Sports Outside the Beltway

Florida Panthers and the Eastern NHL Conference at the half way mark

The Florida Panthers played their 41st game of the NHL season last night. A 4-2 win over division rival Carolina Panthers. Before I make some comments, here are the standings

1 Boston Bruins Games played- 41 Record- 30-7-4 Points- 64
2 Washington Capitals 41, 27-11-3, 57
3 Philadelphia Flyers 41, 22-10-9, 53
4 Montréal Canadiens 40, 24-10-6, 54
5 New York Rangers 42, 24-15-3, 51
6 New Jersey Devils 40, 23-14-3, 49
7 Carolina Hurricanes 42, 21-16-5, 47
8 Buffalo Sabres 40, 20-15-5, 45
9 Florida Panthers 41, 19-16-6, 44
10 Pittsburgh Penguins 42, 20-18-4, 44
11 Toronto Maple Leafs 41, 16-19-6, 38
12 Atlanta Thrashers 42, 14-23-5, 33
13 Ottawa Senators 39, 13-20-6, 32
14 Tampa Bay Lightning 40, 11-19-10, 32
15 New York Islanders 42, 12-26-4, 28

First I can safely conclude the NY Islanders, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, and Atlanta are out of the playoff picture. Toronto faces a uphill battle, but I won’t count them out yet.

Look where Pittsburgh is only one year after making the Stanley Cup finals. What is going on up there? They recently had a five-game losing streak at home.

They aren’t the only recent memory Stanley Cup final team fallen on hard times. Ottawa who made it in the 06-07 looks to be re-building. How did anyone in Senator management think Alex Doug Auld and Martin Gerber were playoff quality goalies?

Tampa Bay has gotten out of the cellar. Two wins against Florida in late December helped. Will Rick Tocchet still be coaching next season?

Florida has its best record at the half way since the 1999-2000 season, or the last time they went to the playoffs. I had high hopes for Florida last year only to see them dashed. Could they make it this year?

Definitely. The teams immediately ahead of them are beatable. If Florida sneaks in as the 7th or 8th seed, they are most likely to get buzz sawed by Boston or Montreal.(Though Florida does have a good record against Goalie Tim Thomas and are the only NHL team with a lifetime winning record against the Canadians. )

Some miscellaneous Florida notes-

Their defensemen have scored more goals than any other team in the Eastern Conference

Florida has gained at least 1 pt in every game Gregory Campbell has scored in.

Yesterday’s game marked just the 3rd time ever Florida went without a penalty in a game.

Tomas Vokoun now has 201 career wins as a goalie.

Florida has a very good goalie at Rochester that the name eludes me. Would Florida consider a deal for Craig Anderson and bring up the rookie before the season ends? Anderson is a free agent at the end of the year and not expected to be back.

Florida signed a multi-year agreement with Fox Sports Florida which as a result have more Panther games on television.(I got NHL Center Ice too, so I rarely miss a game unless there is no television at all) That’s good news. Now I would like FSN to stop showing upcoming programming promos while play is happening on ice. Those idiotic spinning pucks fill 1/8th of the television screen and often interfere with watching play. Every time I see this crap I feel like screaming at the television.


NY Rangers prospect took PEDs before his death

Chemical analysis of his blood shows Cherepanaov used performance enhancing drugs for at least several months before his death. From Reuters-

Alexei Cherepanov, who died after losing consciousness during a Russian Superleague game two months ago, had been taking banned substances, government investigators said on Monday.

The 19-year-old forward, one of Russia’s most talented young hockey players, was rushed to hospital after collapsing late in the third period of the game between Vanguard Omsk and Chekhov, a small town south of Moscow.

He never regained consciousness and later died.

The investigative unit of the Prosecutor-General’s office said on its Web site that Cherepanov was suffering from heart problems that should have ruled him out of competing in professional sports.

But it said a chemical analysis of his blood by forensic experts also showed he had taken banned performance-enhancing drugs for several months before his death.

If true, Alexei Cherepanov is just the latest young athlete(Remember Len Bias?) who destroyed his life in pursuit of sports fame. It is sad every time it happens.


Dallas Stars- Sean Avery won’t return

This comes after the NHL handed down a 6 game suspension for the forward. From AP-

Sean Avery’s days with the Dallas Stars are done.

Although the combative forward was eligible to return from a six-game suspension Sunday, the Stars instead announced Avery will not rejoin the team — ever.

“All parties said there is a clear understanding that a return to the Stars is not in the best interest of either the hockey club or Avery,” the team said in a news release.

Details of his departure still must be worked out. He could be traded, sent to the minors or bought out next summer. The club said it will work with Avery to try making this an amicable divorce.

In a way, I don’t blame Dallas for wanting to be rid of this jerk. Then what is the uproar about the following?

On December 2, 2008; during the morning skate prior to the Stars’ game against the Calgary Flames, Avery approached a crowd of reporters in the dressing room and made the following comment about Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who is dating Avery’s ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert:

“I’m just going to say one thing. I’m really happy to be back in Calgary, I love Canada. I just wanted to comment on how, it’s become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don’t know what that’s about, but enjoy the game tonight.”

So far as trashtalking goes, this is pretty mild if not lame. People in the NHL want nothing to do with Avery, but Todd Bertuzzi is still allowed to play in the league. What is wrong with this picture?

Avery, who has supposedly gone to get treatment for his behavior, I expect to be playing in the NHL again.


Five Russian Hockey league players found to have heart defects

That is out of 49 that were tested. From AP-

MOSCOW — Heart defects have been found in five players in the Russian ice hockey league since the death of rising star Alexei Cherepanov, an official said Wednesday.

Russia’s Continental Hockey League ordered the tests after Cherepanov, 19, collapsed and died last month from a heart condition while playing for his club Avangard.

Cherepanov was a New York Rangers draft pick.

Russian league spokesman Marat Safin said 49 players have undergone testing with their clubs, and five turned out to have problems.

He said that figure could rise because 18 players are still to be checked. Results from the total sample of 67 players are expected Friday.

Safin said there was no reason to suspect any form of drug abuse or doping among the players.

The rate of players with heart defects is hardly shattering and I’ll tell you why. I had aortic valve replacement surgery on August 13th of this year. That due to my having a bicuspid heart valve, and the regurgitation as a result of it and a heart aneurysm I also had, caused me to become short of breath and in need of hospitalization. A regular human heart is tricuspid, people with bicuspid valves is about 2%. There are other heart defects besides having a bicuspid valve. One in 10 people having some kind of heart defect just doesn’t surprise me anymore.


How about them Florida Panthers?

They beat the New York Rangers last night to pull within 5 points of the Division lead.

SUNRISE – Panthers captain Olli Jokinen had not scored in eight games but had been finding ways to contribute during Florida’s five-game win streak.

Friday, Jokinen took a more direct role, scoring the winning goal as the Panthers beat the Rangers 3-2 to stretch their win streak to six games.

It was a matchup between the NHL’s two hottest teams, and it was the Panthers who remained doused New York, which had not lost in regulation in 13 games and was 10-0-3 during that five-week stretch.

Does the Sun-Sentinel’s Ted Hutton ever study the NHL besides the Florida Panthers. The San Jose Sharks had won 10 games in a row going into last night. That makes them one of the hottest two teams in the NHL, and Florida not.

The Panthers had not won six in a row since March 17-29 of 2006 when they won seven straight.

The Panthers also closed to within five points of division-leading Carolina, which lost to Buffalo on Friday.

The Hurricanes got their heads handed to them by Buffalo on Friday, 7-1. Carolina is still in control over its own destiny, Florida only has two games left with the Hurricanes this season.

Pretty amazing Florida has never won more than seven in a row. They did however begin the 96-97 season(The season after their Stanley Cup appearance) with a seventeen game unbeaten streak. That was in the days before shootouts and the current NHL scoring system.

The Panthers’ penalty kill was crucial in the closing minutes, as they had to fend off two Rangers power plays.

The Panthers have nine games remaining in the regular season, all against Southeast Division foes.

“It’s good to have the nine games in the division. You have a little more control over your own fate,” Martin said.

The penalty kill at the end of the game was big. About a month ago Florida blew four two goal leads(three of them in the 3rd period) in a very short stretch of time. The Panthers showed last night they can close a big game.

Can this team keep doing it and make the playoffs? Florida has the talent, but their the worst underacheivers in the Eastern conference. The team’s injuries have been bad enough, but the Panthers just seem to play scared too often. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high about this team, since they’ve let me down regularly this season.

If Florida doesn’t make the playoffs, Jacques Martin may well be done with Florida as its head coach and even GM. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, but will address the subject at another time.


Post NHL All-Star game playoff assessment- Eastern Conference

From top to bottom, the standings

Ottawa Senators 51 32-15-4-68
Montréal Canadiens 50-27-15-8-62
Philadelphia Flyers 49-28-16-5-61
Pittsburgh Penguins 50 28-18-4-60
New Jersey Devils 50-28-19-3-59
Boston Bruins 50-26-19-5-57
New York Islanders 51-24-21-6-54
New York Rangers 52-24-22-6- 54
Carolina Hurricanes 53-25-24-4-54
Washington Capitals 51-23-23-5-51
Atlanta Thrashers 52-23-25-4-50

Buffalo Sabres 49-22-21-6-50
Florida Panthers 51-22-24-5-49
Toronto Maple Leafs 52-20-24-8-48
Tampa Bay Lightning 51-20-26-5-45

Note- The numbers above from left to right are- Games played, wins, losses, Overtime losses, total points

Teams in Bold are Southeast Division teams

First of all barring a complete collapse by these teams, you have to think Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Montreal are locks to make the playoffs. You can probably also toss Boston in.

The rest of the conference is pretty wide open. The only teams that appear to have little chance are Tampa and Toronto.

The Southeast Division is wide open. It is also a division likely to send only one team to the playoffs. First to fourth place is separated by a measly 5 pts, and the 4th place team Florida has played two less games than division leader Carolina. That would point to Florida having a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. On the other hand, there is the team’s listless play of late, only 4 wins in 14 games and this from today’s Palm Beach Post.

The Panthers, who return to action tonight against Buffalo following the All-Star break, say they are determined to end their agonizing playoff drought.

But some observers think the Panthers haven’t exhibited enough determination to reach the post-season for the first time since April 2000.

To put it more bluntly, some critics think they are soft.

“This team plays too much on the perimeter; I haven’t seen the willingness to get their noses dirty and do the dirty work,” said NHL broadcaster John Vanbiesbrouck, who starred in the nets for the Panthers when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

“Winning isn’t easy. You’ve got to make up your mind you’re going to do whatever it takes to get there and play like that every night.”

I’m not totally sure if Vanbiesbrouck is right in what he says. Florida has blown at least five games this year in the last minute of play. They’ve also played games where they either quit or showed little effort. I’ve missed only a handful of games on television this year, Florida has the talent to win the division and even make a run in the playoffs. The only teams I worry about in the conference are Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto (The Maple Leaf oversized defensemen seem to intimidate the Panthers) when Florida faces them.

I question if the Panthers has the desire, and perhaps the coaching. Why the hell did the team send Shawn Matthias back to the minors? He scored two goals in four NHL games, two of which Jacques Martin barely played him in, and 21 in 32 games of OHL play before his callup. I rather have Matthias on the roster than the overrated Brett McLean or Kamil Kreps. After all, Kreps has just 4 goals in 45 games played!

Boy am I getting gloomy about this Panthers team.


NHL Players complain about European games

This season’s opener was played in London. On Saturday, the NHL announced its intention to play two games in Europe to open the 2008-09 season. From AP-

ATLANTA – Basking in the spotlight of its All-Star game, the NHL decided Saturday was the perfect time to unveil a big announcement for the start of next season: Four teams will get the honor of opening in Europe.

Maybe the league should have made sure the players were on board.

Saying there were still details to be worked out, the leader of the NHL Players’ Association objected to the league announcing two games would be played in both Prague and Stockholm to start the 2008-09 season.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the New York Rangers are scheduled to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning at Sazka Arena in the Czech Republic, while the Ottawa Senators would face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Globe Arena in Sweden’s capital city.

The games would be played Oct. 4 and 5 — assuming the Players’ Association signs off on the plans.

That might be a problem. Paul Kelly, the NHLPA’s executive director, said he was aware of the European games but warned the league not to make a firm announcement until the two sides worked out all details.

“If they want the Players’ Association to be a true business partner, then they have to include us in discussions about these matters at the earliest stages,” Kelly said. “We shouldn’t read about it in the press and we shouldn’t find about it after the fact.”

Kelly said he was approached by league officials Friday night and asked to sign off on the European games, which would mark the second straight year the NHL has opened its season on the other side of the Atlantic.

His response: “Look guys, you know we have a lot of details to work out. Travel, promotional issues, NHLPA involvement, accommodations, the schedule, etc. So there’s still lots of details to work out, but if you want to announce it generally, that’s fine.’

From Kelly’s statements, it appears the NHLPA is unhappy because they weren’t included in the decision making process. They should have been, but that’s water under the bridge now.

As to playing games in Europe, I don’t like it from the point of view of the Sports US fans. Both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay will be losing one home game. If you’re a season ticket holder of either team, you have a right to complain. Why should your team have to play a home gain 1/3rd the way around the world? I didn’t like it when the Miami Dolphins agreed to play The New York Giants in London last year. Dolphin fans had more reason to be upset, considering they only get 8 home games a year, and the Giants were making a rare appearance in South Florida.

US football in Europe if it wasn’t a financial bust, was hardly a success either. As to hockey, most countries have their own hockey leagues. How many Czechs and Swedes are playing in the NHL now? Quite a few. I think local fans prefer to watch their own teams. Not ones brought in from another continent. Even if interest is generated, I’d bet it is only temporary.


Buffalo Sabres lose 10th game in a row

A year ago they reached the conference finals. From AP-

NEW YORK– The setting was the regular season instead of the postseason, but the stakes seemed nearly as high for the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

Not since the second round of last year’s playoffs had the Rangers faced their Eastern Conference foes. Buffalo moved on to the conference finals then, and now both clubs face a second-half struggle just to get back into the postseason.

Petr Prucha and Brandon Dubinsky each had a goal and an assist to lift the Rangers to a 2-1 victory Wednesday night that stretched the Sabres’ losing streak to 10 games.

Buffalo snapped its run of three straight shootout losses but couldn’t find a way to win. The Sabres haven’t come out on top since a 6-5 shootout victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 22 (0-5-5).

New York jumped from 10th place to eighth in the East with the win, five points in front of No. 11 Buffalo — the team with the NHL’s best record last season.

I really don’t know what’s going on in Buffalo. A year ago I picked them to win the 06-07 Stanley Cup. This year they may be lucky not to avoid the conference cellar.

It isn’t like Buffalo has massive injury problems. That is going on with my Florida Panthers right now, who are slumping only something slightly better than Buffalo. Losing their last 6 home games in a row. At present Florida has four defensemen out with injuries, three of them gone for over a month.


Are the 2007-08 Florida Panthers over the hump?

They won last night, marking for the fist time this season that the team has a winning record.

Thursday night’s Panthers-Hurricanes game might as well have been played on a roller coaster, it had so many ups and downs.

In the end, the final up went to Florida, which registered a 5-4 victory at the BankAtlantic Center, taking the lead for good on Brett McLean’s goal midway through the third period.

Back home after winning three of four games on the road and facing the Southeast Division leaders, the Panthers had nothing but opportunity in front of them. A win would cut into their five-point division deficit and set an energizing tone for a year-end schedule that features four of five games at the BankAtlantic Center.

It looked bleak when Carolina took a 3-1 lead after the first period, but the Panthers rallied for their third consecutive victory. They now trail the Hurricanes by just three points.

I have felt from Opening Night, that this Panther team is capable of taking the Southeast Division. That the team is right on Carolina’s back at the moment says something(Other than the SE division being mediocre) about how Florida has come this far. They’ve been plagued by injuries this year, particularly to defensemen(Three are out at this time, and its not known when any will be back) but all through this the team has pulled themselves over .500. Yes I still worry about the lack of punch the team has, their tendency to sit on a lead, and whether they give up when they fall behind. As to the last, maybe we’ve seen the end of it. For Florida was down 3-1 a little over 16 minutes into the game. The Panthers then stormed back.

The Eastern Conference playoff picture stands like this. Teams in italics are Southeast division teams

1- Ottawa 22-8-3 47 pts
2- Boston 18-12-4 40
T3- Montreal 17-12-5 39
T3- Carolina 18-15-3
T3- New Jersey 18-13-3 39
6 NY Rangers 17-14-3 37
T7 Florida 17-16-2 36
T7 Pittsburgh 17-15-2
T9 with 35 pts Buffalo and Philadelphia(32 games played each) and Toronto(35 games)
T12 with 33 pts Atlanta and Tampa Bay in 34 and 35 games respectively.

You can look at it one of two ways. Florida is four pts out of 2nd place in the conference or that the cats are just a game or two from being in 10th place because of the fewer games played by Buffalo and Philadelphia. As I see the conference, Florida can play as well as anyone with the exception of Ottawa, and arguably Carolina and New Jersey. The cats, who are notoriously bad as a road team, are 8-9-1. When you factor in injuries and the Panthers road record, this team could finish as high as 2nd in the conference, but more likely 4th or 5th. I think my preseason prediction of Florida making the playoffs for the first time since 2000, is looking better and better.


Minnesota Wild Marian Gaborik scores five goals vs. NY Rangers

This feat hadn’t been done by a NHL player in regulation play since 1996. From AP-

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Marian Gaborik posted the NHL’s first five-goal game in 11 years, lifting the Minnesota Wild to a 6-3 win over the New York Rangers on Thursday night.

Gaborik’s outburst was the biggest in the league since Sergei Fedorov scored five for Detroit on Dec. 26, 1996, in an overtime game against Washington. Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux was the last to net five in regulation, pulling off the feat on March 26, 1996, versus St. Louis.

Gaborik had a goal in the first period, two on power plays in the second, and found the net twice more in the third to set the team record for tallies in a game. No Wild player had ever had four goals in a game.

With an assist on Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s goal, Gaborik tied his career high with six points. That was established on Oct. 26, 2002, at Phoenix. It was his best offensive game since he scored three goals and helped set up another on April 9, 2006, at Colorado.

Gaborik now has 18 goals for the year or a little over 20% of all scores for Minnesota. The Wild score fewer goals per game than my hometown Florida Panthers, who also scored a rare five goals last night.(But by four different players.)


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