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NOTE: Any NHL logos used in this article are the properties of their respective teams, and not my own property. This is an unauthorized commentary page; the official National Hockey League website can be found at http://www.nhl.com.

I also apologize in advance for what sometimes may seem like banal commentary - I was simply up much too late putting this together.

NHL 2001 - And Then There Were Eight

Hey, and welcome back to willmatheson.com for another great season of stories and articles that is Spring 2001. We'll be right on the cutting edge of - well, of something. Anyway, while I won't be able to deliver daily hockey reports as I may have implied, I will be writing a few paragraphs here and there when I get the inspiration.

Beer Commercials

"I'd do ANYTHING for the cup."

"I'd french kiss my dog!"
"I'd wear a moose suit during mating season!"
"I'd eat whatever's under the couch!"
"I'd have dinner with my Uncle Lou!"
"I'd staple bagels to my forehead!"

Yes, sirs, you really convince us. It's nice to know that Lord Stanley's Cup is so honored a trophy that people are willing to inconvenience themselves for an entire five minutes to claim it. In fact, these guys will do anything but this:

"I'd start playing when I am very very young, and basically sacrifice my childhood to get yelled at every morning by "coaches" who need to find something better to do with their time. As I get older, I'd work out every day, and come winter I'd spend most of my time either outside or at the rink practicing. If I'm lucky, I won't just coast along in the B leagues, and I'll have a crack at getting into the Maritime Junior A League, or maybe even the Quebec Major Junior League! And if I work reallyreally hard, and never quit or give up, and build myself up to be really strong, fast, and smart... I just might make the ECHL*! And if I had extra talent, I might even make the AHL, but I'd better not kid myself. But you never know when you might get called up, right?"

It's clear that the road to the Stanley Cup does not involve much of sitting on the couch and drinking beer. The guys you see in these commercials probably aren't even fit enough to play at all; the guys in the rec leagues could probably mop the floor with them. Earning the Stanley Cup is HARD! Remember, the great Wayne Gretzky, arguably the best player of all-time (if he never scored a single goal, he'd still be the all-time points leader from his 1,963 assists!), only got to the Cup four times in his nearly twenty years of play... most NHL players would be VERY fortunate just to play for ONE Cup Championship team.

I know that I'm wayyy too old to get into competitive sports of any kind now, but I sometimes dream of playing rec hockey someday. On another note, my favorite thing about curling is that someone's small-town rink can work their way up to the world championship. Olympic teams are "all-star" affairs; provincial to international championship teams are not. It'd be kind of cool if a team from outside the NHL could challenge for the cup (good luck finding one with the strength and talent), and it's nice to remember the early days when that was a reality.

* - The East Coast Hockey League is one of the many small minor leagues that tend to have younger and more inexperienced players than the bigger minor leagues such as the American Hockey League. We're not knocking any of the minor leagues, though, they're great places to watch some good hockey.

The Quarterfinals

If you're an NHL coach, it's almost better for you to miss the playoffs entirely than to get in on a good berth and lose miserably. (Not that losses are ever that cheerful, but look at Carolina and Edmonton - they probably won't fire their coaches) Everyone goes in with all these expectations, and if they aren't met - if the team doesn't make it to the "Great Eight" (to use a US College Basketball Term) - the coach had better start looking for another job. I almost feel sorry for them. I mean, a bad coach will probably keep a team from achieving much of anything, but even a good coach can't guarantee that his or her team will win every game.

But enough about the poor coaches; let's look at the match-ups:


(8th) Carolina 2, (1st) New Jersey 4

My hat is off to Carolina. They were woefully outmatched, but they put up a valiant fight at the end, all without Ron Francis (we like him because he used to play for Pittsburgh, and we like Brind'Amour 'cause he was in my regular season pool.).

About New Jersey's game four overtime loss in Carolina (what a treat that must have been for the fans, eh?), coach Larry Robinson blames it on his team's poor play. Pardon me, but I think they flatter themselves. It's just too bad that the Hurricanes couldn't find that spark earlier, though; but at least they made the playoffs.

(7th) Toronto 4, (2nd) Ottawa 0

Wow, what a shocker. I certainly didn't foresee this. Why Ottawa got swept in four straight, I honestly don't know. I was thinking that all the Leafs fans were deluding themselves before the start of the playoffs (as any fan of any team invariably does), but Toronto might just have what it takes to make a serious run at the cup this year. Hey, I wonder if anyone's predicting a Toronto - LA match-up for the Stanley Cup Finals? Can "Felix the Cat" stand up to "Cujo" (to use two worn-out nicknames that aren't often used anymore)? At least Mike Myers, a die-hard Toronto fan, would be happy.

Speaking of goaltenders, we've just got to talk about Curtis Joseph. I think a .9 goals-against-average after a series with the likes of Ottawa is pretty damn good! But what I really like about Joseph is that he makes it look like he's doing a good job in the net; that's it's not just a fluke. Think about this. Getting a shutout is as much a laud for the defense, goalposts, and crappiness of the other team as it is for the goaltender. I cite Garth Snow's "shutout" in the Lemieux comeback game against Toronto - Toronto got more than a few quality shots against Pittsburgh's net that night, but the Pittsburgh goalposts ended up seeing a lot more action than Snow's goalie gear. (I apologize to Snow if I sound mean-spirited.)

I'll cheer for Toronto until they face Pittsburgh in the Conference finals. =)

(6th) Pittsburgh 4, (3rd) Washington 2

I really hate this system where the division leaders are always seeded first to third in the standings, and Washington seems to always be the big beneficiary of this somewhat unfair system, especially since both Washington and Pittsburgh finished with 96 points in the regular season. At least Pittsburgh can happily snuff out their playoff hopes year after year. (One of the more amusing stories is how Atlanta, now far out of the playoffs, "led" the Southeast Division in the early part of the season, even though they were below .500!)

It wasn't a rout like last year, but Pittsburgh still managed to send the Caps packing with style and strength - and subtlety. This isn't a word that you normally associate with Pittsburgh, but that's kind of how they've been playing. Sure, Mario and Jagr will break out with a spectacular goal once in a while, and both players bring great leadership qualities to the team, but it is the minute-to-minute calmness and quiet strength that is really winning the games for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh is also aided by good coaching and a great second line (that OT series-winning goal in game six was a great way for Straka to get back into shape, huh?). In fact, every player on the team seems to be stepping up to the challenge and making a name for himself.

Last year, Jagr was talking about bringing a Cup to Pittsburgh. Wow... now if there's anybody in this league today who could do that on their own, it's this guy. But that's my point; he can't do that on his own (can anyone?), and the '91 and '92 cups were brought in with an entire team of superstars. Now, in '01, they have Mario back, but Pittsburgh is hardly a teamful of superstars. They seem to be more well balanced now, especially in defense. No one is talking of any shortcomings in the Penguins defense now.

Speaking of the back end of the rink, this new goaltender Johan Hedberg is really something else. I mean, he's not invincible by any means, but he seems to have it where it counts. What I really like is how he's still wearing his Manitoba Moose goalie mask. (If you'll remember, last year's great goaltending decision Ron Tugnutt wore his Ottawa Senators mask through the playoffs.) So all the Pittsburgh fans (a few of whom I'm sure don't even know where Manitoba is) are saying "Mmmoooooooooossssssse" all the time, which unfortunately sounds a lot like "Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo", which means that it sounds like the fans at Melon Arena are quite displeased when Hedberg makes a great save. Well, they've got something going anyway, and my advice is this: Don't change anything! Although they might want to repaint the helmet for the Stanley Cup photo.

An amusing story: The powers-that-be at Washington noticed that more Washington game tickets were being sold to people in Pittsburgh than to people in Washington over the internet. The solution: They wrote up some programming alterations that made it impossible to buy Caps tickets from a Pittsburgh zip code (though a Pens fan could still, of course, drive to D.C. and buy the tickets there). Well, if you're going to be like that...

(5th) Buffalo 4, (4th) Philadelphia 2

Here's a good match-up, and Buffalo certainly had more going for them this time than they did last year. Last year, they played some very sloppy and pathetic hockey; they didn't stand a chance. I wouldn't say that the "tables have turned" so much as "Buffalo is way better this year." Oh, and there's nothing like humiliating your opponent with an 8-0 rout to end the series. The first thing I noticed when I saw them on TV: "Hey! They're fast this year!" They have drive and ambition, and they're not playing as if it's their last meal before the execution. Could this be the team to bring the City of Buffalo a championship?

Hasek will undoubtedly be a factor, but I'm not sure that he's this Goaltending God that everyone makes him out to be. Hopefully they won't have to rely solely on his performance - if they try that, Pittsburgh will send them home in five. Hey, they got past Kolzig!


Western hockey is quite a bit different from eastern hockey, if you ask me. Out there, there seems to be less scoring, but more strength and accentuated speed. The teams all have much better records, and even the bottom-seeded teams play like they could totally kick any team in the East. I can't really support my opinions with facts here =), but that's just how it looks to me. Out in the West, teams play with real panache and heart. Everything is emotional, every action and every move vital and of utmost effect on the outcome of the game. It's really quite exciting to watch, even though in terms of scoring goals it may be a little "slower".

(8th) Vancouver 0, (1st) Colorado 4

Oh, they tried, they tried. I wasn't happy to see the Canucks go down in four straight - "go down?" The words seem like an insult to a team that played with such heart and determination. They lost, but Colorado had to earn every game. And even the Canucks fans were still sort of happy in a bittersweet way at the end. There's always next year. Oh gawd, I want to cry... boo-hoo! =( It's so sad and so amazing at the same time! (Maybe this is just the fatigue talking, as the time is now 0239h Atlantic Daylight Time...)

Colorado looks like they could do some big things this year, as they're playing with more determination. I would say that they could top Dallas if it came to such a match-up. We'll just have to wait and see.

(7th) Los Angeles 4, (2nd) Detroit 2

Detroit didn't honestly think that they could win a series without trying, did they? After the series went back to L.A., the Kings grabbed hold and didn't let up, unless you count Game Four where they did slip back to 3-0 (in that game), but still won 4-3 in overtime. Wow. What a team. What an effort. What a goaltender. What a disgusting lack of effort by the Wings, who could have won this series if they hadn't underestimated the Kings. Hopefully they won't go forever without a Cup victory, as between 1955 and 1997.

I'm not of the school of thought that thinks injuries can totally break a good team. They still had their core with them, and they could have achieved a lot even without the big guns. At least goaltender Osgood talked a lot about enthusiasm, determination, and heart. (I hope they don't move him!) And at least Luc Robitaille (we like him because he played 46 games with Pittsburgh) will get a second shot at the Stanley Cup, with any luck.

(6th) Edmonton 2, (3rd) Dallas 4

Sad, sad, sad. But I'm not complaining, because it's not as if the Oilers didn't try. Their problem was simply that they were so outclassed by Dallas - or maybe it was because they played as if they could be outclassed. What makes things sad is the futility of the whole thing. For example, how about that miraculous two-goal comeback in the dying 1:03 of Game Three to send things to overtime? Too bad Dallas won that one. I'd call that first OT goal the series-breaker, as it really didn't get much better for the Oilers after that.

But they got their Game Four, and their Game Two on the road. Edmonton will probably be a bigger contender next year, but if they're that much better, they might not be as exciting and heart-pounding a team to watch. They certainly had my emotions riding along with them, and I don't even drink the beer.

A quick digression about national anthems: I love 'em, but I've been hearing that some fans at the Canadian rinks are disrespecting the American anthem. That's not cool, people. You've been watching too much Rick Mercer - or perhaps you've been misinterpreting him. It's okay to say that most Americans could stand to know a little more about Canada, but it's not okay to disrespect the nation and its people without a damn good reason. (I blame the ignorant beer commercials. The effect of them reveals a sad state of affairs in this overly-socialistic nation - no one is thinking for themselves.) Please, show that you have more intelligence than Dan Budgell* by standing silent - or better yet, learn the lyrics and sing along!

This leads me into my explanation of why the Oilers lost Game Six. The crowd wasn't in it quite as much as they could have been, and I'll tell you why: The Moffats sang our national anthem. I'm not saying that The Moffats are a bad group, but they certainly could have done a better job of "O Canada." Not enough people were screaming, shouting, and cheering at the end like they need to be if you want to win a playoff game. To sing an anthem properly in a stadium - at any time, let alone the crucial Game Six - you need to be either 1) A big guy in fancy clothes who is a great quasi-operatic singer; 2) A talent-deprived, yet well-endowed young woman who can sing-scream her way through it; 3) A talented young woman who will sing beautifully; or 4) The stadium-owner's cute six-year-old granddaughter. The Moffats do not fit into any of these categories. In fact, none of my favorite musicians (outside the stadiums) do either - I'd cringe if I had to see They Might Be Giants preforming "The Star-Spangled Banner."

* - Dan's actually pretty cool, he just gets mentioned here because of his ignorant Anti-American webpage. =)

(5th) San Jose 2, (4th) St. Louis 4

San Jose has a pretty good playoff record, especially considering that they're such a new team, and in such a southern market. They came online at about the same time as the new Ottawa team, and they've won way more games and series than their poor counterpart to the northeast. These guys can really come at you. Unfortunately, they've lost to the lackluster Blues this time around by coughing up Games Five and Six.

That's not normal behavior for San Jose. Usually they can come through in times of adversity, like when they beat the Blues last year. They were having problems this year as well, but perhaps it was just too much for them. At any rate, I'm sad to see the Sharks leave so soon, but I imagine they'll manage a Stanley Cup within the next decade. They just have so much drive to survive, and they've got the coolest uniforms in the league. C'mon Ricci, show us you guys have what it takes!

Closing Remarks

I'm tired. See you after the semifinals. My predictions? I can't really make any accurate ones because I have emotional attachments to too many of the teams, which goes to show you how much a typical sports prediction is worth.

Pittsburgh - They could do it this year, but it might be next year instead.
New Jersey - Nah, I don't think they will win it again. New Jersey also has the dubious honor of being the first team in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup and then fail to make the playoffs the following year.
Buffalo - If they're going to go for it, now's the time.
Toronto - It's sad that if they're going to go for it, that this is all they have. But wait - look at how well they did against Ottawa. Is it going to be enough?
Los Angeles - Go! Go! Go! They might make the Finals.
Colorado - Solid, as President's Trophy winners usually are.
Dallas - Nah. They don't have enough panache this year.
St. Louis - Nah. Doubtful.

Carolina - Someday...
Ottawa - They need to stop worrying about history. Stats and records are meant to be broken, not slaved to.
Washington - They need an attitude change if they ever want to win anything.
Philadelphia - They need to be less 'shaky' then they were this year and at the end of last year, if you gather me.
Vancouver - Someday...
Edmonton - This is how it's going to be for the next few years unless they get really lucky.
Detroit - They need to learn how to cope with being behind again.
San Jose - They just need to keep doing whatever it is they do.

I know that most of my comments in this article have been quite banal, so I thank you for sticking around to put up with it. I shall see you around.

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