Price + Lundqvist = Classic

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 15) – It’s an easy equation.

The two best goalies on the planet clashing for a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist for all the Eastern marbles. A re-match of the gold medal game at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers this deep in the playoffs for the first time since Patrick Roy’s rookie season of 1985-86. Montreal absent from the dance since winning it all in 1993; the Rangers since their landmark triumph a year later. And both clubs so deserving of a Conference final stare-down this spring.

It all begins Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre.

And, it promises to be a classic.

CAREY PRICE CHATS WITH SCOTT OAKE OF HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA ON THE ICE AT TD GARDEN AFTER MONTREAL KNOCKED OFF BOSTON IN GAME 7 WEDNESDAY NIGHT. CBC IMAGE

KINGS STAY ALIVE: Though the Rangers and Canadiens are hooking up in the playoffs for the first time since the opening round in 1996, we still could have a repeat West final. Los Angeles Kings nursed a 2-1 lead through the third period last night and hung on to defeat Anaheim Ducks. Game 7 in the series is Friday night at the Honda Center. The Kings and Chicago Blackhawks played for the Western title last year and Chicago now waits the southern-California survivor.

BEDLAM AT STAPLES CENTER, AS KINGS WERE NOT CROWNED. TSN IMAGE

CROSBY NEEDS MUSCLE AND A “PRICK”: The Pittsburgh Penguins have underachieved in the Sidney Crosby era – and in the playoffs again this year – for the lack of two essential components: An enforcer up front that can manage other tasks reasonably well and what a reporter friend of mine once characterized as a “prick” on the blue-line.

Crosby took unnecessary abuse against Columbus and the Rangers this spring because no teammate had the inclination to stand up for him. Given the National Hockey League’s absurd “instigator” rule, such a protector would need to be vigilant, but even the odd two-minute penalty is a sound trade-off for having the game’s most talented player mauled on every shift. Pittsburgh does not possess sufficient forward depth beyond Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal (nor do most teams outside of a top three). If these players are neutralized on the edge of the rule book – as is customary in the playoffs – there has to be some form of discouragement. No such element exists on the Penguin roster (though scrappy defenseman Brooks Orpik, injured in the playoffs, has character). The lone roughnecks – Tanner Glass and Deryk Engelland – are marginal NHLers that coach Dan Bylsma chose not to deploy in the Stanley Cup tournament. Engelland is a defenseman.

Neither is in the class, for example, of Shawn Thornton (Boston), Andrew Shaw (Chicago), Patrick Maroon (Anaheim) or Brian Boyle (New York); all of whom can use either muscle, malice or size to dissuade the opposition while contributing elsewhere.

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RANGERS DEFENSEMAN MARC STAAL PUMMELS SIDNEY CROSBY. NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

During the Crosby era, Pittsburgh hasn’t had a menacing figure on the blue-line – either an elite puck-mover or an SOB. The playoff presence of Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Suter, PK Subban and Drew Doughty cannot be understated; nor could it in recent years with Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom. As I’ve written innumerable times, the overwhelming majority of Stanley Cup teams possess at least one such player. Pittsburgh got by in 2009 with the guile of Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang, and the airtight netminding of Marc-Andre Fleury. A “money” goalie – more than any factor, of course – can camouflage deficiency. These elements have been lacking in the Steel City through much of Crosby’s nine-year term.

This, to me, is a failure of Ray Shero, not Bylsma, though there’s apparently a massive relationship deficit among the coach and his best players. A Pittsburgh Tribune report (from Rob Rossi) suggests the decision to terminate Bylsma has already been made.

Shero, the Penguins’ GM, has had a pretty good run – clearly aided and abetted by the game-of-chance that landed his team the No. 1 draft selection coming out of the lost 2004-05 season. Pittsburgh’s number came up (as Brian Burke has serially reminded hockey people) and the best NHL prospect since Mario Lemieux also landed in black and gold. During the early stage of Crosby’s career, the Penguins won consecutive Eastern Conference titles – losing the Cup final to Detroit in 2008 before turning the table on the Red Wings a year later. The Consol Energy Center, which replaced old Mellon Arena in 2010, is the proverbial “House That Crosby Built.” He is far-too precious an asset to be unconditionally molested, as he was in the playoffs this spring.

Again, that falls on the GM.

Those that dismiss Crosby as an excessive “whiner” haven’t a clue. Opponents have fully availed themselves of the Penguins’ passivity and the routine permission of obstruction tactics in the Stanley Cup tournament. The best performers in modern-day history – Crosby, Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito among them – have taken unseemly abuse and have complained vociferously to referees. Sid the Kid should not be singled out. He hasn’t nearly the physical guardianship of such current NHL stars as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrice Bergeron, Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis and even Phil Kessel, who can occasionally rely on Colton Orr, Fraser McLaren and David Clarkson to watch his hide (in the regular season).

Right now, the Penguins are wasting an incomparable resource.

Jobs will be lost as a result.

SHY SHANNY: There were a number of Brendan Shanahan sightings around town Wednesday afternoon… and hardly by accident. The Maple Leafs’ grand poobah was ushered to several media outlets for an apparent update on his remodeling of the local 23.

This is what we got, instead: 

“There is no timetable.”

“We can’t do everything overnight.”

“There’s no pressure from anyone in the organization.”

“There are no quick fixes.”

“Dion Phaneuf is our captain.”

Etc.

Toronto Maple Leafs hockey president Brendan Shanahan stopped by the Toronto Star on Wednesday.

CHIEF SHANNY… LOOKING PENSIVE. RANDY RISLING TORONTO STAR 

JERRY “SEINFELD”: While being destroyed, 15-2, by the Cleveland Indians at Rogers Centre Wednesday night, Toronto Blue Jays resorted to the old strategy of having a position player mop up on the mound – in this case, infielder Steve Tolleson, who induced a pop-up to end the Cleveland ninth. In the bottom of the inning, the Blue Jays prolonged their own agony by tacking on a pair of meaningless runs. Up in the radio booth, veteran play-caller Jerry Howarth was in excellent form.

“Y’know, Joe,” he said to broadcast partner Joe Siddall, “if the Blue Jays come all the way back with 12 more runs, Tolleson gets the win.”

Moments earlier – the announced “crowd” of 14,068 having dwindled to ushers, policeman and a handful of die-hards – Jerry said, “there are so few remaining people that you can almost hear individual fans.”

I was in my car and nearly drove off the road laughing.

MY OLD PAL JERRY HOWARTH (LEFT) HAD ME CHUCKLIN’ PRETTY GOOD WEDNESDAY NIGHT. HERE JERRY IS PICTURED WITH FIRST-YEAR BROADCAST PARTNER JOE SIDDALL.

THE NIGHT AFTER JFK: I was looking at stack of bound Maple Leaf Gardens programs from the early-60’s and my eyes popped at one such item. As you can see, below, I have the Toronto-Boston issue from November 23, 1963 – a Saturday night – and just more than 24 hours after American president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

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OLD MLG STUBS: I also came upon several ticket stubs from events I that attended at Maple Leaf Gardens in the early 1970’s.

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DURING THE PAST MONTH, BUFFALO BRAVES OF THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION HAVE BEEN ALL OVER THE NEWS, THOUGH YOUNG SPORTS FANS MAY NOT REALIZE IT. YOU SEE, THE BRAVES OF THE 1970’s ARE NOW THE LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS AND NEED WE REMIND ANYONE OF DONALD STERLING’S RECENT CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY. IN THE EARLY AND MID-70’s, THE BRAVES PLAYED A HANDFUL OF GAMES EACH YEAR AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS RATHER THAN THE BUFFALO MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM. I SAT ON THE FLOOR AT COURT-SIDE FOR THIS MATCH ON DEC. 2, 1971 BETWEEN THE BRAVES AND BALTIMORE BULLETS (NOW THE WASHINGTON WIZARDS). BUFFALO PLAYERS OF NOTE WERE RANDY SMITH, ELMORE SMITH AND BOB KAUFFMAN WHILE THE BULLETS COUNTERED WITH ARCHIE CLARK, PHIL CHENIER AND WES UNSELD. I STILL REMEMBER THE BALL BOUNCING INTO MY LAP AND TOSSING IT TO CLARK, WHO SAID “THANK YOU, SON.” I WAS 12 AT THE TIME.

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TORONTO ATTORNEY RUBY RICHMAN – PLAYING-COACH OF CANADA’S MEN’S BASKETBALL TEAM AT THE 1964 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPICS – PUSHED HARD TO BRING THE SPORT HERE IN THE EARLY-70’s. AS PART OF HIS CRUSADE, HE INVITED FOUR TEAMS FROM THE OLD AMERICAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION TO MAPLE LEAF GARDENS FOR A DOUBLEHEADER ON JAN. 14, 1972. FIRST GAME WAS BETWEEN THE MEMPHIS PROS AND INDIANA PACERS; THE SECOND MATCH FEATURED THE KENTUCKY COLONELS AND DALLAS CHAPPARALS. I REMEMBER THE SILLY LOOKING ABA BASKETBALL WITH ITS RED, WHITE AND BLUE STRIPES. AND I’LL NEVER FORGET WATCHING 7-FOOT-2 ARTIS GILMORE PLAY FOR KENTUCKY. HE REMAINS THE TALLEST MAN I HAVE EVER SEEN IN PERSON. THE ABA HAD A NINE-YEAR LIFESPAN (1967-68 TO 1975-76) AFTER WHICH FOUR TEAMS – DENVER NUGGETS, NEW YORK (NOW BROOKLYN) NETS, INDIANA PACERS AND SAN ANTONIO SPURS – WERE ABSORBED BY THE NBA.

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SAT IN THE END BLUES – AS THEY WERE KNOWN – FOR A JUNIOR ‘A’ HOCKEY GAME BETWEEN TORONTO MARLBOROS AND KITCHENER RANGERS ON NOV. 21, 1971 – A SUNDAY AFTERNOON. AMONG TORONTO PLAYERS THAT WOULD GRADUATE TO THE NHL WERE MARK HOWE, STEVE SHUTT, BILLY HARRIS, GEORGE FERGUSON, GLENN GOLDUP AND BOB DAILEY. KITCHENER HAD BILL BARBER AND RICK CHARTRAW. LITTLE DID I REALIZE THAT LESS THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, MY DAD WOULD BUY LEAFS SEASON TICKETS IN SEC. 30 OF THE SOUTH MEZZANINE. AND, I SAT IN THE FRONT-ROW REDS – RIGHT AT THE GLASS – FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS REGULAR-SEASON FINALE IN 1971-72 vs. NEW YORK RANGERS. TORONTO WON THE GAME, 2-1, TO CLINCH A PLAYOFF SPOT IN THE EAST DIVISION. I STILL HAVE THE NEWSPAPER IMAGES IN MY SCRAPBOOK:

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