Cubs living up to the hype

2015-11-07 13.59.52For the first time in a long time, we were expecting big things from the Cubs coming out of Spring Training this year. Talks of a division title and even, dare I say it, a World Series became common throughout the baseball world. Finally, us Cubs fans were seeing everything seem to perfectly align with their roster.

Here’s the thing: saying that the Cubs have the best lineup in baseball, (arguably) the best pitcher in baseball, and that they are likely the best overall team in baseball is easy. For the Cubs to then go out and perform well and live up to those expectations, however, is a completely different animal.

Not only do this year’s Cubs have the weight of a 108-year World Series title drought resting on their shoulders, but now they have the biggest expectations in franchise history joining that drought on their shoulders. Dealing with that kind of pressure directly out of Spring Training is no easy task, yet this Cubs team has embraced it.

Expectations for this year’s Cubs were/are incredibly high, and somehow they have met those expectations through the first full month of the season.

We knew the offense would be good, and possibly historically good with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, as well as the re-signing of Dexter Fowler. So far, we’re seeing pretty much what we had expected.

Through 25 games the Cubs have scored 153 runs, which is good for a tie atop the entire league with St. Louis, and they lead the league with a 6.12 runs per game average. They rank second in the Majors with a .362 on-base percentage. Their 134 walks are 18 more than any other team in baseball. And how about their run differential of +89. The next closest team in that category is +40. In fact, the Cubs current run differential is the best baseball has seen through 25 games since 1905. Let that sink in.

Let’s not only focus on the offense though. The Cubs’ pitching is more than deserving of recognition.

The 2.29 team ERA of the Cubs is the best in baseball, as is their grand total of 57 earned runs allowed (64 runs including unearned). Also the best in the Major Leagues is their .195 batting average against. The next closest in that department is Washington at .215. And just for kicks, they have allowed the fewest hits in baseball (153), and the fewest total bases against (239). They are tied with Cleveland for the fourth fewest walks allowed.

So not only has the offense performed well, but the Cubs’ pitching has been just as good, if not better.

As for individual performances thus far, Dexter Fowler leads all of baseball in on-base percentage at a .473 clip and is tied for fourth with a 1.8 WAR. On the mound, Jake Arrieta is second in the MLB among starters with a 0.84 earned run average, and is tied for the league lead with 6 victories. His .142 batting average against is second best in baseball, and he was the first pitcher this year to throw a no-hitter; his second since last August. In the big picture, Arrieta is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of starting pitching in Major League history.

The scary thing about this Cubs team is the fact that offensively, they haven’t hit their peak yet. Only two “everyday” players, Fowler and Bryant, have a batting average over .300, and only one other everyday player, Zobrist, has an average over .250. Jason Heyward, the prized free agent signing, has yet to hit a home run and has just a .211 average. When the weather in Chicago turns to summer and the temperature warms up, this offense has the potential to explode.

Expectations are one thing. Going out and meeting those expectations is another, and that is exactly what the Cubs, as a team, are doing. With a 5-game lead in the Central Division (7-game lead over St. Louis), the Cubs are in the best spot of any division-leading team in the game heading into the warmer months.

Sure there is still lots of time left in the season and virtually anything can still happen. However, there is no denying that the Cubs are scary-good this year with still lots of room to improve on the offensive side. This is shaping up to be an unforgettable summer and, hopefully, fall as well.

Quit the Arrieta accusations

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Arizona DiamondbacksIt has unfortunately become the “norm” for any breakout star in Major League Baseball to be accused of taking performance enhancing drugs. Whether the accusations are warranted or not, this has turned into a common trend in the MLB. The latest such instance involves Cubs pitcher, and reigning Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta.

Arrieta is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of starting pitching the game has ever seen. In fact, if he does not allow an earned run in his next start, he will break Bob Gibson’s MLB record for the lowest earned run average over a 20 game period. This season, Jake Arrieta has picked up right where he left off last season. He is 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA and has already thrown one no-hitter; his second no-hitter since last August.

In recent days, however, people have begun questioning if Arrieta has cheated his way to such dominance. Stephen A. Smith of ESPN even brought up this speculation on “First Take” with Skip Bayless Wednesday afternoon.

Not that I have any proof that Jake Arrieta is telling the truth when he denies these claims, but I firmly believe him when he says he has never taken a PED. Anyone who has knowledge of his workout routine or diets knows quite well that this guy takes care of his body and works to achieve his physical figure and baseball statistics.

It is sad that no great baseball player can be left alone without being accused of cheating his way to greatness. And the blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of past and even present MLB stars who have aggressively denied ever using PED’s, only to later test positive for using them. Players like Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryan Braun immediately come to mind as such players.

Jake Arrieta was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball while coming up through the Orioles’ farm system. He has always had good stuff and great potential, but only since joining the Cubs has he lived up to those expectations. People like Stephen A. Smith look at Arrieta’s lack of production with Baltimore and sudden dominance with the Cubs and automatically assume that this guy is cheating. My question is why?

Sure, the recent history of top baseball players being found guilty of using PED’s has created a culture of speculation in Major League Baseball. But do some thinking before jumping to conclusions.

Like I said, Arrieta was regarded as a top pitching prospect while coming up with Baltimore. He struggled in his first couple of years in the big leagues and was eventually demoted back to Triple A. Then he was dealt to the Cubs where he began working with new pitching coach Chris Bosio, who is one of the best in the game at what he does, and the success started. Arrieta has always had good stuff, but now he has finally figured out how to put it all together. It’s not as though he was some no name player with minimal potential who went from below average to dominant. The potential has always been there.

The bottom line here is that it is sad that no player can go from mediocre to great in baseball anymore without being questioned about the use of performance enhancing drugs. And the ones to blame are the guys that have been caught already, as well as the other players, coaches, and management that let guys like Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds get away with cheating for as long as they did.

Again, I have no way of knowing for sure whether or not Jake Arrieta or any other player is using PED’s, but to see professional sports journalists go on national TV and make accusations against a guy, with nothing to base them on other than statistics, makes me sick.

Arrieta has always had incredible stuff, but finally figured out how to use it all effectively once joining the Cubs. So let’s please stop this PED nonsense and just enjoy arguably the best stretch of starting pitching in the history of the game.

Blackhawks finally run out of gas in Game 7

2015-11-07 13.59.52It didn’t end the way the Blackhawks or any of us fans had hoped. Despite an incredible comeback to tie this first round series at three games apiece, the Hawks ran out of gas in Game 7 and lost to the Blues by a final score of 3-2. This year’s better team won, whether we want to accept that or not.

As much as it pains me to admit it, St. Louis turned out to be the deeper and better team in their opening round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks had the upper-hand in elite talent, but it was the depth-talent of the Blues that ultimately won them the series, and for just the second time since 2002, St. Louis will play in the second round of the playoffs.

Looking back on this incredible series that really could have gone either way, it was the Blackhawks’ lack of depth on the blue line that one could argue was the major difference between these two evenly matched teams. Joel Quenneville was forced to rely on rookies Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, and Viktor Svedberg throughout the series, which at times went just as poorly as you could imagine. And near the end of the series, David Rundblad was thrown into the fire. Here’s a guy that started the year with the Hawks, was allowed to go play in Europe due to his ineffectiveness in North American hockey, and was then brought back to the Blackhawks and relied upon to perform well in the most important games of the season. Needless to say, the Hawks badly needed another top four defenseman in this series, and they didn’t have one.

On top of that, their best players weren’t always their best players. Jonathan Toews was held off the scoresheet in all seven games, his first postseason in which he did not score. Patrick Kane only registered one goal (granted, it was a double overtime winner). Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were beaten more often than usual and turned the puck over too many times, and Corey Crawford had a few moments of mediocrity.

All of that, coupled with the team’s lack of defensive depth, was the right recipe for early elimination. Yet they still almost won out of sheer willpower.

No team in the NHL has played more playoff games since the 2009 postseason than the Blackhawks. Couple that with the fact that the Hawks are loaded with Olympians who have played in multiple Olympic games, and it’s fair to argue that these guys may be exhausted. They looked like it at times against the Blues. And in reality, this first round exit may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

For the first time since 2012, the Blackhawks will have a long summer by their standards. They will finally have time to rest and recover prior to next season. Also, losing this early should only ignite a fire within that locker room. For a team that may be the most competitive in the league, a first round exit like this should only motivate them more to reach their ultimate goal in the coming seasons.

Looking ahead, this should be a very interesting summer for the Hawks. They will once again be tight against the salary cap while trying to find a way to re-sign big pieces. Andrew Shaw, for instance, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will no doubt receive interest from multiple teams around the league. The Hawks will have to either find a way to pay him, or Shaw will be wearing different colors next season. They’ll also have to fill the spots currently occupied by Ladd, Rozsival, Weise, Fleischmann, and Panik. Panik, however, is the best bet of that bunch to return next year.

Then you have the Bryan Bickell situation. Bickell is still owed $4 million for one more year, which is a major killer in terms of the Hawks’ cap space. Stan Bowman worked really hard last summer and this season to trade Bickell and his contract, but there were no takers. Bowman will likely be tasked with the same challenge this summer, and whether or not he can execute it could play a huge role in the make-up of next season’s Blackhawks.

This first round exit hurts, a lot, but it’s not the end of the world. As maddening as it is to watch the Blues eliminate the Hawks, it’s important to look at the big picture.

Three times since 2010 we have watched massive parades fill the streets of Chicago thanks to the Blackhawks. They were one goal away from playing in three straight Stanley Cup Finals when they lost in overtime of Game 7 to the Kings in 2014. Despite some inevitable roster turnover again this summer, we are still living in the Golden Era of Blackhawks hockey. The fact that expectations in Chicago have become “Stanley Cup or bust” is a good thing, and something that not many teams or cities can compare to.

Dwelling on this loss for a few days, weeks, or even the summer is fine. The Hawks, had they won Game 7, may have gone on to do something special again. Who knows… But don’t get too down on this team. What they’ve done in recent years is nothing short of remarkable, and that cannot be overlooked.

Stan Bowman and the front office will again do what they can to make the Hawks as much of a contender as they can in the coming months. And given the core that is in place with this team, virtually anything is always possible.

Lack of depth has Hawks down 3-1; Shaw goes overboard

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Chicago BlackhawksTuesday night’s Game 4 between the Blackhawks and Blues at the United Center was about as close to a must-win game for the Blackhawks as a game can get without it technically being a must-win. And given the Hawks’ history in crucial games (43-14 record in games 4-7 under Joel Quenneville), there was some reason for optimism. Unfortunately for the Hawks, history meant nothing as they lost the game 4-3 and now trail St. Louis in the series 3-1.

The frustrating thing about this series is that the Blackhawks haven’t played bad. They certainly have not been playing at the elite level we’ve become used to seeing them reach in recent years, but each of the four games in this series really could have gone either way. A better bounce here or there, and the Hawks could be the ones up 3-1.

Despite all of that, it has become quite evident over the last four games that the Blackhawks’ depth is nowhere close to what we thought it might be following the trade deadline. The additions of Ladd, Fleischmann, and Weise looked like solid upgrades at the time. The Hawks badly needed to add forward depth, and they did just that. Unfortunately for them though, Fleischmann and Weise (and to an extent, Ladd) have not performed the way Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville had hoped. As a result, Dale Weise has only seen action in one playoff game thus far, while Tomas Fleischmann has played in each game but has nothing to show for it. In fact, he only got 5:13 of ice time in Game 4 and never touched the ice in the third period.

You can also credit the lack of depth on the Blackhawks’ blue line for this 3-1 series deficit. Christian Ehrhoff was acquire at the trade deadline along with the aforementioned three players, but he quickly wound up in Q’s doghouse and has yet to play in this first round series. Instead, it’s been a couple of rookies getting minutes as the team’s sixth defenseman, and that hasn’t exactly worked out too well.

And as if that wasn’t enough, maybe the biggest reason the Hawks find themselves in this hole is due to the fact that their top forwards have yet to score a goal. Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Ladd are all scoreless through the first four games. Each of them has had some golden chances to strike, but no one has yet. In a series this tight, the fact that the Hawks’ best scorers have been held scoreless is as big a reason as any as to why they are now facing elimination. The Blues on the other hand are getting goals from at least their top player.

I’m not ready to write off the Blackhawks in this series. I think anyone to do so would be a fool no matter how low your hopes may be. In the Joel Qunneville/Toews and Kane era, the Hawks have found themselves in a 3-1 series hole four separate times. Three of those times they battled back to force a seventh game, and won one of those Game 7’s. Heck even last year, the Hawks trailed Anaheim 2-1 and 3-2 only to come back and win the series. In the Stanley Cup Final they fell behind Tampa Bay 2-1 and won three straight games to clinch the Cup.

This team won’t go quietly. They are led by winners and world class competitors. I’m not saying that they’ll for sure force a seventh game or that they will even win Game 5. But don’t write them off until they are officially eliminated.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of Game 4 because I’ll get too upset again, but the actions of Andrew Shaw need to be mentioned here.

First of all, with your team trailing by one goal with just over two minutes left in regulation, the absolute last thing you can do is take a penalty and put your team shorthanded. Not only did Shaw take a penalty, but it was about as dumb of a penalty as you’ll see. You can’t just level a guy after the whistle in a game in which the referees already made it clear they weren’t going to put up with anymore extracurricular stupidity. As a result, the Hawks had to play out the final two minutes shorthanded and weren’t able to get the crucial 6-on-5 advantage with the goalie pulled. I’m not saying this is what lost them the game, but it sure as heck did not help.

Secondly, there is video showing Shaw allegedly using a gay slur towards a referee while sitting in the penalty box following the previously mentioned stupid penalty. After the game, Shaw was asked if he used the slur and his response neither admitted to it nor denied it. He answered by saying “I don’t know what I said.” If he did in fact use a gay slur, which it sure looks like he did based on the video, then the Blackhawks need to send a message before Game 5. This cannot be tolerated. You can argue that Shaw said it “in the heat of the moment,” but that’s no excuse. If it’s those words coming out of your mouth in a tense moment, then odds are those “words” are a regular part of your vocabulary.

I’ve played sports my whole life and have been so angry to the point where all I wanted to do was punch or throw something. Cuss words come out here and there, but to start throwing out slurs is not common or acceptable.

The Blackhawks have already messed up a couple of times this season with regards to how they handled the Patrick Kane and Garrett Ross situations. They have yet to own up to those. Now is their chance to finally do the right thing and suspend Shaw for at least the next game. Don’t wait for the NHL to conclude its investigation as they announced Wednesday morning. Do this on your own. Send a stern message that this organization won’t tolerate such behavior. For a team that has made it a point to reach out to the local gay community by bringing the Stanley Cup to the Pride Parade in recent years, they need to show that they will not accept something like this. My gut says that the Blackhawks front office won’t do a thing to Shaw, but who knows? Maybe the third time is the charm.

Aside from that, Shaw went on to further embarrass the Blackhawks by trying to start a fight after the final horn blew. Yes he took a shot to the mid-section from Alex Steen while lined up for the faceoff, but don’t lose your mind and go crazy trying to fight anything and everything that moves.

The Hawks’ image was severely hurt in the final minutes of Game 4, and mostly due to Shaw’s actions. He is set to be a restricted free agent this summer, and it was already being widely speculated that the Blackhawks would not re-sign him. After Tuesday night’s actions, Shaw may have made the Hawks’ decision for them.

Again, this series isn’t over. It does not look good for the Blackhawks, to say the least, but you can’t rule this team out until they are officially eliminated.

The Blackhawks’ offense must show up in Game 4

2015-11-07 13.59.52After three games of their best of seven first round series with the Blues, the Blackhawks find themselves in a 2-1 hole heading into Game 4 Tuesday night at the United Center. Through the first three games of this series, the Hawks have registered just 5 goals; one of which was an empty netter.

An area in which it looked like the Blackhawks would have the upper hand in this series, offense, has in fact favored the Blues thus far. St. Louis has been the better team in 5-on-5 play, and they lead the Hawks 51.1 to 48.9 in even strength Corsi. The Blackhawks did generate 46 shots in Game 3, 24 of which came in the second period, but they could only get just 2 goals out of it.

If the Blackhawks want to get themselves back even in this series and eventually go on to win it, they are going to need pucks to start entering the net behind Brian Elliott.

The Ladd, Toews, and Hossa line has been pretty good up to this point for the Hawks, but they have yet to tally a goal. Andrew Ladd had a great chance in the second period of Game 3, but his shot hit both posts before exiting the crease. Then you have the second line of Panarin, Anisimov and Kane, without question this team’s top line all season long. Only Anisimov has scored while Elliott was in the net, and that goal came in a 4-on-4 situation. Kane is still looking for his first goal. Between the six forwards on the Hawks’ bottom two lines, Andrew Shaw is the only one with a goal, and that came via a powerplay.

In total, the Blackhawks have ONE even strength, 5-on-5 goal through the first three games (Keith’s goal in the final seconds of the second period of Game 2). That just won’t be enough moving forward.

It is imperative that the Blackhawks’ top players show up in this series and begin making a difference. If they don’t, then it will be St. Louis moving on to the second round.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to start scoring and for their best players to actually be their best players:

  • Sustained offensive zone time. Aside from period two of Game 3, the Blackhawks have had a real tough time getting much set-up in their offensive zone. They’ve had some good shifts here and there, but nothing consistent. This needs to change. I know the Blues are one of the better defensive teams in hockey, but the Hawks simply have to find a way to put sustained offensive pressure on them. Rather than have one guy carry the puck into the o-zone time and time again, only to run into a wall of St. Louis defenders, the Hawks need multiple players entering the zone together to space out the Blues’ defense. With just the puck-carrier entering the zone, that allows the Blues to zero in on him and force him off the puck without being able to make a play. If you’ve got one or two other players entering the zone with the puck-carrier, you then don’t allow the Blues to hone in on the puck. They then have to stay spaced and account for the other players entering the zone. This may open up the opportunity to get a good cycle going and generate consistent and sustainable offensive zone time.
  • Depth. Unlike last year during the postseason, the Blackhawks are not getting much from their third and fourth lines. Granted we’re only three games into the playoffs, but this is still an issue. You may be able to win a series over a weaker team with only two lines contributing, but that won’t work against someone like St. Louis. The third line with Teravainen at center has got to get going. Brandon Mashinter, who started Game 1 on this line, is nothing but an anchor weighing down any line he’s on. He is one of the worst options you can have when trying to generate more puck possession. He was replaced by Richard Panik the last two games, while Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise have occupied the other wing. If the Hawks are to win this series, not only will they need some of their top forwards to start scoring, but this line will need to contribute offensively. They are not your typical checking third line, and instead are more of a skilled third line that if effective on offense can be a difference maker in a series.
  • Solve Elliott. This one kind of goes hand-in-hand with generating more offense and goals, but the Hawks have to figure out a way to beat Brian Elliott. You could say that he single-handedly won the Blues Game 3 by only allowing 2 goals on 46 shots against. And truthfully, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It has not been uncommon for the Hawks to be searching for answers against the opposing goalie through the first three games of a series. If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a team that seems to figure it out in Games 4-7, making their opponent’s goalie(s) look bad in the process. One way to potentially beat Elliott is by moving the puck laterally in the offensive zone. Create one-timers. Get Elliott moving side-to-side. He’s not the quickest in that regard and can be beaten in this fashion. In order to do this, look no further than my first point: create sustained offensive zone time.
  • Crawford. Corey Crawford has been phenomenal in this series. He has yet to allow a soft goal, and has come up with some massive saves at crucial times. This needs to continue. The Blues will be going for the kill in Game 4, so Crawford and the Hawks should expect an attempted offensive onslaught right from the start. Crow will have to stand tall and make all of the necessary saves, as well as some highlight reel saves.

The Blackhawks do not want to go down 3-1 against this Blues team. Getting a win in Game 4 to even things up would be huge. To do that, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to try and execute the above points.

As I briefly touched on, the Blackhawks are historically a much better team in Games 4-7. Since 2010, their record in those games is 43-14, and they have come back to win the series 9 times after trailing in it 2-1. Needless to say, this is not an unfamiliar position for them to be in.

If the Hawks are still having trouble generating offense at the halfway point of Tuesday night’s Game 4, look for Joel Quenneville to start tinkering with the lines. In all honesty, it was a bit surprising that he didn’t do so more aggressively in the third period of Game 3.

I’ll say it right now: If the Hawks win Game 4, they will win this series.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

And just like that, the best time of the year is finally back. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night after a long and grueling regular season. Some teams steam rolled their way into the postseason as others backed their way in while relying on help from other teams around the league. Nonetheless, we’re in for a couple months of heart-stopping hockey.

Each year I take some time to make my predictions for every playoff series, and this year is no different. This is one of my favorite topics to write about, so let’s get to it.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

It’s not the most marquee matchup on tap in the first round, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be an exciting one. These are two relatively young teams that built from the ground up over the past few years and now get to try and prove themselves in the postseason. The Islanders were in the playoffs just last season and were eliminated in a tough seven game series against the Capitals. This is a team that is looking to finally get over that first round hurdle and advance to the second round. They are led by what can be a potent top two lines featuring John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen, but after that they take a bit of a dip in production. Defensively, the Islanders have a pretty solid unit led by Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and company. In net, they’ll likely be turning to Thomas Greiss as Jaroslav Halak is sidelined with an injury. This could end up being the biggest factor in this series as Halak has been a pretty good postseason performer in his career and has the talent to steal any game. With him out, lots of pressure shifts to Greiss and Chris Gibson if called upon.

On the Panthers’ side of things, this team may have been the best surprise of the year from start to finish. Dale Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s 2010 Cup-winning team, is working his magic again in south Florida. His compilation of young talent mixed with skilled and experienced veterans such as Jagr, Campbell, and Luongo have proven to be a solid formula all year long and led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division crown. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell have worked out quite well so far and give the Panthers decent forward depth from nearly top to bottom. On the blue line they have a solid top three defensemen, but after that they go downhill just a bit. They will need their top two defensive pairs to stay strong for them to remain the better team in this series. Even if the Florida defense does begin to falter, they have one of the game’s top goaltenders standing between the pipes to back them up.

Ultimately, the Panthers are the better team in this series in nearly every aspect, most importantly in net. The Islanders will need to play their best hockey of the year to reel off four more wins.

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Islanders – 84.5% PK; Panthers – 2.44 GAA

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

On the one hand we have a Red Wings team that just clinched their twenty-fifth consecutive playoff berth. On the other, a Lightning squad looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. First things first though for the latter of the two. Detroit will not be an easy out. They are no longer led by head coach Mike Babcock, but the same mentality still exists in that locker room. Guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Richards, and Kronwall who have all been here before many, many times know what it takes to win in the playoffs. When you add in the youth of players such as Dylan Larkin, this team has a nice combination of experience and fresh legs. And despite them barely making the postseason, the Red Wings have pretty good forward depth, which is always a must in the postseason. They ranked 8th this season in goals scored per game. Defensively they ran into some trouble while finishing 17th in goals against average, but this team still has the ability to turn in strong defensive performances. What once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now anything but: who starts in goal for Game 1? Given the minutes Jimmy Howard played down the stretch, don’t be shocked if it’s him in net and not Petr Mrazek, who started 49 games this year.

As for the Lightning, they are returning to the playoffs with *mostly* the same team they had last year at this time. The two big differences, and they’re big ones, are the absence of captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg). Neither player is expected to return to the lineup this spring, although the odds are better for Stamkos. The question with this team now is whether or not they can overcome those two losses to still be successful in the playoffs. You can’t replace Steven Stamkos from within, although Jonathan Drouin was recalled to take his roster spot. And in the case of the Lightning, they have no actual replacement for Stralman either. Can they still win a series? Of course. They still have some really solid forward depth that can score at a frequent pace, and they still have Victor Hedman leading the defense. Also, they own one of the league’s best netminders in Ben Bishop who can single handedly win a series. While losing Stamkos and Stralman hurts, big time, it’s not the end of the world for Tampa Bay, or at least not in the first round.

I think we’ll see a very competitive series between these two much like we did a year ago. In the end, I think goaltending is the deciding factor. You could say that in just about any series, but with uncertainty for the Wings in that area and the opposite for the Lightning, it will play a big role in this series.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Red Wings – 22nd in penalty minutes; Lightning – Bishop 2.06 GAA (1st in NHL, minimum 40 GP)

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

This could potentially end up being the best series of the first round in the East if everything goes right. Beginning with the team from Philly, the Flyers rode a hot wave through the last month or so of the season to earn themselves the East’s last wild card spot. They have been getting production all year long from the likes of Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, as was expected. What wasn’t necessarily expected was the sudden emergence of Brayden Schenn as a point-producer (career high 59 points), or Shayne Gostisbehere as one of the league’s best offensive d-men as a rookie (46 points). Offensive depth has been an issue for the Flyers this year, but the increased and added production from those two players are a huge reason why this team is in the playoffs. To now go on and win in the playoffs, they’ll need contributions from top to bottom. This is a team that ranked 22nd in goals per game, so they’ll either need pucks to start going in the net more regularly, or their defense (12th in GAA) will need to get even better, which isn’t out of the question. Steve Mason, who started 17 of the team’s final 18 games in net, is another major reason this team made the playoffs. He has had spurts here and there where he is incredibly tough to score on. The Flyers will need that to happen again starting now.

Taking on the Flyers is this year’s President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Caps closed out their season with a whopping 120 points and really don’t appear to have many flaws in their game. To find support for that statement, look no further than the fact that Washington ranked second league-wide in both goals per game and fewest goals against per game, and led the NHL with a +59 goal differential. That’s a deadly combination regardless of how you look at it. Alex Ovechkin reached the 50 goal plateau for the seventh time in his career, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with 77. Offensively, this may be the deepest and most dangerous team in hockey. While that’s all nice, the Capitals are one of the strongest defensive teams in the league as well. They are fully healthy on their blue line, led by a top four of Alzner, Niskanen, Orpik, and Carlson, and have a young d-man in Dmitry Orlov who took his game up to another level this year on both sides of the puck. Then you have that guy standing in the blue paint who tied Martin Brodeur for the single-season win record with 48 to go with only 9 regulation losses. Braden Holtby also finished 6th in goals against average, and 8th in save percentage. Needless to say, Washington is pretty stacked everywhere you look.

Having said all of that, the Flyers are a tough team to play against almost every night. They have virtually zero pressure on them as everyone expects the Capitals to play deep into the postseason. The Philly faithful also give the Flyers one of the best home-ice advantages in hockey. I’m expecting this series to be a close one, with the possibility of a huge upset.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Flyers – 5th in shots per game; Capitals – 5th ranked PP, 2nd ranked PK

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

It feels like these two meet every year in the playoffs, and here we are again. The Rangers, Eastern Conference champions just two seasons ago, and runner up last year, are looking to make another deep playoff push this spring. They added Eric Staal at the trade deadline, which has worked out pretty well to this point, and own one of the deepest forward groups of any team in the playoffs. That being said, their top six is not as lethal as most other teams’ top six. They don’t have an Ovechkin, Kane, Perry, Giroux, and so on. They do have Rick Nash, but he once again underperformed this year and, despite last year, does not have a great track record in the postseason. What tends to win games for the Rangers this time of year is their defense and goaltending. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be without their top defenseman and captain, Ryan McDonagh, for at least the beginning of the first round. This means guys like Girardi, Marc Staal, Yandle, and Klein will pick up more minutes and be heavily relied upon against a potent offense in Pittsburgh. Henrik Lundqvist will for sure have his hands full in net, but like we’ve seen in the past, is more than capable of getting the job done.

For Pittsburgh, they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin for likely the whole first round. He is about four weeks into what is supposed to be a six to eight week recovery from an “upper-body” injury. Despite his absence, the Penguins caught fire in the final weeks of the regular season and landed second in the Metropolitan Division. Sidney Crosby, after a slow start to the season, finished third league-wide in points (85) and is looking like his old self again. The Penguins also have Phil Kessel this time around, who has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s offensive success this year (3rd in NHL in goals per game as a team). Where Pittsburgh gets thin is their bottom two forward lines and 4-6 defensemen. It could be repeated a million times and still be a valid point: depth is crucial in the playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s case, they lack good enough depth to be considered a strong Cup contender. Add in that Marc-Andre Fleury is recovering from a concussion (he could play Game 1), and the Penguins may be in trouble.

This series is a tough one to decide on. You’ve got a deep team in the Rangers who are without their top d-man and captain going against a not as deep, but top heavy team in the Penguins. If New York can keep Crosby in check, they’ll win the series for sure.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Rangers – 26th in PK%; Penguins – 2nd in CF%

WESTERN CONFERENCE

New_Dallas_Stars vs. New_Dallas_Stars

Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

Finally we get a matchup of the old North Stars versus the North Stars’ Minnesota-replacement, the Wild. Minnesota comes into this one as losers of five straight games to close out the regular season. If it wasn’t for Colorado losing their last six games of the season, this could be a different matchup. But here we are nonetheless. It was revealed within the last few days that Zach Parise, Minnesota’s leading scorer in the regular season, could miss an indefinite amount of time due to aggravating a herniated disk in his back. This is about the worst news the Wild could have gotten as there is no way they win a series without Parise. But, to try and move on they’ll need big contributions from players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Jason Pominville, etc. There’s no easy way to replace a Zach Parise-type player. Also, add in that Vanek may not even play in the first round and that Erik Haula is “iffy” for Game 1, and you begin to see a big problem for Minnesota. They’ll have to heavily rely on their defense and Devan Dubnyk to slow down the Stars’ offense.

Speaking of the Stars, they finished the year as champions of arguably the best division in hockey while leading the NHL in goals scored. Jamie Benn ended the season with 89 points (good for 2nd in the league), and Tyler Seguin, despite missing 10 games, finished with 73. However, it is unclear whether Seguin will be ready for round one due to an Achilles injury that has kept him sidelined since March. Even if he does miss this series, or the majority of it, the Stars should still be in good shape. What Dallas has to worry most about is their goaltending. Their team save percentage is .904, which is tied for the 4th worst in the NHL. It will likely be Kari Lehtonen starting in Game 1 for the Stars over Antti Niemi, but nothing is official as of yet. Luckily for Dallas, they are going against a Minnesota team that finished 18th in goals per game and will be without their top scorer. While Dallas doesn’t have a ton of postseason experience, the addition of players such as Sharp, Oduya, and Spezza who have all either won the Cup or played deep into the postseason should help them get through some rough patches.

The Wild are already in a hole in this series due to injuries, and they’ll need lots of fortunate occurrences to come out on top.

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

STAT TO KNOW: Wild – 27th in PK%; Stars – 4th in PP%

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

This series may be the single best matchup in the entire first round of the playoffs. The two teams met five times in the regular season, and three of those times the game was decided in overtime or a shootout. For the Blackhawks, they’ll be without Duncan Keith for Game 1 as he finishes up his six game suspension. Other than that, everyone else is ready to go. Their second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane cooled off a bit in March, but has since regained their early season form. Kane ended the year leading the league in points and finished with 46 goals. Panarin led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), and points (77). Those two alone can win a series if they continue to fire on all cylinders. The top line of Ladd, Toews, and Hossa started to increase their production until Hossa went down with back-to-back injuries, but now they’re all healthy and will need to create offense yet again. Where Chicago has the potential to make themselves the Cup favorite lies within their bottom two lines. If they get production from their fourth line again like they did last spring with the same three players, and if their third line continues to create chances like they have been as of late, they’ll be an extremely tough out for any team. Their weakness is their defense. They have yet to find a way to fully replace Johnny Oduya and have had a revolving door on their bottom pair. Corey Crawford will likely be tested in this one, and he’ll somehow have to regain his mid-season form to help his team advance.

The Blues come into the first round with everyone back and healthy. They finished the year ranked 4th in fewest goals against average, and 1st in team save percentage. Obviously, this is a team that relies on keeping the puck out of their net to be successful. When you look at their forward lines, you definitely notice that they have really good depth, but they lack that top-end firepower. Sure, Tarasenko was a 40-goal scorer this season, but after that they do not match up with Chicago in terms of offense. Where St. Louis is going to win or lose this series is defense. Can they stop Chicago’s offense, or limit it, for four games out of seven? We’ll see. They definitely have the defensive corps and goaltending to do it, but actually doing it successfully for a whole playoff series is not easy. If they can shutdown the Blackhawks’ 2nd ranked powerplay, St. Louis will have a good shot at winning this series. However, while the Blues do have the league’s third best penalty kill, they have a tendency to end up in the box as they ranked 9th in penalty minutes this year. In what will be a physical series, the Blues are going to have to not be dumb and take stupid penalties that will give the Blackhawks more powerplay time.

I’m expecting a bruising series here, and one that could potentially go seven games. In the end though, Chicago’s ability to score along with their experience in the playoffs should put them over the top.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Blackhawks – 2nd in PP%; Blues – 5th in Faceoff %

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper vs. ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

What we have here is a matchup of two of the NHL’s best teams over the course of the second half of this season. Nashville started the year pretty slow, then they acquired Ryan Johansen in exchange for Seth Jones and everything seemed to turn around. They rank near the middle of the pack in most offensive and defensive categories, yet they still have decent forward depth and one of the league’s best sets of top four defensemen. Given the Ducks’ offensive capabilities, the Predators will need that defense to elevate their game to the next level. Pekka Rinne, who had a subpar season by his standards, cannot take a night off at this point. His team will need to ride on his shoulders from time to time in this series. If Nashville can get timely scoring, especially from their top guys such as Forsberg and Neal, they’ll have a shot in this series.

For Anaheim, they simply just need to play their game. They have the edge in talent and depth over Nashville, they’re one of the top teams in possession (52.4% Corsi rating), and they are the top team on both the powerplay and penalty kill. They have suffered some injuries to players such as David Perron, Rickard Rakell, and Kevin Bieksa, and it’s unclear which, if any, of those players will see ice time in this series. Where they could run into problems is on defense. The Ducks run a little thin in this department, and a good offensive team could potentially give them trouble.

On paper, the Ducks should have this thing locked up. They have the talent and statistical edge over Nashville. However, anything could always happen.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Predators – 1st in fewest shots against/game; Ducks – 1st in PP% and PK%

crestonwht_rgb vs. third_jersey_logo

Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

Who doesn’t love another good rivalry in the first round? Next to Chicago – St. Louis, this is the next most heated matchup of the opening round. The Sharks weren’t even really supposed to be a playoff team this season, but General Manager Doug Wilson kept his core players intact and it has paid off so far. Joe Thornton (82 points) had what many are calling a Hart Trophy-worthy season if not for Patrick Kane, and he was closely followed by Joe Pavelski (78) and Brent Burns (75). What was most impressive about the Sharks this season in both a good and bad sense was the fact that they led the NHL in road victories with 28, but had the fewest home wins (18) of any team to make the playoffs. For a team that has always had a great home ice advantage, their home woes this season are mind boggling. Will it be an issue in the playoffs? Maybe, except that they do not have home ice advantage in this series, which may benefit them. Aside from that, the Sharks rank 4th in goals per game and 10th in goals against average. Their blue line is surprisingly deep, and they have two solid goalies. Martin Jones appears ready to get the Game 1 start, but if he falters early look for James Reimer to replace him.

Standing in the Sharks’ way is the team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cups: the Kings. This is what Los Angeles lives for. They aren’t a great regular season team, but as soon as the playoffs begin, they become one of the best teams in hockey. They have the depth at forward and the right goaltender to go all the way, but for once it’s the defense that may hurt them. That’s not to say that their defensive unit is a bad one by any means, but they aren’t what they were during their previous two Cup runs. Aside from that, L.A. did lead the NHL in possession numbers this season and ranked 3rd in shots per 60 minutes of play. If they can find their playoff form again after a year off from the postseason, look out.

The Sharks always give L.A. problems. They were up 3-0 on the Kings two years ago in the playoffs, but ended up losing four straight. I’m not saying that exact same thing will take place again, but the Kings are in for a tough series.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Sharks – 4th in goals per game; Kings – 1st in possession

Previewing the Blackhawks’ Potential First Round Playoff Mathups

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis BluesHeading into Tuesday night’s matchup between the Blackhawks and Coyotes at the United Center, the Hawks sit third in the Central Division with 99 points, while the Stars and Blues are tied atop the division with 105. The Blackhawks do have a game in-hand on both Dallas and St. Louis, but that won’t matter unless the Hawks get two points against Arizona. Given how the standings currently look, let’s breakdown who the Hawks may meet in the first round of the playoffs, and who they should prefer to meet.

We’ll start with Dallas.

If the playoffs started today, we would see a St. Louis – Chicago showdown in the first round. With the Blues and Stars tied for the top spot in the Central and each with two games left on their schedules, a lot can still take place, however. Heck, even the Hawks aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the division. If St. Louis were to end up taking the division title, we would get a Stars – Blackhawks first round series.

This regular season, the Hawks went 1-4 against Dallas, and all of their losses were of the ugly sort. Needless to say, the Stars gave the Blackhawks some problems this year. While some may be inclined to think much of the same would occur in a playoff series between the two teams, that won’t exactly be the case.

Dallas is the league’s best offensive team with two of the game’s best scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’ve also got the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and even John Klingberg, who developed into one of the NHL’s best offensive d-men this year. They are a deep team at forward and can roll four lines rather effectively.

Defensively, Dallas has some depth as well. The emergence of Klingberg as an elite offensive defenseman has been huge for the Stars, as has the addition of defensive specialist Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is expected to be out of the lineup for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury, and when he returns, Dallas has three decent defensive pairings.

The Stars’ biggest knock is their ability, or sometimes lack thereof, to keep pucks out of their own net. While their defense is built with recognizable names, they aren’t exactly the best group when it comes to actually playing defense. Like Klingberg, this is a defensive unit that is stronger in the offensive zone than they are in the defensive zone more often than not. Add in their goaltending, which ranks in the bottom five in total save percentage and allows an average of 2.80 goals per game, and you begin to understand that this is purely an offensive team.

Dallas ranks fourth in the NHL in CorsiFor (CF%) percentage (number of shot attempts a team generates, whether on goal or not, compared to their opponent), which means they’re a team that plays with possession of the puck more frequently than they do not. This is just how they want it given their issues defensively and in net.

In a potential Blackhawks – Stars series, the key for each team would become puck possession. The Stars need the puck so that their offensive weapons can do their thing. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, would need the puck to prevent the Stars’ forwards from doing what they do best: scoring goals. While the Hawks rank in the middle of the pack in CF%, they still own the ability to be one of the league’s best puck possession teams. Given how the Blackhawks seem to dial up their intensity come playoff time, it’s not out of the question that they could be the better possession team in this potential series.

As for St. Louis, they are somewhat the opposite of Dallas in terms of their team strengths.

Unlike the Stars, the Blues pride themselves on defense and goaltending. That is why they rank fifth league-wide in fewest goals against per game, and first in team save percentage. Their defense is led by a top four that is very solid in the defensive zone, unlike Dallas, who have two goalies behind them in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen that both own save percentages in the .920’s. Defense is without question the strength of the Blues.

Aside from the strong defensive capabilities, this team also ranks top ten in CF%. It’s a tough combination to try and go up against. However, despite the strong possession and Corsi numbers, St. Louis is 14th in goals per game. Therein lies their biggest problem.

It seems to be the case every year with the Blues: they have a strong defensive team, but not enough offensive firepower to advance deep into the postseason. You can rank as high as you want in CF%, but if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it will eventually come back to bite you. Granted, the Blues are in the top half of the league in goals per game, but their offensive depth is what could hurt them yet again.

When you look at their individual statistics, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 71 points. Next is Alex Steen with 51, followed by three players in the 40s. Their bottom two lines are not very productive offensively, which usually spells trouble in the playoffs. It is due to this weakness that the Blues have not made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the previous four seasons, while being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. Obviously anything could theoretically happen this time around, but the 2015-16 Blues look, on paper, awfully similar to the previous four Blues teams to have made the postseason only to be quickly eliminated.

So looking at the two most likely candidates to face the Blackhawks in the first round, which one should the Hawks prefer?

While I hate “wishing” for a specific opponent (that usually ends poorly), I believe the Blackhawks would be better off getting the Blues in round one. Here’s why:

  1. The Hawks defense can be vulnerable, to say the least. Losing Johnny Oduya was a killer, and the Hawks are still trying to find his replacement on the team’s second d-pairing. Also, Corey Crawford has missed the last 9 games due to injury. Although he is expected back for Game 1 of the first round, who knows how much rust he’ll have to clean off himself. Given those two factors and the fact that Dallas is league’s best offensive team, I’d rather go up against a team like the Blues that isn’t as offensively strong. The Blackhawks’ offense and depth can be good enough to beat a solid defensive team.
  2. There is a certain “familiarity” that the Blackhawks have with the Blues. They’ve recently gone up against each other in the playoffs and know the tendencies that the Blues have on both sides of the puck. Joel Quenneville is no stranger to playing the matchup game against Ken Hitchcock, and he usually wins that battle. Bottom line here is that it would be easier for the Hawks to draw up a gameplan against the Blues than it would be to draw one up against a Stars team that despite playing in the same division, the Hawks are not as familiar with.
  3. Lastly, and feel free to take this one for whatever it may or may not be worth, the Stars have owned the Blackhawks this season. They have a 4-1 record against the Hawks and made Chicago look relatively bad in each of those four Dallas victories. Needless to say, the Stars would head into a series against the Blackhawks with loads of confidence. Again, that might not even be a factor, especially against a Hawks team that could care less about what happened in the regular season, but you never know. The Stars going 4-1 against the Hawks this year has to mean something, even if only a little.

There are pros and cons to playing the Blues and Stars in a seven game series. All I’m doing here is trying to highlight those factors and determine which ones are more important than the others when looking at potential playoff matchups.

With just three games left for the Blackhawks (2 for both the Blues and Stars), the Hawks’ best hope is to win out and have both St. Louis and Dallas lose their last two games. This would vault the Hawks into first in the division and guarantee them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The next best option is to have the Blackhawks win their last three games, while just one of St. Louis or Dallas lose their final two. This would allow the Hawks to finish second in the Central and have home ice in round one. Keep in mind that the Blackhawks play the Blues on Thursday, and then St. Louis finishes their schedule at home against the Capitals. If both St. Louis and Dallas win just one more game, however, or if the Hawks lose one, the Hawks are guaranteed third place.

The push for a better playoff seed begins Tuesday night against Arizona for the Blackhawks. Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, and Corey Crawford are all out due to injury, while Duncan Keith serves the third game of his six-game suspension.