May 312013
 

Of the four remaining teams in the NHL playoffs, three of them – the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings – are teams that beat the Canucks in the last 3 seasons en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

Go Penguins.

Here are our round three picks:

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings

Clay: Blackhawks in 7. This series will be an interesting clash of styles. Chicago is playing with some great confidence right now, having won three straight against Detroit. If the Hawks’ skill players can outplay the Kings’ skill players, then Chicago will win. While not as big and tough as the Kings, I think they can play tough enough to keep up. And Crawford shouldn’t worry about having to match Quick save for save; but he will have to avoid letting in a bad goal.

Victoria: Kings in 6. The Kings thrive at being the underdog without home ice. Also with two teams this closely matched in youth and Stanley Cup experience, goalies will matter most. Corey Crawford will crumble before Jonathan Quick does.

@cherry_grant: ‘Hawks in 7. Eff those guys, but ‘Hawks in 7. Gahhh, I’m getting tired of having to say nice things about Chicago, or at least saying not horrible things about those jerks! Go Blackhawks. *shiver*

J.J.: Blackhawks in 6. The ‘Hawks are a good team. Now only if the officials will let them showcase that skill.

Matt: Kings in 6. It pains me to write this, because it’s like trying to pick between which of the problem children you’d like to babysit at your house for another month. The fact is, Los Angeles is the more consistent team right now, whereas Chicago seemingly can’t be bothered to play their best hockey until they absolutely have to. This series will be a treat I’m sure, but I like the Kings’ chances of stealing a game on the road and holding serve at home more than the Blackhawks.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) Boston Bruins

Clay: Penguins in 6. The Penguins have been relatively untested so far in the playoffs so I’m intrigued as to how they will fare against the big, bad Bruins. I think that Pittsburgh will continue to outscore any goaltending issues they may have although Vokoun has been pretty solid (but not spectacular). In the end, I don’t see a team with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, and Letang being denied.

Victoria: Penguins in 5. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching superhero movies, it’s good always triumphs over evil. And the Bruins are evil. The end.

@cherry_grant: Penguins in 7. AS IF I’m going to pick Boston this time. I hope Pittsburgh and the mighty Iginla hand their asses to them, then hoist the cup, preferably with misty eyes and exploding with well-justified pride. that said, I don’t think it’ll be easy.

J.J.: Penguins in 5. I mean, how much longer can the green Boston defense play as well as they have?

Matt: Penguins in 7. This matchup may even be sexier than the other series. But I like a stacked Pittsburgh forwards group against a Boston defense which has been beset by injury. That isn’t to say the Bruins kids (Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and the like) have not filled in admirably, but they’re not matching up against Ryan Callahan or Nazem Kadri anymore; these are tried and true bonafide superstars they will need to hold off. The one X-Factor could be the physicality of this series; if the Bruins can pulverize the Penguins, it may swing the series in Boston’s favour.

May 142013
 

With the first round of the 2013 NHL playoffs behind us, it’s time to talk about more important things, like who’s leading the CHB playoffs prediction pool – that would be the Victoria, who correctly predicted 5 of the series winners.

Here are our round two picks:

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings

Clay: Chicago in 6. The Blackhawks have too much firepower and their forwards will overwhelm the Red Wings’ defence. Chicago may come out a bit rusty (given the 6 days between games) but they will shake it off quickly.

Victoria: Chicago in 7. It’ll go to 7 games because Jimmy Howard is the better goalie, but he’s not good enough to steal a series from a bunch of younger, hungrier Hawks.

@cherry_grant: I want to say Wings in 7, but I will instead say ‘Hawks in 6. Part of me hopes the Kings and the Wings win their series and eventually have to face off just for rhyme’s sake.

J.J.: Chicago in 5. I should know better than to underestimate the Wings, especially Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the playoffs, but the Blackhawks just have way too much depth and firepower.

Matt: Chicago in 6. Three of Detroit’s wins over Anaheim came via OT. What does that tell you? It could be that this is a team that never gives up, but it can also tell you the Wings are a team that just barely made it to the second round. They’ll put up a good fight but this is the end of the road for Detroit.

(4) Los Angeles Kings vs. (6) San Jose Sharks

Clay: Kings in 6. While the Sharks dispatched the Canucks quickly, the Kings had a tougher first-round series yet also won four straight games. The Kings will be able to match the Sharks’ depth at forward and they have a stronger blue line. Look for the Kings to exert their will over the Sharks in this battle of California.

Victoria: Kings in 6. I’ve been attending a lot of Kings games and really can’t say enough how focused and calm they’ve been playing. Canucks laid down and gave up. Kings will not.

@cherry_grant: Kings. With genuinely no bitterness from being swept in the first round by the stinkin’ Sharks (okay, maybe a tiny bit of bitterness). I would rather see the Sharks win over the Kings (I think), but I just don’t see it, even though my last batch of picks proved my lack of psychic ability. (I won’t be sad to be wrong here.)

J.J.: Kings in 7. Kings started playing better as the playoffs rolled on. Who’ll dive more – Joe Thornton, Tommy Wingels or Dustin Brown?

Matt: San Jose in 7. My gut tells me that this is essentially a coin flip. Jonathan Quick has reemerged as the best goaltender in the playoffs after a woeful first two games, but this is a San Jose team that dispatched a bad Vancouver club with depth and terrific defense. Sound familiar?

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

Clay: I mentioned in the last round that Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t have to be awesome; he just had to be good. Well, it seems like he might not even be good enough to start this series. Regardless, the Penguins have too much firepower for the Senators and they will dispatch of the lone Canadian team left.

Victoria: Pittsburgh in 4. Pittsburgh in 4. The Senators just don’t have the talent depth of the Penguins. And also Gary Bettman will want to get rid of that last Canadian team quickly. ;)

@cherry_grant: Pittsburgh in 5. I feel like a traitor going against the Canadian team, but not QUITE enough to not go against the Canadian team. Pens > Sens.

J.J.: Pittsburgh in 6. I would love it if Ottawa made it through, and if Fleury was still in net for the Pens, I totally would have picked the Sens. As it stands, the Pens have gotten enough good goaltending from their backup, Tomas Vokoun, to allow the Pens’ offense to do their thing.

Matt: Pittsburgh in 7. I want badly to say the Senators can win this series, but unless the duo of Tomas Vokoun and Marc Andre Fleury have a meltdown between the pipes, I can’t see even this gutsy Sens team overcoming the Penguins’ power up front. It’ll be a war though.

(4) Boston Bruins vs. (6) New York Rangers

Clay: Rangers in 7. The Rangers are playing good hockey right now while the Bruins had to squeak into the second round. The Bruins’ blueline is beat up, and I expect this to be a low-scoring series, with Henrik Lundqvist out-dueling Tukka Rask in the end.

Victoria: Rangers in 6. My call here is based on the fact that Lundqvist is better than Rask, and the fact that I hate the Boston Bruins more than anything else in the universe.

@cherry_grant: Bruins in 6. I hope they pound each other terribly and the winner of this series gets swept in the next round. Just kidding. Ok, no I’m not. I’m still picking the Bruins.

J.J.: Rangers in 6. Hmmm… to pick the team that beat the Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals or the team that beat the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals? In the first round, the Rangers showed they have some damn good balance throughout their lineup; meanwhile, the Bruins got a bit beat up, especially back on d.

Matt: Rangers in 7. Boston should’ve handled the Leafs in five or six games but took all seven plus a miraculous comeback to put them to rest. New York is riding strong defense and hot goaltending and if that trend continues, the Rangers have reason to be optimistic.

Apr 302013
 

Vancouver Canucks beat the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011 NHL playoffs

Photo credit: CBC.ca

As we await the first drop of the puck in the 2013 NHL playoffs, we at CHB put our reputations on the line and make our predictions for the first round. Like last year, we’ll keep a running tally of who makes the most correct predictions. And also like last year, the winner gets nothing but bragging rights.

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild

Clay: Chicago in 5. Chicago is simply too strong for Minnesota. There’s a reason why one team won the Presidents’ Trophy and the other got in on the last weekend of the regular season. Chicago has too much high-end talent – this won’t even be close.

Victoria: Chicago in 5. I hate to admit it but Chicago has been a force this short season and I don’t see the Wild taking any of the flame from their fire.

@cherry_grant: Chicago in 5. I hate saying this because I, as a good Canucks fan, hate the ‘Hawks. That said, I feel pretty certain that Minnesota will be decimated by them and I will be sad, but somewhat pleased to be basking in my correctness.

J.J.: Chicago in 4. Maybe I like the Hawks that much. Or maybe I just want to jinx them.

Matt: Chicago in 5. This comes down to simple physics: The Blackhawks are a team with firepower up front, adequate defense, and decent goaltending, while the Wild have a popgun offense that barely got them into the postseason. What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings

Clay: Anaheim in 7. While Detroit has more momentum heading into the playoffs, Anaheim had a better regular season including an amazing February when they won 11 out of 13 games. They’ve faltered a bit since then but I still think they’re a better team.

Victoria: Detroit in 7. If any team can pull off a come-from-behind and out-of-nowhere unexpected victory or 7, it’s Detroit. And as the Capitals have proven time and time again, if any team can perform an epic playoff meltdown, it’s a team coached by Bruce Boudreau.

@cherry_grant: Anaheim in 6. Mainly because they have Reverend Lovejoy on their team. (Note: I don’t actually care if his first name is Reverend or not, it will be to me either way.)

J.J.: Anaheim in 7. Given their roster turnover, both teams probably overachieved this season. Datsyuk and Zetterberg elevated their games at the end of the season, and Jimmy Howard has been tremendous, but Getzlaf, Perry, Bobby Ryan and company aren’t slouches either. Plus, I like the Ducks’ kids (Bonino, Fowler) a tiny bit more than the Wings’ kids (Brunner, DeKeyser).

Matt: Anaheim in 7. To answer the question a lot of people are asking, yes, the Ducks are for real. The team doesn’t have to rely solely on Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu Selanne because their young kids are getting the job done too. But don’t expect the Detroit old boys to go down quietly.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks

Clay: Canucks in 7. Very similar teams: strong goaltending and deep down the middle. Two main differences to me: the Canucks have a deeper blue line and the Sharks are horrible on the road. Game 7 at Rogers Arena may be the difference – stanchion or not.

Victoria: Canucks in 7. To be honest, other than a game against Chicago, the Canucks play hasn’t given me a ton of confidence. But they’ve beaten the Sharks in their sleep before so hopefully they can do it again, even if they’re scoring and defence are sleeping through games.

@cherry_grant: I’m going to say Vancouver, in 6. San Jose’s playoff hockey has been pretty weak in past years. Then there’s the whole “being a staunch fan” thing, which makes me want to say “VANCOUVER IN 4, SUCKAS!”

J.J.: Canucks in 7. If the Canucks team that played the Chicago Blackhawks last Monday shows up, they can beat any team in the league. If the Canucks team that didn’t show up for about 40 of the other games this season suit up against the Sharks, it’s going to be a quick exit and a long summer in Vancouver. I have to believe the Canucks can flip the proverbial switch.

Matt: Canucks in 7. What happens when two teams who have a reputation of being playoff “choke artists” meet in the first round? Both teams find a way to make it hard for themselves. With home ice and a healthy-ish lineup, the Canucks should normally get this done in five or six, but they’ll find a way to mess up a game or two.

(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings

Clay: LA in 7. I’m looking forward to these two big teams try to run each other through the boards. I believe that the Kings will prevail in the end: they hammered the Blues on the way to the Stanley Cup last year. It will be closer this year but with the same result.

Victoria: LA in 5. Kings don’t seem to have much of a Stanley Cup hangover, so I’m thinking they’ll at least get through the Blues without a meltdown.

@cherry_grant: Ewwww. St. Louis is my pick for this, in 7. Though really, nobody does as well against St. Louis as Gino Odjick.

J.J.: St. Louis in 7. The Kings have won 8 straight regular season and playoff games against the Blues. So of course, I’m putting my money on St. Loo.

Matt: St. Louis in 7. The last two teams to represent the West in the finals have been bounced in the first round? Coincidence? Probably, but why not keep the trend going? These two teams are strong defensively and physically and will beat the crap out of each other, but the Blues have more incentive to do it.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders

Clay: Pittsburgh in 5. Crosby or not, the Penguins will over-match the Islanders. While New York might be a feel a good story, there’s a reason why the Penguins loaded up at the trade deadline. Fleury won’t have to be awesome for the Penguins to win this series; he just has to be good.

Victoria: Pittsburgh in 6. The last couple of seasons the Penguins have had a way of melting down in the playoffs against teams that they should easily beat. I think it’s time that trend stops. I think they think it too.

@cherry_grant: Pens in 7. Iginla will totally win it for them, single handedly! Right?!

J.J.: Pens in 5. You just know the Islanders will promote Evgeni Nabokov to the front office and bring back Alexei Yashin for some playoff punch, and cause a kerfuffle in what has been a relatively worry-free season in Long Island.

Matt: Pittsburgh in 5. The Penguins are this year’s “sexy” pick to win it all, but the fact the Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time in a gazillion years should provide them a little pep to steal a game. Otherwise, this isn’t a matchup that’s even close.

(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

Clay: Montreal in 7. This is going to be an entertaining season to watch. The Senators will get a lift from the early return of Erik Karlsson but they’ll miss Jason Spezza. Look for Carey Price to find his game just in time to help his team squeak out a narrow victory.

Victoria: Montreal in 7. Ottawa is definitely on it’s way back from near disaster but Montreal is hungry after missing the playoffs last year. Habs want it more and they’re generally better at playoff battles.

@cherry_grant: Ottawa in 7. No reason for this choice at all.

J.J.: Ottawa in 6. Carey Price has owned the Sens recently. But Carey Price also has an 0.871 save percentage and has allowed 32 goals in his last 10 games.

Matt: Ottawa in 7. Montreal started the year on fire but have been mediocre down the stretch, while the Sens have been given a lift with Erik Karlsson — and potentially Jason Spezza’s — return. The Sens have been underdogs all season but won’t go away, why should the first round be any different?

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers

Clay: Washington in 6. Washington and New York enter the playoffs as two of the hottest teams in the East and they were separated by only one point in the final standings. Ovechkin is on an amazing run right now and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

Victoria: Rangers in 7. Both these teams always seem to struggle to get in and stay in the playoffs. But the Rangers have more fight in them and I predict Ovie will fall into his regularly scheduled playoff coma nap.

@cherry_grant: Washington in 6, which is a purely arbitrary decision because I have unreasonable, baseless dislike of the Rangers.

J.J.: Washington in 7. The Caps are peaking at the right time, losing just twice in April and posting an 11-1-1 record. Ovie is back in beast mode, and Ribeiro, Backstrom, Brouwer and Johansson have played great in support. Defenseman Mike Green is back too, which gives the Caps’ back end a different dynamic.

Matt: Rangers in 6. This might be a bold pick given the Caps were rolling in the second half, but I’ll take a stingy defense and all-world netminder over a vaunted offense. The Rangers have a core group that’s more battle-tested and playoff-ready (Callahan, Stepan, Richards over Ovechkin, Backstrom, Ribeiro).

(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs

Clay: Boston in 6. As much as I dislike both of these teams, I must admit that I’m very interested in seeing how this series pans out. While Toronto is much improved, the Bruins are much more seasoned and playoff-tested. Jagr and Redden add to their experience.

Victoria: Leafs in 7. There is no rational thought process involved in this pick. If Leafs manage to pull this off then pigs really will fly. But I’d rather see pigs fly than Boston win so, oink! oink! Watch out for that jet, Wilbur!

@cherry_grant: Leafs in 7. I’m SHOCKED (and feel more than a little dirty) to say this, but GO LEAFS GO. I like the Bruins even less than the Blackhawks, so the Leafs had better continue being GOOD, for once.

J.J.: Boston in 5. It’s hard enough to tolerate the early media coverage now that the Leafs have made it back to the postseason for the first time in 9 years. I can’t imagine how insufferable things would be if the Leafs won a playoff game, never mind a playoff series.

Matt: Boston in 6. If there was an option to have both teams eliminate each other, I’d be picking it, just for sheer reasons fraught with anger and dislike. But there can only be one winner, and it’ll be the Bruins. The hard-nosed B’s will keep Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel under wraps, and Patrice Bergeron has established himself as a playoff force.

Jan 172013
 

The Bruins and the Rangers are ranked at the top of the Eastern Conference to start the 2012/2013 season.

Photo credit: CBC.ca

Another year, another season preview.

As usual, we’ve ranked each team’s goaltending, defense, forwards and coaches based on expectations and past performance.

However, given the shortened season, we’ve also taken a few other things into consideration when ranking teams overall, including:

  • Whether key players were active during the lockout in competitive leagues. Suffice to say, if someone was playing in the AHL or KHL they’re likely to be better out of the gate than an NHL player who toiled in Britain or Italy or sat on the couch.
  • How old or young the team’s key players are. With a schedule filled with games almost every-other night, veteran players may be more susceptible to critical injury than younger ones.
  • Goaltending. In what many expect to be lower-scoring rush to the playoffs, teams with the best goaltending may have a slight edge.

A couple of other things to remember based on the previous short season (94-95):

  • Veterans as a group seemed to struggle.
  • The top-5 scorers in the league were all under 26, and Eric Lindros (22) won the Hart Trophy.
  • 94-95 was the year the Nordiques exploded out of the league’s basement. The following year, in Colorado, they won the Stanley Cup/

Alright – let’s get to it. Here now are the Out of Town Notebook’s Eastern Conference rankings for the 2012/2013 NHL season:

1. Boston Bruins – 61 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: C+
Defense: A
Forwards: B
Coaching: B-

Why: The Bruins are ranked first because the majority of their core are either young (Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Tuukka Rask, Dougie Hamilton) or in their prime (Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara), and most of them (save Lucic) played somewhere during the lockout. Seguin might make a real leap this season, bumping up the forward grade even higher. Expect that goaltender mark to rise as well, as Rask gets comfortable as the team’s defacto number one. Anton Khudobin will serve as the backup and has potential.

2. New York Rangers – 59 points

Status: Cup Contender
Goaltending: A
Defense: B-
Forwards: A-
Coaching: B

Why: On paper, the Rangers look like they have it all – a nice mix of youth and experience; superior goaltending; an emerging, deep blueline; and, with the addition of Rick Nash, a strong top-six with finish. The issue here is that only a handful of Rangers played during the lockout, leading to concerns about a slow start. Come playoff time though, New York should be ready for a long post-season run. On paper, they look like the best team in the Conference.

3. Washington Capitals – 51 points

Status: Wild Card
Goaltending: C-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B
Coaching: D+

Why: The Caps enter the season with serious question marks. Can Brandon Holtby be the starting goalie they’ve lacked in the past? He’s followed up a great post-season with a solid AHL campaign, but he could also become Jon Casey. What about coach Adam Oates? A shortened season for a first-time bench boss, when every game will be a battle, is a significant challenge. The guess here is that both Holtby and Oates raise their pre-season ratings, and the Capitals, backed by a strong blueline and a return-to-form from Alex Ovechkin, eek out another division title. Having said that, no team was shuffled in and out of the playoffs more in these rankings than the Caps. The Southeast Division is the worst in the NHL, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all five teams battling for the division crown.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins – 54 points

Status: Contender
Goaltending: B
Defense: B-
Forwards: A
Coaching: A

Why: While a lot of focus will be placed on Sidney Crosby’s health, the fact remains that the Penguins were bounced early in last year’s playoffs because their defense and goaltending were atrocious. The talent is there in both positions to rebound, especially if Kris Letang can stay healthy. Tomas Vokoun is a more than capable backup goalie and could supplant Marc-Andre Fleury as the team’s top-goalie. Evgeni Malkin dominated the KHL and was the best player in the world in 2012.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – 54 points

Status: Darkhorse
Goaltending: C+
Defense: B
Forwards: B-
Coaching: A

Why: It’s just a question of timing for when the Flyers become a legitimate Cup threat. Given no other NHL team had more players playing in the AHL or KHL than the Flyers during the lockout, the betting here is the Flyers take another step forward this year. Their young core of forwards, including Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Claude Giroux, Jakob Voracek and Wayne Simmons – rivals that of the more heralded Oilers (and Giroux is a top-5 NHL player already). While it’s unlikely Chris Pronger will ever suit up again, the blueline is still solid, with Kimmo Timonen forever underrated. The concern here centers around the crease, where the kooky Ilya Bryzgalov tries to find his Coyotes form. He wasn’t very good in the KHL during the lockout either.

6. Buffalo Sabres – 51 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Sabres will go as far as their goaltending takes them. Ryan Miller had a strong second half last year, and Jhonas Enroth is capable of carrying the team for short stretches. Up front, it’s a transition year for the Sabres with Cody Hodgson (point-per-game in the AHL during the lockout) and Tyler Ennis carrying the load down the middle. Tyler Myers’ development stagnated in 2011-12. Buffalo needs him to continue developing to carry an average blueline.

7. Ottawa: 50 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C

Why: Ottawa made the playoffs last year riding on the back of exceptional play from defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Jason Spezza. They could easily repeat their 2011-12 seasons, and Karlsson’s youth means it’s possible he could even exceed his Norris Trophy performance. The key for the Senators will be the supporting cast – whether youngsters Mika Zibanejad (poor AHL season to date) and Jakob Silfverberg (strong AHL play) can contribute secondary scoring; whether someone will step up to fill Jared Cowen’s shoes on defense (he’ll miss the season with an injury); and whether Daniel Alfredsson has anything left. Craig Anderson is slightly-overrated, but the goalies behind him (Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop) are very promising and have played extremely well in the AHL.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: C-
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C+

Why: There remains a talented top-six playing hockey on the beach in Tampa Bay – the problem is winners are built from the back-end out. Matt Carle brings a new, puck moving dynamic to Tampa’s blueline, but the Lightning defense won’t get better until Viktor Hedman takes the next step. Anders Lindback is the wild card here – if his performance for the Predators in limited action was legit, he’ll solve the team’s defensive issues on his own. That would vault the Lightning into a fight for the division crown. If Lindback is only average, this team is likely on the outside of the playoff picture.

9. Carolina: 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: B+
Defense: C-
Forwards: B-
Coaching: C-

Why: Quietly, the Hurricanes are putting together a team with promise, but they’re not there yet. The additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin give the Hurricanes a potent second line, although an injury to Tuomo Ruuttu hurts. The strength of Carolina’s defensive game will dictate how far up the standings they go. The blueline is a mixed bag of youth, toughness, and incompetence (looking at you Joe Corvo), putting a lot of pressure on Cam Ward to keep them in games.

10. Montreal Canadiens – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for a playoff spot
Goaltending: A
Defense: C+
Forwards: C
Coaching: C-

Why: Similar to the Sabres, the key for the Canadiens this season is how well Carey Price plays. He has the ability to carry the team. An extended P.K. Subban absence could also kill Montreal’s season, as Andrei Markov can’t be counted on to carry the defense anymore. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk has looked good in camp and will enter the year either as the team’s second line centre or lining up on the wing with Tomas Plekanec.

11. Winnipeg Jets – 44 points

Status: Also-rans
Goaltending: C
Defense: B-
Forwards: C+
Coaching: C

Why: Three reasons why the Jets are unlikely to make the post-season this year: 1) Zach Bogosian’s wrist injury significantly hampers Winnipeg’s blueline. If he’s healthy, there’s an interesting mix on defense. 2) Ondrej Pavelec has only been an average NHL goalie to date, and the Jets will need him to be elite to catch the teams ahead of them in the standings. Not sure Pavelec has that in him. 3) The travel. The league is already looking at 48-games in roughly 100 days. When you add the schedule the mis-conferenced Jets will have to face, it’s an enormous disadvantage.

12. New Jersey Devils – 41 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: C
Defense: D+
Forwards: C+
Coach: B-

Why: Simply put – it’s hard to believe, after sitting out the lockout and another year older, veteran Martin Brodeur can find the level of play required to push New Jersey into the post-season. Losing Zach Parise to the Wild hurts the attack, and puts more pressure on Adam Henrique (poor AHL performance during the lockout) and Ilya Kovalchuk (sulking to play in North America) to score. The defense is hard-working, but not very talented beyond second-year man Adam Larsson. If Peter DeBoer gets the Devils back into the playoffs he should be considered an Adams Trophy nominee.

13. Florida Panthers – 40 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D
Defense: C+
Forwards: D+
Coaching: C

Why: Last year’s surprising Panthers team was a bridge squad – a veteran team of placeholders using a strong defensive system to mitigate the risk of losing, while buying the franchise a year of development. This season marks the beginning of a youth influx into the Florida roster, with Jonathan Huberdeau the most prominent youngster likely in the starting lineup. Generally speaking, this type of transition usually means a fall in the standings. The future in net is Jacob Markstrom, but he got off to a slow start in the AHL this year and may be given another season to establish himself. That leaves the underwhelming Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen trying to duplicate last year’s success. Only a few Panthers played in the AHL or KHL during the lockout, and none of those players were part of the team’s core. That could mean a slow start is in the offering.

14. New York Islanders – 39 points

Status: Rebuilding
Goaltending: D+
Defense: C-
Forwards: C-
Coaching: D+

Why: This is likely the lowest the Islanders will rate on this list for the next few years. They have potential impact prospects on forward and defense, and as they develop, they’ll also rise up the standings. John Tavares has an Art Ross trophy in him. The talk is Rick DiPietro is the healthiest he’s been in years, which would have a positive impact on their goaltending situation. However, we’ll believe it when we see it. This is a development season – watch for the Islanders to push for a playoff spot next year.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs – 38 points

Status: Lost
Goaltending: D-
Defense: C-
Forwards: C
Coach: C+

Why: Quite simply, this is a team with the worst goaltending in the NHL; whose best defenseman (Jake Gardiner) is suffering from concussion issues; that’s without a legitimate number one centre; whose most important players (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul) barely played during the lockout. The ownership wants this Leaf squad to make the playoffs, which means an upgrade in goal (Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo) is a possibility. But it’s likely not enough. The best thing for this franchise might just be bottoming out with a top-2 draft pick.

Dec 312012
 
Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins

Photo credit: National Post web. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

Hopefully the holiday season has you in a much more festive mood than the current state of the NHL, and if not, we here at CHB ask that you please drink more Rum & Egg Nog (pretty sure Tom provided the best recipe last year).

Anywho, with the year winding down and us in need some content to keep the dust bunnies from collecting on the site, I sent out the call to our contributors to see what they could remember from the past year & what they can foresee for the next (which you’ll learn more about tomorrow).

J.J. Guerrero (@canuckshockey)

2012 was supposed to be the year the Canucks would take that one final step towards winning their elusive first Stanley Cup. With a largely intact roster from the 2011 team that fell one win short and the addition of a second-line power forward in David Booth, they were certainly poised to make another run at it.

However, as GM Mike Gillis admitted, the Canucks peaked seven days into 2012. Led by Cory Schneider and Cody Hodgson, they exacted revenge on the Boston Bruins, beating them in a Saturday matinee in Beantown, a win which probably ranks among the most memorable in this franchise’s history.

It’s just too bad the calendar read January 7, 2012 instead of June 15, 2011.

The Canucks were physically and emotionally-spent after that win and played less than stellar hockey the rest of the way. They somehow snagged a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy, but were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings.

With Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler coming off major surgeries, the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa a year older, and the salary cap expecting to shrink with a new CBA, the window for this core may be closing and 2012 may prove to be a year of “what-ifs”, unfortunately one of many in the Canucks’ 41 years.

Matt Lee (@mattlee61)

2012 was a pretty bizarre year for the Canucks not only on the ice, but off of it, too. Going into the season, a lot of the talk was about how Vancouver would tackle the Stanley Cup hangover (which was of course answered with their season ending in 5 playoff games). But on the ice, you’d be hard pressed to find any particular game which gave you a reason to stand up and cheer. For me, only a couple games seemed to stood out, one of which was the Boston Bruins rematch back in January. The highlights speak for themselves, though:

Almost hard to believe the Canucks called it “just another game” after watching that, huh?

The other game which also proved memorable was the Canucks in Detroit back in February. The Red Wings had a lengthy home winning streak going at the Joe, and Vancouver was still the cream of the crop in the NHL standings. The game had the makings of a classic, and it was in every possible way.

But again, off the ice it was a circus. The fallout from their abrupt first-round playoff exit ushered the era of Cory Schneider and the (still going) exodus of Roberto Luongo. If the NHL lockout ends any time soon, it’ll just be a matter of time before the Luongo trade rumours swirl once again.

That doesn’t even include some other bizarre happenings: The Cody Hodgson trade rocked the city, Ryan Kesler’s continued rehab from another major surgery sparked worry among fans about how ready he will be in the event of a shortened season, and the signing of Jason Garrison in July was met with some cheers and some jeers… And the guy hasn’t even played a game yet.

Clay Imoo (@canuckclay)

2012 started off with so much promise. The Canucks entered the year having just passed the mighty Minnesota Wild for the Northwest Division lead – a lead they would never relinquish for the rest of the season. Then came that fateful game in Boston on January 7.

In the highly anticipated Stanley Cup Finals rematch, the Canucks prevailed 4-3 in a fight-filled affair. At the time, Canucks fans were on top of the world having just defeated their nemesis. However, the team struggled at times for the rest of the season despite locking up a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. In fact, even General Manager Mike Gillis admitted that the game may have taken an emotional toll on the team.

Add in a struggling power play and Duncan Keith’s dirty elbow on Daniel Sedin, and Vancouver looked over-matched in their first-round playoff series against the eventual Stanley Cup winners the Los Angeles Kings.

Victoria Pattison (@concretefluff)

Looking back on the 2012 season for the Canucks, I have to say it peaked early for me.

January 7, 2012 was the only game that really mattered to me in 2012. It was the game that should have happened on June 15, 2011. But it was more than just beating the dirty bears, it was also the first sign of the big changes the Canucks would make in 2012.

My favorite gum-smacking coach may say that he only started Cory Schneider because he wanted to let him play in his hometown, but no one believes that. It was a chance for Luongo to redeem himself and Vigneault didn’t trust him enough to let him have that chance. Schneider, was epic in that game. He played himself into the number one goalie spot.

Every game after the Boston game, seemed to be lack luster. Even when we won games, it seemed to me like it was by happenstance not due to actually working hard. I don’t blame the Canucks. Having a short summer break after a long, hard season with a heartbreaking Game 7 loss I didn’t think we would actually make it that far again.

That said, I didn’t think we would go down to the Kings in Round 1. The only thing more painful than watching Raymond fall down and Edler’s defensive meltdowns in Round 1 was reading the LA Kings snarktastic twitter posts.

Apr 282012
 
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals

Photo credit: New York Times

Yesterday we looked at the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference now, shall we?

New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we Learned About the Rangers: 

It was more about what we were able to confirm than what we learned. Even with the addition of Brad Richards (who led the team in scoring in round one), this is a New York team built to keep goals out, not score them in bushels. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin could add that offense in time, but right now their biggest contribution seems to be speed. Derek Stepan was arguably the team’s best forward in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist got out of the first round for the first time in four years and cemented his status as the game’s best. With the Bruins out of the playoffs the Rangers are now the best defensive team remaining in the East. Given they’re the top seed; given that defensive excellence; given Henrik Lundqvist; these Blueshirts enter this series as prohibitive favourites.

What we Learned about the Capitals: 

A heck of a lot. For starters, we learned that coach Dale Hunter will play whoever he feels is going, meaning that stars Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom and Alex Semin all saw reduced minutes at different times in the last series. We learned that the Capitals blueline is starting to really come of age, with Karl Alzner especially making a difference defensively. We learned that the Caps have become a patient team – they’ll wait for their opponent to make mistakes rather than push the tempo themselves. Oh, and we learned that the Caps have a pretty good third string goalie, especially when the entire team is going to great lengths to protect him. Look, this isn’t the Capitals team that captured our hearts years ago. But their round one performance certainly revealed this is a hockey club that, after years of disappointment, has improved character on its roster. Boston – the more talented, deeper team – trapped and passively played their way to a series loss. It’s quite possible the Rangers, with their similar style, who’ve lost to Washington in the last two playoffs, could do the same.

Quick Decisions: 

Coaching: Rangers. Tortorella has won a Cup and, well, I’ve got segments of 24/7 cued for whenever I need an inspirational speech. Hunter’s won a round but the jury is still out on him being a capable NHL bench boss.

Goaltending: Rangers. Yes Braden Holtby looked like Ken Dryden in round one. But Lundqvist is the best in the game. Best Washington can hope for here is a draw.

Defense: Rangers. It’s closer than expected based on Washington’s excellent performance against the Bruins. Both teams have strong defense cores, with the Caps a bit more dynamic along the blueline (Mike Green had a nice series against the Bruins). Ranger forwards execute the defensive system in their sleep, while the Caps still have a few players who freelance from time to time.

Offense: Even. Washington has more talented players but they don’t have much beyond their big three scorers. The Rangers have slightly more scoring on their second and third lines but Marian Gaborik – their strongest sniper – had a pedestrian first round. Expect a low scoring series.

Special Teams: Even. Both teams have the resources to be better in this area. Washington’s special teams were average in the regular season and slightly better in the first round. The Rangers powerplay has been frustrating for most of the year, but surprisingly their strong penalty kill was lit up a bit by the Senators.

Prediction: Capitals in 7.

*****

Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Philadelphia (3-2-1)

What we Learned About Philadelphia:

That they have probably the most offensive depth in the Eastern Conference. We also learned that their willingness to take risks often leaves goalie Ilya Bryzgalov hung out to dry. We learned that Braydon Coburn has taken another step and is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. We learned that Danny Briere can still raise his game in the post-season and that Claude Giroux might be the best player in the league right now. We learned that Max Talbot has gotten better since leaving Pittsburgh.

What we Learned About New Jersey:

We learned maybe the biggest lesson of the first round – that Ilya Kovalchuk has become a more complete player and has grown into a leadership role. We learned that Martin Brodeur has some magic left (very solid in Game 7) but that his game can leave him at any given moment. The Devils also showed some weak defensive play that’s unlike the great Devils team of old. This is certainly the weakest blueline left in the playoffs and arguably the weakest goaltending left in the playoffs.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Philadelphia (Peter DeBoer has done a very good job bringing speed and a more dynamic approach to the Devils. The Flyers Peter Laviolette though is an elite coach)

Goaltending: Flyers. Slight edge here. Bryzgalov isn’t as bad as his first round stats against the Penguins and Brodeur isn’t as good as his against the pop-gun Panthers. Bryzgalov’s numbers were slightly stronger in the regular season and have been stronger over the last few years.

Defense: Flyers. Another slight edge attributable to a stronger Flyers blueline. Nick Grossman has been a nice addition, while Matt Carle and Kimmo Timmonen are stronger than anything the Devils have on defense.

Offense: Flyers. It’s the Flyers top three lines versus the Devils’ top-two. That depth, and the ability of coach Laviolette to mix and match 10 forwards with offensive skill (list includes youngsters Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn), give Philadelphia a definitive advantage here. The Devils still can’t get any offense from their blueline on a consistant basis.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

*****

And finally, a final word for the dearly departed:

Boston Bruins

Cause of Death: Self-asphyxiation – injuries robbed the team of offensive depth, and Claude Julien’s passive system didn’t generate enough opportunities for the team to score.

Prescription: Continue to search for a creative blueline to quarterback the powerplay. Explore another top-six forward to potentially replace Nathan Horton, whose future is cloudy due to concussion.

*****

Florida Panthers

Cause of Death: Lack of talent

Prescription: Stay the course. This Panthers team as constructed is an interim measure while the team’s best young players develop at their own pace. Adding a Jonathan Huberdeau next year will only help this club.

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins

Cause of Death: A lack of defense and goaltending.

Prescription: Find a stronger back-up goaltender to spell Marc-Andre Fleury when his game escapes him. Upgrade defensive depth, as Paul Martin struggled in the post-season and the third-pairing barely played.

*****

Ottawa Senators

Cause of Death: Lack of composure in Game 6.

Prescription: Stay the course. Composure comes with experience. The Senators shuffled all their young players into the lineup to get them playoff exposure. That should pay dividends next year.

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

It’s been a rather Cinderella season for the New York Rangers, who rode their improving young core, particularly on defense, to their most successful season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94. Marion Gaborik eclipsed 40-goals for the third time and is the most dangerous Rangers forward. Ryan Callahan (29 goals) is the most complete player on the team and is a Selke Candidate this year. Brad Richards scored some key goals during the season, but his 66 points and -1 were somewhat disappointing. For all the hype over Henrik Lundquist’s performance this year, since March he’s been rather pedestrian (2.60 goals against; .895 save percentage). Nonetheless, this is the strongest blueline (highlighted by career years from Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto) Lundquist’s ever played behind.

Speaking of Cinderella seasons, the Senators were destined for a lottery pick according to most pre-season prognostications. Coach Paul Maurice brought the offense from his stint in Detroit, but more importantly the emergence of Erik Karlsson transformed Ottawa into one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Leading the attack upfront was Jason Spezza, who played 80 games for the first time in three years and was among the league-leaders in scoring. Craig Anderson actually improved as the season went along, helping the team almost shave half-a-goal against per game off their record post All-Star Game. This is a very young team though, and Anderson will have to come up huge if the Sens are to have a chance in the series.

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

The Rangers will need their best offensive player to have a terrific post-season if the team has any chance of a Cup run. Gaborik’s compete-level will be tested by anOttawateam that will punish him physically every time he touches the puck.

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

Similar to Gaborik, Karlsson is the straw the stirs the Senators offensive drink.  The Rangers are going to go after Ottawa’s young quarterback defenseman and make him pay the price every time he goes back for the puck in his own zone. If Rangers such as Brandon Dubinsky are successful limiting Karlsson, they’ll neutralize Ottawa’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. John Tortorella’s won a Stanley Cup and should get the match-ups he wants with home-ice advantage.

Goaltending: Rangers. As strong as Anderson played this season few goalies are in Lundquist’s league.

Defense: Rangers. Despite improved play from Filip Kuba and Karlsson’s excellence, New York’s blueline has greater depth and is augmented by a strong two-way forward group.

Scoring: Senators. Top-4 in the league scoring-wise, and only one of three teams to average more than three goals-per-game after the All-Star break.

Special Teams: Even. Ottawa’s stronger on the powerplay, while the Rangers were among the league’s best on the penalty kill.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

The defending champion Boston Bruins were tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest points among playoff teams in their last 41 games (45 points). Poor goaltending was a major factor, as while the Bruins reduced their shots against after the All-Star Game, their goalies could only muster a .899 save percentage. Nonetheless, this is a team that’s arguably as deep as the Cup winners last year, with Tyler Seguin (team-leading 67-points) having replaced Mark Recchi; Brian Rolston playing the Rich Peverley role (15 points in 21 Bruins games) and Joe Corvo filling the Tomas Kaberle position as “offensive defenseman who needs his ice-time well-managed.” Nathan Horton’s injury has been somewhat off-set by improved play by Benoit Pouliot. A repeat is not out of the question.

If there is a playoff team that would like to forget its regular season it’s the Washington Capitals, who went from pre-season favourites to run away with the Southeast Division to coming this close to finishing outside the playoffs.  The firing of Bruce Boudreau brought Dale Hunter back to the Washington franchise, but the team really didn’t improve their play. The Caps were 30-23-7 under the new coach and, for the first time in years, struggled to find any offense. Hunter’s system (or lack thereof) was criticized by his own players, and a war-of-words between Roman Hamrlik and his coach added to speculation Hunter was in-over-his-head at the NHL level. Tomas Vokoun (currently suffering from a groin injury) was roughly league-average in goal, which didn’t help matters. In reality though, part of Washington’s problem was directly tied to their lack of offensive depth, particularly in the wake of Niklas Backstrom’s absence due to concussion. With Backstrom back, this is a Caps team that enters the playoffs with a few gamebreakers (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Backstrom), a strong commitment to defense and an improved blueline (Mike Green’s play has fallen off a cliff, but John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov have stepped up). The pieces are there for this team to surprise… or leave the post-season after four-straight losses.

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

Boston’s veteran goalie has been rather average in 2012. If he can’t find his game now, the Capitals will stick around longer than many people think.  

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

He is the most talented player in this series and a match-up against Zdeno Chara should be incredibly challenging. But Ovechkin, rather quietly, has been terrific down the stretch (12 goals in 19 games) and has Backstrom back as his centre. A special effort by Ovechkin could re-write this Capitals season and give the Bruins fits.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Bruins. This is Hunter’s first trip to the NHL post-season; Boston’s Claude Julien is among the league’s best.

Goaltending: Bruins. Closer than you might think given Tim Thomas’s struggles. Who knows how Vokoun will play – and if he’ll play – meaning it’ll be up to Michael Neuvrith or Braden Holtby to shock the world.

Defense: Bruins. Washington potentially has more blueline talent but the Bruins are a more complete and effective group, both forwards and defense.

Scoring:  Bruins. Dale Hunter hasn’t been able to get Washington’s offense firing, while the Bruins can roll four scoring lines.

Special Teams: Bruins. Slight edge due to stronger penalty killing.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

The Florida Panthers enter these playoffs as the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. Historically, teams with the fewest goals to reach the playoffs usually make quick first-round exits. Furthermore, the Panthers enter the post-season with the worst goal differential remaining – another ominous omen. Having said that, there are a few reasons why Florida won the Southeast Division. For starters, the Panthers have received solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. More importantly, Brian Campbell (52 points) had a renaissance and Jason Garrison (16 goals) had a career year, helping to turn a below-average blueline into a decent group. Florida also got great mileage from its top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, although they tailed off as the season wore on (Versteeg had just 4 goals after the All-Star Game).

Coached by former Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer, the Devils implemented a more aggressive system this season to strong results. Nowhere was this more impressive than on the penalty kill, where New Jersey led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Ilya Kovalchuk had his best season from a complete player perspective, leading the team in goals, points, ice-time and playing a penalty killing role. David Clarkson (30 goals), a healthy Zack Parise (31 goals), Patrick Elias (78 points) Petr Sykora (21 goals) and rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) have given New Jersey more scoring depth than they’ve had in years. This depth upfront hasn’t translated to the defense however, as the Devils blueline is much like Easter Island (aka a bunch of statues). Rookie Adam Larsson led defenseman in scoring with 18 points but has found himself a healthy scratch down the stretch. There’s a lot of pressure on Marek Zidlicky to be a powerplay quarterback in the post-season.

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

Not only is Campbell likely to play more minutes than anyone else in the series (outside of the goalies), but he’ll be asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. If Florida wins the series the powerplay – on which Campbell is the quarterback – will have to be a factor. Similarly, it would not be a surprise to see the smooth-skating Campbell matched-up against Ilya Kovalchuk, in the hopes that speed can counteract speed.

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

Brodeur isn’t the goalie we all remember, but his numbers and play did improve as the season went along (.921 save percentage after the break). And yet, he hasn’t won a playoff series in five years. Poor play from Brodeur is probably the only way the Panthers can win this series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both teams are led by coaches in the playoffs for the first time. Both did good jobs in the regular season.

Goaltending: Even. Brodeur and the Devils goaltending were much improved in the second-half, but Florida’s Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson were just as strong all year for the Panthers.

Defense: Even. The Panthers blueline is stronger than that of the Devils, but New Jersey’s system and team approach to defending the goal remains elite.

Scoring: Devils. Florida scored only 2.29 goals-per-game after the All-Star break, worst among playoff teams.

Special Teams: Devils. Florida was 7th on the powerplay but 25th on the penalty kill. New Jersey was 1st overall on the penalty kill and 14th on the powerplay.

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

There’s a lot of hype about the Penguins as they enter the playoffs, and the buzz is legitimate. Pittsburgh played at a 60-win, 315-goal pace in the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs relatively healthy. There may not be another team in the league more equipped to transition from an attack-focused approach to a defensive one than the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (109 points) is this year’s likely Hart Trophy winner, and there were times he simply dominated opponents in the offensive zone. His chemistry with James Neal (40 goals) might be the best in the league. Given reduced ice-time upon his return from a concussion, Sidney Crosby also dazzled, putting up 37 points in 22 games this season. When you add Jordan Staal (25 goals) to the mix, this is the deepest team at centre in the league. It’s also the most fragile, as each of Staal, Crosby and Malkin have battled injuries in the past. An injury to Malkin or Crosby especially could change the fate of any playoff series. On defense, Kris Letang battled injuries all season but when healthy looked like a Norris candidate. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are a strong shutdown pairing. 

Despite major changes in the off-season, it was really business as usual for the Flyers, who reached 100 points for the second-straight year. Team success was predicated on offense, as Philadelphia was one of just three teams to average more than three goals-per-game. Claude Giroux was a major reason for the team’s offense, establishing himself among the league’s elite scorers with 93 points. Having said that, a strong rookie campaign from Matt Read (24 goals) and a breakout season for Scott Hartnell (37 goals) helped give the Flyers three solid scoring lines. Rookie Sean Couturier played the shutdown centre role all season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that role during the playoffs. On defense, the addition of Nicklas Grossman gave the Flyers the capable defensive-defenseman they didn’t have once Chris Pronger was lost for the year (career?) due to injury. Kimmo Timonen (43 points) also took on a greater role after Pronger’s injury, and played some of the best hockey of his career. In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky were the subject of criticism all season, but their play improved substantially after the All-Star Game.

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

There’s every reason to expect this Penguins and Flyers series will get ugly. Cooke (19 goals) has had a terrific year, introducing self-control into his game and becoming an effective checking line player. If Cooke can play like Esa Tikkanen, acting as a defensive pest but staying above the expected Flyers shenanigans, he could drive Philadelhpia crazy and into a march to the penalty box. 

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

As much pressure as there will be on Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulders, Jaromir Jagr is the key veteran presence in this young Flyers dressing room. Jagr battled groin injuries during the second-half of the season but demonstrated at times he can still dominate play, particularly down low in the offensive zone. The Flyers can’t win this series if Jagr is a passenger – they need him to be a catalyst.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both are Stanley Cup winners; both are among the best in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Statistically, Philadelphia received better goaltending from its netminders than Pittsburgh did this year. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has become somewhat of a modern day Grant Fuhr – a big game goalie whose statistics otherwise seem unremarkable.

Defense: Penguins. The Penguins have proven without Crosby or Malkin they can be an elite defensive team in the NHL. The Flyers would rather trade chances with their opponent, and their blueline isn’t nearly as deep.

Offense: Penguins. Despite some impressive scoring depth on the Flyers roster the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin, offer a Lemieux-Francis, Gretzky-Messier, Forsberg-Sakic –like twosome. Containing both of them will be impossible.

Special Teams: Penguins. The Penguins are top ten on both the powerplay and penalty kill, while Philadelphia’s penalty kill has been bottom-third of the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Apr 042012
 

With 98% of the NHL season behind us, it’s time to fill in an imaginary awards ballot.

But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to consider two more dead teams:

Calgary Flames

What went wrong: No team had an easier stretch drive schedule among teams fighting for the last Western Conference playoff spots than the Flames did. They failed to reach the post season because they couldn’t score. The Flames as a team are currently 25th in shots on goal per game. They’re 3-9 in shootouts, rivalling Montreal (5-11) and Carolina (0-6) for the league’s worst record in the skills competition. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross will finish the year as the team’s lone 20-goal scorers. None of them are consistent (Iginla’s slow starts have become legendary). Calgary sits last in the league in faceoff performance.

What went right: Mikka Kiprusoff carried the team all season with stellar play between the pipes. When finally healthy for the second-half Mark Giordano played well. He has 16 points after the All-Star break and has helped Calgary reach 11th in the NHL on the powerplay. Mike Cammalleri has struggled to stay healthy with the Flames but when dressed has scored at a 30-goal pace.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s been said in this space more than once, but this aging Calgary team desperately needs a rebuild. After three years of missing the playoffs there’s clearly not enough talent in the lineup to reach the post-season. There isn’t enough organizational depth right now either to create hope for better days in the future. This may the last chance Calgary gets to shop Jarome Iginla before seeing his value depreciate completely on the marketplace.

Winnipeg Jets

What went wrong: There was lots of talk pre-season about what the travel schedule would do to not only the Jets, but other teams in the Southeast Division. Clearly it was a factor for the Manitoba team, as Winnipeg has put together a terrible road record (13-21-5). The penalty kill is below 80%, which hurts a team that’s short-handed a lot (25th worst). As well as Ondrej Pavelec has been at times this season, he tired down the stretch (3.13 goals against in March) and currently ranks 57th in the league in save percentage (.906). Alex Burmistrov was improved this season, but his offensive progression has been slow (just 28 points in year two). Eric Fehr (3 points, 35 games) was a bust, while Tanner Glass (-12) was asked to do too much.

What went right: Blake Wheeler (61 points) and Evander Kane (29 goals) have taken steps forward as top-six, even top-line players. Dustin Byfuglien has had a strong second-half. Off the scrap-heap, Kyle Wellwood has been an effective offensive player (47 points despite just 14:57 per game in ice-time). The MTS Centre has proven to be one of the few home-ice advantages left in the NHL.

Off-Season Gameplan: Continue to build around a very solid core. Veteran depth, particularly the type that could improve the defensive side of Winnipeg’s game, would be helpful. Mark Scheifele will get the Burmistrov treatment next year. If Scheifele’s ready, he could supply enough offense to bring the playoffs back to Manitoba.

***

Now with that little bit of ugly business out of the way, let’s take a quick look at who deserves award recognition for the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Hart Trophy – Evgeni Malkin

Runners-up: Jason Spezza; Henrik Lundqvist

Malkin has been arguably the league’s best player this year. Lundqvist is probably the most valuable, but goalies rarely win this award. A Hart nomination is the feather-in-the-cap to a marvellous season from Jason Spezza.

Norris Trophy – Zdeno Chara

Runners-up: Alex Pieterangelo; Erik Karlsson

Chara wins because he’s put forth his strongest offensive season while retaining defensive dominance (+33 leads all d-men). Karlsson’s had a magical season but his defensive play remains average. Under Ken Hitchcock, Alex Pieterangelo has arrived, breaking the 50-point barrier but more importantly playing extremely well defensively night in, night out.

Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist

Runners-up: Jonathan Quick; Mike Smith

The Rangers success gives Lundqvist the nod over Quick, whose Los Angeles Kings team have been in a playoff dogfight all season. Mike Smith’s career rejuvenation in Phoenix gives him a slight edge over the two St. Louis Blues goalies (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) who’ve split too much playing time to be considered.

Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron

Runners-up: David Backes; Anze Kopitar

Bergeron wins almost 60% of his draws and is one of the league’s premiere penalty killers. Backes has flourished under Ken Hitchcock, leading Blues forwards in goals, points, hits and blocked shots. Kopitar deserves greater recognition, is leading the Kings in points once again but, more importantly to this category, has been Los Angeles best defensive player as well.

Calder Trophy – Gabriel Landeskog

Runners-up: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Matt Read

Not only is Landeskog tied for the rookie points lead, but he’s an incredible +23 and has played in all situations for the Avs down the stretch. He’s a future captain. Nugent-Hopkins is the most offensively-gifted rookie, but injuries have prevented him from running away with the freshman scoring crown. Matt Read leads all rookies in goals and has become an important player in the Flyers lineup.

Adams Trophy – Ken Hitchcock

Runners-up: Paul Maclean; John Tortorella

Hitchcock’s turned a middle-of-the-pack team into arguably the best team in the Western Conference. Paul Maclean has done wonders in Ottawa, taking a Sens team destined for a lottery pick into the playoffs. Tortorella’s nomination is a reward for guiding a team that’s out-performed its roster’s talent level all season.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Another take on possible NHL awards, this one from ESPN.
  • Let’s just get this out of the way: Mike Milbury was a joke as a general manager and he’s a joke as a commentator. His take on league affairs is almost always neanderthal and ultra-traditionalist. Attacking Sidney Crosby gets your name in the paper though.
  • This definitely should be on any list of craziest goals of the year. It also epitomizes the difference in heart between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • At this point, wouldn’t it be for the best for everyone if the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs, fired their coach, and re-built their approach around Ovechkin’s offense than see the gutsy Sabres (one of the best teams in the NHL since the All-Star Game) come up short?
  • Quietly, Willie Mitchell’s having one of the best defensive defenseman seasons in the NHL this year. Granted, the ultra-conservative Kings gameplay helps in that regard.
  • Still without a contract, you have to expect the Edmonton Oilers are ready to walk away from Tom Renney. The talk is Todd Nelson, coach of Edmonton’s AHL farm team, will get a long look. Hard to believe he’s the guy who can take this young team to the next level.
  • It’s a small sample size, but the Nashville Predators are 4-3 in Alex Radulov’s seven games. The big Russian has 3 goals, 6 points in that span and has fit extremely well into the lineup.
  • For all of those people ready to anoint the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, let’s acknowledge the fact that the Penguins are actually 25th in the NHL in team save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury, not Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, will have the biggest say in how far the Penguins go in the playoffs.
  • Speaking of which, the Chicago Blackhawks, for what it’s worth, are 27th in the NHL in team save percentage. Numbers-wise, Chicago’s entering the post-season with the worst goaltending amongst remaining teams.
  • Some other interesting Pre/Post-All-Star Game numbers: Winnipeg was 22nd in league scoring during the first half; 3rd so far in the second half. Buffalo was 25th in the first-half; 5th in the second half. Going the other way, Vancouver was 3rd in the first half scoring-wise; 15th in the second half. Washington was 9th in the first half; 26th in the second half.
  • Defensively, the Bruins have gone from 4th in the first half to 22nd in the second half. Minnesota from 8th in the first half to 25th and Pittsburgh from 10th to 23rd. Improving their defensive play in the second half were teams like Buffalo (26th to 7th), Anaheim (23rd to 8th), Colorado (21st to 5th) and Ottawa (27th to 13th).
Apr 022012
 

There’s nothing like a week in Toronto to gain some perspective on the Vancouver Canucks’ goaltending tandem.

On Tuesday, I saw Jonas Gustavsson start for the Leafs and allow 3 goals on 12 shots – all 3 goals by the 37-second mark of the second period – before getting replaced by Jussi Rynas. This would be Rynas’ first NHL game after splitting the season between the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and ECHL’s Reading Royals.

Two nights later, Rynas would make his first NHL start against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers welcomed Rynas by putting 7 goals past him in a 7-1 shellacking of the Leafs.

Back here on the West Coast, the Canucks are on a nice, little roll with 6 straight wins and having earned points in their last 7 games. And despite being among the lower scoring teams in the league in the latter half of this season, they’re back on top of the Western Conference.

Needless to say, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider have both been a big part of the Canucks’ success, but you can’t tell based on some of the reaction to every goal they allow.

On Saturday night against the Flames, Luongo was beaten by Olli Jokinen’s off-speed shot during a Flames powerplay; predictably, the Luongo haters came out of the woodwork calling for his head. It didn’t get any better when Mike Cammalleri beat him early in the third period with a howitzer from the point, a shot which even former players say wouldn’t have been stopped by any goaltender.

Never mind that Luo had stopped 70 consecutive shots before Jokinen’s goal. Never mind that he had gone almost 120 minutes – the equivalent of almost two complete games – of shutting out the opposition. Never mind that he has a .964 save percentage in his last 3 wins.

Facts be damned.

This isn’t to say that Schneider hasn’t been good; he has. Rightfully, Team Schneider likes to point out that his GAA and save percentage are better than Luongo’s – this is a fair point.

But it’s equally noteworthy that, with his win on Saturday, Luongo has hit the 30-win plateau for the seventh consecutive season. And for all the grief Luongo takes for “not being able to win the big one”, remember it was Luongo in net for all of the Canucks’ 15 playoff wins last season and that since the lockout, only one goaltender – Marc-Andre Fleury – has more playoff wins than Luo.

We could go back and forth on this for a long time so here are some other, simpler numbers for you: with both Luo and Schneider in net, the Canucks have 49 wins and 107 points. They’re tied with the New York Rangers for most points in the entire NHL.

With the playoffs just a little over a week away, I’m finding the Team Luongo vs. Team Schneider schtick getting old. Can we just appreciate the fact that our team has TWO bonafide, NHL goaltenders? Instead of cheering for Team Luongo or Team Schneider, can’t we simply cheer for Team Canucks?

It’s a novel concept, I know. But think of it this way… It could be worse. We could be cheering for the Leafs.

*****

From the same creator of “The Ironing is Delicious” comes this two-part sequel:

Poke the Bear, part 1:

Poke the Bear, part 2:

Hilarious as usual.

Mar 142012
 

Yes, this is the week of returns in the NHL, with Sidney Crosby playing against the Rangers on Thursday and all signs pointing to Alex Radulov returning to the Predators in the near future.

And yet if you take a step back, what you’ve really got in the NHL right now is an epic race for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.

As of Wednesday morning, there were five teams separated by a single point in the standings for the final two playoff spots in the West.

Which of these teams will make the playoffs? Which of these teams is most likely to face Vancouver in the first round? Let’s take a closer look at each team:

7th place: Phoenix Coyotes (70 games: 34-25-11)

  • Last 20 games: 12-4-4 (.700)
  • Goals per game in their last 20: 2.45
  • Goals against per game in their last 20: 2.05
  • Home record: 18-12-6 (5 games left)
  • Road record: 16-13-5 (7 games left)
  • Shootout record: 5-8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .555 (2nd easiest)
  • Record against teams in remaining scheduled: 17-13-4 (.558)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Calgary; Colorado; San Jose, San Jose)

Notes: Phoenix has won three of four games against San Jose this year and plays them twice more. However, they also play St. Louis twice more, who they’re winless against. The Coyotes were excellent in February but have cooled slightly since. How they do on this next road trip (at Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Dallas) could go a long way to sealing their playoff fate.

Prediction: 6-3-3 in their final 12 games, to finish with 94 points.

8th place: San Jose Sharks (69 games: 34-25-10)

  • Last 20 games: 5-11-4 (.350)
  • Goals per game in their last 20: 2.35
  • Goals against per game in their last 20: 3.20
  • Home record: 19-11-3 (8 games left)
  • Road record: 15-14-7 (5 games left)
  • Shootout record: 6-5
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .570 (2nd hardest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 13-9-3 (.580)
  • Games against teams in race: 6 (Los Angeles; Phoenix; Colorado; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Los Angeles)

Notes: Of all the teams in the race, it’s the Sharks who have their fate in their own hands. They have six games against teams also fighting for the final two spots, including three against the rival Kings. Only one of San Jose or Los Angeles is making the playoffs, and it’s quite possible neither will make it. The Sharks have had a brutal 2012 thanks to some sour goaltending (although the team’s not scoring either). Can their much maligned core (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau in particular) save the season? The betting here is no, leading to an off-season of change.

Prediction: 6-6-1 in their last 13 games, to finish with 91 points.

9th place: Calgary Flames (70 games: 33-25-12)

  • Last 20 games: 10-4-6 (.650)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.75
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.55
  • Home record: 19-10-5 (7 more)
  • Road record: 14-15-7 (5 more)
  • Shootout record: 3-7
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .543 (easiest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 19-7-6 (.689)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Phoenix, Colorado, Colorado, LA)

Notes: Not only does Calgary have the easiest remaining schedule, but they have dominated the teams they will play against. The Flames have been scoring more goals per game over their last 20 games than any other team in the race, which bodes well. However, that awful shootout record could shoot them in the foot.

Prediction: 6-4-2 in their last 12 games, to finish with 92 points.

10th place: Los Angeles Kings (70 games: 33-25-12)

  • Last 20 games: 10-9-1 (.550)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.30
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.15
  • Home record: 18-13-4 (6 games)
  • Road record: 15-12-8 (6 games)
  • Shootout record: 5-7
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .558
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 13-9-3 (.580)
  • Games against teams in the race: 4 (San Jose; Calgary; San Jose; San Jose)

Notes: Not only will their games against San Jose go a long way to defining how the Kings finish, but their road record will as well. The Kings and Coyotes are the two strongest teams in this race on the road. The concern – as it has been all year – for Los Angeles has to be whether they will score enough to win games down the stretch. They’ve had a pedestrian last 20 games record-wise, scoring fewer goals during that stretch than any of their playoff race opponents.

Prediction: 4-4-4 in their last 12 games, finishing with 90 points.

11th place: Colorado Avalanche (71 games: 37-30-4)

  • Last 20 games: 11-7-2 (.600)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.70
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.20
  • Home record: 21-15-1 (4 more)
  • Road record: 16-15-3 (7 more)
  • Shootout record: 8-1
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .583 (hardest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 5-14-2 (.286)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Calgary, Phoenix, San Jose, Calgary)

Notes: The Avalanche clearly have the toughest schedule down the stretch, and have a terrible record against the teams they are to play. Having said that, they are one of the hottest teams in the NHL over their last 20 games, and their goals for and goals against have greatly improved in 2012. Like Los Angeles, Colorado’s destiny could be decided on the road, with seven more road games to play. Unfortunately for Avs fans, Colorado’s road record is only average.

Prediction: 4-5-2 over their last 11 games, finishing with 88 points.

My final predicted order of standings:

  • 7th place: Phoenix Coyotes (94 points) – They’d likely play Vancouver in the first round.
  • 8th place: Calgary Flames (92 points) – Momemtum + schedule = Feaster miracle.
  • 9th place: San Jose Sharks (91 points) – And not a few weeks ago, I called them a contender.
  • 10th place: Los Angeles Kings (90 points) – A lack of scoring probably costs Lombardi his job.
  • 11th place: Colorado Avalanche (88 points) – A great stretch run brings optimism for 2012-13.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Kudos to the Penguins for managing Sidney Crosby’s minutes and deciding to play him on the point on the powerplay. It will be fascinating to see how long this protection lasts, especially once the team gets to playoff time. Hard to see the Bruins or Rangers not trying to knock Crosby off the ice.
  • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves regarding Alex Radulov. If KHL production is roughly 62% the equivalent of NHL production, then his Russian stats this season translate as follows: 26 goals, 39 assists over 82 NHL games. That’s not bad, but it’s not necessarily superstar worthy. You have to expect a learning curve as well going from the KHL to NHL stretch-drive/playoff action.
  • Nonetheless, kudos to David Poile for pulling the wool over the eyes of other general managers. Make no mistake – the Predators are gunning for the Stanley Cup.
  • Biggest reason why the Leafs are still in a freefall: It’s training camp all over again in Toronto. The team is learning to play Randy Carlyle’s structured style, which in many ways is the opposite to how they’ve played all year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Leafs finish with a lottery pick.
  • Speaking of the Leafs, Damien Cox’s tweet earlier in the week suggested that Toronto will try and target Jaroslav Halak in the off-season. Naturally, the question begs – why would St. Louis want to make that trade?
  • How good has Steven Stamkos been? He’s the NHL’s leading goal-scorer currently by 12 goals. The biggest goal differential between the league’s top-two goal-scorers since the lockout was 13 goals in 2007-08 when Alex Ovechkin scored 65 and Ilya Kovalchuk had 52. Before that, it was a 14-goal differential in 1999-00 when Pavel Bure had 58 and Owen Nolan had 44. And prior to that, it was a 16-goal differential in 1991-92 between Brett Hull’s 70 goals and Kevin Stevens’ 54.
  • Marty Turco has looked awful in two appearences with Boston. Their divisional lead over the Ottawa Senators is in serious jeopardy if Tim Thomas doesn’t play the bulk of Bruins games down the stretch.
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