yankee hockey

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.

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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.

AWARDS SHOW

Posted in awards, predictions by yankhockey on April 14, 2009

This little break between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the post-season is a great time to do a little award predicting. Of course, Alexander Ovechkin has already won the Rocket Richard scoring title, and Evgeni Malkin has won the Art Ross for overall scoring but there are still plenty of awards to hand out.

VEZINA:

There’s one thing I can say for sure about the Vezina this year; it won’t be going to Martin Brodeur. As to who is going to receive it there are a few candidates. First lets get rid of some of the poseurs. Mikka Kiprusoff will not even come close to winning this even though he leads the league in wins. His other stats are not Vezina worth. Steve Mason will not win the Vezina even though there are some very good arguments in his favour. Because he will be winning a different award the GMs who vote for the Vezina will not vote for him. As to who will win the award there are three very real candidates: Tim Thomas, Evgeni Nabokov, and Roberto Luongo. Tim Thomas leads the league in save percentage and goals against average. Add to that his 36 wins and you’ve got yourself a very good case for a Vezina. Nabokov is second in wins, has a 2.4o goals against, and has seven shutouts. If we were to go on wins alone he would be a shoe in. Luongo leads all three in shutouts with 9 including his last two games, as well as having the longest shutout streak of the season. He has 33 and 13 losses in 52 games as he was injured a good part of the year. He also has a 2.34 goals against.

I believe this award will go to either Luongo or Thomas. Nabokov definitely deserves some serious consideration as well, but Thomas has shined all year, and when healthy and on his game Luongo has been the best goaltender in the league. My best guess… Thomas.

CALDER:

There have been a ton of good rookies this year. Bobby Ryan in Anaheim, Drew Doughty in LA. But the rookie of the year will be unanimously Steve Mason in Columbus. He leads the league in shutouts with a 2.29 goals against and 33 wins in his first year. If Columbus missed the post-season you could make a case for another rookie, but he dragged them into the playoffs this year and that, combined with his stats, is more then enough to earn him this trophy.

NORRIS:

The Norris is going to go to Mike Green this year. Let’s just get that out of the way so we can get to the person it really should belong to: Shea Webber. Green is an absolutely amazing offensive defensemen and there’s not a team in the league that wouldn’t want him on their blueline. But there’s also not a team in the league that wouldn’t hesitate to put him out against the best players on the opposite team. This award is supposed to go to the best defensemen, not the one that can score the most goals. Webber not only can put up a lot of points he’s a defensive beast. He’s both one of the best defensive and offensive defensemen in the West if not the league and he deserves a real shot at this award. Too bad for him Green scored thirty goals this year.

JACK ADAMS:

This award will likely go to Joel Quennville in Chicago, Todd McClellan in San Jose, or Claude Julien in Boston with my money going to Julien. With almost the exact same Boston team Julien took them from eighth in the East to almost first in the league. The other two guys did a lot of good too what with Quennville bringing the ‘Hawks back to the playoffs and McClellan’s team winning the President’s Trophy. I think there should be some consideration for Ken Hitchcock in Columbus who not only brought them into the playoffs for the first time, but made them competitive too. Would anyone be surprised if they made it to the second round? Not me.

SELKE:

Pavel Datsyuk will be in the running again this year for the Selke, but along with him will be newcomers Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards. Picked 23rd and 24th respectively in 2003 these two forwards have had similar career arcs. Both are known throughout the league as tough shut-down forwards with an offensive upside. Both work the power play and the penalty kill. Both have had their numbers rocket up this year while becoming team leaders. Richards gets a slight edge thanks to leading the league in short handed goals (though Kesler is no slouch with 2 of is own), including a 5-3 short handed goal. If it goes to Datsyuk again then people just aren’t paying attention to what Richards does.

KING CLANCY:

To the player that best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice, the King Clancy is the first of the crap shoot awards in the NHL. It really could be just about anyone with an A or a C on the sweater. Even though he hasn’t played much this year, Joe Sakic is always a clear choice for this award because of all his charitable works. Jarome Iginla would also be a good choice this year. Even though he doesn’t officially wear the C, Roberto Luongo receiving this award would make a lot of fans happy.

LADY BYNG:

My favourite award goes to the player who displays the most gentlemanly decorum on the ice. Sorry Sean Avery, you’re forever banned from even being in the same room as this award. Normally I’d say this award should go to Joe Sakic every year, but he was injured all year so I must choose another recipient. I choose Saku Koivu who is everyone’s favourite Fin. This guy always plays with class and grace, even when he’s high sticking someone. I honestly have no idea where this award is going, it’s a shot in the dark, but Koivu has a pretty good shot in my mind.

MASTERTON MEMORIAL:

Going to the player who exemplifies perseverance (going once to Koivu who came back from cancer), the Masterton trophy is another one that is hard to gauge. I could suggest Mike Modano who had to persevere Sean Avery for half a year, but I think hockey writers (who vote on this award) won’t take that into consideration. It could go to Chris Chelios of Claude Lemiuex who don’t know how to quit. It could go to Martin Brodeur who had a horrible arm injury that kept him out for a long period of the season who then put a goose egg on the board his first game back. I’m sure it will be someone else entirely, someone out of left field. Those hockey writers love to throw curves.

LESTER B PEARSON:

This award goes to the best player in the league as voted on by the other players. Really it’s a popularity contest. It’s currently held by Ovechkin and it’s hard to see anyone else get it. Maybe Zach Parise or Jeff Carter. Maybe even the fore-mentioned Mike Richards. I could also see Patrick Marleau getting some consideration as well.

and finally the… HART:

To the MVP of the entire league, the Hart is a trophy whose recipient is argued about from the very first game of the year until the very first game of the next season. I can’t imagine why it would go to anyone other the Alexander Ovechkin again. If you want to argue that the award should go to the best player in the league regardless of the team he plays for then that is unquestionably Ovechkin. If you argue the award should go to the player that has the biggest impact on their team, again it is Ovechkin. If you argue it should go to the player that the fans love the most… Ovechkin. You’d could say it could go to Malkin, he certainly had more points (in more games), and he was the best player on his team, but Ovechkin is, and I’m only going to say this one more time this year, the best player in the entire sport worldwide. That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it.

So there are my award predictions. How will they turn out? Only time will tell.

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.

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Posted in Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, post-season, predictions, san jose, St. Louis, Vancouver by yankhockey on April 12, 2009

With the match-ups now firmly set it’s time for playoff previews and predictions. I’ll start today with the West, and finish up tomorrow with the East. Before I begin though, I have to say that I have been waiting so very much for this time of year. We’re in for a treat because the Stanley Cup playoffs are the greatest event in sports.

1. Sharks vs 8. Ducks

Sharks’ Stength: No Weaknesses

The Sharks strength doesn’t lie in any one particular area, they just aren’t week any where. They are talented offensively, strong defensively, solid in net. Their forwards are defensively responsible, their defense is offensively gifted. There is no one area of need in this line-up.

Sharks’ Weakness: Injuries

The injury bug hit the Sharks at the wrong time, right at the end of the season. Though they are mostly healthy now it’s affected their gameplay. The last few weeks of the season they dropped a lot of games they should have won, even with their core intact. One reason is certainly that they didn’t need to win games anymore, having pretty much locked down their season. But don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to get back on your rhythm when you’ve been injured. Not only that, but if they continue to be injury prone into the playoffs it could really hurt them.

Player to Watch: Joe Thornton

There’s a reason the Bruins got rid of Joe Thornton, and it wasn’t because of his regular season numbers. Pay close attention cause he’s about to perform his annual disappearing act. Along with him will be Patrick Marleau who is often harder to see in the post-season, if not entirely invisible. Thornton, though, is the one guy the Sharks will need to be on top of his game for them to make a splash in the playoffs.

Sharks’ Overview:

The best team in the regular season is out to prove that they can continue to play competitively into the playoffs. They’ve been such a tempting pick to win the cup for years now, but they always falter. This may be their best team yet, but circumstances may rise that cost them the Cup again. Still, this team bleeds effort so any team they play will have to really earn four victories to move on, there will be no choking this year.

Ducks’ Strength: Toughness

This team is big and tough. That’s the exact combination that brought them the Cup two years ago. They still have both Niedermayer brothers and Chris Pronger which makes them immediately the team you’d least like to meet in the first round.

Ducks’ Weakness: Too Tough

You always have to be careful you only take good penalties in the playoffs, and the Ducks are the kings of bad penalties. Public enemy number 1: Chris Pronger. You never want to take too many penalties, especially ones in your own zone in the playoffs, especially when you are playing a determined Sharks team. Pronger is most well know for high sticks, elbows, trips, and being a little too rough inside his own blueline. The Ducks don’t have the goaltending they used to so penalty killing is not going to be their strong point.

Player to Watch: Joseph Hiller

Hiller took over from Giguere as the number one starter this year, if not in title, in spirit. Giguere could still return to form in the post-season, but most likely you’ll be seeing Hiller in net for the majority of the games. If he can stand up to the Sharks endless attacks then he just might move his team to the second round.

Duck’s Overview:

Any team with Pronger stands a chance. Need proof? He went to the Stanley Cup finals with an awful Edmonton team, and then the next year won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks. It’s no coincidence that he was on both teams. But he’s just one of the tough sons of bitches on this team. Where they work best is against the body, and against an already bruised Sharks team that may be the difference maker.

Outlook: Sharks in six

When you look at a 1 vs 8 team, it may seem like a cake walk (see out East tomorrow), but in this case nothing could be further from the truth. The Ducks dropped because of surprisingly shoddy goaltending, not for lack of competitiveness. The Sharks better be prepared to get thrown about because the Ducks are going to try to punch their way into the next round. If Thornton, Marleau, and company are not prepared they may be out for the count.

2. Red Wings vs 7. Blue Jackets

Red Wings’ Strength: Experience

In the battle between the only two teams in the league with two word names, the Wings win the battle of experience. The defending champions are practically intact with the only significant change being the addition of Marian Hossa, which is hardly a minor tweak. Osgood in goal has done this many times before, often with success. Detroit’s grinders treat the post-season as their whipping boy every year and are certainly poised to start scoring timely goals again.

Red Wings’ Weakness: Goaltending

Osgood has been pretty awful all year. Now, this guy shines in the post-season so who knows what he’ll look like this year, but in the regular season Detroit was winning games in spite of his play, rather then with his help. Goaltending can make all the difference in the playoffs and if Osgood can’t hold up his end of the bargain, the Red Wings might not have enough firepower to win the series, especially because they are up against one of the two best goaltender’s in the conference.

Player to Watch: Pavel Datsyuk

Everyone is shortlisting Datsyuk for the Selke award, the trophy given to the best defensive forward in the league. That’s the kind of forward that makes all the difference for your team in the post-season. If Datsyuk can continue his stellar responsible play while at the same time scoring points at the pace he did in the regular season then he’ll probably end up being the most important player on either team.

Red Wings’ Overview:

As I said, they are the defending champs, and they once again got over a hundred points in the regular season standings, but they are also a year older now. Lidstrom is nearly forty, Chelios isn’t playing the number of minutes he used to, Chris Draper is getting older, Brian Rafalski is getting older… time keeps on ticking for these Red Wings. This may be the last chance these guys have to win a Cup with this same group before they begin to retire or head to free agency so they know that have to take advantage of this opportunity to win the Cup again.

Blue Jackets’ Strength: Goaltending

Do I even need to explain it? The Jackets’ rookie goaltender Steve Mason, who will probably will the Calder as rookie of the year, had the most shut-outs, was second in goals against average, and single handedly took carried Columbus into the post-season. He’ll have to get rid of the butterflies quick because there is no room for him to start slipping. If he can stand as tall as he did in the regular season he’ll out duel Osgood for sure.

Blue Jackets’ Weakness: Size

Other then outstanding forward Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets lack the kind of size that the Wings have, especially on the blueline. It’s going to be a fight to get into a good scoring position in the Wings’ end, and if the Jackets can’t win those battles more often then not then they won’t have many chances to score.

Player to Watch: Michael Peca

This cagey veteran shines in the post-season. His experience will be a big piece of this Blue Jackets’ puzzle. Without his voice in the dressing room these kids would be lost in the maze that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. Though his numbers continue to drop in the regular season, he was made for this time of year. Expect him to kick it up a notch this post-season.

Blue Jackets’ Overview:

I know I’ve kinda coloured these guys are also rans, but they are actually quite good. They have good young goalscorers, including the most exciting player in the West Rick Nash. They have a great goaltender. They’ve been getting great coaching from Ken Hitchcock who I think should be a Jack Adams finalist. All in all, they should be an entertaining team to watch.

Outlook: Red Wings in five

Like I said, Columbus is good, but in the playoffs sometimes it comes down to intangibles. What are intangibles? Well, they are things like experience, heart, grit… things that the Red Wings in all their years of post-season berths have come to understand and are able to whip out at will. This will be a great experience for the Jackets and they will play hard, but in the end the Wings are just too good for a team without much forward depth and with a rookie goaltender.

3. Canucks vs 6. Blues

Canucks’ Strength: Four Lines, Three Defensive Pairings

One thing the Canucks have been able to do all year is roll four effective lines, and three defensive pairs on the ice. Ever since Mats Sundin came on in December there hasn’t been a weak line on the team. Even if a line can’t score, that all four can be on the ice at any given time confidently is a major boon for this team. Likewise, their top five defenders are all first pair on any other team, with only Shane O’Brien or Ossi Vaananen holding up valiantly as the sixth. This means that no matter who is on the ice, the opposition must take notice.

Canucks’ Weakness: Special Teams

The Canucks have struggled on special teams all year. Though they have certainly improved in the last couple months on both the power play and penalty kill, they still rank 17th and 16th in them respectively. To make matters worse Vancouver is one of the most penalized teams in the league. If they can’t keep themselves out of the box against St Louis’ very skilled forwards they will find themselves coming from behind a lot.

Player to Watch: Mats Sundin

He hasn’t had the best season statistically, but this time right now is why the Canucks brought him aboard. He’s big, he’s skilled, and he’s hungry for the puck. If he can pick up his game for the post-season that means the Canucks will have two lines that demand first line attention from the opposition. Sundin is poised to show everyone what he’s capable of, and if he does, watch out!

Canucks’ Overview:

The Canucks are a very strong team this year. Had they not lost Luongo for more then a month they may have threatened the top two teams in points. There are three teams that no one wants to meet in the post-season this year, the Hurricanes, the Blue Jackets, and the Canucks. The have a ton of depth up front and on D, the have a goaltender many consider the best in the world, and they are ready to show Vancouver what it’s like to be home to the champions.

Blues’ Strength: Scoring

It’s kind of fitting that David Backes will get his first post-season experience against the Canucks since Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis attempted to poach him with an offer sheet during the offseason. This year Backes went from third line energy guy to a thirty goal scorer. He along with Brad Boyes, Keith Tkachuk, Patrik Berglund… the list goes on and on. This year the Blues had ten forwards with ten or more goals, the Canucks have nine. And Paul Kariya may be back for this series as well. That is a helluva lot of scoring potential.

Blues’ Weakness: All Flash, No Dash

Other then Tkachuk there is no grit on this team. They are made for speed and skill, not blood and guts. As many hockey people can tell you, sometimes blood and guts trumps speed and skill. Remember, this is not a one and done system. The Blues will have to play at least four games against the Canucks and in each one of those games they will be driven into the walls, cross-checked, shouldered, pushed, kneed… anything the ‘Nucks can do to get them off their game. Unless they can toughen up they may get beaten up.

Player to Watch: Chris “No Not That Mason” Mason

Chris Mason played very well this year, helping the Blues go from laughing stock to laughing all the way to the bank. The problem is that Mason has, in previous trips to the playoffs, shown that he is susceptible to the overwhelming pressing attack that opposing teams put on the goaltender in the play-offs. The defense in front of him is pretty good, but no better then the defense he had in front of him in Nashville. This series may come down to the last shot, and you have to ask yourself, who would you rather have facing that shot? Luongo, or Mason?

Blues Overview:

The reason the Blues are here, as opposed to say… Minnesota, is because they’ve been playing without fear. At some point, as they wallowed at the bottom of the conference, they said “Screw it!” and starting playing the game not to win but just to play. Like most games adults play for money, that’s the right way to play, but most athletes succumb to the stress of having to perform. When you play relaxed and fearless, like the Blues have been, you play better. Look at these guys!

Outlook: Canucks in five

The Blues were an exciting team all year, but in the end they just made it into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Problem is, playoff series aren’t won by the skin of the teeth. Sometimes the better team loses because the effort wasn’t there, but this isn’t one of those series. The Canucks have been sailing on effort all season, and don’t think now that they’re in the post-season that they’re going to disembark that boat. The Blues will have to want this more then anything else to win, but I just don’t see it.

4. Blackhawks vs 5. Flames

Blackhawks’ Strength: Variety

The Blackhawks offer a varied attack. They can score end-to-end, they can score off the rush, tic-tac-toe, garbage, from the blueline… everywhere! If you are facing the ‘Hawks you have to know what each player is capable of and how to defend them accordingly. Problem is, many of them are capable of any number of different sorts of goals so you never really know what’s coming.

Blackhawks’ Weakness: Youth

Many of the ‘Hawks best players are also their youngest… and I mean young. Their captain, Jonathan Toews, is only twenty. These players, though they may be some of the most skilled guys in the league, aren’t entirely matured. I’m not just talking about their personalities, I’m talking about their bodies. They’re going to be playing against men whose joints and tendons and muscles are at their peak. Injuries abound in the playoffs and often they occur in areas that are still soft in the early twenties like hips and shoulders. If Calgary plays rough it could really affect the ‘Hawks’ health.

Player to Watch: Brian Campbell

Campbell can make or break a postseason, just ask Sharks fans. If he plays disciplined then he could be the tipping point on the Blackhawks’ attack. If he plays too excited and fidgety like he did for the Sharks then he will take too many penalties and cost his team a lot of valuable time.

Blackhawks’ Overview:

It’s very exciting to have the ‘Hawks back in the post-season, not just because they are an exciting team but because the NHL suffers when this franchise suffers. They’ve made huge strides this year. They’re goaltending is back on track, their scorers have been healthy and productive, and their defense has been stifling. They want to prove that this year isn’t just a fluke, they want to be back atop this league and it all starts right here right now.

Flames’ Strength: Home Ice

There’s nothing quite like a home playoff game in Calgary. They call it the “Sea of Red” for good reason. The Pengrowth Saddledome can be very intimidating to play in even during the regular season. With 20000 screaming fans all in bright red packing the place during the playoffs there’s not a team in the league that wants to play there.

Flames Weakness: Disappearing Act

It’s already started. The Flames best players began to disappear the moment the Canucks started catching up to them. Todd Bertuzzi is a notorious post-season no-show, Mike Cammalleri and Olli Jokinen have never even been to the playoffs, and even captain Jarome Iginla has found it hard to score in the last few weeks. This time of year is the most important time to really get it going, you need your best players to be your best players and at this moment that is not the case in Calgary.

Player to Watch: Jarome Iginla

This team lives and dies by its captain. If Iginla can take it up a notch this post-season then the Flames will be scary. If, however, he can’t play to his level they’ll be out quickly. He needs to hit, score, and then hit some more. You can tell when he’s on his game so it will be clear early on whether there will be an early exit for Calgary or whether they’ll pose a real challenge to the Blackhawks.

Calgary Overview:

Their play as of late has not made the Flames a favourite anywhere outside of Calgary. Though they’ve had spots of great play, a lot of the year has been spent barely getting by. Yes they held the division lead for a long time, but it wasn’t due to the play of Iginla or goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff who has had an abysmal year by his standards. And then, once Vancouver got healthy Calgary lost ground real fast. To win this series Calgary is really going to have to want it.

Outlook: Chicago in 4

I believe this will be the only sweep in the West. Calgary has really shown their true colours in the last couple of months, and the result has been dropping from third to 5th, and frankly, of the bottom three of the West, Columbus and Anaheim are noticeably better teams the Calgary. Chicago is fifth best in the league in goals against, while Calgary is 21st. There is just too much goal scoring potential in Chicago, and too many disappointing seasons in Calgary, to see this series going any other way.

So there you have my Western Conference predictions.  I know it’s kinda weak that I didn’t take any upsets, but that’s what happens when the two teams with the highest upset potential, Anaheim and Columbus, end up playing honest-to-goodness powerhouse teams. The top four in the West this year are certifiably better then the teams below them and it will be obvious when all the series are done.

Tomorrow, the East where things are liable to be a lot more interesting.

Oh, and congratulations to Boston U. who won a hard fought NCAA championship beating Miami (Ohio) 4-3 in overtime.

NEXT YEAR IN ZION

As of tonight the playoffs are pretty much set (with the seven and eight spots in the West coming down to the final two games). Some teams deserved a spot but couldn’t find one, some teams couldn’t fight through the rough patches, and some teams apparently were brought into the league from the ECHL without any of our knowledge. The year is over for 14 teams, but that doesn’t mean those teams should be out of our minds. Let’s see what non-playoff teams have in store for the off-season leading into next season.

NY Islanders:

The Islanders are a team mired in mediocrity. It’s sad that a team that dominated the late seventies/early eighties is now the laughing stock of the league. What with a 15 year contract for DiPietro (how’s that going Mr. Wang?), along with years of teams consisting of youngsters without mentors, there’s not much to look forward to. If GM Garth Snow is smart he’ll forego the siren song of Tavares and go for big defensemen Hedman who they need more. With Kyle Okposo, Bill Guerin, and Mark Streit leading the scoring department, Richard Park leading the heart department, and Viktor Hedman leading the defense they sure to finish better then last next year.

Tampa Bay:

They had a hickup this year. This team is much better then it’s record. What they really need is defense. They may be better off trading their early pick for a load of big NHL ready defensemen. If they can shore up their back end then they’ll be back in the playoffs next year.

Colorado:

Everything in Colorado depends on what Sakic decides to do this off-season. It’s my belief that he wants one more full year and won’t let this year be his last. Still, a year lost to injury could convince an older player that it’s time to hang ’em up. Even with Sakic back, there’s not much Colorado can do to make it back to the post-season next year, unless there’s a cave in the Rockies where a goalie and a defense is hiding.

Atlanta:

Like Colorado, there’s not much they can do in Atlanta to make it to the post-season next year. This is a team that requires a couple of years of building before it gets back into the playoffs. It all starts at the draft where they need to be smart, not popular. They need a Rick Nash or Shea Webber like player, not another Kovalchyuk.

Los Angeles:

This    team    is    so   good. Too bad there are at least seven teams in the West who will still be better next year, so it will still be a battle for them to make it into the playoffs. Still, you gotta think they’ll fight for Anaheim for that spot all year with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Jonathan Quick.

Phoenix:

Like LA, Phoenix is a very good team. They have a very strong defense, they’ll have an older Kyle Turris, and hopefully they’ll still have Shane Doan. I’m not sure what happened to Bryzgalov this year, but he could get it back next year. I think they’ll be fighting for the eighth spot.

Toronto:

It’s another rebuilding year in TO. Unfortunately they have nothing to build with., especially since they traded almost all of their tradeable players before the deadline this year and really only managed to replace their second round pick. We’ll see if Brian Burke can prove he didn’t just inherit a champion team in Anaheim.

Dallas:

Things are looking old in Dallas. They need to get young and they need to get young fast. I expect them to be amongst the busiest traders come draft day. Will Modano stay another year? Will Turco flop again next year? They’ll need to improve a lot to make it back to the post-season, I expect a couple of years of rebuilding.

Ottawa:

Ottawa is a weird one cause they can score a metric butt-load of goals, but somehow they couldn’t score more then the opposition. They need goaltending and a puck moving defensemen. They can probably get both through trades alone. With those two things in place they should be able to squeeze into one of the bottom three spots in the East.

Edmonton:

For years now Edmonton has been the whipping boy of the Northwest Division, and that’s not likely to change. Their number one goaltender ends this season at 39 years of age, their young players aren’t playing well enough, and their defense is error prone. What they really need in the off-season is a Michael Peca-type leader, the kind you used to have in Ryan Smyth. If they can address that need (instead of trying to poach some untested RFA again) then they have a good chance to improve in the standings.

Minnesota:

One of the teams that may still make it into the post-season, Minny doesn’t stand a chance. In the off-season they will lose their most gifted offensive talent in Marian Gaborik, not that he ever could reach his potential because of injuries. That leaves them with talented, but not nearly talented enough Mikko Koivu. The Wild do not have the firepower to get back into the post-season, nor will they be able to find it in one off-season. I see in their future, the NY Islanders.

Buffalo:

They really shouldn’t be on this list, but they are going to be playing golf this Spring instead of hockey so here they are. All they need is a full season from Tomas Vanek and Ryan Miller and they are good to go.

Florida:

Like Buffalo, they didn’t necessarily belong on this list. They will, however, next season if they can’t replace Jeremy Bouwmeester. This was their year and they just couldn’t pull it off. They’re going to need to get some tough defenders and some flashy forwards in the off-season.

There will be one more team to miss the playoffs, but at this point there are three tied at 88. Each of those teams has what it takes, for the most part, to make it. And all of those teams, for the most part, are primed to improve next season. Nashville found a great starting goaltender in Pekka Rinne. St Louis has an incredibly potent offense. And Anaheim… well if Niedermayer doesn’t retire and they keep Pronger there’s no reason to doubt they won’t be right back in the thick of things come 2010. The biggest question is who is in this year that will get left behind next year. Look out Montreal, at the end of the season all but ten of your contracts run out, and you barely squeezed in this year.

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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.

GIVING IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY

Posted in column, Prospects by yankhockey on March 31, 2009

There was a little something you may have noticed going on for the past couple weeks, the NCAA playoffs. No, I’m not talking about basketball, but rather the college hockey tournament which pits the best 16 college teams against each other in single elimination MADNESS!. No really, it’s pretty fun.

This year was kind of an odd one. Many of the teams normally associated with the tournament, the U of Minnesota, Boston College, and Michigan State didn’t make the cut this year, while Air Force, New Hampshire, Miami (Ohio) and lowly Bemidji State not only appeared in the tourney, but managed to upset some tournament stalwarts.

This year Boston University was the number one seeded team, and it seems well founded since they haven’t had much competition so far. They will be playing Vermont, who has a very decent team, in the semi-finals. Meanwhile, in the upset bracket, Bemidji State, who beat surprisingly second seeded Notre Dame and college hockey powerhouse Cornell will be facing the out of no where Miami (Ohio) who had to beat Colorado and Minnesota Duluth, so either team coming out of the lower bracket this year will be a surprising one.

There are two problems with the Frozen Four that make it much less significant then the Final Four. One, they really don’t get the word out enough on the hockey tournament. I realize that hockey doesn’t have the across the board market that basketball does, but there still needs to be more talk, more advertising, and better television deals to really pique the interests of people out there. The second reason is that the best players of college age just aren’t in the NCAA college tournament.

The NBA has a rule that does not allow players to be join the league right out of high school, or even be drafted for that matter. The NHL does not have that restraint. The most significant 18 and 19 year old players often head straight into professional leagues right out of junior. A lot of this has to do with the nature of hockey in Canada, where many of the best players come from. Junior hockey in Canada is as close to professional as you can get without a paycheck. Children are recruited onto teams, often having to leave their homes and schools and live with a surrogate family in another city, they are traded like commodities, and most of all they are taught to see professional hockey as their only goal. In the States junior and high school hockey is not nearly taken to that level. Though some US players do go straight to the pros, many take the college route. Other countries are more like Canada, at least when it comes to college age players drafted into the NHL. Very few European born players come from the college ranks, yet many of the best young stars in the NHL are European born.

Because of all this, the best college age hockey takes place during the world juniors, when the best players under 21 meet in a winner take all tournament. The Frozen Four, by comparison, is little league.

Of course, this is all due to the incredibly international nature of hockey. Though there are a great many good basketball players arriving into the NBA from countries other then the US, the best players are still coming from the college ranks. In the NHL the vast majority of players coming out of college are US players, with Canadians coming from major junior, and European either coming from their own junior leagues, or occasionally the WHL or ECHL where they’ve come to try to prove they can play the North American game. Still, that doesn’t make the Frozen Four insignificant, just less notable, amongst the other college championships. Believe me, NHL teams are watching for that diamond in the rough, and you should watch too. Not because you’re seeing the future of hockey, but because these guys have worked hard all year to be amongst the elite of college hockey and they may not have another moment like this again as they leave with diplomas and enter into the non-sporting workforce, and they’ve earned your attention.

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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