Archive for October 2013

Repeat performances

Same name likely to be on the cup


If anyone was hoping to see a new WCHL Champion, they may be disappointed.

Of the eight teams still in the hunt, five have won a championship before. Those five are the Colorado Avalanche, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, and those five have combined to win the past seven WCHL Cups, with the Rangers having won the past two and still seeking the first three-peat in league history.

The Edmonton Oilers rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Minnesota Wild to punch their ticket to the second round, while the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators also join the ranks of teams seeking their first title.

If a Cinderella is going to emerge, this will be the round to do it. If not, it's going to be a lot of the same old, same old in store for rounds three and four.

Here are my predictions for who advances in round two:

Western Conference

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Calgary Flames- Everyone expected a cakewalk in round one for the Ducks and that's exactly what the five game series against the St. Louis Blues was. Anaheim roared to a 3-0 series lead and didn't look back. The top team in the league didn't have a pause in the post-season, but that could change this round.

That's because they are facing the Flames, and the Flames aren't just any 7th seed. After stumbling through the regular season in less than stellar fashion, the Flames rebounded nicely, dropping game one to the Nashville Predators before storming to four straight wins and a second round birth.

If Calgary can get a more spread out offensive production and find a way to push the Ducks diversified attack back, then they could easily push themselves into round three. But the odds of that aren't great. Anaheim in seven games.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche- The Oilers looked dead and gone just a few days ago, but three straight wins pushed them past the Minnesota Wild and into round two. Led by the solid netminding of Tomas Vokoun, who well could be playing his final games in an Oilers uniform, the Oilers could have what it takes to continue their post-season surge.

Standing in their way is the Colorado Avalanche. If there is a WCHL team built for the playoffs, it's the Avalanche, who have parlayed mediocre regular seasons into lengthy playoff pushes year after year. Colorado is starting off shorthanded, with defenseman Dmitri Kulikov likely out for the series and beyond do to an injury, while fellow blueliner John Carlson is set to miss game one due to a suspension. Centre Paul Gaustad is also playing banged up, something which could factor in over a long series.

The Oilers need Vokoun to steal a game or two and rely on Jason Pominville and Brad Richards to post the numbers they have in the regular season. Failing that, the Oilers will fail to move onto round three. Colorado in five games.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Ottawa Senators- The Penguins again rolled through the regular season, and again captured the Eastern Conference crown. Yet it took a close six game series against the GM less Tampa Bay Lightning to get to round two. Is it another post-season flop for the Penguins, who haven't had a great deal of success since rolling through the league in Season 12?

Unlikely, but it's also unlikely the Penguins will cruise through these playoffs, especially against a solid team like the Senators. The Sens were one of the stingiest teams in the regular season, and they carried that over to the playoffs, where they limited the Carolina Hurricanes to just five goals in five games in the first round. Two of those games were shutouts and the Senators allowed only two goals in their four wins. Since they can't run and gun with Pittsburgh, expect the Senators to try and form a bomb shelter around netminder Cory Schneider.
If Pittsburgh's offense can peel back the Senators defense, there's only so much that Schneider can do. If not though, Ottawa has a good chance in this series. Ottawa in seven games.

(3) New York Rangers vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers- The Rangers are one step closer to winning their third straight WCHL Cup, but they came so darn close to not getting out of round one. The Washington Capitals pushed them hard, extending the Rangers to seven games before dropping a 2-1 decision in game seven despite outshooting the Rangers 28-12. The Rangers also needed two overtime wins to advance past the Capitals.
Needless to say, the Rangers have a lot to prove.

So do the Flyers. After several seasons of coming close to cracking a WCHL final, the Flyers undertook a semi-rebuild and are just now starting to see the fruits of those labours. Knocking off the Toronto Maple Leafs in a tight seven game series was a big step forward, but afforded the Flyers no help in tangling with an equally tired Rangers team.
The Flyers will make their fan base proud, but they just don't have the guns and the goaltending to compete with the Rangers. New York Rangers in five games.


Western Conference

(1) Norfolk Admirals vs. (4) Manchester Monarchs - Norfolk in six games.

(2) Chicago Wolves vs. (3) Portland Pirates - Chicago in five games.

Eastern Conference

(1) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton vs. (4) Binghamton - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in six games

(2) Hershey Bears vs. (3) Hartford Wolfpack- Hershey in six games


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Here we go again

The real season begins


After 82 games of hard work, the contenders have separated themselves from the pretenders. So yes, now the real work begins.

After a gruelling 82 games, all that has happened is the weak have been culled, and the elite are ready to play for their chance to hoist the WCHL Cup. Will it be the New York Rangers, on a quest to be the first ever three-peat champions in WCHL history? How about the Tampa Bay Lightning, a GM less ship that somehow floated along improbable waters to make the playoffs?

While the Rangers have better chances than the Lightning, the reality is that any team can win the cup, and there are several new contenders to the crown. Who will claim WCHL glory in Season 17?

It's too soon to know, for now let's deal with round one. Here are my predictions:

Western Conference

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (8) St. Louis Blues

For the Ducks, this series comes on the heels of a tremendous season in which GM Terry Danton put a bull's-eye squarely on the teams back. Proudly proclaiming the club would be a top three squad before the puck even dropped on the season, the Ducks did their GM even better, locking down the Presidents Trophy. Now, that will put a bull's-eye on their back as well, but it's not like the Ducks aren't used to that.

St. Louis meanwhile must try and revitalize a weak offense that has them as the lone team in the post-season that was actually outscored in the regular season. The benefits of playing in the same division as the leagues worst team -the Chicago Blackhawks- the Blues need to rely on a heavy defense and hope for some timely goals in order to knock down the powerhouse Ducks.

Prediction: Anaheim shouldn't just mow over the Blues, but they should win this series handily. Ducks in four games.

(2) Nashville Predators vs. (7) Calgary Flames

At the start of the season if you had said the Predators and Flames would be meeting in the first round, many would have expected the seedings to be reversed. But it was the Predators who rode the amazing netminding of Jonathon Quick to elite levels, rattling off the third best record in the league. Workhorses like Henrik Zetterberg and Alex Pietrangelo should keep the squad humming along as well.

Calgary however is trying to get a fresh breath in what has become a very stall year. Normally a contender for top spot in the Western Conference, the Flames were in a freefall much of the second half of the season and limp into the playoffs with a 4-11-2 record in the final 17 games. This team is filled with as much skill as anyone in the league, but for now it isn't showing and that needs to change immediately.

Prediction: The freefall will continue, and off-season changes appear in order for the Flames. Nashville in six games.

(3) San Jose Sharks vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche

Prior to the Rangers winning two straight WCHL Cups, the Avalanche did the same thing, and they are looking to get back into the winner's circle. Normally a late season upstart, the Avalanche once again awoke from their early season slumber to go 13-7-1 down the stretch and lockdown a playoff spot and only a loss in the final game of the season prevented a 100-point season. An injury to Dmitri Kulikov could cost the blueliner the entire playoffs, and could have a big impact on Colorado's post-season run.

The Sharks meanwhile are just trying to overcome a string of playoff defeats that has tarnished their once nearly flawless image. The original powerhouse in the WCHL, the Sharks have had trouble lately following up on strong regular seasons, so this is yet another chance to do so. The chance to ice forwards like Tyler Seguin, Jonathon Toews, Zach Parise and Eric Staal should make it possible to do it.

Prediction: Somehow, Colorado always gets it done and until San Jose proves they can win, I'll say they don't. Colorado in six games.

(4) Minnesota Wild vs. (5) Edmonton Oilers

A ragtag collect of "Who?" has lead the Wild into the playoffs. Largely a no name collection of solid, albeit unspectacular players has fuelled a run into the playoffs, and home ice advantage to boot. If you have to pick a star, it's not hard to look at the man between the pipes, as Antti Niemi has had a Vezina caliber season, posting a 1.82 goals against average and easily being the backbone to the team.

The Oilers have their own man between the pipes, Tomas Vokoun, who posted a sub two goals against average of his (1.99). The Oilers though will be spearheaded by Jason Pominville, who again led the Oilers in scoring with 35 goals and 80 points in 82 games, potting nearly a point per game in a season where scoring was nearly impossible. If he and Brad Richards can find a way to solve Niemi, the Oilers can prevail.

Prediction: Someone will knock of the Wild, but it won't be the Oilers. Minnesota in six games.

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) Tampa Bay Lightning

It's time to shut up and put up for the Penguins. Long a team that couldn't win in the playoffs, the Penguins did just that in Season 12, winning the WCHL Cup. They had a run back to the finals the next year but since then it's been a few flops, and despite having the horses to pull the cart, that cart hasn't been very close to the finals in a bit. Now another Eastern Conference regular season title is in the rear view mirror and it's time to show that it matters.

Tampa Bay couldn't be coming in any more different than Pittsburgh. While Pittsburgh has at its helm one of the longest tenured and most successful GM's, Tampa Bay has played most of the season without one, and have been rallied more by the heart of their players than anything else. Four straight wins down the stretch held off a few late challengers and gave the Lightning a shot at being the only GM less team to gain claim to a WCHL crown.

Prediction: Tampa's heart will factor in, but not enough to stop Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh in five games.

(2) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

Seeding be damned, this series is much closer than it would appear. Carolina benefitted from winning their division, and as such gaining the second seed in the East, however they are only 10 points ahead of the Senators. Carolina as well is likely to be without defenseman Erik Johnson for the duration of the series, costing them a top three defenseman in the process. Carolina will need a win by committee playoff to show they are more than just a fortunate playoff participant.

This series will feature the only one where two teams that played their starting netminders for every minute of the regular season will meet up. More pressing though, Ottawa also enters as the lowest scoring playoff team from the regular season, barely scoring over two goals per game. On the positive though, they are also tied for the third lowest goals against per game average, leading to expectation that this will be a very low scoring season.

Prediction: Ottawa will bore you, but they will also beat you. Ottawa in six.

(3) New York Rangers vs. (6) Washington Capitals

Its 16 wins until a three-peat for the Rangers, and you have to know it's weighing on the players minds if their own owner is acknowledging that a three-peat is possible. But why not be open about it, the Rangers are as good a team to win it all as anyone else. After posting 119 points and leading the league in fewest goals against, the Rangers have to figure their chances are terrific to do it again.

Talk about a tough task for the Capitals. Slowly improving each of the past three seasons, the Capitals are starting to change from pretender to legitimate contender, but this year may not be the best year to capitalize on the fruits of those labours. A solid squad, talented forwards like Dany Heatley and Vinny Lecavalier may have already had their best days, but young gun Jordan Eberle hasn't. If this team can recapture some old Lecavalier magic and get some production on Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, they could make a push.

Prediction: It'll be a lot closer than one might think, but the team you think will win, will win. Rangers in five games.

(4) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

After nearly claiming the division crown, the Maple Leafs had to settle for home ice advantage against the Flyers in round one in what should be the closest series of the first round. Toronto is led by free agent pickups Jarome Iginla and Chris Kunitz, and are hopeful Ondrej Pavelec can quell his enigmatic ways in order to perform well enough for the Maple Leafs to get through. History isn't on Toronto's side though, as only one Canadian team has ever won a WCHL Cup.

Philadelphia though is in the midst of a semi-rebuild, a retooling effort that GM Doug Van Strepen began a few years ago after the then core couldn't seem to get the Flyers over the hump. While the current group has had mixed results, it could be this is the year to shine.

Prediction: Toronto should have enough veteran leadership and drive to get over the hot and cold Flyers. Toronto in six games.


Western Conference

(1) Norfolk Admirals vs. (8) Utica Comets - Norfolk in five games

(2) Chicago Wolves vs. (7) Rockford IceHogs - Rockford in seven

(3) Portland Pirates vs. (6) Lake Erie Monsters - Lake Erie in six games

(4) Manchester Monarchs vs. (5) Abbotsford Heat - Abbotsford in five games

Eastern Conference

(1) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. (8) Hamilton Bulldogs - Hamilton in seven games

(2) Hershey Bears vs. (7) Syracuse Crunch - Syracuse in seven games

(3) Hartford Wolfpack vs. (6) St. John's Icecaps - Hartford in five games

(4) Binghamton Senators vs. (5) Adirondack Phantoms - Binghamton in seven games



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