Blackhawks Lose in OT

I am not going to get into too much detail about last night’s Game 3 between the Blackhawks and Coyotes, because to be quite honest with you, I’ll get too upset if I think about it that much.

Around half way through the first period, Raffi Torres sent Marian Hossa to the hospital with a completely illegal hit to the head. A perfect example of what the NHL is trying to take out of the game. Less than a second after the puck left Hossa’s stick at about center ice, Torres launched himself off his feet into Hossa, sending Hossa down to the ice while possibly unconscious. Hossa stayed down on the ice motionless for about 5 minutes before the medical staff was able to get him onto a stretcher and wheel him off the ice.

With around 30 seconds left in the first, Patrick Kane’s wrist shot hit off the body of Andrew Brunette and made its way past Mike Smith to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission.

The second period featured a few scoring chances from each team, but no goals were scored. At the end of the period, Jonathan Toews shot the puck at Mike Smith right after the horn had blown, thus leading to a big confrontation between every player on the ice, including the goalies. Only Toews was assessed a 2-minute roughing penalty.

In the third period during a 4 on 4 for 2 minutes, 3 goals were scored! Rostislav Klesla scored the first one that tied the game with a slap shot that beat Crawford. Just over half a minute later, Michael Frolik scored to give the Hawks a one-goal lead. Then, just 32 seconds after that, Ray Whitney added another goal for Phoenix to tie the game at 2. At the end of regulation, the game remained tied and it headed to overtime for the third straight game in this series.

In OT, Mikkel Boedker scored from the goal line to Corey Crawford’s right to win the game and give Phoenix a 2-1 lead in the series. Crawford admitted after the game that this was a terrible goal to give up.

Now, let me say a few words about Raffi Torres.

This guy is a disgrace to the game of hockey. He has zero respect for any of his opponents, and now he has no respect from the fans. He simply goes out onto the ice head-hunting, looking to literally knock guys out. In fact, it was exactly a year ago last night that he put a violent hit to the head on Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook in Game 3 of the Canucks-Blackhawks first round series. Torres has been suspended twice in his career, with the first one coming on April 11, 2011. He committed a violent head-shot on Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers, and was suspended 4 games, including the first 2 games of playoffs against the Blackhawks. Then, this past December 31, he was suspended 2 games for charging Nate Prosser of the Minnesota Wild.

There is no doubt that Torres will receive a suspension for his hit last night on Hossa, but no one quite knows how many games he will receive, and that is why the NHL’s disciplinary system is so messed up. On a hit like the one last night, most people familiar with the game of hockey should at least have some idea as to how many games Torres will be suspended. Unfortunately, Brendan Shanahan and his crew have been all over the place this year with their suspensions, making it virtually impossible to predict their decisions.

I’ll just say this. If Torres gets 3 games or less, then this whole thing is a complete joke. My reasoning? Andrew Shaw was just given a 3 game suspension yesterday for his hit on Coyotes goalies Mike Smith. Smith was not injured on the play, and Shaw had no previous history of suspensions or fines. Torres on the other hand, does have a bad history, and Hossa was injured on the play.

Aside from the announcement of Torres’ suspension, look for Hawks coach Joel Quenneville to possibly get fined today for his comments last night about the referees. He said that they “were a disgrace,” among some other words.

Game 4 is Thursday night at the United Center. This is now a must win for the Blackhawks, and it is going to have to come without one of the best players in the world in Marian Hossa.

Thanks for reading.

Update: Torres’ hearing with the NHL has been moved to Friday. The meeting will take place in New York. Also, because it is an in-person meeting and not over the phone, the NHL can give Torres a suspension of 5 games or more if they choose to.

Andrew Shaw Gets 3 Game Suspension

Well, just when you thought Brendan Shanahan couldn’t be much more inconsistent with his handling of suspensions, he pulls this out of his hat. Shanahan announced today that Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw has been suspended 3 games for his hit on Coyotes goalie Mike Smith on Saturday night.

Here is Shanny’s reasoning:

  • It was a charging penalty.
  • Smith was not injured on the play.
  • Shaw has no history of illegal hits.

That kind of makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it? Smith was NOT injured on the play, and Shaw has NO history of suspensions or fines. So is Shanahan saying that if Smith was injured, or if Shaw did have a history that Shaw would have been suspended basically the rest of the playoffs? This is an absolute joke!

In Game 1 of the Red Wings and Predators series last week, Shea Weber of the Predators punched Henrik Zetterberg in the head, and then grabbed the head of Zetterberg and slammed it into the glass as the third period ended. He received a $2,500 fine, which is basically a tiny slap on the wrist. Isn’t the NHL trying to eliminate head-shots? Isn’t what Weber did as clear of a head-shot as they get? Yet all he got was about as small of a fine that the NHL could possibly hand out, and nothing else.

In Andrew Shaw’s case, he skated in behind the net at full speed to try and get to the puck before Smith could play it, but ended up colliding with Mike Smith. If you watch the replay, Shaw had his head down looking at the puck the entire time. When he got to the puck, his shoulder hit the head of Mike Smith knocking Smith to the ice. Smith stayed down for a couple of minutes before getting back up to play the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Shaw was given a 5-minute charging penalty, a game misconduct, and now a 3-game suspension.

After the game, Mike Smith made a statement through the Coyotes PR department that he was “100 percent.” However, Smith was held out of Monday’s practice for undisclosed reasons, and wouldn’t talk to the media. In the NHL, the only time that a player is allowed to avoid speaking to the media is when the player is under “extreme circumstances.” In this case, the Coyotes made it seem like Smith was having concussion symptoms after all even though they said he was “fine” after Game 2. Today, Smith was back on the ice for practice and is listed as a “game-time decision,” leading most to believe that he will in fact play. The bottom line here is that it seems as though the Coyotes have been milking the system the past few days to try and make it look like Smith did in fact get hurt on the play, all in an attempt to increase Shaw’s suspension length. With that said, Brendan Shanahan stated that “Smith was not injured on the play,” and that factored into the suspension of Andrew Shaw. None of this adds up or makes sense.

Here is my question:

Are players now supposed to stand by and simply watch as goalies go to play pucks in behind the net? Based on the suspension of Andrew Shaw, that sure seems like what Shanahan and the NHL want. Players are going to be scared of trying to play pucks behind the net while the goalie is back there with the fear that they might get suspended if they touch the goalie. Basically, goaltenders are now going to have free reign of the area in behind the net whenever they would like.

Brendan Shanahan has handed out a number of questionable suspensions this year, but none of them have puzzled me more than this one. He better have a new job next season, or else there will be a lot of angry people in the NHL.

Here are the replays of Weber’s “head smashing” and Shanahan’s explanation for his suspension of Shaw:

 

Shanahan’s explanation video

Penguins, Canucks on brink of elimination

After losing each of their first two games at home, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks headed into their respective Game 3’s on Sunday looking to get a huge road win. Unfortunately for them, neither Pittsburgh or Vancouver were able to get a win on Sunday, and they now find themselves down 3-0 in their series’.

Many people were predicting that the Canucks and Penguins would meet in the Stanley Cup Finals this year heading into the playoffs. The Canucks had just locked up their second straight President’s Trophy, and the Penguins were finally a healthy team with Sidney Crosby back. Each team looked destined for a deep playoff run. However, both sides are now facing elimination in Game 4 of their respective series. You can blame the Canucks and Penguins for “choking,” but give credit where credit is due. The Kings and Flyers have been playing excellent hockey through their first 3 games of the playoffs, and they have earned their 3-0 series leads.

Let’s start with the Flyers. As great of a season that the Flyers had, finishing 5th in the East with 103 points, they were looked at as the underdogs heading into their first round matchup with Pittsburgh, and rightfully so. As I mentioned before, Pittsburgh was on a roll heading into the playoffs having become a fully healthy team for the first time in a long time. This did not intimidate the Flyers one bit. They came into this series with the mindset that they are the better team, and they will do everything to prove that. So far through the first 3 games of this series, the Flyers have out-hustled and out-played the Penguins in just about every aspect of the game. In the 3 games that have been played, the Flyers have 20 goals. That is pretty much unheard of. The Penguins defense has had no answer for the offense of the Flyers. Because of the high number of goals that the Flyers have scored, Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence has been shot. This is one of the best goalies in the world, who has already won a Stanley Cup. Assuming that the Flyers go on to win this series, they instantly become a top contender for the Stanley Cup.

Moving out West now, the Canucks find themselves down 3-0 in their series with the Kings. Vancouver came into the playoffs as the defending Western Conference champions, and fresh off of their second straight President’s Trophy-winning season. The L.A. Kings, on the other hand, barely made it into the playoffs as the 8 seed following what can only be described as a disappointing regular season. People expected them to contend for one of the top spots in the West this year, but they just never seemed to be able to play consistently good hockey. Well, they are now. They have outscored the Canucks in this series 9-4, with Jonathan Quick registering a shutout in last night’s game. The Kings’ defense has proven to be too much for the Canucks so far in this series, and their offense has essentially booted Roberto Luongo from his starting job in goal. For the first time all season, the Kings seem to be putting together an all-around, consistent style of winning hockey. They definitely have the potential and the right set of players to make a deep playoff run, but it remains to be seen if they will fall back into their regular season form and abandon their current style of play. Jonathan Quick has been great all season long, but only now are his teammates playing up to their potential.

These are two shocking deficits that the Penguins and Canucks find themselves in, but don’t get too surprised by them. The Flyers and Kings are two very talented hockey teams that are playing phenomenal hockey right now, and they deserve a ton of credit for putting the Penguins and Canucks on the brink of elimination.

Blackhawks Win Game 2 in Dramatic Fashion

The Blackhawks’ victory last night in Game 2 against the Coyotes in Phoenix was one of the most improbable comebacks I have ever seen in the NHL, let alone the playoffs. After scoring with 14 seconds left in regulation to tie Game 1 at 2 apiece, the Hawks outdid themselves in Game 2.

The scoring all began just over 3 minutes into the first period when Bryan Bickell beat Mike Smith to give the Hawks their first powerplay goal of the series, and a 1-0 lead in the game. After Dave Bolland’s wrist shot bounced off of Mike Smith, Bickell batted the puck into the net out of mid-air from about 3 feet in front of the net. This was just the start that the Blackhawks were hoping to get.

About 4 minutes after Bickell scored, Raffi Torres beat Corey Crawford with a missile of a wrist shot to tie the game at 1. Shane Doan deserves a ton of credit for this goal after he battled for, and won the puck from Duncan Keith in behind the net before he fed Torres with a beautiful pass to set up the goal.

Then, just over 12 minutes into the first period, Jonathan Toews was called for goaltender interference, which led to a Phoenix powerplay. This was easily one of the worst penalty calls of this year’s postseason so far, as Mike Smith is the one who initiated the contact between him and Toews. On the ensuing powerplay, Antoine Vermette redirected Keith Yandle’s shot from the point past Corey Crawford to give the Coyotes the one-goal lead.

About 7 minutes into the second period, Brandon Bollig scored his first ever NHL goal on a hard wrist shot from the right circle to tie the game at 2. However, this lead would not last long.

Less than 20 seconds after Bollig’s goal, Andrew Shaw was given a 5-minute charging major, and a game misconduct. As Mike Smith went to play the puck behind the net, Andrew Shaw, who was also trying to play the puck, collided with Smith sending him down to the ice holding his face/head. After seemingly waiting to see if Smith was injured or not, which he wasn’t, the refs decided to give Shaw the 5-minute major and game misconduct. By rule, this play will automatically be reviewed by the league to see if Shaw deserves a suspension. On their 5-minute powerplay, the Coyotes were able to get another goal from Antoine Vermette. They now had a 3-2 lead, and it stayed that way heading into the third period.

For most of the third period, the Coyotes played spectacular defense and did not allow the Hawks any quality scoring chances. They were stacking 4 players along their own blue line, which made it very difficult for the Hawks to enter the offensive zone. Then, in what seemed like a flashback to Game 1, the Blackhawks were able to work yet another miracle.

With just over a minute remaining in regulation, the Hawks pulled Corey Crawford to get the extra attacker onto the ice. They got a few decent shots on goal in the first 30 seconds or so, but nothing great. Then, with around half a minute left on the clock, all heck broke loose. Jonathan Toews had a great scoring chance after a nice pass from Kane found Toews breaking to the net. Smith gave up a rebound on Toews’ shot, which led to multiple bodies flying through the crease, some ending up flat on the ice. Then, somehow the puck found its way to a wide open Patrick Kane about 15 feet in front of the net. He fired a wrist shot that just missed the right post. With about 10 seconds left now, Marian Hossa had the puck along the boards to Smith’s right. He sent a pass to Patrick Kane, who was standing in front of the boards to Smith’s left. Kane waited a second or two, then fed Brent Seabrook with a perfect pass for the one-timer slap shot that was redirected by Patrick Sharp and into the net with just 5 seconds left on the clock. They had done it again.

In overtime, both teams had some quality scoring chances, but neither side could beat the opposing goalie. With about nine and half minutes left in overtime, an attempted clear by Adrian Aucoin hit Viktor Stalberg along the right boards and deflected right to the stick of a wide open Bryan Bickell in the slot who’s wrist shot beat Mike Smith to win the game and tie the series at 1 game apiece.

Game 2 was nearly a carbon-copy of Game 1, except for the fact that the Blackhawks won this game. In both games, they tied the game with under 20 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime. As I said before, this is something that I don’t think I have ever seen before. Last night’s win reminded me a lot of the Hawks’ victory in Game 5 against the Predators 2 years ago in the Conference Quarterfinals. In that game, Patrick Kane scored a shorthanded goal with 13 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime, where Marian Hossa would eventually score the game-winner just after exiting the penalty box following his 5-minute major for boarding.

The victory in Game 2 for the Hawks has the potential to give them a ton of momentum in this series heading back to Chicago for the next 2 games. After tying both of the first 2 games of this series with less than 20 seconds left on the clock, and then winning the second one in overtime, they have to have a ton of confidence moving forward.

The unsung hero of Game 2 has to be Corey Crawford. He came up with some HUGE saves, especially in the last 5 minutes of regulation to keep the score 3-2. It was no secret that in order for the Blackhawks to be successful in the playoffs that Crawford needed to be really good in net. Well, so far he has been, and that’s a great sign for the Hawks.

Moving ahead to Game 3, the Hawks MUST play better when they have a lead in the game. I said it after Game 1, and I’m saying it again now. Lately it would seem as though they take their foot off the gas pedal once taking the lead in games. They cannot afford to do that and expect to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Once they have the lead in the game, they have to continue to put heavy pressure on the Coyotes and wear-out their defense.

As for the fate of Andrew Shaw, we shall wait and see what the league determines. I don’t think he will be suspended. The league looks at whether or not the victim on the play was hurt or not, and in this case, Mike Smith was not injured. He even said after the game that he is “fine.” However, should Shaw get suspended, expect to see Michael Frolik take his place in the lineup. I don’t think that the Hawks have enough confidence yet in Jimmy Hayes to dress him for a playoff game.

The Hawks are right where they want to be in this series heading back home for Game 3. They had the third best home-record in the NHL this season, which obviously bodes well for them.

Thanks for reading.

Coyotes Take Game 1 in OT

The Phoenix Coyotes beat the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarterfinals series last night by a score of 3-2 in overtime. This game could have easily been 5-4 had it not been for the play of both goalies.

The scoring started about 4 minutes into the game when Jonathan Toews scored on a backhand shot from about 10 feet to Mike Smith’s left. This was a great sign for the Hawks, seeing as how this was just Toews’ second shift on the ice after missing the previous 22 games due to a concussion. The Hawks seemingly had the momentum the rest of the first period, but just couldn’t muster up another goal.

Just over 7 minutes into the second period, Taylor Pyatt tied the game on a wrist shot from abut 4 feet in front of the net. This goal came after the Coyotes kept the puck in the Blackhawks’ defensive zone for about a minute and a half straight, which did not allow the Hawks to make any line changes during that stretch. Right before the goal was scored, Blackhawks’ defenseman Sean O’Donnell, who had lost his stick on the play, made a hand-pass to Corey Crawford with the hopes that Crawford would be able to freeze the puck and get a much needed whistle. Unfortunately for the Hawks, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson slapped the puck in behind the net right as Crawford was reaching for it, thus leading to the eventual goal by Pyatt.

Later in the second period, Antoine Vermette beat Corey Crawford on a wicked slap shot from straight out, and just atop the circles. This came moments after the Coyotes got away with having too many men on the ice without the referees noticing. The second period really seemed to be the deciding factor in the game as Phoenix outplayed Chicago in just about every aspect of the game.

The third period was an equally contested period by both teams, but neither side was able to score until there were just 14 seconds left in regulation. Being down 2-1, the Hawks pulled Corey Crawford to get the extra attacker on the ice with just over a minute left in the game. They generated a few scoring chances in the first 50 seconds or so that they had the 6th man on the ice, but nothing great. Then, with 14 seconds left, Brent Seabrook tied the game after a wrist shot by Patrick Kane hit the post and bounced right to Seabrook for an empty net goal. This goal wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t  been for the patience of Patrick Kane to hold onto the puck until a good scoring chance presented itself.

In overtime, Martin Hanzal scored to win the game on a deflection off the shot of Adrian Aucoin. This came just seconds after Marcus Kruger iced the puck, and then lost the ensuing face-off in the Hawks own zone.

So, what did we learn after watching Game 1?

Well, first and foremost, the Blackhawks need to play better when they have the lead. Going back to the regular season and then into Game 1, they seem to let down their guard when they are leading in the game. They almost fall back into a defensive approach, rather than trying to build on their lead and put sustained pressure on their opponent. The second period last night was a perfect example of this. The Blackhawks entered the period leading 1-0 in the game and should have been playing with momentum and more aggression to try and increase their lead. However, they did the exact opposite. They put little to no pressure on the Coyotes defense and basically let Phoenix come at them with their best shot. No team should ever have possession of the puck for a minute and a half in the offensive zone, but that’s just what Phoenix was able to do last night, and it led to their first goal of the game.

Secondly, the Blackhawks must get better in the face-off department heading into Game 2. They lost 57% of the face-offs last night, which is unacceptable. One would think that having Toews back in the lineup, who is arguably the best face-off man in the league, would increase the Hawks’ face-off percentage. I don’t see this being as big of a problem heading into Game 2. The Blackhawks are better than that.

Lastly, the Blackhawks must step it up physically. Phoenix out-hit the Hawks 48-22 last night. I know physical-play is not in the Hawks DNA, but they need to do better in that area of the game moving forward in this series. Aside from the hits, they need to win more board battles. Winning the puck battles along the boards gives your team possession of the puck, thus leading to more offense. The Coyotes killed the Hawks in this area of the game last night, which goes along with them being a better team physically.

Looking ahead to the rest of this series, I don’t think the Blackhawks should be too worried. This was only the first game of the series. They were able to out-shoot the Coyotes 45-34, which is always a good sign. If they can win Game 2 tomorrow night in Phoenix, then the Hawks will be in great shape. If they lose Game 2, then they still have the next 2 games on home ice in Chicago, where they had one of the best home records in the NHL this year. However, if the Blackhawks want to win this series, they are going to have to win at least one game in Phoenix. I think they can do that.

I’m sticking with my original prediction in this series. The Blackhawks will win in 6 games.

He’s Baaack

Jonathan Toews announced this afternoon after the Blackhawks’ morning skate that he will for sure be back in the lineup for Game 1 tonight against Phoenix. This is huge for the Hawks.

Not only is he one of the best leaders in hockey, but Toews is one of the most talented and skilled players in the NHL. Had he not suffered the concussion that has kept him out of the last 22 games, he would most likely be a candidate for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Shane Doan of the Coyotes feels the same way:

“He’s ultra-competitive. He’s intense. And he makes the guys around him better through his intensity and with his play. If he doesn’t get hurt he’s probably in the running for the Hart [Trophy] this year.”

That’s how much Jonathan Toews means to the Blackhawks and their hopes at winning another Stanley Cup.

I said a few days ago that I feel the Hawks would take this series in 6 games, assuming that Toews would be back. Well, he’s back, and that’s not a good thing for the Coyotes.

The game starts at 9:00 pm CST, and will be airing on the NBC Sports Network, as well as CSN-Chicago. For people in Chicago, I believe the game will be blacked out on the NBC Sports Network and you will have to watch Pat and Eddie on CSN.

NHL Suspensions

In the dying seconds of Game 1 of the first round between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings tonight, Nashville captain Shea Weber did one of the most idiotic things he could have possibly done. There’s a good chance that he might even get suspended for it too.

With about 2 seconds left in regulation, and the Predators up 3-2 over the Wings, Shea Weber first punched Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings in the back of the head, and then proceeded to grab Zetterberg’s head and slam it into the glass. A penalty was called on the play, but time had already expired. Zetterberg fell to the ice holding his head and stayed down there for a good 15-20 seconds before he finally stood back up. The second I saw this happen, I immediately thought that this play called for a suspension. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

Following the game, I went onto Twitter and read a bunch of comments made by NHL writers and analysis’. Most of them were agreeing with my opinion in that Shea Weber deserves a suspension. However, one comment by an NHL writer caught my attention. It read something along the lines of, “I don’t think he should be suspended multiple games unless Zetterberg is hurt.” I briefly touched on this topic a while back when writing about Duncan Keith’s suspension, but I am going to talk about it again.

I highly dislike the fact that the lengths of suspensions in the NHL are partially determined by whether or not the victim on the play got hurt. Punish the player who made the hit for the HIT ITSELF, not for the outcome of the hit. An illegal hit is an illegal hit. It’s that simple! The fact that the NHL looks into whether or not the victim of the hit got hurt seems ridiculous to me. A hit that should warrant a one-game suspension might be bumped up to a 2 or 3-game suspension just because the victim on the play got hurt. Look at the hit itself and determine a suspension length based on the hit, nothing else. The victim of an illegal hit could theoretically sit out a game or 2 just to make the hit look worse, in which case the guy who delivered the hit might be suspended for more time than he deserves. The fact that this scenario is even possible seems insane, and it brings me back to my main point: punish a player for the illegal hit that he makes, and not because the victim of the hit got hurt.

After seeing the replay of Weber’s head-smashing a few times now, it clearly demonstrates just what the NHL is trying to take out of the game, which is illegal hits to the head. I believe Weber should get a 2-game suspension for what he did. If he does end up getting suspended, especially for more than one game, then Nashville is going to be in a lot of trouble without him while trying to fend off the Red Wings.

Thanks for reading.

Without Pujols, Beltran and the Cardinals Keep Winning

Possibly the biggest free agent signing in baseball history came this past off-season when the Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million deal. When I say that this was maybe the “biggest free agent signing ever,” I am not talking about money, although this contract ranks second all-time behind A-Rod’s $275 million deal with Texas. By “biggest free agent,” I am talking about the caliber of player that Albert Pujols is.

Pujols will no doubt go down in baseball history as one of the best players of all-time. He is the only player ever to:

  • Hit 30 home runs in each of his first 10 seasons in the MLB.
  • Hit 400 home runs in his first 10 seasons in the MLB.
  • Drive in over 100 RBI’s in each of his first 10 seasons in the MLB.
  • Hit over .300 in each of his first 9 seasons in the MLB.

In addition to those records, Pujols also has 2 Gold Glove awards under his belt. That, and all of those records, came while wearing a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. Along with setting those records, he also led St. Louis to two World Series titles. I think it is fair to say that he is one of the most beloved players in Cardinals history, if not the most beloved. Now, he is wearing an Angels uniform. Most people thought that this would be a HUGE blow to the Cardinals, and for good reason! How are they supposed to recover after losing one of the greatest players in MLB history? Who takes his place?

Well, to try and somewhat replace the offense that they lost in Pujols, the Cardinals went out and signed outfielder Carlos Beltran, who will turn 35 later this month. Heading into this season, Beltran had a lifetime batting average of .283 with 304 home runs, 1149 RBI’s, and 294 stolen bases. It would be safe to say that he is nearing the end of his career and that his numbers should steadily start to decrease. Contrary to that common belief, Beltran, along with the Cardinals, have gotten off to a red-hot start this season.

After winning the World Series last year (with Pujols), the Cardinals have started this season 4-1. Beltran has started his season hitting .333, with 3 home runs and 4 RBI’s (Beltran’s numbers include today’s game, which is still in progress). Needless to say, those are better numbers than Pujols has been able to put up so far this year. I’m not saying that Beltran has “replaced” Pujols or that he will have a better season than Pujols, but he has done just what the Cardinals have wanted him to do so far.

The Cardinals signed Beltran with the hopes that he might hit 25-30 home runs, and drive in around 90 runs. If he is able to put up those types of numbers, then I’d say St. Louis has a very good chance at winning the Central Division.

It seems to me like the Cardinals always sign a player who appears to be “washed up,” and then he goes out and has one last big year in St. Louis. Larry Walker and Lance Berkman are the two most notable players who signed with St. Louis towards the end of their  careers and went on to have big seasons, with Berkman hitting .301 with 31 home runs, and 94 RBI’s last season. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit if Beltran had his last big season this year. The coaching staff in St. Louis has been one of the best in baseball over the last 10 years or so, in large part due to Tony La Russa, and they are always able to get their players to perform at high levels, regardless of the players’ ages.

I guess the main point that I am trying to make is that the Cardinals seemingly always make the right moves when it comes to free agent signings and trades. Their front office and coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for what that franchise has been able to do over the last decade.

So with that said, do not be surprised one bit if the Cardinals go out and have a great season this year, despite the fact that they are now without Pujols. They are a team full of winners who know how to do just that; win.

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals Predictions

1-8 Matchup:

vs. 

I love this matchup. The Canucks won their second straight President’s Trophy this year as being the team to earn the most points in the regular season. They are currently without Daniel Sedin (concussion), but their offense is still lethal. Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows are just a few of their top scorers who will be more than ready to take on the Kings. Possibly the most intriguing story-line heading into this series is the Canucks’ goalie situation. Roberto Luongo has been the number 1 goalie in Vancouver all year long, but has not played like the number 1 goalie that they signed to a 12-year, $64 million contract a couple of years ago. In fact, he was recently booed on the Canucks’ home ice. His replacement, Corey Schneider, has had a much better year than Luongo, with a 1.96 goals-against-average. I’ve heard rumors that the Canucks’ players have confidence in both goalies, but have a little bit more confidence in Schneider.  Again, that is something I have heard through NHL analysts, and it’s just a rumor. The Kings have been tough to figure out all year long. Much like the Washington Capitals, the Kings have way more talent and skill than their record shows. When you have top forwards such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, and one of the best goalies in hockey in Jonathan Quick, one would think that you should finish a bit higher in the standings than 8th. For whatever reason, however, the Kings just haven’t been able to put it all together consistently this year. I think this series is going to come down to the goaltending. Can Luongo find his game again? Can Quick continue to play at a Vezina Trophy-worthy level? We’ll just have to wait and see.

-Vancouver win series, 4-2.

2-7 Matchup:

vs. 

I think this is going to be another great matchup. Expect to see a lot of physical play throughout the entire series, as these are two of the more physical teams in the Western Conference. The Blues fell behind the Canucks in the standings only recently, after having led the Western Conference in points for an extended period of time. The main reason why they are the number 2 seed in the West is because of their defense and goaltending. They finished the regular season number 1 in fewest goals-against per game. They have gotten spectacular play from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott in goal all season long. Now the question is, who are they going to turn to in net to start the playoffs? If I were the one having to make this decision, I would probably go with Jaroslav Halak because of his past experience in the playoffs with the Canadiens. However, I honestly believe this one is up for grabs. Ken Hitchcock could go either way. The biggest problem that I see with the Blues is their potential lack of offense. Their highest point-getters, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, only finished the season with 54 points each. That’s rather low compared to most NHL teams. My worry is that they don’t have enough fire power on the offensive end to get the job done in the playoffs. The Sharks have been possibly the most disappointing team this season. They are easily one of the most talented teams in hockey, yet they barely made the playoffs. They finished the season 8th in the league in goals-against-average, which isn’t bad. From what I have seen of the Sharks, it almost seems that until recently, they had been coming out “flat” on a nightly basis and weren’t able to get a good team-game going. It’s almost as though they didn’t have enough motivation to go out and compete every night. It would appear, however, that they have recently found that motivation and are therefore playing much better. To be completely honest with you, the Sharks have a good chance at upsetting the Blues in this series. But, my gut says…

-St. Louis wins series, 4-3.

3-6 Matchup:

vs. 

The Coyotes are still looking for their first playoff series victory since moving to Phoenix, believe it or not. They made an incredible run at the end of this season to capture their first ever division title, thanks to the play of Mike Smith in net. Heading into the playoffs, he has stopped 190 of his last 192 shots-against. That’s an incredible statistic. Without the play of Mike Smith for much of this season, odds are that the Coyotes are not a playoff team. Their leading scorer for the regular season was 39-year old Ray Whitney, finishing with 77 points. Arguably the best player on the Coyotes is defenseman Keith Yandle. He finished the season with 43 points, but he is also one of the best players at his position in the entire NHL. He is going to have to play up to his fullest potential this series to try and slow down the Chicago offense. Speaking of Chicago, they have been an interesting team to follow this season. Before their 9-game losing streak that started in late January, the Hawks led the NHL in points and were seemingly a top candidate to compete for the Cup. However, that losing streak dropped them in the standings, and they weren’t ever able to climb their way back up to the top. Shortly after ending their losing streak, Jonathan Toews went down with a concussion and missed the last 22 games of the season. Despite his loss, the Hawks have played very well without Toews and came close to getting both the 4th or 5th seed in the West. It is very likely that Toews will be back to start this series against Phoenix, and if that is the case, the Hawks just get that much better. The key for Chicago is going to be the play of their goalie, Corey Crawford. He has had an up and down season, to say the least, but seems to have found his game over the last month of the season.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

4-5 Matchup:

vs. 

Along with the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series in the East, this has all the makings to be possibly the best series of the first round. Both of these teams are at the top of the league when it comes to defense, both ranking in the top 10 in goals-against-average. Nashville went all-out at the trade deadline and got defenseman Hal Gill, and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn to help improve their depth on both offense and defense. Then, Alex Radulov decided to rejoin the team after leaving them following the ’07-’08 season to play in the KHL. For those who don’t know a whole about Radulov, he can be a top-notch point producer and goal scorer and has already greatly helped out Nashville’s offense. The Predators have the best single pairing of defenseman on any one team in hockey with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They also have a top-5 goalie in Pekka Rinne back-stopping their defense. While they don’t exactly have the prolific scorers that most of the top offensive teams do, the Preds finished the season ranked 8th in goals-per-game, and 1st on the powerplay. They also finished as the 10th best team in killing off penalties. Any time you can have both of your special teams ranked in the top 10 in the NHL, you should be confident about your team moving forward. The Red Wings were one of my favorites to win the Stanley Cup when this season began, and for a good portion of the season it looked like they might very well be a leading candidate. However, over the past month or so, they have fallen into a bit of a rut. After setting the all-time NHL record for consecutive wins on home ice, one would think that they might be the President’s Trophy-winning team. That is obviously not the case. When it comes to playing on the road, the Wings are just 17-21-3. In order for them to win this series, they are going to need to play better than that on the road. Jimmy Howard, who has been injured a couple of times this year, needs to have a great series in net for Detroit. Even though the Wings finished second in the West in goals scored, they are going to really have to step it up defensively in this series. They can’t rely on scoring 3 goals per game against Pekka Rinne.

-Nashville wins series, 4-3.

NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Predictions

Here are my predictions on how the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals will play out.

1-8 Matchup:

vs. 

The Rangers have been number 1 in the Eastern Conference since about late December, or early January I believe, and for good reason. They are an extremely well-balanced team with an above average offense and one of the best defenses in hockey. They rank third in the NHL in goals-against-average thanks to the play of their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. He should without a doubt be a top 2 candidate to win the Vezina Trophy this year. As for the Senators, they have had a very nice “comeback season” after finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. They have some good offensive weapons in Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, and one of the league’s best defenseman in Erik Karlsson. With that said, however, the Rangers are too deep and skilled of a team for the Sens to beat in a 7-game series.

-New York wins series, 4-1.

2-7 Matchup:

vs. 

The defending Stanley Cup champions are never an easy team to knock out of the playoffs. The Bruins showed no signs of a “Cup hangover” early on this season, but as the year progressed, they began to show some signs of exhaustion. For about the first 2-3 months of the season, it looked like the Bruins were going to run away with the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they have since come back down to earth. They, much like the Rangers, have an extremely deep team. All 4 lines are capable of scoring. Their defense is one of the best in hockey, and their goaltending is as well. The Capitals have been a tough team to figure out all year long. For the past few years, they have consistently been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but not so much this year. It wasn’t until recently that they finally started to step up their game and play some good, consistent hockey. Alex Ovechkin has had one of his most disappointing seasons so far in his career, and so has Alex Semin. I think this will be a surprisingly good series. The fact that the Bruins have had the fewest amount of rest from the end of last season until now (Vancouver as well), coupled with the fact that Washington has started to play a lot better and stronger as of late, I see this series being a very competitive one. In the end, it’s going to come down to goaltending and defense.

-Boston wins series, 4-3.

3-6 Matchup:

vs. 

Both of these teams have had great turnaround seasons. Florida finished last season as the worst team in the Eastern Conference. This year, they went out and acquired Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell, among a few others, and gave themselves a brand new identity. Their offense is not the best, but it is decent. The same can be said of their defense and goaltending. The Devils finished last season ranked 11th in the Eastern Conference, which completely surprised many people, myself included. This year, they have played the way that we expected them to a year ago. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise are two of the game’s most lethal scorers. They also have rookie Adam Henrique, who has been a very pleasant surprise on the offensive end this season. As for their goaltending, do I even have to mention his name? Martin Brodeur is arguably the best goalie of all-time, and even though he is getting up there in age, he can still get the job done. I’m calling for an upset in this series (I am only saying it’s an upset because Florida has a higher seed).

New Jersey wins series, 4-2.

4-5 Matchup:

vs. 

You want a physical series? Well, this should be all that, and more. This is arguably the best first-round series in the entire playoffs this year. Both of these teams are capable of going very deep into the playoffs, but only one of them will get through the first-round. Pittsburgh was able to climb the standings this year at an incredible pace and become one of the best teams in hockey, all without Sidney Crosby in the lineup. They have what could be the deepest team in the league offensively, and their defense isn’t anything to ignore either. Pittsburgh has the best trio of centers in the NHL now that Crosby is back: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. This will make them a tough team for anyone to defend. Oh and by the way, the Penguins led the league in goals per game this season. Also, don’t forget they are only 3 years removed from winning the Cup and still have a number of players who were on that team, including Marc-Andre Fleury. The Flyers also have a very good offensive team, as they ranked second this season in goals per game. Their biggest problem is going to be defense. They went out and traded for Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina at the trade deadline, which will help, but I am still not convinced that their D-unit is strong enough to beat the Penguins. Also, despite the recent play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, I am not 100% sold that he can guide a team to the Stanley Cup. He showed too many weak spots early on this season. This is going to be a very entertaining series to watch, but I just don’t see the Flyers prevailing.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-2.

Check back later on for my Western Conference predictions.