Apr 172010
 
Alex Burrows and Shane O'Brien high-five

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

The Canucks and Kings meet for Game 2 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal Series tonight at 7:00 PM. Does Drew Doughty dare go in Alex Edler’s space again? Will Pavol Demitra show up? Can Andrew Alberts cut back on the dumb penalties?

All this and more in today’s game day links:

Apr 162010
 

I’ll admit I’ve defended Andrew Alberts during his short and adventurous stint with the Canucks so far. He adds some size and a physical element to the team’s blueline, and in a limited role, he was playing better as he became more accustomed to new teammates and a new system.

At least I thought he was playing better until last night.

Alberts played only 8:25 last night before he was ejected in the second period for boarding Brad Richardson. For his transgressions, he earned a 5-minute major and a game misconduct, and effectively took away some of the momentum the Canucks had from taking the lead just 3 minutes before that. Fortunately, the Kings only scored once during the major, though the Kings’ other goal also came while Alberts was in the box for interference. His ejection also forced the Canucks to play with just five defensemen for the final 40 minutes of the game and OT.

If Alberts wants to stay in the lineup, he can’t afford to make bad decisions and stupid plays, especially if the Kings are going to connect on the powerplay like they did last night. 5-on-5, the Canucks outshot the Kings (32-22); shorthanded, the Canucks surrendered 2 powerplay goals to the Kings. The Canucks held a definite edge in play on even-strength; Alberts needs to be smarter and not take this advantage away.

Apr 162010
 

Let me start by saying that at 6:30 PM I was still downtown at SFU’s Harbour Centre, stuck in the middle of lecture and agonizing over when we were going to get an effin’ break. Yes, I was ducking out early (there was no way in hell I was going to miss Game One!). By 6:35, I was sprinting to Waterfront station. Somehow, I managed to get home by 7 PM on the nose. Thank God.

The Canucks started the game off with a similar work ethic in the first period. I thought they had some jump early and fed off the adrenaline coming from the fans, and it showed in the shot totals after the first frame (17-6).

But props should go to Los Angeles for their play in the second period. I’m not sure what coach Terry Murray said to them at the first intermission but they settled down. They started the second frame on the powerplay and made good on it by scoring only 54 seconds into the game. It was key for taking away the momentum from the first period and taking the fans out of it.

However, the veteran and poised play of Mikael Samuelsson helped turn the tide when he responded on a Canucks powerplay only minutes later. One of the messages coming from Samuelsson is to not get too high or too low during the playoffs and it was important the Canucks got right back to doing what they do. Even better, I think Daniel and Henrik Sedin showed some playoff veteran-like patience on Vancouver’s second goal beauty.

My goat of the night goes to two Canucks, though. I think Andrew Alberts, who’s played in 8 NHL playoff games, showed too much intensity and too much undisciplined play. As Samuelsson said, you can’t get too high or too low, you just got to play your game. Unfortunately, Alberts was too aggressive on the Brad Richardson hit and it cost the Canucks a goal. Moreover, Alberts’ interference penalty at the end of the first period paved the way for Jarret Stoll’s goal in the second.

In other words, Alberts was in the box (technically) for both Los Angeles powerplay goals. Playing with only five defencemen, and without Willie Mitchell to boot, is a recipe for disaster against an LA team which finished a shade worse than the Canucks’ 6th-ranked powerplay.

My other goat of the game goes to Ryan Kesler. After inking his contract extension in March, it was Kesler who said he wanted to win a Stanley Cup and the city’s fans had waited long enough for a winner. Well, judging by his efforts last night, he certainly didn’t show it. I know Kesler’s got additional responsibilities compared to the Sedins (containing the Smyth-Kopitar-Williams trio), but the Ryan Kesler we’ve seen this year should contribute at both ends. The USA Olympian finished the game with 23:49 played, was even, and generated just three shots on goal. But what I noticed out there was Kesler wasn’t playing his usual “bull in a china shop” style that we’re used to seeing. That’s got to change for Game Two.

Alright, and who has EVER seen Alexander Edler play this tough? Edler was dangerous all night long, had scoring chances, was a defensive demon in his own end, and boy did he take it to Drew Doughty.

Otherwise, I think the Canucks played a pretty good Game One. Roberto Luongo in particular showed up when the Canucks needed him and the overtime save he made will be added to the Luongo highlight bank, especially if the Canucks can get by the Kings.

Game Two is Saturday night at 7 PM!

Apr 152010
 

This should be the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately for Canucks fans, it’s also usually the most heartbreaking. This year, however, there’s a different feeling in this city. We’re excited and nervous, but also optimistic. Perhaps the most optimistic we’ve been in years.

The Canucks had a regular season to remember – I posted about all the team’s great accomplishments this year. They can run-and-gun with the best of them, and they’re one of the NHL’s most exciting teams. They repeated as Northwest Division champions and have home-ice advantage (at least for the first round). They have depth up front and Luongo in goal. They’re favored by many to be Canada’s best chance at bringing the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time in 17 years.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there’s the small matter of winning four games against the Los Angeles Kings, starting tonight. Statistically, this series should be a cakewalk in favor of the Canucks. But like they say, the game isn’t won on paper and the games still have to be played.

Here are some keys to the Canucks winning the series:

Luongo will have to be Luongo

By that, we mean the return to form of the Roberto Luongo who is widely-regarded as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. The Olympic Gold medal-winning Luongo. The Luongo capable of making the big saves when he needs to.

Since the Olympics, Luongo recorded the worst GAA (3.31) and save percentage (0.893) among all Western Conference playoff goaltenders – this obviously needs to change. If it’s any consolation, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick hasn’t been much better; Quick won only 4 of 17 games (4-7-4) since the Olympics.

Run and Gun

It’s become clear that, in the post-lockout NHL, that defense no longer wins championships. Don’t get me wrong – a responsible, defensive game is still important, but as Tom pointed out the other day, you can’t win the Cup if you can’t score.

To that, we know the Canucks can score. We know the basic stats – 2nd in league in team scoring, six 25-goal scorers, Art Ross trophy winner, etc. – but more importantly, I don’t think the Kings can keep up if the Canucks put the pedal to the metal.

After the Olympics, the Canucks’ potent offense made up for their sloppy defense. Before the Olympics, the Canucks’ GF/game increased from 3.13 to 3.67. On the other hand, the Kings, after averaging 2.90 GF/game before the Olympics, only averaged 2.57 GF/game afterwards.

Clear the Crease

This is more of a subjective opinion, but the Canucks need to do a better job of clearing the crease in front of Roberto Luongo. The Kings don’t have Dustin Byfuglien, but they have Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown and Wayne Simmonds. If these guys are going to park right in Roberto’s grill, the Canucks need to make life miserable for them.

Apr 142010
 

A lot of hockey reporters publicly lament this time of year, when the public expects them to make their playoff predictions known. The reasons behind their reluctance are simple and twofold. One, there are far more variables at play during a series than a single, winner-take-all game. Secondly, no one who is paid on the basis of their hockey expertise wants to be proven hopelessly wrong.

Well, no one here gets paid for their opinions. And I have no fear of making my ambition public. 15-0 baby. A perfect season of playoff series predictions.

If we can scale Mount Everest… if we can put a man on the moon… if we can make Emmitt Smith a TV dance champion… there’s no reason why someone can’t be perfect.

The quest begins here. Take the following to the bank.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington (1) vs. Montreal (8)

Alex Ovechkin has returned to earth a bit post-Olympics, but this is the deepest Caps team in years. Washington holds an advantage physically, offensively and behind the bench (Jacques Martin is a historically overrated coach). The length of this series boils down to whether Jaroslav Halak can steal the series for Montreal, or, less likely, if Jose Theodore can botch the series. Theodore’s been solid so far in 2010. Caps in 5.

New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)

A tough, grinding series that will add a lot of wear-and-tear to whichever team that prevails. Lemaire’s reputation as tactician is stronger than Laviolette’s, but both coaches have Cup wins to their credit. Boucher versus Brodeur looks too one-sided on paper, especially given Marty’s age (37) and workload (77 games played this year). Philly has some pop, especially if their small snipers (Giroux, Briere) can find open ice. The over-under on Chris Pronger high-sticking penalties should be 10. Flyers in 6.

Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)

One of the top goalies from this year will be eliminated after this series is over. Ryan Miller looks like a Hart candidate, but Tukka Rask has been the NHL’s best goalie since the Olympics. Expect a tight-series, with Buffalo’s scoring depth giving them the edge. The over-under on goals for this series should be 20. Sabres in 6.

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)

There may not have been a more valuable player to his team this year than Sidney Crosby, who had 23 goals and 32 points more than his next-closest teammate. Ottawa has received strong play down the stretch from Jason Spezza and Brian Elliott, but the loss of Alexei Kovalev (torn ACL) and the disappearance of Mike Fisher (9 pts since March 1st) means these Senators are a one-line team. The Pens are weaker than last year, but are deep enough to grind this round out. Penguins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Jose (1) vs. Colorado (8)

It looked like Tommy Salo in net for San Jose in March, but Evgeni Nabokov has rebounded with a solid April. Colorado goalie Craig Anderson is running on fumes, having never played more than 31 games in an NHL season until this year (70 games). Colorado’s scoring depth and youthful speed could give San Jose fits, but I don’t trust their goaltending. San Jose in 6.

Chicago (2) vs. Nashville (7)

Don’t look now, but Chicago may have found a goaltender in Antti Niemi, who’s been terrific in March/April. Nashville has never won a playoff series, and look inferior to Chicago in almost every area. A quick series will help Chicago get some rest in the travel-heavy Western Conference. Blackhawks in 4.

Vancouver (3) vs. Los Angeles (6)

There are a lot of questions facing the Canucks heading into this post-season. Is Luongo fatigued? Will Demitra show up? Is their defense healthy? Add to the mix an interesting Los Angeles team that is young, fast and aggressive. This has all the makings of a long, brutal series, with Cup final veterans Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and Fred Modin adding important experience to the Kings cause. That being said, Terry Murray hasn’t won a playoff round in 13 years, and his teams have always had a playoff reputation for under-performing. A pick ‘em. Canucks in 7.

Phoenix (4) vs. Detroit (5)

The Red Wings are hot and are a popular darkhorse choice to come out of the Western Conference. They’re healthy, experienced and play a formidable puck-control style. But Ilya Bryzgalov, a likely Vezina and Hart trophy candidate this year, is good enough to steal a game or two for Phoenix. The Coyotes also have an old-school Dallas Stars air about them. Dave Tippett’s done a masterful job getting this team to excel defensively. Shane Doan had one goal after January and they still earned home-ice advantage in the West. No one believes in this Phoenix team, but remember: the last Olympic season saw the heavily-favoured Red Wings bounced early by the Oilers. Phoenix in 7.

Apr 132010
 

For NHL players, playoff hockey comes down to one magic number: 16. 16 wins gets your name on the Stanley Cup and a place in hockey history.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, eight teams have competed in the Stanley Cup final – Detroit (twice), Pittsburgh (twice), Anaheim, Ottawa, Carolina and Edmonton. A close examination of these teams provides us with some possible insight into what to expect over the next couple of months.

Lesson #1 – You can’t win the Cup if you don’t score.

Every Cup finalist has been a top-ten scoring team during the regular season, except Edmonton, who still managed 3.04 goals per game in 2005-06 (a rate that would have put them 5th overall this year).

The 10 top-scoring teams in 2009-10 are: Washington, Vancouver, Chicago, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Buffalo.

Lesson #1A – You can’t win the Cup if you don’t score 5-on-5.

7 of the 8 Cup final teams since the lockout have been top-10 in regular season, 5-on-5 scoring. Once again, Edmonton is the odd duck, reinforcing just how magical a playoff run they had back in 2005-06.

The 10 top 5-on-5 scoring teams in 2009-10 are: Washington, Vancouver, San Jose, Chicago, Phoenix, Buffalo, New Jersey, Colorado, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Lesson #2 – Regular season goaltending excellence doesn’t mean much.

If goaltending excellence is defined by a high save-percentage, it’s important to note the only goalie who finished in the top-5 in save percentage during the regular season to appear in a Cup finals since the lockout was Marc-Andre Fleury in 2007-08.

The 5 goalies with the highest save percentages in 2009-10 are: Tukka Rask (Boston); Ryan Miller (Buffalo); Tomas Vokoun (Florida); Jaroslav Halak (Montreal); and Jimmy Howard (Detroit).

Lesson #3 – If you’re playing well in March/April, you’re well on your way to glory… except if it’s an Olympic year.

In their Cup-winning seasons, Pittsburgh (2008-09), Detroit (2007-08), Anaheim (2006-07) were dominant down the stretch. However, the last time the Olympics were played (during the 2005-06 season), Carolina was barely a .500 hockey club in March/April, while Edmonton played sub .500 hockey during the same period. Remember, Olympic hockey adds a significant fatigue factor to an NHL roster. Carolina and Edmonton both made the finals with just three Olympians on the roster.

The 2009-10 playoff teams with three-or-less Olympians: Buffalo, Colorado, Phoenix

So, what does all this history mean?

It means Washington and Pittsburgh remain strong Cup contenders.

It means San Jose (8 Olympians), Detroit (7), Vancouver (7), Chicago (6), Montreal (6) and New Jersey (6) could all fall victim to the Olympic hangover.

It means Buffalo, Colorado and Los Angeles, who each emerged relatively unscathed from the Olympics, also have the scoring to possibly surprise this spring.

Apr 022010
 

No one wants to play the dreaded Wings, but who would you rather the Canucks face in the first round: Nashville, Los Angeles, Colorado, or Calgary?

Let’s grade the top nine teams in the Western Conference (throwing Calgary in the mix on the slight chance they snag the final spot) in three categories: Offense, Defense, and Goaltending.

I’ve assigned a grade by giving the top NHL team in that category a mark of 100% and the lowest 50%, and used that scale to calculate a percentage for each team and then translate into a letter grade. Make sense?

We’ll look at these goals per game, shots against per game, and save percentage only; use your judgment to adjust rankings based on injuries, momentum, or insights gained watching games.

Ready? Let’s go.

OFFENSE

TeamsGoals For Per GameGrade
Vancouver3.22A
Chicago3.14A-
San Jose3.14A-
Colorado2.91B
Los Angeles2.78C+
Detroit2.72C+
Nashville2.65C
Phoenix2.56C-
Calgary2.51C-

Only the high-octane Capitals have scored more goals this season than Vancouver, led by the league’s best line and six scorers with more than 20 goals. At the bottom: Phoenix’s bunch nobodies and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and a bunch of nobodies.

DEFENSE

TeamsShots Against Per GameGrade
Chicago24.8A+
Los Angeles27.6B+
Calgary28.9B
Nashville29.1B
Vancouver29.3B
Phoenix29.8B-
Detroit29.8B-
San Jose31.2C+
Colorado32.0C

We’re looking at shots and not goals against per game to isolate the defense from the goaltending. By that measure, Chicago’s blue-chip defense has been the league’s best this season, led by likely Norris-winner Duncan Keith. The young Kings are the best of the rest.

GOALTENDING

TeamsStarting GoaltenderSave PercentageGrade
DetroitJimmy Howard0.925A
CalgaryMikka Kiprusoff0.921B+
San JoseEvegeni Nabokov0.921B+
PhoenixIlya Bryzgalov0.920B+
ColoradoCraig Anderson0.917B
VancouverRoberto Luongo0.916B-
NashvillePekka Rinne0.910C
Los AngelesJonathan Quick0.907C-
ChicagoAntti Niemi/Cristobal Huet0.901F

We’re looking at save percentage and not wins, goals against or shutouts because it’s the stat that best isolates a goaltender’s performance from the team’s.

Is Jimmy Howard really the best goalie in the Western conference? His lack of experience will be tested going into the playoffs. Meanwhile, Ilya Bryzgalov is Ryan Miller’s main competition for the Vezina.

Chicago has the awkward combination of allowing the least number of shots per game, but having problems stopping the few shots they see. They can’t decide if Huet or Niemmi will hurt them less.

OVERALL

TeamsOverall GradeComments
VancouverB+The deepest and most balanced team in the West. Their fortunes depend on Luongo finally turning it on.
San JoseBGreat goaltending, mediocre defense. Can Thornton, Heatley and Marleau keep scoring in the playoffs?
ChicagoBPoor goaltending is the Hawks' Achilles heal. Do they wish they kept Khabibulin?
DetroitBThese playoff veterans are the hottest team in the league right now: 9-0-1 in their last ten.
CalgaryB-Calgary's inability to find good linemates for Iginla will be what does them in.
ColoradoB-Fading down the stretch, this young team won't do much this year.
PhoenixB-The Coyotes will face the Wings in round one, and home-ice advantage won't help them much.
Los AngelesB-The Kings are loaded with young talent. Can Doughty and Co pull off a first-round upset?
NashvilleC+Probably the weakest team in the first round, and mediocre in every category.

How would you grade the Western teams? Let us know in the comments.

Mar 282010
 

Every March, intelligent hockey fans turn to Sports Club Stats to assess the odds of NHL teams making the playoffs, and to predict their playoff position once the season ends.

Be thankful for computers. They do the heavy lifting, calculating every possible combination of game results (numbering in the hundreds of thousands). Factors such as a team’s home ice performance are worked in, and the odds are recalculated after every night’s games.

The Canucks

Vancouver has all but clinched a postseason berth, with only a 1 in 10,000 chance of missing at this point. No surprise there: the Canucks have had a 97% chance or higher of making the playoffs since finishing a strong December.

The Canucks’ chances of making the playoffs:

Canucks chances of making the playoffs

Can Colorado catch the Canucks for the division title? The Av’s chances are slim: just under 10%. Here are the Canucks’ chances for different playoff positions:

Playoff PositionOdds
11.5%
28.7%
380.0%
40.6%
53.4%
63.4%
71.9%
80.5%

The West

Our old friends the Flames are sputtering: their chances dropped from 15% to 6.5% with a 3-2 road loss to the Islanders last night.

Most likely the top four in the West will be (1) Chicago, (2) San Jose, (3) Vancouver, and (4) Phoenix.

The bottom four could be in any order. Vancouver will most likely play the number six seed, which could be Nashville (27% chance), Colorado (25%), Los Angeles (23%), or Detroit (18%).

The East

In the East, the Bruins have a 72.1% chance of holding on to eight place. The Rangers (20.9%) and Thrashers (14.7%) have a small chance of catching them.

The most likely ranking in the East is (1) Washington, (2) New Jersey, (3) Buffalo, (4) Pittsburgh, (5) Ottawa, (6) Montreal, (7) Philadelphia, and (8) Boston.

The Final Games

It’s an unusual season in that the teams in and out of the playoffs have pretty much been decided. There likely won’t be any final game dramatics.

The Canucks are sitting solidly in first place, with a small chance of moving up to second. The real concern is Detroit: no one wants to play the skilled and experienced Wings. Most of us will be rooting for them and the Avalanche to lose, and for Nashville and Los Angeles to win.

As for the Flames, we’re all very sorry they’ll miss the playoffs. We truly are, we promise.

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