Sunday, 4 December 2011

A truly competitive league

The second month of the season has ticked by and it’s been a pretty eventful few weeks - from the impressive return of ‘The Next One’ to the fall out following Lucic’s hit on Miller - there’s been plenty of talking points.

One thing I was expecting to see after two months of the season was some of the ‘top’ teams moving away from the chasing pack. Instead, other than perhaps two or three teams at the bottom, everyone will still fancy their chances of making the play-offs.

In the Western Conference just six points separate first place from sixth and while the Penguins are beginning to move away in the East the rest of the pack are all just a few points apart.

Compare that to the Premier League, often dubbed ‘the most competitive league in the word’ and it becomes pretty clear it’s not very competitive at all – not at the top anyway. Manchester City are already five points clear of second place and twelve ahead of fifth.

It’s hardly surprising City find themselves so far ahead already – they just happen to be the richest team in the league and are able to attract the best players with the offer of lucrative (and ludicrous) salaries. They have numerous players earning more than £200k a week and even Joleon Lescott is reportedly on £100k a week - yes, Joleon Lescott.

It’s one of the main reasons that I’ve grown tired of watching football and it just proves how well the NHL’s salary cap works. By putting each team on a level footing the best talent is more evenly spread and it results in far more competitive games each week. It also means you don’t see the same names at the top of the tables season after season. I’m pretty sure nobody would have predicted the success the Minnesota Wild are currently enjoying – I didn’t see them tipped to be at the top of the table after 25 odd games by anyone at the start of the season.

While there are obviously many other reasons football need some kind of financial cap in place, it would undoubtedly even up the league and bring an end to the domination of the richest clubs which we’ve seen in the last decade.

The strength in depth of the NHL has also been seen in the form of last year’s two Stanley Cup finalists. Both struggled at the start of the season against quicker, sharper and better-prepared opponents. While last year’s top two in the Premier League are up there once again, it’s been a different story for my Canucks and the Boston Bruins. It’s understandable that both would suffer from hangovers at the start of this season, obviously for very different reasons, and after an awful start the Bruins have picked up massively in November and are now top of their division.

Meanwhile, the Canucks seem to have put their ‘win one, lose one’ approach to October behind them and five straight wins during November has hopefully turned their season around. We’re yet to re-discover the kind of hockey that led to last year’s President’s Trophy but that recent run of form means we are at least back in the play-off picture and should have some much needed confidence running through the dressing room.

I’m particularly looking forward to the return of Mason ‘May Ray’ Raymond this evening, having never had the opportunity to see him in action after the nasty injury he picked up last year. His return is also well timed with the news that Aaron Volpatti is out for the season with a shoulder injury. It’s obvious that is a squad game and teams need depth to call upon to continue to challenge at the top of the table.

The way the league is right now, pretty much anyone can beat anyone and the play-off places are far from decided just yet. I’m no expert but I wouldn’t bet against one or two of those teams near the bottom of the pile making a strong run for the post-season in the coming weeks and months. The chase is well and truly on.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

48 hours is a long time in hockey

I’ve been hearing it every single year, for as long as I can remember. At some point during a football season a manager, usually at one of the top clubs, will moan about ‘fixture congestion’.

Earlier this month Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was quoted as saying: “It is disgraceful in this day and age that players are being asked to play a key Premier League game and then a quarter-final in London just 48 hours later. It’s surely the duty of the football authorities to think of other solutions which consider the welfare of the players and this clearly hasn’t happened.”

Now I’m not picking on Dalglish for any reason other than he’s the latest to complain, truth be told there’s probably not a manager in the Premier League that hasn’t moaned about scheduling at some point. Usually the reason for this is having to play two games in 48 hours or maybe three games in a week. Okay, that's a lot of football but these are professional athletes paid millions of pounds to play the game.

So if footballers are unable to play two games in three days, how the hell are teams able to function in the NHL. Let’s just have a look at Dalglish’s recent moan and, as an example, compare it to the recent schedule of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Dalglish is upset because his team are being forced to play a game in Liverpool against Manchester City on a Sunday and a cup quarter final against Chelsea in London the following Tuesday night, approximately 49 and a half hours later. Before playing the second game they will also need to travel around 210 miles to the capital.

Now let’s look at the Leafs. On Sunday night they hosted the Washington Capitals in a 7pm start in Toronto. Their next game was the following day starting at 5pm, meaning less than 20 hours after finishing one game they were playing again – startling. Even more so when you consider not only did they have this short turn around, but they had to travel 800 miles to Carolina during the few hours between the games! And it’s even more astounding when you realise that the game in Carolina was the Leafs’ fourth in just six days.

Whereas in football it’s relatively unusual to see two games in three days, in the NHL the above scenario is the norm. NHL teams play 82 regular season games every year and if you go all the way to the cup final you can expect to play well over the 100 games mark. That compares to just 38 Premier League games, which is topped up to around 55 or 60 depending on cup success. Yes, there is an argument that football games are 90 minutes long where as in the NHL players generally spend between 15 and 20 minutes on the ice each game. However, the physical and mental stress of playing so regularly and having to travel so far must make the demands of the hockey much greater than those of English football.

If you ask me, football managers should not be allowed to complain about fixture pile-ups!

Sid the kid

I couldn’t write this today without mentioning the return of Sidney Crosby last night. There are two things to talk about really. Firstly, the incredibly over the top media circus and hyperbole that surrounded his return, and secondly the unbelievably good performance that just backed it all up!

The pre-game anticipation ramped up to seriously heady heights on Monday night – it was the sort of anticipation that I’ve only seen once or twice in sport. Fans flocked to the game, TV networks changed schedules to screen it and hockey fans couldn’t stop talking and tweeting about it.

His performance was outstanding. Whatever you say, there is no way that any sportsman can be out injured for 10 months and come back at 100 per cent match fitness. To play 16 minutes and leave the ice with a haul of four points was terrifyingly good – if he can do that now what is he going to be like in seven, eight or nine games time. The disappointing Islanders were obviously nice opposition for his comeback but there must have been some worries and concerns on his mind, not that it showed.

Being relatively new to this sport it was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see Crosby play and it was an absolute pleasure. Even having missed the first 20 games of the season, if he keeps up that kind of form I wouldn’t bet against him threatening the top of the goal scoring charts come the end of the season. If they stay healthy, the Penguins will be a very, very tough side to beat this year.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

It's been a long time coming

The last couple of weeks have been crazy busy and I haven’t had much time to get on here. I have, however, been keeping up with events in the NHL as best I can and just wanted to share my two pence worth on a few ‘issues’ that have sparked debate in the last couple of weeks.

Flyers @ Lightning

There was much discussion following the Flyers unusual tactics in this game - particularly as it was being screened on TV across America. While there have been calls to change the rules to stop this kind of play I have to say I don’t have a problem with it. I suppose it depends which way you look at it – is the sport an entertainment business or a results business?

If it’s entertainment then obviously these kind of tactics do not lend themselves to high scoring, fast paced games. I’d never seen anything like this before in my fledgling NHL watching career so it was a surprise to me, but if I’m honest not one that I think should be outlawed.

There appears to be a lot of pressure on North American sports to provide entertainment – far more so than there is over here. I can’t tell you how many awful, awful 0-0 or 1-0 football matches I’ve been to. But for me, sometimes that’s sport. In the Premier League the smaller teams will frequently set up defensively against the bigger clubs, hoping to earn a draw and a point rather than going on the attack and losing five or six nil. For me the Flyers were just using tactics that they felt would best helpt them to win the game – which surely has to be the ultimate objective. If the coach paraded exciting, end to end hockey each game but lost 9-8 every time fans would soon be calling for his head. In my opinion if the coach feels that is the best way to go about winning the match then so be it.

To an extent you could compare it to the way Stoke City play in the Premier League over here. For anyone that hasn’t seen them they employ a midfielder (Rory Delap) who has an unusually long throw and whenever the opportunity arises they pack the area in front of the keeper and let Delap chuck it in there and see what happens. It’s hardly beautiful to watch, but more often than not the ball ends up in the back of the net and they get results. In my opinion, while sport does obviously entertain, it is ultimately a results businesses and coaches and players should do whatever they can – within the laws of the game – to win.

Milan Lucic on Ryan Miller

Another contentious incident from the last couple of weeks was the Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller and the fact that Lucic escaped suspension from ‘Sheriff Shanahan’. This is difficult for me to comment on having a pretty small frame of reference on these kind of things, but for what it’s worth I don’t think the hit was worthy of a suspension. Miller had made the decision to come out of his net and must have known he was on a collision course with Lucic and the end result was inevitable. Goal tenders certainly need protection, but when they come out of their area in this kind of situation they need to be prepared to go head to head with the attacker. In football goalkeepers are far too protected these days - if any forward goes up for a challenege with a keeper 99 times out of 100 the goalie will win a free-kick.

What was mind boggling was the lack of retribution that was dished out on Miller’s behalf on the ice directly afterwards. I should imagine the next game between the Bruins and the Sabres will be a little bit spicy!

Consistently inconsistent

Frustrating. Pretty much sums up what watching the Canucks is like right now. I’ve managed to have seen at least highlights of every game so far this season and it’s impossible to predict which Canucks side is going to turn up. The defense has struggled throughout the season – perhaps down to the changing partnerships and lack of consistency of the line up.

Going forward the team has really only fired in four or five games. I’ve been particularly disappointed with what I’ve seen from Ryan Kesler so far this season. I know he’s coming back from injury so he must be given time, but to date he hasn’t been influential during games and the second line has struggled to pick up the slack when the Sedin line isn't firing.

Some people are already saying we will be lucky to scrape into the play-offs, but it’s still early in the season and I’m confident that at some point we will get on a run and push on up the conference table. I can but hope!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Why can't we be friends?

Having never actually been to an NHL game this is going to be slightly difficult to write, but since I started watching hockey I've been wanting to compare the fans and the atmosphere of hockey games with the English football matches that I'm more used to. There are some very clear differences which I should think make the two experiences quite different.

For starters, in the Canucks games I've watched so far and from what I've been told on Twitter (thanks @a3minuterecord), there is no segregation between fans of opposing teams in the NHL. This makes for an entirely different atmosphere in the arenas - whether or not it's better though is hard to say.

As I've mentioned before I'm a Portsmouth (Pompey) fan and while I've not watched nearly as much football this season as I normally would, I still closely follow Portsmouth. Over the years I've seen Pompey play at some of the biggest stadiums in the country and some of the lesser known venues that I'd imagine most people reading this won't have heard of. Anyway, the one thing that is the same no matter where you watch a game in this country is that you will be in the stands among your fellow fans, segregated (often by lines of stewards or police) from the opposing team's fans.

It's almost unimaginable to have the two sets of fans mixed together. In fact I've recently bought tickets to see Portsmouth host south coast rivals Southampton (warmly known as scummers to Pompey fans) in December. There will be around 16,000 Pompey fans at the game and 3,000 scummers. ALL of the Southampton fans must travel on official club coaches and will be given a police escort into the ground. Anyone found making their own way on public transport or in their own cars won't be allowed in. There is a long history of violence and hooliganism between the two sides and normally dozens of arrests are made when they face each other.

That's why I find it so unusual to see NHL fans from opposing sides sat next to each other at games, particularly with the intense and violent nature of hockey. I know the fans have the same passion for their teams, I've read this blog post from @TheStanchion and I know that feeling, wanting your team to win so badly that you can't even watch their fate unfold. With emotion from fans running that high I honestly think it's impressive that every game doesn't end in a riot (I am aware that one game did earlier this year, but we don't need talk about that).

With football you have to ask the question whether the hostile treatment visiting fans receive from stewards and police actually entices violence - there's even a group who protest the treatment of away fans by police and stewards. Sadly there's a history of hooliganism in our national game and it's an unwanted tag that will, in all probability, never be shaken. For what it's worth, I've been going to games since 1992 and have never been involved in an altercation which suggests there is only violence there if you go looking for it.

But maybe segregation does provide one upside. While fans being separated can emphasise a nasty side of the game, what it also does is help to create an electric atmosphere. Visiting supporters, normally the more die-hard fans, will usually sing and taunt their opponents for the full 90 minutes, while the home side will unite against them dishing out the chants they are famous for. In Portsmouth's case the 'Pompey Chimes' is the most famous (if you've ever heard a clock chime they'll be familiar). While we're talking about fans and noise I feel I need to shoe-horn in one of my favourite YouTube videos which demonstrates the atmosphere at Fratton Park at its best. For me, it's never been better than this.

At the Canucks games I've watched so far there have been moments of noise from the crowd but not the continuing wall of sound that you tend to get a football games (not that I'm saying it's a good thing that we have to put up with this guy ringing a bell and blowing on a bugle for 90 minutes). Songs seem to be few and far between too. I've picked up on the 'Go Canucks Go' chants that surface once in a while, but haven't heard anything other than that. I also haven't heard any songs or chants that put down Vancouver's rivals. At dull Pompey games fans generally revert anti-scummer songs which I wouldn't want to repeat here - the sort of songs you wouldn't sing in front of your mother, let's put it that way.

Of course the hockey I've watched so far has mainly been early regular season stuff, so I wouldn't expect the atmosphere from the fans to be too intense. And I'm hardly an expert on these matters with my massive four weeks experience of watching hockey. If there are any songs or derogatory chants out there that I've missed I'd love to know about them!

Earlier this week I did sit down and watch Game 7 of the series against the Blackhawks from last season and the increase in noise and excitement was obvious. When Burrows unleashed this rocket, the place erupted. I'm certainly looking forward to the post-season where it looks like the atmosphere ramps up considerably. Although the Canucks will have to get there first!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

One month down, eight to go

Three weeks ago when I decided to make an effort to start watching NHL and write this blog, I didn't really know what to expect. In all honesty I thought I'd write a couple of posts, get bored of it and go back to watching football - but it hasn't been the case. I've thoroughly enjoyed watching a new sport, am understanding it a lot quicker than I expected and will definitely be following for the rest of this season and in all likelihood beyond.

I already find myself examining the stats online on the train to work in the morning, or trying to watch video highlights on Chiltern Railways poor excuse for wi-fi. I've even changed my homepage on Google Chrome from BBC Sport to and I reckon I understand at least 60 per cent of what the commentators are saying during games now. To sum up, I'm getting into it!

The Canucks' start to the regular season has been a little hit and miss, they've been up and down more than the Grand Old Duke of York! Games they (can I say 'we' yet?!) should have walked through have been lost, yet there have been flashes of genius, particularly in the 7-4 romp over the Caps this weekend. I guess it's only to be expected that the team wouldn't be the fastest out of the blocks this year after the traumatic end to last season but there are certainly signs that things are going in the right direction.

While much of the early debate this season has been around Roberto Luongo, the hard cold facts show that the offense not firing has been the root of the problems. As they say in football 'attack is the best form of defence'. Saturday night's seven goals should go some way to instilling confidence in the forward lines and will hopefully be the start of a free-scoring run with the team off on another road trip this week.

One thing that impressed me in the win over the Capitals was the depth of the squad. Each line looked threatening and I was particularly impressed with Chris Higgins who looked dangerous playing on the third line. I'm still not sure that Cody Hodgson is suited to playing out wide alongside Ryan Kesler and David Booth but given time hopefully he'll come around. As long as the forwards continue to fire then the heat will come off Luongo a little and hopefully allow him to get some confidence back and find his best form. It can't be easy for the guy constantly being one bad move away from a chorus of boos from his own fans. Right now he needs support and, for the good of the team, that's what the Canucks faithful should give him.

I'm obviously learning a lot following this sport and I'm particularly enjoying the speed and sounds of hockey. I'm trying to stay linked in with the rest of the league as much as possible and was glued to the highlights of the Jets Flyers game which was either superb or terrible, depending which way you look at it. I like the fact that there are more goals in hockey than there are in football. The unpredictable nature of the game means it's pretty rare to see a 0-0 or 1-0 score-line which makes the action more exciting. Claude Giroux's goal against the Canucks proved that at any moment you're just one lucky bounce away from putting the puck away.

One other thing that I like is the disciplinary board videos which explain why decisions are made and why suspensions are enforced. It's a great idea which can help fans and players understand the decision making process and something a number of British sports should sit up and take notice of. There appears to be a lot more respect for officials in this game too, in football I'm used to the ref being surrounded by whinging players after almost every blow of the whistle. From what I've seen of the NHL they just get on with it, even if the decision is dubious. It's good to see and sets a much better example to young supporters than our spoilt brats do in this country.

It's fair to say I've enjoyed every minute of my first taste of hockey, bring on November and a surge up the conference!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This one's going to overtime

'And the game ended in a draw', the sort of comment that you'd expect to read in a soccer match report, but in the majority of North American sports it's unheard of.

For some reason many British sports fans and pundits alike can't get to grips with the idea of overtime and penalties deciding a regular season match which ends with the scores level. In fact, many a time I've heard people put sports down for using extra time and penalty shots to decide a game. If I'm honest it's something I've been guilty of in the past - but I couldn't really explain why. It's the sort of comment your dad or grandad makes and you agree without even thinking about it. Perhaps it's something in the British psyche that automatically makes us look down on anything emanating from North America. Or maybe it's just because we're a traditional bunch over here and too protective of the history of our sports and don't want them to become too 'Americanised' - though if you ask me we could learn a lot from the major sports leagues across the Atlantic, particularly in regards to finances and salary caps (something I'll write about another day).

Over here if a soccer game ends in a draw it's one point each and everyone goes home - most of the time frustrated and unhappy. So essentially a draw leads to the same feeling as a defeat, unless it's the kind of game where you've been battered for the whole match and nick an equaliser at the death. But even then if your team has managed to score a last minute leveller it could give them the momentum to go on and win in extra time. I honestly can't see a reason why extra time and penalties couldn't be introduced to league football in this country. It would certainly make the climax of drawn games more exciting judging by my first experience of a tied game in the NHL.

Perhaps the pace of hockey makes it more accommodating to a period of overtime, there was definitely an electric edge to that extra five minutes against Minnesota, which culminated in the game winning goal. The aim of sport after all is to find a winner, so why settle for drawn games if it takes away excitement. If we had more games ending in penalty shoot outs in English football our national side might actually be able to win one and get past the quarter finals of a major competition too!

Everyone's a winner (well, sort of).

Sunday, 23 October 2011

More early starts please

Now that was hockey! While I've enjoyed following the games up to now it was much better to have the opportunity to watch the game live and get involved with the Twitter discussion etc. (although I'm sure actually being in the arena would be a tad better). It's a shame that there's only one more 1pm start scheduled in for the rest of the season, I'm going to have to make more of an effort to pull all nighters at weekends from now on.

The game itself got off to a pretty sleepy start, probably predictably seeing as these early face offs are rare. There didn't seem to be much of an atmosphere during the first period which raises the age-old question - should the fans generate the noise to drive on their team, or should the team get the crowd going with action on the ice? It's all a bit chicken and egg and a question we see a lot over here in football. I'm very much of the opinion that at the beginning of the game the fans should get the atmosphere going - but if the play being served up for the first five or ten minutes is a bit dull it's understandable that it will drop off. I'm sure the early start didn't help with this and once again some poor discipline resulted in a number of Wild powerplays in the period and ultimately a 1-0 lead for the visitors going into the second.

This became a 2-1 lead going into the third and not for the first time this season the Canucks needed to turn over a deficit in the final period. Once again they managed it. Hansen tied the game up with the best play of the match, tipping in a shot from the point. That took us to overtime where the win was sealed in style. Sami Salo celebrated his 700th NHL game with a top shelf scorcher from the point. It's a good job that nobody got in the way of it because that puck would have caused some serious damage!

One player in particular stood out for me during the game - Maxim Lapierre. I've not seen a whole lot of him up to now but he was all over the ice last night and had a couple of breakaways, narrowly missing the chance to score. I thought Kesler looked lively too, always involved with the Canucks more positive play and although the Sedins were quiet Daniel still popped up with a goal and is right up there on the individual leader boards.

Waking up this morning I hear that a trade went through last night between Vancouver and Florida with Sturm and Samuelsson departing and David Booth coming in. As I've mentioned before Sturm has looked pretty slow and Samuelsson is no spring chicken so this would look like a decent trade. I know nothing of Booth, but consensus appears to be that it's a good deal for the Canucks and he will slot into the second line, probably alongside Kesler and Higgins. Hopefully this won't mean Cody Hodgson being left out. While he's been a little anonymous in the last couple of games he started the season well and I hope we get to see a bit more of him as time goes on. I'm not exactly sure what the rules are around trades during the season and if there is a 'deadline day' like we see in soccer, or if teams can trade all year round - I'll be trying to find that out later today!

On a lighter note I have to comment on the tunes featured in NHL games. The organ music, which I expected to be a lot more irritating, is actually growing on me and definitely adds to the atmosphere. I also love the Sportsnet intro music - could it be more dramatic?! Then again, last night's game coming to an end on an overtime screamer with under 30 seconds left on the clock was more than worthy of it. Bosh!