It's a little bit later than I planned, but we're good to go and we're about 36 hours from the start of hockey season. And of course, these next two days are going to just drag by. So let's help it along a little.
Your Eastern Conference Preview, with haiku accompaniment…
Congrats, B’s. Just hope
Steckel and Hedman got their
Days with Stanley, too.
Why We Watch: Because they’re the defending champs. Because Mark Recchi won’t be around to rack up half his season’s goals scored in games just against the Pens. Because after their cute little Cup run last spring, pretty much everyone’s going to realize how much they really do hate Brad Marchand when he’s doing shit like that against the Pens. Because Zdeno Chara still looks like a giraffe on skates.
Because in all seriousness, it’ll be interesting to see what Tim Thomas does for an encore. I hate what Thomas did during the Cup Finals because I wanted the Canucks to win. But allegiances aside, we may never see playoff goaltending like that again…at least not over an extended playoff run. Thomas posted a save percentage of .940 for the entire postseason. To put that in some perspective, Patrick Roy – largely considered the best clutch/big-game goalie in the NHL’s modern era – had a career-best postseason save percentage of .934 (2000-01). Thomas will be turning 38 just as the postseason is starting.
Oh, and look who’s patrolling their blue-line.
Corvo Face. Bring it.
Pegula has cash
But really? Ten million bucks for
Why We'll Watch: Because the Pens swept the season series with Buffalo and outscored the Sabres 12-5 in the process, showing an ability to get to Ryan Miller and his wonky eyebrow. Because it was really Buffalo and Tyler Myers who probably struck the fatal blow to the Pens' Cup hopes last year when Myers used Malkin's knee as a means to break his fall. Because 10 years (and a $10 million salary this year) for Christian Ehrhoff is still ridiculous in any universe. Because Jordan Leopold was here for like fifteen minutes a couple of years ago. Because Brad Boyes is a former ERIE OTTER (woooo, hometown). Because Buffalo fans become some of the most obnoxious fans to invade Pittsburgh when their team is winning, so we'll see where this goes.
But they'll be fun to watch. They play an up-tempo style and while they really don't have a franchise-caliber forward outside of Thomas Vanek, they can easily rotate three very balanced scoring lines.
Jeff Skinner may score
One hundred goals before he
Can legally drink.
Why We'll Watch: Because it's guaranteed drunkenness four nights a year if you play the Staal Brothers Drinking Game. Because Jeff Skinner is ridiculously good and comes across like his middle name is "Aw Shucks". Because Ron Francis is their Director of Hockey Operations. Because I'm fairly certain Root Sports Pittsburgh will find a way to mix in that 2009 playoff footage of Cowher with the hurricane siren at least once during a Canes-Pens game. Because Joni Pitkanen and Alexei Ponikarovsky both play for the Canes this year, meaning the two of them being on the ice on the same time could cause an entire half-length of ice to be sucked into a black hole of "don't give a crap" hockey.
No pro hockey team
Needs “Hi My Name Is…” name tags
More than the Panthers.
Why We'll Watch: Um, we may not. Florida is on just once on Versus all year, and that's the Pens' home opener on October 11. So unless the Panthers make the playoffs, or unless you REALLY want to see the Panthers and subscribe to GameCenter or Center Ice, it's going to be tough to watch this team at all.
They have a new coach in Kevin Dineen, who is widely considered one of the better up-and-coming coaching minds (they said the same thing about the guy he replaced, Peter DeBoer). They completely remade their roster, but the best names among those were Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell. They've got spiffy new red jerseys. And hey, Ed Jovanovksi is back! AND they have former Pens first-round pick Angelo Esposito!
OK, we tried.
Let’s just all hope that
Carey Price never wears that
Jacques Plante mask again.
Why We'll Watch: Because there's still a bit of hate that boils under the surface after the Habs knocked the Pens out of the playoffs in 2009-10 (although that may have been more on the Pens). Because there are few louder road crowds the Pens will see than those in Montreal, and none who will try to intimidate the officials into making every call in favor of the Habs. Because "O Canada" is awesome, equally in English and in French. Because there's a real chance that every night he steps on the ice, PK Subban is going to run his mouth to the wrong player. Because we still haven't forgotten this…
DeBoer breaks into
Lou’s office. Makes sure contacts
To Lemaire are burned.
Why We'll Watch: Pardon us if we hesitate, because in recent years, we'd rather not watch the life-choking, soul-sucking crap that the Devils call hockey. And despite the presence of new coach Peter DeBoer, Lou Lamoriello still gets his fingerprints all over the personnel decisions and he just can't seem to quit Jacques Lemaire. But we'll watch because they're division rivals, and because life after Martin Brodeur has to start at some point, just not yet. Because old friend Petr Sykora is back in the NHL, having made the Devils after being brought to camp on a tryout basis.
Question: Will that new
arena in Quebec have
room for Gillies’ cage?
Why We'll Watch: Like you need reminding. Feb. 11, 2011. The Islanders and Pens have played since, but not in Pittsburgh. That changes in about three weeks, when the Isles come here on Oct. 27, the back end of a home-and-home doubleheader. The fans will be charged up, to say the least. Are the Pens interested in gooning it up with the Islanders? Doubtful. They could've done so already in the rematch last year, and let's face it, the Pens have bigger fish to fry this year than a revenge game against the Islanders. I'll just say I won't be surprised if the Pens get up big in this first home rematch and keep their foot on the gas. Maybe the top powerplay gets an extra shift or two. Something like that.
They're not a bad team, otherwise. Grabner is entertaining to watch. He's Konstantin Koltsov with NHL-caliber hands, maybe not be a regular 35-40 goal scorer, but he's good for 25-30 this year.
Sooner or later
one of these big-name signing
equals a Cup, right?
Why We'll Watch: Because Dubinsky's shouting matches with Crosby never get old. Because there's nothing funnier than the media that covers the Rangers. Because once Marc Staal gets back from his concussion, hey, six more guaranteed nights of drunk thanks to the Staal Brothers. And because we'll get six games of "Awwwwww, Mike Rupp."
Every year, it seems Glen Sather – whose management style has become equal parts "herp" and "derp" – manages to lure whatever the big-name player is in that particular free agent market to New York, with little regard to how the player fits into the team. And seemingly every year, the team can't manage to advance beyond the second round of the postseason. A few years ago, it was Drury and Gomez. Then it was Wade Redden. Then Gaborik. Now it's Brad Richards.
The national media loves the Rangers every preseason. We say we've learned a little from history.
In hindsight, good call
by Murray keeping Chara
in ‘06…wait, what?
Why We'll Watch: Well,…um,…hmmmm…so….they, uh, have Sergei Gonchar. And…um…yeah…well, Chris Neil is guaranteed to do at least one dumb thing per hockey game. They've got former Columbus first rounder Nikita Filatov, trying to salvage his NHL career. And…um…well, they've got nice new third jerseys (seriously, they're nice). They have Spezza, too, which means…they…have Jason Spezza.
There's always the NHL Draft Lottery.
New game at Consol:
"Count the Ways That Brooks Orpik
Can Make A Czech Bounce"
Why We'll Watch:
Like we need to tell you.
Did not realize
Pixar was now sponsoring
an NHL team.
Why We'll Watch: Because Guy Boucher's facial expressions behind the bench make him the Brooks Orpik of NHL coaches. Because of all the teams we've seen knock the Pens out of the playoffs over the past seasons, there seems to be the least animosity against Tampa. Because it'll be interesting to see whether Yzerman has to win a Cup as an executive before being anointed the Best GM of All-Time, or if the national hockey media has already skipped that step and given him the crown. Because I'd love to hear the phone call Shanny makes to Yzerman telling him he has to suspend Steve Downie for 20 games.
But really, because Stamkos is that good and Martin St. Louis is one of the few NHL players that is terrifying every time you see roaring down a wing at full speed with the puck. Because Victor Hedman may be on his way to winning this generation's nomination for the Kevin Hatcher Award, given to the biggest defenseman in the league who refuses to hit anyone (unless Sid's standing behind the net flush against the boards and glass).
But who designed these new uniforms, and did they not look at Toronto's colors beforehand? Speaking of which…
I've tried it out but
"Connollyyyyyyyy and Kessel" just
Why We'll Watch: Because Optimus Reim may really be the goaltender the Leafs have been looking for since…what, Felix Potvin back in the early 1990s? Because their fans travel well and usually make for some entertaining games at Consol, if for no other reason that most of them are drunk the entire time. Because with Kessel, Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur, they may actually have something here. Because Brian Burke just ripped Kevin Lowe over an offer sheet again.
Tough to get pumped for the Leafs because they've been out of the playoff picture and more defined by underachieving for so long now. We'll see if that changes this year. No recent Eastern Conference bottom-feeder is more poised to make the leap to playoff team than the Leafs.
“F@ck f@ck f@ck f@ck f@ck.”
Speech by Bruce Boudreau.
Why We'll Watch: Because while the rivalry may have become somewhat diminished over the last year or two, it's still a chance to sit back and crack open a cold new can of Schadenfreude Ale every time something goes poorly for them. But they're still a rival and because we all get some joy in the failures of our rivals, there are few things better than watching an increasingly-predictable meltdown by Boudreau materialize. And we'll watch this year because this may be the last chance this core group gets to do something that involves the playoffs beyond the second round. It's a safe bet that Ovechkin and Backstrom are safe. But Boudreau, Semin and Green? Not so much.
The Caps have quietly flown under the radar, and it's tough to say whether that's a good thing or bad thing. The romanticism the national media had with this team a few years ago has long passed; they're no longer the next big thing in the league. Ovechkin was not himself last year, and it remains to be seen how he will respond this year. Ditto for the supporting cast.
Deep South to True North.
Jets players say, “So THAT’S what
a home crowd looks like.”
Why We'll Watch: Because hockey is back in Winnipeg. I was in college when the Jets moved to Phoenix. It was the heydey of ESPN2 and NHL2Night, and also the advent of the internet. I remember following the story through many of those outlets (thanks Bill Pidto, John Buccigross and LCS Hockey), and the whole story was just sad. I'm not even sure the fans in Phoenix ever felt great about it. Hockey is one of those sports that was unique in part because it existed in places the other three of the "Big Four" American sports leagues didn't – places like Winnipeg, Hartford and Quebec City. There was a warmer hometown feel of the game because it played in those "smaller" cities and no-frills arenas.
It was sad to see those teams leave. Maybe that's why so many of us who lived through it pined for an eventual return of the league to those cities. Or maybe it was a way to hold on to our younger days. For fans of my generation (I'm 36), we identified our formative years as fans with those teams. But it felt in large part that hockey just belonged there.
Nevertheless, the Jets are back. Yes, they're the old Thrashers and the Thrashers weren't exactly very solid, but that may not matter quite as much, at least for this year.
Welcome back, Winnipeg.
Consol ice level,
Bylsma shouts forth the mantra,
"Grind these bitches down!"
Why We'll Watch: Because this is what we do.
The seasons change and the players change, and some years will produce results much better than others. And no matter what, we'll watch and we'll cheer. Because this is our team and this is what we do.
The late Jack Falla wrote in his book "Open Ice" that "hockey is the only tribe I belong to." Same goes for us. We all got here at different times and came from different places. And it doesn't really matter when you showed up, or how much you knew when you did. Maybe it wasn't in this building. Maybe it was at Mellon Arena. Maybe it wasn't even in this town. Maybe it happened in Erie or Johnstown, or somewhere much further away. You walked through the arena doors for the first time, gazed out at a sheet of ice and saw players gliding across it chasing a frozen black disk. And for whatever reason, this game got you hooked. You kept coming back, and here you are again.
Because it's something more than just this game itself. It's a brilliant game and an entertaining game, but it's more than just the game. It's the experience. It's going to the arena to reconnect with some old friendly faces – both those on the ice and those in the stands. It's spending four hours at a bar watching and discussing the game with some friends. Or it's gathering with a few hundred thousand of the rest of the tribe downtown to celebrate a championship.
It's what we do.
And in one more day, we do it all over again.
Welcome to the 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins hockey season.