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KELLEY: Back-to-back games cause trouble

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
We can't let the second round be put to rest without making a note of the controversy caused by the National Hockey League's policy of back-to-backs between Games 6 and 7 in a series. It started in the first round, where the Toronto and Philadelphia played a lengthy overtime in Toronto in Game 6 and then adjourned to Philadelphia for a Game 7. Now the travel distance is not all that far between Toronto and Philadelphia, especially when teams charter immediately after a game. But the fatigue factor becomes noticeable at that point, and it appeared to have an effect on the Leafs. That's not the main reason they lost, but it did appear to be a factor, especially in goal. It was a similar situation in the Minnesota-Colorado series, a Game 6 followed immediately by travel and a Game 7, and in the St. Louis-Vancouver affair. In the second round, it happened again this time between Minnesota and Vancouver. Again, not overwhelming distances (although certainly more miles than Philadelphia-Toronto), but it did seem to have an effect on a deteriorating quality of play. The league has maintained — and rightly so — that a great many components go into scheduling for the playoffs, including the availability of certain buildings on certain dates. It is indeed a particularly difficult job to pull this type of thing off when you have 16 teams whizzing around the country, the buildings are in demand (especially in cities with NBA teams and now Arena Football) and the demands of television. Yet you can't help but get the suspicion that television reared its all-powerful head in this regard. In more than half a century of playoff competition the NHL never played a Game 7 immediately following a Game 6. The theory was that in a game that important to both teams (and the quality of the product the NHL is attempting to sell, especially on television) it would be in everyone's best interest to schedule a day of rest. If one team has to win and another has to lose and go home, it should be because of their ability on the ice. Over the years, the league has had this kind of problem and has always had a tendency to pack the back-to-backs (if necessary) into the early stages of a series. Now, largely because television calls the shots AND the league is committed to end the playoff season before it sloshes toward July (a constant print media complaint, I might add), that didn't happen this spring. The league instead apparently went to the first two rounds hoping there would be no Game 7s and that this wouldn't be an issue. The league, of course, can't admit that it never expected so many upsets and so many elite teams to be pushed to the limit. That would disparage the quality of teams and of play, but the scheduling indicates otherwise. If they didn't think that way, then why is there no cramming of schedules at the tail end of the conference finals? In both the West and the East, there is a built-in day of rest between Game 6 and 7. Given that, one would assume the league recognized the importance of having rested teams playing a single-game elimination for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup. That's a deference not granted teams in the first two rounds. Frankly, we have a great deal of understanding for the league in this regard. The NHL is in no way shape or form strong enough to stand up to its television partners about what's best for the game versus what fits their schedules. A sport that's trying just to hold the attention of networks while ratings continue to sag, needs to do everything within reason to satisfy their partners' demands. That said, however, sources tell FOXSports.com that owners of several powerful clubs are unhappy with the way the Game 6 and 7 format played out and will be pushing for change at the next Board of Governors meeting.

More on the moorings

We told you after the semi-controversial ending to the Dallas-Anaheim series that the net-off-the-moorings issue would be the subject of much debate. Oddly enough some of the most vocal criticism came from Anaheim coach Mike Babcock, a rookie. Babcock had the call go both ways for him in the series. A goal his team scored was taken down early in the series and a goal that Dallas scored was also taken down in the clinching Game 6 in Anaheim. Babcock, however, said the movement was so slight that the goals should have counted. He's not wrong, and he's nudging up against a tricky issue for the NHL. There is documented past practice that goals have been counted even thought the net moved on its moorings. We here at FOXSports.com told you specifically that the first goal in Nashville history was scored that way and the official ruling at rink side was that the goal was a goal despite the movement of the net. We've seen it in other arenas as well. That would indicate, rather strongly, that the decision to disallow the goals in the Dallas series was made either via a low-distribution (as in, no media) memo that changed the way officials are to determine goals or the call was made from the league's review bunker in Toronto. (All games are monitored in real time there by league officials who have direct lines to video replay booths in each arena.) Either way, it appears the NHL has yet again rewritten standards as to how goals can be scored. A practice that blew up in its corporate face during the controversial 1999 Stanley Cup final in which the league produced an in-house memo after the fact to defend 's obvious foot-in-the-crease Cup-winning goal. As an aside to this issue, NHL director of officiating Andy Van Hellemond acknowledged our point that the video replays of the non-goal scored by clearly showed Dallas's hooking goalie J.S. Giguere's stick out of his hands, but that replay can't be used to determine penalties. Had either of the two on-ice officials made that call, not only would the Barnes goal not have been scored (thus ending any controversy about that play), but the Ducks would have been on the power play. Oddly enough, the officials not only missed (or chose not to make) the call, but they called a penalty on the Ducks almost immediately after play resumed after the disallowed goal, an obvious makeup to the . It's not uncommon for Van Hellemond to drop referees from the playoff rotation because of non-calls (he did it to referee Don Koharski a few years back, making a point of noting that it was done because of a non-call). It will be interesting to see how many, if any, playoff games Paul Devorski and Dan Marouelli get in the conference finals.

A convincing argument

Sources tell FOXSports.com that the Colorado are lobbying mightily to convince goaltender to play one more season. Although Roy has quietly fueled speculation that he will retire this off-season, the Avs have pitched him to return in an effort to keep the team together for at least one more season, during which it's expected it will still be a Western Conference power despite the first-round playoff lost to Minnesota. It's a good argument. Many say that Roy has nothing left to prove or accomplish in the NHL, and that will weigh heavily in his leaning toward retirement. They cite the fact that Roy is perceived as a proud man who does not want to continue playing if he can't be the very best in the league. That's bunk. For one thing, the very best at the position is often determined by how good the team is in front of a goalie. Roy is still among the very best, as his won-lost record bears out. So is his team. Another thing working toward the pride factor is that Roy can continue to keep distance between himself and New Jersey goaltender . Brodeur is likely the only goalie who might challenge Roy's career marks for wins and playoff wins in the years left in his career. Another season of pushing those marks ever forward will go along way toward pushing them out of Brodeur's reach. A third factor is a sense of loyalty. Roy knows that his backup is not yet ready to assume the No. 1 role, and if he leaves the Avs have a huge hole to fill. There already is speculation that they might take a run at Tampa goalie down the road, but the likely won't move him in the up coming season and so one more campaign with Roy represents Colorado's last chance at a Cup with the team as it is presently constructed. Cobble all that to the fact that Roy does have a year remaining on his pact (some $8.5 million per season) and that a strike or lockout likely will make the retirement decision a whole lot easier come 2004. The Avs are hoping that's enough to convince Roy to return.

Net movement

This off-season will be a huge one in the goaltending ranks, no matter what Roy decides. The Vancouver will be looking hard at their netminder, , to determine whether or not an upgrade is needed. Lots of failed in blowing a 3-l lead to the Minnesota in the second round, but Cloutier will get the brunt of the blame. He's a good young goalie and still young enough to continue to grow and put this defeat behind him, but the might not be willing to wait. That said, they might have no choice. Teams with a lot more money than the will be looking to upgrade the position. That includes the Philadelphia , who certainly aren't happy with the hot-cold play of . The are in much better position than the Avs to take a run at Khabibulin (via trade) or anyone who comes onto the free-agent market (L.A.'s is a free-agent come July 1). St. Louis has goaltending issues and Toronto's isn't getting any younger and the Leafs will have to eventually make a decision about his replacement. Despite his having signed a long-term contract, Detroit might not be sold on for next season either. This should make for a fascinating off-season on the goalie carousal.

Leafs loose on D

The Toronto are taking seriously defenseman 's announced retirement and will be looking for a replacement. That puts the Leafs between the proverbial rock and hard place because they were hoping to add to a defense that included Svehla, but now they have to replace him. There's still a chance the veteran won't go home to Slovakia (he's retired before only to be lured back to the NHL), but the Leafs are making contingency plans. Look for them to be talking to the agent for veteran Washington defenseman as soon as the free-agent market opens. The Leafs will also redouble their efforts to sign impending free agent , the defenseman they acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline. Johansson too has been hinting at retirement, but sources tell FOXSports.com that he would like to play one more season. Hooking up with old friend and fellow Swedish countryman might be the key. Look for the Leafs not to keep American-born defenseman Phil Houlsey. The trade-deadline pickup was a poor fit in Toronto, and not just because he was slow to come back from a foot injury. The most desirable free-agent defenseman to be is Dallas' Darien Hatcher, who should set a very high financial bar.

One Final Thought

It would appear that ticket pricing is based largely on perception and what the individual markets will bear rather than any issue related to actual costs. In Detroit, a management team stung by a first-round playoff elimination has opted not to increase ticket prices this season, something that would certainly have been a difficult sell in Detroit. Yet in Columbus, the raised ticket prices despite never having even made the playoffs in their three years of existence while their expansion cousin, Minnesota, has advanced all the way to the Western Conference final. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh joined Buffalo in rolling back ticket prices after having missed the playoffs for two straight seasons. Seems both the and the know that the public won't buy what their selling at current market prices. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Sabres, Red Wings, Kings, Stars, Devils, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, Predators, Blue Jackets, Wild, Stu Barnes, Glen Wesley, Brett Hull, Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, Nikolai Khabibulin, Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph, Dan Cloutier

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