Sunday, April 11, 2010

Playoff Predictions

You may have noticed this hockey blog has been dormant through the most important stretch of the season. Between moving, getting a new job, and looking for a new place to live once again, I haven't had much energy to post here. But that's going to change...sort of.

Now that the regular season has ended, and the playoff match-ups are set, I'm returning for some short, tossed-off, completely-ill-advised predictions for Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1. Here we go:


1. Washington (121 points) vs. Montreal (88 points)
This one is pretty much going to be a joke. Jose Theodore will be out for blood against his old team, and he hasn't lost a game in regulation since January. A solid Theodore for the Caps is not something the rest of the league wants to see this postseason. Watching the Canadiens get swept for a second-straight season will bring me much joy. WASHINGTON IN FOUR.

2. New Jersey (103 points) vs. Philadelphia (88 points)
The Flyers had a really messed-up season. They fired their coach, played with no consistency, suffered some significant injuries, and getting to the postseason took a shootout victory against the Rangers on Sunday. New Jersey wants to prove their unexpectedly strong regular season wasn't a fluke. Marty Brodeur needs to get over several years of playoff disappointment, and with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk leading the way up front, the Devils will get it done. NEW JERSEY IN FIVE.

3. Buffalo (100 points) vs. Boston (91 points)
Speaking of messed-up seasons, hey look, it's the Bruins! Who knows if half their defensive core will be healthy, or if they'll actually score against Vezina front-runner and American hero Ryan Miller. But dammit, I've got faith. Tuukka Rask can elevate his game, Mark Recchi and crew can grind their way to goals, and it's not like the Sabres are a juggernaut. This can happen. I'm going to keep telling myself that until I actually believe it. BOSTON IN SEVEN.

4. Pittsburgh (101 points) vs. Ottawa (94 points)
Let's be real here. Does anyone actually expect the Penguins to lose this series? Sure, they didn't have the most incredible regular season. But they're the defending champs, with Washington potentially waiting for them in the next round and they're playing a pretty nondescript Senators club. They just lost Alex Kovalev and I honestly can't tell you who their starting goalie is. This isn't going to be close. PITTSBURGH IN FIVE.


1. San Jose (113 points) vs. 8. Colorado (95 points)
Why do I think the Sharks secretly wanted to avoid the stigma of winning yet another conference regular season crown? And why do I think they're secretly scared shitless to play a young Avs team with nothing to lose? Throw in the Spring Suck Troika of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov and there's a recipe for disaster here. It's going to happen. Again. COLORADO IN SEVEN.

2. Chicago (112 points) vs. 7. Nashville (100 points)
The second Cristobal Huet starts playing like...umm...Cristobal Huet in the playoffs, Joel Quenneville cannot hesitate to go to Antti Niemi as the playoffs wear on. Chicago is a force from top to bottom, but goaltending is the only thing that's holding them back. I don't think that's going to be a problem against Shea Weber and the Predators this time around. CHICAGO IN FIVE.

3. Vancouver (103 points) vs. 6. Los Angeles (101 points)
The rebuilding in L.A. came earlier than some expected (myself included), and with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson digging in front of Jon Quick they have a real chance to make a run this year. That said, I like the Canucks a lot thanks to their experience and balanced attack. With the Sedins rolling like they have all season and Roberto Luongo ready to prove the doubters wrong, Vancouver will pull out a tough series. VANCOUVER IN SIX.

4. Phoenix (107 points) vs. 5. Detroit (102 points)
No one wanted to draw Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. No one. They are fully healthy and playing their absolute best hockey right, and that's a dangerous thing for a team this talented. The Coyotes are a feel-good story, and Ilya Bryzgalov could steal the series on his own. But it's hard to doubt a Mike Babcock-coached team that's playing this well in April. DETROIT IN SIX.

I'll try to check in after each round. But don't hold your breath. Enjoy the playoffs.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Post-Olympic Thoughts

I'm pretty tired, so this is going to be short., that was awesome, wasn't it?

Yeah, the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team lost the gold medal game to the Canadians in heartbreaking fashion. It doesn't matter. I know the U.S. players are having difficulty coping with the silver swinging from their necks tonight, but they've got nothing to be ashamed of, not after blowing through the tournament and playing well enough to win every contest, and not when most observers expected them to go home without a medal of any sort.

For two weeks, the men in red, white and blue played out of their minds. They twice beat a Swiss team with Jonas Hiller, one of the world's best goaltenders. They positively destroyed an experienced Finnish team and may have done permanent damage to Miikka Kiprusoff's career. They defeated the Canadians in one of the most exciting and memorable games in tournament history. And they came within one goal of beating that same Canadian team (likely to be remembered as the greatest Olympic hockey team ever) for the gold.

Patrick Kane got off to a slow start, but came up big when needed in the later games, especially against the Fins. Zach Parise showed his all-around prowess from the minute he showed up, and his game-tying goal today with 24 ticks left is a moment will not soon to be forgotten. Brian Rafalski was shockingly the tournament leader in goals at one point, and his leadership on defense trickled down to the rest of the blue line corps. Ranger teammates Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury gave everything they had on their checking unit, sacrificing their legs to so many opposing slap-shots and one-timers.

But then there's Ryan Miller. His tournament MVP honor was so deserving despite losing out on gold. No player meant more to his team's success during these Olympics than Miller. He was so rock solid from the first game against Switzerland until Sidney Crosby slipped in the game-winner today. His performance in the win against Canada alone was enough to justify the level of praise being heaped on him now. He was the key reason why the Americans had a chance to win every game they played. Miller will always be a legend for that.

Ron Wilson did a bang-up job coaching this crew. He knew all their strengths and weaknesses, and in a short period of time got them to play the aggressive, fore-checking style needed for success. Their terrific job against the incredibly stacked Canadian team speaks to that.

One underrated image I took away from the post-game ceremonies was the look and general demeanor of one Brian Burke, the man responsible for assembling this overachieving team.

While the rest of the U.S. hockey executives were looking dapper in suit and tie behind the team as they lined up to receive their medals, there was Burke, hair slightly askew, loosened tie, top button unfastened, no sport coat, and face slightly redder than usual. Burke had clearly spent the entire game in a suite at Hockey Place pacing around, banging his fist against tables, dropping F-bombs left and right.

No matter your opinion on Burke, the man has passion. He wanted to win this so badly, to prove to the world America was back on top as an international hockey superpower. They got close, yet didn't quite reach the summit. But Burke's passion was manifested in this team. They responded to his intensity with a performance for the ages.

Quickly, I'd like to say that while I'm reviled by many members of the Canadian team, they certainly deserved to win gold and I'll be shocked if we ever see another Olympic group like this again. I was also bitterly disappointed by the Russians, who laid down against Canada in embarrassing fashion. Based on his conduct after the loss, Alex Ovechkin has a lot to answer for as he heads back to Washington. It was great to see the Slovaks play well deep in the tournament, and we may have seen the end of Sweden's long run of recent international greatness.

I'm sad these Olympics are over, and we'll never again get to see this particular group of Americans play together. It's going to be damn near impossible to root against anyone that played for the U.S. in this tournament, regardless of where they wind up in the future (yes, that includes Phil Kessel). They'll always be near and dear to my heart for the joy they gave me these past two weeks.

Check back later this week for a roundup of the NHL's trade deadline activity. Until then.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Pre-Olympic Thoughts

The NHL is officially on break, and the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament is set to start. There's several excellent contenders for the gold, and plenty of teams with a realistic shot at a medal. NHL superstars, KHL vets and potential upstarts litter the rosters of hockey's elite.

With all that in mind, I'll offer some thoughts on each of the contenders heading into the tournament, as well as some predictions.

Files these guys under "dark horse." It's a pretty top-heavy unit for the Slovaks this time around, with Marians Hossa and Gaborik providing the scoring touch up front and Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line. Ziggy Palffy, 37, returns to the North American subconscious for the first time since leaving the NHL four years ago. In goal will be Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal netminder whose play this season has made many a Canadiens fan forget about Carey Price.

The Slovaks sport some other notables (Miro Satan, Pavol Demitra, Richard Zednik and Lubomir Visnovsky among them), they're mostly over-the-hill and the overall roster doesn't match up well against the more elite teams in the tournament. But, if they can catch lightning in a bottle (especially with Halak), the Slovaks will surprise some people.

Another solid group with plenty of NHL names to pore over. Led by the Koivus, Teemu Selanne and Kimo Timonen, the Fins have the Ruutus, Olli Jokinen, Sami Salo, Niklas Hagman and Valtteri Filppula among others. But the biggest strength for Finland is between the pipes. Miikka Kiprusoff should get the lion's share of time in goal, but if he falters, Nicklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki will be right there to pick up the slack.

The Fins earned Silver in Torino, but to get back they're going to need their offense to step up in a big way. Their goaltending will be great, but against opposing goaltenders they don't present too many big threats outside of Selanne. I don't think they'll medal this time around, but a hot performance in net could prove me wrong.

No question Jaromir Jagr's been waiting for this one. No former NHL player in this tournament wants to prove his worth more than Jagr, who wore his abundant confidence on his face while carrying in the Czech flag during last Friday's opening ceremonies. But he's 38, and the fate of the Czechs more likely rests with scorers Martin Havlat and Patrik Elias, playmakers Tomas Plekanec and David Krejci, blueliners Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, and goalie Thomas Vokoun.

It was Vokoun who dazzled in Torino, driving the Czechs to a 3-0 victory in the bronze medal game over Russia. They're going to need that kind of consistency out of Vokoun again if they want any kind of chance at a medal again, and playing in the same group with Russia and Slovakia won't be easy. I say no medal this time for the Czechs, but they'll be fun to watch.

It's possible 2010 will be a transition Olympics for the Swedes, or they could be the first country in over two decades to win back-to-back gold medals. It's hard to tell right now. No question the Swedes are stacked: the Sedins have been on fire all season, Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Zetterberg are likely to be teamed up with Johan Franzen, the venerable Peter Forsberg is back for one last hurrah, and Nicklas Lidstrom and Mattias Ohlund head up the defensive core in front of Henrik Lundqvist, the breakout star of the Torino games.

But there's lots of questions, too. The defenders beyond Lidstrom and Ohlund are largely untested internationally, while health or age concern surround many other players on the roster (Forsberg, Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson among them). The firepower is undoubtedly there for the Swedes. But I have them coming up just short for a medal this time, mostly because I'm a homer for...

...these guys. I love 'em. The transition from the '02 silver medal team to now is complete, and youth reigns supreme for the U.S. team. I've already gushed about Zach Parise at length, but there's so much more to this team. Parise's going to appear with playmaker Paul Stastny and scoring machine Patrick Kane, forming one of the most potent lines in the tournament. Phil Kessel will play with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Kesler, while Dustin Brown and Chris Drury help fill out an excellent forward group for coach Ron Wilson.

The biggest problem America faces is on the blue line. Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin are both out, leaving Brian Rafalski the hugely important job of anchoring a defensive group that is fairly green on the international stage. Brooks Orpik, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter and Ryan Whitney will hopefully be up to the job.

Ryan Miller is expected to play every game for the Americans, with Tim Thomas and Jon Quick backing up in case of injury. Miller's cooled off recently after a wildly successful start this season, while Thomas has disappointed at times and hasn't played much at all this month. They'll need Miller to carry them and play up to his highest possible level to medal.

It's my optimism talking, but I think everything's going to break right for the Americans, and they're going to beat the Swedes for the bronze. Brian Burke has put together this group in this fashion for no other reason. It's going to be an exceedingly fun team to watch, and maybe this won't be the last time they medal in the near future.

As Puck Daddy implored in a recent post, "look at this roster. No, seriously: look at it." Fully recovered from the embarrassing seventh-place finish during their transitional appearance in Torino, calling the 2010 Canadian team stacked doesn't really paint the full picture. Not when Jeff Carter, Mike Green, Jay Bouwmeester, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, Shane Doan, Cam Ward and Marc Savard were all told "better luck next time" by Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock.

I mean, this team's fourth line is probably going to be centered by Mike Richards. Mike Richards is only good enough to center Canada's FOURTH LINE. Not to mention that Stanley Cup Champion goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and all-world netminder Roberto Luongo will both be spectators for much of the tournament because Canada has this guy Brodeur who's only the best goalie of all time. Or that Shea Weber is likely to be in the press box the entire time as well.

So the biggest question about Canada is this: can they handle the pressure? It's no secret the nation of Canada's been going a bit berserk about this team and this tournament for a while now. With the games in Vancouver, all the attention's been placed squarely on the men's hockey team to bring home the bacon (or the ham, I suppose) in their national sport.

In the end, I don't think they'll do it. They'll get behind in the gold medal game and not be able to find the confidence to come back against...

...the most potent offensive team ever assembled for the Olympics. While watching the Russians practice on Monday, Puck Daddy reported on what's likely to be their top line (make sure you're sitting down): Alexander Ovechkin (the best player in the world), Pavel Datsyuk (the most complete center in the world) and Alexander Semin (Ovie's partner in crime). Of course, that likely means the second line's going to drop off precipitously: just Evgeni Malkin centering Ilya Kovalchuk and either Max Afinogenov or Viktor Kozlov. No big deal.

It's beyond those top two lines we find the heart and soul of the Russian team, with Sergei Fedorov and captain Aleksey Morozov providing the leadership. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov lead a somewhat young defensive group, but there's plenty of NHL and/or KHL seasoning among them, with bruiser Anton Volchenkov ready to light up the opposition when needed.

Goaltending could be an issue for this team. This was an actual exchange I had with Cam around New Year's:

Me: Yeah, I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Bryzgalov.

Cam: No, they've got Nabokov, too.

Me: OK, then let me rephrase that. I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Nabokov.

I've been known to disparage Evgeni Nabokov at just about every opportunity, even giving him the nickname "The Lawn Chair" because he tends to fold like one in any big game. Having said that, Nabokov's been playing at an extremely high level in recent weeks and appears poised to go on a run through the Olympics. Maybe Nabokov will play well simply because it isn't spring yet.

Much has been made about the renewal of the relationship between Ovechkin and Malkin, as brokered by Kovalchuk, happening solely because these Russians are determined like crazy win gold. The love and admiration the Russians feel for each other is palpable every time they discuss each other. While the Canada crew reads like a glorified All-Star team, the Russians are an actual team, the way the '80 U.S. group was a team.

That's a really important factor for the Olympics. The Russians will defeat the Canadians, providing the clearest possible argument for continuing NHL participation in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. And we'll have to check the next morning to see if Canada is still actually there.

Enjoy the tournament.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Kovalchuk Fallout

When I found out Russian superwinger Ilya Kovalchuk had finally been cast out of Atlanta after a prolonged back-and-forth, I certainly wasn't surprised. Not after Thrashers GM Don Waddell announced his intentions to move Kovalchuk in advance of the upcoming Olympic break.

The shock came when I learned of his destination, New Jersey. And even more shock registered when I heard about the poo-poo platter Waddell accepted in return.

Johnny Oduya isn't the top-notch defensive prospect he once was, and his absolute ceiling would be as a number two defenseman on a solid team. That's the only thing the Thrashers got of any real substance in this trade. Rookie Niclas Bergfors might become a top-six forward, and prospect Patrice Cormier is currently best known for his vicious headhunting. His season-long suspension will almost certainly harm his development, and the Devils' 2010 first-rounder is just that; a first-rounder, not likely to be very high at that.

Oh, and New Jersey got depth defenseman Anssi Salmela back, too, because this wasn't enough of a hijacking already.

If Waddell is to be believed, it's not like the Thrashers didn't pull out all the stops to keep Kovalchuk. In the offseason, they added his Russian buddies Nik Antropov and Max Afinogenov, and tried like hell to sign Nikolai Zherdev, too. A young Thrashers core centered around winger Evander Kane and defenders Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian started to emerge, representing promise for a future Kovalchuk could be legitimately excited for.

But Kovalchuk and his representatives were (and presumably still are) hellbent on making history. They insisted on the NHL's first-ever max contract, a deal with an astronomical $11.3 million cap hit, taking up 20 percent of Atlanta's cap space.

The Thrashers, rightly, refused. They countered with two proposals. One was for 12 years, $101 million, an $8.42 million cap hit, somewhat more flexibility for Atlanta, and the second-biggest contract in league history. The other was seven years and $70 million, which would allow Kovalchuk to earn the highest average salary in the league but over a shorter period of time.

When Kovalchuk rejected both proposals, the writing was on the half-wall. Just as they'd done with their two previous franchise talents (Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa), the Thrashers had to trade Kovalchuk, and this time before the Olympics so as to maximize their return. Although I'm not sure "maximize" belongs anywhere near the word "return" on this trade.

What kills me is that Waddell settled for such a mediocre assortment of hockey glitterati when his reported demands for others teams seemed totally unreasonable for a rental superstar. He reportedly asked for; either Dustin Brown or Jack Johnson from the Kings, Kris Versteeg from Chicago, some combination of Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky or top prospect Chris Kreider from the Rangers, Scott Hartnell and Matt Carle (or possibly even Jeff Carter!!!!) from Philadelphia, and Tuukka Rask and Toronto's 2010 first rounder from the Bruins.

So that fact that he made a deal with Lou Lamoriello without getting, say, Travis Zajac back is pretty laughable. No matter. Their loss is New Jersey's infinite gain.

Devils fans are understandably ecstatic, as this move adds a top scoring threat to a Jacques Lemaire crew predicated on defense and goaltending. I'm excited about the possibility of Kovalchuk on the same power play with Zach Parise. Losing Oduya leaves NJ thin on the blue line, but after the Olympics they'll have Paul Martin back. Regardless, Kovalchuk will be the most talented offensive player to ever put on a Devils sweater and puts them right on par with Washington for the East's best team.

As for Atlanta, and all two dozen of their fans, it's hard to not feel heartbroken on their behalf. Like I mentioned above, the team's had three franchise stars in their 10-year history, and they've all been traded. If you're looking for the right franchise to relocate to a colder location, let's start with Atlanta.

On Twitter last night I declared that Thrashers fans now have every right to abandon their team if they feel so inclined. This opportunity is rare; basically, it only comes if a team makes it consistently clear they don't care about the fans, or if they refuse to improve their product over a number of years, or, if after that, the front office makes a series of baffling idiotic moves that will doom the franchise or psychologically disaffect all their fans.

The Thrashers definitely tried to keep Kovalchuk, and in all honesty, his contract demands are unreasonable. (Kovy is an elite NHL scoring winger, which is undoubtedly valuable. But he does not deserve more money per year than Ovechkin. Kovalchuk has never scored more than 98 points in a season, and he doesn't contribute on the defensive end. No team is going to pay him $11.3 million a year. I'll be surprised if he gets any offers this summer better than the two he left on the table with Atlanta.) But in the end, they traded him, and for not that much.

If you're a Thrashers fan, what do you do now, knowing that players like Bogosian and Kane are going to suffer the same fate as Heatley, Hossa and Kovalchuk? How do you root for players you're totally certain will be gone in the next few seasons? Isn't hard enough to keep any sense of faith when the team's made one playoff appearance in its entire history?

So to me, the Thrashers now belong in the same category as the Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Clippers, Pittsburgh Pirates and a scant few others. If you're a fan of any of these teams, you can stop being a fan, and nobody could blame you.

But if you do stick around, well, you're a better fan than me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Wounded B's Come Home

After the Bruins were defeated by the Anaheim Ducks this past Wednesday, I tweeted that the prospect of writing about the beleaguered B's was too depressing a task. I speculated that maybe I'd write something after they finished 0-3 on their West Coast road trip.

Things didn't turn out so bad, as the B's ended the Pacific swing 1-1-1 after beating San Jose 2-1 in a shootout Thursday and losing a shootout with Los Angeles Saturday 4-3. It's about as neutral an outcome as possible for the road trip. Three points while leaving another three on the table, made all the more frustrating because Boston had third period leads in both losses.

But given the circumstances, it's hard to be upset with the three points they earned. The Bruins are quite literally stretched to their limit in terms of competent, healthy bodies. With Marc Savard and Andrew Ference likely sidelined until after the Olympics, Patrice Bergeron unavailable until next week at the earliest, and nagging injuries causing missed games for David Krejci, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm, Claude Julien was forced to rely on a ragtag crew of warriors for this crucial road trip.

They did a damn good job. The effort against San Jose (a team neck-and-neck with Chicago for the finest of this season's first half) was tremendous, perhaps the best performance by the Bruins this year. Without Savard, Bergeron or Krejci, Mark Recchi stepped up and played center for the first time in many years, and while he was effectively murdered all night in the face-off circle, he still displayed his amazing playmaking skills and set a selfless example for the rest of his team. The offensively-challenged Daniel Paille mustered seven shots on net and scored the B's only regulation goal. And Tim Thomas was positively sensational with 41 saves while stoning Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau in the shootout.

The good news going into Saturday's tilt with the Kings: Mark Stuart would be returning from a cracked sternum and a 17-game hiatus, and Krejci would also be returning. Awesome! But then there was the bad news: Both Sturm (leg) and Wideman (illness) would be scratched. Decidedly not awesome! It was another tremendous effort, with recent addition Miroslav Satan potting a first period tally, and Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder scoring 11 seconds apart in the second period. But it wasn't enough, and the injury list grew longer, with Steve Begin missing the third period with a leg injury.

While some resentment has crept up amongst Black and Gold followers the last few weeks (since winning the Winter Classic the B's have gone 2-4-1), I saw plenty of good things during this road trip that told me it's far too early to give up on the Bruins. Being shorthanded on so many occasions has forced this team to play with renewed focus, intensity and attention to detail, and I give Julien all the credit in the world for coaxing the absolute best effort over these past three games.

Behind veteran leaders like Recchi, Sturm, Thomas, Begin and Zdeno Chara, the Bruins are staying strong despite so much weakness in their lineup. I can't say enough about Satan, who was literally sitting on his couch waiting for a phone call as recently as New Year's Day. Begin and Shawn Thornton haven't been short on energy, and Providence call-ups Adam McQuaid and Trent Whitfield are proving they belong. It's also refreshing to see younger players like Paille, Matt Hunwick and Johnny Boychuk play with confidence and emerge as leaders themselves.

I still have plenty of concerns. Wheeler and Ryder must be more productive, especially if this leg injury sidelines Sturm beyond the weekend. Wheeler's been a wildly frustrating player this season. Sometimes I wish I could turn into Don Corleone and do this to him. Whenever I see him turn his shoulder into a defender, I smile a little before realizing I probably won't see it again for a while. Blake, you have the perfect body for a power forward. Now be a power forward, please. As for Ryder, if he isn't scoring, he can't hide his other deficiencies because he's not a complete player. He scored Saturday, but 19 points in 47 games isn't cutting it.

I'd also like to see Milan Lucic be more aggressive, which isn't something I ever expected to say. He scored his first point of 2010 on Saturday, but in his four previous games since returning from an ankle injury he was a minus-five with just three shots on goal. Maybe he misses playing with Savard, but Lucic isn't close to the star he was supposed to become this year. I'll have more on Looch in the Bullet Points.

With the offense lacking, the B's have benefited from excellent defense and goaltending. Going into Saturday's game, Thomas and Tuukka Rask have combined for the second-best save percentage (.923) and fourth-best GAA (2.18) in the NHL. They continue to harbor the best penalty kill unit in the NHL with a 87.7 percent success rate (and that percentage will rise after five successful kills against L.A. Saturday).

That's what this team must rally around going forward. The B's have played fewer than ten games in the '09-'10 season with the full team they expected to have after bringing Paille aboard. They find themselves fifth in the Eastern Conference, which is extremely admirable considering their tumultuous ride to this point. Hopefully that full team will be ready to go after the Olympic break. At the trade deadline they can get that sniper they badly need, and go forward with what they have.

There's simply no reason to lose faith yet.

Onto Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • Based on my opportunity to watch both teams against the Bruins over the last 10 days, I don't think there's much doubt that between Chicago and San Jose the better team is Chicago. The Blackhawks came to the Garden and got down two goals early. Deciding they'd had enough of that, they went on to score five consecutive goals before yielding a meaningless Bruins third period tally. They are presently rolling four terrific lines, featuring eight players who've already tallied double-digit goals, sporting the best defensive pairing in hockey in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and getting extremely solid goaltending from Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi. There's a lot of season left, and it's always hard to tell in January who's going to be playing strongly in the spring. But the Hawks are a friggin' juggernaut. There's no use in denying it.
  • If you haven't seen Zach Parise's incredible overtime winner from Jan. 9, and the equally incredible sequence that led to the goal, check it out. And if you have seen it, you should probably watch it again. You should also watch to hear Doc Emerick's voice crack about seven different times after Parise beats Jaroslav Halak. One of my favorite things about the upcoming Olympics will be the exposing of NHL stars to the entire country in a way the league's current abhorrent TV deal doesn't allow. Parise is one player who will benefit greatly from this. I can't wait for America to see how awesome Parise is in every conceivable way. It's going to be love at first sight. Believe me.
  • A couple days after my last blog post, I was in Boston for the WFNX Miracle on Tremont Street concert at the Orpheum. I got to Boston around 12:30, so I spent most of the afternoon wandering around town. Late in the day, I was crossing the street between Government Center and Faneuil Hall when something caught my eye. A tallish man with a familiar face was approaching me while clutching the hand of a young female. It took me a second, but I soon figured out I was looking at Milan Lucic. This was about a week after he'd injured his ankle, and was in Boston while the B's were doing battle with Montreal that night. In that moment, I froze. I was crossing a busy street at rush hour in Boston, plus I had my earbuds in trying to better familiarize myself with that night's headliner Spoon. I just stared at him as he walked by me. At the very least I should have mustered up a hearty "LOOOOOCH!" but it didn't happen. Maybe our paths will cross again someday.
  • Is it shocking to anyone else that Henrik Sedin is leading the NHL in points nearly 50 games into the season? Not Daniel, but Henrik? And it's even more shocking that Henrik earned many of those 64 points when Daniel was out of the lineup for 18 games with a broken foot. For all the chatter during the summer that one twin couldn't sustain solid production without the other, we now see Henrik setting the world on fire. It's a legitimate debate between Henrik and Sidney Crosby over who's been the best center in the league so far. Again, that would have been very hard to predict coming into the season, especially with Daniel missing so much time.
  • Finally, a belated congrats to Brian McCloskey and the prolific UNH women's hockey team for winning their leg of the Jan. 8 Hockey East Frozen Fenway extravaganza. They came back from a late deficit to beat the Northeastern Huskies on the biggest of possible stages for women's college hockey. It was without a doubt one of the proudest moments in not just the decorated history of the program, but a great moment for UNH itself not soon to be forgotten. And McCloskey looked pretty sharp, too. Check out some highlights here.
Maybe I won't wait six weeks before my next post. No promises. Take care.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Will Ovechkin Ever Learn?

As I described at length in my NHL's Big Three post over the summer, Alexander Ovechkin is the most exciting player in the sport of hockey and the league's biggest draw. So far in '09 he's scored 30 points in 21 games played while the Capitals are tied with Pittsburgh for tops in the Eastern Conference.

But I also wrote in July that Ovie has earned a reputation for dirty play, which first manifested itself on a grand stage with his knee-on-knee hit against Sergei Gonchar in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.

Now, following perhaps the single-dirtiest incident of his career, the league office is finally sending Ovechkin to bed without any dinner to hopefully think about what he's done.

Ovechkin has been suspended two games as a result of this knee-on-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason early in Monday night's game. While Ovechkin might have missed the remainder of the game anyway, he was given a game misconduct for the hit. This happened to be his second game misconduct in three games, as he was booted from last Friday's contest with Buffalo for this boarding major against Patrick Kaleta.

There was no fine or suspension for knocking Kaleta, but Ovie was fined $2,500 for slew-footing Rich Peverley in October. There's no doubt those two events contributed to the decision to ultimately suspend Ovechkin for the hit on Gleason.

I think Ovechkin got off pretty easy, and it's probably because he's Alexander Ovechkin. So much has been made about the NHL's Wheel of Justice, with Colin Campbell's process for handing out discipline making little to no tangible sense. One pattern has emerged; the more famous the player, the less likely they are to face major discipline, like how Evgeni Malkin escaped an automatic suspension for instigating that fight in Stanley Cup Final Game 2.

This hit on Gleason is completely detestable and one that could have garnered a longer suspension based on some recent incidents, like Georges Laraque's similar knee-on-knee on Nicklas Kronwall that earned him five games. Laraque has a longer track record of dirtiness than Ovie, but I personally think Ovie's indiscretion was worse. Laraque's hit was an accident while it's debatable what Ovechkin's intention was on his play.

Since the game yesterday, Ovechkin's been defiant, saying before word of the suspension that he wouldn't be changing his high-flying, often-dangerous style of play anytime soon. His coach, Bruce Boudreau, called his star's style "reckless" and "risky."

Two games is two games, and every one is important especially with how close things figure to be for home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Losing Ovechkin, the league's best scorer and most dynamic presence, for any period of time hurts the Capitals. But it doesn't seem like Ovechkin is remorseful for this hit on Gleason, nor does he care what people think about the way he plays the game.

This is a problem.

Ovechkin needs to know that his presence in games is vital not just for his team but for his sport. He needs to know that if he decides to tone down his physicality, and leaves these kinds of dangerous plays out of his game, nobody would fault him for it. In fact, if he replaces this brute intensity with a renewed interest in playing actual defense to help his team, he'll be lauded throughout the league.

But like I said before, he doesn't seem to care right now. And I doubt two games in the press box will make him care more about changing his style. Unfortunately for Ovechkin, the Capitals, their fans and the league as a whole, it's probably going to take a significant injury for Ovechkin to change his style. That injury could completely destroy any fun from Ovechkin's game at all and effectively turn him into the next Eric Lindros.

I don't know about you, but I think one Lindros was enough for this lifetime. Wise up, Alex.

Around Hockey Bullet Points time!
  • The much-discussed, much-theorized, much-anticipated Marc Savard extension was finalized Tuesday, with the Bruins' top playmaker now signed up for another seven years after this one. Savard will be in Boston through the '16-'17 season with an average cap hit of $4.2 million, which is $800K less than his current cap hit. As Joe Haggerty writes on, this is a rare win-win for both team and athlete in today's sport. The team gets to retain the services of its best offensive player for seven years through the remainder of his prime, and at a very, very manageable price. For Savard, he has long-term security in Boston, which is where he's stated he wants to play the rest of his career. As you can imagine, I'm pretty psyched about this. Savard's return from his long injury has made a huge difference especially on the power play. How he gets to feed guys the puck in Boston for another seven years. Awesome.
  • Umm...yeah. So you may have heard about this unbelievably bizarre incident during Monday night's Panthers-Thrashers contest, when Keith Ballard, upset over allowing a soft Ilya Kovalchuk goal to be scored, inadvertently turned his goalie Tomas Vokoun's head into a pinata. Ballard didn't seem too shaken up about the whole thing, maybe because he was so shocked at his own dumbassery. I'm not sure if this warrants a suspension, but it'd be sad if Vokoun were forced to miss significant time because of this.
  • Seems like every time I write about a player or a team as the focus of one of my posts, bad things happen. The Bruins were playing well when I wrote about them, then they immediately started playing poorly. The same thing happened to the Avalanche, who were sitting atop the Western Conference when I extolled their virtues, and then they began to drop off. For the month of November, the Avs went 5-6-3, and all but two of those losses were in the Northwest Division. They're still fourth in the West, but Calgary has overtaken them for the division lead and perhaps their age and inexperience is catching up to them. Maybe that injury for Ovechkin will come sooner than later...
  • So Phil Kessel has eight goals in 11 games for Toronto since returning from his shoulder injury. That's more than the team-leading seven goals for Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler and Patrice Bergeron in more than twice as many games for each. Do the B's miss his offense? Sure. They've played an absurd number of close games and it's starting to get a little maddening for literally every contest to go to a shootout. But here's what makes me happy: the Leafs, once again, suck. They're the second-worst team in hockey so far this year and hopefully that means their pick will be a top-three selection at worst. That player could be better than Kessel. That's what I'm going to keep telling myself, anyway.
  • Finally, this hysterical link was first posted on Twitter by Tyler from the Triple Deke, and I found it via Cam. This is so funny and clever that I'll forgiven the blasphemy about Neil Young being anything other than incredibly awesome. Random fact: Young's dad, Scott, was one of Canada's most famous sportswriters and for a time was host of "Hockey Night in Canada." Neil actually had to shed the moniker of "Scott Young's son" in his home country. This also gives me an excuse to post a video of Neil engaging in some serious ass-kicking.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Avalanche, WTF?

You may recall in my Useless Predictions preview that my most used word in describing the Colorado Avalanche was "suck." There were big questions in goal, too many young players expected to fill the huge shoes of Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, and lots of concern about rookie coach Joe Sacco in the wake of Tony Granato's turbulent tenure.

We're now through five weeks of the regular season, and the Colorado Avalanche are 12-4-2. They sit atop the Western Conference standings, tied with the San Jose Sharks for most points in the NHL.

I don't think this is going to last, but the Avs have proven myself and many other prognosticators wrong about whether or not this is a quality team. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and since I had them pegged to finish no higher than 14th in the West, they're the most pleasant surprise in the league this year.

Craig Anderson has been flat-out fantastic in goal, going into Sunday night's contest against Edmonton with a .930 save percentage, a 2.15 GAA and two shutouts, rendering incumbent starter Peter Budaj irrelevant. Anderson's efforts earned No. 1 Star honors for October, edging out some guy named Ovechkin. He played well backing up Tomas Vokoun last season yet I highly doubt Colorado was expecting this kind of output from Anderson upon signing him.

From an offensive perspective, the Avs are seventh in the NHL in goals scored, and they've been led by a finally-healthy Paul Stastny (18 points) and veteran snipers Wojtek Wolski (15) and Milan Hejduk (14). While rookie center Matt Duchene had all the hype coming into this season, it's another rookie center that's stolen the spotlight. Ryan O'Reilly was the Avs' second pick behind Duchene this year, and he's dazzled, currently tied with Hejduk for third on the team in points.

O'Reilly and Duchene are both 18, giving the Avs two excellent (very) young centers along with Stastny (a dinosaur at 23) to build around. Duchene has cooled after a strong start, which is to be expected from a teenage playmaker.

Defense has also been a hallmark for these Avs in front of Anderson, with Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan and Kyle Cuminskey thriving for a team that's allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL going into Sunday. Colorado's penalty kill was also second in the league to the New York Rangers before giving up four PP markers to Edmonton.

So like I said above, the Avalanche probably won't finish with the best record in the NHL and aren't guaranteed to win their strong division. But through one-fifth of the season, the Avs have made a statement. They won't be doormats, they're playing sound hockey, they've got a hot goalie, and they're going to make life difficult for the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames the rest of the way.

Last season was the first bad one for this franchise since its move to Denver. We should have known they wouldn't stay down for very long.

Onto my Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • I should have known I'd jinx the Bruins with my overly optimistic post. The B's lost three straight games this week, and went 192 minutes without scoring a goal during that stretch. Saturday night's 4-2, total team victory over Northeast-leading Buffalo last night was a great sign, and they scored more goals in that one game than in their previous four combined. Most promising was that they finally succeeded on the power play not once but twice, ending a truly embarrassing 0-for-20 streak that prompted this tweet while I was at work during the Montreal loss.
  • Boston will need to duplicate their Saturday effort on Tuesday when the Penguins invade TD Garden. Pittsburgh is tied with Washington for tops in the Eastern Conference. While the West has been fairly jumbled through the early stages of '09-'10, the East is playing out in a much more expected fashion, although I'll be shocked if the Lightning and Islanders remain seventh and eighth the rest of the way.
  • Last year's Western Conference champions, the Detroit Red Wings, came in with high expectations and haven't exactly lived up to them. Like the Bruins, they've had to deal with inconsistent play from their goaltenders and various injuries. The injury issues for Detroit run a bit deeper than what the Bruins have faced, however. They started the year without Darren "His Tears Cure Cancer" Helm. Johan Franzen tore his ACL in the third game of the season and he'll be out until February. Valtteri Filppula was poised for a career season before breaking his wrist and won't return until the end of December. Jason Williams broke his leg Saturday night against Toronto and is gone for two months (not to mention that they actually lost to Toronto and gave up five goals). Wings blog The Triple Deke came up with a possible lineup going forward (love the last name on there). Is Detroit in trouble? Not yet. But they will be if anyone named Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Lidstrom goes down.
  • We've seen some truly epic injuries in the NHL this year, along with different variations of the flu (David Krejci will hopefully be allowed to leave his H1N1 quarantine soon). One of the worst came Saturday night when Cam Ward's thigh was sliced open by Rick Nash's skate early in their contest in Columbus. Ward is expected to miss extended time. The Hurricanes have been a complete debacle this year, and while I'm pleased about that, I certainly wish the best for Ward. It'd be a shame if this injury kept him out of the Olympics.
  • Shawn Thornton is a beast. In Saturday's tilt with Buffalo, Thorty dropped the gloves with Steve Montador and issued a sound beatdown. I think he was channeling the rage of thousands of Bruins fans who hate Montador for his indescribably lousy play at the end of last year. But Thornton was just getting started. As the game was winding down, Thorty threw down with Paul Gaustad, and he fared worse than Montador. In short: don't fuck with Shawn Thornton. With Milan Lucic not likely to fight much upon his return, Thornton proved he can handle the fighting load.
That's all for now. Tune in next time for a very special post of Puckin' Right. (It probably won't be that special. I just wanted to make a very thin reference to the most underrated cartoon of all time, Clone High).