Archive for 2012

30 Teams in 30 Stories

Moving Van

Stopping the puck will be a huge task for Jaroslav Halak in Vancouver this season.
It's been a lot of ups and downs for the Vancouver Canuck faithful over the years, and the hope is this isn't a fresh set of downward spirals coming this season.
The Cancks were once a model of inability to capitalize on a plethora of telent. Under the inaugural reign of General manager Iain Murray, the Canucks built up a strong team year after year, only to have it washed away with post-season failures, often at the hands of the Minnesota Wild. After Murray's tenure ended, the Canucks went through both highs and lows, the lowest being a few seasons ago when they inished dead last in the WCHL by a country mile, barely eclipsing 30 points.
In a geographic shuffle however, the Canucks were given a boost in fortunes, seeing the Atlanta Thrashers squad move to Vancouver, with the old Vancouver Canucks shuffling off to Winnipeg to become the Jets.
The Canucks effectively went from the league's worst team to a top 10 squad with the signing of a few league documents. Once again though, the Canucks were unable to make much happen with that talent, and now, after yet another General Manager change, the Canucks are hoping they'll find their way out of the desert quicker than Moses did.
Indeed, Vancouver is coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs by eight points, going 34-39-9, and did virtually nothing in the off-season. Now they find themselves at a significant crossroads, trying to get the most out of aging team while wondering if some of that team, including future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger, will be staying with the club long-term.

If Chris Pronger can be his all-star self, the Canucks could make a big move in the Western Conference.
The man tasked with guiding the ship is newly minted General Manager Dylan Schwark. He won't have an easy task in front of him, with a few key players set to be free agents after the season and a few others tied into no movement contracts. Several bloated contracts meanwhile have the Canucks with just over $1 million in wiggle room under the salary cap.
"We have the team in place now to make the playoffs, I know that," said Sedin sister Henrik. "We have a great top line, a great second line cetre in John Tavares, a very experienced defense, and a legit number one netminder in Jaroslav Halak. We have the pieces, but we could use to make some adjustments."
Those adjustments will need to come more significantly on defense. Oddly, with a blueline that features Chris Pronger, Alexander Edler, Ed Jovanovski and Brent Burns, the Canucks surrendered a whopping 276 goals last year, fourth most in the Western Conference. That number could be much better.

Opponents don't like playing aganst Alexander Edler. The hard-hitting defenseman is part of a very under-performing Canucks blueline.
Improving the defensive posture of the forward ranks would help, with very few players looking like Selke Trophy candidates, but the addition of Jamie Langenbrunner should help in that regard. Another positive would be the addition of a legitimate backup netminder. Andy Chiodo hardly proved very effective last season, and wasn't able to give Halak much support or time off.
While cap space is an issue, expect to see defenseman John Carlson get plenty of ice time for the Canucks this year as well. The young blueline stud figures to give the Canucks a boost now, and also down the road as the 20-year-old is only getting started and certainly would help Vancouver improve their defense.
There is plenty of reason to be positive in Vancouver, but there's no guarantee that this tea won't hit the skids again. The one who will decide whether that happens or not is Schwark.

For all the talk about improvement, the Canucks will only go as far as the Sedin twins can carry them.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Getting Iggy With It

For once the Leafs have a lot to celebrate... maybe.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been bad for pretty much the entire leangth of time the WCHL has existed. Making the playoffs has been a challenge and, outside of a miracle run to the WCHL finals one year, the Leafs have had no post-season success.
So one may find it interesting to see one of the games greatest all around players deciding to lace the skates up for the Leafs.
Jarome Iginla, arguably the biggest free agency prize this off-season, signed on the Leafs yesterday, inking a five-year, $5-million deal to suit up in the blue and white.

Jarome Iginla brings a big name to the Leafs for the first time in a while.
"Growing up in Canada, everyone dreams of playing for the Leafs someday, I'm glad I got a chance to do that, to make that dream come true. It was a great incentive to play in Toronto," said Iginla.
$9 million a season was also likely a great incentive as well.
While Iginla will fill a big void for the Leafs, he is one piece of a large puzzle that is still far from being filled.
The Leafs are likely still another four forwards and two blueliners away from having nearly enough depth and skill to make a legitimate playoff run in the uber-tough Eastern Conference. Remember, this is a conference which last season seen every playoff team finish with at least 100 points.
"It's going to be tough but we hope to have the players in palce to not just survive, but to thrive," said Leafs General Manager Tony Bezdeck.
Bezdeck has likely been the off-seasons busiest GM. Aside from the Iginla signing, Bezdeck has also been widely reported to be involved in bidding on other high profile free agents, and has swung several deals, sending out players such as Kyle Brodziak and Ales Hemsky. Ondrej Pavelec meanwhile is rumoured to be on the block as well, meaning the Leafs could have an entirely new look come next season.

Ales Hemsky sits dejected after hearing he has been traded to Boston.
"We had to make changes, said Bezdeck. "We finished well outside the playoffs last year, we weren't even close. We can't accept that, we have to do better and to do better changes had to be made."
Another important factor is that for once, the Leafs might actually have some depth in the farm system. with veterans like Tim Brent likely tagged for time with the Toronto Marlies. Having skilled players to recall in case of injury could go along way in helping the Leafs hold on in a playoff push.

Tim Brent expects to provide some valuable depth for the Leafs this season.
But it will all be for nought if the Leafs don't continue to pick up pieces in free agency. Rumoured involvement includes Pekka Rinne and Chris Kunitz, both of whom would cost a lot but also provide a lot to the Leafs.
"We're not done yet. I'd be shocked if we don't have another big announcement to make, maybe several," said Bedzeck with a smile.

Is Pekka Rinne Toronto-bound?

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30 teams in 30 Stories

Lightning Finally Strikes

It was a positive year for the Lightning for the first time in a long time.
After years of trying, but falling well short, the Tampa Bay Lightning finally reached the WCHL post-season this year.
And they picked a great year to do it, joining seven other teams in the Eastern Conference to reach 100 points, making it the toughest crowd of playoff teams in WCHL history.
"It was a proud moment for us," said Tampa Bay General Manager Mike Osterloh. "We worked hard at this, and everything sort of clicked this season."
A big part of that click was the play of netminder Jimmy Howard. The at times maligned goalie rallied to post a career year with the Lightning, and was a darkhorse contender for a Vezina Trophy nomination.

Jimmy Howard's play on the ice has been as hot as the women he's dated off of it.
"It was great to help the team win, and hopefully this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Howard.
While Tampa Bay didn't fare well in the playoffs, losing to the New York Rangers in five games in the opening round, Tampa Bay served notice they are the precipice of becoming another force in the East.
To do so though, they must not let this level of improvement go for waste. A solid core needs to be further augmented with support, and how Osterloh deals with that will be vital.
Some help on the wings would do wonders, and Tampa Bay must find a way to handle the volitile Dany Heatley situation. The veteran winger, who is also a veteran of trade demans, has issued yet another one, asking to be moved by the Lightning. Heatley's demand was made before the mid-way point of the season, yet Tampa Bay didn't let it become a distraction. Whether they can remained focused through next year is not a guarantee so expect Tampa Bay to move the sniper before the drop of the puck next year.

Dany Heatley can't wait to get out of Tampa Bay. He's also eager to get out of whatever team he gets traded to as well.
"I really don't like it here. Frankly I don't like it anywhere, but especially here. Tampa Bay sucks. Nothing but women in bikinis, 80-degree temperatures all the time, lots of sun and I play hockey for millions a season. This place stinks," said Heatley.
Flipping Heatley for a deal involving a winger is likely a key for the Lightning, who have little cap space to play with and have hardly even been seen on the free aget scene. This is in stark contrast from previous seasons.
"We don't think the answer lies in free agency. We'll see what can do to improve from within," said Osterloh.
Within includes the likes of forward Bobby Butler, defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti and netminder Anders Lindback.

Anders Lindback figures to be a key piece of the Lightning future.
"We think we can fill what we need from within, but we'll see what's out there as well and do what's best for the team," said Osterloh.
For the first time, that thought process worked last season. Will it work again?

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King of the Hill

Rangers Lonely No More

The New York Rangers are the Season 15 WCHL up Champions

For a while, Andrew Don must have been feeling like the jilted bridesmaid.

The New Rangers General Manager had spent several year forming a solid team built around a young, talented core of elite hockey talent. A few veterans were sprinkled in for good measure, such as Shane Doan, and it appeared all was in place for a Cup run.

But after several playoff failures, and two times being defeated in the WCHL Cup final, Don must have felt like maybe he was destined to be forever the bridesmaid; never the bride.

"It's hard not to doubt yourself," admitted Don. "We knew we had the right team but at times we started to wonder, are we missing something here."

If what was missing was consistency, the Rangers more than found that this year. After a bit of a bumpy start, the Rangers roared through the reagular season, destroying teams in their wake enroute to claiming the Presidents Trophy with a 126-point season. Unlike other teams who have had to face adversity in the playoffs, the Rangers dealt with none of that either, first besting the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games after taking a 3-0 series lead, then knocking off their cross town rival Islanders in round two. For the second straight year the Rangers swept the Islanders, this time using three straight overtime victories to seal the job.

"Even though we swept them, they were the toughest challenge," said team captain Shane Doan. "Usually you don't win three straight overtime games, and we could easily have lost one or two of those. We lose two of them, it's a 2-2 series, not a 4-0 sweep. We have to tip our hats to them, they re always a tough test."

The Rangers then topped the Ottawa Senators in five games before getting past the Calgary Flames in five games as well in the finals. Not surprisingly, the Rangers capped off their cup run with an overtime victory in game five against Calgary to seal their first WCHL title.

"This is incredible, I feel lik I'm on top of the world right now, I just can't describe this," said forward Tomas Flieschmann, who scored the cup clinching goal in game five.

Flieschmann was the teams top scorer in the post-season, scoring 23 points, including five goals. Of those five goals, three were game winners, helping to put him into consideration for the Conn Smythe award. But there was little doubt who would claim that award.

"Henrik Lundqvist, please step forward to accept the Conn Smythe award," WCHL Co-Commissioner Kurt Fulmore stated in front of a capacity crowd of 21,500 at the GWC Gardens. Outside of the roar which nearly blew the roof off the Gardens following Flieschmann's overtime heroics, the cheer for Lundqvist's Coon Smythe award was the loudest of the post-season filled with nothing but postives for the Ranger faithful.

The Flames had no answer for Henrik Lundqvist this time around, scoring just eight goals in the five game finals.

"This is amazing," said Lundqvist. "We've been striving so hard for so long to get to this point, this means so much to be a big piece of helping us get the WCHL Cup."

It is a season which will go down in the ages as one of the best of all time. Next year will be a hard act to follow.

"We're just going to enjoy the glow of this for a while, but then we'll get back to work. The WCHL never rests, so we can't either," said Don.

When asked about a possible repeat, Don was smug.

"I thought it would be hard, but I seen Ryan (McClanahan, Colorado General Manager) and Kurt (Fulmore, San Jose General Manager) do it, so it must be pretty simple."

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Signing the Blues

Goals were hard to come by in St. Louis
After some high-priced dips into the free agent pool the past few seasons, the St. Louis Blues had high hopes for theis season.
Those hopes weren't realized however, as Season 15 turned into a disaster from the start.
St. Louis stumbled to a 4-15 start to the season and never recovered. While the club poted a valiant 30-25-8 record after that poor start, they could undo the damage that had been done, largely the result of some weak efforts from some high-priced players.
"We did not get the bang for the buck from some guys," said General Manager Jesse Funk. "We knew we overpaid to a degree, you have to to get someone in free agency, but we didn't come cose to getting what we paid for this year."
While forwards Marian Gaborik and Curtis Glencross finished first and fifth respectively in team scoring this year, the duo combined for just 57 goals and 109 points despite receiving $19 million in salary. That represents just under 30 per cent of the team salary cap going to those players, and not nearly enough scoring coming back. Add in $8.5 million for Niklas Backstrom and $5.65 million for defenseman Robyn Regehr and the Blues find themselves very top heavy with salary going forward and not nearly enough to show for it.

The Blues will need a lot more from Marian Gaborik and Curtis Glencross.
While Backstrom and Regehr performed admirably, those four players salary equates to $33.15 million, or over half of the salary cap. As a result, St. Louis is left trying to fill their lower lines with bargain basement salaries, and often the skill level matches the salary.
How St. Louis finds some cap room could be the ultimate question this off-season, as to do so would likely mean one of the big four salaries is on the move.
In the mantime, St. Louis needs to figure how to get more from their unacheiving offense which ranked 26th in goals last season. The powerplay would be a good place to start, as the Blues finished dead last on the man advantage, scoring at just a 10.87 percentage. Gaborik managed just six powerplay tallies all season.
Shots are also an issue, with the Blues finishing 26th in the league in shots for while ranking 24th in shots against. Comparing shots for versus shots against, St. Louis finished 28th, besting only the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
"We need to get more pucks to the net," said Gaborik, whose 215 was the top mark on the etam last year. "If we get the puck on net more often, maybe it'll stay out of our end as well."
St. Louis does have some players in the minors who are expected to challenge for a roster spot next season, namely Roman Horak and David Rundblad, but none are likely to stimulate the offense in their first season. With only $450,000 approximately in cap space as well. it's likely to the trading block the Blues shall go this off-season.
David Rundblad - 2009 NHL Draft Portraits
David Rundblad is a future face of the Blues franchise.
"We have to be creative. We don't hve a lot of wiggle room," said Funk.

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WCHL Finals

It all comes down to this...again

For veteran WCHL General Managers, this WCHL Cup final looks awfully familiar. It is also completely expected.

The Calgary Flames and New York Rangers renew acquaintances in the WCHL finals, four years after their last meeting. In Season 11, the Flames took on the Rangers, and in a shocker swept past the New Yorkers to claim the first, and so far only, WCHL Cup by a Canadian team. Calgary now becomes the only Canadian team to reach the WCHL finals twice in league history as well.

The Rangers are hoping the third time is the charm for them. After losing to the Flames, the Rangers returned to the WCHL finals last year only to get beat by the Colorado Avalanche. This year marks the third consecutive year -and fourth time in five years- that a New York based team has reached the finals, yet no New York team has actually ever won the title.

The WCHL traditionally has been home to countless upsets over the years in the post-season, making the Flames and Rangers runs even more remarkable. Both of the top seeded teams in their respective conference have made it to the finals, a rare feat indeed in the WCHL. It almost didn't come to pass after the Flames barely eked out a 4-3 victory in round one over the eighth seeded Columbus Blue Jackets; however both teams have been on a big roll since the first round. Calgary is 9-2 in their last 11 games, with one loss being in overtime, while the Rangers are 9-1 in their last 10 tilts, including four consecutive overtime wins at one point.

This could be a historic series in many ways; all positive for the Flames and all negative for the Rangers should Calgary win. Calgary would become only the third team in WCHL history with multiple cup titles, joining fellow Western Conference teams San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. It would also mark the only time one team has lost three WCHL finals. With those facts, plus Season 11's finals still fresh in some player's minds, not to mention last year's defeat by the Avalanche, the Rangers have plenty of motivation to run the table on Calgary.

Of interest, this final almost happened last year as well. Calgary did reach the Western Conference final last year and held an early 2-0 series lead over the Avalanche before Colorado stormed back to win four straight games. Suffice to say, expect these two clubs to potentially have multiple WCHL Cup battles in the years to come.

Here's my prediction for the WCHL Cup final:

(1) Calgary Flames vs. (1) New York Rangers- The battle of the best is set to begin, as two of the most consistent and deep teams in the WCHL set to battle in what is arguably the best WCHL Finals on paper.

And while those games aren't played on paper, it's hard to figure out who will have an edge in this series. Going by the regular season, the Rangers have an edge, claiming the Presidents' Trophy with a dominating 126-point season and a 59-15-8 record. While Calgary finished third overall with 118-points and a 58-22-2 record, the Rangers had to battle through an ultra-tough Eastern Conference that featured eight teams with at least 100 points. Calgary meanwhile had their conference all but sown up by the mid-way point.

That's not to belittle the efforts of the Flames, who were very consistent throughout the regular season. While most Western Conference teams faced at least one stumble throughout the season, the Flames had a pair of four game losing streaks but ultimately rolled right through those and remained at the top of the conference pretty much from start to finish. While the Blue Jackets also gave the Flames a challenge, they are clearly back on track after demolishing the Avalanche and knocking off the Los Angeles Kings to reach the finals.

For the Flames, they will need Cam Ward to continue to play like Cam Ward. Shocking many with a mid-season swap of goaltenders with conference rival San Jose, the Flames brought in Western Canada's Cam Ward, and while he was at times shaky in the regular season, Ward has proved his worth in the playoffs, posting a .905 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against average. Also after a so-so regular season, Steven Stamkos has awoken has posted 20 points in 17 games to lead the Flames offense.

As always, the New York Rangers will be led by Henrik Lundqvist in net. The King has been a staple in net for the Rangers and was one of the players General Manager Andrew Don held on to to rebuild the Rangers squad when he took over. Once again not disappointing, Lundqvist has posted a .903 save percentage and a 2.34 goals against average. Johan Franzen meanwhile will be looked on to continue driving the offense, having scored 10 goals and 18 points so far in just 14 games.

While these two teams are built more around a strong defensive game, both clubs have oodles of firepower. Calgary can through Stamkos, Daniel Briere, Mike Richards and Jamie Benn over the boards, only to see Franzen, Anze Kopitar, Stephen Weiss and Thomas Fleischmann hop over on the other side. And if there were two teams which can win a game simply by rotating four strong lines, it would be these two clubs who are both ridiculously deep at virtually every position.

Blair Betts and Adam Pardy - Calgary Flames v New York Rangers
So far this post-season the Rangers have been the best offensive team, scoring 3.64 goals against, while the Flames have been the best defensive team, allowing just 2.18 goals against. Calgary has the best goals for/against ratio, scoring 1.51 goals per every goal they allow. The Rangers are right behind them, sitting second at 1.50. Even on shots the two teams fair pretty evenly, with the Rangers tops in shots for per game while Calgary is tops in shots against per game. The Rangers finished first in shots for/against ratio, taking 1.26 shots for every shot they allowed, with Calgary sitting second at 1.25.

Where there might be a crack in the armour for Calgary could be the special teams. The Rangers boast the second ranked powerplay and best overall penalty kill, as they have been deadly when not playing 5-on-5. Calgary, while not bad, only had the 10th ranked powerplay and fourth ranked penalty kill. That could be balanced out though by the fact Calgary is the third least penalized team this post-season, while the Rangers are the fourth most penalized.

Heading in Calgary's favor is the hitting game, something which has been the Flames bread and butter for years. Calgary ranked second in the post-season in hits per game, while the Rangers rank 11th. If physicality wins the series, Calgary should have the edge.

There should be plenty of close games in this series. On sheer star power, the Flames should have an overall edge, while the Rangers figure to have an edge on overall balance and depth. Both advantages are slight though. Expect a few overtime games, some great two-way play and a series which should go down for the ages. The lone real tipping point could be sheer desire and, nothing against the Flames in this department, but the Rangers have a lot of pent up emotions after twice getting denied at this stage. New York Rangers in six.

ACHL Cup finals:

(3) Peoria Rivermen vs. (4) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in five.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Jumping the Shark

In years past, the San Jose Sharks were the WCHL. Few teams could hold a candle to the Sharks, who ran rampant through the WCHL's Western Conference, claiming divisional and conference titles at will before winning the Western Conference championship five straight times at one point. Their dynasty ended with three WCHL Cup titles and a permanent ranking as the first dynasty of the WCHL, if not the greatest dynasty ever.
Today, it's not as if the Sharks have fallen into the abyss, but the days of dominance have faded away somewhat. While San Jose finished second in the Western Conference and again claimed the Smythe Division title with a 106 point season, going 49-25-8 along the way, that success once again could not be translated into post-season success. After two straight years of being bounced in the first round of the playoffs, this year San Jose reached the second round before being knocked off by the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
"It's not what we wanted, for sure," said Sharks GM Kurt Fulmore. "We really felt we should get to round three this year as a minimum, but we weren't able to get past Los Angeles. We still have a good core in pace and hopefully next year will be a different story."

Sharks General Manager Kurt Fulmore, seen here during game five action in round two against the Los Angeles Kings, says things can improve from within for the team.
Round three wasn't just a pipe dream for San Jose. Aside from a 7-2 beatdown in game three of the series with Los Angeles, the Sharks and Kings other five games were all decided by one goal, including a pair of overtime victories by the Kings.
"We split those overtime games instead of losing both and it's game seven then, and anything can happen in a game seven. I'd have liked our chances in a game seven," said centre Jonathon Toews who finished the playoffs with five goals and nine points in 11 games.

Jonathan Toews feels like the Sharks were much closer to another cup run than most people realize.
So really, the Sharks aren't to far away. With a youthful line up filled with the likes of Toews, Tyler Seguin, Chris Stewart, Zach Bogosian and Jared Cowen, and several solid prospects in the minors and developmental leagues, the Sharks are still more than capable of regaining elite status in the WCHL.
"We're still there. Some rules that have come into place over the years make it harder to stay that good, and easier for the lower teams to rebuild and move forward, which is good for the league, but for us, we just need to overcome those and move forward," assessed Fulmore. "We can do that."
Oddly enough, the lone area of concern for the Sharks is their discipline. Traditionally a good character team, the Sharks finished 26th in penalty minutes this year but taking 17.46 per game. That only increased in the playoffs where they were the second most penalized team in the post-season, taking 20.55 penalty minutes per game.
Not surprising then, that Los Angeles scored eight of their 21 goals with the man advantage, including two game winning goals, one of which was in overtime. Discipline alone could turn around San Jose misfortune.
Five players in total on San Jose averaged more than two penalty minutes per game, including three defensemen. Bogosian led the way with 40 in just 11 games.

Zach Bogosian, seen here in his Atlanta Thrashers days, will need to show more discipline on the ice after piling up 40 penalty minutes in just 11 games for San Jose, taking almost one-quarter of the teams total penalty minutes in the playoffs.
"I do take some responsibly on myself for that," said Bogosian. "Maybe if I stayed out of the box more often, things could have been different for the team."
Maybe things will be different next year as well. San Jose is in unfamiliar territory these days, playing as the team that is failing to live up to expectations. It will be interesting to see how long that continues.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

In the Pitts
Profiles in Coaching: Michel Therrien
Don't expect much change to the Pneguins line up for next year, despite the rough post-season.
After several years of extended playoff runs, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves facing a longer then normal off-season.
The Season 12 WCHL champions were bounced from the opening round of the playoffs in just five games by the Montreal Canadians. It was the first time in several years the Penguins failed to move past the first round.
"It was tough to swallow for sure" said Patrick Matthews, before breaking into laughter after a fan in the background yelled "That's what she said."
It was the only laughing Matthews has done since the playoffs started. A strong finish to the regular season seen the Penguins overcome a tough first half to finish with home ice in the opening round and a 114 point season in a very tough Eastern Conference. None of that mattered in the playoffs, where the club allowed 19 goals to Montreal, getting soundly beaten in the process.
It will be interesting to see if the Penguins make any moves of significance in the off-season. On one hand they don't really need to, with a largely vetern yet still youthful team returning for next year. On the other hand, the club as always has a great influx of youth coming up from the farm, including the likes of Vyacheslav Voynov, Roman Josi, Artem Anisimov, David Savard, Matt Martin and Patrice Cormier. While only one or two will actually push for a roster spot, with there likely to be no change to the salary cap bringing up a young player or two could give Pittsburgh some flexibility to make other moves.

Sidney Crosby is expecting big things next year.
Expect Pittsburgh to push to add a veteran top four defenseman, and maybe upgrade at backup goaltender, but for the most part Pittsburgh looks set to try and overcome this hiccup of a post-season.
"We need to be ready to bring it and I think this year we got to much confidence from our finish to the regular season and from how well we've done in the past in the playoffs, esepecially the first round," noted star centre Sidney Crosby. "We can't let that happen again, it's what sunk us."
Pittsburgh really wants to have one more long run next year, as it could be the last for star forward Teemu Selanne. The Finnish stud has toyed with retirement in recent years, but would be coming back on a strong note after leading the team in scoring with 85 points, including a team high 58 assists.
"It was disappointing to go out like we did after so much hope, but we know we have the group in place to go all the way and it'll be interesting to see if we are able to build off of this," said Selanne, adding he won't make any final commitment on if he's going to retire or not until closer to training camp.

Will he be back or won't he? That's the biggest off-season question for the Penguins and Teemu Selanne.
Selanne's loss would be a big blow to Pittsburgh, and leave some serious question marks on the wings. Selanne only carries with him a cap hit of $3 million as well, meaning there won't be much cap space to fill his spot should he call it a career.
"We hope not to have to cross that bridge but if we must we will," said Matthews, adding that the club has a plethora of draft picks and prospects to use as bait.
In the meantime, the team will digest this defeat, and use the extra time off to refresh themselves for a better playoff push next year. It's likely only a matter of time before the Penguins manage to return to the top of the heap in the WCHL.

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WCHL Playoffs Round 3

The Final Four not really a surprise

While some may not have picked the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators to extend their playoff run into round three, few would have been surprised by it either. After all, Ottawa did claim second seed in the Eastern Conference and post 113 points on the season, while Los Angeles finished third in the Eastern Conference, just four points behind the San Jose Sharks. For the first time in WCHL history, we almost witnessed the top two seeds in both conferences move on to the third round.

Los Angeles and Ottawa may not have pulled off shocking upsets to get this far, but they will likely have to do so to get to the WCHL Cup finals. Facing them is arguably the two best teams in the game, the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers.

Both squads made it this far last year, and the Rangers even advanced to the WCHL Cup finals, losing to the Colorado Avalanche. Calgary and New York also faced off in the WCHL Cup finals in Season 11, with Calgary winning in four straight.

In fact only Ottawa hasn't made the finals of the remaining four teams, with the Kings also having a championship under their belt from Season 6.

Not really a test as lopsided as David and Goliath, but it's clear right now who the favorites are in each conference finals matchup.

Here are my predictions for round three:

Western Conference

(1) Calgary Flames vs. (3) Los Angeles Kings- The new powerhouse of the West, Calgary, looks to knock off a Kings team that may be on its final run.

Calgary survived a significant first round scare at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets and clearly showed they learned their lesson in round two, blasting the two-time defending WCHL Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in four games. Now it's time to see if Calgary can keep their foot on the gas pedal and hit the Kings hard. With key cogs Mike Richards and Steven Stamkos combining for just three goals so far, the likes of Mikko Koivu, Jamie Benn and Travis Hamonic have stepped up their offensive output, showing the real strength of a Flames squad which can roll four lines with the best of them.

Los Angeles meanwhile has had Conn Smythe caliber performances from Paul Stastny all playoffs. The at times beleaguered centre has shown what he isn't to be cast in the shadow of his famous father, rattling off nine goals and 21 points so far this post-season, both tops so far this year. In fact, Stastny has more assists so far this post-season than all but seven players. He has helped to overcome the efforts of netminder Tim Thomas, who has posted just a .850 save percentage through 13 starts, by far the worst of any regular netminder these playoffs and a full 60 points lower than Flames starter Cam Ward.

It will be a tough battle, but if Thomas isn't on his game, there's little chance the Kings can overcome the constant pressure the Flames generate. Calgary's depth will likely be the tipping point to this post-season. Calgary in five.

Eastern Conference

(1) New York Rangers vs. (2) Ottawa Senators- The upstart Ottawa Senators have served notice they are a new threat in the Eastern Conference, but they will have their stiffest test now with the dominant New York Rangers.

The Rangers have shocked no one this season by once again rattling off a strong season, and that carried into the playoffs where they got past the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games before sweep the New York Islanders in round two for the second straight year. Now they aim to be the first repeat Eastern Conference champion by taking on the Ottawa Senators. With Johan Franzen scoring almost a goal per game and Thomas Fleischmann coming out of nowhere to tally 14 points in just nine games, the Rangers have the firepower to make it happen.

Ottawa meanwhile has been riding a hot goalie in Mike Smith through 13 games so far these playoffs. Smith's .916 save percentage is the best of the remaining four starting netminders and only Columbus' Semyon Varlamov's .918 is higher so far these playoffs. While Milan Michalek does have seven goals in 13 games so far, by and large the Senators offense have been mediocre this post-season, meaning the Senators will likely need to rely on Smith even more to move past the Rangers.

Ottawa has done well these playoffs and have shown why they aren't a flash in the pan. They will put on a good fight against the Rangers, but their time is in a few years, not right now. New York Rangers in six.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Phoenix Rising
Kurt Sauer (L-R) Zbynek Michalek #4, Kurt Sauer #44, Brandon Prust #29 and Viktor Tikhonov #41 of the Phoenix Coyotes defend against Brendan Morrison #11 of the Dallas Stars during the NHL game at Arena on March 30, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Zbynek Michalek;Kurt Sauer;Viktor Tikhonov;Brendan Morrison
There's going to be a new defensive plan in Phoenix next year.
After several seasons, the Phoenix Coyotes still find themselves battling for a return to the post-season. Arguably the most unlikely WCHL Cup winner in league history, going on a cinderella run in Season 8, the Coyotes have failed to repeat any of that magic since.
Now, the club is saddled once again with another year of failed expectations, once again finishing well outside the playoff picture. With a record of 28-44-10, the Coyotes were 19 points behind the eighth seeded Columbus Blue Jackets and are left with a big question mark as to how they will go forward in closing that gap.
The Coyotes finished tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third worst record in the league this year, narrowing ahead of the Anaheim Ducks. Only the Blackhawks, with 51 points, finished well back of the Coyotes. Now the team is facing a cross-roads of sorts, as the topic of a rebuild will be fresh on the minds of many.
That mindset likely won't sit well with fans of the club, who faced this idea a few years ago when General manager Phin Liew sold the fanbase on a plan to rebuild around future star John Tavares. Fast-forward to the present day and Tavares is in Vancouver, the Coyotes are no where nar the post-season and only two players -Sam Gagner and Sergei bobrovsky- under the age of 25 is on the clubs roster. Meanwhile, 11 players 30 or older suited up for the club, making the likelihood of a rebuild more real.

At times Radim Vrbata was a one man show for Phoenix.
"We need to shore up some weaknesses, but we can make strides here," said team scoring leader Radim Vrbata who lead the team in goals (34) and points (67).
The club won't have much in the way of cap space to improve the team, likely entering free agency with a few unsigned Restricted Free Agents and about $8 million available in cap sapce for those players plus free agents. It could be a tricky juggling act to get this club resigned and rebuilt in one off-season.
No one said bringing a cup to the desert would be easy even once, never mind twice.
"We hope to see some improvements soon," said netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who himself was a large flop this season, posting a .879 save percentage. "We as a group can do better so we don't really need to improve much from outside the organization."
While defense was a huge issue for Pheonix last year, finishing 25th in the league with a 3.23 goals against average, offense was even worse. Phoenix finished the season ranked 28th in the WCHL, scoring just 2.32 goals per game.
One of those players that needs to improve offensively is Mike Cammalleri. The winger, added from the Vancouver Canucks, had just six goals and eight points in 34 games with Phoenix after being almost a point per game player prior to that with the Canucks.

It was a tough season for Mike Cammalleri after a mid-season deal sent him to Phoenix.
"I alone can improve the offense," admitted Cammelleri. "I need to do much better and I will next year."
Next year can't come fast enogh for Phoenix. The question is, will next year change anything?

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WCHL Playoffs, Act 2

Close Calls but Few Upsets in Opening Round
Colorado is off to round two yet again, dispatching the Predators in six games.
After a few close calls, teams in both conferences gear up for showdown of elite talent. In the West, all four of the top seeds advanced to round two, though only the San Jose Sharks needed fewer than six games to do so. Two teams, top-seeded Calgary and third seed Los Angeles, took a full seven game slate to move past some stubborn opponents.
In the East, the New York Islanders pulled off what would be considered the biggest upset, defeating the New Jersey Devils in just five games. New Jersey was one of the hottest teams in the league in the second half, but despite this they only finished 12 points ahead of the Islanders.
The success even extended to the minor league, when all eight series went to the top seed. It's a good year to have home ice advantage.
But will that continue into round two? There are some great teams who won't be the top seed in their respective series this round, most notable is the Colorado Avalanche, the two-time defnding champions. They will need to buck the current trend in order to complete their quest of a three-peat.
Here are my predictions for round two:
Western Conference
(1) Calgary Flames vs. (4) Colorado Avalanche- It was a scary situation for the Calgary Flames, who had to battle to the bitter end to defeat the eighth seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in round one, needing a last minute goal in game seven to finally put away they pesky Blue Jackets. Their reward? The Avalanche, the same team that rallied from a 2-0 deficit against the Flames in round three last year to go on and win the WCHL Cup for the second straight year.
Calgary may have needed the scare Columbus gave them. The lone team to go through the entire regular season in the Western Conference without a major regular season stumble, the Flames were snapped out of their near robotic march through the season by the Blue Jackets. Now they need to get back into gear for Colorado, who will be much harder to put away.

Colorado is looking stronger by the game meanwhile. The Avalanche have just kept getting better as the season went along and in games five and six against Nashville in round one they posted back to back shutouts. Not bad for a team which had terrible goaltending most of the season. A strong offense, deep defense and now good goaltending? They could be unstoppable.
Expect there to be a lot of bad blood in this series, but after that it's hard to say what will come of this. If Calgary snaps back to their regular selves, this series could go seven games. If not, and Colorado stays hot, this could be a fast win for them. Colorado in six games.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (3) Los Angeles Kings- The battle of California is back on for the first time in several years, and it could be the last one for some time. The aging Kings look to continue their strong season by getting through their state rivals in San Jose.
The Kings will need to rely on their dynamic duo at centre in Paul Stastny and Evgeni Malkin and netminder Tim Thomas to go further. A seven game battle against the Red Wings didn't give much confidence that the Kings could drive through a now well rested Sharks squad.

San Jose is ready to go after needing just five games to get through the Minnesota Wild. After a few seasons of playoff disappointment, the Sharks are back into the second round, good news for the current core of this team. After several struggles, one had to figure changes could be in order if the Sharks were unable to get through round one again. An appearance in round three would go a long way to solidifying the Sharks cores future in San Jose.
San Jose figures to be the favorites in this series, but they've heard that before only to lose in the playoffs. It should be a good series but this time expect the Sharks of old to reemerge. San Jose in six games.
Eastern Conference
(1) New York Rangers vs. (6) New York Islanders- The battle of New York renews itself for the third time in three years, this time with the Islanders needing to pull off yet another upset after pushing through the New Jersey Devils in surprisingly quick fashion.
The Rangers have had a near dream season and looked in fine form in round one as well, knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games, storming out to a 3-0 lead in the process. Keeping that tide rolling won't be as easy against the much more talented Islanders, but the Rangers certainly have the firepower and depth to do so. Add into that the hunger to win their first WCHL Cup after twice being denied in the finals and the Rangers could be more than motivated to push past the Islanders.

On the island, the Islanders are hoping to complete some unfulfilled expectations of their own. Long considered a cup threat, the Islanders have only made the finals once, losing out to the Avalanche in seven games two years ago. Considering there has been a New York based team in the finals in three of the last four seasons, there's a good chance the winner of this series could go on to represent the East in the finals.
Last year the Rangers swept the Islanders. The Rangers may win again but don't expect it to be that easy this time. New York Rangers in six games.
(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (5) Montreal Canadians- The top seeded Senators have no real statistical advantage over the Canadians in this round, as both teams finished with 113 points.
Ottawa will have home ice, something they had in round one against the Buffalo Sabres. They needed it too, as the Senators went to overtime in game seven before finally moving past the Sabres. Now they need to try to duplicate that success against a Montreal squad looking to win this all-Canadian battle.

Montreal and the Rangers finished tied for the best goals against average in the league in the regular season, and Montreal proved that by limiting a very skilled and deep Pittsburgh Penguins line up to just 12 goals in five games. Ottawa will have their work cut out to get through the stingy Habs defense. Combine that with an offense that scored four goals a game in the opening round and the Montreal figures to be the favorite in this match up.
Ottawa is progressing nicely, but Montreal has loaded up this year for a reason. Montreal in six games.
Western Conference
(1) Abbotsford vs. (4) Houston- Abbotsford in six games.
(2) Manchester vs. (3) Peoria- Peoria in seven games.
Eastern Conference
(1) Albany vs. (4) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton- Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in five games.
(2) Hershey vs. (Conneticut- Hershey in seven games.  

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Philly Flop
Ville Leino Ville Leino #22 and Kimmo Timonen #44 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrate goal during game action at the Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs December 9, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
There wasn't much to laugh about this year in Philadelphia, but the future brings plenty of smiles.
In a league of constant change, not many teams can be viewed year after year as perennial darkhorse cup contenders. The Philadelphia Flyers were one of those teams though, and while the post-season didn't ever materialize into a WCHL Cup title, for many years the Flyers were a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
This season however didn't match those expectations and for the first time in roughly 10 seasons, the Flyers found themselves closing the doors on the arena before the playoffs started.
"It's hugely disappointing," stressed Flyers General Manager Doug Van Strepen. "I'd say it's our most disappointing season in a while."
Disappointment started early and carried on for the Flyers, who got off to a rough 3-8-0 start. While a five game winning streak pulled them to .500 after that, the Flyers were left playing catch up all season and just couldn't gain much ground in an Eastern Conference which may go down as the most competitive conference in one season in sim hockey history.
"Even if we'd win, we just couldn't gain ground. After a while, it really wears on you mentally. This of-season will be about regrouping mentally more than anything," said veteran centre and team captain Ryan Getzlaf.
The FLyers have reason for optimism. Despite missing the playoffs by nine points, they still finished with a record of 44-35-3, good for 91 points. Even if they repeat that performance next year, they should be closer to the playoffs due to the likelihood of teams above them coming back down to earth.
Additionally, the Flyers went 12-3-1 in their final 16 games of the season largely with a roster of younger players after several trades to restock the teams talent pool. While it's unlikely they can maintain that level of play next year, the Flyers have to see some hope in that solid performance.
Another piece of good news is the fact the Flyers finished the season with just two players -Scott Hartnell and Brooks Orpik- who are 30 or older. Orpik is a UFA as well, and likely won't be back. The future bodes well for the Flyers.

Scott Hartnell figures to be the elder statesman on the FLyers next year at the age of 31.
That future includes the likes of Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek upfront, Karl Alzner on defense and Jonathan Bernier in net.
"We have a good core to work with," noted Van Strepen. "We just need to add to it."

Brayden Schenn (left), Wayne Simmonds (centre) and Jakub Voracek figure to be a leading force for the Flyers in the years to come.
Free agency figures to be one area the Flyers could add. Even if the cap doesn't increase, the Flyers figure to have approximately $18 million in spending money without Orpik, and outside of another defenseman to replace Orpik, they don't have any glaring holes, meaning they could be a player for a big name or two.
Additionally, if the FLyers can cut back on the penalties they could see big improvement through just that. The Flyers were the elagues most penalized team, taking 19.89 penalties per game, over two minutes more per game than the 29th ranked Anaheim Ducks. Considering they had a 20th ranked penalty kill ranking, that was flirting with disaster to often.
In short, it could be a quick turn around for the Flyers, who have a great chance of being back in the playoffs as early as next year. Minor changes, some internal growth, and maybe one big signing could have the Flyers flying high once again.
"Hopefully. I don't want to be on the outside looking in two years in a row. Watching the playoffs on TV is hard enough as is," said star blueliner Ryan McDonagh.

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The Playoffs Have Begun!

16 Wins to Immortality for Colorado

Is one more in the cards for Colorado?
In a league which shows a great deal of parity, especially amongst the top tier of teams, repeating as cup champion in back-to-back years is no easy task. In the 14 seasons of the WCHL, only the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche have ever done it.
Colorado is coming off of those two straight titles looking for a third. While San jose came very close to three-peating, no team in WCHL history has ever claimed three straight WCHL Cups. Colorado will take their stab at it starting tonight, when they host the Nashville Predators at the Pepsi Center.
"This is what this season has been all about," said General Manager Ryan McClanahan. "The regular season was important for sure, but we're all about success in the playoffs. Winning every game in the regualr season is meaningless to me unless we win the Cup also. We want that trophy."
While it is expected they will get through the upstart Predators, the road to a third straight title could be very forboding, especially when one looks at the Eastern Conference, where every team reached 100 points this year, topped by the New York Rangers who finished with 126. Expect lot of heated battles all the way through the conference, and possibly the lone way a team from the once-dominant Western Conference wins the title this year is if the East literally beats itself up on te way there.
Below are my predictions for the first round of the WCHL Playoffs:
Western Conference
(1) Calgary Flames vs. (8) Columbus Blue Jackets- In a rematch from the second round last year, the Flames look to propel themselves to a lengthy playoff run at the expense of the Blue Jackets.
For the Flames, the past three seasons have been largely a disappointment in the post-season. After going the distance in Season 11, the Flames have been unable to reclaim all of that playoff magic despite a very talented roster. Last year was the most successful of the three but also the most painful, blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Avalanche in the conference finals and losing 4-2. Now the Flames are looking to use their very strong regular season as a push towards their second WCHL title. Led my the likes of Mike Richards, Steven Stamkos and Cam Ward, they definately have the horses to get there.

Columbus meanwhile is back for their third straight playoffs, but a slight stumble at the end of the season seen them land on the wrong side of a three-way tie for sixth place, and set up a date with the Flames. While the Flames cruised past the Blue Jackets last year, overall Columbus has proven to be a tough out in the first round the past two years and pulled off the upset of the playoffs last year by besting the San Jose Sharks. Led by Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux and Seymon Varlamov, the Blue Jackets can do a lot of damage if they are clicking.
Columbus comes bearing the leagues third best powerplay in the regular season, but the Flames hold the edge in everything else, including the second-ranked penalty kill and third-ranked offense. Calgary appears to be just too solid all-around, and were the lone consistant team from start to finish in the Western Conference this year, as they clearly have their focus on the WCHL Cup this year. Columbus will put up a good fight as usual, but it won't be enough. Calgary Flames in six.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Minnesota Wild- Once again, the San Jose Sharks find themselves against an upstart team just trying to prove they belong in the playoffs, and that's been a recipe for disaster for San Jose in the past.
The Sharks are trying hard to reclaim the glory of past years, where at one point they seemed to be unstoppable, claiming four cups in six seasons. It's been tough sledding though recently for San Jose, who have been tripped up in the first or second round to often, despite holding home ice advantage in every series they've played in in the Western Conference. They once again look to be the best team in this series, but best hasn't always prevailed for a Sharks team loaded with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal and Zdeno Chara.

Minnesota is freshly returning to the post-season after a lengthy absence, and the retooling done by GM Alex Tanev is paying off. The last team in the WCHL to clinch a post-season berth, the Wild actually took a late season charge that carried them to seventh and a date with the Sharks, and they are hoping that performance carries over to the playoffs. The wild card in all of this could be Jaromir Jagr, who after spending the season with the Montreal Canadiens, found himself in a whirlwind of activity and came to the Wild via waivers after a brief passover in Washington. It's unclear if he has much left in the tank, but the experience and leadership Jagr could provide may provide a huge boost for a Wild offense that ranks deadlast in goals amongst playoff-bound teams.
The first two games of this series will likely be the telling point of the series. San Jose needs to establish dominance early and often, or they risk once again allowing a perceived weaker team gaining an upperhand on them. The Wild upgraded their offense down the stretch with Jagr and a trade for Justin Williams, but it is the Sharks who on paper should win this series. Expect the special teams to play a huge role in this series, as the Sharks and Wild were the two most penalized teams in the league for clubs that made the post-season. San Jose Sharks in six.
(3) Los Angeles Kings vs. (6) Detroit Red Wings- In an unlikely match up, two revamped teams had surprisingly strong seasons, leading to post-season berths. But only one is guaranteed to make it past the opening round.
For the Kings, it's been a season of success. After barely making the playoffs last year, the Kings roared out of the gates early and held their pace for much of the season, nearly snatching the Smythe Division title away from the San Jose Sharks in the process. Only a five game winning streak to close out the season allowed San Jose to maintain control of the division. The Kings are one of the oldest teams in the playoffs, but with the likes of Tim Thomas, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter, they have the ability to make opponents pay, both with talent and experience.

Detroit at one point sat in fourth place in the conference, but a downward slide hurt them in the second half. Despite this, the Wings are also looking to use expereince to their benefit in this match up, with the elderly duo of Evgeni Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin in net, with forwards like Alex Burrows, Michael Ryder and Danius Zubrus also pushing the team forward, both with talent and age. It will be interesting to see who has anything left in tank from a club with only one regular -Kyle Cuminsky- under the age of 28.
This series could be all about who has the most left in the tank. While expereince is important at this time of year, for your older players so is rest, and both teams have ridden some of their veteran players hard down the stretch. Los Angeles figures to have an overall adge in talent, but where things could get interesting is on the powerplay, where the Wings second-best powerplay during the regularseason will match up against a Kings defense that is now without Jay Bouwmeester. Still, Los Angeles should prevail but don't expect it to be easy. Los Angeles Kings in seven.
(4) Colorado Avalanche vs. (5) Nashville Predators- The season is just now beginning for the Avalanche, while in Nashville some fans are trying to figure out why the team is still playing.
For Colorado, this is just another season of seasons filled largely with high playoff expectations. After years of failing to claim the top prize, Colorado did it twice in a row and now fans are holding their collective breath in anticipation of a possible three-peat; the first in WCHL history. It will be different this year though, as the club hopes to do it without the services of long-time leader Niklas Lidstrom, who retired last season. The absence has been felt by the Avalanche, who struggled for a while and were even outside of the playoff picture just after the mid-season mark before rallying down the stretch. Now it's time to see what this club is really made of.

In Nashville however, this season mrks the first for the Predators to ctually make the playoffs. After years of futility, the club was able to ride a strong first half and a weak conference into the second season. Expected by many to be a likely non-factor again this year, several trades for veterans such as Roberto Luongo, Mike Green and Alexander Steen helped propel the Predators into the playoffs and give them a chance to be the first team in over two years to best the Avalanche in a best-of-seven series.
The Predators finished with the leagues sixth ranked powerplay, but Colorado figures to match up against that well with the fourth ranked penalty kill. All in all, the Avalanche figure to have an edge over the Predators in virtually every area, so it will just be a matter of whether or not Ilya Bryzgalov will show up in the post-seson. If he doesn,'t, Nashville could have the edge given they have a great goaltender of their own in net; Roberto Luongo. Expect Bryzgalov to show up enough to make a difference, but the fact the Predators ranked second in the lague in hits per game -and most among teams to reach the playoffs- means they will leave a mark on the Avs at least. Colorado Avalanche in six.
Eastern Conference
(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Tampa Bay Lightning- The New York Rangers are hoping its a case of third times the charm, which Tampa Bay is just excited to be here as two clubs at different ends of a rebuild face off.
The Rangers actual rebuild ended long again, but they are still aiming for their first WCHL Cup. After getting swept by the Flames in the finals in Season 11, the Rangers returned to the finals last year, only to to fall once again, this time to the Avalanche. After an amazing regular season that seen the Rangers capture the Presidents Trophy with a 59-win, 126-point season, the Rangers are hoping this is finally the year they go the distance. Long time Ranger leads Anze Kopitar, Stephen Weiss and Henrik Lundqvist, all of whom are likley to be involved in discussions during awards time as well, also hope this is finally the year they can stop answering questions about when they will finally go the distance.

Tampa Bay on the other hand is just glas they can stop answering questions about when they will make the playoffs again. A strong start catapulted the Lighting to a 45-win, 100-point season, the first of both for the club in WCHL history. Unfortunately for them, they did in a season when the entire Eastern Confeence light the league up like a Christmas tree and those 100 points were only good enough for eighth place and a date with the Rangers juggernaut.
To get a picture of just how good the Rangers were this year, the Lightning ranked eighth best in the WCHL in terms of goals for versus goals against with a +42. Despite this, the Rangers allowed 27 fewer goals against than Tampa Bay, while scoring 37 more goals, giving them a +106 goal differential, by far best in the league. The Rangers also ranked 1st in both goals for and goals against. Needless to say, the Lightning have their work cut out for them. New York Rangers in five.
(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres- A year ago it seemed unlikely the Ottawa Seantors would be hosting a playoff series, but a confident run through the Adams Division shows the Senators are indeed on the right path.
Despite a dramatic trade involving the former face of the franchise in Matt Duchene, the Ottawa Senators rode a great regular season into a divisional crown and a post-season berth this year, another clear step forward for a club which has made several big strides in recent years. Bobby Ryan -who was just added at the trade deadline- Milan Michalek and Ilya Kovalchuk have ingited a Senators offense and guided them to a 55 win season and a top seed in an overly competitive Eastern Conference.

Oddly enough, Buffalo should feel more entitled to the second seed in the division than Ottawa. While scoring the exact same number of goals as Ottawa during the regular season -264- the Sabres also allowed 25 fewer goals against than the Senators. In fact, until a stumble down the stretch in which they went 3-6-1 in their final 10 games, the Sabres actually had abetter record than the Senators as well. As such, this should be a very interesting series.
The fact Buffalo ranked fourth in the league in goals against average and tops on the powerplay should bode well for them, but Ottawa is a more physical team and have proven to be better during five-on-five play, so this series could be down to the wire. Buffalo Sabres in seven.
(3) New Jersey Devils vs. (6) New York Islanders- Two teams going in opposite directions face off in this talent loaded first round match up that is all about one big trade between the two clubs.
The New Jersey Devils are proof that one trade can make all the difference. A team most figured would only maybe make the playoffs at the start of the season as they were undergoing a mini-rebuild, the Devils swung a huge trade with, of all teams, the Islanders at the start of the season, picking up stars like Kari Lehtonen and Jarome Iginla for a package of mostly younger players led by T.J. Oshie. That trade led to the Devils going on a remarkable run and nearly catching the Rangers for top spot in the WCHL. A 58-win, 121 point season and huge hopes came largely as a result of that one trade.

Meanwhile, the New York Islanders now have to be wondering what if that hadn't made that deal. While still posting a respectable season, reaching 109 points, the Islanders certainly would have done a lot better this year with those players, especially Iginla, in the line up, not to mention now they ahve to try and beat them in the playoffs. Still, New York did add some talent for the future while Iginla is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Oshie ended up leading the Islanders in scoring, posting 23 goals and 65 points after the trade.
New Jersey finished top four in goals for, goals against, on the powerplay and in shots against. That's a lot of impressive stats for the Islanders to go up against. New York has the talent to put up a good fight, but that atlent might be better served next year. New Jersey Devils in six.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Montreal Canadians- If anything, this series will at least generate the most smack talk of any during the first round, as two clubs who both can walk the walk and talk the talk square off.
In a season where it's very possible the fourth seeds in both conferences could see be deemed favorites to go the distance, the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to try and reclaim their WCHL title. The last team to win the title before the Avalanche, the Penguins figure to be a strong threat to make it all the way again and despite finishing fourth in the conference, have a legitimate right to call themselves the best team in the conference behind only the Rangers after finishing with the second best goals for, goals against differential in the WCHL at +83.

Montreal has a lot of bragging right too though, including finishing tied with the Rangers for fewest goals against in the elague at 184. Even though they enter the playoffs with the second fewest goals scored among Eastern Conference playoff squads, the Canadains did add to their offense by picking up 27 goal scorer Kyle Okposo from the Nashville Predators. An interesting mixture of old and young, the Habs hope the youthful flare of players like Alex Pieterangelo will jive well with the expereince of guys like Daniel Alfredsson to move them into their first lengthy playoff run in many years.
Once again, the Penguins are tasked with seeing if their high powered offense, which finished second in the elague in scoring, can solve an elite netminder, this time in Jonathon Quick. A likely Vezina Trophy finalist, Quick is the backbone to a stingy Canadians defense and could be what is able to slowdown the Penguins juggernaut who look poised to try for yet another deep playoff push. It will be close, but expect Pittsburgh to prevail...barely. Pittsburgh Penguins in seven.
ACHL Predictions:
Western Conference

(1) Abbotsford vs. (8) Lake Erie- Abbotsford in five
(2) Manchester vs. (7) Milwaukee- Milwaukee in seven
(3) Peoria vs. (6) Syracuse- Peoria in five
(4) Houston vs. (5) Chicago- Houston in seven

Eastern Conference

(1) Albany vs. (8) Adirondack -Albany in five
(2) Hershey vs. (7) Bridgeport- Hershey in four
(3) Conneticut vs. (6) Binghampton- Conneticut in five
(4) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton vs. (5) Norfolk- Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in six

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