NHL

KELLEY: Money isn't everything

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
And now all the money is gone. The Dallas Stars, last of the big spenders still alive in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs Monday went the route of the Detroit Red Wings, the Colorado Avalanche and the other big spending teams that didn't even qualify for the playoffs, losing to the upstart Mighty Ducks of Anaheim 4-3 in an fascinating and hotly contested game at The Pond. It was a stunning game and a stunning turn of events in that the Ducks had to survive controversy, some tremendous plays from some of the Stars, the very strong play of Stars goalie Marty Turco and a star-studded Dallas team that had a payroll in excess of $65.6 million and finished first overall in the West in the regular season, second only to the Ottawa Senators overall. In winning the Ducks become the only team since the current playoff formula was instituted back in 1994 to knock off the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the conference in the same playoff year. The Ducks had entered these playoffs as the No. 7 seed, but the swept the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings and now beat the Stars 4-2. The Ducks enter the Western Conference final as underdogs no longer. The have lost only two of 10 playoff games they've played this spring and await the winner of the Vancouver-Minnesota series that will now go to a Game 6 in Minnesota. The Ducks won this one with the usual combination of stellar goaltending, an attack offense that never backed off and some timely goal scoring including the winner off the stick of Sandis Ozolinsh with less than two minutes remaining in the third period. They also survived a rather large bit of controversy when Stu Barnes scored what appeared to be the game-tying goal (at 3-3) only to have it taken down via video replay. The Stars got the game tied shortly thereafter on what may well be viewed as a controversial penalty call that led to another game-tying goal, this one by Brendan Morrow. Rather than collapse under the weight of that call and goal, the Ducks carried the play until Ozolinsh scored. Despite the victory, the controversy isn't likely to go away anytime soon. For one thing, it was a marginal call, one that likely wouldn't have come into play without some sharp-eyed slow-motion reviews. It was the sporting equivalent of winning (or losing a goal) on a technicality. It also pretty much showed everything that is both right and wrong with NHL replay and lent credence to the claim that the NHL often does engage in what is commonly referred to as the "make-up call." In ruling that Stu Barnes's goal late in the third period did not count, the NHL video replay folks appear to have done their job well. The goal cage was not in the proper position when the puck crossed the goal line, moving ever so slightly just as the puck broke the plane of the line. The movement was minimal and not readily apparent to the naked eye or even through the first few replays that were aired. However in getting it right, the replays also pointed out a few other things. For one, Dallas forward Claude Lemieux appeared to hook goalie J.S. Giguere's stick out of his hands just prior to Barnes' shot. Replays can't be used to call penalties, but you can argue that the officials missed a call that easily could have been determined to be hooking or perhaps goaltender interference. The Ducks would have a right to be angry about that, however the same replay also appeared to show that it was s a Ducks defenseman that appeared to move the net off its moorings, also a play not eligible for review, but a rules infraction nonetheless. In any event, the NHL reverted to its all too common form, disallowing the goal and then almost immediately calling what amounted to a make-up call, a tripping penalty on Ruslan Salei that was marginal at best. That the Ducks didn't collapse after that call and Morrow's subsequent goal (a semi-controversial one at that) is a tribute to their mental toughness. That they kept pressing the Stars until they won makes a case that in this game and this series the better team won. That will be tough for the Stars to swallow. They made massive moves in the free-agent market last off-season just to get back to a competitive state in these playoffs. They then added several players at the trade deadline, including Barnes. But the Ducks made heady moves as well and without spending nearly as much money as the Stars. They were also smart enough (or just plain lucky) to have an outstanding goaltender who just played better and better as the playoffs went along and rebounded smartly from his one poor outing, a 4-1 loss in Dallas on Saturday afternoon. As well as Turco played, Giguere was better and in many ways, that was the difference. The Stars felt the pressure to win, they felt it because of their payroll, the names on their roster and the fact that the Ducks had upset the Red Wings and that since the Avalanche had also been upset in the first round, the road to the Cup finals was wide open. If the Ducks felt a similar pressure they never showed it. They instead seemed to feed off the fine play of their goalie, getting better as the playoffs went along and getting more confident with every remarkable win. The Stars meanwhile played poorly in this one, failing to take the body when necessary and giving the puck away on far too many occasions. Strange as it may seem, these Ducks have to be viewed as the favorite going into the next round whether it be against Vancouver or Minnesota. The Stars, well, they have to be viewed as another big-name, big-money team that failed. They failed to meet expectations, failed to live up to their expensive price tag and, perhaps most importantly, they failed to win the game that mattered most. Props go to Ozolinsh, who had an assist to go along with his goal and who made a gutsy move going deep into the offensive zone to net the game winner. As almost always, they also go to Giguere and to Steve Ruccin who did an excellent job of keeping Dallas scoring star Mike Modano in check. Double props go to veteran Steve Thomas, who had a goal and two assists in this game and who was a bargain-basement pickup for the Ducks at the trade deadline, a time when the Stars could have picked him up as well.

Don't blame Hitch

One thing's for certain about the future of this edition of the Philadelphia : Head coach Ken Hitchcock isn't going to take the fall for being ousted in the second round. Goalie could take the hit, so could veteran center , wingers John LeClair or . You could make a case for any combination of defensemen that doesn't include and even an assistant coach or two (especially the ones that direct Philadelphia's woeful power play and less-than truly effective penalty killing). Heck, you could even make a case for getting rid of general manager Bobby Clarke, although in Philadelphia, unlike the real world, that's really more a fantasy than anything else. But it won't be Hitchcock. That's the state of the after they lost to the Ottawa 5-1 Monday evening. The loss outed the in six games, the last coming at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, an all too common turn of events. It's not that the didn't deserve to lose the game and the series. They are a good team, but not a particularly great one and the truth is the were the better club. They were the better club in the regular season where they finished first overall and won the Presidents' Trophy. They were the better team in the playoffs where they showed they had superior scorers up front, better defense, goaltending and much better special teams. They were also a shade deeper in overall talent and they were very well coached in both game planning and talent nullification (read shutting down individual Philadelphia players). Still, many felt this was a series the could have won and the fact that they didn't won't sit well with fans and the front office. Most will blame the talented but technically flawed Cechmanek — there is statistical evidence for that argument. Cechmanek is talented, but he's not a winner, not in the NHL sense that is expected of truly great goalies in the playoffs. He's simply too inconsistent and makes too many bad judgment calls (see the fifth goal in this game as a standout example of the wrong move at the wrong time). Still, beyond Cechmanek, there remains something curiously flawed about the rest of this team. Too many times in this series and in these playoffs, they appeared to be directionless. They would buy into Hitchcock's defensive system, execute it flawlessly, win (often by shutout) and then come right back and play like they were another team altogether. Complicating matters, the line of , and , the supposed No. 1 unit, came up completely flat in this series. The , and especially coach Jacques Martin, get a great deal of the credit for that, but the trio also has to look at itself and wonder just what changed for them between the Toronto series (where they carried the scoring load) to this one. It was almost as if when they did commit themselves to defense they were effective, but when they tried to switch over and make something happen offensively they were a threesome of individuals with no real chemistry as a line. The same could be said of Primeau who, was a non-factor offensively in both series and Amonte who got something of an assist game going, but never produced the goals that were expected of him when he was obtained from Phoenix at the trade deadline. Maybe that has something to do with too many parts and not enough of a whole team. Hitchcock did his best to try and create that team-first kind of atmosphere that had worked so well for him in Dallas. It seemed to work in the regular season, but it didn't connect in all of the playoff games, certainly not in the majority of games against the . Again, we tip our proverbial hats to the Sens in that regard. This is a team that was built largely from within. It has suffered together and now has had some success. It seemed whenever it was faced with a difficult situation in these playoffs, that sense of team came to the forefront. The didn't just play with each other, they played for each other. They especially supported their goaltender, , something that the seemed to want to do, but couldn't quite pull it off. In the final two games of this series there was never any doubt as to which team was the better team. The knew it and they played like it. That the couldn't match that is at least in part a product of the blame game in Philadelphia. In other years when the went out — usually earlier then expected — someone, be it a coach or a player or a combination of the above — was always sacrificed to the volcano of blame. The rest, several of whom always aided in the tossing, quickly adopted a whew-not-me attitude and huddle down to wait for next year. You never had a sense in Philadelphia that it was a team that won or lost as a team. More often than not they were just a collection of individuals, the majority of whom were so intent on avoiding being sacrificed to the gods of appeasement that their only true focus was to willingly engage in helping to undo the others so that they might survive. That likely will be the case again this time around. Hitchcock is safe largely because he signed on with the only after he received guarantees from ownership and management that he would not be the fall guy this time around. He knows a great deal about team building and this season undoubtedly learned that he really doesn't have much to work with in that regard. Because of that, this team likely will be taken apart in large part. When it does get put back together, look for the coach to have more in the way of grit, mental toughness, selflessness and team-first players than he had this season. He might have a new goaltender as well. Props go to Lalime, who won the mental battles much more often than Cechmanek and to whose leadership as captain seemed to carry the team through moments of self-doubt. Defenseman was also a huge contributor on defense and added a solid five points offensively. The had no answer for the offensive contributions of the Ottawa defense and got precious little offensively from its own blueline.

So much for a triple scoop

The thinking was that the Vancouver Canucks would put away the pesky Minnesota Wild on triple witching night (three teams had a chance to advance had they won Monday night). They failed miserably. There are several reasons for that, not the least of which was a poor outing by Vancouver goaltender Dan Cloutier. But in the end, the Canucks defense was at fault in losing to the Wild 7-2, forcing a Game 6 back in Minnesota. The Canucks defense was consistent in just one thing in this game, being caught running around and out of position from a point when the score was 1-1 until the final horn. It was shocking but not totally unexpected from coach Marc Crawford's team. The Canucks tend to have problems against the more disciplined and persistent teams in the NHL and the Wild qualify on both counts. They simply don't make many mistakes in their own zone and when they do get the puck going the other way, they are both smart and patient. They read plays well and cause confusion in the Vancouver end with well thought out switches and criss-cross plays that the Canucks don't always react well to. It would have been nice for Canucks fans if Cloutier had the kind of game that overcame the breakdowns in front of him, but that didn't happen either. Cloutier has been steady in this series, but he was Roman Cechmanek-like in this one, going down too soon on several plays and making poor reads on others. It's probably small compensation that one of his best defensemen, Ed Jovanovski made just as many bad plays in front of him. Those two, so strong for much of this series, allowed for much of the Wild's breakout performance offensively. Down 3-1 in this series the Wild is making this look like Colorado all over again. They trailed 3-1 in that series as well and chipped away one game at a time to get back to even and then win it all on the road. It could happen again especially if the Canucks panic in Minnesota the way they did Monday in Vancouver. Props in this game go to Wild forward Cliff Ronning who responded from a "resting" (kind of like a benching but with less finger pointing) to lead the offensive charge. The always surprising Richard Park was huge scoring the first goal for the Wild and quieting the crowd. Goalie Dwayne Roloson was also back on his game. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Stars, Senators, Flyers, Canucks, Ducks, Wild, Tony Amonte, Kim Johnsson, Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, Patrick Lalime, Keith Primeau, Simon Gagne, Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick

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