Archive for May 2014

Clash of the Titans

Nothing unexpected about this showdown
 

 
If anyone would have predicted a Pittsburgh Penguins/Anaheim Ducks showdown for the WCHL Cup, I don't think anyone would have been shocked. After all, Anaheim claimed the title last year and Pittsburgh is always a threat to claim the crown.
 
But only one of these teams can win it all and it will be a great battle to see who emerges on top.
 
For Anaheim the past paves a pretty picture to the present and the previous two cup winners -the Colorado Avalanche and the New York Rangers- each repeated their title victory. Anaheim would be the third straight team to post back-to-back cup titles if they can knock off Pittsburgh.
 
The Penguins meanwhile are trying to avenge a long list of post-season drive-bys, winning just one cup despite line ups loaded with talent and big names.
 
It will also be an interesting match up considering Sidney Crosby came to Pittsburgh from the Ducks a few years ago.
 
Here's my prediction for the WCHL and ACHL Cup finals:
 
Anaheim Ducks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins- The Ducks are running a hot streak of epic proportions, winning two straight President's trophies and are on the cusp of repeating as WCHL Cup champions. While the club has had a few six game series thus far, the Ducks haven't really been tested much in the playoffs this year as they rolled through the west, going 12-5 in the process.
 

 
Pittsburgh meanwhile has made that record look rather pitiful. Blasting through the New York Islanders in four games in the second round, Pittsburgh at one point had a nine game winning streak in the playoffs and haven't lost in regulation since game two of the first round. In a playoff where many series have gone the distance, Pittsburgh has had the most success of anyone.
 
The key to success for both clubs will be in who steps up that hasn't yet. For Pittsburgh, the inspirational leader is Teemu Selanne, the greatest Finn of them all. He hasn't been to great this season, posting just one goal and three points in 16 games. Ryan Callahan also has just one goal despite playing over 20 minutes a game.
 
Anaheim on the other hand has their own living legend in Jaromir Jagr who has only picked up five points in 17 games. Kyle Turris has just four points in 17 games as well, so this talented pair is doing little to pull their weight.
 

 
In net, Marc-Andre Fluery finally is playing up to his capabilities, posting a ridiculous 1.21 goals against average and .952 save percentage this post-season. Normally Tuukka Rask's 2.22 GAA and .916 save percentage is great on its own but thus far it looks like Fluery is as locked in as can be.
 
Prediction: This is a coin flip series, but Pittsburgh seems locked in this post-season. Pittsburgh in seven games
 
ACHL
 
Abbotsford Heat vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - Abbotsford in six games.

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Halfway home


Eight wins down, a tough eight to go


 
Two rounds down, two to go and for the remaining clubs none have been the road team to start a series.

That will change for Pittsburgh and Colorado, who will give up home ice advantage, but in those cases it might be the least problematic for the clubs facing starting out on the road.

For the Penguins, they are arguably the most veteran team still in the playoffs with all due respect to the Colorado Avalanche and they have been unquestionably the best this post-season. After falling behind 2-0 to Ottawa in round one, Pittsburgh has rattled off eight straight wins and is back into yet another conference final.

Colorado meanwhile has basically started on the road all along, falling behind 2-0 to Edmonton in round one and 3-0 to Minnesota in round two before rallying to win both series. They are equally good -and equally bad- no matter what ice they are on.

Two epic series will determine the conference champions and the contenders for the WCHL Cup. Here's my prediction for whom will win:

Western Conference

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2) Colorado Avalanche - Anaheim has had some tough games but far more often than not they came out ahead, benefitting from some odd line up moves in round two against Nashville. In round three the Avalanche won't make such mistakes but they will also need to stop falling behind early. San Jose and Nashville feel behind the Ducks and they are both somewhere between hole one and 18 on the golf course right now.
 

It won't be all hugs and kisses in this series

Paced by Patrice Bergeron up front and Tuukka Rask in the net, Anaheim is about as deep as they come and that depth will play out well for them as the long haul of the playoffs is sure to ramp up in round three. Colorado meanwhile paid big to get high-end firepower before the season in Martin St. Louis and Marian Hossa. St. Louis has paid off in the post-season but Hossa has only two goals so far, so he'll need to get moving to help Colorado move on.

Prediction: This series won't be easy but Anaheim is just too consistent and Colorado is anything but. Anaheim in six games.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins - This series looks like a battle of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Washington has been pushed to the brink in both round one and two, winning five straight elimination games to stay alive. They've shown they can bend a lot without breaking.
 

Someones going to be golfing after this series

But bending for the eighth seeded New Jersey Devils and seventh seeded Philadelphia Flyers is one thing, doing so against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who actually only finished nine points behind Washington in the standings and had the same number of regulation and overtime defeats as Washington, is another. Pittsburgh boasts firepower from line one to four and is a well rounded and proven club. If Washington wants to wait until they are facing elimination to get going, they may not be afforded that chance from Pittsburgh.

Prediction: Washington is well on its way to being a perennial powerhouse, but you need to learn to lose in order to learn to win. Pittsburgh in six games.

ACHL

Western Conference

(1) Abbotsford Heat vs. (2) Norfolk Admiral - Abbotsford in seven games.

Eastern Conference

(3) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. (7) Adirondack Phantoms - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in five games.

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Moving on to the next round


Surprises abound


 
As much as the second round about who is there, it is also about who isn't. The first round seen some teams which spent the year getting ready for the playoffs knocked out at the hands of lower seeded squads.

Two of the biggest names were the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers. Seemingly always an early exit since they won the title in Season 11, the Flames dropped a tough series to the Nashville Predators in six games. On the flip side, the usually very successful Rangers, who have claimed three straight Eastern Conference titles, was dropped by their cross town rival Islanders and now have a much longer off-season to dwell on.

Will the cinderella stories continue or will the contenders dominate? Some classics like Anaheim and Pittsburgh are still in the hunt after all.

Here are my predictions for round two of the post-season:

Western Conference

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (6) Nashville Predators - The Ducks survived a small scare at the hands of the San Jose Sharks in the opening round and seemingly face an equally weak opponent in round two; however that might be overlooking the Predators too easily. After all, they did pull a first round upset and could be poised for another.


It'll likely be more joy for the Ducks in round two.
Post-season hero Patrice Bergeron is doing it again, leading the Bruins in scoring with three goals and six points, and if the Ducks can get decent goaltending from Tuukka Rask, the club should be able to push through.

Nashville meanwhile seems to be rallying around their embattled star Henrik Zetterberg, who is rumoured heading out the door back to Montreal after the playoffs. True or not, Zetterberg isn't playing like a man on his last legs in his current city. He leads the club with eight points in six games.

It's likely that the Predators will put up a fight, but it's an uphill battle. Prediction: Anaheim in six games.

(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (4) Minnesota Wild - The Avalanche had arguably the biggest scare of any club that made it into the round of eight, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to escape with a 4-3 series win, taking game seven with a narrow 3-2 victory.


The Wild will need to pull out a few tricks to better the Avs.
Colorado and Anaheim seem destined to meet up in the playoffs again and while that is still possible Colorado's going to need to smarten up quickly or it'll be a wild post-season.

Minnesota is embracing a playoff series win for the first time in a few years and had the easiest run of any first round club, winning in five games over the Los Angeles Kings in what looked to be an even match-up. If Minnesota can keep the momentum up, they could be on the fast track to round three.

It should be a tight series, but Colorado also should have got their head on straight by now. Prediction: Colorado in six games.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers- Washington was pushed to the limit in their first round match-up with the New Jersey Devils, a possible sign the team is cracking under pressure from having an amazing regular season. They'll get another chance to show they are the real thing against the Flyers who only finished five points higher in the standings than the Devils.
 

Where Philadelphia is, physicality is sure to follow.
There is a riot in the streets of Philadelphia as the Flyers bested the always hated Toronto Maple Leafs, and it is cause for celebration. The Leafs were the second seeded team after all, but in reality the pair of teams were closer than they appear as the Leafs only had 13 more points than the Flyers. The spread this time will be exactly three times as much and it'll be three times the challenge for Philadelphia.

The Flyers will keep games close but the Flyers are still retooling and inexperience will cost them in the post-season. Prediction: Washington in five games.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) New York Islanders- Both clubs moved on in six games in round one, but it was a gigantic step for the Islanders, who exorcised a few demons by beating the cross town Rangers in the first round. It ended a fantastic post-season run for the Rangers and opened the door for the Islanders to get back in the cup mix. The last team to win the eastern conference not named the Rangers was the Islanders.


The Islanders hope to fend off the Penguins and move on to another Western Conference title for a New York based team.
And usually knocking on the conference title door is the Penguins, who now have one less hurdle with the Rangers gone. They'll need to show that they can better the Islanders to have a chance to do it, but the Penguins are a veteran squad trying to rally around seemingly ageless wonder Teemu Selanne, who has indicated this is likely his last season in the WCHL. He'd like to go out a champion and the Penguins would like to show they can still do it.

If Pittsburgh can start the series with a win, it's theirs. Prediction: Pittsburgh in six games.
 
ACHL
 
West
 
(1) Abbotsford Heat vs. (6) Grand Rapids Griffins - Abbotsford in five games.
(2) Norfolk Admirals vs. (4) Lake Erie Monsters - Lake Erie Monsters in seven games.
 
East
 
(3) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. (8) Syracuse Crunch - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in four games.
(4) St. John's IceCaps vs. (7) Adirondack Phantoms - Adirondack in seven games.

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Playoff fever hits

King of the hill battle begins

 

After a lengthy regular season that seen scoring records set and teams running up victories like laps at a Nascar race, it's time to see how the best stack up against the best as the top 16 teams get set to do battle in the opening round of the post-season.

 

Will it be another year of the regular faces making it into the later rounds, or is this the year when a fresh team makes a push, like the newly crowned Eastern Conference champions, the Washington Capitals?

 

This is why games aren't played on paper.

 

Below are my predictions for the opening eight series of round one:

 

Western Conference

 

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (8) San Jose Sharks- Usually the seeding is different, as the normally dominate Sharks are more familiar holding down top spot in the conference. But times have been tough for the once mighty fins, as they barely squeaked into the playoffs and needed help from the St. Louis Blues to even get into the dance. Their reward? Facing the Anaheim Ducks, who had an undefeated streak to start the season which lasted longer than a Kardashian marriage.

 

The Sharks have plenty of weapons to use, including Jonathan Toews, Zdeno Chara and Pekka Rinne, so they shouldn't be a total pushover here and likely shows they under-achieved in the regular season. They could be a good challenge to the Ducks and are likely the best eighth seed to play in the post-season in some time.


 

For Anaheim though, they are far deeper and more successful in recent years than San Jose. A pair of back-to-back Stanley Cup trips shows that and the Ducks were able to clinch it all last year, knocking off the two time champion New York Rangers in the process. This club is battle-tested and rock solid from the net to the water boy.

 

Prediction: While the games might not be blowouts, unless Rinne steals some games and Jonathan Toews turns into Mark Messier this series won't last long. Anaheim in five games.

 

(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers - The Oilers are back into the playoffs after a string of up and down seasons made repeat playoff berths a challenge. The club is a very cohesive group, as General Manager Keith Foster is not one to tinker much. The duo of Brad Richards and Jason Pominville again proved to be the cornerstones for the club; however the always quirky Ilya Bryzgalov in net was less than spectacular.

 

Colorado meanwhile is aiming to get back to the cup finals, where they had started to become a staple for a few years. One of only five different teams to win the WCHL Cup in the last eight seasons, the Avalanche also won back-to-back crowns before the Rangers did and they bolstered their ranks heavily this season in an effort to return to the finals, picking up Marian Hossa and Martin St. Louis at the start of the season. Both players gave immediate dividends, each netting 50 goals to pace the Avalanche attack.


 

Prediction: While Edmonton might be able to go toe to toe offensive with Colorado, they need a huge improvement in net or this will be a short series. Colorado in four games.

 

(3) Calgary Flames vs. (6) Nashville Predators - Last year the Nashville Predators caught the hockey world by surprise, nearly winning the President's Trophy before finally finishing fourth overall in points and getting the second seed in the playoffs. Their opponent? The Calgary Flames, who after a weak regular season came alive in the playoffs, knocking off the Predators in the opening round.

 

Now the tables have switched and it is the Flames who open at hope and the Predators who are seeking to be a spoiler. This won't be easy as the Flames are staked to their eyeballs in talent, including five 100-point scorers. Leading the way in that category is Steven Stamkos, who set a new WCHL record with 93 goals and 188 points, approaching Wayne Gretzky territory with his outburst.


 

The Predators counter with solid team, but one which is far more reliant on its netminder Jonathan Quick. Quick looked average speed in the regular season, picking up just a .890 save percentage, a big reason the Predators fell in the standings.

 

Prediction: If Quick plays like Quick, the Predators can win this one, however he hasn't shown it all season so odds are he won't against Calgary who will rain pucks on him left and right. Calgary in six games.

 

(4) Minnesota Wild vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings - The Kings are a piece or two away from being right up there with the big boys. Icing an offense that includes Thomas Vanek, Blake Wheeler and James Neal, the club can skate three lines, each with a 50 goal threat. Sergei Bobrovsky is in net, giving them a talent piece between the pipes as well. Where they are thin in on defense where a mobile but rather bland core group hopes to just get through.


 

In Minnesota meanwhile it is a different story. While Tyler Bozak did his best Mario Lemieux impersonation this season, rattling off 52 goals and 127 points, the club overall is more reliant on a team effort to get things done and needs blueliners like Christian Ehrhoff and Jay Bouwmeester to get things done.

 

Prediction: This should be a close series but if Bobrovsky can steal one game the offense should do the rest. Los Angeles Kings in six games.

 

Eastern Conference

 

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New Jersey Devils - After a few years of adding pieces it finally all came together for the Capitals this year, as they broke through the choke hold the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins have had on the conference title to claim first in the east. With six players scoring at a point per game or greater, the Capitals can run and gun with anyone and they will need to in order to do well in the playoffs in a tough Eastern Conference.


 

The Devils on the other hand were able to narrowly get into the playoffs and will now be tasked with giving the talented but unproven Capitals a run for their money. With Pavel Datsyuk and David Perron each picking up 100 point seasons, the Devils have some weapons to use.

 

Prediction: It won't be an easy series for the Capitals but they should be able to move on past the Devils. Washington in six games.

 

(2) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers - There are only a handful of players in the league where you can honestly say they alone can carry a club, and Toronto has one of them in Evgeni Malkin. The beast of a man scored 55 goals and 138 points to push the Maple Leaf attack, which also featured another 50 goal guy in Chris Kunitz. Arguably the team which benefited the most from last season's rollbacks, the Leafs have squeezed the most out of their team and landed a divisional title out of it in the process. The Leafs could make some noise this post-season.


 

They face the Flyers who have a lot of younger faces to work with and when it comes to pure talent they may be one of the best in the league on paper. Proven talent is another story however and greenhorns like Brayden Schenn and Brandon Saad will be expected to elevate their game to lift the team to greater things.

 

Prediction: The Flyers won't roll over and go away but Toronto one-two punch of Malkin and Kunitz have unreal chemistry and might be too much to handle. Toronto in seven games.

 

(3) New York Rangers vs. (6) New York Islanders - A regular battle, albeit usually not until the second round, the Rangers and Islanders are always a good matchup. The rangers have been getting the best of the Islanders in recent years however so the Islanders will be expected huge contributions from Phil Kessel, Nicklas Backstrom, Carey Price and the rest of their veteran but still surprisingly young core.


 

The Rangers meanwhile are easily the most tested playoff club in the past five years, making the WCHL Cup finals three straight years and aiming for a fourth. Expect the Rangers to once again rely on Henrik Lundqvist and Anze Kopitar to pace them to a conference title run.

 

Prediction: Again it will be a tough battle but again the Rangers will prevail. New York Rangers in six games.

 

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators - It's odd to see the Penguins so low in the standings, and even more odd considering they actually had a great year, rattling off 123 points and 58 wins. The seeding could be a blessing though, as they won't be given easy fodder to feast on in the first round and instead will need to work to get their wins early.


 

Those wins will have to come over the Ottawa Senators, who are a team which is the sum of its parts. While they do have an offense that is led by Corey Perry, the Senators continue to be a club more focused on success through a team plan and good netminding, and they will need that to beat the high-flying Penguins.

 

Predictions: The Senators won't be blown away but they are still a few pieces away from long-term playoff success. Pittsburgh in five games.

 

ACHL

 

Western Conference

 

(1) Abbotsford Heat vs. (8) Worchester Sharks - Abbotsford in five games

(2) Norfolk Admirals vs. (7) Chicago Wolves - Norfolk in six games

(3) Oklahoma City Barons vs. (6) Grand Rapids Griffins - Oklahoma in six games

(4) Lake Erie Monsters vs. (5) Rockford IceHogs - Lake Erie in seven games

 

Eastern Conference

 

(1) Hershey Bears vs. Syracuse Crunch - Hershey Bears in seven games

(2) Hartford Wolfpack vs. (7) Adirondack Phantoms - Hartford in six games

(3) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. (6) Binghamton Senators - Wilkes-Barre Scranton in six games

(4) St. John's IceCaps vs. (5) Hamilton Bulldogs - Hamilton in five games

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