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

Nov 182011
 

Sometimes in life you gotta play hurt. While fighting the flu bug, here now are this week’s thoughts on the fly:

  • Just in case Canucks fans have been living under a rock, here’s what Mark Recchi said about the most arrogant team he’s ever played against.
  • The great Terry Jones articulates what the current Edmonton Oilers freefall feels like.
  • If a goalie is going to roam outside the crease, they make themselves vulnerable to contact. Ryan Miller wasn’t trying to make a save in traffic at the edges of his crease – he was skating 10-15 feet away from the net. The only thing wrong with what Boston’s Milan Lucic did by bodychecking Miller was giving the contact a “little extra” with his arms/shoulders. Let’s protect goalies from the contact they can’t avoid, and remind them they’re fair game otherwise.
  • Grantland’s Katie Baker with her weekly round-up – some great links this week.
  • With the Washington Capitals visiting Winnipeg and Toronto, coverage of Alex Ovechkin’s pedestrian season has ramped up. With Sidney Crosby still out and Ovechkin less-than-dominant, the best player in the league right now just might be Jonathan Toews.
  • Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr thinks Claude Giroux is knocking-on-the-door of the league’s best.
  • One reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are amongst the best teams in the league? They control the neutral zone with speed, pressuring puck carriers so well defensively that opponents are forced to dump the puck in before they would like to. The Penguins then have an easy time recovering the puck and breaking out of their own zone.
  • If there’s one thing Mike Milbury knows, it’s how to kill a franchise. Not surprising then he thinks the Columbus Blue Jackets should trade Rick Nash.
  • All good teams have winning streaks. Championship teams find ways to win despite their poorest efforts. So goes the Boston Bruins, who have now won 7 straight games, and played what was arguably their worst game of the year against Columbus on Thursday.
  • Credit where credit is due – Matt Cooke’s transformation as a player is pretty impressive.
  • The demise of Ilya Bryzgalov has been greatly exaggerated. Since getting shelled and having a bit of a media meltdown against the Winnipeg Jets back on October 27th, Bryzgalov is 5-0-1, with a 1.65 goals against average and a .944 save percentage.
  • Meanwhile, Brygalov’s former teammates are ripping him for being a negative presence in the Coyotes locker room. You know what’s also a negative factor on team chemistry? Losing. And that’s something the Coyotes didn’t do very much when Ilya Bryzgalov was their goaltender. Things could have been much, much worse for Phoenix players than simply dealing with an difficult personality.
  • Final note on Bryzgalov’s current team, the Philadelphia Flyers – not sure their team speed is good enough, which makes them more vulnerable to trapping teams or teams with great speed and counter-attack.
  • Forwards still looking for their first goal of the season: Ales Hemsky (7 games); Jeff Carter (8 games); Scott Gomez (10 games); Sam Gagner (11 games); Kyle Okposo (14 games); Dustin Penner (14 games); Blake Comeau (0 points in 14 games); Marty Reasoner (16 games); Mattias Tedenby (16 games).
  • Loved this from the Leafs-Predators game.
  • Nikita Filatov, or “Filly,” probably doesn’t play in the NHL again either.
  • Paul Maurice is a nice guy but a bad coach. As the Hurricanes struggle, here’s a nice recap of potential coaching replacements if Carolina decides to fire their coach. Given how GM Jim Rutherford likes to keep things in-house, it wouldn’t surprise to see Jeff Daniels eventually take over the reigns.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for goaltending. What if they had the solution but chose not to re-sign him? Cast-off J-S. Giguere is playing well for the struggling Colorado Avalanche, with a 1.98 goals against average to-date.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, lots of talk about Wayne Gretzky fronting a U.S. bid for the franchise. While it’s a romantic notion, let’s remember that Gretzky is still owed $8 million by the NHL. Hard to imagine him returning to the league in any capacity until someone writes him a cheque.
  • From the department of weird stats – right now the Capitals have a better winning percentage when they give up the first goal of the game (.778%) than when they score the first goal (.375%).
Jan 152011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Photo credit: Forbes

As the NHL All-Star Game approaches (yawn), so too does the trade deadline and the final stretch towards the Stanley Cup playoffs.

While there is some significant separation between playoff and non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is a dogfight.

With this in mind, here now are five GMs facing important decisions at this stage of the season.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

The Challenge: Some questionable moves and a weakened backend has turned the perennially contending San Jose Sharks into a team that might miss the playoffs.

His Choice: Does he make a move now to save the season, or does he ride it out and make major changes in the off-season?

One Opinion: Ride it out. Outside of Danny Boyle, it’s obvious the Sharks defence struggles moving the puck. Granted, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been miserable, but together they take up so much salary cap room that it is impossible to make significant roster changes during the year. Expect the Sharks to try and upgrade their defence in a minor way, while hoping their “Big 3” can turn it on in time to make the post-season.

Crazy Thought: If this was the NBA, where sign-and-trades are common, you could almost rationalize a Tomas Kaberle for Patrick Marleau type of move. The Leafs need more top-end forward talent, consider themselves deep on defence, and have some salary cap room. Alas, this isn’t the NBA, and Kaberle is a pending UFA after this year.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators

The Challenge: Starting to rebuild the Ottawa Senators franchise before he is fired.

His Choice: There are a ton of choices, but perhaps the most interesting is to trade Daniel Alfredsson for prospects and draft picks.

One Opinion: Trade Alfie. If he’s open to being dealt, Alfredsson would be a very attractive piece around the NHL. In addition to his on-ice contributions (currently leading the Sens team in points), Alfredsson is a bit of a bargain. During the last two years of his contract, his cap hit is $4.875 per year. However, he’ll be paid just $5.5 million ($4.5 million + $1 million) over the same period. That’s intriguing math to a budget-conscious contending team that could use an experienced, top-six forward. At the same time, dealing Alfredsson to a contender would be a symbolic “turning of the page” for the Senators franchise.

Crazy Thought: It’s not really that crazy. Everyone knows the Los Angeles Kings have cap space and are looking for a top-6 scoring forward. They’re a natural fit. It’d be more fun to see Alfie in Colorado though – a young team that loves to run-and-gun and has some cap space as well.

Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers

The Challenge: Tallon was very adamant his plan was to rebuild the Florida Panthers using the same scorched earth approach he used to rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks. And yet there have been enough on-ice positives this year that the playoffs are still a possibility.

His Choice: Stick to the long-term plan or make a post-season run.

One Opinion: Stick to the plan. Under Peter DeBoer and back-stopped by Tomas Vokun, the Panthers have been one of the elite defensive teams in the NHL this year. If they were able to generate any kind of offense, they’d be even closer to the playoffs than they are now (nine points back). However, trading for offense is usually costly, and young offense is rarely dealt around the NHL. Let’s not forget, this is one of the older teams in the NHL. While they’ve kept things interesting, it’s in the team’s best interest to move some pieces at the trade deadline and keep getting younger.

Crazy Thought: Trades between teams in the same division are rarely made. It’s too bad, since Niclas Bergfors is young, can score and is lodged in the Atlanta Thrashers doghouse. It would be interesting to see what he could add to the Panthers offense down the stretch.

Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Challenge: The Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to be better than 25th in the NHL by this stage of team’s rebuilding plan.

His Choice: Fire Ron Wilson or keep him for another year.

One Opinion: Keep Wilson. Wilson is a decent, detail-oriented coach that insists on having his team play a puck-pursuit, aggressive style of hockey. Sadly, there just isn’t enough talent on the team to execute this style effectively. It’s not his fault either that the team hasn’t had a good goaltender during his entire Leafs coaching career.

Crazy Thought: One rumour out of Toronto is that Brian Burke is set to replace Rich Peddie as President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. If that’s the case, Dave Nonis would become the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. General Manager’s usually want their “own guy” behind the bench, meaning that if Burke moves “up,” Wilson’s probably “out.”

Don Maloney, Phoenix Coyotes

The Challenge: The Phoenix Coyotes are proving last year’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke, and impending free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov remains the biggest reason for the team’s success.

His Choice: Sign Bryzgalov or lose him to free agency in the off-season.

One Opinion: Sign him. Like all things with the Coyotes, this one’s complicated by their dicey ownership situation. There is no question that the team would like to re-sign Bryzgalov, but first they want an owner in place to sign the cheques. That’s a fine argument, except when you consider that Bryzgalov may be one of, if not the, most valuable player in the NHL. Without him this Coyotes team goes back to looking like a lottery-pick, bottom-dwelling mess. As the current owners of the franchise, the NHL should do what’s necessary to solidify the franchise’s existence, while protecting the team as an investment, and get Bryzgalov signed.

Crazy Thought: Damien Cox already mentioned it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs would have a big interest if Ilya Bryzgalov became a free agent. Remember, Brian Burke is Bryzgalov’s former GM and did him a favour by placing him on waivers three years ago. That being said, there would be a number of teams eager to bid on an elite NHL goalie. Bryzgalov’s return to Phoenix would be doubtful if he became a UFA.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • While they’re struggling of late, the Los Angeles Kings are still a +16 in the goals for/goals against department. That’s fourth in the Conference, behind Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver.
  • Not sure what exactly it means in the big picture of things, but Pierre LeBrun ranks each NHL Division.
  • James Mirtle looks at the NHL’s best defensive forwards and defensive defencemen at the half-way mark. While not the most foolproof analysis, it serves as another reminder that Tomas Plekanec has become quite the player for Montreal.
  • Statistically, the worst team 5-on-5 but in the playoffs? The Tampa Bay Lightning. Those numbers should really improve if Dwayne Roloson can keep up his play in goal.
  • Statistically, the best team 5-on-5 but outside the playoff picture? Florida. They’re knocking on the door of being a top-10 team in this area.
  • With the success of the Winter Classic, both financially, critically and schmooze-festly, there’s no need for an All-Star Game anymore. NHL should just name a mid-season All-Star team and be done with it.
  • Remember when Simon Gagne was considered the defensive presence on an Olympic line with Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla? Well he’s a -20 in 26 games this year.
  • NHL ice-time leaders amongst forwards: 1. Ilya Kovalchuk 2. Eric Staal 3. Sidney Crosby 4. Corey Perry 5. Brad Richards. 6. Alex Ovechkin. The most interesting name appears at #25: former Leafs castaway Alex Steen is playing 20 minutes a night in St. Louis.
%d bloggers like this: