Dropping the Gloves
Pittsburgh-born John Buccigross has been an anchor for ESPN News and a SportsCenter contributor for over 10 years. Buccigross is also ESPN's resident hockey expert, formerly the host of the network's highlight show NHL 2Night and now a weekly columnist for ESPN.com. PSR contributing writer Alex Nseir talked with Buccigross at the start of the Eastern Conference Finals to hear his thoughts about the heart-stopping second round, his pick for MVP and why Detroit and Pittsburgh could be headed for a rematch.
AN: This year's second round was one of the most thrilling in recent history, with three series going to a seventh game. Was there a favorite moment from one of the four series?
JB: The reaction from the Boston Bruins fans after they lost to the Hurricanes. It said so much about how hockey was reborn in Boston this year. I so wanted a Boston-Pittsburgh black and gold conference final. I felt the playoffs lost momentum by having Boston exit. I think the Penguins would have handled Boston easily, but I think it would have been great for the league and it certainly would have helped ratings. It was a sad moment, but it was great to see American hockey fans so crushed by a hockey loss.
AN: Watching the playoffs this year, how would you rate the consistency of the penalty calls, especially considering the increased limitations on excess violence?
JB: I think the referees are not calling enough penalties. There are some games that are getting bogged down like the pre-lockout clutch and grab days. The overtime in Boston during Game 7 was terrible hockey. Players were tackling each other and nothing was being called. The NHL needs to keep the play lubricated and let players like Sidney Crosby show off his athleticism.
AN: Is it surprising at all that Detroit and Pittsburgh are poised for a Stanley Cup Finals rematch, and what does it mean for these two teams to have overcome the Stanley Cup hangover that has plagued finalists for the past several years?
JB: It is not surprising. The Red Wings have the most good players and the Penguins have the best player in Sidney Crosby.
AN: There is plenty of playoff gamesmanship off the ice in the playoffs, with coaches making comments about officiating, etc. How much of an effect does this really have on how games are played or called, and should the league crack down on some of the negativity?
JB: I think very few people listen to any of the off-day comments. I have seen very few interviews this postseason. The games are enough for me. Players are what they do, not what they say.
AN: After the Washington-Pittsburgh series, Bruce Boudreau admitted that Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green were both injured. Similar comments were made about Jeff Carter after Pittsburgh's series with Philadelphia. Why do teams even come out with this information, especially now since no one is required to disclose injuries? Are they trying to reduce scrutiny of their star players?
JB: Yes. Coaches and GM's want to keep their jobs and players want to keep their reputations. Injury disclosure gives them an excuse to talk to their superiors.
AN: Most people in Pittsburgh have accepted that Evgeni Malkin will not be the MVP this year. However, with the definition of the Hart Trophy as the player that is most integral to his team, how hard will it be for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to win the Hart in the future since they both lace up for the Pens?
JB: I don't think it will be that hard. In fact, they help each other's case because they both enhance each other's power play numbers. Evgeni Malkin is the most talented player in the league bar none. Sidney Crosby is the best player. Alex Ovechkin has a mix of both. If I had a vote I would vote for Malkin as regular season MVP. Crosby has been the playoff MVP so far. His level of play has not been approached by any other player in these playoffs. It's not even close.
AN: When Michel Therrien was fired in February, the Penguins had a massive turnaround under now permanent head coach Dan Bylsma. Much credit is given to the more aggressive coaching style he implemented and his 'player's coach' attitude. Do you think this is an accurate assessment of why the Penguins improved so much, or do players feel so much pressure or even guilt after a coach is fired that they often start playing better, no matter who the replacement is?
JB: The Penguins improved so quickly because Sergei Gonchar returned and Ray Shero acquired two players, Guerin and Kunitz, who ended up on the first line with Sidney Crosby. I think, for sure, some of the younger players like Letang, Staal and Fleury unquestionably flourished as a result of the coaching change. Aggressiveness is part of it but I think it was the upgrade in personnel, the trades, and the elevated play of Letang and Staal. When Jordan Staal scores and plays with an aggressive edge, the Penguins are nearly unbeatable. They lack finishers from the wings and that is what is preventing them from being champions.
AN: Detroit has become the standard in the NHL. How long can they keep this up?
JB: The Wings don't have many free agents to sign. They have locked just about everyone up. I don't see how they will be able to sign Marian Hossa unless they trade one of their $3 million defense-man or if Nicklas Lidstrom decides to retire. Jiri Hudler might be a tough sign, but the Red Wings are positioned to be competitive for some time.