All posts by Joe Russo

Hockey fanatic currently writing for FanInterference and Payingforice. Feel free to follow both!

The Grandest Of Finales?

First and foremost, I’d like to take the time to congratulate Fan Interference on celebrating its one year anniversary yesterday. Cheers!

Now, all I want for graduation is a Stanley Cup Final that lives up to the hype of the Conference Finals that come before it. In turn, not to be subjected to a similar fate of years past by having a curtain in the form of an anti-climatic close to what the NHL heralds as “a best versus best” series.

With that in mind it may be hard to duplicate the atmosphere of a  Chicago v Los Angeles or a Washington v Montreal match up with a trip to the Cup Final on the line. Considering how often those previous teams play one another. What may not be difficult to request is, having a Final reach a winner takes all game 7. Its been noticeably absent, in fact you have to go back to 2011 when the Boston Bruins went into Vancouver and came out on the other side 4-0 victors.

We, as fans have been robbed of such a luxury in the years between. In 2012, Steve Bernier plastered Kings defensemen Rob Scuderi into the glass, resulting in a major penalty. Los Angeles then bombarded Marty Brodeur on the ensuing 5 minute major on their way to a 6-1, game 6 victory. In 2013 Chicago tallied two goals in 17 seconds crushing Bostons late 3rd period lead in their last ditch effort to force a game 7 in Chicago. In 2015, Chicago yet again doubled down scoring the only two goals against Tampa Bay in game 6 to hoist their 3rd Cup in 5 years. Lastly, 2016 saw the a narrowly focused, much matured Sidney Crosby land his second ring, in a series where San Jose was never out of it but also never truly in it either.

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For a multitude of reasons 2017 has been a year of interesting narratives, putting it lightly. But in terms of hockey, what it could potentially offer is that game 7 that has eluded fans for quite some time. Washington, who easily up to this point has established themselves as the best team in the league, beefed up by trading for Kevin Shattenkirk. Clearly the mentality is to win, now more than ever.

We’ve been teased with the notion that this is Washington’s year many a time in the past. But, with the additions of players like Justin Williams, TJ Oshie, Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and the recently mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk. It be difficult to argue that the road to the Cup, does in fact run through Washington. Much forgotten the years of repeated playoff disappointments which come as early as last years defeat at the hands of Sidney Crosby. Washington has reloaded, beefed up, and have a frightening mental infatuation with putting those less than fortunate seasons behind them, forever.

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Chicago, since the 2008-09 season has established themselves as the poster child of consistency in the NHL. Currently running through their opposition as if they were constructed of wet tissue paper, including their eyebrow raising 4-1 victory Wednesday night over Pittsburgh. Patrick Kane is back to his form which saw him win league MVP last season, while Jonathan Toews has recovered from his mid season slump.

Go down the roster, if you fancy, and attempt to pick out a match up in which your favorite team has the clear cut advantage. Even Bill Belichick would quiver in his boots at the thought of a 7 game series against the NHL’s most formidable playoff foe. Home ice advantage for the Hawks means you best win every game on your home turf, something Chicago doesn’t always let their opposition do.

Chicago has the experience, bar none. With the lethal combination of Kane and Toews.

Washington has the firepower and the confidence to go shot for shot with anyone in the league. Not to mention that Ovechkin and Backstrom go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Washington versus Chicago is the series you didn’t realize you needed in your life until right now. For the Caps they have a charismatic captain desperate for the one piece of hardware needed to complete his star studded resume. For the Hawks, one more Cup would put them in the realm of immortality, along with Gretzky’s Oilers, and Bossy’s Islanders of the 80’s.

Separately the journey to this years Cup Final won’t be easy on either side. Washington will surely see Pittsburgh again, while Chicago will have to take care of Minnesota and Los Angeles. But a hockey nut can dream, right?

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If, by chance these two organizations meet for the right to compete for hockey’s ultimate prize, you best not blink. As for those smiles? Surly they won’t last.

#MakeAmericaHockeyAgain

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Buckle Up, It’s Microwave Gate

Anyone who knows Matt Lougee knows one simple thing, most things in life work out for him. In fact the term “Lougee scam” has become synonymous for an outcome to a situation that clearly benefits him over anyone else. This could be attributed to a number of factors. For one, he could just be an incredibly lucky individual. I reference when he called a home run by Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, before the ball even left the pitchers hand. I won’t bore you with the myriad of other examples, but ask someone who knows him and a story will surely soon follow.

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Chalk it up to dumb luck if you’d like. Or the workings of something else, if you subscribe to that type of mindset but the writing is on the wall. However, there are some who don’t wish to entertain either of those ideologies and instead take the time to concoct conspiracy theories against him.

News broke Thursday night around 11:45 when it was brought to my attention that there may have been foul play with regard to the dice which were used during last summers latest installment of the “beer di tournament”. Beer di, or beer die for those unaware is a drinking game in which four red solo cups are placed at the four respected corners of a table. The object of the game is to toss one of the dice in the air and have it land on the table striking the opponents cup, or landing directly in the cup. Differentiating points are awarded for where and what the dice strikes.

The controversy lies in the handling of said dice. Back when Matt Lougee was in seventh grade he and a friend by the name of Ryan Burns were playing high/low with a set of dice. Mr. Lougee walked away from the game thirty dollars richer at Mr. Burns expense. In an attempt to assure victory, Mr. Lougee microwaved the dice in an albeit crude way to offer him the upper hand.

Now the question isn’t so much what happened in the past, but what has transpired in the three years that Mr. Lougee has commissioned his beer di tournaments.

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When asked about the situation he responded calmly with “microwaving dice happened in middle school nothing has affected the beer die tournament, if anyone thinks I microwaved dice for the tournament, I did not. If they still think I did please tell me how that would be an advantage for me”. When asked if he truly had anything to do with the tampering of the dice he replied with, “Even if it did happen which it didn’t how does that alter the playing field? How would I gain an advantage? We could play the game with a rock and I’m still better then people”.

I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t reach out to Ryan Burns who was on the less than fortunate receiving end of the day in 7th grade. I asked him for a quote in relation to the day and Mr. Burns had this to say, “I can not all I know is Loug was beating me in dice all day and then we fought, I was just gonna say he put them in the microwave and somehow that helped him win I’m convinced”.

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Where things begin to get foggy is how a day 8 years ago can possibly correlate to an event that took place this past summer? To the best of my knowledge there were no complaints what so ever about the condition of the dice that were used throughout the tournament. Had someone complained about the dice midway through the day, it could be argued today that there’s a chance something peculiar about the dice had taken place. Not to mention that the dice used that day 8 years ago was to play an entirely different game than beer di.

At the moment there just isn’t enough evidence to convict Mr. Lougee of the crime. Which will come as a massive disappointment to most I’m sure. “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. That’s a reality we all must come to face today. Lougee scams are just that, dumb luck coupled with blind confidence. You live to see another day Mr. Lougee, but those dice will be placed under a microscope come this summer, that I am sure of.

What is truly criminal is the fact that Ryan Peterson diving for a di and bucking both of his teams beers off the table didn’t automatically DQ him from the tournament. If anything the rule book needs some addressing.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Make no mistake, Claude Julien was the best thing the Boston Bruins had going for them in 2017. Over the last decade he was able to take underachieving teams and consistently put them in a position to succeed at a higher level than they were capable of.

However, as of Tuesday, February 7th, Don Sweeney and company decided going in another direction was best for the team over 50 games into the season. Following soul crushing defeats, most recently at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night, it was almost a foregone conclusion that something needed to change.

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That being said, it may come as a welcomed surprise to some that the man who has been single handedly blamed for Peter Chiarelli’s miscalculation of the salary cap and questionable player movement, is gone. But for most, it is normal to feel a sense of emptiness. Being the most winningest coach in franchise history doesn’t come by accident and his decade long helm behind the bench which made him the longest currently tenured coach will not soon be forgotten. Giving the city its first title since 1972 and reinvigorating the passion that only Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque before him were able to create.

With inconsistencies in the playoffs and less than ideal performances come season’s end being the direct source to the decision that was made. Claude Julien may be a lot of things, but he is not a bad coach. Granted his reluctance to adapt to an evolving game at times was inductive to ripping your own hair out, but I digress.

Anyone can be successful with the right players in the right environment, but Julien never had complete control of player movement, and salary designation. Internally, the discourse between management and coach became more than apparent over the last year or so. And for better or worse as they say, a decision had to be made and a difficult one at the very least. With Cam Neely noticeably absent from the press conference held Tuesday morning, it has become outrageously obvious that the glaring issues with the organization weren’t just the coach.

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Filling in the now vacant position is Bruce Cassidy. The 51 year old played professionally for the Chicago Blackhawks and more recently was named as Julien’s assistant entering this season. Cassidy commented that the promotion has felt like anything but, considering it has come at the demise of a friend. Now it should be noted that the promotion is on an interim basis, which more probably than not means yet another change at head coach may loom on the horizon. Through 55 games this season the Bruins have managed to keep themselves in playoff contention in a less competitive Atlantic Division. Sitting 26-23-6 places them 4th in that respective division, now only the top three teams per division make the playoffs with the possibility to qualify for two wild card spots.    

Personally I take issue with how management handled the removal of Claude Julien from the organization. Waiting until the Patriots championship parade to make the formal announcement, in what I can only imagine was a lackluster attempt to take attention away from the severity of the situation. On the other side, perhaps it was an attempt to allow Cassidy some practice time to prep his team for San Jose Thursday night. Whatever the reason Cam Neely, the president of hockey operations not even making a public appearance at said conference is laughable at best. Leaving Don Sweeney to deal with the press alone. It felt like a major disrespect to a man whom the bulk of the players had nothing but the utmost respect for. A man who for all his flaws, and there were quite a few, managed to keep himself in the discussion as one of the league’s elites.

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Claude Julien’s era is over in Boston and for what it’s worth he deserves to go out with respect and a sense of decency. Not with the covers thrown over his head and kicked out the back door. It doesn’t feel professional, nor does it seem like something that one of the NHL’s most sought after franchises should be doing. Don’t shed too many tears for dear old Claude. The 56 year old now free agent coach has more than enough experience to take a bubble team and make mold them into a contender. With Boston in 2007 as a prime example of just that. Winnipeg, St. Louis, Florida and now Las Vegas have all been rumored to be in the market for a new coach. Also don’t rule out a return to Montreal or even New Jersey, the teams he manned prior to Boston.

Au revoir monsieur Julien, I look forward to seeing you behind a bench in no time at all.

Same Song And Dance

Leading up to NBCSN’s broadcast of Wednesday Night Rivalry, the Boston Bruins had won three games in a row. Which when you consider how the regular season has gone up to that point was impressive. The level of inconsistency seen from the Bruins had left even the most die hard fans deflated. And the Capitals resembled an admirable opponent to go through to get their 4th win in a row.

Washington embodies the polar opposite when it comes to consistency. One of the leagues hottest teams, faces a team that still needed to find its identity. Going off that point even further, Boston only has two players to reach the 20 goal mark so far this season. In fact, they only have five players with goals in the double digits.

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Washington has 8 players who have scored at least 10 goals so far this season with Alex Ovechkin leading the way with 25. Furthering my point on the differentiating seasons.

Waking up Thursday, following the 5-3 loss to the Capitals, the Bruins clutched to the final playoff spot in the Atlantic for dear life. Having learned nothing new about the team that has spent a significant portion of the season soul searching.

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Brad Marchand remained Boston’s hottest scorer, but one player can’t win you a hockey game. Along with Marchand’s two goals, David Krejci also got his name on the score sheet while David Pastrnak chipped in with three helpers. Which is all well and good, but it continues to prove a point, which is Boston lacks significantly with depth scoring.

The expectation going into the season is that your top six forwards will manufacture the bulk of your offense. While your bottom six forwards contribute sparingly along the way. Outside of those top six forwards, Boston’s next highest goal scorer is their 4th line center, 36 year old Dominic Moore.

Players such as Riley Nash and Matt Beleskey were brought in to be very productive third line players with the potential to crack the second line. Both of which to this point have not lived up to the expectation.

Now more than ever, the Bruins need those who play in the latter half of the lineup to get involved offensively. Especially with Brandon Carlo, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask being banged up across the last two games.

If Boston is going to hold on to the playoff spot they currently possess, a move must be made at the deadline. A deal with more magnitude than swapping a 3rd round pick for a bottom six defense  man such as Wade Redden, or another aging veteran who’s best offensive days are well behind him like Brian Rolston.

 

 

Broadcasting Beauties on NBC

Canada has “Hockey Night In Canada”and the United States has “NHL on NBC”. When it comes to sheer games being broadcast over the course of a season, Hockey Night is clearly the victor.

With that being said, hockey fans in America have been the beneficiary of some fantastic games this past week. That is if they happened to tune in.

While Jared Spurgeon may not be unanimously considered to be within the top 100 goal scorers in the league, he absolutely dazzled the fans with this insane hand-eye coordinated thing of beauty.

My goodness, perhaps the Twins ought to give this guy a call to add some depth to their batting order.

Alex Ovechkin is no stranger to grand stage theatrics. The “Great 8” has been notorious for getting fans out of their seats and into the action right away. With a matchup last Wednesday against bitter rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, sparks were sure to fly. Especially when a specific milestone was within reach for my generations most lethal goal scorer.

Just 35 seconds into the game, Ovechkin’s toe drag-roof job set the tone for the rest of the night as the Caps cruised to a 5-2 victory. His early tally was his 1,000 NHL point. At just 31 years old and no prior injury concerns, Ovechkin has the opportunity to conjure up some instant magic.

Just 5 nights later, Crosby and Ovechkin would exchange pleasantries again. This time in Pittsburgh. The Caps leaped to a 3-0 lead early in the second, but the lead didn’t last as the Penguins riffled 6 straight goals before the start of the third period. Remarkably, the scoring didn’t end there for either side. As the Caps would tie the game at 7 late in regulation, only for the Penguins to take the decisive second point in overtime.

Your final score, 8-7.

When two original 6 teams face off against one another, it’s often must watch television. In the case of the Bruins vs. Red Wings game this past Wednesday, I’d certainly have to agree. Following an embarrassing defeat at the hand of the anemic Islanders, the Bruins looked for a confidence building team victory in Detroit. Boston’s young guns shinned early as Frank Vatrano nailed two goals and Brandon Carlo’s missile saw the Bruins up three goals on Detroit. An answer from Dylan Larkin cut Boston’s titanic lead to just two. Shortly there after, Patrice Bergeron’s deflection put the Bruins back up by three.

While three unanswered goals by Detroit would tie the game at 4 a piece, McQuiad and Nyquist would each score for their respective teams to force overtime. 5 pulse pounding minutes later, a shootout would decide who would possess the all important second point in the standings.

Detroit sent the hometown fans off with an excellent group victory. For Boston they continue to lick their wounds and search for an answer to their struggles. Emerging discussions about the future dealings of the head coach are once again at the forefront. With time being the only indicator of what course of action will be followed through on, a win against Chicago could prolong the process.

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While it may be old news now, the Montreal Canadiens got smoked by the Minnesota Wild last Thursday, 7-1. I’ll admit, entering this season there were some questions I had in regards to their locker room chemistry. Those concerns were quickly squandered. Montreal looked like the real deal for a significant portion of this season. Attribute it to the lingering affects from the World Cup of Hockey or the pressures of playing in Montreal. But Carey Price has looked aside himself this past month. Granted Montreal currently is in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic, you need to play your best hockey at this juncture of the season. Expect Montreal to make it to the spring tournament, and be a nightmare matchup for whatever team they get in round one.

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On the other hand, aside from filling the net against Montreal, Minnesota has also been filling in the win column. Playing arguably their best hockey since becoming a professional team. Since acquiring Parise and Suter in the same offseason, Minnesota has had their eye on a Cup. With the changes that have been made to tweak the roster in the last 365 days, that dream is looking attainable.

 

New faces in familar places

Doc Emerick once said, “it’s often the third and fourth line guys”. In terms of cultivating a championship caliber team, the latter portion of your lineup often is the most important. That being said, finding the proper components is easier said than done.

In the case of the Boston Bruins, since their 2013 run at the Cup, finding those players has proven to be difficult. Recently that trend initially appears to be changing. In fact they didn’t have to go very far geographically to find them.

Both Frank Vatrano and Tim Schaller went undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts and Providence College respectively. Vatrano signed a deal with the Bruins entering 2015-16 after a strong training camp, but was assigned to the AHL affiliate Providence. From there, he was nearly a goal per game player. The East Longmeadow Massachusetts native possesses the skating ability and heavy snap shot to compete at the NHL level with ease. While short in stature, there is no lack of heart when it comes to “Frank the Tank“. Off season surgery sidelined him for the bulk of the early portion of the 2016-17 season, but since his return, he’s added another scoring threat on the power play. Also, allowing head coach Claude Julien some flexibility with his line mixing in game.

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Merrimack, New Hampshire product Tim Schaller may have raised some eye brows when he chose the Friars rather than committing to his hometown team. In four seasons at Providence, Schaller’s most productive season came in his last as a Friar tallying 23 points. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, it was enough to be signed by Buffalo. In three seasons between the Sabres and the Rochester Americans, he was far more effective at the AHL level than the NHL.

Unlike Vatrano, Schaller didn’t impress the brass with his first shot at professional hockey. So, when the Bruins signed the free agent this past off season, not a whole lot was expected of him. Especially when you consider it was only a one year deal. Regardless of the logistics, to the contract one thing is for certain, Schaller has made the best of his second shot at the NHL.

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Since being a relatively obvious choice to crack the opening night lineup, he’s posed as another cog to allow Julien some breathing room with his lineup. You don’t have to ask twice when it comes to Tim as he’ll most likely do what he’s asked of. He’s fought, gone to the dirty areas on the power play, and most notibly shown chemistry with the Bruin’s top offensive weapons.

Boston currently owns the second playoff spot in the Atlantic, with absolutely no cushion separating them from just about everyone else below them in their division. At this point of the season, every team has its laundry list of injuries, as points reach its highest premium. It’s the players like Vatrano and Schaller that need to shine brightest in order to solidify Boston’s appearance in the playoffs.

On the edge of missing the playoffs for an unprecedented third season in a row, it’s all hands on deck for Boston. Collecting 6 out of a possible 8 points on the road in four games, it’ll be a mad scramble to the finish line. With the injuries suffered to key players on the four game road trip, the previously mentioned players may be leaned on more than ever.

Making Peace With Their Demons

For sure it wasn’t 1980 in Lake Placid, but Thursday night was just as special for USA hockey. For the first time, the line separating Canada and the states isn’t as bold as previously presumed. Make no mistake, during the game the Americans weren’t underdogs.

Even the NHL’s social media admin wanted the United States to lose. Yet despite traditional logic, that being Canada surly would have walked away as the World Junior Champion, was defied.

Troy Terry, Colin Greenway, Charlie McAvoy and Colin White may be unfamiliar names now, but that won’t last. As every single one of them was instrumental to the success the United States enjoyed in this international tournament. In fact, I found myself saying “this team is really fun to watch” out loud multiple times. 

In case you are still under ESPN’s spell, it’s not your fault, it’s theirs. A really damn good hockey tournament had been taking place in Montreal and Toronto, showcasing the best talent under the age of 20 from the major hockey countries in the world. Despite the controversial cuts from team USA’s camp prior to the first puck drop, they had demons to make peace with.

Having been defeated by rivals like Canada and Russia in years past, it was almost as if the stars aligned for the Americans in 2017. There may have been new faces but a similar chip could be found on their shoulders.

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Having cruised primarily through pool play, the United States earned the right to be the first seed. Their biggest moments came by ousting Canada and Russia. In fact, their biggest hiccup came in the form of the Quarter final match up against Switzerland. A 3-2 nail biting victory propelled the Americans to a rematch with Russia in the Semi Final. However, this time the United States would have to deal with a different level of adversity, coming from behind for the first time in the tournament. A 3-3 tie after regulation meant a 10 minute overtime period, which settled nothing. So it was onto a best of 5 round shootout.

Team USA would find yet another shootout hero against the Russians. Like TJ Oshie in the Winter Olympics, Troy Terry was a perfect 3/3 in the shootout. Notching the decisive goal in the shootouts 7th round. Burying the hatchet on a team that owned a 15-5 record against the Americans prior to the tournament.

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The consolation prize for advancing to the gold medal game was a match up against Canada, in Montreal. While the Americans took care of business against Russia, the Canadians did away with Sweden, 5-2.

Beating Canada with a medal of any sort on the line is difficult enough, it’s near impossible when the game is played in Montreal. Widely considered to be hockey’s ultimate cathedral, the Bell Centre in Montreal offers the Canadien’s an unparalleled home ice advantage. The same could be said for team Canada.

Whom quickly leaped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. With a capacity of more than 21,000 all of whom sporting a red Canada jersey, the situation appeared dire for the Americans. Canada had the jump in their step throughout the first period, winning every puck battle and producing excellent scoring opportunities. Had it not been for the brilliance of Tyler Parsons in net for the American’s, they could have found themselves down 3, maybe even 4 goals.

Entering the middle frame, the Americans showed a ton of resiliency. Mixing it up between whistles, winning 50/50 battles, and generating offense. Charlie McAvoy, a Bruins draft prospect, riffled a shot top shelf to cut Canada’s seemingly insurmountable lead to just one goal. Half way through the period the Americans found themselves on the man advantage, their bread and butter of the tournament up to this point. Adam Fox’s wrister bounced off the backside of Kieffer Bellows past Carter Hart to tie the game.

In the third period the Americans were tested the most as their undisciplined play put them a man down numerous times, forcing their penalty kill to go to work. Canada, however made them pay as Nicolas Roy’s picked the top left corner off the draw to make it 3-2 Canada.

Just a few minutes later, Mathieu Joseph was sent in on a partial break away making it 4-2 Canada. With a firm lead, Canada appeared poised to ware down the Americans and weather the storm. But seconds later Charlie McAvoy penetrated the zone again, feeding a wide open Kieffer Bellows who slammed it home to make it a 4-3 game.

Just before the halfway point of the final period Adam Fox went to work. Yet again his point shot was deflected, this time by Ottawa Senators prospect Colin White to tie the game at 4.

“Let’s play overtime, why not?”

A pulse pounding 20 minutes worth of overtime didn’t settle a thing between the two bitter rivals. So it was off to yet another shootout for the Americans.

Unlike in the NHL, the European leagues play a best of 5 shootout to determine a winner, rather than the best of 3 format most fans are familiar with.

After 3 shooters were turned aside for both teams, it was Troy Terry’s turn to settle the score. With ice in his veins and a nation breathing down his neck, he found the back of the net and the Americans never looked back. It would be the only goal scored in the shootout, propelling the red white and blue to their third gold medal at the World Juniors in seven years.

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Now more than ever, hockey in America has stars that shine bright. If you missed it this year, you owe it to yourself to tune in come 2018. Take the horse blinders off America, because you’re missing something spectacular. I say this because ESPN’s 10 second coverage of the game didn’t nearly do enough justice to one of the better hockey games of the last decade.