Thursday, April 19, 2012

An Open Letter to Wings (and other) Fans on the Eve of Game 5

It's been a long season for fans of the Detroit Red Wings.

Of all of the seasons that I have been a fan of this franchise, this one feels a little different for a few reasons. This season may in fact mark the end of Nick Lidstrom's career, a fact that every Red Wings fan and blogger has denied or avoided at some point. It will likely mark the end of Tomas Holmstrom's career. It may mark the beginning of some dramatic roster overhaul, depending on how aggressive Ken Holland is come July. As a fanbase, we have all experienced nearly every emotional extreme at some point; the agony of losing streaks, the joy of celebrating an NHL record, the pain of losing playoff games, the honour of marking statistical achievements of our players. It has been an exhausting season for everyone. This season, more than ever, has it felt as though the fanbase has become disjointed and at times openly hostile towards one another. It is understandable, of course. With so many extremes and the increasingly digital awareness of all hockey fans, there is enough vitriol to fuel 30 fanbases.

This isn't a eulogy. Nor is it an inspirational speech for the fans to "hold the line" as our team faces the daunting task of competing against a very hungry, very worthy Nashville Predators team. This isn't an acknowledgement that "our time has passed" nor is it a fluff piece about how the Red Wings will continue to be the cream of the crop in the NHL. Everything you, the readers of this piece, need to form an opinion about this franchise is readily available to you on a dozen other websites. It's in the statistics. It's in the records. It's in the rafters. It's in the Joe Louis Arena. It's written on blogs (both friendly and rival), in newspapers, in books, and in magazines.

Today I want to write an open letter to my fellow Red Wings fans, but also address a concern of mine.

I love everything about this team, regardless of what happens tomorrow. I love the players, the fanbase, the passion, the past, the present, the future, and every single moment I spend watching this team. This is the first full season where I have had the chance to enjoy the digital interactions of fans across the world. I have the tremendous honour (a word I don't feel brings enough justice to how I feel) of being a part of a blogging community that does outstanding work. I got to be on a podcast, for which I am ever grateful of the opportunity (Thanks Winging it in Motown, thanks JJ). I have found about 100 people who are willing to follow me on Twitter. I found friends who share my distaste of NHL officiating. It has been a season to remember.

After this season, though, I feel like I have discovered something as strongly negative as all of the positives I have discovered. I found that the digital rivalries that exist (even within a fanbase) produce so much bile, so much hate, that it borders on irrational hate-mongering for the sake of irrational hate-mongering. It's one thing to be angry about a loss, about someone criticizing your favourite players, about losing to a rival team in the playoffs. It's another to debase oneself over a game by engaging in some of the most utterly shocking and violent hate speech imaginable. This isn't exclusive to Red Wings fans, or any fanbase. I've had run ins with all sorts, and I will admit readily to engaging in snark-talk. That doesn't mean I don't find it disappointing. What happened to the idea of friendly rivalries?

At the end of the day, the good certainly outweighs the bad. I would never ask anyone to "ease up" on their hastily-tweeted snark, only that maybe it's time for everyone to take a step back and remember that we're all fans of the same game. Bob MacKenzie tweeted some very potent words that have stuck with me since he posted them. You can find them here and here. The 2012 playoffs have produced a lot of really outrageous garbage out of people who I believe would have otherwise not said these things. Because there is next to no accountability in the digital age, we can say horrendous things without worrying about consequences. It has deformed us. It has stripped us all of manners at times.

Regardless of what color jersey you put on, regardless of who is acting like an irreverent jackass online, we all deserve respect and we all should be showing more tact than we do.

It's been a long season for Red Wings fans. I don't want to see them lose tomorrow, but I'm prepared to watch them play for the last time this season. I hope that on the eve of Game 5, fans of all teams think about the things they've said and done, and can realize that this is a game we're watching, and we're all fans. Sportsmanship is important. Let's not lose that sense of sportsmanship.

Go Wings Go.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jimmy Howard vs. Pekka Rinne

Well, we're here. It's playoff time and everyone is buzzing about whose going to step up to the plate and deliver a legendary performance and who is going to go home the loser. The Detroit Red Wings play the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference's tightest matchup. As much as I'd like to go on a tirade about legacies, streaks, and Detroit's recent success against Nashville in the playoffs, I'm taking off my Red Wings cap to put on my goaltending analysis cap.

In the red corner, there's Detroit Red Wings starting goaltender, Jimmy Howard. In the blue corner, Nashville Predators' starting goaltender Pekka Rinne. Is there a better matchup among first round goaltenders? I think not. Without any further peacocking, it's time to see how these two stack up against one another.

Here. We. Go.


Jimmy Howard: Detroit's goaltending saviour had a phenomenal regular season, sporting top ten numbers in wins, save percentage, goals against average, and shutouts. As good as that is for Jimmy after a mediocre sophomore campaign, the better news was he did all of this in a season where he went down twice with injuries. Perhaps that is looking through rose coloured glasses, but since coming back from injury he looks like the same guy who stole a LOT of wins in the first half of the season. The injuries are a black mark on the season, but not enough to steal away the credit earned as Jimmy flirted with the idea of smashing Martin Brodeur's NHL record for wins (48).

Pekka Rinne: Nashville has always had a lot of luck with their goaltenders. Are they a product of their defensive system? I disagree with the notion, and Pekka Rinne is the perfect way to explain why. The guy is a straight up DYNAMO in goal. He led the league in wins, saves, shots against, and games played. He's a workhorse, and a damn good one. Since becoming the Predator's starter his workload has constantly increased over four seasons, and he's only gotten better. The idea of a fresh Pekka Rinne in the playoffs is as intimidating as just about any goaltender in the NHL. He is to be respected. He should be nominated for the Vezina, but will likely be overlooked in favor of some random guy in New York. Henrik something or other. Pfft.

Jimmy Howard's 2011-2012 Record: 35-17-4, 2.13 GAA, .920 SV%, 6 SO
Pekka Rinne's 2011-2012 Record: 43-18-8, 2.39 GAA, .923 SV%, 5 SO

Advantage: Pekka Rinne. Jimmy Howard's season is difficult to fully gage as he went down with an injury near the end. Twice. It's hard to say whether he would have kept pace or not. Even though Jimmy walks away with a better goals-against-average and more shutouts, Rinne had a Vezina season.


Jimmy Howard: The Wings have gone down twice in a row to the San Jose Sharks in recent seasons, both of which had Jimmy Howard in goal. All due respect to the Sharks for dumping the Red Wings twice in a row, Jimmy wasn't the reason they lost and his numbers defend this point. In two playoff seasons, Howard has a respectable-but-not-yet-impressive 21-11 record with a bloated 2.63 GAA and a surprising .919 SV%. Having enjoyed watching Jimmy play the last two playoffs I can say that he is the least concern in this series. He will do his job and at times steal the show.

Pekka Rinne: In the two seasons Pekka Rinne has led the Nashville Predators into the playoffs, they went home empty handed once and in the most recent season popped their playoff series cherry, beating the stingy Anaheim Ducks 4-2. Rinne has been pedestrian, sporting an 8-10 record with a 2.60 GAA and a .908 SV%. Those are way down from the Pekka Rinne standard that dominated the regular season. One could argue that too much of a burden is placed on Rinne to dominate games that tend to be tighter, more defensive, and light on goal scoring. I don't think Rinne completely evades criticism, as .908 is a good save percentage number but NOT if you're going to win it all. Goalies, more than anyone, need to be sharp and stingy. Pekka Rinne can do it, but clearly he has yet to perform at maximum ability.

Jimmy Howard's Playoff Record: 12-11, 2.63 GAA, .919 SV%, 1 SO
Pekka Rinne's Playoff Record: 8-10, 2.60 GAA, .908 SV%, 0 S)

Advantage: Jimmy Howard. Jimmy help bring Detroit to within five minutes of overcoming San Jose's 3-0 series lead. Jimmy has taken over playoff series and won them. Pekka Rinne, despite providing the Vancouver Canucks with a nail biting series, hasn't reached the level he should be at in the postseason. Neither have world-beating records, but the numbers show Jimmy has been better.


There isn't much else to analyze, so I'll cut straight to the heart of the matter. Having watched both goaltenders play in the regular season and playoffs the past two seasons, it's clear who the better goaltender is. Pekka Rinne has been on the outskirts of Vezina talk for some time now and if he doesn't get the nomination, maybe even the win, this season, there's something wrong. He is a great goaltender. He stymies opponents every time he's on the ice. He takes advantage of a defensive system built on playing stingy hockey with no holes. Where there are holes, Pekka Rinne plugs the leaks. He has an immaculate gift for winning those one goal affairs. It's something that gets ignored come trophy season. On the other hand, Jimmy Howard has stepped into a role that has seen legends like Terry Sawchuck, Roger Crozier, Dominik Hasek, Mike Vernon, and of course Chris Osgood, dominate the position. The difference between all of these goaltenders (exception being Crozier, who was with the Wings in tougher times) and Jimmy Howard is that they all stood behind teams that had an endless parade of Hall-of-Fame forwards and defensemen who consistently shellshocked other teams into submission. This iteration of the Detroit Red Wings that boasts the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nick Lidstrom, are not the 2002 Red Wings. No, this is a team that needs great goaltending to succeed. All due respect to Osgood, who didn't shock the world into thinking he was great until his final two playoff seasons, Jimmy could become the better of the two, and may already be there. Rather than have the Fedorovs and Datsyuks take over the game, it's now Jimmy leading the charge. It's a refreshing change. Is Jimmy Howard a great goaltender? Not yet. He is on the step before the top step in the staircase of goaltending greatness. Pekka Rinne is a half step ahead.

Rolling into Nashville on Wednesday night is going to be the biggest challenge the Detroit Red Wings have faced in the first round of the playoffs in a long time. I have much respect for our division rivals, even though the constant use of the term "SCUM" to describe the players and fanbase is enough to turn me away from reading their websites. This series is THE one to watch in round one. If not for the fantastic rivalry that is growing, then it is for the outstanding goaltending dual about to happen. It's going to be a seven game slugfest decided by overtime and one goal games. Hopefully, by series' end, Detroit will be walking away the victor, but I have no illusions of grandeur that it will be easy.