By Rob Ficiur
As I was driving in Medicine Hat I saw a sign “Free Beer…” Even though I am not a beer drinker, I had to take a second look at the sign. How and why was this company going give away free beer? The answer was in the fine print. The sign read “Free Beer for all [Toronto] Maple Leaf playoff games.” For the ninth time in the last ten years the Toronto Maple Leafs will miss the NHL playoffs. While anti-Leaf fans chuckle at this, the fall of the Maple Leafs is of many nearly impossible stories that has become real life this NHL season.
1. These Leafs fall in the winter – When the Maple Leafs fired head coach Randy Carlyle on January 6 – the team was in a playoff spot. On December 18, three weeks before the firing the Leafs had a seven point lead over the losers who were out of the playoffs. According to sportsclubstasts.com the mid December Leafs had a 90% chance of making the playoffs. Today the Leafs are fourth last in the league. How could this happen? The simplest answer is that somewhere between December and the January losing streak that followed the Leafs players stopped believing in themselves and in their teammates. As the confidence fell so did the Leafs down to the bottom of the standings.
2. Ottawa’s Hamburgler is Robbing NHL shooters – When the Ottawa Senators lost their two top goalies in February their already dismal season was going to get worse. After rookie goalie Andrew Hammond won his first start, we all that that this was a nice story for the 27 year old. At least he got a chance to start and then win an NHL game. Fast forward a month and Hammond has a record of 13-0-1. The Senators came into California and won three games over playoff caliber teams; all with Hammond in goal. (Ironically a week later the Montreal Canadiens led by Gold Medal goalie Carrie Price went through California and lost all three games.)
Instead of being ten points out a playoff spot, today the Senators are only one point behind the Bruins for the last playoff spot in the East, with two games in hand. How could this happen? Hammond had good numbers at Bowling Green College and with the Senators farm team. But no one saw him as an up and coming star – never mind the record setter that he has become. Hammond tied an NHL record by allowing two goals or less in his first twelve NHL starts. That record was set in 1938 by Hall of Famer Frank Brimsek.
As Hammond’s confidence in himself grew, so did his teammates in their rookie puck stopper. In turn this has made Hammond more confident, which in turn may spiral the team to the NHL playoffs. A month ago they had a 5% chance of making the post season – a little confidence has gone a long way.
3. The Flames stay hot in NHL playoff race – On February 25, when Flames captain Mark Giordano injured his arm the experts knew this was the beginning of the end for the Flames. No team can keep winning when they lose their top player to a season ending injury…right? Well someone forgot to tell the Flames. Since that injury the Flames have 7-3-2. How can this happen? The Calgary Flames are unique team because their success is based on work ethic not talent. Talent will get you so far but despite injuries the Flames keep working and good things happen. I am not sure I would want my team to face them in the first round of the playoffs.
4. Cap Geek made Salary Cap Simple – This week Matthew Wuest, a thirty-five year old reporter for Metro Halifax, died from colon cancer. I did not know who Matthew Wuest was – but I knew him by his other name – Cap Geek. I was surprised how keenly I felt the loss of someone I never knew. But maybe through his work I did know something of what this man.
Several years ago I came across his excellent website which made the complex NHL salary cap understandable. Three or four times a year I would email a question and he would reply every time ; often within a few minutes. Only when Wuest shut down the site in January did I realize how that this was the top NHL Cap website. All the major reporters used his site for salary cap information. Yet he still had time for my “important salary cap questions.”
Cap Geek is another seemingly impossible story. One person set up and ran this site that hockey geeks used for their salary cap calculations and fantasy pools. It was not about Matthew – it was about the service he gave to the sporting world. In a world of self promotion (and self over promotion) Cap Geek provided the numbers as a service to the fans.
Sports has always been about teams that win when experts think they will lose – about teams that lose when they are supposed to win. More than that sports is about the success of the underdog – a rookie goalie becoming a star over night or a quiet web site math genius sharing his talent in near anonymity with fans of his sport.