A Fan of the Game

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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

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. 48

Quite the grueling performance by both the Sharks and Kings, but it was the Sharks who earned a 2-1 victory, their first regulation victory over the Kings this season.

Coach Todd McLellan held a meaningful practice after the debacle against Detroit. More drills about competing and hard work. It helped the Sharks through the first two periods. They actually looked like a team that wanted to win.

The Sharks got on the board just four minutes into the game when Dan Boyle wristed a shot toward net; it went in after being deflected.

They took a couple penalties forcing the penalty kill unit to halt a fierce Kings power-play. Despite being pelted with pucks and fatigued from constant forechecking, the PK held its ground all game. The Kings finished 0-5 on the man advantage. Excellent work by the PK.

Once again the Sharks started a period on a good note — this time on the power-play when Dany Heatley batted his own rebound out of the air and into the net.

Perhaps not being used to a two-goal lead hampered San Jose a bit. Just one minute after Heatley’s goal, the Kings cashed in on a juicy rebound to keep the score tight.

You guys ever notice there's a unicorn in your rafters? (From SJSHARKS.com)

And then the Sharks showcased a problem that’s been bugging the team for two months: the lack of a killer instinct. San Jose has made a habit out of keeping opponents in games. The last time the Sharks beat a team by at least four goals was all the way back on Nov. 7 against Pittsburgh (5-0). Wow. It’s something I haven’t thought much of because of the recent winning streaks, but that’s intriguing. Does it mean much? Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure has been a long time since seeing the Sharks blow someone out of the water.

I mention all this because tonight in the third period, the Sharks reverted back to their Wings game. They were outshot 12-0 to start the final frame and couldn’t clear the puck. Kings goalie Erik Ersberg could have written a memoir before the Sharks tallied a shot.

Another difficulty the Sharks faced tonight was, surprisingly, in the faceoff circle. You don’t see this often, but the Sharks were beaten by the Kings in faceoff percentage. It wasn’t by much (51%-49%), but the Kings were winning the important draws on the power-play and in the offensive zone. I wouldn’t read too much into this, as I think it’s a one-game deal, but it’s worth noting.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 25  LA 44; Scott Nichol led with five.

I’d like to see Jay Leach get some ice time with Jason Demers in a game. Scratching Kent Huskins might go against the laws of McLellan, but it won’t be the apocalypse if you try it out. After all, Huskins almost scored on his own net tonight.

It’s a back-to-back for the Sharks. They travel to the desert to battle the Phoenix Coyotes tomorrow.

–Ray

January 12, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 15

Quite the meh performance by the Sharks in their 2-1 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings. As exciting as the shootout was, the regulation was that much more boring.

The Kings dominated the first period and it was looking as if the Sharks were hungover from that long road trip and multiple days off. Everyone was out of sink, nobody was giving high-quality effort, and play was ugly. Well, Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov pulled up his pants and fastened his belt, and played really well. He is the sole reason the Sharks won this game.

They say you need to have a goalie who can keep you in it and steal one; Nabby stole this one. His positioning was solid and although his rebound control was a bit off, he directed the rebounds toward the half-boards.

Ryane Clowe skates up the ice (From SJSHARKS.com)Patrick Marleau scored the only goal for San Jose in the second, after Alexander Frolov put the Kings on the board. Patty’s goal looked Dany Heatley-esque with the windup and ensuing slapshot. Something Heater taught Patty? Maybe.

I’m really disappointed Logan Couture didn’t play much tonight. He received eight shifts for a whopping 6:42 of ice time. I realize it’s close game and he’s a rookie, but this was a situation where a young guy can prove himself. I want to see what this kid can do.

Ryane Clowe was crap. In regulation. Let me clarify that first. I’ve never seen so many fanned shots with no one around in my life. Something is wrong with Clowey’s head. Coach Todd McClellan put him on the top line; I assume it was to help his offense playing with Joe Thornton. Needless to say it didn’t work at all. This guy needs to be healthy scratched or put down on the fourth line.

OK, now, Clowey scored the game-winner in the shootout. A beautiful move to beat Jonathan Quick. I hope that was what he needed to get out of this funk he’s in. Just knowing he put it in the net can pay huge dividends for his mentality. Let’s see how he responds.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 21  LA 12

There were just four penalties in the game — all in the first period. Two against each team.

LA blocked 28 shots and Jody Shelley won a faceoff. Oh boy. Hello apocalypse.

Next game is Friday versus the Avalanche.

–Ray

October 29, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 5

Quite the deflating performance for the Sharks in tonight’s 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. I use the term deflating because the Sharks went down 0-4, came back to tie it 4-4, only to have a goal scored on them from behind the goal line. It ruined all emotion, including the elation of Dany Heatley’s first goal as a Shark.

I’m also using the rather tame word “deflating” because the offense — particularly the top line — played well and the power play showed up tonight and dominated. San Jose was 4-6 with the man advantage, with Devin Setoguchi scoring two, Heatley with one, and Rob Blake with one.

Now that the good is out of the way, time for some ripping.

The defensemen were awful in every sense of the word, with the exception of Jason Demers and maybe Blake. There were lambasted by the Kings forwards and the dmen had no communication at all. I think three of the Kings goals came from a weak-side forward who was wide open. Inexcusable. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was at fault for allowing the first goal. He tightened up a bit after that goal, but then sunk back into terrible positioning.

Jason Demers goes to the net hard (From NHL.com)

Jason Demers goes to the net hard (From NHL.com)

Douglas Murray and Dan Boyle allowed Ryan Smyth to punch in a garbage goal, weak-side for the second goal. I don’t know how you leave Smyth of all people wide open, as he’s known for being in front of the net.

Murray wasn’t done yet, though! He allowed Jack Johnson to skate right by him and into the front of the crease. Johnson batted a puck out of the air into the net. After the play, Murray gave a little shrug — oh the nerve. It was a pitiful effort by him all night.

The fourth goal was all Nabokov’s fault. Anze Kopitar shot a wicked wrister from just inside the blue line. With that much space, you must pick up the puck in that amount of time. Thankfully, Nabby was pulled after that one in favor of Thomas Greiss. While the dmen were mostly at fault for the previous goals, Nabby has to be a vocal leader back there directing traffic. He is to blame as well.

After the comeback, LA won a faceoff and Teddy Purcell carried the puck BEHIND the goal line, shot it at Greiss’ pads and the puck went in. That is horrid/disgusting/embrarrassing. An NHL goalie can never allow that to happen. Pay attention! What’s so hard about that? Besides that, Greiss didn’t play too bad, making some key saves to preserve that comeback.

Some other notes

Ryane Clowe was abhorrent — completely atrocious. I have no clue what got into him — or out of him in this case — but he did not have anything tonight. His skating was sub-par, his stickhandling was always an adventure (in a bad way) and his decision-making was nauseating. He was always a step behind, passing to Kings players or slipping on the ice. He decided to fight Wayne Simmonds at the end of the game, probably out of frustration from himself, not the team. When walking to the locker room after the fight, he slammed his helmet down. Good. He better. At least he knows he was horrendous.

Manny Malhotra was Clowe Jr. tonight. While not as bad as Clowe, Malhotra played like a slow, full-time AHLer. He actually came out with a firey passion, as did the whole third line, but sadly, it didn’t last. For a faceoff guy, he was second to last in faceoff percentage, with 46%.

Speaking of bad faceoff percentage Patrick Marleau was last with 36%, but this is a different situation. Joe Pavelski injured himself blocking a shot against the Ducks, and will be out for a couple weeks. Marleau moved back to his natural center position tonight, so he probably had some rust. He skated fast as always and played sound defense.

Final thoughts

The Sharks have their home opener against Columbus, Thursday. I hope they can stop being so wishy-washy, and figure out who they are. Individually, players need to limit their mistakes as much as possible. When players have terrible nights like Clowe, coach Todd McClellan needs to pull the plug fast and limit ice time.

October 7, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment