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Whitecaps Leap Into Third – Vancouver 3-2 Real Salt Lake

For at least the half-dozenth time this season, the Vancouver Whitecaps debuted a new lineup, and spent a good half hour making one think, “Hey, maybe they’ve got something here,” only to spend the next 15 minutes making one make the “hrmmmm” emoji face. As they returned to MLS action following the international break, it was the if-not-white-hot-at-least-uncomfortably-warm Real Salt Lake providing the opposition. The 3-2 win was perhaps more laboured than it needed to be, but they’ll all look the same at the end, and for now it’s vaulted the club into third place in the Western Conference.

The first thirty minutes of this game was some of the finest football Vancouver has played all season. The punt was an option, but not an overused one. Mostly they kept the ball on the ground and generated a number of high-quality half chances. Cristian Techera was two hairs away from a hat trick, and Fredy Montero nearly had a goal of the year candidate when he barely missed connecting on a scissor kick. When the breakthrough came on 29 minutes it felt like the game was Vancouver’s.

Fredy Montero goes for the bicycle kick.
Fredy Montero and the Goal of the Year That Wasn’t. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Then, as has been their wont this season, Vancouver regressed to their mean, route one mean. (That makes sense. Read it again.) Long balls. Missed connections. RSL still didn’t look particularly dangerous, but they were at least getting forward. Still, it can’t be said they really deserved the goal they got. A cross, a missed header and an unlucky roll. Some thought it was a poor showing by David Ousted, but I won’t fault him on this occasion. He did well to even get a hand on it.

When the second half came around, things having become a tad stale, it was a set piece that once again got things on track for the Whitecaps. Yordy Reyna delivered a free kick to the reddish noggin of Tim Parker who nearly scored for the umpteenth time this season. The ball ricocheted off the post to a waiting Kendall Waston who made no mistake and brought the 20,783 in attendance back to life.

The eventual game winner came in the 64th minute when Bernie Ibini – largely invisible to that point – arrived with a baffling, fantastic, brilliant pass from inside the six-yard box right to the diving head of Yordy Reyna. How he knew to make that pass I expect never to know. It was shocking. NO forward passes up a shot like that. But it was absolutely the right play, and his unselfishness secured the win.

Down 3-1, throwing everything forward, RSL finally looked like they might score a goal, and they did. It made the final 10 minutes more interesting, but it would be as close as they would get.

Kendall Waston chases down Yura Movsisyan.
Kendall Waston shut down RSL’s danger man, Yura Movsisyan, and scored once at the other end during a Whitecaps 3-2 win. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Now let’s talk about the big story from this game. Aly Ghazal, Vancouver’s now second-newest midfielder, finally made his debut in the starting lineup. (Side note: is this the first mid-season acquisition to jump straight into the starting lineup in the Robinson era?) Ghazal is the kind of player that the anti-stats crowd will point to when they make their “you can’t count what he does” arguments. Because… well, you don’t appear to be able to count what he does. The man doesn’t tackle; he was 0-2 on the night. He doesn’t pass very well; 21-32 on the night, albeit with six recoveries. He only had a couple of interceptions, a couple of clearances. He’s just kind of… there… but in a good way.

He forced more bad decisions than I can count, letting Waston and Parker rack up the stats. He gets in there and stops the ball without lunging in for the tackle as Matias Laba often does. I’m not entirely convinced yet, but RSL had VERY few chances through the middle of the park, relying instead on balls to the wing, which is exactly what Vancouver wanted them to do. Exciting times, if they continue.

Grades

Goaltender: FIVE Pucks in the Head
David Ousted was solid if generally unspectacular. A couple of good reaction saves that looked nice but we probably would have been disappointed by if they’d gone in. One unlucky break on the first goal.

Defence: FIVE Pucks in the Head
Jake Nerwinski has rendered Sheanon Williams obsolete. There, I said it. Get rid of him and sign a cheap backup. Waston and Parker were on their games. Harvey was okay, but could have done better on the second RSL goal.

Midfield: SIX Pucks in the Head
Ghazal was fantastic. Tchani was fine except for that one time he just stopped and got dispossessed. Reyna, Ibini, and Techera all either scored or had primary assists. Tough to ask for much more.

Forward: FIVE Pucks in the Head
Honestly, Montero was almost playing as a midfielder. His best moments were passes. He had two key passes, which is decent for any distributor. Had he connected on that scissor kick, hooo boy.

Stanley Cup final prediction

I would love nothng more than seeing PK Subban carry the Stanley Cup into Montreal Children’s Hospital. I would totally get behind Pekka Rinne’s name on the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. I’d even sing along if Carrie Underwood twanged her way through a cover of The Good Ol’ Hockey Game by Stompin’ Tom.

Sadly for @PredsOnTheGlass and all the other country-fried hockey fans in Nashville, it’s not meant to be.

Sidney Crosby is going to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back championships, the first time a team has repeated since Steve Yzerman captained the Detroit Red Wings to consecutive Cups in 1997 and 1998.

The Pens are just too deep, too good, and they’ve been here before. Nashville are rested, yes, but they’ve also had time to cool off since their wins over the underwhelming Blues and the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Ducks. From Sid and Evgeni Malkin down through rookie Jake Guentzel and beard salesman Nick Bonino, Pittsburgh just gets things done.

Nashville is an impressive unit, and they’ve earned their spot here in the final, but it will take a minor miracle (or some strategic injuries) to unseat the champs. Let’s just hope every single game is good hockey, because thus far this post-season has been damned entertaining. It would be a damned shame if the Preds’ first final appearance — and Sid’s third Cup win — was a dog.

Pens in six.

Sid wore this badass Gladiator helmet after winning the Cup last year. This year, will he go Lord of the Rings?

Round Two Predictions

My calls for the last round were pretty good, actually, all things considered. I tapped the Rangers, Senators, Penguins, Blues, Ducks and Capitals; my only misses came from Edmonton — but the ageing Sharks had injuries across the board, so I give myself a pass on that one — and Nashville — a sweep, seriously? Nobody predicted that.

Record so far: 6-2.

Pekka Rinne played out of his mind for that first round. I mean, did you see this? PK Subban’s energy has to be rousing that locker room just as much as the sea of mustard at Bridgestone Arena, and Peter Laviolette behind the bench has the Preds playing as well as I’ve ever seen them play. Still, the boys from St Loo are just too deep, and it’s Vladimir Tarasenko’s year, methinks. Blues in six.

The addition of Connor McDavid has instilled an actual work ethic in the Edmonton dressing room. For a few years now, they’ve been fun to watch, but half of that was in anticipation of the inevitable self-inflicted immolation. I thought it had happened again when the San Jose Sharks scored a touchdown in Game Four of the first round, but the Oilers impressed with two straight wins directly afterward. All of this points to a Western Conference powerhouse for years to come. However, this year their goaltending is going to let them down. Anaheim can feel the window closing on that core of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Cam Fowler. I hate to give those shitty webfooted jerseys another round, but I’ve got to call Ducks in six. I’ll be thrilled if the Oil can prove me wrong.

Erik Karlsson is my second favourite NHL defenceman (after Drew Doughty, natch), and Craig Anderson’s personal situation makes the Sens an easy emotional choice. Hell, they’ve even got Alex Burrows gutting out shift after shift to pull on my heart strings. Karlsson is rumoured to be playing on a wonky foot, however, and Burrows is done as far as slaying dragons is concerned. Across the ice is a squad just one year removed from a Stanley Cup loss to the LA Kings; Henrik Lundqvist has all but said that his window is about shut, and Alain Vigneault knows how to get teams deep in this tournament. Rangers in six.

Aha, the pièce de résistance. Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin. So far in their careers, Sid the Kid has owned Ovi8; sure, the big Russian has won more Rocket Richard trophies for scoring the most goals in a single season, but Sid has two Olympic gold medals, a couple of Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe, and too many other awards to count. Just last year, the Penguins followed Crosby’s lead to one of the strongest second half / playoff combinations we’ve seen in recent memory. This year, Sid was dominant, winning his second career Richard trophy and finishing second in league scoring. The Pens are as deep as the day is long, and are a serious threat to repeat as Cup champions. All of this aside (not to mention Malkin’s 11 first-round points against the Blue Jackets), this is Ovechkin’s year. Brayden Holtby is just plain better than Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes, and the Caps have TJ Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nicklas Backstrom… and you never, ever bet against Justin Williams in the playoffs. Caps in the most entertaining seven-game series we’ve seen since the ’94 Canucks-Rangers final.

 

Round One Predictions

Playoff predictions are a fine art. You can put dozens of hours into statistical analysis and go oh-fer, and another year ignore the standings altogether and win your bracket based on jersey colours alone.

Me, I’m going somewhere in-between. Stirring a wee bit of gut instinct in with hardcore hockey knowhow, I’m pretty sure I’ll bat roughly .500 in my ROUND ONE PREDICTIONS:

It’s hard to bet against Carey Price, but the New York Rangers have a stronger roster and better coaching. Give it to the blueshirts: Rangers in six.

Despite his imressive World Cup of Hockey tourney earlier this year (and a hat trick here against the Canucks a few weeks back), Brad Marchand will never get my vote. The Senators, on the other hand, have Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson. Sens in seven.

John Tortorella may have scared Columbus into contention through the season, but it’s hard to believe he can conjure serious playoff mojo — especially when Crosby & Co. are skating the other way. Make it five series in a row for Pittsburgh. Pens in five.

Minnesota Wild fans have some wonderful things to cheer for this year, and may just get some playoff payoff sometime soon, but the Blues are just too dangerous to ignore. Tarasenko scores six goals and threatens many, many more times than that. Blues in six.

There`s been little more exciting this year than Connor McDavid`s emergence as the league`s premier scoring threat. Edmonton, after so many years of pathetic play, is finally more than just happy to be here. Still, San Jose has too much to work with at both ends of the ice; their goaltending is the difference. Sharks in seven.

Like McDavid, Auston Matthews is fantastic. However, Leaf Nation will need another couple of years before they can turn playoff towels into playoff wins. Alex Ovechkin, on the other hand, might just win his Cup this year. (Can`t you just taste that White House visit, you Big Russian?) Caps in five.

Nashville always plays Chicago hard, and Pekka Rinne can steal a few games for the Predators at any moment. I would love to see PK Subban go a few rounds just to snub the idiot Habs for trading him away. That said, the Blackhawks are still the class of the league on paper, and they`ve got enough Cup pedigree on the roster to preclude any bets for those ugly yellow shirts across the hall. Hawks in six.

Calgary should just stay home. Ducks in five.

Remember Steve Bernier?

Longtime followers of Pucked in the Head might remember that we started out as a podcast called Bernier is a Turd. That was back when Steve Bernier was an overpaid roster spot holder for the Vancouver Canucks. We frequently complained that Mr Turd was a sorry excuse for a hockey forward, and accused him of being a garbage goalmonger of the very worst sort. “He can only score if he’s standing in the crease,” we lamented, “and only then, with no goaltender between him and the goal line.”

Theory: Steve Bernier can only score from here, just not when that guy with the pads is there.
Theory: Steve Bernier can only score from here, just not when that guy with the pads is there.

Turns out we were half wrong.

Bernier now plies his trade in the American Hockey League, for the New York Islanders affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers. As the Hartford Wolf Pack pressed to tie a 3-2 game late in the third period, our man Steve lay down, angling his shin pads just so, to block a point shot from Ryan Graves. The puck bounced, ricocheted, rebounded, even caromed the length of the ice into the Hartford net. There was indeed no goaltender, as the Pack had opted for an extra attacker. But we admit — Bernier can, indeed, hit the net from outside the crease.

You can’t say he didn’t do it on purpose.

If you liked this, check out our Weird Goals post. Oh, and its sequel, Weird Goals II.

 

Weird Goals II

We at Pucked in the Head appreciate weirdness. Odd scoring plays, in particular, bring us equal parts unbridled joy and unsolicited hate mail. Consequently, we are happily wary to present this, the second installment of Weird Goals. (The inaugural Weird Goals post can be found here.)

Loui Eriksson starts off his Canucks tenure with a bang
From horrible trades and season-long injuries to embarrassing contracts and mysterious coaching changes, the Vancouver Canucks have had a rough go of things since gifting the Boston Bruins the 2011 Stanley Cup final. The latest bit of bizarre came on the opening night of 2016-17 against the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Calgary Flames.

After signing a big off-season free agent contract, Loui Eriksson was making his Canucks debut. Less than ten minutes into the first period, Troy Brouwer drew a penalty; Ryan Miller skated to the bench for an extra attacker, as the Canucks had possession. Eriksson found himself hounded by four — count ’em, four! — Flames, and despite having the delayed penalty on his side, panicked. He threw the puck back to his defenseman, but WAIT! The D were thinking line change and/or attack, so the puck slid the length of the ice and directly into the Vancouver net. Brouwer got credit for the snipe before heading to the box for an ineffective Canucks power play.

Interesting point: after this game, Canucks goalie Ryan Miller had a perfect 1.000 save percentage, and courtesy of a Vancouver shootout win, a 1-0 record. However, he was not credited with a shutout because of Eriksson’s blunder.

Twitter just it up, as you can imagine. BTW, after nine games in Canuck blue and green, this remains Eriksson’s lone goal of the season.

Flames score as Dumba goal as you’ll ever see
What the hell, Calgary? You get all these bizarro goals and you’re still a Pacific Division stinker? I mean, sure, you’ve got that one win for Lanny back in ’89, but jeez Louise, you’ve gotta turn all of these awful gimmes into more than one lousy Cup.

Devan Dubnyk has no chance at all when a shot by David Jones goes off Mike Reilly’s stick, then caroms off Matt Dumba’s head into the net.

Marc Bergevin throws the puck into his own net
Who says the San Jose Sharks only have bad luck? Early in this game against the St Louis Blues, Marc Bergevin decides to gift some karma to Mike Ricci et al with a shortstop-worthy flip into the back of his own goal. Gary Suter dumps the puck in; Bergevin gloves it and tries to fling it away from the onrushing Sharks forwards. Instead, it flies past a stunned Roman Turek into the Blues net. Tie game.

Ed Belfour gifts Mike Gartner, 1993 All-Star Game
Mike Gartner isn’t supposed to play. An allegedly hungover Ed Belfour probably shouldn’t. Together, they make magic in the first period of the 1993 All-Star Game.

Belfour comes well out of the net to prevent the fastest skater in the league from catching up to an Adam Oates clearing play, and lets the puck through the wickets with hilariously bad form. Gartner, added to the lineup to replace injured Rangers teammate Mark Messier, scores his second goal in 22 seconds to put the Wales Conference up 2-0 early. (He goes on to score two more and earn MVP honours before the game is out; Belfour allows six goals in his 20 minutes of duty.)

Bonus: the 1993 All-Star Game in its entirety.
Watch Wayne Gretzky, Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Adam Oates, among others, as the Wales Conference beats the Campbell Conference 16–6. Twenty years ago, the ASG was actually watchable.

 

2016-17 NHL Fantasy Draft, part one

It’s been four years since I last joined a hockey pool. I’ve enjoyed the game far more in years that I don’t have a horse in the race, you know? This season, though, I thought I’d throw caution to the manure-flavoured wind and join a workmate’s keeper fantasy league. Here’s how my draft went (part one):

Round One – Vladimir Tarasenko (RW), 8th overall pick
Even if he plays for the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ St Louis Blues, Vladimir Tarasenko is bloody exciting to watch. He’s an explosive player whose speed and agility recall a young Pavel Bure, and I loved watching Pavel play. This guy can score from just about anywhere, and last year he did — 40 goals was good for fourth overall in the NHL in 2015-16. Tarasenko is on the cover of EA Sports NHL 17, and ranked at #6 overall by Greg Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy.
Picked 8th overall, just after Steven Stamkos — how the hell does Stammer go 7th?!?!? — and one before Joe Pavelski.

Vladimir Tarasenko of the St Louis Blues is the EA Sports NHL 17 cover dude, and my first round pick. Photo cribbed from the St Louis Blues website.
Vladimir Tarasenko of the St Louis Blues is the EA Sports NHL 17 cover dude, and my first round pick. Photo cribbed from the St Louis Blues website.

Round Two – Erik Karlsson (D), 17th overall pick
Karlsson’s 82 points was good for fifth in the league last year (well, tied for fourth but Joe Thornton had three more goals than Karlsson). Buddy had 66 assists despite playing on the woeful Ottawa Senators. Again, a joy to watch this guy play the game. It’s easy to cheer for someone who makes plays like this.
Picked 17th overall, just after Carey Price and one before Ben Bishop.

Round Three- Artemi Panarin (LW), 32nd overall pick
Artemi Panarin was lightning with Patrick Kane last season. Sure, there are rumours the Blackhawks might split them up to start the year, but he’ll still be on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. How , oh how will he ever score 77 points again with those losers on his line; huge loss for the plucky sophomore. Yes, I just wrote ‘plucky sophomore’ — mainly because of this:

Picked 32nd overall, just after Dustin Byfuglien and one before Cory Schneider.

Rounds 4-15 to come.

Thanks a lot, Ovi

I was all kinds of cynical coming into the World Cup of Hockey. “Who cares about Gary Bettman fellating Toronto for two weeks?” I asked. “It’s just a glorified pre-season cash grab.”

It’s easy to stand by those remarks. Many of the world’s best hockey players — Phil Kessel among them — aren’t spending these couple of weeks in Hogtown wearing their national flags. In the case of Team Europe and Team North America, even the players who are there are wearing shirts with meaningless, made-up logos.

It’s easy to laugh at the States — Tortorella, Kesler & Co. just take themselves so seriously — so Kessel’s jibe on Twitter is too joyfully snarky to shake off. But let’s admit it: the Yanks weren’t that bad. They outshot the Czechs by a wide margin, and put a pretty good scare into Canada for ten to fifteen minutes of the first period. Even when that elimination game was a foregone conclusion, the good guys up by three goals in the third period, America the beautiful hit three posts and even scored one to make it interesting. Face facts, and it was a lucky bounce off of Corey Perry’s gut that proved the turning point in Canada’a game two romp.

I’m not upset at the U.S. getting knocked out, especially after the clusterbleep of Americentric propaganda coming out of the Rio Olympics. What kills me is the elimination of Team North America. That entire team played with jump and grit nearly every shift. Their breakneck speed and puppy-like enthusiasm brought fans out of their seats, coaching systems bedamned. Mistakeswwre made multiple times per shift! It’s what makes the World Juniors such a blast every year — even goals against are spectacular.

Coach Todd McLellan saw the speed and skill of the kids and decided to play — gasp — a fun style of hockey. After all, if you peer through the bluster of hockey media and clear away the vast sums of money that lather up those precious athletic egos, fun is what the game is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

But back to Mother Russia. Tarasenko and his comrades issued a 4-3 comeback against  the younguns featured a colossal second-period meltdown that must have felt pretty familiar to the Maple Leaf fans in the building; the only difference here was that Team North America very nearly scored their way out of the problem. Russia was merely lucky not to let these kids into overtime.

Mans so we have a Saturday night loser-go-home tilt between Canada and Russia. And somehow it feels like meh.

It’s hard to believe that Sid the Not-A-Kid-Anymore versus the Great Eight is a letdown, but damn it all, that Team North America was just so bloody entertaining, it’s a shame to see them sit after just three games. We may never see Connor McDavid set up Auston Matthews for another goal again. Ever. And that’s hard to swallow.

Damn it, even Team North America’s goal song was fun.

The good news is that the Toronto Star says the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry still exists. You know, except that one of them has won multiple Stanley Cups, Olympic gold medals and a long-running Tim Hortons contract. The other? Sure, he’s got a Rocket Richard trophy or two — Ovechkin can snipe all the live long day — and some World Championship titles, but you only win those when your team is out of the playoffs early. Fact: Alex Ovechkin will forever be judged by the hardware he hasn’t won. Right now he’s in the mix for the Best Player Who’s Never Won a Cup award with the Sedins, Marcel Dionne and Darryl Sittler.

Alex Ovechkin is the dirty, rotten, stinkin' bastard who robbed us of a Canada-Team North America semi at the World Cup of Hockey.
Alex Ovechkin is the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ bastard who robbed us of a Canada-Team North America semi at the World Cup of Hockey.

Even if he does manage a miracle, and gets Russia past Canada this Saturday, even if he then helps win the best-of-three final against either Sweden or Team Europe, a pre-season, cash grabbing World Cup of Hockey trophy won’t bring him up to Crosby’s level.

Photo gallery: Whitecaps FC 2 Crystal Palace FC 2

In mid-July, the Whitecaps hosted some jokers from a place called London, England — seriously, what kind of name for a football squad is Crystal Palace? Anyway, they tied the friendly 2-2,  in a game that wasn’t particularly exciting sport but gave locals a chance to see some Premier League footballers up close and personal.

Here’s a gallery of my best pics from the match. Enjoy.

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Slideshow: Salmonbellies vs Adanacs lacrosse

As a photographer, I’ve had the pleasure of capturing images of ATP Challenger tennis, football at MLS and FIFA international events, as well as puck from Timbits hockey and the beer leagues al the way up to the bigs. Somehow, though, I’d never shot Canada’s other national sport, lacrosse. Until last week, that is. Thanks to Jen and Erin at Tenth to the Fraser for encouraging me to try it out.

Here are my best pics from a nailbiter, a dramatic 10-9 win for the first-place New Westminster Salmonbellies on their home floor at Queen’s Park Arena.

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