Monday Musings

Well after the Sunday of all Sundays – Super Bowl Sunday – here’s some NHL Monday Musings!

I’m still reeling a bit after the Patriots 21-17 loss to the Giants. I had predicted a New England triumph over the G-Men 27-17, so I’m a little touchy this morning (not too mention the lateness of the UK time-zone)!

But despite the loss and the lack of sleep, here’s a few NHL snippets that have caught my attention this morning.

Evgeni Malkin is having a great season leading the NHL in scoring. Photo Courtesy - zimbio.com

60 Plus! – Evgeni Malkin is the first player to break the 60 point barrier this season. He’s been on fire as of late, and has put the Penguins on his back in the absence of Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. ‘Geno’ has 15 points in his last ten games, including two game-winning-goals. Pittsburgh is 8-2 in those ten games – and Malkin has really shown his skill and leadership for a team under injury siege.

The King of NY – Henrik Lundqvist is having a season for the ages between the Ranger pipes. ‘King Henrik’ is enjoying his best NHL season, and leads the NHL with a .939 save percentage, and is second in GAA with a 1.82. His six shutouts lead all goalies, and his confidence seems to be rubbing off on his Broadway teammates. In  his past five games he’s 4-1, with two shutouts, and he’s helped New York to the top of the Eastern Conference with 71 points. If the NHL season ended today, he would win the Vezina trophy without question, and may even garner MVP attention.

Motor City Maniacs– At the start of the NHL season many experts said that the Red Wings were ‘too old’ to go deep this season! Well the team from Detroit hasn’t listened to any talk of age or decline in skill or organizational expectation! As I write this, the Red Wings sit in first overall in the West, and in the entire league with 72 points. They own the NHL’s best home record (20-2-1) which includes a 17-game win streak at Joe Louis Arena. Rumours abound that this is Nicklas Lidstrom’s last season, and you have to believe that the much beloved captain would love to go out with another Stanley Cup ring – scary for the rest of the NHL.

Sam Gagner has had a record breaking week for the Oilers. Photo Courtesy - thestar.com

Sam the Man – This time last week the Oilers’ Sam Gagner was being offered as trade bait! Well if he is indeed on ‘the block’ then the asking price has gone way up! Gagner had an eight point game (4 goals, 4 assists) Thursday against Chicago, and followed that up with a three point (2 goals, assist) effort Saturday against the Wings. He was in on 11-straight Oiler tallies – which is a team mark! He passes Wayne Gretzky’s old record of being in on ten straight team goals. Not a bad week for a guy that was seemingly on the way out!

Well that’s just a few of the top story-lines to keep you smiling on a dreary February Monday! Honourable mention goes to Tim Thomas and his 35-save victory in Washington Sunday. He turned in a solid effort in the midst of plenty of booing from the Capitals’ faithful in reaction to skipping out on the White House visit. He tuned it all out and the B’s got a much needed road win.

Enjoy the games this week wherever you are!

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Sensational

Well I’m back from Ottawa, and the NHL All-Star game and festivities.

There’s a few things to follow up after what was a great celebration of the NHL, it’s fans and of course the city of Ottawa!

I was fortunate enough to be in Raleigh for last years’ event, and it’s interesting to see the difference between a Canadian and a U.S. city hosting this weekend party. In Raleigh I was thoroughly impressed with just about everything the city and Hurricanes had arranged. In Ottawa, I will say that I was beyond impressed with the entire weekend.

Canada's capital city did themselves proud hosting the NHL All-Star weekend.

Two great cities – two great events with local flavour and fans that are beyond committed – so full props to Ottawa and the Senators organization for keeping up with Raleigh.

The players and their families were excited to be in Canada’s capital city and it showed throughout my time there.

“This has been incredible here this weekend,” Zdeno Chara said, “the way we’ve been treated, and the reception from the fans has really made it special.”

With his 108.8mph clocking in the Hardest Shot contest, big ‘Z’ brought a lot of excitement to everyone on Saturday night. I’m just glad that I never have to stand in front of that shot ever! Others shared that sentiment…

“Pretty scary that he can shoot the puck like that,” Daniel Alfredsson said Saturday, “he keeps beating his own record every year, and it’s scary to think that we have to try and block that shot out there!”

Indeed, you wouldn’t want to be a goalie when he’s loading up. Despite Chara’s record breaking shot, ‘Alfie’ was the most popular player in Ottawa. He received an ovation Sunday for the 59th All-Star Game that you would expect for rock stars and movie legends. It was deafening when he was introduced beforehand, and his name was chanted throughout.

Murph catches up with radio colleagues on the NHL Breakaway show in Ottawa.

When he scored two goals in the second period the roof nearly came off Scotiabank Place!

“It was incredible to see how much he’s respected here,” Henrik Lundqvist told me Sunday, “he’s a class act, a great player and obviously the fans love him here. Would have been nice if he got the hat-trick tonight.”

Alfredsson had a few chances to get the hattie, and hit the post late in the third period. If he had buried that one, it would have sent the fans into an uncontrollable frenzy!

When the dust settled, ‘Alfie’ came up just short on victory as captain, and the MVP honours personally. Team Chara would go on to beat Team Alfredsson 12-9, with the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik (3 goals, assist) collecting a new car for his effort.

Despite the outcome, the fans and city were world class here. It was great to catch up with old colleagues and be around hockey people and fans. Ottawa is a beautiful city with great NHL supporters, and their pride in the Senators and the league is overwhelming.

Thanks to all who made my assignment there a fantastic NHL experience! Now it’s on to the NHL’s second half, and the chase for the Stanley Cup. Keep it tuned here as I post many more stories down the stretch and into the post-season, as we seperate the pretenders and contenders!

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

 

Give the All-Star Game a Break!

Stop hating on the All-Star Game!

In the past month I’ve heard many colleagues and contacts give the All-Star weekend a hard time. I’ve heard “the game is meaningless” and of course the obligatory “nobody cares” etc…

I can tell you from personal experience that these detractors are missing the point totally! I guess it comes from being jaded, and seeing the sport as the business that it has unfortunately become in many aspects. But to that end – the All-Star game is more relevant than you think.

The RBC Center was rocking for the All-Star Game in Raleigh last year.

Because of this ‘business’ mind that we now have in all professional sport – the NHL All-Star weekend and it’s festivities are geared for the people who support this business – the FANS! And it’s high time that all of us in the media stop begrudging any event that is designed for the people that are the gears keeping the engine of hockey running.

The best way I can explain it is the experience I had in Raleigh last year. The 58th All-Star Game was being held in North Carolina – and I had never seen Raleigh as a good ‘hockey town.’ I can now say with 100% accuracy that Raleigh is indeed a ‘hockey town’ and a very good one at that. The All-Star weekend was a celebration. There were markets dedicated to Hurricanes fans. Outdoor parties, beer gardens, fan-fests, bands playing for free, BBQ’s, booster club street hockey games – should I go on?! All of these events were teeming with hockey fans. In Gary Bettman’s vision of hockey in these different ‘non-traditional’ markets, you’d have to say that the All-Star event is built for success if the fans are served. Job done in Raleigh! There were banners, signs, jersey wearing folk aplenty, and NHL logos everywhere you turned. The city stopped for the event. The taxi drivers, the people in the coffee shops, the hotel staff – everyone knew about the event and were excited and proud to have it in their backyard!

Fast forward to this season. I will be in Ottawa for the 59th All-Star Game in a few days. Ottawa is a proud city. A fantastic city for visitors. It’s the Nation’s capital – a Nation that bleeds for the game. The All-Star event will be a huge focal point for everyone. People will jam the fan-fest, they will play shinny hockey on the Rideau Canal, they will drink and flood the market with incredible enthusiasm. They will live and breathe the All-Star weekend. How can this sort of activity and interest be bad?

The All-Star Fan-Fest lets you experience NHL interaction.

I get the fact that the game is merely an exhibition. I get that the players may even rather be on a beach for a three-day break rather than play in that exhibition. I get all of that. But what I also get is how important the event is to the host city and the fans. That’s what’s important here. The FANS. They get to be around a festival of hockey. Many of the events are free to attend, and just be around other like-minded hockey brains. It should be recognized for what it is – a celebration of our game and it’s greatest talents.

Now, if celebrating the game and it’s players isn’t your thing – then I’m sure there’s a beach somewhere in Florida with your name on it!

You can follow Murph and all his ‘behind-the-scenes’ content from Ottawa here on the website, and on twitter: @MurphOnIce

 

What to Watch!

Welcome to the What to Watch segment! Your key NHL game to post on the radar for your weekend hockey viewing.

For this weekend’s pick I will have to go with the New York Rangers at the Boston Bruins Saturday. Two Original-Six clubs that are battling it out for the Eastern Conference lead in the 2011-12 campaign.

Keys to victory for the Rangers:

Don’t Believe the Hype: The Rangers have been on fire as of late, going 7-3 in their last 10 games. The boys in blue will have to ignore the hype of facing the Stanley Cup Champions in Boston for the Eastern Conference lead. It’s the first of four meetings this season between the clubs, so NY will want to keep their heads and get off to a good start in this one.

Rangers Captain Ryan Callahan will need to keep his club focused in Boston.

Stay the Course: The road has been a successful place for the Rangers so far (15-7-2). They need to treat this as another battle in hostile territory and not measure themselves against Boston as a team or their players individually.  They must play ‘their’ game. They also won three out of four against the Bruins last year, including both trips to Beantown, so this also can be used as motivation in this tough challenge.

Goals from Gabby: Marian Gaborik (23 goals, 14 assists) has been the lightning-rod for the Rangers offense most of the campaign.  Unfortunately, he has been quiet as of late with no goals in his past five games, and only three assists during that span. If the Rangers have any hope of a win, they need Gaborik to break out of this mini-slump and lead the way Saturday.

Keys to victory for the Bruins:

A Twine Mess: The Bruins have been clicking along on a torrid pace in the goal-scoring department. They lead the entire NHL with 160 goals scored, and their team offence is incredibly well balanced, boasting seven players with 10 or more snipes. It’s this kind of varied attack from different lines that makes the B’s dangerous. If they can keep that balance going Saturday it could be a tough 60 minutes for New York.

Two-of-a-Kind: The team in black and gold has been blessed throughout the season with two goalies having All-Star campaigns. Tim Thomas (19-9, 2.02 GAA, .936 SV%) is the defending Vezina Trophy winner, and Tuukka Rask (11-4, 1.61 GAA, .946 SV%) is leading the NHL in most goalie categories. No matter who gets the call between the pipes Saturday, Boston will have confidence in net.

Nathan Horton is back-on-track with 3 goals in his past 2 games for the Bruins.

Hot-Hands: Nathan Horton (17 goals, 15 assists) got off to a slow start this season. It was definitely the lingering problems from a serious concussion in the Stanley Cup Final last year. The good news for Boston fans is that Horton seems to be feeling like his old-self again recently, and has three goals in his last two games. If the trio of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Horton are clicking Saturday, the Bruins will win this one.

Enjoy this battle! It should be an intense match-up, and it’s always entertaining when Original-Six teams collide for a Conference lead. Post any comments or observations you have about the ‘What to Watch‘ game in the ‘Mailbag‘ section, and I will gladly respond! Have a great NHL weekend.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Face-Off

Welcome to the 1-on-1 “Face-Off” segment here on Murph On Ice – where we bring you Murph’s conversations on a regular basis with some of the best hockey minds around!

Murph had the pleasure of chatting with an English National League Captain, an avid Bristol hockey promoter, and a blogger for Pucks Across the Pond. Enjoy his interview with Janne Virtanen.

Janne Virtanen is the Captain of Bristol Pitbulls ENL2 team and has been playing hockey since an early age. During his career, Virtanen has played on various levels in his native Finland, and made his senior hockey debut for IJCU Utrech in the Netherlands after his family moved to Amsterdam in 1998.

Murph On Ice – Great to finally talk to you Janne, thanks for taking the time to join me here on the website!

Janne Virtanen – My pleasure Murph, thanks for having me on!

Janne Virtanen on opening night for the Pitbulls in Bristol. Photo Courtesy - flyfifer.co.uk

MOI – You’ve played hockey at various levels in the Netherlands and Finland, so what’s the biggest difference for you playing in UK and the English National League?

JV – The game is definitely more physical in the UK and in ENL than any other league I’ve played in. I guess it comes from playing games on different sized ice pads, where you can go from something like Basingstoke with ample space to something like Gosport or Isle of Wight where it is more like bumper car hockey at times. So for sure the physical aspect of the game was one thing that I had to get used to. I took my wife to watch a top flight Finnish league game at Christmas and she wasn’t too impressed with the lack of hitting and said that there are more hits in my games than in the game we went to see. I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the Finnish brand of hockey is more creative and ‘open’ where in the UK it is definitely more physical. But I enjoy it regardless.

MOI – How did you get started playing hockey as a kid in Finland, any inspirations or heroes when you were younger?

JV – I started playing outdoors,  like most kids do back in Finland or in North America. The first ever league I played in was an outdoor league. It definitely gives you an appreciation for rinks and playing ‘indoors’ when it’s -15c not to mention the wind chill. The ‘temperature’ limit for ‘unsafe’ conditions was -25c if I remember right. The parents would leave the cars running so that we could go and warm up between shifts in some games. Obviously a bit weird if you’re into the greener things in life. Where I lived for the first six years in Finland (Espoo) we had an ice rink less than a minutes’ walk from our flat. It’s where my dad taught me how to skate. I also went to the old Espoo arena to skating school and public skating. I guess I had my first sign of the injuries involved when I got a skate to the chin when I fell trying to dodge someone who had fallen. I went down as well and while the other person was getting up they accidentally kicked me in the chin. My biggest influence was and still is Jari Kurri. He was the player that all Finnish kids looked up to as he was the first one to make it big in the NHL and I think he sort of made NHL ‘big’ in Finland. My parents were another influence growing up and they encouraged me with the sport, though I think they are tired of me calling them and saying “Hi mom, Hi dad! I’m injured again.” Obviously there are others that I look up to nowadays, like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Martin St.Louis and some of the new kids like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Mikael Granlund and so on. I wish I had some of the skills and creativity of some of those guys. It’s just amazing what these kids can do with the puck at times.

MOI – The Pitbulls were founded in 2009, and are well supported in Bristol – what are the fans like for your home games, and what could an outsider like me expect on a game night there?

Virtanen in action for the Pitbulls. Photo Courtesy - flyfifer.co.uk

JV – The fans are really loud and have embraced the team from day one. We get a mix of people coming to the game, some who are going to a hockey game for the first time and those who have been following the game for a long time, but haven’t been able to watch live games as the closest team has been either Swindon or Cardiff. Rich Hargreaves, who set up the team and runs things, has ensured that the product on the ice looks and acts professional and has ensured that there’s some form of entertainment for the fans in between periods. Additionally our supporters’ club, The Pack, do great things for the team. I remember when I first turned up in Bristol there were only a handful of members, but it has grown in a season, so the sport is popular in Bristol and it’s good to see that people enjoy the games. It’s definitely a fun night out, despite what the facilities are like.

MOI – The Elite League is the top flight here in the UK – how’s the feeling amongst the players in the ENL that a good season there could have them on the radar for the big clubs?

JV – The guys obviously work hard in training and in games to progress their hockey careers. From the Pitbulls organisation we’ve seen guys like Henrik Sahlin transfer to English Premier League  (EPL) to play for Telford Tigers and we’ve had a couple of guys like Steve Osman and Jamie Newton to name a few guest at the EPL (the second highest league in the UK) level as well. Obviously big seasons put you in the frame for other clubs and I think it is important for the bigger clubs to give the British guys a chance at the higher levels. I think the great thing about the Pitbulls is that they take pride in the fact that someone like Henrik has been recognised as a good player through the Pitbulls and there’s a real sense of pride when ‘one of your own’ makes it to a higher level. I think it speaks volumes of the teams’ emphasis on player development.

MOI – What’s been your personal highlight of your time playing hockey in the UK?

JV – My personal highlight is yet to come and that is to hoist some silverware at the end of a season. There have been a lot of good memories and friendships I’ve gained through playing here so that’s one highlight.

MOI – We’ve chatted off-line about the injuries faced by hockey players Janne. You’ve had concussion issues in your playing days, so what are the biggest factors you think with the concussion epidemic that is plaguing all levels of competitive hockey at the moment? What can be done to curb this horrible injury?

Virtanen has experienced the frustration of concussions during his playing days. Photo Courtesy - flyfifer.co.uk

JV – I think I’ve had more injuries than I care to remember. I’m trying to think if there is actually a body part I HAVEN’T injured, but can’t come up with any. I was hoping to have an injury free season this year, but I had to undergo ankle surgery in October, so I’m hoping that my injury streak remains at that. With concussions, I’ve suffered a fair few of them in hockey. With the concussion epidemic, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the actual effects and what concussion actually is. It winds me up when people talk about ‘concussion-like’ injuries. Either you have one or you don’t, so I think that sort of gives the issue and I think it confuses people. As for the issue itself, definitely take all the ugly headshots or any headshots out of the game, but unfortunately, as with any contact sport, concussions will happen from even clean hits. I sustained my last one, which was severe, from a clean hit. So I guess the way you can limit is to either take the hitting out, which would dilute part of the reason why people are drawn to hockey, because it is a collision sport. I think that with the current concussion management system the NHL has in place is working, though I think players should be evaluated more intensively. We’ve all seen what happened to Crosby from the Winter Classic and the subsequent Tampa Bay Lightning game. If you ask me, he should have sat out and he’d be back playing now instead of sitting on the sidelines. I think the NHL and hockey has woken up to it far too late. Back in the old days, guys would play through concussions as they were difficult to diagnose and guys would just write it off as ‘I just had my bell rung’. Now we understand concussions more and with an all-star line up of people sidelined with concussions this year, people are noticing it more. It’s not an injury that the grinders get, but it is something that every player can get even if it is just a funny fall or something as unfortunate as what happened with Claude Giroux. From personal experience with concussions, it was the most difficult thing to explain to people that despite you looking like you’re fine, you’re really unwell. The other difficult thing with concussions is that they are as different as the individuals. With my one, I found that I was OK if I was staying still, but something minor, like walking up the stairs would wipe me out. The other major thing was also the constant memory lapses and forgetting what you did five minutes ago. I still suffer with some after effects, for example I can’t cope with flashing lights and I get frequent, intense headaches. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the experience it is to listen to my body and really rest if I don’t feel 100%. I would recommend any player, regardless of the level does the same, no matter how bad the desire to get back out on the ice is.

MOI – And finally Janne, how are the Pitbulls doing this season – and what can Bristol fans expect the rest of the way from you guys?

JV – We started the season really well, but for us we’ve seen a bit of a dip in our form of late. We are playing maybe a good 20-40 minutes of hockey, but that’s not really enough to bring home the W’s. I don’t mean to sound negative as we’ve got great potential in the team and I think that once we get everything back on track we can look for a strong mid table and maybe even push towards the top places in the league. As for the ENL1 team, I think they’ve got a great team together this year and they’ve got a goal to get to the play-offs this year and looking at the way things are going, I’d say there’s a strong chance we’ll see some play-off hockey in Bristol this summer.

MOI – Thanks again Janne, good luck the rest of the way, and I’ll see you in Bristol for a game sometime.

JV – Anytime Murph, my pleasure!

“Face-Off” is a regular feature here on Murph On Ice. Keep an eye out for Murph’s next 1-on-1 as he continues to bring insight from the greatest hockey minds around.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

What to Watch!

Welcome to the What to Watch segment! Your key NHL game to post on the radar for your weekend hockey viewing.

For this weekend’s pick I will have to go with the Chicago Blackhawks at the Detroit Red Wings Saturday. Two Original-Six clubs that are battling it out for the Central Division lead in the 2011-12 campaign.

Keys to victory for the Blackhawks:

High Octane: The Hawks have been very dangerous this season in their opponent’s zone. Very deep and very talented – Chicago are gifted offensively! They rank 4th in the entire NHL with 3.2 goals-per-game. If they can bring that trend to Joe Louis Arena Saturday they should be OK.

Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks have been dangerous all season. Photo Courtesy - chicagonow.com

All Hands on Deck: The Hawks as mentioned above are a very deep team. Whether it’s Jonathan Toews (43 pts), Patrick Kane (38 pts) or Marian Hossa (46 pts) – pick your poison. The Wings will have their hands full trying to keep these guys off the scoreboard. If any of the Chicago stars have a big game, Detroit will be in trouble.

Long Road to Travel: For all the positives for Chicago thus far, their road record is not that flattering (10-8-1). Anytime you’re above .500 on the road you should be happy – unless you’re an elite club. The Hawks are many pundits’ favourites to win the Stanley Cup – so if that prophecy is to come true, they will need to get on a good roll on the road, and start gaining that confidence away from home.

Keys to victory for the Red Wings:

Good times at the Joe: The Wings have been nothing short of amazing at the Joe Louis Arena this season (16-2-1), with 13-straight wins. Their dominance at home has made them an elite team for a decade, and the Hawks will have to be at their best to try and steal two points this Saturday.

Jimmy Howard has been the Wings MVP this season. Photo Courtesy - mlive.com

Jimmy on the Spot: Detroit has to look at their success so far this season and give big credit to goalie Jimmy Howard. Howard got his 100th career win Thursday against Phoenix, and was named to the NHL All-Star team for the Ottawa festivities. His numbers (24-10-1, 2.05 GAA, .924 Save % with 4 shutouts) make him the Wings MVP in my opinion. He likes playing at home, so if he’s on form, the Wings win this one.

Power-Points: Detroit has been pretty good on ‘special-teams’ this season. Their power-play is ticking over at 19.1%, a figure that ranks them 7th overall in the NHL. With the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Nicklas Lidstrom dangerous a man up – the Hawks will not want to give the Wings too many chances on the PP. If Detroit does get chances with a man-advantage, it could be a long game for Chicago.

Enjoy this tilt Saturday! It should be an interesting match-up, and it’s always special when Original-Six teams collide. Post any comments or observations you have about the ‘What to Watch‘ game in the ‘Mailbag‘ section, and I will gladly respond! Have a great NHL weekend.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Face-Off

Welcome to the 1-on-1 “Face-Off” segment here on Murph On Ice – where we bring you Murph’s conversations on a regular basis with some of the best hockey minds around!

Murph had the pleasure of chatting with an English National League goalie, an avid hockey advocate in the UK, and writer for Pucks Across the Pond. Enjoy his interview with Rob McGregor.

Rob McGregor plays in the English National League South Division 1 for Milton Keynes Thunder. This is his first season with Milton Keynes, having previously spent two years with the Peterborough Islanders. @RobMcGregor35

Murph On Ice – Great to talk to you Rob, thanks for taking the time to join me here on the website!

Rob McGregor – My pleasure Murph, thanks for getting in touch!

MOI – Playing in a good developmental league here in the UK like the English National League, what do you think is the toughest thing you face as a goalie with so many guys trying to get noticed and move up to the EPL and EIHL?

Rob McGregor tends goal for the ENL's MK Thunder.

RM – I guess it’s no different in ENL to a lot of goalies in other leagues – there’s always going to be someone else looking for a spot. Most teams will carry 15-18 skaters, give or take, but there are only maybe two or three goaltending slots so competition can be much higher. Plus there are always young guys coming out of junior hockey looking to make the move to senior level, as well as the odd veteran winding down.

MOI – How did you get started playing, any inspirations or heroes when you were younger – and why did you want to be a goalie?

RM – I’m actually a bit of an anomaly in that I did not start playing until quite late – meaning I did not play junior hockey. I learnt the position whilst playing rec hockey and attending some goalie schools run by former Great Britain netminder Joe Watkins. I was also lucky enough to get some tuition from local pros like James Moore and former Great Britain junior goalie Euan King. As for inspirations; as a Colorado Avalanche fan Patrick Roy was naturally something of a hero of mine. I also loved watching Finnish goaltender Pasi Raitenan playing for the Peterborough Pirates in the British National League. I think it was watching Pasi play that inspired me to play in goal, he had such a unique style and an amazing ability to just stop the puck. Even now there are those guys I look to though – Tim Thomas is something of a hero of mine too.

MOI – The Thunder are a proud team, and well supported in Milton Keynes – what are the fans like for your home games, and what could an outsider like me expect on a game night there?

RM – Milton Keynes has really embraced ice hockey. Dating back to the Milton Keynes Kings right up to today with the Thunder and Premier League Milton Keynes Lightning, the town seems to love the sport and our fans are passionate about it. It’s great to have a set of supporters that gets behind the team like that and enjoys their hockey.

MOI – The Elite League is the top flight here in the UK – how’s the feeling amongst the players in the ENL that a good season there could have them on the radar for the big clubs?

RM – I think for most ENL players the next step is probably the Premier League, as the majority of ENL clubs have an EPL club immediately above them, or in close proximity geographically. That’s not to say there are not opportunities however, and you only need to look at a setup like Cardiff where there is an ENL and EIHL team. Players like Ben Davies and Luke Piggott have graduated from the ENL side to play for the Elite League outfit, and I think that’s a major string to the bow for the Devils ENL side when recruiting players. I think some folk look down on the ENL occasionally, but the league has really moved forward over the past couple of seasons and I think that is a trend that will continue. Seeing guys like Piggott and Davies progress to Elite League level, as well as players such as Richard Bentham and Robbie Brown move up to the EPL, should show people that there is some real talent in this league. Netminder Matt Colclough has also made the jump this year, moving from Isle of Wight to Basingstoke in the EPL and it sounds like he has been doing pretty well for the Bison. Clearly there are people with the talent; they just need the opportunity.

MOI – Can you tell us some of the guys you’ve faced this season or played with in Milton Keynes that UK hockey fans should keep an eye out for in the future? Any guys you could see with a future in the EIHL?

RM – As we’ve said, a couple of guys are already in the mix with EPL and EIHL clubs. We mentioned Luke Piggott, who has represented the Cardiff Devils in the Elite League several times this season. Guys like Chris Hart could also be in the frame to move up within the Devils organisation one day.  Andrew Melachrino really impressed me for Slough’s ENL side this season, and his performances have earnt him a shot with the Premier League team which is great to see. The Florey brothers have a bright future as well I think. Jake has played for Thunder all season, and has really impressed me with his composure and consistency this year for a young lad of 16. His brother Josh has also just joined Thunder after Oxford folded. He’s always impressed me as well and I am glad to have him on board! It’s all about that word again – opportunity! Give some of these guys a chance to shine and they’ll take it.

MOI – And finally Rob, how are the Thunder doing this season – and what can MK fans expect the rest of the way from you guys?

RM – We’ve made a solid start to the season. We have beaten defending champions Isle of Wight twice and pushed other top teams like Cardiff and Invicta close – so the ability to compete with the top clubs is there. But we’ve also had a couple of off nights. Consistency will be key now we’re in to the second half of the season. We’re 6th right now, and I’m confident we can remain in the play-off places. If we knuckle down and work hard I think we can hold our place in 6th, then see what the play-offs bring us!

MOI – Thanks again Rob, good luck the rest of the way, and I’ll see you in Milton Keynes for a game soon.

RM – Thanks for having me Murph! Take care.

“Face-Off” is a regular feature here on Murph On Ice. Keep an eye out for Murph’s next 1-on-1 as he continues to bring insight from the greatest hockey minds around.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Easy Ryder

As it’s a new year, and there’s so much to look forward to in the NHL’s second half, I thought I’d have some fun with this post! It’s always interesting to compare like for like, or see how you’re doing up against the best in your field!

Hockey is no different in that philosophy. Guys look at the standings and statistics and see how former team-mates or teams are doing. They look at rivals and see how they’re performing. It’s what makes stats interesting and fun! No one can deny that when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were lighting it up back in the day, it made the NHL fun to follow.

Same for a healthy Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin going head-to-head for scoring titles a few years ago. Pick a decade and I’m sure you have memories of a favourite player and his rival. Along that same thought process, there can also be strange horses in a race!

Michael Ryder is a favourite of mine as a fellow Newfoundlander. And everyone loves watching Alex Ovechkin when he’s going good. These guys are not rivals! But it sure is fun to have a look at the little personal race I’m enjoying at the moment between these two totally different players.

Alex Ovechkin has incredible personal stats in his NHL career.

Ryder and Ovechkin are tied as I write this with 17 goals each. I’m not saying that Ryder is in Ovie’s class because of this fact. I’m just saying it’s interesting to see how the two are playing at the moment – and how I’ll follow this neat sidebar as 2012 continues.

Ryder’s career stats are pretty good for a guy who was drafted 216th overall in the eighth round of the 1998 draft. He’s played 587 games, and registered 363 points (179 G, 184 A). On the other end of the scale is Alex ‘The Great’! Ovechkin was the first overall pick in the 2004 entry draft. His career numbers are superior – 513 games played, 647 points – with a remarkable 318 goals.

So there is no comparison between Ryder and Ovechkin, right? Overall there is no competition – but that’s the point. At this time in the season, Michael Ryder is right there with Ovechkin. It’s what makes sports great – a guy can be playing out of his skin and running neck-and-neck with an athlete who is considered out of his league.

I spoke with Michael Ryder in Boston during the Stanley Cup Final last year. He was relaxed and easy to talk to. He was even happy to speak with a fellow Newfoundlander, and told me “it’s nice to talk to someone from back home.”

The thing that I really remember about that encounter was the fact that Ryder told me he’d do anything to win a championship, “to be here playing for the Stanley Cup is a dream come true,” he said, “I’ll do anything to win this and be able to look back without any regrets.”

Michael Ryder has tasted Stanley Cup success.

Maybe that’s the only category Ryder can look at overall and say he’s ahead of Ovie – championships. At the end of the day, Ovechkin may even trade the lofty personal numbers for that Stanley Cup ring that the Bonavista born Ryder has on his finger – as a result of the Bruins win last season.

In any event – there’s two snipers that I’ll be keeping my eye on for the rest of the campaign. Who knows – maybe Ryder will score more goals than Ovechkin, but maybe the Capitals will win a Stanley Cup – stranger things have happened in hockey!

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

What to Watch!

Welcome to the What to Watch segment! Your key NHL game to post on the radar for your holiday hockey viewing!

For this festive New Year pick I will have to go with the New York Rangers at the Philadelphia Flyers Monday January 2nd. It’s the game that we all look forward to every season – the NHL’s annual Winter Classic!

Philadelphia is excited to be hosting the 2012 Winter Classic. Photo Courtesy - Vancouversun.com

Keys to victory for the Rangers:

The King will be in the Building: Henrik Lundqvist is the engine that keeps the Rangers rolling. As I write this, Lundqvist is playing out of his skin with a 16-7-4 record, 1.91 GAA, and a .937 Save %. In New York’s final tune-up for the Winter Classic, the ‘King’ was in top form with 27 saves, leading the Blueshirts to a 4-1 win over the Panthers Friday night. If he keeps playing like this, the Rangers will be a frustrating visiting side for the Philly fans come Monday.

Nifty-Fifty: New York are currently 1st overall in the Eastern Conference with 50 points (23-9-4). Their 9 losses ties them with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins for the fewest in the entire league. What does this all mean – in a word – confidence! The Rangers are buying into what coach John Tortorella is selling, and the team believes it can win on any given night. This momentum and belief makes them dangerous outdoors on Monday.

Holiday Visitors: The Rangers will have less pressure on the road for this one. The Flyers are the host for this outdoor extravaganza, which has become one of the key events of the entire NHL season. As the visitors, New York should have less distraction from family and friends, and can concentrate on two big road points.

Keys to victory for the Flyers:

A Whole new Ball-Game: The Flyers will be more than excited to get on the ice at  Citizens Bank Ball Park Monday.  This excitement can be used in their favour to come out hard and physical, and use the vocal Philly crowd of 50,000 strong to overwhelm the Rangers. Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s top job will be to harness this adrenaline and keep the Flyers focused on the job at hand. If he can do this, then the home-team will be fine outdoors.

There have been many great memories over the years at the NHL Winter Classic. Photo Courtesy - news-herald.com

45 and Counting: Claude Giroux has been the best Flyer player on the ice for most of the season. At the moment he leads the NHL in scoring with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists). He did miss some time with a concussion, but seems to be back on track since his return. If Giroux is on form he can be dominant against any opponent, so if the mood and adrenaline line-up for him, he could be the big story of the Winter Classic.

Which way is the Breeze Blowing: Ilya Bryzgalov was brought to Philadelphia in the offseason for big money. GM Paul Holmgren traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and Bryzgalov was to be the focal point of a new Flyers team. It hasn’t quite worked out for ‘Breeze’ as he’s had an up and down start to his career in orange, and his numbers aren’t blowing anyone away (14-8-3, 3.01 GAA, .890 Save %). That could all change for the colourful Russian if he can blank the Rangers and get the Philly faithful back on his side. He’s been a huge hit on HBO’s 24/7 coverage, all he needs now is a huge effort where it counts Monday.

-X-Factors: A lot of people are going to go over and over the ice conditions and weather forecast for Monday. As of this moment, the weather looks to be calling for some flurries and cool temperatures. The NHL’s ice-guru Dan Craig will have the standard of the playing surface at the highest level possible. Neither weather or ice conditions should be examined too much as both teams have to contend with both factors once the puck is dropped.

Enjoy this tilt Monday! It should be an interesting match-up between two Atlantic Division foes, and it’s always special when the Winter Classic rolls around. Post any comments or observations you have about the ‘What to Watch‘ game in the ‘Mailbag‘ section, and I will gladly respond! Have a great NHL New Year!

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

 

Happy Hockey Holidays!

It’s a great time of year to be an NHL fan in many ways! We have the Winter Classic on January 2nd to look forward to in Philadelphia, HBO is in the middle of 24/7 action, and of course it’s Christmas!

Happy Holidays to all NHL fans and their favourite teams!

Unfortunately it’s also a tough time for reasons off the ice! At this point of the season, it’s always the reaction to look back and think about the 1st half of the campaign. The top moments sadly for me have been the insane amounts of injuries – more specifically concussions.

Crosby, Pronger, Giroux, Skinner, Michalek, Miller – basically an All-Star Team of top flight players, have all spent time on the sidelines thus far with concussion. It’s not the thing you want as the lasting memory from any portion of the year.

As this is a festive time, when people make wishes and hope for miracles, I guess my Christmas wish is that this epidemic is brought under control in 2012. I wish that the main point of NHL conversation in the new year will be about hockey – not medical opinions and doctor rhetoric.

Starting with the Winter Classic I hope that this wish is heard and granted by the hockey gods. There is so much more to the game than concussions and suspensions and this is what we as fans need – great plays and games. And our favourite stars back on the ice where they belong!

NHL fans will be hoping for a special team gift under the tree.

So let’s put our collective brain power to work. Let’s send good vibes to Sid The Kid and all the others who are not feeling so well this Christmas. Let’s look forward to a better 2012 – where hockey is the focal point and the results are the headlines.

On a positive note, I will be in Ottawa January 26th-30th to cover the NHL All-Star Game and Festivities. Any questions you have for your favourite stars please drop them in the mailbag section and I’ll pick a few to ask in Ottawa.

Happy Holidays to all NHL fans – and all the best for your team in 2012!

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce