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Chicago Blackhawks: Don’t Rest Easy Yet

On Friday night, the Chicago Blackhawks finally came home after an extended road trip from Vancouver to San Jose.  The San Jose Sharks were looking to win their first game of the series and avoid going down 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals. Well that’s exactly what happened.

The Sharks tied the game with about four minutes left in the third period and both teams failed to score before the clock wound down. It was time for some overtime hockey and at 12:24 in OT, Dustin Byfuglien scored his seventh playoff goal to win it for the Hawks. It was a good feeling to know that the Blackhawks could win a game at home.

Now, I didn’t see any looting Friday night like the fans of Montreal do after a win, but I did hear a lot of “We’ve got the Cup” talk.  No, we don’t. If the 2010 NHL playoffs have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Who would have expected the Washington Capitals to be knocked out in the first round? Who would have expected it to be by the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens? Who would expect those same Canadiens to knock out the defending Stanley Cup champs — the Pittsburgh Penguins? And who would expect it to be so hard for teams to win on their home ice during the playoffs?

All I can say is that it’s not over yet. The Blackhawks are within reach of their first shot at the Stanley Cup since ’92 and the Sharks are on the brink of being eliminated earlier than expected once again. Still, nothing has been finalized yet. The Boston Bruins have already proven that a 3-0 series lead can disappear in the blink of an eye.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Home Ice Disadvantage in Playoffs

Whenever the playoffs come around in any sport, we always here about the “home advantage.” Well, in these 2010 NHL Playoffs, we are seeing exactly the opposite. Every team in the playoffs, aside from the Sharks, has faced difficulty winning at home. For some reason the Sharks have been amazing no matter where they are.

Let’s start with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks. Game One of their Western Conference semifinals series resulted in an embarrassing home loss for the Blackhawks as the Canucks came into the United Center and just took over. The Blackhawks fell 5-1 that night, but came back for three straight dominate performances, two of which were on the road in Vancouver (where the Hawks seemed to enjoy taunting the fans).  Sunday night, the Canucks came into Chicago facing elimination, and they walked away with 4-1 road victory over the Blackhawks. Game Six will take place Tuesday night in Vancouver. So, why are these two teams so much better when they don’t have their home crowd behind them? There might not be an answer, but these teams are hardly an isolated case.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens have shown a similar pattern of losing at home in their Eastern Conference semifinals series. The Penguins dominated in their first home game of this series, but then fell to the Canadiens in the second home game. The Canadiens fell to the Penguins when they returned to Montreal, but won their second home game too. They have forced Game Six in Montreal Monday night.

I think the home struggles of these teams has a lot to do with the goals of the road teams. It seems that all of these road teams are feeding off the energy of quieting the crowd and embarrassing the home town team in front of them. Hey, the fans love taunting the visiting teams — just check out the green men in Vancouver, who have been taunting all season.  My guess is that the players love taunting on the road as much as the fans do, only they do it by winning. That’s somewhat strange because in my opinion, there’s nothing better than a win in front of your home town fans.

Sources:
Five Things We Learned From Sunday [ESPN]

Penalties Indicate Blackhawks are Getting in Canucks’ Heads

Friday night the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks faced off again for Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals. It was apparent by the amount of times the Canucks players went skating to the penalty box that the Blackhawks were getting to them.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews came up with his first career playoff hat trick. This was a nice compliment to the hat trick that defensemen Dustin Byfuglien had on Wednesday night. Can they make it three in a row? If the Canucks keep trying to play dirty, it’s more than possible. Alexandre Burrows got a couple shots in on Big Buff when he was down, but it did nothing but hurt his team. The Canucks were trying to match the physicality of the Hawks, but instead it just kept landing them in the box instead.

So how are the Hawks doing it? Is it the back-to-back hat trick games? Is it Byfuglien’s cockiness towards Vancouver fans? Or maybe it’s Adam Burish calling Burrows a clown and telling him to come find him or Ben Eager on the ice?

Whatever it is, it’s working. Roberto Luongo has even shaved off his playoff beard as his way of  “Changing things up a bit.” The Canucks will head into Chicago Sunday night trailing by two games in the series, but they aren’t giving up yet. Canucks head coach Alain Vigneaultis trying to remain confident in Luongo:

The goaltender has been a big part of it and he’s been in this situation before. He was in this situation just a couple months ago with Team Canada where they couldn’t lose and he won three straight, so I’ve got a lot of faith him, I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and I know he’s going to do the job for us. … The series is not over.

He’s right, it isn’t over. But the Blackhawks certainly have momentum on their side as they return home having won three games in a row. I said from the start that this was going to be a very exciting series and so far I haven’t been disappointed.

Sources:
Blackhawks Shoot for the Series Win [NHL.com]
Cheap Shots on Dustin Byfuglien [YouTube]
Burish calls out Canucks ‘Clowns’ [Calgary Herald]
Photo Credit: Getty Images

NHL Is Gaining Viewers at Amazing Pace

The NHL has released its viewership numbers for the 2010 playoffs thus far and the numbers are awesome.  Even cities whose teams did not make the playoffs, and markets that simply don’t have a team, have seen an increase in viewership. With these numbers in mind, I think it’s safe to say that hockey is back.

Some of the most shocking numbers come from the cities that don’t have an NHL team associated with them. In Birmingham, Alabama and Norfolk, Virginia, viewership on Versus has risen by 200%. Usually you could draw the conclusion that this happened in Birmingham because of the Atlanta Thrashers, but the Thrashers didn’t make the playoffs this year. I’m going to have to guess that viewership was up in both cities because of the closest team to them that did make the playoffs — the Nashville Predators. The Preds took the Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the First Round before being eliminated.

Viewership for the playoff games on NBC has risen in the cities that did make the playoffs, which is expected as more and more people hop on the hockey bandwagon. What blew me away was that viewership was up by 500% in Detroit. Um, let me get this straight: the place that calls itself “Hockeytown, USA” and that had its team make it to the Stanley Cup Finals last year has seen that big of an increase in viewership? I haven’t heard of a major migration to Detroit, so what does that mean? Did “Hockeytown’s” fans not tune in to the Quarterfinals last year? Seems like a very strange occurrence for their fans to not watch the Red Wings last year, especially coming off a Stanley Cup win in 2008.

All I can say is that this awesome news for the NHL — a league that has long been overshadowed by the MLB, NFL and NBA. It’s possible the increase in ratings is due to Team USA’s silver medal performance as Olympics underdogs in Vancouver. Or maybe it’s just that hockey fever has spread across the nation. Either way, I hope that this trend continues.

Here are some of the specific ratings details:

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Blackhawks Looking to Make Roberto Luongo Cry Again

During the 2009 NHL playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks stunned the Vancouver Canucks by beating them in game six of the Western Conference semifinals. It was enough to make a grown man cry — literally. After the 7-5 loss to the Blackhawks, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo began to cry because he felt he had let his team down. Well, this year they are hoping to stop the waterworks and the Blackhawks in their tracks as the two teams will have a playoff rematch which starts Saturday night.

All I can say is this series is going to be awesome. You have the number two and three seed battling it out in what has become a great rivalry. Luongo isn’t looking to get embarrassed by the boys in red and white again, but the Hawks want to make the gold medal goalie cry again.  The two teams both won two games against each other in the regular season, so if that has any impact on this series the games are going to be close.

I’m sticking with my orginal Stanley Cup winner and saying the Blackhawks will take this series. As long as they don’t try to get fancy with the puck and make it on to Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays, they can play some good old fashion hockey and get past Vancouver.

Sources:
Blackhawks vs. Canucks preview [SI.com]
Roberto Luongo gets emotional after loosing series vs Hawks [YouTube]

Savard a Hero in Bruins Return

Marc Savard just returned to the Boston Bruins in a big way.  Before Saturday’s game, Savard had not played since March 7th due to a concussion he suffered after being lit up by Matt Cooke with what some considered to be a dirty hit. The hit even prompted the NHL to create a new rule.  With Boston fans noticeably excited to have “Savvy” back prior to the game, he rewarded their loyalty by ripping a shot past Philadelphia goalie Brian Boucher in overtime to give the Bruins a 5-4 victory in Game 1 over the Flyers.

It’s tough not to feel good for Savard whether you’re a Bruins fan or not.  He’s fought extremely hard to be able to get back onto the ice with his teammates and help the Bruins on their quest to a Stanley Cup Finals berth.  The game between the Bruins and Flyers was incredible from start to finish.  Boston led the game 4-2 at one point in the third period but Philadelphia clawed their way back to force overtime.  The Bruins squandered a ton of chances in overtime — with both teams visibly exhausted — but Savard eventually found the back of the net 13:52 into the first OT period.  Yes, I love the Bruins and I’m glad they won for that reason, but Savard’s return was a great story line to watch and he ended it with an exclamation point.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Caps Choked Talk Will now Commence

I’m no longer a betting man, but if I were I know I would have put money on the Capitals winning Game 7 against the Canadiens in D.C. I couldn’t have been more wrong. With a 2-1 win in Game 7, the Habs became the first 8th seeded team to come back from down 3-1 in a seven game series to beat the top seeded team. Yes, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead becoming the third Presidents’ Trophy winning team to lose in the first-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since ’06. Even more befuddling is that they were the best home team in the regular season yet they lost three home games to the Canadiens. Go figure. Without a doubt, all the “Caps choked” and “Alex Ovechkin is not a winner” talk will begin. I definitely disagree with the latter statement.

The reality with this series is that Jaroslav Halak got hot and took over for Montreal. Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots he faced over the last three games. I don’t know which numbers is more ridiculous: the Caps taking 134 shots in three games or Halak stopping all but three of them. Even though the Caps had three chances to close out the series, I put the Game 1 loss partially on coach Bruce Boudreau for starting Jose Theodore in goal instead of Semyon Varlamov who became their man the rest of the series. At the same time, the Habs gave the Caps a break starting Carey Price in net for Game 4.

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