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Round 2: Here we go again…

With the Montreal Canadiens  Game7 victory, and improbable comeback from down 3 games to 1, against the Washington Capitals, the Eastern Conference playoff picture has been turned on its ear with the top 3 seeds being eliminated.  The Western Conference, however, has played out more to form with no upsets–unless you consider the 5th place Detroit Red Wings, who made it to the finals the last 2 years and won it all 2 years ago, beating the upstart  4th place Phoenix Coyotes an upset.

As we set up for the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is important to point out a few things.  For starters, both of last year’s finalists, the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, are still alive and should be considered favorites despite the fact they finished 4th and 5th in their respective conferences…at least until someone beats them, which I don’t see happening in this next round.  I am pretty sure Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks will wake up and remember that they’re Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks and produce yet another epic playoff fail.  In the East, giant killers Montreal face another giant, but this time the giant sees them coming and knows how to handle them.

In the other 2 series I expect to see a couple of serious battles.  Boston Bruins v Philadelphia Flyers should be a physical battle with 2 of the biggest, meanest defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara  patrolling their respective zones.  In the West we will see a grudge match that has been brewing since last year’s 6 game bloodbath that saw the Chicago Blackhawks dispatch the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games.  Look for the Canucks to do a better job this year of protecting the area around Roberto Luongo and be much better able to match Chicago’s scoring, thus returning the favour and knock out the Blackhawks in 6 games.  In the East, Marc Savard’s return to the Bruins should be enough to lead them to victory over the Flyers, but expect a long series in that one.

In about 2 weeks time we will be looking at an Eastern Conference Final between Marc Savard’s Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins as well as a Western Conference battle between the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks.

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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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Gold or Bust for Men’s Hockey

The 2010 Vancouver Olympics Men’s Hockey Tournament is in full swing.  After 2 days of competition, all 12 countries have gotten their feet wet.  As expected Canada and the USA had little problem dispatching Norway and Switzerland respectively.  Germany surprised Sweden by battling them to a very competitive 2-0 result which saw the Germans hit several goal posts behind Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  The Czech Republic ousted the rival Slovakia 3-1, and the Russians handled Latvia 8-2.

Canada started Roberto Luongo between the pipes against Norway and he subsequently posted a shutout on what was, expectedly, a quiet night for him in which he only faced a handful of dangerous shots.  Martin Brodeur, who is expected to be the Team Canada starter for the run of the tournament will start today, in what should be another tune-up type game, against the Swiss.  Although, your humble blogger is loathe to point out that the Swiss stunned Canada in Torino2006, and should not be taken lightly this time around.

Canada’s first game against Norway, which they won 8-0, saw the top line of Crosby, Nash, and Iginla light up Norway with Iginla notching a hat-trick.  This line looks deadly, with Crosby having 2 snipers to choose from in Nash and Iginla.  But then again, it was Norway.   The Swiss, no doubt, will put up a much bigger fight, but anything short of a convincing victory will leave fans wondering.  The 7th place finish in Torino still leaves a bitter taste in the collective mouth of Canadian hockey fans.

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock has been trying out different line combinations.  Initially, he had put Patrice Bergeron, who your humble blogger thinks shouldn’t even be on this team, on the top unit with Crosby and Nash.  Bizarre.  After the futile production that this line produced in the 1st period, Babcock promptly, and wisely, yanked Bergeron off the 1st line replacing him with Jerome Iginla who went on to score a hat-trick taking beautiful feeds from Sidney Crosby while looking dangerous on almost every shift.

Tonight’s game should provide a better idea of what Team Canada will look like moving forward.  The team has had a game to get to know each other a little bit, work out some special teams systems, figure out some line combinations, and will have their number one goalie, Martin Brodeur between the pipes.   Due to the short nature of this tournament, there is not a lot of time for teams to ‘gel’ or master checking systems.  This team needs to come together fast, and come together now.  We will see what they look like tonight against the Swiss.

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Dany Heatley Should Count His Blessings

Dany Heatley finally spoke out yesterday from Kelowna, BC on his thinking behind demanding a trade from the nation’s capital.  On the eve of  Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp, Heatley talked to the media about the issue breaking months of silence.  We found out that he no longer wants to play for Ottawa because of his ‘diminshed role’ on the team.

The Ottawa Senators have been greatly underachieving the last couple of seasons.  Many believe with a top line consisting of Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson the team should realize more success.  Of course, this hasn’t been the case the last couple of seasons leading to some head-scratching and much to Heatley’s shagrin – line shuffling.  Clearly this has not sat well with Heatley a two time 50 goal scorer, causing him to demand a trade to a team that might appreciate his talents more and use him more effectively.

For Heatley, I have this advice.  Things aren’t so bad…count your blessings.  Earlier in your career you were on a team in a struggling hockey market where nobody cared about how crappy your team was.  Playoffs were a pipe-dream.  But things would change for you wouldn’t they?  Shorty, after the tragic car accident involving you and your teammate and friend Dan Snider you were traded to a then cup-contending team in a canadian hockey market where your past would be forgotten and you would be idolized.

Dany, when things go bad on a team, sometimes changes need to be made in the line-up wether it be line combinations or power-play units.  You should accept these things….its called being a team player.  I mean, if Team Canada doesn’t put you on the top power-play unit and give you 30 minutes of ice-time are you gonna ask to be traded to Team Russia?  So, Ottawa, contrary to what this writer would do, bent to your demands and arranged a trade to an up-coming young team in a Canadian market close to your hometown.  Still not good enough for our Dany boy though was it?

Dany, things aren’t as bad as they could be, especially considering your situation a few years ago.  After all 7.5 million dollars a year to play hockey isn’t so bad is it?  I think its time to count your blessings, Mr. Heatley and stopping being such a diva.

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