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. 68

Quite the Jack-in-the-Box game for the Sharks as they exploded in the third period and beat the Nashville Predators 8-5. Yes, there really were 13 goals scored tonight.

It was great watching Nashville practice for 40 minutes; we were all treated to an inter-squad scrimmage. Oh wait, hold on. My sources are telling me the Sharks were actually on the ice for those first 40 minutes. Who knew?

Nashville outshot the Sharks 15-0 in the first 14 minutes of play and outscored 1-0. This crappy play needs to stop. We’ll obviously get to the outstanding third period in a minute, but zoinks this was bad. Preds goalie Dan Ellis vacationed in Cancun, Mexico for a majority of that first frame.

Lo and behold Dany Heatley scored on the Sharks’ first shot of the game.

That didn’t do much for momentum, however, as the Sharks continued popping out rotten eggs like Jon and Kate, in the second period. Nashville increased their lead to 4-2 heading into the final period.

With the music finally exhausted, the weasel popped and jack thrust himself into the world. A six-goal period propelled San Jose to victory. I wonder what coach Todd McLellan said to the guys. Cap that stuff in a bottle and save it for the playoffs, buddy.

Joe Pavelski became a one-man demolition sqaud with four points in twenty minutes (two goals, two assists). Heatley scored his second, Manny Malhotra, Patrick Marleau and Jay Leach tallied goals as well.

It’s the Sharks’ 22nd come-from-behind win, which is now first in the NHL.

Torrey Mitchell received additional playing time, playing alongside Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau at different points in the game. He earned an assist tonight.

I really couldn’t believe that third period. I was chomping at the bit to rip the team for their sorry performances the last seven games or so. They need to finish this homestand off with another win before heading out on a six-game road trip. A winning streak is in the future for this team. I think this is the victory that will spark it.

Nichol/Superman returned to whip his old team again (From SJSHARKS.com)

Who’s Your Nabby?

So I read this article the other day from a Sharks fan about how Nabby’s increased playing time is hurting the Sharks in the playoffs. The horse is not dead yet apparently. The article came complete with pretty-colored line graphs! Oh how I love the visuals. Unfortunately, the stats presented are meaningless. I absolutely love stats, but I know how much they can be manipulated to make any argument. I’ll now try to show stats that cover both sides of the argument, but ultimately I do have a distinct opinion on the matter.

People need to shut their mouths about Nabby’s starts. Seriously. Shut. Up. I love how people will contend Nabby’s play goes down in the playoffs? Really now? Here’s some stats you might want to consider:

In the regular season Nabby has averaged a .913 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against average. Not great, not bad either.

In the playoffs, Nabby has averaged a .915 save percentage and a 2.23 GAA. WHAT?!! Ray, you mean Nabby has better numbers in the playoffs than the regular season? Blasphemy!

Yes, my friends, he does play better in the playoffs. At least, that’s what stats say. Now the eye test is different. Goalies must be able to elevate their play in the postseason or their teams will be doomed. If the Sharks want to win the Stanley Cup, Nabby must elevate his game higher than what he’s been doing. No question.

I just want to rid the world of these ridiculous “Nabby plays too much,” hollow arguments. I’ve seen a few people suggest we let Nabby go and sign goalies like Martin Biron or Dan Ellis. Some of these Sharks “fans” need to check their drinking water. Let’s get rid of a perennial Vezina candidate in favor of Dan flipping Ellis.

I should probably mention that this whole ‘letting Nabby go’ thing is because the Sharks have no cap space to resign all of their free agents this offseason. Nabby commands  a big contract (5.375 mil this year), and Marleau, Pavelski and potentially Blake need to be resigned. Nabby’s contract runs out after this season too, and someone is going to be left out.

San Jose should never have been in this position in the first place. They overpay players like Ryane Clowe (3.625 mil a year) and went out and got Heatley (7.5 mil a year). Trades must happen, regardless if the Sharks win the Cup this year or not. They’re stuck between Douglas Murray and a hard place.

I don’t think letting Nabby go is the right decision. Finding a great goalie is so difficult (just ask Philly), and I’m not ready to rely on Thomas Greiss full time. There are a couple interesting prospects in the system in Alex Stalock and Tyson Sexsmith, but there a long way away from being NHL-ready.

I suggest Thornton or Heatley be traded. Keep Marleau. Thornton will always produce points, but his lack of emotion destroys the team in the playoffs. Heatley is undeniably an elite sniper, but Marleau is better than him defensively and in lighting the lamp (this year).

I’d love to keep this team together, but this money situation sucks. But I’ve digressed.

Here’s an intriguing slew of stats to consider about goalie GAA in the playoffs:

Goalie A: 1.98

Goalie B: 2.09

Goalie C: 2.23

Goalie D: 2.30

Goalie E: 2.45

Obviously, you know which goalie Nabby is (C). The others? A is Brodeur, B is Osgood, D is Roy and E is Fleury. Nabby finds himself in the middle of four Cup winners. I think he’s done just fine; he needs more offensive support to win these games (along with the aforementioned elevation of play).

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 26  NSH 25; Niclas Wallin and Brad Staubitz led with four.

Florida visits the tank on Saturday.

–Ray

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

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 60

Quite the Nab-tacular performance for the Sharks as they beat the Nashville Predators 4-3. There was no doubt goalie Evgeni Nabokov was the most spectacular player on the ice. He made 35 saves in the victory.

The Sharks were sloppy all night with their puck management, continuing to struggle with giveaways. These weren’t just harmless neutral zone giveaways — these were giveaways right in front of Nabokov. I don’t know how Nabby made some of the saves he did, but all the guys should treat him out to a week of meals and the finest Russian vodka you can find.

Dan Boyle made his return and showed no signs of rust. Coach Todd McLellan kept Derek Joslin up as a seventh defenseman just in case Boyle struggled. He didn’t and Boyle played nearly 20 minutes (19:10).

Despite the turnovers, Nashville couldn’t put the Sharks away. The Preds took the lead three times, and each time the Sharks came back to tie it.

Dany Heatley scored two power play goals and now leads the NHL in goals on the man advantage with 14. That means almost half of Heater’s goals come on the power play. I don’t know what to say about that. Should it be a concern he needs opponents to be shorthanded to score? I don’t think so now that I think about it. That’s actually pretty good. Keep him on the ice for the full two minutes now. Ha.

I'm picturing myself giving the 21 gun salute. (From SJSHARKS.com)

Brad Staubitz and Rob Blake were the other goal-scorers. Blake’s marker put him ahead of Doug Wilson on the all-time goals for defenseman list.

Sharks commentator Randy Hahn threw out an interesting statistic last night. Prior to the game, Nashville was 10-0 when Joel Ward scored a goal, and the Sharks were 9-0 when they have multiple fights in a game. Guess what? Both happened and the Sharks improve to 10-0 with more than one boxing match.

Unfortunately, both fights were Jody Shelley getting railed on by Wade Belak. It was ugly. Shelley wasn’t throwing — just hanging on. Oh well. It worked in the bigger picture.

Airheads

Nashville fans talk a lot of smack for no apparent reason. They use the “you suck” chants more than any other team. Why? Your team is the face of perennial mediocrity. Instead of insulting opponents, maybe you should insult your own team for blowing leads.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 17  NSH 20; Scott Nichol led with four.

The Sharks travel to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs, Monday. It won’t be entirely different from playing the Western Conference now that Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Dion Phaneuf are there.

–Ray

February 7, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 25

Quite the blinding performance by the NHL, Versus and Comcast by not showing the Sharks-Predators game last night (Nov. 17). There isn’t much for me to describe about the game except to look at the score and stats.

Well, the Sharks lost 4-3 in Nashville to have their 12-game point streak snapped. Thomas Greiss started in goal for the Sharks, and from looking at the bad-quality highlights on the Sharks website, the goals were a combination of bad positioning by Greiss and bad defense; no surprise on the defense side of things.

I can tell you the Sharks outshot the Preds 32-31. Even though they outshot the Preds 14-9 in the second, the Sharks’ best period usually, the Preds outscored San Jose 2-1 in the second frame.

Scott Nichol scored his first goal as a Shark from a tip-in play. He received the feed from Jed Ortmeyer. Other goal-scorers were Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Scott Nichol celebrates his first goal as a Shark (From SJSHARKS.com)

The highlights also showed some huge hits, which is normal for a game between these two.

It was the third road game in four nights for the Sharks, and I’m guessing it caught up to them. Coach Todd McClellan vowed to use the fourth line more in the game, and he did in the first period. After that, they hardly received any ice time.

As for why the game wasn’t on television, to my understanding Versus has some sort of exclusive broadcast window from 7-9:30. I think this game was one of the options to show, but they chose to air the Rangers-Capitals game instead. What a shocker. Come on now. When you look at the schedule in September, did anyone really think Versus would air Sharks-Predators instead of Rags-Caps? Let’s not kid ourselves; East Coast bias at its finest.

Sharks and Preds fans had to suffer. This was absolutely absurd. It’s the year 2009, with all kinds of technology and satellites, and no one wanted to broadcast the game to paying fans?! This is why the NHL needs to stop dry humping Versus and find a new partner.

Other Notes

Brad Staubitz and Devin Setoguchi were out of the lineup with injuries. Bitz had a puck hit him in the eye during practice, and Seto reinjured his leg last game.

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 17  NSH 19; Douglas Murray led the team with three.

The Sharks play Philadelphia on Friday.

–Ray

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 21

Quite the underachieving performance by the Sharks, even though they won 4-3 over the Nashville Predators. The Sharks didn’t play like the hot team that they are. They played down to their competition, yet still came out on top.

Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Vesce returned to the lineup tonight after being injured. Vesce only received eight minutes of ice time, so I couldn’t gauge how good he looked. Seto scored a goal in the third period, after looking one step behind all night. That’s two games in a row where players returning from injuries scored.

Joe Pavelski, who did that last game, scored the first goal of the night. Patrick Marleau sped around the net and backhanded it to Pavs, who easily slotted it past goalie Dan Ellis.

But like I said before, the Sharks played down to their competition. Patty, Pavs, Seto and Scott Nichol were the only ones who looked like they wanted to play tonight. The others were content with playing at Nashville’s level. My best guess is they’re coming off two games against Stanley Cup Finals teams (Detroit and Pittsburgh) and just didn’t get pumped up to play the Predators. While I understand that mindset, you can’t come out with it. Not in the National Hockey League.

Picture 11

Joe Pavelski scores a goal (From SJSHARKS.com)

Again, the Sharks didn’t impose their will and their style of play on Nashville. They allowed the Preds to play a slower pace game with controlled breakouts. Nichol tried a bunch of times to spark the team with his speed, but that only seemed to spark Nichol himself to keep doing it.

No team led by more than one goal. The Sharks were trying to be too fancy with their passes and dekes instead of just shooting at the net and getting rebounds. There were a few three-on-twos where the extra passed doomed any chance of scoring. Someone besides Heatley needs to be a little selfish.

Speaking of Heatley, he and Joe Thornton were invisible tonight. Couldn’t find them. Thornton’s mind was elsewhere. I don’t know if it was the communication or him, but he was passing to empty space consistently.

I think San Jose finally woke up when Nashville took the lead 3-2 in the third. Then things started to speed up, checks were finished and more shots were taken.

Seto became selfish and blasted a slapshot past Ellis to tie the game.

Leave it up to ol’ Danny Boyle to finish things off with his patent full-ice skating. A little give ‘n’ go and Boyle took a shot that went through the five-hole of Ellis, with one minute left.

The Sharks survive and are now on a nine-game point streak.

Nashville Commentators

How do these guys have a job? It’s pretty unanimous that these are the worst in hockey. They are so boring to listen to and do not research anything.

If there’s anything that irks me, it’s when a commentator says a guy’s name wrong. Boy, did that happen tonight. Play-by-play guy Pete Weber kept saying VEESEE when it’s pronounced VEH-SEE, and both commentators said Nabokov’s name with emphasis on the first syllable. Wrong. It’s not NAH-ba-kov. It’s Na-BAH-kov. Your whole job is to say people’s names and if you can’t do simple research to see if you’re saying it right, get out of the business.

Also, another research tidbit. Weber said Jason Demers was up with the Sharks only because of Rob Blake’s injury. Are you joking me? He’s been up the whole season! Check a stat sheet and you’ll see he’s been in every game. Sheesh. Do Nashville a favor and quit.

They also compared Seto to Jordin Tootoo. Best non-intentional joke ever.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 16  NSH 19

It was Thomas Greiss’ second NHL start and he looked decent. He made some awesome saves, but was out of position at times. It’s a learning process. “Jesus Greiss” will continue to get better.

The Sharks battle division rival Dallas on Thursday.

–Ray

November 11, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment