Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com
I’m in Seattle. This was not the best place to be for the Canucks-Kings game because, although I could easily watch the game, I had to endure NBC’s version of coverage. This includes Mike Milbury’s infuriating opinions and coming back late from commercials so I missed Jannik Hansen’s goal. Also, it involved drinking to get through the game without crying so bear with me, people.
Can We Drop Kick the Drop Pass?
The Canucks’ drop pass needs to be banned from the Canucks play book, especially on the power play. The drop pass on the PP caused two short-handed goals. In this one little game the Canucks allowed half the short-handed goals they allowed in the entire regular season. The Canucks power play had already hit rock bottom. Adding the drop pass to it is like picking up a shovel and digging. Also, can we stop with the habit of chipping/dumping the puck into the opponent’s zone and hope someone gets there to play it. It’s so lazy and ineffective it makes me want to punch kittens.
Vancouver: Where the Hockey Team is Suddenly as Unbalanced as the Weather
I don’t know what to say here. We saw improvement and deterioration in this game – sometimes from the same player. Kesler seemed more focused, he paid attention to the net, not the drama. Lapierre’s production dwindled from game 1 to 2 and, according to Twitter (because I couldn’t hear a thing from the TV commentators over the bar noise), he got kicked out of the game. Hansen was amazing and then gone – literally. Honey Badger scored a goal and then got kicked out for a dust-up by Quick’s net. I couldn’t hear the commentary on TV to explain what caused him getting tossed. It looked like it might have been a little bit of an over-reaction by the refs, in my opinion. But whatever, the battle was too uphill by then. Luongo had another solid night, except for maybe that goal where he was doing his best dead starfish impersonation. Edler was also consistent. He stayed the same deep level of horrible he’s been since the playoffs began.
And the Upside….
After much wine, I have decided it’s not all doom and gloom going into Game 3. We’re going into Los Angeles, which when it comes to fans, is simply a warmer, more affordable Vancouver. We’ve got a ton of supporters there who should be out in force, squelching any unwelcoming atmosphere at Staples Center. Let’s shake things up – we’ve got nothing to lose. Change the lines. Bench Edler. Yes. I said it. BENCH EDLER. And – brace yourself – start Cory Schneider. Luongo played strong and hard. But changing the goalie might change the momentum. Don’t think of it as Lu being punished. Think of it as Lu being saved. He’s played too well to have to carry this team of underachievers any longer. It only takes one win to turn momentum around. Let’s get that one win.
If you’ve got ideas on how the Canucks can fix all that is broken and pull off a win in Game 3, we’d love to hear it! Leave us a comment.
What? Cory Schneider defended himself and his team from ANOTHER media-related attack on the Canucks?
How dare he or any other player grow tired of all the negative hatred spewing forth against the Canucks from the majority of North America!
What a jerk to go and say something that’s kind of (totally) true!
Alright, enough being facetious, Katie. Less intelligent people might start taking this sarcasm as reality.
Schneider had every right to speak his mind, and I don’t agree with him feeling the need to apologize and retract what he said, although it was predictably classy of him to do so (for those of you who don’t know and are blinded by your Canucks-hatred, Schneider is actually a really nice guy and his gut-reaction bashing of Edmonton is something the likes of us have never seen from our red-headed back up).
That being said, it somewhat indicates that even Schneider is getting fed up with the constant negativity being fired towards his team.
Lately he spoke out against Canucks fans who were being too hard on Luongo, and now he’s defending his team from a bad PR decision out of the LA Kings’ marketing department.
After winning Game 1 against the Canucks, the LA Kings account tweeted: “To everyone in Canada outside of B.C., you’re welcome.”
Yeah real original there, random American guy who suddenly knows everything about Canada. I tip my invisible Mountie hat to you, sir.
Later, when asked about their thoughts on this rather dumb tweet and the overall perception of this nation-wide “hatred” of Vancouver, most Canucks shrugged and said it didn’t really bother them, water off their backs so to speak.
Aside from a Sedin, I think Schneider is one of the last players who Canucks fan would have expected to create a bit of a media maelstrom with his thoughts on it:
“You look around the league and people don’t like us and Pittsburgh and we’re two of the better teams,” Schneider said. “You saw Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager in Edmonton. Nobody cares about Edmonton so nobody hates them. It’s that simple.”
Yeah, that part didn’t sit well with Edmonton fans, or with everyone else in the world who jumps on any reason to attack the Canucks.
Then on Friday, Schneider was well aware of the social media storm that occurred after his statement, and he apologized with this:
“It probably wasn’t the best choice of words and I apologize for it. I didn’t mean to create a distraction and hopefully it won’t affect us in any other way going forward.”
He added a bunch of other apologetic sentences tweeted belligerently soon after by Edmonton media, which just made me a little disappointed in Schneider.
Yeah, I understand why he’d want to apologize; he most likely didn’t mean to insult anyone – that’s not Schneider’s way.
But at the same time, I think Canucks Nation was proud of Schneider for defending his team and saying what everyone else is thinking: The better team you are, the more enemies you’re going to make. It really is as simple as he said it is.
There’s the “Embrace the Hate” motto some Canucks fans are trying to live by, but I admit, the undeserved and over-emphasized hatred against the Canucks gets really, really tiring. Not to mention it’s only Game 2 of Round 1 and it’s already gotten to a ridiculous extreme that took at least three rounds to develop last season.
Of course Schneider and the rest of the Canucks are also going to get sick of it. Who wouldn’t? They can say to the media that it doesn’t bother them all they want, and I’m sure a few of them like Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa just feed off it, but there are others who probably don’t like being the target of so much random, overhyped loathing.
I know I wouldn’t.
For someone as polite as Schneider to finally react to something says a lot in my opinion, and he had every right to speak his mind.
After all, everyone else in the NHL and related media seems to have free range to say awful things about Vancouver without repercussions, so why can’t a Canuck say something back?
I for one am glad the Canucks aren’t a bunch of floor mats who’ll just take all this crap from supposed professionals.
Like this guy, Damien Cox from Rogers Sportsnet:
“And now Luongo joins the early playoff fakery. Same ol’ Canucks. Divers and fakers. Why rest of country hates ’em.”
If this so-called journalist is allowed to publicly attack a sports team like that, then that team has every right to react to this kind of ignorance.
It’s a free country isn’t it? Freedom of speech? Anyone? Bueller?
In the meantime, it looks like the Canucks and their fans better grow even thicker skin than they needed last year because the stupidity going around the NHL (and affiliated sport networks) at the moment isn’t going to slow down any time soon.
As it turns out, the term “Smylosphere” was born out of a conversation between PITB’s Harrison Mooney and Thomas Drance. Giving credit where credit is due – good job, guys. It’s a great term to describe the Canucks’ online community.
Now, without further adieu, like Ryan Kesler, let’s dive into today’s Canucks-related links:
For his hit on Kyle Clifford, Byron Bitz was suspended by Brendan Shanahan for the next 2 playoff games. No issues here. Like I said yesterday, it wasn’t necessarily malicious, but it was still a dangerous hit on a player in a vulnerable position.
Now compare that to Shea Weber’s *ahem* play on Henrik Zetterberg:
For grabbing Zetterberg’s head and slamming it into the glass a la Blake Griffin, Weber was issued a $2,500 fine.
I have three words to describe this: What. A. Joke.
Late last season, the NHL swore to take steps to eliminate head shots. To underscore the point, they suspended Aaron Rome for an unprecedented 4 Stanley Cup Finals games – the equivalent of 48 regular season by Sheriff Shanny’s own calculations. In the preseason, they suspended players for 5, 7, 8 games.
All those seem like faded memories now.
Watch the video again.
Weber makes no play on the puck. He doesn’t throw a check. He doesn’t even to pretend to. He goes straight for Zetterberg’s head, grabs it and smashes it against the glass hard enough that Z’s helmet cracked.
In this era of supposed heightened awareness on concussions and player safety, this merited a mere $2,500 fine, which Weber will pay off by about the 2 minute mark of tonight’s game.
What. A. Joke.
For the playoffs, we’ll be tweaking things slightly to feature two different fans. We’ll ask them a few Canucks-related questions and I’ll be offering my two cents as well. Thus, you get three opinions for the price of one. What a deal!
Jason is a cautiously optimistic Canucks fan whose favorite player was once Harold Druken. Born and raised in Richmond, Jason studied business and marketing at UBC, and is currently working for a non-profit company that recruits doctors to this lovely province. All you really need to know about Jason is that his first words were “Shoot left Nathan”. He was born in 1988.
Matthew is 22 years old and lives in Calgary. He jumped ship to team Canucks during his first season working at the the Saddledome as a host in 2008-09. However he’s no bandwagoner, and just like Chris (@schneidz), he wears his Canucks love on his arm with his 13 tattoo. His main sports passion lies with the National Lacrosse League’s Calgary Roughnecks and he hasn’t missed a Canucks game in Calgary for the last two seasons.
1. Will the Canucks ever score on the power play again?
Clay: They will, but it might take a couple of games or so (obviously I hope they score tonight in Game 2). They need more movement and less predictability. They also need to encourage Henrik to shoot the puck more instead of forcing tough passes. And don’t get me started on the drop pass through the neutral zone.
Jason: I am confident the Canucks will turn it around on the power play. Don’t get me wrong, they are not going to post the 20% success rate they posted in the regular season because Jonathan Quick is too darn good, but they will start to see some results. The only time during Game 1 that the Canucks showed any urgency was when they were on the power play with six minutes left. Although they failed to capitalize, I was ecstatic to see such effort. I hate the expression, but LA just wanted Game 1 more, special teams included.
You know who the Canucks need on the power play? Harold Druken.
Matthew: Of course they will. While the power play has been a bit to be desired lately, I’d rather they struggle through a Game 1 and the last few games of the regular season than crash through a later round or a later game in the same round. They’ve also faced some tough goaltending performances. It might just take one little push/one little spark to trigger an avalanche. Our power play wasn’t THAT bad the entire season, right?
2. You’re Alain Vigneault: what’s the single most important change you make for Game 2?
Clay: Get back to playing Canucks hockey: fast skating, good puck possession and offense from the defence. Granted, it’s easier said than done and LA is a good team. And tell Kesler to quit with the theatrical dives.
Jason: I’m Alain Vigneault? Well then Charles Wang must be the owner of the Canucks and Garth Snow the GM, because I would be a terrible coach. I would be relying on my gut instincts all the time, and Vigneault is an outstanding coach because he uses reason, stats, and experimentation (though some would argue he’s just a mad man). But I digress.
Vigneault needs to stress discipline. I am no proponent to the theory that the Canucks lost in the Finals last year because they were not tough enough. Contrary to this line of thought, I think they got to the Finals because they didn’t take undisciplined penalties, particularly after the whistles. Game 1 was a bit of an anomaly in that there were back-to-back delay of game penalties on top of a terrible call on Kesler for getting Quick’s jersey a little damp. Take away the bad calls and bad rules, and the Canucks might have walked away with a completely undeserved win.
Matthew: Do I dare say the unspeakable? I assume we’ll have Daniel back by Friday, so that’s that taken care of. I say stick with what’s been working and continue the rotation of Luongo and Schneider. It’s worked pretty well, and has kept both of them in game condition. You can’t know if you don’t give both of them a shot. So, while it’s a slippery slope, I’d like to see Schneider get the start for Game 2. And please don’t start trolling my Twitter; I’m not a Luongo hater.
Also, I’d maybe experiment with the power play but in a safe way (if that’s possible).
3. How worried are you that the Canucks don’t make it out of the first round?
Jason: I’ll be embarrassingly honest with you. I was a bit of an emotional wreck after Game 1. The same question kept on crossing my mind: “What if Penner walks out of Vancouver with a 2-0 lead and a bottle of maple syrup?!” I think the reason I was so distraught was because we were spoiled in the playoffs last year. The Canucks won the first game of every series, and maintained a lead right up until The Day of the Riot. Like every Canucks fan, I overreacted.
Despite the Canucks lackluster play and abundance of penalties, they were only three minutes away from taking Game 1 to overtime. I’ve seen Columbus play better than the Canucks played last night. COLUMBUS. If you just jumped on the bandwagon, you should know that the Columbus Blue Jackets are the NHL’s equivalent to the former Vancouver Grizzlies. The only difference is that Bryzgalov is scared of Grizzlies.
The Canucks will bounce back. Don’t go burning your counterfeit Canucks jerseys with an upside down shoulder patch just yet. Turn that shoulder patch around, and enjoy Game 2.
Matthew: Not at all. While a weak power play and a parade to the penalty box don’t do us any good, I feel like we still stand as good as chance as any. It’s one game. It takes four wins to make it out of Round 1. The Kings got lucky in Game 1. I sincerely hope a fire has been lit in the Canucks and we come out guns-a-blazing. Besides, if we don’t, I may just have to not answer my phone/Facebook/Twitter for a week as I’m pretty sure my friends who are Flames fans turned Kings “fans” won’t let me live it down.
Clay: I’m not too concerned…yet. Although they were never behind in a series last year, the Canucks learned a lot from their experience and they certainly don’t seem ruffled or fazed by one loss. I’m still going to stick with my prediction of Canucks in 6.
However, everything changes if Daniel misses more action. It’s obvious that the Canucks need him as his absence has a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup.
The Canucks need to win for another important reason: an opportunity to do more Clay’s Canucks Commentaries, featuring Jason.
One of the luxuries the Canucks were supposed to enjoy this season was having a fourth line who could actually play. A fourth line coach Alain Vigneault could trust and deploy in almost any situation. In fact, when comparing this version of the team to last year’s, most point to the depth of their lineup and improved quality of their bottom-six.
When you consider that the Canucks’ fourth line consisted of the likes of Tanner Glass, Victor Oreskovich and Alex Bolduc last year, it’s not much of a stretch to think that Manny Malhotra, Byron Bitz and Zack Kassian represents an improvement. It’s a big line, one that likes to hit and play with a bit of skill.
After one game however, you can say it also lacks some discipline.
Yes, the fourth line stood out in last night’s 4-2 Game 1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Unfortunately, they stood out for all the wrong reasons.
During a forgettable second period, Zack Kassian took an ill-advised charging penalty and Byron Bitz received a boarding major and game misconduct for this:
Both were a part of the Canucks’ penalty parade in the first 40 minutes of the game, in which the team was shorthanded for more than 30% of the time (12:36) and gave the Kings 8 powerplay opportunities. As a result, the Kings scored 2 powerplay goals, including 1 during Bitz’s major penalty.
Further, Bitz could face supplemental discipline for his hit on Kyle Clifford. True, it was a fast play and Clifford turned his back to him. Nor do I think there was any malicious intent on Bitz’s part. That said, it was also a dangerous hit on a vulnerable player. Almost the same hit we chastised Clifford for when he hit Chris Tanev from behind last year.
By the end of the game, Kassian had logged 5:36 minutes of ice-time in 10 shifts and Bitz’s night was done after 4 shifts and 2:51 minutes of ice-time – these are lower ice-times than Glass, Oreskovich and Bolduc averaged last year.
Maybe both were excited, maybe both were nervous. After all, for Kassian, it was his first career NHL playoff game, and for Bitz, it was his first since he last suited in the playoffs for Boston in 2009.
No one expects the fourth line to be difference makers. At the same time however, they need to be dependable in the limited minutes they play. They can’t put the team shorthanded as much as they did last night. Simply put, they need to be better and they need to play smarter.
Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com
A brief look back at the good, the bad and the ugly from Game 1, Round 1 of the Canucks-Kings series.
The Good: Bobby Lu Tried to Win It for You.
If there are still Luongo-haters out there after tonight’s game, even I think you’re crazy. I’m an undeniable Schneider-supporter and although I’m not a Luongo-hater, I am a Luongo-realist. And realistically tonight, the man was a God. He couldn’t have done more to keep the Canucks in this game. He deserved to win this game. I’m confident that if the Canucks play the same way in Game 2 that they did tonight, Lu will also be the only thing that keeps the game from being 18-2. I’m also positive that Luongo can’t keep this up forever so the rest of the team better shake off the playoff cobwebs and get it done.
The Bad: No Love for Lapierre.
Did Maxim Lapierre steal Vigneault’s chewing gum or something equally worthy of punishment between the end of the regular season and this game? Because it sure seems like the coach has an issue with him. Previous to tonight’s game, Lapierre was on the first line with Henrik Sedin. He was scoring and pulling off a multi-point games. So why did AV drop him from that line? Why was Lappy’s ice time also diminished? He finished last night’s game at 11 minutes when in past games he averaged over 12.5 minutes? Not to be deterred by his apparent demotion, he helped David Booth crush Drew Doughty in the opening minutes of the game and assisted on Edler’s second period goal. Can’t help but wonder what more he could have done with a little more time and Hank by his side.
The Ugly: The Hot and Cold that is Alex Edler.
When I look back on Alex Edler’s regular season play, the lyrics to Katy Perry’s Hot n Cold run through my head. He’s been up and down all year and tonight was no different. In the first period Edler took a delay of game penalty. In the second he came back with a much-needed goal, tying the game. Then in the third, Edler’s clearing attempt landed directly in Mike Richard’s chest, ultimately giving the Kings their third goal of the night. To be fair, Edler wasn’t the only sloppy player – not by a long shot – but he was the sloppiest defencemen. And we can’t afford defensive mistakes when our offense is acting like scoring goals is so 2011.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
Season Series: Vancouver (2-1-1)
It was an anti-climactic season for the Canucks, who despite injuries to Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin and an up-and-down season from the blueline still found a way to win the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team. A big reason for the success was in net, as Vancouver’s tandem of Roberto Luongo (2.41 goals against) and Cory Schneider (.937 save percentage) put the Canucks near the top of the NHL’s goaltending ranks. In fact, after the All-Star Game only Phoenix and St. Louis had a better save percentage than Vancouver’s .930. Ironically, this Canucks team enters this post-season with many of the same questions it had last post-season. Is there enough secondary scoring on the team? (Not if David Booth and Mason Raymond remain MIA.) Is the defense deep enough? (Probably if Dan Hamhuis can continue his terrific campaign.) Can Luongo “win the big one”? (Probably, but if not Vancouver has the best back-up in the league.) It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out this time around.
This is not how the Los Angeles Kings season was supposed to go. Armed with Mike Richards, the Kings looked like a team that would vie for home-ice advantage and not scrape into the playoffs. Low scoring teams are usually cannon fodder once the post-season begins, and the Kings look primed to fulfill that destiny. Offense has been the sore point all season – only Minnesota scored fewer in the regular season, and a coaching change (from Terry Murray to Darryl Sutter) didn’t really help much. Drew Doughty, Richards, Dustin “Pancake” Penner, Simon Gagne and Jarrett Stoll all struggled to score. Jeff Carter, added at the deadline, offered hope scoring at a 30-goal pace before hurting his foot. Now he’s a question mark as the post-season starts. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots for the Kings. Goalie Jonathan Quick’s 1.95 goals against average, .929 save percentage and 10 shutouts effectively saved L.A.’s season. Anze Kopitar took another step towards becoming the best player in the Western Conference, scoring 76 points and playing a strong two-way game. No team gave up fewer shots-per-game after the All-Star Game than the Kings (24.8).
Key Player, Vancouver: Daniel Sedin
Daniel Sedin is one of the best snipers in the game, and together with brother Henrik gives the Canucks an elite first line. The longer he sits in the first round waiting to recover from his concussion, the better it is for the Kings, who desperately need to win a few 1-0, 2-1 games to pull off a series upset.
Key Player, Los Angeles: Drew Doughty
Doughty’s performance this season has been arguably worse than his disappointing 2010-11 season. Talent-wise though he remains one of the few defencemen in the league capable of dominating play at both ends of the ice. With Daniel Sedin out, it’s one less offensive Canuck player the Kings have to keep in check. If Doughty can keep Henrik Sedin at bay and jump-start L.A.’s powerplay, he could turn a short series on paper into a long one.
Coaching: Even. Both coaches have their critics but they tend to get maximum effort out of their roster.
Goaltending: Even. Jonathan Quick has had a Vezina-esque season playing behind a stifling defense, but the 1-2 punch of Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider has been elite as well.
Defense: Kings. Both of these teams are loaded with two-way talent and feature strong bluelines, but the Kings under Darryl Sutter have become a suffocating group to play against.
Offense: Kings. The biggest edge in any category as long as Daniel Sedin is healthy. Otherwise it’s much closer, especially if some of the underperforming Kings find life.
Special Teams: Canucks. Los Angeles’ 17th ranked powerplay hurts them against a Canucks team that’s likely to take penalties.
Prediction: Canucks in 5
St. Louis Blues (2) vs San Jose Sharks (7)
Season Series: St. Louis (4-0)
How successful was the Blues regular season? With 109 points, St. Louis had their best record in 12 years (1999-2000). This maturing team was 43-15-11 under coach Ken Hitchcock, who implemented a physical defensive system upon his arrival that pressures puck-carriers and forces turnovers. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott split the workload like an old-school tandem, resulting in a league best 1.78 goals against average and .932 save percentage. The 2011-12 season was also a coming out party for a couple of young Blues. Alex Pieterangelo was the team’s best offensive and defensive defenseman, earning Norris Trophy buzz and leading the blueline with 51 points. T.J. Oshie had a career-high 54-points, while David Backes led the team with 24 goals and vaulted himself into Selke Trophy consideration. Quietly, Andy McDonald returned from injury and played at almost a point-a-game pace, giving the Blues three potential scoring lines. Potential scoring lines is the key word there, as defensive responsibility remains the priority on a Hitchcock hockey team. The Blues will go as far as their offense can take them.
It seems like the San Jose Sharks have been destined to win a Stanley Cup forever. Instead, this year’s 7th place finish likely serves notice that the championship window for this group of players is closing fast. San Jose earned 41 points in its last 41 games, worst among all playoff teams. Goaltending was a big factor in the team’s poor play, as the Sharks goals against rose more than a half-goal-per-game (0.52) after the All-Star Game. San Jose’s attack was 10th in the league, but it too has suffered from some inconsistency, with key scorers Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau scoring just 4 goals each since March. Ironically, it’s the much-maligned Joe Thornton (39 points in 35 games since the All-Star break) who’s been the team’s best offensive player down the stretch. On the blueline, Dan Boyle remains the team’s biggest offensive threat, while Brent Burns has been a bit of a disappointment as the team’s #2 defenseman. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the team’s best shutdown d-man and the only one who can skate (apologies to Douglas Murray and Colin White). This is probably it for the Sharks – their last run at a Cup before the core is altered.
Key player, St. Louis: David Backes
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Backes matched up against San Jose’s top line. His success against Joe Thornton will dictate the length of this series.
Key player, San Jose: Antti Niemi
San Jose only wins this series if Niemi can equal or surpass the goaltending performance of the Blues. The Sharks need him to get hot, fast.
Coaching: Blues. Big advantage here for the Blues. Not only does he have a Stanley Cup ring, but Ken Hitchcock has modified his approach to communicate better with today’s modern player.
Goaltending: Blues. Not only did the Blues lead the league in all goaltending statistics, their goals against actually dropped as the season went along. Let’s not forget the last time Jaroslav Halak was in the playoffs he looked like Patrick Roy.
Defense: Blues. Both teams have solid bluelines, but St. Louis top players are committed defensively in a way San Jose’s aren’t.
Offense: Sharks. The Sharks offense was dormant most of the year but they ramped it up after Martin Havlat returned (3.1 goals per game over their last 10 games). San Jose’s top-end talent has a higher ceiling than that of the Blues.
Special Teams: Even. San Jose’s powerplay was second overall for the year and they were the only team to score at a rate higher than 10% after the All-Star Game. However, their penalty kill is a major weakness (29th in the league; 30th after the break). The Blues have a strong penalty kill (7th overall); average powerplay (17th).
Prediction: Blues in 7
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Season Series: Phoenix (3-1)
There’s some cruel irony in the Phoenix Coyotes winning their first division title as a franchise in what is likely their last season in the desert. Much of the credit belongs to two people: coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith. Tippett’s defensive system allows the Coyotes to give up shots (only Ottawa and Carolina gave up more per game) but keep scoring chances in the middle of the ice to a minimum. It’s an approach that helped make a name for Ilya Bryzgalov and, this season, helped Mike Smith become a Vezina Trophy candidate. Not only did Smith resurrect his career, but he was practically unbeatable after the All-Star Game (.941 save percentage). It should be noted though that Tippett’s system (and, in turn, Coyotes goaltending) has failed in recent post-seasons as gifted offensive teams (namely the Detroit Red Wings) have found ways to get the puck into key scoring areas. And while this is a Phoenix team that can skate, hit and defend, scoring doesn’t come naturally (18th overall). Terrific seasons by Ray Whitney (77 points) and Radim Vrbata (35 goals) were offset by an absence of offensive flair at the centre ice position. Phoenix enters the playoffs without a single pivot having scored more than Martin Hanzel’s 34 points.
The Chicago Blackhawks overcame much on their way to a 101-point season. For starters, team goaltending has been mired in the bottom-third of the league all year. Chicago’s .899 save percentage since the All-Star Game tied with Boston for worst among playoff-bound teams. That the Blackhawks were solid defensively (9th in shots against) all year only amplifies their challenge between the pipes. The absence of Jonathan Toews also threw the team’s attack into a flux. The captain had 57 points in 59 games prior to a concussion, but taking Toews out of the lineup contributed to a 0.57 goals-per-game decrease in Chicago’s offense after the break. Viktor Stalberg has emerged (22 goals) in a supporting role, but Brendan Morrison (0 points in 11 games), Michael Frolik (5 goals in 63 games) and Andrew Brunette (12 goals) have disappointed. As a result, Chicago features a talented but extremely top-heavy attack that doesn’t go beyond its first two lines.
Key Player, Phoenix: Mike Smith
Without a dominant Mike Smith performance it’s hard to see how the Coyotes can muster enough counter-attack against Chicago’s deep blueline to win the series. The “Desert Dogs” need Smith to steal a couple of games.
Key Player, Chicago: Jonathan Toews
The captain is questionable for Game 1, and without him, Chicago is missing their leader, best two-way player and best faceoff man. Patrick Kane is a creative player but out-of-position and a defensive liability at centre (winning just 42% of his draws). With Toews in the lineup, the Blackhawks also become a much harder team to defensively match-up against. If he’s healthy, this is probably a short series.
Coaching: Even. Quenneville has won a Cup but there’s been whispers of a lethargic season behind the bench. Meanwhile, Dave Tippett might just be the best NHL coach to not have a Stanley Cup ring.
Goaltending: Coyotes. Mike Smith had a regular season for the ages, but Corey Crawford has had playoff success before. He could surprise here.
Defense: Blackhawks. Phoenix’s forwards play a better defensive system and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has emerged as a legitimate top-line defenseman. But Chicago gets the edge given its deep blueline. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya and Nik Hjalmarsson are among the best top-5s in the league.
Scoring: Blackhawks. This is a mismatch if Toews is healthy; if Toews isn’t healthy this is closer than you may expect. Phoenix’s goals per game in the second-half: 2.56. Chicago’s in the second-half without Toews? 2.59.
Special Teams: Coyotes. Chicago’s special teams are arguably the worst in the playoffs. While the Coyotes powerplay is anything but powerful, they’re a top-10 penalty-killing team.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
Season Series: Tied (3-3)
It’s an exciting time to be a “Smashville” hockey fan, as the Nashville Predators had their best regular season in five years. This year’s edition retained the qualities the franchise has been known for – stellar goaltending (Pekka Renne had 43 wins and 5 shutouts) and a strong blueline led by Shea Weber (19 goals) and Ryan Suter (46 points). Where this team differed from there history was on offense. This aggressive, bulldog Predators team was the highest scoring Western Conference squad after the All-Star Game, and finished 8th overall in league scoring. It was a balanced attack featuring seven players with 40-or-more points and the league’s best powerplay. The acquisition of Alex Radulov (7 points in 9 games) also gave Nashville its first legitimate top-line centre since Peter Forsberg donned the mustard orange in 2006-07. The team went 6-3 with the Russian sniper in the lineup, including an impressive 4-1 win over Detroit on March 30th. Tough, fast, and now capable at both ends of the ice, this could very well be the most talented Nashville Predators team of all-time. Their time is now.
While it may have been another 100+ point season in Detroit, the Red Wings actually had their worst regular season points-wise since 1998-99. And while the team was its usual strong self in a variety of categories (7th in goals for and goals against; 5th in shots for, 3rd in shots against), there were some cracks in the team’s foundation. Their road record was 25th in the league and is the worst among Western Conference playoff teams. Their special teams finished in the bottom-half of the league. Niklas Lidstrom had his worst point-totals since 1994-95, while Pavel Datsyuk failed to score 20-goals for the first time since his sophomore season. Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi failed to combine for 10 goals after the All-Star break. Still, there is a lot of talent on the roster, as demonstrated by the team’s 23-game home-winning streak. Niklas Kronwall and Ian White had strong seasons on the blueline, while Valtteri Filppula (66 points), Jiri Hudler (25 goals) and Johan Franzen (team-best 29 goals) kept the Red Wings attack potent. When healthy, Jimmy Howard proved he could carry the Red Wings if needed.
Key Player, Nashville: Alex Radulov
The Predators would have beaten the Canucks last year if they had a single gamebreaker in their lineup. Now they have that gamebreaker and are going up against a Red Wings team that is similar to the Canucks in style of play. A successful series on the scoreboard from Radulov probably means the Predators win the series.
Key Player, Detroit: Jimmy Howard
This is a greying Red Wings team that may find themselves at times physically dominated by the younger, potentially hungrier, Predators. For a long time Detroit has iced teams that haven’t had to rely on goaltending to succeed. This could be the year, and the series, where that dependence is reversed.
Coaching: Red Wings. A slight edge as both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz are terrific coaches.
Goaltending: Predators. Pekka Renne is an elite netminder; Jimmy Howard is improving.
Defense: Predators. Both teams play well defensively, with Detroit arguably underrated in this area. It’s on the blueline where Nashville has a slight edge. Weber and Suter are the best one-two punch in the league.
Offense: Red Wings. Slight edge here as the Red Wings have greater depth among their forwards. But this is the best attack the Predators have had in quite some time.
Special Teams: Predators. The Predators have the best powerplay in the league and a top-10 penalty kill. The Red Wings have struggled in both areas.
Prediction: Predators in 5