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Ryan Lambert

What We Learned: The NHL will always screw up a free lunch

Ryan Lambert
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Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

The National Hockey League is currying a lot of good will lately.

Ratings are up appreciably, for one thing. More people are watching hockey on television than we've seen in years. ESPN writers like Bill Simmons and Gene Wojciechowski that don't really have any reason to care about the sport and feel they haven't been given one in a good, long time are writing the equivalent of puff pieces on how wonderful the sport seems to them all of a sudden (and I'll just leave well enough alone and not tear them apart for their "as a casual fan of the sport I feel..." crap).

Pretty much everyone, it seems, wants, with varying degrees of desperation, to watch hockey again. And so it only makes sense that the chuckleheads at the NHL would deny them that.

Saturday, it was announced that the League -- because the Blackhawks potentially almost foiled its plans for another Detroit/Pittsburgh final by having the audacity to not roll over and get swept by their most hated rivals -- would be starting the Stanley Cup finals on June 5.

Let's hope EJ Hradek of ESPN is correct when he reported last night that the League may still move the Finals up to begin on this Saturday and Sunday, if everything's said and done by Wednesday. Otherwise, we're looking at a ridiculous television-influenced decision.

(Coming Up: The Hurricanes Staal in the conference finals; inside the Blackhawks' embarrassment; the LeBron-like glory of Crosby and Malkin; Balsillie and Bettman's Trash Talk Corner; Play of the Weekend; and could we have found the worst trade in Internet hockey fan history?)

The NHL's current scheduling plan is, to quote Mirtle, "asinine." And if he's right that if this silly schedule is really being used simply to appease advertisers and TV executives -- which we have no reason to doubt -- then it's incredibly shortsighted as well as being simply ridiculous for a number of reasons.

The first is that, obviously, people, especially fans teetering on the edge of enjoying the sport, have been watching playoff hockey now for a month and change, and they're all very much into it. So when everyone is nice and jazzed for the Cup finals, the NHL says, "Well NBC says we need to air these when they say."

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I get the obvious need to try to move away from being a gate-driven league so that teams can actually earn revenue from television contracts. And I get that, much like the NFL did in the 1960s, the league does, to a certain extent, have to bend to the will of its television masters. But it's not like the league heads are getting primo prime-time spots here.

Even though sweeps will have long since been over and every show on network TV had their seasons end two weeks ago, these games are being pushed back so that they can be played on a Friday and Saturday night, back-to-back, which in and of itself is ridiculous.

By doing this, the league is more or less going to only get viewers that are already hockey hardcores because which potential fan would stay home on a Friday and Saturday night without an explicit reason to do so? Children, I guess? Their parents? Friendless losers? Is this the NHL's target demographic?

On top of that, look at the 5 p.m. start time for Game 6. Now, the pragmatic reason for this is that neither the NHL nor the network wanted to compete with a potential Game 5 in the NBA finals, which would be fine if not for the fact that a Game 7 would go head-to-head against what could be a LeBron/Kobe matchup. Think ESPN will be falling all over itself to write articles talking about how you should be watching the Cup final then?

The second reason this is stupid is that the Penguins, as Leahy pointed out over the weekend, could end up with a week-and-a-half vacation if they close their series out on Tuesday night, which is very likely to happen. And the Red Wings could be a day behind given yesterday's convincing result. While I'm sure the players themselves are grateful for the days off, to some extent, they also can't exactly be eager to potentially close a Cup final closer to Independence Day than Memorial Day. This is all ignoring the fact that, if it comes to that, Games 6 and 7 might be played on back-to-back nights.

(It's also worth noting that this isn't a Monday Night Raw/Denver Nuggets situation because neither the Mellon Arena nor the Joe are booked until the middle of June at the earliest.)

Then there are people like you and me: fans that would watch the Cup final on Telemundo at 3 a.m. on a Sunday: who are only going to be supremely annoyed by this. At best.

What are we supposed to do? Wait breathlessly for updates on just how much Mike Babcock really does hate Chris Chelios(notes)? It's too bad that we actually like the sport how it is, because that's not what Bettman's after. Screw us, basically.

All this scheduling does, really, is piss off real fans, cause casual fan interest to fall off a cliff, and irritate players. Is that really worth a prime time spot on NBC on a Friday night?

What We Learned

(WWL will, for the remainder of the postseason, only cover the teams still playing hockey. Any news of note involving the other teams will be dealt with below in Loserwatch '09.)

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Carolina Hurricanes: Ah, for the halcyon days of two weeks ago. The Hurricanes were winning games with regularity, they didn't look completely overmatched at every turn, Joe Corvo(notes) didn't look to be on the verge of suicide in interviews with Chris Simpson, and Tim Gleason(notes) wasn't having night terrors about turning the puck over to Evgeni Malkin(notes) in the slot. Oh, and Eric Staal(notes) wasn't a several-million-dollar weight around the team's neck.

Good thing Paul Maurice isn't worried about it.

Down 0-2 in the series, the Canes face a must-win tonight to have any chance to play for the Stanley Cup. That means Staal must score tonight, right?

"We scored four goals on the road in Game 2, that's enough to win," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "If Eric Staal doesn't score ... all the better for us because we know he's going to at some point."

The Hurricanes, it turns out, are 7-0 in the postseason when Staal scores a goal. Nice! But when he doesn't, they're 1-9. And apart from a glorious six-game run from Game 6 of the New Jersey series to Game 4 of the Boston series (in which he had 7-3-10), Staal has picked up just four points in the other 11 games of this postseason. So the fact that the Canes are down 0-3 in a series in which their "best player" has one measly assist and is a minus-6: no surprise.

Another interesting stat: In wins, he's a plus-9, in losses he's a minus-12.

Obviously the above piece was written before it turned out that "some point" was not Game 3 either. And somehow there's very little call down there in North Cackalacky for the kid to get his act together. And as it stands right now, he'll only be getting the fourth-biggest paycheck in the league next year. At what point do people START worrying?

(And yes, I do relish in having been right about this kid's streakiness and penchant for not showing up when it counts. Thank you for asking.)

Chicago Blackhawks: And you thought the way the Hurricanes lost was ugly. Remember last summer when Kris Draper's(notes) baby daughter did a dirt in the Stanley Cup? Well what the Blackhawks turned in yesterday stunk just as badly as Bill Wellman's white gloves after that fateful July day.

A disaster, an embarrassment, a waste, pick one, pick 'em all, you wouldn't be wrong in trying to describe what passed for Blackhawks hockey in a 6-1 loss in Game 4 of what used to be a competitive Western Conference finals against the vexing Red Wings.

The Hawks came into Game 4 knowing they couldn't go into Game 5 in Detroit on the brink of elimination, and they proceeded to lose the first period, their poise, the game and likely the series.

Oh yes, they got embarrassed alright, but we probably should've seen it coming. They were playing a team with roughly one billion games of playoff experience between its collected players, and probably a few hundred Stanley Cup rings to go with it. What does Chicago have? Like, six games of playoff experience in NHL 09 and a couple Ring Pops? Maybe? It's not that the Blackhawks don't have the talent, but their petulant display as the game wore on and got, frankly, out of hand, was proof of what they really need: composure.

Detroit Red Wings: Nothing much to report outside of saying that yes, the beating the Wings laid on the Blackhawks yesterday afternoon was brutal, Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) weren't terribly missed and, of course, that Johan Franzen is hilarious.

Pittsburgh Penguins: A lot is being made of this little run Evgeni Malkin's on. And for good reason. Picking up 16 points in six games isn't easy unless you're playing NHL2003 as the Western Conference All-Stars. On easy. Against Japan. But on the other hand, no one's making a thing outta Sid Crosby's performance, which is nearly as good.

Sure, it's not 16 in six, but it's 10 in his last five and, apart from one scoreless game (a win nonetheless), it's 20 in 11. Together, Crosby and Malkin have 26 goals and 28 assists in 16 playoff games. Those are 1980s Oilers numbers right there.

This just in: Crosby and Malkin are fairly good.*

At times, it seems terribly unfair.

Sure, the Penguins didn't break any rules to get the rights to Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin -- they ended up with Malkin after losing a lottery -- but that can't be much consolation to the rest of the NHL these days.

It certainly isn't to Carolina, which was shoved to within 60 minutes of the offseason by those two last night, as they carried the Penguins to a 6-2 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final at the RBC Center.

"They're unbelievable," Penguins forward Craig Adams(notes) said. "To me, they're 1 and 1A, and I don't know which one is which. "Just so competitive, so talented. They just want to play in these big games and score the goals, and they're doing it."

I understand people get tired of the Crosby/Malkin rah-rah talk, and I kind of get it, but at some point, you just have to go, "Jesus tapdancing Christ on a pogo stick, these guys are ridiculous." No one ever gets sick of seeing Tiger Woods sink chip shots from 40 yards and shrug like it was a two-foot putt. You could watch LeBron James hit that shot from Friday night 20 times in a row and still be in awe of it. Being in the stadium for an Albert Pujols off-the-bat no-doubter is a near-religious experience.

And seeing Crosby and Malkin take that game Saturday night by the scruff of the neck and score 31 seconds apart to put the Hurricanes out of the game late in the first period was as close to hockey perfection as you or I or anyone else will ever see. But somehow hockey fans only seem to want to bitch about both of them. I will never understand that mentality. So if you have a complaint about it, you should be kicked off the internet and banned from watching hockey.

*Disclaimer: I am not a Penguins fan.

Loserwatch '09

(News and notes from some of the teams that couldn't be bothered to make or stay in the playoffs.)

Oh that Winter Classic thing? Yeah, that's in Boston, at Fenway Park. Against either the Flyers or Caps. Book your tickets now. ... Happy trails to Bobby Holik(notes). Wyshynski said on Twitter that he does a mean Holik impression. I think we as a community need to experience it. ... Some Russian kid might sign with the Habs soon. ... Great quote in the Miami Herald yesterday: "The Panthers announced they would open training camp the next three years in Nova Scotia. Panthers fans announced the team should think about staying there if it doesn't end this [bleeping] nine-year playoff drought." Boom, roasted. ... Robyn Regehr(notes), as it happens, was not so fond of Mike Keenan. ... And congratulations to the Kelowna Rockets, who gave up three goals on the first three shots as the Windsor Spitfires ran away with the 2009 Memorial Cup. It was a little more compelling than the Red Wings game because it only ended 4-1.

Balsillie and Bettman's Trash Talk Corner

(In which a damning piece of news from the ongoing Hamilton Coyotes saga is taken out of context and has its hurtfulness rated.)

From the Financial Post:

Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, sent a letter to Bettman Thursday to voice their opposition to the Coyotes relocating to Hamilton because it would have a "crippling" effect on the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres reportedly receive about 20 per cent of their revenue from Canadians who cross the border to watch Sabres games at the HSBC Arena.

"The Buffalo Sabres are synonymous with Western New York," Gillibrand told NHL.com. "Moving a new team to southern Ontario would not only hurt the Sabres, but would be detrimental to Western New York's economy and the devoted Buffalo Sabres fans who are so loyal to their beloved team. The Sabres are crucial to Western New York's way of life. I am committed to working with Senator Schumer to do everything we can to keep the Sabres successful right here in Buffalo."

Oh-Snap-O-Meter:

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3.5/5 Hillary Clintons. Lookit Showboatin' Chuck Schumer and that lady that hates illegal immigrants backin' up the Coyotes. It's always nice to have US senators come to your defense, but it's not a full-on throwdown because a) it's only indirect defense and b) really, who cares about Buffalo?

Play of the Weekend

Maybe it's not the prettiest goal of the weekend, but it was certainly the one of the most important, and I mean, if you're gonna score a 2-on-1 shortie, you'd probably draw it up just like Marian Hossa(notes) and Valtteri Filpula executed it.

Gold Star Award

Evgeni Malkin continues his torrid pace, scoring another two goals in the first period Saturday, the first of which opened the scoring and the second of which closed the door on the Hurricanes' hopes of winning this series. When you've got guys on the other team saying, "This won't be a four-game series," as though that's some sort of victory, that series is done like dinner.

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Minus of the Weekend

Hey, Joel Quennville, what are you so angry about?

"I think we witnessed probably the worst call in the history of sports at the end of the (first) period. A nothing play and they scored. It's 3-0. They ruined a good hockey game and absolutely destroyed what was going on, on the ice.

"That call. I've never seen anything like it.

"I couldn't find the penalty. You could argue along the way, but they ruined the whole game. That's basically the gist of what I'm trying to say."

A two-minute minor in the first period of a blowout conference final game that didn't even decide the series is the worst call in the history of sports you say? I'll give the Hand of God the bad news, you stupid baby.

Next week's game I'm totally going to watch on Center Ice if I'm home

Put me down for all of 'em again.

Event that should replace the shootout and would be just as relevant to hockey skill

Passing a sobriety test.

Thing of the Week

(An indeterminate something that I liked quite a bit.)

A little television show called "Party Down" on a little television network called "Starz" wrapped its first season this week and I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that, because it was on Starz on Friday nights, not many of you watched it. You have made a grave error. Go out of your way to see it, because it's one of the funniest shows on television.

Perfect HFBoards trade proposal of the week

Okay this is an excellent one from user "Snow Miser." It's a little too long to quote it directly but the practical upshot is this:

Pittsburgh trades Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) and Chris Kunitz(notes) to Columbus for Steve Mason(notes), Jakub Voracek(notes), Nikita Filatov(notes), Rusty Klesla, a first-round pick this year and a second-round pick next year. Then they flip Jordan Staal(notes) to the Kings for Alex Frolov. Afterwards, they sign Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik(notes), Nik Antropov(notes) and Mattias Ohlund(notes). Hossa and Gaborik somehow will only cost $7 million each.

"Congratulations," chimes in user Biggzy. "One of the worst proposals on hfboards."

And that's saying something.

Signoff

G'bye.

The Two-Line Pass publishes hockey awesomeness every day. Please do check it out. Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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