Friday, 17 June 2011

Hockey Morning in North Belfast

The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals came to a conclusion in the early hours of the 16th June (in Northern Ireland anyway) with game 7 of a memorable series. The pinacle of the playoffs saw the favourites, the Vancouver Canucks, face off against the Boston Bruins in Vancouver in a winner takes all showdown for the Stanley Cup.

It was another late night/early morning for Norngirl, my sister-in-law and me, the first drop of the puck was usually at around 1.20am and we were not getting to bed until well past 4am. We weren't alone though, on twitter two people I follow (@BelfastCrusader and also @BelfastGiants - the Belfast Giants' official twitter feed) were busy tweeting about the very same event. I'm pretty sure that this wasn't the sum total of the local interest. Afterall, the Boston Bruins had came over to Northern Ireland to play a friendly against a Giants' Elite League select team at the Odyssey Arena earlier in the year and won over many fans.

Sadly we were out of the country for the Bruins' visit to Belfast and we didn't get to see them here. Norngirl and I didn't have long to have an in person encounter with the Bruins though, for as anyone who reads my blog regularly will know, they were the away team when we went to see the New York Rangers play a regular season game for our first ever being there-live-in-person NHL game. We were supporting the New York Rangers that night (and they are still our Eastern Conference team) but it was hard not to notice the Bruins had something about them, they deserved their victory over NYR that night.

So when it came to the point that my Western Conference team the Dallas Stars didn't make the post season and NYR were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, it fell to Boston to be our back up soft spot team.

It proved to be a successful idea as they flew past the Philadelphia Flyers with a 4 games to 0 clean sweep. In the next round, the Bruins played another team we have a soft spot for, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The soft spot was a recent thing due to the Lightning helping the New York Rangers into the playoffs and then for getting revenge for the Rangers by knocking out the Washington Capitals (booo!). I have to admit I hoped the Bruins would do it but I didn't mind too much who did win. The Bruins' games against the Lightning were a lot closer and at times gripping. The series went to game 7 and was a 1-0 Boston win that was full of action contrary to the few.  That was the victory that sent them into the Final against the Canucks.

On paper and from the seasons stats, Vancouver were the favourites and it was no shock when after 2 games they had won both. The interesting thing though was how they won. The Bruins ran them to the wire on both occasions and the victories were both by only one goal. The first game saw the Canucks sneak a very late goal to see a 1-0 win. Game 2 left us annoyed after the Bruins gave up a 2-0 lead to be taken to overtime at 2-2. At 4am, the intermission of 17 or so minutes seems a lot longer than normal. So when the teams took back to the ice for the face off, we were in a state of bemused shock that the winning Canucks goal ended the game after just 11 seconds of play.

Action then moved to Boston and it wasn't just their location that swung, the entire narrative of this title deciding set of games was turned on it's head. We didn't get to see the 8-1 3rd game win live on TV but I did catch the highlights and it was quite a rout, everything was going in. Confidence knocked, the Canucks then couldn't stem the tide on the East Coast for game 4 when an aptly numbered 4 goals left the Canucks in need of a buoyancy aid.

Back to Vancouver and the big question was about goaltending, despite being in goal for the worst of the cresting waves of goals from games 3 and 4, Luongo was started again and rewarded this faith placed in him by pulling off a string of great saves to help the Canucks win yet another very tight 1-0 win on their home ice.

As we were cheering on Boston through all this, we kind of expected the worst on Monday night, at 3-2 in the series it left the Canucks a win away from the cup. It seemed as though the pivotal game had been edged by Vancouver and that Monday night could be the clincher.
Backs against the wall though the Bruins lived up to their name and in a first period mauling, the Canucks were left with a mountain to climb. It was a quick and vicious strike, the 4-0 lead inflicted in a 4 minute 14 second pounding of the goal. The game slowed in the 2nd period as both teams were left to ponder how much effort to expend and how to approach the rest of the game. Venting a lot of frustration appeared to be the answer for both teams. The game became peppered with penalties in the 3rd and with them a power play goal for each team followed by another late consolation from Vancouver.

That Boston win set up the reality of a no tomorrow - all or nothing game - with a guarantee of a winner being crowned.

As all of the games in Vancouver up to this point had been low scoring affairs with narrow margins of victory, that was the kind of game I was expecting but what we got was more akin to the games in Boston.

Maybe it was the sneaky addition of some Boston water to the ice by Nathan Horton that provided a psychological boost to the Bruin's players or maybe it was just that the Canucks burnt out at just the wrong time after a frantic attempt to put pressure on in the 1st period? Whatever the reason, Boston absorbed the early pressure and then hit on the counter, although being out shot, it was a Patrice Bergeron snap shot that seemed to just effortlessly glide into the bottom left hand corner of the home teams net.

In the 2nd period the game was all but over. A sneaky wrap around from Marchand made it 2-0 and then a rather peculiar 3rd somehow made its way past Luongo as the puck and two players slid into the net. It wasn't just how this short-handed goal was scored that was a bit odd, it's that we'd just asked for one on twitter as the Canucks powerplay began. I'd never posted that "   " before. Maybe it's just a co-incidence but I'd like to think we could claim an assist.

The Canucks never recovered from here on in and just couldn't get anything past the remarkable Tim Thomas.

The 4th Boston goal was scored into an empty net when with less than 3 minutes left, the Canucks pulled their goaltender to get an extra skater on the ice but they lost the puck and Marchand put the game to bed.

That was that, the game finished 0-4 and the awards were handed out. First was Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins goaltender who recieved the Conn Smythe Trophy for being awesome. Well that and making the most saves in playoff history and most in a series. I do mean awesome by the way and not just a throw away use of the word. At times throughout the playoffs, 'TimTom' as my sister-in-law affectionately dubbed him, defied belief in being able to keep the puck out of his net when the Bruins were under siege and his most valuable player accolade was so very much deserved.

The dauntless unpredictability of his style is something I would ordinarily expect to be a disadvantage for an NHL goaltender - something that would increase mistakes and be a wildly fanciful idea. The reality however is that it works for him. Up against a Canucks side in the finals, a team who were scoring for fun throughout the rest of the season, he seemingly bamboozled them into not knowing what to do to beat him.  He seemed to just get inside their heads. From his ability to reach a puck that looked out of anyone's grasp, to being able to slide on his side into exactly the right place to stop a puck creeping towards the line by using just a pincer movement of his feet. Not only that but he seems so calm and confident under pressure - making the bread and butter of his job look effortless and giving his side great confidence. It wasn't just a fluke either - as I noted in my post about the game we saw at Madison Square Garden last November, he was the stand out player that day, something which is hard to be when the equally ethereal Henrick Lundquist was stood in the other goal. There really is something remarkable about the best goal tenders in Ice Hockey, they're so pivotal in the outcome of games and their success is such a finite prospect that when they do manage to succeed, they're transcended to this awesome status (at least in my mind they are).

I'll remember these finals very well. Not only for the great hockey and the fun we had shouting and making random noises at the TV though. There were also some extraordinarily flinch worthy but memorable moments too. Some that stand out (mainly for all the wrong reasons mind you) were:

Simon Gagne being knocked unconscious playing for Tampa against the Caps:

Another unlucky Tampa player, Steven Stamkos, who literally took one for the team with a puck between the eyes against Boston.

And the bizarre check that put Mason Raymond into the boards leading to a spinal injury.

But the one I can't get out of my head is the amazingly hideous suit that Don Cherry was wearing yesterday on Hockey Night in Canada... sure, he always goes over the top with the suits, some are crazy and others just well 'out there', some even kinda work,  but this one was an extra special pink, green and white flowery number set off with a solitary red flower in the breast pocket. Norngirl has a photo sourced from a fan blog on her blog post about all this hockey stuff if you really want to see... I will remind you again though, you won't be able to unsee.

Credit where it's due too though, Gagne was back for game 1 of their conference final once it was deemed he'd not suffered brain injuries. Stamkos made it back in the same game with a big bloody patch and a head guard. And Raymond, well, just a couple of days later during game 7 of the finals, he made it to the arena to gingerly wave to the crowd in a hard cased full torso medical corset of some kind, I really hope he makes a speedy recovery. Like the song... we really were worried about Ray. Sadly Don didn't lose the suit. My eyes still hurt. I don't think Don will ever recover, in fact I suspect his suits could get worse... ominous!

Fingers crossed and hopefully not broken, we'll be able to watch more great Ice Hockey next season and who knows, maybe one day if the finances allow, we might be lucky enough to see a playoff game live and in person *dreams*. After all, the TV's great for watching sports when you can't be there but for me, nothing beats experiencing sports events first hand and Ice Hockey is no different. Luckily the new season for the Belfast Giants playing in the Elite League as well as all the frills of the NHL, will be upon us again before we know it - only a couple of months to wait.

It really was great fun watching, laughing, shouting and making squeaky noises at the TV during our little HNINBs (Hockey Night in North Belfast) and I'm really looking forward to more. And maybe, just maybe, since the luck of the Irish seemed to rub off on the Bruins, some more NHL sides will give their luck a boost with a visit to this part of the world in the future.

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