Thursday, April 17, 2003

Ok, my turn.

First reaction? With the RiverKings coming off its sweep of Indy, and the Bats barely one goal (and two injuries) better than Laredo most nights? Repeat.

And yet, Memphis was barely one goal better than Austin most nights last year, and the 2003 Bats are better than 2002. I don't think you can say that about the Kings, even if they are on something of a roll.

Most importantly, I don't think we've seen the Ice Bats' best. They have another level. Memphis may not let them reach it, but it's certainly within their grasp.

10 questions about the finals, from my Austincentric point of view.

1. Can the Bats win Games 1 and 2?
Because if not, worst case, we know what happened last year. Best case, Austin figures to be down 3-2 going home. I'm gonna say yes -- if Matt Barnes plays his best game of the season tonight. The Bats are 0-4 in Game 1s since beating the Iguanas some 13 months ago (and that was on the road). What good is home ice advantage if you don't take advantage?

2. Who's got the power?
Is Austin's PK that good, or did Laredo (1 for 25) just go cold? With Memphis operating at 29%, we're gonna find out fast. Even if the Bats cut that number in half, that still could be a goal per game, so the Bats need to continue their own extra-man success (22%). With no shorties!

3. Will Nasato and Tucker get into their heads?
I'd like to think not, but Legault, Sharuga, Price and Greenlaw are gonna have to prove it. Against a team as talented as Memphis there are going to be enough hooking and obstruction calls. No need to add a bunch of roughings (or interference penalties caused by overzealous banging) to the ledger. Hit the hell out of them, but initiate, don't retaliate. Or turn the tables. If Sharuga or Greenlaw take Nasato or Landmesser to the box with 'em, that's ok. And if I recall, their goalie has a temper (as in mean streak, not tantrum).

4. Can the Bats shut down Parsons/Gagnon as well as they did Grenville/Schneider?
No way. But the Smart line will do a decent job. However, Smarty led the Bats in goals all season. He has to find a way to get that donut off his stat sheet without completely shirking two-way play. In other words, be a little more like Kahlil Thomas.

5. Can the STP line keep it up?
Sure. But in the Laredo series, they were often out against the Lundbohm/Gilmore/Petruic line, which had its share of opportunities. Thomas and Stastny will have more. Which makes the next question critically important.

6. Who's the third line hero?
Jeff Greenlaw, Matt Sharuga and Mike Olynyk, step right up. Or how 'bout Brent Hughes? "Little Hughesy" is already a faceoff revelation (with him, Seguin and Smart, the Bats should have an edge in that crucial department). He's bound to pull an Eric Labelle (two goals against the Kings last playoffs) one of these games. The Kings have equally proven depth players, but I'm taking a flyer on the Bats with this one.

7. Ok, Mark Richards is Patrick Roy. Can't Barnes be Ed Belfour?
Of course he can. But it's true that Barnes' regular-season record means nothing now. Richards is a playoff horse, and especially good at making the biggest and most timely saves. At the same time, you can put three or four past him, 'cause the Kings know how to win that way. We all know that with Barnes in goal, last year's series at least goes back to Austin. He absolutely has to steal a game or two. He's probably gonna see more rubber than he has all season -- and I'm sure he'll love it.

8. What about the d-men?
It's a whole new world compared to last year. First of all, there's nobody on the Austin roster who can play any worse than Daniel Tetrault did last year (sorry Tetsy). And while the Bats' ballyhooed additions were veterans Mike Rees and Doug Johnson, the continued evolution of Darryl McArthur and Pat Brownlee was equally important. They both looked green at times last playoffs. They don't now.

9. What about the refs?
What refs? Just play the RiverKings. Don't like a call? Penalty-killing is the best revenge. The Bats seemed to learn this after Game 1 of the New Mexico series. And Hughesy has been a calmer sort all year (funny what the most wins and best goaltender in the league will do for your composure).

10. Who wants it more?
Far be it from me to say a coach with four rings can't find the magic to repeat. No way a team with six straight playoff wins doesn't have its eyes set firmly on the prize.

But Austin's been due for seven (well, six out of seven) years. The key components of the current squad have been around for two or three or four. Jeff Greenlaw has played 16 NHL, AHL, WPHL and CHL seasons without a ring. He will probably retire. Matt Barnes definitely will. Seguin, Tallaire, Price, Smart, Gaffney, Rees, Johnson and Legault will all be vets next season. The coach is hoping for an AHL job. And then there's the matter of revenge.

So are the Ice Bats more determined? That's what the players' friends say. Of course, I doubt Don Parsons' best pal is walking around going, "I don't know how much he wants it this time." But let's give the Bats the edge.

To win this thing, Barnes is gonna have to turn in a couple of one or two-goal games. Otherwise, the offense needs to chip in four or five. I'm not convinced that's gonna happen.

But I'm picking with my heart. Bats in 7. Barnes MVP ('cause he pretty much has to be if the Bats are gonna win, no matter what the STP does). 37 goals.
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