yankee hockey

WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NOW ON TO THE SECOND ROUND, WHERE ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYOFFS WEEKEND UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECOND ROUND PREVIEW

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

1. Red Wings vs 8. Ducks

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

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

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

3. Canucks vs 4.Blackhawks

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

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

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

1 Bruins vs 6 Hurricanes

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

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

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

2. Capitals vs 4. Penguins

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

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

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

ON TO GAME SEVEN!

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN OBJECT IN MOTION…

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

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

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

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.

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.

WINTER IN THE BLOOD

Posted in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Surprise of the Week by yankhockey on January 2, 2009

I debated with myself about the subject of today’s entry. I had thought that a series of New Year’s resolutions for each team would be a fun and creative topic, but yesterday’s Winter Classic game is just too good for me to ignore.

I love the Winter Classic. Last years game between the Penguins and the Sabres was one of the most stunning events I’ve ever seen. The snow softly falling onto the ice, the amazing sweaters, the camera angles that managed to show the play, the fans in the stadium, and the sky all in the same frame… For those who didn’t get a chance to see it, the photos don’t really do it justice.

I loved the “first” one as well, the Heritage Classic, where the Canadiens took on the Oilers. That one gave us possibly the most iconic outdoor hockey picture yet; netminder Jose Theodore wearing a tuque in temperatures as far down as -30 Celsius.

This year it was Detroit and Chicago playing in Wrigley Field, and a better backdrop for such a game you couldn’t wish for. The temperature stayed low, which was nice. Unfortunately for me, but fortunate for the players on the ice, it didn’t snow, though the Chicago winds paid a visit. The stands were packed, even across the street on rooftops. Over 200,000 people requested tickets, the most for any regular season sporting event held in Chicago ever. If that isn’t a testament to the power of this game I don’t know what is.

The game itself played more like a regular hockey game then the last two, partly because the weather didn’t wreak havoc, and partly because the technology to keep the ice solid has improved. The Wings came back from being down 3-1 after the first to score five unanswered goals and win the game 6-4. There was an especially nice goal by Pavel Datsyuk in the third. Crazy fact: The starter for the Red Wings, Ty Conklin, was also the starter for Edmonton in the Heritage Classic, and the starter for Pittsburgh in the first Winter Classic last year, so you can be sure whatever team he ends up with next year will definitely be playing outdoors.

The Winter Classic is the saving grace of the NHL. This is a sport that constantly struggles with getting recognition by these United States. They have no solid television deals (Vs plays games sporadically, local sports stations cover a lot of games, and the NHL Network is a godsend to fans like me, but they have nothing on the level of any of the other sports), a lot of teams in non-traditional hockey markets can’t fill their seats, and even the Stanley Cup games get less viewership then most golf tournaments. The Winter Classic though, that’s an event that draws attention from everywhere. Even the most stalwart opponent to hockey has to admit that the Classic is a treat to watch, and that, more then anything, is the kind of attitude that the NHL needs.

You see, I believe that the reason more people don’t love hockey is because most people don’t watch hockey. If you read my earlier post about my first experiences in hockey you’ll find an example of how, just by trying to follow a few games, I became a hockey fanatic. I don’t believe it takes much to fall in love with this game because there is so much to love. If I’m a general, run of the mill, sports fan, I may turn to watch the Classic during bowl game commercials, and certainly during half time. Maybe I even stick around and watch what is certainly a visually enticing event instead of being flooded by what has become an absolutely useless splurge of college bowls. Take the bait and you are hooked!

The All-Star game is boring even to fans like me (though the Young Stars game is interesting, and it was much more fun to watch when it was North America vs The World), and even I lose interest in the play-offs when there are no teams left that I have a rooting interest in. The Winter Classic, though, I will watch regardless of who’s playing. You see, football has the Super Bowl, people really enjoy watching the baseball All-Star game, but hockey didn’t have on defining event… until now.

There are only two things that make me sad about the Winter Classic. 1) They’ll probably never have one around here. Even though they say the new ice surface could survive warmer temperatures. Even though it would be a sight to behold if they held it at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Even though the Sharks are a well supported team, the chance that rain or sun will cause havoc and ruin the game are too high. The second reason is that they will never have one in Canada. This isn’t the NHL’s fault, it’s NBC’s. NBC owns the right to the Winter Classic, and they are unlikely to allow the CBC the right to broadcast it instead. There’s a lot of money to be made with this game, sponsors came out in droves to get their names seen today. Let’s not forget, even though NHL headquarters are in New York, hockey is Canada’s game, and they deserve these games more then we do. Who wouldn’t want to see Toronto/Montreal, or Calgary/Edmonton? The NHL needs to find a way to convince NBC to do what’s right and schedule some games in Canada too.

SURPRISE OF THE WEEK:

What’s happened to Pittsburgh? These guys were supposed to be a powerhouse team, and their leaders have certainly been putting up the numbers, but at this point they are a loss away from being out of the play-off picture. They are 4-6 in their last ten, only 8-8-2 at home, and have been absolutely floundering. Despite their great goal scorers, they are only +6 in goals for/goals against. They’ve lost three straight being outscored 12-6. They lost a lot of size this year, especially up front. You know who might be able to turn their year around, if they can stand him? Sean Avery.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Posted in Detroit, Players, san jose, Surprise of the Week, Vancouver by yankhockey on December 19, 2008

The Sundin saga ended yesterday with a bit of a twist… Vancouver. I found myself a little surprised he didn’t end up back Toronto, especially after Brian Burke became their GM. But once he limited his choices to Vancouver and New York I was sure he’d be playing home games at Madison Square Gardens in no time. And I wasn’t the only one either, many analysts – paid analysts – thought so too.

The thing is that the contract that Sundin signed in Vancouver is very similar to the one offered him in the pre-season. $10 million, pro-rated to almost 7 for the remainder of the season. The only difference is the length, one year instead of the original two. He could have signed that contract months ago. Even if he didn’t want play until late December, as is currently the plan, he still could have negotiated a similar deal before the season started, it certainly didn’t merit months and months of speculation.

That’s really the key to all of this; the time all of us hockey fans and writers have spent thinking about Sundin. Why was that all necessary? What, exactly was Mats waiting for. You have to speculate that Mats really didn’t want to end up in Vancouver, he wanted to play in New York or probably Toronto. If he had wanted to play for Vancouver he’d have signed a contract before today. New York couldn’t give him the contract he wanted, Toronto may not have even tendered him one. In the end, and despite his best efforts, the money ended up being his preference.

So what does this mean for the Canucks? Well, the team is currently sitting in a tie for first with Calgary with the line-up they have. Even without Luongo they are playing decently. This means that they have to make room on their team for a guy who hasn’t played in like 9 months. It means they have to take one of their players off the roster so that a man who couldn’t sign their contract until yesterday can maybe make some sort of difference in their season. Don’t get me wrong, Sundin is a great player, one of the best of his generation, but is that enough of an excuse to start moving players around on a successful team? That’s the same question being asked in New York, who would have to move a player of consequence to make room for Sundin.

So who’s going to be moved? Will it be Taylor Pyatt who has been unable to have the type of season he shared with the Sedin Twins during his first year on the team? Will it be team hopping Steve Bernier who has yet to become the goal scorer everyone thought he would be? Will it be young forwards Jannick Hansen or Mason Raymond who are talented and exciting, not to mention near the top in team scoring, but can still be moved down to the AHL without much problem? Knowing coach Alain Vigneault, it could go any way. Likely Sundin will begin playing with his old linemate from Toronto Kyle Wellwood and one of either Raymond or Bernier. But Vigneault loves to line juggle and Sundin may see time with the Twins, Demitra, maybe even Ryan Kesler.

Sundin can still score, and he’s still a leader. Vancouver will still get some production from him. The bigger question is will the fans forgive him for what he’s put them through. Well, they will if he leads them deep into the post season. But if he gets off to a slow start, or ruins the team chemistry, then he’ll be the next Messier in Vancouver.

SURPRISE OF THE WEEK:

So the Sharks get off to the best start in the history of the league and then proceed to lose two straight. Their loss in Columbus isn’t that surprising. Columbus is a better team then people give them credit for, and they ended up losing in overtime during a well played game on both sides. But HOLY SHIT did they get destroyed by Detroit. If any game was ever a “message” game, it was this one. The defending champions and second best team in the league based on record meeting the young upstarts. Detroit came out and said “Not in my house!” 6-0. It wasn’t even close. The Sharks got utterly destroyed. This may have been a preview of the post-season, and Detroit showed they can beat anyone.