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

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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

First half surprises in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets  v Florida PanthersBelieve it or not, we are already over halfway through the NHL season. The standings are starting to take shape, but there is still way too much hockey left to come to any solid conclusions as to how they will for sure look in April. There have definitely been some surprises thus far, both good and bad, as well as some not so surprising occurrences. Today we will take a look around the league at some of those surprises, as well as offer up some predictions as to how the rest of the season will unfold.

Let’s get to it.

SURPRISES

The Good

  • How about the Florida Panthers? They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped in Vancouver, and through 43 games Florida sits atop the Atlantic division with 57 points (tied for fourth league-wide). This is due in large part to their defense and starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Only one team in the NHL has allowed fewer goals than the Panthers, which is a key statistic. Over the last six seasons, each team to have won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top five in the NHL in fewest goals against. So despite Jaromir Jagr continuing to defy his age, the biggest story coming out of Sunrise, Florida should be the Panthers’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
  • This may or may not be a surprise to some people, but the Washington Capitals are a NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitalsvery good team. They currently rank second in the league in goals-scored per game, and are tied for first in fewest goals-against per game. Oh, and they lead the NHL in points with 67. Needless to say, the Caps seem to have everything clicking at the moment. Throw in the fact that Alex Ovechkin just notched goals number 500 and 501, and yeah, it’s been a pretty good half-season in the nation’s capital.
  • The Dallas Stars. Most people had them pegged as a playoff team, but not everyone thought they would be this good this fast. They own the league’s top offense and arguably the NHL’s best line. As of this moment, they lead the Central division with 62 points. They have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last week or so, but every team is entitled to one or two of those over the course of a long season. The biggest question with Dallas is whether or not their defense and goaltending will be strong enough come playoff time.
  • Again, some might not see this as surprising, others may. The Chicago Blackhawks are rolling right now and are winners of seven straight games. Despite another offseason that saw a major roster overhaul, this team has picked up right where they left off a year ago and own the third highest point total in the NHL. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals, assists, and points, has become a huge part of the team and is a huge reason why Patrick Kane is having a career year. The trio of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is as good as any league-wide and has carried the Hawks at times this season. Also, Corey Crawford is having his best season in the NHL and leads the league with 6 shutouts. While the Hawks may still be an addition or two away from being a Cup-favorite, they’re still a scary team to play against.

The Bad

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets are an absolute mess. This was a team that many people had making the playoffs, but that looks to be impossible at this point. To recap their season so far, they have fired their head coach, hired John Tortorella out of desperation, and recently traded their top player, Ryan Johansen, to the Nashville Predators. The Jackets sit dead last in hockey with 34 points and are showing no signs of turning things around. Yes, they did acquire Seth Jones in exchange for Johansen, but that move won’t help them this year. Even with a history of losing in Columbus, this year’s losing ways were not anticipated.
  • Who predicted the Penguins would be having this much trouble, especially after the addition of Phil Kessel? We have come to know the Penguins as a perennial playoff team over the last eight years or so, but this year does not look as promising. Pittsburgh struggled out of the gate, following their captain’s lead, but have somewhat turned things around in recent weeks, as has Sidney Crosby. Still, they cannot seem to put any consistent, successful play together and are stuck winning a game then losing a game, and so on. Could this be the year they miss the postseason?
  • A lot like Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a slow start to the season 130107_gq_trout_aand have since found it difficult to find any consistency in their play. This was last season’s best offensive team, but now they rank 17th in goals per game. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has been surrounded by trade rumors all season. Whether or not his contract situation is affecting his play, there is no denying that he is having an “off year” by his standards. Yes, the Lightning have dealt with some injuries, but now is the time for them to start turning their season around if they want to make another deep playoff push.
  • Ready for another underperforming team? You got it. The Ducks might just be the most surprising team in the league so far, and not in a good way. Their 41 points are good for fifth in the Pacific division, and their 78 goals scored are dead last in the league by quite a bit. Much like the two previous teams we discussed, Anaheim has been unable to consistently play “their” game. However, they do have some things going for them. They are the league’s ninth best team in fewest goals-against per game. If they can keep that up, the law of averages suggests that they’ll find their offense and start to pile up the W’s.

Alright, so there are this year’s biggest surprises to this point as seen through these eyes. Now, here are some quick predictions.

PREDICTIONS

  1. The Ducks will make the playoffs as one of the top three teams in the Pacific division. If they miss the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will get fired at season’s end.
  2. The Penguins will also make the playoffs, but as a wild card team. There’s too much talent in that locker room for them to not make it.
  3. Steven Stamkos will not get traded this year, but he also will not sign an extension with the Lightning.
  4. Going off those lines, a big name in Winnipeg will get dealt. Whether that’s Byfuglien, Ladd, or Trouba is tough to say. One will go though, that’s for sure.
  5. And lastly, we’ll see the Panthers drop in the standings. They’re a good team, and probably a playoff team, but they won’t win that division.

Thanks for reading.

Blackhawks send Daley to Pittsburgh, acquire Scuderi

130107_gq_trout_aMonday night the Blackhawks traded Trevor Daley to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for fellow defenseman Rob Scuderi. Daley was acquired by the Hawks over the summer in the Patrick Sharp trade that sent him and Stephen Johns to Dallas. The hope was that Daley, an offensive defenseman, would be able to adapt to the Hawks’ defense-first style, but still be effective in the puck moving, fast-paced game that the Blackhawks like to play. Unfortunately for both sides, this was never a good fit.

Keep in mind that prior to joining the Blackhawks, Daley had spent his entire ten year career with the Stars and in a system that never put much emphasis on being a defensive d-man. He was used to being offensive-minded, and asking him to change his ways on a dime after years of playing one specific style proved to be too big of a challenge.

As anyone knows who follows the Blackhawks closely, Joel Quenneville does not tolerate players who are a liability on the defensive end. Hence the reason why he has been relatively reluctant to play rookies big minutes over the years. In the case of Trevor Daley, he was one of the weaker defensemen on the roster and simply was not gelling well with the Blackhawks’ style of play. In other words, a nightmare scenario for Daley, thus the reason for his trade.

What is confusing about all of this, however, is the fact that the Blackhawks knew what they were getting when they traded for Daley. They knew he was an offense-first kind of player who had never played in a system like the one Quenneville runs here in Chicago, yet they still brought him in via the Sharp trade. Maybe the hope was that he could learn the Blackhawks’ style while still incorporating his offensive instincts when appropriate. Whatever the case was, it did not work out as planned.

In return for Daley, Stan Bowman got Rob Scuderi from the Penguins. Scuderi is almost 37 years old and has spent most of his career with the Penguins. He won the 2009 Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh and the 2012 Cup with Los Angeles before returning to the Penguins for the 2013-14 season.

To make this simple, we will just say that Scuderi is not good. He seemed almost like an untradeable player until Monday night because of the fact that no one would seemingly want him. He is slow, he’s not a puck-moving defenseman, and he is one of the worst defensemen in the league in terms of puck possession. He has always been more of a defense-first player, which is good for the Hawks, but that only means something if you can actually execute that style of play in an effective manner.

So why then did the Hawks get him in return for Daley? Well, likely because the Penguins agreed to hang onto one-third of Scuderi’s salary. Because of that, the Blackhawks are opening up about $1 million in cap space, which may not seem like a lot, but actually can be when needing to make a transaction later in the season.

Scuderi still has one year left on his contract, and it would be flat out wrong for the Hawks keep him in their plans for a whole new season after this one. What they choose to do with him both now and next year remains to be seen. In terms of the right here and now, they may plug him into the third d-pairing with Michal Rozsival and let him play there until they feel one of the young guns like Gustafsson, Pokka, or Svedberg can handle a full-time defensive role at the NHL level. If a guy like Gustafsson can develop a bit more in Rockford and proceed to return to the NHL during the second half of the season, in time for the playoffs, that would be the ideal scenario for the Hawks. They could then waive Scuderi and place him in the AHL.

It is also not out of the question that Bowman could take advantage of the extra cap space cleared in this trade and try to acquire another defenseman at the trade deadline.

One thing is for certain here, and that’s that no one should expect much of anything from Rob Scuderi other than a good locker room and veteran presence. The Hawks actually got a bit worse on Monday, and hopefully it won’t last too long.

Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith the Wild losing today to the Blues down in St. Louis, the Blackhawks have now locked up third place in the Central Division, meaning a showdown with the Predators in the first round of the playoffs. There was some real concern coming into today regarding the Blackhawks and what seed they might get for the playoffs. If the Wild had won, that would have meant the Blackhawks would need to earn at least one point in tonight’s contest with the Avalanche to secure the number three spot in the division. With the way the Hawks have been playing lately, getting a point tonight is by no means a guarantee. Fortunately though, the Wild did us all a favor and lost. So tonight’s game is meaningless for the Blackhawks in terms of the standings, but not with regards to momentum.

Before we get into actual hockey talk, let me get back to Nashville for a minute.

I am confident in saying that there is no other organization in professional sports that is more concerned about an opposing team’s fan base than the Nashville Predators. The management down there is literally obsessed with trying to find ways to keep Blackhawks fans out of Bridgestone Arena (click here for evidence). Earlier this season, Hawks fans dominated the stands in Nashville during a contest between the two teams. This was after the Predators had already enacted their “Keep the Red Out” campaign last season; an attempt to limit the number of ways that Chicagoans could purchase tickets to games in Nashville. Since that game earlier this year, and really even going back further than that, the Predators front office has become fixated on finding ways to keep Hawks fans out of their stadium. In the meantime, their team on the ice was collapsing and lost their huge lead in the division.

So here we are on April 11th, less than a week before the Hawks and Preds will face off in Game One of their first round matchup. Have the Predators come up with an effective plan to keep Blackhawks fans out of their arena for the playoffs? I doubt it, and I would love nothing more than for that building to be an absolute see of red for Game One. And honestly, that’s a very real possibility.

Now back to hockey.

The Blackhawks come into tonight’s game in Colorado having lost three straight games to the Blues, Wild, and Blues again. They scored a TOTAL of three goals in those games, while only allowing six. Had they won all three, maybe they are in first in the division right now. Who knows.. Regardless, the offense is clearly struggling at the moment and desperately needs some sort of spark to get it going again.

Aside from the offense not being there, the energy doesn’t seem to be there either for the Hawks. While those two probably go hand-in-hand, they are both problems and need to be recognized as such. Last Sunday night against the Blues at the United Center, the Hawks came out flying, played a pretty decent game, but lost 2-1. Tuesday night with the Wild in town, the Blackhawks seemed to have less energy than Sunday and again lost 2-1. Then on Thursday in St. Louis, the Hawks appeared to have virtually zero energy or desperation and yet again found themselves on the losing end of a 2-1 game. In the final week of the season with a lot on the line in terms of seeding for the playoffs, one would think that this team would have played St. Louis and Minnesota with all the energy and desperation in the world. That wasn’t the case though, and fortunately for the Hawks it didn’t cost them a top three finish in the division.

Tonight, even though they have nothing left to play for, I hope to see the Blackhawks play as though it is a playoff game. They’ve got to get some kind of momentum or roll going heading into the postseason. You don’t want to end the year on a four-game losing streak and start the first round with doubts in your mind about anything. A win tonight, and a good win, should do a lot to help this team get ready for the playoffs from a mental standpoint.

NHL Update

  • With their win today, the Ottawa Senators have pulled off a semi-miracle and clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs. They went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games.
  • Ottawa getting in means either Pittsburgh or Boston won’t. That all depends on how each team does tonight.
  • The NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champion, the Kings, were eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night. Who would have guessed that would happen? The rest of the West is grateful for that.
  • The team who held off L.A. for the second wild card spot, Winnipeg, will make their first playoff appearance since the last time they called Winnipeg home.

I will hopefully get the time to post my first round predictions at some point before the first game on Wednesday. Until then, let’s just enjoy the fact that the postseason is only days away.

Ranking the NHL team logos

Recently The Hockey News magazine came out with their NHL logo rankings, which I thought was pretty interesting and fun to look at. So, I decided I’d do my own rankings. Like The Hockey News did with theirs, I am simply looking at the logo of each team and not taking any history or anything else into account. We’re just looking at the logos here. With that, let’s get to it.

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There’s just not a whole lot that’s interesting or unique about this logo. It’s simply just a blue maple leaf with letters on it.

29. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

For being recently modified, you’d think the Lightning would have come up with a more creative design. This is one of the more boring logos in pro sports.

28. ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

I absolutely hated the logo the Ducks had been using for the past 8 years or so, but this new one isn’t much better. 

27. 940-couture-logan

The Kings’ logo looks like some kid decided one day to come up with a logo on Photoshop. Their old logo was way more interesting to look at.

26. 174

Here’s another example of a boring logo. Maybe if Pittsburgh went back to their color scheme from the early ’90s it would look a bit better.

25. WinnipegJets

I think the Jets were on the right track with this logo, but there’s too much “blah” to it. I feel like it needs words with it or something.

24. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Does anyone really know what this is supposed to be? It looks like a whale/shark and then I have no clue what the rest is.

23. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

There must be 5,000 high schools in America with this same logo. At least the Panthers used some bright colors to go with it.

22. NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper

Definitely a unique logo that the Predators have. The new color scheme makes it look better than it used to.

21. st-louis-blues-logo

This isn’t necessarily a bad logo, but it’s not very interesting or intimidating either. 

20. 7327531

Here’s a logo that hasn’t changed at all. I like how it’s supposed to be a hockey puck creating the “avalanche.”

19. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

This logo hasn’t really changed over the years either. The oil-drip at the top and the oil “dripping” off the bottom of the letters are what makes this logo. Good colors too.

18. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

The only reason this logo isn’t lower is because of the “H” in the middle of the “C.” It stands for “Habs,” which is the Canadiens’ nickname in Montreal.

17. 161

I’m not entirely sure what this logo is or what a “Flyer” is, but it looks pretty cool. Also, orange and black is always a great color scheme in sports.

16. 144

I like how the Rangers use a shield for their logo, and I like the diagonal lettering. Royal blue is a color not used often enough in sports, and the red that the Rangers use is unlike any other red in the NHL.

15. 161

The Capitals are one of just a couple teams to use words for their logo, which makes this unique. Navy blue and red are always good together.

14. crestonwht_rgb

Good colors and an intimidating logo. The broken stick in the shark’s mouth is a good touch.

13. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

This is a very detailed logo compared to most others. To me though, it seems more like a secondary logo.

12. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Most people will glance at this logo and think that the creators of it just splattered some orange paint in the middle of it, when in reality it’s an outline of Long Island. Pretty creative.

11. jesus-clip-art-2

Here’s a simple, but good logo. The flames coming off the back of the “C” get the point across as to what the team name is, and the bright red and yellow look good as well.

10. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Clearly this is a hurricane, but it’s a cool looking hurricane. The colors make this logo pop out and look more intimidating.

9. ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

The guys over at The Hockey News had this ranked second on their list, which was surprising. It’s a good logo, but I’d like to see brighter colors.

8. New_Dallas_Stars

I’m somewhat second guessing myself for putting the Stars’ logo so high because of the fact that it looks like an AHL team’s logo. I preferred Dallas’ previous logo and colors, but this one isn’t bad. Still good colors.

7. DRW Logo

The winged-wheel is one of the more recognizable logos in sports. Pretty basic colors, but a very detailed logo for being so old.

6. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

It took me a while to figure out what this was when the Wild first displayed it. Once I understood it, the more I liked it. The trees and river in front of the red sunset and shooting star is a perfect logo for a Minnesota team.

5. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

This is another logo that some people have to think about for a second. The red is an “N” combined with a “J.” Pretty basic, but I like it.

4. Boston_Bruins_logo

I’ve always like the Bruins’ logo simply because it looks cool and I love the colors.

3. NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper

I was extremely happy when the Sabres brought back their original logo a couple years ago. The two swords are what makes this logo as good as it is, not to mention the great colors.

2. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

The star with the Ohio state flag wrapped around it is a great look and tribute to the state itself. Add in the navy blue and red, and this logo is tough to beat.

1. 56

Often regarded as the best logo in sports, it’s hard to disagree. The Blackhawks’ logo is full of color and pays tribute to Chief Black Hawk, as well as the 86th infantry division of the U.S. Army in World War One. You never hear of this logo being talked about as “disrespectful” to the Native American community, and that’s because of the significance behind it and it’s respectful appearance. 

I think it’s safe to say that the NHL might have the best group of logos in all four of the major pro sports here in the U.S. Ranking them is not easy and is definitely debatable.

Metropolitan Division preview

Last season, this division was the only division in the NHL that did not see three teams earn over 100 points. Pittsburgh was the only Metro team to accomplish that feat as they ended the year with 109. It may be more of the same again this season.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Carolina: The Hurricanes were another team that somewhat under-performed in my eyes last season (along with the Oilers). I thought they had the talent to finish with over 90 points, but they only managed to salvage 83 and took second to last in this division. This year, not much will be different in terms of their roster. They have some highly skilled forwards in Eric Staal (who will be looking for a bounce-back season), Alex Semin, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and maybe even Jiri Tlusty. After that, they have a bunch of bottom six forwards who will be interchanging on the lines throughout the season. On defense, the Canes are led by Justin Falk, Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey, and Tim Gleason. That’s not a bad foursome, but it’s not one of the league’s best either. Possibly the biggest strength of this team is their goalie tandem. Cam Ward couldn’t seem to stay healthy last season, but when he is healthy, he’s always a top 15 goalie in the NHL (if not higher). Backup goaltender, Anton Khudobin, put together a fairly impressive season last year in Ward’s absence. That combo could be one of the better combos in the league this year if they stay healthy. All in all I’m not seeing the playoffs this year for Carolina, but you never know with the Eastern Conference.

bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

Columbus: It’s hard not to like what’s been going on in Columbus. Just a couple years removed from being the laughing stock of the NHL, the Blue Jackets are now primed for what should be a second straight playoff appearance this season. Their roster is not full of high profile names, but it is full of good, reliable players. Guys such as Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno are all very good players that could be effective on just about any team in the league, especially Johansen. Then they have players like Nathan Horton, who when healthy, can be a top six forward in the NHL. They also added Scott Hartnell via a trade with the Flyers this summer. Hartnell should fit in nicely with that group in Columbus and give their offense a boost. Defensively, Columbus could use some upgrades. Jack Johnson is their best d-man and would be a top four on any team in the league. He is followed by James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin as far as the top three go. If the Blue Jackets could have landed one of the top defensemen available on July 1st, I’d like this team a lot. However, they didn’t and they are left with a good/mediocre group of defensemen. Their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, is coming off of back-to-back good seasons after being traded to Columbus from Philadelphia three years ago. I’d expect nothing different from him this year. As long as he’s good again, the Jackets should finish no worse than fourth in this division.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

New Jersey: This team is a real wild card in my eyes, meaning they could finish as a top three team in this division, or they could miss the playoffs all together. It’s a tough call. Their roster is full of recognizable names, however many of whom are past their prime. Their two newest members, Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat, should provide the Devils with some added scoring and play-making ability to go along with Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Jaromir Jagr among a handful of others. I see their real problem lying within their defense. Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, and Marek Zidlicky are all good defensemen, but after that there’s nothing. The Devils are going to have to rely on Cory Schneider to bail them out on a lot of nights, as well as their forwards who will need to play good defense in their own end. Like I said before, the Devils could go either way this year. If they do make the playoffs, they won’t be going to the Stanley Cup Final again. That much I’m sure of.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

New York Islanders: A year after surprising most hockey people by making the playoffs, the Islanders were back in last place in their division to finish the 2013-14 season. Granted, they did lose their captain and best player John Tavares for the season due to an injury suffered in the Olympics. This offseason, I feel they did about all they could do to get better given the fact that they’re the Islanders and not many players want to play for that franchise at the moment. The signed Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, both highly skilled forwards, which should really make their offense better. Add in the fact that Tavares should be back and healthy from the start, along with Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Frans Nielson, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the Islanders’ forward corps this year. Once again, it’s the team’s defensive unit that will hurt them most. They are full of mediocre/unproven defensemen, which in today’s day in age will not get the job done. In goal, they now have Jaroslav Halak as their number one netminder. We’ve seen how good he can be in the past, but he hasn’t played up to that level the last couple years. I see the Islanders finishing no higher than fifth in this division.

144

New York Rangers: I think I’m safe in saying that almost no one had the Ranges advancing to the Stanley Cup Final at the beginning of last season. The Rangers’ playoff-run late this past spring was a good story and good for the sport in the Big Apple. Unfortunately for them, they came up short against the Kings and suffered some heartbreaking overtime losses in the SCF. This summer, their biggest move was probably their acquisition of veteran d-man Dan Boyle. Boyle will add some offense and puck-moving ability to the Rangers’ blue line to go along with Ryan McDonagh. Speaking of McDonagh, anyone familiar with today’s NHL would have to believe this guy will be winning a Norris Trophy sometime in the near future. He’s that good. As for the rest of their defense, the Rangers lost Anton Stralman to the Lightning this offseason, but held onto the other prominent defensemen that led them to the Cup Final in June. Offensively, this team has multiple good players, but not a whole lot of “firepower.” Martin St. Louis is probably destined for the Hall of Fame when his career is over, but the problem for the Rangers is that his career is almost over. Rick Nash is going to have to step up and play like we’ve seen him in the past for this team to be a real threat in the East. Their most obvious strength comes in the form of Henrik Lundqvist, who is probably the league’s best goalie. Assuming he doesn’t have a meltdown this season, the Rangers can’t ever be truly counted out.

161

Philadelphia: I thought the fact that the Flyers earned 94 points last season was impressive. I didn’t think they would do that, and don’t think they’ll do it again this year. When you look at their roster, Claude Giroux obviously stands out, but other than him they really don’t have one of the league’s better offensive teams. Assuming Vincent Lecavalier is a Flyer this season, can he get anywhere close to the level he once played at in Tampa Bay? I don’t think so. And after him the skill level of this team takes a bit of a hit. On defense, the Flyers have become somewhat of a joke in recent years because of their continued trend of overpaying for “big name” defensemen. This offseason they didn’t exactly continue that tradition, but they are still full of once high profiled defensemen who are now making more than they’re worth. Their best defensemen, Kimmo Timonen, may not even be available until sometime after the season starts as he was just diagnosed with blood clots in his leg and both lungs. In goal, they’ll be bringing back the same tandem that they had last year. Steve Mason will be looking to repeat the success he had last year, as Ray Emery will try to regain the form he had just two years ago in Chicago. As far as where this team will end up, I’ll say they miss the postseason.

174

Pittsburgh: After finishing with the second highest point total in the East last season, I feel like the Penguins didn’t improve at all this offseason. If anything, they got worse. They made a somewhat surprising move by trading James Neal to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist, and they signed Steve Downie to apparently add some grit to the lineup. As for the rest of the forwards, not much is different than it was a year ago. The Penguins are hoping to get a healthy Pascal Dupuis back into the lineup sometime this season after he suffered a torn ACL last December. While the forwards on this team aren’t as notable as they usually are, you can’t deny the fact that Pittsburgh still has two of the worlds greatest players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On defense, the Penguins lost two of their top d-men to the Capitals this summer. Both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen elected to leave Pittsburgh for Washington, which has to sting a bit for the Penguins and their fans. In response, the Penguins went ahead and signed Christian Ehrhoff to go along with a still rather solid defensive group. The biggest question yet again is Marc-Andre Fleury. We know he can be good in the regular season, but what about the postseason? Ever since he and the Penguins hoisted the Cup in 2009, Fleury has not been the same playoff performer. I don’t think this team has what it takes to win the Cup, or even the East.

161

Washington: The Capitals are coming off yet another disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs. If there’s one team that seems to always under-perform, it’s these guys. Everyone wants to label Alex Ovechkin as such an incredible hockey player, which he is, but I don’t think he should be an NHL captain. He does not lead by example in the least bit. As for the rest of the forwards, there’s Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and Brooks Laich, but not too much else. Despite having the league’s best powerplay last year, the Capitals aren’t anywhere close to as good when it comes to five on five play. This year is a rare instance in which the Capitals defense is their strong-suit. As was mentioned in the Penguins’ preview, the Capitals stole both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen away from Pittsburgh to go along with Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner. You can’t complain too much about those five. Along with the offense, goaltending will be a big question mark for this team. I’m not seeing them as a playoff team come April.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Pittsburgh 2. New York Rangers 3. Columbus 4. New Jersey 5. Philadelphia 6. Washington 7. New York Islanders 8. Carolina

(Much like the Central Division, this thing could really end up in any number of ways.)

NHL Conference Semifinals predictions

That was a pretty excellent first round if you ask me. Tons of overtimes, three Game 7’s, what more could you ask for? As it turns out, I correctly predicted the winner in six of the eight first round series. My only hiccups were the Wild beating the Avalanche, and the Kings beating the Sharks. Although San Jose really should have won that series… You’re up 3-0 in the series and you lose four straight? There’s a reason this was only the fourth time that’s ever happened in NHL history: because it’s hard to do.

On to the predictions.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. 940-couture-logan

This has all the makings of a very intense, very physical, and very heated second round series. Southern California is well represented here, with these two teams separated by just over 30 miles. The Kings come into the second round as winners of their last four games, all while facing elimination. They were just the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win a series after falling down 3-0 after the first three games. This is a team with incredible confidence and resiliency right now, and I would not want to be their next opponent. In the first round against the Sharks, LA looked rather horrible through the first three games as they allowed 16 goals against during that span. It’s actually hard to allow that many goals in just three games, but they found a way to do it. Jonathan Quick did not look like his usual self, and neither did the rest of the Kings players. From Game 4 on, however, they became a different team. In the final four games against San Jose (all victories), Quick and the Kings only gave up 5 goals. That as well is hard to do. Yet, they did it. The Kings were one of the top defensive teams all season long, and they proved this again in their four wins over the Sharks. Jonathan Quick seems to have rounded back into form, the offense has picked up its pace, and the defense is back to its elite level of play. LA is a complete and physical team right now, and one that I would want no part of.

As for the Ducks, they had a tougher time handling the Stars than I think most people expected. After winning the first two games of the series at home, Anaheim went on to lose the next two in Dallas. From there, the Ducks won the next two games and the series, but it wasn’t without some struggle. Goalie Frederik Andersen allowed 3.40 goals per game against the Stars, which was good for third worst of any goalie in the first round. No goalie that advanced had a worse GAA. This has to be worrisome for the Ducks, but you can’t put all of the blame on Andersen. As a team, the Ducks were not good defensively against the Stars. Stephane Robidas suffered his second broken leg of the season early in the series with Dallas, and his loss on the blue line did nothing but hurt the Ducks the remainder of that series. Robidas is obviously out for the remainder of the postseason, so Anaheim will have to find a way to be successful in their own end without him. One thing that the Ducks do have going for them in their offense. They finished the first round averaging 3.33 goals per game, which was good for fourth place in the opening round. Ryan Getzlaf ended the series with 3 goals and 4 assists, while Corey Perry finished with 2 goals and 5 assists. Against LA, the Ducks will need their top guys to continue being their top guys. That doesn’t mean that they won’t need production from their depth players, because they definitely will.

This is sure to be a fun series to watch and a competitive one. Given the way both teams ended the first round, I’ve got to give the edge to the Kings in this series even though the Ducks had their number during the regular season. LA is an experienced team with exceptional goaltending and defense, and in the playoffs, it’s those two things that win championships.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

This will be a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals series as the Blackhawks and Wild both pulled off an “upset” to advance to the second round. While I personally wouldn’t consider the Hawks’ victory to be an upset, the Wild eliminating the Avalanche was definitely an upset. Who outside the state of Minnesota saw that one coming? The Wild lost the first two games in Denver, but bounced back on home ice to even the series at 2 games apiece heading into Game 5. Colorado defended home ice in the fifth game, and the Wild did the same in Game 6. Then came Game 7, and what a game it was. What the Wild showed me throughout the first round is that they do NOT give up on any game. Regardless of the situation, they are going to continue coming at you with all they’ve got until the whistle blows. Darcy Kuemper definitely did his part in helping the Wild advance, as he posted a 2.03 GAA before leaving Game 7 in the third period due to injury. It would appear he will be good to go for Game 1 in Chicago, but his condition is something to keep an eye on. Offensively, the Wild actually hung in there with the Avs. Minnesota’s biggest problem during the regular season was their inability to score at times, but they were able to put that past them in Round 1. Zach Parise ended the first round tied for the league lead in points with 10 (3G, 7A), while the next closest Wild player to him finished with 6 points. Defensively as a team, the Wild were not great against Colorado, and they will really need to be better in that area if they want any chance to beat Chicago.

The Blackhawks are coming into the second round with a ton of momentum and confidence after their victory over the Blues. St. Louis took each of the first two games of the series (both in overtime and on home ice), but that was all they’d get. The Blackhawks went on to win four straight games to finish off the Blues in 6, making this the second year in a row that the defending champions have gone down 0-2 in Round 1 to the Blues only to win next the four games and advance. The Blackhawks finished the first round ranked third in GA/G, and fifth in G/G. As the series against St. Louis progressed, you could see Chicago gaining more and more confidence and begin playing with that same mentality and attitude that won them the Cup just a year ago. After allowing St. Louis to really dictate how both of the first two games were played (and even most of the third), the Blackhawks were able to get back to playing their game and controlled the puck for much of the last four games of the series. Corey Crawford was phenomenal for most of the series, and he single-handedly won the Hawks Game 3 by shutting out the Blues. Crawford should have been the Conn Smythe winner last season, and the Hawks will need him to keep playing this way from here on out. Duncan Keith played what may have been his best game ever in Game 6, and his domination on the Hawks’ back end has been, and will continue to be huge moving forward. Offensively, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led the charge in Round 1 for Chicago as usual. The big thing for the Hawks will be getting more production from their third and fourth lines.

I think the Wild may have burned up all their energy taking out the Avs in the first round, and if they didn’t, I still don’t think they’ll have enough left to beat Chicago. The Blackhawks are as experienced a team as you’ll find in the playoffs, and they know how to win playoff games. With the Hawks really coming into their own over their last four games, I don’t see them being stopped at the moment.

-Chicago wins series, 4-1.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston_Bruins_logo vs. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

I love this matchup. Montreal won the season series over Boston 3-1, and seems to give the Bruins more trouble than any team in the East. After sweeping the Lightning in the first round, the Canadiens will enter this series with plenty of rest under their belts and a ton of momentum on their side. Danny Briere was back to playing like his usual playoff-self against Tampa, and the Canadiens are going to need him to keep it up against Boston. Carey Price, who led Canada to the Olympic gold medal this past winter, was good in net during the four games against the Lightning, but there is room for improvement. To me, he is the key to this series for the Canadiens. If Price plays really well, like he is more than capable of doing, I think Montreal will give Boston a good run for their money. Other than Price, the Montreal defense will need to be stellar. They allowed 2.50 goals per game against the Lightning, and if they can do that against Boston, they’ll have a good shot at winning. On offense, the Canadiens finished the first round averaging 4 goals per game, which will not continue. The Bruins are as good a team as you will find defensively, so the Canadiens will have to really use their speed to their advantage to try and catch Boston off guard. Forechecking will play a huge role in this matchup.

The Bruins come into the second round after winning four straight over Detroit. The Wings took Game 1 in Boston, but that was it. Boston’s defense strangled the Red Wings in Round 1 and looked like the best defense in the league. Tuuka Rask enters the second round with the lowest GAA of any goalie, and the Bruins as a team enter the second round with the lowest GA/G average (1.20). I don’t see Boston putting up those same defensive numbers against the Canadiens, but it’s possible for them to do something similar. That’s just how good they are on defense, both their defensemen and forwards. Aside from their defensive ability to completely shut an opponent down, Boston can also be the most physical team in the league. They generate a ton of momentum from their physical play, which will probably be taken to a new level against their hated rivals from Montreal. While the Bruins didn’t do a whole lot on offense against Detroit, the potential is still there for them to be one of the league’s most potent offenses.

I know I didn’t have too much to say about Boston, but that’s just a testament to how good they are. Having said that, I believe that if there’s one team in the East who could eliminate the Bruins, it’s Montreal. The Bell Centre in Montreal is one of the toughest buildings to play in for opponents, and the Canadiens have really had the Bruins’ number this whole season. Still, however, I cannot pick against Boston without feeling like an idiot if they were to end up winning. So, I’ll say the Bruins win this series, but not with a whole lot of confidence.

-Boston wins series, 4-3.

174 vs. 144

Both of these teams enter the second round coming off of a physically taxing first round series. For Pittsburgh, they were roughed up and pushed to their limit by the Blue Jackets, while the Rangers are coming into this series fresh off a Game 7 victory over their hated rivals from Philadelphia. The Rangers ranked 12th in goals per game in the first round, and second in GA/G. Their offense was never their strong point this season, and it would appear nothing has changed now that the postseason is underway. Henrik Lundqvist allowed the Flyers just a meager 2.11 goals per game in the first round, and he’ll need to continue being himself against a very lethal Penguins offense and powerplay. Defensively, the Rangers are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to have their hands full going against the Crosby and Malkin lines, respectively. For the Rangers to win this series, they’ll need their depth players to be better than those of the Penguins. Brad Richards needs to elevate his game and provide some much needed offense for New York.

The Penguins did not look good against Columbus in the first round. You could tell they were bothered/distracted by the Jackets’ physicality, and they also lacked confidence at times, which is never good. A big reason for their lack of confidence was yet again due to the sub-par performance by their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury, as well all know by now, has a history of choking in the playoffs. He might have a good round or two, but at some point he always seems to lose it and cost his team. When you are a team playing in front of a shaky goaltender, like Pittsburgh, you are put under that much more stress to play mistake-free hockey. Trying to play mistake-free hockey is a bad idea and never ends well. For the Penguins to have any further success this postseason, Fleury needs to improve his game and show his teammates that he can be trusted in net. Aside from him, Sidney Crosby needs to get going as well. He was held scoreless by the Blue Jackets in round one, and you get the feeling that Pittsburgh can’t go much longer without their captain producing. As of right now, the top two guys in points on the Penguins are Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen, both with 8 points, and both defensemen. You cannot rely on your d-men to carry your team offensively, so the Penguins will need Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, etc. to be a lot better from beginning to end against New York.

I think this series could go the distance. It’ll all eventually come down to goaltending, in which case I’ve got to give the advantage to New York. Marc-Andre Fleury has not been good in any recent postseasons, and he wasn’t good again in Round 1. Even though the Rangers’ offense has the potential to come up dry every now and then, the play of Fleury, or lack thereof, is what could keep them in this series. As long as Lundqvist himself is good, I like the Rangers to pull off the upset.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

 

Blackhawks advance, wait for next opponent

130107_gq_trout_aWell, prior to the Blackhawks-Blues series I had predicted that the Hawks would come away victorious in six games. Turns out I was dead on, but that’s not quite how I expected the series to go. I was thinking more along the lines of each team winning one road game over the first four games, then the Hawks winning games 5 and 6. The latter came true, but I really didn’t think the Hawks would win four straight after going down 0-2 after the first two games. It doesn’t really matter though, a win is a win and I’ll take it.

The first two games of the series were won by the Blues, not lost by the Hawks. The Blues outplayed the Blackhawks in each of the first two games in St. Louis and wound up winning both in overtime (Game 1 in triple OT). With Brent Seabrook beginning his three game suspension, the series shifted to Chicago for games three and four, both won by the Blackhawks. Game 3 saw the Hawks dominate the first ten minutes, and then proceed to get badly outplayed for the remaining fifty. If not for Corey Crawford playing out of his mind, the Blues would have won that game 5-1. Instead, the Hawks won 2-0. Game 4 was more evenly matched, as the Hawks tied the game 3-3 late in regulation and went on to win in overtime, thanks to another memorable Patrick Kane goal. Game 5 was the big one.

139990-330-0Up to this point in the season, Game 5 against St. Louis was the biggest win of the year for the Blackhawks. The really did not want to go down 3-2 in the series and have to win a Game 7 in St. Louis. The Hawks struck first on a Hossa’s first goal of the playoffs, and got their second goal from Ben Smith, also his first of the playoffs. St. Louis tied it early in the third and the game ended up going to overtime for the fourth time in the series. After a good save by Crawford on David Backes, Duncan Keith’s frantic clearing attempt wound up on the tape of Jonathan Toews’ stick, and all that he had in front of him was open ice. Toews’, the one guy the Blues didn’t want on a breakaway in OT, scored to win the game and send the Hawks home up 3-2 in the series.

Game 6 was tied 1-1 going into the third before the Hawks blew it open and won 5-1. There may not be a better team in the NHL at putting teams away when they smell blood in the water. Duncan Keith played what Joel Quenneville called the best game he’s seen him play and recorded four points. Today, Keith was nominated for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman.

So now we wait. The Hawks will get the winner of the Avalanche-Wild series in the second round. That series is currently being led by the Avs, 3-2. Tonight is Game 6, and I think all Hawks fans are hoping for a Minnesota victory for two reasons. One, the Wild are a much more desirable second round opponent than Colorado. Two, if the Wild win then there will be a Game 7, meaning each team will have to play that much more hockey before facing the Hawks.

Here’s the problem with facing the Avalanche. They’re fast (maybe the fastest in the league), and they force the Hawks to play a chip-and-chase game whenever the two teams meet. This season especially, Colorado’s speed and quickness up and down the ice has really given the Blackhawks fits, not to mention their incredible skill. While the Hawks have proven at times that they can be a successful team playing the chip-and-chase game, they prefer not to. Add this to the fact that the Avs would have the home-ice advantage, meaning the Hawks would have to play in the high altitude potentially four times, and I see some possible problems. However, the Wild may still win the series. While I would prefer that, the second you wish to play a certain opponent, they beat you.

Quick Hits

  • Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, and Shea Weber were named this year’s Norris Trophy finalists today. I think Alex Pietrangelo got ripped off here, as he put together one hell of a season for St. Louis (8G, 43A, 20 +/-). He’s bound to win the Norris in the future.
  • Anaheim, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal have all punched their ticket to the second round. Anaheim’s comeback in Game 6 over Dallas was one for the ages. The Boston-Montreal second round matchup is one to keep a close eye on. I think the Habs have the best shot of anyone in the East at knocking out the Bruins, and that includes the Penguins.
  • St. Louis has now been booted from the postseason in the first round two years in a row by the defending Cup champs in 6 games. Both years they had home-ice advantage, both years they won the first two games, and both years they lost the last four. Talk about back-to-back demoralizing defeats…
  • 18 year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche leads the postseason in points with 10. He is already being compared to Sidney Crosby. Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, Stastny, and Landeskog has been lethal at times during this first round. Matt Duchene could be back in the lineup any day now.
  • The Sharks, after taking a commanding 3-0 lead over the Kings, have dropped two straight games. Game 6 is tonight in LA. The Sharks are looking to avoid what would be a miraculous comeback by the Kings in that series.

The second round of the playoffs is right around the corner, and I can’t wait.

 

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.

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.