yankee hockey

NOW ON TO THE SECOND ROUND, WHERE ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

Posted in Anaheim, Boston, Carolina, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, post-season, stanley cup, Vancouver, Washington by yankhockey on May 3, 2009

Do any of you still need proof that teams in the second round deserve to be there? The Canucks, Red Wings, and Bruins certainly don’t. All three teams came into the second games of their series without a single lost in the post-season. All three will be going into game three 5-1.

The first round is kind of a crapshoot. Some teams are very competitive, some teams just competitive enough to make it into the top eight. That’s the problem you have when you allow eight of fifteen teams per conference into the playoffs. It’s a nice round number but the bottom seeds tend to be more lucky then skilled (the Ducks the obvious exception).

The second round, however, pits the men against the men. There isn’t a team left that would be a dark horse to win the cup. This is why I think the second round is the most exciting. You have four incredibly tight series that could really go any concievable way. When it’s over and it moves down to two series… well that’s just two less compelling series to watch.

Of the four series going on right now the one with the biggest potential for extremes is the Caps/Pens series. This series could as easily be swept by the Caps as it could be won by the Pens after being down 3-0. if any of the other series go less then six games I’ll be surprised.

The most important thing in the playoffs is adjustments. Adjustments are what you do from one game to the next to beat the other team. if you can’t make adjustments, you die. If there is one thing that all the eight teams left in the playoffs have shared all year it’s the ability to adjust. Not being able to adjust is why teams like the Sharks are playing golf instead of hockey. In game one against Vancouver, the Blackhawks discovered they could score on Luongo up close, in game two they scored five goals right on his doorstep. Next game the Canucks won’t give them give up any space within ten feet of their goaltender. In game one the Ducks learned that they needed to win the physical battles against Detroit. In game three Detroit’s going to be pushing back. In game one Carolina learned that they needed to clog up the neutral zone, in game two Boston is going to move to the dump and chase.

This back and forth means that the first team to steal a game will win the series. Maybe Anaheim already stole one with the overtime win yesterday? Anyway, it should make for some damn exciting stuff.

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PLAYOFFS WEEKEND UPDATE

I’ve watched two periods of the much anticipated Pittsburgh/Washington series and something really stands out to me. The Capitals, and most importantly Alexander Ovechkin, do not get frustrated. I’ve seen many of the Penguins, including Sydney Crosby, lose their game because of frustration. Whenever Ovechkin misses the goal or gets checked or can’t find the puck he just gets right back into the play. When Crosby gets hit you can see in his eyes that he would love nothing more then to complain about it to someone (an official maybe?).

Frustration is one of those intangibles that can be the difference in a series. In the first game so far it hasn’t been a big deal because there hasn’t been a bigger lead then one, but consider in Washington could get a two or three point lead. A frustrated team cannot come back from that kind of deficit. If Pittsburgh were to get that lead I don’t see the Capitals being up against the wall at all, I believe they would continue to play their game and get back the lead in their way. Of course, this is just game one and the Capitals are playing much better then the Flyers did so Pittsburgh may just need a game to adjust, and it’s not like they are getting beat (yet) so there is no panic.

This is an interesting goalie match-up. Both Varlamov and Fleury will give up bad goals, both Varlamov and Fleury will make amazing saves. The biggest difference is that Fleury gives up more rebounds and that may be the difference in this series.

As for the other series man was Carolina out played. It’s hard to believe that the team that beat Brodeur and the Devils in six could get rocked by anyone including the Bruins. The Bruins are out to prove they are more then just a goaltender and a 6’9” defenseman. Scoring four against Cam Ward and allowing only one against the high power offense of Carolina is a good start.

Detroit found out just how hard the Ducks can be to play against but they still won. That’s what good teams do, win against any odds. San Jose couldn’t do it because San Jose is not as good of a team as one would expect from their regular season record. As I said in this series preview, Detroit takes advantage of their opportunities, something Anaheim isn’t used to after facing the Sharks.

I’m really looking forward to the ‘Nucks/’Hawks game later tonight. Can Chicago win game two? I think they need to or they will find themselves risking a sweep from Vancouver who have become a real post-season powerhouse this year.

SECOND ROUND PREVIEW

After one of the more entertaining first rounds in recent memory the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs begins… well now actually with some highly anticipated match-ups. Who will go on to the conference finals? Well, let’s take a look.

1. Red Wings vs 8. Ducks

The Ducks surprised everyone who weren’t paying attention and figured that since San Jose was the best team in the regular season that they would be the best in the post-season. WRONG! The Ducks always have post-season success because they are built for the post-season. Guess what? So are the Red Wings. The Ducks won the first round in six games, and believe me that was easy compared to what they have to face now. Anaheim will be facing a very similar adversary in Detroit, but there are some key differences. The biggest difference is that the Red Wings know how to capitalize on their chances. The Sharks biggest problem in the first round was not being able to take advantage of scoring opportunities and power plays, the Red Wings will not suffer so.

In the end this series will come down to which team can dig deepest into what are two very deep pools of experience. The Wings proved their best players can play like the best and score against good goaltending. The Ducks proved that they are big enough and tough enough to keep the best players down, and they proved resilient enough to play without a lead. Detroit has had a long layoff but I think they’re experienced enough to not lose a step. It won’t give them an advantage though since Anaheim’s series against San Jose wasn’t exactly physical and the Ducks are healthy.

I think it will take a game for Detroit to get their stride back and the Ducks win game one, but after that it’s mostly Detroit. Red Wings in 6.

3. Canucks vs 4.Blackhawks

Ok, this is kinda cheating since they had their first game last night. Actually it’s kinda cheating by the NHL, how dare they start the second round on the same night I write my Friday blog posts! Anyway, I was totally prepared to write the Canucks in five during the first two periods. The Canucks forwards and defense were all over the offensive zone and the ‘Hawks were unable to find any way past Luongo. Then comes the third period when suddenly the Canucks fall apart and give up three unanswered goals… only to score two more themselves in the final minute-forty.

Here is the key. The Canucks are playing a Blackhawks team that is very similar to the Blues team they swept offensively and in experience, but far superior defensively. The ‘Hawks are playing a Canucks team that is similar to the Flames team they beat in six offensively, but far superior defensively… especially in net. What does that mean? It means that if the Canucks can limit the Blackhawks offense the same way they did to the Blues offense, and the ‘Hawks limit the Canucks offense the same way they did the Flames offense then the Canucks will most certainly win. If, however, the ‘Hawks can find a way to score more goals in this series then they did in their first series they will win. Actually, this may be the most closely matched series in the second round.

In the first game the ‘Hawks took way too many penalties, they’ll really have to fix that. In the first game the Canucks played lackadaisically with the lead, they’ll have to fix that. When all is said and done the ‘Hawks won’t be able to beat Luongo with enough pucks (especially after the Canucks D makes adjustments after game one), and as the series continues the Canucks will find their hockey legs again and be able to play three whole periods. Canucks in 6.

1 Bruins vs 6 Hurricanes

After an amazing series win over a team that had a great grinding offense, a big tough defense, and an amazing stifling goalie the ‘Canes will be facing………. a great grinding offense, a big tough defense, and an amazing stifling goaltender. Can they pull it off a second time? It’s hard to say. Even after watching them beat New Jersey in six (and even having called it) I’m still not sure how exactly they did it. The Bruins are coming off of a very easy series. They are rested, healthy, and ready for a real challenge. One thing about the Bruins; they like to play close tough games. It’s what they live for.

What this series is going to come down to is whether Tim Thomas can stop the shots he needs to to get his team a win. Brodeur was unable to rise to that challenge, giving up some very weak goals in the opening series. Thomas will need to stop those shots because the Bruins aren’t going to limit the ‘Canes chances any more then New Jersey was. On the other end all Cam Ward needs to do is stay on his game. As the opening round went on Ward kept getting better and better. He can’t afford any bad games against the best team in the East. If he gets rattled by the Bruins this series will be over quickly.

I think the Bruins forwards are a little grittier and a little hungrier then the forwards in New Jersey, and for that reason they will be a little bit tougher to defend against. Will that be enough to put Boston over Carolina? Carolina has got a certain something, I don’t know what it is but it’s the kind of thing that steals wins. This series will go the difference and I think in the end Boston will be a sliver better the Carolina. Boston in 7.

2. Capitals vs 4. Penguins

This is the long-running Broadway musical of hockey series. Crosby v. Ovechkin. Fleury v. Varlamov. Penguins v. Capitals. Gary Bettman is laughing all the way to the bank people. The two best players in the league in a winner takes all battle for the conference final. This is so monumental I can’t even properly analyze it.

Ok, let’s see if I can concentrate enough to get some perspective. Ovie and the Caps looked pretty dismal at first, but the last three games they were absolutely flying. If they can keep up that energy they are going to give the Pens fits. Let’s not forget the Caps went 3-1 against the Pens in the regular season, and that was with Theodore in net. Mike Green, who unfortunately will probably win the Norris trophy, looked pretty sad in that first round. yes he got some points but the way he played defense will not be good enough to stop the Pens. This is not the low scoring Rangers we are talking about here. Half the team has the ability to put 25-30 pucks in the net during the season and they can all turn it up during the playoffs. Likewise, this isn’t a Caps team that will roll over and die like the Flyers did all series against the Pens. This team, especially Ovechkin, wants to win this series oh so very badly and will do whatever it takes to do so.

The road to the Stanley Cup go through Crosby and Malkin and they are some serious gatekeepers. Marc-Andre Fleury who plays at times like he’s got four arms, and at others like he’s go no legs, has to be perfect every game because there are just too many people who can score on the Washington team (welcome back Mr. Fedorov by the way). Pittsburgh’s defense is better, Washington’s goaltender is better…… ok Washington in 7

LET THE SECOND ROUND BEGIN!

Posted in Anaheim, Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, NY Rangers, post-season, san jose, stanley cup, Washington by yankhockey on April 28, 2009

Two great game sevens tonight. The final game in the New Jersey/Carolina series was everything you could have hoped for and more. Game seven in the Washington/New York series took a surprise twist. All in all, a great night for hockey.

First we’ll visit Washington who looked like they were going to let the game get out of hand in the first. It was a Rangers sort of game for the first two periods; not a lot of shots, not a lot of space, not a lot of power plays. You could see the Capitals start to find their feet at the end of the second though. Third period was all Caps. Lundqvist played an incredible game, but in the end it was a shot from the face off dot that beat him. Sergei Fedorov raced down the right side of the rink and then hit the breaks. Using the defender as a screen he snapped a wrister right under the bar over Lundqvist’s shoulder to give the Caps a 2-1 lead with just over four minutes left in the third. I was actually thinking right before it happened “Wow, Fedorov still has some wheels.” And he certainly did. It was Fedorov’s 52 post-season goal, and it turned out to be the game winner. Even though there were four minutes remaining the Rangers couldn’t put together even the slightest offense. In the entire third period they had only one shot on goal. The Caps took over that period like pirates boarding a ship. In the last minute and a half, as the Rangers tried to put together a comeback, they couldn’t even get the puck into the offensive zone to get Lundqvist to the bench. In all Varlamov had to make 14 saves in what turned out to be an easy win, but it certainly didn’t look that way at the start.

Washington came back from a 3-1 series deficit to win this one. I thought this team was in over their head. Until game five they looked like they had no idea how to beat the Rangers. Then, suddenly, their talent showed up like it had taken the wrong bus. This team is very good, and who knows how this series would have turned out if they had started with Varlamov instead of Theodore, they probably would have won in five or six. The Rangers are a very good team too. I know I shouldn’t like them, but the personalities on the team are all great guys. I really like Drury, Gomez, Naslund, Lundqvist, Mara… can you dislike a team but like it’s players? With Tortorella behind the bench starting the season next year I expect them to finish better then seventh.

But the game in New Jersey… wow! I wish that it had been on Versus instead of cage fighting. I only saw highlights, but I imagine the game was of the highest intensity. No one expects Martin Brodeur to give up a game tying goal with less then two minutes left to play, so certainly NO ONE would expect Martin Brodeur to then give up the game winning goal with about 30 seconds left to play. You could see it in his face after he gave up that fourth goal. He was already blaming himself for losing the series. And really, who else is he going to blame. All he needed to do was keep the ‘Canes to three goals or less and he failed. When was the last time Brodeur lost in the first round? It’s going to take a little research so allow me a moment… Oh wait, it was last year, how did I forget that? Well that’s two years in a row now that Brodeur has been out early in the post-season, but this year has got to be even more disappointing.

The ‘Canes played a great series and certainly deserved to win. This series was so fun to watch because the two teams were so similar in design. Cagey veterans, speedy youngsters, goal scoring defensemen, cup winning goaltenders… Now the ‘Canes go on to meet Boston which will bring a different sort of game to the table, but that’s for Friday’s entry.

Meanwhile, in the West on Monday two series were decided in six. The eighth seeded Ducks beat the Sharks with ease, while the Blackhawks took care of the Flames.

The Sharks/Ducks series was an interesting one, if only for the ramifications. Once again the Sharks are out prematurely. Even the President’s Trophy can’t save them from post-season disappointment. The Ducks beat the Sharks so easily it makes you wonder exactly what time of year the Sharks believed it was when they got onto the ice. Don’t get me wrong, the Ducks are a good team and they can stand up to any team in the league, but you have to wonder what happened to the Sharks team that was the best in the league this year. So what do you do now? Fire the GM that built the President’s Trophy winning team? Fire the coach that coached the President’s Trophy winning team? Where does the blame lie? They’re going to be looking at the leadership in the team this offseason and I expect changes when the season starts up next year. Don’t be surprised if they make a few trades in the meanwhile.

In Calgary the Flames attempted to match the run-and-gun style of the Blackhawks without success. It was a shoot-out of a series and in the end the young stars of Chicago were no match for an injured defense and old forward line of Calgary. The Flames proved they could score with the best of them, but also proved that they are a team that can no longer prevent goals against. Even their once all-world goaltender fell flat. The Blackhawks move on to the second round not as bruised as they would have been from Flames past. Can Khabibulin play himself back into the Stanley Cup? Well, we have at least one more round to find out.

Tune in Friday for my second round predictions.

ON TO GAME SEVEN!

Pittsburgh is the next team to move on to the second round with a sound thrashing of Philadelphia on Saturday. The Flyers were up 3-0 until the let the Penguins score four unanswered goals (five if you count the empty-netter) to win the game 5-3. I know the Penguins have Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but when you are up 3-0 in the first you should win the game. This is why they say there is no safe lead in the NHL. Anyway, the Flyers didn’t really deserve to win the series. You have to show up every game in the playoffs or you won’t win. The Flyers showed up two games and one period and that is simply not enough. To be frank, the Penguins didn’t show up every game either, they just showed up more then the Flyers. I’d like to say that it looks like they will be taking on Boston but with both the Rangers/Capitals and Hurricanes/Devils series going on to game sevens it’s too hard to predict the next round.

Game sevens in the Stanley Cup are a thing of beauty, and the two series in the East heading that way should live up to that. The ‘Canes beat the Devils solidly 4-0 in game six last night, Cam Ward playing a helluva game for the shutout. This series has been so back and forth it’s hard to predict who will go into game seven with more momentum. The ‘Canes staved off elimination with  a superb game and will be going into New Jersey with much confidence, but New Jersey will be at home and there’s an age old saying in hockey: “Never bet against Martin Brodeur in the clutch”. Like most game sevens this will come down to goaltending. I said ‘Canes in six… let’s switch it to Devils in seven at home.

Meanwhile the Rangers had the chance to finish off the Capitals at home but were trounced 5-3 and now have to head to Washington to try once again to stop the Capitals onslaught. Lundqvist was not terribly good in this one, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when you face the offensive might of the Washington Capitals. This series rests entirely on Lundqvist’s shoulders. If he can keep the goals down to two or less then the Rangers can win, if he lets in three or more the Capitals will win. The real story in this series is the play of rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov who has really played fantastic, much better the Jose Theodore could be expected to play. I had the Rangers in seven and I’m sticking to it.

Meanwhile in the West two series are going into game six. The Blackhawks tore up Calgary on Saturday winning by a score of 5-1. They go into Calgary now for game six. They really got to Kiprusoff in game five. If they can keep a steady attack on Calgary’s defensive end then they stand a very good chance of winning the series in six. If, however, they allow Calgary to dictate the play in the neutral zone then Calgary will put up a good fight. Calgary will try to clog up the neutral zone with bodies and checks, but if Chicago can score a goal or two then they’ll start to open things up. If Calgary scores first they’ll stay back and the game will be very low scoring. I said Chicago in four, let’s make it six.

Also in the West the San Jose Sharks gave their fans a heart attack with a 3-2 overtime win. The Sharks got out to a quick 2-0 lead and then managed to completely blow it in the third. Even though they won the game the Sharks proved that they cannot play with a lead, something so fundamental it’s hard to believe they won the President’s Trophy with such a lack of skill. Going into game six in Anaheim the feeling is that it doesn’t matter if the Sharks score first… or even second and third, because the Ducks know they can come back. If they beat the Sharks tonight there’s going to be a lot of confusing in San Jose, and a lot of nail biting in Detroit. I said Sharks in seven… I said that because of the skill of the Ducks, but the Sharks haven’t shown much skill of their own so I’m going to change it to Ducks in six.

As for the rest of my picks, they’ve been pretty spot on. I said Canucks in five, they did it in four. I said Red Wings in five, they also made it in four. I said Boston in four, spot on. In fact, I’ve only messed up the Philly/Pitt series, and of the series remaining, at least two stand a good chance at meeting my predictions. Not bad if I do say so myself.

AN OBJECT IN MOTION…

Congratulations to the Red Wings and Bruins who both swept their series to move on to the next round. The Canadiens put up almost no fight against the Bruins, losing all four games rather desicively. This was the last season on the contracts of many players on Montreal so expect a completely different look to this team next year, including a new coach and possibly new GM. I also wonder about the future of Carey Price. He’s been good in the regular season but absolutely awful in the post, and the fans in Montreal do not have much patience for bad goaltending. Don’t forget this was the 100th year of the Canadiens’ franchise, losing in the first round in four is not nearly good enough. In Columbus meanwhile the Blue Jackets finally showed up to a game but were barely beaten in the end by Detroit. Getting to the post-season really showed this teams strengths, getting scoring a total of seven goals in four games really showed its weaknesses. If they can get a real center for Rick Nash and Steve Mason plays lights out for an entire year they’ll get another chance to prove themselves in the next post-season, but this year the experience was just too overwhelming for them. Still, big ups for making it for the first time.

I’d like to apologize to Marc-Andre Fleury for saying I didn’t believe he could win a game for his team. In the all important fourth game of this series he stopped 45 of 46 shots to lead the Pens to victory. Note he gave up six the game before and 3 the game after. Still, he proved that he is capable of stealing a game. Frankly, I think the bigger story in this series isn’t the play of Fleury but the lack of play from the Philly forwards. This team has gone anemix offensively and it hasn’t been too tough for Fleury to win the three games he has. I really wonder if Fleury can win games the same way if he comes up against the offense of the Devils or ‘Canes, which will be who he will face if the Rangers win the series in Washington. While the Flyers forwards have lacked confidence since the series began, the forward in New Jersey and Carolina will be coming in knowing they can score.

San Jose finds itself down 3-1 in their series to the surprise of practically everyone. Watching the game tonight I couldn’t help but think that they seemed completely unwilling to put a puck on net. They got plenty of shots, 31, but it was all the shots they didn’t take that cost them the game. Even on the power play it was all set up with no finish. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Joe Thornton sit behind the net until a Duck took the puck from him. He’s got to play as big and strong as he is if he is ever going to get on the scoresheet. Watching these guys you can tell their nerves are shot. They’re taking bad penalties, they’re sticks aren’t on the ice for passes or rebounds, and they are falling apart late in games. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know it starts with their leaders. They won game three with the help of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, who have been playing great all series. Now it’s time for Marleau and Thornton to carry the team. They both have great shots, they need to start taking them. Right now the rest of the team is feeding off their frustration, that has got to stop. They were the best team in the regular season, they can win three in a row even against the Ducks, but they have to start believing that.

WORK ETHIC

Posted in Carolina, Columbus, Philadelphia, post-season, san jose, stanley cup by yankhockey on April 16, 2009

Watching the game ones that were on Thursday and Friday reminded me of something very important in hockey: effort wins games. Washington and New York put on a helluva show, both teams working as hard as they could for the win with New York finally getting the win (and let me thank them for making my prediction that they will win this series a little less absurd). Chicago and Calgary looked like they were going to put on a sloppy show until both teams picked up the play in the second period and turned a lazy game into an incredibly exciting game. The Vancouver and St Louis game was the best hockey game I had seen since the last round one in Vancouver when Vancouver beat Dallas 5-4 in the third overtime, both teams working so hard you could believe they were about to actually sweat blood.

On the other side of the coin there were four teams that I was surprised to see put out nearly no effort at all. Philadelphia apparently decided they didn’t feel like showing up for game one. While Pittsburgh took a cue from their opponent and played tough instead of fancy, the only Flyer I ever noticed during that game was Jeff Carter, unless you count noticing Martin Biron crumbling like a week old cookie (I think the announcers actually mentioned he had never won a game one in his entire career, I should research that). I guess Columbus was so blinded by the glamour of Detroit that they couldn’t see the puck because they played with all the skill of a clown full of cars. For a team that needed to come out of the gate like Sisyphus (look it up) looked more like Sissy-phus. The Hurricanes ran into a Martin Brodeur who remembered to put on his playoff underwear, but that is hardly an excuse to only put 19 shots on him. And Cam Ward looked like he was experimenting with stopping shots with his mind alone. And of all the teams to show up unprepared, the San Jose Sharks played with absolutely no tenacity at all. Except for the defense, the Sharks  were lackluster at best. Annual no-shows Marleau and Thornton had a total of two shots between them for the entire game. I guess Joe Pavelski must really idolize these guys because he had no shots of his own. of 35 shots, 16 came from the D, and another five from Setoguchi. That means that forwards not named Setoguchi had a total of 14 shots in the game.

There is very little, if any, consolation to any of these teams that there are at least three more games to be played. Teams like the Blues and Capitals can hold their heads high knowing that they went out there and were legitimately beat, but that the next game could very well be theirs. If you are Philadelphia, Columbus, Carolina, or San Jose it must feel like you’ve down 3-0 in the series. There is no excuse for showing up for the playoffs unprepared to play. It may be a best of seven, but each game needs to be played like a one and done. Being down one game to none may be acceptable in basketball, but in hockey that is a huge hole to climb out of. Hockey playoffs are grueling, hard fought affairs, and you want them to end as fast as possible. If you’re the Sharks the last thing you want is a five game series against the Ducks. Hell! You can barely stand a four games series. Well guess what, because you couldn’t win puck battles, get shots on goal, or leave your zone with gusto, now you’ve got at least five, likely more now that the other team knows you’re vulnerable.

San Jose is lucky, they have Rob Blake, Danny Boyle, Travis Moen, and Claude Lemieux, all Stanley Cup winners, in their locker room. Those guys can grab their teammates by the lapels and shake them until they shape up. Columbus? Not nearly as lucky. They’ve got quiet Fredrik Modin. The Flyers have Mike Knuble who won the cup his rookie season with Detroit… and then never went back. Of course the ‘Canes have back many of their cup winning players including their goaltender and blog favourite Rob Brind’amor (best hockey name in his generation?), so they may be alright. Only time will tell.

NHL playoff hockey is the best hockey on earth… when everyone shows up to play. These teams will get it right quickly, and if they don’t we won’t be forced to watch them anymore.

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW

We’re back with the Eastern Conference preview. The East is looking to have a much more interesting first round with teams being closer in terms of skill and a good chance of upsets. So let’s see how they’ll turn out.

1 Bruins vs 8. Canadiens

Bruins’ Strength: Their Own Zone

The Bruins have been killer in their own end of the ice. They have a great defense and a goaltender that was tops in the league in goals against average. Not only that, they have one of the leading Norris trophy candidates in Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas is one of the leading candidates for the Vezina. What does that equal? It equals one tough time for any offense against them.

Bruins’ Weakness: Matching the Regular Season

The Bruins were lights out during the regular season. They were by far the best team in the East, and arguably the best team in the league. Remember, this is practically the same team that was eighth in the East last year and lost to Montreal in the round (wow, what a weird coincidence). Have they been playing above their level are year or were they for real?

Player to Watch: Milan Lucic

Lucic is one of those guys that every team would love to have. he had 17 goals and 136 penalty minutes. He’s what is commonly known as a “fire-cracker”. He needs to continue to play like a bulldozer on skates or the entire team may start to struggle.

Bruins’ Overview:

The Bruins are certainly the best team coming out of the East in the standings, but they haven’t played like the best team for a little while. They were outstanding at the beginning of the year… better then outstanding in fact, but they came back down to earth like all the other outstanding teams in the league this year. They’ll need to get the same all-world goaltending from Thomas if they want to make quick work of Montreal, if he can’t keep his play elevated it’ll be a long series.

Canadiens’ Strength: Montreal

The Canadiens are the life-blood of this city… nay, this province. They know it too. Every single player has the weight of all the history of this team pushing them forward. They know their fans won’t be satisfied with a first round loss, not in this, the hundredth year of their existence. If there has ever been a driving force powerful enough to change a game it’s a packed house at the Forum.

Canadiens’ Weakness: Cohesion

All year the Canadiens have had problems with team chemistry. It almost knocked them right out of the playoffs. If they are to survive the first round they are going to have to play like a team, not a bunch of individuals. It’s up to captain Saku Koivu to right this ship, and if there is anyone in the league who can it’s him. If this team has such little respect for each other that not even Koivu, one of the most respected men in the league, can get everyone to work together there needs to be an upheaval in Montreal this off-season.

Player to Watch: Carey Price

Last year Price backstopped them to first and then fell apart like a Yugoslavian car in the post-season. He’s going to have to find a way to fight those jitters and play like the phenom he’s shown glimpses of in the past. There’s nothing like an out of this world goaltender to change the face of a playoff series.

Canadiens’ Overview:

The Canadiens backed their way into the playoffs just squeezing in at the last moment. Luckily for them the worst teams in the league were in the East or they might have had to fight off Tampa Bay and Toronto, not just Florida. They are the underdogs of the underdogs this year despite having been picked during the preseason to challenge for the Cup. There’s still a chance, a slim one. If they are competitive enough they may be able to grab that chance.

Outlook: Bruins in four

I just think it’s too late for Montreal this year. They haven’t shown that they can compete with the big dogs, and Boston is the biggest dog in the East. While Florida was fighting tooth and nail to get into the post-season Montreal kinda just moseyed in. They aren’t ready to compete as hard as they will need to. Next year expect a much different look from this team, a tougher hungrier look.

2. Capitals vs 7. NY Rangers

Capitals’ Strength: Alexander Ovechkin

What else did you expect me to say… puck handling? Ovechkin is the difference between an ok team and one of the best teams in the league, he is just that good. Sure he’s got some interesting names around him like Semin, Green, and Backstrom, but he means such a huge difference to this team they may change their names to the Washington Ovechkins when he leaves the franchise.

Capitals’ Weakness: Everyone Not Named Ovechkin

Here’s the deal, if you aren’t named Ovechkin you are stoppable. One of the Rangers’ strategies may be to try to prevent anyone else from being effective, make Ovechkin do it all on his own. If they can succeed at that it may be enough to beat the Capitals. There are a lot of good names on this team, and a strategy to just try and stop Ovechkin will certainly backfire, so everyone else on the team better be paying attention or they might be made inconsequential to this series.

Player to Watch: Alexander Ovechkin

What, you thought I’d say Sergei Federov? Look, just watch him. Even if it’s for entertainment purposes only, watch him. He’s more fun to watch then a ball pit full of puppies. He’s more fun to watch then scrambled porn. He’s more fun to watch then a Godzilla marathon. He’s Alexander the Great

Capitals’ Overview:

This this team has been one of the most exciting teams all year, and no, not just because of Ovechkin. Mike Green became the first defensemen in my memory to score thirty goals (ok, so there have been defensemen who I remember who had scored thirty, just before my time). Alexander Semin has also had a break-out year. And Jose Theodore is one step away from proving that the last few years have been the fluke, not his Calder winning rookie season.

Rangers’ Strength: Defense

Here’s something I bet you thought you’d never hear. The Rangers gave up the third least amount of goals in the East. Who’da thunk it? The Rangers, a defensively sound team. It helps to have the best goaltender in the conference not named Broduer, especially when Broduer is out for most of the season. This year the Rangers have been more responsible on both sides of the puck, and while it has cost players points (the Rangers are 24th in goals for), it played a big role in making the post-season.

Rangers’ Weakness: Goal Scoring

I just said it, 24th in the league. With a roster including guys like Markus Naslund, Chris Drury, and Scott Gomez, who would have thought the Rangers would have such problems scoring goals. It’s actually not those three who have played about as expected, it’s everyone else. There’s been very little scoring beyond the top four offensive players. The addition of Antropov and Avery has really helped, and will help them in the playoffs as well, but they really need more goal production if they have any hope of matching the goal scoring of Washington.

Player to Watch: Sean Avery

There’s something about the playoffs that really works for Avery. If he’s a pest during the regular season then he is a super-pest in the playoffs. You will definitely be hearing Avery’s name, both in the “Avery scored” and “Avery was punched in the head by Donald Brashear” catagories.

Rangers’ Overview:

The Rangers are an interesting case. When the year began they looked poised to take the East by storm, then they just started falling like a slinky on a staircase. Luckily for them they didn’t make it all the way to the bottom, but even stopping the slide didn’t win back a lot of confidence. Still, it’s hard to turn your back on a team with Henrik Lundqvist in net and the leadership abilities of Gomez, Naslund, and Drury in the locker room.

Outlook: Rangers in seven

This was a really tough one for me to analyze, and I still don’t like what I just wrote down. The thing is, as poorly as they’ve played in the regular season, the Rangers are made for the post-season. There’s no way they can stop Ovechkin, but if they can score more goals then they allow from everyone not named Ovechkin they have a very good chance of winning it. In a battle of don’t let the puck through between Lundqvist and Theodore, I take Lundqvist.

3. Devils vs 6. Hurricanes

Devils’ Strength: Playing Through Adversity

The Devils lost Martin Brodeur for a very very significant chunk of the season. Any other team in the league that loses a player that means as much as Brodeur means to the Devils would have fallen by the wayside. These guys not only stayed afloat, they kept winning. There’s nothing the Hurricanes can throw at them that they won’t be able to fight through. If there is one team in the playoffs that wouldn’t lose morale down three games to none, it’s the Devils.

Devils’ Weakness: Defense

For years the Devils iced some of the toughest defenses in the league. This year they are surprisingly weak. The Devils are lucky to have had two amazing goaltenders because those goalies have seen a lot of shots. It’s shown in the last couple weeks as even Brodeur couldn’t pull any wins out of his magic goalie mask. The ‘Canes are big up front and it’s going to take a lot of effort from the Devils’ back end to keep them out of scoring position.

Player to Watch: Brian Gionta

He’s been hearing he’s too small to play in this league for years now, but he just keeps putting up big numbers. Gionta plays with the fire and tenacity of a man twice his size. He’s energizing on the ice and in the locker room. He’s going to have to keep up his torrid pace because if he disappears this post-season the Devils are going to find it hard to get the goals they need to win.

Devils’ Overview:

It’s hard to imagine the Devils being where they are having lost Brodeur for most of the season. That they continued to win without him says more about this team then if they had done it with him in net. If there’s been one constant over the last, say, 10 years, it’s that you can never ever count the Devils out, they always find a way.

Hurricanes’ Strength: Intangibles

Is it speed? Is it strength? Is it attitude? Is it puck luck? Whatever it is the ‘Canes have had it for the entire second half of the season. They just putting up amazing numbers, beating every team they face, and impressing folks like me. Whatever it is that is driving them right now it’s going to be hard to face in a seven games series. Intangibles have a way of wearing down the opposing team, so whatever the ‘Canes have tapped into, they should drink deeply.

Hurricanes’ Weakness: Cam Ward

Pointing out Ward as their weakness is in no way disrespecting what he’s done for this team down the stretch. He has been one of the best goaltenders in the league when they needed it most. I count him as their weakness because hasn’t been back in the playoffs since that magical year in 2005. He was the first rookie goaltender to win the Stanley Cup since Patrick Roy, and then he never go them back again until this year. This year he has been fantastic, but if he can’t rekindle the magic of his first post-season there is no reliable back-up to take over.

Hurricanes’ Overview:

These guys were the hottest team since the all-star break. They are on a mad scoring tear, they’ve let in significantly less goals then last year, and they know how to win. This is the best ‘Canes team since they won the cup, maybe even better then the Cup team. The Devils should be very afraid of this team.

Outlook: Hurricanes in six

Like I said earlier, you never want to discount New Jersey. It is very tempting to me to pick them to win this series because I assume they will. But when you start assuming things in the playoffs you begin to make mistakes. Carolina has been the best team in the East as of late, and the Devils definitely have not matched their level of play. I can’t ignore the skill and effort that Carolina has shown, so the only thing to do is pick them to win this series.

4. Penguins vs 5. Flyers

Penguins’ Strength: The Century Mark

In the entire league three people have made it to 100 points, two of them are on the Penguins roster. That is very very hard to ignore. The interesting thing is… they don’t normally play on the same line. That means there are at least two lines that, if you are the Flyers, you have to be very very concerned about. Unlike Washington there’s not just one guy you have to try and stop, there are two and that can really throw an opposing team for a loop.

Penguins’ Weakness: Toughness

In the off-season the Penguins lost Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, and Georges Laraque. And who did they replace them with? Miroslav Satan. This season they traded away their toughest defensemen Ray Whitney. Sure, the guy couldn’t play defense to save his life, but he could add some fire to a team that is ice cold. Watching this team is like watching a bunch of narcoleptics play. For all the goals they score, they are boring. Matt Cooke and Evgeni Malkin add a little spice, but against a very big, very tough Flyers team they don’t add enough grit.

Player to Watch: Evgeni Malkin

He put this team on his back and dragged them all the way to the finals last year. He’ll need to do it again this year too. He’s bigger then he looks, tougher then he looks, and a total bitch to play against. Crosby may be the spiritual leader of this team, but Malkin is who they will be counting on to score the points.

Penguins’ Overview:

This has been a hard team to read this year. First they were out of the playoffs and the way they were playing made it seem like they wouldn’t find their way back in. Then suddenly they’re scorching the league and fight their way to fourth. Which team will we see in the playoffs? Some of the players on the team are liable to relax when they think they get confident, the Penguins staff and other players will have to push those types into playing their best if they want to win this series.

Flyers’ Strength: Special Teams

They rank sixth in both penalty killing and powerplay, but the real secret weapon on special teams is Mike Richards. This year he scored short-handed goals three games in a row, he scored a 5-3 short-handed goal (the third of his career) and basically has written the book on special teams this year. Against a Penguins team with a very poor power-play he could really take advantage of that weakness.

Flyers’ Weakness: Goaltending

Ok, so people say this every year. Martin Biron never gets any respect in this league. The thing is, he’s never stolen a series for the Flyers. With all the goal scoring power on the other end (the same power that beat him in the East finals last year), he’s going to have to put up a wall. If he can show the Penguins that they aren’t going to get easy goals against him I take this all back, but if he lets in one goal he shouldn’t it’s going to simultaneously boost the Pens and sink the Flyers.

Player to Watch: Jeff Carter

Talk about a break-out year! Carter, for a long time, led the league in goal scoring before finally giving way to Ovechkin (but who wouldn’t). Now he needs to translate regular season success into playoff success. If he can be a complete monster in the offensive zone he’ll will cause endless headaches for the Pens. They need him to be the leading scorer of this series or they will struggle to put up enough points to win.

Flyers’ Overview:

The Flyers are like the Sharks of the East. Every year much more is expected of them in the regular season. Unlike the Sharks at least they made it to the conference championships last year, but like the Sharks they never seem to live up to their potential. This year, again, a lot was expected of them. They showed a lot of skill, but not when it mattered. They could easily have locked up first place in the Atlantic as New Jersey had lost their goaltender and Pittsburgh was faltering, but now they are third in the Atlantic, fifth in the East. They need to Beat Pittsburgh to prove they can be a force.

Outlook: Flyers in seven

If the game was “Who Can Be Beat Up the Most” the Penguins would definitely win. The Flyers want to avenge last year and will do it with fists, elbows, hips, shoulders… whatever they can throw Pittsburgh’s way they will. In the end it won’t be about scoring, cause there will be a lot of scoring. Frankly, I don’t trust that Biron has what it takes to be a winning goaltender, and I know that Fleury doesn’t. It’s going to come down to who wants it more and looking at the rosters of these two teams, Philly wants it more.

So there you have it folks. Playoffs start tomorrow and I, for one am incredibly excited. So good luck to everyone’s teams, I’ll see you Wednesday.

LOOKING BACKWARDS

This weekend a illness floored your friendly neighborhood Yankee Hockey. It wasn’t too bad to keep me from watching the games, but my brains ability to function has been severely hampered. So today is going to be an easy one, I’m going to take a look at my early season predictions and see just how well I did (cause there is nothing like patting yourself on the back). With the season not exactly finished, some of the results may change, but I think I got it covered.

Western Conference

(preseason):

1. Detroit

2. San Jose

3. Calgary

4. Anaheim

5. Vancouver

6. St. Louis

7. Chicago

8. Edmonton

9. Los Angeles

10. Dallas

11. Columbus

12. Minnesota

13. Phoenix

14. Colorado

15. Nashville

(actual)

1. San Jose

2. Detroit

This particular battle has been going on all season long with Detroit and San Jose jockeying for position. I’m going to call this a win because, really, they’re like 1A/1B.

3. Calgary

This looks like it’s gonna stick, even though Vancouver made it super interesting (including beating them 4-1 last night to remain in the running for the third spot), but with two games left Calgary would have to lose more then Vancouver won and I’m not sure they will blow their last two games.

4. Chicago

I underestimated the goaltenders here. I knew the team was good, but I didn’t think Christobel Huet would play as good as he has, and I certainly never believed Khabibulin would return to form. They even threatened Detroit for a moment before falling back to earth.

5. Vancouver

Spot on!

6. Columbus

Good for Columbus. I’m glad they proved me wrong here. They can thank Steve Mason for that one, I think if they had stuck with Denis they may not have made it.

7. Anaheim

I’m actually a little surprised they’re even this high up after the season they have had. I guess when you have two Niedermayers, a Pronger, and a Selanne you can kind of tip-toe your way into the playoffs.

8. St Louis

Well, I was wrong about their position, and the play of Manny Legace, but I was right about their powerful offense.

9. Nashville

Look, I’d never heard of Pekka Rinne. Give me a break please.

10. Minnesota

You heard it here first folks. I’m the one who jumped off the Minnesota bandwagon this year while others put them as high as third in the conference. Of course Gaborik is going to get hurt, of course they aren’t going to score goals, so of course they are outta here!

11. Edmonton

Edmonton almost proved me right as the season wore down, but then they had to go and self destruct as they always do. They’re like the Mets of the NHL.

12. Dallas

You heard it here first again! Some “experts” even picked Dallas to win the cup this year. Thanks in part to Sean Avery, and in second part to Turco’s off year, Dallas will be playing golf this Spring.

13. Los Angeles

I really thought LA would be fighting for a spot at this time of the season. Still, they showed a lot of spunk and I look forward to putting them at number nine again next year. (Actually, this Jonathan Quick guy may move them up to eight).

14. Phoenix

15. Colorado

Phoenix almost made things interesting just after the All-Star break, but returned spiritual balance to the NHL again by falling down the standings like a comet. Colorado probably would have done much better had Stastny and Sakic not been out almost the entire year, but Budaij would have made sure they weren’t higher then 11 I’m sure.

All in all i’m rather proud of myself. Got about 30% right on, and the rest (except for a couple) were pretty close. What more could you expect from preseason predictions…. ok, expect for preseason predictions that are not paid for by a sports organization. Get off my back.

Eastern Conference

(preseason):

1. Pittsburgh

2. Montreal

3. Washington

4. NY Rangers

5. New Jersey

6. Ottawa

7. Philadelphia

8. Carolina

9. Boston

10. Tampa Bay

11. Buffalo

12. Florida

13. Toronto

14. NY Islanders

15. Atlanta

(actual)

1. Boston

Way to go Boston. Man I screwed up the East so bad.

2. Washington

I was close! You gotta give me this one at least.

3. New Jersey

I don’t know why I ever doubted New Jersey. Even with Brodeur out most of the season they still kicked everyone’s butt. Actually… now that I think about it, it was after Brodeur went down that the butt-kicking really began.

4. Philadelphia

A very well played season from Philly. They really won me over with their defensive work this year.

5. Carolina

Well, I knew they’d make it to the post season at least. Man they’ve been hot lately.

6. Pittsburgh

Damnit Pittsburgh! If you won’t be kind enough to win the conference like I thought you would, at least be decent enough to miss the playoffs. I hate these guys.

7. Montreal

So what was last year? Some kind of tease? I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys were out of the playoffs by the end of the week.

8. NY Rangers

How is it that two of my top five are struggling to even make the playoffs. The Rangers, especially backstopped by Lundqvist are just too good to be barely holding on to eighth spot.

9. Florida

I knew Florida was going to be better then people expected… but this good? They deserve a playoff spot, if only to justify not trading Bouwmeester.

10. Buffalo

Losing Miller really hurt. They were better then their record presents. Next year boys, nest year.

11. Ottawa

You know, it’s teams like Ottawa that screwed up my predictions this year. They’re getting an angry letter.

12. Toronto

One off, dang! Well, with Burke as their GM they’ll be back here again next year.

13.  Atlanta

Atlanta really benefited from the absolutely horrible play of Tampa Bay and the Islanders. Otherwise they’d be right where I put them.

14. Tampa Bay

See what happens when you fire Barry Melrose?

15. NY Islanders

They’re only here cause they are desperate for Tavares.

So my Eastern Conference predictions were a little of, but hey, my Western Conference predictions were pretty good right? It’s nice to get a little West Coast bias for once.

Come back because in the coming weeks we’ll have a ton of playoff discussion, including who I think will win it all.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?

Well folks, the best time of the year is nearly upon: playoffs! For those of you who have never experienced the wonder that is playoff hockey (and if you are one of those people… why are you reading a hockey blog?), playoff hockey is the greatest sporting event on the planet. Better than any Olympic event, better then any other pro-sporting event, better even then the World Cup of soccer. Playoff hockey is the pinnacle of sports, the Platonic ideal, the Paradise of Dante, only more exciting.

While I won’t say who I believe will win it all yet, I will make one prediction; there will be upsets. Oh yes folks, unlike the NCAA basketball tourney, upsets are the name of the game in hockey. Give any team seven games and they can pull off an upset. The thing about hockey is that hard work can sometimes trump skill, and you’ll never see harder work then in the playoffs. Why, just a few years ago the Edmonton Oilers went into the playoffs as the eighth seed and managed to fight their way all the way to the finals, and there’s a chance they could do it again this year (as in, there’s a chance that ever other team in the powerhouse Western Conference will resign from the playoffs giving Edmonton an automatic birth in the finals).

If you take a look at the top of the Western Conference you can already see it happening. San Jose has gotten injury prone at the worst possible time and has been showing how weak they are in defensive depth. Detroit, while obviously skilled in the forward and defensive positions, has been getting shoddy goaltending all year. Calgary probably won’t even be the third seed by the time you are reading this! And even if they are Kiprusoff has been so unpredictable this year I wouldn’t bet on them going to far into the post-season.

In the East the only real solid top three team is New Jersey, and only because with Brodeur back they are pretty much unstoppable. Boston has had a great year but has become susceptible to rough play recently and has shown just how undisciplined their young players are. It’s hard to count out any team icing Alexander Ovechkin, but after him Washington’s line-up reads more like a seventh or eighth rather then a division winner.

Yes sir, upsets are the name of the game. You wanna know the two teams that no one wants to play in the post-season? Columbus and Pittsburgh, currently both sitting in the six spot in their respective conferences. In Columbus you have rookie of the year (and probable Vezina candidate) Steve Mason in goal, and nothing beats a brick wall in front of the net in the playoffs. In Pittsburgh you have a couple of guys named Crosby and Malkin to contend with. Even though Fleury has hardly proved himself to be a great goaltender, with two hundred regular season points standing in front of him, who cares.

As for the four/five spots, everyone knows there is no such thing as an upset there. In the West it’ll be Chicago versus either Vancouver or Calgary, and in the East it will probably be Philly, maybe playing Pitt, or maybe Carolina or the Rangers. Both of those series should be fun to watch.

And the 7/8 spots? Well, there are a lot of teams vying for those spots. In the West I think it will be Nashville and St Louis, or Nashville and Anaheim, or St Louis and Anaheim… some combination there-in. Edmonton is close but I just don’t think they have enough talent to pull it out. Dallas and Minnesota just aren’t good enough this year for a final run. In the East I hate to take Montreal out of the post-season, but they just can’t compete this year. In the end I think they will back their way in, unless Buffalo goes on a major tear with Miller back in net. Florida has a good chance too, Montreal has control of their destiny this year. As of this writing the Rangers hold the seventh spot, and unless they completely implode they will probably keep it. They are a good team, better then they’ve been playing lately, and have a lot of post-season experience to help them out.

With less then ten games left in the season, some teams are already planning their strategies against their likely opponent, some are frantically trying to put together wins, and some are making reservations at the golf course. As for us fans, we’re trying to keep our blood pressure down as we anticipate the best time of the year.

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