Thursday, April 17, 2014

WHL Conference Finals Preview

The Medicine Hat Tigers made a riveting comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to claim the final spot in the WHL Conference Finals, as they will head to Edmonton while the two best teams in the league square off as the Portland Winterhawks and Kelowna Rockets meet.  Both games begin their series Friday.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Edmonton Oil Kings vs. (4) Medicine Hat Tigers

The Oil Kings appear to be the odds-on favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals for the third straight year.  Of the remaining teams, the Oil Kings have given up the fewest goals in the playoffs, with Tristan Jarry proving that he is indeed ready for the spotlight in goal.  Unlike the previous two seasons, there hasn't been a true scorer that could take over the game.  However, balanced scoring up and down the lineup has more than offset that issue.

The Tigers needed to make a comeback from being down 3-1 to the Kootenay Ice to make it here.  Led by Trevor Cox, the Tigers found some offense to go with clutch goaltending from Marek Langhammer to give the Tigers a chance at making the WHL Finals for the first time since they won it all in 2007.  The Tigers can match the Oil Kings defensively, but the question here is whether they can do it consistently.

Prediction: Oil Kings in 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks

The Rockets were the best team in the league, but needed to fend off a historically hot Winterhawks team to claim the Scotty Munro Trophy as the best team in the regular season.  The Rockets have shown no signs of slowing down this post-season, as they disposed of Tri-City and Seattle in only nine games.  Like the Oil Kings, the Rockets rely on a balanced scoring threat.  However, the health of Myles Bell is something to watch.  Jordon Cooke has played well, but he also has the highest GAA of the remaining four goaltenders.

The Winterhawks are the best offensive team in the league, and are proving it once again in the playoffs.  However, their defense is rounding into form at the right time, and unlike the previous meetings, the Winterhawks will be a lot closer to full strength (Nic Petan's health pending) and they will even have Matt Dumba for the games, something that the Winterhawks didn't have for the regular season series.  Brendan Burke's game is getting better, and that will really help the Winterhawks here.

Prediction: Winterhawks in 7

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Top Cat of the Draft

This is Ed Jovanovski, and he is going to segue into today's topic, which is the Florida Panthers have won the NHL Lottery, which means they get the first overall pick in this year's draft.  This will be the second time in franchise history that the Panthers will pick first overall.  The other time?  1994, when they took Jovanovski out of Windsor.

As for what the Panthers could do, it appears that it is a three player race, with Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad and centers Sam Bennett (Kingston Frontenacs) and Sam Reinhart (Kootenay Ice) leading the way.  The only certain spot on the ice for the Panthers is in goal, where Roberto Luongo resides.  For all of the youth on the roster, there hasn't been a true breakout star, which may very well mean Bennett is a favorite.  However, Reinhart is a more complete player that would be the safest pick of the three.  Ekblad is in the same spot Seth Jones was last year, and while Florida bypassed Jones for Aleksander Barkov last year, the Panthers are still in relatively good shape as far as defensive depth.  However, the Panthers could use a true number one, something that the Panthers haven't found yet.

Decisions are ahead for the Panthers, with Brian Campbell being a possible buyout candidate, and certainly, it would be wise if the Panthers figure out where everyone is in their development, especially the likes of Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Erik Gudbranson.  The Panthers are on the clock, and they have three doors to choose from.  Choosing wisely is imperative here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Week of Goodbyes

This week saw three players play their last regular season games, and while only one of those players is actually retired (I'll explain when I get to each player), it marks an end of an era.

Earlier in the week, Ryan Smyth announced that this would be his last year, and with the Edmonton Oilers out of the playoffs for the eight consecutive year, Saturday's game against Vancouver was going to be his last.  Edmonton decided to give him the captain's C for that game, something he hasn't held despite being a near-lifer in an Oilers uniform.  He failed to register a point in the game, but was given plenty of opportunity to break the team's all-time record for most power play goals, a record that he will share with his boyhood idol Glenn Anderson.  After the game, the Oilers fans and Canucks players acknowledged Smyth, with the fans giving him a standing ovation and Canucks players coming out to shake his hand.

While Smyth is officially retired, Teemu Selanne will still have some hockey left to play before his retirement.  He had announced that this would be his last year prior to the season, and with the Ducks in the playoffs, this is his last chance at a Stanley Cup, something that he has achieved in 2007.  He began his career with a bang, scoring 76 goals as a Winnipeg Jet to break a record for most goals by a rookie.  He joined the Ducks (then Mighty Ducks) in 1996 in a February trade and became one of their most recognizable stars in his first stint with the team.  He also played with San Jose and Colorado before rejoining the Ducks after the lockout.  The highlight of his career came in 2007 and the Stanley Cup win.  His last regular season game (he was also handed the captain's C for the game) came in a 3-2 overtime win against Colorado, and afterwards, he shared the stage with Colorado goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was a teammate of his when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup.

Though he has not announced his retirement (he has expressed desire to play next season), Sunday's win against the Boston Bruins may very well have been Martin Brodeur's last game as a New Jersey Devil.  Having been with the team that drafted him since the 1993-94 season in which he won the Calder Trophy, Brodeur has amassed three Stanley Cup championships (1995, 2000, 2003) and made two more appearances in the Stanley Cup championships (2001, 2012).  He holds the record for most wins and was the goaltender of record when Team Canada won gold in 2002.  After the game, fans acknowledged him with chants of "Thank you, Marty."

Monday, April 14, 2014

NHL Western Conference Playoffs Preview

(1 Pacific) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2 Wild Card) Dallas Stars

The Ducks took home the top spot in the Western Conference, thanks to the league's second best offense (only Chicago did better...by a goal) and were tied for second best in goal differential.  Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were in the top five in scoring, and they can roll out a strong goaltending tandem in Frederik Andersen and Jonas Hiller.  Hiller's playoff experience will rub off on Andersen, and whoever starts will have a strong blue line in front of them.  Of course, they also have some extra motivation in that this is Teemu Selanne's last run at a Stanley Cup.

Dallas made the playoffs on the strength of Kari Lehtonen's goaltending and the one-two punch of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.  Alex Goligoski is the team's best defenseman, but depth is a potential issue for the Stars, as only those three posted north of the 40 point line.  If Lehtonen gets hurt, goaltending depth will be an issue, as Tim Thomas barely made it under the 3.00 mark.

Prediction: Anaheim in 5

(2 Central) St. Louis Blues vs. (3 Central) Chicago Blackhawks

The Blues are wobbling into the playoffs, and given their recent history of underachieving in the playoffs combined with high pre-season expectations, that could spell trouble for the Blues.  Ryan Miller has a chance to make his mark in the playoffs, something he hasn't done lately due to being on some not-so good Sabres teams that didn't make the playoffs.  Blue line depth could be tested if Alex Pietrangelo misses any time, and the offense had better find their game fast.

The Blackhawks had some injury issues, but both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are slated to return in time for the start of the playoffs.  Even when both missed time, they still led the league in offense.  Depth and experience in the playoffs are where Chicago has an advantage, and certainly, Corey Crawford has confidence from last year's run.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

(2 Pacific) San Jose Sharks vs. (3 Pacific) Los Angeles Kings

The Sharks appear to be getting their guys back at the right time, and with Joe Pavelski leading the team in scoring, the Sharks appear to be heading in the right direction for the future.  Logan Couture missed time due to injury, but he is getting healthier, as well.  Offense from the blue line isn't great, but they provide a solid presence in front of Antti Niemi, who had another stellar year in net.

The Kings didn't quite match offensive expectations this year, as only Anze Kopitar scored more than 50 points, while Jeff Carter hit the 50 point mark exactly.  Goaltending remains a strength, whether it is Jonathan Quick or Martin Jones.  Quick posted the highest GAA of the three goalies to suit up for the Kings this season (2.07 GAA to Jones' 1.81 and the since departed Ben Scrivens' 1.97).  Whoever is in goal will have the pressure to keep the Kings in it unless someone like Tyler Toffoli or Dustin Brown suddenly find the scoring touch to compliment Kopitar and Carter.

Prediction: Sharks in 6

(1 Central) Colorado Avalanche vs. (1 Wild Card) Minnesota Wild

On the surface, the Avs' magical leap from second worst team last year to Central Division champions seems like an improbability.  However, the youthful energy combined with Patrick Roy's presence behind the bench have given the team a life that many knew was there, but needed the right guy to bring it out.  Semyon Varlamov has finally shown the potential that he had dating back to his rookie year in Washington.  The offensive force is led by Matt Duchene, with Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, and Nathan MacKinnon all riding shotgun.  While only Duchene and O'Reilly have experience of the four, don't underestimate MacKinnon's championship pedigree from last year, when he was on the President's Trophy and Memorial Cup winning Halifax Mooseheads.

The Wild have still yet to fulfill enormous expectations from the summer of 2012.  Only Jason Pominville and Zach Parise managed to score more than 25 goals.  The next highest goal total?  Nino Niederreiter with 14.  However, don't discount Matt Moulson, who managed 23 goals in stops with the NY Islanders, Buffalo, and Minnesota this season, and he may very be on a line with Parise and Mikko Koivu.  Ryan Suter is the clear leader of the blue line, but depth is a concern here.  The question of who will be in net is another thing to worry about, but both Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov made strong cases to be in goal for the first game of the playoffs.

Prediction: Colorado in 7

NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday, and there is a slightly different format to how the seeding works: the top two seeds will square off against the two wild card teams (the teams with the best record after the first three teams in each division) while the second and third place teams will square off against one another within their respective divisions (e.g. Montreal and Tampa Bay square off, since they placed second and third in the Atlantic Division).  Now that the rankings have been explained, on to the preview.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(Atlantic 1) Boston Bruins vs. (Wild Card 2) Detroit Red Wings

Boston's bread and butter is their defense, and never more is that evident than the numbers Vezina Trophy candidate Tuukka Rask posted, as he led the league in shutouts (7) and posted a 2.04 GAA.  Offensively, they ranked second in the league in goals, and led the league in goal differential with a +84.  It is no surprise that the leading three players in the +/- category are Bruins, with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand leading the way.

Detroit had a harder time making the playoffs, especially after Henrik Zetterberg was lost for the regular season during the Olympic break.  However, the younger players such as Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar helped save the day for a Red Wings team that had their issues.  Nyquist, in particular, shined, and had he played a full season, would have led the team in scoring (Daniel Alfredsson and Niklas Kronwall led the team with 49 points).  Jimmy Howard had an average year, posting a 2.66 GAA while battling injuries throughout the season.

Prediction: Bruins in 4

(Atlantic 2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (Atlantic 3) Montreal Canadiens

This is where the new format makes things interesting, as Tampa Bay and Montreal were third and fourth in the Conference.  Despite not having Steven Stamkos for half the season and trading away Martin St. Louis at the deadline, the Lightning still performed well.  While Stamkos still managed 25 goals in a mere 37 games, it was the play of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, two rookies that few expected to make an impact for the Lightning (compared to Jonathan Drouin, who himself is having a great year in Halifax).  Victor Hedman took a big step in becoming a number one defenseman, and having Ben Bishop put together a breakthrough year helped the Lightning post a +25 in goal differential.

The Canadiens go as Carey Price goes.  He's had a great year, and clearly, his run to Olympic gold this year has carried over to the stretch run.  Max Pacioretty led the team with 39 goals, but the nearest player in that category was Thomas Vanek, and he posted 27 goals with Buffalo, NY Islanders, and Montreal.  For Montreal to win, they do need to continue their strong defensive play and hope their playoff experience comes into play.

Prediction: Montreal in 7

(2 Metropolitan) New York Rangers vs. (3 Metropolitan) Philadelphia Flyers

The Rangers didn't quite have the offensive outbreak people thought they would when Alain Vigneault became coach prior to the season.  Mats Zuccarello led the team in scoring, with 59 points, but once again, it will be up to their goaltending to bail the Rangers out.  While Henrik Lundqvist posted less than sterling (by his standards) numbers (2.36 GAA), he did help the team down the stretch.  Having fewer games played (he was in 63 games), the hope here is that he will have enough in the tank to give the Rangers a deep run this year.

The Flyers were a rather uneven team this year.  Well, actually they were almost even, if you look at the goal differential number (+1).  Still, when the gap between your leading scorer (Claude Giroux) and your second leading scorer (Jakub Voracek) is 24 points, that does present a problem.  Mark Streit provided a decent spark from the blue line, there should have been more from a team that has talent for days up front.  Steve Mason was the best goalie for the Flyers this season, but his injury on Saturday bears watching, as the Flyers could be in trouble if he has to miss any time.  Ray Emery posted a 2.96 GAA, almost a half goal more than Mason, and Cal Heeter is unproven at the NHL level.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

(1 Metropolitan) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (1 Wild Card) Columbus Blue Jackets

The Penguins were spearheaded by league leading scorer Sidney Crosby.  However, the same question that has haunted the Penguins for the last two seasons has a chance to rear its ugly head.  Marc-Andre Fleury posted a 2.37 GAA in the regular season, but he has struggled mightily in the playoffs the last two years.  Unfortunately, Tomas Vokoun has battled health issues this season, and the safety net is unproven Jeff Zatkoff, who played in 20 games this season, the most extensive playing time he's received in his NHL career.

Columbus struggled early in the season, but found their way in time to make the playoffs for the second time in their existence.  Ryan Johansen has emerged as a two-way threat that can lead the team for years.  However, the rest of the team doesn't scare anybody offensively, though James Wisniewski did finally begin to justify his contract he signed a couple of seasons ago.  Nathan Horton is a wild card here, as he missed the first half of the season, but he does bring considerable playoff experience with him.  Goaltending is solid here, but unproven, as Sergei Bobrovsky has played in only one playoff year while Curtis McElhinney is unproven.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Winterhawks Weekly: Halfway There

The Portland Winterhawks took the next step in their quest for the WHL championship, thanks to a 4-1 series win against the Victoria Royals.  Behind scores of 8-2 and 6-3, the Winterhawks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead.  However, the Royals weren't going away quietly, as they managed to rein in the Winterhawks' offensive attack in a 2-1 win in game three.  The Winterhawks escaped Victoria with a 4-3 win in game four before they closed out the series in convincing fashion 5-1 on Thursday.

The Winterhawks will meet the Kelowna Rockets in the Conference finals, and the series promises to be one of the best, as they were the top two teams in the league.  Kelowna swept the regular season series, but the Winterhawks were short-handed in some form for all of those games, as Brendan Leipsic was suspended for each of those games and the World Juniors took out Taylor Leier, Derrick Pouliot, and Nic Petan for half of those games.  Matthew Dumba will be making his first appearance against the Rockets, as well.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A New Era...I Think...

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Canucks were eliminated from playoff contention thanks to a 3-0 loss to Anaheim.  That prompted the Canucks to fire General Manager Mike Gillis and name Trevor Linden the President of Hockey Operations.  If you just read the last part of the sentence, then you know Vancouver is heading back to its past to try and find the way to the future in the same manner that Colorado did after last season and Buffalo tried earlier this season.  Yes, the results have been mixed so far, with Colorado finding success right out of the gate and Buffalo still trying to find its way.  However, the hiring of Linden means that John Tortorella is officially on the hot seat, as it is entirely possible that Linden will want to find his own guy at head coach.

The Canucks head into the off-season with questions to be answered: questions such as what to do with Ryan Kesler, who has asked for a trade, and who the team should be building around, with the Sedins turning 34 by the start of next season and the majority of their key players also on the wrong side of 30.  Goaltending is a question mark now that Roberto Luongo is gone, but it appears to be Eddie Lack's job to lose, as he's posted solid numbers this season.  However, it is the blue line that may very well need a makeover, as they've been at fault for a few of Lack's bad games this season, and that may very well be a reason why Tortorella gets his walking papers if Linden decides to pull the trigger here.  Other than the Sedins, it appears that the Canucks have question marks here, as well, especially with the uncertainty of the Kesler situation.  At the very least, the Canucks do have some top prospects at this spot, with Bo Horvat, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce, and Hunter Shinkaruk all waiting for their chance to shine.  That brings me to the thing that Linden should continue to do, which is develop the pipeline, as Gillis' time was defined by the lack of top-end talent in the system and trading away what they did have (i.e. Keith Ballard for Michael Grabner and the first round pick in 2010 that turned out to be Quinton Howden).

Smart decisions will be imperative if Linden wants to call his tenure as President of Hockey Operations for the Vancouver Canucks a success, especially when it comes to hiring a General Manager and possibly head coach.