Monday, November 27, 2006

The South Shall Rise

It's stated before by the old hats of the NHL, the northern fans especially, that hockey does not belong in the south. After back to back Stanley Cups from the Southeast division, one hopes that tone is finally changing. It's going to take a lot to get longtime fans of classic teams to appreciate hockey down here and even longer for the true fan bases to develop for these teams. Sure, some have some pretty good showings night in and out, but how many of them bandwagon and how many of them don't even live here?

Case in point, the Florida Panthers' attendance often goes up in the winter months due to the snowbirds coming down and taking in a hockey game. Now they might often root for opposing teams like Montreal or Toronto, but they still fill up the arena.

But now that Tampa Bay and Carolina have respectively won the Stanley Cup, the division and southern hockey in general has a real growing interest. Some teams like Atlanta still have a long way to go to building that fanbase, even though they have been playing some great hockey this year. Others like St. Louis out west and LA have fallen into disrepair and need to rebuild what little loyalty they had after miserable seasons.

The old adage that hockey has to be played where it's cold has some merit. One notices that the ice is often not as crisp and tends to melt quicker in the southern climates. But some of the nicer buildings in the NHL exist down here, where up north you might find atrocities like Mellon Arena, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the dreadful Continental Airlines Center to name a few.

But a team is more than a building or ice, the players coming out of some of these teams are incredibly dynamic. The Southeast division alone houses talent like Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Martin St. Louis, Olli Jokinen, and Eric Staal. Having that much young but powerful talent in one division is impressive enough. Out west, Anaheim, another team struggling to make it big with fans but playing great hockey, has forged the ultimate defensive tandem in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, while developing a strong youth core as well.

In fact, of the 5 teams in the Southeast division, only Atlanta has not been all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, meaning 4 of them have been Eastern Conference champions in the short history of the division. I think that says a lot about what these teams can do.

Others will argue that more northern teams should be demanded, like giving back to Hartford or Winnipeg or some such. These are areas that the NHL had to move on from because the teams failed, the fan base failed, whatever it may have been. In fact, Atlanta was the only team to ever leave the south and head north for a Canadian team, the Calgary Flames. That kind of situation is not likely to ever happen again. Some teams like the Phoenix Coyotes are in trouble but I don't see any of them folding anytime soon.

The truth though, is that the south should not have to defend itself from the north. The sometimes civil war between the fans is unnecessary. Hockey can be justified anywhere a rink and a sheet of ice can be erected and fans can be drawn. There may be a little more hospitality down here than up north, but they all play the same game and it's great to have them all.

See you at the red line.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Quarter Report

So, it's been way too long since this was updated. Simply been too busy to even think about this but I'll give it a whirl for now.

We've pretty much gotten about a quarter of a way through the season and the progress compared to projections as always has been stunning. We begin with our assessment of the Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ugly.

The Good:
Buffalo Sabres/Anaheim Ducks/Atlanta Thrashers - these three teams have come out guns ablazing. Buffalo tied the record for longest winning streak to start the season at 10. Anaheim didn't lose in regulation until about their 15th game. The Thrashers have three of the top scorers in the NHL with Marian Hossa finding his way to the top just over Jaromir Jagr, back to his old form.

The Sabres did it with an amazing depth that few can rival. 4 lines of dangerous players, from Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov to Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, they have built on their Eastern Conference showing to outdo just about everyone in the league.

The Ducks impressed with the resurgance of goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who awoke from his slumber by only being defeated in regulation this past week for the first time. Pronger and Niedermayer's dangerous combo coupled with some strong youth make them a destined team and favorite to win the Pacific division.

The Thrashers are masters of the comeback offense, no lead is safe against them and even with star young goalie Kari Lehtonen fails, backup Johan Hedberg saves the day. When even Slava Kozlov is top 5 in scoring, you know this team has something special up its sleeve, making captain Scott Mellanby do a return to great play as their captain.

The Bad:
The Chicago Blackhawks were riding high, playing their hearts out with Martin Havlat leading the NHL point race and Michael Handzus showing what he was made of, until they both got injured along with countless others. Now the Hawks are falling to pieces again, Brian Boucher proving he's barely capable of backup duty let alone temp #1, and their shot at returning to the postseason may have dried up.

The Downright Ugly:
When you think of a team that has never achieved much of anything, you're amazed the Coyotes have done that for 10 years straight. Not that they've never been to the playoffs, but they aren't going there anytime soon. Gretzky's team has fallen into the West cellar, Nagy, Doan, and Cujo can't save a team from destroying itself, where chemistry doesn't exist, and old fogies like Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick long to not be as terrible as they are now.

Of course, that situation is a cakewalk compared to the nightmare in Philly. It was years in coming, and now it has arrived. The Flyers are now in the race for the #1 pick in 2007, because their team has completely and utterly collapsed from within. Bob Clarke, GM, and Ken Hitchcock, coach, were canned within the first few weeks, after suffering a 9-1 defeat by Buffalo and other subsequent demolitions. Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne are not enough to supplant non-existent goaltending and the worst defense money can buy. Derian Hatcher, officially the worst defenseman in the NHL (sorry Mathieu Biron but the Sharks haven't been dumb enough to play you, yet).

And now it's Quarter Awards Time:

Best Forward: Marian Hossa - No one has been more dynamic or unstoppable than the man traded for Dany Heatley last year. Working with Slava Kozlov, he's made a living on placing timely, unbeatable goals from every angle. Starting to outshine Kovalchuk, as if that's possible.

Best Defenseman: Niklas Lidstrom - I give him the nod here, even though he doesn't always outscore some other dmen. Why? His team has the fewest shots against in the league and they don't even play the trap. As a captain and multiple Norris trophy winner, he is as good as ever.

Best Goalie: Jean-Sebastien Giguere - Sure he plays with a great defense, but considering he has 2 shutouts and just lost his first game in regulation while racking up 10 wins, I think we can let that slide. He's refound his form from the Stanley Cup run, good thing too because his team may be headed back there.

Best Coach: Paul Maurice - You have gotta hand it to a guy who can get the most out of the Leafs, a team projected as dead last in the Northeast. They are second only to Buffalo, and still doing it without the now injured Mats Sundin. Raycroft has come back hungry and young studs like Wellwood and Ponikarovsky have complemented a high paid defense with Kubina, McCabe, and Kaberle. Still, the lack of experience makes this team impressive for what they've accomplished.

Here's hoping we see you again at the red line.