All the marbles

Leaving everything you have on the ice is tiring. Sidney Crosby (left) and Jordan Staal (right) both earned the right to take a little nap with the Stanley Cup. We're going to find out who wants it that bad tonight.

There is a hockey game tonight, and it just may be the finest athletic event you will see on television all year long. Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals is as good as it gets in sports.

I can’t guarantee there will be a dramatic finish and there almost certainly won’t be a buzzer-beater to win it. Expect a low-scoring game. Tonight there is going to be back checking and shot blocking like you have never seen before. Defense is at a premium and it is universally understood among the players that tonight will require absolutely whatever it takes. Block a shot with your face if you have to. They can give you fake teeth; you can’t fake a Stanley Cup.

Every player on the ice, whether they were born in 1968 (Mark Recchi) or 1992 (Tyler Seguin), has dreamed about playing in this game their entire lives. Sixty minutes stand between each player and a Stanley Cup, 3,600 seconds the difference between immortality and insignificance.

Give only 99 percent for just one of those seconds and you’ll be watching the other team kiss the cup.

If you had offered Claude Julien or Alain Vigneault one game to win it all at the start of the playoffs, they’d take it in a second. Boston wishes it still had Nathan Horton and Vancouver wishes it still had Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome and Mason Raymond, but injuries are a part of the game and sometimes it’s the last team left standing that takes home the cup.

Everyone wants the glory. Everyone wants to say they scored the goal that won the Stanley Cup. It’s not enough just to want it. I’ve written about this before — the players are going to have to find some other level inside that they just haven’t been able to get to yet if they want to win this game.

Tim Thomas is one of the only players in this series who has consistently been able to reach that level. I’m not ready to move him up the depth chart on Team USA (ahead of Ryan Miller), but Thomas has been phenomenal. Last season I argued Antti Niemi for the Conn Smythe Trophy and I’m giving my vote to a goalie once again.

Win or lose, I’d give it to Thomas regardless. Last year I wanted it for Niemi, knowing he wouldn’t get it. They were going to give it to a scorer. This season, there are no run-away scorers like Patrick Sharp last season.

David Krejci has been very good for Boston, leading the NHL in points and game-winning goals this postseason, but while Vancouver needs to watch out for him, I don’t feel he strikes fear into the other team every time he touches the puck like Danny Briere did in the Buffalo-Philadelphia series. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been productive as well, and Michael Ryder has snuck into the top-10 in playoff scoring this series.

I’d have a hard time giving the Conn Smythe to anyone on Vancouver barring an epic Game Seven performance. Roberto Luongo has been way too inconsistent. Henrik Sedin is one point off the scoring lead but has only one point in the finals, three goals in the entire postseason and is a minus-7 this postseason, one of the worst rankings in the entire league. Daniel is close behind with 20 points and has scored or assisted on half of Vancouver’s goals this series, but that doesn’t mean as much when you’ve only managed eight goals through six games. Plus, he is a minus-5. The Canucks’ power play has been pitiful this series and that blame has to fall on the Sedins.

I think Alexandre Burrows has been Vancouver’s best player, but there’s no way the NHL is giving chompers an award any time soon. Ryan Kesler has 19 points and a positive plus/minus, but 47 penalty minutes hurt a team too much to be an MVP.

Scott Neidermayer -- now there's a playoff beard

It’s a stretch for a goalie to win the award, and even more so to think a defenseman would win it. I’m very impressed with Kevin Bieksa this series (lack of chin hair and all), Zdeno Chara leads the league at plus-14 and Dennis Seidenberg has played tight defense, but for a blue liner be named playoff MVP, they’d have to be really lighting the lamp on a regular basis. Defensive Conn Smythe winners are an elite class (with the likes of Bobby Orr, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Neidermayer), and I’m not sure any of these three are worthy of entry.

I’m very excited to watch tonight’s game, not only as a hockey fan, but as a fan of sport in general. Players are going to go harder than you have ever seen them go and give more of themselves than you have ever seen athletes give. If you’ve been watching the NBA finals, seeing effort like this might be enough to make you come back next season while the other leagues are locked out.

A prediction? I think Luongo bounces back and I know better than to pick a road team in this series. It will be a close, low-scoring game, 1-0 or 2-1. Who other than Burrows puts the dagger in Boston?


Misplaced anger in Ryan Miller

For all the credit we give Miller, we're also very hard on him. That certainly comes with the territory, how much is too much? Jen Fuller/NHLI

The farther removed we get from Buffalo’s playoff exit, the more I find myself appreciating Ryan Miller.

Maybe it’s that we just witnessed consecutive playoff games with 10 goals scored (it was 11 on Tuesday if you want to get technical). I can’t help but watch these games and think, “I’d be furious if that one went in on Miller.”

There were a lot of times this year when Miller would get scored on and we would say, “I need my goalie to stop that one.” Granted, there were some soft goals, but maybe we were being too hard on him.

Goalies are human, just like the forward who turned the puck over and the defenseman who fell down to lead to the goal. They aren’t robots. They don’t automatically save all of the “easy” ones — whatever we decide that term means.

From Game Two of the Boston-Tampa Bay series, I’m thinking specifically of Tampa’s third goal from Vinny Lecavalier. Boston had a two-goal lead midway through the second with a power play to kill. Get through this and they’d be well on their way to locking down the victory and taking the all-important first game.

But what happens? Lecavalier takes a slap shot from the top of circle with minimal traffic and beats Tim Thomas five-hole to bring the score within one. Make no doubt about it, that’s a bad goal at a key point in the game. And if that was my goalie, I’d be ready to rip his head off. You can only yell, “Paddle down!” at your television screen so many times.

In Game Two of the Vancouver-San Jose series, take even the first goal of the game from Logan Couture (who I really like, even for someone who can’t grow a beard). It’s another power-play goal and it was poorly defended, but what was Roberto Luongo doing? Couture has a rolling puck. His options are limited, yet Luongo still found a way to be completely fooled by the head fake and gave the lefty the entire forehand side of the net to shoot into.

Not the Couture goal, but Luongo probably wants this one back, too. Harry How/Getty Images

When it’s not the Sabres who are playing, I get excited when someone scores a goal. (Just ask my brothers, who are getting fed up with me yelling “Score!” every time one goes in.) But if that was Buffalo getting scored on, I would be livid. I would say unrepeatable words and items would be thrown.

This gets me back to the original point, maybe we are too hard on Miller. These things happen, and we can’t expect him to save every single shot. There are plenty of other good goalies out there, and they sure don’t.

Antti Niemi, they said, is the first goalie to reach the conference finals two years in a row with different teams. He’s pretty good and keeping the puck out of the net. Luongo led the Canucks to the President’s Trophy and is the best bet to hold that other big trophy, too. Thomas led the league in save percentage and Dwayne Roloson is doing incredible things for a 41-year-old (did you ever think he’d be here back when he was with the Sabres?).

All four are phenomenal goaltenders, and they let some bad ones in, too. We cannot be saying “I need my goalie to stop that” after every goal we judge Miller might have been able to get a limb on from the comfort of our own homes. You could certainly make the case that Miller is the best goalie in the league — or if want to, the entire world — but if he can’t stop all of those shots, who can?

After Buffalo lost Game Seven, I wrote about how angry Miller should have been that he stole two games for his team and they couldn’t even repay the favor. Not many goalies have had two shutouts in a series and lost it. Was Miller great in every game in that series? No. But if these comparable (perhaps, better) goalies are having the same problems, if not worse, maybe we need to take a step back and realize a good thing when we have it.

Bad goals are part of the game. Just ask the forwards. Martin Broduer is well past his prime and there are no more Dominik Haseks or Patrick Roys out there to put on goaltending clinics 82 times a year. What we have in Ryan Miller is the best the world has to offer right now, and if that isn’t good enough, there’s a problem.

In fact, that probably tells us more about the Sabres actual problems than anything else. Our problem sure isn’t the man between the pipes; it’s what’s in front of him.

Pro Niemi for the Conn Smythe

It’s a day of mixed emotions. On one hand, we could see the Stanley Cup awarded tonight; but on the other, tonight could be the last NHL game until the fall. If the cup is won tonight, that means one more award will be given out as well, the trophy for playoff MVP.

The Conn Smythe Trophy almost always goes to a member of the winning team, and if it’s awarded tonight, it will be kissed by a Blackhawk. If you ask me, the winner is obvious. It has to go to Antti Niemi.

Niemi has been solid in net for Chicago all throughout the playoffs and has been everything they could have asked for. While Michael Leighton was the hottest of goalies at one point in the post-season, Neimi has been the most consistent, start to finish.

He boasts a .911 save percentage through 21 games, and owns a GAA of 2.62. While those numbers are only (only) 5th and 6th, respectively, Neimi has done enough to win games for his team—a category he ranks first in.


Some will argue that the award should go to Jonathan Toews, the playoff points leader with 28. But 21 of those are assists, only seven of them are goals. Don’t get me wrong, assists are important, but come playoff time it’s all about goals—or in this case, stopping them. Toews’ production has also slumped in the finals: no goals, two assists, and a minus-4 rating.

Toews has three game-winning goals in the playoffs, but you have to believe Neimi has won more games for Chicago than that.

Other players on Chicago that have a shot (a long one, but a shot nonetheless) are, in my opinion, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien.

Sharp has been playing out of his mind and is a bona-fide sniper. Keith is quickly becoming one of the most talented and feared defensemen in the game, and Byfuglien leads the league with five game-winners.

I doubt the award would go to a Flyer if they lose the series, but worthy candidates include Danny Briere and Chris Pronger. Michael Leighton gets an honorable mention, but he has been too shaky in the finals to warrant the award. Claude Giroux and Ville Leino have also been very impressive in the playoffs, but they’re not quite at Conn Smythe Award level.