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Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: #4 St. Louis Blues vs. #5 Los Angeles Kings

In Hockey on April 29, 2013 at 11:59 pm

Get ready for a series in which both teams could seriously hurt each other (fingers crossed!).

The St. Louis Blues didn’t look like the same team that made things miserable for opponents for much of the year. But over the last few weeks, the Blues appear to have rounded into form. Thanks to the Blackhawks icing their AHL team in the regular season finals, cheating me out of a Sharks-Kings matchup, St. Louis will open at home for the second straight year.

The first thing that stands out for the Blues is their defense, which might be the deepest out of all the teams in the playoffs. Adding Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold has shored things up on the back end and made Brian Elliott look like an all-star again. Speaking of Elliott, he is the unquestioned top goalie going into the playoffs this year, and he’s going to have the microscope on him given how bad the Kings made him look last year.

On offense, the Blues are more dangerous than you might think. As much attention as their defense and Ken Hitchcock’s boring system get the credit, the forwards are deep and have plenty of skill. With Chris Stewart playing for a new deal and a healthy Andy McDonald, this team has a legitimate chance to make a run to the conference finals for the first time since 2001.

Oh hey, the Kings open the playoffs as the underdog again. Of course, that doesn’t bother them whatsoever. It’s not far-fetched for the Kings to steam-roll through the playoffs again. But in order for that to happen, Jonathan Quick needs to figure a few things out. He didn’t play during the most pointless lockout in sports history and had back surgery before the lockout came to an end, making him look pedestrian at times. But he’s been here before, and I have to think Quick will be ready to go.

Just like the Blues, the Kings are extremely deep at forward and on the blue line. I like the skill of the Kings more than the skill of the Blues in this series. Anze Kopitar is the most talented player in the series, and he’s flanked by playoff warriors Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Kings can swarm the Blues with all four lines like they did last year, they’ll be smiling in the handshake line once again this year.

Plus, if we can see this again, that would be awesome. That’s what you get when you fight in your weight class, Roman Polak.

St. Louis will win if:They learned their lesson from one year ago. Last year’s series between these two teams wasn’t even close, and the Blues need to be as physical as they have been all year to unseat the defending champs. They got killed in that area last season and Brian Elliott was exposed as a mediocre goaltender. St. Louis needs to put that in their rear-view mirror to have any success this year.

Los Angeles will win if:
They can handle the pressure of being the hunted. This is basically the same team that won the Cup last year. But they know this year, the target is on their back and their chest. Teams are going to throw everything they have at the Kings, and it’s going to start with a team that can match their physicality.

Prediction:
Trainers, get your ice packs ready. These two teams are going to throw everything they have at each other, and a Cup favorite is going to be done after the first round. I’m actually very excited about this series because it’s going to be the closest thing to legalized assault we will see in the first round. Hitchcock and Blues’ captain David Backes will not allow his team to get run over like they did last year. In the end, I like the guy between the pipes for the Kings to be the difference maker.

Plus, I look forward to the humor coming from @theroyalhalf on Twitter. If you hate the Kings, you’re REALLY going to hate that guy.

Without question, this has been the hardest series for me to make my mind up on. If there was any way both teams could lose this series, I’d be cool with that. But someone has to win. Kings in 7.

I am Ryan Thomas, and I approve this post. Follow me on Twitter @rthomas_22 so you can harass me for an opinion piece. Also, so you can tell me why it’s wrong to dislike Roman Polak. Keep in mind, I will ignore anything you try to tell me.

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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres

In Hockey on August 30, 2011 at 10:30 am

Buffalo Sabres

A Look Back at 2010-11
The Sabres were able to rebound from an awful start to the season and earn a spot in the playoffs for the second straight season. The Sabres also presented a tough match-up for the heavily favored Flyers. That’s where the good news for the Sabres ended, as they held sizable leads in two games they ended up losing to the Flyers, which led to a beating in game seven they weren’t able to fight back from to win. Shaky defense and some shaky goaltending by Ryan Miller didn’t help the cause. What they didn’t have for that playoff run was top center Derek Roy who was lost with a quad injury. What they did acquire through the season was new owner Terry Pegula, who wants to build a winner and open up the checkbook to do so. The season wasn’t a total failure, but there was more to be desired after the Philly series. Grade: B- (Without that poor start, they could have caught Boston for the top spot.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Ville Leino is the biggest addition to the Sabres' offense this season

Forwards
The Sabres have loaded up since Pegula took ownership of the team. They already boasted talent in the form of Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis. They have since added Brad Boyes and Ville Leino to add even more firepower to the group. These aren’t household names, but the Sabres managed to finish ninth in goals scored last season and those numbers should increase with the addition of Leino and Ales Kotalik. Where the Sabres were lacking was at the second line center position after failing to land Brad Richards. They hope that moving Leino, who last played center while he was in Finland, will be able to move back to the center position to give them that boost they need. With Vanek, Roy and Stafford as the scorers and Pominville, Leino and Boyes pass-first guys, the Sabres can throw out two potentially lethal lines. Ennis and Gerbe are both small in stature, but play are very talented and use their speed to burn the opposition. Steady Jochen Hecht, Pat Kaleta, Cody McCormick and Paul Gaustad will be looked at for penalty killing and shutting down the opposition. The also have Luke Adam, Joel Armia and Zack Kassian in the system as depth. They’re not ready challenge Boston yet, but they’re damn close. Grade: B+ (They’re going to be scary, but they can’t afford a drop in production from Stafford or a couple major injuries.)

Christian Ehrhoff inked a big contract with the Sabres over the off-season.

Defense
This unit absolutely killed the Sabres in the playoffs. There were numerous times they blew assignments against the Flyers and it cost them. Mr. Pegula saw that as unacceptable, and he went and added two quality pieces to his blue line. Christian Ehrhoff ended up being the odd man out in Vancouver, and he comes over to join Tyler Myers as another big shot on the blue line. To fill the stay-at-home defensive need, the Sabres went and got Robyn Regehr from Calgary. Regehr is starting to get up there in age, but he’s still as physical as any defender in the league and a great protector for Ryan Miller. Myers had a solid sophomore campaign and is developing into one of the best young defensemen in the game. He’s not as physical as his size suggests he should be, but he does everything else well. Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera and Shaone Morrisonn round out the remainder of the blue line. One guy that had a great playoff and should get a chance to shine this year is Marc-Andre Gragnani. He’s a slick puck-mover and looked cool as a cucumber during the playoffs last year. The Ehrhoff signing might hold him back in terms of PP time, but he’s someone that could surprise the league this year. They could use another physical defender, but this squad is one that many wouldn’t be upset to have. Grade: B (Too many pass-first guys and not enough physicality. Still a very good unit.)

Ryan Miller will have an easier time this year with a better defense in front of him

Goaltending
The strongest area of the team remains in goal and Ryan Miller.  Miller looked mortal at times last year, especially early. But he, much like the rest of the team got it together late and made a charge to the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect a letdown this season from Miller. I could see him pulling a Kobe Bryant and spend the off-season in exile, doing nothing but training to make the Sabres as good as they can be. With Miller playing at the level he did during the 2010 Olympics, the Sabres are legitimate Stanley Cup threats. He stymied the Flyers when his defense wasn’t busy betraying him, and with the improvements on defense, expect Miller’s numbers to get better. When Miller does get a break, he will be spelled by young Jhonas Enroth. Enroth held the fort down when Miller got hurt last year, and that performance earned him the trust of the Buffalo front office to not re-sign backup (and Ryan Miller’s best friend) Patrick Lalime. Enroth may not play much this year, but he is a capable backup that has paid his dues and deserves a chance to contribute. Grade: A-

Prediction
The Sabres are going to be a beast to deal with in the East this year. They’ll score a bunch of goals and will see the amount of goals against go down this year. This team won’t be a fun one to deal with come playoff time. They won’t win the division, but they’ll give the Bruins everything they can handle this year and in the future. Those two teams could bring that old rivalry back, which would be a ton of fun for me to watch. 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East.