NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals prediction

The East began the season looking like a very weak conference. Its teams seemed far inferior to those out west, and they didn’t help themselves by putting up a bad overall conference record against the Western Conference. However, with the second half of the season came some improved play by the East, and it was Boston that ended up winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season. Unlike the Western Conference, I can only see two real Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference: Boston and Pittsburgh. I’m not saying no one else will have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone else to come out of the East.

So with that, here we go.

1-4 Matchup:

Boston_Bruins_logo vs. DRW Logo

I think this is a great first round series. There’s nothing better than two Original Six teams squaring off against one another in the playoffs. For a while, it was looking like the Red Wings might miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, but as usual they found a way into the postseason with 93 points and as the East’s last wild card team. Detroit finished the season ranked sixteenth in both goals per game and goals-against per game, neither of which is good. Right now, they are battling some injuries to key players such as their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who isn’t expected back until possibly late in round one if not later than that. Pavel Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after a knee injury, and his presence on the ice should be a big uplift for this Wings team. For them to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist to come up big on the offensive end. Nyquist ended the regular season as arguably the hottest player in the league, and the Wings will need him to stay hot for this series. Defensively, Detroit has battled some injuries this year as well. Young replacements such as Ouellet, Sproul, and Lashoff will getting their first real taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Their age and lack of experience could hurt them big time in this series against an elite and proven team like the Bruins. Jimmy Howard is going to have his hands full in net with a lack of defensive support in front of him, so he will need to be outstanding from the opening puck drop to the final whistle of each game. If the Wings want any chance, they are simply going to have to out-work and want this series more than Boston. They almost knocked off the Blackhawks last season using that same recipe.

The Bruins are coming in to this postseason playing the best hockey of any team in the entire NHL. I don’t think you can even begin to argue that any team had a better second half of the season than Boston. Not only did they win the President’s Trophy, but they finished the season third in goals per game, and second in GA/G. No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in both categories. Their defense is arguably the best in the league (right up there with LA), and their goalie is most likely going to win this year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Defense wins championships, and Boston has what may be the best defense you’ll find if you take their forwards into consideration. Zdeno Chara is always one of the top d-men in the league, and his partner Dougie Hamilton (when will he switch it to just “Doug?”) is becoming a rather strong defensemen as well at a young age. That brings me to my greatest concern with this team. The youthfulness of their defensive corps. Bartkowski, Hamilton, Krug, and Miller are all rather young, with Hamilton (20) and Krug (23) being the youngest. Both Hamilton and Krug saw action during the Bruins playoff run last year, but I still wonder whether they will crumble under immense pressure this time around. This Bruins team has very few weaknesses, but lack of experience from their young d-men is one of them.

I’m expecting the Bruins to keep on rolling and not have much of a problem on offense or in net this series. It’s their young defensemen that have me a little worried, especially if they advance deeper into the playoffs. Detroit will need to play their best hockey of the year to win this, which I wouldn’t necessarily put past them as long as they still have Mike Babcock behind their bench.

-Boston wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

TampaBayLightning_LOGO vs. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

This is an interesting matchup in that I don’t think many people predicted the Lightning to end up with a 2-seed. More on that in a bit. Montreal enters these playoffs as the only representative from Canada. A lot of pressure on them to win right there alone. They finished out the regular season with 100 points, and ranked twenty first in goals per game, and eighth in GA/G. Goal scoring is their biggest weakness. Max Pacioretty led the team with 60 points (39G, 21A), followed by P.K. Subban with 53 points as a defenseman. If you look at their lineup, you would think that this is a deep team with a lot of scoring potential on all lines, especially now that they have Thomas Vanek on their top line. That just hasn’t been the case however, and they’ll need to start scoring with more frequency beginning now. On defense, Montreal’s top pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will need to find a way to slow down Steven Stamkos. These two have been good all year, and they’ll need to be even better this series. P.K. Subban will need to step up his defensive game as well. This is an area in which he has been criticized throughout his career. Carey Price could have his work cut out for him in goal against the Lightning, so he’ll need to start playing like he did during the Olympics. However, he may be the least of my concerns with the Canadiens.

As for the Lightning, you have to give this team an awful lot of credit for playing as well as they did earlier this season when they were without Stamkos. The highest point total by any player on their roster this year was just 59, yet they still ranked ninth in goals per game. That is a testament to the balance in their lineup. The Lightning have been getting contributions from just about everyone in their lineup offensively, so it should be interesting to see how effective their depth players can be in this series. Valtteri Filppula has proven to be a much bigger signing than anyone thought he would be when he inked a deal with Tampa last off-season. He finished the season second on this team in points, with 25 goals and 33 assists. Defensively, the Lightning ranked eleventh in GA/G, thanks in large part to goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop finished the year with the fourth most wins of any goalie and with a 2.23 GAA. Those are very solid numbers. Unfortunately, he has been ruled out for Game One of this series with an elbow injury. The extent and severity of his injury could determine just how far Tampa goes this postseason. Anders Lindback is going to have to step up big time in Bishop’s absence. The defensive corps for Tampa is a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Guys like Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman are going to need to carry the young guys until they can get comfortable playing in a playoff atmosphere.

This series is a tough one to predict. For me, the outcome will be determined by Ben Bishop’s injury. If he only misses Game One, I think Tampa Bay can win this series. If Bishop is out for two, three, or more games, the Lightning may be in trouble. I’m going to assume the worst for Bishop and the Lightning, however.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

174 vs. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

I love this matchup. Columbus comes into this series after a very successful season by their standards (93 points), and they are playing with a ton of confidence. You might not find another team in the NHL that works as hard as the Blue Jackets. This team goes all out every night and lays everything on the line. They make their opponents work for everything. They ranked twelfth is goals per game and thirteenth in goals against this season, neither of which is great or bad. Offensively, Ryan Johansen had a breakout year and led the team with 63 points (33G, 30A). He is the glue to this team’s offense, and hopefully for Columbus he continues playing well into this series. The depth of the Jackets at their forward positions is underrated. Guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu are very solid players who can make a difference on a nightly basis. On defense, Jack Johnson had a bit of a down season, but he is still a strong defenseman who can play some big minutes. Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, the Jackets’ top d-pairing, will have their hands full against Pittsburgh, but their work ethic is what gives them a decent shot at slowing down the Penguins’ offense. Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina winner, put together another good season this year with a record of 32-20-5 and a 2.38 GAA. He will need to be great this series. To me, he is one of two keys to this series, with the other being his opposing goalie.

The Penguins ended the regular season with 109 points, which was good for second in the East. The finished fifth in goals per game and tenth in GA/G. They have always been a high scoring team, and that was the case again this year. Their powerplay ranked first in the NHL, thanks to guys like Crosby, Kunitz, and Malkin. For them to win this series, they will need continued success with the man advantage. Their offensive game really needs no further explanation because I think we all know who we’re talking about there. On defense, the Penguins have one of the deeper defensive units in the game, led by their top pairing of Orpik and Martin. Kris Letang just returned after a long absence from the lineup due to a stroke that he suffered earlier this year. His presence on the back end is a huge boost for this team. Now we get to the good stuff: Marc-Andre Fleury. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’09, Fleury has been extremely inconsistent in the playoffs. Two years ago, he played horrible in a series against Philadelphia and the Penguins were eliminated earlier than most thought they would be. Last year, Fleury was yanked early in Pittsburgh’s series with the Islanders, and sat on the bench for the remainder of their playoff run. How he plays and deals with this year’s playoff pressure could decide just how far the Penguins will go. If he plays like he did this regular season, Pittsburgh should make it to at least the Conference Finals. If Fleury regresses back to the player he was a year ago, the Pens could be going home really early.

I am anxious for this series to begin because I think it could be one of the better series of the whole first round. Columbus’ work ethic against Pittsburgh’s skill and experience will be fun to watch. Keep an eye on Fleury early in Game One. If he gives up a quick one or two goals, the Penguins may be in trouble.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.

2-3 Matchup:

144 vs. 161

This has all the makings of a heated first round series. These two teams have never liked each other, and this year has been no different. The Flyers got off to a really slow start to the season, which led to head coach Peter Laviolette getting fired only a few games in. Since then, however, new head coach Peter Berube has turned the team back in the right direction. Philadelphia finished off their season with with 94 points, and team captain Claude Giroux is getting heavy consideration for this year’s Hart Trophy. He led the team with 86 points and was a huge reason for the Flyers’ turnaround back before the Olympic break. Philadelphia ranked eighth if goals per game this year, while finishing twentieth in goals-against per game. That last stat is something this team needs to get better heading into the playoffs. The Flyers defense isn’t necessarily bad, but they haven’t performed very well this season. The ageless Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up Philly’s top d-pairing, followed by Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossman, and  Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. On paper that looks good, but they just haven’t performed up to expectations this year on the back end. In goal, it’ll be Steve Mason for the Flyers. He had a decent year this year with a 33-18-7 record while averaging 2.50 goals-against per game. For the Flyers to win this series, they’ll need Mason and their defensemen to perform as well as they have all season.

The Rangers ended the regular season with 96 points, which is actually pretty good considering the start that they got off to back in October/November. They ranked eighteenth in goals per game this year, while ranking fourth in GA/G. They can thank Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh for that. McDonagh put together a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign this season, and while he most likely won’t win the trophy, he’s bound to win one sooner or later in his career if he keeps progressing. McDonagh is coming off a recent upper body injury, and the Rangers will need him to be healthy if they want any success this postseason. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis who is also coming off an injury. For obvious reasons, New York needs St. Louis to be healthy and in the lineup for the playoffs. He is a world-class playmaker and goal-scorer, and they can’t afford to have him injured. The key for the Rangers in this series may be their third and especially fourth line. New York’s fourth line has come up big a number of times for them this season, and if they do so in the playoffs, that’ll be a huge plus for this team. I am not too worried about Henrik Lundqvist, as he has played in numerous playoff series and has always performed well.

This is bound to be a bruising series and one that will be very entertaining to watch. If I’m the Flyers, I am hoping and praying that Steve Mason doesn’t crumble under the pressure of playing in the postseason. Their team defense isn’t great, so they’ll need Mason to be very good. As for New York, if they get quality ice time and production from their depth players, they will have a good shot at advancing. This is a tough series to call, but in the end, I have to go with the better goalie.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

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Blackhawks gaining ground/ NHL update

Ryan-MillerSince their loss to the Predators on March 14th at the United Center, the Blackhawks have all of a sudden achieved seven points in their last four games and have taken a three point lead over the Avalanche for second place in the Central Division. With the Blues’ loss earlier today in Philadelphia, the Blackhawks now have a chance to bring the deficit between them and St. Louis down to just two points for the division lead if they can win tomorrow night against Nashville and if the Blues lose in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long ago that the Blues had a nine point edge and the Avs a one point edge over the Hawks, but things can change quickly in the NHL as we are currently witnessing.

For the Blackhawks to hold onto second place in the Central or take the division lead, they are going to need a lot of guys to step up. With Patrick Kane now sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, they need to fill his shoes by committee. In last night’s win over Carolina, Sharp (who had been in a major scoring slump) and Versteeg both stepped up to the plate and delivered with big goals to help lead the Hawks to a 3-2 win. Toews added the third and game-winning goal in typical Jonathan Toews fashion. The Blackhawks will need guys like Sharp, Versteeg, Shaw, Bickell, and Saad to pick up their game down the final stretch here to help make up for Kane’s absence from the lineup.

7327531One positive that we can take away from Kane’s injury is the fact that it opened up a roster spot for Teuvo Teravainen, the number four prospect in the NHL who’s team in Finland was just eliminated from their playoffs last week. Teravainen was introduced to the media on Friday and is expected to see playing time within the next two games. How well he adapts to the NHL and ultimately how well he plays will determine whether or not he becomes an everyday starter for this team from here on out. The Blackhawks badly need a number two center, and Teuvo Teravainen appears to be that guy in the future. Can he be that guy right now is the real question, however. Only time will tell. If Teravainen does become an effective and dangerous player between now and the playoffs, then one would have to think the Blackhawks will make yet another strong push for the Stanley Cup, not that they couldn’t already.

130107_gq_trout_aThe Hawks also signed Matt Carey who just finished up his first collegiate season of hockey at St. Lawrence University. Carey, 22, is a center who tied for his team lead in goals this season and is said to be a solid two-way player. He will most likely see action in a few games before the end of the regular season, but he won’t be on the playoff roster. It’s a similar situation to the one we saw with Drew LeBlanc last season at this same time.

Looking ahead, I am very anxious to see just how well Teravainen adapts to the NHL and whether or not he becomes a guy the Hawks can trust as their number two center. Staying focused and not letting the pressure from the media and fans get to him will be key for Teravainen.

As for the rest of the NHL, the Bruins seem to be the biggest story at the moment. They have been near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, but now they have won eleven straight games, are tied for the league lead in points with the Blues, and are the first team in the league to have clinched a playoff berth. They are on a serious role right now and appear poised to make another deep run in the playoffs. Their defense and goaltending are just about as good as you’ll find in the NHL, and everyone knows you can’t win a Cup without those two things.

Out west, the Sharks have overtaken the Ducks in the Pacific Division for the division lead. San Jose is 8-1-1 over their last ten games while Anaheim is a weak 4-4-2. I mentioned in a previous blog post that the Ducks have been susceptible to late season collapses over the past few years, and it appears they are headed in that same direction again unless they can turn things around in the next couple games.

The Metropolitan Division still seems to be the most crowded division point-wise. The second place team in that division (Philadelphia) and the fifth place team (Washington) are separated by just six points, with New Jersey sitting in sixth just four points behind the Capitals. It’ll be fun watching these teams to see who gets hot and makes their way into the postseason.

As I previously mentioned, the top of the Central Division is now a lot closer than it was even just three days ago. The Blues lead the Blackhawks by four points for the division 940-couture-loganlead at the moment, and if the Blues lose tomorrow afternoon and the Hawks win tomorrow night, that gap will be down to just two points. Colorado lost last night to Boston while the Blackhawks won, stretching Chicago’s lead to three points over the Avs for second place in the Central. It will be huge for the two-seed in this division to get home-ice during the first round of the playoffs. As a Chicago fan, I know that having home-ice in a series against the Blues will be even bigger.

The season is quickly coming to an end, yet only one team has clinched a playoff spot. We are in for another good finish.

NHL playoff race begins

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Now that the Olympics are over, with Canada bringing home the hockey gold, Sweden the silver, Finland the bronze, and the USA dogs (David Backes is literally bringing home two stray dogs he found in Sochi), the NHL season is set to resume itself. Many teams find themselves in the middle of a heated battle just to get into the playoffs, while other teams are fighting for top spots in each conference and division. As has been the case in recent years, it appears we are in for yet another incredible finish to the NHL regular season.

First, here’s a look at the current standings by division:

Atlantic                                   Metropolitan

Boston – 78 pts                        Pittsburgh – 83 pts

Tampa Bay – 71 pts                 N.Y. Rangers – 67 pts

Montreal – 70 pts                      Philadelphia – 66 pts

Toronto – 70 pts                       Columbus – 63 pts

Detroit – 64 pts                         Washington – 63 pts

Ottawa – 63 pts                        Carolina – 61 pts

Florida – 51 pts                         New Jersey – 61 pts

Buffalo – 40 pts                         N.Y. Islanders – 52 pts

Central                                    Pacific

St. Louis – 84 pts                      Anaheim – 87 pts

Chicago – 84pts                        San Jose – 80 pts

Colorado – 79 pts                      Los Angeles – 68 pts

Minnesota – 69 pts                    Phoenix – 64 pts

Dallas – 64 pts                          Vancouver – 63 pts

Winnipeg – 62 pts                     Calgary – 51 pts

Nashville – 60 pts                      Edmonton – 47 pts

159898991_stdIt would appear that the race atop the Central Division could be the most fun to keep an eye on. St. Louis and Chicago are bitter rivals, and getting first place in the Central Division could very well be more important than winning first place in any other division. With the new playoff format, the winner of the Central will play one of the two wild card teams in the West. The team to finish second in the Central will most likely get a first round matchup with Colorado. They are a first round opponent that I would want no part of. Of all teams currently in third place in their respective division, Colorado has the most points (79) by quite a bit (9). They would be leading the Atlantic division by one point.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Pittsburgh seems to have a stranglehold on the Metropolitan division (I hate that name), but the second and third place spots are up for grabs. With eight teams in the Metropolitan division, just 6 points seperates the second place team (the Rangers) from the seventh place team (the Devils). This will be fun to watch. I think the Rangers will get one of the two remaining top spots in that division, but the other spot is wide open in my opinion. Watch out for Columbus and Washington.

The Atlantic division is shaping up to be a close race as well. Boston seems to be a sure lock for the playoffs assuming they don’t suffer an epic collapse, but after them, everyone else in that divison (aside from Florida and Buffalo) has a shot at making the playoffs. The dt.common.streams.StreamServerRed Wings, currently with 64 points and 6 points behind the third place spot in the division, are trying to make the playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. Mike Babcock was recently quoted as saying they “will be in the playoffs.” Knowing Detroit, they will either make the postseason, or fall just a couple points shy. Eight points seperate the number two spot from the six spot in the Atlantic. Notice that Tampa Bay is currently in second place despite being without Steven Stamkos for the past few months.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Out west in the Pacific division, things seem to be a bit more spaced out. There isn’t quite the log-jam that we see in the other divisions. Anaheim, the league’s leading team in points (87), should win that division if they can avoid any key injuries or a major meltdown, which has happened to them in recent years. San Jose sits seven points behind Anaheim, but they have a comfortable twelve-point lead over the third place Kings. Once again, the Kings are putting together a disappointing regular season. They are a team that should theoretically finish in one of the top two spot in their division every year. But, every year they underperform until the playoffs. That is when they step up their game. L.A. has a four-point lead over Phoenix and a five-point lead on Vancouver for the third spot in the division. Calgary and Edmonton are hopeless. If I had to bet, I’d say the top three spots in the Pacific don’t change the rest of the season.

So who ends up with the wild card spots? Well, Toronto and Montreal (each with 70 points) appear to be in good position to get one of the East’s two wild cards. Whichever of those two teams doesn’t get a wild card will probably get the third spot in their division. After that, pretty much any team besides the Islanders, Sabres, and Panthers could be the second wild card team at this point. It’s too hard to predict right now who will win that race.

In the Western Conference, Minnesota currently holds the first wild card spot with 69 points. Dallas and Phoenix, each with 64 points, are tied for the second wild card position. However, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Nashville are all still very much in contention to become the second wild card team in the West.

This is going to be another great finish to the NHL regular season. There are a number of teams seperated by just a couple of points who are all capable of making the playoffs. Injuries could be a factor in determining who comes out on top, and fatigue could be a factor as well. Every team in the league had at least two players take part in the Olympics, with Chicago and Detroit each sending ten. Will those who did play in the Olympics be worn out by season’s end? Only time will tell. If history proves anything, however, teams with large numbers of Olympians can still win the Stanley Cup without being too fatigued. Look no further than the 2010 Blackhawks who won the Cup after six of their top players played in the Olympics.

NHL Eastern Conference predictions

Here’s how I think the Eastern Conference will play out this season:

Metropolitan 

1. 2518158277_cf0b185de3

The Penguins are consistently one of the best teams in hockey during the regular season with all of that talent. I see no reason as to why that will change this year. The playoffs, however, are a different story with this team.

2. llrs2zxi127vkqgcsvfb

After a couple of down years, I expect Washington to be back near the top of the league this season. Ovechkin found his form over the course of last season, and I think he’ll stay hot heading into this season. However, this team seems to always have the potential to disappoint.

3. 144

This will be their first season under new head coach Alain Vigneault, and I think it could go one of two ways; good, or really bad. I don’t see an in-between with the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is always a key factor in this team’s success, and while I expect him to be an elite goalie again this year, I am not as sure about the rest of the team. For now, I’m saying they take third in this division.

4. 161

Last year was a season to forget for the Flyers. They greatly under-performed. Now that Bryzgalov is gone and Ray Emery has taken his place, there should be less off-ice distractions, which will help, but I don’t think last year was a fluke. Teams don’t just go from the top of the conference to the bottom in one year without there being more than a few problems. Having said that, I think Philadelphia has the potential to finish in the top 3 in this division.

5. Carolina-Hurricanes-Logo

The Hurricanes somewhat remind me of the Oilers in terms of their potential. Edmonton has more talent, but both teams are better than what they showed us last season. Like the Oilers, I think Carolina has the potential to make the postseason as a wild card team, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t.

6. 138

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should have the Islanders ahead of the Hurricanes or not. They could go either way. Last year was a major surprise for the Islanders as they made the playoffs for the first time in a number of years. John Tavares is becoming one of the best centers in the game, and he’ll probably be named team captain sometime this month. Still, I don’t think this team will replicate what they accomplished last year.

7. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jackets are not projected to be the worst team in the league. If they were still in the Central Division, I might have them placed higher in the standings. Unfortunately for the Jackets, this division may be the toughest in hockey. While they will be a solid, possibly above .500 team, I don’t see them making the playoffs in this conference.

8. 127

There isn’t a whole lot to look forward to with the Devils. Kovalchuk is gone, Clarkson is gone, and Brodeur is slowly on his way out. They did acquire Corey Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe, and Michael Ryder, among others, but there are still a ton of question marks with this team, especially on defense.

Atlantic

1. Detroit-Red-Wings-Logo

This is my big prediction for this upcoming season. While I’m sure others have the Wings finishing first in this division, I don’t think I’m in the majority. Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss were big acquisitions for the Wings that will greatly help. I feel that a line with Datsyuk/Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson could be a major threat to opposing teams. Aside from their big name players, the Wings also have a lot of young talent that really looked good in last year’s playoffs. The big question mark here is their defense. I’d expect the Wings to upgrade on the blue line via trade at some point this season.

2. Boston_Bruins_logo

They lost Horton, Seguin, Peverley, and Jagr, but acquired Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. Their offense should be pretty comparable to what it was last year, and their defense remains arguably the best in the NHL. The Bruins will contend for the top spot in the East again this season, but for now I have them finishing second in their own division.

3. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

This is where the Atlantic Division kind of falls to a lower level. The Wings and Bruins, in my opinion, will be elite teams in the NHL. After them, however, I don’t see another solid lock for the postseason in this division. The Maple Leafs have the best shot of the remaining teams, and rightfully so. They made some big moves this off season by signing David Clarkson and trading for Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland. If James Reimer begins to show some weaknesses, expect Bernier to be named their new starting goalie. My fear with Toronto is that they are expecting too much out of Dave Bolland. They have really hyped him up since they traded for him, but he’s not the offensive player that they’re making him out to be. The Leafs will be good, but not great.

4. 2bkf2l3xyxi5p0cavbj8

They made a big move by acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Ducks, but they also lost their captain via free agency. Last year the Senators surprised a lot of people by not only making the playoffs, but by advancing to the second round. In all honesty, I think Ottawa is going to be pretty similar to what they were last season. I think we’re probably looking at a wild card spot for the Sens, but they have the ability to miss the postseason as well.

5. 97hhvk8e5if0riesnex30etgz

This is kind of a “wild card” pick for me. The Lightning were not good last season, but I think they have the talent and potential to be better. Stamkos will continue to be one of the best players in hockey, St. Louis will stay productive, and the signing of Valtteri Filppula will prove to be bigger than people think. They have a decent offensive team, but their defense is still suspect. Matt Carle needs to bounce back after a couple of down seasons since signing in Tampa, and Viktor Hedman needs to play up to his potential for this team to be decent again. Along with their defense, goaltending is another foggy area with the Lightning. I’m not totally sold on Ben Bishop, but only time will tell with him.

6.  canadiens

I felt all of last season that this team was overachieving. I thought for sure that they would choke near the end of the year and either fall to a bottom seed in the East playoffs, or miss the postseason all together. They did neither. This year, I think their record will be a bit more indicative as to how good the Canadiens really are. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, and I think they could end up even lower in the standings than I have them here.

7. 230

While they’re not as bad as the Flames, this team is in a rebuilding phase just like Calgary. They’ve had some good talent over the past few years, but nothing ever panned out the way that they wanted it to. Tyler Myers has regressed a bit since his rookie campaign, and guys like Drew Stafford haven’t really improved much over the past couple seasons. Ryan Miller is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the NHL, but I think he’ll be better this year.

8. 94

The Panthers shocked everyone two years ago when they made the playoffs, and there’s a reason for that. They weren’t/aren’t that good. They have a ton of young guys who could turn out to be good hockey players, and they have Jonathan Huberdeau who seems to have a promising future. Still, there are way too many unknowns with this team. Defensively, they have a bit more veteran depth, but they’re not great in that area. Expect another last place finish for Florida.

Playoffs

Metropolitan Division:

1. Penguins 2. Capitals 3. Rangers

Atlantic Division:

1. Red Wings 2. Bruins 3. Maple Leafs

Wild Card teams:

1. Flyers 2. Senators

Blackhawks on the verge

nhl_g_toews1x_576Tonight is the night that all of us Blackhawks fans have been waiting for since the end of the summer of 2010. Tonight, the Blackhawks could win their 5th Stanley Cup in franchise history with a win against the Bruins in Boston. Winning the fourth game of a playoff series, let a lone the Stanley Cup Final, is always the toughest win to get. For some players, it is hard to stay focused on going out and playing the game while knowing that they could win the Cup with a victory. For others, knowing that they’re just one win away provides even more motivation to go out and play with every ounce of energy and focus that they have. This is the type of player that I believe the Blackhawks are made up of.

A big deal is being made of the theory that the Blackhawks might be distracted by what they could potentially accomplish tonight. I’m not buying into that. While only 8 of the dt.common.streams.StreamServercurrent Blackhawks have won the Cup, this is a group of players that won’t lose their focus. When you are on a team led by players such as Toews, Keith, Sharp, Seabrook, Hossa, and so on, it is hard to lose focus on the task at hand. The leadership on the Blackhawks is incredible, and it is a huge reason as to why this team has been so successful this season. The guys who have been in this situation just so happen to be great role models to the younger, less experienced players on the Hawks. For that reason, I am expecting to see the Blackhawks more focused than they have been all season tonight.

As well as the Blackhawks have played and as much effort as they have given over the course of this postseason and these last 2 games, I am confident that tonight will be their best effort yet. They know the Bruins are going to give their own best possible effort to avoid elimination, so they will have to match Boston and probably play with even more effort than the Bruins.

Jonathan Toews said today that he will for sure be playing tonight, which is a very good thing for the Blackhawks for obvious reasons. Patrice Bergeron, however, is still not quite sure whether or not he’ll be playing tonight. Claude Julien said after the Bruins’ morning skate today (Bergeron did not participate) that Bergeron will take part in the warmups tonight, and he hopes that Bergeron will play. So while it sounds like both players will be on the ice tonight, the status of Patrice Bergeron is a bit more up in the air.

So how do the Blackhawks finish off the Bruins tonight? Well, they need to continue doing what they’ve done over the last 2 games. In Games 4 and 5, the Blackhawks really used their speed to their advantage and were able to create a lot of offensive chances by doing so. The Bruins’ biggest weakness in 5-on-5 play is defending fast teams like the Blackhawks. If the Hawks can come out of the gates and dictate the way this game will be played, they should win. If they sit back and let Boston play their own game, then the Bruins will most likely win. In the end, it all comes down to which side wants it more and brings the best effort.

While guys like Kane and Toews have really stepped up this series, I think that tonight may come down to which ever team gets more production from their bottom lines. The Blackhawks are the deeper team and over the course of this series, they have gotten the better production from their depth players. I see no reason as to why this shouldn’t be the tumblr_mobhobDwqu1qj5er8o1_500case again tonight, and it could prove to be the difference. Guys like Saad, Shaw, Bolland, Frolik, Stalberg, and Kruger all need to be at the top of their game tonight and continue providing offense for the Blackhawks.

This is going to be the toughest game of the year for the Blackhawks, and they know it. They are going to have to come out as the more desperate team, and they are going to need to play with 110% effort. The Bruins are not going to go away easily. They will fight until the final horn blows, win or lose.

Like I already said, I am very confident in the Blackhawks and I think they will win tonight. They have that cold-blooded, killer instinct in them that all the great teams in history have had. When your captain is Jonathan Toews and you are one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, you are going to be prepared and you are going to do everything you can to win that game. That’s just the type of mentality that Toews instills in his teammates. He is the ultimate competitor, and tonight, I’d expect the Blackhawks to be the ultimate competitors.

Blackhawks take crucial Game 4

stanley_cupgm4It was a must-win game for the Blackhawks, and they stepped up to the challenge and won Game 4 by a final of 6-5 in overtime against the Bruins. For me at least, that was about as uncomfortable as I have felt while watching the Blackhawks play this year. It felt like no lead was safe, and in fact that’s just how it was. Every time the Blackhawks scored, the Bruins had an answer. Twice the Hawks had 2-goal leads of 3-1 and 4-2, but they couldn’t hang on to either of them. I feel like if they would have played 5 more minutes of overtime after Seabrook scored, the Bruins would have tied the game. That’s just the way things were going.

Many people were saying that the Blackhawks wouldn’t win this series unless Jonathan Jonathan Toews, Patrick KaneToews found the back of the net. Well, he scored his second goal of the postseason in Game 4 and played one of his best games yet during these playoffs. Patrick Kane, who had been held scoreless since Game 5 against L.A., also scored in Game 4. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Kane and Toews both scored after being reunited on the top line. Those two simply have a chemistry between them that is at times unparalleled by any other duo in the league.

As for the lines last night as a whole, I think it’s safe to say that Quenneville will be sticking with them from here on out. The Blackhawks scored 6 goals last night, which is impressive, but they did it against arguably the league’s best defensive team, which is even more impressive. At the same time, however, the Bruins did score 5 goals against the Blackhawks, who are not a bad defensive team in any way, shape, or form.

Corey Crawford is being blasted today by many people from sports radio show hosts, to TV analysts, to NHL writers. Some people, and they are ignorant people, are even suggesting that Joel Quenneville should bench Crawford for Game 5 in place of Ray 170887798_slideEmery. I love how so many people are over-reactionary. Corey Crawford had a bad game. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s probably the main reason as to why the Blackhawks are this far into the playoffs. Name one other game this postseason in which you can confidently say Crawford played bad. Name one Blackhawks’ loss this postseason that you can blame on Crawford. My guess is you can’t. The guy had a bad game. That stuff happens. And you know what? The Blackhawks still won Game 4. It’s not like he gave up 5 goals and the Hawks lost 5-1. If you are going to blast Crawford, then you should blast Tuukka Rask as well.

All anyone has been talking about since Game 2 of this series ended is how Tuukka Rask is the hands down Conn Smythe winner if the Bruins win this series. Sure, he’s played good, but he hasn’t done anything that we’ve never seen before. Part of the reason why his numbers were good through the first 3 games of this series is because the Blackhawks were terrible offensively in games 2 and 3. Rask gave up 6 goals in Game 4 and the Bruins lost the game (on home ice). Why isn’t that getting more attention than it is?

Moving forward, the Blackhawks do need to be a lot better defensively. There were too many instances in Game 4 where they didn’t clear the puck when they should have, when they didn’t have anyone boxing out in front of Crawford, and when they allowed Boston’s point-men to have open looks at the net (for example, Johnny Boychuk’s goal). Crawford did give up a few bad goals, there’s no denying that, but the Hawks’ defense also hung him out to dry on a couple of those.

One thing that has me a little worried right now is the Blackhawks’ penalty kill. This was possibly their biggest strength during the regular season and first 3 rounds of the playoffs, but now it looks like a weakness. The Bruins already have 4 power play goals through the first 4 games of this series, and the Blackhawks don’t seem to have an answer. While I’d like to think that the PK will turn itself around and that the Bruins’ season-long bad PP will return, part of me thinks that the Bruins found a weakness in the Hawks’ penalty kill and that they’re exploiting it. One solution for the Blackhawks is to stop taking penalties.

Marcus+Kruger+Boston+Bruins+v+Chicago+Blackhawks+RhnZy62kcoUlAside from the penalty kill, I am pretty confident looking ahead to Game 5 back in Chicago. This is now a best of 3 series with 2 games being at the United Center where the Hawks have played well all year. In Game 4, the Blackhawks were the clear-cut better team. The only reason that game was close was because A) Crawford had an off night, and B) the Bruins had some lucky bounces. You could also say that the Blackhawks played their worst defensive game of the postseason, and I’d bet they won’t do that again. The Blackhawks controlled much of the puck possession and dominated in shots-on-goal. They played their game instead of letting Boston play their own game. They used their speed to a major advantage, and they’ll need to keep doing so. In Game 5, I hope to see the Blackhawks come out again and play like it’s another Game 7. They need to give everything they’ve got until there is no more hockey left to play.

Like I said before, I am pretty confident right now about the Blackhawks’ chances in this series. They’ve got 2 of the remaining 3 games on their home ice, and they have proven that they can beat Boston. They got their worst defensive effort out of the way, and yet they still won that game. If the Hawks really want to win the Cup, then they need to continue playing like it. When they do that, they are almost unbeatable.

Blackhawks must win Game 4

170770455_slideThere have only been a couple of times this year when the Blackhawks have faced some major adversity. The first being when they fell into a 3-1 hole against Detroit in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and the second being right now at this very second. Currently, the Blackhawks trail the Bruins 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final, which probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal to a casual fan. However, I am here to say otherwise. Tonight’s Game 4 is a MUST win for the Blackhawks.

After losing Game 2 at home to the Bruins, the Blackhawks’ main goal heading into Games 3 and 4 in Boston was to win at least one of them. Even though they lost Game 3, they can still achieve their goal by winning tonight.

With a win in tonight’s game, the Blackhawks will even the series up at 2 apiece and regain home-ice advantage in the series heading back home for Game 5. What more could you ask for at this point? If they lose tonight, however, they will go down 3-1 to a Boston team that will almost certainly finish off the Hawks in one of the next 2 games and not let them back into the series, unlike Detroit. That is why this Game 4 is a must win.

Tonight’s game will say a lot about the Blackhawks’ character and what they’re made of. They absolutely need to play all 60 minutes like it is Game 7. They need to give 110% 170770149_slideevery second of every shift. They need to go all-out and win the board battles, win the foot races to the puck, win the area in front of the crease, and win the battle of desperation. They have done this before against Detroit when they went down in the series 3-1, and they did this in the third period of Game 4 against the Kings, in L.A. If they cannot do these things tonight, they will lose. Boston plays like the best team in the NHL when on their home ice, and therefore you must play a nearly perfect game of hockey to beat them at the TD Garden. They will be going for the “kill” tonight against the Blackhawks, and the only way to stop them is by playing the way I just described a few sentences ago.

Obviously, the Blackhawks know the situation that they’re in, and they know that they have to win tonight. Joel Quenneville stated yesterday, “Very important game tomorrow night. We have to win tomorrow night.” You don’t often hear him say those words. When faced with this type of situation in these playoffs, the Blackhawks have stepped up and answered the bell. Hopefully they can do it again tonight.

LINE CHANGES

170769196_slideWith Marian Hossa being absent from the lineup in Game 3, Joel Quenneville put Ben Smith in his spot. This set off a chain reaction of line changes throughout the game, and subsequently the Blackhawks never looked comfortable the whole night. They were playing with guys that they normally wouldn’t (Kruger-Toews-Frolik as an example), and they seemed out of rhythm.

This morning, Marian Hossa missed the team’s morning skate, but Coach Q stated afterwards that Hossa is “fine,” and they expect him to play tonight. That is a very encouraging sign for the Hawks and us fans.

As for the what the lines may look like tonight, here you go:

Bickell-Toews-Kane

Sharp-Handzus-Hossa

Saad-Shaw-Stalberg

Kurger-Bolland-Frolik

These were the line-rushes at today’s morning skate, minus Marian Hossa. Finally, Quenneville has apparently opted to reunite Bickell, Toews, and Kane like he did late in the series against L.A. That line was dominant. The second line of Sharp, Handzus, and Hossa was pretty darn good too. Sharp and Hossa have always had some chemistry, but Hossa and Handzus seem to have generated some as well over recent weeks.

170197762_slideWe will now get to see how Boston will try and handle the duo of Toews and Kane. Kane is much better with Toews as his center because of Toews’ speed, and Kane is a lot more effective with fast line mates than he is with slow ones like Handzus. These line changes should also benefit Bryan Bickell as well, because now a lot more focus will be placed on his two line mates rather than himself.

I am confident that the Blackhawks will play a much better game tonight than they did in Game 3. This team has stepped up when they have needed to all year, and I don’t anticipate anything different tonight.