Thursday, April 28, 2016

NHL Western Conference Semi-finals Preview

The exciting conclusion of the Anaheim-Nashville series means that the playoff field is now narrowed down to eight teams. Because the NHL scheduling got weird, the Eastern Conference already got started while the Western Conference begins tonight. There isn't much time, so let's go:

Dallas Stars vs. St. Louis Blues

The Stars faced a fairly stiff challenge from the Minnesota Wild, nearly giving the game away in their series clincher. Their offense is running just fine; however, their two-headed goalie system is causing a few problems, as neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi have truly seized the starting role. Meanwhile, the Blues fought off a 3-1 series lead loss to finally put away the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Elliott may finally be the goalie that the Blues desperately needed in the playoffs, as he came up big in the series clincher. There will still be questions on the coaching end, as Ken Hitchcock still has something to prove.

Prediction: Stars in 6

San Jose Sharks vs. Nashville Predators

The Sharks are well-rested after disposing of their rival Los Angeles in five games. Martin Jones proved that he learned a few things in turning the tables on his former teacher in Jonathan Quick while the rest of the team just outplayed the Kings throughout the series, only losing one game in overtime. The Predators lost a 2-0 series lead, then came back from a 3-2 series deficit to put an end to the Anaheim Ducks' hopes for a deep playoff run. Pekka Rinne remains inconsistent, but he came up big when it mattered the most. Collin Wilson was a big part of the team's success up front, but it remains a team driven by Shea Weber and Roman Josi from the back end.

Prediction: Sharks in 6

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NHL Eastern Conference Semi-finals Preview

With the semi-finals in the Eastern Conference set to kick off tomorrow and the Western Conference waiting for one more team to punch their ticket, the preview is being pushed up to accommodate for the Eastern Conference while the West will wait until Anaheim and Nashville settle their series. Now, on to the Eastern Conference match-ups:

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

For as much as the Sid vs. Ovi comparison has been hyped, this will be just the second time both have met in the playoffs, and much like the last time, it will be in the Conference semi-final.  The Capitals had it easy for the first three games, but then things started getting shaky for the next three games before they finally put away the Flyers. Braden Holtby was solid for five of the six games, but he will need to be even better if the Caps' offense can't get it going. The Penguins looked like their 2009 selves, albeit with Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff in net for the series while Marc-Andre Fleury has been out with concussion issues. Murray is starting until further notice, and any nerves that may have been there prior to his first start in the playoffs is gone, as he's played almost as well as he has in his short time in the NHL. With goaltending being a strength on both ends, it will be up to the offense to find a way, and recent playoff history suggests the Penguins are the hotter of the two. However, should the series go long, the Caps have a slight edge.

Prediction: Capitals in 7

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders

The Lightning haven't had too many problems finding offense in the absence of Steven Stamkos, and certainly, the emergence of Nikita Kucherov is key. However, Ben Bishop remains key, as he is now their best player, with Victor Hedman not far behind. The Islanders needed overtime in three of their four games, with the last one being a double OT game in which John Tavares stepped up to deliver the winner.  An unexpected hero for the Islanders has been Thomas Greiss, who seemingly has taken the number one goalie spot for the playoff run. What the series may come down to is whether the supporting players on either side can step up the way they did in their respective first round series.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

WHL Conference Finals Preview

It took seven games for two of the four remaining survivors, in thrilling fashion, no less, but now the field is whittled down. There were few surprises, with the one surprise being a big one, as you will find out in this preview. Enough talk, let's meet the remaining teams:

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (2) Red Deer Rebels

The Wheat Kings had little trouble getting past Moose Jaw in five games. Outside of a game 3 hiccup, the Wheaties were firing on all cylinders offensively while the goaltending held up its end in the four victories. Getting a healthy Tim McGauley performing to last year's numbers was a bonus for a team that has all the firepower a team can handle.

The Rebels needed seven games and a little home cooking to finally put away the Regina Pats. It did not come easy, as they needed a late third period goal. However, Trevor Martin struggled in the series, giving way to Rylan Toth to finish the series. Can Adam Helewka and company compensate enough for the defensive issues that surfaced in the Regina series?

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6

(1) Seattle Thunderbirds vs. (2) Kelowna Rockets

The Thunderbirds shut down the Everett Silvertips in five games with physical play that wore down the Silvertips long enough to solve Carter Hart. They're a team on a mission, and if they are to win their first championship, there's no better opportunity for Matt Barzal and company to do so.

The Rockets were 0.2 seconds away from failing to defend their championship until Justin Kirkland came along. An overtime goal later, and the Rockets survive another seven game series while sending the Scotty Munro champion Victoria Royals home. Despite all the injuries and an arguably tougher road to the Finals, the Rockets have persevered. However, the Thunderbirds will present their own problems and the Rockets' luck could finally run out.

Prediction: Thunderbirds in 5

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Clark Cup Playoffs

With playoff season in full force in hockey, there is another league that is getting their playoffs underway. The USHL started their Clark Cup playoffs this past weekend, and three of the series are even at one, with Bloomington and regular season chapmpion Cedar Rapids exchanging seven goal efforts while Dubuque and Green Bay exchanged 3-2 decisions. Waterloo and Lincoln are also tied at one game apiece while defending champion Sioux Falls is in a 2-0 series hole with Tri-City. Each series in the USHL is a best of five, so Sioux Falls may want to get going if they don't want their hopes of a repeat to be dashed while every other team in the field has a chance to better themselves.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mavericks Report: Playoff Time

With just about everything there was to get in the regular season wrapped up by the time the calendar turned to April, you may have noticed that there wasn't a Mavericks Report last week. I will make it up today with a playoff report, as the Mavericks begin their quest for the Kelly Cup against the Quad City Mallards. Before that though, the Mavericks got some good news, as Josh Robinson was released back to the Mavericks from his PTO with Stockton while Parker Milner was returned from Bridgeport, bringing along Carter Verhaeghe. And of course, the ECHL Coach of the Year award was handed to Richard Matvichuk this week. The next report will follow the conclusion of the series with Quad City.

NHL Playoffs Preview: Western Conference

Part two of the 2016 NHL Playoffs preview will cover the Western Conference, which can be seen as California vs. the Central Division.

(1) Dallas Stars vs. (4) Minnesota Wild

The Stars were largely one of the best teams in the West, but they also had to play without Tyler Seguin for a few weeks to close out the season. His return for the first round is likely, which bodes well for the offensive juggernaut. However, the goalie problem still exists, as neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi have seized the starting job. The blue line remains the wild card.

The Wild basically backed into a playoff spot, as it seemed that they didn't necessarily want the spot even after Colorado kept losing. A mid-season coaching change was barely enough to get there, but it may also be a short run, as the lack of depth on the blue line is getting exposed, as well as players up front not playing up to expectations. Devan Dubnyk will likely have to carry the team once again, and like last time, it may not be enough.

Prediction: Stars in 5

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

The Blues were neck and neck for the Central Division crown until the last game. Now, the playoffs are here and until they can make a deep run, there will always be questions as to whether the Blues can win when it counts with the current group. Outside of Vladimir Tarasenko, everyone on the team, coaches included, have something to prove.

Conversely, the Blackhawks stumbled their way into the playoffs, but they will have Corey Crawford back after he sat out for head issues. Depth, more than any other time, is a possible issue, particularly if players such as Marian Hossa don't make it back all the way. There's still Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith will be back after serving a seven-game suspension, plus the Blackhawks have been here before and know what to do.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (4) Nashville Predators

A slow start to the season gave way to a strong finish that saw the Ducks overtake the Kings for the Pacific Division crown on the last day of the season. Goaltending remains an issue, though John Gibson appears to be taking the lead as the starter, with Fredrik Andersen still lurking. The Ducks are coming together at the right time, with players such as Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell stepping up to compliment Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. There still is no top defender on the team, but all six defenders are more than capable as a unit.

The Predators, like the Wild, also backed into the playoffs, needing three tries to make it, losing all three tries, yet Colorado didn't want it, either. Goaltending is also an issue, as Pekka Rinne hasn't been great, with Carter Hutton playing consecutive games for a short stretch at one point. The blue line is still a strong point, with Shea Weber and Roman Josi leading the way, but up front, there needs to be more than Filip Forsberg contributing. Mid-season acquisition Ryan Johansen is an X-factor here.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

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

The Kings were on the verge of winning just their second Division title until Anaheim swooped in on the last day. Nonetheless, the Kings are back in the playoffs, and given their recent history in the playoffs, they should find a way back to the promised land. Jonathan Quick is still in goal, and Drew Doughty is still leading the way defensively while Anze Kopitar leads the charge up front. Where the Kings could use a boost is in just how much guys like Tyler Toffoli and Milan Lucic can do.

The Sharks get a chance to avenge their 2014 collapse to the very LA Kings team they faced the last time they were in the playoffs.  Martin Jones has been solid, but not great, which is why James Reimer was brought in. Both should figure to push the other until there is a true starter for the playoff run. Defensively, Brent Burns is the offensive firestarter while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the rock in the Sharks' own end. Joe Pavelski is the leader up front now, with the team hoping that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have something left.

Prediction: Kings in 7

Monday, April 11, 2016

NHL Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference

The NHL Playoffs begin this Wednesday and despite there being no Canadian teams in the hunt this time around (much to my chagrin), there will be no shortage of excitement, as the storylines do run here. For this segment, it will be the Eastern Conference preview.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (4) Philadelphia Flyers

The Capitals basically wrapped everything up by the time the calendar turned to April, so anything that could be looked into this month appears to be irrelevant. Now, the real fun begins, as we will see if the Caps can finally get over the hump or if it was all smoke and mirrors. Braden Holtby's season for the ages suggests that he's turned a corner in becoming an elite goalie while Alex Ovechkin once again led the way, securing the Rocket Richard Trophy and being the only player with 50 goals this season. This is the best shot for the Caps to win it all, but will it come together finally?

The Flyers needed the last weekend to make the playoffs, and did so with fairly convincing wins. Few expected them to make it here prior to the season, but the team is firmly buying into rookie head coach Dave Hakstol's system and with contributions from Claude Giroux and rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers could cause some trouble.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) New York Rangers

No Evgeni Malkin, no Marc-Andre Fleury, and a dysfunctional team for half the season, yet the Penguins comfortably made it into the playoffs. A mid-season coaching change lit a fire under Sidney Crosby, who put the team on his back for the first time in a while Malkin is out with injury. Fleury's situation also bears watching, as he could miss a game or two to open the series, but is more likely to start. However, it doesn't look great when Jeff Zatkoff is still on the roster and Tristan Jarry was recently called up to take Matt Murray's spot due to injury.

The Rangers had a little drama of their own, as they couldn't get out of their own way at times, and if not for Henrik Lundqvist, they would have had a harder time making the playoffs. As the likes of Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash go, so will go the Rangers' offense. The wild-card here is Eric Staal, who hasn't been in a playoff game since 2009 with Carolina. Defensively, there could be trouble if Ryan McDonagh is out for an extended period of time.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

(1) Florida Panthers vs. (4) New York Islanders

The Panthers rode the goaltending of Roberto Luongo and contributions from the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad to the Atlantic Division title. The next step is winning a playoff series for the first time since 1996. With Jagr, Willie Mitchell, and Dave Bolland on board, this is where the veterans will have the most impact, as they can impart the wisdom of how to handle a playoff series to the young players. If there is a player that needs to step up, it's Nick Bjugstad, as he had a disappointing season.

The Islanders weren't quite as good this season, as John Tavares didn't put up the elite numbers one would be used to, but he contributed in other ways that benefited the team, and that worked for players such as Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson. Defensively, this wasn't the best of units, but part of that can be traced to a revolving door in goal, as Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and J-F Berube saw a fair amount of time there due to injuries. If there is a way the Islanders can pull off the upset, it will have to be up to the likes of Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin to throw off the Panthers with their physical play.

Prediction: Panthers in 6

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings

The Lightning come limping in thanks to the absence of both Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. However, the Lightning seem to be getting goals from everyone, but especially Nikita Kucherov, who broke the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his career. Victor Hedman is still on the blue line, and he will look to build on last year's performance while Ben Bishop holds down the fort in goal. One interesting thing to watch for is what, if anything, can Jonathan Drouin contribute.

Detroit barely managed to make it 25 seasons in the playoffs, thanks to a tie-breaker over Boston. However, there isn't a heck of a lot to like about the team right now. Despite having Dylan Larkin, the Red Wings couldn't do much damage offensively, and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk aren't getting any younger, with Datsyuk possibly on his way out after the season. The Wings still haven't come close to filling the void left by Nicklas Lidstrom after the 2011-12 season, and this time, the goaltending is having a hard time bailing it out, as consistency was hard to come by for either Petr Mrazek or Jimmy Howard.

Prediction: Lightning in 4

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

WHL Playoffs: Conference Semi-finals Preview

The field for the WHL Playoffs has been cut in half, and now, eight teams remain as they look to be representing the WHL in the Memorial Cup. Puck drop for the first game is tomorrow, so without wasting any more time, let's go!


The Rockets needed a seventh game and overtime to finally put away Kamloops in a closely contested series. They still haven't found a go-to guy on offense for the playoffs, but Michael Herringer held his own in goal. That may be good for at least a competitive series, particularly given that the Royals had a slightly hard time putting away Spokane before finally doing so in six games. Count on this one being close.

Prediction: Royals in 7


Everett had little trouble putting away Portland despite Carter Hart only playing the last game of the series. Mario Petit was very good in Hart's absence, and given that the Silvertips are still prone to struggling on offense, they may need to ride their goaltending once again. The Thunderbirds were slightly tested, as two of their four games went into overtime. However, there is much to like about the Thunderbirds this year, and certainly, Landon Bow gives them their best shot of winning at least this series, especially if the team in front does their job.

Prediction: Thunderbirds in 6


The Wheat Kings sleepwalked through the first two games of their series with Edmonton, but woke up in a big way for the next four. They'll need all hands on deck for the entire series, as the Warriors possess two of the top offensive players in the league in Brayden Point and Dryden Hunt. Depth is a strength for the Wheat Kings, and provided that Jordan Papirny is competent, the Wheat Kings should advance. However, Zach Sawchenko can hold his own in net, and the Warriors could pull an upset if they're at their best.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6


The Pats handily pulled off the biggest upset of the opening round, beating Lethbridge with relative ease over five games. Adam Brooks continues to lead the way, but they face a Red Deer that had few problems going past Calgary. The Rebels would love to have a deep run to go along with a Memorial Cup appearance, so motivation is not a problem here, particularly since Trevor Martin is playing well in net and Adam Helewka has been the team's best forward.

Prediction: Rebels in 5

Insult to Injury

The ongoing saga of the Flint Firebirds has reached its conclusion (one can only hope), as OHL commissioner David Branch has made a statement, which can be found on the OHL site:

Based upon an investigation at my request by Terrence O’Sullivan of the law firm of Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb LLP, I am satisfied that Rolf Nilsen of the Flint Firebirds has on several occasions violated an agreement he signed on the 11th day of November, 2015, between himself and the OHL.  Those violations are contrary to the best interests of the players, the Team, and the OHL.
In view of these findings, in accordance with the OHL Constitution, I have ordered that:
  • Rolf Nilsen be suspended by the OHL from being involved directly or indirectly with hockey operations of the Flint Firebirds for five (5) years effective immediately;
  • The Flint Firebirds forfeit a first round draft pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection (third pick overall);
  • A fine be paid by Rolf Nilsen to the League in the amount of Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars ($250,000.00);
If it is determined by the League that Rolf Nilsen has violated this Order, the League may order Rolf Nilsen to sell one hundred percent (100%) of the ownership interest of the Flint Firebirds.
Furthermore, Rolf Nilsen may after three (3) years apply for reinstatement to participate in hockey operations of the Flint Firebirds.
During the currency of this Order, the hockey operations of the Flint Firebirds shall be under the stewardship, supervision and direction of the Commissioner.
The OHL is pleased to announce that Joe Birch, who has led the Flint Firebirds hockey operations since February, 2016, will continue in his role as Director of Hockey Operations, with a General Manager, Head Coach, and additional hockey operations staff to be appointed in the near future.
 In a nutshell, the decision laid down by Branch effectively means that the Firebirds will not only be likely in a perpetual rebuild, but that rebuild will be delayed a year, as this year's first round pick in the OHL Priority Draft is gone for them. While Nilsen is still technically owner of the Firebirds, and it is likely that an ugly battle in the courts may ensue, his time as owner of a hockey team is likely over. Five years is a long time to be away, and while the city of Flint is still embracing the team despite the problems, the ability to stay competitive may become a problem if it wasn't already, which could in turn, drive people away from the arena.

I'm sure this isn't what the people of Flint signed up for when the team was brought there from Plymouth, MI, and for one man's actions, a team, its coaches, and a city are paying a price. It's not fair, but something had to be done before things went to ruins, which could still happen if the team does end up moving, a possibility that exists.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Looking for New Help in Portland

On the heels of a rather disappointing finish to this season, followed by an noncompetitive playoff run that concluded with a sweep at the hands of Everett, the Portland Winterhawks have decided to end the Jamie Kompon era today. In two seasons as head coach and general manager, Kompon managed a 77-54-8-5 record, taking the Winterhawks to the Conference finals two seasons ago. However, he was unable to replace either Oliver Bjorkstrand or Nic Petan, and the result was an offense that more often than not struggled to score. The defense that was also an issue that first year continued to be so despite the additions of Jack Dougherty and Caleb Jones prior to this season.  The biggest issue reared its ugly head late in the season, when the Winterhawks struggled to make the playoffs, basically backing into a spot and then showing no signs of life in the playoffs against an Everett squad that was missing Carter Hart for most of the four games in the series.

To say that the Portland Winterhawks are trying to pick up the pieces is an understatement, particularly since the ramifications of the Mike Johnston recruitment violations of 2013 are still being felt, though like many teams trying to rebuild, finding replacements and the right coaching fit is a task onto itself. The next guy coming in is likely going to have less pressure than Kompon, but it may be a time before the Winterhawks return to playoff prominence (read: Conference Finals, minimum).