yankee hockey

WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR

Posted in Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, post-season, stanley cup, Washington by yankhockey on May 5, 2009

What a boon for the NHL to have Ovechkin and Crosby playing each other. It helps that the leagues two biggest stars are playing like the leagues two biggest stars. On Monday the two both had hat tricks, only the fourth time in NHL history that opposing players had hat tricks in the same game in the playoffs. The match up goes beyond this series though, it’s cultural. This is a revisit to the old Summit Series that pitted Canada’s best against the Soviet Red Army teams. Believe me, Don Cherry isn’t the only Canadian who would fight anyone who said that Ovechkin is a better player. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of Canadians who think Ovechkin is better, I know a couple myself, but the entire country would love it if Crosby showed him up this post-season.

The problem is that Crosby is so hard to love. Ovechkin is the best thing to happen to the NHL since Gretzky. Every time he opens his mouth the most charismatic thing you could possibly imagine rolls out of it. When he’s on the ice his joy and enthusiasm is infectious. Crosby, on the other hand, can never quite get it right. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great – nay – amazing player. There are times when he is even the best player in the league, but as much as Ovechkin shines, Crosby whithers. During the game, in which he matched Ovechkins three goals with three very impressive goals of his own, he complained about how long it took to clean up the hats after Ovie’s hat trick. Clean up the hats? Are you kidding me Crosby? If that had happened in Pittsburgh it would have taken an hour to clean up all the hats people would have thrown. People would have left their seats, gone to the souvenir stands, bought all the hats, and then gone back to the seats to throw those.

There is a very real feud between these two, and it makes for great copy. There is a difference in how the feud is handled between the two players though. Ovechkin keeps it on the ice, Crosby brings it to the media. What this does is make Crosby seem petty and immature. Clean up the hats? Let the man have his moment in front of his fans Crosby. In the last couple years the image of Crosby the whiner has begun to fade. He hasn’t taken as many dives, he hasn’t chirped at the refs as much, and he’s played through adversity. This most recent incident makes him seem worse then ever.

In the end though, this is going to be a great series. Even if the Caps go on to sweep it in Pittsburgh it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Some people have said that it would have been better if this series had occurred during the conference final. I say that would certainly amp up the drama but the league is better served with where it is. See, this series is attracting sports fans, not necessarily hockey fans. People are tuning in to see the most dynamic pair of players in the league take it to each other, and it’s been an exciting thing to watch. Once this series is over, regardless of who wins, a lot of those people who never gave a shit about hockey before will be interested enough to continue to follow the player that makes it to the next round. People who have been attracted to the playoffs by this series will hopefully stay for the whole thing. That’s one extra round of front page news that the NHL wouldn’t normally get, so I say be glad it’s happening in the second round.

Meanwhile the Ducks have decided that they want to take down the Western Conference top teams in a row. They beat the number one Sharks and now sit one game up on Detroit. With Vancouver now one game up on Chicago (not that that series is over by a longshot), the Ducks sit in a position where it is very possible for them to go, literally, 1-2-3 and into the Stanley Cup series. The problem Detroit is facing (besides really missing Brian Rafalski) is that the Ducks are not intimidated by them. Columbus may have seen them six times during the regular season, but the playoffs are something else entirely. These are the defending champs and perennial favourites. The Ducks don’t care, they keep playing the same game they want to play. Not only that, they are making the Red Wings play their game, they are dictating the pace. Add to that the incredible Jonas Hiller and you got yourself one helluva team to beat.

Like I said before though, the Red Wings aren’t the Sharks. The Red Wings aren’t intimidated either. They have, like, 200,000,000 combined playoff games between them. They’ve won more cups then the Ducks have years of existence. The Sharks went belly-up four games in, the Red Wings will be fighting tooth and nail until that final horn sounds.

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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.

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

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.

SPECIAL PLAYOFFS WEEKEND UPDATE

I’m currently watching the Rangers/Capitals game. This has been the best series in the East. I expected Washington to win both games at home but they’ve run into a monster goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. The more I watch this Rangers team, the more I believe they can go really far into these playoffs. They remind me of the Sweden team Lundvist won a gold medal with. They have some speed, some skill, some size… the only thing they are missing is a really good puck moving defense. Nik Antropov was the perfect pick-up (and for only a second!), he can complete the plays started by Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund, and Chris Drury. Even if New York wins today, I still think this will be a long series, Washington is too skilled offensively to allow a single goaltender to sweep them.

The series in the East that was supposed to be the most exciting, Flyers/Penguins, has been so very boring. Yes I know they went into overtime yesterday, but there was no drama, it was obvious the Penguins were going to win. It’s too bad, for awhile it seemed that the Flyers had it figured out, but then they started playing scared again. When you play scared you start making mistakes and taking penalties… see the overtime 5-3 for an example. The Flyers really need Darrien Hatcher to come back from his injury. Hatcher is such a great defensemen, he made me want to like the Dallas Stars. I couldn’t, of course, because how can they take a team from Minnesota and move it to Dallas? Plus, in ’99, Brett Hull’s foot was so in the blue paint (it was a stupid rule, but it was still a rule). Hatcher isn’t afraid of anything. If I had to travel through the mystical Realm of Spiders (where everything is spiders) I’d want Hatcher there to carry me. If I had to perform an exorcism I’d want Hatcher there to hold the possessed down. They should make stuffed Darrien Hatcher dolls for children who are afraid of the dark. The point is Hatcher wouldn’t let the Penguins run all over the place like they have been. If the Flyers can’t start playing with confidence it’s going to be a short boring series.

In the West the Blues/Canucks series is the best hockey I’ve ever seen. I guess that’s what happens when the two hottest teams in the league meet in the post-season. The Canucks are up 2-0 in the series, but there should be no shame in the Blues lockerroom. They haven’t lost a game, the games were won by the Canucks and Luongo. Luongo is proving that he really is the best goaltender in the game now. Whatever is in the water in Vancouver the two teams need to bottle it and bring it to St Louis cause these teams are playing better then anyone could have imagined. I hope it’s as electric in St Louis as it was in Vancouver. Last night the players couldn’t even hear the whistles.

I’m looking forward to the second game of the Flames/Blackhawks series. The ‘Hawks started the first game very nervous, but by the end were playing with the confidence they had in the regular season. Calgary is going to see a different team at the start of game two. I wonder if they can match the intensity and tenacity of the young Chicago stars.

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.

THE SEASON THAT WAS

Well folks, the end of the season is upon us, and the reason for the season is about to start, so what better time then now to look back on all the significant events that have transpired through 2008-2009 in the NHL.

Injuries Galore:

There are injuries every season, but has any season seen an IR list like this year? It started small with Erik Johnson of the Blues hurting his knee by getting his foot stuck between the brake and accelerator of a golf cart during spring training. The knee required surgery and he was out for the season. Then Burnaby Joe Sakic ended up hurting his back big time, missing a significant chunk of the season. And then, with his return on the horizon, he gets his hand stuck in a snow blower, requiring surgery to repair it. Sakic is hoping to play the last three games this season. I had believed that this would be his last season. I think now he’ll come back, he wants to end it on a full season. But the Avs trouble didn’t end there, their young star Paul Stastny ended up getting injured not once… but twice! The first time missing more then 20 games, the second time… well he’s still out. Mike Richards, he of post-season glory and expensive off-season contract, ended up breaking his wrist early in the season and missing a lot of games. Then, in his long anticipated first game back… he broke his other wrist, out for the rest of the season.

In the goalie category the league lost it’s two best goaltenders long term to injury. Martin Brodeur tore a tendon in his elbow and lost 16 weeks to injury, the longest period of time he’s been out in his career. On the other coast Roberto Luongo suffered a pulled groin muscle, and after reaggravating it a few weeks later trying to come back early, ended up missing more then two months. Will it hurt his Vezina chances? Maybe. And then Ryan Miller goes down at the most inopportune time, leaving Buffalo without a solid netminder, and out of the playoffs. And I think we’re all done talking about DiPietro and his injury problems. How’s that fifteen year contract going Long Island?

In the Sharks category… who hasn’t been injured? Their entire D-corps has been out at one point or another, their starting goaltender went down… hell, I’m surprised HP Pavillion hasn’t been placed on the IR. The worst of it has been happening recently. That’s what we call a case of BAD TIMING.

Record Breakers:

Brodeur came back into the spotlight by winning his 552 game, breaking Patrick Roy’s all-time record. I’m sure New Jersey was expecting to celebrate that earlier in the year, they should be glad they got to celebrate it at all. In Washington Mike Green managed not to just break the team goal scoring record for consecutive games… he managed to break the league record (for defensemen). Green is a phenomenal offensive player… will it be enough to garner him a Norris Trophy? Also in Washington, Alexander Ovechkin became the first player to score 50 goals three times in a Capitals uniform, further justifying his “Greatest-Player-In-The-Game” status.

Melrose, we hardly knew ye:

In the most celebrated coaching hire in decades (at least, if you work for ESPN), Barry Melrose started the year behind the bench in Tampa Bay. After trying to prove to both the fans and the players that old school, hard-working hockey is better then flash-and-dash hockey for about a week, he was fired and allowed to go back to hockey analysis where he really shines. Meanwhile new coach Rick Tocchet has managed to keep them in the Tavares hunt, apparently to management’s great satisfaction.

The trade that wasn’t:

For a year… A YEAR… all I heard about was how the Panthers were going to trade Jeremy Bouwmeester. Oh how the excitement built up as the trade deadline came close. Oh how the fans of teams in the hunt held their breath trying to imagine Bouwmeester on their blueline. What’s that? The Florida held onto him for their playoff run? And now they aren’t even in the top eight with only a few games left to play? And they’re going to lose him for nothing in the offseason? Way to go Florida… way to go.

Toronto institutes a “No Stanley Cup Ever” program:

Brian Burke, fresh off riding another GM’s players into the Stanley Cup, left Anaheim and moved over to Toronto where he immediately began to trade off players. The thing about Burke is, he hates prospects. Just ask Vancouver where his handy work left them hard pressed for the kind of young talent most other teams have in their line ups. Unfortunately for both Burke and Toronto, there isn’t a Stanley Cup winning team already in place for him to leech off of. You know what, as long as he can build a decent US Olympic team I’ll forgive him anything… not sure Leafs fans will though.

Wait a minute… penguins can’t fly!:

Oh, how much joy I had when I thought the Penguins were going to miss the post-season. Alas, you just can’t stop a team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, no matter how much the rest of the team might try. Still, it is better for the league to have this team in the playoffs. Just please please please not another Stanley Cup appearance… I don’t think my delicate constitution could take that.

To celebrate, or not to celebrate:

Don Cherry stuck yet another foot in his mouth (how many does he have in there now… fourteen?) when he started complaining about Ovechkin’s exciting, over the top goal celebrations, and lauding Crosby’s stoic “Oh, did I just score? How intriguing.” nothing celebrations.  We all get that you enjoy things that blend into the background quietly Mr Cherry, especially your clothing (want some more examples). Look Grapes, anyone who watches Ovechkin score a goal… or a linemate for that matter, and doesn’t get excited for the game of hockey is either dead or a xenophobic loud mouth. And to think, because he’s on the CBC, Canadian citizens pay his salary.

Well, there’s been plenty more including a great Winter Classic, some incredible rookie sensations, a few veteran comebacks, and even a fight or two. But there is one event that we should not, ever, let slip past our notice this season.

Colleen Howe, Mrs Hockey, passed away at the age of 76. They say behind every good man is a great woman, and never was it more true then in this case. Mrs Hockey not only supported her husband emotionally, she supported him professionally too, acting as his manager. She was instrumental in getting hockey players the kinds of competitive contracts they have today. When she began as Gordie’s manager he was the third highest player on the team, despite being by far the best. Thanks to the negotiating skills of Colleen, the Red Wings were forced to give him the raise he deserved. She’s been honoured more times then I can list, and her death is likely the reason that the Hockey Hall of Fame will, from now on, be allowing women to be honoured. The passing of Mrs Howe is a sad and tragic event for anyone who loves hockey, and so it is with great regret that I make it the final moment of note this season.