the regular season. That Bears team made a statement in winning the division forcefully and decisively.

My mailbag is showing some panic out there among the masses, and I would respectfully suggest that you all remain calm. I’ve seen some fairly rash suggestions, but like I said in an earlier post, I wouldn’t change much. And I certainly wouldn’t think of benching goaltender Frederic Cassivi as some have suggested to me. Freddie was the difference in Game 3. He has the experience; he’s been through all this before. Albany goaltender Tyler Weiman, not so much. And it showed. Sunday was a great example of how a goaltender can let in five goals and still be one of the most crucial and best players in the game.

What to expect tonight? Good question. One thing we’ve learned from the first three games is that the team that dominates the game in the offensive zone if going to get the better of the power play chances. Hershey had 18 power play opportunities to Albany’s nine in the first two games; the Rats had seven to the Bears’ three in Game 3. Coaches everywhere preach “staying out of the box,” and in this case it may be as simple as spending as much time as possible in the offensive zone.

If Hershey finds itself killing a number of penalties again tonight, then I would hope its defensemen will be a bit more effective at clearing rebounds, keeping the Rats from having time and space in the middle of the ice, and letting Freddie see the puck. If the Bears can forecheck effectively and work the puck down low like they were able to do in the first two games, they should have more offensive success. Weiman was good in the first two games, but the Bears were also snakebit.

Kyle Wilson and Scott Barney rank among the AHL’s top 10 in playoff scoring, and eight different Bears have scored in the series. But it’s also worth noting that Alexandre Giroux, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season, has yet to pick up a point in this series. And although Jakub Klepis has four assists, he could arguably have as many goals. Klepis has been the most snakebit of the snakebit Bears.

This is what playoff hockey is all about. Guys like Wilson and Barney pick up the slack while the big guns are struggling. There were games last year during the playoffs when Hershey’s most dependable snipers had difficulty, but the Bears would win with contributions from guys like Colin Forbes, Jakub Cutta and Boyd Kane. Although Forbes, Cutta and Kane are gone, the Bears still have plenty of players capable of stepping up and making a difference as we’ve seen in the last week.

The Rats are proving to be a very worthy foe, and they are a very scrappy and well-coached club. I’m looking for the Bears to ratchet it up a notch, and I’m hoping tonight’s the night. I don’t think Albany can play much better, but I know the Bears can. Getting the Bears to play better is not a matter of making wholesale changes. A tweak here, a tweak there. Stay the course.