Sunday Hockey Notes

No need to throw a blanket over Linus

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 19, 2010

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The NHL has its gimmicks, none bigger, in my opinion, than overtime losses. Talk about a charade. Take just a second this morning to check out the standings. When you lose in overtime, you L-O-S-E, and that 1-point OTL booby prize means next to nothing in the overall scheme of things.

It’s fool’s gold, which the NHL cleverly has hammered into costume jewelry that even coaches and general managers believe is worth wearing.

Teams make the playoffs based on W-I-N-S, and that stuff about, “Well, hey, at least we got a point for getting the game to OT,’’ is for those who feel they’ve really struck it rich when they dash through a Dave and Buster’s arcade with a fistful of tickets, bellowing, “I’m rich!’’ OK, great, redeemable for what? Like the world doesn’t have enough plastic pinwheels and rubber duckies.

The shootout is yet another gimmick, which is why all the flap over Linus Omark’s goal Dec. 10 is nothing short of hilarious. The sleight-of-hand, 23-year-old Oiler, playing in his first NHL game, closed the shootout with a sensational scoring play that he started with a dazzling Denis Savard-like spin-o-rama as he picked up the puck at center ice.

Omark finished the play by closing to near the top of the crease, lugging the puck on his forehand, and first faking a short slap before nailing the puck through goalie Dan Ellis’s five-hole. Game, set, match, leaving Omark to be mobbed by his teammates and adored by cheering fans. Final score: Oilers 4, Lightning 3. On a night when the Bolts outshot the Oilers, 41-23.

OK, the kid showboated. There was no lack of confidence, even hubris, in that bold, unexpected move. As one might expect, he’s developed it for years, while playing in Sweden and Russia (one season with Dynamo), and it took some major league chutzpah to pull it off in an NHL game. Imagine the heapin’ helpin’ of humility he would have felt had he overskated the puck at center ice or tripped and fell at the back end of the spin-o-rama as the lasting memory of his first NHL game.

“That’s the type of stuff I won’t comment on,’’ said a disenchanted Guy Boucher, the Lightning’s rookie coach, when asked about Omark’s move, “but I know the players will remember.’’

Added Tampa Bay star Martin St. Louis: “It caught us off guard and now we have to answer for it.’’ St. Louis later characterized it as “kind of a slap in the face, a little bit.’’

Again, folks, the shootout is a total gimmick. I don’t like it, but I know many fans, even here in the hallowed Hub of Hockey, love watching the ice game’s equivalent of a free throw contest. However, all pro sports fall under the heading of “entertainment,’’ and Rule Numero Uno under that heading is to give the fans what they want (even those who don’t quite understand that there really is no difference between an “L’’ and an “OTL’’ . . . but, hey, I digress).

So, Omark provided a gimmick within a gimmick and that ruffled a few feathers. Please. Because the game is sacred and he showed lack of respect? Well, hey, do away with the shootout and then we’ll have a talk. Because he’s a rookie? Then don’t ask these wunderkinds to suit up and give it all they’ve got. In fact, let’s have them all play with rookie sticks — the equivalent of training wheels for beginning bicyclers — that restrict freshmen from firing anything but 8-foot creampuff forehanders or dissolve instantly if said rookie rotates one of his wrists more than, say, three-eighths of an inch.

It looks to me like Omark has some talent, some dare, panache, maybe even a sense of performance and appreciation of the spotlight. Oh, the nerve!

“That’s my game,’’ he said. “I do stuff like that. So why should I stop on this level.’’

Exactly. Apologize? If the game is that upside down, then maybe it’s time to have all the player names stripped off their backs and have them dress in varying shades of gray.

Maybe I’ve watched too many neutral zone traps or coaches who design north-south, skate-your-lane game plans that are pure water torture (frozen, of course). But I say sprinkle me a few dozen Omarks around the Original 30, tell them all to try that spin-o-rama thing liberally during the 60 minutes of regulation play, and then a lot more people will be talking about the NHL at the office water cooler each morning.

True NHL entertainers are in short supply right now. Let’s see, there’s Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and then roughly 537 other skaters who come up far short of Rocket Richard on the entertainment side of things. I’d add a number of fighters to the “E’’ equation, including Boston’s Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic (when the spirit moves him), but I realize I’m an old man yelling in the new NHL forest when I profess my appreciation for the fight game (spare me the e-mails).

Life goes on following snub Billboards all around Buffalo, featuring a beaming Ryan Bourque surrounded by his USA pals who won last year’s World Junior Championship gold medal, serve as reminders that the WJC begins next week at HSBC Arena.

Bruins rookie Tyler Seguin was bumming big time a year ago when Team Canada didn’t bring him to the world’s No. 1 teenage jamboree. He undoubtedly would have suited up for Team Maple Leaf this time, but the Bruins decided to keep him with the varsity, even if he is asked occasionally to watch from the press box (the case Wednesday when they played the Sabres).

Playing in the WJC is an honor, but by no means a true barometer of pro success. Seguin need look no further than the Bruins’ depth chart at center as proof. Top pivot and proud Canadian Marc Savard never played in the WJC.

“Sure, I was upset,’’ recalled the 33-year-old Savard, thinking back to that snub some 15 years ago. “I mean, both years that I was eligible I was leading the OHL in scoring at the time, so that was kind of tough to take.’’

Those Canadian squads, Savard recalled, included such future NHL talents up front as Jeff O’Neill, Todd Bertuzzi, and Daymond Langkow. But they also had the likes of Brian Smith (67 career NHL games) and Marty Murray (261 games). Savard last night played in his 790th NHL game and is in the first year of a new deal that will gross him $28 million by the spring of 2017.

Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg also never made it to the WJC showcase event, but that was more a function of his German team’s overall weakness.

“I played one year, but it was the B pool tournament,’’ recalled Seidenberg. “We had just two other guys — Christoph Schubert and Christian Ehrhoff — who made it to the NHL. Not a very good team. So, was it fun? Well, it was an experience, leave it at that. We played in Minsk, and it was cold, the weather miserable and the food terrible.’’

Only one gone in a flash NHL rosters are frozen today through Dec. 27, making it impossible for general managers to send players packing during the holiday season. The humanity! However, nothing to preclude GMs from turfing coaches and bringing in new blood behind the bench. Amazing that Scott Gordon remains the only bench boss fired thus far, and based on how the Islanders have responded since his dismissal (the flatline only got flatter) there was no reason beyond the typical scapegoating to flush Flash. The Devils and Capitals are the squads that remain highest on the watch list, although Bruce Boudreau (Washington) has far more to work with than John MacLean (New Jersey). Alex Ovechkin and Co. have never had much bedrock defense under Boudreau, but they were engaged, and that much talent can be successful when inspired. But these days the Capitals, in town last night, look as uninspired as they were when Glen Hanlon was the boss. Prior to last night, the Capitals were winless in seven (0-5-2). Ovechkin was 2-1—3 over that stretch. David Steckel after the most recent loss, a 2-1 OT edging by the Ducks: “Who cares how well we can play? We’re sick of how well we can play. Losing sucks.’’

Taking some big hits Separate games, but equally tough breaks for the Flyers, who lost Chris Pronger, and the Rangers, who lost Ryan Callahan, with fractures last week. Callahan (left hand) will be out six weeks. Ditto for the towering Pronger (right foot). In the overall scheme of things, Callahan means more to the Rangers, as noted last month when Blueshirts coach John Tortorella opined that the 25-year-old winger is “the definition of what we want our players to be.’’ Headed into yesterday, Callahan ranked second in the NHL for hits (128), trailing only Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck (144). The rest of the hit brigade: Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina (110), Ovechkin (108), and Dustin Brown, Los Angeles (105).

Road trip Uniondale, N.Y., home of the Islanders, was awash in Nordique bleu Dec. 11 when 1,100 Quebec City hockey fans dropped in to watch the Islanders lose for the 19th time in 20 games (sacre bleu!), a 5-4 trimming by the Thrashers. The Quebecois were in town to evince their interest in bringing an NHL team to their city. Not sure why they picked the Islanders as a possible transferable orphan. They came, said organizer Vincent Cauchon, “to express our love of hockey.’’ They came blowing air horns, carrying signs (mostly saying hurray for our side), and chanting, “Nordiques Nation.’’ Throgs Neck Bridge toll takers have been put on alert for buses from Winnipeg, Hartford, and Hamilton, Ontario, asking directions to that sad sand spit on Long Island.

Loaded with bears Count your faithful puck chronicler as impressed by the generosity of Calgary hockey fans, who showered no fewer than 23,096 teddy bears onto the Saddledome ice last Sunday as part of a longstanding charitable tradition. The 16,844 fans heaved an average of more than one teddy apiece over the boards when the Hitmen’s Cody Sylvester scored the winner against the Red Deer Rebels. The following day, Hitmen players brought some 4,000 of the stuffies to Alberta Children’s Hospital and the remaining 20,000 or so were sent to some 60 local charities. Hallelujah, it’s rainin’ bears! No telling what Hub of Hockey fans might toss to the Garden ice for charity’s sake.

Loose pucks The city of Glendale, Ariz., complied as expected last week and handed prospective Coyotes buyer Matt Hulsizer, the ex-Amherst hockey captain, a new lease for Arena. Look for the Lords of the Boards to slam through Hulsizer’s purchase in very short order, 30-60 days tops . . . Terry Pegula, he who will own the Sabres, might take ownership along Lake Erie in less than 90 days. That’s a fast-moving storm, but they’re accustomed to that kind of blizzard in the Buff . . . It took 19 years and 1,442 regular-season games, but Winged Wheel Nicklas Lidstrom potted his first career hat trick (and an assist) Thursday in a 5-2 smackdown of the Blues. The self-effacing Lidstrom said he was glad to end the drought that ran “0 for 19 years.’’ Lidstrom, now 40, isn’t as prolific on offense anymore, but he remains the game’s No. 1 thinking back liner. The game speeds up or slows down at his discretion . . . OK, Oveckin’s severed head, which first appeared in the top of a locker, now has been spotted in a bowling bag (see, CCM, Ovechkin head). It’s getting creepy. Where next, grafted onto Susan Boyle’s shoulder? Ahhhhhhhhhhh! . . . By the way, is there a better hockey name than Cal Clutterbuck? . . . Marco Sturm (left) to the LA Times upon meeting up with his Kings teammates for the first time last week: “It’s a great team and it’s fast — I like that.’’ Sturm could suit up for the first time in 2010-11 on Thursday, when Taylor Hall and the Oilers visit the Staples Center . . . Speaking of team speed, anyone know where it went for the 33 1/3 rpm Bruins? Timidity infected the game plan over the last two weeks, and the virus appears to have settled in their legs . . . That ticky-tack penalty shot awarded the Canadiens Thursday night in Montreal with the Bruins in town reminded me of my favorite Harry Sinden soliloquy in the old Forum, in the days when out-of-town management members sat alongside the collective ink-stained wretches in the press box. About two minutes into a Bruins-Habs game, the ref (yes, only one) that night tweeted (known as a whistle in those days) a minor penalty against the Black and Gold. His jacket off and tie askew, an irate Sinden hopped out of his seat, turned to a Boston reporter, and with the articulation and comportment of a Shakespearean actor proclaimed, “Death! . . . Taxes! . . . and the first penalty at the Forum!’’

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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