Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Hockey Night in Montreal

The National Hockey League playoffs can be a long and drawn out affair. Each series can last seven games, with the winner of the seventh game advancing to the next round.
This is not something taken lightly by fans of the Montreal Canadiens. Game Seven will be played Wednesday night, and every Hab fan in existence will be watching, listening, cheering for the beloved “Bleu, Blanc et Rouge”.
The Canadiens can thank a Slovakian goaltender for their survival. They are in tough against the powerful Washington Capitals, and looked completely outclassed at times in this series.
Coach Jacques Martin made a few critical decisions before Monday night’s game, and the result was a 3-1 win for the Canadiens.
First of all, he decided to start a young rookie who had never played in any Stanley Cup playoff games. P. K. Subban is a familiar figure to local hockey fans, as he played his entire Canadian Hockey League career for the Belleville Bulls. (At one point in his commentary, analyst Pierre McGuire gave credit to Bull’s coach George Burnett for aiding in Subban’s development.)
Subban simply wowed the Hab fans. He showed no fear, no hesitation in his play. He jumped into the fray with all the confidence in the world, and assisted on one of the Hab markers. His skating ability was described as “World Class”, and he handled the puck well. He played as if he belonged at that level, and there is a good chance he may never dress in a minor league uniform again.
But it was the play of Jaroslav Halak that put the game in the victory column for the Canadiens. Time after time, he plucked the puck out of the air with his trapper, often with a touch of embellishment. His play was reminiscent of the play of Patrick Roy, indeed high praise. Comparisons could also be made to Ken Dryden, who lifted the Habs to the Stanley Cup in his early days in Montreal. For Halak, all of that remains to be seen.
There have been several local heroes on the ice in this year’s edition of the Cup playoffs. Some have now departed, others are still in the fray. Belleville’s Brad Richardson played well in a losing cause to Vancouver. Richardson’s move from Colorado to Los Angeles has worked out well for him. Andrew Raycroft has the best seat in the house as a Canuck, backing up Roberto Luongo; however, at any given moment he could be thrust into the fray if coach Vigneault thinks a change of keepers might inspire his team.
Daniel Cleary has put together another outstanding season with the Detroit Red Wings. He has been joined by another former Bull for the playoff run-Jan Mursak.
Jason Spezza, Jon Cheechoo, and former Wellington Duke Derek Smith skated with the Senators this season. David Clarkson, also a former Belleville Bull, again received accolades for his gritty play in New Jersey. Cody McCormick has surfaced again for the Buffalo Sabres, and has given them some much-needed toughness.

Although it has become a difficult chore in all professional sports, repeating as Stanley Cup champions is at the top of Matt Cooke’s list. He continues to play his role with the Penguins perfectly, always in everyone’s face. But he has also supplied some much needed scoring for the Pens. He does trail Sidney Crosby in that category.
Less than three weeks ago, I watched the conclusion of a Habs game in Montreal. They trailed by a goal, and, for the last two minutes, they booed their team mercilessly. They are an impatient lot, expecting nothing less than a repeat of the glory days of yesteryear. Sorry, mes amis, it just doesn’t work that way.
And I do hope the Hab fans forget that dumb chant of “Ole, ole, ole, ole” over the summer. It belongs solely in soccer stadia.
Nothing like a late April snow to bring out the worst in everyone! Drop the gloves!

James Hurst
27 April 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010


You Take the Face Off!

As is the case with so many aspects of a National Hockey League game, winning face offs has become a crucial part of the game. You can also add the following to that list: killing penalties, possessing a potent power play, taking the man and finishing checks, cycling the puck well behind the opponent’s net, blocking shots, great goaltending…

The list does not end there. The game has become complex. There are many individual skills that add up to success in a team game, if performed well.

Ah, but when all is said and done, in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team that gets the best out of its goaltenders usually hoists the silver.

The Vancouver Canucks went into the post season dance assured that their keeper, Roberto Luongo, would take them far into the play offs. At this time, there are some doubts. Recently, Coach Alain Vigneault pulled Luongo and replaced him with Andrew Raycroft, the former Wellington Duke. Raycroft stemmed the flow, but the Canucks were unable to mount an attack and lost that game to the pesky Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings are searching for respect as a team from the West Coast, but have taken a back seat to the Ducks, the Sharks, and the Canucks for many years. They are a hungry team, and they are giving the Canucks a game. Defenceman Drew Doughty, who played well for the Canadian Olympic team, reflected on the confidence of the Kings’ players after the recent victory in LA. “We match up really well with them.” Belleville’s Brad Richardson chipped in with a nifty unassisted goal in the recent Kings’ 5-3 win.

Mark Recchi has seen his share of action in Stanley Cup play. An old warrior at 41, he finessed a fine pass from behind the net to lead the Bruins to a recent win over the Buffalo Sabres. Led by Tuukka Rask between the pipes, the Bostonians cannot be counted out at this time.

Defending the Cup has become a difficult task. The Penguins currently have the rights to the mug, and are battling with the Senators from Ottawa to move on to the next round. The Sens have Brian Elliott in goal, and do not seem to play as well as they might in front of him. The games in this series are hotly contested with plenty of stick work and nasty hits. Survival is critical to get to the next level, and the incredible Sidney Crosby has lit the red lamp for the Pens when necessary.

The Chicago Black Hawks need to step it up a notch at this time. The pundits have picked the Hawks to go deep into the playoffs.; however, they dropped the first game of their series AT HOME to the Nashville Predators. The next couple of games are critical to the young Hawks.

Despite all of the misfortunes faced by the Phoenix Coyotes this past season, they are now challenging the Detroit Red Wings. Tuesday morning’s paper has the Desert Dogs up two games to one against the boys from “Hockey Town”.

The Sharks and the Avalanche are knotted up at a game apiece. Anybody’s guess, although the Sharks finished light years ahead of the Avs.

And finally, the Flyers from the “City of Brotherly Love” snuck by the New Jersey Devils last Sunday to lead that series. It remains to be seen whether or not Martin Brodeur still can work his magic in the New Jersey net. He is on everyone’s list as one of the top five goaltenders of all time, but needs to improve to move on to another partner in this dance.

So much hockey, so little time. Keep your eyes on Hal Gill. He has taken the ice in more than 80 playoff games without recording a single goal, and the Habs could use a few! Former Oiler Craig Muni currently holds the mark of 113 games, with Gill in hot pursuit as a Montreal Canadien. With a dozen bodies in front of the Capitals net, with Theodore or Varlamov sprawled in the crease, there is a chance that Gill might float a drifter in from the point to break the record. Sure.

The word parity has been used frequently to describe this year’s version of the National Hockey League. From the results so far, such is the case. And the game is better off because of it. I like the relatively level playing surface. Play on.

James Hurst
Monday, April 19, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Welcome Back, Baseball!

The Toronto Blue Jays have once again stormed out of the gate and are in first place in the American League East. They did the same thing last year.
It has given those of little faith the opportunity to begin their rants as to when and why the Jays will falter again this year.

Those of you who cheer for teams from Hogtown, no matter what the sport, have reason to be a little cynical at this point in time. The Raptors were expected to compete well in their division; however, they have faltered badly going down the stretch, and lost two key games to the Chicago Bulls to all but seal their fate. Their chances of making the playoffs are slim and nil at the moment.

The Argos piled up the losses as the season progressed last year. Yet again, they are attempting to re-invent the wheel, and have hired all new coaches. They will have plenty of sizzle heading into the pre-season, but expectations are not exactly at pinnacle heights.
The Toronto Maple Leafs did disappoint this year. There were several bright spots, and they will return next year with a hungrier and younger crew. Members of the Leafs Nation will now have to enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a little less enthusiasm.

Ah, but the Jays are here and now, and they are doing fine. Perhaps they are playing over their heads. So what? Wins must be taken, graciously, when they come. As is often the case, the pundits in the Toronto press have already buried the Jays.

On Monday night the Jays came from behind several times only to fall short in the eleventh inning to the Chicago White Sox. They have made a habit of clawing back into games this season, achieving success in four of their five wins in that manner. For the record, last year, the Jays did not record their second win when they were trailing after eight innings until August 26th!

In his first start of the season, lanky Brian Tallet held the Texas Rangers to two runs for the victory. He has been with the Jays for five years, and has the most Major League experience of any of the Blue Jay five starting pitchers. That does not bode well for the Toronto Nine in the long run; however, so far, so good. There are some fine arms in that mix, including Ricky Romero. I expect Romero to break out this season, barring injury.

Vernon Wells has provided plenty of fire power for the Jays. He leads the league in home runs, and has shown good hustle in the outfield, chasing down fly balls with ease. Vernon has been inconsistent in the past, often playing with nagging injuries. As is the case with all professional sport, most injuries are not shared with the media and the fans. Players are often required to play with aches and pains, especially in baseball, the longest season of them all.

Vernon currently ranks fourth on the Jays all time home run list, trailing George Bell by six dingers. He also needs four runs batten in to overtake Joe Carter, who is in third place on that list. These are personal numbers, and this is a team game; nonetheless, it does say something about Vernon’s contributions to the team over the years.

Noticeably absent from the lineup Monday night was Aaron Hill. Hill has been placed on the disabled list after playing two games. He will be sorely missed. He and Adam Lind were the truly bright spots with the Jays last year. Both received Silver Bats at the end of the season, a fine tribute to each.

The Jays ranked 11th out of the 14 teams in the American League going into Monday’s game on the hitting charts. Their team batting average is a rather dismal .233. For a team to challenge for the pennant, it must hit in the .280 range. The Detroit Tigers are currently leading the league at a .295 clip. The Jays are tied with the Twins for the most home runs, eleven each.

We all chuckled a little to hear the fans giving a “Bronx Cheer” to Alex Rios. He started his career with the Jays with unlimited potential, and most of us expected he would eventually become a superstar. He is still trying to find a groove with the White Sox, although he has not excelled with them. He had worn out his welcome in Toronto when he departed.

All part of the lore of the great game of baseball. Tie up those laces on your spikes, Henry. We have a lot of games left this season! Play Ball!

James Hurst
13 April 2010.

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