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2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview, #2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Before I write this, I’m taking my homer cap off. It’s only fair to Blues readers (if there are any of you) that I do so. But this one could run longer than the other previews, so buckle up.

Yes, I’m well aware the Blues handled the Sharks with ease in the regular season, but the two teams were not playing the way they are right now, and you can expect this to be one hell of a series.

Starting with the Blues, who put together maybe the most consistent season of hockey out of all 30 NHL teams. Clearly, defense was the story, as St. Louis was absolutely suffocating all year long, allowing the fewest goals in the league and sitting near the top in shots allowed per game. That’s not entertaining hockey, but it is winning hockey and Ken Hitchcock deserves a ton of credit for his work in making the Blues a contender.

Offensively, they were somewhat challenged and their leading scorer, David Backes, only had 54 points. But they make up for that with plenty of balance with David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund and Andy McDonald chipping in on the team’s top two lines. Why am I worried about this unit? Because Backes is an absolute beast that plays hard every shift and his teammates feed off that. The chances of Backes fighting Ryane Clowe in this series are easily higher than anyone else.

On defense, the team has one of the league’s best defenseman that no one talks about in Alex Pietrangelo. He was the reason Erik Johnson became expendable and he should get some love for the Norris Trophy this year. Kevin Shattenkirk was the steal in the Johnson deal and he’s come into his own this season with the Blues as a serious offensive threat. While those two draw much of the attention, Roman Polak, Carlo Colaiaccovo, Barrett Jackman and Kent Huskins take care of business in their own end, blocking shots and making thing tough on the opposition.

In net is where the Blues hold a clear advantage. While they have used both goalies this season, each has been stellar and there’s no bad choice for Hitch to pick. In game one, he’s going with Jaroslav Halak, who has lots of postseason magic on his side, thanks to his heroics in 2010 with Montreal. It was the right call for Hitchcock to give Halak the start. However, if Halak falters, Brian Elliott is more than capable of taking over. He did only set the record for season GAA this year, which is nice. Regardless of who is in net, they will be very tough for the Sharks’ shooters to deal with.

Yes, this season was as painful for me as a Sharks fan since the collapse of 2002-03. The great news is that it makes no difference now, and the team is finally healthy coming in to the series. On top of that, they were basically playing playoff hockey in their last four games against Dallas and LA. They didn’t make it easy, but won all four games. That alone is what is encouraging to me. It’s also encouraging that they don’t open as a top-two seed, so the pressure goes straight to the opponent.

It also doesn’t hurt that this squad has been together for two deep playoff runs and they know what it takes to win these game. Joe Thornton was a beast in last year’s playoffs and I expect that to continue. Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Clowe, Logan Couture and Martin Havlat give the Sharks two equally dangerous scoring lines, one that is guaranteed not to see Pietrangelo and Polak against them.

The bottom six forwards have steadily improved as the season has drawn to a close and the penalty kill has shown some improvement with the additions of Dominic Moore, Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi, as well as the elevated play of Tommy Wingles.

What this group of forwards CAN NOT DO against the Blues is come out slow. Scottrade Center is going to be rocking and if the Blues take an early lead, they can play their system and win games 1-0 or 2-1.

Defensively, the Sharks need to up the physicality against the Blues. Make them work for space. Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will most likely see the Backes line, so that means Brent Burns, Jason Demers, Justin Braun and Douglas Murray have to keep the second and third lines in check. One thing to keep an eye on is if Murray will play. He sat out the last four games of the regular season and the Sharks went unbeaten. I love the physical game he brings, but with Murray in the press box, the defense is quicker. I don’t expect him to sit out because he’s just as tested as the rest of the core players, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Antti Niemi, it’s time to show what kind of goalie you are. You were shelled by LA, brilliant against Detroit, and hammered by Vancouver last year. You’re going up against a team that doesn’t give up a lot of shots or goals, so you need to make the stops when they come to you. I love the way Nemo fights for each save, but he can’t have games where he implodes or the Sharks are going to go home very early.

Players to Watch

Alex Pietrangelo, Blues D – I’ve already touched on the big guy, but he’s got the tough responsibility of handling the Joe Thornton line, as well as running the show on the Blues’ power play. This could be Pietrangelo’s coming out party to the hockey world, and this is as good of a stage as any.

Antti Niemi, Sharks G – See above. Many of these games could be a ‘First to Three’ scenario. So if Niemi blows up, the Sharks essentially lose the game.

St. Louis Will Win If…

They handle the moment. This team is mostly youngsters with only three Cup winners skating (McDonald, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott) and a Cup winning coach. The younger players have only had a taste of the playoffs and they folded against Vancouver. Don’t let the stage get the better of you, play the system that got you here and the rest will take care of itself.

San Jose Will Win If…

They can win on the road. The Sharks were atrocious at times away from HP Pavilion this year, and Scottrade is not an easy barn to play in, since the Blues only lost six times at home. The good news is the Sharks showed late they can win those important road games, one coming against a team that’s just as good defensively in LA.

Prediction

I am in no way about to take this series lightly like I did last year’s first round series. These two teams are going to be physical and I don’t expect a ton of goals to be scored. But there’s just something about the grit and moxie the Sharks have shown late in the season that is showing up at the right time. It’s not going to be easy and every game could go to OT. I like the team that’s been there more than once as a unit. Keep in mind, this is not a homer pick and I will not be surprised if the Blues win. Sharks in seven.

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2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview, #3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm

The series that might be getting the least amount of love in the West could be Chicago-Phoenix.

Phoenix shocked everyone by winning the Pacific division for the first time in their less-than-illustrious history. And just like their last two trips to the playoffs, no one (myself included) expected it or gave them any chance to get there. It was a typical Dave Tippett team, don’t score many goals, play rock solid defense, get great goaltending, win hockey games. Rinse and repeat.

I see the Coyotes’ offense as a poor-man’s version of the Nashville offense. No superstars up front, but plenty of guys that chip in to score. What the ‘Yotes do have the Preds don’t is a 35-goal scorer (Radim Vrbata) and someone that topped 75 points (Ray Whitney). Who do the two scoring studs for the Coyotes have waiting for them? Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Good luck, boys.

Defensively, the Coyotes still don’t give up many chances in Dave Tippett’s system. Keith Yandle is still one of the league’s most underrated rearguards and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has blossomed into a very solid defender. Those two horses are also responsible for 24 goals between them and are very important to the Phoenix offense. The rest of the defense (Adrian Aucoin, Rusty Klesla, Derek Morris, etc.), knows their role and that’s to make Mike Smith’s job as easy as possible.

Speaking of Smith, there is no goalie I would rather not face in the opening round. Over the last two weeks of the season, Smith was out of his mind in the crease. This year was his first chance to be a top netminder, and he showed he was worth the chance. He’s big, handles the puck well and if he gets hot early, the Blackhawks are in store for a very frustrating series. The fact the Coyotes took three of four games during the season doesn’t hurt their confidence either.

The Blackhawks enter the series playing well, despite there being plenty of holes in their game that defy logic. Still, this group has the horses to make another deep run, but no person’s health may be more important to their team’s success than Jonathan Toews. As of the time I write this, there hasn’t been any indication as to if Toews will play in game one, but without their captain, I don’t like their chances to survive the first round.

Yes, Chicago’s top-six is still as good as any with Pat Kane, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg. But Toews being out leaves a serious void up the middle, and even though Andrew Shaw has been good, he can’t replace the captain.

Phoenix also appears to have more scoring depth than the Hawks, as only two players out of the top six (Shaw and Andrew Brunette) reached 10 goals. That’s troublesome for when the top two lines are seeing a steady dose of Yandle, Ekman-Larsson and company. So that makes the presence of the Hawks’ stars that much more important.

Defensively, the Hawks struggled for much of the year, but with a rested Keith and the addition of Johnny Oduya, the defense appears to be playing well at the right time. That has to make Hawks fans happy, because for much of the season the team’s blue line was not very reliable. You know what Keith, Seabrook, Oduya, Nick Leddy and Nik Hjalmarsson are going to bring each game. This might be the strongest part of the team heading into the series.

In net has also been more than a headache for Hawks’ fans this year. Neither Ray Emery nor Corey Crawford has been able to grab the starting spot and hold on to it all year. Yes, the defense has been a major letdown, but as a goalie you have to be able to bail out your defense from time to time. Each goalie finished with a GAA of just over .900. That’s unacceptable for a team this good. And with the way Smith has been playing at the other end, that puts that much more pressure on the Hawks’ netminders.

Players to Watch

Shane Doan, Coyotes RW – Still the undisputed heart and soul of this team. Doan gets his first division title and with his career winding down, he’s going to be ready to run through anyone and everyone to finally get past the first round. Keep in mind the last time the ‘Yotes played in a game seven, Doan couldn’t go due to injury. Phoenix got hammered by the Red Wings as a result. He wants this and I expect him to have his best series yet.

Corey Crawford, Blackhawks G – You have to think he’s going to get the nod in game one. Crawford was sensational last year against Vancouver and got better as the series went on. He’s going to have to be just as good this year against a team that isn’t near as talented offensively as that Canucks team.

Phoenix Will Win If…

They take advantage on the power play. Yes, Phoenix did not have a good power play during the regular season. But Chicago finished 27th on the penalty kill and something is going to have to give in the battle between those two. Yandle and Ekman-Larsson need to look to get pucks on net and let the scrappy forwards jam at the rebounds Crawford is bound to give up.

Chicago Will Win If…

Toews is healthy. I would say see above, but he’s an absolute game changer. If he misses the first two games and Chicago can’t snag a win, then you risk the competitor in Toews maybe coming back too soon. He needs to be right, because without Toews, the Hawks could be bounced easily.

Prediction

You smell that? I smell an upset. While the star power for Chicago is that much better than what Phoenix has, the Coyotes have two things working in their favor; everyone plays for each other and their goalie is white hot. Plus, with the uncertainty of the Toews injury, Phoenix is primed to finally get over the hump. Coyotes in seven.

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview, #4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Two of the Western Conference’s top teams are set to square off in the Music City, when the Predators and Red Wings battle in the post-season for the third time. But unlike the first two meetings, this time the Preds control home ice to open the series. Each of these games is going to feature raucous home crowds that give their teams a major advantage.

Nashville enters this series in a place they have never been before; as a trendy pick to win a Stanley Cup. And this is easily the most well-rounded team coach Barry Trotz has had in team history.

They built from the goal out, and the trio of Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter carry the most star power for the team. Rinne plays a beautiful goal and Weber and Suter are the best defensive pair in the game today. Throw in the fact that the two stud defenseman are playing for long-term deals and that should mean a boost in the Preds’ play.

But the rest of the defense is no slouch, and when they do make mistakes, their all-world goalie is there to make up for it by being a giant in net (literally and figuratively).

Offensively has been one area that the Preds have been criticized for in the past. And while they do lack a true superstar forward, this team finished 8th in scoring and led the NHL on the man advantage. I would have predicted the league let players go back to not wearing helmets before Nashville leading the league in power play percentage.

But all bad jokes about the Preds’ offense aside, they rely on everyone to score goals. Martin Erat led the team with 59 points and only two players topped 20 goals. So anyone can strike at any time, and adding Alex Radulov late in the season brings the game-breaker the Preds have never had. Up and down, this is as scary of a team in the entire playoffs.

Another year, another playoff berth for the Red Wings, who made it 21 straight appearances this year. But this year, they find themselves in the role of underdog to the upstart Predators. While this team has a slew of playoff experience on their team, they only have a handful of players left from the team’s last appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.

What should worry the Preds is the fact that the Red Wings are getting healthy at the right time. Pavel Datsyuk is ready to put on another playoff show and Henrik Zetterberg is always dangerous on the big stage. But on top of that, Johan Franzen is finally healthy and Dan Cleary is set to suit up in game one. Jiri Hudler also had his best season to date, and the two teams appear to be even when it comes to scoring punch.

Defensively, it’s a similar group to last year, only with Ian White stepping in for Brian Rafalski. White doesn’t possess the first pass ability that Rafalski did, but you could certainly do worse for a top-four defenseman.

The Swedish trio of Nick Lidstrom, Nik Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson is also back for another run, and remain a major strength for the Wings. I could talk for days about how good Lidstrom is and how he thrives in this stage, but I don’t need to. His resume speaks for itself and if this is final season, Nicky is going to do everything to make sure this run is a memorable one. Kronwall and Ericsson bring the muscle out of the group, and you can place your bets now on who is going to be Kronwall’s next victim of a huge open ice hit.

Detroit’s most important player in the series is Jimmy Howard, who is healthy after a late season finger injury. Howard was brilliant in last year’s playoffs, and he should be rested and ready to go in this series. As even as the two squads are on offense and defense, in goal is where the Wings need their young goalie to outplay the opposition.

Players to Watch

Alex Radulov, Predators LW – After a few seasons in the KHL, Radulov was allowed to re-join the Preds, much to the chagrin of many NHL GMs. He’s the most lethal offensive weapon on the team and he should free up ice for Patric Hornqvist on the second line to get some scoring chances. He has been highly touted as being the best player not in the NHL, and this could be his showcase for not only a new contract, but to show that his time honing his skill at home was worth it.

Johan Franzen, Red Wings LW

The Preds have an advantage on the wings over Detroit, but Franzen can be as dangerous as anyone when healthy. He has had a few monster playoff performances in the past, and now that he’s at 100%, he gives either Datsyuk or Zetterberg someone that won’t hesitate to pull the trigger. He should see plenty of Suter and Weber, which is never easy though. How ‘The Mule’ performs could determine the series.

Nashville Will Win If…

Their power play continues to be efficient. With Radulov now in the fold, as well as Weber’s huge shot on the blue line, Nashville needs to continue to capitalize on the man advantage. Special teams become much more important this time of year, and the Preds can’t dry up now.

Detroit Will Win If…

They steal a game in Nashville. Joe Louis Arena was the hardest place to play in the regular season and that crowd is always a factor come playoff time. I remember how electric game six of the Sharks’ series was last year and you can expect the Joe to bring that kind of intensity once again. That said, Detroit was average on the road this year, and if they can take a game in the Music City, they could easily close out the series at home in game six.

Prediction

Aside from the Flyers-Penguins, this should be the best opening series in the playoffs. Each team is loaded and could easily make it to the Cup finals. But Nashville knows it’s now or never, and they have the advantage thanks to a deeper squad and Rinne in net. Predators in seven.