by Kate Shefte
Well, fans, we’re finally here. The playoffs are headed back to the Triangle. After 81 tough games and half a season of nervously watching the standings, Caniac Nation will finally be able to show what it’s made of again on the national stage. Forget home-ice advantage; after getting hot at exactly the right time, the team that many had written off halfway through February can now finish no lower than sixth place.
“We’ve played phenomenal for a long while now. We’re a team that I wouldn’t want to face in the playoffs, and we’re looking forward to that,” Eric Staal said after the Buffalo drubbing on Thursday night. Even after that loss, it’s hard not to be confident, even with the threat of a first-round match with the tough, talented Philadelphia Flyers looming on the horizon.
In honor of today’s final regular season match-up against the New Jersey Devils, I thought it might be cool to honor (and crack on) a few of the performances this season. If the ‘Canes make some noise in the playoffs, maybe we’ll distribute some more fake awards around in a few weeks. But for now…the first annual Triangle Offensies!
MVP: Cam Ward
Runner-up: Ray Whitney
Duh. Well, maybe not so much of a duh. This Triangle Offensie trophy could easily be split into two parts, with the first half of the season MVP half going to “The Wizard” and the second half going to Cam Ward. Whitney has been solid, leading the team in points for the vast majority of the season, notching 51 assists and being flat-out the most consistent player on the bench, not to mention a valuable voice in the locker room. However, like every other pundit out there, T.O. concedes that this imaginary trophy goes to Cam Ward. Cam Ward took the wheel down the stretch, and if he hadn’t played absolutely out of his mind, the ‘Canes would not be in this lofty position. His contributions to the team bumped his team into the playoffs and launched him into the top tier of goaltenders in the league. There were plenty of questions surrounding Ward before the season, with some even going to far as to doubt his ability to be a No. 1 goaltender. “Can he handle the workload?” “Can he perform when the spotlight isn’t on?” “Was 2006 a fluke?” Yes…yes…and no. Put this one next to your Conn Smyth, Cam.
Most Improved: Anton Babchuk
Runners-up: Chad LaRose, Brind’Amour’s plus-minus
Who would have thought that Babchuk, who looked to have waved goodbye (or perhaps more aptly, given the finger to) the NHL for the last time would become such a scoring machine down the stretch? The young, temperamental defenseman came back from Russia a new man with a new number, but that old cannon of a slapshot was still intact. Babchuk had to earn back the trust of his coaches and teammates, working hard and becoming more sound in his own end, but eventually he worked his way into the top four and demonstrated what the scouts saw in him when they labeled him a first-round pick. His playoff-clinching goal against Pittsburgh, a signature blast from the point, sums up what Babchuk means to this team now.
A season without a temper tantrum or a water bottle-chucking incident would have been success enough for Babs, but he took his game to another level entirely. Rutherford’s most recent Russian Reclamation Project has turned out to be another raving success story.
LaRose’s recent decision to become a 20-goal scorer and Brind’Amour’s decision not to…you know…suck both deserve mention here as well.
Coaches' Award: Sergei Samsonov
Runner-up: Eric Staal
While I can’t imagine what Mo would say if asked (not that he’d probably provide an answer,) I developed a logarithm for this award: random, unprompted mentions in the postgame x 4 / consistency in line-up and playing time + pi^2. It’s not an exact science, but it’s pretty close.
Most Talkative: Tuomo Ruutu
Apparently, Luke DeCock agrees. Ruutu will happily administer a hit on anyone or anything that stays still long enough, and off the ice he’s just as cheerily willing to answer questions. Win, lose, it doesn’t seem to matter. He will always talk to the press and usually with some insightful analysis.
Least Talkative (but it’s not his fault!) : Tim Gleason
“Candid” is probably the best word to describe Tim Gleason when you hand him a headset. His quotes are funny and often crude, and the media loves to print them…but the team wranglers probably don’t love to read them, which is possibly part of the reason why Gleason rarely gets in front of a camera or a microphone. Or perhaps he doesn’t enjoy being interviewed, which would be a shame; he’s honest, uncensored and quite funny (see below,) so here’s to more verbal gems from the rugged, chippy defenseman in the near future.
Biggest Surprise: Dennis Seidenberg
Runners-up: Tim Conboy and Dwight Helminen
Gotta give the defense a little more loving here. Elsewhere on the interweb, before the season began, I believe I may have said something along the lines of “Seidenberg does practically nothing and gets paid practically nothing, so it all evens out.” The words “slow” and “useless” may have been thrown around too…I’d need to see a transcript. In any case, the journeyman has surprised us all with his offensive prowess this season. Five goals and 25 assists are impressive numbers for a stay-at-home defenseman, and if he hadn’t been frequently injured they could have been hired. No longer, when Seidenberg is the only man back on a two-on-one, do I close my eyes and start reciting Hail Mary’s. I think we’re all pretty glad the ‘Canes held onto him last summer.
Conboy has added an incredibly valuable level of physicality and has become a mainstay on the bench, and Helminen has quietly crept into the NHL and stayed there. Not who anyone would have pegged to be Albany’s ambassadors to the big club this year, but there you go.
Lame Duck Award: Patrick Eaves
Runner-up: Scott Walker
Speaking of former first-rounders living up to their potential…well, Patrick Eaves is not one of them. John Forslund (and others) speculated around the time he and Corvo came to Carolina that Eaves could, in fact, be the jewel of that trade if he stayed healthy, but that hasn’t happened. He stayed healthy and his production actually went down. Six goals and a permanent spot on the third and fourth lines was not what the ‘Canes had in mind for Eaves.
Not to hate on Scotty Walker, but he wasn’t healthy long enough to do anything for the team this season. Better luck next season?
Save of the Year: Cam Ward on Zach Parise
Goal of the Year: Joe Corvo on Tomas Vokoun
The “Put Me In, Coach!” award: Brandon Sutter
Runner-up: Frank Kaberle
Peter Laviolette seemed to be invested in the latest chapter in hockey’s royal family, but Mo did not agree. Sutter, granted, did not evolve offensively at the rate the ‘Canes would have hoped, but he was assigned to the AHL a few months ago and never heard from again. So much for growing and developing in the NHL. At least now, he’ll get some playing time. With Albany missing the playoffs, “Butter”
© will probably be on deck for the playoffs but unless every forward on the team spontaneously injures themselves (please, no!) there’s a good chance we won’t see Butter any time soon.
And as for poor Kaberle, with Pitkanen’s addition he saw himself voted off the island and no other team wanted to pick up his contract. At least he’s gotten the chance to work his suit collection.
The “Let’s Call This a Comeback” Award: Joni Pitkanen
Each of Pitkanen’s previous teams had some, uh, less-than-flattering things to say about his work ethic and locker room bonding techniques. Unless those in the locker room have some a’splanin to do, Pitkanen has shed that stigma in Carolina.
Most eco-conscious: Jim Rutherford
“R-E-C-Y-C-L-E, Don’t trade for someone who doesn’t know me!” Rutherford didn’t disappoint with his EPA-sanctioned moves this season, bringing back Colesey and Mo for another round. Justin Williams, Aaron Ward, and David Tanabe…we’ll be looking forward to another glorious reunion soon!
Best Interview: Ray Whitney
Runner-up: Joe Corvo
He may have been small in stature, but something just tells you that The Wizard had no trouble picking up chicks in his early years. The most charismatic interview, hands down. It may come as a surprise, but Corvo always has something interesting to say as well.
Worst Interview: Joni Pitkanen
Runner-up: Anton Babchuk
I hate to pick on two guys who barely speak English, but…just watch, okay?
Best Hat Model: Michael Leighton
Runner-up: This one was pretty unanimous.
Poor Leighton didn’t see much ice time this season with his counterpart Ward tearing it up in net, but damn it, he rocked the hell out of those hats! Whenever the camera happened to slide by him, he was always there to look appropriately interested in the play or high-five a teammate. He also manned the bench door with great efficiency. Though, in my opinion, he played better than his 14 games would indicate, Leighton honored the role of “benchwarmer” and simply rocked those red-and-white caps. Reebok should cut him a check.
Best “Bromance”: Eric Staal and Erik Cole
Runner-up: Cam Ward and Michael Leighton.
(Thanks to NHL.com for the photo.)
Mostly just because this word irks David Fellerath, but also because this epic tale of linemate chemistry is right up there with the best. Cole’s return and its effect on Staal’s play have been well documented, so I won’t go into too much detail. But those two have reached a level of sync where they seem to be able to read each other’s minds.
Best Jumbotron concoction: “As part of President Obama’s stimulus plan, America offered Buffalo to Canada. Canada politely refused.”
…and the worst: “He’s no Jokinen!” ‘Nuff said.
Best ‘Canes coverage (other than Triangle Offense, of course!) : Have to shout out our buddies over at CanesCountry for their tireless, sharp coverage and great dialogue with fans. Thanks for the Pitkanen vid as well.
Quote of the Year: “Go back to your make-up and handbags!” – Chad LaRose
Runner-up: “That’s what happens when you suck.” – Tim Gleason
Congratulations to the winners. Now, time for some more hardware. Playoffs, here we come.