Saturday, May 26, 2018

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

It has come down to this: two teams left and one Stanley Cup at stake. The series begins Monday, and now is the time to take a look at the two teams that will be competing for the ultimate prize.

Washington Capitals: The Capitals have had a lot of adversity and playoff demons to overcome to make their second Stanley Cup Finals in their illustrious history. Maybe this time, they will actually win a game in the Finals. Every success and failure begins with Alex Ovechkin, who has finally gotten the support he needs to make it to this point. Evgeny Kuznetsov has been one of the better players on the team, and Braden Holtby has turned back the clock to when he was competing for Vezina Trophies. Defensively, they have held up surprisingly well, with John Carlson leading the way and Brooks Orpik playing surprisingly decent. They've had to overcome a 2-0 series deficit to Columbus in the opening round, beat their long time nemesis in Pittsburgh, and stave off a potential new overlord in Tampa Bay, battling back from a 3-2 series deficit in the process. If Washington is going to win, the supporting cast needs to continue to show up so Ovechkin doesn't have to try to do it all on his own.

Vegas Golden Knights: The neophytes of the NHL have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year of existence, the first to do so since St. Louis in 1968. Marc-Andre Fleury still has some life left, and if he gets hurt, they have confidence in Malcolm Subban. The defense is still largely a no-name group who was led by Colin Miller. While they are mostly second and third pairing players, a potential breakout star is Shea Theodore, who has all the makings of a top pairing player with offensive skill. Up front, they have a genuine top line in Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson, and depth up front is just as good, with David Perron the best option for scoring outside the top line. They seemingly have answered every question asked of them, and they intend to answer the bell once more.

Prediction: This one is a tough one to call. Both teams have responded well to their respective coaching, and any and all questions of how each would respond to adversity, both have answered well. Ovechkin would love to win a Stanley Cup in his 14th year while the Gerard Gallant, Marchessault, and Smith would like to give the Florida Panthers one final middle finger. There's also the Blues pain factor, as at least two players from either team will be winning a Stanley Cup, further driving the stake into the Blues fans' collective hearts. I've been waiting for the Capitals' lack of depth to finally do them in and/or Vegas' luck to finally run out. My jinxing powers in hockey run hot and cold, so it's unpredictable as to which way it's going to go. I'm going with Golden Knights in 7.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Revisiting the Golden Knights

Show of hands, who thought the Vegas Golden Knights would even make the playoffs prior to the season? You can put them down, you liar. 500 to 1 was the opening line for the odds they would make the Stanley Cup Finals before the season began, and here we are, they made the Finals in their first year, something that of the teams still in the NHL, only the Toronto Arenas (now Maple Leafs) and the St. Louis Blues achieved. So, who exactly are the Golden Knights? Well, to answer that, let's look at how the roster was constructed and the people responsible for putting the team together.

In goal, there is Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban. Fleury was the big name of the team's expansion draft, and prior to the season, some thought he would face the same fate that Peter Sidorkiewicz would face when he was taken by Ottawa in their expansion draft in 1992. When healthy, Fleury proved that he still had something left and then some. Subban was destined to be a bust for the Boston Bruins, having never cracked the roster on a full-time basis. His pick up off waivers by the Golden Knights proved to be a smart move and one that would see them swap him for Calvin Pickard as a backup. Pickard is now in Toronto's system.

On defense, it's still a largely unknown group that is headed by Washington cast-off Nate Schmidt. Colin Miller, a pick from Boston, led all blueliners on the team in scoring while Shea Theodore, who was traded to Vegas so Anaheim could get Clayton Stoner's contract off their books, looks like a future star. Former Calgary defender Deryk Engelland proved to be the face of the team's leadership, as his ties to Las Vegas, from playing there previously in the ECHL to having a home there, all made it easy to call him the unofficial captain of the team. He also chipped in a respectable 23 points.

Up front, the offense is led by William Karlsson, a former Blue Jacket who was pegged to be a great penalty killer who occasionally chipped in offense. 43 goals later, and he blew expectations out of the water. Jonathan Marchessault was taken from Florida with the provision that Vegas also take Reilly Smith's contract as well. Turns out that Marchessault's 30-goal season in Florida wasn't a mirage, as he trailed Karlsson for the team scoring lead by three points (78 to 75) and Smith was fourth on the team in scoring with 60 points. Florida's crow eating isn't just confined to those two players, as you'll find out later. Other players that made their former teams look bad include David Perron, who was third in scoring on the team despite missing a few games to injury, and he made the Blues wish they had his production on the second line. Erik Haula was taken from Minnesota and Alex Tuch was thrown in on a trade because Minnesota wanted to protect their blue line. About that, Haula missed the 30-goal mark by one and finished fifth on the team in scoring, and Tuch looks like a solid player that the team can build upon, and both provide scoring that the Wild could have used.

 Bill Foley owns the team, and he figured out right away that to build a solid team, he needed good hockey people. For all the grief George McPhee got for the Filip Forsberg trade while in Washington, his time as General Manager wasn't bad. Foley gave him another shot. Kelly McCrimmon was plucked from the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL to provide more insight. Remember when I said that the crow eating for the Florida Panthers wasn't over? That Gerard Gallant guy that they told to piss off last season at the beginning of a long road trip and left him at the airport did a pretty good job for the Vegas Golden Knights this year.

Yes, the Vegas Golden Knights making the Stanley Cup Finals is nothing short of amazing, so much so that people are calling it rigged. Look back on your predictions before the season and then tell me if you really expected any of this to happen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The 2018 Memorial Cup Field

In one day, the Memorial Cup field went from just the host team to now having all four participants figured out. A trio of game 6 series was all it took, and beginning Friday, the Memorial Cup tournament to determine this year's best major junior squad will begin with a round robin. Let's meet the teams that will hope to hoist the Memorial Cup.

The Regina Pats are the host team in the 100th year of major junior hockey. Coincidentally, this is also the 100th year that the Pats have been in existence. The Queen City inhabitants are named after Princess Patricia, a descendent of Queen Victoria, and are known to have the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) unit patch on their sweaters. The team itself finished third in their division, were beaten in seven games in the opening round to eventual WHL champion Swift Current. Their key players to watch include Sam Steel, Jesse Gabrielle, and Libor Hajek.

The Swift Current Broncos are the reigning WHL champions, having beaten Regina, Moose Jaw, Lethbridge, and Everett en route to the title and a date east of town. The Broncos will be in their third Memorial Cup tournament in their history, having won in 1989 and losing out on the round-robin tie breaker in 1993. Key players to watch include Glenn Gawdin, Matteo Gennaro, Giorgio Estephan, Aleksi Heponiemi, and Stuart Skinner. Despite their status as a small market team in southwestern Saskatchewan, the Broncos are not the smallest market team in the tournament. That honor goes to...

The Acadie-Bathurst Titan are a team in northern New Brunswick, and play in a town with just over 12,000 people, about 4,000 less than Swift Current. The team has endured various threats of being moved, with their most recent trouble in 2009. They are the QMJHL champions by virtue of beating Chicoutimi, Sherbrooke, Victoriaville, and Blainville-Boisbriand. Key players to watch include Samuel L'Italien, German Rubtsov, Evan Fitzpatrick, and Noah Dobson.

Technically the youngest franchise in the tournament, the Hamilton Bulldogs were formed in 2015 after the original Belleville Bulls were relocated in 2015. The current incarnation of the Bulldogs replaced the AHL version of the Bulldogs in that time. They became the OHL champions by beating Ottawa, Niagara, Kingston, and Sault Ste. Marie. The team is led by Robert Thomas, and also features Will Bitten, Matthew Strome, and Kaden Fulcher.

So, how do I think this tournament will play out? Despite being eliminated in the first round of the WHL playoffs, Regina still has some pieces to become the second straight host team to take home the Memorial Cup tournament. Swift Current has possibly the most key pieces to win it all, and certainly, they have the best offense and hottest goaltender of the teams remaining. Acadie-Bathurst has some really good players and Dobson is an X-factor heading into his NHL Draft year while Hamilton has proven people wrong this year time and time again, beating a Sault Ste. Marie team that was widely thought to be the favorite to represent the OHL. Prediction? I think Swift Current walks away with the Memorial Cup trophy in a hard fought battle with Hamilton.

Friday, May 11, 2018

2017-18 NHL Conference Finals Preview

It is down to the final four, and anyone left has a chance. With the series beginning tonight, let's get to it.

(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (1) Washington Capitals

The Lightning have been fairly dominant, as they've dispatched the Devils and Bruins in five games each. Andrei Vasilevsky is proving to be the goaltender that the Lightning hoped for, their defense is coming out of its funk in time for the playoffs, and Nikita Kucherov is now the most dangerous offensive option. Steven Stamkos is still there, but he is now more of an X-factor, as teams seem to have forgotten about him.

The Capitals are a bit of a surprise, in that the goaltending was a major question mark coming into the playoffs. Braden Holtby entered the playoffs in game three against Columbus, and he's turned back the clock to his Vezina winning days. Defensively, they've been competent, and their offense has been carried by Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom.

Prediction: Capitals in 7

(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (2) Winnipeg Jets

Vegas has been fairly good in the playoffs, with Marc-Andre Fleury carrying the team on his back with stellar play in net. Their no-name defense has the best chemistry of any of the remaining teams, and a surprising offense led by William Karlsson is the impetus behind their success. A player to watch for to potentially break out this series is Jonathan Marchessault, who has the scoring ability.

The Jets have been great all season, though their question was whether they could keep it going in the playoffs. After a hard fought win against Nashville in seven, they've emphatically answered it with a resounding yes. Connor Hellebuyck appears to be this year's version of Matt Murray, with a playoff debut for the ages, their defense is coming together despite not having eye-popping numbers, and Mark Scheifele is becoming a superstar with his playoff run. The Jets are doing this without a great amount of help from Patrik Laine, and if he gets going, look out.

Prediction: Jets in 6

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

NHL Conference Semi-finals Preview

The next round of the NHL playoffs begin tomorrow, and as I type this, the seventh game of the Toronto-Boston series is wrapping up. By the time I get to the Tampa Bay series, it will probably be concluded, as Boston is up 6-4 as of this writing. For the rest of the series, it's time to go.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Capitals had their struggles to begin the series against the Columbus series. Thanks to Alex Ovechkin putting the team on his back and Braden Holtby entering the series at game 3 and turning the clock back to last year's regular season, the Capitals are once again in the second round. Offense was never a problem in the series for them. However, they had some shaky moments defensively, and unless they can tighten things up there, it may be a short series. Holtby still has some issues, but he has looked his best all season, so he may be turning a corner.

Offense for Pittsburgh is on fire, as Sidney Crosby continued his dominance over Philadelphia. Their defense still has moments of lapses, but they did better this series. Matt Murray may be rounding into form once again, as he has each of the last two playoff seasons. Injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin bear watching.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

The Golden Knights were very good defensively, as they only allowed three goals all series against Los Angeles. Marc-Andre Fleury looks like he's also turned back the clock, and with a solid no-name blue line in front of him, the defense looks formidable. Offensively, they had some issues, but they made the goals when they counted, and look like they are just scratching the surface.

San Jose nearly matched the Golden Knights on defense, only allowing four goals to Anaheim in a sweep. They also showed some fire offensively, as they put up an eight spot in a game 3 win and also won by three in the first game of the series. Martin Jones looks every bit of the goaltender that the Sharks were hoping to get when they traded for him in 2015, and Evander Kane is producing on the ice for them. Like Vegas, though, the Sharks were rarely tested, so this should be a fairly even series.

Prediction: Golden Knights in 6

(1) Nashville Predators vs. (2) Winnipeg Jets

The Predators had their struggles against Colorado to begin the series, but once game 4 started, their defense began to tighten up, only allowing four goals in the last three games, and the Predators closing up the issue of slow starts that plagued them in the first three games. Though their defensemen were shut down offensively, as they only managed one goal the entire series, their forwards more than made up for it, especially the Austin Watson-Nick Bonino-Colton Sissons line.

Winnipeg had an easier time with the Minnesota Wild apart from a game 3 hiccup. Connor Hellebuyck is coming off consecutive shutouts, their defense is rounding into form, and like the Predators, they can kill you in many ways offensively. What it may come down to is which home ice advantage will win out.

Prediction: Predators in 7

(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (2) Boston Bruins

Just as I get to this series, Boston emphatically closes it out.

The Lightning had little trouble in disposing a Devils team that simply didn't have the depth or playoff experience to stay with them. Andrei Vasilevsky is coming out of a late-season funk, their blue line is looking better, and their offense is so good that Steven Stamkos isn't even the second best option to score.

The Bruins had their issues with a Toronto team that was even in terms of ability. In the end, the Bruins outlasted the Leafs and will be coming into the series with some momentum. Tuukka Rask may have some issues, as he hasn't always been at his best, but the blue line in front of him is still capable. Offensively, this may be their most surprising aspect, as they have guys not named Brad Marchand that can kill you. David Pastrnak is becoming a stud, and they are getting production from guys like Torey Krug from the blue line.

Prediction: Boston in 7

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Skating in Circles

From the time that Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, some figured that it wouldn't be long before he got a job elsewhere. That time became just a week, as the Calgary Flames, late of firing Glen Gulutzan, tabbed Peters to be their bench boss. Despite having near identical numbers in going from Carolina to Calgary, Peters managed to get the most out of a fairly talent-thin Hurricanes squad. However, his downfall, like most Hurricanes squads this decade, has been the inability to figure out the starting goaltending problem. In Calgary, the situation is only slightly better...when Mike Smith was healthy. That is a problem, as Calgary was exactly like Carolina when Smith was out, and now, it looks like Calgary is simply skating around in circles. This should be a team that is better offensively and on the surface, defensively. However, finishing in the bottom half of the league in both categories is unacceptable, especially with a team that features Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, and Dougie Hamilton. Could the Flames have done better than Peters as head coach? Possibly. However, given the arena issues and constant underachieving, Calgary isn't the most desirable place to play in the country. Nothing will change until the front office gets shaken up, which should put both Brian Burke and Brad Treliving in the hot seat next season.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Cooked Ducks

Of all the results to happen thus far, the Anaheim Ducks were not supposed to be playing golf this early. They had all the momentum heading into the playoffs, concluding with a 3-0 shutout win against Arizona to close out the regular season. Then, the playoff series against San Jose began, and well, there's no other way to describe the Ducks' playoff run this year than legendarily bad. How did it get to this?

  • When your goals per game equals one or less, you're not going to win any series. Anaheim averaged that, scoring 0-2-1-1 in each of the games. That's an indictment on the team's alarming lack of scoring depth, and given that Corey Perry did nothing...again, this figures to be a problem moving forward.
  • Does one player really make a difference? Without Cam Fowler, the blue line seemed to be in disarray, and it especially showed in game three, where the Ducks just waved the white flag in giving up 8 goals.
  • The Ducks are notorious for playing a goon style of hockey, and it caught up with them, when the Sharks could make them pay for their mistakes. The Ducks were undisciplined, and without when no one can step up to provide scoring, that equals disaster.
  • For all the flak John Gibson gets for not showing up in the playoffs, he was surprisingly not bad, excluding the game 3 debacle, where nothing went right.
Another year of failure for the Ducks, headlined by the fact that their scoring depth is thin, plus their style of play can be thwarted by a more disciplined team, means that they are headed to the table, roasted and prepared with a nice orange sauce.