A Fan of the Game

Sports Talk, Straight Talk

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

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

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 82

Quite the rip-roaring game for the Sharks as they kept their hot streak alive with a 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Things got nasty in the third period and there ended up being 96 penalty minutes.

Gotta love it.

This was a great game for the Sharks all around. They showcased their offense, defense and some heart, giving Sharks fans everywhere hope heading into the playoffs.

It was a playoff atmosphere. The pace started off fast and Vancouver was pressing hard, but the Sharks pushed back and struck first on a Joe Pavelski goal. That goal was all thanks to Ryane Clowe’s boardwork and deking. Clowe’s ripping opponents to pieces on the scoresheet, and he also fought Aaron Rome tonight.

Clowe is what we like to call a prototypical hockey player.

San Jose kept the gas pedal down by exploding for three goals in the second period. Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Manny Malhotra tallied the markers.

Torrey Mitchell assisted on Couture’s and Malhotra’s goals, which gave him his first multi-point game of his career. Torrey is officially back.

The third period is where things got scrappy. The Sharks took three penalties in quick succession to put Vancouver on a decade-long power play. And guess what? The Sharks killed it all off behind spectacular goaltending by Evgeni Nabokov.

After Jamie McGinn skated out of the penalty box, he had an altercation with one of the Sedins, and McGinn received a ten-minute misconduct for some odd reason. That’s what sparked everything.

Devin, we're back in first in the West. Show me your "O" face! (From SJSHARKS.com)

Scott Nichol cross-checked Mikael Samuelsson in the back, who dived like a little punk. When Samuelsson came back, he tried to stir the pot with Rob Blake, and Blake proceeded to punch him right in the face.

Samuelsson is a wuss. I’ve never liked him — to me he was never a Shark — which stems from his Red Wing days. He’s just an annoying pest who can’t take physicality. Much like the entire Canuck team and his former Detroit team.

Joe Thornton was getting into it with a Sedin, still talking trash for some reason. These Sedins really need to shut their mouths before they get hurt. Yap yap yap all you want twins, but someone is going to wreck you with a giant hip check one day.

Sensing that his meatball-less teammates were in trouble, Alexandre Burrows blatantly interfered with Thornton. That started a pile up, with Thornton in the middle throwing punches and ripping the helmet off a Sedin (as you can tell, I don’t know which twin but it really doesn’t matter).

Niclas Wallin and Ryan Kesler actually dropped the gloves, but it was a nice, cozy bearhug.

After all of this, the Canucks finally got on the board and ended Nabby’s shutout. Vancouver scored again soon after to actually make it a game.

Knowing that it wasn’t over, the Sharks calmed down and locked the game down for good.

This is the kind of game I’ve been wanting to see for a while now. I mentioned a while back how I wanted to see a brawl and the team needed it. Well, this was close enough and when you see Thornton getting in the mix, it always bodes well.

It would have been a good last regular season game, but there’s still one more.

Three teams in the West are tied with 98 points, so it’s still a mystery as to who the Sharks will play. The Kings, Predators or Avalanche are fine, but not Detroit. I hear some talk of “you shouldn’t be afraid of Detroit and to face them early.”

Yea, about that. I’ll take the easiest road possible to the Stanley Cup, thanks. While there would be no doubt of an explosion of optimism if the Sharks could beat the Wings in the first round, I don’t want to take chances. I’m sure people were saying similar things about the Ducks last year — anybody but Anaheim. Look what happened there.

Seto’s effort

This is worth mentioning: in the third period, Devin Setoguchi blocked a shot, took it and skated all the way down the ice, and put a shot on goal. That block had to have hurt, but he sucked it up and started a dangerous forecheck. That counts as a point in my book.

Right Wing Jason Demers?

Coach Todd McLellan is experimenting with Demers up front with Nichol and McGinn. It’s not permanent as he does play some defense during the game, but I like the concept. It’s like a mini Dan Boyle playing forward.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 22  VAN 16; Setoguchi and Pavelski both had three.

The Sharks finish the regular season with a home game against Phoenix, Saturday.

–Ray

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 26

Quite the suhweeeet performance by the Sharks in their 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. The Sharks withstood the punches and counterpunches, both figuratively and literally, and sealed the win.

The man of the match was Dany Heatley who notched his ninth career hat trick and second with the Sharks. Winning co-man of the match was Joe Thornton who received the primary assist on all three Heater goals and added a fourth assist.

It was just an unbelievable game all around. The Flyers haven’t beaten the Sharks since 2000, but the games are always entertaining. They bring out the best in both teams, and I hope this is a Stanley Cup Finals preview.

Everything for the Sharks worked tonight: the even strength forecheck, the power play, the penalty kill. All exceptional. Well, I may be wrong about everything working. The defensive zone giveaways were enough to give fans and coach Todd McClellan migraines. If it weren’t for those, it would be a 6-0 victory.

Philly sure didn’t like Sharks ice. They saw it as a slip-and-slide, with public enemy #1 Chris Pronger as the main slip-and-slider. One of his slips ended up being a Heater goal. It really was home-ice advantage tonight.

Heatley’s hat trick was the EPS Trifecta (trademark pending). Even strength, power play and shorthanded goals. Two were carbon-copies. Joe would receive the puck in what looked like a perfect shooting opportunity, but it he would stop right to the side of the crease, wait, wait, wait for the defenseman to make a move, then BAM! Pass to Heater’s stick and it’s as easy as an Ovechkin toothless smile.

Dany Heatley notched his second hat trick as a Shark (From SJSHARKS.com)

San Jose now has its top two lines set in stone for at least the next month. McClellan saw some great play between Heatley-Thornton-Marleau last game and decided to start them tonight. That choice proved epic as every time they took the ice, something good happened. Remember when everyone shook in fear from the Marleau-Thornton-Cheechoo line? Multiply that by 10,000.

The second line was Malhotra-Pavelski-Clowe and they meshed talent with will. This line will probably be broken up since Devin Setoguchi will come back from injury. Move Clowe to left wing and put Seto on the right. While Malhotra did net a goal tonight, he also netted a goal for the Flyers; for some reason he tried to handle the puck in the crease during a scramble, and instead of just knocking it out, he thought it best to backhand it first — bad idea.

The Sharks still haven’t lost in regulation at home either. Oh, how sweet the confines of HP Pavillion are.

Friday Night Fights

Frazer McLaren, up from Worcester took on Daniel Carcillo and McMan-handled him. I this kid is better than Staubitz and should get a few more looks. And he will because Staubitz is out for a couple weeks with an injury. I wish it were under better circumstances, but whatever the situation, cease your opportunity F-Mac.

Wait…Who? And he’s fighting who?

That’s right, my friends. Marc-Edouard Vlasic showed a nasty side tonight. Don’t know if someone stole this pickles from the pickle jar, but he was angry tonight. He dropped the gloves for the first time in his career with Daniel Briere and earned the win. Vlasic was the only one to throw a punch, and he also took Briere down. Vlasic also was featured in some scrums. I really hope this continues; I don’t want another Thornton situation where a guy plays better angry, but chooses to be angry once every leap year.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 25  PHI 26; Jed Ortmeyer (6) and Douglas Murray (5) led the team.

With the amazing play of the top two lines, the fourth line saw as much action as a young Bill Gates. McLaren played for two minutes, Benn Ferriero played four and Logan Couture played six. That’s fine with me if I can get first-line production like this every game.

The Sharks travel to Anaheim to face the Ducks. In their first meeting, the second game of the Sharks’ season, San Jose pummeled Anaheim 4-1.

–Ray

November 21, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lace ’em up: The 2008 NHL season begins Saturday

Lace up your skates and hit the ice — it’s hockey time.

Ron Cortes/MCTPittsburg Penguins’ Sidney Crosby celebrates a goal by Ryan Malone during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The NHL season starts Saturday in Prague, Czech Republic, with the New York Rangers taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning. This season begins after numerous offseason signings and trades that are sure to shake up the standings. Will the Detroit Red Wings repeat? How will the local teams, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes, do? Which team is the dark horse? Which team will tumble into the depths of last place? Those questions will all be answered.

Following their Stanley Cup Finals victory, the Red Wings decided it would be best to sign another sniper — Marian Hossa. Surely, this will keep Detroit in the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but things will not be as easy this year. Goalie Dominik Hasek finally retired and defenseman Nick Lidstrom is one year older, as is Chris Chelios. Age has always been a factor for Detroit but they are winners in Hockeytown. However, the Central division, which Detroit is a part of, has been retooled and looks very formidable for the defending champs.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the team to watch in this division, and in the whole NHL. With their two young stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (both could be sophomores or juniors with us here at Virginia Tech), Chicago could easily challenge Detroit for the division crown. Its defense has been bolstered with offseason acquisition Brian Campbell, bringing offense to their blueline. The question mark for Chicago is its goaltender, Cristobal Huet. If he can match his second half of last season with Washington, Chicago will be in tremendous shape.

Let’s head back east and take a look at the defending Eastern Conference champions — the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens lost quite a few players in the offseason, namely Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone and, of course, Marian Hossa. This is going to hurt them this year. They are in one of the most difficult divisions in hockey, the Atlantic.

Philadelphia is the main opponent for the Pens. There was not much movement by the Flyers except a huge contract extension for young franchise man Mike Richards. The past year allowed Richards and Briere to gel, and let Braydon Coburn break out into a top defenseman.

The Rangers lost a lot with Jaromir Jagr going to Russia. All of that experience and scoring is now halfway around the world. The pressure now solely rests with centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, both entering their second year in Madison Square Garden. The Rangers front office did help the loss of Jagr by bringing in Markus Naslund and blueliner Wade Redden. It will be a three-team race for the Atlantic title, but all three will end up in the playoffs. That means the Devils are out.

We will stay in the Eastern Conference and look at the Southeast division, won last year by Washington. Alexander Ovechkin proved again why he is one of the best players in the game, every bit as good as Sidney Crosby. There is a problem for the Capitals, though — the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa yanked Barry Melrose away from ESPN to be head coach, and with a slew of signees things look bright for the Lightning. This is the dark horse for the NHL. It would not be surprising for them to make it to the Eastern Conference finals, if they can sure up the goaltending.

Wrapping up the east is the Northeast division. Montreal goalie Carey Price, said to be the second coming of Patrick Roy, proved his worth last year. The Canadians dumped some useless salary and are still attempting to bring in will-he-or-won’t-he free agent Mats Sundin, your Roger Clemens of hockey. They should finish first in the division.

Montreal’s archrival, Boston is going to turn some heads this year. Barring any more injuries, they will be contenders, along with Ottawa and Buffalo in the division. Ottawa is going backwards, and Buffalo is at a stalemate. Now is the time for Buffalo to make its move. Watch for a big trade deadline deal for the Bruins.

Back out west, we find the Northwest and Pacific divisions. In these two, you will find some of the best goaltending and defense in the NHL. It’s all about hardnosed hockey here, with the occasional sprinkling of offensive firepower in San Jose and Detroit. The Northwest division lost a lot of talent and players shifted around to teams in the same conference. Anybody can win the Northwest — it’s that simple. Every team has a solid defense backed by exceptional goaltending.

The Pacific division is home to a perennial regular season powerhouse, the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks’ problems come in the playoffs, and that is why they fired their coach Ron Wilson last year and brought in one of Detroit’s assistant coaches, Todd McClellan, to give the team a new, winning attitude. This coupled with the addition of a revamped blueline — Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich — means the pieces are once again in place for a deep playoff run.

The Stars and Ducks are going to give the Sharks everything they can handle, though, especially with goalies like Marty Turco and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Anaheim did not make any huge moves in the offseason, and Dallas lost a few key players from their Conference Finals run. That will not stop them from competing though. Both teams have superior coaches.

With all of that said, this looks to be another fantastic hockey season. More and more fans are tuning in and attending games, bringing back the love for hockey in America. It is truly a great and exciting sport. There is nothing more emotional in sports than seeing players lift the Stanley Cup after a strenuous eight-month journey. That journey begins tomorrow.

– Ray

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment