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Winds of Change in the Air

Heading into Wednesday night’s Western Conference Game4 between the Canucks and Kings in Los Angeles, things were looking rather dire and foreboding for the road team.  Fresh off a frustrating 5-3 loss on Monday in a game where it seemed even the NHL itself was against them, things looked even worse what with an injury to D-man Aaron Rome and with Dr.Evil himself Gary Bettman in attendance to put out any conspiracy theory fires before the game and to tell all who would listen that there are never any problems in the NHL…EVER…not steroids, uninterested markets, or fixed games…’no way, not here’ said the commish.

The Canucks headed into this game desperately needing a win and a penalty kill.  They found both, but not before the LA Kings scared the bejesus out of them and their fans by scoring on their first 2 power plays.  It really was more of the same for the first two periods as the Canucks looked the lesser team..unable to kill penalties or win battles for loose pucks at either end.  The Canucks were not able to get their shots through the Kings checkers or complete passes with the Angelinos clogging all the passing lanes.

Then, something happened.  Something…somehow..changed.  One could almost feel the air become still..then start to change direction…a different feel.  The Canucks were able to kill off not, one but TWO STRAIGHT LA power-plays!  Suddenly, their legs felt lighter, they seemed to skate faster, suddenly getting to loose pucks ahead of the now hesitant Kings.  In fact, other than the Kings tying goal in the third, I dare say the Canucks carried the play and owned just about every shift for the last 10 minutes of the game…something we haven’t seen since Game1.  Yes, the Canucks were skating stronger, with more vigour, asserting themselves shift by shift, reminding themselves that they were the best third period team in the league with 11 third period comebacks.  Yes, they suddenly seemed themselves.  It was as though the fog that was covering them through games two and three and the first two periods of Game4 was lifting and they could complete more than one pass in a row, they could get a shot to the net, they could get to a rebound, they could cycle the puck in the offensive zone, they could make a few very key saves,  and they could score three goals in the third.

It was certainly a big difference from what we had seen earlier.  What a difference a period makes.  Now, the Canucks seem to have gotten their game back, have tied the series, regained home-ice advantage, and now carry the momentum heading into the, now, best of 3 series starting Friday at GM Place in front of what should be a revitalized crowd.

It was beginning to look as though the Canucks were starting to slip into, perhaps, another playoff disappointment where they hadn’t shown their best.  At least now, no matter what happens from here on out, the Canucks have had their say in this series, they didn’t go quietly, and they spoke with a voice so loud that not even Gary Bettman, Mike Murphy or the league itself could silence them.

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NHL Playoffs: 1st Rd. Predictions

As we enter the 2009/2010 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, Sporting Vancouver would like to go on the record with 1st round predictions.

Let’s start with the Western Conference:

1st seed San Jose Sharks vs 8th place Colorado Avalanche

Everyone, by now, knows all about the San Jose Sharks and they’re Jekyll and Hyde routine once the playoffs start.  During the 82 game regular season, the team dominates.  Joe Thornton is constantly at or near the top in league scoring, Evgeni Nabakov is a brick wall, and the tremendous depth on offense and defense overwhelms everyone in their path.  Then the playoffs start.  Nabokov turns into “NaboSIEVE”, Thornton runs and hides, the other 1st liners turn invisible, and the team doesn’t seem as tough as it did…the Sharks turn into the minnows.

This year they have added Dany Heatley to their front line, and look much better all around.  They are facing an upstart Colorado Avalanche who have surprised many teams with their youthful exuberance, speed, and quickness.  The Sharks will not be taken by surprise by this team.  They know what they are getting into.  They know the expectations on them to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.  They know they should easily beat the Avalanche.  That is why they will lose to the Avs whose young players just don’t know that they’re not supposed to win.

AVALANCHE in 7

2nd seed Chicago Blackhawks v 7th place Nashville Predators

The Chicago Blackhawks have gotten exponentially better each of the last 3 years.  Their young stars have developed, and gained a large amount of playoff experience.  This team appears poised to take the next step.  They have stars up front, led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and on defence with Duncan Keith.  Their goal-tending remains a question and expect Nashville’s Renne to be the better goaltender in this series…but it just won’t be enough.

Blackhawks in 6

3rd seed Vancouver Canucks v 6th place Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings are one of the big surprises in the NHL this season.  Their great young players like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are now solid veterans and the core of the team.  Sprinkle in some veteran leadership with Ryan Smyth, and a superstar young defenceman in Drew Doughty and you have the stars aligning to create quite a team.  They have enough depth up front, enough depth on defence, and good enough goal-tending in Jonathan Quick to give the Northwest Champion Vancouver Canucks all they can handle.

The Vancouver Canucks have been dealing with serious injury troubles all season with among the highest man-games lost total in the league.  They have seen a revolving door on defense all year and continue to play without their top shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell.  Their remaining defense are all banged up with each of them having missed some time to injury this season.  All-Star goaltender Roberto Luongo is having a below average season by his standards and looks to put it behind him with a clean slate in the playoffs.  Up front the Vancouver Canucks are as good as anyone in the league.  Look for Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin to combine with his brother Daniel to come up with at least one goal a game.  Contributions from Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson, and Pavol Demitra are critical as, no doubt, the Kings will be focusing all of their defensive energy towards shutting down the twins.  Penalty killing will be critical for the Canucks as they will, no doubt, find their way into the box quite often against this speedy LA team.

The Kings will be good, but look for Ryan Kesler to neutralize their top line.  At the end of it, the Canucks offensive depth will be too much for the young Kings to handle.

Canucks in 5

4th place Phoenix Coyotes v 5th place Detroit Red Wings

This is the battle of the 2 teams that nobody wanted to meet.  An upstart Phoenix Coyotes who no team has yet figured out, and a late surging and finally healthy Detroit Red Wings who have all the playoff experience in the world.

Right off the bat, you have to give the goal-tending edge to Ilya Bryzgalov and the Phoenix Coyotes.  This will be key as if they are to have any chance in this series they will need to have the better goal-tending.  How do you handicap the Wings’ chances?  They are built for the playoffs.  Pure and simple.  They should beat everyone they meet.  Problem is, they’re playing a very good, hard-working defensive team who, to put it bluntly, have basically been slapped together in the last number of months…even head coach Dave Tippet wasn’t hired until after training camp started.  They have been winning games with defense, goal-tending, and elbow grease all season. Then they added some scoring punch at the trade deadline with Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak.  Now what?

This series will be very interesting.  In the end, I expect that the Red Wings, having finally gotten rolling, will find a way to eliminate the Coyotes (unless Gary Bettman has decreed that his team has team must win to keep them in Phoenix).

Red Wings in 6

Eastern Conference

1st seed Washington Capitals v 8th place Montreal Canadiens

Not many are giving the Montreal Canadiens any chance of winning this season.  After all the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals have run roughshod over the entire Eastern Conference for 82 games, even while missing Alex Ovechkin for 10 games where they still managed a 7-2-1 record.  Montreal proponents point to the Capitals’ goal-tending as the chink in their collective armour.  That’s like saying Scarlett Johansson’s feet aren’t that sexy.  Its minor and insignificant and nobody cares.   The Canadiens’ goal-tending with Halak playing at his best is, at best, only somewhat better than what Theodore can provide for the Caps.  For Montreal to have a chance here, the difference in goal-tending will have to be huge and their power-play needs to go lights out.   Yes, there is some doubt as to whether or not Capitals star centre Niklas Backstrom will be able to go to start this series but it won’t matter.  The Capitals are too good to not win this one.

Capitals in 5

2nd seed New Jersey Devils v 7th place Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have given the Devils everything they can handle all season winning the season series with a 5-1-0 record.  They Flyers physicality and offensive depth should be enough to make New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire worried.  The big difference here will be goaltending.  The Flyers goal-tending has improved with Brian Boucher stepping it up this year but the Devils have Martin Brodeur who is still proving he can get the job done.  The Devils difficulty traditionally has been goal scoring, though they feel they have addressed this with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk.  This series will be interesting and will likely go the distance which facours the more experienced Devils.

Devils in 7

3rd seed Buffalo Sabres v 6th place Boston Bruins

This series will have excellent goal-tending with American goalies Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas.  You would have to give the edge to buffalo in net but Boston’s net-minder certainly can get it done as well.  This one will come down to Buffalo’s speed and scoring against Boston’s physicality and defense.  Home ice advantage could definitely prove to be important in this series as both coaches will look to get their match-ups with the last change.  This one is tough to call.  Will Bruins’ star forward Marc Savard return from concussion to help the team’s offense? Expect this one to go the distance…again, with the home team taking it.

Sabres in 7

4th place Pittsburgh Penguins  v  5th place Ottawa Senators

Ottawa goes into this series hoping to pull out an upset against Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup Champions.  They do so without one of their top scoring threats and prized off-season acquisition Alexei Kovalev.  Pittsburgh appears to have the edge in every category; goal-tending, defense, and forwards.  It would likely take a miracle for Ottawa to win this series.   That being said they have some grit and drive up front with players like team captain Daniel Alfredsson.  Unfortunately, this won’t be enough to counter Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.

Penguins in 5

Rollercoaster season sees Canucks fight injuries; score heavily.

The 2009/2010 regular season comes to a screeching halt after seeing the Canucks deal with all kinds of adversity and successes, expectations and disappointments, highs and lows, and one of the NHL’s highest total of mangames lost to injury.  Still, they persevered, and once the dust settled they found themselves repeating as Northwest Division Champions, 2nd in league scoring with Henrik Sedin leading the way as the Art Ross Trophy winner, a 1st round match with the young and dynamic LA Kings, and a lot of questions to be answered.

Will the team’s depleted defense keep them from reaching their potential?

Will Luongo shake off the post-olympic cobwebs and regain his masterful form in time to keep the Canucks rolling?

Will the Sedins continue rolling and light up the other team’s goaltender?

Can Kesler and Burrows continue to get under the skin of their opponents while continuing to put up points?

There’s a lot that needs to be answered going into Thursday’s playoff opener at GM Place.  It all depends on which Canucks team shows up.  The Canucks have shown that when they are interested, they can beat anyone in the league as evidenced by wins over Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, Washington and Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh.  They’ve also shown their ugly side with inexplicable losses to Columbus, Carolina, Edmonton, and the Islanders.

Their first round opponent, the LA Kings, provide the Canucks with a serious competition.  They are young, fast, and physical.  They have depth at forward as well as on defence and have been overlooked by many around the NHL as this year’s “one-hit wonder”.  In my opinion, this team is for real.  They will give the Canucks all they can handle and meet the Canucks hit for hit and shot for shot.  The Canucks will need to be disciplined and stay put of the box as much as possible and they will need to have the better goaltender.  If Luongo is Luongo, the Canucks will win this series.  If we see the same Luongo we’ve seen since after the Olympic break, things may not go as well for the Canucks.

All in all, I expect this series to be very entertaining and well-played.  I expect that the Canucks will defeat the Kings in 7 games (as long as the refs stay out of the way).

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Sedins, Burrows Continue to Roll

If you look at the top of the NHL’s scoring chart you will see Henrik Sedin.  Yes, Henrik Sedin is leading the league with 74 points heading into action on Monday.  He is, not surprisingly, second only to Joe Thornton in assists.  The difference this year, is that he has scored a career-high 23 goals already this season.  Daniel Sedin has missed several games otherwise he would likely be right up there with his brother.  As it stands he is already well over a point of game pace.  Not to be outdone, Alex Burrows already has over 20 goals this year as well.

The three have combined for 77 points in the last 15 games.  That is over 5 points a game, or close to 2 points a game per player.

Can they keep up this pace?  It would be hard to contemplate them continuing at this clip but there is nothing to show that they are slowing down at all.  Henrik leads the league with over 20 multiple-point games…over 20 multiple-point games with 30 games left in the season.  Henrik is certainly having a career-type season, staying ahead of the likes of Alex Oveckin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Joe Thornton for the league lead in points.  He, along with his brother, has shown that the Canucks were wise in locking them up long-term.