Monday, April 21, 2008

Hockey: So long to the Big Bad Bruins

With everything on the line, the Montreal Canadiens recovered from their dismal play in the last couple of games to beat the Boston Bruins 5-0 in Game Seven of their first-round series and move on to the Eastern semifinals. After taking an early 3-1 series lead, Montreal looked terrible in a 5-1 thrashing in Game Five and not much better in a 5-4 loss in Game Six Saturday, where they gave up four third-period goals. Tonight, they played cool and composed and proved that they were clearly the better team. They also showed that they can play tough defensively, blocking 23 shots, dishing out 38 hits and killing off all six penalties they took.

It was a particularly good performance from some of the Canadiens who had struggled lately. Rookie goalie Carey Price was back to his normal unflappable self, with the Globe's Tim Wharnsby describing his performance as the "best hockey" he'd played to date. Mark Streit, normally an offensive defenceman who has played up front in the last couple games, recorded his first career playoff goal, and the reunion of brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn on the same forward line paid significant benefits: the two combined for three goals and five points. Alex Kovalev, who had been one of the Canadiens' few bright spots offensively so far but still hadn't produced at the expected level, also had a good game and set up the first two goals.

Credit should go to Boston for stretching this to seven though. As James Mirtle wrote before the game, "Despite the injuries, the lack of scoring depth and the fact they have a 34-year-old starting netminder who hadn't played a postseason game until this series, they've persevered, and it's far from a lock that the Habs will be able to regroup at home." The Bruins truly epitomized the hard-working, crashing and banging "lunchbucket" hockey team epithet one of the CBC commentators gave them early in the series, and no one symbolized their heart and desire more than former Vancouver Giant Milan Lucic, who had a far better series than his two goals give him credit for. He's already drawing comparisions to former Bruins star Cam Neely (who rightfully should have been a Canucks star if someone hadn't got the brilliant idea to trade him for Barry Pederson), including one from famed Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons.

Speaking of Simmons, he managed to jinx his second Boston team of the year with today's column, the first he'd written on the NHL all year. It's a credit to this Bruins team and this great series that they can draw in someone jaded with the way the organization and league have been going. He also had some great thoughts on the current state of the NHL and how it could be fixed (apologies for the long quotation, but this is bloody good stuff):

"Look, sometimes a sport can just evolve in the wrong direction," he wrote. "It happened to tennis, it happened to pro wrestling and it definitely happened to hockey. This was a sport that thrived on rivalries and feuds -- Montreal and Boston, the Rangers and Islanders, Philly and Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, Montreal and everybody -- so by moving key franchises and adding too many other ones, fundamentally, they were killing the one thing that made the sport so great. As a Boston fan, how am I supposed to get fired up during the regular season for a steady stream of Nashville, Columbus, Carolina and Anaheim? It's insane. It's illogical. Hockey should never have more than 22 teams, and half those teams should be playing in Canada, where it's the national sport and the citizens truly care about the game. It's the only way to bring the sport back -- rivalries, bad blood, back-to-back games and everything else -- and as soon as they jettison a few franchises and move a few others back to Canada, I could see caring about the league again. You know, as long as the Bruins are sold."

"You can't say the damage from the Bettman era was incalculable, because you can calculate it -- hockey barely has an American TV contract right now, and it drifted into the second tier of professional sports for good after the devastating lockout. I write about sports for a living and couldn't tell you who won every Stanley Cup this decade. Even worse, if I quizzed my friends -- all of whom care about sports except for one -- I don't have a single friend who could rattle off those Cup winners except for my buddy Dave Dameshek, a Penguins fan who didn't get pushed away because of "Sixty-six" (his nickname for Mario Lemeiux) and then Sid the Kid and "Geno" Malkin. So that's not good. The NHL has evolved into a sport with all die-hard fans and no casual ones. They need to get the casual ones back. They need to bring back people like me."

Right on. Forget the Bucks GM job, my vote's for making Simmons NHL president. He could hardly be any worse than Bettman, and I think he'd be a lot better: he seems to be one of those Americans who gets the game and why so many of us up here are nuts about it. Rivalries are key to the sport, and bringing them back would be great: also, who wouldn't love to see teams in Winnipeg and Quebec City?

Final thought from the Simmons column: he seemed to be somewhat aware of the fact it would probably jinx his team, as most of it was about the tremendous whippings the Canadiens have put on the Bruins over the years. The really eerie part was when he talked about hating the Montreal fans for singing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" whenever they were about to knock Boston out: wouldn't you know it, shortly after I read this, I watch the entire Bell Centre break into the song for a good five minutes of the third period. Poetic justice, and a proper send-off to a great series that briefly rekindled the great days of the NHL.

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