September 30, 2009
Brooins Brewing for a Cup
TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein makes his Stanley Cup prediction.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- It was a great summer, I experienced so many wonderful things. Warm weather, a visit to the New Yankee Stadium, covering the NHL Awards at the Palms in Las Vegas, the well received launch of The Fourth Period Magazine, and (saving the best for last) getting married in June to the most incredible person I've ever met (a hockey mom and now a proud Los Angeles Kings season ticket holder to boot). What more could any red-blooded sports lover desire?

But as the calendar page turns to October and we wonder where another year has gone, it's time for the nine-month chase for the most recognized trophy in all sports, The Stanley Cup.

The Playoff Gods were kind to the NHL last year, with an old Original Six franchise, the Chicago Blackhawks, on track to returning to former glory, a stirring seven game final series pitting the present, the Detroit Red Wings and the future, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Network television ratings for Game 7 hit a 20-year high, proving that despite the black hole (and eye) the Phoenix Coyotes have become, when the game is as its best it's still a sport for the North American masses.

In my annual rite of passage, I gaze into my-not-so crystal ball and try to come up with the team that will skate that prized chalice around the rink in June. My perfect record remains intact, 12-years of hockey writing, 12 misses.

Last season, people scoffed at my selection of the Chicago Blackhawks but after a renaissance 100 point season and a berth in the Western Conference Finals, it was a respectable pick. I took comfort in not having to explain how the San Jose Sharks 2008-09 playoff experience lasted just six games.

We'll eschew from making the case for my selection initially, preferring to give the reader the reasons why the other contenders won't win the prize.

Here are the suspects, in no particular order with their fatal flaws:

PITTSBURGH Ė Always good to disavow the reigning champs. I never pick back-to-back champions based on a) the stats that say itís been over a decade since Detroit repeated, b) the fact that 29 teams are pointing at you and c) that dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.

Of all the recent champs, the Penguins are the biggest threat to repeat, their young superstars have a ring on their finger, the young goaltender won a road Game 7 in arena that had been a house of horrors for him and the core of the team is still intact.

DETROIT Ė They can never be counted out because they're clearly the best organization in the NHL. They always have players coming through the system thanks to the genius of Ken Holland, despite drafting at the bottom of the first round of the draft every year. Winged Wheel fans can moan that if Pavel Datsyuk was healthy, they wouldn't have booed the Cup celebration because it would have been the Red and White lifting the trophy. They'll miss Marian Hossa (but not for the first two months due to injury or the playoffs due to lack of clutch play) and the other low hanging fruit harvested by other organizations and leagues (Kopecky, Hudler and Samuelsson). With Nicklas Lidstrom, now 39, and Brian Rafalski 35, this team looks a little too grizzled to avenge their finals loss. This will be the year where younger bones will outlast experience.

CHICAGO Ė Everyone's (except Motown) darlings last year, but what do they do for an encore with expectations for their first championship since 1961? They traded a Havlat for a Hossa and that's an upgrade that could threaten the Red Wings' domination of the Central Division. Besides the big Hossa deal, GM Stan Bowman smartly brought depth to the forward wall by signing checking line center John Madden and picking Detroitís pocket again to sign Tomas Kopecky. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews only get a year better and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are veterans in their mid 20s. So with all the kudos, why wouldn't I run the Hawks' flag up the pole again? Simply, the thought of Cristobal Huet taking Chicago four rounds deep isn't based in reality. An afterthought in last year's playoff and now needing to earn his $5.625 annual contact puts the Frenchman in pressure situation he's never experienced even though he tended goal in Montreal back in the day. Though 27 games over .500 for his regular season career, Huet's numbers for the playoffs are 6-9-1 with a 3.10 goals against average. I just cancelled the parade down Madison Street after reading those stats unless Bowman can clear cap room at the deadline and deal for Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere, truly a perfect goalie for this team.

VANCOUVER Ė The hip pick to click for the Cup, I didn't see it last year and don't see it this year. GM Mike Gillis salvaged the franchise when he re-signed the Sedin twins, fortunately for Gillis that the city reminds the twins of their Swedish homeland. When the best move is NOT signing a free agent (the failed Mats Sundin experiment), there won't be a significant upgrade in talent along the forward line. Some people think that another Detroit refugee, Mikael Samuelsson will pair with the Sedins to score 35-40, but just because all three line mates have the same country of origin on their passport, it doesn't equal close to production of 100 goals. The backline will miss lifetime Canuck Mattias Ohlund (gone to mentor Tampa's Victor Hedman for a sweet payday) but dealing for Christian Erhoff, Mathieu Schneider and Brad Lukowich brings savvy and offense. Assuming no drop off in performance from arguably the best goalie in the league, Roberto Luongo, the talent on the roster is close to the best in the West. What you don't see it toughness, either mental (only four players in the room have a ring) or physical (this team is finesse with a capital F) and that will be their downfall.

SAN JOSE Ė Goalies around the league will have sleepless nights pondering Joe Thornton dishing passes to Dany Heatley and if the controversial winger is in shape, you can put him down for 50 goals. Second year coach Todd McLellan learned his lesson in the post season, stripping the captaincy from the ill-suited Patrick Marleau, but should have gone the extra mile and appointed Dan Boyle as the man with the C. I witnessed first hand Boyle's bitterness and disappointment after their first round elimination by the Anaheim Ducks and sadly, he was the only one with any passion in his voice in that locker room. I'm convinced that goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is a function of the system he plays in and the team he plays for and not an elite netminder, he'd have to win a championship to change my mind. At this point, no one cares about 100 point seasons, No.1 seeds or President's Trophies. It's all or nothing for the Sharks, but the team's character isn't robust enough to fend off all the challenges of winning sixteen post season games.

WASHINGTON Ė The sting of a Game 7 home loss to the eventual champion Penguins should be all the motivation all this team needs to do better. Of bigger concern is if that sting stays with goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who was last seen driven from the net in the closing stanza. The game's best offensive talent, Alex Ovechkin, might get 60 and the roster is a little smarter with Brendan Morrison and more physical with the deft signing of Mike Knuble in the free agent market. A year's worth of seasoning (and disappointment) makes them better but with lack of depth on the blueline and unproven playoff goaltender (remember they were life and death with the Rangers in round one before getting off the deck) makes them very exciting but not a champion.

PHILADELPHIA Ė Hmm, Chris Pronger looks right at home in Orange and Black. Hmm, most people couldn't tell you that Jeff Carter was second behind Ovechkin in goal scoring last season? Hmm, if Claude Giroux develops further and Daniel Briere is healthy, aren't they as good as any team in the East? Hmm, that would be a no because relying on wild Ray Emery and Brian Boucher (didn't he set a shutout record once) to backstop you to a championship is a pipe dream.

So by process of elimination, we come to the team that plays hard by the Back Bay and toils in the shadow of Faneuil Hall (being from the Bronx doesn't make them cherished visions.)

The Bruins had a love fest with the city last season; Tim Thomas was acrobatic, Zdeno Chara was dominant and their forwards came at you in waves. They improved from 76 points and no playoffs two seasons ago to 116 points and the number one seed in the East. The karma around TD Garden swelled when the Brooins dispatched their nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, in a four game sweep. All that stood between Boston and a berth in the Final Four was the crafty, spirited and sixth seeded Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes were coming off an exhausting and draining seven game series against the New Jersey Devils and couldnít possibly have anything left in the tank against a better and more rested team.

But that's why they play the games, Bruins faithful. Carolina did have one tank of gas left, when Scott Walker (whose blind side hit of Aaron Ward made him public enemy number one) scored in overtime in Game 7. The moment his shot eluded Thomas, the clock turned 27, the number of years it's been since the Cup spent its summer in Cape Cod.

So what's different this year?

Most think that the biggest change is a negative one, GM Peter Chiarelli ended cap issues and a contract impasse by dealing 36 goal scorer and 21-year-old Phil Kessel. Chiarelli has a chance to recoup the talent from his trading partner, Toronto's blustery GM Brian Burke by virtue of receiving three high draft picks for the winger. The major concern for Chowderheads is replacing the team's leading goal scorer but in looking at the roster, those concerns should be minimized. Kessel's departure opens up more opportunity for wingers Milan Lucic (given increasing ice time, he has to score more than 17 goals), Marco Sturm (an afterthought after an injury plagued season) and Blake Wheeler (who should go for 30). With a one-two punch down the middle of Marc Savard (the least known superstar in the league) and David Krejci, goal production clearly wonít be an issue.

Other than the great but aging Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara is the best defenseman in the league. His size, physicality and scoring prowess (11 powerplay goals) makes him a game changer on the backline. His running mate, Dennis Wideman, is the most unsung blueliner in the league as the former eighth round pick by the Buffalo Sabres had statistically as good a season as Chara (same point production, higher plus/minus rating). Matt Hunsick and Mark Stuart are relative unknowns that had strong seasons and with the addition of Derek Morris, the defense is an effective and deep unit.

This leads into the key variable in the equation, the goaltender you can't help but root for, Tim Thomas. Drafted by a team no longer in existence (Quebec Nordiques) in a round that no longer exists (the ninth), the days of playing in Europe and toiling in the minors (as recently as the 2005-06 season) culminated in a season that few NHL netminders have ever achieved. Thomas was primarily responsible for the Bruins goaltending tandem winning the Jennings Trophy, captured the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award (best save percentage), won the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) and was a first team All Star. All that was and is missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup championship (and maybe a Conn Smythe trophy while heís at it.)

The glimpse of championship greatness he was never expected to attain is all the motivation the 35-year-old native of Flint, Michigan needs this season. Since being anointed the starter's role three seasons ago, Thomas has raised the level of his game every season to be deservedly considered as one of the elite netminders in the league.

The Bruins are deep, youthful and experienced enough to win 16 games in the second season. Boston has an unknown superstar in Savard supported by four lines of skilled talent. They have an intimidating force in Chara leading a tough and talented defensive corps and possess a goaltender thatís fought every inch of the way to position his team to win a championship. This year itís not about brand name superstars, itís about karma and convergence.

IN MEMORIAM

Frequent readers of my column know that I cherish my friends and consider them gifts. The old saying goes, "you pick your friends, not your family, so if your friends are jerks then you're one as well." Iíve learned some of life's lessons quite well and understand that one is only as good as the integrity of their relationships.

Over the past 12 years, I've been lucky to experience the best this game has to offer from Stanley Cup Finals to All Star Game to Premiere Series in Europe. Iíve stood and questioned Messier, Gretzky, and Lemieux and am grateful every day for being in the right place at the right time. While I grew up loving the game as a kid in New York, the game got away from me (or me from the game) in the decade from 1985 to 1995. The New York Football Giants won a couple of Super Bowls, the New York Yankees regained their prominence, got married, etc. There really wasnít a place for hockey in my life, shame on me.

A chance meeting at a New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup party placed me in a bar next to a kid in his mid 20s that was fervent a Devils fan as thereís ever been. While I canít recall the gist of the conversation, little did I know that it was small talk that launched a friendship that lasted over a decade.

John Artinian was the primary reason I got back into hockey. He was so plugged into the team; he was pals with the likes of Mike Peluso and Ken Daneyko and would lead me to the late night lair, the infamous Verona Inn where even a young Scott Neidermayer could be seen downing a beer or two.

John was there during the terminal illness of my son Taylor, always looking to lighten the moment with his wise cracks or hockey talk. I recall watching a five-OT playoff game on the floor of my home with him and Peluso and wagering on who would score the game winner (Iím pretty sure Petr Nedved got it). It was a scene that almost made me forget the gravity of the situation and the hopelessness that lingered on for four years.

I eventually landed in Los Angeles and John was not too far behind, while I struggled with my new surrounding and career (I was a boring accountant up until then, imagine that). John acclimated quickly. He found his wife Keghan by the Pacific, they had two beautiful children and he started his own direct marketing business. Despite all the personal and business demands, John always found time to get in front of the TV for a crucial Devils contest, a Devil for life, you know. He attended my wedding in June and sat at a table with other hockey luminaries but just a few feet away from ours, enjoying the experience of seeing his friend both happy and in love.

It pains me to refer to John in the past tense because he was cruelly and tragically taken from us this past weekend. After fighting a year long battle with testicular cancer, he beat both the disease and the accompanying fear that came with it. Given a clean bill of health, he was back on track to a normal life.

But that life was snuffed out in a back alley somewhere in New Orleans early Saturday morning. John accompanied a friend who was performing at an event and was on the way back from the show when from behind and with no warning, a car rolled up. The driver made contact with such force that it threw my friend 20-feet in the air and the resulting impact ended his life. The despicable person who perpetrated the act has not come forward to admit the guilt of ending John's life at 37.

We are mystified as to why such things happen in the world. Iíve told my wife more than once that oft times life is about managing loss. Possessions, loved ones, health and beauty are all taken away from us as we advance in years. I stopped asking Ďwhy?í the day they said my son would never walk, say Mom or Dad and that I would have to eulogize him before his fifth birthday. Itís not right. Itís not the way things should be. Still, they occur every day.

I push on with this belief; I will get the answers some day but my feeble human mind cannot comprehend the reasoning behind it. So I take comfort in knowing that when I evolve to a high level of consciousness (because it was be the cruelest joke if this is all there was). I will get the answers.

To John's loving family and to his friends, I offer these words of consolation. If there's a Stanley Cup in heaven, I know our friend is holding it high.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.

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