Tuesday, April 08, 2008

NHL Playoffs Baby! Let's Do This.

Hey Folks,

Okay, I'm going to warn you right now. You will feel 1 of precisely 3 ways right now. Option 1: You will be fired up. Option 2: You will be like, "What the hell?" and stop reading immediately, and then there's option 3: "I'm curious. Let's see what he has to say about a topic I know very little and care very little about." I hope you feel a lot of "Option 1" with a healthy dose of "Option 3." If you're an "Option 2" person, well... nobody's perfect.

How many of you are sports fans? Okay, okay, I see some hands, good. Now how many of you sports fans out there enjoy playoffs? Great, almost all of you. And my final question: how many of you love to see playoff sports played on a level so high and passionate that it runs chills down your spine and warrants shouting out loud at the TV even when you're not watching your team?

(everyone jumps up and screams and claps and gives high fives to one another, one guy cracks open a new "vented" Coors Light can and drinks half of it...)

Okay, okay, settle down everyone. Shhhh, shhh, shhhhh.

We're not talking about the NBA playoffs. We're not talking about football. We're talking about hockey.

Look. I get it. I know. I didn't grow up on it either. I was raised on the three major sports. Hell, I wasn't even really raised on college sports. And yet, I am big time into college football, and I can watch a hockey game beginning to end and thoroughly enjoy it-- ON TV! It's something I picked up along the way, just like I picked up guitar, bass fishing, and...uh... Well, I guess that's it. But, you get my point.

To many of you, hockey is a foreign sport played by crazy Canadians and the occasional Russian who skate around and try to injure each other, and no one scores, and the announcers use all these crazy terms, and on that note, what the hell is icing anyway?

Look, don't worry about that at first. The understanding of the game will come, just like it did with me. I'm not quite an old dog yet, but I taught myself a new trick, and so can you.

Step 1 is to watch the NHL playoffs.

I am in no way saying that play is dispirited during the season, because that's simply not the case. But, I think the difference between a regular season game and a playoff game in the NHL is a margin that is greater than any of the other sports. It's pure adrenaline from puck drop to the final horn. Guys are flying around the ice, laying checks and hits that they may not have laid all season. Players basically leave their bodies and crank things up two or three notches before your very eyes. Every mistake is magnified, every penalty kill or power play more important. No one wants to play an 82 game season in vain.

Whereas baseball and basketball seasons are also extraordinarily long and grinding, most injuries are fatigue and "wear and tear" related. Football is the closest thing to the NHL's grinding schedule, but they only play 16 games.

Imagine playing the NBA's schedule but taking the hits of an NFL player...

Anyway, enough blabbering about it. I guarantee that you will enjoy it, and perhaps even gain the appreciation of a great game that I did after being hooked on playoff hockey years ago.

It helps if you have a local team to root for, but if your local team sucks, or you don't have one nearby, try not to become attached to a far flung franchise. If a team sucks, it needs support more than ever. Anyway, here are the playoff matchups, and what you can expect from each series. I'm going to give it a 1-5 "star" rating system for watchability. That means if you're not a fan and are just starting out, this would be a good start.

For instance, those of you from Milwaukee have two acceptable choices, well maybe three. You've got Chicago, Minnesota, and if you're really adventurous, Columbus. Of those three, only Minny is in the playoffs, you generally hate all things Chicago (and they're not in the playoffs), and Columbus is a couple years away from being any good. (Becoming a Red Wings fan is not acceptable.) Go with Minnesota. And no, the Badgers don't count here.


(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (8) Boston Bruins ** (two stars!)

Boston's unsung netminder Tim Thomas is a huge reason why Boston will make the playoffs for the first time in years, but has practically dropped off the map recently, and has not been very good. In fact, The B's as a unit have been downright awful recently. They're 6-12 in their last 18 including 6 of those losses coming in OT or shootouts. That tells me that they are not in a good way, and won't be able to win close games. They nearly missed the playoffs entirely, and if not for their long suffering fans who put up with the second worst owner in sports (after Marlins owner Jeffery Loria: see my last blog) I'd wish a better team like Carolina made it instead. They could struggle because their best forward, centerman Marc Savard has a broken back. But don't worry, he's Day-to-Day. He should be ready for the playoffs. What? Yeah. No joke. It'll be interesting to see how C Patrice Bergeron does coming back from a brutal concussion as well. He'll be playing his first minutes in months.

As for the Habs, they're a very solid, but unspectacular team. They remind me a lot of the San Antonio Spurs. They get the job done behind great special teams (lead the league on the power play, and have a more effective penalty kill than their ranking leads on) and solid two way players. The biggest concern is in net, where rookie Carey Price was handed the reins a bit too early, and too late in the season for my liking. Cristobal Huet is no longer there after being traded to Washington, and coach Guy Carbonneau has two rookies to rely on in goal. Price has been excellent though, going 24-12 with a .920 save percentage and 3 shutouts. Very risky move, but it's looking good right now. We'll see how it goes.

Home ice will help win this series quickly for the surprisingly excellent Canadiens because Boston is 3-7 in their past 10 games away from TD Banknorth Garden (That's a mouthfull!).

Prediction: Montreal in 4 (Les Habitants Le Sweep!)

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Ottawa Senators **** (four stars)

This is not the series I expected the sensational young star Sidney Crosby and the Pens to be in. This speaks to the pure underachievement and severe dysfunction of Ottawa.

The Pens added the explosive Marian Hossa at the deadline, and got young goalkeep Marc-Andre Fleury back from a lengthy injury. Then of course there's the steady power play blueline presence of Sergei Gonchar. Oh yeah, then there's that other Russian guy who has 106 points... Malkin? Yeah. Evgeni Malkin. Effing monster.

Hossa has been banged up since being traded from Atlanta at the deadline and Sidney Crosby's ankle problems have been well-documented. If only they'd had a couple more weeks to mesh together, they'd be in business. A top line of Malkin-Crosby-Hossa is enough to give a hockey fan a raging semi, but it remains to be seen if they'll see even strength time together on the ice.

As for the Sens... well...

After losing to Anaheim in the Stanley Cup Finals last year, Ottawa flew out of the gate like a bat outta hell, going 16-3 to start the year. They looked unstoppable, their big 3 was on fire, Martin Gerber was a man possessed in net, and things were rosy in the Canadian capital.

Then shit started hitting the fan. Their most explosive player, Dany Heatley went down with an injury. Relegated to backup duty, hothead goalie Ray Emery stopped showing up to practice on time and took shots at his team in the media. Jason Spezza started playing like he was back in Junior, going hard only on offense. This led to the firing of head coach John Paddock with 18 games left in the season and self-reappointment of GM Bryan Murray. They went 7-10 in March and April, so stuff still isn't going well at all. We can't forget how good this team can be though, and they are too explosive to be written off completely. Their best chance is to try to draw penalties on Pittsburgh and take advantage of the Pens' 23rd ranked penalty kill. This will be a high scoring series. Unfortunately for Ottawa, they're screwed.

If you guys wanna see some young talent and skill, check this out. It's a highlight reel of Malkin and Crosby.

PS: Does anyone remember that the Pens were almost going to leave after this year for Kansas City? What a sin against humanity that would've been.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers ***** (5 stars!)

Well, well, well, what do we have here? Looks like two surging teams looking for a fight!

I'm thrilled about this series. The only thing that would've been better would be Pittsburgh-Washington so Crosby and Ovie could go head to head.

Ovie? Oh yeah, in case you haven't heard, there's a guy on Washington named Alexander Ovechkin. Sorry, but you have to watch this video right now to understand how cool this guy is. He was just signed to a 13 year, $124 million dollar deal. He's worth every penny.

He's an unstoppable one man show out there, and he IS the reason that the Caps are in the playoffs. Hell he had 65 goals and 112 points, both league bests. And... he's 23! They went on an amazing run to close the season, and due to stupid seeding rules, they won the 3rd seed.

The Caps made two great deadline deals: they acquired experienced C Sergei Federov from Columbus and secured the desperately needed services of goalie Cristobal Huet. This team is exciting, they're hot, and they're my favorite team in the East. They are 10-1 in their past 11 games, and are currently riding a 7 game winning streak heading into the playoffs. This team is going to be damn good for a long time.

As for the Flyers, I believe that even if they hadn't snuck into the playoffs at the end here, the year would have been a success. As a team, they had 56 points (in the standings) last season, good for worst in the league. Now look at 'em.

Actually, I think this team is in good shape heading into their fight with the Caps. They endured an appalling 10 game losing streak in February, and many wrote them off as finished. However, they've rectified themselves pretty well, and look to give Washington a run for their money.

Led by prized free agent signing C Daniel Briere and D Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers are #2 on the power play this season, and have a variety of quick weapons on the advantage. C Mike Richards has returned from a lingering injury, but has just 1 measley point on the power play since February 9th.

Whenever the shots aren't going in for Philly, they use their nasty edge to fire themselves up, intimidate the opponent, and even injure the opponent. This series will be chippy almost from the get-go. Not really because this is a rivalry, but because people like Steve Downie (5 fighting majors), Scott Hartnell (159 PIM) and local goon Riley Cote (202 PIM, 24 fighting majors) will be gunning for Ovechkin and Co. The Caps' Donald Brashear will have his fists full with those guys.

And a little sidebar... Ovechkin and his mates have made previously hockey-dead Washington excited about the Caps again. I caught a few games here down the stretch, and the Verizon Center was packed, and it was rocking! It was a huge departure from the silent, half empty games from even earlier this season. If they can keep the nucleus of Ovie, C Nicklas Backstrom, LW Alexander Semin, and D Mike Green together long term, D.C. will transform itself into a hockeytown yet!

PS: We can look forward to at least one of these. This is Riley Cote vs. Donald Brashear from earlier this season. This is why we watch!

Prediction: Washington in 7

(4) New Jersey Devils vs. (5) New York Rangers *** (three stars)

This series interests me only because it's New York vs. New Jersey. I love to see these two teams and their fans fight it out. It's all about the better team because there's only traffic and a bridge in between Manhattan and Newark.

New York, has underachieved this season and has been consistently inconsistent, if that makes sense. They're just not great. They've had to right their ship several times after starting off 4-7, and sustaining 4 losing streaks of 3 games or more throughout the year. They're bad on the power play and great on the penalty kill, and sport some very talented and experienced offensive players. Of course the high-priced Chris Drury has disappeared at times this season, while Jaromir Jagr might as well have been home in the Czech Republic. Yeah, he's been that ineffective. For God's sake, he had 4 power play points in the entire month of March!!! LW Brendan Shanahan and C Scott Gomez are playoff gold, but we'll see if Shanny is playing at 100%. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is very, very good, and he'll shut down the Devils weak attack--- maybe even shut them out. He had 10 shutouts this season. They coveted and desperately needed former Sabres D Brian Campbell at the trade deadline, but my Sharkies got him and haven't looked back.

Their opponent, the New Jersey Devils, are an incredibly average team. If they played in the Western Conference, they'd probably miss the playoffs (sounds like the NBA, but true). The only real thing keeping them afloat is all-world goaltender Martin Brodeur. They're average on special teams, offensively unspectacular (inept is more like it), but still, there they are, sitting in the 4th seed. They just find a way to win. I'm really trying to find a positive thing to say about these guys, but I can't. They're steady, consistent, and lame. They remind me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry realizes that he always breaks even. If we still had ties in the NHL, they'd probably lead the league.

Um, here's a little tidbit: The Rangers have owned the Devils all year, posting a 7-1 record! Their only loss came in a shootout as well. This is what Mike Krukow refers to as "ownage".

Oh yeah, and speaking of Seinfeld... this video right here will show you what a real hockey fan looks like during the playoffs:

Prediction: New York in 7


(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Nashville Predators **

Detroit is beatable. They really are. Of course, it's extremely unlikely that they'll lose to Nashville, but they can be beaten at some point. If I had said this a couple months ago, it would have been a joke--an outright lie. They were steamrolling everyone in sight. The Sharks, the Stars, the Ducks, the Eastern Conference... they didn't give a damn. They were kicking ass and taking names. But then... their blueliners (Defensemen for you non-hockeyheads) began dropping like flies. First it was Brian Rafalski, then Niklas Lidstrom, then Chris Chelios, then hard-nosed winger Dan Cleary, then Fillpula, then Holmstr... well you get the idea.

They were the best example of a perfect hockey team I think I'd ever seen when they were consistently beating the tar out of everyone. They played hard, mistake-free hockey, sporting a dominant forecheck (think full court press), and got obscenely good goaltending from Chris Osgood who somehow had risen from the dead. Between him and Dominik Hasek, they've got experience, but these guys have begun breaking down. It's going to come down to health and savvy for this team.

"I like it, I love it, I want some more of it..."

That's the Tim McGraw song that plays every time the Music City Big Cats score a goal. I just don't know if they're gonna hear it that much this playoff season. The Preds really have a raw deal. They're a franchise hanging by a thread. I'm not sure whose bright idea it was to put a hockey team in Nashville (oh yeah, Gary Bettman...), but it just doesn't have enough fans. The fans they do have are pretty into it, but it's a tough sell in a market more concerned about the Tennessee Vols' Football signing day and the new George Strait CD.

And talk about a raw deal. How about drawing the Sharks the last two years, and then drawing Detroit this year. It sucks for them, because they'll be bounced out of the first round for a third straight year.

Hockeywise, they're a gritty team that has endured the aforementioned playoff disappointments, and a quasi firesale this offseason. They're not a great team. They're not on a hot streak, but they're just consistent enough to be a playoff team. Goalie Dan Ellis took over for Chris Mason earlier this year after being the more consistent player. Exciting winger Alexander Radulov will be a guy to watch, and steady-eddy C Jason Arnott is the type of player necessary to keep this series close. He's excellent on the backcheck, and is also a force on the power play. Nashville could actually make this a series, because their #3 penalty killing unit matches up with Detroit's #3 ranked power play. Strength on strength baby!

I see Detroit turning it on for the playoffs, and I think very few teams can stop Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the rest of the Red Wings' auxiliary weapons-- especially on the power play. But, ya never know, this could be upset city.

Prediction: Detroit in 5

(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Calgary Flames **** (4 stars)

This one will be a ding dang of a hoe down! Too bad for the Sharkies that Colorado won a couple games. Man it would've nice to play them instead of the Flames. But this is also a real tall order for Calgary.

I'm very fired up about this series, mainly because it is going to be revenge city! I'm still bitter about the loss to Calgary in the Western Conference Finals in 04-05. This team has plenty of guys left over from that season, and they certainly are not taking this series lightly. It's go time, and the Flames always play us tough.

The Sharks are so hot right now, they're practically melting the ice (unlike the Flames... haha how does that work?). Since acquiring puck moving blueliner Brian Campbell from Buffalo, they went on a 20 game streak of not losing in regulation. It appears as though Campbell and his superior vision, skating, and passing ability is exactly what San Jose has needed all these years. This enables guys like Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Christian Ehrhoff, and even Craig Rivet to a certain extent to concentrate on forechecking and blocking shots instead of constantly worrying about running the offense all the time. The power play has also benefited greatly.

And nice to see you Mr. Marleau! And Mr. Cheechoo, welcome back old chap! These two guys were playing so badly in the first half of the year, the guy next to me at a game in November was calling Patrick Marleau "Patricia" and was openly booing the captain as we were trying to trade the two to hockey hell (Atlanta) for Marian Hossa. Cheechoo had some nagging injuries, and was just not getting the scoring chances or the success that netted him 56 a year ago. Things were tough all over. Then, something clicked.

Ron Wilson tried putting Marleau on the left wing of a line centered by Wisconsin native and UW alum Joe Pavelski with rookie Devin Setoguchi on the other wing. Then all of the sudden, the points were coming. Then in a game against Minnesota, Patty preserved a tie game toward the end of the third period my knocking the puck out of goal while it wobbled in mid air, leading to an eventual San Jose triumph.

Then of course, there's the two constants. Their names are Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov. When things were bleak at times this season, you could always depend on a solid outing from Nabby and scoring chances made possible by Big Joe. These two have continually carried this team on their backs, and it's truly a beautiful thing to see the rest of the boys playing up to their abilities as well. Nabby leads all goaltenders with 77 games played and also leads in wins with 46. He has consistently stood on his head to keep the Sharks in games. Big Joe leads the league in assists (67) and is fifth in points (96).

Other than the resurgence of Marleau and Cheechoo, and the addition of Campbell, there are 3 things that I believe have made the Sharks the team to beat:

1) The addition of tough guy Jody Shelley: The Sharks have a whole new attitude with this big bruiser out there. I think he's a candidate for Bill Simmons' "Lindsey Hunter All-Stars" (meaning these pro athletes that have names that make them sound like hot chicks). Shelley will throw down fisticuffs any time, any place, and throws his weight around out there; throwing caution to the wind. His face looks like coarse sandpaper and rubber, and doesn't give a damn. They are a different team with him there.

2) Ron Wilson stopped juggling his 4 lines every night: It's about time. With the exception of some 4th line changes every now and then, you can expect the same guys to play together each night. This is huge.

3) The acquisition of backup netminder Brian Boucher: He pitched a shutout in his first game with San Jose, and provides a desperately needed experienced body in net when Nabby needs a blow.

Also of note are the facts that the Sharks' penalty kill is the best in the league, and they sport the best road record in the NHL. So the long flights back and forth to Alberta won't affect them (or flight, if we throw down a sweep on their asses).

The Flames are a weird team. They're also a mean team. They're ranked 20th on both the power play and on the penalty kill which is bizarre. You'd really expect them to be higher on the PP, because of the presence of D Dion Phaneuf (17 G, 43 A, 182 PIM), perennial badass all-star Jaroma Iginla (98 P). Then there's these other guys who are some pretty darn good players: C Daymond Langkow, Alex Tanguay, and LW Kristian Huselius. I just look at these names, and wonder why they're in the middle of the pack in overall scoring, and slump on the power play. There's really no excuse for it. I believe that had they been able to add a distributing defenseman at the trade deadline, they would be much better.

To make things even weirder, former all star Mikka Kiprusoff has struggled this year, giving up goals that he hadn't in the past few years. I think I'm blaming part of this on the blueliners, and part of it on overall effort and motivation of the whole team. This is the streakiest team I've ever seen. Seriously, check out their schedule and results, and look at the winning and losing streaks. Talk about feast or famine.

Calgary looks to keep constant pressure on Nabby and to take advantage of San Jose's occasionally discombobulated power play. It seems like they allow a few shorthanded chances every game, and it drives me nuts. They'll also throw their weight around, and try to get into the cool heads of San Jose. The Flames finish their checks, and aren't afraid to stir things up a little bit.

I'm going to see if I can somehow get to a game in this series, so if anyone got a seat that they need to sell and won't try to rip me off, send me an email. I hate Calgary.

Prediction: Sharks in 6

(3) Minnesota Wild vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche *** (3 stars)

I'm shocked that Colorado made the playoffs, let alone earning a 6 seed. They had a lot of injuries this season, and just weren't playing great hockey. They were allowing too many goals, and were just making mistakes on the ice all season. Minnesota on the other hand, is the definition of consistency and the Wild limit mistakes to a minimum. They're the type of team that makes up for a lack of explosiveness with a balls out effort on every shift and every check.

The Wild are a model franchise in the NHL. They've done everything right since their inception 10 years ago. Their unis are sweet, their arena is awesome. They've sold out like 320+ straight games in a row, and play their asses off.

Like I tell my buddy Sisto every time he asks me about hockey gambling. Take Minny at home and take the under; always. The Wild just bask in the glory of their rabid fans, and sport the best stable of two-way forwards in the game. They slow teams down with their mid ice trap, and their backchecking forwards create a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone. Their offense feeds off their defensive energy, and a lot of their scoring chances are because of their effort in the opposite zone. They're also #2 in the league on the penalty kill.

They suffered a big blow in losing D Kurtis Foster, who's a big bodied versatile D-man. Talented young ruffian and exotic animal collector Brent Burns has been playing great lately, and I expect him to do the same in the playoffs. Nicklas Backstrom is solid in goal and RW Marian Gaborik is always a threat to score--and he scores in bunches.

The Wild's motor will outgun the inconsistent Avs, and the home ice advantage will be big for Minny.

Oh yeah, then there's Colorado. They've got some great young forwards and some good old forwards, and are a tough draw for the Wild. It's really amazing that Joe Sakic, Adam Foote AND Peter Forsberg will be suiting up together in the playoffs... AGAIN! Hell, let's bring back Alex Tanguay and Patrick Roy while we're at it! I could've sworn that these guys would never play together again, and yet, there they are. They aren't the same players they were, but then again, neither is LW Ryan Smyth. The thing about this team, is that they've been there (for the most part).

It's incredible that a team with so many great (or formerly great) forwards can be 28th on the power play-- and yet make out with a 6 seed. This is attributed mainly to the injuries of Ryan Smyth, Paul Statsny, Sakic, and the late arrival of Forsberg. Also, is the disappointing play of their point men, mainly D Jean Michael Liles. This is why they went out and got Foote from Columbus. If they can kickstart themselves on the man advantage against Minny's superior killing skills, they've got a fighting chance.

Prediction: Minnesota in 7

4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Dallas Stars ***** (5 stars!)

If the SJ-CGY series is a hoe down, this one will be a hootenanny and a barnburner all in one!

The Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks (God, that makes my skin crawl), are a mean bunch of jerks, grizzled veterans, and a few good youngsters mixed in. They're a tough, grind it out team that has enough playoff experience among them to write a book on the subject.

They lead the league in both fighting majors and penalty minutes, and I think head coach Randy Carslile likes it that way. In fact, one of the reasons that I thought they'd slip to the 5th or 6th seed is because arguably their best player, (local bastard) Chris Pronger was suspended for the remainder of the regular season for stomping on the calf of Vancouver C Ryan Kesler. Then you've got the goon (George Parros), the instigator (Travis Moen), and the cheap shot artist (Chris Kunitz). Did I leave anyone out? Oh yeah, how could I forget? The criminal, Todd Bertuzzi. I guess I could go through their whole roster and diss on them all.

On the bright side, more likeable players like graybeards D Scott Niedermayer and LW Teemu Selanne (who I don't think can grow a beard) decided to come out of hibernation for the winter to return and try to defend the Cup.

Dallas has a tall order to beat these bastards in a 7 game series. The last minute acquisition of home ice by the Ducks will benefit them, as Anaheim has struggled away from Honda Center (18-18-4). The travel will fatigue both teams, something the spoiled brats in the Eastern Conference don't have to deal with. (Ottawa to Pittsburgh is the longest flight, and is just an 8 hour drive).

If I didn't hate Dallas so much, I'd like the way they play. They're similar to Anaheim, but aren't as big of jerks, although Steve Ott and Marty Turco try their damnedest. They're the best penalty killers in the NHL, and will not give up cheap goals. They're not flashy, but they play hard, and they've got a lot of talent. They picked up former Conn Smythe trophy winner and stellar C Brad Richards from Tampa at the deadline, and will need him to create scoring chances against the tough Anaheim defense corps. Anaheim is undisciplined and they take way too many stupid penalties. But they also do a decent job of killing them off. Dallas' 11th ranked PP will get plenty of opportunities to score on reliable netminder Jean Sebastien Giguere. Also figuring into the mix are old balls/old faithful Mike Modano, and the return of power play specialist from injury, D Sergei Zubov. Dallas crawls into the playoffs though, having lost 10 of their last 14 games...

Watch this series for the intensity and the passion, not the scoring (Hint for Sisto: take the unders).

Prediction: Anaheim in 6

So there you have it. A lot of info. I can't even believe I know all this stuff. I promise I didn't even read any of the expert previews. I swear to God. This is all research and knowledge baby! See, if I can do it, you can do it. And remember to leave comments below and bookmark my page as one of your favorites.


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