A Fan of the Game

Sports Talk, Straight Talk

Guest Column: NHL First-Round Predictions

Nathan Skytta is back again — this time with predictions for the first round of the NHL playoffs.

For the first time in almost 20 years, the Detroit Red Wings will not start their run towards the Stanley Cup at home in front of the fans at Joe Louis Arena. In a season that was plagued with injuries, featured a rookie between the pipes, and contained league diversity with no real powerhouse, the Wings struggled out of the gates.

Led by gold medal winning head coach Mike Babcock and a plethora of skill and determination, the Wings overcame their injuries and got their lineup back together. Oh and that rookie in net? Well, he turned out to be a possible rookie of the year finalist.

The Wings finished fifth in the conference and are going to take on the fourth-seeded Phoenix Coyotes, in the first round of the playoffs. The Coyotes will put up a challenge for the Wings, but after finishing the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, the Wings should be favored in advance.

RED WINGS IN SIX.

In another matchup in the Western Conference, it’s the No. 1 San Jose Sharks versus No. 8 Colorado Avalanche — a matchup that will be worth watching. The Sharks barely missed having to face Detroit, but the road to the second round didn’t get any easier when they were paired up against the Avs. The Sharks need to be on their ‘A’ game in order to have any chance of advancing.

SHARKS IN SIX.

The No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks will take on the No. 7 Nashville Predators. This may be the highest scoring series out of the eight first round playoffs because each team has struggling goaltenders and stars that can put up big numbers when given the chance.

PREDATORS IN SIX.

In the last Western series, it will be the No. 3 Vancouver Canucks facing off against one of the scariest teams in the league, the No. 6 Los Angeles Kings. Both of these teams have great goaltending, but it will be the matchup of the Kings defense against the all-star duo of the Sedin twins that determines who comes out victorious.

The Kings are the Cinderella team of the NHL this season and are unpredictable, so this series is one worth watching.

KINGS IN SEVEN.

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals versus the Montreal Canadiens. This matchup pits Capitals starting goaltender Jose Theodore against his former mates from Montreal.  The Capitals have too much firepower for the Canadiens and should win this series convincingly.

CAPITALS IN FIVE.

Future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur will lead his No. 2 New Jersey Devils against the No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers, in hopes of clinching another Stanley Cup title. This is the time of year where Brodeur seems to always step up his game — just what any team wants to hear when facing the goaltender with the most wins in NHL history.

DEVILS IN FIVE.

Silver medal-winning goaltender Ryan Miller and his Buffalo Sabres face the Boston Bruins and their rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Bruins are going to have a challenge beating Miller and his teammates, so the Sabres should easily win this series, but at this time of year, anything is possible.

SABRES IN SEVEN.

Last but not least, it’s the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins versus the No. 5 Ottawa Senators. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Penguins should advance. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should lead the charge against the Senators, who lost their star Alex Kovalev to a torn anterior cruciate ligament this past week. The Senators have a challenge ahead of them, but hopefully they can make it an interesting series.

PENGUINS IN FIVE.

Anything can happen in the first round of the NHL playoffs, so tune in and see some of the exciting hockey that the last 16 teams in the league have to offer. Versus and NBC will have all the coverage starting Wed., April 14.

–Nathan

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April 14, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My NHL Playoffs Preview

It’s that time of year again for 16 teams to lace up the skates and compete for the most coveted trophy in sports: the Stanley Cup. No postseason compares to the NHL playoffs — the speed, the excitement, the will to win it all.

The Eastern Conference features a lot of the same faces this time around like Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington. The Western Conference showcases some fresh faces with Phoenix, Los Angeles and Colorado. Pittsburgh and Detroit have faced off in the Finals the last two years, and a three-peat isn’t quite out of the question. Series by series, here are the matchups and predictions.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 Montreal

The Capitals put up 121 points and 54 wins this season and are bulldozing through their opponents. If Alexander Ovechkin didn’t miss time from injuries and suspensions, he would probably have won the races for goals and total points. But this team is going to need a goalie to lead them to the promise land. On the heels of a stellar comeback-type season, goalie Jose Theodore will get an easy first matchup against Montreal. Montreal will wish they had never made the playoffs.

WASHINGTON IN FOUR.

No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Philadelphia

Has there been a more confusing team this year than the Flyers? Pegged by many to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, they’ve been in disarray throughout the season. Starting goalie Ray Emery didn’t pan out and ended up injured and out for the season. Captain Mike Richards is going to need to put the team on his shoulders once again. And it’s no surprise the Devils are here. Last season, the Devils were ousted by an upstart Carolina team, but it’s hard to see that happening again. It will be a tough series, though.

NEW JERSEY IN SEVEN.

No. 3 Buffalo vs. No. 6 Boston

It’s hard to believe it was just last year when Boston made it to the Conference Finals. Since then, they traded Phil Kessel and lost Marc Savard to injury, which put their offense in a serious grind. It didn’t help goalie Tim Thomas struggled mightily, but now they have 23-year-old Tuukka Rask who suffocated opponents with a 1.97 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. The goalie on the other side is no slouch either — USA starter Ryan Miller. This series comes down to whom can put the puck in the net. Buffalo has 12 players with 10 goals or more, and Boston’s leading goal-scorer has just 22.

BUFFALO IN SIX.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Ottawa

The defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins find themselves facing a somewhat surprising Ottawa team. With all the talent Pittsburgh has, it’s a mystery as to why they never compete for a top seed. But the regular season doesn’t matter anymore, of course. This is where the Penguins excel having been to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row. The Senators were already overmatched, and now after losing Alexei Kovalev for the year from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Sens are the dead horse preparing to be beaten.

PITTSBURGH IN FIVE.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 San Jose vs. No. 8 Colorado

If there’s any NHL topic that’s been exhausted, it’s the playoff woes of the Sharks. They dodged a bullet in not having to face a red-hot Detroit team. The Sharks shouldn’t have any problem taking out the Avalanche early. The Avs haven’t played well since the Olympic break, goalie Craig Anderson’s massive workload has caught up to him, and key players Peter Mueller and Matt Duchene are recovering from injuries. With that being said, the Sharks still don’t have the confidence to sweep a team in the playoffs or beat them in five games. San Jose will take the series, but not without shooting themselves in the foot a couple times.

SAN JOSE IN SIX.

No. 2 Chicago vs. No. 7 Nashville

This could get ugly really fast. Chicago must be disappointed with blowing a golden opportunity in the last game of the season against Detroit. If they won, it would have meant a number one seed and home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. That puts Nashville right in the crosshairs of an angry team led by seemingly-always disgruntled coach Joel Quenneville. The Predators have heart, though, and they never quit. Despite the high probability of being skinned alive, Nashville will give it all they have.

CHICAGO IN FIVE.

No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 Los Angeles

Of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, only Vancouver has a losing record away from their building. This gives the Kings a chance to pull off maybe the only upset of the first round. Los Angeles has a young core of players similar to what Chicago has. The Kings have players like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar that can keep them a playoff threat for many years to come. For Vancouver, it’s all about goalie Roberto Luongo and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. If you stop the Sedins, you’ll win. It’s a simple concept, but few teams can accomplish it.

LOS ANGELES IN SEVEN.

No. 4 Phoenix vs. No. 5 Detroit

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a typo. The Coyotes really are in the playoffs and a fourth seed no less. They shocked the hockey world after being in fire and brimstone the last several years. Ownership questions, gambling scandals and relocation considerations bogged down this franchise. But with new coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix got revitalized and finished with 50 wins and 107 points. Their reward? The hottest team since the Olympic break. Near the midpoint of the season, the Red Wings were out of the playoffs dealing with a stockpile of injuries. But they’re back to Stanley Cup form and are once again dangerous. The Western Conference can only hope Phoenix can pull a miracle and oust Detroit. But let’s be real. This is Detroit and these are the playoffs.

DETROIT IN SIX.

–Ray

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 73/74

Quite the flatline game for the Sharks are they show no signs of life and lose to the Edmonton Oilers, 5-0. This comes after a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames, so as if two losses weren’t bad enough, they were to Alberta.

It’s the sixth straight loss, and the loss helps propel the Phoenix Coyotes to first in the Pacific Division. You can say that as many times as you want, but I will never comprehend Phoenix at the top of the standings. They have no great players. It’s that stupid trap system.

I’ll go ahead and mention one thing from the Calgary game since I didn’t blog about it. Ryane Clowe decided to fight a “top player” in Jarome Iginla and it was a pretty even match. Other than that, nothing.

What makes the loss to Edmonton so mind-boggling is that it was to a goalie, Devan Dubnyk, who was 1-8-2 in the NHL, with a 3.96 GAA and .874 save percentage. The guy had a shutout until three minutes left in the game! Horrific.

Unlike in previous games where the Sharks played well for 10-20 minutes, this game had no effort to speak of. Despite Marc-Edouard Vlasic returning from injury after 17 games, and three fights, San Jose failed to come up with good play.

Zack! Don't punch me, bro! (From SJSHARKS.com)

The three fights were all Edmonton victories as well. Brad Staubitz, who has dropped off faster than Mount Roraima, Douglas Murray and Scott Nichol all got pounded. I’ve heard so much hype about Murray and his fighting, but Zack Stortini just annihilated him. Everyone can shut up about him now. He’s a bona fide pylon.

Nichol tried his best against Hilary Duff’s beau Mike Comrie, but ultimately got one-punch-KO’d. Staubitz is just a jester now.

There needs to be one of those movie moments where the coach does something drastic and outlandish to get the team to understand their predicament. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening.

The Sharks will win again this season, but it’s looking like it will be all for not.

Unbelievable Nerve

The first goal of the game came when Joe Thornton turned it over into an Edmonton breakaway. Once the Edmonton guy had the puck, Thornton didn’t bother to chase him; he just peeked back and skated to the bench nonchalantly. Wow. That does it for me. I can’t wait to see him off the team. Worthless.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 30  EDM 19; Staubitz led with five.

Next game is Tuesday at Minnesota.

–Ray

March 22, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 49

Quite the fluctuating game tonight as the Sharks earned their first regulation win over the Phoenix Coyotes 3-1. The game featured a lot of ebbs and flows and different styles of play. Because of the Sharks diverse lineup, they were able to match any style presented to them and get the W.

The first period was the Patrick Marleau show. He scored his 30th and 31st goals of the season, and both came on incredibly different plays. The first was a shorthanded goal, and it occurred when the puck took a weird bounce behind the boards where goalie Jason Labarbera was, leaving the net wide open. Patty pocketed the puck with ease in the open net. His second goal came off a deflection from a point shot.

These goals might not have happened if Phoenix were awarded a goal soon after the game began. The referees blew the whistle early while the puck was underneath goalie Evgeni Nabokov. As soon as the whistle blew, the puck crossed the goal line. An unfortunate event for the Coyotes, who were previously 7-1-2 in their last 10 home games.

The oh-so-dangerous two-goal lead was tested in the second period. Almost half the period was spent with a Shark in the sin bin. It’s been a growing concern for Sharks fans — penalties. Three in the first, four in the second and one in the third. Yet again the stellar penalty kill unit locked it down all seven times, even killing a brief five-on-three. I thought the Sharks were supposed to be big and fast, and they were supposed to cause penalties, not take them. This might be the biggest reason for recent struggles, but it’s hard to fix. You don’t want to tell your players to tone it down because it risks losing an aggressive style of play defensively. And these aren’t all low-level guys taking them. We’re talking four penalties combined on Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle, and one on Rob Blake. The guys must be smarter about what they’re doing.

You don't look so happy Shane. Maybe if I blow on the puck instead of stickhandle, you'll have a chance. (From SJSHARKS.com)

Back to the game: scrums started developing after every stoppage, a few facewashes here and there, including Marleau, yes Marleau, throwing a few punches at Scottie Upshall. Marleau’s only had a couple fights in his career, one I remember was against Phoenix. Patty’s just a nice guy. Maybe he planned on killing Upshall with kindness?

Everything in the third period slowed down. Not much pace or emotion. The coaches clearly wanted their players to calm down. Too bad for us fans. Nabby lost the shutout with eight minutes left, but I didn’t expect one with the weak defensive play in that final frame.

The Sharks are currently on a stretch where they play eight games in 13 nights. Good way to start it with back-to-back wins.

He’s A Low-Talker

Todd Walsh, one of the Phoenix commentators, whispers to the audience and injects a monotone voice into everything he says. It certainly goes along with the style of play Phoenix uses, and I’m all for uniformity, but that’s not what a commentator should sound like. Not to mention he looks like an overweight Keith Olbermann.

Second Line Shenanigans

The second line is in a drought. A bad one. Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi have 0 goals, 4 assists and are -16 in their last six games, according to a Phoenix broadcast graphic. Not positive if that included tonight’s game, but if it didn’t, the only thing that would change would be the rating to -15. I can tell you guys and girls the problem. There’s a cancer in that line. Who could it be? I don’t want to give it awa–DEVIN SETOGUCHI DID IN THE LOCKER ROOM WITH A CROWBAR–whoops. Sorry. Remove Seto and the line will go back to normal.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 21  PHX 24; Douglas Murray and Pavelski both had three.

The Sharks head back home and play the Boston Bruins on Thursday.

–Ray

January 13, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 43

Quite the end-with-a-bang game for the Sharks as they wrap up 2009 with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes. The win snapped Phoenix’s 10-game home win streak and increased San Jose’s win streak to seven.

It also marked the third time these two teams have gone to shootouts out of four meetings. Phoenix is like that annoying sibling you have; you keep closing your door, but they keep opening it, peeking in and asking what you’re doing.

As much as people want to believe the Coyotes are a playoff team, they’re not. They will fizzle out as the season nears the end.

But they did dominate the first period, outshooting the Sharks 18-4. Thomas Greiss got the call to spell Evgeni Nabokov, and “Jesus Greiss” was spectacular. He is the reason the Sharks came out with two points.

Kent Huskins and Dan Boyle were the goal-scorers. Huskins scored on a seemingly harmless shot from the point, but Phoenix defenders screened the perennial thorn-in-the-side Ilya Bryzgalov. Boyle scored in the second period, and that goal was the 100th of his career. Congratulations to Boyle.

How in the world can I score on Jesus Greiss? (From SJSHARKS.com)

The big guys were quiet tonight. Joe Thornton didn’t score a point, which ends his 17-game road point-scoring streak.

One thing I’d like to address again is penalties. The Sharks scored first, followed by two Phoenix goals. After the Coyotes second goal, the Sharks took three penalties. They’ve done this to themselves more than they should lately, and the penalty kill managed to bail them out. I don’t know if it’s pressure or laziness, but if there’s any time not to take penalties, it’s after an opponent scores. Hopefully, this gets addressed.

Also, throughout the overtime period, the Sharks seemed content to go to a shootout. Nobody pressed forward; defensemen skated around in their own zone and didn’t pass. Now this has been an all-year thing. They seem more afraid of making a mistake than making the other team make them.

In the shootout, Greiss stopped everything in his first NHL shootout. It reminded me of Nolan Schaefer a few years back against Calgary, in the first year of shootouts. Ryane Clowe used his infamous backhand move to beat Bryzgalov and send the Sharks into 2010 on a high note.

Zamboni Fail

Before the shootout, the zamboni scrapes the ice in the middle. This time, the zamboni didn’t do a very good job on one side, which put the Sharks players up in arms. Was it intentional? We’ll never know, but it certainly makes you wonder how many teams subtly try to get advantages through the ice crews.

Stat Central

Even though Joe Pavelski missed his shootout opportunity, he is still 16-30 (53.3%) in shootouts.

The Sharks are no 16-1-3.

They haven’t allowed a first-period goal in eight straight games.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 21  PHX 21; Clowe led the team with five.

The Sharks welcome the Oilers to town on Saturday.

–Ray

January 1, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 41

Quite the felicitous win for the Sharks as they defeated the Phoenix Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout. The story of Pacific Division goalies trying (and sometimes succeeding) to steal games grew old weeks ago. Leave it to Yotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to keep the story alive.

He was robbing people left and right, up and down.  He definitely made it known his placement on Team Russia is no joke. Sharks goaie Evgeni Nabokov stood taller on this night, however, and legitimized his starting role on Team Russia.

But I’ll stop the Olympics talk there.

This was a fabulous game to watch. It’s why hockey is the best sport in the world — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The game featured defensive struggles, monstrous hits, intricate strategies, fierce battles ending in a pressure-filled one-on-one war between skater and goalie.

Folks, this is hockey.

71 shots

50 hits

36 blocked shots

65 minutes

1 Victor

The Sharks wanted it more tonight, and they’ve been playing this way lately. Only good things come out of a mentality like this.

I'm going to pump -- you up! (From SJSHARKS.com)

Joe Pavelski played outstanding tonight, notching one shorthanded goal in regulation and the only goal of the shootout. That wrister of his is top-5 in the league.

Douglas Murray played his best game of the season tonight. He just found out the other day he was chosen for Team Sweden (whoops, more Olympics talk). No lapse from him. He crushed people and put on a defensive clinic. His stick was in the right place, his positioning was phenomenal, his intelligence showed. I can’t rag on him at all after tonight’s game.

But I do have to find some criticism. Devin Setoguchi finally scored to end his schnide over the past few weeks. However, he took two bad penalties — one in overtime of all places — that really put the team in a pinch. The Sharks penalty kill stepped up in that four-on-three overtime situation, though. Nabby saved it for the Sharks and for Seto’s job.

Throwing in the Towel

During the overtime period, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett threw a towel on the ice to ask for a timeout. Sharks analyst Drew Remenda (yes I finally got the Sharks feed for the first time in months!) scorned the refs for not calling a delay of game. I’m not sure what to make of the towel, but how hard is it to yell for a timeout like everyone else? I’m sure they’ll be a rule against towels tomorrow, though, knowing the league.

Stats to Chew On

The Sharks are now:

14-1-3 when scoring first.

4-2-5 after regulation (W-OTL-SOL)

4-0 against the Pacific Division after starting out 3-2-4 against divisional opponents.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 26  PHX 24; Murray led the team with five.

It was a tough game for Joe Thornton; he was slammed into the goal post from behind and was a -2; the lowest on the team.

The Sharks welcome the Capitals to town on Wednesday. The Caps dominated the Sharks in their first meeting, winning 4-1.

–Ray

December 29, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 36

Quite the unpropitious performance from the Sharks in their 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. I don’t know what else I can possibly say other than this blows. I feel like a Hurricanes fan right now.

Here’s a startling stat for you: the Sharks are 3-2-4 against their division. That breaks down as follows:

vs. Anaheim: 2-0-0

vs. Los Angeles: 1-1-1

vs. Phoenix: 0-1-1

vs. Dallas: 0-0-2

That’s pitiful and it leaves me dumbfounded. For all the great talk announcers and hockey media people give the Sharks, they sure to suck against the important teams. Being undefeated against the Ducks only helps my feelings a little.

Tonight wasn’t really a contest. Look at the stats and you’ll see the Sharks outshot the Coyotes 38-35. Boy, that couldn’t be more misleading. It really was all Phoenix tonight. Sustaining pressure was impossible for San Jose, and for the 2,453rd time, the Sharks faced a hot goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov.

The biggest reason for forecheck impotence was penalties. The Sharks were in the box all night after taking lazy penalties. San Jose posted 16 PIMs, and they were not just by lowly fourth liners. Joe Thornton, Rob Blake and Dan Boyle all spent time in the naughty room. Isn’t that something, though? Your captain and two alternates all took penalties. What amazing leadership shown there.

Torrey, Torrey, he has none. It's a worthless cause. (From SJSHARKS.com)

Another stat of note: The Sharks are now 0-7-1 when trailing after two periods. I thought this team had more character and resiliency this year. I can get lost in the number of hits and phenomenal shifts Scott Nichol has, but when you look at it from that perspective, it’s frightening.

OK, it’s time to bring Jason Demers back up. The Derek Joslin experiment has gone awry. He hasn’t provided anything worth nothing, but I will tell you something worth nothing: Since Demers was sent down, the Sharks are 2-2-3. Worcester is 3-1-1 with Demers, who has two goals, one assist, and a +3 rating (five games played) with the AHL affiliate.

There isn’t a single Sharks fan I’ve talked to who likes Joslin. I haven’t even found a Sharks fan who’s indifferent towards him. Everyone hates him. Even the Dallas Stars announcers said his nickname should be “Janice” Joslin. Ouch!

Breaking up is hard to do

Coach Todd McClellan thought it best to break up the “burger line” of Heatley-Thornton-Marleau and replace Patty with Devin Setoguchi, who has been struggling mightily. Why on earth would you do that? As good of a sniper as Seto can be, Pattycakez is so much better and a better all-around athlete. Todd– lay off the eggnog buddy and put your head back on straight.

Oh No!

Boyle went down awkwardly into the boards at the end of the game. Taylor Pyatt shoved him after Boyle tried to gain position on him. Hope he’s all right.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 35  PHX 24; Doulgas Murray, returning after missing last game, led the team with eight hits.

The Sharks now have a four-day layoff before facing Anaheim at home on Thursday. It’s their only game in the next eight days. Interesting schedule.

–Ray

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment