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Contenders & Pretenders

May 5, 2012 Leave a comment

[originally post for www.betonhockey.com April 23, 2012]

It only varies by a couple of weeks to a couple of months each year, but if there’s anything that functions like clockwork in the NHL, it may just be the Vancouver Canucks’ elimination from Stanley Cup contention.

As the Los Angeles Kings gradually got up on the Canucks in their quarterfinal series by one game, then two, then three, the question that kept resounding in my head was, “Are the Kings actually legit contenders this year, or are the Canucks total pretenders?”

Of course, I’ll subjectively take the opportunity to rag on the Canucks whenever I can, but objectively speaking, there’s no reason Vancouver should have been considered a pretender, or lost the series. As much as many mock the President’s Trophy for being meaningless in the long run (myself included), it’s certainly a poignant marker of how darn good you were all year. The Canucks had a good team this season, and their players had productive seasons too — both Sedin’s finished in the NHL’s top 30 for points, even with Daniel missing ten games; Hamhuis was 6th in league plus/minus at +29, Schneider finished eighth in save percentage with .937, and tenth in GAA with 1.96; Luongo finished 14th in wins with 31 – but when it came time to put up, they got shut up. After all, the first seed is supposed to have their way with the eighth seed that just managed to sneak into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, right? Were they looking to far ahead – all the way to their return to the finals – without remembering the first step is the first round?

During the regular season, Vancouver finished 16 points ahead of LA in the standings, and scored 53 more goals than them (LA was second last in the league in Goals For), yet they only managed to split their season series against the Kings 2-2, and were outscored 7-9 by them in those four games. When it came around to playoff time, Vancouver only won 1 of 5 games, and was outscored 12-8, by a team that was synonymous with being unable to score all year. For a team that many thought Vancouver would walk all over (admittedly, myself included), LA kind of had their way with the Canucks all year – most importantly, when it counted.

So what went wrong? The biggest excuses are likely that Daniel Sedin wasn’t around the whole series, but his 2 assists in 2 games were still good enough for 5th in points on the team, ahead of 17 others who produced less. Henrik Sedin’s 5 points were equal to LA’s point leader, Dustin Brown. Two of Brown’s though were short-handed goals in the same game, and absolute daggers at that. All in, LA’s players recorded 30 points amongst themselves, while Vancouver only managed 23.

Goaltending-wise, it’s not like things were all that bad – Schneider’s 3 starts produced a 1.31 GAA and .960 save percentage (actually better than LA’s Jonathan Quick, who posted a 1.59 GAA and .953 save percentage), while Luongo was admittedly worse with a 3.59 GAA and .891; but each had an equal amount of losses to their credit. Quick faced 172 shots, while both Vancouver goalies combined only saw 165.

Many are going to gripe that there should have been a penalty on the play that saw Dan Hamhuis turn the puck over to Jarret Stoll, who buried the OT winner – even if that were valid, that’s one game, out of four lost. That’s why they’re seven game series. Some are even going to point at the extended layoffs between games 3,4, and 5 due to arena booking conflicts – truth be told, that was actually probably more of an advantage for Vancouver, who needed injured players like Daniel Sedin to heal and return. And some yet may just be embarrassed by the diving antics of guys like Ryan Kesler – well, you should be, that was just embarrassing.

But all excuses and kidding aside, now that the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared in this series, we’d be foolish not to consider the Los Angeles Kings a legit Stanley Cup contender – after all, they did just eliminate the league’s #1 seeded team. The Kings proved their toughness through the first round, and have big bodies that can cause a lot of damage against tougher teams. They’ve proved they can neutralize a strong offence with hot goaltending and a potent penalty kill, and their offence is clicking. The additions of Darryl Sutter, Jeff Carter, et al are beginning to make it look like LA’s owner Dean Lombardi knew what he was doing all along.

So if you can beat the best team in the league, who can’t you beat? It’s time the LA Kings are painted as a contender — we know now who the real pretenders were.

My Annual “Canucks Choke” Post — 2012 Edition!

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s such a beautiful thing. And you can count on it like clockwork. The Canucks are gone — 2012 edition!

As far as I’m concerned, Jarret Stoll’s probably done nothin’ for nobody (probably not true), but after this goal, he need not do anything again. His one shot cashed the cheque the LA Kings’ twitter wrote on April 12, “To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you’re welcome.”

Let’s see that, just one more time:

So who’s fault is it this year?

For a more in-depth/objective analysis by me of the LA/VAN series, click here for my article at betonhockey.com

 

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Predators vs. Red Wings

April 14, 2012 1 comment

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 8

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern primaries, so now let’s examine the polls out West.

Western Primary

Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)

[also see: St.Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks,  & Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings]

  • The Issues:
  • Criminal Rehabilitation — NHL refs must love officiating games when the Preds come to town. When opposing teams take a penalty, Nashville is quick to show them the error of their ways. True to their name, the Predators take advantage of powerplay opportunities better than any team in the league, scoring on 21.6% of man-up situations. Simply put, if you’re going to take a dumb penalty against the Preds, you’re going to learn your lesson.
  • Foreign Diplomacy — Nashville became league laughingstock in 2008 when ‘04 first-round pick Alexander Radulov left while under contract with the Predators to go play in Russia’s KHL. Four years later, it’s the Preds who are laughing. Radulov’s return late in the season has given Nashville’s offense a dynamic talent and gifted scorer. Nashville GM David Poile has taken care to avoid superstar scorers for the virtually unaffordable price tags they command, but with Radulov, one may have fallen right into Nashville’s lap.
  • Political Dirt:
  • Rumors have been flying that if the Predators don’t make a deep run into the playoffs, star defenseman Shea Weber will walk, and defensive stud Ryan Suter is likely to follow. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Nashville Predators may hinge on how they do in this year’s playoffs.
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Predators promise to continue their efforts to legitimize hockey in the Sun Belt. Southern cities love a winner, and attendance at Bridgestone Arena has steadily risen in the past few years. A deep run could have the Preds treading in unexplored waters: a season sellout.

  • The Issues:
  • Homeland Defense — The Red Wings were the NHL’s best team at home this year, posting a dominant 31-7-3 record at the Joe. That included a 23-game winning streak with only three of the wins coming via shootout. Detroit was in the hunt for home ice advantage in the first round heading into the season finale but was unable to get the job done. If the Wings steal one on the road, though, it will be tough for opposing teams to rally back.
  • Open Borders — Scanning the Red Wings’ roster, it’s easy to surmise where the team stands on immigration. Especially if the players are coming from Sweden. The Red Wings have 12 international (not from North America) players on the roster, including an eye-popping eight players from Scandinavia. And considering who some of those players are — ever heard of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Johan Franzen? — it’s safe to say none of these were diversity hires.
  • Political Dirt:
    For all the class and good will the players have built up, it’s hard to root for a team that willingly employs Todd Bertuzzi. If you’re intentionally reading this, you know why. If you somehow stumbled upon this paragraph and have no idea what I’m talking about, well… here.
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Red Wings promise to maintain the status quo and never ever change anything about themselves, not now, not never.

Vote For: Nashville Predators in 7

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Coyotes vs. Blackhawks

April 14, 2012 2 comments

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 7

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern primaries, so now let’s examine the polls out West.

Western Primary

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

[also see: St.Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings,  & Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings]

  • The Issues:
  • We Like Mike — Cast away by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Mike Smith has made his home as starting goaltender in Phoenix. After the irreverent but successful Bryzgalov left for greener pastures (and parks!), many doubted the Coyotes would find a suitable replacement. With a 2.21 GAA and a .930 save percentage, Smith has picked up where Bryz left off.
  • The Absentee Vote — The Coyotes play well enough at home. The Blackhawks play well enough at home. The real question is who will win the games in Quebec City if the Coyotes should happen to relocate midway through the first round.
  • Political Dirt:
  • The Coyotes don’t get a lot of press, mainly because they are utterly bereft of star power. Shane Doan has been holding down the captaincy for a long time, but he has gotten little help on offense from the front office. Ray Whitney led the team in points during the regular season. The question voters will need to ask themselves is whether they feel safe knowing the Coyotes may be one heartbeat away from asking Lauri Korpikoski to shoulder the load on offense.
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Coyotes promise to look into this whole reversing-of-the-poles thing. If there is a climate shift, Phoenix may end up being the ideal place to house a hockey team.

  • The Issues:
  • The Land of Opportunity — Before joining Chicago, winger Marian Hossa signed one-year contracts with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, only to somehow find himself on the wrong end of both Stanley Cup meetings between the two. A year later, he hitched his wagon to the Blackhawks for the long-term, inking a 12-year contract. Hossa was immediately rewarded, as the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in almost 50 years that season.
  • Tripartisanship — The Blackhawks could not be led by a trio of players who were a bigger mismatch in personality. Offensively, the ‘Hawks have captain Jonathan Toews, whose unshakeable moniker is “Captain Serious.” He is flanked by dynamo right-winger and noted rascal Patrick Kane. Holding down the blue line is hulking defenseman Duncan Keith, who once lost seven teeth to an errant puck deflection and returned to the ice that period. Needless to say, Chicago is thrilled to have these three locked up for the foreseeable future.
  • Political Dirt:
  • An underrated storyline in this playoff season: How hard are Chicago’s role players going to try to win the Stanley Cup if they think they’re going to get discarded afterwards, just like the last group.
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Blackhawks promise to continue making a run at becoming Chicago’s favorite team. With the hometown Bears playing in an increasingly tough division and the Cubs being the Cubs, the ‘Hawks only real intra-city competition is the team that shares the United Center: Da Bulls. If the Blackhawks can bring home the Stanley Cup a second time in three years and the Bulls continue to struggle to get past the Miami Heat, the winds of change may be blowing in Chicago.

Vote For: Chicago Blackhawks in 6

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Blues vs. Sharks

April 14, 2012 3 comments

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 6

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

Western Primary

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)

[also see: Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks,  & Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings]

  • The Issues:
  • Pro-Choice — Generally speaking, having a goalie controversy entering the playoffs can be an easy way for a team to punch a one-way ticket to the nearest golf course. But when you have the kind of problems the St. Louis Blues have in net… life is good. The Blues enter the postseason with a timeshare in the crease, split between the NHL’s goals-against average leader, Brian Elliott, and No. 4 in that same category, Jaroslav Halak. Halak, best known for his impressive playoff debut with the Canadiens in 2010, earned the majority of the starts, but Elliott finished the season on a stronger note, posting three straight shutouts to bring his season total to 9. Together, the two ran away with the William M. Jennings Trophy for lowest team GAA. But in the playoffs, presumably only one will get the chance to play. According to reports, Halak will start Game 1, but if he starts to struggle, coach Ken Hitchcock won’t hesitate to pull the plug. Elliott has not been to the playoffs since he also made his debut in 2010, getting shelled in three games against the Penguins before giving way to Pascal Leclaire.
  • Experience (Or lack thereof) — The biggest question St. Louis has faced all year is “Who exactly are these guys?” The Blues have positioned themselves just outside of the playoff bubble in recent years, but few anticipated how quickly they would rise to the Western Conference elite. Hitchcock has managed his share of high-profile campaigns, but he has not yet been able to re-capture the magic he had in Dallas. Perhaps last year’s loss to the Boston Bruins was a wakeup call to the Western Conference that the old guard is no longer going to get it done. The Blues may not have much experience outside of veteran Cup-winners Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, but they do have a lot of young talent and depth. Combine that with hope, and maybe… just maybe, change is on the horizon.
  • Political Dirt:
  • America is never going to elect the St. Louis Blues without seeing a few birth certificates first. This “T.J. Oshie” doesn’t sound like he was born in America… and how can we be sure that “Andy McDonald” even exists?
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Blues promise to never miss the playoffs again. One thing that few remember was lost during the canceled season was St. Louis’ streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances. When the NHL returned to action, the Blues missed the postseason for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office. After only one appearance in the last six years, this season may mark the beginning of a new streak.

  • The Issues:
  • Flip-Flopping — The Sharks have been considered Cup contenders for the last four years but have heretofore disappointed. This year, they looked like they were going to finish on the outside looking in before making a late push for the playoffs. After years of serving as the disappointing juggernaut in the West, the Sharks are now trying to convince us that they’re plucky underdogs just because it’s a more advantageous position come election time.
  • Joe the Plumber — San Jose boasts a pair of not-so-average Joes in team captain Joe Thornton and rising star Joe Pavelski. Thornton quieted many of his critics in last year’s playoffs, tallying 17 points in 18 games and leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals. Conversely, Pavelski established a big game reputation in the 2010 playoffs but was nowhere to be found last year. If the two can put it together in the same year, the Sharks will be a dangerous squad.
  • Political Dirt:
  • The Sharks and Blues met four times during the regular season, and St. Louis won all of them. San Jose couldn’t beat the Blues even once in four tries. How are they going to take four out of seven
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Sharks promise to deliver the unpredictability that makes playoff hockey so great. The Sharks have the talent and experience to go all the way. That hasn’t stopped them from tripping over their own skates in the past. This year presents an interesting conundrum. Will a stint as the underdog be what finally puts the scent of blood in the water, or are the Sharks simply slipping?

Vote For: San Jose Sharks in 6

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Canucks vs. Kings

April 14, 2012 3 comments

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 5

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern primaries, so now let’s examine the polls out West.

Western Primary

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

[also see: St.Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks,  & Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings]

  • The Issues:
    Family Values — In the 1999 NHL Draft, Vancouver held the second and third picks in the first round. After drafting left-winger Daniel Sedin, the Canucks opted to use the third pick on his twin brother, center Henrik Sedin. The Canucks have played them almost exclusively on the same line throughout their entire collective career. When Henrik won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in 2009-10, he was even considerate enough to get injured the next year, giving Daniel a chance to showcase his skills.
  • Health and Fitness — Nobody asked to see Ryan Kesler buck naked in this year’s Sports Illustrated “Body Issue,” but that having been said, you can’t deny that the dude’s in good shape.
  • Political Dirt:
    The Canucks enjoy tremendous depth. Some teams have gone as far as accusing Vancouver of stealing its players when they were turned around. The NHL has yet to file a formal inquiry.
  • Campaign Promises:
    If elected, the Canucks promise not to riot. Seriously, we only riot when we lose in Game 7 of the Cup Finals. Or when we get to the Cup Finals. Or when we beat the Blackhawks. Promise. :o)

  • The Issues:
    American Exceptionalism — Team captain Dustin Brown and starting goalie Jonathan Quick are two prominent members of the Team USA hockey club. They are also prominent reasons why the Kings are where they are. Quick posted a Vezina-worthy season, winning way too many 2-1 and 1-0 games for a goalie’s comfort, while Brown led all L.A. forwards in plus-minus, while dealing with the responsibilities that come with wearing the ‘C’.
  • A Winning Combination — Less than a season after the Flyers took such great care in breaking up forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the two were reunited when Carter was traded to the Kings for defenseman Jack Johnson. The Flyers soured on the perceived immaturity displayed by the talented twosome, but they both played key roles in Philly’s run to the Cup Finals in 2011.
  • Kingdom Confidence — according to the LA’s Twitter, the Kings are playing for every Canadian that does not reside in British Columbia.
  • Political Dirt:
    The Kings are the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL and score less than all of their playoff peers. Can such a chaste team rally support in Hollywoodland? The Kings score less than A.C. Green.
  • Campaign Promises:
    If elected, the Kings promise to make hockey relevant again in the City of Angels. L.A. was rabid about the Kings in the Gretzky days. It’s a stretch to say they’ll become that popular again, but a playoff run would certainly be a start.

Vote For: Vancouver Canucks in 7

[editors note: SDC has LA winning the series]

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Penguins vs. Flyers

April 13, 2012 3 comments

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 4

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

Eastern Primary

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

[also see: Boston Bruins vs. Washington CapitalsFlorida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils,  & New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators]

  • The Issues:
    No Kid Left Behind — After taking an elbow to the head from David Krejci, Sidney Crosby looked like he might never return to the Sid “the in-his-mid-20s Kid” we had seen earn the title of best hockey player in the world. However, since returning on the ides of March, Crosby has returned to form, tallying 25 points in 14 games. With Crosby sidelined, the Penguins were still one of the better teams in the NHL. With a healthy Crosby and the NHL’s leading scorer Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh is downright terrifying.
  • Socialized Healthcare — The Penguins were among the NHL leaders in man games lost to injury. Crosby’s 60-game absence was the most notable, but the Penguins missed Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy and Zbynek Michalek for a combined 93 games as well. All five will be healthy for the series opener.
  • Political Dirt:
    Arguably the NHL’s most reviled player for the past few years, Matt Cooke spent the offseason working with coach Dan Bylsma trying to ‘reform’ his game. Surprisingly, Cooke has drastically cut down on his penalty minutes and was even Pittsburgh’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. Sounds a little too good to be true, right?
  • Campaign Promises:
    If elected, the Penguins promise to drum up more fan interest and vitriol than any other team in the NHL. Pittsburgh isn’t a big market, but ask any casual fan who Sidney Crosby is, and you’re unlikely to get a blank stare. You may hate to see them succeed, but it’s good for the game.
  • The Issues:
    Russian Diplomacy — When the Flyers inked Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract, they hoped he would be the $51 million answer to their long-standing goaltending question. Instead, Bryz has only made the situation murkier. The enigmatic Russian’s performance level has dipped up and down, while backup Sergei Bobrovsky has had his moments but struggled with consistency as well. With so much money invested in Bryzgalov, it will be tough to give him the hook, but coach Peter Laviolette won a Stanley Cup in Carolina after dropping the veteran starter for a younger, less-experienced netminder.
  • Space ExplorationTake it away, Ilya.
  • Political Dirt:
    When a team trades away its entire leadership core to bring in a guy who played his way onto the bench during the regular season, it’s usually time to cash out.
  • Campaign Promises:
    If elected, the Flyers plan to do what they do best in the playoffs and serve as foil for somebody else’s run to the Stanley Cup. “Ever the bridesmaids, never the brides” seems to be the mantra for this organization.

Vote For: Pittsburgh Penguins in 7

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