Thursday, April 1, 2010

What Wine Goes With Round 2 of the WHL Playoffs?

The game: Portland Winterhawks vs. Spokane Chiefs in Game 7 of the first playoff round. We had been perfect against them on the road all season, and had taken the lead in the series 3 - 2, also all on the road.

The final score: I hate to say I told you so, but I sorta did. It went to a 20 minute overtime, and in US vs. Russia Olympic gold medal fashion, we beat Spokane 5-4. Although I was mistaken about the shootout. If the first 20 minute overtime runs out, they just play another overtime instead of a shootout. Also, the replay of them piling onto one and other in an on-ice victory celebration will never get old. Ever.

But still: Can you say comeback? We were down 2-0 at the end of the first period. Led by NHL legend-in-the-making Nino Niederreiter, we roared back to tie the game at 4 in regulation.

Experience preferred, not required: Early predictions and critics had us going down in this round, what with our blown opportunity to win Game 6 at home to take the series and our apparent lack of motivation early in games. Lack of experience was blamed. Forget that. Three of last night's goals were scored or set up by rookies. Nino, Ryan, Taylor and Ty are all 18 or under. That's right... three of the four are top NHL prospects and all are playing in the WHL for the first time this season.

But their experience off the ice cannot be overlooked as an equally important asset: I don't like whiny hockey ranters because they never take the time to see the qualities and talents in players that you will never see on a scoreboard and never read in a scouting report. And it is these qualities of character, grit, determination and leadership that are equally key to making a successful run at the playoffs. For example, did you know that many of the Winterhawks have already been through far more challenging times than a playoff run?:

-- Overage player Chris Francis, in his final season this year, suffered a devastating loss last season when his father died while he was on the road with the Hawks in Canada. At the time he was considering leaving the team after several losing seasons, and was not actually playing. Enter Mike Johnston, new management and a new attitude. In addition to being our Most Valuable Player this year, Chris is the team's leading scorer for the regular 2009 - 2010 season.

-- Luke Walker and overage player Stefan Schneider were never taken in the Bantam Draft and never snatched up when they became eligible for the NHL Draft. Stefan was signed earlier this week by the Vancouver Canucks and won this year's team awards for sporstmanship, scholastic achievement and best defensive player. Earlier this year, Luke brought back a gold medal from being on the winning World Junior team and he is being watched closely by the New York Rangers.

-- Ian Curtis, after being bumped around from one WHL team to another and never building momentum as a starting goaltender, found a home in Portland and twice this year was named CHL goaltender of the week. He also backstopped us to notable shutouts against Seattle on New Year's Eve and again against Vancouver in late January, stopping a way too lengthy losing streak against the Giants.

-- Captain Brett Ponich led a fundraising effort to help a childhood friend who was paralyzed in a pool accident. Portlanders answered the call and some very lucky fans won prizes ranging from signed jerseys to a personal car wash by rookies to dinner with Chris, Luke and Brett. I would have gone for the dinner, but at 42, I would have required several chaperones in order to avoid going to the pokey.

Major dilemma: I can't pick a best play: Nino's snapper to score the first goal in the second period and put us back in the game....Ryan getting down low in the crease with the second goal... perhaps Riley Boychuk realizing that Reid hadn't stopped a shot and sending it into the slot...or maybe Luke Walker's game-tying shot that took us to overtime. But let's face it...that final winner by Ty Rattie with a nice setup by Taylor Aronson takes it.

So, in the spirit of dramatic Game 7 I-told-you-so overtime wins: Here is a refresher on the OT and shootout rules for playoffs in the NHL:

Rule 84, Overtime: 84.5, Overtime - Playoffs -- In the Stanley Cup playoffs, when a game is tied after three (3) twenty (20) minute regular periods of play, the teams shall take a fifteen (15) minute intermission and resume playing twenty (20) minute periods, changing ends for the start of each overtime period. The team scoring the first goal in overtime shall be declared the winner of the game.

Never blog under the influence: I'm taking Vicodin for some weird hand injury that happened while I was asleep. I'm so whacked out I almost wrote something praising Kyle Beach for leading his team to a noble finish to their season. I better wrap this up or the next thing you'll know I"ll be declaring that head hits are ok in certain circumstances, like it's ok as long as you don't like the way the opposing player glared at you in the second period.

Morals of the story:

Oohh did I say that out loud?/Life and Game: I will admit that I had my doubts too, until I found out that we had won every game against the Chiefs on the road. And I almost tuned out Andy Kemper's broadcasts from the road. But a funny thing happened while the players were on the bus to Spokane. I tried, but I couldn't turn the radio off:

-- Because I still believed we stood a chance. Even if we lost, we did it. We made it to a place no one thought we would.

-- Because I hate could have...what if I didn't listen and we won and I missed the game of the century?

-- Because I refuse to join the ranks of nitpicking, naysaying, number crunching anti-fans and ranters.

-- Because I love the idea of being a silent fan, listening on my computer or in my car, cheering from my couch and believing in something bigger than myself.

-- Because a gaggle of 16 - 20 year old boys believed it was possible. Why shouldn't we?

Here's my theory about all those naysayers, ranters and so-called fans who sit in the stands and cross off players they don't like from the free roster they hand out before games. (Yes, I know where you sit and I can find you if I want to. Be glad I don't know how to operate my cell phone camera.). It goes like this:

1) If we as adult fans believe in the impossible (like say, making it to the playoffs and round 2 to boot)... then it means we have to recall what it was like to be young like the players, and to believe in anything no matter what because you didn't know any better and you really believed you could do it.

2) As such... we'd have to think about all the dreams we had that didn't work out or that we sold out to the highest bidder, and all the things we once believed in that faded from our view as life got in the way.

3) Then we'd have to dig even deeper and realize that some of those dreams are over...long past being possible and real. Redemption makes for great comeback stories, but let's face it, it's always better to live it right the first time around.

My parting shot to fellow Hawks fans: In the early days of this blog, I wrote about how even though I think the Philadelphia Flyers are crazy, they play the way we should live: Out loud, without apology and in your face. The Portland Winterhawks will need to play that way to get deep into this playoff run. I have no doubt that they will. As fans, we have the chance to follow their lead by forgetting our own mistakes and leaving our lost dreams in the wind...even if only for a few months. The real question is... will we?

Next up on 4/3: Playoff mania continues with a preview of Game 1 of the second round WHL playoffs: Portland vs. Vancover game on home ice. And yes, I'll get back to the rules. I promise.

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