Playoff notes (cont.)
Getting Ruff on refs
Almost as if he were handing me a validation of the above item, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, in a fit of pique that he does better than any coach alive, railed about two controversial calls against his team in Wednesday's double overtime loss to the Bruins. A questionable (or at least debatable) goaltender interference call when one of his players appeared to be pushed into Boston goalie Tuukka Rask led to a Bruins power play that cut the Sabres' lead to 2-1. Ruff was equally adamant about a boarding penalty to Patrick Kaleta that seemed for all the world like a clean hit from the side that knocked a Bruin down and separated him from the puck.
"If that's a penalty, why is it any different than (Mark) Recchi's hit on (Sabres forward Tim) Kennedy?" Ruff asked while tossing a water bottle cap to emphasize his point. The reference was to Recchi knocking Kennedy to the ice in a battle for the puck in Game 3, a play that set up Boston's game-winning goal.
Now, it should be noted that the Sabres killed the Kaleta penalty in the third period without incident and lost the game on a sloppy line change in the second overtime that produced a deserved too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. But Ruff did something he or any other coach seldom gets credit for. He left a mindset that the Sabres were done in by poor officiating in Boston and when his team takes the ice for a must-win game on Friday, maybe an official or two noticed and will keep it in mind.
The NHL will tell you that the tactic never works, but coaches keep trying, largely because they know that sometimes it does and they would be foolish not to try.
That said, the Sabres are losing their series for reasons that are decidedly their own. They've been outmuscled in almost every game. Their power play, nothing great to begin with, has been completely neutralized and their penalty killing, one of their strongest points during the regular season, is being broken down because the Bruins find ways to get the puck to the net and do something with it. The Sabres get lots of shots on Rask, but don't have the same success around the net largely because the players on their so-called top two lines don't go there. Ruff has had more success from his third and fourth lines, but they can only do so much, and two goals per game haven't been enough.
It would be wrong to say that Rask, a playoff rookie, is outplaying Ryan Miller, who has been sensational. But as important as good goaltending is, Miller usually needs three goals to win and his teammates haven't been measuring up.
I suspect that if Ruff is truly upset, it's in large part because his team was beaten by former Sabre Miro Satan, a player the organization ran off and deemed too selfish. Satan has had the last laugh, however, winning the Stanley Cup last spring with Pittsburgh and putting a dagger through the Sabres with an OT winner that just might prove to be the beginning of the end for the Northeast Division champions in the playoffs this spring.
Any team could have had Satan, who was a free agent waiting for a call when the Bruins picked him up for their late-season run. That list includes Buffalo, which passed on his proven scoring ability (he once netted 40 goals for the Sabres) and instead gave up a second-round pick for soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Raffi Torres at the trade deadline. Torres has contributed a bit with some physical play, but did not score a goal for the Sabres in the regular season and hasn't during the playoffs to date.
Hard to say what happens to Ruff if the Sabres lose this series. The club is said to hold an option on an expiring contract, but the history in Buffalo is that someone always pays a price. Some would argue that Ruff would welcome change, if not in his lineup (like more size and scoring), then with an opportunity to move on.
Kudos for Coyotes
Not sure which way the Detroit-Phoenix series is going to go, but you have to admire Phoenix's resolve on the ice and in the front office.
No franchise in the history of sport has been mangled as badly as the Coyotes, what with court cases over ownership, bankruptcy proceedings, and the still uncertain circumstances that has the team playing the role of spoiler while being financed by the other owners in the league, including the Detroit Red Wings.
Yet through it all, the franchise has kept it together. That's a tribute to GM Don Maloney and the hockey department regarding the on-ice success, and to President Doug Moss who has kept selling the team as a viable franchise in the crowded Phoenix sports market even when it seemed destined for a different location.
Who knows? This year's edition of the club just might entice a fan or two to believe again, which would make Moss' job a whole lot easier no matter who ends up owning the team.
Let me say this about the conspiracy theories out there:
If the NHL truly wanted to manipulate games so that large market teams were in the playoffs garnering big TV ratings and selling loads of merchandise, then why hasn't the league found away to make the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers good?
The Rangers have been a mostly out of the playoffs, or out in the first round, almost since the time Neil Smith put together the squad that won the Cup in 1994. Meanwhile, the Leafs haven't won since 1967 and haven't even qualified for the postseason in any of the past five seasons.
Mistakes get made in the NHL, too many and too often for my tastes, but the idea that you can arrange a conspiracy to deny a team success and then keep it covered until all parties involved are well past dead is ludicrous.
The Leafs and Rangers, two teams in the largest markets in North America, also make money, especially in the years when they don't earn nearly enough points.
Just for kicks
I think Mike Murphy, the NHL's second in command when it comes to manning the war room and making the final decisions on video replay, made a poor choice of words when he said the newly created DVD regarding interpreting pucks that are or are not kicked in for goals was an "addendum" to the rules. Fair to say the DVD was produced to provide an "explanation" or "interpretation" of how the rule will be handled. The "addendum" pronouncement created a firestorm of controversy and cries of conspiracy in Vancouver where fans and some media think the Canucks got a bad call in Game 3. But the ultimate mistake by the league was drawing up yet another version of an interpretation of a rule and not informing the general public that they did it (again).
These "well, the GMs know" interpretations that make it through the back corridors of the NHL are forever a problem for a league that tells its fans there is an absolute and then admits after the fact that there are some shades of gray. People saw it when Brett Hull scored his controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal for Dallas in the 1999 final. The league, well after the fact, acknowledged that the absolute zero tolerance for being in the crease wasn't as absolute as fans had been led to believe.
It's happening again this season with the interpretation of "a direct kicking action." Little wonder some fans are crying foul. If only they had been told, they might better understand.
And one other thing on Murphy: He's being criticized for the amount of time it took to make a ruling on what is clearly a difficult situation. Yet, ask yourself this: Why would Murphy favor the Kings with a ruling (as many Canucks fans are charging) when he was let go by them? The argument is that he disallowed the goal because he was a former Kings coach. Hard to believe he's sticking it to the Canucks by rewarding the team that replaced him.
And let's give the NHL some credit in its overall look at kicked goals. Lots of fans and media argue for any goal being a good goal whether it is shot, passed or bumped into the net by a skate, but allowing the players to kick at the puck in a crowded goal crease is a ticket to disaster. The NHL is often accused of not caring enough about the health and safety of its players -- particularly blows to the head and even seamless glass -- so one can make an argument that that's true, but in terms of kicking at the puck, well, the NHL has always recognized the danger in that and has acted accordingly.