Sep 302013
 

On the eve of the start of the 2013/2014 NHL regular season, I preview the 30 teams, one division at a time.

Rangers vs Islanders

Photo credit: MLB

Carolina Hurricanes

The Good

The top-line of Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty was one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL last season, but the Canes have little scoring depth after that. Adding Jordan Staal last season helped address this, but at this point, Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner can’t reliably be counted on to stay healthy.

The Bad

I think it says enough when the addition of Mike Komisarek on defense is considered an upgrade.

The Outlook

Things won’t be rocking like a Hurricane in Carolina this season.

*****

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Good

If Marion Gaborik, Nathan Horton, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky can ever stay healthy, the Blue Jackets may actually boast some scoring punch on its top two lines. They still do have a lot of ifs, but there’s no denying GM John Davidson has the team moving along the right path.

The Bad

Like the Canes, the Blue Jackets don’t have a lot of team depth.

The Outlook

Columbus was built to bump and grind it out with the best of them, which, playing in the old Central Division, almost won them a playoff spot last season. The East is a different beast, however, and being in the same division as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders will force them to play a more wide-open game than they’d like.

*****

New Jersey Devils

The Good

With Hall of Famer, Martin Brodeur, already in the lineup, goaltending was never an issue in Newark. But now, they also have ex-Canuck, Cory Schneider, to take over when Brodeur decides to hang them up.

The Bad

After losing Zach Parise, the Devils finished 28th in goals per game in 2012/2013. Now, they’ve also lost their leading goal scorer, David Clarkson (Toronto), and 2nd-leading scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk (KHL).

The Outlook

While Brodeur and Schneider can keep the Devils close in games, regardless of how the team is playing in front of them, I’m not convinced UFA signings, Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr and Ryane Clowe can adequately replace the loss of Parise, Kovalchuk and Clarkson.

*****

New York Islanders

The Good

With John Tavares and Matt Moulson leading the way, the Islanders finished the 2012/2013 season with the 7th-ranked offense in the NHL. Now, it looks like Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are poised to take another step in their development and help out. Ex-Canuck, Michael Grabner, can also be counted on to score about 20+ goals.

The Bad

The Isles don’t have much back on d. Yes, they’ll score a lot. But they’ll also let in a lot of goals.

The Outlook

If another youngster or two – maybe a Griffin Reinhart – then the Isles may very well compete for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

*****

New York Rangers

The Good

The Rangers may very well benefit from a gentler, calmer, kinder (sometimes too kind) voice behind the bench in former Canucks coach, Alain Vigneault. But also, AV will also benefit from having an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, a deep group down the middle (Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard and Brian Boyle), some solid players on the wings (Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan), and some good, young players stepping in (Carl Hagelin, Mats Zucarello and JT Miller).

The Bad

The Rangers’ special teams weren’t exactly special last season – their PP was in the bottom-third of the league and their PK was merely average – and they didn’t add anyone specifically to address them.

The Outlook

After the Penguins and the Capitals, the Rangers should take one of the divisional playoff spots. How far they go will depend largely on how AV can motivate a group that seemed to get stale last season.

*****

Philadelphia Flyers

The Good

On paper, the Flyers seem to always boast one of the strongest, most balanced teams in the league, and this season is no different. Up front, they already had Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Scott Hartnell, Sean Couturier and Matt Read in their top-nine. And then they added Vincent Lecavalier during free agency. In the back, they added offensive defenseman, Mark Streit, to a group that already included Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossman and Luke Schenn.

The Bad

The Flyers’ playoff hopes hang on Ray Emery, who hasn’t been a no. 1 goalie since the 2006/2007 season, and Steve Mason, whose last good year as a no. 1 goalie was his rookie year in the 2008/2009 season.

The Outlook

As their goaltending go, the Flyers will go. But hey, it wouldn’t be Philadelphia-like any other way.

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Good

Where to start? Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz highlight the attack, and Pascal Dupuis, Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen provide more than adequate support. 21-year old Beau Bennett looks good too.

The Bad

Marc-Andre Fleury is still the Pens’ starting goaltender while Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely.

The Outlook

The Pens should make the playoffs on the strength of their lineup alone. After that, all bets are off.

*****

Washington Capitals

The Good

Simply, the Caps’ offense. Alex Ovechkin is back. And so is Mike Green. Nicklas Backstrom scored at a point-a-game pace. Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer also improved. And while the league’s 5th-ranked offense and top-ranked power play lost second-line center, Mike Ribeiro, the Caps did replace him with Mikhail Grabovski.

The Bad

The defense is razor-thin. Green, fellow offensive defenseman, John Carlson, and defensive defenseman, Karl Alzner, head the group, but after that consists of some guys I’ve never heard of.

The Outlook

The Caps will make the playoffs, but will need some help in the back end to make any sort of an extended playoff run.

Jun 282013
 

Clay with son Sean and Marie Hui

My new Canucks song is a tribute to John Tortorella – the brand new head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.  He brings with him passion, a wealth of experience, and a Stanley Cup ring.

This song features the amazing Marie Hui and my son Sean doing some background vocals (along with camera work and holding up cue cards…haha).

 

I was happy that I got in Torts’ famous line from his first press conference in Vancouver: “If you’re a good loser, you’re a loser.”

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 232013
 

Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: National Post

With less than a week of games under the NHL’s belt in this shortened 2013 season, I’m shocked at how many things made me go hmmm…

Here are a few of the biggest head scratchers:

Goalie Drama. Again. Sigh.

The Vancouver Canucks have not traded Roberto Luongo. Despite claiming Cory Schneider is their number one, they pulled Schneider in game 1 and didn’t give him a chance in game 2. Alain Vigneault’s talk doesn’t match his walk. If Schneider is the Canucks’ number 1, he would get the start, even after being pulled. In the last few seasons, Luongo would get the start even after being pulled or a poor showing. Between Vigneault’s refusal to stick with his supposed number 1, and his further refusal to even announce his starter until minutes before a game, the goalie controversy is gaining life instead of losing it. It doesn’t matter how professional an organization is, that kind of extended drama is going to make an impact in a bad way. It has with the fan base. Luongo homers are openly tweeting hopefully for Cory’s failure.

Reality check: Schneider isn’t the only number one to struggle. The New York Rangers pulled Henrik Lundqvist in the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins after he stopped just 14 of 18 shots. Why aren’t Rangers fans screaming for Marty Biron to take over the number 1 spot? Because Rangers management isn’t wishy-washy on their faith in Lundqvist.

Does a Short Season Mean it’s a Free-For-All?

If you look at the results throughout the league over the first few days of the season, it’s glaringly obvious the favourites aren’t doing so well. A lot of sportscasters tagged the Rangers to be the team most likely to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup this year; they’ve yet to win a game. Same with the Philadelphia Flyers, who the pundits always predict some noise in the playoffs. And as we all know, same with the Canucks.

In fact the only favourite doing really well are the Penguins. The Chicago Blackhawks, much to my personal chagrin, are also starting strong. In a shortened season, getting a fast start out of the gate and winning from the get-go is important. Sure the Canucks (and Rangers and Flyers) have only lost 2 or 3 games, but with less time to catch up, it’s worrisome. I have a feeling we may be even more surprised by this year’s Cup winner than last year’s.

Jersey Off Our Backs Make Me Go Hmmm… and Mmmm

After watching the Jersey Off Our Backs presentation on Saturday, I’m left with a few questions. Bear with me as I have never played hockey.

How come the Canucks don’t all wear the same pads? I assumed they would all wear similar, if not the same pads, but Lapierre is wearing red ones that make him look like he’s still a Hab. Yes I actually looked at his pads, not just his pretty face. It was hard but I did it. Mostly everyone else on the team had white pads, or in David Booth’s case, a really bad checkered shirt. 

And does Higgins not wear anything under his pads just so he can hear the squeals of delight as he pulls his shirt off?  This is the second Jersey off Our Backs that I’ve witnessed live and in-person and once again Higgy wasn’t wearing Under Armour – he’s the only hockey player I’ve seen that goes bare under the pads. Why does he do it? Why doesn’t anyone else? Not that I’m complaining; it does make me go Hmmm… and Mmmm.

 

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.

Jan 082013
 
Patrick Roy and Serge Savard, Montreal Canadiens

Photo credit: gohabs.com

So where were we before we were rudely interrupted?

Let’s get this out of the way first. I try not to waste energy worrying about things I can’t control. This is why 99.9% of the public bargaining, media coverage and fan reactions during the NHL lockout struck me as preposterous.

By paying attention, people were empowering both sides of the negotiation and simply encouraging bad behaviour.

How the league or its labour divides the revenue pie is frankly none of my business, because I’m neither an owner nor a player. I really don’t care.

I love the game of hockey, not economics.

Besides, no matter what the cap ended up being, good general managers will still be good general managers, good coaches good coaches, etc, etc.

You see, there was always going to be an NHL season.

Neither the players nor the owners could afford to jeopardize what has become a multi-billion dollar business. That’s why 48-game schedule was never anything but the end game to all this.

So it was simply a matter of waiting for the NHL to return. And now it’s here – in all of its gory glory.

Sadly, what hasn’t been talked about much in all the fuss over HRR and “make whole” is that the NHL game we left last summer wasn’t a very good product.

Goal-scoring and scoring chances were trending down; concussions and nasty violence were more prominent.

If anything, here’s hoping labour peace means the focus is now placed on how to improve NHL hockey.

*****

One thing we’re likely to see over the next 7-14 days is a lot of discussion about the “legitimacy” of the upcoming season.

In particular, many will argue a 48-game schedule isn’t long enough to demonstrate the quality of an NHL club.

There’s a quick way to test this theory – compare a team’s results during the 48-game season with their results for the seasons before (93-94) and after (95-96).

In doing so, we quickly see that 24 of the 26 teams had “normal” results during the 48-game season. In this case, “normal” means:

  • that their winning percentage was relatively the same across the three seasons; or
  • their winning percentage was similar to either the season before or the season after 94-95; or
  • a trend was apparent (they were consistently getting worse or getting better);

Only two teams during the 1994-95 season had results that were significantly out-of-character – the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.

Montreal CanadiensSeasonNew York Rangers
.571 winning percentage1993-94.667 winning percentage
.448 winning percentage1994-95.489 winning percentage
.549 winning percentage1995-96.585 winning percentage

So what happened to these two teams in 94-95?

Despite playing the league’s third-toughest schedule, you can place the blame in Montreal at the feet of GM Serge Savard. He essentially panicked, ending the team’s string of 25-straight years of playoff appearances.

After a 4-3-2 start and worried about the team’s attack, Savard dealt his best defenseman (Eric Desjardins) and youngster John LeClair for Mark Recchi. Later in the year, and still in pursuit of scoring, Savard dealt Mathieu Schneider and Kirk Muller for Vlad Malakhov and Pierre Turgeon.

These two moves essentially devastated Montreal’s blueline. Patrick Roy faced roughly 32-shots a game, three more shots on average than the season before. He struggled with the increase (2.97 goals against; .906 save percentage).

The trades also made Montreal much easier to play against, as their league-worst 3-18-3 road record would attest.

And while Recchi and Turgeon played well, the team as a whole never got their attack going, finishing 22nd overall in goals for.

Malaise was the biggest factor in their year-long struggle for the defending Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers. The Rangers got off to a slow start (1-4) and lost seven in a row at one point mid-year. Former GM Neil Smith has since admitted there were challenges motivating his experienced squad. Interestingly, goalie Mike Richter also had a year to forget (2.92 goals against; .890 save percentage – which makes one wonder about the impact of goaltending over a shortened season).

Anyways, the Blueshirts found their game when it mattered, as they made the playoffs and upset the favoured Quebec Nordiques in the first round. So humbling was this loss that the Nords picked up their stuff and moved to Colorado for the following season.

Both the Habs and the Rangers rebounded in 1995-96 with improved play. The Habs dealt Roy and rode a stronger attack (top ten in goals for and on the powerplay) back into the playoffs. Conversely, Richter rebounded (2.68 goals against; .912 save percentage) and Mark Messier had his last great season (47 goals, 99 points) for New York, leading the team to a 96-point season.

Bottom line – there’s no reason to believe the upcoming 48-game NHL season will be any less legitimate than a regular 82-game schedule. Even when you look at the aberrations of the 94-95 season, it’s clear the things that hurt the Habs (bad trades) and the Rangers (Stanley Cup hangover) can happen any year.

May 152012
 

New York Rangers (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series:  Rangers (3-2-1)

What we learned about the Rangers in the Second Round: That Brad Richards, at least this year, is worth every penny New York is paying him. There is a lot of Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman in Richards game this post-season.  The Rangers need Richards (and for that matter, Marian Gaborik, who had a terrific Caps series) to continue playing like this, as without him the team clearly doesn’t have enough scoring to win a playoff series. For that matter, we also learned that Michael Del Zotto has come all the way back from a disasterous 2010-11 season. He helped the Rangers improve their powerplay in the second round. Finally, we learned that the Rangers had enough in the tank after a 7-game first round to go the distance again against Washington. The longer this Conference Final goes though, the worse it will be for the clearly battered-and-bruised Rangers.

What we learned about the Devils in the Second Round: That Peter DeBoer was a terrific hire as coach for the Devils, has he’s taken their traditional defensive excellence and added an up-tempo forecheck that drove Philadelphia’s blueliners crazy in the second round. This is as deep a Devils team upfront as they’ve had since the turn of the century. That Ilya Kovalchuk has overtaken Alex Ovechkin in the rankings of best Russian players, and has become a better leader than anyone expected. That their powerplay had some bite against the Flyers, with two solid offensive lines and Kurtis Foster bombing from the point.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. DeBoer has done a great job with the Devils but no one has gotten more from his players this year than John Tortorella.

Goaltending: Rangers. Massive edge here. Brodeur has had moments in this post-season but was just “good enough” against the Flyers. Lundqvist is all world.

Defense: Rangers. No team remaining in the playoffs is as disciplined defensively as the Rangers. Their blueline is heads-and-tails better than New Jersey’s, especially with the emergence of Del Zotto in the second round.

Offense: Devils. New Jersey’s tied with Los Angeles for highest scoring team remaining in the playoffs, and they can roll three lines that can contribute offensively. The key to the series for the Devils will be containing Richards and Gaborik. If they can, the Rangers offense is lifeless.

Special Teams: Even. Devils have had a stronger powerplay in the post-season, but their penalty kill has been a sore point through two rounds. Rangers have been mediocre in both areas, although their pp improved against Washington.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

*****

A word now for the dearly departed:

Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of Death: Poor defensive play.

Prescription: First the Flyers have to figure out what’s going on with Chris Pronger. If Pronger is really headed for retirement, it would make a lot of sense for the team to try and find some cap room to go after Ryan Suter. The Flyers can certainly score, but adding some other veteran, character guys who can improve the penalty kill and help clean up the defensive zone (and not leave Ilya Bryzgalov out to dry like he was left at times in these playoffs) would be a huge boost. This is probably “as bad” as the Flyers are going to be for some time – they’re a powerhouse on the rise.

*****

Washington Capitals

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted Offensive Asphyxiation.

Prescription: Let’s get this out of the way first – this team got no more done under Dale Hunter’s “defensive” system than they did playing Bruce Boudreau’s original “run and gun” hockey. As evidenced as recently as this spring by the Kings and Devils, teams that can score (averaging 3 goals per game) AND defend well are enjoying success. Doing just one, or the other, is not good enough. The Caps have an emerging blueline, some solid character and defensive depth throughout the lineup and hopes are high for goaltender Holtby – what Washington needs to invest in (and have needed to invest in for a long-time now) is secondary scoring. A good, second-line centre who could take the heat off of Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom (who face every team’s top defensive players) would be a huge step in the right direction for the Caps. It would never happen, but man this is a team that could use Jordan Staal (reportedly on the market) or a player of that calibre to anchor the second line.

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

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