So OK, NHL Game 7s aren't always magnificent, white-knuckle affairs. But the way the Ottawa Senators went down to the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night reminds us of what a thin line those great Game 7s skate to be so exciting. A couple of bad moments by one player can be the difference between a classic game and a dispiriting blowout, especially if that one player is the one with the big stick.
In a game that will define his career for the foreseeable future, soon-to-be ex-Senators goalie Patrick Lalime choked, plain and simple. In the first period he let in two goals on unscreened wrist shots from the left faceoff circle by Joe Nieuwendyk, and that was the game. Another goal in the first to chase Lalime, a little more brilliant goaltending by Ed Belfour -- on the eve of his 39th birthday -- and the Leafs had a 4-1 victory and a date with the Flyers in Philadelphia.
It was a complete meltdown by Lalime in a huge game, a Game 7 in a bitter rivalry between teams from Canada's capital and its biggest city. The Senators, the newer team from the smaller town, had never beaten their Original Six tormentors in three playoff tries, but they were coming off a rousing double-overtime win in Game 6, and with Leafs stars Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan out with injuries, things looked good.
Until Nieuwendyk found a hole in Lalime that's just never there. Twice. Lalime and any other NHL goaltender makes that save roughly 100 percent of the time.
Two years ago Salon all-star Eric Boehlert accused the typing classes of choking on the word "choke," since the journalism profession refused to use the word after the Sacramento Kings, well, choked in Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"When exactly did choking become such a loaded slur among sportswriters, a sort of no-going-back accusation?" Boehlert wrote. "The type of radioactive charge that can only be made weeks or months after the meltdown, not in the painful, immediate aftermath? The new timidity seems peculiar, especially at a time when big city sportswriters talk more and more trash."
There seems to be progress on that lexicographic front, at least north of the border. "It's 4-1 as Senators Choke in Game 7," read a headline in Tuesday's Toronto Star. "The Choke's on Us," lamented an Ottawa Sun head.
The Senators-Maple Leafs rivalry is one that American fans, me included, don't fully appreciate. Here's a line that might help from a column earlier in the series by Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail: "Some day, the Ottawa Senators will shake that big ugly, albatross from around their necks, rewarding their faithful, seizing their destiny, wiping smug smiles off the faces of the fans of the 1967 Stanley Cup champions."
The '67 champions! The Maple Leafs are approaching Chicago-like futility in their quest for a Cup -- I mean Blackhawks, not Cubs/White Sox -- but Senators fans, whose team dates only to 1992, have to endure their smug smiles? If that's the case, I love it. Wait till next year, Sens.
Even as you read this sentence, a hockey fan somewhere who thinks I'm an idiot is composing an e-mail informing me that there was a team called the Ottawa Senators from 1917 to 1934.
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Brickfest interrupts TNT's great studio show [PERMALINK]
Disappointed by the Leafs-Sens game, I eagerly awaited the start of the Kings-Mavericks Game 2. I'll remind you in the interest of full disclosure that without living and dying with them, I root for the Kings, my namesake and the closest thing I had to a home team after the Warriors left the NBA a decade ago.
But the reason I look forward to Mavs-Kings games is that they make me misty and nostalgic for those halcyon NBA days when a 100-point game -- I mean 100 points by one team, not both combined -- was not an indication of triple overtime. These guys don't quite play ABA basketball, but they shoot, they score.
Tuesday night they just shot, the Kings taking a 2-0 series lead by winning a game that was there for the Mavs' taking, 83-79. And that 162-point game -- total -- didn't happen because the Kings and Mavericks suddenly started to play defense. It looked like Tuesday night at the rec league out there. The teams combined to shoot 34 percent from the field, 19 percent on 3-pointers. Yeesh.
Thank goodness for "Inside the NBA."
I mostly ignore studio shows in all sports. I rarely get a whole lot out of the game analysis, am never entertained by the banter and shenanigans of the ex-jocks and failed comedians who make up the panels and am uninterested in the endless chain of slow-motion, music-backed canned features about some athlete who's overcome an injury, an illness or a personal problem.
But there's one exception: "Inside the NBA" on TNT. I usually skip it too during the regular season, but at playoff time I'm reminded that it's the funniest non-animated show on television. If there were no such people as Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa, then Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley -- the Homer of the bunch, the star -- would be the funniest comedy team around.
They're usually joined by a fourth panelist, often Magic Johnson, who's there for the playoffs. The other night it was Nick Van Exel, who didn't add much, but I've always thought he looks like a smaller version of Sir Charles, so it was funny to see them sitting at opposite ends of the table, like Barkley and his Mini Me.
It doesn't really matter who the fourth person is, though, except when it's Magic, the only fourth who can keep up, because the show is Barkley, Smith and Ernie Johnson. They sit around and joke like three guys at a bar, with the basketball analysis kept to a merciful minimum.
My favorite moment this season, which was referred to Tuesday night, was when Barkley said Chris Webber did the right thing by lying to a grand jury about taking illegal payments when he was at Michigan because you have to stand up for your school. "More legal advice from Charles Barkley coming right up," Ernie Johnson said at the time. "Charles, you just crazy," Smith said when Barkley brought it up again Tuesday. That was an example of one of the nicer things Smith or Barkley ever says about each other.
I love the "art department" doctoring photos and video stills to goof on the hosts. How cool would that gig be? Barkley or Smith says something, and your job is to dive into Photoshop and goof around with some artwork to make some dumb joke photo like the ones your stupid friends are always forwarding to you. (Note to my stupid friends: I don't mean you. Keep 'em coming.)
Tuesday night a fan in Sacramento had saluted onetime King Smith with a sign that read, "Kenny, You're Still the Bomb." It was quickly altered to say, "Kenny, You're Still the Bum!" Barkley, seconds after having made fun of Latrell Sprewell for wearing an ugly hat and an ugly sweater on separate occasions, had his face placed on the body of one of the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" guys in a publicity photo.
Sprewell, interviewed remotely, noted correctly that Barkley had a lot of nerve to criticize his sartorial choices given the white sneakers the Round Mound likes to wear with his suits. Those ugly kicks were visible when Barkley was caught backstage during a cut-in to the studio and had to walk, grumbling, across the set to his chair.
It doesn't translate, I think, but it's a uniquely relaxed, seat-of-the-pants atmosphere, an honest version of the kind of forced informality and jocularity that makes most sports studio gab shows unwatchable.
Still, I'd trade it all for another 60 points in Game 3 of the Kings-Mavericks series Saturday, which is on ESPN anyway.
Previous column: Nothing like an NHL Game 7
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