Friday January 22nd, 2010

A gentle reminder for Rangers coach John Tortorella: Whine all you want about honor, but the real culprit in the Marian Gaborik - Daniel Carcillo dust-up is you.

Hard to imagine anyone missed a fight between one of the league's leading scorers and one of its leading brawlers, but here's the video:

Surprising? Sure. Gaborik can be a little feisty at times, but he's far from what anyone would call a physical player. He averages about one hit per 25 minutes of playing time and had one previous fight during his 551-game NHL career. (Interestingly, he tussled with current Flyer Ian Laperriere.)

But there he was, not just in the middle of a scrum, but instigating contact when Carcillo grabbed him from behind. The two grappled and appeared to drop the gloves simultaneously, signaling an apparent willingness to go. No surprise that Gaborik didn't fare too well, but he sure showed up.

I made an appeal last week to let star players defend themselves on occasion, but this probably wasn't one of those spots where it made sense. Good on Gaborik for standing up in a key match with a divisional rival, but in this case, he and his team might have been better served if he'd just hugged and held on rather than stand there and take a beating from a guy who makes his living with his fists.

Tortorella was livid after the game, but instead of pointing fingers he should have been questioning his own judgment. It was Tortorella, after all, who watched the Flyers get whistled for an icing that forced their fourth line to stay on the ice for a draw in the Philly zone. And it was Tortorella who decided to put his first line of Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Vinny Prospal up against the pugilistically inclined Carcillo, Laperriere and Blair Betts. The advantage gained by the mismatch in talent was pretty clear. Dubinsky cleanly won the draw and set up Prospal for a backhand bid that Flyers goalie Ray Emery bobbled, leading to the scrum. But as the players began milling about out front, the downside of Tortorella's decision became apparent. Was that talent advantage worth the risk of exposing his stars to the mercy of the Flyers' goons? Why not hedge the bet by replacing Prospal with Sean Avery to provide some kind of deterrent?

Tortorella's a fine coach, but moments like this serve to remind that in-game management isn't his strongest suit. As for Carcillo, he's bound to take a lot of heat for this, but look at the facts. He came into the scrum and removed Gaborik, who was about to double-team Kimmo Timonen. After some pushing and shoving, Carcillo's dance partner dropped a glove. What's he supposed to do in that situation? Wait until Gaborik lands a couple? Hardly.

And Gaborik, well, he demonstrated his level of commitment to the guys in the room. When the team's leading scorer is willing to answer the bell, that sets the bar for every guy wearing the sweater. This could end up being one of those galvanizing moments that defines the season for the Rangers.

And all because Tortorella screwed up.

The Washington Capitals didn't get a second chance to play Game 7 of their 2009 playoff series against Pittsburgh on Thursday night. But with their 6-3 dismissal of the Penguins, this year's edition of the Caps suggested that a potential 2010 postseason sequel might have a very different result.

In what was the most heavily hyped matchup of the season, the Caps overcame an early goaltending gaffe by Jose Theodore with the sort of calm, focused effort that they simply couldn't muster while being dispatched by the Pens last spring.

A sign of a maturing squad? In a week that also included find-a-way wins over the Flyers and Red Wings, this was a statement that the Caps are ready to take the next step.

It looked as though the game might go the Pens' way early when Theodore misplayed a dump, allowing the puck to deflect off his stick, through his legs and toward the gaping cage where it was slammed home by Sidney Crosby just 4:22 into the contest. It was the sort of energy-sucking goal that could have derailed a lesser team, but the Caps maintained their composure and soon started to generate their own chances off the strong work in their own zone.

Playing without Mike Green, who suffered an undisclosed injury on Tuesday against the Red Wings, Washington's defense set the tone for the comeback. The Pens might have won more of the battles along the boards, but the Caps blueliners owned the middle of the ice, limiting Pittsburgh's odd-man chances, sweeping the crease clean of rebounds and clearing out intruding forwards. It was a solid group effort, highlighted by the play of rookies Karl Alzner and John Carlson, the World Junior hero who was pressed into action after the pre-game skate and turned in nearly 18 minutes of reliable work.

It still lacks a certain presence, but the unit deserves credit. The Caps don't need their back end to win games -- they just can't lose them like they have so often in the past. While the offense has gone on a tear lately -- scoring at least four goals in eight of their last nine games -- the blue line has afforded them stability. You can still sense the need for an upgrade before the playoffs, but the growth is apparent.

Ovechkin led the assault at the other end of the ice, scoring a pair of goals and creating chances through poetry -- Kris Letang is still searching for his jock after being undressed by a nifty through the legs move -- and sheer horsepower. But again, this was a different-looking Caps offense.

There were Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr, charging the crease to deposit a pair of goals that couldn't have traveled 18 inches between them. Both showed the kind of ability and temerity to go hard to the crease with jaw squared and stick on the ice that was lacking last spring.

And then there was Nicklas Backstrom, whose third-period marker showed that Crosby and Henrik Sedin aren't the only gifted passers who have discovered the value of shooting more often this season. Backstrom picked up a loose puck behind Pens backup Brent Johnson and swung out front. As the defense backed off to cover the lanes and Johnson cheated to his right, Backstrom took advantage of a gaping hole up top and roofed it. It was the sort of opportunity he would have passed up last season, but the new "selfish" Backstrom cashed this one in for his 21st goal of the season, just one shy of his career high.

But the most promising sign for these Caps was their ability to finish off the Penguins. Washington has displayed an alarming tendency in the past to take its foot off the gas when it has the lead. Thursday night, the Caps played even harder with the advantage than they did while trying to tie the Pens earlier in the contest. They wanted this game more than Pittsburgh, and they earned it.

It's best not to read too much into one midseason meeting, but don't blame Caps fans if they feel a bit more hopeful. Their team might not be Cup-ready just yet, but it's growing up fast.

If you've got kids, or maybe an unhealthy obsession with Julie Andrews, you're probably preparing for a screening of the new family comedy, The Tooth Fairy. According to one reviewer I used to work with, the Dwayne Johnson vehicle won't go down as one of the all-time great hockey-themed films, but it doesn't make a mockery of the sport, either. In fact, he said Johnson is fairly convincing as a minor league cement head -- even if he did need wires to stay up on his skates. (See: Jimmy Traina's Q&A with The Rock.)

The discussion of this film led to a debate over the best and worst hockey movies of all time. Here's my take:

BEST

5. Miracle: A little heavy on the schmaltz at times, but it does a commendable job of capturing the spirit of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's historic triumph. Director Gavin O'Connor succeeds in building some tension even as the film charges toward a conclusion as inevitable as Titanic, but it was Kurt Russell's exploration of the complicated Herb Brooks that allows the film to stand up to repeated viewings.

4. Mystery, Alaska: A love letter to the sport from writer David E. Kelley (best known for Boston Legal and the criminally under-appreciated Lake Placid), this little gem packs in a lot of crisp banter, strong performances from Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria and Maury Chaykin while managing to avoid most of the sports movie cliches. Some of the hockey scenes border on the hyperbolic, but that one rough edge is smoothed over by Mike Myers' turn as a Don Cherry manque who utters the memorable line, "If you don't play this game with a big heart and a big bag of knuckles in front of the net, you don't got dinky do."

3. The Rocket: Rather than belabor the social context of English-French tensions in the 1940s, The Rocket simply immerses you in them as it examines the larger importance of Maurice Richard beyond the rink. Roy Dupuis won a Genie (the Canadian Oscar) for capturing Richard and his smoldering intensity. Look for cameos from Vinnie Lecavalier, Sean Avery, Ian Laperriere and several other NHLers.

2. The Deadliest Season: Haven't seen it? Not surprised. Despite a stellar cast that featured Michael Moriarty, Jill Eikenberry and the first film appearance by Meryl Streep (!), this 1977 made-for-TV drama about a player who embraces hockey's culture of violence to deadly effect has yet to be issued on DVD. A tight script that respectfully captured the evolution the game was experiencing during that period makes it worth the effort to track down a bootleg copy (not that I, ahem, condone bootlegging). Oh, and Dave Eskanazi, the player killed during a game by Moriarty's character? He was played by Paul D'Amato, who gained greater fame as Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in another little hockey movie that same year.

1. Slap Shot: One of the happiest days of my life: a first-class flight to Finland that included lobster for dinner, a comely Latvian seatmate and an on-board video selection that included Slap Shot. They almost had to drag me off the plane as I tried to finish off a fourth consecutive viewing.

Honorable Mention: Bon Cop, Bad Cop (even if you don't get a laugh out of the lampooning of Gary Bettman, you'll love the explanation of the etymology of Quebecois profanity); Net Worth (a gripping adaptation of the David Cruise book exploring the roots of the NHLPA); Dumb and Dumber ("Kick his ass, Sea Bass!")

WORST

5. MVP: Most Valuable Primate: Hard to tell if this debacle is more of a slap in the face to Canadians, the deaf, or the Rock (at least Jack the chimp learned how to skate).

4. Any Mighty Ducks movie: Although I'm willing to cut the fourth one some slack for casting Beverly Hills 90210 alum Ian Ziering as Wild Wing.

3. The Love Guru: Makes you wish that Myers had grown up a fan of the Blue Jays.

2. Slap Shot 3: I'm all for the Hansons wringing as much cash out of their legacy as possible, but couldn't they have convinced Todd MacFarlane to put out another series of action figures instead?

1. Youngblood: I remain convinced that the NHLPA became convinced that caving to the NHL's demands was a small price to pay in order to stop Versus from running this film three times a week during the lockout.

You have to believe a decision on the future of goaltenders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak is coming in the near future. Safe to say the Habs can't come back with both of them next season -- the awkward chemistry this year suggests the team would be better served by pairing one of the promising youngsters with a veteran backstop who can both push and tutor him. But is it fair to assume that Halak will be the one sent packing? Not necessarily.

Moving Halak is a less risky decision for GM Bob Gainey, but this team has been crippled by half measures in the past. That's why it might make more sense to test the market for Price, whose pedigree ensures that he would earn a significantly more lucrative return on the trade market.

It'd be a bold move, that's for sure. Price is viewed as having a higher upside, and a change of scenery might allow him to blossom in a way that haunts the Canadiens. At the same time, he may never reach his potential in this high-pressure environment. But that can't be Gainey's motivating factor.

Right now, Gainey has built himself a squad that's done little to distinguish itself from a herd of playoff wannabes. The Habs have no identity and little reason for excitement (Danny Kristo notwithstanding). If Price can bring in a piece or pieces to help shape a brighter future, and if the team believes thaqt Halak can mature into a reliable No. 1, isn't that a direction Gainey is obligated to explore?

One performance won't change anyone's draft standing, but Wednesday's CHL Top Prospects featured a couple of eye-opening efforts that seem certain to increase the profiles of a couple of draft-eligible players as the season winds down.

Nino Neiderreiter, one of the breakthrough stars of the World Juniors, moved himself closer to the top-10 with another great game. The Portland Winterhawks winger scored a goal for Team Cherry and showed off his speed and creativity on every shift.

Dylan McIlrath, big defender from the Moose Jaw Warriors, was a monster in his own end, playing the sort of smart, physical game that scouts love. He dropped the gloves in one of two fights on the evening and showed off an improved skating stride. Don't be surprised to see him move into the middle of the first round.

One player who might have hurt his standing is Petr Straka. The big winger from Rimouski has plenty of talent, but showed little appetite to compete when challenged. His skill set ensures that he won't drop too far, but he looks more like a mid-to-late second-rounder than a late-first at the moment.

Dennis Wideman is under a lot of scrutiny in Boston after being ripped for lack of effort by coach Claude Julien this week. It's apparent that his game has slipped significantly from last season when he scored 50 points and was a plus-32 skating mostly alongside Zdeno Chara, but the criticism he's getting for a turnover that led to Jonathan Cheechoo's exclamation mark in Monday's 5-1 loss to Ottawa is unwarranted.

On the play, Wideman picked up a loose puck at his blueline and was moving back into the Boston zone when a collision with referee Dan O'Rourke sent the biscuit over to Cheechoo, who cashed in on a breakaway. The Bruins' defender took the heat for the comical crash, but it was the positioning of the official that was at fault.

"If he was not in the middle of the rink at the start of the play, he would have had time to get to the boards [and out of Wideman's path]," said one former NHL official after viewing the play.

Wideman's confidence is flagging and his involvement in that gaffe didn't help matters. It'll be interesting to see how he responds to the incident and to Julien's challenge.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.