Format: (rnk). Team Name (wins-losses)
1. Quebec Nordiques (18-1)
2. Buffalo Sabres (18-1)
3. Brampton Ravens (17-2)
4. Chicago Blackhawks (17-2)
5. Austin Rangers (14-5)
6. Toronto Maple Leafs (14-5)
7. New York Islanders (14-5)
8. Dallas Stars (12-7)
9. Philadelphia Flyers (10-9)
10. Kansas City Chiefs (9-10)
11. Halifax Crusaders (8-11)
12. Montreal Canadiens (8-11)
13. Tampa Bay Lightning (7-12)
14. Sarnia Falcons (7-12)
15. Providence Ice Tigers (6-13)
16. Nashville Predators (5-14)
17. Barrie Boars (2-17)
18. Peterborough Pirates (3-16)
19. Pittsburgh Penguins (1-18)
20. Colorado Rockies (0-19)
The first half of the East Cup season is finished (meaning interleague games are next), with that bizarre game in Denver where the Penguins finally found a way to win a hockey game, albeit not without some controversy. More on that below.
The real story of the first half are the Brampton Ravens, who had an impressive 13-game winning streak, including wins over my Islanders, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Dallas Stars. Detractors are quick to point out much of that streak included wins against the likes of bottom feeders like Colorado, Barrie and Sarnia, and they’d be right, but this is the quickest the Ravens have gone to get to 17 wins in a season and, if they keep things up, their franchise record of 35 wins (across all competitions) might not be far off. The team has even managed to better the team whose legendary shadow they’re forced to play under- that of the Leafs- punctuated by their win (at home, mind you) over the Leafs just eight days ago. Key to their success has been the addition of Daniel Cranston and Mike Richards this past off-season, as they’ve more than lived up to their combined $16.7 million salaries with 40 combined goals in the first half, giving Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s faithful captain, much needed support. Backstrom himself is still performing admirably with 10 goals of his own as well as inspiring two-way play…just watch him, and you’ll be amazed at how much heart he puts into the game. He’s destined to be one of the game’s great leaders, and he’s only 22.
The half’s two other big stories are the Blackhawks and the Austin Rangers. Although not as maligned as Brampton has been in the past, Chicago’s 17-2 start is the best they’ve had since 2002, indicating to the fans that, perhaps, their “lost decade” is finally over. Leading the spark are none other than their stud defencemen Lars Frolik and Carlos Fernandez, 1-2 in defencemen scoring with a combined 40 points, as well as the inventiveness of their new coach Jesper Ridgeway, whose on-ice formations seem to change with every game. In their win against the Islanders, Ridgeway countered the Islander speed by having his two wings ahead of the play, the centre right behind them controlling the puck, Fernandez acting like a rover and Frolik being the lone true defenceman, ensuring there was always someone to provide a quick counterattack. Of course, it helps that their team speed is maddening- seriously, these guys look like gnats out there- and that they’re filled with smart hockey players that can buy into Ridgeway’s complicated designs. As much as I hated seeing them destroy my Islanders, Chicago really is a fun team to watch.
It’s here where I bring up the obligatory Sabres and Nordiques stories. I know…I’d rather not because they seem to be always battling for first, but they are battling for first for a reason. The Nordiques enter the halfway break in first place for the first time in three seasons, and would have had their first 19-0 start if it wasn’t for Jose Theodore’s strange decision to skate up the ice with the puck on a power play against Chicago. Still, they beat the Sabres (which warms my heart) and, because of that, they’re in first place, which is a refreshing change considering that Buffalo is back to its “superhuman strengths”. How the Sabres do it is baffling- they lose 11 players because Robert Browning decides to be draconian (as much as I like seeing Browning stick it to Buffalo, telling a team they can’t rest players especially after a game against Quebec is beyond idiotic), yet they still have the players with enough skill to keep on going. I’d be impressed with their scouting department if it wasn’t so redundant, but I guess if the Sabres weren’t the East’s antagonist then the games wouldn’t be as interesting. *Sigh*…one day we’ll all get our comeuppance, and it’ll be sweet.
Pen-ultimately, I now take a minute to rant about my Islanders…I wish the big story wasn’t the stupid drunken escapades of Ryan Getzlaf, Evgeni Malkin and Jacques Fichaud, but it is. I have no idea why they thought it’d be a great idea relieve themselves on an Islander flag, but they did do that and they paid the right price by getting kicked off the team. I don’t care how good they are but no one does that to a team symbol. Details of the event are kind of murky- there’s no video of it so no one knows for sure who was the one who actually initiated the whole thing, and the three players vehemently deny that it actually happened (it was a bystander who saw the incident, after all, and his cell phone wasn’t working), but a urine-soaked Islander flag *was* recovered by Madion Square Garden officials right where the bystander said the trio were “having their fun”, and none of the players’ alibis seem to check out so it does look like the story does have quite a bit of merit. Hopefully the boys will have moved on from this embarrassing moment and learned from it.
As for the team on the ice…well, they are 2-2 since the incident occurred in early December, turning what was a nice 12-3 start into a 14-5 finish, but two of those games were against Chicago and Buffalo, so it’s not so bad. It’s nice to see Andy McDonald take control of the team, as his creativity and passing have allowed the offence to continue unencumbered, and Phil Kessel and Tyler Myers have grown by leaps and bounds in the past few games. I’m not usually an optimist, but their recent play has left me hopeful for the future…and the Rangers are next. Teehee.
Finally…there was that game in Colorado. Normally, the Rockies and Penguins aren’t newsworthy (when are two teams that don’t win newsworthy?), but an unfortunate incident at the end of the game has left a sour taste in my mouth. With the Penguins clinging to a 3-2 lead, Kurt Sauer, the Rockies captain, had an opportunity to shoot for the game tying goal with 11 seconds left. There was a scramble in front and, like all good defencemen, Sauer just buried his head and blasted the puck from the point. Predictably, the Penguin goalie, Jocelyn Thibault, didn’t see it and the puck whizzed by him for what should have been the game-tying goal…except that Jesper Mattson, during the scramble, elbowed Pittsburgh’s Petr Taticek in the mouth, careening him into the crossbar and leaving him unconscious on the ice. Referee Don Koharski spotted the foul somehow all the way from centre ice (the game’s other referee, Earl Dacourt, was following the puck and missed the infraction, despite being closer to the goal line) and waved off the goal immediately, at which point everyone noticed the concussed Taticek. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher and I’m told he’s going to be making a full recovery, but it wasn’t a pretty sight by any stretch of the imagination. From what I understand, Mattson is going to see Browning tomorrow morning at 10AM in his Toronto office, where he should throw the book at him. After all, Mattson did cause an injury and that’s a suspension of at least one game, and if Browning determines that it was intentional, that should be another five. Yes, six games is pretty harsh, but what Mattson did was reckless and not a hockey move…and should be viewed accordingly.
That’s it for now. Tune in next week for the first round of interleague games, which should be fun…and hopefully we’ll have nothing but hockey to talk about.