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Canucks v Blackhawks II

Drunk Kane

Drunk Kane

Well its gonna happen.  The much awaited playoff rematch between the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks.  Last year, also in the second round, the Chicago Blackhawks crashed their way to a 6 game series win over the Canucks.  This, along with a number of personal battles between players on both teams should allow for one hell of a series.

The Canucks will tell you that they felt they should have won last year, that they feel they are the better team, and if they stay out of the box and learn from last year’s mistakes they should win the series rematch.

The Blackhawks will tell you that they can get into Luongo’s head, can tame the twins, and should have no problem skating circles around the Canucks defense.

Sporting Vancouver will tell you that if the referees do their job and call goaltender interference EVEN ONCE in this series, something that seemed to, inexplicably, perplex them in last year’s series, the Vancouver Canucks should have enough to exact revenge against their rivals.  However, if the refs allow Byfuglien and the Hawks forwards to use Luongo as a bean-bag chair as they did with impunity last year then the Canucks, again, will be up against it.  It seemed as though Chicago scored at least 90% of their goals with Luongo shoved into the back of his net with one or two Blachawk forwards dog-piled on top of him.  Somehow, this drew no attention from the referees whatsoever.  Alain Vigneualt and his team better hope things will be different this year.

So far, it looks as though the league is determined to allow the goalies a chance to remain on their feet and attempt to stop shots.  We saw the Kings called for goaltender interference 3 times in the last series.  We also saw a Washington Capitals goal disallowed in a close game 7 because one of the Caps players allegedly grazed Montreal goaltender Jiroslav Halak’s toe preventing him from making a save.  Now, I’m positive Luongo won’t get anywhere near that kind of protection from the referees in this series…but if he gets at least some protection the Blackhawks will have to find a way to get shots past Luongo instead of just shooting the puck into the empty net after pushing him out of the way.

This series will be a long one.  This series will be a tough one.  It will be entertaining and will probably be the best of the 4 conference semi-finals.  We will see plenty of Byfuglien v Luongo, and maybe some Alberts v Byfuglien or O’Brien v Byfuglien.  We’ll definitely see some Kane v Kesler, and probably some Kane v Ladd.  Of course Burrows v Kjalmarsson and Samuelsson v Niemi.  I’m thinking there will be a pretty good tag-team match between the Sedins and Keith & Seabrook.  Mitchell v Toews would have been nice but Mitchell is still out.  Of course we will see Vigneault v Quenville II, which should be a good one…I just hope we don’t see Refs v Canucks II…cuz that would suck.

Yes, Canucks v Blackhawks II will be a toe-to-toe, knock him down, drag him out, grudge match between two of the best, most dynamic teams in the NHL.  Round 1 goes Saturday in Chicago.  DING-DING!

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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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Sporting Vancouver’s Early Take on Olympics

February 15, 2010 1 comment

In the past 3 days, your humble blogger has watched the opening ceremonies, lamented the loss of young Georgian Olympian Nodar Kumaritashvili,  tweeted about protesters and vandals, been to a rainy Cypress Mountain, and today watched Alexandre Bilodeau become the first Canadian to win Gold on home soil.

Let me start by saying that Sporting Vancouver extends sympathies and condolences to the family, friends, teammates, and countrymen of Georgian Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.  May his courage be long remembered whenever and wherever future Olympics are held.

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Now onto the opening ceremonies, which, quite frankly, blew me away.  To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting too much.  I figured it would be ok.  You know, ok in the sense that we didn’t totally embarass ourselves in front of the world and we didn’t just have a bunch of lumberjacks chasing beavers in canoes while Quebecers traded maple syrup for pelts with First Nations Peoples in igloos…you know…the stereotypical stuff…maybe with a Celine Dion and/or Corey Hart performance sprinkled in.

No, it was certainly much more than ok.  Right from the video presentation of the snowboarder descending the mountain then appearing at the top of the BC Place Stadium and jumping through the Olympic rings to welcome the World to Vancouver, I knew this was not going to be a typical, outdated, safe, Canadian-style production.  No, this was new, cutting-edge, enthralling and fast-paced.  Just the perfect recipe for today’s attention-span-challenged young viewers.

K.D. Lang’s performance of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was breath-taking.  She made the song her own.

Shane Koyczan’s performance of his poem “We Are More” wowed many people, including yours truly, as his twitter account instantly got 100s of followers.  If you haven’t heard or read it yet, do yourself a favour and follow the link above.

After watching Jen Heil take Silver in Ladies’ Moguls and Kristina Groves take Bronze at the long track speed skating oval, Canada was treated to a Gold Medal performance in Men’s Moguls tonight at Cypress Mountain.  Alexandre Bolideau, buoyed by his inspirational and determined brother Frederic, became the first Canadian ever to win a Gold Medal on home soil.  The reaction from coast to coast was huge.  Nowhere was this more evident than on the internet and through social media.  The terms “Alexandre Bolideau” and “Canada wins Gold” were trending for hours afterward and at the writing of this blog.

Yes we are only a few days into the 21st Olympiad here in Vancouver and already so much has happened–and hockey hasn’t even started yet!

It appears as though we are in store for a great show.

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Olympic Fever Grips City

February 10, 2010 1 comment

Well, here it is.  Sporting Vancouver’s first (of what should be many) “Official Sporting Vancouver 2010 Olympic Blogs”.

With two days to go before the opening ceremonies this Friday February 12th, 2010, the city appears to be holding its collective breath.  The type of breath one would take before diving into deep waters.  This is it…its here.  The world has come to Vancouver.  Lights, camera, action.  The curtain comes up in a matter of hours…is the city ready?  Probably not…  Will it ever be ready?  Probably not…You see the thing with Vancouverites is we want to be a big city…but we don’t want traffic jams.  We want to have big, world class events…but just “not in my back yard”.  We want tourists to come here and spend millions of dollars….but we don’t want them jamming up our Starbucks and making us wait an extra eleven minutes for our non-fat, non-dairy, fair-trade, mocchajavalattespressoccino served in an eco-friendly, sustainable energy, renewable resource, bio-degradable cup with that oh-so-beautiful-and-status-ensuring Starbuck’s logo on it which we have to stir with our fingers because we’d have to chop down a tree for wood stir stix, re-usable spoons would have germs and would need to be washed in an electicity-guzzling dishwasher, and well…you can forget about plastic stir stix!!!

You see…Vancouver is a city where, in my humble opinion, common sense and democracy go to die.  It is a city where the vocal minority run the show.  Special interest groups ‘squeak’ very loudly in this city and, thus get most of the governmental ‘grease’.  This is why you will see many protesters around our fair city decrying the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a waste of money…money that should have gone to give them free homes….not just any free homes…but free homes in downtown Vancouver, virtually the most expensive chunk of real estate in North America.

Anyways, I am getting off-topic…this is a sports blog after all.   I was acting like I was trying to get a gold medal in political griping.

I was on hand, behind the scenes at BC Place Stadium for the dress rehearsal for the opening ceremonies and was amazed by the amount of security present.  I am hoping that these Olympics will be a safe, and enjoyable event for all.  I am also hoping that all protesters will be free to demonstrate and voice their opinions democratically and not violently or destructively.

Its the calm before the storm.  We have two days to go, Vancouver.  Let’s tuck in our shirts, put on our faces, check our hair, pop those zits, and open the door to the world…after all, we want them all to come back and spend more money in the future…money we could use to buy ourselves free houses downtown.

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.