Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe… and Michigan?

With the Stanley Cup Finals getting underway tonight between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks, I wanted to take a look at two American born players that play vital roles for their respective clubs. Michigan natives, Ryan Kesler (VAN) and Tim Thomas (BOS), have been the backbones for their teams during the long road to the Finals. And deservedly so, they are both leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2011 playoff MVP. Adding to several other storylines, these two opposing players were also teammates on the Silver Medal winning Team USA during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, starting tonight in Vancouver, the two will begin the last stretch to hoist the Cup and are sure to see a lot of each other in a different light. You can count on Kesler going hard to the net and causing havoc with his speed and quick release, while Thomas is a guarantee to make more than one jaw-dropping save in this series.

Ryan Kesler (Livonia, MI) has been an absolute super mutant in many instances during these playoffs. In the Canucks series verse the Predators, there was no better player on the ice at any point than Kesler. He was involved in 11 of the 14 goals the Canucks scored in that series and he played a huge role in shutting down whatever offense the Predators could muster in those 6 games. Kesler is currently fourth with 18 points  in the NHL playoffs and is tied for fourth with 7 goals. His first round performance verse the Blackhawks didn’t bring much in terms of offense, but he was key in shutting down the Hawks’ All-Star center Jonathan Toews. He also showed some toughness by coming back from what looked like an apparent leg injury in Game 5 verse the Sharks to score the game tying goal with 14 seconds left in the game, in an eventual Canucks’ double OT victory. Those in the media have mentioned on many occasions, that Kesler is the current favorite for the Conn Smythe (MVP) heading into the final round.

Tim Thomas (Flint, MI) has solid numbers (2.29 GAA, .929 SV%) after 18 games coming into the Finals and possibly the save of the year on Steve Downie (TBL) last round. Thomas has had a few games in the playoffs where he has allowed 4 or more goals along with a couple of weak early game goals. However, he does have two Game 7 wins and two shutouts, one of those shutouts coming in a series clinching Game 7 win over the Lightning. Thomas has been resilient and has bounced back tremendously after sub par performances during these playoffs and without him the Bruins wouldn’t have made it out of the first round.  In the four game series sweep over the Flyers, Thomas allowed only 7 goals in 4 games making 142 saves in the process against that offensively dynamic club. Tim Thomas is a feel good story in the NHL and adored by most of his peers, media and fans. In addition, he’ll likely be taking home his second Vezina Trophy, as best goaltender, at the NHL Awards ceremony at the conclusion of this season. 

Whatever the series outcome, it should be a terrific Cup Final for the fans of this sport. But it would be nice to see one of these gentlemen skate away with a little something extra, in the form of the Conn Smythe. If one of them does so, he would only be the second American born player ever to win that award. N.Y. Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch was the other in 1994. Odds are one of them will.

Rock, Flag and Eagle.

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The American Way, Brian Rafalski Hangs Them Up

Yesterday, the three-time U.S. Olympian Brian Rafalski (Dearborn, Mich.) announced his retirement from the National Hockey League. Rafalski played 11 seasons in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings. The 37 year-old American defenseman netted 79 goals and 515 points in 833 regular-season games, while adding 29 goals and 100 points in 165 playoff games. He won three Stanley Cups over the course of his successful career, including two with the New Jersey Devils (2000, 2003) and his last with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008.

In addition to his participation in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Rafalksi also represented USA Hockey twice at the IIHF World Junior Championships (1992, 1993), was a member of two U.S. Men’s National Teams in 1995 and 1998, and skated for Team USA at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Rafalski’s route to the NHL was far from the norm. He played for 4 years at the University of Wisconsin and he also spent some time in the USHL before heading to the college game. However, prior to entering the NHL, Rafalski played 4 seasons in European Pro Leagues struggling to make it to the big stage. While playing overseas in his last year over there, he was awarded the SM-liiga (Finland) trophy for best player as voted by his fellow players. Thus becoming the first non-Finnish player to win the award. Though he took the road less traveled to become a pro, his career should give future players hope that they too can make the big league, even if it takes an alternate route to do so. Two Olympic Silver Medals and three Stanley Cups later, I would say he did alright.

Best of wishes to Brian and his family in his post NHL life.

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Czech-mate, USA ousted by Czechs in a 4-0 loss at Worlds

The Czech Republic defeated USA 4-0 to knock the American men from the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia. The U.S. team played a very inspired first period, but ended up on the short end of the stick off of a Czech goal scored by Jaromir Jagr. Three minutes in the Czech’s caught a big break, when a U.S. shot bounced off of a skate and past Ondrej Pavelec, but found the post instead of the back of the net. American forward, Craig Smith, was also robbed by Pavelec on a glorious chance on the power play, that could have been a 1-0 US lead as well.

The second period was played closely between the two teams as well. The Czech’s outshot the U.S. 13 to 11 in the period, but the only puck to find the back of the net came from the one and only Jagr on the power play to put the Czechs up 2-0. That seemed to be a pretty big blow to the U.S., especially the way Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been playing in this tournament.

The Czech’s took control of the third period and the American men had a difficult time generating scoring chances. Jack Johnson absolutely leveled Patrik Elias behind the U.S. net in the third period and the hit was so hard I think Elias’ stick ended up in the upper deck of the arena (I’m serious). Elias remained down on the ice for a couple of minutes, but he was able to skate of the ice on his own accord. The Czech’s scored two more goals to ice the game, the last one gave the 39 year-old Jagr a hat trick. U.S. goaltender, Ty Conklin made 35 saves on 39 shots, the first goal of the game was a little weak, but Conklin had to make a number of difficult saves throughout the game to give USA a chance.

Derek Stepan (NY Rangers) finished with 7 points in 7 games leading all U.S. players in points. USA finished 8th in the tournament this year, 5 spots better than the previous. Though it is a marked improvement over last year, it’s still below what I would expect of the country that supplies the second highest number of players in the NHL, only behind Canada. I hope some of the bigger named U.S. players decide to represent their country next year at the tournament.

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Shaky U.S. team falls to the Swiss 5-3 at Worlds

The opening minutes of this game were definitely not forth telling of how this game would end. The U.S. controlled the pace of the game and had numerous attempts at the Swiss net causing the Swiss to scramble in their end. With most of the play taking place in the Swiss zone, American forward Craig Smith capitalized on a beautiful centering pass from the left boards by Clay Wilson to put the U.S. up 1-0. However, Switzerland was not going to go out without a fight and they seemed to change the tide with a pesky forecheck and bounced back to score two quick goals to take a 2-1 lead over USA. Ty Conklin was in the net for USA and was coming off a great two game stretch that earned him starting goaltender duties, however, this game would end up being not one of his best.

With the Swiss leading 2-1 at the start of the second period, they didn’t waste any time to go up by another goal scoring just over a minute into the period. Switzerland’s forwards did a good job in making it difficult for the U.S. defensemen to make a clean first pass and often caught Conklin in bad position when he would come out to play the puck behind the net. American forward Ryan Shannon (voted U.S. Player of the Game) was able to get one back when he took a feed from the 2011 Hobey Baker winner, Andy Miele, and broke in alone on the Swiss goaltender beating him with a nice backhand-forehand move while slamming on the brakes. This didn’t seem to daunt the Swiss much, as they jumped on a loose puck less than 4 minutes later after a turnover in the U.S. zone beating Conklin for a 4th goal on only their 16th shot of the game. The American goaltending carousel went back to Al Montoya, as he came in for relief of Conklin midway through the game.

Much of the third period continued the trend and the Swiss continued to hold on to a 4-2 lead over a superior U.S. team. The Americans were getting their chances and Montoya kept them in it, but time was running out, as was hope for coming back. James van Riemsdyk, in his first game at the Worlds after being a late addition to the U.S. roster, buried a perfectly set-up goal by Cam Fowler cutting the Swiss lead to 4-3. However, that last push seemed to be a little late for the Americans and could not make up for the sub-par goaltending and defensive zone mistakes earlier. Switzerland would go on to add a late empty net goal and the score would end in a 5-3 loss for Team USA.

With this loss, USA is now set to play the undefeated Czech Republic in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, May 11th.

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USA tops France 3-2 at Worlds

France opened the scoring in the first period, but the Americans answered with less than four minutes remaining in the period on a four-on-four goal by Blake Wheeler (Robbinsdale, MN). Team USA went up by two goals in the second period when defenseman Mark Stuart (Rochester, MN) and Chris Kreider (Boxford, MA) found the back of the net. Kreider’s power play goal in the second period turned out to be the game winner and it was set-up by the 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele in his debut game for the red, white and blue. The score remained 3-1 until 4:30 left in the third period, when France scored a power play goal on a screened Ty Conklin. The Americans were able to hold of the French attack for the final couple of minutes and secured the 3-2 victory.

U.S. goaltender Ty Conklin faced 22 shots and made 20 saves, while France’s Christobal Huet (ex-Blackhawks goaltender) faced 38 shots and made 35 saves. The U.S. power play went 1 for 9 in the game and it will definitely need to improve before the next round. Paul Gaustad was named U.S. Player of the Game.

USA will next face Switzerland on Monday (May 9), at 10:15 a.m. EDT, live on Versus, in its final qualification-round game.

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JVR added to U.S. Roster at 2011 Worlds

JVR

USA Hockey just announced that Philadelphia Flyers forward, James van Riemsdyk (Middletown, NJ), has been added to their roster at the IIHF 2011 World Championship in Slovakia. His addition to the team could be a nice boost to a team that lacks high-powered offensive talent. JVR is coming off a very impressive playoff performance where he scored 7 goals in a 11 games for the Flyers. He also scored 21 goals in the regular season and he’ll now be the second 20-goal player on the U.S. roster at the Worlds, Derek Stepan is the other. The 22-year-old van Riemsdyk has represented his country previously and he’s also an alumnus of the US National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Here’s the latest U.S. roster as of 5/7/11.

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It takes a shootout, Canada downs U.S. 4-3 at Worlds

In the opening game of Qualification Round play at the 2011 IIHF World Championship, the U.S. had to weather a Canadian storm for 60+ minutes. The old rivalry seemed to heat up fast as Canada’s Marc Methot laid a thunderous check on USA’s Kevin Shattenkirk along the glass just under a minute into the game. Shattenkirk stayed down on the ice for a moment, most likely trying to get his bearings back, but he did stay in the game.

The opening frame was fast paced with chances being traded on both ends of the rink, however, Canada seemed to carry the play for longer stretches. This was a repetitive theme throughout the day as the Canadians out shot the Americans 52 to 20 in the game. However, the first period ended scoreless which was a blessing for USA.

Ty Conklin, U.S. Player of the Game

The Red, White and Blue got a break 4:13 into the second period, when Mike Komisarek fired a dipping shot from the right point that sank down and past Reimer to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. The Americans seemed to enjoy playing with fire in this game because they gave the Canadians numerous chances on the man advantage. This was also due to Canada’s highly skilled forwards giving the U.S. D-corps the fits in many instances. Just as the third Canadian power play of the game was ending, Brent Burns tied up the score at one. After the two teams traded power play opportunities, Jack Johnson came out of the box and received a great headman pass from Blake Wheeler to send Johnson in free on a breakaway. Johnson broke in just to left of center and beat Reimer on a forehand backhand move that slipped in through the five-hole.

The Americans took a 2-1 lead over Canada into the third period, even though the ice seemed to be tilted in Canada’s favor. The American’s were being severely outshot and even caught a few breaks with pucks finding the post instead of the back of the net. U.S. goaltender Ty Conklin (48 saves) shined in his first game of the tournament and he was one of the few reasons why the Americans had a shot at winning this game. With the Americans carrying a lead, Chris Porter took an early penalty and gave Canada a chance to tie it up. Once again, the U.S. team was able to kill of the penalty, but the momentum gained from the man advantage turned into a goal just as the penalty ended. With the game knotted up at two in the third period, the Americans put themselves in a tough spot again, this time giving the highly skilled Canadians a 4 on 3 power play. Conklin couldn’t bail the team out this time as Jason Spezza buried a perfectly placed slap-shot top shelf to give Canada the lead for the first time in the game.

I give the American’s credit, because they weren’t going to go out of this game without a fight. They were continually outshot and sometimes out played, but they stuck to their game and with about ten minutes left in the 3rd got a chance to even things up. With Canada whistled for a slashing penalty, the U.S. went back to the power play. Two of the American’s best players in the tournament, Derek Stepan and Blake Wheeler, executed a perfect string of give-and-go’s along the right wall that ended with Stepan snapping one home just to the right of the net to tie the game back up in the third. The U.S. was able to withstand a few more spectacular chances with the help of Conklin once again and the rest of the third period ticked away.

Overtime seemed to follow the same script, with Canada getting the majority of the chances. Following the scoreless five-minute four-on-four overtime, the game then went on to a shootout. Johnson and Wheeler could not get the puck past the young Reimer, while Jordan Eberle and Rick Nash each scored on Conklin to give Canada the 4-3 victory. The Americans picked up an important point in the standings and now owns a record of 2-0-1-1 (W-OTW-OTL-L). The U.S. take on ex-NHL goaltender Christobal Huet and France in their next game on Saturday, May 7th.

Additional Notes: U.S. Player of the Game went to Ty Conklin, which was well deserved. USA was 1 for 3 on the power play, while Canada was 1 for 6 (however, they did score twice seconds after a PP ended).

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