2nd Round Impressions and Conference Finals Predictions

May 15, 2009 by Kyle  
Filed under Hockey Columns

solongbruinsRaise your hand if you think this is the best hockey you ever seen? Outside of International hockey which tends to always be this good, I can’t recall a playoff year being so full of exciting end-to-end hockey. For years we were used to guys “water skiing”, chipping their way through the playoffs with stifling defense and sluggish flow.

Not this year. And it’s not likely to start any time soon.

Thoughts on the Second Round

Boston vs Carolina 

The Hurricanes have made me, and I suspect most of us look silly twice now. I don’t know if many predicted them to beat the Devils (though I did), and I think even fewer predicted them to beat the Bruins (I did not). I don’t know what it is about this team, but it sure feels like they’re a team of destiny, doesn’t it? How can you not like this team? From Paul Maurice and Ron Francis , to Eric Staal and Cam Ward , what’s not to like? I guess if you’re a Bruins fan, you don’t like Scott Walker very much now…the guy who kayoed Aaron Ward , and then kayoed the Bruins entirely . I thought the Bruins played well enough to win game 7, but they slipped in games 3 and 4, which cost them dearly. The Bruins have never overcome a 3-1 series deficit, and that history will continue for at least 1 more year. I feel bad for Tim ThomasClaude Julien , and Aaron Ward, but the Bruins had a great year and should be back next year to challenge again. The questions will begin to circle around Tim Thomas now, especially now that he has a fat long-term deal. He’s now 0-2 in playoff game sevens and he’ll be dogged by that until he wins one.

Pittsburgh vs Washington 

What can you say about this series that hasn’t been said already? A series featuring several of the games brightest stars, highlighted by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin . This series was hyped as a showdown between these 2 stars as if they were the only ones playing, and for long stretches, it seemed like they were the only 2 doing anything. Crosby had 13 points in the series while Ovechkin had 14. But in the end, Crosby was there in game 7 while Ovechkin seemed to fade after being robbed by Marc-André Fleury early in the first period. That save was the turning point of the game. It looked like this series was going to be a quick one after Washington took a 2-0 series lead, but the Penguins battled back on home ice and won 4 of the next 5 games, which many thought would be next to impossible. Again, the old adage of “you’re never in trouble until you lose on home ice” proves true. As for the Crosby/Ovechkin feud, I think it’s time to say that Crosby gets the edge. Sure Ovechkin has the flair and the personality – no debate there. But at 21, Crosby has already been to the Cup finals and is 1 series away from doing it again. He brought it and delivered big time in game 7 when it mattered most, and without a doubt understands the team game and how to use his teammates better than Ovechkin does. The poignant image in this series for me is when Crosby stole the puck from Ovechkin, streaked down the ice and beat Jose Theodore to seal the series. If that was not the series in a nutshell, what is?

Detroit vs Anaheim 

This series seemed to be littered with blown calls, missed calls, weird brawls involving lightweights, stars and mismatches and of course, controversy. In the end I believe everything balanced out and the better team won, though it took longer than it ought to have taken. If not for the heroics of Jonas Hiller , this series is over in 5. Even with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom sound asleep this playoff year, the Wings are still getting consistent scoring from “the Mule” Johan FranzenHenrik ZetterbergNik LidstromMarian Hossa and Jiri Hudler . Anaheim seemed only to be able to go as far as Hiller and Getzlaf could take them. Niedermayer and Pronger are not the players they used to be, nor is Teemu Selanne . It may be time for a changing of the guard in Anaheim, as many of their key veterans are unrestricted free agents.

Vancouver vs Chicago 

Who says young teams can’t win this deep in to the year? The Blackhawks are the youngest team in the league and are impressively showing everyone that you can’t lose if you don’t know what losing is. Call them the Canada killers, but they’ve knocked out the 2 Canadian representatives in the Western Conference in impressive fashion. They rattled and eventually shredded Miikka Kiprusoff , and did the same to Roberto Luongo . Speaking of Luongo, what a bad time for the team captain to play his worst hockey of the year. For a guy that everyone expects to be named Canada’s #1 goaltender at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he sure didn’t play like he can handle the pressure (In fact, neither did Brodeur , which begs the question – is Cam Ward the best Canadian goaltender in the game right now? One thing is for sure today, if Luongo is named Team Canada’s #1 guy, it will be in large part due to the politics of having the home town guy between the pipes. Hopefully Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman and the coaching staff can see through this and make the correct call. It may end up being Luongo come next year, but right now it’s not.).

I wonder how the Canucks feel today about bringing in Mats Sundin , as he did not quite live up to expectations, despite respectable playoff stats. It’s evident that skipping training camp hurt him, and father time is catching up. Will he be back next season? Will the Canucks want him back? If the Sedins leave, they may be forced to bring him back just to keep them competitive. The rest of the Canucks seemed not to be able to raise their game in the playoffs. Steve BernierRyan Kesler and Pavol Demitra were not able to match the skill and production of the Hawks. Going back to the Hawks, there’s no shortage of extremely talented kids that can flat out get the job done. From Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, to Patrick SharpKris Versteeg and Martin Havlat , the scoring is there in spades. And with role players like BurishByfuglienBollandLadd, and Sammy Pahlsson, the sandpaper and intangibles are there too. The defense is able, and more importantly, willing to take abuse and give it out. Joel Quenneville is to be commended for what he’s done with this collection of youngsters. It’s clear that the firing of Denis Savard so early in the year was the right move, after it left so many shaking their heads.

Predictions for the Conference Finals

Carolina (6) vs Pittsburgh (4)

I don’t want to make the mistake of disrespecting Carolina again, since they seem to be proving just about everyone wrong, but I have a tough time making a case for them to beat the Penguins. I can easily say that fortune is smiling on the Canes and that will somehow carry them through the series, but I’m not going to do that. I think that the Penguins have the 2 best, or at least 2 of the 3 players in the league. And in Crosby’s case, he looks as though he’s just warming up. The Canes don’t have the defense to contain all of the Penguins up front talent…do they? Paul Maurice will have to roll lines because he won’t win many matchup battles. On the other hand do the Penguins have the necessary defensemen to lock up Eric Staal? Does it matter? Staal asserted himself quite well against Norris candidate Zdeno Chara , so maybe it doesn’t matter who the Penguins run out there. On the Penguins front, Sergei Gonchar came back for game 7, and had a positive contribution in the outcome. Will his knee be able to last for whatever amount of hockey is left in their season? I expected this to be another fast-paced series, with the Penguins talent being the difference. Though I will NOT be surprised to see the Canes advance. After all, Cam Ward STILL has never lost a playoff series (6-0), including a sparkling 4-0 record in 7th games. If that’s not clutch, I don’t know what is. Even after being seemingly rattled after the Bruins dominated games 5 and 6, he came back with a stellar effort in game 7. I don’t want to keep betting against this guy, but I also don’t want to bet against Sidney Crosby on a mission. The Canes are certainly battle tested, with both series this year going down to the wire in 7 games (to the last minute vs the Devils and OT vs the Bruins). That’s invaluable experience, but begs the question – how much do they have left in the tank. This is a team that will heavily rely on Staal to carry the mail offensively, as they have in both series to this point. Can he do it again? Maybe, but not quite enough.

Pittsburgh in 6 (though if it gets to a 7th game, I can’t help but think the Canes will win).

Chicago (4) vs Detroit (2)

Let’s hope that this original six matchup provides better entertainment than the Canadiens / Bruins series, which was as anticlimactic as it gets. In this matchup, we have division rivals, original six rivals, defending champs & league’s oldest team (Detroit) against the upstart, youngest team in the league with their sights set on the prize (Chicago).

This series has major potential for fireworks and drama, the same way the Penguins / Capitals series gave it to us. I think a lot of people are waiting for the air to slip out of the Blackhawks balloon, but so far it has not happened. People thought that the rougher, bigger defense of the Flames and Canucks would punish and smother the smallish, inexperienced Hawks forwards. But the Hawks have proven that they are more than up to the challenge. They’ve fought back and dished out as much as they took. On the flip side, the Red Wings do not play a bruising type of hockey. They play smart, they move the puck and they are disciplined. They are led by guys with multiple cup rings, guys who have been here many times and know precisely what it takes to get the job done. How much more can Quenneville get out of his troops? For Detroit, Mike Babcock also has a tremendous amount of experience at this time of year and can handle anything. So far he’s beaten a Columbus team that rode an extremely hot Steve Mason in to the playoffs, he’s beaten an Anaheim team that wanted to grind the Wings to a halt, and now they’re playing a Hawks team that will try to skate and finesse them in to the ice.

It’s time to throw the inexperience argument out the window. The Hawks don’t care. Whether they are right in thinking this remains to be seen. I’m calling the talent on both sides as a draw. In my mind this series will boil down to Osgood vs Khabibulin and how well their defensemen can contain the skill. I think now is the time we will see Datsyuk and Holmstrom wake up and make their contribution. Notice has been served however, that the Chicago Blackhawks are for real, and they’re going to challenge Detroit for the division title starting from game 1 next season. But for now, the champs will continue their march towards a rare Stanley Cup repeat.

Detroit in 6.

I believe we are looking at a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, which should be even better this year. The Penguins are a better team, and the Wings…well, when aren’t they great?

As an interesting side note, 3 of the 4 coaches still standing were hired DURING the season after the previous coach had been fired (Therrien, Laviolette, Savard). As a copycat league, where teams try to mimic the Stanley Cup champ, I wonder if we will see a rash of firings next season as teams try to capture lightning in a bottle?

Please leave your thoughts and predictions below!

Caps Can’t Find Footing on Big Stage

May 14, 2009 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

The following is a guest article by Lori Russo.  You can catch up with Lori on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lorirusso.capitals-fans

When NHL Digest invited me to write a guest post with reaction to Game 7 between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, I jumped at the chance to contribute.  I truly believed the Caps would pull off a win and I could write about the little team that could, after years of painful and controversial rebuilding, finally advance to the Stanley Cup Conference Finals in dramatic fashion.  Ovie the Hero.  Varly the Wonder Kid.  Boudreau the Unexpected Savior.  The storyline was just so good.

The Drama

Last night’s game certainly did unfold in dramatic fashion – just not the way anyone expected it to.   The spark that brought new life to the Caps last season with the arrival of Bruce Boudreau and propelled the team into Round 2 of this year’s playoffs on the shoulders of a rookie goaltender was notably absent.  With the exception of Ovechkin’s breakaway and bulldozing hit on Brooks Orpik, and early efforts by Simeon Varlamov, it became clear very quickly that the Caps were simply outmatched by their opponents.

The team could not create traffic in front of Mark Andre Fleury or clear congestion in front of Varlamov.  It couldn’t connect in the neutral zone, and despite tough lessons from the past, just couldn’t break the bad habit of drawing unnecessary penalties.  While held to only three for the entire game, the Caps infractions were glaring compared to the Pens’ display of discipline and composure.  The Caps simply allowed themselves to outplayed on every front.  Washington fans expecting a fairytale ending to this dramatic series left the arena – some before the end of the game – in stunned silence.

The Reason

There is, and will be, a great deal of discussion about fatigue, injuries and other circumstances that led the Caps to the end of the road last night, but the bottom line, in my opinion, is that the team just isn’t ready to take it to the next level.  Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins served as a clear reminder that the team’s lengthy rebuilding process still is not complete.  The lack of cohesion will undoubtedly be addressed in the off season and new faces surely will appear in the lineup in October.

The Future

Caps fans must continue to be patient as the team finds its footing.  They should be prepared to wait another season or two, and be ready to endure a few more heartbreaks, before expecting more than what they saw this year.

As always, comments are appreciated!

Canes, Caps Advance In Spectacular Fashion

April 29, 2009 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

Fedorov Caps Game 7

Thanks to sage, old Sergei Fedorov and a monumental comeback, the Washington Capitals are headed to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

Fedorov beat Henrik Lundqvist with 4:59 left in the third period, rookie Simeon Varlamov was good in the net when he had to be, and the Capitals edged the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final Tuesday night.

Of note for the Rangers, Sean Avery came to the rink and played a very good game – his purse must have matched his blouse last night! 

However, Avery hobbled off the ice in the dying seconds of the game with a “lower body injury” and following an emotional Game 7 loss there were several reports from fans that they could see Avery’s mascara running as he exited the ice. 

Post-game quotes from the Capitals locker room:

Let’s face it: Realistically, we should have won the first six games,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

“We have to try to keep our emotions,” Ovechkin said, “and get ready for the next round.”

Brodeur, Devils Collapse With Finish Line in Sight

The Carolina Hurricanes stole their thrilling first-round series from the New Jersey Devils in the final 80 seconds.

Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal scored in a 48-second span late in the third period as the Hurricanes stunned the Devils 4-3 in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference series.

In a series that had been highlighted by great goaltending for both teams, neither Cam Ward or Martin Brodeur were spectacular.  Brodeur played well until the final 1:20 when the wheels fell off the bus!

The Hurricanes now move on to play the well rested Boston Bruins team that finished off the Montreal Canadiens in just 4 games.  The Hurricanes endured a physical series with teh Devils, but the Bruins led by Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara could bring a whole new level of physicality to the series.

Torts, Jumbo Joe and Comeback Kids

April 26, 2009 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

John TortorellaTorts Lands in Hot Water

The NHL has suspended New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella for one game after a dispute involving a fan Friday night in Washington. Tortorella responded to a fan who allegedly poured beer on him during the game.

Tortorella squirted a water bottle at a fan and also took a stick from the bench and shook it at the spectator, who was directly behind the Rangers’ bench in Game 5.

Maybe Sean Avery can recommend a good anger management therapist!

Ducks Wake Sleeping Giant!

Patrick Marleau scored his second game-winning goal of the playoffs 6:02 into overtime, and the top-seeded San Jose Sharks avoided first-round elimination with a 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 on Saturday night.

The Sharks needed a big victory and Nabakov stepped up to the plate with some huge saves.   Sharks superstar, Joe Thornton, has been almost as absent as the Sharks third jersey during the first round of the playoffs.  However, the Ducks may have awoken the sleeping giant as Jumbo Joe exploded for 3 points Saturday night.

Penguins Cap Comeback – Eliminate Flyers

After staring the game out with what seemed to be an insurmountable 3-0 lead at home, the Philadelphia Flyers squndered the lead and their season – losing 5-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins started the comeback after Max Talbot took on Flyers tough-guy Dan Carcillo in an attempt to turn the tide. While Carcillo easily got the best o f Talbot, it was the Penguins that grabbed the momentum, finishing off the Flyers with 5 unanswered goals!

Blackhawks Don’t Mind Physical Play

Adam Burish doesn’t agree with those who say the Chicago Blackhawks are intimidated or cowering from the Calgary Flames’ aggressive play.

Easy for Burish to say as he breaks his stick over Rene Bourque with a cross-check! It is ridiculous that the only player suspended in this rough and tumble series was Andre Roy for an incident that didn’t even happen during the game.

The Playoff Game That Never Ended!

My favorite Hockey Historian, Joe Pelletier, writes about the playoff game that never ended.

On March 31st, 1951 the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins battled in what was described as “one of the most gruelling NHL playoff games on record.” The game went into overtime, but was never completed.Why was it never finished? Because of Sunday.Back in those days the city of Toronto had a municipal bylaw that forbade events such as professional sports on a Sunday.

With two games on the schedule today, we can certainly see that times have indeed changed!

Simeon Varlamov Answers The Call

April 21, 2009 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

varlamov-averyVarlamov Answers the Call

On Frozen Blog has the dish on Simeon Varlamov, the Capitals sensational young goalie who was a key factor in the 4-0 victory over the Rangers in Game #3 of the series. The article includes a very good Q&A with the young netminder.

Of course Sean Avery was up to his old tricks again. Avery was the pinnacle of undisciplined play – to the tune of 18 minutes in penalties.

Habs Looking Hopeless

Michael Ryder haunted his former club on Monday night, scoring the key goal to help put the Boston Bruins on the verge of a sweep of the Montreal Canadiens.

Even without Milan Lucic, the Bruins downed the struggling Canadiens in relatively easy fashion.  The Canadiens powerplay was, again, nowhere to be found and Alex Kovalev took another patented “night off” at the worst possible time.

Ducks Host Hockey Tailgating Party!

The Anaheim Ducks announced an outdoor hospitality venue for their fans called The Playoff Spot.   It will open three hours prior to faceoff and be available throughout the game, will offer large-screen plasma televisions for viewing NHL playoff action (including out-of-market games) and exclusive menu options and beverages.

Now, not only can Ducks fans enjoy their two wins over the San Jose Sharks…they can get bombed outside prior to the game! Who would have thought that California would be the home of the first official hockey tailgating party?

Twitter Goes Mainstream

Alanah, from Canucks and Beyond, has a list of some Mainstream Media hockey folks on Twitter. These folks include a few hockey personalities from CBC, print media reporters from around the league and my personal favorite – NHL’s Carrie Milbank!

NHL Digest has been using twitter for some time now and found it a terrific place to meet other awesome hockey fans!  If you’re not using Twitter, please sign up and follow NHL Digest Tweets here: www.twitter.com/nhldigest

NHL Playoff Weekend News

April 12, 2008 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

Rangers Beat New Jersey…Again!Montreal Canadiens

Henrik Lundqvist and another flukey goal have the New York Rangers halfway to the second round, and the New Jersey Devils wondering what they have to do to beat their longtime rival.
The win was the Rangers’ ninth in 10 games against New Jersey this season, and it gives New York a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series

Huge Comeback…Enough Said.

Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin didn’t disappoint in his NHL playoff debut, scoring the winning goal with 4:32 left in the third period to give his team a 5-4 comeback win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

On Frozen Blog summed it up nicely with this quote:

“After slumbering through the opening 40 minutes, Ovechkin tore the roof off the Verizon Center, a sold-out rink that gives the Canadian arenas a run for their money where noise and excitement is concerned.”
National Post

Avs and Wild In Tough

Shane Giroux was looking forward to Game 2 of the Avs vs. Wild series.

It’s time to grab the beer and chips and plop yourself down on the couch for some exciting playoff action! And you might want to have a defibrillator nearby if the last game was any indication of how this series will play out.

Who’s Signing Gilbert Grape?

The Edmonton Oilers signed Tom Gilbert to a US$24-million, six-year contract Friday that will keep the 25-year-old defenceman with the team through the 2013-14 season.

This Just In From The World’s Most Boring Game

From Mychael Urban MLB.com writer via Kuklas:

Does the U.S. media have an East Coast bias? Sure. Our country was founded there, as were all of the big-time sports leagues. (Save your e-mails, hockey fans. We’re aware that the NHL was founded in Canada. We’re also aware that you aren’t “big-time” until your TV ratings top those of “Golden Girls” reruns on Lifetime.)

Not sure if he thought of this quote while playing with his foul balls, scratching his rosin bag, or stabbing a ‘roid needle in his backside…in any event it’s just plain classless.

Guy Carbonneau’s Psychedelic Tie Rocks!

The Montreal Canadiens coach is 2-0 while wearing the multi-coloured tie his wife gave him for his 48th birthday. Now, fans are reportedly trying to buy the same Hermes tie, which Carbonneau’s wife picked up in Dallas.

Carbo had the following to add to the situation:

“They were still talking about it. It’s unbelievable. I’m going to wear it a couple more times and this summer I’m going to put it on auction, on Ebay or some golf charity. Hopefully we make a lot of money with it. But I’ll buy more. I’ll find some.”

NCAA All-Americans Honored

Players from 14 different Division I programs are represented as American Hockey Coaches Association RBK All-Americans for the 2007-08 season. The top 24 college hockey players were announced Friday at the Frozen Four in Denver. New Hampshire led all schools with four honorees, followed by Colorado College with three.