Archive for November 2013

New and old in WCHL Finals

From ugly ducklings to Cup champions? Not if the Rangers have their way

The WCHL Finals feature one team running for the third straight WCHL title, and another seeking to complete a dramatic run up the standings.

The New York Rangers are just four wins away from doing what no other WCHL team has ever done; win three straight WCHL Cup titles. The Rangers, winners of Season 15 and 16, have prevailed through three tough series this year, needing seven games to oust each of the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, then six more to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins. While they figure to be the favourites for the cup title, going 12-8 in 20 post season games thus far doesn't bring confidence.

Anaheim meanwhile cruised through the first round in five games, and then took six more to defeat the Calgary Flames. Five more games were needed to defeat the upstart Edmonton Oilers, resulting in a 12-4 post-season record thus far.

To be fair to the Rangers though, they have had to face much tougher competition. The Capitals were a sixth seeded team, the Flyers fifth and the Penguins were the top seed in the East and second overall in the league. Anaheim meanwhile has been challenged by the eighth seeded St. Louis Blues, seventh seeded Calgary Flames and the fifth seeded Oilers. The three opponents of the Rangers had a combined regular season record of 147-76-23, or a winning percentage of .644 during the regular season. The Ducks three opponents meanwhile had a combined record of 133-92-21, good for a .583 winning percentage.

So maybe things aren't so rosy for the Ducks or so tough for the Rangers?

Stats don't tell the entire story, and really the only stat that matters is who wins the next four games. The Ducks are also the regular season champions, finishing with a record of 60-15-7, slightly better than the fourth overall Rangers, who compiled a 58-21-3 record. Both teams clearly know how to win, and in Anaheim they have been backing up the mouth of their General Manager Terry Danton, who has repeatedly, and successfully, wagered publicly on where his squad would finish the past two seasons.

Now, Danton has issued another call for bets on how well his team will do in the cup finals. While not actually saying his team will win, Danton has stated he'll bet as much as $30 million on his team winning the cup, effectively stating he expects to win it all, a bet he issued before he even knew who won the New York Rangers/Pittsburgh series.

That's a lot of swagger for a team entering a series against the best playoff team in the WCHL the past two seasons, and one which has time and again went on deep playoff runs the past seven seasons now, counting the current playoff in that total.

For Anaheim, the strength this post-season has been their offense. Averaging 3.31 goals per game, the Ducks are far and away tops in the playoffs with that number. Only one other team in the league is averaging more than 2.50 goals per game these playoffs, and for the Rangers, they rank 13th this playoff, managing a paltry 1.95 goals per game.

One of the biggest reasons for that difference is the powerplay, where Anaheim is 18.99 per cent successful on, third in these playoffs. The Rangers sit 13th at a pretty weak 7.26 per cent. Even in shots, Anaheim averages 27.06 shots per game, while the Rangers manage a playoff worst 17.80 shots per game.

With offensive numbers that bad, you know the Rangers are as far as they are because of the success of their defense. The Rangers outrank the Ducks in both goals against average and on the penalty kill, but even then, only by a little. The Ducks defense, led by Shea Weber and netminder Tuukka Rask, has been solid, and that's all it needs when you have an offense like this.

The question is, how long will it be that potent? The Rangers have a knack of stymieing offensive teams, the latest being the Penguins. Pittsburgh entered the series averaging 3.18 goals per game in the first two rounds, but the Rangers held them to just seven goals in six games, with one of those games going into a sixth period. Can Anaheim be the team to solve the enigma that is the Rangers defense?

They may not have to if the Rangers continue to have a difficulty scoring goals. The three teams the Rangers have played thus far rank in the top six amongst defenses this post-season, but the question is, where those teams that good defensively, or where the Rangers just that bad?

When you have the likes of Anze Kopitar and Johan Franzen, you shouldn't be, but these Rangers don't have the run and gun abilities of other teams, or even past Rangers teams. Salary cap crunches and diminishing skills have reigned in a once lethal Rangers offense. Even on the farm, the team's best assets are on defense and in net, so there are no reinforcements available from the minors.

This series will likely be fairly low scoring, but not low enough to contain the Ducks offense completely. Expect the Rangers to win games 2-1 and 1-0, and expect the Ducks to blow one game wide open someplace. Odds are this series will comedown to finding out just how good Henrik Lundqvist is. New York Rangers in six games.


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One of these things is not like the other

Oilers aim to grease up the WCHL playoffs
Nail Yakupov Goal Celebration Nail Yakupov Game Tying Goal Celebration
An Oilers forward celebrates against the Avalanche, only at the end realizing the team now has to face the Presidents Trophy winning Anaheim Ducks.
Reading the script of who is in the third round, it's obvious one team stands out.
The Anaheim Ducks? Hardly, they did claim the Presidents Trophy after all.
Pittsburgh Penguins? Top team in the Eastern Conference.
New York Rangers? Two-time defending WCHL Cup champion. Enough said.
Edmonton Oilers? Umm.... what?
Yes, the Edmonton Oilers are bucking the odds, and are the only team that didn't finish in the top five in total points. In fact, the Oilers barely finished fifth in their own conference. For them to make the third round involved bucking a higher seed and a top end contender, including the Minnesota Wild in round one, after the Wild had amassed a 3-1 series lead, and the Colorado Avalanche, a perrenial WCHL Cup contender who had a 2-0 series lead. Do the Oilers have it in them to better another team that in one way or another -or several- is better than them on paper? If they are able too, it'll be the tallest task they've faced to date.
Below are my predictions for round three:
Western Conference
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs (5) Edmonton Oilers- The Ducks have ran the gambit those far in the WCHL, claiming top spot in the league and pushing through the first two rounds with not much competition in the process. The Calgary Flames did, in round two, give the Ducks a bit of a push, but Anaheim stayed one step ahead all the way and eventually extinguished the Flames in six games. For a team that has made a habit of making things look easier than they should be this season, the Oilers could prove to be an easy challnge for Anaheim.

For the Oilers meanwhile, they have proven to be anything but easy. Rallying from two games down in both series, the Oilers have bent, but didn't come close to breaking, simply getting better as the series rolled along. Falling behind by two games to the Ducks might be much more difficult to rally from than the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche.
The Oilers can't flirt with disaster a third straight series and get away with it...can they? Anaheim Ducks in five games.
Eastern Conference
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (3) New York Rangers- In recent years, the Penguins have followed up great seasons with great big stinkers in the playoffs, but this year is not following that script. The Penguins knocked off a pesky Lightning squad in six games and then dispatched the Ottawa Senators with surprising easy in round two, showing that they can play to their level, and not the level of the opposition. With the Senators for example, they were the third stingiest team in the WCHL in regular season -allowing well under two goals against per game along the way- and only allowed five goals in five games against the Carolina Hurricanes in round one.  Pittsburgh however rattled off 17 goals in five games to dispose of Ottawa.

The Rangers meanwhile have made it look very hard this post-season. Coming in as the two-time defending WCHL Cup champions and allowing a league low 139 goals against, the Rangers barely snuck by the 6th seeded Washington Capitals and the 5th seeded Philadelphia Flyers, needing seven games both times just to advance. Doing that against lower seeded teams is one thing, but a juggernaut like Pittsburgh has is another. Pittsburgh finished with by far the most goals scored in the entire Eastern Conference, so if New York can't get their offense rolling, they could be done in in short order. The Rangers have outscored their opponent 30-29 in 14 games, needing to win three of four overtime games along the way to just get this far. That's a lot of smoke and mirrors for a very talented and deep squad.
If the Rangers don't get busy scoring, they'll get busy packing. Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
Western Conference
(3) Portland Pirates vs (4) Manchester Monarchs - Manchester in six games
Eastern Conference
(1) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs (2) Hershey Bears - Hershey in seven games 

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