Penguins Unexpected Playoff Exit Only Adds Drama

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, it still sounds awful and I’m still distraught about it.

I’ve been trying to find the positivity in a losing series in which the Pens gave up 11 power play goals and three shorties and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals with a 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage.

I found that, if nothing else, the Penguins’ hatred of the Flyers grew in those six games and so did mine. It may seem like a small positive – if a positive at all – but the intensity that rivalries inject into sports adds about as much drama as you can dream up.

That’s why we watch sports, after all. The drama of every shot, every hit and every swing of a bat, stick, racket or club can keep fans on the edge of their seats because of what is at stake. It’s supremely entertaining because sports is the ultimate reality show. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, the odds are pretty good that you can guess what may come next, but there is no sure thing in sports, as in life.

The Penguins’ postseason was a great example of that unpredictability. They went into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Stanley Cup. Sports Illustrated featured a cover line that read “Who will stop the Penguins?” on the NHL playoffs preview issue (pictured right).

Sidney Crosby was healthy again, Evgeni Malkin had won a scoring title and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing the way he did when he won the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh Tribune Review Pens beat writer Josh Yohe wrote a blog entitled “10 Reasons Penguins Can Win Stanley Cup” even before the Penguins really turned it on with Crosby’s return. But once the regular season ended, it all collapsed at the hands of the Penguins most hated rival.

This is a theme not uncommon to sports.

If you’re a Yankees fan, it was reasonable to guess that after Enter Sandman boomed from the loudspeakers, Mariano Rivera was going to jog out of the bullpen and sit down the next three batters to win a ball game.

Then without warning, Rivera slipped on the warning track while shagging fly balls and tore his ACL, leaving his career in jeopardy.

If you were a fan of the “old” Tiger Woods – which coincidentally was the young Tiger Woods – you could be almost certain that he was going to win a tournament if he went into the final day of a tournament at the top of the leader board.

But then Tiger got into a car accident, some strange events unfolded and now he hasn’t won a major or much else since.

It’s the drama of not knowing that drives a fan. It’s all about hope. It’s that hope for “the feeling” you get when your team wins at the risk of getting “that other feeling” when your team loses. I hoped the Pens would oust the Flyers from the playoffs. It didn’t happen. I hope the Steelers can make a decent run at a Super Bowl this year, but maybe they won’t. I’m willing to put in all the enthusiasm I can to root for my teams even though I’m risking major disappointment. I’ve bought into the risk vs. reward just like most fans out there.

So even though the Penguins lost to the Flyers, it only fueled my desire to see the black and gold take the ice next season and defeat the orange and black and hopefully the Penguins share my sentiments. I’ve accepted defeat and disappointment this season because I know a Cup might come next season in dramatic fashion. Flyers in 6 wasn’t the end of the world, it was just part of the evolution of the rivalry. Maybe Pittsburgh will face Philadelphia in the postseason next year and the rivalry will be even more intense. That’s what I’m hoping at least, because in sports, you never know and that’s what makes it great.

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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

Penguins Season on the Brink

Before the playoffs started, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the favorites to win it all.

Now, they may exit the postseason without a single win.

The star power of Sidney Crosby and company seems to have fallen by the wayside in exchange for poor decision making and horrendous defense.  Pittsburgh started out with a lead in all three games of this series, only to surrender it later in every game. They’ve managed to get 12 goals by Philadelphia net minder Ilya Bryzgalov to average four goals per game, but their defense has had the stopping power of a wet paper bag. Pittsburgh surrendered an unprecedented 20 goals to the Flyers so far. Gretzky’s Oilers couldn’t have won games if they were letting in an average of more than six every night.

As much as I hate to admit it, Marc-Andre Fleury is a key problem. He has looked shaky, given up soft goals on multiple occasions and he hasn’t risen to meet adversity like he has past post-seasons. Fleury used to give fans a gleam of optimism when the rest of the team was playing poorly. “At least Fleury looked good” was a commonly uttered sentiment after Penguins losses. But now, the Flower looks average and flustered.

But don’t put all the weight on Fleury’s shoulders. Even though he hasn’t played his best, the team in front of him hasn’t allowed him to. Every defenseman has made mistakes that have cost the Penguins goals. They have turned the puck over in all three zones, failed to get their sticks or bodies in passing and shooting lanes and they have been overaggressive in the offensive zone, stranding themselves behind the play. When the blueliners are out of position, the Flyers have been able to breakout with odd-man rushes.  And since Malkin, Crosby, Letang, Martin and others have all been guilty of turnovers in the neutral zone, all the Flyers need to do is wait. But they go a step further. The Flyers have been aggressive with the puck, even when they could probably sit back. They saw the Penguins surrender leads in the first two games because of complacency and Flyers coach Peter Peter Laviolette has never allowed his team to take their foot off the gas.

This pace has killed Pittsburgh. Even on occasions where they’ve managed to score quickly after Philadelphia has, they soon lose momentum and go back on their heels. How do they lose that momentum?

Penalties.

Chippy play and poorly-timed penalties used to be a characteristic of the Flyers. Now, the Penguins seem eager to get into the faces of the opposition to prove they aren’t intimidated at the expense of playing playoff hockey. Pittsburgh can play just as physically as Philly, but it can’t take them to the penalty box. Mistakes of frustration were highly evident in Game 3 and that left Pittsburgh shorthanded on the ice and the bench. Losing Letang was a huge blow. He runs the point on the power play and usually plays the most responsible and aggressive hockey of all the Pen’s defensemen. Without him, a bad defense suffered even more.

The team’s recent performance has come as a surprise to pundits and Pens fans alike, but it didnt come out of nowhere. During the final two weeks of the season, Pittsburgh seemed to lose some of its moxie and the team struggled to play the style of game it’s used to – north/south hockey with a high confidence level of the special teams. Now, special teams are a bigger liability than an asset.

The Pens have managed only three power play goals while allowing three shorthanded goals in the series. One of the hallmarks of this Penguins team is their stout defense on the penalty kill. Now, it looks like they are clueless shorthanded, allowing six power play goals in three games.

This series isn’t over yet. There is still a slim chance the Pens can win four in a row to defeat the Flyers. In the history of the NHL, there were three teams to come back from a 0-3 deficit to eventually win the series. But if the Penguins have any hopes of getting back in this series, there are three things they need to do:

  1. Fleury must be flawless. He cannot let in even one more soft goal. If he does, his confidence will be at an all-time low and the Flyers will take prey on him. If somehow, the Flower can return to his 09’ playoff form, his scorers should be able to net enough goals to win.
  2. The defensemen and forwards need to make quality decisions with the puck and not get over-aggressive. Dan Byslma’s system encourages the defense to move the puck quickly up ice and use speed to break into the offensive zone. This system only works if the players can use it smartly. The D needs to stay back and wait for the clean pass, not force the puck up ice. The forwards also need to hang onto the puck better and move the puck north, instead of making lateral passes across the ice. The Flyers take advantage of cross-ice passes and that leads them to odd-man rushes and breakaways.
  3. The Penguins need to stay disciplined. If you aren’t playing well on the penalty kill, you need to avoid putting guys in the box at all costs. If Fleury was flawless and Pens were able to get some shorthanded goals, they could afford to lose a man to an aggressive penalty every now and then. Right now, the PK is awful so they must stay disciplined.

The Penguins know they have the talent to win four straight and advance. It’s just a matter of mental fortitude and execution. If they can dig deep and play at the level they’re capable of, an epic comeback may just be possible.

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

Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

There is still more than a month left before the Stanley Cup playoffs, but this season has already given us plenty of excitement and surprise. So I thought it’d be fun to visit 10 of the biggest surprises this season has offered up so far. So without further ado…

10. The Detroit Red Wings record setting 23-straight wins at home.

Why is this surprising?

I know at first, it isn’t that hard to believe. There is a strong tradition of winning in Detroit and fan support there is always amongst the top in the league. But consider how long this record lasted before this season. The last team to hold the record was the Boston Bruins (22 straight) during 1929-30 and ’30-31. In those days, professional hockey was a much different game. Stars played entire careers with one team and dynasties were more frequent. The current game is ripe with parity and regardless of who you play, there’s always a chance of suffering a loss.

You also have to consider that during the streak, Detroit didn’t have their No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard for a number of games during the final stretch. Howard’s fill-in – Joey MacDonald – won six straight to help break the record. For a backup to achieve a streak like that in pressure situations is pretty admirable.

9. The Buffalo Sabres are out of playoff contention.

Why is this surprising?

After last season, owner Terry Pegula vowed to spend heaps of money to turn Buffalo into a Stanley Cup contender. To sure up the blue line, he signed Christian Ehrhoff through 2021 at a cap hit of $4 million. He also brought on Robyn Regehr for about the same price through 2013. If that wasn’t enough, Pegula snapped up Ville Leino from Philadelphia to increase goal scoring at the hefty price of $4.5 million through 2017. It seemed that Buffalo was going to be a real contender in the 2011-2012 season. But so far, they have been a disappointment. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. The stars Pegula brought in are having down years and their best player, goaltender Ryan Miller, just hasn’t looked himself for much of the season. He has had some injury problems and the backup Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been able to help during Miller’s absences. The Sabres still have a shot at making the postseason, but the team really needs to turn up the intensity in its remaining 17 games.

8. Concussions are increasing at a high rate.

Why is this surprising?

The expansion of Rule 48, plain and simple. After losing the face of the league (Sidney Crosby) and a number of others to concussions last season, NHL officials met in the offseason and expanded rule 48 to eliminate the dangerous hits to the head that were causing many of the concussions in the NHL. Check out this quote from an article written by Dan Rosen of NHL.com last year:

“There were hits this year that we want eliminated from the game and we need to make sure we don’t end up back in this situation again next year,” said former NHL veteran Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “Without getting real specific, players and managers, and as my thinking would be, the Board of Governors and our Board, want to keep the physical play in and want to put some onus on guys being aware on the ice, but at the same time there are hits that we want to rid ourselves of. By expanding Rule 48, we’re hoping to be able to do that.”

That didn’t happen.

This is just a sample set of the players who suffered concussions this season so far: Sidney Crosby Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Michael Sauer, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Kris Letang, Chris Pronger,  Zbynek Michalek, Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Beagle, Milan Michalek, Brayden Schenn, Radek Martinek, Marek Zidlicky, Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Toews.

Brendan Shanahan, the director of player discipline, has handed out his fair share of suspensions stemming from concussion-causing hits this season, but obviously the suspensions and the rule expansion haven’t done enough to take head-shots out of the game.

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are the highest scoring team in the NHL.

Why is this surprising?

This past offseason, the Flyers gutted the scoring of their team. They sent their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. From 2007-2011, he averaged 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points per season. The Flyers also sent center Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets. From 2007-2011, he averaged 36 goals, 30 assists and 66 points per season. And not to go unnoticed, Philadelphia also lost Ville Leino to Buffalo. Last season, he scored 19 goals, 34 assists and 53 points.

It seemed that the Flyers were losing a ton of firepower to free up cap room to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But despite those players and their juicy numbers going elsewhere, the Flyers have still averaged 3.25 goals per game. They have scored 208 goals this season, six more than second ranked Boston. The Flyers have managed to climb to the top of the scoring list by getting help from a number of different players. Scott Hartnell leads the team with 31 goals, followed by Claude Giroux’s 23 and 22 from Wayne Simmonds. Currently, the Flyers have 10 players with 10 or more goals.

6. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Why is this surprising?

Last year, the Lightning was the team to beat in the postseason. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay surged to win three straight to win the series. Then they easily swept Washington in the second round. And in the Eastern Conference finals, it took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins seven games to finish off the Lightning. Steven Stamkos was coming into his own (and is currently the league leader in goals (47) and points (80)) and the veteran leadership of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is still there. So what is so different between this year’s team and last year’s?

Goaltending.

Somehow, Dwayne Roloson was outstanding last season with the Bolts, especially in the playoffs. Everyone predicted that the 41-year-old net minder was too old to carry the team, but that’s exactly what he did. Now, it seems that his age has finally caught up to him. Add in the fact that the Tampa Bay blueliners are relatively poor and haven’t provided their goalies with much help all season long. But even though the situation for Tampa has looked dismal for most of this season, they remain only two points out of a playoff spot and six points back of the Southeast Division lead.

5. The Florida Panthers may win the Southeast Division.

Why is this surprising?

The Panthers haven’t made the postseason in 10 years. It is the longest drought in all of hockey.  Although the Southeast Division is shaky at best, the winner will reap the benefits of a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers have led the division for the majority of the season. Over the past few weeks, the position has wavered, allowing both the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals to claim the top spot for a few games. But the fact remains that the Panthers have been the best team in that division for the majority of the season and they probably deserve to win the Southeast.

Florida has been led by the stellar scoring line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Collectively, the three have scored 58 goals, 83 assists and 141 points. And even though the goaltending staff had to mix and match because of injuries (starter Jose Theodore has started only 37 games) it has managed to win 30 games between Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom to post a solid .915 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.64. Those numbers may just be good enough for a division win come April.

4. The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Why is this surprising?

For starters, Vegas gave the Caps 7/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup before the season. The only other team given the same odds was the Vancouver Canucks, which came within a game of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware last season. The Caps were favorites for a win because of their scoring depth, with guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. They also had a solid defense with outstanding blue liner Mike Green and experienced veterans Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. Goaltending seemed like it could be an issue, but Washington management was confident that sending their previous starter Semyon Varlamov to Colorado wouldn’t hinder the 2011-2012 season because of the young talent of Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and acquired veteran Tomas Vokoun.

But unfortunately for Washington, this season has been sub-par at best. They are ranked 21 in goals against per game and they rank 13th in goal scoring. After an 8-0 start, Washington has won more than two games in a row only three times this season. But because the Capitals are in the weak Southeast Division, they still stand a chance at making the playoffs and are currently only one point out of the playoff picture.

3. The Flyers goaltending woes continue.

Why is this surprising?

They Flyers haven’t had a dependable goaltender for close to a decade. After last season, the Flyers organization decided it had enough and on June 23, 2011, Philadelphia signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The length of the contract was unprecedented for goalies in the NHL, but the Flyers had good reason to think it was a good move. Bryzgalov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and a top-5 finalist for the Hart Trophy in the 2009–10 NHL season. His career goals-against average was an admirable 2.39 and his career save percentage was .915. He had also won more than 150 games in less than 10 seasons in the NHL. When the Flyers signed him, he was easily in the top-10 of goalies in the NHL and perhaps even the top five.

But this season has not been kind to Bryzgalov.

Although he has 23 wins this season, his save percentage is a paltry .898 (the worst of his career) and his goals-against average is 2.79, the second worst of his career. Bryz hasn’t looked comfortable between the pipes in Philly this season. And in the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette elected to start last year’s No. 1 goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was clearly upset with the decision and it was a clear sign that the team’s confidence in him has wavered. Philly still has a solid team with the most scoring in the league, but if Bryzgalov cannot find his mojo before the playoffs, the Flyers Stanley Cup hopes just may fade away this season.

2. St. Louis is only two points back of the overall lead in the NHL

Why is this surprising?

St. Louis has been a perennial bust. They have not won a playoff game since 2003-2004 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001-2002. The team also has not qualified for the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But this season, after a 6-7 start that left St. Louis in 14th place in the Western Conference, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne in favor of Ken Hitchcock, a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience and the 4th Blues head coach since 2006.

The move paid off.

Currently St. Louis is in second in the Western Conference and only one point back from first place Vancouver. The Blues have one of the best defenses in all of the NHL and are the league leaders in goals allowed per game (1.89), have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (125) and are fourth in the NHL in plus/minus (plus-41). But best aspect of this team is between the pipes. Which leads us to…

1. Brian Elliott’s phenomenal year.

Why is this surprising?

No one could have predicted the year that goaltender Brian Elliott is having. His save percentage of .937 is second in the NHL and his goals-against average of 1.63 is tops in the league. The 26-year-old goalie also ranks third in shutouts with six. These stats are drastically better than his career numbers. In Elliott’s first four seasons – the majority of which were with the Ottawa Senators – his average save percentage was .912 and his goals-against average was 2.67. Elliott has only 20 wins this season, but that is only because he is effectively splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, who is having a tremendous season of his own. With these backstops holding the fort in St. Louis, who knows what the Blues will be capable of in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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