Thursday, April 24, 2008

Western Conference Semifinals
(1) Detroit Red Wings v. (6) Colorado Avalanche

Offense: I said it in my preview of the Colorado-Minnesota series, I'll say it again here: the Avs boast the deepest offense in the Western Conference. When your top six is comprised of Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth and Andrew Brunette and augmented by promising youngsters like Wojtek Wolski and David Jones, you know you're in good shape. Add to that the offensive potential of defensemen John-Michael Liles, Ruslan Salei and Jordan Leopold and it makes for one explosive Avalanche team. The Wings aren't exactly slouches themselves up front, with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the way, but the dominant duo barely made an impact against a young Nashville defense in the first round -- who's to say they'll be able to improve upon their first-round performance against a veteran corps that includes shutdown stalwarts Adam Foote and Scott Hannan? While Valterri Filpulla and Jiri Hudler provided decent secondary scoring for the Wings, what happened to Dan Cleary? The Detroit forward scored 20 goals in the regular season but hasn't found the back of the net since February 5th against Minnesota and had just one assist against the Preds in the first round. A matchup to look forward to here is the battle of the elite crease-crashers: Tomas Holmstrom for Detroit vs. Ryan Smyth for Colorado. Edge: Colorado.

Defense: Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski may make all the headlines, but young stalwart Niklas Kronwall was arguably the Wings' most important defenseman in their first-round ousting of the Nashville Predators, not only picking up points but maintaining an imposing physical presence as well. While the comparison between the two teams' bluelines seems lopsided in favor of Detroit, don't count out Colorado's underrated defense corps. Adam Foote turned back the clock and turned up an exceptional performance in the first round, shutting down Minnesota superstar Marian Gaborik. Look for him and his solid partner Kurt Sauer to be matched up against Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk throughout this series. Ruslan Salei was a bright spot for the Avalanche against the Wild as well, kick-starting what had been a god-awful Avs powerplay in the regular season. Still, it's hard to argue with a blueline that reads as a veritable roll call of future hall-of-famers. Edge: Detroit.

Goaltending: It was the one glaring, universal quesiton mark regarding the top-seeded Red Wings, but even still, few could have predicted how sour things would turn in nets for Detroit. 43-year-old Dominik Hasek was bailed out by his team despite turning up mediocre performances in Games 1 and 2 against the Predators, but even they couldn't save him in Games 3 and 4 and after yielding 8 goals through those two games, Hasek was promptly pulled by Wings coach Mike Babcock, setting the stage for Chris Osgood to take over the goaltending duties for the remainder of the series -- and presumably the remainder of the playoffs. While Osgood performed admirably in allowing just one goal through wins in Games 5 and 6 to close out Nashville, the veteran netminder proved hot and cold through the regular season and let's face it -- the Preds' offense doesn't even compare to that of the high-flying Avs. Meanwhile, Jose Theodore has been partying like it's 2002 -- the year the ex-Hab won the Hart and Vezina trophies. Theodore has still never lost a first-round series, but he's never won a second-round series either. History aside, however, the Avs netminder was stellar in the first round and while he'll have a decidedly tougher time against a far more talented squad, he has shown in this, his comeback season, that he still has the ability to steal games -- something that can't be said for the guy on the other end of the ice. Edge: Colorado.

Overall: The Red Wings had their hands full with the Predators in the first round and the aforementioned quesitons regarding goaltending abound. Despite owning the West's top seed, the Wings' mediocre offensive numbers in the first-round brought into the limelight the well-hidden fact that Detroit desperately lacks secondary scoring, thanks in no small part to the disappearing acts pulled by Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson in said series. Colorado, meanwhile, has a spectacular offense that has the ability to pick apart Chris Osgood -- as long as they aren't kept in check by Detroit's stellar defense. Complete with a hot goaltender, it's tough not to pick the Avs for the upset here in what should be a long, brutal yet classic semifinal series. Prediction: Colorado in seven.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Can Sharks survive "The Collapse"?

It has become every bit as much of a Sharks postseason ritual as towel waving at the Tank, eliminating the Nashville Predators and heckling Chris Pronger. Call it "the collapse," "the choke job," whatever you want to call it -- but it has become as certain an annual occurrence as Christmas or Veteran's Day. Often, it comes in pairs.

Let's go back to Game 3 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals against the Edmonton Oilers. The Sharks were less than five minutes away from rattling off a third consecutive 2-1 victory and gaining an insurmountable stranglehold on the series. Raffi Torres ties it late, Shawn Horcoff scores the game-winner in triple overtime. Game 4 of that same series -- Jonathan Cheechoo scores in the second period to give the Sharks a 3-1 lead and a chance to gain that same record in the series. A little less than thirty-five minutes later and the Sharks are at the wrong end of a 6-3 defeat. They would go on to lose the series in six games.

Flash forward a year to Game 2 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. Quick goals by Cheechoo and Joe Thornton give the Sharks a great chance of taking a 2-0 series lead headed to San Jose for Game 3. Fat chance. Goals by Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary -- the latter being shorthanded on an egregious turnover by Christian Ehrhoff -- tie the game and Pavel Datsyuk scores the winner with less than two minutes remaining. The Sharks do manage to win Game 3 at HP, however, and are less than forty seconds away from taking a 3-1 series lead into Game 4. Robert Lang with the tying goal, Mathieu Schneider scores in overtime and the Sharks lose the next two games as well to drop that series in six games. Perhaps all of those gut-wrenching, teeth-chipping, eye-gouging losses paled in comparison to the travesty that occurred last night in Calgary.

Hockey is a game of mistakes. Mental errors that lead to mistakes, the opportunism to have opponents make mistakes and the ability to capitalize on opposing mistakes. Blown leads are bound to happen, but it is undeniable that such collapses, particularly in the most critical of situations, have been inextricably ingrained in the franchise's reputation. As painful as Game 3 was to watch, it's not about how you lose the games -- it's about how you respond. Surveying the Sharks' aforementioned postseason track record, there has been no response. The Sharks, especially their best player, whose ill-advised screen of Evgeni Nabokov which allowed Owen Nolan's game-winning goal serves as a microcosm of his invisibility not only during this series, but his playoff career at large, have most definitely been handed a test. This is the same test that they have taken during their last two postseason flameouts and both times they failed. We'll see tomorrow night if they've learned from their mistakes or if all was for naught. If the Sharks can somehow recuperate and manage to win this series, the Stanley Cup is truly theirs to lose. If they flunk their third test, there were no legitimate Cup aspirations to begin with.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(2) San Jose Sharks v. (7) Calgary Flames

Offense: Both teams were littered with underachieving forwards this season, as neither Patrick Marleau nor Jonathan Cheechoo lived up to their billing for San Jose while Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy turned up stinkers of a season for the Flames. The difference here is that, while Marleau and Cheechoo began lighting it up like their former selves after the trade deadline, many of the Flames, particularly Kristian Huselius, faltered during that same timespan. Edge: San Jose.

Defense: All the focus on this series with regards to the Flames has been placed upon Calgary superstar Jarome Iginla and for good reason: The Flames' captain scored a Western Conference-leading 50 goals this season. But the player the Sharks should arguably be most afraid of scored 45 fewer goals than Iginla this season: defenseman Robyn Regehr. While you can never know for certain, my gut feeling is that last season's Flames first-round loss to Detroit would have been a lot different with Regehr in the lineup. Perhaps the best shutdown defenseman in the league, Regehr is the cornerstone of the Flames' blueline and will take liberties with Joe Thornton and Milan Michalek if he isn't consistently hounded by the Sharks' forecheckers. He'll likely pair with Cory Sarich on a shutdown pair, allowing Dion Phaneuf to play with Adrian Aucoin on the second unit. But while Calgary's defense looks better on paper, the Sharks' mobile corps centered around deadline acquisition Brian Campbell and combining the right amounts of physicality (Douglas Murray, Kyle McLaren), skill (Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and a mix of both (Craig Rivet) seems superior. Edge: San Jose.

Goaltending: The netminding matchup provides the greatest intrigue in this first-round series. Both All-Star stoppers and disciples of the late Warren Strelow, Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff had, for the most part, starkly different seasons. While Nabokov had his best season to date, leading the league in wins, representing the Western Conference at the All-Star game and receiving serious Vezina and Hart Trophy consideration, Kiprusoff faltered in his first season under Mike Keenan, posting sub-par seasons and failing to record a single shutout until February. Regardless, Kipper has proven that he is a reliable playoff goaltender, though so has Nabokov. Goaltending, like almost all other facets of this series, will be close but the man who has had the vastly better campaign gets the nod here. Edge: Sharks.

Overall: The regular season means little with regards to the playoffs. However, while the Flames failed to win more than two straight from early February on, the Sharks went 18-0-2 down the stretch. Whether that means the Sharks and Flames will continue their respective trends through the postseason is entirely a crapshoot, but with far superior depth and a goaltender that has proven he can steal games, San Jose looks like the safe pick here, but it should be a close one. Prediction: Sharks in 6.

Note: Photo courtesy PJ Swenson.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(3) Minnesota Wild v. (6) Colorado Avalanche

Offense: Colorado might have he most explosive group of forwards in the Western Conference. With historical playoff beasts Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic augmented by the likes of Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, Ryan Smyth and Andrew Brunette, the Avs can roll three dangerous scoring lines and, with everyone healthy, run and gun with the best of them. The Wild on the other hand have been known to plug goons like Todd Fedoruk onto their scoring lines due to a dearth of dangerous forwards, but still have the lethal Marian Gaborik who has a great playoff track record to his credit. Still, it's hard to top the Avs' deep unit. Edge: Colorado.

Defense: Neither team really has an All-Star on the blueline, but the Wild's Brent Burns will certainly be one in a few years. Along with two-way defenseman Kim Johnsson, stay-at-home stalwart Nick Schultz and the physically imposing Sean Hill, Minnesota's back end clearly outclasses the Avs' mix of Scott Hannan, Adam Foote and John-Michael Liles, among others. Edge: Minnesota.

Goaltending: This category is hard to handicap. Coming off a spectacular season in which he recorded the lowest goals-against average in the NHL, Niklas Backstrom regressed a tad this year, but still finished in the top ten in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Talk about a polar opposite: The Avs' fallen star of a netminder Jose Theodore, coming off a terrible season and an offseason littered with whispers of buyout, the former Hart Trophy winner shone once again, winning key games for Colorado down the stretch and often bailing out Colorado's unspectacular defense. The stats will show you Backstrom is a superior goalie, but the reality is this matchup is just too close to call. Although, here's a fun fact: Theodore has never lost a first-round series. Edge: It's a wash.

Overall: Once infamous for their stingy system, the Wild were largely average this season in terms of team defense, allowing upwards of an average of 2.5 goals against per game. It'll be a nail-biter of a series for sure, but that statistic doesn't bode well for Minnesota if they hope to stop this high-powered Avalanche offense. Prediction: Colorado in 7.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(4) Anaheim Ducks v. (5) Dallas Stars

Offense: The fact that the Ducks were two lines deep helped them immensely last postseason, as despite Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald's faltering through the first few rounds, Ryan Getzlaf and co. were able to pick up the slack. Anaheim will have no such luxury this time around. With no legitimate second line center to set up Selanne and Corey Perry injured at least through the first round, an already tepid offensive team in the Ducks (Anaheim finished 28th in league scoring) will be hard-pressed to put the puck in the net. The Stars, on the other hand, enjoyed a bit of a role reversal through the first half of the season with the likes of Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow piling on the points. While that duo proved hot and cold down the stretch, the addition of known playoff producer Brad Richards serves to bolster a Dallas offense that simply couldn't score against Vancouver in last year's first round. Edge: Dallas.

Defense: Regardless of what anyone thinks of Marty Turco, Brenden Morrow or Mike Ribeiro, Sergei Zubov is without a doubt Dallas' best player. Unfortunately for the Stars, their No. 1 defenseman has been injured for nearly half the season and will not take the ice against Anaheim in the first round, reducing Dallas to a rather non-descript defense corps that will rely on veterans Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom along with surprising rookie Matt Niskanen to get the job done. The Ducks have no such issues, however, employing one of the greatest bluelines in recent NHL history. Aside from Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Mathieu Schneider, Anaheim's blueline also boasts depth. Marc-Andre Bergeron could probably be a prominent power-play quarterback on most NHL teams, yet he's a bottom-pairing defenseman on the Ducks. Edge: Anaheim.

Goaltending: On paper, this is as lopsided of a netminding matchup as we have in the first round. Marty Turco, the infamous and unfairly branded playoff choker against J-S Giguere, the springtime superstar with a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and sparkling overtime record to his credit. Delving a tad deeper, it becomes apparent that Turco was far from a choker last postseason, when he was in fact far and away his team's best player, recording an unbelievable three shutouts in a seven-game loss to Vancouer. Giguere was terrific as well in guiding the Ducks to a Cup, but let's face it -- it's easy to look good with two Norris Trophy winners in front of you. Still, J-S is far more of a known quantity in the playoffs than the Stars' netminder. Edge: Anaheim

Overall: It's going to be difficult for the Stars to dethrone the Stanley Cup Champions, especially without Sergei Zubov in the lineup. Marty Turco and Mike Ribeiro are still playoff question marks and Brad Richards just hasn't fit in in Big D. The Ducks, on the other hand, have been on a season-long mission to defend their cup title. Prediction: Ducks in 5.

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(1) Detroit Red Wings v. (2) Nashville Predators

Offense: Even when the Predators employed the likes of Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen, the Red Wings were still arguably a stronger team up front. Now that those four are gone and Steve Sullivan has yet to skate this season, this is a pretty easy win for the Wings. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are two of the most complete forwards in the game and headline a group of forwards that will only improve as Dan Cleary recouperates from injury and Tomas Holmstrom gets back in his groove. Edge: Detroit.

Defense: The statistics don't lie. The Red Wings allowed the fewest shots against and goals against this season, largely thanks to future Hall-of-Famer and likely Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom along with fellow All-Star Brian Rafalski and a defense corps that also includes young stalwart Niklas Kronwall and ageless wonder Chris Chelios. The Preds on the other hand were largely mediocre defensively this year, allowing nearly 30 shots against per game while sporting an ugly 2.73 goals against average. A serious and extended injury to top blueliner Shea Weber along with a relentless forechecking, offense-first system will do that to a team, but due the aforementioned loss of key offensive personnel, Nashville can no longer afford defensive deficiencies. Edge: Detroit.

Goaltending: Dan Ellis just might be the best player you've never heard of. A hapless rookie goaltender signed as a free agent last summer to compete with top netminding prospect Pekka Rinne for the right to back up Chris Mason, Ellis has convincingly stolen the starting job from Mason and owned the NHL's best regular-season save percentage at 92.4%. The starting job wasn't all he stole as Ellis also fleeced games for the Predators down the stretch, posting a 233:38 shutout streak late in the season in which he stopped 147 consecutive shots, fifth-best among such strings since 1944. If there's one question mark regarding this year's Red Wings squad, it's in goal. While the stats will show you Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek own two of the top five goals-against averages in the NHL, the duo's numbers are largely inflated (or would that be deflated?) by Detroit's outstanding defense as neither netminder has been particularly impressive. If the Predators see a glimmer of hope in this series at all, you've got to think it's in the goaltending matchup. Edge: Nashville.

Overall: Ellis might steal a game and the Predators will probably outwork the Wings at least once, but let's be honest: The mere fact that Nashville qualified for the postseason after the firesale they held in the offseason is a miracle in and of itself. The Predators will likely fail to advance past the first round for the fourth consecutive year, but this time it won't be for lack of effort. Prediction: Red Wings in 6.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Reviewing preseason predictions

Lately, this place has been as desolate as the Honda Center with six minutes remaining in the third period of a Pacific Division-deciding game in which the home team is down by two goals and being severely outplayed. Long-winded and ill-advised metaphors aside, however, fret not, esteemed reader, as the playoffs are around the corner meaning posting here should definitely be on the upswing. I plan to unload previews of all four Western Conference first-round matchups as well as my picks throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but first, with every meaningful regular season game over, it's time to look back on my preseason predictions.

Western Conference Predictions:

1. Detroit*
2. San Jose*
3. Vancouver*
4. Anaheim
5. Colorado
6. Calgary
7. Minnesota
8. Dallas
9. Nashville
10. Los Angeles
11. St. Louis
12. Edmonton
13. Chicago
14. Columbus
15. Phoenix

Not bad. Overall, I went 7 for 8 in picking playoff teams, but who could have predicted the Canucks would stink it up as much as they did this season? The Stars obviously overachieved quite a bit, while the Los Angeles Kings were nowhere near the tenth place team I predicted them to be. All in all, solid choices.

Eastern Conference Predictions:

1. Ottawa*
2. NY Rangers*
3. Washington*
4. Pittsburgh
5. Philadelphia
6. New Jersey
7. Buffalo
8. Carolina
9. Toronto
10. Florida
11. Atlanta
12. Montreal
13. Tampa Bay
14. Boston
15. NY Islanders

Yeah, the Senators crapped the bed, finishing seventh, but I was still 6 for 8. On the other side of things, the Habs and Bruins massively overachieved, which makes for a nice storyline as the two teams head into a first-round meeting later this week.