Apr 082013
 

Alex Edler of the Vancouver Canucks crunches Phoenix Coyotes goaltender, Mike Smith

Photo credit: Globe and Mail

Only 3 points back of the 8th place Detroit Red Wings and with a game in hand on them, the Desert Dogs are hungry for a win – Hehe. See what I did there? – and still fighting for the last and final playoff spot in the West. The Coyotes may not be one of the most exciting teams to watch, but give them credit, they’ve found a way in recent years to stay relevant in the wild, wild, West. Heading into tonight’s game, they’ve won 3 straight games and have points in 6 straight games (4-0-2).

But enough about the Coyotes, tonight could see the return of a player that has been missing in the Canucks lineup for quite some time. He’s suffered a few injuries in his last couple of years here, but yes, Keith Ballard could return tonight. I can feel AV’s heart filling with pride and joy. (Though that he’s coming into the lineup in place of the injured Chris Tanev probably tempers that joy a bit.)

But in all seriousness, Ryan Kesler seems to be healed and ready to get a few games under his belt before the real season starts. After leading the stretches at this morning’s game-day skate, the Canucks announced he would be back tonight and playing on a line with Mason Raymond and Zack Kassian.

My gosh, do the Canucks actually have 3 scoring lines now?

Canucks Record

21-11-6, 48 points (1st in the Northwest Division, 3rd in the Western Conference)

Season Series

The Canucks and the Coyotes split their first 2 games against each other this season. The Coyotes won the first meeting in February by a 4-2 score. The Canucks won the most recent meeting on March 21 by a 2-1 score.

Who’s Hot

For all the angst in Vancouver over the last few weeks, they’re actually 8-2-0 in their last 10 games. Despite some low-scoring – and no-scoring – efforts in some of those games, they’ve held in – thanks in large part to the play of Cory Schneider – and taken points anyway.

The first line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows had great games against the two Alberta teams and combined for 11 points. Hank had 5 points (2G-3A), Dank had 4 points (0G-4A) and Burr had 2 points (1G-1A).

Mikkel Boedker is currently on a 3-game point streak (1G-3A) and has recorded at least a point in 4 of his last 5 games. Despite the shortened schedule, he’s only 4 points away from matching his career-high in points (28 points in 2008/2009, his first season in the league). He’s currently tied for the team lead with 24 points (7G-17A).

Who’s Not

Alex Edler scored against the Flames on Saturday, but prior to that, he had just 1 assist in 9 games.

The Coyotes have won just 1 or their 7 road games since the beginning of March, and are a woeful 4-8-5 away from Jobing.com Arena this season. So of course, while they’re chasing a playoff spot, 7 of their last 10 games are on the road.

Mar 222013
 

By now, you’ve seen this clip. In last night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes, Alex Edler chased the puck behind the net and hits Mike Smith, who came out of his crease to play the puck.

As a result of the hit, Edler received a five-minute major penalty, allowing the Coyotes to tie the game during the ensuing powerplay. But also, Edler apparently now has a phone hearing with the NHL later this afternoon, which means he could be facing supplemental discipline.

I suppose Edler could have done more to avoid contact with Smith. (Smith sure looked like he sold that call, but whatever.) Or maybe, Edler was looking for some payback given Smith punched Daniel Sedin and gave him a bloody nose – unpenalized – earlier in the game.

While I’m usually of the mindset that goalies who wander out of their crease should be fair game, I also understand the league has called these penalties on a fairly consistent basis. In that sense, there’s no doubt Edler deserved a penalty on the play. But IMHO, a phone hearing and a possible suspension seems excessive.

Alex Edler hits Mike Smith

Courtesy of AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

What do you think? You be the judge.

Update: March 22, 2013, 6:30 PM

The NHL has suspended Alex Edler for two games for this hit.

Mar 222013
 

The Canucks are battered and bruised, but made it to Phoenix. Well most of them did. Steve Pinizzotto and Zack Kassian did not. Chris Higgins did, but tweaked his back in the morning and couldn’t play. At this point they really just need to hold on and bubble wrap everyone. At all times.

Now, on to the game.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Mar 212013
 

After Ray Whitney decided to take his talents to Dallas this past off-season, the Coyotes were left with a big hole in their offense. Whitney had a team high 77 points (24G-53A) last season, so without his production players like Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan were expected to carry the offensive load.

Shane Doan

Courtesy of Christian Petersen


To say that the Coyotes have struggled to score as of late is an understatement. They have not won in their last 4 games (0-3-1) while being shut out in 3 of those 4 games and outscored 11-2 altogether. In fact, the Coyotes went a franchise record 245:30 minutes of scoreless hockey before Shane Doan scored in the 3rd period in their last game against the Los Angeles Kings.

The notion of peppering shots on goal but not getting results is all too familiar for Canucks fans. And although the Canucks’ scoring troubles aren’t quite as bad as the Coyotes’ at the moment, there is still cause for concern – the Canucks have scored 2 or less goals in 9 of their last 12 games.

This is the second meeting between the two teams. By current standards, their last meeting in February was a “high-scoring” match-up when the Coyotes beat the Canucks 4-2. Kyle Chipchura led Phoenix with 2 goals that night.

Canucks Record

14-9-6, 34 points (2nd in Northwest Division, 6th in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Hard to say any of the Coyotes are “hot” right now, but Shane Doan has been the only ‘Yote to score more than once in their last 4 games. (He has 2 goals.) Doan is 1 point behind the team lead with 18 points (11G-7A) on the season.

Daniel Sedin is currently riding a 3-game point streak. He has 4 points (1G-3A) in that span.

Who’s Not

Radim Vrbata has been sidelined with injuries this season and has missed 16 games so far. In his 14 games played he has just 4 goals – a far cry from his 35-goal season last season.

Chris Higgins has gone pointless in his last 5 games and is a dreadful minus-7 in that span.

Quickies

  • With Chris Higgins, Steve Pinizzotto, Zack Kassian, Ryan Kesler and David Booth all injured, the Canucks have summonned Andrew Gordon from the Wolves and will likely play a defenseman as their 12th forward. In the over/under, pick the under. (Vancouver Sun)
Feb 272013
 

Has everyone recovered from the Canucks’ 8-3 meltdown in Detroit on Sunday afternoon? How about from their Oscar hangovers? I hope so, we have a Phoenix game to watch!

That is adorable.

Read more #TGATT goodness past the jump.

Jan 182013
 

The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues could be battling for top spot in the Western Conference this season.

Yesterday, we previewed the Eastern Conference. Today – the Western Conference:

1. St. Louis Blues – 60 points

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

Why: The time is now for the Blues, who are strong in all areas and backstopped by one of the best pairings in the league (Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott). A Conference Finals appearance, at the very least, should be expected. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pieterangelo are among the best young defensemen in the game and eat up minutes on the back end. The addition of rookie winger Vlad Tarasenko should give the Blues three scoring lines with grit.

2. Los Angeles Kings – 58 points

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

Why: The Kings finally played to their potential in last year’s post season, winning the Stanley Cup after a difficult regular season. There’s no reason to expect similar struggles this time around, especially with the lockout-related layoff recharging some of the players’ batteries. An injury to Willie Mitchell hurts somewhat, but should give more icetime to second-year defenseman Slava Voynov, who was the reason L.A. could part with Jack Johnson at last year’s deadline. The Kings are extremely deep at centre, with Anze Kopitar a dominant two-way force (although he’s starting the season with a knee injury). Jonathan Quick was the NHL’s best goalie in 2012, and is supported by Jonathan Bernier, who could easily start for a number of other teams.

3. Vancouver Canucks – 50 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: A-
Defense: B+
Forwards: B+
Coaching: B-

Why: The window on the Canucks’ Stanley Cup dream is quickly closing. Injuries have rendered Ryan Kesler a question mark, and without him it’s hard to see where the goals will come from beyond the Sedin line. David Booth’s injury also adds to these offensive woes. The team is deep in net, and really needs to move Roberto Luongo as soon as possible to fill gaps up front. The blueline is very solid but unspectacular, with Jason Garrison likely to struggle to repeat last year’s goal-scoring performance. New starting goalie Cory Schneider was the only significant Canuck to spend time playing during the lockout. Expect this team to be slow out of the gate.

4. Detroit Red Wings – 54 points

Status: Decline
Goaltending: B
Defense: C+
Forwards: B
Coaching: A

Why: The Red Wings blueline looks rather suspect, especially when you consider two former Maple Leafs (Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White) will be expected to shoulder top-4 minutes. Actually, the Wings will likely go as far as two youngsters take them: If Brendan Smith can step in and fill some of the offensive void left by Lidstrom’s retirement, that will be a major boost to the team’s fortunes. Similarly, if Damien Brunner can find chemistry with Henrik Zetterberg, it will fill the void left by Jiri Hudler’s departure. Pavel Datsyuk remains an elite player, and Jimmy Howard is a proven commodity in goal.

5. Nashville Predators – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: A
Defense: B
Forwards: C-
Coaching: B-

Why: The Predators will be successful as long as Pekka Rinne remains a top-end goaltender in the NHL. Thankfully, Rinne played throughout the lockout, and should be in top-form right out of the gate. Yes, the loss of Ryan Suter has an impact, but not as much as you may expect, as youngsters Jonathan Blum and especially Roman Josi are ready for additional minutes. Up front, the team is filled with strong skating grinders, with Craig Smith the most likely Predator to experience a bump in offensive performance. This team will never win pretty, and the style of play likely to be found during this shortened season may actually be to their benefit. For what it’s worth, reviews of Sergei Kostitsyn’s play overseas during the lockout were extremely positive.

6. Phoenix Coyotes – 52 points

Status: Status Quo
Goaltending: B
Defense: B
Forwards: D+
Coaching: A

Why: Mike Smith came out of nowhere to dominate between the pipes, lifting the Coyotes all the way to the Western Conference Finals. A similar level of performance should get them safely back into the playoffs, although an injury would be devastating (the drop-off in quality to backup Jason LaBarbera is massive). Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a point per game defenseman in the AHL, and looks ready to assume the mantle left by Niklas Lidstrom as the best Swedish defenseman in the NHL. Nobody squeezes more out of marginal NHL talent on the third and fourth lines than coach Dave Tippett. Steve Sullivan is unlikely to replace the performance of Ray Whitney (off to Dallas), which means the time is now for Mikel Boedker and Martin Hanzal to find their offensive game. In all honesty, the Predators and Coyotes are arguably the same team playing in different coloured jerseys.

7. Chicago Blackhawls – 51 points

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

Why: The elite talent to be found on the Blackhawks roster – and there’s a lot of it – is held back by questionable goaltending. Corey Crawford was inconsistent in goal last season for Chicago, and Ray Emery wasn’t much better. The defense unit is largely unchanged and should be strong, although Duncan Keith’s play dipped slightly in 2011-12. Up front, Marian Hossa should be ready after a devastating playoff hit from Raffi Torres, and Patrick Kane played very well overseas during the lockout.

8. Minnesota Wild – 49 points

Status: Dogfight for the playoffs
Goaltending: B-
Defense: C
Forwards: C+
Coaching: D+

Why: Since when has spending a lot of money on unrestricted free agents led to on-ice success? Granted, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are huge improvements to the Wild roster, but this remains a work-in-progress lineup. Mikko Koivu should thrive with Parise on his wing, but the real key to the Minnesota attack this year will be the development of Mikael Granlund. If Granlund is Calder Trophy-worthy offensively, that should push the Wild into playoff contention. The defense behind Suter is thin and relatively young, and who knows how he will respond to greater responsibility than what he had in Nashville. Nik Backstrom is better-than-average in goal, but has been injury prone of late. His backup – Josh Harding – also has injury issues and was diagnosed with MS in October. Raised expectations and a slow start could cost coach Mike Yeo his job.

9. Edmonton Oilers – 49 points

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

Why: Let’s be clear – on paper, right now, it’s hard to see the Oilers as a playoff team. However it’s very likely they will improve upon every grade listed above over the course of the season. That’s what happens when young teams develop and get better. It should also be noted that only the Flyers had more players active during the lockout than the Oilers. Rookie Jeff Schultz has dominated the AHL, and could be the most exciting rookie defenseman to hit the NHL since Sergei Zubov. NHL-calibre play from the rookie Schultz, and injury-free play from Ryan Whitney, will give a significant boost to the Oiler blueline. Meanwhile, the team is loaded with offensive talent up front. Jordan Eberle, in particular, looks like he might be ready to join elite status. Finally, there isn’t a more respected coach internationally than Ralph Krueger. If he lives up to his reputation, it’s just one more reason why the Oilers can make the playoffs.

10. San Jose Sharks – 49 points

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

Why: The Sharks nucleus remains formidable, but beyond Logan Couture, it is also aging, with the best days behind Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau. San Jose remains a team with a good top-six and a sketchy bottom six group of forwards. The blueline is the team’s strength. Brent Burns is still recovering from off-season surgery and had a disappointing first season on the West Coast, but has the talent to be a solid #2 defenseman. Brad Stuart and Doug Murray are solid defensively, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is underrated. In goal, Antti Niemi continues his history of inconsistent play, and may be pushed by backup Thomas Greiss.

11. Dallas Stars – 46 points

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

Why: The Stars have rolled the dice in the off-season, loading up with aged veterans Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr in efforts to get the team back into the playoffs. It’s quite possible this strategy could blow up in the team’s face, as older players will have their energy and bodies taxed during the shortened season. Top-line forward Jaime Benn is also sitting out with a contract dispute, making it even more likely the Stars get off to a poor start. The blueline is thin, although Alex Goligoski has untapped potential as a puck-mover. The key then is how well Kari Lehtonen can play, and how healthy he can remain. Lehtonen was Vezina-calbire last season.

12. Anaheim Ducks – 44 points

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

Why: Like their state rivals in San Jose, the Anaheim Ducks boast a very solid offensive nucleus in their top two lines (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne) but little depth beyond that upfront. The hope is rookies Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Devante Smith-Pelly can fill the talent gap, but that’s asking a lot (especially Smith-Pelly, who hasn’t shown much in the AHL). The addition of Scott Niedermayer as an assistant coach is hoped to help the stalled development of Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa. They must improve to support what is otherwise a slow-footed, veteran blueline. In net, Jonas Hiller had a poor 2011-12 and must rebound for the Ducks to get into the playoff race. A slow start could see some major changes to the roster, not to mention coach and management.

13. Calgary Flames – 43 points

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

Why: There’s just not enough talent on this roster to win a playoff spot, which means it will take a superhuman season from Miikka Kiprusoff to get the Flames to the post-season. At his age (36) that’s a lot to ask. Meanwhile, the team’s best player, Jarome Iginla, has already suffered a groin injury and has a lot of wear and tear on his 35-year old body. The additions of Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka (out with a blood clot) and Dennis Wideman are band-aid solutions to solving some of the offensive issues that have plagued the team recently. You can question each players’ willingness to compete and they’re likely to be found in Bob Hartley’s doghouse at some point. In fact, a poor start to the short Flames season could see both Kiprusoff and Iginla finally dealt, in efforts to better secure the team’s future.

14. Colorado Avalanche – 41 points

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

Why: Whereas the Capitals are the biggest question mark in the Eastern Conference, welcome to the biggest question mark in the West. They could win the division; they could end up in last place. The Avalanche certainly feature talented young forwards up front (Matt Duchesne, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Statsny), but the contract dispute with Ryan O’Reilly is a significant blow. He’s the team’s best two-way player – Colorado’s version of Ryan Kesler – and without him there’s a significant lack of grit and defensive acumen amongst the forward group. The defense looks like a mess. Erik Johnson is still struggling to find a consistent, top-level NHL game. Rookies Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott may be asked to add speed and puck-movement to a sluggish blueline, but both play a high-risk game. Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are a goaltending duo with strong potential but prone to streakiness. Keep in mind – only 5 Avs players were active during the lockout.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets – 38 points

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

Why: Essentially, the Blue Jackets have blown themselves up by trading Rick Nash, and are starting from scratch in terms of building a winner. They’re going about it the right way this time, with a focus on building from the net out. They could be better than they’re rated here. Sergei Bobrovsky was lights-out during the lockout in the KHL and has high-end potential. A strong season from him would be the first strong goaltending season Columbus has had in years. On defense, Jack Johnson played very well after being dealt from the Kings, as did Nikita Nikitin (from St. Louis). Add James Wisniewski to the equation and suddenly you have a mobile, solid puck-moving top-three. It’s in their own zone where there could be problems. The biggest hole is up front on offense, where youngster Cam Atkinson looks primed to break out. There’s some decent grit and speed in the mix, but goals will be very hard to come by.

May 292012
 

Everything that has a beginning has an end.

It seems fitting the New Jersey Devils are facing the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s Stanley Cup. There are several parallels to the Edmonton Oilers – Carolina Hurricanes final that ended the first post-lockout season (2005-06). Both series feature:

  • a team Wayne Gretzky played for (Kings now; Oilers then)
  • an over-the-hill goaltender taking his team on an improbable run (40-year old Martin Brodeur now; 36-year old Dwayne Roloson* then)
  • a team trying to buck the traditional formula and win the Cup without a legitimate number #1 defenseman (Devils now; Hurricanes then)
  • surprising contributions from 21-year old rookies (Adam Henrique now; Carolina goalie Cam Ward then)
  • one team reaching the final thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreement-related roster moves (thanks to the new salary cap and floor system, the Oilers went out and acquired Chris Pronger; thanks to a loophole in the CBA, the Devils offered and retained Ilya Kovalchuk’s services for the next 983248932498 years)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is what they represent. The Oilers/Hurricanes final was the riveting first chapter on a post-lockout era of exciting hockey and parity, where any team could afford a contender and a winner. It was a Stanley Cup Final representing hope. Meanwhile, with another lockout staring the NHL in the face, this year’s Devils/Kings final serves as a referendum on the game since 2004-05. It’s a Stanley Cup Final representing reality.

The question is, are we in a better place with the game today then we were in 2005/06?

Financially yes – the NHL is more successful now as a business than ever before. It will be even more successful once it eliminates (unlikely), finds deep-pocketed owners for (unlikely), or moves franchises (Phoenix, Florida, potentially New Jersey, Columbus) to locations (Canada) where off-ice success is easier to achieve. (Remember, the most profitable franchises in the league are all located in Canada, and prop up to varying degrees the 23 teams south of the border. If the Canadian dollar ever falls below US$0.80 again, league financial health will become a very different story.)

As for the on-ice product, the answer is no. Advances in goal-scoring and flow to the game have largely been negated by smart coaches. As the salary cap has gone up, we’ve seen the big spending = big winning formula return, which was allegedly the reason for the salary cap to begin with. It’s a faster game than it was, but also more intense – just like the NFL, injuries are now a common determining factor in the success or failure of an NHL team’s season.

Unlike the last lockout, and despite on-ice evidence to the contrary, there isn’t a sense around league circles that the product is in trouble. So while the NHL is about to go through big CBA changes –  whether it’s no salary cap floor, a cap on the length of player contracts or eliminating the loophole that allows teams to bury contracts in the minors – real innovations to improve the game are years away.

This means the style of hockey that’s been showcased around the league in 2012 – fast but structured, nasty, defensively-disciplined, tactical and expected to be played mistake-free by its players – is here for awhile.

And its a style of hockey that seems miles away from the promise of the game showcased in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Devils and the Kings play the current style of hockey very, very well. Part 2 of this preview will break down both teams, and offer a Stanley Cup prediction.

Postscript:

* – On behalf of Oiler fans I’m obligated to note that if Dwayne Roloson doesn’t get injured the Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup. A healthy Roloson means a rusty Ty Conklin doesn’t come in cold during the third period and give the puck away behind the net to lose Game 1. It also means a rusty Jussi Markkanen (remember, Edmonton ridiculously rotated backups all playoff, with Conklin and Markkanen splitting practice time) doesn’t let the Oilers get blown out in Game 2. Edmonton won three of the remaining 5 games of the series anyways, so it’s no stretch to think a healthy Roloson gives them a split in the first two games, rather than an 0-2 deficit. Having been reminded of all this, Oiler fans have permission to throw up in their mouths a bit.

May 142012
 

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: L.A (3-1-2)

What we learned about the Coyotes in the Second Round: That they’re Cinderella at the ball. Hard to give too much credit to a team that has been routinely outshot (-9.5 shots for/shots against differential in the playoffs) and only had one powerplay goal in the second round. Mike Smith has been terrific yes, but the Desert Dogs were fortunate Nashville found the Phoenix nightlife to their liking. Then again, there are a couple of notorious partiers on the Kings team…

What we learned about the Kings in the Second Round: After a rather miserable 82-game season, this Kings team has become the fearsome squad many pundits predicted could be a darkhorse Cup contender way back at the beginning of the season. It’s not a very fast team, but the Kings move the puck well, are big, and might have the best forecheck left in the playoffs. Los Angeles is averaging 3.00 goals per game right now (tied for 3rd in the post-season and best remaining with the Devils), which is the type of production that should be expected from this group of forwards. Jonathan Quick has been the best goalie in the league this spring (.949 save percentage). Darryl Sutter got some good minutes out of the fourth line against St. Louis (which he didn’t do against Vancouver) and even Dustin Penner (5 pts in 5 games against the Blues) is rolling.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching:  Even (Sutter’s been to a Cup Final as a head coach before, but Dave Tippet has had a great playoff behind the bench leading his less-talented team to two series wins)

Goaltending: Even. Quick has been the playoffs’ best, but the Coyotes don’t get this far without Mike Smith performing like a superhero. Smith gets the benefit of the doubt, although the Kings made Brian Elliott look human last series.

Defense: Kings. Both teams are exceptional defensively. The difference is the Coyotes still give up a ton of shots (even if they’re from outside scoring areas). The Kings are able to clamp down a bit more and they have Drew Doughty, who showed flashes of dominance early in the Blues series.

Offense: Kings (Los Angeles’ top two lines are more talented than what Phoenix can put on the ice, and they’re hot right now. Having said that, Phoenix has gotten timely scoring from every line. Consider this a slight edge that could grow larger if Jeff Carter could ever get going).

Special Teams: Even. Neither team is lighting up the powerplay right now and yet both teams have extremely strong penalty kills. This, coupled with the strength of both goalies, points to a low-scoring series.

Prediction:  Kings in 5.

*****

Notes on the Dearly Departed:

St. Louis Blues

Cause of Death: Injuries to Alex Pieterangelo and Jaroslav Halak.

Prescription: Stay the course. Brian Elliott was inconsistent at times in the second round, meaning interest in dealing Jaroslav Halak in the off-season should be limited. Otherwise this is a team in the headed in the right direction (especially if Patrick Berglund can carry his playoff performance into next year).

Nashville Predators

Cause of Death: Off-ice distractions that tore the dressing room apart.

Prescription: Let Ryan Suter go – the Predators have some good young defenseman primed for NHL exposure, and they could use the money to help keep Shea Weber long-term. Move back-up goalie Anders Lindback in a package that can return a top-six scoring forward. Let Alex Radulov go – sure he’s talented, but it’s clear now he doesn’t have the intangibles that lead to NHL playoff success. This could be a classic case of a team stumbling before taking the next step. There’s still a lot to like in Smashville.

Apr 272012
 
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

Photo credit: The Checking Line

Let’s just get this out of the way first, shall we?

This first round was a bloody disappointment.

Welcome to the deadpuck era 2.0 – to a style of play that see goal prevention more successful than goal creation.

Where goaltenders dominate, and the flow of the game – much improved since the lockout – has returned to slogging through muck.

It’s an game filled with interference and Wild West justice, where league’s least skilled players may attack, hurt and render obsolete its most talented.

Look, playoff hockey is supposed to be many things – faster, more physical, more passionate. But what it shouldn’t be is more boring.

But that’s what it’s been.

The league has become stronger defensively in general, and the playoffs have only amplified that. This is shaping up to be the lowest scoring first-round of the last five years, if not longer. 

First Round Goals Per Game:

Western ConferenceYearEastern Conference
4.4320125.64*
5.9620115.83
6.4320105.08
5.3020095.00
5.0820085.65

God bless that Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, which on its own has saved the league from having the lack of goals be a bigger negative story. The Battle of Pennsylvania averaged 9.33 (!!!) goals per game. The rest of the Eastern Conference games have been snore-fests (4.47).

Skilled teams are falling by the wayside in these playoffs, which, unless Philadelphia or Nashville win the Stanley Cup, reverses the historic trend that shows scoring teams persevere.

The only question is if this is a one-year anomaly or not.

The decline in scoring league-wide in recent years; the rise in shot-blocking; the reduction in penalty calls this season and power play goals (only the Sharks scored at a rate higher than 10% on the powerplay after the All-Star Game!); the defensive collapse in front of the net and other strategies lead me to believe things are only going to get worse unless rules are changed.

With that cheery thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Second Round match-ups in the Western Conference.

 St. Louis Blues (2) vs.Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: Los Angeles Kings (3-1)

What we have learned about St. Louis:

They have come of age. When the Blues hired Ken Hitchcock, they did so to determine once and for all whether the young players they’d assembled on their roster were good enough to win together. Manhandling the Sharks in the first round answered that question. Winning in five games also gives them some rest ahead of another round of significant travel against a gruelling West Coast team. The Blues have four lines that can contribute, although in reality only the top-two lines are a threat to score.

What we have learned about Los Angeles:

That they look like another Darryl Sutter team – the 2004 Calgary Flames that went on a Cup run. Jonathan Quick remains a brick wall in goal (Miikka Kiprusoff-esque) and Dustin Brown did a pretty terrific Jarome Iginla impression against the Canucks. Having said that, the absence of Daniel Sedin for three games (all losses) and the poor play of Ryan Kesler were significant factors in L.A.’s win. They’re a good team – better than your usual eighth place team – but the stars were aligned a bit for them in round one. Oh, and the fourth line barely plays.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Blues. Slight edge to Hitchcock because he’s won a Cup but both coaches have their teams playing about as well as possible.

Goaltending: Kings. Both teams have put up microscopic goals against totals but if I had to pick one goalie from this series to win a seventh game right now it would be Jonathan Quick, not Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak.

Defense: Even. Alex Pieterangelo is playing better than Drew Doughty these days, but Willie Mitchell had the series of his life against the Canucks. Both teams execute their defensive systems flawlessly.

Offense: Blues. A slight edge here to the Blues, as Andy McDonald and Patrick Berglund had impressive first rounds. Can they continue? Meanwhile, the potential is there for L.A.’s offense to explode, but a strict commitment to Darryl Sutter’s system could mean on-going sporadic production from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Kings are to win this series, they need one of their big guns to get hot.

Special Teams: Blues. The Blues powerplay was third-best in the league post the All-Star Game, and lit-up the Sharks at a rate of 33%. Both teams have very good penalty kills.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

*****

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs Nashville Predators (4)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we have learned about Nashville:

They are who we thought they were – arguably the most talented, deepest Predators team in franchise history. They proved they can skate and out-play the Red Wings five-on-five as their powerplay (league best in the regular season) failed them in the first round. At over 20-minutes a game, rookie defenseman Roman Josi was leaned on and played a sound series against Detroit.

What we have learned about Phoenix:

That Mike Smith has pretty much transformed himself into goaltending coach Sean Burke, who at his best was among the league’s elite netminders. This is a Phoenix team that found surprising scoring depth in round one – no remaining Western Conference team had as many different round one goal scorers as Phoenix did (11). Otherwise, this is a Coyotes team that won a playoff series by taking advantage of the counter-attack and being opportunistic. Territorially, thanks to their bend-don’t-break defensive scheme, the Coyotes were outplayed much of round one by the Blackhawks.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Two of the best coaches in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Pekka Rinne has a bit longer resume, but Mike Smith was all-world for Phoenix in round one.

Defense: Predators. It’s an underrated blueline in Phoenix, but Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were dominant against the Red Wings. The Predators should get Hal Gill back as well, which should give them a boost on the penalty kill and an additional match-up advantage. Forwards on both teams are expected to play both-ways, but the Predators don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Coyotes do.

Offense: Predators. The Coyotes surprising scoring in the first round could be attributable to poor play from Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Ray Whitney is an elite, intelligent attacker but the rough style of play found in these playoffs limits his effectiveness at even strength. Let’s not forget Nashville was one of the highest scoring teams in the league during the regular season. Alex Radulov is probably the player in this series most capable of dominating play.

Special Teams: Predators. Phoenix’s special teams were very good against a Chicago team that struggled in this area during the regular season. Expect a bit of a drop-off. Nashville’s powerplay struggled against Detroit. They’ll need a better second round performance if they hope to beat the Coyotes.

Prediction: Predators in 5.

*****

Finally, a quick word on the departed:

Vancouver Canucks

Cause of death: A lack of secondary scoring and Duncan Keith’s elbow.

Prescription: Stay-the-course, get what you can for Luongo, and try and find a 25-goal scorer or strong playmaker who can mesh with Ryan Kesler.

*****

Chicago Blackhawks

Cause of death: Poor goaltending and a massive concussion to Marian Hossa, care of Raffi Torres.

Prescription: Upgrade in net. Otherwise there’s still much to like about this Chicago team.

*****

Detroit Red Wings

Cause of death: Age. This team is just not as deep or capable on defense or up front.

Prescription: Use their cap space on Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter. A Rick Nash trade would be worth exploring too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jaromir Jagr end up here either as a PP specialist (if he doesn’t resign in Philly).

*****

San Jose Sharks

Cause of death: Age. See the Red Wings above.

Prescription: Shake up the core. It would not be a surprise to see Patrick Marleau and/or Danny Boyle moved to bring fresh pieces into the fold. The Sharks will try to take a quick step back to take a giant leap forward before Joe Thornton is completely washed up.

Apr 112012
 
Todd Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings and Shea Weber of Nashville Predators do battle

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.

Quick Decisions:

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.

Quick Decisions:

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.

Quick Decisions:

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.

Quick Decisions:

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

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