Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Wiz Playoff Picks:The Western Conference Quarter-Finals 2011

With my Eastern Conference picks locked in, it's time to move to the Western Conference, where things are wild. Very wild. It's going to be a tight showdown for Western supremacy this year. If the first round is any indication, we're in for some really good hockey. Here....we....go.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2

Why Vancouver Will Win: Boy, do they ever want this win. After getting embarassed two years in a row by the Hawks, Luongo weeping, and the weight of the number one seed crushing them, Vancouver has to win. If they can't knock off the Hawks with all of their firepower, their defense, and their phenomenal goaltending...then there's a problem beyond scientific explanation. The fact is that top to bottom, Vancouver are the superior team.

Why Chicago Will Win: Chicago are no slouches and for the most part, the team that won it all is still there. Mostly. They're definitely missing the secondary scoring they gave up, but Jonathan Toews was enough to will this team into the playoffs. Can he get it done in the playoffs? Last year he did. With an award winning performance, of course.

Who Will Win: As a Detroit Red Wings fan, this series delights me because either way, one of these teams has to go home empty handed. I believe Chicago will push Vancouver beyond their limits and the series will go the distance. However, Vancouver is just too good to lose to Chicago....I think.

(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
Regular Season Series: Tied 3-3

Why San Jose Will Win: San Jose boasts a bevy of brutes at forward who can score and push around other teams. That, and goalie Anti Niemi is looking strong going into the playoffs. I still believe Niemi to be counterfeit but he is a strength of the Sharks and his regular season push at the end can't be denied. This team is just as deep as last year when they cruised to the Conference Finals.

Why Los Angeles Will Win: Much love to the Los Angeles Kings, but they can't win this series without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. If you take the top two centers off of any team, they will flounder. As much as I want to praise Jon Quick for being a brick wall in goal, he is going to have to be better than a brick wall to pull this off. Maybe a couple of forwards will step up...I'm looking at you Dustin Penner and Ryan Smyth. I have a good feeling about Wayne Simmonds and Dustin Brown, but the rest of those forwards need to step up.

Who Will Win: Sharks in 5. Again, not to diss how LA played all year, but they won't be able to compete with San Jose. There's too much scoring depth on San Jose and as much as I respect Drew Doughty on defense and Jon Quick in nets for LA...they're screwed without their two best players. Period.

(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
Season Series: Series Tied 2-2

Why Detroit Will Win: Enter my homerism. Detroit is in a phase where few pundits give them the respect they have earned over the past 20 years. They take for granted that they are in the hunt every year. This year is no different, with arguably the deepest lineup at forward in the league. Oh, plus a Nick Lidstrom. And Johan Franzen, who just likes to score a LOT in the playoffs. The big mark on Detroit is Jimmy Howard, who had a so-so season after a Calder worthy rookie campaign.

Why Phoenix Will Win: Enter my knowledge of what it takes to beat Detroit. 60 minutes of the most boring trap hockey you will ever see. If Phoenix can completely avoid any special team scenario at all (they were bottom 10 in both PP and PK) and Bryzgalov maintain a .940 save percentage or better, they can do it. They don't have the scoring to keep up with Detroit, but there's something to be said about their incredibly gritty forwards that back up Shane Doan.

Who Will Win: This series will be among the most boring of the first round match-ups because the only way I see Phoenix competing against Detroit is by playing the stingiest trap style possible. Again, no penalties called at all, Detroit being held to less than 30 quality shots, dumping and chasing...this is how you beat Detroit. Will it happen? No. With or without Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit wins in 6.

(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators
Season Series: Nashville won 3-1

Why Anaheim Will Win: The explosive offense is very intimidating. Corey Perry could just as easily continue his torrid pace and Teemu Selanne is an ageless wonder. The team has some outstanding scoring combinations and that can get you far in the playoffs if just one or two are clicking. Their goaltending could be iffy depending on what Dan Ellis, Ray Emery, and Jonas Hiller show up to play.

Why Nashville Will Win: For the same reasons Phoenix could beat Detroit, Nashville could beat Anaheim by playing a tight defensive effort and getting phenomenal goaltending to overcompensate for their lack of talent. Pekka Rinne will have to stand on his head and someone on Nashville will have to score. I get that their systems are not designed for high scoring affairs but it's not like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are going to abandon their stalwart defensive efforts to put the puck in the net for you.

Who Will Win: Again, this series will go the distance because Nashville can and will grind Anaheim to death. That said, Anaheim has the edge in scoring and that will be the difference. So let's all sit back and watch Anaheim win in 7 games of overtime trap hockey. Game on!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Wiz Playoff Picks:The Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals 2011

Here we are, the best time of the year for NHL fans. The playoffs are here! Though it could be argued they began on the weekend with do-or-die game for Carolina and Dallas. But they choked, so let's move on to the big match-ups for the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals!

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
Regular Season Series: New York won 3-1

Why Washington Will Win: Washington boasts a formidable offense. Despite the off year had by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Alex Semin, and the majority of the supporting cast, the Capitals still managed to win 48 games and take 1st place in the East. It took a bold surge in the back half of the season, but Washington has three legitimate goalies in Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Braden Holtby. Does it matter who is in goal? Not in the first round. This team has too much firepower not to overwhelm the Rangers.

Why New York Will Win: A scrappy team that has a spread out offense (and score more than Washington in the regular season) and a remarkable goaltender. Sounds like the formula for every single #8 seed that has stymied playoff predictors since the 2003 Anaheim Ducks. New York has a chance of goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist can play with the same poise he showed all season. 11 shutouts is intimidating.

Who Will Win: Despite New York having the edge in the regular season, having a more stable goaltending situation, and riding the adrenaline of getting into the post-season on the last game, they don't have the mustard to compete with a Washington team that has a lot to prove. Getting bounced by Montreal last season put the integrity of the team's core in question. Coach Bruce Boudreau must be getting hot under the collar as well. I would be too if I was staring at a first round match-up against a team with a better goalie and a better coach. Still, despite New York's edge in certain categories, Washington gets it done in six games.

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2

Why Philadelphia Will Win: This team dominated for the majority of the season...until they went 7-7-6 in their last 20 games. Despite this slump there's lots to be thankful for in Philly, namely a strong offense spread out over their top six forwards. As long as their top two lines are clicking, and Chris Pronger finds a way to get into form coming back from a wrist injury, Philly is as dangerous as any team in the East.

Why Buffalo Will Win: I can't tag a team for starting a rookie goaltender while praising another, so for now I will suggest the juvenile approach that Philly's Sergei Bobrovsky and Buffalo's Jonas Enroth cancel each other out. The big question mark in the series might be who starts in goal for these teams. If Ryan Miller is in form, Philly and their backup Brian Boucher don't stand a chance. Plain and simple, Miller can steal games. He might even be able to steal a series if Buffalo sniper Thomas Vanek decides to show up.

Who Will Win: I don't like Philly's goaltending match-up at all, but their team has a lot more depth at forward and Chris Pronger has proven himself to be a difference maker when he's in top form. Assuming Miller is good to go, they will squeeze six games out of the series but Philly will move on.

(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
Regular Season Series: Montreal won 4-2

Why Boston Will Win: Ah, the blood feud continues. These teams hate each other. Between the 8-6 donnybrook, the Max Pacioretty Incident, the 7-0 skunking by the Bruins, it's very difficult to tell what team is more motivated to win. Boston has a strong corps of forwards in Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and so on. Their defense is solid with the mutant Zdeno Chara. They are lead in goal with the obvious Vezina Trophy candidate Tim Thomas. This team is built to push other teams around and dominate. And they should. But...

Why Montreal Will Win: There's a lot to be said about heart in the playoffs. Montreal was the little team that could last season. On the strength of outstanding goaltending, they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. They could repeat this task again if Carey Price plays at the same level he did all season (minus the 7-0 ass whooping Montreal took at the end of the season). They have a bunch of smaller but speedier forwards who undoubtedly proved they could ignore Boston's physical superiority. There's also something to be said about Montreal's depth on defense.

Who Will Win: This series will not only go the distance, but I get the sense that one or more games will be determined in overtime. The seven game slugfest will end with les habitants emerging from the wreckage. My faith in Boston as a team was badly rattled last year when they blew a 3-0 lead to Philadelphia. Tim Thomas hasn't really shown anyone that he's a playoff goaltender and despite Carey Prices 0-8 record in his last 8 playoff games, I trust him over Thomas at the moment. Don't get me wrong, though. This series is going to be the best of the eight quarter finals.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2

Why Pittsburgh Will Win: The Penguins have been getting it done without two of the world's five best players. No Crosby and no Malkin was no problem for Pittsburgh, who rode Marc-Andre Fleury's phenomenal goaltending into a 4th place finish just barely missing the division title. The playoffs are a different animal but if Fleury can maintain his poise and Crosby can get back in time, the Penguins could be a dark horse to win it all.

Why Tampa Bay Will Win: Never count out Dwayne Roloson. He's a 40 year old goaltender, but he's among the best in the league at performing in clutch playoff games. In addition to Rolly, Tampa boasts a bevy of offense including Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and of course, Martin St. Louis, who just finished the season with 99 points. Throw in Ryan Malone and you have some good depth at forward.

Who Will Win: I believe this series hinges entirely on a player who may not see a single shift. If Crosby does not return to the Pittsburgh lineup, they will not get out of the first round. All due respect to Coach Bylsma and Fleury, they can't and won't win 2-1 games over Tampa Bay all series long and they will not be able to rely on the shootout or 4 on 4 overtime to save their season. Assuming Crosby is out, Tampa should be able to win in six games with a solid effort from their scorers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Glory Days: Remembering NHL Legends

This is one of many retrospective looks on former NHL players of the modern age of hockey, which I define as the 1979-1980 to present. The purpose of doing this is to remind people that beyond the Gretzkys, Messiers, Lemieuxs, and Yzermans, there were other players who gave franchises outstanding performances over their careers.

Michael "Mike" Vernon (1982-2002)

The best phrase to describe Mike Vernon, at least in 1989, was "hometown hero." When the Calgary Flames won their only Stanley Cup in 1989, it was Vernon who outdueled future NHL legend and eventual fisticuff partner Patrick Roy to hoist the Stanley Cup. It was sweet revenge for the Flames, who had been defeated by the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 for hockey's most coveted prize. Now, the Flames could boast that their team was the best, thanks in large part to a goaltender born and raised in Calgary, Alberta.

You had to know there would be a video of Vernon vs. Roy in this article. History will dictate that Roy has the edge in terms of lifetime accomplishments as a goaltender, but at different point in their careers, Roy and Vernon had an intriguing back and forth rivalry.

After having a lot of regular season success but never repeating the playoff magic of 1989, Vernon was traded by Calgary to the Detroit Red Wings during the 1994 off-season in exchange for Steve Chiasson. His experience and abilities in goal in the playoffs would come in handy for a Red Wings team slowly building momentum towards their first Stanley up in over forty years. But we'll get to that in a moment.

Despite sharing goaltending duties with Chris Osgood, Vernon thrived in Detroit, registering an impressive 12-6 record in the 1994-95 playoffs. The Red Wings were swept by the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals, which was both devastating and a lesson well learned. The following season, Vernon saw less time in the playoffs, drawing a 2-2 record as the Wings fell to the eventual champions the Colorado Avalanche. This is where the rivalry between the two clubs bubbled to a boil. The 1995-96 season was significant for Detroit because they turn in what could be argued as the most dominant single season a team has ever had. The Vernon/Osgood tandem picked up the Jennings Trophy, giving up the least amount of goals en route to a 62-13-7 record.

Vernon lost the starting job to Osgood in 1997, but regained it going into the playoffs after picking up his 300th win during the infamous Fight Night at the Joe. Vernon would backstop Detroit to their first Stanley Cup since 1955. Going 16-4 with a microscopic 1.76 G.A.A., Vernon won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

After an outstanding playoffs, Vernon was traded to the San Jose Sharks during the off-season. Osgood would prove to be a worthy successor to Vernon, backstopping Detroit to a second Stanley Cup. Vernon, on the other hand, led San Jose into the playoffs twice before being traded in 1999-2000 to the Florida Panthers. The Panthers were swept in the first round and promptly sent Vernon back to Calgary where his career began. Vernon played two more seasons with the Flames, posting less than impressive numbers before retiring in 2001-02, when his old team the Red Wings won their third Stanley Cup since 1997.

Despite the decline after his Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup victory, Vernon holds a number of impressive milestones and trophies for his career:

  • Two-time Stanley Cup Champion (1989, 1997)
  • Conn Smythe Trophy (1997)
  • William M. Jennings Trophy (1996, shared with Chris Osgood)
  • Five-time NHL All Star Game competitor
  • Holds most Calgary Flames goaltending records including games played (526), wins (262, tied with Miikka Kiprusoff), minutes played, playoff games played (81), playoff wins (43)
  • 12th all time in wins by a goaltender, regular season
  • 7th all time in playoff wins by a goaltender
  • Number 30 retired by the Calgary Flames on February 6th, 2007.
Despite the accolades, Vernon is not yet in the NHL Hall of Fame. Perhaps a victim of his generation having numerous forwards holding some of the highest scoring statistics by forwards, Vernon has been eligible since 2005 but remains on the outside looking in.

What is your favorite Mike Vernon memory?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Who is the NHL's Best Player Below 21?

They aren't old enough to drink (in the United States) and their playoff beards are typically pitiful, but the NHL has a healthy crop of players below the age of 21. Below is a list of under-21s from each team to consider:

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler, 19
  • Strong rookie season for Anaheim (GP 73-G 9-A 29-P 38)
  • Has a gold medal from 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships (United States)

Atlanta Thrashers: Evander Kane, 19
  • Already has 135 games experience and 68 points under his belt.
  • Has a gold medal from the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships (Canada)
Boston Bruins: Tyler Seguin, 19
  • Struggled this season (GP 71-G 11-A 11-P 22)
  • Has been compared to Steven Stamkos in terms of development
Carolina Hurricanes: Jeff Skinner, 18
  • Calder-like season (GP 79-G 29-A 29-P 58)
  • One of the youngest All-Stars in professional sports in North America
Colorado Avalanche: Matt Duchene, 20
  • One of Colorado's best players already with 117 points in 157 games
  • Been compared to Yzerman, Sakic; a real franchise player
Edmonton Oilers: Taylor Hall, 19
  • Was the leading Calder candidate until injury (GP 65-G 22-A 20-P 45)
  • Plenty of junior hardware proves pedigree, will be face of Oilers franchise like Gretzky was
New York Islanders: John Tavares, 20
  • Back to back 24 goals or more seasons, plenty of points with 118 points in 158 games played.
  • Has the junior stats and hardware, appears to be the next Trottier/Yzerman of the NHL.
New York Rangers: Derek Stepan, 20
  • Great rookie campaign (GP 79-G 20-A 22-P 42) as well as good college career
  • One of only four players to score a hat trick in the first game of their NHL careers
Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson, 20
  • Already has several years of professional hockey under his belt
  • Off to a good start in the NHL with 71 points in 135 games on a rebuilding Ottawa team
Toronto Maple Leafs: Nazem Kadri, 20
  • Limited experience with Leafs thus far, but dynamic on the ice
  • One of very few blue chip prospects in the Leafs system
So whom among these ten prospects has the brightest future? At this point in their careers, John Tavares has proven to be a natural leader on the ice with the Islanders and it won't be long until he dons the "C" for captain. A few other players on this list might wind up wearing a letter in the coming years, but few will have the Yzerman-like impact on their team as Tavares. There's something to be said about Jeff Skinner's dynamic play as well as his status as the youngest player on the list. In interviews he has come across as a very mature person for his age and should fit in well on a young Carolina team that should get into the playoffs next season.

So who do you think is the best player on this list?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Glory Days: Remembering NHL Legends

This is the first of many retrospective looks on former NHL players of the modern age of hockey, which I define as the 1979-1980 to present. The purpose of doing this is to remind people that beyond the Gretzkys, Messiers, Lemieuxs, and Yzermans, there were other players who gave franchises outstanding performances over their careers.

Sergei Fedorov: Сергей Викторович Фёдоров (1990-2009)

Very few NHLers were as dynamic and exciting to watch during the 1990s than Sergei Fedorov. Born in the Russian town of Pskov just 20 km away from the Estonian border, Fedorov defected from the Soviet Union during the Goodwill Games in Seattle in 1990. After playing with CSKA Moscow, better known as the Red Army Team, Fedorov was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the fourth round (74th overall) in the 1989 entry draft. The Goodwill Games gave Fedorov the opening he needed to join the Red Wings to play in North America.

As a result of this change of scenery, Sergei Fedorov joined a Detroit Red Wings organization that exploded onto the NHL scene and starting scoring more goals and winning championships for the first time in four decades. Particularly notable for Fedorov was the 1993-1994 campaign that saw him win the Hart Memorial Trophy (NHL most valuable player), the Frank J. Selke Trophy (best defensive forward), and the Lester B. Pearson Award (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award, NHLPA most valuable player) all in one season. Fedorov was the best player on the ice, scoring 56 goals and 120 points, but also playing extraordinary defensive minded hockey with blistering speed. Fedorov continued to be a phenomenal player during Detroit's first Stanley Cup in over 40 years. Perhaps the biggest stain on his time with the Red Wings was his lengthy holdout for an expensive contract in the 1997-98 season. Despite his holding out, Fedorov proved to be "worth every penny" as the above video describes, as the Red Wings repeated as champions.

In an act that was quite contradictory to the incident of 1998, Fedorov announced in the 1998-99 season that he would dedicate all $2 million of his base salary towards the Sergei Fedorov Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that sought to assist underprivileged children in the Detroit area. The foundation still exists today and continues to provide assistance.

After the Red Wings were swept by Anaheim during the 2003 playoffs, Fedorov did what many Red Wings fans thought unthinkable by signing with the Mighty Ducks after rejecting contracts that would have paid him $10 million dollars per year. While playing in Anaheim he scored his 1,000th point, becoming the first Russian born player to do so.

After a few moderately successful seasons with Anaheim, Fedorov was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, with whom he played his 1000th NHL game. During the 2007-08 season, he was once again traded to the Washington Capitals where Alexander Ovechkin continued the legacy of dynamic and explosive Russian born players. After a season and second playoffs with Washington, Fedorov returned to Russia play with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Whether Fedorov will ever return to the NHL is unknown; his contribution to the league's popularity, on the other hand, is quite certain. Bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame whenever he decides to retire, Fedorov holds an incredible number of accolades:

  • 1994 Hart Trophy
  • 1994 Lester B. Pearson Award (Now called the Ted Lindsay Award)
  • 1994 Frank J. Selke Trophy
  • 1996 Frank J. Selke Trophy
  • 2000 Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award
  • 2003 Kharlamov Trophy (NHL award for best Russian player)
  • One of only three NHL players to score 20 points in four consecutive playoff seasons
  • Three time Stanley Cup Champion in 1997, 1998, 2002
  • 1998 Olympic Silver Medal with Russia
  • 2002 Olympic Bronze Medal with Russia
  • 1988 World Junior Hockey Championship Silver Medal
  • 1989 World Junior Hockey Championship Gold Medal
  • 1989 World Ice Hockey Championship Gold Medal
  • 1990 World Ice Hockey Championship Gold Medal
  • 2008 World Ice Hockey Championship Gold Medal
  • 2010 World Ice Hockey Championship Silver Medal
  • Most Regular Season Overtime goals (15) (tied with 3 other players)
  • Most Overtime Points (27)
  • 1st Russian to score 1000 points
  • Most Goals by a Russian Born Player
Not least of all of these accomplishments was his five goal night against the Washington Capitals on Boxing Day 1996:

You'll have to excuse the Russian broadcaster and just relish in the outstanding passing and impressive release of Fedorov's goals.

Rather than clutter this look back at Fedorov's career with his statistics I will direct you over to Internet Hockey Database for statistical goodness. It might be most appropriate to end on a note which I believe best signifies how talented Sergei Fedorov truly was and continues to be in the KHL. At multiple points in his career, Fedorov has actually played not only center, but has sometimes played as a winger and even a defenseman. Longtime Red Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano once said regarding Fedorov as a D-man "I'm convinced if we left him there, he'd have won a Norris Trophy." It's impressive enough that Fedorov dominated the center position throughout the 1990s as an explosive goal scorer; to be commended as a defenseman as well is indicative of just how dominating a player he was in his prime. Despite the sting that was felt when he left Detroit for another team, Sergei Fedorov remains a central figure of the Red Wings team that won three Stanley Cups.