Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

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What? Wow! Really? Jarome Iginla is headed for the Steel City

This post was originally written on Friday, March 29.

It was early Thursday morning and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. As I scrolled down on my Twitter timeline, numerous Pittsburgh hockey reporters, as well as national reporters, were speaking of possible line combinations for Jarome Iginla and various Pittsburgh Penguins players.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I thought. “Are they saying what WOULD have happened?”

Before I took a long shower, TSN had reported that the Boston Bruins had agreed to terms with Iginla. In exchange for the veteran winger, Boston would send center Alex Khokhlachev, defenseman Matt Bartkowski and a first-round pick to the Calgary Flames.

I was hardly surprised about Boston acquiring the long time Flames captain.Since Iginla had to waive a no-trade clause, he had reportedly drawn up a short list of teams he would play for. It was believed that list was comprised of Pittsburgh, Boston, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks. And since Pittsburgh had already acquired a veteran winger in Brenden Morrow, they probably had taken themselves out of the hunt.

There was a flood of tweets, more than one hundred since I had been away from my computer. But as I scrolled farther down on my timeline, I started to see “breaking news.” My heart jumped up into my throat and my eyes became the size of pucks. That’s when I found the tweet that confirmed my excitement.

Bob McKenzie's Tweet

I wanted to call every Penguins fan I knew, but it was around 2 a.m. so I figured it wasn’t an option. So I texted every Pens fan I knew and gave them the best news they could wake up to.

But the truth is, I was completely happy with the Penguins before they landed Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. They were in the midst of a 12-game win streak and earlier than week, Penguins GM Ray Shero acquired Morrow and bruising defenseman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks.

Morrow was a captain for the Dallas Stars for seven years. He had played 835 games in his career, all with Dallas, and he had scored 528 points (243 goals and 285 assists). The 34-year-old winger wasn’t a prolific scorer, but he brought experience (clearly), grit and a net-front presence. Morrow played a solid defensive game and he forechecked relentlessly.

Those attributes were the only thing missing in the Penguins offense. They would beat teams because they played an up-tempo game and usually scored a ton of goals. Grinding games out wasn’t quite their forte.

The other net-front presence they were lacking was that in the defensive zone. I can easily say that the worst area for the Penguins was in their goalie’s shadow. They were having trouble clearing guys away from the crease and greasy goals were on the ledger in almost all of their losses.

Murray was a pick-up to solve that deficiency. He looks like he’s skating in taffy but when Murray posts up in front of the net, there’s no offensive player in this league that can move him. He’s 245 pounds of angry muscle. If you’re loitering on his property, don’t expect to stay standing.

Pittsburgh lacked some grittiness, net-front presence and defensive zone muscle. They solved it with Morrow and Murray, and lost only peanuts in the process. They were as square as a postage stamp.

But just because something is seemingly perfect doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon it. That’s why Shero continued to pursue Iginla, even after he’d added some great pieces.

The 35-year-old Iginla might not be as fleet of foot as he once was, but there’s no denying what he’ll bring to the city of Pittsburgh. The man has amassed 1,095 points (525 goals and 570 assists) in 1,219 career games, all with Calgary. He’s a six-time all-star, has two “Rocket” Richard Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, one Lester B. Pearson Award, one King Clancy Memorial Trophy and a Mark Messier Leadership Award.

Iginla has bagged all those points and all that hardware basically despite his team (with the only exception being 2003, the year Calgary lost in the Stanley Cup Finals). The Flames just haven’t put the talent around Iginla to contend much. He’s never played with a center even close to being as talented as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

And you can’t underestimate the toughness he brings, either. He has only missed one game in the last six seasons, and that was on Wednesday when he was held out because of the trade. He has 831 career penalty minutes and he’s not afraid of the fisticuffs: Iggy has dropped the gloves 62 times in his career.

It’s not clear yet where the Penguins will insert Iginla in their line scheme. He’s a clear fit with Crosby on the first line because the two already know each other well and have solid chemistry; he set up Crosby for the Golden Goal in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But coach Dan Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line “is one of the best lines in hockey right now” and “I think we’re going to continue to see those three guys play together.”

He’s right. That line has three of the NHL’s top-13 scorers and the chemistry is mesmerizing to behold. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

The best option would probably be for Iginla to drop down to the second line to play on the right side of Malkin. James Neal usually plays on the right wing, but he wouldn’t have any difficulty switching to the left considering that is his natural position anyway. That would drop Morrow down to the third line to play with Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.

That set up would make the top three lines quite possibly the best in the game. It would contain two top lines of pure scoring with deep talent and the greasiest, grittiest and most defensively-sound third line in hockey.

What a matchup nightmare.

Yahoo Sports hockey blogger Greg Wyshynski probably put it best: “The Pittsburgh Penguins are an all-star team. They’re something you’d create in a video game. They’re all the hockey cards you don’t throw away.”

The Penguins might not have needed Jerome Iginla, but they got him, and if they don’t win the Stanley Cup this year, they might go down as the biggest disappointment in NHL history.

No pressure.

The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 2

The next installment of what we’re all missing in the NHL is now up on the Sportz Broz! This segment features the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. Click here to check it out.

Penguins Add Depth, Experience Between the Pipes

Although most of the hockey talk in Pittsburgh right now is regarding the uncertainty of Jordan Staal’s future with the Penguins, the organization made an interesting roster move in the goalie department that I think should garner plenty of attention: the signing of veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

The Washington Capitals traded Vokoun, an impending unrestricted free agent, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a seventh-round pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The deal is for two years and worth $4 million.

I was pleased to hear that the Pens made a move for a backup goalie, but the price of the contract seems a bit higher than one would expect. Not only will Vokoun make $1.4 million more than previous backup Brent Johnson, he will also make more than every other backup goalie in the NHL in the 2012-13 season.*

*There are currently 14 backup goalies who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents this offseason, so Vokoun’s contract may not end up the biggest by the time next season rolls around.

Minus the 14 backups without a contract right now, the average salary for backups in 2012-13 will be $1,910,937. And that number is skewed by the $3.7 million due to Nikolai Khabibulin of the Edmonton Oilers this upcoming season.*  If you remove Khabibulin’s salary from the mix, the league average will be $1,788,333 — and that makes Vokoun’s contract $211,667 more than the league average.

*Khabibulin was technically the starter at the beginning of last season until his numbers dropped off in midseason. So if Devon Dubnyk signs a new contract, he will be the starter this year leaving Khabibulin to be an expensive backup (if he doesn’t retire).

Is Vokoun really worth that much money to ride the pine for the majority of the season? After all, the Penguins are ranked dead-last in the NHL in cap room coming into 2012-12, and stars Sidney Crosby and Staal are due contract extensions after next season.

In Vokoun’s 14-year NHL career, he has a .917 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average and an overall record of 287-284-78. In his best season, he went 36-18-7 with the Nashville Predators. He was an All-Star in 2004 and 2008 and he is currently ranked 6th in career wins among active goalies with 287.

Even if the numbers aren’t dazzling, I’d say he’s worth the higher-than-average price tag. He has plenty of experience and has always been pretty solid between the pipes. That’s what you need for a guy coming off the bench 20-25 times a season. You only need to look as far as the Eastern Conference winning New Jersey Devils and their veteran backup Johan Hedberg to see how much a crafty veteran can help a team. Vokoun may not prove to be as valuable of a backup as Hedberg has been, but I’d be willing to bet that Vokoun is more than capable of having a better year than Brent Johnson did this year

Johnson went 6-7-2 with a .904 save percentage and averaged 2.63 goals against. At times, he was very good, but his collective work was pretty difficult to watch. He seemed lost and allowed soft goals with regularity. And toward the end of last season, it seemed as if the Penguins had lost all confidence him, allowing rookie Brad Thiessen to make the backup starts for a while. Management said that Johnson was suffering from flu symptoms for a while and also claimed he had an injury — two reasons that sidelined him and necessitated the call up of Thiessen. But I’m willing to bet Johnson’s unimpressive starts played into the reasoning for the call up just as much as his illness and injury.

Johnson’s struggles seemed to affect starter Marc-Andre Fleury down the stretch. Fleury started 64 games and played in 67 this season and he never claimed that he was worn down from playing in that many. But No. 29 certainly wasn’t his normal phenomenal self from the middle of March on this year.

It’s my guess that Marc-Andre was affected by multiple factors. He had to be worn out from playing so much, but I think he may have also felt more pressure to go out there and perform more often because of Johnson’s struggles. He may have been pressing to get wins because he knew that Johnson just wasn’t getting the job done in his absence.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said the move to was to help Marc-Andre Fleury play in fewer games to keep him fresh. Michelle Crechiolo and Sam Kasan, writers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, reported what Shero said on the Penguins website earlier today:

“This is to help Marc-Andre. It’s to help his game,” Shero said. “We still believe in Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s one of the better goalies in the league. But the position is demanding, both physically and mentally. If you can get a quality guy like this that has a track record like Tomas has, mentally it will give Marc a break, but it also challenges him. It challenges Tomas as well. This is the best goaltending tandem we’ve had in a long time.”

In 2009 when Marc-Andre won the Stanley Cup, he started 61 (and played in 62) games in the regular season, notching a record of 35-18-7. He was backed up by the trio of Dany Sabourin, Mathieu Garon and John Curry. The three finished the season with a collective record of 10-10-2. As you can see, there wasn’t much difference in the number of games Fleury played in this season compared to ’09. But Fleury was three years younger and he had a better team playing in front of him. He didn’t have as much pressure on his shoulders to be lights out every night because he didn’t have to be. The defensive core and the team defense shouldered the load more.

Fleury will probably never admit that he was worn out, even if Shero and the rest of the Penguins believe he was. But one thing is apparent, teams that have a great No. 1 and a solid No. 2 have had some outstanding seasons lately.

Last year, it was the Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas was their most important contributor, capturing a Conn Smythe en-route to a Stanley Cup victory. But he also had one of the best backups in the league in Tuukka Rask. Thomas notched 35 victories in each of the last two years, with Rask winning 11 in each of those years, as well.

The Vancouver Canucks further illustrate the point. Roberto Luongo has been outstanding the last two years, leading his team to a Stanley Cup Final in 2010-2011 and a President’s Trophy this season. In those seasons, he registered 38 and 31 wins, respectively. And in both of those seasons, he was backed up by Cory Schneider, who claimed 16 and 20 wins. Because both were impact guys, they took the pressure off of each other to perform and kept each other fresh for the long haul.

Will the duo of Fleury and Vokoun be the next great pair in the NHL?

I’m guessing probably not. But that doesn’t mean the two can’t support each other enough to win a Stanley Cup. As I mentioned earlier, Fleury didn’t have the greatest of backups in his Cup victory season, but he still won it.

Adding Vokoun is a step in the right direction, but the team playing in front of the two will ultimately determine how hard the goalies will need to work between the pipes. If the Penguins defensive coverage is as bad as it was in the playoffs this season, then it won’t matter who the two goalies are, they won’t be good enough to lift the Cup next June.

But if the defense can play even slightly better, while Fleury is back to his normal, stellar self with Vokoun being a solid, better-than-.500 goaltender while playing 20-25 games, the Pittsburgh Penguins can return to the glory of ’09.

If all of this will happen remains to be seen, but I’m excited to find out.

NHL Head Shots Should Garner Longer Suspensions

Brendan Shanahan has been a little too busy this post season.

But unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice.

Yesterday, the NHL’s senior vice president of the department of player safety handed down a one-game suspension to New York Rangers defenseman Brandon Prust for elbowing New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the head on Saturday.

It was the 12th suspension Shanahan has doled out this postseason.

Now 12 suspensions in  77 total games this playoffs might not seem like many, but last year there were only four the entire postseason.

This trend raises a few different questions. Are players committing more suspendable hits than before? Is Shanahan just being more nit-picky? Maybe a little bit of both?

I don’t know for sure, but I believe that players are playing the same way they always have. But after the rash of concussions last season, the NHL is stiffening up on their tolerance levels of violent and dangerous hits.

Seemingly.

The problem is, even though Shanahan is handing out suspensions like arenas hand out rally towels, players aren’t changing the way they play the game. Of the 12 suspension this postseason, eight of them featured legitimate head shots. I know the intensity is ramped up in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean reckless behavior should be ramped up as well.

The change to Rule 48 this offseason was supposed to eliminate head shots from the game, or at least decrease the number of them. But that hasn’t happened.Players are still consistently going out and hitting each other in dangerous manners.

It seems like the two most common dangerous hits players are still executing are hits to the head and boarding (which often result in head injuries). Every time I see a guy hit in the head or hit from behind into the boards, I wonder if any messages Shanahan are sending are getting through.

One problem might be with the messages themselves.

Out of the 12 suspensions given out this season, seven of them were for only one game. Of those seven incidents, four involved head shots.

The NHL needs to send a clear message that hits to the head won’t be tolerated. Ever. Suspending players for one game isn’t enough. The supplemental discipline needs to be far more severe if Shanahan wants to really get the players’ attention.

The latest was the Prust hit I previously mentioned. Here are the other three.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux delivers a hit to the head of Devils forward Dainas Zubrus on May 6.

Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom crosschecks Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverly on April 16.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal hits Philadelphia Flyers forwards Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux on April 15.

There were also two hits this postseason that were definite head shots that resulted in no suspension.

An elbow from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Scott Nichol on April 14.

And probably the worst non-suspension incident this season involving Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber and Detroit Redwings forward Henrik Zetterberg on April 11.

Weber was fined $2,500 for his actions, but was given no supplemental discipline.

It should have been easy to address Weber’s actions, so I don’t know what was more shocking; the fact that Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the glass repeatedly or the fact that Shanahan didn’t suspend Weber for a single game.

And when looking at Burns’ elbow, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between his and the shot delivered by Prust. Both were obvious elbows to the head that didn’t result in injury (and Burns even has a prior history of supplemental discipline). So why did Prust’s hit result in suspension while Burns’ did not?

Shanahan has to be more consistent with his rulings, especially when dealing with head shots.

In addition to the one-game suspensions (and incidents where no suspensions were given) there has been one head shot that resulted in a two-game suspension (Vancouver Canuck Byron Bitz boarding Los Angeles King Kyle Clifford on April 11), two head shots resulting in three-game suspensions (New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson on April 14 and Chicago Blackhawk Andrew Shaw delivering a blow to the head of Phoenix Coyote goaltender Mike Smith on April 14) and one that garnered a 25-game suspension. The obvious outlier is the 25-game suspension to Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres, stemming from a hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.

Shanahan makes his rulings by using three basic criteria: how the hit happened, if a player was injured and if the offending player is a repeat offender. Torres received such drastic supplemental discipline because he violated three different NHL rules during his hit (interference, charging and an illegal check to the head), Hossa suffered a severe injury and Torres has been previously suspended or fined five previous times for similar incidents.

I agreed with the 25-game suspension, but again, the inconsistency of Shanahan’s ruling is what upsets me. When Haglin elbowed Alfredsson in the head, Alfredsson also suffered a head injury. But Haglin received only a three-game suspension.

And yes, I know that Haglin didn’t have any prior history of similar offenses, but when it comes down to it, it should be ruled in a similar manner because it was a head shot that resulted in injury. That’s the only way players will start to adapt and stay away from such dangerous hits, whether they are throwing an elbow like Hagelin or leaving their feet to target the head like Torres.

I know Shanahan wants to base all of his rulings on the details of each individual incident because each hit is different. But the bottom line should be an automatic suspension for a hit to the head, say for 10 games. Then after the base 10, Shanahan can look at the specific details and add additional games, setting precedents for future incidents. Players would definitely think twice about getting their elbows or shoulders up high if there’s a chance they could miss the rest of a playoff series.

I know it’s a drastic solution, but right now there’s too much at risk when it comes to head injuries. More research needs to be done on how concussions affect the brain long term, but it’s starting to look pretty clear in both ex-NHL players and ex-NFL players that head shots can ruin lives. And until better equipment can be developed to protect these players, the actions of the players themselves must be the solution.

Develop consistency in the disciplinary action and make it harsh. The players may not like it, but it’ll protect them in the long run and that’s what the NHL should be concerned about above all else.

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round One Review and Round Two Predictions

Before I break down the second round and make my picks, I need to own up to my first round failures and collect a little cred for my successes. In the first round I went 3-5. We’ll start with my not so solid picks…

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: Vancouver in 5

Reality: Los Angeles in 5

This was obviously my biggest blunder of the first round. It was a 1/8 matchup and there wasn’t much in the cards that told me the Kings would pull off a massive upset (they had the opportunity to sweep Vancouver). I picked Vancouver because I just assumed they would score more goals than Los Angeles. The Kings just couldn’t put the puck in the net in the regular season and I figured they might fall off even more when the pressure came. But it was the opposite. Not only were the Kings able to score goals, they were able to score big, opportune goals. I have to give credit to Kings Captain Dustin Brown. Not only did he score a team-high four goals, two of them came shorthanded. Shorthanded goals not only change games, they can change a series. And I can’t fail to mention Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. He held the Western Conference’s highest scoring team to just eight goals in five games. He was cool under pressure, managed to hang onto rebounds and he looked every bit a Vezina candidate.

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

My pick: Chicago in 7

Reality: Phoenix in 6

There couldn’t have been more tension in this series. Five of the six games went to over time and it seemed like the Blackhawks relished the chance to tie games at the last minute. Because of their offensive abilities, I believed the Hawks would outscore the Coyotes. But this series came down to the goaltending matchups. Corey Crawford just wasn’t very good. He allowed soft goals on numerous occasions and there were times at which the media wondered if Ray Emery would start the next game. But Chicago coach Joel Quenneville stayed with his No. 1 guy and paid for it. At the other end of the ice, Phoenix reaped the rewards of amazing goalie play. Mike Smith was unbeatable at times. He probably didn’t receive as much attention as he deserved during the regular season, but trust me now that no one is going to over look Smith moving on in the post season. He is scary good right now.

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Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Redwings

My pick: Detroit in 6

Reality: Nashville in 5

This series proved to me that it’s not the same NHL as in recent years. I just had trouble imagining a second round without the Wings. I stand humbly corrected. The Redwings’ age started to show in this series and the stellar defense of Nashville proved it could shut down the hot hands of the Detroit club. Detroit averaged only 1.80 goals per game in five games, which was second to last ahead of a tie between Vancouver and San Jose. Nashville seemed comfortable on the road, which is tough considering how good Detroit has been at home this year. Winning tough road games proves a team can win a Cup and I believe Nashville has a legitimate shot now that they’ve taken down the gold standard of the NHL in five games.

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Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

My pick: Boston in 5

Reality: Washington in 7

“I can’t picture a scenario in which Washington could win this series.”

I guess I couldn’t picture a rookie goaltender outplaying a Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, but that’s exactly what happened. Tim Thomas played a solid series, but Braden Holtby was outstanding. He didn’t turn any heads in the regular season, but he stepped up his game precisely when it mattered. I’m not going to say he was the sole reason Washington is advancing, but he was the main reason. I was unsure if the Caps could match the physicality of the defending champion Bruins, but they did to a tee. If there’s a single picture that illustrates this point, it’s this one:

Every time Alexander Ovechkin was on the ice, Zdeno Chara was there to lay a hit on him. But Ovi once again proved that he is a PHYSICAL scorer. He knocked down Chara numerous times and he never seemed intimidated by the biggest man to ever play in the NHL. The Caps battled every second they were on the ice and they played tight, defensive hockey, which is normally the hallmark of the Bruins. I didn’t give much credit to the Capitals before this series started but now I believe they have the ability to play the type of hockey that can get you deep into the playoffs.

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

My pick: Pittsburgh in 6

Reality: Philadelphia in 6

I have to make sure I don’t go off on a rant for this one. I can’t explain enough how much this rivalry means to Penguins fans and Flyers fans alike. Bragging rights are a big deal in Pennsylvania when it comes to hockey and now Pittsburgh will have a very sour taste in its mouth for at least six months until next season begins. Although the series ended 4-2 in favor of Philly, it might as well have been 4-0. The Flyers outplayed the Pens for the vast majority of the series and although their goalie Ilya Bryzgalov played poorly in just about every game, he was still better than Marc- Andre Fleury. Fleury was as bad as I’ve seen during his career in this post season. He had no puck control and he looked nervous. That’s pretty bad considering he’s won a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup Final on the road. But you can’t peg it all on him. The Pens defense (the blueliners and forwards alike) was shotty at best and Philadelphia’s bright stars Claude Giroux and Danny Briere were able to capitalize on numerous Pens’ mistakes. All the credit goes to Philly in this series and if they can figure out what the heck is going on between the pipes, they can be a Stanley Cup Champion this year.

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Now for the fun part…

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

My pick: St. Louis in 6

Reality: St. Louis in 5

Even though Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago, he didn’t posses that same ability for the Sharks in this series. St. Louis has some great young talent that played solid offensively and even better in the defensive zone. The Blues have a deep team and the second line of of Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald combined for eight goals, including a pair of game-winners. McDonald scored four goals in five games and he notched the game-winning goal in Game 4. And backing up the team was the best goalie duo in the NHL. Even though Jaroslav Halak went down early with an injury, Brian Elliott stepped right in and played outstanding hockey. He was second to only Cory Schneider in goals against average and fourth in the playoffs in save percentage. It’s uncanny to have a pair of such good goaltenders and if St. Louis wants, they can still play both of these guys (assuming Halak is healthy) moving forward. The Blues are my Western Conference pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

My pick: New York in 7

Reality: New York in 7

This was a matchup of an offensive power versus defensive fortitude and in the playoffs, defense wins out. There were some moments in this series when I truly thought the Sens might upset the Blue Shirts. Ottawa played a fast-paced game and their speed nearly won out. But as the regular season illustrated, New York blocked a ton of shots and the best shot blocker was Henrik Lundqvist. And you have to give credit to New York in handling the probable Norris Trophy winner of Erik Karlsson. He was the leading scoring defenseman in the regular season, but he managed only one point (a goal) in seven games. On the blue line, the shutdown pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi did a solid job handling Jason Spezza and company (and Girardi even scored the game-winning goal in Game 7). It will be interesting to see how the Rangers handle the Capitals since they can be high flying like the Sens, but with a better overall defense (at least at this point). And by the way, the Rangers are my pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

My pick: New Jersey in 6

Reality: New Jersey in 7

This series could have went either way. Sure, Florida was a No. 3 seed, but they were in a horrible division that seemed up for grabs at many points during the season. New Jersey had very little consistency during the regular season as well. So how did the Devils manage to capture this series?

Overall team consistency.

Rookie Adam Henrique had two goals (including the double overtime game winner in Game 7), Captain Zach Parise and Patrik Elias had two goals each and even fourth-liners Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta had a pair a piece. And you can’t dismiss the experience factor that Marty Brodeur brings to the playoffs. His team trusts him behind them and when you trust your goalie, you play with more confidence and aggression up the ice.

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Now on to Round Two

I’m going to keep this short and sweet…

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: St. Louis in 7

Why: Halak/Elliott and the Blue’s penalty kill

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Nashville Predators (4)

My pick: Nashville in 6

Why: Pred’s D and slightly better goal tending

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New York Rangers  (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

My pick: New York in 6

Why: Defense Defense Defense (and King Henrik)

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Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

My pick: New Jersey in 7

Why: Devils’ ability to play tight, playoff-style hockey

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round One

Diligent NHL followers have waited for six months in anticipation of tonight. The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us and that means it’s prediction time. So let’s take a look at each matchup and time will tell how successful I’ll be.

Starting in the West…

Vancouver Canucks (1 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-22-9 (111 points)

VS.

Los Angeles Kings (8 seed)

Regular Season Record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

This season, the Kings have taken 3 of 4 against the Canucks with one of those wins coming in overtime. The regular season series may have been dominated by LA, but their scoring woes are going to come back to bite them. The Kings averaged only 2.29 goals per game this season, pegging them 29th in the league in the category. Outstanding goaltender Jonathan Quick was the savior of the team, registering 35 wins with a save percentage of.929 and a GAA of 1.95. However, the Canucks are a high scoring team with a talented pair of goaltenders of their own. They ranked 5th in goals for and 4th in goals against in the league this year. I believe that fire power will help them past the low-scoring Kings.

My prediction: Vancouver in 5.

Season Series Record: LA won 3 of 4

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St. Louis Blues (2 seed)

Regular Season Record: 49-22-11 (109 points)

VS.

San Jose Sharks (7 seed)

Regular Season Record: 43-29-10 (96 points)

So often, playoff games come down to goal tending. That is what makes this an interesting matchup. On paper, it looks like the Blues have the obvious advantage. Both Halak and Elliott have had outstanding seasons, making them the most formidable goalie duo in the NHL. But don’t forget that the Sharks have a Cup winner in net with Antti Niemi. He hasn’t had the greatest season, but he has scorers in front of him that had the second best power play in the league. But ultimately, I believe defense will win out in this series and defense is the game St. Louis loves to play.

My prediction: St. Louis in 6

Season Series Record: St. Louis won all 4

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Phoenix Coyotes (3 seed)

Regular Season Record: 42-27-13 (97 points)

VS.

Chicago Blackhawks (6 seed)

Regular Season Record: 45-26-11 (101 points)

The Coyotes have won their division for the first time in team history. The confidence level in Phoenix is at an all-time high because of its stellar goaltender Mike Smith. No one could have predicted the season he had this year. Coming off of waivers to a top-ten ranking in goalie wins, save percentage and goals against average. And don’t forget about the rest of the Coyotes defense; they rank 5th in goals against and 8th in the penalty kill. The Coyotes should be a formidable matchup for the Blackhawks. The Hawks are 6th in the league in scoring and they have Stanley Cup winners throughout the locker room. When all is said and done, I think that Chicago’s postseason experience is going to ultimately win out.

My prediction: Chicago in 7

Season Series Record: Phoenix won 3 of 4

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Nashville Predators (4 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-26-8 (104 points)

VS.

Detroit Redwings (5 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

I think this is the most intriguing first round matchup outside of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia series. This series pits the seasoned veterans of the Wings against the younger and defensively sound Preds. The Predators are getting a ton of picks in this series because most people have their doubts about the longevity of the Redwings. But don’t forget that Detroit has one of best goalies in the NHL (who is nearly as talented as the Pred’s Pekka Rinne), a perennial Norris Trophy winner in Lidstrom and the Wings also have some younger players like Darren Helm with quick legs and playoff experience. I don’t want to sell Nashville short, however. They had the best trade deadline moves in the NHL and their defense is as solid as there is in the league with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring the blue line. Despite taking the popular pick of the Preds, I can’t imagine the Redwings falling out quickly.

My prediction: Detroit in 6

Season Series Record: Both teams won 3

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Now we’ll move onto the East…

New York Rangers (1 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-24-7 (109)

VS.

Ottawa Senators (8 seed)

Regular Season Record: 41-31-10 (92 points)

The Rangers rolled through the regular season, never looking in the least that they might stumble at some point. But everyone knows the regular season is not the playoffs. Case in point: Despite being the best team in the league this season, the Rangers won only one game out of four against the Sens this year. They have been owned by the high scoring offense of Ottawa. But as I mentioned before, the regular season might not mean anything in this series. Defense is the name of the game in New York and Ottawa is far more focused on the aggressive offense they have been used to playing. Usually, defense wins out in these matchups, but don’t expect Ottawa to get swept or anything of the sort.

My prediction: Rangers in 7

Senators won 3 of 4

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Boston Bruins (2 seed)

Regular Season Record: 49-29-4 (102 points)

VS.

Washington Capitals (7 seed)

Regular Season Record: 42-32-8 (92 points)

I feel like this might be the biggest mismatch in the entire first round. Washington had a relatively bad year, but they still made the playoffs because they play in a horrible division. Although the Caps have been coming on as of late (with a ton of help from Ovechkin) they still seem like a team in general disarray. The Bruins are better than Washington in almost every category and ultimately, I think the Caps will fail because of their shaky goaltending and swiss-cheese defense. The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they are starting to look like that team once more. With an MVP playoff goalie in Tim Thomas and a host of other players that play physical with a high intensity, I can’t picture a scenario in which Washington could win this series.

My prediction: Boston in 5

Washington won 3 of 4

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Florida Panthers (3 seed)

Regular Season Record: 38-26-18

VS.

New Jersey Devils (6 seed)

Regular Season Record: 48-28-6 (102)

This is probably the first round game that I have the least interest in. I don’t think either of these teams could win more than one series, but I won’t sell either of them short. Florida hasn’t been to the playoffs in more than a decade and they only made it to the playoffs because they played in the worst division in hockey. Jose Theodore will be in net for this series and he hasn’t had a ton of success this year. The injury bug bit him and the net in Florida had a built-in revolving door. I believe that inconsistency will hurt the Panthers in the end. On the other side, the Devils have the best goalie in the modern game. They have good scorers in Parise and Kovalchuk, but the team only averages 2.63 goals per game, which notches them in 15th in the NHL. Either way, this series could be a crapshoot. So I’ll go with the veteran goalie and the dynamic scorers in New Jersey.

My prediction: New Jersey in 6

Season Series Record: Both teams won 2

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Pittsburgh Penguins (4 seed)

Regular Season Record: 51-25-6 (108 points)

VS.

Philadelphia Flyers (5 seed)

Regular Season Record: 47-26-9

This is hands down the most intriguing matchup of the first round. It’s obvious that these teams have a fierce rivalry, but it only got heated more in the last week of the season. The teams are very similar in their stats, ranking 1 and 2 in goal scoring (Pittsburgh being 1), 15 and 20 in goals against (Pittsburgh being 15) and the teams are also 5 and 6 on the powerplay (Pittsburgh being 5). The goalies matchup in Pittsburgh’s favor, as Bryzgalov only recently became a shutdown goalie this season. Marc-Andre Fleury already has a cup and he knows what it takes to win it. Philadelphia is relatively clueless when it comes to their goaltender each year, but they’re hoping that changes in the first round. Look for these games to be relatively high scoring and hard checking. Since the Pens lead in every category against the Flyers, I’ll take them 10/10 times.

My prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.

Season Series Record: Flyers won 4 of 6

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