Archive for November 2012

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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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Senate Approval Granted

It's been a big celebration in Ottawa already this year.
The dark days of the Ottawa Senators still cast a long shadow over the teams image, so one can't help but expect to see diehard fans of the long beleaguered club soaking up every ounce of excitement this season has brought.
"This is unbelieveable. It is simply amazing," said Peter Puffer, a season ticket holder since Season 1. "I wondered if I'd ever see this day."
What has the fans so excited is a season which has already guaranteed them to see one banner to be raised and hopes of another.
The club has already clinched their first ever Adams Division title, and second placed seeding in the playoffs. The hope is that this could be the precursor to a long playoff run.
Much longer than last year, when the Senators made the playoffs for the first time only to be destroyed in the opening round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now the Senators are back for a much longer time at the dance.

The Senators don't want to repeat being on the losing end of the handshakes with the Penguins this season.
"Last year, we just wanted to get in," explained General Manager Noel Harrison. "We got in, but when we played Pittsburgh we learned a lot. We new that while we've improved, we have a lot farther to go."
And go farther the club did, including a shocking deal that sent franchise face Matt Duchene to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package of players.
"It was a hard deal, but one which has paid off for us so far," said Harrison.
The dealing kept up until the trade deadline, when the Senators landed power forward Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks. It's hoped a new start will do Ryan wonders.

Bobby Ryan could be a big piece of the puzzle for the Senators.
In the meantime, the Senators will be watching the standings to see who they play in the first round. While unlikely, it is possible that opponent could be the Penguins yet again.
"I'd welcome that, said forward Milan Michalek. "I love the idea of a rivalry and revenge and that would do both. We owe them one after what they did to us last year."

Milan Michalek wants to play Pittsburgh again.
The Senators will be expecting big games from leaders Ilya Kovalchuk and Dan Boyle, as well as netminder Mike Smith. As they go, so goes the team.
"We need them to be better than last year. But we also know they will be," said Harrison. "They are ready to show what they can do and show why they are prime players. It should be a great showing."
Barring a dramatic thrashing yet again, this season is already a success for Senators fans. No longer will the club be viewed as an alsoran, and for the first time in their history the Senators and WCHL Cup are being mentioned in the same sentence. That alone is banner worthy in itself.
"It's a good day to cheer for this team," said Harrison, "and there are more good days to come."

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

The Lone Rangers

It's been a season full of celebration so far for the Rangers
It's been several seasons of dominance for the New York Rangers, who have been rebuilt under General Manager Andrew Don. Once a cellar dweller, those days seem so long ago and the Rangers have had plenty of success in recent years. Included in that success is two appearances in the WCHL Cup finals, in Season 11 against the Calgary Flames and again last year against the Colorado Avalanche. Both times though, the Rangers have come up short.
"It's been mixed feelings," said Don. "Initially of course it hurts, getting that close to the Cup and falling short. But after a few days you look back at the season and say 'You know what, we had a great season.' And that's what we have to respect, we did have good seasons those years."
Another good season is unfolding now as well. After a struggle out of the gate at 12-8-3, the Rangers have ripped through the league, pulling way ahead of a pack of Eastern Conference teams who have been amongst the best ever in WCHL history, going 43-5-5 in that span. During those 53 games, The Rangers have had winning streaks of 11 and 13 games and had a streak of 16 straight games with at least one point.
Leading the charge as always is team captain Shane Doan. While never the team leading in scoring, Doan is the team leader is spirirt.
"We've got a great team here for sure," said Doan. "This might be the greatest team yet, and we've had some great teams."
As good as they have been this year, the Rangers haven't been afraid to tinker either. So far this year the club has added forwards Drew Stafford, Chris Higgins, Jamie McGinn and Derek Dorsett, along with defensemen Carl Gunnarsson and Josh Gorges.

Chris Higgins is one of several players added this season to give the Rangers depth for the playoffs.
"We know that the other teams are trying to gear up and we're not going to fall behind," noted Don. "We want to stay ahead of the pace."
Surprisingly, the Rangers haven't locked up top spot in the WCHL yet, as the surprising New Jersey Devils are only five points back. Barring a collapse though, the Rangers will claim the Presidents Trophy in a few more games.
"It's a great prize, but it means nothing if we don't go all the way this year," said centre Anze Kopitar. "We want the claim the WCHL Cup this year, all other trophies mean little at this point.
To do that, the Rangers need only to keep things rolling as they are now. Most players are clicking at 100 per cent and, barring an injury to netminder Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers figure to be the top cup threat heading into the post-season.

As goes 'King' Henrik, so goes the Rangers. 
"That also means we'll have a bullseye on our back," said centre Stephen Weiss. "Other teams will be gunning for us so we need to stay sharp and go all out game one to seven of each series."
If teams are lucky enough to get to seven games against the Rangers. If things keep going as they are, the Rangers look good to finally claim top spot in the WCHL when it matters most.

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