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Grindhouse: Western Conference Second Round Preview

As we move into the second round of this year’s playoffs, we’re bound to hear one verb a lot in the Western Conference: grind. You commentators better whip out your thesauruses now, because this Western Semi-Final features some of the most defensively oppressive teams in the league.

I sincerely hope everyone enjoyed the Penguins and Flyers imitation of lacrosse games in round one, because you might not see another goal for awhile, if you’re watching the west.

Let’s consider some statistics on each of our final four teams:

#2 St. Louis:

  • First during the NHL’s regular season in Goals Allowed per Game at only 1.89.

  • 21st in the league in Goals Scored per Game with just 2.51

vs.

#8 Los Angeles:

  • Second in the NHL in Goals Against with 2.07 allowed per game over the regular season.

  • 2.29 Goals Scored per Game. Good enough for second-worst in the NHL. That’s right. Second-worst regular season offense to the second round of the playoffs.

Forget the seeding in this match-up. It’s not second seed versus eighth seed. This is a battle between the number one and two defences (and two of the worst offences) in the NHL. The only thing that can be definitively said about this series is that it will be tight.

Does Quick have some more upset-magic left?

Neither team possesses much of an edge in goaltending. The Blues can play either Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak, and both will be stellar. The King’s, meanwhile, have Jonathan Quick, a Vezina candidate and criminal mastermind who is responsible for stealing their first round series against the Canucks.

As for offense, LA has some star power in Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Mike Richards, and Dustin Brown, but St. Louis has the only two players in this series who are in the top ten in playoff scoring, with Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund, who have eight and seven points, respectively.

So what it really comes down to, both offensively and defensively, is whichever of these two hard-working teams… works hardest.

My prediction: St. Louis takes the series in 6 games, and wins at least one game by a score of 0.5-0 when the referees decide, in the 8th overtime period, that a puck stopped on the goal line should count as half a goal, and that they’d like to get home in time to see their children grow up.

#3 Phoenix:

  • Fifth in Goals Allowed during the regular season with 2.37 allowed per game.

  • 18th in offense with 2.56 Goals per Game.

vs.

#4 Nashville:

  • Tenth in Goals Against with a whopping 2.50 allowed per game.

  • An impressive eighth in goal scoring, at 2.83 Goals per Game. The clear offensive juggernaut of the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

Once again, trying to pick a favourite in this series based on goaltending is pointless. Pekka Rinne is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, and the Chicago Blackhawks are still arguing that the league forgot to put a net in Phoenix’s end of the rink after Mike Smith finished their first round series with a 1.81 GAA and a .953 Save %.

Offensively, picking a winner is easier. But I have a feeling that if I was to ask by show of hands who knew that Ray Whitney was the highest scoring player on both teams during the regular season I’d get a crowd of full pockets. The 39 year-old finished tied for 9th in the regular season with 77 points, but had only a goal and two assists in the first round.

Nashville famously beefed up their tenth-best offense by convincing Alexander Radulov to emigrate from the KHL shortly after the trade deadline. Radulov had five points in five games against Detroit in the first round, but his elite talents suggest he is capable of much more. The Predators will likely continue to score by committee, as they did all season long, but having a game-breaker like Radulov in the line-up gives them an added edge over the Coyotes.

Unless the game goes to overtime, and then we can assume Mikkel Boedker will find a way to get the puck in the net.

With Raffi Torres serving out a life sentence in Rikers for his hit on Marian Hossa, Nashville’s top defensemen can breathe easy. No Torres means that the Predators have a clear advantage in size and physicality from the likes of Shea Weber, Paul Gaustad, Jordin Tootoo, and, when healthy, Hal Gill.

My prediction: Nashville in 7 games.

If one thing is clear about the second round, its that the excitement in the Western Conference is not likely to come in the form of crazy dangles, and highlight reel goals. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect excitement. It’s going to be a battle. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t a few casualties before its all over.

Written by Roy Heron.

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Philadelphia, the Beast in the East, Highlights the Second Round.

A preview of the second round in the East; if it’s anything like the first, you need not read any further.

New York Vs Washington:

Does Washington turn up the offense on New York?

New York in seven was the only series I predicted correctly (in terms of games, I also predicted NJ to win, but that’s about all I got right) and it may have been the one I went most out on a limb for. Judging by stats, Ottawa should have been easy prey for the best team in the East, but this was a New York team that was largely untested. Well, not anymore I suppose.

I think New York now emerges as a much clearer front runner, having made it through the first round where upsets typically abound (just ask Vancouver). Game seven was perhaps the Rangers’ best game, as evidenced by their near perfect defensive play in the third period. When the Sens’ need for a goal was most dire, New York shut them down. It was the exact kind of hockey John Tortorella wants his team playing, and that bodes well for the Blueshirts in round 2.

However, let’s not forget the feat accomplished by the Capitals in the first round. They lulled the defending champs into the kind of slow, dispassionate game they prefer to play, and it worked, if just barely. If they manage to repeat that effort this could be the most boring series in recent memory. But I don’t think they will.

Ottawa was most successful against New York when they committed, all out, to offensive pressure. When they tried to play New York’s tight-checking, defence first style, they couldn’t compete. Perhaps coach Hunter will make note of this and give Ovie a little more leeway to play his game, or at any rate, what his game used to be. If the Capitals’ scorers are given carte blanche to play a little more free-wheeling, this could be a more interesting series.

The Line: Rangers in 7.

Philadelphia Vs. New Jersey:

More of this in the second round?

Who didn’t fall in love, just a little, with the Flyers in the first round? With their style of play, you know, hitting everything that moves and scoring 5 goals or more each game, who couldn’t get excited to watch them? Even The Devils, world renowned for inventing the most boring style of play in hockey history, look a little more exciting lining up next to Philadelphia’s motley crew.

For The Flyers to be successful, the first thing they’ll need is goal-tending. That’s no secret. Ilya Bryzgalov’s 3.89 GAA is not going to be good enough going forward. He only looked good in comparison to Marc Andre Fluery, which is like saying a black eye looks good next to a kick in the pants. This may have been the worst goalie dual in NHL playoff history. But that’s okay, watching 10-15 goals a night was fun. However, if Philly is to be successful in the later rounds, they will need better than the worst GAA among active goalies. Mr. Universe has the ability to be great, he just needs to access that ability regularly. If he does, he’d be The Flyer’s first consistent playoff-goalie since Bernie Parent.

New Jersey however, must simply weather the storm. Philadelphia thrives off conflict, they devoured Pittsburgh largely because The Penguins’ lost their heads as a result of The Flyers sometimes questionable, always vicious play. New Jersey’s young defence core must keep their cool, and try to keep The Flyers to the perimeter. Also, to win this series, which is an uphill battle for sure, they will need a vintage performance from Martin Brodeur. Whether or not he has that in him remains to be seen.

The Line: Philly in 5.

There are my thoughts, but I strongly advise you weigh them carefully before betting your house on them, as nearly everyone was wrong about the first round, and there are many wild cards kicking around the second round.

Enjoy round two.

Written by Jesse Borg.

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Upsetting: Who’s Ripe for the Picking?

It sure can get lonely back there.

Two days ago we featured an article written by Roy Herron about “Elimination Day”, which, it turns out, was poorly titled. So now we ask:

Who’s more likely to pull off the unthinkable, Pittsburgh or Vancouver?

The unthinkable here, in case you’re just tuning into the playoffs, is coming back from a 3-0 series deficit. Or, in other words, going on a four game winning streak in the playoffs, which is no easy task.

The sheer volatility of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia makes either team an uneasy pick right now. Whose proline picked Pittsburg by 7 goals last game I wonder? Did anyone pencil in Jordan Stall for a hat trick? This has been the most unpredictable series in recent memory, and I’d be lying if I said I knew how tonight’s game was going to play out.

However, I do have a theory. I think Pittsburgh will win IF Marc Andre Fluery gets it together and has, at the very least, a solid game. For some reason, call it a hunch, I feel he is more prepared to do this than Ilya Bryzgalov.

Moreover, I expect that if the Penguins tone down the after

-whistle-antics, like they did last game, they can play a more controlled, defensively sound game. If they support Fluery, and he plays decent, I think they win.

Of the two teams in need of semi-historic comebacks (how historic can it really be if it was done two years ago) I think Pittsburgh is in better shape to do so. Or, at any rate, they appear to be better suited for such a comeback purely by virtue of the fact that their series as a whole has been so unpredictable. And, true toform, they could just as easily go down tonight, though I doubt it.

Which brings me to “Canada’s Team”. I will spare Canucks fans the mean spirited denial that they are specifically not Canada’s Team, in the place of the more accurate account of no team being Canada’s Team;  not the Habs, not even the Leafs. That being said, I do not think there will be a miraculous comeback for “A Canadian Team”, the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks saw some improved play with two important additions. No one should be surprised by the team inserting Daniel Sedin, head be damned, with their backs up against the wall; no more than they should be surprised by the team’s improved play with him in the lineup. However, many of us were surprised by their other addition, or was it addition by subtraction?

I am, of course, talking about Cory Schneider. The long term implications of Alain Vigneault’s decision to switch Luongo for Schneider will have catch-22-like future implications. If they pull off the near-impossible and come back I don’t see how they can go back to Luongo. If they lose and are eliminated, I don’t see how they can keep both of them. Either way a decision will be made about Vancouver’s “goalie problem” (the best goalie problem in the league) this summer. Or maybe it has already been made.

One would assume that Vigneault will go back to Schneider, who played great, on Saturday, however, his knee has been a little jerky already. If he decides to reinsert Luongo and they lose, he might lose his job.

What seemed only a week ago as a bit of a flippant decision, to start Schneider hoping to temporarily spark his team, especially considering how well Luongo played, has now turned into “Vigneault’s Choice”, and the team will live or die by it.

They lived by it here (great use of inception soundtrack):

Nevertheless, even with Daniel Sedin and Cory Schneider playing their best, Jonathan Quick looks fairly impenetrable right now, and I expect he will steal at least one more game from the Canucks.

So, in the end, and as is typically the case for the NHL playoffs, it will come down to goaltending on all fronts. May the worst one lose.

Written by Jesse Borg.

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Journey to the Underworld: The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Series Embraces Mayhem

There’s only one way to start at this point; you’ve got to see it to believe it:

I hope you watched the whole thing, so you can really get the scope of what that series has mutated into. Now we have to ask ourselves do we like it?

It’s harder to answer than it at first seems. This is, make no mistake, a question of both entertainment and sports philosophy. Would you rather see Giroux and Crosby fight or score goals? Should we even have to choose?

Perhaps it’s not the fact that the games mean more, that each goal carries so much weight, which makes the playoffs more interesting, but rather, that the games get so ugly, the hate so visceral, and we are like so many passengers whose necks are careening around the burnt-out car wreck, vultures to the slaughter.

Or maybe not. Many sports writers today were adamant about their dislike for the nasty turn these games have taken. Damien Cox’s article on the matter is worth reading. Moreover, on each sports broadcast you can watch as the moderator tries to suggest that the fights, slashes and hits are not “hockey plays”, while the former players to his left and right try to hold their tongues. Then again, there is the network to consider.Everyone has a boss. Except for us I guess.

First it would be prudent to examine how these games got out of control. In both the New York game and the Pittsburgh game a fighter was thrown out in the first period, Carkner and Asham respectively. While they probably deserved to be thrown out, those are two players who could be used as deterrents against further head hunting. The refs in the Pittsburgh game also failed to address the players who were really stirring the pot; namely James Neale. The problem is that scores will eventually settle themselves (see: brian boyle) if the refs don’t settle them first. There’s nothing more fearful than a player like Carkner who feels like justice wasn’t done, and that he must do it.

Enter the dissenting view: that through legislation these quams may be quelled. This is the crux of Cox’s view (k, i’ll stop with those sweet alliterations) that if Shanahan and the refs would only do their jobs, and consistently, then we wouldn’t have this bloody sham of a playoff. This is wrong methinks.

It is essentially a question of ethics, and on the question there are generally two views. On one hand there are those who believe that we do not commit crimes because they are against the law, this is an appeal to legislation and the deterring power of punishment. On the other hand, there are those who think that we do not commit crimes because of some higher moral/cultural code. Simply ask yourself, do you fail to murder someone each day simply because it’s illegal? Similarily, would you kill someone tomorrow if it were legal? Probably not.

So why not just ram someone’s head into the boards? (and don’t give me Shea Webber as an example, that wasn’t that bad, and if it were, I’m sure Zetterberg would have been injured)

There has to be a level of respect amongst players for such things to be avoided. You know, the golden rule and such. However in the playoffs that respect is quickly eroded. You play against the same person enough, when all they want to do is win, and you’ll stop caring all too quickly how he would do unto you.

To be specific, all Crosby and Giroux want is to win; but there’s a big problem, they both can’t win, and one is always preventing the other from achieving his goal. This is why game seven will always be uglier than game one, no matter how well refereed the games are: we give these players time to hate each other. And, as we all know, hate leads to the dark side of the force.

Battle Royale

So who will win out between Darth Sid and Lord Giroux? Right now it definitely looks like Giroux, who has probably been the best player thus far in the playoffs. However I won’t count the Penguins out just yet (partly because I have them winning the Stanley Cup). This is the most talented team in the league, and we haven’t seen a good game out of Malkin yet. If they get him going they can win four straight.

And if they need any pointers on how to come back from a 3-0 deficit, they only need to ask the Philadelphia Flyers, who did it two years ago.

Written by Jesse Borg.

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Eastern Conference 1st Round Preview: And So It Begins…

With the playoffs starting today, it’s time to take a look at the first round matchups in the Eastern Conference. To be honest, discussion of this half of the bracket basically starts and ends with the Philly-Pittsburgh series, which by all accounts could (read: will) be a bloodbath and is in my opinion destined to be a classic. That being said, the Boston-Washington series possesses some intrigue (how long until Tim “Boston Tea Party” Thomas goes on a racist diatribe and rips into the left wing media?), and the New York-Ottawa series does feature a Canadian team (albeit the one that nobody really cares about). I tried to think of something positive to say about the Florida-Jersey series but I couldn’t; that series is going to blow. There’s really no two ways around that one (I’d apologize to the combined five Panthers and Devils fans but I doubt they’re going to read this anyway- kidding!).

So, without any further ado, onto the in-depth analysis.

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators

For the Rangers, it’s all about Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedish netminder has been fantastic this season, leading the Rangers to the third best goals against mark in the league. To be honest, this is going to be a steeply uphill battle for the Senators as it is, and if Lundqvist brings his A-game I doubt Ottawa has much of a chance. I can’t completely write them off though: the Senators have a high powered offence (4th in the league) which gives them a puncher’s chance. Again though, the goaltending of Lundqvist and the Rangers’ fifth-ranked penalty kill should nullify any advantages the Sens may have. Sens’ fans shouldn’t hang their heads though: nobody thought they would be here anyway, and they still have the rest of Erik Karlsson’s career to look forward to (which, as of now, seems like it’s going to be pretty awesome)

Prediction: Rangers grind out the victory in 6 games

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals

I’m hoping this one goes the distance, if only to see the progression of Tim Thomas’ rage as he is peppered with questions regarding his snubbing of Obama for a steady two weeks (note: if the Caps don’t offer the Prez first row seats behind Thomas’ net for at least one of their home games, they’ve missed their chance for comedic gold. Gold, I tell you!). All kidding aside, this is a pretty interesting series. The chronically playoff-hapless Capitals have disappointed all season and come into this series as the massive underdog; but I have a feeling that this psychological role-reversal could actually play in their favour, as they will have nothing to lose. Despite critics ragging on him all season, Alex Ovechkin still notched 38 goals on the year and seemed to be picking it up to finish things off. With Nicklas Backstrom back in the fold, and the ever-present possibility that Mike Green might get his act together, the Capitals might have the skill level to pull off the upset here (particularly if the aforementioned Tim Thomas starts getting a little wild in his net). The Bruins won’t make it easy though – these guys are just built for the playoffs (see: last year). Their tough, balanced attack up front, along with the Herculean Zdeno Chara on defence promise to make life difficult for Ovi & Crew. Somehow I doubt that Mr. Ovechkin will rise to the occasion.

Prediction: Bruins in 6, and the CBC’s Satellite Hotstove segment discusses Tim Thomas’ political leanings EVERY GAME

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils

Perhaps I was slightly disingenuous in describing this series earlier: just because it appears to be a snooze-fest doesn’t mean that one of these teams can’t make serious noise in the playoffs (hint: it’s not Florida). New Jersey seems like a pretty legit squad to me. The emergence of David Clarkson and Adam Henrique as big-time point producers to go along with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise gives the Devils a lot of depth up front. And one can’t forget about the venerable Martin Brodeur, who is still a solid (albeit unspectacular) option between the pipes.

Conversely, if you lined up all 16 playoff teams in a row, and asked “which one of these is not like the others?” Florida would clearly be the answer. Due to the wacky seeding associated with division champions, the Panthers limp into the playoffs as the 3rd seed (and let’s face it, they only got that because Washington has been comatose much of the year). Florida boasts the only negative goal differential of the playoff teams (for shame!), and as nice a story as it is for them to have finally made the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, the carousel ride ends here. Their 10% chance (I made up those odds) of taking this series is completely reliant on the Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann line returning to the electric form they exhibited to start the season, and I doubt that will happen. The smart money’s on Jersey here.

Prediction: Devils in 5

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

Ah, the pièce de résitance! After last week’s ridiculous brawl, the result of a massive hit on Danny Briere, we were all reminded of one fact: while there might be love amongst brothers in Philadelphia, there is none amongst compatriots. All hyperbole aside (and believe me, there is a LOT of hyperbole being thrown around), this promises to be an exciting series between two teams who share a mutual disliking for one another. The Pens have been flying high (how ironic) since getting Sid the Kid back off the IR, and boast a seemingly unfair dearth of talent (how are Malkin, Crosby, Staal, James Neal, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury on the same team?).

Philly are no slouches, however. Breakout star Claude Giroux, along with the ever pesky Scott Hartnell, power forward Wayne Simmonds, and the Jaromir Jagr Reclamation Project provide Philly with a scoring punch matched by few around the league.

With Pittsburgh’s potent offense, a lot will be riding on the shoulders of prized free agent acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov. While Bryz has largely been a disappointment in Philly (I’m being fairly nice here), a series win over the despised Penguins would erase any memory of previous failures. His play will probably determine the series, as most of the rest of the participants are known entities. While this is going to be a close series, I feel that the Pens’ possession of home ice advantage will be just enough to get them past the Flyers (barring an injury to one of their main guys, which is a distinct possibility).

Prediction: Penguins in 7, and there will be blood

So that concludes my primer for the first round of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. The action kicks off Wednesday night at 7:30 with Game 1 of the Philly-Pittsburgh series, which promises to exhilarate anybody with a pulse (and maybe some without). Here’s hoping for an exciting, well-played first round of hockey and I’ll see you back here for the second round!

Article by Matthew Davie.

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