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THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Getting Through The Grind

12/12/2007 2:45 PM

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By Chad Huebner

One week down, another week to go.

This is the part of the hockey season (be it college, juniors, or pro) known as “The Grind”. Teams keep playing and hopefully, win more often than not. The standings aren’t set in stone, and we’re only slightly able to see the great teams starting to pull away from the rest of the pack. Other than that, it’s a matter of taking each game in stride, knowing you’ll have to play in a day or two.

I sound a bit like the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson, so maybe I should start cultivating a gray soul patch and start dating the hot daughter of the owner of a basketball team. Still, such thoughts ring true at this time of year, when even the All-Star break seems eons away.

So it’s great to see one of the respected greats of the game to make his return. . . a return to greatness (Hah! Probably bet I couldn’t fit one more “great” in that sentence! Oooh, there’s another one, in yo’ face!). Of course I’m talking about Rob Niedermayer coming back to the Anaheim Ducks. It looks like he was slightly ahead of his timetable, as everyone thought he wouldn’t come back to the Ducks until after the first year. I guess Christmas gifts cost a ton in the Niedermayer household and he needed the extra scratch.

But seriously, it’s good to see him back on the ice. The night before I wrote this wonderful piece of penmanship (or really, “keyboardship” in this day and age) I watched Game 5 of the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals between the Ducks and the Ottawa Senators. That game was a mere formality, as the Ducks rolled over the Sens for their first world championship. The guy who got to carry the trophy first? Rob. The guy named Playoff MVP? Yep, Robbie again.

But I wouldn’t blame Niedermayer to go out on a high note, especially when I thought he was getting up in age. That’s until I read the news release about his return, where it said he’s 34 years old. Thirty-Four? My God, he’s a year younger than me! Good grief, Rob, Chelios is playing in his fifties (I think); surely you can put on the skates and the black, gold and burnt orange (I miss the eggplant purple) of the Ducks one more time!

The Ducks are hoping fellow holdout Teemu Selanne follows suit and joins the team again. Even if he doesn’t, Niedermayer’s presence alone could jumpstart the Ducks, who seem to need a spark in The Grind. At this writing, the Ducks are 13-12-4, and just on the outside looking in the playoff picture (my Blackhawks hold the eighth spot, which might change Dec. 7 when they host the Ducks). Their defense is suspect, and they’re not a good road team (9-4-3 at The Pond, 4-8-1 away from it).

In fact, it’s amazing to see how many teams are .500 overall because while their unbeatable at home, they’re very beatable on the road. The Colorado Avalanche are one of the more prime examples of this statistical anomaly, going an impressive 10-3-0 at the Pepsi Center, but a tepid 4-9-1 away from it. Then you have the Tampa Bay Lightning, who is more bipolar than Ellen DeGeneres on a three-day bender. They’re 10-3-0 at home, just like the Avs, but a paltry 2-10-2 mark away from their familiar surroundings is what’s holding them back. That or Martin St. Louis needs to grow another 2-3 inches (“Tiny Tim” more like it this time of year).

I guess the point is the NHL season is like being away from home at the holidays: a real bummer, man. Just look at the Lightning. I mean, why would they want to leave home in the middle of winter? 80 degrees and sunny everyday is great way to spend the holidays, not the subzero temps and 15 feet of snow we Northerners get almost every hour (okay, I might’ve exaggerated that last bit, but it’s because I’m bitter, bitterly cold, that is).

Last time, I talked about the new scheduling format the NHL’s using next season. I thought I had some pretty good suggestions (more like whiny complaints) on how to alter the schedule, until I was trumped by. . . Brian Engblom. Da-duh-daaaaaa!

He suggested the teams play each of their 15 inter-conference brethren twice (one home, one away), just like they have in the NBA. That’s 30 games if you’re slow on the math.

Well, where do the other 52 games come into play? Mr. Engblom or his massive waves of blonde hair didn’t address that issue, and frankly, they didn’t have to. Brian Engblom has paid his dues. But I want to address those pesky 52 games in a plan I call “The 32-20-30 plan.”

Now, it’s sounds like the measurements of Kate Beckinsale (or the security alarm code to Kate’s house. . . by the way, sorry Kate for leaving the ladder near your bedroom window, I’ll try to be a more considerate stalker next time), but 32-20-30 is a simple breakdown of the typical NHL schedule: 32 division games (four teams, eight games per team), 20 conference games (10 teams, two games per team), and the above-mentioned (Engblom-mentioned?) 30 games. Such a breakdown would satisfy those who want the East-West matchups as well as those who want a ton of divisional games. And (I’m sure the NHL execs will like this) there’s no real thought input needed as to how many games a team plays against a certain team, since it’s already set. I’m waiting for my “NHL Advisor” check (or cheque) to come in the mail any day now. . . with part of the proceeds going to the man who sparked the idea, Brian Engblom. . . and his hair of course.

And speaking of goalie Pascal LeClaire (NOTE: I know I didn’t just talk about him. Hey, you try making a nice segue from NHL scheduling to Pascal LeClaire, and you let me know by e-mailing me, okay? I can’t be the magic man all the time.), the guy is having a phenomenal start and I should know, because I saw him play recently. Though his Columbus Blue Jackets blew a 1-0 lead against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 3 to wind up 2-1 losers at home (more like Blew Jackets), it wasn’t due to some acrobatic efforts by the guy who looks like a Hobbit. Early on in the game, LeClaire made an amazing save glove side by wielding his stick mid-air at a 45-degree angle and batting a sure Stu Barnes goal away at the last millisecond. Now that’s stick handling!

In his first 15 games of the 2007-08, LeClaire has posted six shutouts. To show you how rare of a feat this is, here’s a sample list of famous goalies who have never accomplished this feat (in somewhat backwards chronological order): Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden, Terry Sawchuk, Gump Worsley, etc etc ETC!

The only other goalie to accomplish this feat was Frank Brimsek at the start of the 1938-39 season. “Mr. Zero” (ahhh, one of the best sports nicknames of all time!) did this in his rookie season, winding up the year with 10 shutouts. He’s a Hall of Fame member, and maybe LeClaire will be inducted for his efforts, who knows (I bet God does)? This is his first year (LeClaire, not God) as the Jackets’ starting goalie, and he’s got the team off to a rousing start with a league-leading 1.92 GAA and a 10-5-2 record. Perhaps he can join the pantheon of famous Pascals, like Pascal Covici, noted American book publisher and editor, or PASCAL, the programming language. Or how about people with Pascal for a last name, like Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and philosopher and philosopher, who had a unit of measurement known as the Pascal, which is the perpendicular force per area equivalent to one Newton per square meter named after him (but I doubt even he could stop a 90 mph slap shot from 10 feet away. . . Newton that pal!).

Oh well, back to the grind.

Remember, e-mail me at for anything on your mind, hopefully hockey related. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.