yankee hockey

LET THE SECOND ROUND BEGIN!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune in Friday for my second round predictions.

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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.

A SURVEY OF POOR PLAY

Right now a lot of people are asking “What is wrong with my team?” There are currently six series where one team doesn’t have a win including the surprising Rangers/Capitals tilt, and the not-as-surprising-when-you-think-about-it Ducks/Sharks series. So what is the source of these mysterious sweeps? Let’s take a series by series look to find out.

Rangers/Capitals

Let’s start out East where the Capitals are taking far too many shots from beyond the face-off dots. And why not? They scored a helluva lot of goals from there in the regular season. Right now, though, they are playing an inspired Rangers team backed by an inspired Henrik Lundqvist who is definitely one of the top three goaltenders in the post-season so far. What they need to do is start grinding it out, start pushing back at the Rangers defense which is good, not great. I admit it’s exciting to see Ovechkin cut into the middle after entering the zone and throw a monster wrist shot at the goal. The problem is, Lundqvist is seeing it too. They need to get the puck behind the net and keep possession of it and then find a way to get it on net with bodies in front. For the Caps it’s got to start with puck possession and then continue into gritty goals scored in the paint if they want to get back in this series.

Canadiens/Bruins

There really is no secret to what Montreal needs to do to win; keep pucks out of their net. Some of that weight needs to rest on the shoulders of Carey Price who has not had a good post-season. It’s not all his fault though, the rest of this team needs to be way more responsible with the puck. The defense in Montreal is more the decent and they do well with what they have to work with. The forwards on this team need to be much much more responsible with the puck. It’s the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what position you play you need to be defensively sound. You need to play all sides of the puck, and that includes top and bottom. The front line on this team is so focused on scoring goals (individual goals too) that they can’t see the whole picture of either the game or their own team. To get back into this series their philosophy has got to be we have to learn to skate backwards before we skate forwards.

Flames/Blackhawks

The Flames are suffering from the same disease they had in the last few weeks of the year: Lose the Lead Fever. They are playing very well, strong on the puck, smart plays, scoring goals, until they have a secure lead, then they fall apart. This team can no longer rely on Kiprusoff to keep them in games. He has proved this year that he no longer is the same goaltender he once was. One of their problems is that their tough players seem to be playing fancy, while their fancy players are trying to play tough. Iginla is right where he needs to be and the rest of the team needs to follow. Phaneuf needs to reel in the excitement a bit and start playing smarter. They’re going to have to learn how to clamp down with the lead and play to win, not to score. I’m not sure if that’s possible on a Mike Keenan coached team.

Blues/Canucks

The Blues are doing absolutely nothing wrong, they’re just playing against Roberto Luongo and the Canucks’ defensive core. The problem they are going to have is getting a secure lead against the Canucks. If they can ever get themselves two goals up they stand a decent chance at winning, but as long as Luongo is keeping his team in the game (and boy is he ever) the Canucks will be a hard team to beat. Even when they are down in a game they play with such poise and confidence it’s as if they’re a few goals up. That’s what having a goaltender like Luongo can do for a team. If I was in the Blues dressing room I’d tell them to just keep playing the way they are. They’re skating well, hitting hard, getting pucks to the net, they’re defensively sound, they don’t take many bad penalties (until tonight), and they find ways to get scoring chances throughout the game. They need to take this one game at a time, they may be down 3-0 in the series but they need to approach game four like it’s game one. they can’t think about the ramifications of a loss lest they become distracted and stop playing as well as they have.

Blue Jackets/Red Wings

The Jackets relied on Steve Mason to get them into the playoffs, that needs to stop right now. They need to start relying on their offense to get them on to the next round. You can’t beat the Red Wings 2-1 or 1-0 in the post-season, you have to start scoring goals against them. The more goals Columbus can score, the more weight gets taken off Mason’s shoulders and the better he can play. Osgood is beatable, even in the post-season. You just can’t get overwhelmed by everything. That’s really what I see in the faces of the young, inexperienced Blue Jackets. It’s their first post-season berth and they ended the season on such a strong note. Get back to basics, dump the puck deep, keep possession of it, get shots to the net. Once the shots start going in it’ll all come back to the guys and they’ll remember how to win again.

Ducks/Sharks

The Sharks defense is playing great. Nabokov? Excellent. The forwards? No sir, I don’t like it. Once again captain Patrick Marleau and first mate Joe Thornton have completely disappeared. This is the exact reason why they ran Thornton out of Boston. They actually managed to turn it around a bit tonight, they have to keep it going. All the things they did right tonight, grinding for the puck, getting bodies in front of the net, getting shots from in close not just from the blueline… all good. They have to take tonight as the beginning of a team-wide improvement. They are an excellent team and Nabokov keeps them in the game every night, now what they have to do is get Marleau and Thornton to take some shots, not just pass the puck around the rink like idiots until it’s picked off. Only the Sedins can cycle successfully in the post-season, and they’re twins damnit! The rest of the league has to GET SHOTS ON NET! Like I said, they got a bunch tonight on Hiller and showed a lot of improvement, next game they have to do it again, and then again, and then again, as many times as they can they have to get shots on Hiller. Oh, I almost forgot, get shots on him on the power play.

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.

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.

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.