Thursday, June 18, 2015

All Rounds Done

Some thoughts about the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that they have come to an end:

Finalist Feelings
For me and my fellow Lightning fans, there is a feeling of emptiness over opportunity lost. We have great memories of the first three rounds and even some fond memories from the finals, but right now they are overshadowed by our team's losses in Games Five and Six. It took 11 years for the Bolts to get back to the finals after winning the Cup in 2004, and although we know the future looks extremely bright, we are also aware that that does not automatically mean it will be bright... But perhaps we are being too self-indulgent, for the way we feel right now is nothing compared to the way our players feel... Fortunately, at least for myself, the positive memories of this post-season are already starting to percolate back to the surface.

Conversely, Chicago fans are elated and should be. My team was good enough to beat theirs, but theirs was the better team by a small margin, so the end result was appropriate... By winning three of the last six Cups and coming oh so close to reaching last year's finals, this group of Blackhawks will go down in history and stands as the truest dynasty of the entire post-Oilers (not merely post-cap) era... Plus, the main players who comprise its core are still in their prime. Although the team has cap issues to address during the off-season, its GM has proven capable in that area before, and therefore a fourth Cup remains attainable.

The finals did not go seven and the decisive tilt did not go to overtime, so I won't succumb to hyperbole by calling them the greatest finals of all time. I will, however, attest that they were one of the best of the last quarter-century, and that they should be talked about for years to come.

Both teams moved the puck with precision and found open ice to skate, despite solid hits being dished out... Going into the decisive Game Six, the shots were dead even and the teams were only one apart in scoring chances... Also going into that game, for the first time ever, the first five had all been decided by one goal... Defensemen Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman were virtuosos in all three zones... Both starting goalies had moments of brilliance and moments of vulnerability throughout the first five games, and both played outstanding in the decider -- although a 20-year-old backup, Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy, started Game Four and played so well he could have passed for a #1 with championship experience... Ben Bishop played with a torn groin; Tyler Johnson with a broken wrist; Johnny Oduya with a torn elbow; Kris Versteeg with unspecified problems related to his previously repaired right knee; and others (most notably Nikita Kucherov and Marcus Kruger) with a variety of undisclosed bang-ups... Also, the series was evenly officiated and not overly officiated.

The Difference
At the proverbial end of the day, it came down to a couple of things. Actually, it came down to five:

1) The 'Hawks were much better on faceoffs, outdueling the Bolts 217-143.

2) Tampa Bay's lower-rung defensemen committed fatal errors, especially this one by Andrej Sustr on what proved to be the Cup-winning goal, whereas Chicago's lower-rungers weren't given a chance to commit such errors because Joel Quenneville rarely put them on the ice.

3) When the finish line was in sight, Patrick Kane rose to the occasion and Steven Stamkos did not -- as evidenced by the former notching a goal and assist in Game Six while the latter came up empty on two golden opportunities. Stamkos finished the series with 21 scoring chances, of which he converted a grand total of zero.

4) When the finish line was in sight, Corey Crawford played like the two-time champion he is; while Ben Bishop, despite playing very well overall, in Game Five committed one of the worst blunders I've ever witnessed. I am one of the legion who entered the post-season thinking of Crawford as an average talent who was blessed to be backstopping a star-studded roster; but after the way he shut the door in Games Four through Six, I have to acknowledge that he's one of the top netminders in the league.

5) Ultimately, Chicago's abundance of championship experience proved to make a difference.

Tearjerker #1
I despise it when TV coverage of the Olympics gets so larded with human interest schmaltz that the actual sports get neglected. Nonetheless, human interest stories do have an important place in the sports world and there were several in play during the Stanley Cup Finals. Chief among them was the case of Kimmo Timonen.

Timonen was born 40 years ago in Kuopio, Finland, and was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings at the age of 18. For five years he continued to play in Finland rather than venture over to this side of the Atlantic, but after the Kings traded his rights to the first-year Nashville Predators in 1998, he decided to make the jump.

He then embarked on an admirable career as one of the NHL's best blueliners, and when the 2006-07 season rolled around and he was 31 years old, Timonen became the Predators' captain and registered career highs in both points and assists. However, the team never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs while he was there.

Following that 2006-07 campaign, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he eventually signed a contract making him the highest-paid Finn in the league. Timonen experienced more playoff success in Philly than in Nashville, yet the ultimate prize eluded him. The Flyers reached the 2010 Cup finals only to be eliminated in six games by, interestingly enough, the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2006, Timonen played for Team Finland in five different international tournaments in which they finished second, never managing to come in first (one Olympics silver, one World Cup runners-up, and three World Championships silvers).

Last August, while preparing for this season that just ended, he was diagnosed with blood clots in both lungs and in his right leg. The potentially fatal condition caused him to miss the first 62 games of the 82-game regular season. On February 27th -- one day before he was scheduled to return to the ice and 19 days before his 40th birthday -- he was traded to the defensively shallow Blackhawks for a pair of draft picks. That departure from Philly came right on the heels of him having won three consecutive (and five total) Barry Ashbee Trophies, which are awarded annually to the Flyers' top defenseman. With 270 points in 519 games with that franchise, he ranks as the third-most productive defenseman in its history.

Aware of Father Time and the dangers of his diagnosis, Timonen decided it was time to retire; but because he is competitive and understands the harsh realities of sports legacies, he elected to keep playing until the season was over. Speaking to Frank Seravallie of the Philadelphia Daily News on the day he was traded, he remarked that "the only thing I am missing is the Stanley Cup. It became my only goal to return to hockey. If I had won a Stanley Cup before, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation."

Monday night, after 17 years in the league, Kimmo Timonen lifted the silver chalice over his head as an NHL champion. His name will soon be etched onto one of the Cup's pedestal rings and remain there for eternity. At some future date that will probably not come until after he has been laid to rest in the shadow of the Arctic Circle, that ring will be removed from the Cup's pedestal and retired in the Hockey Hall of Fame. If that doesn't make you smile, nothing will.

Tearjerker #2
The case of Brenden Morrow presents a decidedly different kind of tearjerker.

The Dallas Stars capped the 1998-99 season -- the one before Morrow joined them as a rookie -- by winning the Stanley Cup. In his rookie season of 1999-2000, the Stars returned to the finals but fell to New Jersey. On Monday, asked about that long-ago near-miss, Morrow said: "I don't remember 15 years ago. I was just young and dumb and thought it was going to happen every time."

I probably don't need to tell you that he never made it back to the finals during the intervening decade and a half. He became a reliable and productive forward who attained career peaks during the seasons of 2007-08 (32 goals, 42 assists) and 2010-11 (33 goals).

Morrow's career in Dallas was long. He remained there until March 2013, when he was traded to Pittsburgh. After his contract expired at the end of that season, he moved on to sign a one-year deal with St. Louis for 2013-14, after which he signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay for 2014-15. Ostensibly, neither Pittsburgh nor St. Louis was interested in bringing him back.

As we all know, this 2014-15 season saw Tampa Bay reach the Stanley Cup Finals and bring Morrow full circle from his rookie year. But sadly, because the Bolts fell just short in the finals, his 2014-15 ended just like his 1999-2000. 

Abetted by injuries during the 2011-12 campaign, Father Time has taken an inevitable toll on the game of this 36-year-old from Saskatchewan, for he is a far cry from the player he once was. Just four years removed from that career-best 33-goal season in Dallas, this year he scored a mere three goals while toiling away on Tampa Bay's fourth line. The fight and effort are still there, but the legs simply don't move as fast and his stickwork has eroded. Morrow's contributions to the Bolts were as someone who mostly levels hits and scraps for pucks in limited playing time.

During these playoffs he made a number of good hits for the Lightning, but also committed glaring errors. There were turnovers and there was a very bad penalty, though I don't recall exactly what it was or in which game it occurred. That's an ominous sign when you are playing few minutes, are long in the tooth, and your contract expires at season's end.

That "I was young and dumb" remark was uttered by Morrow in the Lightning locker room while the Blackhawks celebrated with the Cup elsewhere in the building. He then added another sentence: "Now, I'm not sure if this is it, or if I'll get another opportunity." It was not one hundred percent clear if he was talking about another opportunity to play for the Cup, or another opportunity to play professional hockey at all. Most likely, he was thinking of both.

And with that...
...I will sign off for now and move on to pen my salute to the 2014-15 Lightning, which I will probably publish sometime next week.

But first, thanks to the Korea Times, I am able to refer you over to the greatest headline since "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Until next time, farewell...

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