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6:49 PM ET, 5/27/06
All about the playoff beard
Posted by Allan Muir
The votes are in, and J.P. Dumont has the best playoff beard.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
I don't know what's up with these hockey announcers. We've got two guys in the booth, four in the studio and two more rinkside, all breaking down the game as if it were the Yalta Summit. And even though they manage to dissect the most inconsequential elements -- Buffalo's injury-riddled blueline, Edmonton's tired legs -- from six different perspectives, not one of them has brought up the most critical angle of the NHL postseason:
The playoff beards.
Tossing away the Schick and shaving cream is as much a part of the second season as clamping down defensively and jacking up ticket prices. And it's something you'd never see players in other sports doing. Can you imagine Tim Duncan or A-Rod getting in touch with their inner mountain man? Their image consultants would never let it happen. No, playoff beards are as unique to hockey as the Zamboni and puck bunnies, and that's what makes them so great.
And that's also what makes this season so disappointing. Generally speaking, I think this year's crop of beards has been a bit on the sub-standard side. Most of that can be attributed to the fact that goatees are in style at the moment, or at least they were a few years ago and are now are coming to the attention of hockey players. That's led to a number of players going with a neat, well-trimmed look that says, "I make $30,000 a year and drive a Porsche" rather than "I'm willing to chew off and eat my own legs if that's what it takes to get me the Stanley Cup."
And you can't overlook the influx of younger players who've assumed key roles in the postseason. A lot of these kids can skate like the wind, but they couldn't come up with a decent five o'clock shadow if you gave 'em until next year's playoffs.
Fortunately, there are some players living up to expectations. I like Scott Niedermayer's salt and pepper beard. Nothing like a little grey on the cheek and chin to give a player a bit of gravitas, wouldn't you say? No wonder he wears the 'C' for the Mighty Ducks.
Andrew Ladd of the Hurricanes has won me over with the kind of beard you'd expect from a guy whose best friend is a bear. But when a kid that young -- he's just 20 -- can grow that much on his chin, you have to worry about just how hairy he is everywhere else. Hopefully he was inspired by the waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or better yet, that it was taken care of earlier in the season through some kind of rookie initiation.
His teammate, Mike Commodore, is right there with him, sporting the finest red beard since, well, Red Beard the Pirate. That should come as no surprise, given the Ogie Ogilthorpe 'fro that's hiding under that oversized helmet of his. This guy was genetically engineered to grow hair.
But at the moment, I think the best playoff beard honors go to J.P. Dumont of the Buffalo Sabres. His chin crop is so impressive that he looks like he should be complaining to Geico about their unfair representation of cavemen. I don't think it's a coincidence that the lower portion of his face has disappeared from sight while at the same time he's enjoying the finest playoffs of his career. These things are all connected, people. It's somewhere in The Da Vinci Code, I think.
Of course, there still are another couple weeks to grow in the playoffs, for some players at least. And while the names of the Stanley Cup winners will soon fade from memory, those who fought for it with the finest beards will live on forever.
Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason put his finger on it, though Sabres coach Lindy Ruff isn't buying. "This team of nobodies likes to think it can win with anybody," he wrote in Friday's edition. "But it's not that simple."
No, it would appear not. Certainly not after watching the Carolina Hurricanes demolish the wounded Sabres 4-0 Friday night to square the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.
The Sabres' defense is decimated. Buffalo has lost three of its top five defensemen in the past 16 days, and in spite of Ruff's brave protestations, no NHL team can survive that sort of personnel erosion. Not this late in the playoffs. Not against a team as solid, and healthy, as the 'Canes.
Dmitri Kalinin was the first rearguard to go down. He broke his ankle against Ottawa on May 8th, but the resilient Sabres were able to overcome his loss by replacing Kalinin with journeyman Rory Fitzpatrick, 31, who had just six games of playoff experience in his career before this year. Pulling together, Buffalo knocked out the Senators, the top team East, in five games to advance to the conference finals.
The next defensman to fall was 17-year-veteran Teppo Numminen, who'd been logging more than 20 minutes of ice time a game -- the sort of steady performer who's invaluable in postseason play. He pulled a groin on May 20th and is listed as day-to-day.
This loss, too, the Sabres were able to overcome, stepping up to take a 2-1 series lead over Carolina, a team that had 112 points this year. Swedish defender Henrik Tallinder and Finland's Toni Lydman were logging the most minutes on the blueline, and both compiled stunning plus-14 totals through the first fourteen games of the playoffs.
But in the final minutes of their 4-3 win in Game 3, Tallinder, the man the Sabres could least afford to lose, broke his arm on a relatively innocent looking hit, ending his season. Tallinder had been the Sabres best player in these playoffs. In 14 games, he had only 12 giveaways, had 23 blocked shots, 23 hits, while logging over 22 minutes of ice time a game. He also had two goals and six assists, frequently starting transition rushes with pinpoint breakout passes. There was no way the depleted Sabres could fill the void he left, not having already lost Numminen and Kalinin.
Of course the players and coach Ruff said all the right things entering Game 4. Tallinder's loss was an opportunity for someone else to step up. It would make it that much sweeter when they won. They were a team that had been overcoming adversity all year.
But brave words don't make plays. Players do. And Carolina coach Peter Laviolette knew where his team should attack. "Anytime you take some big minute defenseman out of the lineup, you're going to pay a price," he said. The 'Canes forwards would dump the puck in and give chase, hitting the first defenseman to pick it up.
Without Kalinin, Numminem and Tallinder, the Sabres were forced to dress a pair of rookies who'd spent the entire season with the Sabres top farm team in Rochester -– a team that missed the AHL playoffs -- Jeff Jillson, who skated with the Sabres all of two games back in November, and Doug Janik, who hadn't played a single regular-season NHL game all year. Ruff decided to pair them together. It proved to be a costly experiment, as Carolina's all-important first goal came after Jillson turned the puck over behind his own net. "I should have moved it quicker," he later said. "It's a learning experience. No excuses. I just have to be better."
Jillson was also on the ice for Carolina's third and fourth goals and was a team-worst minus-3 on the night. Janik, too, was on the ice for the third goal, a rebound buried by an uncovered Andrew Ladd. And while the two rookie rearguards certainly weren't the sole reason Buffalo lost -- the forwards didn't score, after all -- they were a liability that Carolina was able to exploit. Asked if he'd considered going only with his four experienced defensemen, Ruff defended the rookies: "I thought our defense played reasonably well for us. If you're looking at the defense as the reason we lost this game, you're looking in the wrong place. We can use that as an excuse, but that's a bunch of crap."
Ruff, like most good coaches, is not one to sling around excuses. Not at this time of year. You play the hand you're dealt. But the bottom line is, the Sabres have been cut, and they are bleeding. They may not be a team of stars, but neither are they a team of replaceable parts. Tough as he may talk about players pulling together and stepping up, Ruff just can't expect young players who've spent the year in the AHL to fill the shoes of his best defensemen. One, okay. Two, maybe. But not when you've lost three.
The Sabres need at least one of their three fallen defenseman to return for Game 5 -- Numminen is the only realistic possibility -- or look for Carolina to win this series in six.
Fifty-three minutes before the puck dropped in Game 4, Ryan Miller walked alone from the locker room and sat down on the edge of the empty Sabres' bench. Leaning forward with his head tucked below his knees, Miller meditated for several minutes. The meticulous goaltender performs this Jedi Master routine before every game as part of his mental preparation.
Miller may need to spend more time these days mulling over the growing list of challenges he now faces.
Injured key defensemen and a listless special teams has become a concern for the Sabres, who were shut out for the first time in the postseason. The Hurricanes have evened the Eastern Conference finals 2-2 with a 4-0 win in Game 4, shifting momentum in their favor. Looking to gain an edge, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette started Martin Gerber for the first time since he was pulled in the first-round series against Montreal. Gerber responded by stopping all 22 shots, while Miller allowed two early goals in the opening 10 minutes. Said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, "It's our turn. You bounce back or you're out. It's the best of three now. Those guys in the room have got to scrape away and find a way to beat Carolina."
After looking invincible in the first two playoff rounds against Philadelphia and Ottawa and leading Carolina 2-1 in the series before their Game 4 loss, the Sabres have started to look vulnerable with the loss of top blueliners Henrik Tallinder (broken arm), Teppo Numminen (groin injury) and Dmitri Kalinin (broken ankle) and finicky forwards who play superb one night (Game 1 and 3) and mediocre the next (Game 2 and 4). "If we're going to win," Ruff said, "Our forwards have got to be better." Their inconsistency along with two minor-league defensemen, Doug Janek and Jeff Jillson, adjusting on the fly has put immense pressure on Miller to step up his performance from good to great.
Miller is certainly capable of that. He is the only remaining goaltender in the finals, along with the Oilers' Dwayne Roloson, to play every minute in the playoffs. And before his team let him down in Game 4, Miller had just one loss with a two-goal differential. He is also a smart student of the game, spending hours reviewing videos. "He's one of the only guys I know who purposely redirects rebounds off his shoulder [and] to the slot because he sees the opening there," says Sabres backup goalie Martin Biron. "If the team likes to drive down the middle, he'll kick the rebound way out on purpose just because he knows the second or third guy on the rush will be right around the net. You'll see it happen two or three times during a game. The rebounds go way past the two or three forwards, and we're out of the zone." With Miller's help, the Sabres may just got out of the danger zone.