Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
5:10 PM ET, 5/18/06
The Miller-Laviolette Feud
Posted by Michael Farber
With the natural cross-pollination in any sport -- trades and past histories and old feuds -- all playoff series are bound to have a back story, a juicy subplot to the actual games. The best, and most immediate, in the 2006 playoffs is Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller vs. Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette.
You might remember them better in their roles as miffed goalie and beleaguered coach of Team USA at the Olympics three months ago.
Now Laviolette has nothing against Miller. Indeed, he has been most complimentary of a goalie who has shown a laudatory level of poise in the playoffs. And for his part, Miller has made nice, noting that Laviolette did not pick the Olympic team.
But Team USA general manager Don Waddell, who did receive some input from Laviolette, did spurn Miller for the Turin team and wound up with nothing -- except a quarterfinal loss to Finland -- to show for it.
There weren't many close calls on fashioning a roster for a team seemingly caught between generations, but Miller's place on the squad shouldn't have been close at all. He had sustained a broken thumb after a white-hot start to the NHL season, but by the time the Olympic tournament began in mid-February, that busted digit would have been invisible in the rearview mirror of the hockey season. The leap of faith in assuming Miller would return to something close to his October form was no more than a jump over a small puddle.
But USA Hockey, fearing even the tiniest splash, chose to play it safe. And silly. Given three Olympic goaltender slots, Waddell & Co. handed them to Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and the streaky but ultimately unreliable John Grahame (See Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella's 25 percent rule.)
DiPietro was an easy choice, a bouncy, overly confident goalie, someone with the brio that might have enabled him to rise to the Olympic moment. Esche was a respectable No. 3. But Miller, a Hobey Baker winner at Michigan State, should have been in the mix, arm wrestling DiPietro for the No. 1 job.
DiPietro didn't play horribly in Turin, generally just well enough to lose. Miller belatedly was invited to the taxi squad, which he joined. Sort of. Rather than flying to Italy and chilling there for a fortnight, Miller told USA Hockey that in case of cataclysm, you have my number.
Not that any of this will matter Saturday in Game 1, unless Laviolette starts shooting wristers from the bench. Miller hardly needs any more motivation, nothing extracurricular to make him "play harder." That don't-give-'em-bulletin-board-material line at this time of year is sophomoric hooey. Still, while hockey cools its heels -- there will be only one game between last Sunday and Friday as the NHL's playoff momentum goes pfffffft -- it gives you something to gnaw on.
If there's one thing I'm sure of this morning, it's this: there are an awful lot of Bruins fans feeling an awful lot less distressed about the Joe Thornton trade right now.
The Thornton who was on display in the six games against Edmonton was not the unstoppable, one-man wrecking crew that powered San Jose to an 8-1-1 record, and a playoff berth, over the season's last month.
No, this was the Joe Thornton who confounded and dismayed Bostonians for years, who always seemed to be outplayed, outworked and outhustled by smaller, less talented, more determined opponents when the games mattered most.
This was the Joe Thornton that justified being traded.
That's not to suggest that Jumbo Joe is the reason the Sharks today are heading home to pack up rather than prepare for a seventh game. To their credit, the Edmonton Oilers grabbed the momentum from their thrilling triple-OT win in Game 3 and found a way to keep raising their level of play as a team in each successive contest. And as a team, San Jose couldn't come up with a consistent response.
That means there's plenty of blame to go around the Sharks' room. But the fact is that a large helping of it should land squarely on the plate of the eight-year veteran. After all, this is the NHL's leading scorer, a guy who is paid to put points on the board. And when your team averages just two goals per game in a series, that's probably not going to be enough to win.
Sure, he netted five points over the six games, but how many of those points mattered? Just one: the power play winner he scored in Game 2. After that? A goal and three assists that were as empty as the calories in a Twinkie.
Of course there's more to the game than scoring, but that's the real flaw in the postseason Thornton. When his passing lanes are clogged, when there are battles to be won along the boards, when there are power plays to be exploited, he can't find it in himself to rise to the occasion.
Until he proves otherwise, the criticism is as obvious as it is fair: Joe Thornton simply isn't a guy who's willing to pay any price to win. But Michael Peca is. Ryan Smyth is. Shawn Horcoff is. Chris Pronger is.
And that's why Edmonton is moving on to the Western Conference Finals tomorrow night and why yet another team led by Thornton has failed to grab a moment by the throat and make it their own.