Jim Kelley
Thursday May 1st, 2008

Early speculation is that Brendan Shanahan of the New York Rangers will retire at the end of the season. Not surprising, but what might shock some is that Colorado legend Joe Sakic may be considering the same decision.

Sakic is 38, a veteran of 19 seasons, and has been slowed by injuries. Speculation in Colorado was that Peter Forsberg listened to Sakic's plea to come home for one more run at the Cup, likely the last one. The Red Wings, of course, refused to play along, quickly sweeping the Avalanche and bringing Sakic's retirement closer.

With the Rangers also facing a quick elimination (though they avoided it in Game 4) and pain-in-the-uh-spleen Sean Avery out of New York's lineup, there was no rush for the Penguins to get Gary Roberts back in. The veteran winger recovered from an ankle problem that flared up earlier in the playoffs and he was said to be upset that coach Michel Therrien was loathe to tinker with a winning lineup for Game 4 in New York. Therrien had to be careful with that decision as Roberts is soon to be an unrestricted free agent and if he's not used regularly in the playoffs, he might opt not to re-sign with the Penguins.

Even if he does want to come back, the Pens might not want him. The players love his leadership on the ice and in the locker room, and management respects him as well, but the Pens have serious offseason signing issues and there may not be enough money to go around.

Had the Soviets won the Cold War, this would be the day we all woke up to a mandated holiday designed to salute missiles. But we're talking sports, not politics, so May Day 2008 is instead when we all woke up knowing that we were smarter than Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau.

Or so we think.

History now tells us that Carbonneau made the "wrong" decision in benching inexperienced rookie goaltender Carey Price in favor of the equally inexperienced Jaroslav Halak prior to Wednesday night's game with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens lost, 4-2, and now trail the best of seven series, 3-1.

Halak was OK at best. He couldn't win the game by himself. One could argue that Halak, along with teammates who supported him the way John F. Kennedy backed the invaders in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, had a role in losing it. Throw in a power play that's shown itself to be about as effective as FEMA, add a dash of Philadelphia goaltending in the form of the Second Coming of Bernie Parent (disguised as Martin Biron), and top it off with a dollop of whipped Steve Begin choosing (badly) to cream Sami Kapanen at the worst possible moment, and you've got a legitimate case for the loss and the series as it stands today.

But I'll drop the politics for a moment and the bad one liners for the rest of the column to ask a simple question:

Did anyone know Carbonneau was wrong 20 minutes before game time?

Tell the truth!

I didn't think so.

Look, Carbonneau could have made the easy choice and stayed with Price. After all, most of the media pundits (yours truly excepted) told him it was the right thing to do. Many of the unemployed coaches sitting in broadcast booths across two countries did the same.

It was the politically correct thing to do. But Carbonneau had a different theory. He thought (and he's in a better position than any of his judges) that Price was looking like the goaltending equivalent of burnt toast. He'd lost two of his last three starts and deserved to lose the one he won. While we're reduced to guessing, Carbonneau would at least know whether Price had a problematic injury to his catching hand -- something we in media are just guessing on.

Simply put, Carbonneau had to make a call as to how best to succeed in what was pretty much a must-win game. He made his call. It not only took courage, it was the correct call.

After all, had Price played and lost, he and the Canadiens would be in the same position they're in now. Had Price won, well, the odds on that, given the way he'd played in recent outings, were about the same as playing Halak. Price gave you reason to doubt. Halak gave both the coach and the team reason to hope. When I have to choose between doubt and hope, I'll take hope every time.

This is the way it goes for NHL coaches. Football -- the North American kind -- doesn't have goaltenders. Neither does baseball, and if you have one in basketball he usually brings you an automatic penalty. Hockey's different.

Sure coaching makes a difference. So does having a few superstar performers, a handful of grinders and a mean-yet-mobile defense. But ask any coach who has ever had success or failure in the playoffs and it pretty much comes down to what you get from your goaltending.

Terry Murray, the Flyers' coach in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, thought he had it in Ron Hextall, but when Hextall started getting beat on long shots, Murray turned to Garth Snow. When Snow got beat the same way, Murray turned back to Hextall. At that point, Detroit coach Scott Bowman -- who, for the record, has won the majority of his nine (coaching) Stanley Cups with either a great or greatest goaltender of the time in his net -- knew he had the series won.

That Murray mentioned the "choke" word only secured Detroit's sweep and his inevitable firing.

Think it was a flip of the coin that caused Al Arbour to turn to Billy Smith over Glenn "Chico" Resch in 1980 when beating the Flyers launched the multi-Cup run that made the New York Islanders famous? The two netminders had split a lot of games in the regular season, but Smith was the "money goalie" in the playoffs.

Ask Jacques Demers. who got him his name on the Cup in Montreal back in the early 1990s. He might joke with you and mention LA Kings forward Marty McSorley and his illegal stick, but he knows it was Patrick Roy playing in "the zone" that secured the silverware. Bob Hartley, when he was in Colorado, could say the same thing about Roy. There was a revolving door of coaches in New Jersey when the Devils were winning three Stanley Cups. The one constant was goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Think Carbonneau doesn't know that? As a player, he twice saw Roy get hot and carry his team to a Cup: when Roy was a rookie in 1986 and after two straight to the archrival Quebec Nordiques in 1989 refocused and sent him on to an 11-game winning streak and playoff record for overtime wins (4) to grab a second. Carbonneau was on the winning side a third time when Eddie Belfour outdid Domink Hasek in a legendary goaltending battle that produced a Cup for the Dallas Stars in 1999.

Three rings, all due at least in part to great goaltending that came to the forefront when the teams needed it most. So don't think for a moment those thoughts weren't in Carbonneau's head when he turned to Halak. The call didn't work out as planned, but he took a chance on winning. You simply can't fault a coach for that.

Memo to John Stevens, coach of the Flyers: Call me Maggie if you must (you know, Maggie the Monkey, picking teams on the Canadian sports network TSN... ah, forget it, it's a Farber thing), but I and more than a handful of others picked the Flyers to beat the Habs based on a simple reason: more firepower.

I'm not saying the series is over. Montreal at home in an elimination game is as tough as it gets in the NHL, but your team is ahead because you can outscore the Canadiens at even strength and the way Biron is playing and your penalty killers have shut down the league's best regular season power play is making a difference.

This is a new NHL. Scoring matters. Look how many teams have blown one-goal leads in the third period this spring. The days of grabbing the first goal and dumping the puck out for upwards of 59 minutes are over. You can say Biron is your best player, but if you want to single out good people, nod your head toward general manager Paul Holmgren and, especially, player personnel guru Don Luce.

It's no coincidence that Luce, driven out of Buffalo for inexplicable reasons, convinced Holmgren to go after Biron in a trade and Daniel Briere as a free agent. Those two former Sabres are driving your wins. Luce, who was responsible along with Jim Benning and a handful of quality scouts purged from Buffalo in order to cut costs while going to "video scouting", is a primary reason for your success so far.

Luce, Benning (now with Boston) and Terry Martin (Colorado) once ran arguably the best scouting and development operation in hockey. For years, it had the most prospects on the ice with Buffalo and other NHL teams than any other club in the NHL.

No surprise that your Flyers rebuilt as quickly as they did. No surprise that the Bruins and Avalanche have turned up some outstanding young talent, either.

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