The good ole’ hockey game…

by

This could be a win or a loss- either way, overtime is brutal.

Unlike the rest of the Chicago sports franchises, I didn’t grow up being exposed to the Chicago Blackhawks. This was mostly due to the fact that I came of age as a sports fan right around the time they went through a 10 year stretch which featured a lot of bad hockey and 1 playoff butt kicking from the rival St. Louis Blues. It wasn’t until later when they drafted Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews and they went from pitiful to young and feisty that I jumped in with both feet. (Or jumped on the band-wagon with both feet, however you want to say it.)  Everything about the sport appealed to me. It was fast, violent, loud and teamwork oriented. Similar to basketball, or to some extent, soccer, the best hockey teams operate as a cohesive unit. When you watch the best players in the game, they might dominate with possession of the puck, but what makes them truly great is how well they move without the puck and play off their teammates.  It’s very rare that a team succeeds while being carried by just one player who dominates possession. Granted, most of the best teams do have 1 or 2 superstars, but without the requisite role players, playoff absences and 1st round exits are all you have to look forward to.

Outside of the style of play, there’s still plenty to like. The players are known as some of the nicest in sports, some of the biggest personalities in sports are associated with hockey and hockey players are the best athletes in the world. Seriously, it’s a game that involves chasing a hard rubber disc at 20 miles per hour while zigzagging around other men who are trying to take your head off while trying to put said rubber disc into a net guarded by a man in gigantic pads. Meanwhile, this is all done on ice, skating backward, forward and sideways. Heck, even the refs are athletic.
But hands down, my favorite part of hockey is the same as most people: I love the NHL playoffs. Every possession seems more valuable than the one before it, and the intensity of the action is unlike anything else in sports. Fans pack stadiums, players grow beards and if games are tied, sudden death overtimes are played until someone scores. There is no shootout, no change in the rules and no TV timeouts. Just back and forth action until someone mercifully scores. Watching a playoff series isn’t about enjoyment, it’s about survival.
Very rarely do the Playoffs disappoint, and this year has been no exception. There were 2 series that went 7 games, 10 overtime games, big comebacks and big blowouts. My nerves are already shot, and we’re just now at the start of round two.
I’ll admit that I’m not the best at analytical breakdown of hockey performance. I can’t go through the ins and outs of how the advanced stats affect a team’s win probability. So if you’re looking for an in-depth look at those type of things, you’ve come to the wrong place. What I am good at, however, is identifying which players are important, what’s at stake for these teams, and probably most important, which team I would pick based solely on the food options that region is known for.

Minnesota Wild v. Chicago Blackhawks:

Local food: Juicy Lucy vs. Italian Beef Sandwich–  If I were a true homer, I’d make this an unfair fight and stick the Wild with lutefisk as their food of choice, making this an instant knockout. However,  I’ll be fair just this once and give them the most delicious burger creation of all time. For those not familiar with the Minneapolis staple, the Juicy Lucy is a burger made by grilling two burger patties with melted cheese, onions or peppers stuffed in between the patties.
The Windy City faithful counter with the ridiculous Italian Beef sandwich. Slow roasted beef, soaked in au jus and covered in spicy peppers and cheese, this mind-blowing hoagie is one of the key ways that Chicagoans stay padded enough to withstand the Midwestern winners. Just like Spurs v. Clippers in the NBA, it’s a shame these two have to meet this early in the playoffs. Slight Edge: Minnesota

Pre-game festivities: Minnesota is unquestionably the birthplace of American hockey. As of the beginning of the 2015 season, more players have come from the North Star State than any other in the union, and kids grow up in a pair of skates the way Indiana kids grow up with a basketball. Their pregame tradition embodies this, as they’ve actually written their own theme song.

The ‘Hawks may not have an official theme song (though opponents certainly hate the goal celebration), but what they do have is the best big game anthem singer in sports. You could argue for other teams’ ceremonies, but give me some Jim Cornelison any day of the week.  Big Edge: Chicago

Key Players:
Minnesota:
The Wild attack is keyed mostly by star winger Zach Parise, up and coming Mikael Granlund and  anchored solid goalie Devan Dubynk. The real key to their playoff success will be how positively their 3rd and 4th lines can affect the game. If the top 2 lines can play the ‘Hawks top 2 to anything resembling a draw, then their depth should give them a chance to topple Chicago.
Chicago: Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews have experienced most of their career in stereo. Drafted a year apart, they made their professional debut together and even signed matching contract extensions in the offseason. You’d be hard pressed to find a better top-2 in the NHL than this duo. The real key for the ‘Hawks is how well the defenseman can play beyond Ironman Duncan Keith. Coach Queneville has done a good job milking all he can out of a shaky goalie situation and thin defensemen rotation, but they’ll definitely be challenged by a feist Wild team.
Final Verdict- Minnesota is stocked with good young talent, but  the overall skill of the top 2 lines for Chicago will wear down the Wild’s young players in a physical and well played series. ‘Hawks in 6.

Washington Capitals v. New York Rangers (Capitals lead 1-0)

Local Food: Ben’s Original Chili Smoke v. New York Style Pizza– While both cities are known for the quality of their cuisine, neither one has an iconic dish they’re known for. The Ben’s Original is a 1/4 pound smoked hot dog smothered in homemade chili and topped with either cheese, onions or both. While that sounds delicious, it’s not really something hard to recreate, so it slides down a notch. Representing New York, we have the original giant slice pizza. There’s not much to be said about pizza: it’s hot, cheesy and delicious. This matchup is probably the most boring of the playoffs, despite the fact that the on ice competition is going to be pretty solid.
Edge: Push

Swedish Players and Names that sound like mine:

Does “handsomeness” count as an intangible?

Okay, this is a completely irrelevant category, but the Rangers have 3 players from Sweden including one of the top goalies in the NHL and a player whose name sounds like mine on every broadcast.  This may not sounds like a big deal, but growing up with the name “Haglund”, I knew that I would never be able to have my name pronounced in “create a player” mode on a video game. I know a lot of people experience the same thing, but I count this as a win for everyone with a weird last name.
On the other side, the Capitals have only one lonely Swede. The poor guy is probably teased in the locker room about his thin frame and good looks. While I can feel sorry for him, I still have to give the edge to New York.
Big Edge: New York

Key Players:
Washington:
The Caps boast two of the top point scorers in the league in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but the key to their success lies with goaltender Braden Holtby and his ability to withstand potential fatigue issues. The league leader in games played among goalies this season, Holtby has also started 7 of the 8 games in the Caps playoff run thus far, putting up a sterling 1.54 Goals Against Average. If he has to take a seat for any reason, the Caps could be in trouble as backup netminder Phillip Grubauer was less than impressive in his 1 postseason appearance (3 goals on 21 shots).
New York: The Rangers mortgaged their future for help in the moment each of the last two seasons, trading their first two round picks for top end talents Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle. The trades have worked so far, as the depth of talent along with stalwart goalie Henrik Lundqvist has propelled the Rangers to the Presidents Trophy (for the team with the most regular season points) and the status as the team to beat. These were ultimate win now moves, and the future could be rough, so this run is Cup or bust for the Rangers.
Final Verdict: The overall depth of talent and Swedish handsomeness will overcome the individual greatness of Alex Ovechkin- Rangers in 7.

Anaheim Ducks v. Calgary Flames: (Ducks lead 1-0)

Local Food: California Burrito v. Ginger Beef: I’ll be honest, this is the toughest food matchup by far, which is a good thing, because Game 1 results did not portend a competitive series.  California is known as the state with the best burritos in the country. While you can get  standard bean and cheese burritos, what really sets the burritos apart are the different options available. Everything from  sushi filled burritos to the hot dog burritos, if you like a food, odds are you can get it in a flour tortilla. The undisputed king is the California Burrito: an absolute behemoth of an entrée,  stuffed with chunks of carne asada, french fries, cheese, and either cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream, onion, or guacamole. Some varieties include either shrimp or chicken, but at that point, you’re just being ridiculous.
One of the few dishes in Canada that’s not served either covered in gravy or soaked in maple syrup, Ginger Beef is a Calgary specialty made possible by the insane quality of the cattle industry in Calgary. Ginger Beef consists of deep-fried strips of beef coated in a dark sweet sauce that is reminiscent of other Asian sauces based on vinegar and sugar. Wash it down with a tall, cold Molson, and you’ve got a pretty solid start to the night.  Unfortunately, you can’t beat giant burritos stuffed with shrimp and french fries
Edge: Anaheim

Goalie Masks: Reservoir Ducks v. Back in Black:
Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen’s “Reservoir Dogs” themed mask is far and away my favorite mask in the NHL. With a group of cartoon ducks in suits and ties, including one holding a straight razor and wearing sunglasses, this mask stands alone in a league full of cool goalie masks.

Back in his days as the Anaheim Ducks starter, Jonas Hiller was known for his awesome series of masks, with my personal favorite being a tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Mighty Ducks movie.  With that in mind, his latest iteration may be the most unique of all. I love this mask, not for it’s outrageous color scheme or clever designs, but for the stark contrast the flat black with glossy flames provides against the brilliant red of the Flames’ jerseys. If this were a lifetime achievement award, I’d go with Hiller, but I have to live in the now.
Slight edge: Aneheim

Key Players:

Anaheim: Much of the Ducks success revolves around their 2 superstars, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. When they are gliding around, creating lanes for teammates and making nuisances of themselves, the Ducks fly by most other teams. Perry is known as one of the most hated players around the league, so the biggest key for him is staying away from altercations and out of the penalty box. (Writers note, they’re off to a great start, with a combined 3 goals and 5 assists in game 1).
Calgary: The Flames equal opportunity attack focuses on budding star forwards Sean Monahan and John Gaudreau. The defense is anchored by steady veterans Dennis Wideman and Mark Giordano. While the front line is held together by veteran center Jiri Hudler, there’s not too much depth through the rest of the roster.

Final Verdict: The Flames remind me of the mid-2000’s Blackhawks- good young talent, but a year or two away. Anaheim in 5

Tampa Bay Lightning v. Montreal Canadiens:

Local Food: Sugar Crusted Butter Cake v. Poutine– I’ve never had these dishes, but I feel like you can’t really go wrong with either one. Sugar Crusted Butter Cake is a butter cake, bruleed in sugar and served with brown butter ice cream, pistachios and toffee sauce. While it sounds like it would give you instant diabetes, it also sounds like you would die young and happy.
A Canadian staple, Poutine is a dish consisting of french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. Those 3 things on their own sound delicious enough, but when you take deep fried potatoes and cover them in the amazingess that is cheese curds and gravy- sign me up.
Slight Edge: Tampa Bay

Gimmicks: Tesla Coil v. Youppi!– When they renovated the Lightning arena in 2011, they added my favorite arena gimmick outside of Tampa Bay’s pirate ship cannons: 2 gigantic Tesla Coils high above the ice that shoot 20 foot long lightning bolts during Tampa Bay games. I know that thy’re completely safe, but the concept of indoor lightning is still a little bit terrifying, albeit completely awesome.
Youppi! is a Canadian institution. Originally conceived as the mascot for the now defunct Montreal Expos, Youppi! was an endangered mascot without a home after the Expos moved to Washington. Thankfully, the Canadiens leadership decided to give Youppi! a second life and he became the first team mascot in 96 years. It’s no secret that I think mascots are awesome, and while Youppi! isn’t as athletic as  Boomer or as crazy as the Spurs Coyote, but he’ll always hold a special place in my heart for the trauma he’s come back from.
Slight Edge: Tampa Bay

Key Players:

Tampa Bay: The Lightning are a trendy Cup pick, with the league’s highest scoring roster led by the quartet of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. While the offense is explosive beyond all reason, Ben Bishop is a serious liability in goal, and they were one blown Detroit lead away from going home early. They’re forced to rely upon their offensive explosiveness, and while that works well in the regular season, they may run into trouble against the key players for Montreal.
Montreal: Les Habitants are paced by troublemaker P.K. Subban on the blue line, explosive scorer Max Pacioretty at forward and anchored by likely MVP, Carey Price in goal. While he does tend to straddle the line between aggressive and dirty (do a Youtube search for ‘PK Subban Dirty’ and your browser might overload), it’s undeniable that he gets the job done in helping shut down opposing offenses. Price led the league in goals against average, save percentage and wins, and consequently, the Habs led the league in goals allowed.
Final Verdict: The Lightning are undeniably explosive, but if Subban can keep his head out of his butt and Price continues to do Carey Price things, this defense will be able to contain them just enough to win a grinding series. Montreal in 7.

Requiem for the Red Wings:
Every sport has that one team- that team that is always good, never makes dumb roster decisions and somehow always manages to be hateable and respected at the same time. For as long as I can remember, that team in the NHL has been the Detroit Red Wings. Since 1989-90, the Wings have made the playoffs every season, won 4 Stanley Cups, 13 division titles and 6 Presidents Trophy’s. They’ve done it with superstars, role players, great coaches and overlooked draft picks. Luckily for the rest of the league, the Wings top 2 players are beginning to approach the end of the line. Unfortunately, they have 2 budding stars in Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist. They also have the best scouting and development in the entire league, so you know that they’ll reload in no time. I know a team has earned my respect when I breathe a sigh of relief when they’re eliminated from the playoffs. While they may not have been at the top of their game, I have to admit I was terrified of what they could do in the playoffs and while part of me misses the rivalry, I’m thankful the Blackhawks don’t have to face them until the Finals ever again. 

After all of that, you should be pretty thoroughly prepared to immerse yourself in the beauty that is the NHL playoffs. Don’t forget these rules- playoff beards are awesome, never bet against the hot goalie and don’t forget to use the bathroom before overtime starts, because you won’t want to miss a minute.

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