Saturday, April 30, 2011

Recap: Pens-Ning Games 6 and 7 (See Yinz Next Season)

Game 6: L 4-2, Game 7: L 1-0 (Ning win series 4-3)

Notable Highlights:

-When you blow a 3-1 series lead and lose in game 7 at home, there isn't much positive. The guys fought hard. That's about all I can say good about it. Since I'm not feeling the positive vibes, I'm going to toot my own horn by recapping my keys to victory as typed here a few weeks back:

-To win against the 'Ning, the Pens must:

-Activate the forwards: Get the puck in deep. Punish the Lighnting defenseman to cause turnovers or hesitance.Without the puck, get 2 in on the forecheck and force their guys to move the puck efficiently. The Pens had trouble gaining the line all series. When they dumped the puck in, they were sporadic in their ability to gain it back.

-Follow Coach Bylsma's philosophy: Coach believes that each series is going to 7 games. You can lose 3 times. In fact, you can play like complete trash 3 times if you win 4 games. They followed this theory, maybe a bit too losely since they lost 3 straight to close the series out.

-Sidney who?: Don't get caught up in the distractions of whether Sid is going to play, what the plan is with him, what type of cereal he likes, etc. As Coach says, "it's not about who's not here, it's about who is in this room." If the team did not get caught up in this, it's a good thing they didn't. In the goodbye interviews at Consol, Sid dropped a bomb in his confirmation that he had experienced symptoms again after his hardest workouts. This forced him to shut it back down. He is not "worried" about difficulty returning next season, but if you're a Penguin fan reading his comments are certainly chilling in the potential for additional missed time due to symptoms. 

-Convert on the Power Play. This could be the difference. 1 for 35. That's certainly a difference. Just not the kind we wanted.

-Capitalize on mistakes: The Lightning have less experience. Make them think instead of play. Despite the outcome, I feel like the Pens did a great job of this. To their credit, the Lightning minimized their mistakes. They paid for the ones the made, especially goalie Dwayne Roloson's puckhandling gaffes.

-Watch Martin St. Louis At All Times: A lot of focus will be on other players, but St. Louis fits the mold of a "Penguin killer". He's slippery and knows how to score talented and garbage goals. See, sometimes I really do know what I'm talking about...

-To win against the Pens, the Lighnting must:

-Be disciplined: Stay in their assigned spots in the 1-3-1 system. The Penguins believe in taking the attack to the other team. They are going to do that. Being overly aggressive won't help matters. Be where you're supposed to be. The 1-3-1 worked to near perfection. The Penguins had trouble navigating the neutral zone, gaining the line, and recovering the puck.

-Keep it simple in the defensive zone: As mentioned, the Pens will look to be in the offensive zone a lot. When you get control of the puck, don't be fancy. Looking for the rush could put you in a bad situation. Make the simple pass or play off the wall to make sure the puck clears the zone. The Ning Dmen did their best to keep the puck out of the zone, and also kept bodies away from Rollie the goalie.

-Avoid Turnovers: Turning the puck over can lead to extra chances in the defensive end or odd man rushes coming back. Execution with the puck is crucial against a team as aggressive as the Penguins. Except for Roloson, there aren't many turnovers that stand out to me as being costly, so another win for team Tampa.

-Bring Spucoli Back: Steven Stamkos only had 4 goals down the stretch. To move forward (and avoid extreme criticism) he will need to get back on the score sheet. He is a very talented player. Stamkos didn't have a big series, but he showed up in the game 5 rout. That game certainly turned the series looking back on it.

-Avoid Stirring Things Up: Take a page from the Detroit Red Wings. Don't go out of your way for scrums. The Penguins team is mid-level in terms of forward skill, but aggressive. Frustrate them by skating away after whistles early and often and you may find yourself on a few Power Plays. This wasn't a scrummy series by any means, but Ryan Malone sure stirred his share of shit up. I do believe the Pens forward group would have fared better in a chippier series, as opposed to a series about technical play and positioning.

-Be Cautious on the PP, Hack The Pens: The Pens had the #1 PK Unit and scored 13 shorthanded goals. Special teams can really swing a series. Until the Penguins prove otherwise, don't be afraid to take penalties when a good scoring chance presents itself. If they can't convert, it isn't penalizing you. Tampa won the special teams battles. Their power play was dominant. They also showed a disregard for the Penguins power play, which is great coaching. "If they can't convert, it isn't penalizing you".

-Remember That This Is A 7 Game Series: Even down 3-1, they kept this in mind. Now the play Washington in the 2nd round. Congratulations to them on a well played series.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-Not interested it beating the guys up. The power play stunk. So did the penality killing. The offense was not there, and I wasn't really thrilled with Fleury or the defense if I"m being honest...but what did you expect this group to do? They gave it their all. It wasn't good enough.

-I would have liked some lineup changes, so I do think Coach Bylsma got a little bit stubborn towards the end of the series. Would it have made the difference needed to squeak out 1 win in 3 games? Possibly. Possibly not. But even if we won...we'd likely be getting killed by Washington right now...and I sure as hell don't ever want that. Go 'Ning!

-Free agency is just around the corner (starting July 1) so that means a list of Penguins will not return. It's been real Max Talbot! Thank you for Game 7 in Detroit. You'll likely get paid somewhere else next season, as could guys like Pascal Dupuis, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham, Chris Conner, and Craig Adams. We've seen the last of the ghost of Alexei Kovalev and Eric Goddard will take his fists elsewhere. It always sucks to see guys go after you develop an affinity for them, but thems the breaks in sports. Head over to for more information on the Penguins situation or more information on league wide free agency.

-This update itself is a lowlight. I know when I've not done my best work. I'm not gonna bullshit you. It's not really my favorite thing to sit here and eulogize the guys season, so I went light on it. I am proud of this blog though. There's a small segment of you out there that actually enjoy it, to you I raise my stick. I vowed that no matter what I would make it one full season and see where things stand. At this point in time, I see no reason to stop. This isn't exactly the most viewed website on the internet, but that was never what this is about to me. I live for this sport, and specifically the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the next few weeks, I hope to the get up some short recaps for every guy that played in at least one game. After that we'll prep for free agency, and I also will be trying my hand at some broad topics in the sport (not to step on co-bloggers toes, just to keep at it). Again, no matter what team you root for or what country you're from, thank you and keep coming back. It's been a great innaugural season at Shootin' the Puck!

Tampa Bay:

-Coach Guy Boucher's system worked perfectly and he never let his guys get rattled. GM Steve Yzerman made a hell of a pick. Tampa has defiinitely turned a corner in their rebuild and may be a force in the East before we know it.

-G Dwayne Roloson stopped 243 out of 256 shots for a .949 save percentage. Many said that Martin St. Louis was the player of the series. I'm not taking away his performance, but most people that favored the Penguins believe that a 41 year old goalie would falter sooner or later. didn't happen. Even in the losses, he didn't play terrible. I must admit, I am starting to wonder the true value of high priced goalies.

Friday, April 29, 2011

John's Playoff Picks - The Rest of the Way

Some people, although I am not one, swear that more alcohol in the morning after a hard night's boozing will make you feel better. Well, in this case, it is Pens and the hockey hangover that always comes with playoff defeat and I am rallying in the aftermath with the rest of my playoff picks.
With that being said, let me self-promote: Maggie the Monkey (who I think is dead anyhow?) eat your heart out. How 'bout some respect!
I nailed the West. Two series dead on (Van in 7, Nsh in 6) and nearly got the Det sweep right. The east, I nailed two more (Bos in 7, Was in 5) and lost two...but lets face facts, I was one goal away from nailing the Sabres series in 6 and underestimated Tampa's resolve and got biased about Pens pop-gun offense. I'll take 6 of 8; especially when you came damn close on the other two you missed.
While I annoyingly toot my own horn here, let me go ahead and not only pick round 2, but the rest of the final 8 left standing all the way through. I am doing this for two reasons. First, picking each round gets old after a while and secondly I feel I can ride my hot picking hand (or maybe its just less interest now that the Pens are golfing - I'll let you decide). This is a lot less unstructured than the other picks, I am just ad libbing with this one. Here we go:


Eastern Conference

#1 Washington Capitals v. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Just typing it makes me puke in my mouth a bit. A tough series to call here with tons of variables. Is Tampa going to absolutely buy in on defense again? Can Roloson keep this pace up? What kind of goaltending will the Caps get? One thing is for certain, both teams are familiar as division rivals and have potent offensive powder kegs that can blow up at a moment's notice. 
A lot of times when a team plays unreal defense and squeaks out a win in a tight series, such as Tampa has here, they have a tendency to follow up with less vigor because you can only play on adrenaline so long. Montreal did this last year and got steamrolled by Philly after Halak and crew just couldn't overachieve any more. So, the question is, can Tampa and the 1-3-1 (ugh) shut down the potent Caps offense? Specifically, can they shut down Alex Ovechkin? Well, Neil Greenberg in an article on ESPN's Insider website did a great compilation of scoring chances that the Capitals had during the season when Ovechkin's line met up with the top D pair from all 8 playoff teams. Surprisingly, to me, the second most effective pair at limiting Ovechkin's scoring chances (after Sekera/Myers from Buf) were Lundin/Ohlund from Tampa.
Perhaps an even better question in this series is who will be the goaltending hero? Will 41 year old Dwayne Roloson keep up his unrealistic play (although he's made a cup run out of nowhere before)? Which goaltending will show up for the Caps? For my money, I think Tampa is a more complete team right now and a nightmare matchup for the Caps. The Rangers had no offensive pop and still scored on Boudreau's "defensive" system. I feel that Tampa will exploit Washington's weak goaltending, as their top players are capable of filling the net up. Washington's offense will test Tampa's defense and Roloson, but I don't see the Caps being disciplined enough to break the 1-3-1. In sum, Tampa will win because of better coaching, more discipline, and enough goaltending and defense. They still have enough for the Pens/Caps double play; just like the Canadiens last year. Its like a carbon copy.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6 games

#2 Philadelphia Flyers v. #3 Boston Bruins
Two division champs square off here in a repeat of last year's monumental Bruin collapse (from 3-0 up) that propelled Philadelphia to within two wins of the Stanley Cup. Much will be made of this, as it should be. I generally underrate the "oooh, they are in their mind" hocus-pocus that media loves; the team that executes better wins if talent is even. I do feel these teams are evenly-matched, but you cannot ignore last year's events. I say this because (1) no lead has been safe in these playoffs, (2) if the Flyers are down a goal (or even 4), you know that last year will be a part of the shit talk at the faceoff circles and benches, especially if Philadelphia has the momentum of a goal that cuts a lead. On the other hand, don't underestimate exorcising demons and what it can mean to a collective group. Consider Vancouver's win the other night. Luongo came out and said it may have even eclipsed winning gold on Canadian soil! I'm sorry, if they lose to Chicago there, thats a franchise changing moment. The win may be too..(more on that later). The Bruins, to a man, surely want to eliminate those demons. Of course, this won't matter to guys like Kaberle and Horton (among others) that are "new blood" in Baaahhhsston. In other words, I think the creeping doubts will be cancelled out by "we need to beat these guys" rah-rah spirit.
All things considered, I think Boston has the edge here for two main reasons; a relatively healthy Chara (assuming the dehydration issues are gone) and Tim Thomas. If playoff hockey is a chessboard, two massively important pieces are your goalie and your top defenseman (or even D pair). At full health, the two towers of power on defense, Chara and Pronger, would cancel each other out like two Queens on the chessboard. However, Pronger is not 100%. Although he is an epic playoff warrior. I do not think he can take the banging and crashing the rugged Bruin forwards will dish out. He is still human. Also, Tim Thomas is somehow still overlooked. Even by me. I really did not fully grasp that the man had the highest save % in NHL history this year (read that again). He is playing well but will not totally shut down Philadelphia. Of course, he will slow them down one heck of a lot more than Bouceightsky (Boucher-Leighton-Bobrovsky-Whoever else) will slow down Boston. The mix of bruising forwards and timely scoring will propel Boston in a series that is not as close as many think it will pan out to be.
Prediction: Boston in 5 games

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks v. #5 Nashville Predators
Here is the thing about the has the makings of a legendary series, but also characteristics of a classic second-round steamrolling (i.e., Sharks over Wings last yr). Vancouver is all full of spirit after a monster win in game 7 in OT. It had to feel like the weight of the world is off their backs; its the story making headlines all over the league. So the question is (much like SJ dispatching the Wings last year), how hungry are the Canucks after such a satisfying win? Tough to say. This is why this thing could go any which way. Vancouver, clearly the best regular season team, is riding high. They may buzzsaw a Predators team that bleeds goals from 3 scoring lines that are more like second or third lines. Or...they may be so busy patting their own backs that they get knocked right on their faces.
Likewise, Nashville is feeling great about themselves. They brought home the first series win in franchise history. Will they consider it a job well done and something to build on later? Will they keep gaining momentum? Tough to say.
Here is what I think. I think that small market, new kid-on-the-NHL success block Nashville is getting no respect. I think the scene at Bridgestone Arena on Easter was that of an emerging franchise, one ready to put their brand on this year's playoffs and be the story we all remember. Its an intuition over logic. Vancouver is better in so many ways and has the record to show. But, I do think this is a nightmare matchup because the Weber/Suter pair will limit the Sedin twins and make them scared with their physicality. I do think the Canucks secondary scoring will struggle to beat Pekka Rinne. I do think there is something special about Nashville this season. Their espirit de corps and team makeup will beat the Canucks, that will play like a satisfied dog until they realize they are in a series.
Prediction: Nashville in 7
(Quick note: I stopped here and saved before game 1 - but I stick with my guns regardless)

#2 San Jose Sharks v. #3 Detroit Red Wings
The big question that seems to be on people's minds is "can the Sharks dominate Detroit again like last season?". Well, they did take 3 of 4, so logic would dictate they have their number. But lets refocus a second. We have a franchise that has had playoff disappointment run rampant versus one that has constantly achieved to its talent or even overachieved. But of course, the "franchises" aren't playing each other; the players are. However, I feel this fact is overlooked and does seem to matter in certain situations; I guess you can call this an "it" factor that isn't tangible (someone watched too much NFL draft coverage, yikes). Well, Detroit has it with the coach and guys like Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and on and on. 
What seemingly holding Detroit back last season (and maybe now) are two things; team speed overall due to some aging (yes, some guys they have are fast, but top-to-bottom) and an unknown commodity in net. San Jose seems to have a massive edge here with Niemi on paper. He won  a cup and is now on another team threatening to do so again. It seems like a sequel. Well, if you read my last round predictions, you'd see that I feel sequels are rarely as good. This seems to playing out in front of us. Niemi has been shaky at times and yanked twice in clinching games. Is it a hiccup? Is it because he's not playing in front of an unreal top 4 D like the Hawks have? We don't know. So in this sense, its a push in the goalie matchup. I say toss the cup win out for Niemi; its past history - look at the present. Both Howard and Niemi are (1) young, (2) on loaded teams, (3) are capable of great play in stretches, and (4) are still prone to young player mishaps and meltdowns. This has to be the biggest variable in the series.
Both teams have great top-end talent up front and can really fill the net. Both have okay defense corps led by a legend (Lidstrom) and a real good veteran quarterback (Boyle). Both have the aforementioned goalie situation that can go anywhere. So we have to fully examine some key situational weapons in the series. In one sense, San Jose has a big weapon in Douglas Murray, a giant Swedish tank that is going to be charged with moving two other giant Swedes in Holmstrom and Franzen. If the refs "let 'em play" and keep on calling it old school (i.e., crease clearing is allowed), Murray will wreck these two great net-crashing screen artist that have been injury prone. In the same sense, "old school" ref work will allow Detroit to use that subtle interference all over the ice and get away with it (it makes my skin crawl, but they are so good at it!). Another weapon the Wings have had this year, which has honestly surprised me, is how well the depth has played. They look thin up front, but then get great play from guys like Cleary, Modano, Bertuzzi, Helm, and others. If Detroit's depth players are on, they win this series, as they win the matchup against a fairly thin Shark blue line. The reverse is true also, San Jose is so deep scoring-wise, while Detroit's defensive depth is questionable.
So with all of this waffling, where do I stand? Gotta ride the hunch and say that Niemi comes back strong enough a la Luongo, the San Jose depth on offense exposes the thin Detroit blueline (unless Lidstrom can somehow play 40 minutes a game! It may be possible with him, what a freak), and the Sharks prevail in what will certainly not  be a repeat of last year. This will be the best series of the second round, in my estimation.
Prediction: Sharks in 7


Eastern Conference

#3 Boston Bruins  v. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Earlier, I noted that the Lightning seem like a carbon-copy of Montreal last year. They are playing unreal defense and getting great buy-in, coaching, and timely goals. Its not that they are playing "over their heads", but they are peaking at the right time and overachieving. Its a good team, no doubt about it, but I think the end of the road comes at some point for teams like this, you can only play that suffocating defense for so long and NHL coaches are so good, they will find a way to beat the system (1-3-1 they use). The Bruins have the tools to win this series because they have veteran leaders to keep the team focused on what needs to be done and not get frustrated, Claude Julien is a good coach in his own right, and they are simply a better team all around (with the exception of top end goal scoring, which is not to be undervalued).
At the end of the day, can 35 year Martin St. Louis keep playing 25 minutes a game? Can 41-year old Roloson keep stealing the show? Can the system persist all playoff long (i.e., the 1995 Devils) and win it all? Maybe, but I think not. Boston has too much size up front and will pound the slower Lightning defenders into submission. Boston wins, with a little bit of a fight.
Prediction: Boston in 5

Western Conference

#2 San Jose Sharks  v. #5 Nashville Predators
So here we are again, the Sharks, poised to finally break through to where they should get on paper versus the upstart Predators. I feel this series will play out a lot like the Eastern final. Nashville, should they advance, is a pesky team with a great Goalie that will test San Jose's patience and will (ultimately, what I think will beat Vancouver). These are situations where San Jose would fold in the past. Is this year different? I don't know. But I think it is. As I mentioned in my first round predictions, I always believed that the "Thornton/Marleau/old guard Shark players can't get it done" was overrated and the real culprit was bad goaltending. Oddly enough, it looks like Niemi caught some "Nabakov-itis" late in round one. This is probably making Shark fans clinch their collective sphincters as we speak. I feel he overcomes it (well if he doesn't it will be Detroit here) and comes back good enough for San Jose to win. Notice what I said there, good enough to win. San Jose is so loaded with scoring, they simply need him to be good enough. Just like the Hawks were so good on D last year that he needed to just be good enough to get the hardware. I think he'll be good enough and I think that the balanced San Jose attack counter-acts the Suter/Weber shutdown pair, puts pressure on Nashville's depth and on Rinne, and eventually breaks through. San Jose finally makes the big dance, but not without some fight from Nashville. This series has the "super-close short series" feel where San Jose barely wins games just on the scoring depth.
Prediction: San Jose in 5


Boston vs. San Jose
Its the cup final and as you'd imagine, two great teams will go head to head. San Jose is bringing 3 lines deep of scoring ability, defensive discipline, and cup-winning goaltending, and a hunger to finally get the job done and win the cup after years of frustration and hearing about how they are all chokers. Boston is also bringing defensive discipline, bruising forwards, and a record setting goaltender that is having a career year and still remains under-appreciated. This will be a great final to me. Both crowds will be amazing (especially the underrated San Jose crowd) and both teams will lay it all out there for the glory to hoist the cup. 
So who gets it done? I have to fall back on my key belief about playoff hockey. It goes something like this:  Defense is a team concept and can be a trait (some players are always good defensively, like energy line players) AND a state (players that are not typically noted for defense will play it knowing they need to in order to win the Cup). In the end, if goaltending is relatively even, the deeper, better scoring team will win.
Again, that is just my two cents. Think about guys like Brett Hull selling out to win cups toward the end because they know the chances are limited and they want their legacy to be that of both a winner and a great player (there are many other examples here as well). Although Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley seem young; they really aren't. There is a lot of miles on those odometers. I think they will absolutely sell out to win this time...and that makes the Sharks scary good, and we all know it.
In this series, you could argue Thomas is better than Niemi, and I would accept that. But hes not that much better that it turns the series on its head. Let's not forget Thomas, for all his greatness this year, is no spring chicken and has been prone to meltdown games. Another advantage Boston has is Chara is better than any defender San Jose has. But overall, I think these D corps are a push. In the end, the speedy Sharks and their desire to finally get it done overcome a good run by the Bruins.
Prediction: San Jose in 6 games  (Conn Smythe winner: Joe Pavelski)

NOTE: Did you see what I did there...with the teal. Its called foreshadowing people!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Recap: Pens-Ning Games 3-5

Game 3: W 3-2 , Game 4: W 3-2 (2OT) , Game 5: L 8-2 (Pens lead series 3-2)

Notable Highlights:

-After 5 games, the story continues to unfold. From the Tampa side, there is sure to be a bravado. "We have 'em right where we want 'em" is likely a rally cry for their fanbase. Frankly, it's tough to tell if that's false optimism or the truth. More than anything, that right there is the beauty of the NHL playoffs. We've witnessed 5 games, the Penguins are within 1 game of winning the series, yet it could still go any way.

Make no mistake, if you're a Pittsburgh Penguin you want no part of a game 7. But at the same time, you can't lose faith in yourself if it gets to that point. They say you should never bet with your hearts, but I"m still picking the Pens to win game 6. Home teams are 16-23 in the games played thus far in the 2011 playoffs...not exactly an overwhelming case for "home ice advantage".

Will last season's Penguins team show up or will the "road dogs" from the Stanley Cup season? Only time answers that. If you've followed the blog this season, you know that I'm a Pens fan. I don't apologize for that. That doesn't mean I can't look at the team objectively though.

So far, they've been timely and oppurtunistic in their wins, and terrible in their losses. That doesn't give me confidence in a long playoff run...but it also doesn't mean they hand over game 6. If that happens, I'll be in the building for my first ever game 7...I don't think my heart will be able to handle it, so if you've enjoyed this blog at all, hope for a game 6 win!

-Tyler Kennedy's game 3 goal was huge. It came right after the Ning rallied to tie the game. If the Penguins win the series, this was likely one of the top reasons why. Had game 3 went to OT, perhaps the series takes a different shape. He also netted a power play goal in game 4.

-James Neal got a fluky, yet superb goal in the second OT of game 4. This doesn't reverse the fact that he has done little of what he was brought here to do (score goals), but he has worked hard and it was good to see a bounce go his way.

-Arron Asham continued his excellent play in games 3 and 4, scoring in each game. All credit to him for stepping up, but for him to be the lead scorer after 5 games isn't an overwhelming sign that this team has the depth in scoring to go deep.

-Because of the Chris Kunitz suspension, Eric Tangradi was in the lineup for game 4 and his screening of Dwayne Roloson greatly assisted Tyler Kennedy's shot in finding the net.

-Unrelated to this series, Pens billionaire co-owner Ron Burkle is making a bid with legend Steve Garvey to buy the LA Dodgers from MLB. Head here for more information if you are interested. He is also on a short list of candidates to purchase Warner Music Group. Article on that can be found at this link. Best of luck to Mr. Burkle in all his pursuits.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-Game 3 featured two plays that were suspendable incidents. Tampa's Steve Downie took about 6 strides and blind-sided Pens D Ben Lovejoy behind the net, while also leaving his feet to make contact. Pens F Chris Kunitz later elbowed Tampa's Simon Gagne for no reason other than retaliation. Both plays warranted suspension, and deserved more than 1 game each player was penalized. For that matter, each play warranted more than a 2 minute in-game penalty in my opinion as well.

The Kunitz play is pretty simple, watch it below. If you think this isn't an intent to injure on Kunitz's part, I'm not sure we are on the same wavelength in terms of how the sport of hockey should be played. I would have given him a match penalty and sent him to the showers for the night.

Then we have the Steve Downie run on Ben Lovejoy.  My view on these types of hits has changed over the years. I will admit to being in the building on a few instances where then Pens F Colby Armstrong caught someone in a similar fashion. Did I cheer? You bet. As I've come to realize the danger of blindside hits in the sport, has my opinion changed? You bet. Wreckless blindside hits, especially when they fit the criteria of a charge have no place in the sport. Watch the hit here again. Why this wasn't a 5 minute match penalty as well is beyond me. NHL referees are a slight notch above the old WWF refs that would be looking in the crowd while somebody took a crowbar to the face. Come on guys, there are 4 of you out there at a time. Put your heads together, and make the tough calls to preserve player saftey!

Ok, so both of these plays warranted a suspension, but a play from the Vancouver-Chicago series did not. Vancouver's Raffi Torres hit Chicago's Brent Seabrook in a similar fashion. It was not as blatant of a charge, yet it was a blindside hit behind the net. No suspension was levied because he made "legal contact to the head". You read that right. Concussions were up in the sport of hockey, and there is such a thing as "legal contact to the head".

NHL Dud of Discipline Colin Campbell in charge of all this stuff and has continually missed the point and oppurtunity to gain control of the growing danger of headshots. For a great article on the matter (seriously, I don't mean that superfluously), head on over to I would like to write and expound on the matter, but Tim King already has and says it best when he states that these incidents "have exposed Colin Campbell as a clueless buffoon whose continued presence on the scene will do nothing to clarify this matter for players or fans going forward."

Let us also not forget that Pens super villain Matt Cooke was banished for the rest of the regular season and first round of the playoffs for an illegal hit. I support the supsension even though it was one of Cooke's more tame violations this season. That was surely a way to stick it to the Pens for the Islanders debacle.

Campbell's reasoning for the low supsensions for Kuntiz and Downie was that playoff games are "worth more". If playoff games are "worth more" in terms of a punishment, would they by extension also not be "worth more" in terms of a possible injury to a player? Would that "worth" not dictate more instead of less? I think the answer is obvious, but when it comes to the NHL and consistent officiating and discipline they are worlds away from the other sports leagues. This is a danger to player safety, confusing for the players who want to stay within the rule set, and a total embarrassment to the sport. I'm hoping Colie will make his discipline less about sticking it to Pens co-owner Mario Lemieux and more about what it should be, the betterment of his sport.

-Pens Power Play is now 1 for 25 in series. Root's Paul Steigerwald was critical of Tampa Captain Vincent Lecavalier for taking too many penalties and how that's not leadership. Somebody should tell Steigy it's only hurting your team if the other team's PP unit scores above the current 4% clip they have scored at. If I'm Coach Guy Boucher, I make it well known that penalties in the defensive zone between the circles are a-okay with me. "Prove me wrong" would be my motto.

-On the other side of the equation, Tampa has scored 8 times in 22 chances (36.4%). Don't lose sight of the impact Matt Cooke's absence is having on the team's PK. That's not whining. Cooke deserves to be out, and again I criticize his selfish play for costing the team. If I'm Ray Shero, I take a long hard look at moving him in the off-season. This is when we need him the most, but because he has the inability to head-hunt he is watching from the press box. As those across the pond might says, "Bollocks!".

-What can you really say about an 8-2 loss at home when you have a chance to close out a series? From top to bottom, the battle level wasn't there. Each player should (and hopefully will) take a look in the mirror and at the game film and realize that they didn't play Penguins hockey. They were sloppy and lethargic (like I say they usually are in day games) and once behind they ran around head hunting and looking for scrums and hits. Game 6 will be won on the scoreboard and the way this group can get on the scoreboard is keeping it simple with short, crisp passing, and hustle to loose pucks. If Tampa is winning the battles as they did in games 2 and 5, this series will go 7. Once you reach game 7, you flip a coin and hope for the best. The Penguins control their own destiny still. Win and the 2 bad losses in the series do not mean a thing aside from items that the coaching staff can teach with.

Tampa Bay:

-Coach Guy Boucher finds his team down 3 games to 2, yet if you are looking for him to blink it isn't going to happen. His team returns to the their home ice for game 6. That's all they have to worry about. They've won or been in each of the games in the series, so they don't have worry from that standpoint. His main concern may be the Penguins collective playoff experience in meaningful games. He will rely on his vets such as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Ryan Malone to make sure the younger guys are in the right frame of mind. They can't win the series in game 6, but they can certainly devastate the Penguins with a win and keep their season alive. One step at a time is all they have, but it's also all they need.

-Tampa has to be excited beyond belief at the team wide awakening in game 5. "Spucoli" Steven Stamkos netted his first 2 goals, and took a big step towards alleviating any possible criticism that he was absent when his team needed him the most. Watch for him to be energized in game 6. With all the attention that must be paid to the other Ning forwards, Stamkos could get open for some of his patented one time goals from the sides.

-G Dwayne Roloson continues to be a large part of the story for Tampa. he has stopped 180 out of 191 shots for a .942 save percentage. That is getting the job done. Just for statistical comparison, Marc-Andre Fleury has stopped 112 out of 124 shots for a .903 save percentage.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Northward Migration? A Proposal for the Inevitable NHL Realignment

Yes, I am aware its the middle of the playoffs, but the Pens got a few days I wanted to talk about a story that has been underlying for a while now and is about to come to a head, in my opinion. 

Lets begin by getting a few things straight. First, I am a believer that two competing ideas can both be right at once. What this means is that yes, the NHL did make some errors in judgement regarding southern and western expansion in the United States. However, this does not mean that hockey is a failure in the southern and western United States. One simply needs to look at the on-ice and attendance successes in Anaheim, Dallas, and Tampa Bay to see evidence that the sport is at worst doing well enough in these markets. Lets keep in mind that it takes years for a true following to be grown from a brand-new expansion market (just think about how long it took Pittsburgh to really establish itself as a market). As Pens fans we can gloat about our robust attendance in recent seasons and blame the near move/bankruptcy on bad ownership by Howard Baldwin all we want, but the truth is we were fortunate for Mario and fortunate what needed to happen happened for us.
The NHL will be moving out of Phoenix and Atlanta at some point very soon. I know both places have good fans, the sad thing is that they just don't have enough or are victims of bad circumstance (such as Phoenix playing across the metro area from their fan base). My point of view, like some others, is that the NHL was simply waiting until the Coyotes are out of the playoffs (regardless of what they say) to cut their losses in Glendale and head back to Winnipeg. Perhaps this last minute meeting with Goldwater and Glendale will change things; but I seriously doubt it.
Atlanta is also in the midst of total chaos and indifference in a notoriously fickle sports market. The way the residents of Quebec City have made waves, combined with the construction of a new arena, suggests that an NHL team will be there in short order. The New York Islanders, playing in what is rated as the worst pro sports venue and receiving negative vibes about their plans to build a new center, may not be far behind. It seems clear at the current time, that the NHL will be migrating north again and will re-adjust Canada back to 8 teams. While Southern Ontatio/Toronto could certainly use a second team, the Leafs and Sabres will never allow it to happen. People are tending to forget about Kansas City, with a tenant-less modern arena in a place. From all reports of the people I've met from the area, KC has transformed itself from a Cow-Town to a pretty eclectic town with a pretty strong "white collar" presence. In other words, the kind of market that the NHL loves.
To summarize my beliefs, I feel that Phoenix, Atlanta, and the NY Islanders will all move, with the Isles being the last domino to fall. They will move to Winnipeg, Quebec, and Kansas City. Now the question must be asked, how does the NHL sensibly adjust to this switch in their Eastern/Western Conference labeling. In the old days, when the divisions were named for long gone icons (e.g., Norris, Patrick, Smythe divisions), this wouldn't be a short-term problem. For example, Tampa moved into the Norris upon league entry, which was dumb, but held fort for a few years. Now, can the league really put Winnipeg in the Pacific Division? A second option, which failed miserably the first time around, is to make "mega-divisions" like was done in the 1990s. This was stupid and was not effective (hence the current divisions).
Since the NHL is really good at doing this all wrong, here is some sensible realignment options that help maintain the current format, but don't really confuse the fans and the general sports fan public.

The new Eastern Conference

Mid-Atlantic Division - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, NJ Devils, Buffalo
Yes, I went ahead and changed the name. Buffalo and Pittsburgh are not on the East Coast. The most obvious thing that jumps at you is Buffalo being pulled away from their natural rival Toronto. Well, yes...but those two franchises have lobbied so hard for keeping a third team out of Southern Ontario (which Buffalo draws well from) that they should take this as a compromise. Lets not forget these two spent decades in different conferences. They will still play 4 times a year; don't get too worked up over it. Additionally, I feel the Sabres/Flyers have had a kind of under the radar rivalry since the 1970's. Working that angle, both Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Buffalo were all early expansion teams (1967 or 1970) and are geographically close. Rivalries will emerge. Personally, I felt the Pens/Sabres were beginning a good rivalry in the old Northeast Division in the early 90's. This division makes perfect sense from a logistics and geography point of view and maintains more "classic rivalries" (i.e., PIT/PHI. PHI/NYR, NYR/NJD).

Northeast Division - Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec
Again, this just makes sense and keeps classic rivalries intact. Not much to note here really. This division has to happen. No way powerful Original 6 franchises allow long-standing (or dormant) rivalries to dissipate. These are obvious - Boston/Montreal, Quebec/Montreal, Toronto/Montreal. Beyond this, the mileage between cities is so close, its like a bulls eye on a dartboard. If I am thinking correctly, this entire division is accessible via relatively short train rides. While this division seems "stacked" because it has half of the original six teams, also consider the relative lack of success that has been a part of Ottawa's franchise and Atlanta's current franchise (and even the past franchise in Quebec City). Its a good mix of powerhouse franchises and franchises that are new to the league or really haven't established themselves.

Southeast Division - Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Nashville
The biggest change here is the move of Nashville from the West to the East. People tend to get worked up about this thing. For instance, it took a bit of time, but we all got used to Toronto being an Eastern Conference team because it made geographical sense and felt right. I feel the same holds true here. Honestly, who is Nashville's biggest rival? You could say St. Louis or Columbus, but both cities are really far away and have no real natural rivalry with Tennessee as a region. They are essentially rival-less and do well for themselves in a really tough division; consider their lack of success in a power division relative to Columbus, another expansion team. While you could say "ok, who is there rival in this division?" and that would be a fair question to which I have no answer. But what I do know, based on my limited experience living in the region is that Nashville is in a weird place. Its often referred to as the "Mid-South" as it is both Midwestern and Southern in geography. But, from a social categorization standpoint, Tennesseans in the area see themselves as "Southern" (as do West KY residents where I live 2 hrs north and west).
 A second thing that may jump out at some people is that this division will be the "weak one"; the "NFC West" of the NHL that will earn a 3-seed and then get beat by some 6 seed every year, prompting debate over the merit of division champion seeding. But I don't see this as being true at all. Here are some important things to consider. Washington, as much as we hate them as Pens fans, has developed a good niche in the DC market and have young superstar players. They will be a force for a while. Carolina seems to be treading water lately, but have an unheralded fan base and are well run. Nashville is also another well run franchise that will remain competitive. Tampa is successful sun belt franchise that has a young star, older stars, and a good following. The only "weak link" here is Florida; and I fully believe their biggest issues are (1) bad management and (2) a fickle market. I mean, its Miami. Even if you like hockey, theres a lot going on (see Heat, Miami, 2010-11). In sum, this division has two well-run franchises that haven't quite broken through to go all the way (Washington, Nashville), Two Cup winning franchises (Tampa, Carolina), and a market that has struggled, but seems to be stable based on the "Snowbird" population, newer arena, and a stable ownership situation. They just need to turn it around on the ice. I feel this is a competitive division that simply lacks name value. It will improve over time if...simply left alone by Canadian haters and Original 6 blowhards.

The new Western Conference
Northern Division - Vancouver, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton
Speaking of Canadian blowhards, it seems they will get what they want with this division. Four Central/Western Canadian teams with one of those pesky American teams that ruin the sport. Too bad its Minnesota, which is the State of Hockey in the U.S. You can even give them a name that makes them feel good (a change from "Northwest" to "North"). People get the idea with geography, and the north designation has worked out okay for the NFL. All sarcasm aside, this division, at the end of the day, may be the weakest one. Consider the spotty history of the Jets-Coyotes-soon to be Jets again, the Wild as an expansion franchise, and the up-and-down nature of the Alberta franchises and Vancouver. What I am getting at is that people will pick on the Southeast for a lack of name value; but if the Canadian dollar goes back to sucking, this could easily become a division of mediocre teams at best. Still, you have the iconic Oilers from the Gretzky days; so they still have name value. Calgary has won a cup and been mostly competitive. Vancouver seems to have it all figured out at the moment. They are a good base for the division, which has 5 good markets for hockey (finances aside). As long as a cap system remains in place, this will be a good, competitive division with some great rivalry material. The obvious ones are there with the Western Canada teams (VAN/EDM, VAN/CAL, CAL/EDM) but Minnesota and Winnipeg could develop a strong rivalry as they are relatively close and have the "border" issue. Its a potential rivalry that both franchises desperately need. The Wild have no real rivals yet (aside from hating Dallas) because they are in the current Northwest, which puts them hours from the West Canada teams. But putting Winnipeg is a game-changer for them. Perhaps both franchises could grow into strong teams and the league can build a lucrative new rivalry. 

Western Division - Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose, Colorado
Much like the above change to the "Northern" division, and the change I proposed for the Penguins division, the Western Division proposed here makes sense. Colorado is certainly "northwest" (current), but Dallas sure as heck isn't "pacific". But both are certainly "Western". Of course, so are the California teams. Thus, we have the Western Division. This division basically swaps out Phoenix for Colorado. It has been an uber-competitive division lately with some really close battles and standings. Just about every year, hockey fans find themselves saying "wow, how did ___ finish last in the Pacific?"; its a good division, that's why! Of course, just like the Northern Division's Western Canadian teams are the heart of the division, the Cali teams are the heart of the Western division. This playoff's storyline of "all 3 California teams making it" has shown that the implementation of hockey has been a rousing success there. San Jose has an unreal building. I could see it being waxed poetic in a decade or so as being an "old school barn" because its 15 years old or so, but it has a loudness to it that is remarkable. San Jose is a great market and is just waiting for a breakthrough. They are well run and will be a player going forward.
I feel the same can be said for both Dallas and Anaheim. Two newer markets that have both won the hardware and have won over a solid fan bases. Although it feels like the Ducks building a bit antiseptic and quiet, there are always full seats and plenty of noise when it matters. Dallas has great fans and is a major success. The whole "standing for the long stretches/game" thing is sure annoying as a TV viewer, but is a great tradition for them. Consider these factors about Dallas as well. First, they were won over by a team that played Hitchcock hockey (ugh). Second, their division road games are almost ALWAYS 8:30 MST or 9:30 PST starts for the home TV viewers. Just sayin'. Los Angeles is an original expansion team that has underrated support and will always have the massive transplant population (and general population) to be a success.
All in all, this division has showed it can be a great one in recent history. I don't see that stopping. Adding Colorado to the mix makes sense. Now that the Sakic/Forsberg era is over, the franchise seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Who is the big rival in the Northwest Division? I can see the whole "Rockies" thing with Calgary or Edmonton, but it don't seem right. I hate to bring the NFL into it, but the Broncos have robust rivalries with California teams there, I think the same would hold true here.

Midwest Division - Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbus
Another name change! Again, "Central" is kind of sterile and not befitting the great rivalries and mindset of Midwesterners. The "Midwest Division" gives some pizzazz and emotional meaning. You think of things like Big Ten football, Tornadoes, Wrigley Field, and potentially abandoned industry. Its the heartland for crying out loud (that would have been a hokey name for this division though). I feel this division would be a winner because the current Central Division has a good balance of powerhouses (Detroit, Chicago), solid markets (St. Louis) and lesser-runs (Columbus). It never felt like Nashville fit in here, as noted before. But I DO think Kansas City would fit in wonderfully here.
In this new division, you keep the classic rivalries (DET/CHI, STL/CHI) but allow other natural rivalries to develop; immensely helping struggling (CLB) or uprooted franchises (KC). For example, Columbus desperately wants a rivalry with Detroit, via the Ohio/Michigan natural rivalry. Once Detroit comes back down to earth/Columbus comes to Detroit's level, I feel that will occur. Also, while Saint Lou has some good rivalries with Chicago, and to a lesser degree, Detroit, a great Missouri rivalry with Kansas City would be a boon to both STL and KC. The newly uprooted Islanders/whoever gets moved there will then have a clear rival and a robust division of geographic rivals that make sense. The ticket buying public in KC can get behind going to see the hometown boys take on teams like Chicago and Detroit. They are Original 6 teams that are close. Much like STL, they will get to hate seeing their fans come south to invade their arena and divisional hate is born along with a hockey market.

Okay, I think it makes sense. Now its just about watching it happen. My hearts go out to fans of teams that may get moved, but its a fact of life in the NHL.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Recap: Pens-Ning Games 1 and 2

Notable Highlights:

-After 2 games, the series is tied at 1. Unfortunately many fans don't read this blog or realize that the playoffs are all about peaks and valleys. There were too many fans (and press) crowing about how great the team looks after game 1. Conversely, the dejection after game 2 is not necessarily the reality of this team. Somewhere in between the performances of these games, the true story of both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning sits. While games 3 and 4 increase in importantance, remember that it will still only be a part of the story.

-The 2nd period of game 2 contained a segment of about 10-15 minutes where the Penguins completely dictated play, but could onlly manage 1 goal on the board. Had a 2nd been tallied, the result could have been different. Give credit to the 'Ning and especially G Dwayne Roloson for weathering the storm.

-D Brooks Orpik continues to be a true vocal leader. His comments after game 2 are refreshing, but also frighteningly similar to the types of things he was saying during the Canadiens series last season. Even though nobody's asking me, I continue to believe that Brooksie is worthy of a "C" on any NHL team, including this one.

-Arron Asham has points in both of the first 2 games.

-The Pens are generating a lot of shots, but they now need to focus on the quality of shots. Shots from the sides will be relatively easy for G Dwayne Roloson and should also not provided the rebound oppurtunites that the Penguins grinding forwards can capitalize on. A better effort needs to be made to get the puck back to the middle and have guys near the crease.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-It's really not fair to blame individuals soley for losses, but let's hypothetically say I had to pick the 3 Anti-Stars for Game 2. At the top of my blame list would be D Paul Martin, D Kris Letang, and G Marc-Andre Fleury.

Letang will always get a pass from women because he's a dreamboat, but as I've pointed out many times, his game is very Goligoski-like, only with higher ups/lower lows. Based on Coach Bylsma's comments 4/16 (around the 2:00 mark), I don't think the coaching staff is looking for him to pinch in some of the situations where he is getting caught out of position, nor are they happy with his performance in terms of consistency.

From the beginning, I have not been sold on Paul Martin. He is a $5 million cap hit. Purely as a fan, I hope this is his "Gonchar year" where he struggles and then it clicks next season. When it rains it pours they say, and his game 2 performance was a downpour of flood level proportion.

Marc-Andre Fleury. Pardon the pun, but he is "lightning rod" when it comes to discussion of the Penguins. Some would say that he doesn't deserve to be on this list based on his performance in game 1 and the odd man rushes. I'd slightly concede that point. The reason I include him is again because whenever media and fans crow about his performance (MVP...really??), there will be a stinker sooner rather than later. Yes, 2-on-1s suck as a goalie. MVP's find a way to stop them. MVP's also find a way to not let the first shot, or some of the first handful of shots go in when the team is falling apart.

-Pens Power Play was 0 for 13 in the first 2 games of the series. I'll explain that in case it is escaping any of you...the Penguins have had an extra person on the ice due to Tampa penalty 13 times in 2 games. They have scored 0 times. If I'm the Lightning coaching staff, I encourage my guys to continue to hack and whack any legitimate scoring chance until the Pens show it's worth thinking otherwise.

-By losing a home game, the Penguins have temporarily lost "home ice advantage". If Tampa were to win only home games from here on out, they would clinch the series. That is why the Pens have "lost" this advatage. A win in Tampa, would shift it back to the Penguins advantage.

-Root's Bob Errey made perhaps the stupidest comment ever recorded regarding Alexei Kovalev's role on the power play when he indicated that Kovalev needed to be one of the guys chasing and gaining the puck on dump-ins. While I understand this is something that is needed, to suggest that Kovalev has the desire, ability, or effectiveness to do so is silly. Kovalev is what he is. He scored a big goal in game 1 due to turnover and nice play by James Neal. I don't think Kovy is gonna outwork anybody for the puck, power play or otherwise. If that's the ingredient that the PP is missing, it's time get Arron Asham or Mike Rupp out there.

Tampa Bay:
-Coach Guy Boucher has to be thrilled with both of the first 2 games of the series. Yes they lost game 1, but they were not run out of the building. The next day, Boucher gathered the team for about an hour and discussed philosophy. The game 1 loss helped him quietly regain the attention of the team. They knew they could have won game 1, Boucher reminded them of where they went wrong. Game 2 showed the Lightning are a worthy foe when they listen to their Coach.

-The 1-3-1 system is working well. The Penguins are having trouble gaining the blue line and when they are in the zone effectively, the majority of the shots are coming from the sides. This limits the severity of the scoring changes and is exactly what the 'Ning want. The would rather face 70 shots from the sides than 25-30 in or near the slot.

-G Dwayne Roloson stopped 72 of the 75 shots he has faced. He is hoping to continue to face the shots from the side and follow the Montreal Canadiens/Jaroslav Halak blueprint for success from last spring.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Games 80-82, Playoff Preview Pens-Ning

Games: vs. NJ (W 4-2), @ NYI (W 4-3 SO), @ ATL (W 5-2)

Notable Highlights:

-6 of 6 possible points. Team finished with 106 points and in 4th place in the Conference. Tampa Bay is the 1st round playoff opponent. This recap will be light. Regular season is over, it doesn't matter now. There is only one goal (shown above).

-There were three 20 goal scorers: Sid (32), Chris Kunitz (23), Tyler Kennedy (21).

-The Penguins PK finished 1st in the league at 86.1%

-The PK also generated some offense, scoring 13 shorties. Pascal Dupuis lead the way with 4.

-As a team, the Penguins gave up 2.39 goals per game, finishing 7th in the League.

-Seems to be some support in the national media behind Coach Dan Bylsma winning the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year. After a garbage start, the Pens turned it around and never let the wheels fall off when everything continued to give them excuses to quit. The whole coaching staff deserves credit for that.

-To win against the 'Ning, the Pens must:

-Activate the forwards: Get the puck in deep. Punish the Lighnting defenseman to cause turnovers or hesitance.Without the puck, get 2 in on the forecheck and force their guys to move the puck efficiently.

-Follow Coach Bylsma's philosophy: Coach believes that each series is going to 7 games. You can lose 3 times. In fact, you can play like complete trash 3 times if you win 4 games.

-Sidney who?: Don't get caught up in the distractions of whether Sid is going to play, what the plan is with him, what type of cereal he likes, etc. As Coach says, "it's not about who's not here, it's about who is in this room."

-Convert on the Power Play. This could be the difference.

-Capitalize on mistakes: The Lightning have less experience. Make them think instead of play.

-Watch Martin St. Louis At All Times: A lot of focus will be on other players, but St. Louis fits the mold of a "Penguin killer". He's slippery and knows how to score talented and garbage goals.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-Despite missing the team's last 41 games, Sidney Crosby was the leading scorer with 66 points. From what I've heard, hat is the lowest team-leading point total since Dick Tarnstrom. I refuse to verify that for the sake of my sanity. Sid also lead the team with 10 Power Play Goals. SMH.

-Pens Power Play was 25th, with a 15.8% conversion rate.

-To win against the Pens, the Lighnting must:

-Be disciplined: Stay in their assigned spots in the 1-3-1 system. The Penguins believe in taking the attack to the other team. They are going to do that. Being overly aggressive won't help matters. Be where you're supposed to be.

-Keep it simple in the defensive zone: As mentioned, the Pens will look to be in the offensive zone a lot. When you get control of the puck, don't be fancy. Looking for the rush could put you in a bad situation. Make the simple pass or play off the wall to make sure the puck clears the zone.

-Avoid Turnovers: Turning the puck over can lead to extra chances in the defensive end or odd man rushes coming back. Execution with the puck is crucial against a team as aggressive as the Penguins.

-Bring Spucoli Back: Steven Stamkos only had 4 goals down the stretch. To move forward (and avoid extreme criticism) he will need to get back on the score sheet. He is a very talented player.

-Avoid Stirring Things Up: Take a page from the Detroit Red Wings. Don't go out of your way for scrums. The Penguins team is mid-level in terms of forward skill, but aggressive. Frustrate them by skating away after whistles early and often and you may find yourself on a few Power Plays.

-Be Cautious on the PP, Hack The Pens: The Pens had the #1 PK Unit and scored 13 shorthanded goals. Special teams can really swing a series. Until the Penguins prove otherwise, don't be afraid to take penalties when a good scoring chance presents itself. If they can't convert, it isn't penalizing you.

-Remember That This Is A 7 Game Series: The last year the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, they lost to Detroit in Game 5 in an ugly game (5-0). All hope appeared to be lost as it seemed history was going to repeat itself with the Red Wings up 3 games to 2 and possibly lifting the Cup after Game 6 on Civic Arena ice. Co-owner Mario Lemieux, who has known the agony of defeat and the glory of winning, proved once again why he is a legend in a text to GM Ray Shero:

"We are a family and in this together. We don't need anyone that is only with us WIN or TIE. I really think this is our year. Let's forget about tonight ... It happens. We will win Tuesday and win the Cup Friday."

I won't rehash it the rest of it, go here for the article. The point is, the 'Ning can't be discouraged, even if things seems bleak. A series doesn't end until one team wins 4 games. If they believe in themselves, anything can happen.

Forward Recaps:

-Maxime Talbot was the only forward to play in all 82 games.

-Mark Letestu finished with 14 goals.

-Mike Comrie scored the last goal of the regular season in to an empty net. He's worked hard to get back in to the lineup mix after his hip surgery and it was good to see the guys set him up and embrace him like that.

-Craig Adams lead the forwards with 64 blocked shots.

Defenseman Recaps:

-Ben Lovejoy had 3 assists against Atlanta, a career high.

-Kris Letang lead the team with 42 assists. He was also the only defenseman to play in all 82 games.

-The Pens theory on D is blocking shots. Zbynek Michalek 149, Paul Martin 129, Kris Letang 109, Brooks Orpik 94

Goalie Recaps:

-Marc-Andre Fleury appeared in 65 games, was 36-20-5, had a 2.32 GAA, .920 Save % and 3 shutouts.

-Brent Johnson appeared in 23 games, was 13-5-3, had a 2.17 GAA, .920 Save % and 1 shutout.

Monday, April 11, 2011

John's Playoff Picks - Western Conference

(Continuing from yesterday...switching the order up a bit)
It's the time we've all been looking forward to...The Stanley Cup Playoffs. After 82 games, the pretenders have been weeded out and its down to sixteen. Here are my first round predictions. I promise not be a pansy and choose all favorites - because we all know an upset is looming large. I'll try to avoid the wimpy "push" when I don't know. I'll give it a shot.
We all got our little "theories" about the playoffs. I know I got mine and I am sure you'll be sick of them by the end of this. Here is my little template for this picks article, in order of importance (to me):

Goaltending: (Which starter is better, duh)
Scoring: (Pretty all encompassing. Does team have top-end scoring? Scoring Depth? It can come from forwards or defense...basically, who can light it up better?)
Defense: (not team defense or any of that crap...who has a better top 4 or overall D corps)
Intangibles: (Which team has better coaching? Does team have clutch players that seem to come up big? Does the coach or team have the moxy for the big moments? That kind of overrated (see SJ v DET, 2010), but sometimes valuable thing that makes all the difference)

I feel I am qualified (not really) to talk about this because...I picked last year's Super Bowl matchup after the NFL regular season. This means I was either lucky (probable) or I am actually good at this picking winning teams thing (unlikely). If I keep this up, maybe I can replace Maggie the Monkey?
Ok, enough of these monkeyshines...(rimshot)

No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
Irony here is that I feel this may be one of the best series, yet it will not get one game nationally televised. Two teams that have been under the radar all season now get to duke it out. Sometimes 4 v 5 seed matchups are  what I'd call "unfortunate" because whoever loses you could probably plug into a few other series and they would win. But that is the breaks here in the Western Conference, where no softies seem to exist. This matchup excites me because its the top line in the league right now (Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan) against probably the best D pair in the game (Suter, Weber). What a key matchup!

Goaltending: Have to hand this to Nashville. I would reconsider with a healthy Jonas Hiller, because he is a playoff beast. But Pekka Rinne is the best goalie that no one knows about and he had the year of experience last season in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. He'll be ready to shine.
Scoring: Ducks. The aforementioned unit of Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan has been unstoppable lately and bring tons of grit, size, and of course, hands. They could be overwhelming for anyone. Oh yeah, that Selanne guy has the spark back at 40. Very dangerous group of forwards.
Defense: Nashville has a very strong group of defenseman and seem to be one of those franchises that pulls them out of thin air. Its no magic, just great scouting, drafting, and development
Intangibles: Logic would dictate the Ducks because of the number of key players left from the cup run a few years back and because of the fact that the Predators have yet to win a series. But you know what, sometimes that is such a big motivator, it can balance the scales. I am going with that and giving Nashville a narrow edge.

PREDICTION: Predators in 6.  It finally happens...the Predators bring a series victory back to Nashville. People tend to forget this team nearly took Chicago out last season. It was a young team that made mistakes...and will learn from it. History in all sports is rife of "losing before you win" stories. I got a feeling about this team, even beyond this series. Every year a lot of us have a bandwagon team aside from the Pens - mine is the Preds this year (and no, this has nothing to do with the fact that I live 2 hrs away and they are growing on me). In this series, I am taking the "defense wins out" approach in the key matchup. Weber and Suter have the moxy, size, and skill to play with and minimalize the Ducks big line. Ducks just lack the depth and goaltending to beat this team.

No. 3 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes
Last season, these two had a very tight 7-game thriller of a series. Detroit, the proven playoff warriors, were tested against the up-and-coming Coyotes that seemed to have an edge to them given their situation. It would have been the franchises biggest victory in the playoffs, but they came up a game short. A lot of pundits are foreseeing an encore series that will match last year. But I believe, much like movies, the sequel is usually never as good.

Goaltending: Phoenix by a hair. Ilya Bryzgalov is a solid goaltender, but so is Jimmy Howard. Both can be had. Very close matchup.
Scoring: The Wings have a great set of elite forwards in Datsyuk and Zetterberg (although there is some question about his availability) and a versatile set of forwards that do not overwhelm but are solid. Phoenix's forwards can be described in much the same way, but lack the top end talent. Thus, give the edge to Detroit.
Defense: Wings again. As usual, Nick Lidstrom remains a game changer on the blueline. Don't forget about Keith Yandle for Phoenix, but Detroit is better overall and on the top pair.
Intangibles: Last year, it seemed like Detroit may have overlooked this team. Also, there was just "something" about Phoenix that seemed to spark them. They do have a great leader in Shane Doan, but he is past his prime. Detroit has so many guys that can step up.

PREDICTION: Wings in 5. Zetterberg's injury and the fact that Howard is fully capable of crapping the bed, complacency, and the wear-and-tear of accumulated hockey over a 3-4 year period are potential pitfalls, but I see Detroit overcoming these and winning a few tight games and taking the Coyotes will to win away (as will the half Wings-fan full arena in Glendale).

No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings
Interesting battle of No Cal v So Cal and two division rivals. The west is just so tight that its hard to pick nearly every series. Sometimes I feel the Sharks are destined to shed the "good, but not tough enough to win the cup" label, sometimes I can visualize Thornton dogging shifts in an elimination game with the team getting pounded. The Kings, on the other hand, were a popular dark-horse cup pick all season long because they are a solid all around team that can beat anyone. 

Goaltending: I'll acknowledge that Quick is a solid goaltender, but can be streaky at times. Antti Niemi held the Stanley Cup over his head less than a year ago. Gotta go with the Sharks here.
Scoring: I think this edge goes to San Jose going away with all the injuries LA has had. Even if LA were healthy, its tough to beat the depth the Sharks have, especially since they have let young forwards like Logan Couture develop this season. They have great top line guys (when they buy-in) and great depth.
Defense: Dan Boyle is household name and really good defenseman, but he seems to be either having an off year or is losing that half step of speed that has made him great. Beyond that, the Sharks have some solid, yet unspectacular guys like Murray, Vlasic, and Wallin. I think the best defenseman in this series is Drew Doughty (especially if he can correct the lack of growth or step back he took this year). Jack Johnson isn't so bad either. Slight edge to LA here.
Intangibles: Normally, the media and talking heads are quick to point out the Sharks lack the guts to win it all and always hand the intangibles over to the other team. Both teams have good role players and the Kings have really good leaders in Brown and Ryan Smyth (although way past his prime). I don't know if many agree with this, but I always felt San Jose's biggest playoff issues were poor goaltending and role players that were either insufficient or too young to make a big difference. This time around, I feel they have corrected both of these issues

PREDICTION: Sharks in 4. Every first round usually has a sweep somewhere. This one just seems to jump out to me. LA's injury woes and current state are worrisome. They seem to be regressing some into the playoffs; injuries are no excuse and do nothing for you in the playoffs. San Jose has a strong team and just have more high-end talent all over the rink. They win this going away and will make noise again this year.

No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 5 Chicago Blackhawks
Another "Deja Vu" series here. People are tending to believe that either (1) Vancouver will find a way to choke/Hawks are cup champs no matter the seed, or (2) Vancouver is clearly better this year and will exorcize the demons the Hawks have presented them by steamrolling the complacent and less talented Hawks team.

Goaltending: Canucks going away. Hard to believe a rookie that has looked pedestrian all season will top Luongo, but crazier things sure have happened. Luongo has his moments in the playoffs. But I feel that his backup coming on so strong is enough to push him a bit (although he is no real threat to his job at this point). Lets put it this way, its better than having Dany Sabourin behind him.
Scoring:Both of these teams are stacked with top-end scoring threats. Hawks guys got it done last year in the playoffs while the Canucks stars were brilliant this regular season (again). I am giving the edge slightly to Vancouver here because the Hawks top 6 has been relied on so much and has played so many minutes.
Defense: A lot of people want to talk up the Canucks defense, and rightfully so, as they've been good. However, they are not as good as Chicago, particularly their dominant top 4. Edge to Chicago, although both teams sport good blueline corps. 
Intangibles: Its easy to say Chicago here because of the recent success. I will give them the slight edge because of great winners like Toews and Keith. But I sincerely believe the Canucks are going to come carrying a big stick (kinda like that old lumberjack logo) ready to beat a limping Hawks team. They will want this bad and this is a close matchup.

PREDICTION: Canucks in 7. Honestly, nothing in this series would surprise me. While I think the Hawks are too proud to go out with a fight, I believe the combination of Vancouver's desire to finally get "over the hump" will motivate (kinda like Sharks last year) and I just saw an exhausted Hawks team out there lately. You would hate to say "they remind me of last year's Pens", but they do...Last two years: Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals, with the Olympics tossed in there for the top end guys. That is a LOT of hockey and it will catch anyone. I think the champs put up a good fight and maybe Reggie Dunlop "mind-fuck" them for a few games, but they will prevail because Chicago will simply lose steam and do not have last year's team.

John's Playoff Picks - Eastern Conference

It's the time we've all been looking forward to...The Stanley Cup Playoffs. After 82 games, the pretenders have been weeded out and its down to sixteen. Here are my first round predictions. I promise not be a pansy and choose all favorites - because we all know an upset is looming large. I'll try to avoid the wimpy "push" when I don't know. I'll give it a shot.
We all got our little "theories" about the playoffs. I know I got mine and I am sure you'll be sick of them by the end of this. Here is my little template for this picks article, in order of importance (to me):

Goaltending: (Which starter is better, duh)
Scoring: (Pretty all encompassing. Does team have top-end scoring? Scoring Depth? It can come from forwards or defense...basically, who can light it up better?)
Defense: (not team defense or any of that crap...who has a better top 4 or overall D corps)
Intangibles: (Which team has better coaching? Does team have clutch players that seem to come up big? Does the coach or team have the moxy for the big moments? That kind of overrated (see SJ v DET, 2010), but sometimes valuable thing that makes all the difference)

I feel I am qualified (not really) to talk about this because...I picked last year's Super Bowl matchup after the NFL regular season. This means I was either lucky (probable) or I am actually good at this picking winning teams thing (unlikely). If I keep this up, maybe I can replace Maggie the Monkey?
Ok, enough of these monkeyshines...(rimshot)

No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Its hard to imagine that the hockey gods would actually punish us by making this series happen again; as it was painfully boring last time. Usually, 1 v 8 matchups get a lot fanfare because sometimes top teams aren't able to get it going (after coasting in) in the playoffs and getting beat to the punch by a scrappy team that has been in "win or go home" mode for weeks. This "mode" forces them to maximize their potential. This nearly happened a few years ago when a scrappy Ranger team nearly took out the heavily favored Caps. Everyone will use this for fodder as to why this will be a possible upset. I am not buying (see below).

Goaltending: Rangers, but not as much of an edge as people think. Contrary to popular belief, Lundquist is not good enough to steal this series.
Scoring: Capitals. Rangers don't have much pop throughout their lineup. Whatever pop they do have is either injured or is soft.
Defense: Both teams really have mediocre, overrated D corps. Give it to Capitals just because their guys have more ability.
Intangibles: I'm sitting here with my mouth open. Both coaches are overrated. Both teams seem to wilt when it matters, so I have to guess that the Rangers have this edge with a lot of their guys that lack playoff experience, but play with a lot of jam. Also, as much of a attention-whore spazz as Tortorella is, he does have a cup win.

PREDICTION: Capitals in 5.  Rangers are hoping that the Caps will play undisciplined enough to keep them in the series, like last time. Hey, that's not a bad bet. At some point, the Caps goaltending and mediocre defense will be exposed, but they can "litterbox" it for now with the goal scorers they have up front.

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
This series intrigues me. Going back to the point I was making upsets, it seems like this is classic scenario. A rested Philly team that is kind of  a mess going into the playoffs versus a Buffalo team everyone kind of forgot about with Ryan Miller coming back to Earth and their top offensive playmaker (D. Roy) out. However, the Sabres seem to be formidable lately and are playing well. Now the age old this a perfect mix for an upset?

Goaltending: Not even a question - even if Miller isnt' healthy.  Enroth has been great when called upon. For Philly, Bobrovsky may be wearing down and Boucher is what he is; a solid backup.
Scoring: Flyers, hands down. They have top end scorers (Carter), emerging scorers (Giroux, Van Riemsdyk), and amazing scoring depth. I am too lazy to look up how many 20+ goal scorers they have. But they showed Pens fans how deadly they can be if you take shifts off defensively.
Defense: Flyers. Not really sure what Pronger's status is; if he is out for some, most, or all of this series. But when hes in there, as much as he is hated, he is a winner and glues that D together in a real decent unit. Lots of good giants in this series too, with Myers and Coburn.
Intangibles: May be the best coaching matchup of the first round. Philly did make it far last year and had that taste of success, so I give them the nod here.

PREDICTION: Sabres in 6.  This is one of those all-or-nothing type series. Either Philly will get good (or even average goaltending) and steamroll Buffalo, or Buffalo will ride the wave they are on right now and take home the big upset. I am putting my money on a rested Ryan Miller over the unknown commodity.

No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens
Another tough series to handicap. Lots of history, but I mean recent history. I don't care about Original Six Waxing Poetic crap when players had no helmets. You have the big, tough Bruins versus the slick, fast Canadiens. Canadiens took the season series and also upset the Bruins a few years back, but the Bruins blew them away a few weeks ago and ran away with the Northeast Division.

Goaltending:Maybe the tightest one of the first-round series. I am going to go with Carey Price and the Canadiens. I do realize the season that Thomas had, but I just don't feel he steps up in the clutch. Maybe I am proven wrong this time.
Scoring: Also tight. Both teams have decent scoring depth, but seem to lack a true game-breaking star. In this case, I will go with Bruins because of the size and grit they have with guys like Lucic, Marchand, Horton, etc.
Defense: No doubt its Boston here. They have Chara, who is a monster, to go with a real solid group that added Tomas Kaberle, who hasn't had the wear and tear of a long run on his body in quite a few years.
Intangibles: I'll go with Montreal here. They have a really solid coach and went on a nice run last year and as Pens fans can attest to, an ability to step up in big situations. Can't fail to mention the extra motivation the Pacioretty hit may give - sometimes contrived crap like that can motivate. Let the record show that Max made a large error in judgement pushing Chara for no reason to celebrate a win a few months ago.

PREDICTION: Boston in 7. Such a bitter rivalry, all kinds of storylines. At the end of the day, will the speed and finesse of Montreal beat the big, bad Bruins? I say no. I think Boston will grind down the Habs blueline that is already thinned out and Boston just has too much depth at key positions.

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning 
There are a lot of ways to look at this series. So many "what if's". What if Crosby/Malkin were healthy? What if Tampa's top six forwards play to their potential? Is Tampa's 5 seed watered down by playing in the Southeast? But this is the magic 8 ball gives these answers.

Goaltending: Penguins. If goalies, other than Hasek on "late-90's unreal mode", actually were considered for NHL MVP, Fleury would have to be a candidate. Hes been remarkable and has already shown his playoff potential. Dwayne Roloson has seemed to play the Pens tough, but is also 41 years old.
Scoring: I got to say Lightning here. If Pens have full arsenal, its a different story, but I am assuming no Crosby and we know there is no Malkin. Tampa has some series scorers, but they scored intermittently throughout the season. For instance, Stamkos was on crack for the first few months but now in hiding. Now, Lecavalier is playing like he is actually interested.
Defense: Penguins. The Pens top four may be the best around. They also have decent depth. Tampa has some decent guys, but they really don't stand out. 
Intangibles: While Boucher seems like a good up and coming coach, not sure he can match Bylsma. Also, Pens have so much Cup experience in the lineup and seem to have better players on their 3rd and 4th lines.

PREDICTION: Penguins in 6. Its going to be a grind for the Penguins. It will be tough to manufacture goals, especially if Tampa D and Roloson are on. But there is one truth to this series that I just can't get away from, the Penguins ability to forecheck against what is generally a old and/or lumbering defense. Its great that Tampa has the game breaking scorers, and they will surely make it a series, but the Pens will "grind these bitches down" (as Bylsma would say) and really establish a presence in zone time that will be the difference.
Back tomorrow with some West Coast (or Conference) Love.