The first team I ever really covered as a reporter was the NBA expansion Raptors for The Fan radio in Toronto. It was the 1995-96 season, and history proves Brendan Malone was a much better coach than we gave him credit for.
Malone didn't have a great relationship with the players, but, boy, he knew Xs-and-Os. In the second week of the franchise's existence, the home schedule featured Phoenix, Utah and Houston. Those three teams would win 147 games combined. I remember asking him about facing Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in a five-day span.
He said, "If you can't make great players work hard on defence, they will kill you on offence."
Which brings us to Zdeno Chara. Chara isn't an overwhelming offensive force, but there is no doubt the Canucks are making him expend a ton of energy. He's looked exhausted near the ends of both Cup final games, especially when Alex Burrows shrugged off the NHL's fittest and strongest player to score the unbelievable overtime winner Saturday night.
In Game 1, the Canucks coaches clearly wanted their penalty killers to abuse Chara if the Bruins played him in front of the net. They did just that, and it did not go unnoticed. One of the reasons Boston took him away from the front of the net was to alleviate that punishment. In Game 2, Chara saw time against both the Kesler and Sedin lines.
It's not exactly a new strategy to throw the puck into a valuable defenceman's corner, and then try to punish him as much as possible. The Red Wings did it to perfection with Paul Coffey during the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, while Anaheim brutalized the Ottawa defence 10 years later.
Kesler/Raymond/Higgins can grind you in that manner, but the Sedin/Sedin/Burrows trio is very different.
"Hitting him is a waste of time for us," Henrik Sedin was saying after Game 2. "But there are other ways to wear him down."
The obvious method is cycling the puck, which the twins do as well, if not better, than anyone in the league. By forcing Chara to chase, you can tire him. And, the Sedins want to engage him in the process. Another NHL coach praised Boston assistant Doug Houda (who handles the defence) for improving both Chara and Dennis Seidenberg's stick skills. So you've got to take that element out of their games.
"If you stay five or six feet away from him, he'll be able to fully extend and put his stick on you," Henrik said. "He can disrupt what you're trying to do and knock the puck away. If you get right up close on him, he can't use his stick."
And, you can body him a little. What do you know? Apparently it's better to get into Chara's grill.
"I thought that would be pretty obvious," said Daniel. (Evidently, not to me.)
Before the series, I asked a few Canucks to compare facing Chara to battling Nashville's Shea Weber/Ryan Suter combo. "The biggest difference?" one of them said. "Chara is not as good a passer."
On the HNIC post-game show Saturday, Kelly Hrudey showed a few plays where Chara gave the puck away. Clearly, Vancouver felt it could create something by putting the puck in his hands and pressuring him into mistakes.
Chara's taking a beating right now, and the fact is he must be better. But the Canucks deserve credit for putting together a fantastic game plan to attack him, at least at the beginning of this series. (Tony and Cammi Granato's brother, Don, was the Eastern Conference Final advance scout.)
Chara remains Boston's best player and one of the top three defencemen in the NHL. Now, let's see how Boston adjusts. If there's going to be any comeback, the biggest Bruin must lead the charge.
1. Bruins assistant Doug Houda, first intermission of Game 2: "If we don't protect the puck better, it will be a short series." Remember that one for tonight.
2. Had a few tweeters upset with a post-game question during the Roberto Luongo interview Saturday night. I said that as unbiased as I am, it was hard not to get chills with that ovation for Manny Malhotra. If you're not going to get a little caught up in that comeback you're Vulcan, not human.
3. Malhotra and Keith Ballard had similar comments about how families deal with their adversity. When you're injured (Malhotra) or ineffective (Ballard) you really try hard to stay positive around the team. If you're negative, nobody wants you there. Often that means the people at home see the harder emotions. Both really credited their wives. Ballard says his wife, Jamie, would tell him, "That's OK," when he vented about his disappointing year, allowing him to get it off his chest. Malhotra laughed and said his wife, Joann, would tell him to stop moping.
4. A few more Chara notes: He's listed at six-foot-nine, 260 pounds. Chris Pronger, who is three inches shorter, is around 50 pounds lighter. (Last year, during the Stanley Cup semifinal, he said he weighed 217.) While Pronger didn't mention Chara by name, he does think the heavier you are at this time of year, the harder it is to be effective. Chara's work ethic (particularly in the gym) is phenomenal, but he's testing Pronger's theory here.
5. One fact I don't know what to do with: Chara's mother was the 1991 Czechoslovakian Hair Stylist of the Year.
6. It was 1996 when Chara first arrived in Canada, joining the WHL's Prince George Cougars as a 19-year-old. Stan Butler, who coached that team, said the big Slovak was challenged to a fight three seconds into his first shift. He destroyed the guy. (I want to say it was Seattle's Paul Ferone, but I might be wrong about that one.) After he got out of the penalty box, someone else dropped the gloves. Chara won that, too. During the first intermission, Butler asked him if he'd ever fought before. The answer was no. Word got out pretty quickly.
7. Criticizing Tim Thomas for the Game 2 winner is ridiculous. That's who he is. Tampa tried the same strategy in the last series - faking a shot to see what he'll do. When you have time, it works. When you don't, it doesn't. People weren't complaining when he set a save percentage record this season.
8. Cory Schneider, when asked what would happen if he told a goalie coach he wanted to play like Thomas: "The coach would probably say, 'I don't know how to teach that.'"
9. Kicking myself for not seeing the connection between Winnipeg, Atlanta and Kevin Cheveldayoff. Current Thrashers who played in AHL Chicago when he ran the team: Ondrej Pavelec, Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian. Also: prospects Paul Postma and Spencer Machacek. That's valuable institutional knowledge.
10. Sounds like the meeting between Rick Dudley and True North went off the rails pretty quickly. There was a feeling around the NHL that Dudley would be offered a "director of player personnel-type position" as one source called it, but that may never have happened. Dudley apparently made it very clear it was GM or nothing. Both sides understood each other very clearly - it wasn't going to work.
11. Glenn Healy had the "infomercial" (as Ron MacLean called it) for Kris King during the Hotstove, but it makes sense for Winnipeg to talk to him (and that may have happened already). King wasn't initially thrilled about being traded to the Manitoba capital, but later called those "the four best years of my career." Not a bad attitude to have around the organization at this time.
12. Several years ago, I did a radio interview with David Poile. He talked about being GM in Washington and losing Scott Stevens to St. Louis on an offer sheet. The return was five first-round draft picks. He said, if he could do it all over again, he'd choose to keep Stevens because a franchise player is worth it.
13. There's a lot of disappointment in southern Alberta about the Tim Erixon trade, but the fact is there wasn't a lot the Flames could do. It's not as if one team can outbid the other under the current CBA. Erixon's father, Jan, played for the Rangers and is close with Glen Sather. He preferred New York, and in that case, you try and get something. This isn't, however, a referendum on players not wanting to go to Calgary. That's an overreaction.
14. Brad Richards? Slightly different story. Joe Nieuwendyk is taking heat for not trading him at the deadline, but I disagree. The Stars had to make a run for the playoffs to build interest and Richards was an important part of that. Plus, Dallas now gets $7.8 million US in cap space to work on its roster. Let's see what Nieuwendyk does with. Some shrewd moves could be better than a deadline deal for an upcoming UFA. Don't think Richards was thrilled with Nieuwendyk's decision to go public, though.
15. Prediction: By July 1, even Richards is going to be tired of hearing his name. This is going to be fascinating, though, because articles like this one from Larry Brooks of The New York Post tells me teams are trying to get him to lower his expectations.
16. Guessing Steven Stamkos is going to come in at around $7 million per year. Think Steve Yzerman tried to push a Jonathan Toews-type structure (five years, $6.3 million per), but that may be low. With Vincent Lecavalier ($7.27 million) and Martin St. Louis ($5.25 million) already on the roster, it would be a stretch to see Tampa offer Richards what he wants. And Tampa may just be his first choice, ahead of the Rangers.
17. Saw Sportsnet's Ian Mendes in Vancouver last Tuesday and asked him who he thought would get the coaching job in Ottawa. He said, "Paul MacLean." Think Ian's nailed this one. And, just like Mike Babcock helped sell Guy Boucher to Steve Yzerman, he's selling MacLean to his old boss, Bryan Murray.
18. It is incredibly premature to predict Sidney Crosby's future. Someone who loves hockey as much as he does will do anything and everything possible to make a full recovery for next season. If he doesn't heal, could he retire? Sure, but that would happen to ANYONE with a concussion. That will, however, be the absolute last resort. He's got a whole summer to continue the recovery process. Let's see where we are in September.
19. Good summer so far for the Islanders (although this arena plan sounds like it's going to be a battle). Long-term deals for Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo. And, some pretty smart goalie watchers say Anders Nilsson has a chance to be a star.
20. Go figure. As some Bruins grudgingly admit Maxim Lapierre is a much improved player because "he's not involving himself with the stuff that doesn't matter," he taunts Patrice Bergeron with a finger to bite. I did think it was funnier than Mike Milbury did, though.
21. Here's the statement from the NHL on the decision not to suspend Burrows: "After reviewing the incident, including speaking with the on-ice officials, I can find no conclusive evidence that Alex Burrows intentionally bit the finger of Patrice Bergeron." Why don't we get rid of the legalese? Just say: "Look, we don't think it's worthy of a game in the Stanley Cup Final." What's wrong with that?
22. How crazy are things in Vancouver? Sami Salo told Jim Hughson he went to go watch his son play, and the coaches needed to let him stand on the bench to do so in peace.
23. Dobrivoje Lucic (Milan's father) remembers watching his first NHL game. It was 1985, Edmonton at Vancouver. The guy who stood out: Cam Neely. "He got a penalty for fighting and came back into the game. I asked, 'Why is he allowed to return?' In soccer, if you fought you were thrown out. My friend said, 'Here you get five minutes.'" Mr. Lucic has an autographed No. 8 jersey in the living room. He was afraid to approach Neely even after his son was drafted because he didn't want to be a bother. Finally, Milan convinced him to do it.
24. Visiting players get two tickets per game to the final. Lucic needed 10 for Game 1, so he started calling people on Craigslist. They were hanging up on him. "Yeah, I'm sure this really is Milan Lucic."
25. I asked Henrik Sedin if he and Daniel ever ask to kill penalties, "Every day." Alain Vigneault's response: "Not going to happen." He wants them concentrating on offence.
26. The Bruins used a couple of motivational techniques before Game 7 against Tampa. Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton brought in their Stanley Cup rings to show teammates. ("Mark and I had talked about when was the right time to do it," Thornton said. "But I left it up to him to decide.") Then, Thornton and Shane Hnidy put up pictures of the Bruins last victory - 1972. Claude Julien really credited them for doing that.
27. That shows the value reserves can have, especially at this time of year. In 2001, Toronto made the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, facing Ottawa, a team which had dominated them all year. The Maple Leafs won the first two on the road and led in Game 3 before giving up two late goals to send it into overtime. They looked stunned as they walked off the ice, but before the doors closed to their dressing room, I could hear Healy (the backup to Curtis Joseph) yelling, "Hey, before the series, if we knew we were one shot away from going up 3-0, we would've been happy." Cory Cross won it two minutes into OT, en route to series sweep.
28. Postscript: I wanted to do a story on what Healy did, but couldn't go to practice the next day. (I was at The Score at the time.) So, I asked another reporter to get an answer from Glenn, and he completely denied saying it. Thanks a lot, Heals, you liar.
29. Oilers Lunch host Bob Stauffer was telling a great one about The Roxy, where citizens and visitors go to lose brain cells. The University of Alberta's men's hockey team went unbeaten for almost 20 years in Vancouver, because the rule was you couldn't go to The Roxy unless you swept UBC.
30. I don't know if there's a city in the NHL whose fans love their TV analyst like Detroit loves Mickey Redmond. And what a timely honour for Terry Jones, who was pulled off the Vancouver/San Jose series for chasing down Daryl Katz the night the Oilers and the city of Edmonton reached a tentative arena deal. (Apparently, he was supposed to focus on the game. Whatever.) Two very deserving Hall of Fame Inductees.
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