I promised myself I'd give this one full season and see where it went. From the Oilers Wannabes at Golden Bears game on September 17 to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 12, Oil Droppings was a going concern. Now it's going, going, gone.

But that's good news. After serving my year's apprenticeship in the minors, I've been called up to The Bigs. I have accepted an offer from "the hardest working man in the Oilogosphere", Jonathan Willis, to join forces at his fine blog
The Copper & Blue. At the same time, Derek Zona a.k.a. Coach pb9617 is closing the doors of his promising new blog, the Church of Kurri, to make it a threesome over at C & B.

Should be interesting, and fun. We three bring different, complementary strengths which should keep C & B both busy and varied. Jon's done a great job all on his own there, but we're confident the addition of a couple UFAs will strengthen the team's performance.

Oil Droppings will remain "up" but inactive for the foreseeable future. The archives will eventually be folded in with Jonathan's and Derek's over at C&B while the blogroll will remain intact for now. That blogroll has continued to swell throughout the season as more worthy sites have come on-line, so this is a small step to consolidate three of them into one site which we hope will (continue to) be a regular visit for many of you.

My thanks to all the readers and especially commenters who have added content and context to Oil Droppings over the past 9 months. I look forward to continued interaction with you at Copper & Blue, not to mention in the comments sections of your own and other blogs.


Father's Day presence

I think I must have inherited that part of my Dad's genetic code that loved the St. Louis Cardinals. It was something we shared from my earliest awareness of the sporting world in the summer of 1962, 'til the day he died just after the 2007 season. For both of us it was a passion that stretched from Stan (The Man) Musial to Albert (El Hombre) Pujols.

I saw only the tail end of the wonderful career of Stan the Man; similarly Dad saw only the first portion of El Hombre's dazzling career. Dad often regaled me with tales of Musial's legendary hitting exploits, such as the season he hit .625 in Ebbetts Field against the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers; today I can only reciprocate by thinking of my Dad and sharing vicariously Phat Albert's modern hitting exploits and ever-growing legend.

Fitting that Pujols came through with yet another huge game this Father's Day, with a 2 homer, 4 hit, 6 RBI performance, leading the Redbirds to a convincing 12-5 victory in Kansas City. The highlight was a fourth inning grand slam that broke open a 4-4 game. It was El Hombre's 9th career grand slam, tying the all-time Cardinals' record held by, you guessed it, Stan Musial. Through the magic of the Internet, a photo of today's slam appears up top, and video can be seen here.

If only I could, I'd be picking up the phone tonight and sharing a gloat with Dad. I'd no doubt tell him that Albert now leads the major leagues in runs, RBIs, homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and of course OPS (by a spectacular 140 points). Dad would note that the Cards have extended their lead in the tight NL Central to 1½ games. And the man who got a masters degree in history would likely make some comparison across the eras, between dominant hitters past and present.

In researching this piece I came across this wonderful picture (and this photo essay) of Musial and Pujols, taken on Opening Day 2009. The Man is a frail 88, but still has a ready smile and, it would appear, the utmost respect of those who follow his path. Which is as it should be.

The old #6 and the current #5 have lots in common, both starting their careers in left field before finding a permanent home at first base in Busch Stadium. Yet they come from backgrounds as different as their eras. Musial is from Donora (Pennsylvania), Pujols from the Dominican Republic. Due to his skin colour, El Hombre wouldn't have been welcome in the major leagues when The Man started his career; how far we've come. And how lucky I was, having a dad who cheered equally and whole-heartedly for Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, and Albert Pujols as he did Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and Enos Slaughter. Or who cried equally for Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Not everyone was so enlightened in the days of my youth, nor even today.

I was incredibly fortunate to have such a dad, and especially to have him right into my 50s. Today I remember him with great warmth, and miss him with all my heart.


“Whoever wins, Wins”

I was 8 years old that spring of 1964 when I coined that phrase. It was my second Stanley Cup playoffs, and a memorable one. After the Leafs had rolled to the Cup in just 10 games in ’63 -- have I mentioned I'm old? I can recall the Leafs actually winning -- the next year things were a lot tighter. All three series (TOR-MTL, DET-CHI and then TOR-DET) were rematches, all three had the same result, but this time all three went 7 games. After the Leafs and Habs had split the first six games, my emerging mathematical mind realized that whoever won the next game, won the series. My uncharacteristically concise observation became synonymous with “Game 7” in our household for many years.

It’s particularly true when the Game 7 in question is in the Stanley Cup Finals. One for all the marbles. It’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan; even if you don’t care about the two teams involved, you care about that silver mug and you want to see whose history will be engraved on it.

This is my 46th Stanley Cup final series (an official majority of the 91 that have been played since the NHL was formed in 1917, and yes, I do feel old, thanks for asking). It is just the tenth in my time to reach Game 7. They might seem commonplace to newer, younger fans of Gary Bettman’s House of Parity, but there has been an odd distribution over the years:

1960s - 2
1970s - 1
1980s - 1
1990s - 1
2000s – 5

It’s a rare enough thing, which was especially true during dynastic times as the true powerhouses tend to end things in 6 or less. Sweeps were grossly more common than seven-gamers. The five-in-a-row Habs lost just 5 Finals games over those 5 years with only one series making it to Game 6. The four-in-a-row Habs of the late 70s lost just 3 games, and the four-in-a-row Islanders that directly followed also lost just 3 games, with each team playing (and winning) a single Game 6. The Oilers of 1983-90 got swept in their first series, then won 5 Cups with only a 7-game classic with the Flyers in 1987 requiring more than 5 games to mop up. Those Oilers lost just 3 games total in their other 4 Cup triumphs. Similarly, today’s long-standing dynasty in the Motor City got swept in a first visit to the Finals back in ’95, but have quickly disposed of subsequent opponents, losing just 3 games over their 4 successful Cup Finals. Until this year ... and tonight.

Rarer still is a 7th game overtime, which has occurred only twice, 1950 and 1954, with the Red Wings prevailing both times. The unlikely heroes were Pete Babando and Tony Leswick, both of whom are famous for no other reason. The pestiferous Leswick’s fluke goal off the glove of the great Doug Harvey could only be duplicated if Matt Cooke bounced one in off of Nick Lidstrom in OT tonight. Ugh. That one had to be tough for Habs fans to swallow ... sorry I missed it!

But since I tuned in a decade later, I watch the Stanley Cup Finals intently, every year, whether my team is in or out. In this era of many Games 7, I usually have a mild rooting interest but (2006 aside) don’t really care who wins, but am keen to see how things turn out. The Game is the thing, and by now I’ve watched well over 200 SCF games, 15 of them in person. The funny thing is how after all these years the memories of those games, especially Games 7, remain sharp. The garburetor that passes for my brain retains a torrent of game scores, goal scorers, goal times, situations, stats, factoids, mental replays ... This walk down memory lane doesn’t require hockey-reference.com – but if you find an error, please let me know. :D

1964: Detroit 0 @ Toronto 4
The first Game 7 in 9 years provided a somewhat anticlimactic end to a great series which featured 6 close games, including 2 overtimes and 2 others decided in the last minute of regulation. The coup de grace was delivered by Bob Baun, whose shock overtime goal in Game 6 had silenced an Olympia crowd expecting the Cup. That Baun was playing on a broken leg at the time is now the stuff of legend. Baun, broken leg and all, went on to play Game 7; when asked if he would get an Xray, he replied “no, if it's bad news I don't want to hear it; I have a game to play”. (Bob Baun was Lee Fogolin, Craig Muni, and Jason Smith all rolled into one.) His leg held up, and so did the Leaf defence in smothering the Wings. Andy Bathgate, acquired from the Rangers in a blockbuster trade earlier that season, scored on an early breakaway and Johnny Bower made it stand up against Gordie Howe and Co. The Leafs scored three in the third to finally break it open.

1965: Chicago 0 @ Montreal 4
This was a homer series and an extreme one at that. Montreal outscored Chicago 15-2 in the Forum, with the Hawks failing to score again after a 3-2 loss in Game 1. In Chicago Stadium it was the Habs with popgun offence, scoring just 3 goals to Chicago’s 10. So when Jean Beliveau scored something like 14 seconds into Game 7, it was over early. The Habs built their early advantage to 4-0 by the end of the first and cruised home from there. The only boring Game 7 I’ve ever seen. Gump Worsley got the shutout, and Beliveau was awarded the first Conn Smythe Trophy.

1971: Montreal 3 @ Chicago 2
The homer series that wasn’t. Chicago was the higher seed but blinked in the final game, blowing a 2-0 lead in the process. The turning point came in the second period when Bobby Hull hit the crossbar and soon after Jacques Lemaire beat Tony Esposito on an 80-foot slapper that got the Habs back in the game while draining the confidence right out of the Hawks and their fans. From that moment the outcome seemed inevitable. Henri Richard scored the tying and winning goals, and Ken Dryden made them stand up with some remarkable netminding. The pre-rookie Dryden won the Smythe, the Pocket Rocket got his revenge for being benched earlier in the series, and winning coach Al MacNeil got demoted to the AHL. The only thing the Canadiens did better than infighting, was winning.

1987: Philadelphia 1 @ Edmonton 3
The first SCFG7 in sixteen long years, and my personal favourite, because I got to attend this game live. The ultimate experience for a hockey fan, knowing that the Stanley Cup is not only in the building but is certain to be given out. Whoever wins, Wins. I attended all four home games of that series, and it was the best live hockey I’ve ever seen. Philly had a great, gritty club that pushed the most talented of all Oiler squads right to the wall. In the ultimate game Flyers scored on an early 5-on-3, but the Oil tied it on a dazzling three-way passing play from Glenn Anderson to Kent Nilsson to Mark Messier before Jari Kurri put the Oil ahead to stay late in the second on a pass from Wayne Gretzky. After a series of goalposts, near misses, and great stops by Ron Hextall, Anderson finally put it away late in the third. Oilers outshot Philly 43-20 and were full value for the win. The rookie Hextall was a standout in defeat, receiving first star honours in Game 7 as well as the Smythe. Gretzky received the Cup from John Ziegler and immediately passed it to Steve Smith in an unforgettably classy gesture.

1994 Vancouver 2 @ New York Rangers 3

The Rangers were known as Edmonton East, and it stood them in good stead when the President’s Trophy winners blew two chances to win the Cup in Games 5 and 6, just as had happened to the Oil in ’87. The Rangers still had home ice for Game 7 and weren’t about to let it get away on them. Messier, Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, and Esa Tikkanen were teammates in both games; Jeff Beukeboom and Adam Graves had won Cups for Edmonton after ’87, and were key figures on those ’94 Rangers. Messier scored the Cup-winning goal, and Mike Richter and his posts made it stand up against a hard-battling Canucks squad. Brian Leetch scored the critical opening goal and ultimately received the Conn Smythe.

2001 New Jersey 1 @ Colorado 3

For the third year in a row the Finals featured a battle of superstar goalies, but after the previous two were decided in long overtimes in Game 6, this one went the limit. Patrick Roy was the story, shutting down the Devils’ league-leading offence (it’s true! and it wasn’t close), allowing just 11 goals in the 7 games including just 2 in the 4 Colorado victories. The Devils had a chance to clinch at home in Game 6 but laid a 4-0 egg at the Swamp. Back in the Mile High City, the Avalanche jumped out to a 3-0 lead on 2 goals and a helper from Alex Tanguay, then rode Roy and fierce checking to the finish line. Roy was a clear choice for his third Conn Smythe, while an aging Ray Bourque was both inspiration and a major contributor.

2003 Anaheim 0 @ New Jersey 3

Another battle between hot goalies, as Brodeur and the Devils returned for their third SCF in four years to face J.-S. Giguere and the upstart Ducks. This was a homer series similar to 1965, in which neither team could score in the other’s building. The Ducks outscored the Devils 9-4 on the Pond, including 2-0 in overtime, but the Devils dominated at the Swamp by a 15-3 margin, including three 3-0 shutouts. Mike Rupp was the unlikeliest of heroes, subbing in for an injured Joe Nieuwendyk, contributing the Cup-winning goal and setting up both insurance markers. Strong goaltending and defence did the rest. Smythe voters looked past Brodeur’s 7 shutouts and clearly superior performance in the SCF to award Giguere the Smythe, based on his utterly brilliant work in the Western Conference playdowns.

2004 Calgary 1 @ Tampa Bay 2

The upstart Flames had a golden opportunity to wrap this one up at home, but fell 3-2 to ex-Flame Marty St.Louis’ goal in double overtime. Back in Tampa the teams played a very tight game which erupted into electrifying end-to-end action after Calgary cut the lead to 2-1 in the late stages. Lightning rode a pair of goals from Ruslan Fedotenko, fierce checking, and outstanding goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin to seal the win. Brad Richards was awarded the Conn Smythe for a spectacular playoff run which included 7 game winners among his 12 goals.

2006 Edmonton 1 @ Carolina 3

The Oilers were in the same boat as the ’87 Flyers and ’94 Canucks, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a one-game showdown, unfortunately in the other guys’ rink. The Hurricanes bounced back from a 4-0 drubbing in Game 6 to score the all-important first goal on the game’s first sequence. Frank Kaberle extended the lead with the eventual Cup winning goal on a deflection off Jason Smith's butt before Fernando Pisani made it close early in the third, but the tying goal was not to be. An empty netter by Justin Williams provided the final margin in what was essentially a one-goal game. Cam Ward outdueled a game but rusty Jussi Markkanen over the 7 games, becoming the fourth rookie goalie to win the Smythe after Dryden, Roy and Hextall. The Carolina fans reportedly never sat down for the entire game.

2009 Pittsburgh ? @ Detroit ??

Well, who knows. If past experience means anything it will be a low-scoring affair favouring the home team. In the 9 SCFG7’s over the past half century, the hosts (and, by definition, the pre-series favourites) have outscored the visitors by an aggregate of 27-9, or exactly 3-1. Oiler fans have been on both sides of that exact scoreline. 8 of the 9 times the home team carried the day, 8 times the hosts scored first, 7 times the visitors were held to 0 or 1 goal. It’s a daunting task the Penguins face. Moreover, the series is following the pattern of those previous “homer” series, where each team has had trouble producing on the road. The Pens have handled the Wings 10-5 in the Igloo, but have been blitzed 11-2 in the Joe. 2 goals in 3 games, all too reminiscent of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and the high-powered Hawks wimpy production of 2 goals in 4 games at the Forum in ’65, or the Ducks meagre 3 at the Swamp in ’03. Malkin, Crosby, and the high-powered Pens aren’t only battling Osgood, Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the boys, they’re fighting history.

Ah, history. Let’s go back just a little further. Like 2009, the 1955 Stanley Cup Finals featured a rare rematch of the previous year’s combatants, Montreal and Detroit, with the defending champion Wings again holding the all-important home ice advantage. Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, who dropped the ceremonial first pucks before this year's Game 1 in a memorable gathering of hockey greats, were formidable forces leading a powerhouse Red Wings squad the last time a Game 7 was played in the Motor City, 54 long years ago. It was a homer series all the way, with the rising powerhouse Habs scoring 15 goals in 3 games at the Forum, but just 5 in 4 games at the Olympia. (OK, I admit I had to look that one up. Don’t remember it well, having been a foetus at the time ... and my Mum was the only non-hockey fan in the whole famdamily, so I couldn’t even listen in.) Anyway, the Wings successfully defended their title with a convincing two-way effort in the showdown game, with Mister Hockey himself contributing the Stanley Cup-winning goal. The final score?

Montreal 1 @ Detroit 3

Hmmm. I’m not one for predictions, fearless or otherwise, but this is as good as I’ve got:

Pittsburgh 1 @ Detroit 3


The Old Boys Club is Dead. Long Live the Program of Excellence!

Steve Tambellini has returned to his roots, which seem to be as deeply entangled in Hockey Canada as in Vancouver. Yesterday's double-hiring of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney provides the Oilers with a fabulous wealth of coaching experience at both the NHL level and across the international spectrum.

Ever the optimist, I would have found a reason to support, at least on a 60/40 basis, the hiring of either Quinn or Renney to the job. The creativity and flexibility shown by all sides to add both, has my 120% support. Coaching will not be a weakness for the Edmonton Oilers.

Pat Quinn may never have won a Stanley Cup, but in the current decade he has captured Gold Medals at the Olympic Games, the World Cup of Hockey, the Spengler Cup, the World Under-18 Championships and the World Junior Championships, a collection of goldware that almost certainly will never be duplicated.

Particularly encouraging is Quinn's recent success connecting with youngsters, including Oilers prospect Jordan Eberle who has already won two championships under Quinn's guidance. Not sure how those experiences will colour the Irishman's known preference for veterans, established in other times under other circumstances, primarily in big-budget markets in the pre-cap era, and mostly with Quinn acting as his own GM. That whole landscape has changed. Quinn -- who has posted an above-.500 record in 13 of his 14 complete seasons and made the playoffs in all but two of those seasons, winning 17 series -- wouldn't have survived this long if he wasn't adaptable.

I very much like the idea of a strong associate coach, especially given the established weaknesses of the new head man on the technical side of the game. Such an arrangement worked fine with Glen Sather and John Muckler. Renney has strong credentials as a head man -- post lockout his Rangers won 42+ games and made the playoffs every year, while he compiled an less-impressive-than-it-looks-but-still-pretty-darn-good 159-106-42 mark with what always seemed to me middling talent. He has experienced the constraints of the cap era including a few millstone contracts, and has consistently delivered competitive teams.

Critical to all this is what appears at this distance to be a complete absence of ego on Renney's part. After two years as a head coach in Kamloops, where he posted the best career Pts% (.714) in WHL history, Renney became head coach for the Canadian national men's team, a group he guided within a Peter Forsberg/Tommy Salo highlight reel of the gold medal in Lillehamer 1994. A couple of months later, Renney agreed to serve as assistant coach to George Kingston at the World Championships, and the pair successfully oversaw Canada's first gold medal in 33 years. A lesser man might have seen it as a demotion, a slap in the face even, but Tom Renney put that aside, answered the call, and delivered the goods.

Renney has continued to serve his country in a variety of roles at no fewer than 10 (ten) World Championships, compiling 3 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze. He also won silver at the 1999 World Juniors, losing the gold medal game in overtime. On the senior level he has appeared to transition seamlessly from head man (1995, 1996, 2000) to assistant, and has in fact achieved his greatest team successes (the golds) in the latter role. With a track record like this I have no problem envisioning Renney stepping up to -- but not overstepping -- a strong associate coach role.

Certainly between them Quinn and Renney have won everything worth winning on the international level. Quinn won the Memorial Cup as a player, Renney as a coach. Both are proven winners, yet share the same gaping hole on the resume, the Stanley Cup. If that fact -- more an historical oversight than a blemish -- serves to drive them through the gruelling days and nights of the long seasons ahead, so much the better.

The whole thing hinges on teamwork among the triumvirate that unquestionably now runs the Oilers. As Renney must support, advise and ultimately defer to Quinn, so must the Irishman himself defer to Steve Tambellini. It's his former protégé's job to have the overarching vision, and the coaches' to implement it. That said, I suspect Tambellini's and Quinn's Idealized Roster Manuals already share many of the same pages.

Steve Tambellini has won the Stanley Cup as a player (see picture), but his roots are also firmly established in the international game. He represented Canada on the ice at the World Juniors, World Seniors, and Olympic Games, and has since served Hockey Canada at the management level for those same competitions. As a player he was a participant (one bronze); as a manager, a winner. As Quinn's best success occurred when he was head coach with strong assistants (just say no to Ricky Ley), and Renney's occurred when he was an assistant on a strong staff, Steve Tambellini has had his best success as a manager with a strong coaching staff. Lo and behold, that is the position that each now occupies with the Oilers.

Speaking of roots, some of them can get pretty tangled. Check out this Hockey Canada news release from March 2005:

CALGARY –Tom Renney, Head Coach and Vice President of Player Development of the New York Rangers, and Craig MacTavish, Head Coach of the Edmonton Oilers, have been named Team Canada’s assistant coaches for the 2005 IIHF Men’s World Hockey Championship, Team Canada’s General Manager Steve Tambellini announced on Thursday.


It's hard to put Kevin Lowe's fingerprints on the departures of Craig MacTavish and Charlie Huddy, in fact so little has been seen of K-Lowe that it seems safe to conclude that he too is now at arm's length and the Old Boys Club is officially histoire. All that remains of the old guard is Kelly Buchberger, who spent more time as MacT's winger than he did his assistant coach. As I (ever the optimist) wrote in defence of Bucky yesterday over at Lowetide's place:

As for Buchberger, I understand the frustration but as was the case when he was a young player, patience is key. When he broke in he was like Zack Stortini was two years ago, all warts and rough edges. The object of no little derision especially at first, Bucky worked harder than anybody, soaked up information like a sponge, and drove the twin engines of heart and desire to capacity on a daily basis. He was, and presumably remains, the ultimate team player. As a coach he perhaps achieved better results in Springfield than it seemed at the time, and who knows what he did or didn't accomplish last year. He's clearly the #3 man on the new totem pole, which is fine by me. If he had somehow been given the head job, that wouldn't have been fine at all, but the current situation calls for a little mortar between the bricks which is a role Kelly understands well. It's a hell of a learning opportunity for a young coach to put it mildly. I wish him well.

Finally, I also wish nothing but the best to outgoing coaches Charlie Huddy and Billy Moores as well as Craig MacTavish. While MacT's time had come, I'm less sure about Huddy and Moores who were caught in the crossfire of change. Both have been fixtures on the Edmonton hockey scene for three decades, with Huddy winning 5 Stanley Cups as a player for the Oilers, Moores 5 national titles as a head and assistant coach with the Golden Bears. Both came within a hair (pardon the pun) of adding a Stanley Cup as a coach in 2006. That near miss notwithstanding, both men are winners, and both men are class acts. Like MacT, they will be both missed and remembered fondly. For what it's worth, one Edmonton-area hockey fan of long standing says Thank You.


Myths of the Northwest

A popular myth maintains it's difficult for a dominant team to emerge in the Northwest Division cuz it's such a tough group top-to-bottom. There's no way to fatten up on the dregs the way Detroit has done for years in the weak Central, or San Jose did this year in the suddenly-soft Pacific. Every team in the poor old Northwest faces a "tough schedule".

But in 2008-09, not so much. Here are the combined records of the NHL's six divisions:

Division .... GP * W - L - OT * Pts * Pts%
Central .... 410 * 219-141-50 * 488 * .595
Northeast .. 410 * 205-151-54 * 464 * .566
Atlantic ... 410 * 209-159-42 * 460 * .561
Pacific .... 410 * 201-162-47 * 449 * .548
Northwest .. 410 * 201-170-39 * 441 * .538
Southeast .. 410 * 195-165-50 * 440 * .537

In recent years this method has been complicated by the infernal Bettman Point, whose effect can be clearly seen above in that the worst division in hockey collected 53.7% of the available points. The Pts% of the league as a whole is a fluctuating value which seems to have found its level at ~.557 in each of the last three seasons, as about 23% of games reach overtime and generate the "free lunch" point.

The former laughing-stock Central is now the league's best division: first in Wins, Points, GF, GA, and by extension Win%, Pts%, goal differential.

Meanwhile the Northwest fares poorly by almost any standard: 5th in points (1 measly point ahead of the perennially poor SouthLeast), tied for 4th in Wins, 4th in goal differential, 6th and last in GF. Vancouver had the lowest points total of any division champion.

The local picture hardly improves for the post season:

Division .. Playoff Teams .. Series Wins
Central ........ 4 .............. 4++
Southeast ...... 2 .............. 3+
Atlantic ....... 4 .............. 2+
Northeast ...... 2 .............. 1
Pacific ........ 2 .............. 1
Northwest ...... 2 .............. 1

That's just through two rounds of course, but three divisions including the Northwest will be doing no further damage in 2009.

The Central continues to dominate in the post-season, having produced both conference finalists and a guaranteed pennant winner. In the process the Central's second-best club, Chicago Blackhawks, handily dispatched both NW representatives.

Given that Southeast teams have won 3 series with Carolina still hanging around, it seems that division has surpassed the Northwest for overall performance in 2008-09. The inescapable conclusion is that the local group has been the worst division in the NHL this season.


Live blog: Canada v. Russia

Pregame -- Canada 0, Russia 0

I love international hockey.

Maybe one has to be a certain age to care as much as I do, but I'll make no apologies for that. I've followed the game at the national level since Father David Bauer's valiant squad of amateurs lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Soviets in the final game of the Innsbruck Olympics, then got
cheated of their bronze medals by a crooked judging decision.

I've watched (mostly on TV, very occasionally live) pretty much every significant international game available to me since then: World Seniors, World Juniors, NHL tours, Canada/World Cups, Olympics. Most but hardly all of these involved Canadian teams; memorable games that didn't include the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid and especially the epic 1969 battle between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in Stockholm in the first meeting of the Iron Curtain rivals after the Prague Spring. I still rank that 3-2 Czechoslovak victory over a Soviet team at the peak of its powers on the very short list of the greatest hockey games I've ever seen.

I suffered through the "shamateur" debates that resulted in Canada's withdrawal from the 1970 Worlds that were to be hosted in Winnipeg and the 7-year hiatus that followed which included two Olympiads. I watched, intently and intensely, every game of the '72 Summit Series, and still haven't forgiven Mr. Sprisak, my Physics 30 teacher, for scheduling an exam during the first period of the decisive Game 8.

Canada finally returned to the world stage in the 1976-77 season, hosting the first Canada Cup before sending a team that included a number of out-of-playoff NHL players to the Worlds that spring. The team was competitive but never victorious, capturing 3 silvers and 4 bronzes from '77 to '93, before finally breaking through in a Gold Medal Game with a memorable shootout win against the Finns in 1994. That was the first of 5 world titles over the last 15 years.

Bill Ranford backstopped that '94 squad. Today, another Edmonton Oiler, Dwayne Roloson (pictured), gets the opportunity for some gold medal heroics. Roli, the only player on either team who was alive during the '72 Summit Series, gets the start for Canada in what is arguably the biggest game of his career. His fellow Oiler Shawn Horcoff, meanwhile, plays a sudden death game for all the marbles for the 4th time in 7 years.

Despite an impressive 24 gold medals apiece, the historic rivals have met just twice in the final since the format was changed from round robin to single elimination games. The Soviet Union won the first such encounter in 1989, while Russia stole the gold in overtime last year on Canadian ice.

It's payback time.

Backgrounder: Program of Excellence

Russia returns 14 players from last year's Gold Medal showdown, Canada just 6 (Hamhuis, Spezza, Heatley, Doan, Roy, St.Louis). This might be seen as a disadvantage, however I'm not worried due to the wealth of international experience representing the red-and-white today:

30.Dwayne Roloson -- 2nd WC (1 gold + ?)
50.Chris Mason -- 3rd WC (twice as reserve)
37.Josh Harding (res.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC

2. Dan Hamhuis -- 4th WC (1 gold), 2 WJC
3. Drew Doughty -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
4. Chris Phillips -- 3rd WC, 2 WJC (2 gold)
5. Luke Schenn -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
6. Shea Weber -- 2nd WC (1 gold), 1 WJC (1 gold)
7. Ian White (inj.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC
29.Joel Kwiatkowski -- 1st WC

44.Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- 1st WC
55.Braydon Coburn -- 1st WC, 2 WJC (1 gold)

8. Scottie Upshall -- 1st WC, 2 WJC
9. Derek Roy --2nd WC, 1 WJC
10.Shawn Horcoff -- 3rd WC (2 gold)
12.Mike Fisher -- 2nd WC
15.Dany Heatley -- 6th WC (2 gold), 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics, 2 WJC
16.Travis Zajac -- 1st WC
17.Steve Stamkos -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
18.Matthew Lombardi -- 2nd WC (1 gold)
19.Shane Doan -- 6th WC (2 gold), 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics
20.Colby Armstrong -- 2nd WC (1 gold)
26.Marty St.Louis -- 2nd WC, 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics
28.James Neal (inj.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
91.Jason Spezza -- 2nd WC, 3 WJC

Of 19 players apt to the see the ice today (shown in bold, reserves in italics), 17 have previous international experience at 46 major tournaments, 14 have won gold (20 gold medals total) including 9 at the senior level (14 gold medals total). I didn't even track previous exposure at events such as the U-17 and U-18 tourneys. Suffice to say the Program of Excellence is actually delivering on its blueprinted promise.

First intermission -- Canada 1, Russia 1

A frenetic period with a running time of just 33 minutes. Russians appear to be getting the better of it to my eye, although Roloson was the great equalizer with a number of fine stops, including two on a game-opening powerplay. Canada responded with a nice goal on a great backhand pass from Doan to Spezza, and things stabilized for awhile. However, I thought Canada was guilty of losing its composure at times, especially in the second half of the period. A few too many "hero plays" for my liking, guys running around out of position or leaving their feet to (try to) make defensive plays. If the Russians exhibit a little patience with the puck they will find plenty of holes to exploit. The speed of the game was exceptional, though I would like to see a little more old-fashioned physical play from the red-and-white. More guys need to follow the example of Dan Hamhuis who stopped a couple of Russian attacks with textbook body checks.

Second intermission -- Canada 1, Russia 2

A better period for Canada, but a worse result. Canada dominated play territorially, outshooting the Russians 16-5, but failed to capitalize. Couldn't beat Bryzgalov, couldn't get a bounce, and at times gripped the sticks a little too tight and whiffed on a good opportunity. Russian defenders also made a couple of emergency defensive plays by keeping their heads and their feet. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Chris Phillips on the goal, an odd-man rush against the flow of play. Mike Fisher hustled back to eliminate the passing option but Phillips overplayed Radulov, going down and sliding out of the play as the Peripatetic Predator stepped around him and hammered a perfect finishing nail past Roli. Exactly the kind of play I was concerned about after the first. I expect Canada to keep pressing in the third, but they need to keep their heads; the Russians are deadly on the counter attack.

Postgame -- Canada 1, Russia 2

What a heartbreaker. Canada continued to carry, at times dominate, the play, but never could find a way to beat Bryzgalov a second time. Shots on net were 27-9 Canada over the final 40 minutes, with many more chances thwarted by a stick check, a bad bounce, a blocked shot, a fumbled pass. All 18 Canadian skaters generated at least 1 shot over the course of the game as the red-and-white really pushed the play. The Russians played Hang On Harvey hockey in the third especially, but it worked. I even saw Ilya Kovalchuk playing dump-and-not-even-chase a couple times.

Another classic moment in the bizarre world of European television coverage occurred in the dying seconds, when after two long delays to put a second back on the clock, they finally did get around to dropping the puck for the crucial faceoff with the camera focussed on Russia`s back-up goalie looking on from the bench.

Kovalchuk played 30:33, over 12 minutes more than any teammate. The defence-by-committee played a solid game, with all 8 guys playing between 12:31 and 16:30, not a typical recipe for success. Canada relied heavily on the Nashville pair of Shea Weber (31:58) and Dan Hamhuis (28:39) who did a solid job mostly matched against Kovalchuk. Up front Derek Roy led the way with 22:31, including a head-scratching 10:40 in the third after he had banged up his wrist crashing the net late in the second.

For the first time, Canada`s tournament-leading powerplay didn`t get a sniff, getting only 2 opportunities as the refs decided to put their whistles away after enforcing Kitchen Sink rules for most of the tourney. The battle on special teams -- and ultimately the game -- was lost when the Russians converted on a puck-over-glass penalty in the first. The cheapest of all penalties has cost Canada a goal in each of the last two gold medal games ... both one-goal losses to the Russians. That`s pretty harsh medicine for what is generally an innocent play. Proving yet again that hockey, like life, isn`t always fair.


Live blog: Canada v. Sweden

Semi-final day at the World Championships, and what's not to like? Russia-USA on now, followed by Canada-Sweden (noon MDT on TSN, not rebroadcast on tape delay until 1:30 a.m. -- believe it or not TSN is showing a rebroadcast of something called the Diamond Hill Plywood 200 during late prime time, an event which will have already just been shown on TSN2 for all those NASCAR buffs in their audience. Meanwhile people with day jobs will be left in the lurch for the IIHF World Championship semi-final. Sheesh.)

I'll be watching both games live, and doing updates on the Canada game here during the intermissions, with briefer entries in the comments section during the action. Do drop in and join me there.

Quarterfinal review -- Canada 4, Latvia 2

TSN just showed a weird stat that the four quarterfinals collectively produced 0 goals in the first period and 17 in the second. Say what? I watched much of the Canada-Latvia contest on tape delay, and while it was far from Canada's best game they got the job done against a Latvian group that hung in admirably. The 48-23 margin in shots -- including 22-4 in the decisive seond period -- suggests Canada was fully deserving of their 4-2 edge on the scoreboard. The Latvians twice cut a two-goal deficit in half, and had golden opportunities to do so again late in the third when Canada ran into penalty problems for the second straight game. Of particular interest was a rare 6-on-3 advantage the Latvians enjoyed with about 4 minutes left, but Chris Mason and the Canadian penalty-killers held the fort. Major contributors were Shea Weber (26:13 TOI, 6½ minutes more than any other defenceman) and Marty St.Louis (22:09, 5 minutes more than any other forward).

Pregame -- Canada 0, Sweden 0

Unlike the other three combatants today, the Swedes have no current Oilers, but do feature Oilers past (Dick Tarnstrom) and future (Linus Omark, pictured above and at right). I caught some of Omark's flashy skills at that Millennium Place prospects camp, but nothing that foreshadowed the big splash he made this year in the SEL not to mention Youtube. Young Lee-nus has also done himself at the proud at the Worlds, where he leads the Swedes in scoring with 2-8-10.

A key player for the Swedes on the back end is the old war horse Kenny Jonsson, who logs major minutes, contributes on the scoreboard (3-3-6) and leads the tourney by a wide margin in plus/minus (+12).

Canada will continue to rely on excellent special teams, including an awesome powerplay that has been clicking at 43.9% on 18-for-41. The PK unit has been solid allowing just 4 goals on 39 opportunities (89.7%), including a couple of extended 3-on-5s and even that 3-on-6. Only Austria of all countries has a better PK rate, while Canada's PP is far ahead of the pack. Of particular interest today is Sweden, who rank middle of the pack in both categories at +8/-8.

Thanks largely to special teams and goaltending (combined .948 Sv%), Canada leads the tourney in both GF (39) and GA (12).

To paraphrase the old saw about statistics, all of the above and $7.75 will buy you a beer at Rexall Place. Or it would, if Rexall were (ahem) open for business.


Update: Lindy Ruff has shuffled his top two lines, moving Shane Doan on to the Spezza line and bumping Heatley to the port side. Derek Roy assumes Doan's former spot with Stamkos and St.Louis, with MSL presumably lining up on the starboard side. The explanation was that the Ottawa duo needed to be shored up defensively. That's what Doan already Was doing with the Tampa tandem. Speaks volumes about the wonderful two-way game that Marty St. Louis brings to the table, but is less complimentary of Spezza and Heatley. The one constant in all this is that whatever line Shane Doan winds up on, he will help.

Game ON.


First intermission -- Canada 1, Sweden 0

Terrific first period. Both teams are flying, Canada a little higher and full value for the lead. What a beautiful goal it was, with tournament scoring leader Marty St.Louis burning Mattias Weinhandl along the end wall with a quick inside move, darting behind the net and drawing Weinhandl, the front-of-net defenceman, and the goalie to their right before slipping a back feed to Derek Roy lurking at the nearside post. With no defenders in sight, Roy merely had to make a high-skill play of taking the pass off the back of the cage, pull the puck just in front of the goal line, and roof one over a lunging Gustavsson from a very sharp angle. A sweet goal, especially for me. (I have "owned" both St.Louis and Roy long-term in my keeper league hockey pool, and am a big fan of both.)

Roy was flying all period, later making a superb play to receive a wayward pass outside the blueline, cut sharply to beat his man, drive wide and slip a seeing-eye pass through to Spezza for a dangerous deflection that Gustavsson did well to stop.

At the other end Roli was suctioning up pucks, wrapping himself around them and waiting for the whistle, secure in the knowledge that Canada has 3 guys in the top 20 in faceoffs, Sweden none. A couple of nervous moments in the late going though, especially when he failed to hold a muffin with a couple of seconds left in the frame.

On the blue, the impressive Drew Doughty has been paired with another fine youngster, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, with both getting Top Four minutes while Chris Phillips has been placed with Braydon Coburn on what seems to be the third pairing. The studly Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis are clearly the top pair.


Second intermission -- Canada 3, Sweden 0

The comments section is rolling now so I'll keep this brief. Things continue to go well, with rapid fire goals by Horcoff at evens followed by Roy on the PP. Roli playing well. Swedes were bringing it at the end of the period, and will have a partial PP to start the third. Huge kill required ... I don't get the sense the Swedes are done, 3-0 or no 3-0.


Postgame - Canada 3, Sweden 1

Objects in the mirror were much closer than they appeared, as the Swedes carried their momentum into the third, dominating play in the Canadian end for shifts at a time. The Canadians seemed a step slow to loose pucks and had a terrible time clearing the zone. Inevitably the Swedes capaitalized with a goal 6 minutes in, as the Spezza-Heatley combination got burned yet again. As PDO mentioned, that pair has been on the ice for every ES goal against but one in the tournament, as well as the 1 shortie against Latvia. Great on the powerplay but ...

The Swedes continued to bring it as my knuckles whitened. The turning point was a penalty to Roy around 9 minutes in, which the Canadians killed far more effectively than they had been killing the clock at evens. The game stabilized at that point as the Candians raised their effort to match the Swedes, winning more puck battles and earning a far better distribution of zone time. Heatley and Spezza languished on the bench for the most part, as can be seen in Lindy Ruff's distribution of ice time:

20:41 Fisher
19:22 Horcoff
16:01 Zajac
15:44 Roy
15:39 St.Louis
13:28 Lombardi, Stamkos
12:33 Doan
12:00 Upshall
10:53 Heatley
10:49 Spezza
10:36 Armstrong

While we're at it, let's look at the blue, where the new pairings achieved a clear hierarchy:

24:12 Hamhuis
23:28 Weber
22:10 Doughty
21:58 Vlasic
13:39 Coburn
12:13 Phillips
00:00 Schenn, Kwiatkowski

Any thoughts that Drew Doughty was being protected by Phillips can safely be dispelled. He has a poised all-ice game that is reminiscent of a young Raymond Bourque in that both looked completely at home in the NHL from Day One. Doughty has responded to his first World Championships by posting a creditable 8 GP, 1-6-7, +5 at age 19. Clearly Lindy Ruff likes what he sees; it's interesting to compare ice time for Doughty and fellow high draft pick (and fellow stud) Luke Schenn.

To finish the ice time review, Roloson played all 60 minutes between the pipes and delivered a strong performance with 25 stops. While Mason still has the statistical edge, Roli (2.20, .936) has faced the stronger opponents. Lindy Ruff has an interesting decision to make Sunday.

Speaking of Sunday, Oil Droppings will once against host a Game Day Thread. After an early-morning appetizer of Omark and O'Sullivan, the Gold Medal Game gets underway at half past Noon MDT. Canada-Russia, the classic rivalry, the rematch of last year's overtime thriller. The winner will be the first country to win 25 World Championships.