The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 3

Part 3 is now up on the Sportz Broz.

It features the Washington Capitals, Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils.

Check it out here!

Enjoy!

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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

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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