Monday, April 21, 2008

April 19, 2004 - The Day Boston's Sports Luck Changed?

With the Bruins on the verge of coming back from a 3-1 series deficit on the Canadiens, it came to mind the last time a team came back from such a deficit in the NHL. That was done by the Canadiens against the Bruins in the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the same round as the teams are meeting in this year. The teams met in Game 7 on Patriots' Day in Boston and things have changed for Boston sports fans since that fateful day when the Bruins collapsed.

The Day Boston's Sports Luck Changed

April 19, 2004 - a day that should live in infamy in Boston sports lore. That's the day when the city of Boston went from having the worst luck in the world to having all the luck in the world. And they should thank the Boston Bruins for it.

It was Patriots' Day and earlier that day was the annual Boston Marathon and was a day the Red Sox played the Yankees. The first pitch was thrown out by Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, who had just guided the Huskies to their second National Championship in a Final Four that saw them beat Duke in a classic comeback before easily defeating Georgia Tech in the Final
The Red Sox would come back from a 3-0 and 4-1 deficit to win the game 5-4 on a RBI single by Gabe Kapler in the bottom of the 8th inning off Tom Gordon. It wouldn't be the only comeback the Red Sox would make against the Yankees that year. More on that in a moment.

Later that day, the football Patriots threw their name into the mix. They traded a second-round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for running back Corey Dillon, who was unhappy in Cincinnati. All Dillon would do in that 2004 season was rush for a career-high 1,635 yards and a then career-high 12 rushing TD as he helped guide the Patriots to their second straight Super Bowl victory.

But that night was the low point on what would be a memorable day. The Bruins came into their own building for Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with their rival, the Montreal Canadiens. They had blown a 3-1 series lead and were now sent to the brink of elimination thanks to a 5-1 loss in Game 5 followed by a 5-2 loss in Game 6.

With the game scoreless into the third period, Richard Zednik would break the tie for Montreal, scoring on Boston rookie netminder Andrew Raycroft. Zednik would then add an empty-net goal as the Canadiens would go on for the 2-0 win, becoming the 20th team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in NHL history.

The Sports Gods must have thought Boston had suffered enough. The Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1918, the Celtics were in the midst of a major rebuilding stage and although the Patriots had won two Super Bowls, it still seemed the jinx was in on Boston.

But after that day when the Bruins bit the bullet, everything has come up in spades. Just six months after the Bruins collapse in the playoffs, the Red Sox completed the greatest comeback in MLB history against the hated Yankees. They trailed the series 3-0 and were down to their last outs in the ninth in Game 4 when they tied the game against the greatest closer in the history of baseball, Mariano Rivera. They would tie the game and win it in the 12th inning on the first of consecutive walk-off hits by David Ortiz.

Then came The Bloody Sock of Curt Schilling and the Grand Slam by Johnny Damon in Game 7 and before you knew it, the Red Sox would sweep the Cardinals to win the World Series.
The Red Sox aren't the only local area team to enjoy success in the wake of the Bruins collapse. As said earlier, later in the Fall and Winter of 2004, the Patriots would go on to defeat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXVIII, their third Super Bowl victory in the Bill Belichick era.

While the Bruins haven't delivered a Stanley Cup to Boston since 1972, Boston College got into the mix on the ice since that Bruins collapse. It advanced to three straight Frozen Fours since 2006, finally coming away with the National Championship with a win in 2008 over Notre Dame.
All the luck may have come to a head in Boston in 2007. The Red Sox won the World Series again and they didn't have to come back from a huge deficit or beat the Yankees to do so. Although the Patriots ultimately failed in their Pursuit of Perfection, they still became the first team to finish a regular season 16-0 in NFL history. Then the Celtics went out and traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and alongside Paul Pierce, resurrected the retired ghosts of Bird, McHale and Parrish. The Celtics would go on to complete the greatest single-season win turnaround in NBA history.

There were even some close calls to titles in the Boston area in sports not familiar to the pre-Patriots' Day 2004 jinx. The New England Revolution have advanced to the MLS Cup the last three seasons, but have not come away with the title. The Boston College football team, led by potential top draft pick Matt Ryan, received a No. 2 ranking in the BCS at one point in the season. The UMass soccer team lost in the National Semifinals 1-0 to Ohio State.

So maybe all this luck in the area can finally rub off on the one team that's lay dormant in the Boston area for many years, the Bruins, who look to come back from a 3-1 series deficit against the team that did it to them four years ago, the Canadiens. They don't have to look far. Their coach, Claude Julien was the Canadiens coach when they pulled off the three-game comeback.
Hopefully for many Boston fans, maybe this Patriots' Day will be just as memorable as that one four years ago.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rating the 16 Goalies Heading into the Playoffs

The Sweet 16 - a phrase served best for the recently-concluded NCAA Tournament, but can hold true for the 16 teams that vie for the Stanley Cup. No team wins the Stanley Cup without strong play from their netminder and thus we rate the top netminders from 16 to 1 as we begin the chase for Lord Stanley.

16. Tim Thomas, Bruins - There may not be a more exciting goalie to watch in the league. No goalie shows more emotion than Thomas, but that can also be his downfall. He almost single-handidly kept the Bruins in the playoff race, going 4-1-1 with a 1.48 GAA in his final six starts of the season. He was fourth in the league this season in save percentage (.922) but has never played in a playoff game.

15. Martin Gerber, Senators - Much like the Senators themselves, Gerber has gone through two "seasons" already even before the playoffs start. He was 12-1-0 with a 1.75 GAA in his first 13 starts to the season, but won just 18 games in his final 44 starts after that and had a GAA over 3 in that stretch. Gerber has started just four playoff games in his career, but was a part of two teams that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in the Ducks and Hurricanes.

14. Martin Biron, Flyers - It's pretty hard to believe this is Biron's 12th NHL season and yet he has never even appeared in a playoff game. That's what happens when for years you back up someone by the named of Dominik Hasek. Biron did post his first 30-win season since 2001-02 and his highest save percentage of his career (.918). Biron finished the regular season in spectacular fashion, posting consecutive shutouts against the Devils and Penguins.

13. Dan Ellis, Predators - A forgotten man in Dallas, Ellis has taken the reigns as the top goalie for the Predators. In just 37 starts this season, Ellis posted a franchise-record six shutouts and recently finished a stretch where he didn't allow a goal in 233 minutes and 38 seconds. The 27-year-old netminder also led the NHL in save percentage (.924). Like many goalies in this postseason, Ellis has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

12. Jose Theodore, Avalanche - It's been a huge bounce-back season for Theodore, who had struggled since coming over to Colorado at the 2005-06 trade deadline. Down the stretch, Theodore was a mainstay for the Avalanche, going 12-4-1 withb a 2.27 GAA in his last 18 starts. Theodore was playoff-tested in Montreal and was the Canadiens netminder when he helped pull off the upset against the Bruins in 2004.

11. Niklas Backstrom, Wild - Backstrom made a splash in his rookie season last year with the Wild and continued his strong play in 2007-08, leading the Wild to the Northwest Division title. He finished in the top 10 in wins, GAA and save percentage this season and was impressive down the stretch, posting an 8-1-4 record in his final 14 starts. Backstrom played well in his only playoff series of his career last season against the Wild, not allowing more than three goals in any of the five games, but the Wild went down in five games.

10. Marty Turco, Stars - Is this the year? That was the slogan for the NHL's PR campaign this season and that question can hold for Turco's playoff history -- Is this the year he takes the reigns and leads the Stars on a long playoff run? Turco has won only one playoff series in his career and no goalie had a hard-luck situation in one series than what he went through last season. In a seven-game defeat to the Canucks, Turco posted three shutouts, a 1.30 GAA, including 51 saves in a 4-OT loss in Game 1.

9. Cristobal Huet, Capitals - Alex Ovechkin may be the MVP of the league, but the Capitals most likely aren't in the playoffs without Huet's stellar play since coming over from Montreal at the trade deadline. Huet went 11-2-0 with a 1.63 GAA and an awesome .936 save percentage in 13 starts in a Capitals uniform as Washington won the Southeast Division on the next-to-last day of the season. Unfortunately for Huet, he has a little bit of adversity to overcome in the playoffs. He was Montreal's netminder in 2006 when it lost in six against Carolina in the East Quarterfinals, a series in which the Canadiens led 2-0 going home. Huet played well in defeat, allowing just a total of nine goals in the final four games.

8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins - A No. 1-overall pick with tons of pressure on him in Pittsburgh going into the playoffs. That description not only holds true for Sidney Crosby, but for Fleury too, who was the top pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. Fleury missed an extended period of time with a high ankle sprain, like Crosby as well. But in his return, he showed no ill-effects, posting a 10-2-1 record with a stellar 1.53 GAA and .947 save percentage in 14 starts. Fleury also gets to exact some revenge on the team that handled him in his only playoff appearance -- the Senators, who knocked out the Pens in five games last season. Fleury had a dreadful 3.77 GAA in the series.

7. Carey Price, Canadiens - A rookie netminder heading into the playoffs, stop me if you've heard this before in Montreal. Like Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden before him, Price has the weight of the top hockey market on his shoulders, something he's thrived on. He was 12-3-0 with a 2.12 GAA after the trade deadline when Montreal traded Huet to Washington. While Price has never played in a Stanley Cup playoff, the 20-year-old won the Calder Cup and was MVP of the playoffs last season. Price also was named Tournament MVP at the 2007 IIHF World Junior (U20) Ice Hockey Championship as he led Canada to the gold medal.

6. Miikka Kiprusoff, Flames - It's tough being a goalie under Mike Keenan and Kiprusoff joins a long list of netminders who struggled in the coach's system. Kiprusoff posted his second-highest single-season GAA (2.69) and a save percentage of .906 which ranked 30th this season. However, Kiprusoff has been known to steal games, especially in the postseason. He was the netminder for the Flames in their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, a year in which he posted a 1.85 GAA and .928 save percentage in 26 games. Unfortunately for him and the Flames, they have bowed out in the Quarterfinal round in each of the last two postseasons.

5. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers - He's got the looks to be a star in New York, but can Lundqvist guide the Rangers back to the Stanley Cup Finals? By looking at his stats, the answer is a firm yes. He led the league in shutouts and became the first Rangers goalie to post 10 shutouts since John Ross Roach posted 13 shutouts in 1928-29. Last season, he was stellar in the playoffs as he allowed just six goals total in a four-game sweep of the Thrashers in the Quarterfinals and played well in defeat to the Sabres in the Conference Semis. Lundqvist faces the New Jersey Devils this time in the Quarterfinals, a team he went 0-3-0 in the 2006 playoffs against but was 7-0-1 against this season.

4. Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks - The league's hottest team heading into the playoffs is led by the netminder who finished the regular season two wins shy of the single-season NHL record (46). Nabokov was also third in GAA at 2.14, but was 23rd among qualifying goalies in save percentage at .910. Nabokov also started 43 straight games during one point of the season, the second-longest streak by a goalie since the 1989-90 season. He does have plenty of playoff experience, starting 44 games in his career, but hasn't been able to get the Sharks over the hump and into the Stanley Cup Finals so far, losing to the Flames in the 2004 Conference Finals. Last season, Nabokov had an impressive 2.09 GAA in the Conference Semis vs Detroit, but the Sharks lost in six -- a series they led 2-1.

3. Dominik Hasek & Chris Osgood, Red Wings - Hard to argue with this tandem, so hard that it's tough to put who will get the bulk of the playing time in the postseason. They take home the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals against the season (184) and both were ranked in the top 4 in GAA, including Osgood's league-leading 2.09 GAA. There's also a ton of playoff experience between the two of them, a total of 202 playoff games combined. Osgood is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Hasek was the backstop the last time Detroit took home hockey's holy grail in 2002. That was also the last time a team won the Presidents' Trophy and Stanley Cup in the season, something the Red Wings hope to do this postseason.

2. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ducks - No team has repeat as Stanley Cup champions since Detroit in 1996-97 and 1997-98, but Giguere might give the Ducks the best chance to end that streak this playoff. He won 30+ games for a third straight season and was second in the NHL in GAA at 2.12. Giguere though, makes his money come playoff time. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in a LOSING effort in 2003 as he led the Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003. Then last season he helped the Ducks to the title with a 1.97 GAA in 18 playoff games. And we haven't even talked about his play in OT. How about a 12-1 career playoff OT record that includes a NHL-record shutout streak of 197 minutes and 52 seconds. In 250:47 career playoff OT minutes, Giguere has a 0.24 GAA and a .990 save percentage.

1. Martin Brodeur, Devils - This was supposed to be the year Brodeur showed he was human. Gone were Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, the Devils had a new coach, their offense struggled pretty much all season. Yet Brodeur still wins 40 games for a NHL-record third straight season and seventh time overall while leading the Devils to the 4 seed and home-ice in their series with the Rangers. However, he has played in at least 70 games in 10 straight seasons and appeared to be tired in the playoffs when the Devils were bounced in five games to the Senators last season. But it's hard to knock this playoff resume: 3 Stanley Cup rings, 4 Stanley Cup Finals appearances, 94 playoff wins (2nd all-time), 164 playoff games (2nd all-time) and 22 playoff shutouts (1 away from tying the NHL record).