Blackhawks lose Keith and the game in Minnesota

130107_gq_trout_aTuesday night’s Blackhawks – Wild game in St. Paul saw things quickly turn from ugly to really ugly for the Hawks. Not long before the game was set to begin, we learned that Brent Seabrook would be a scratch due to an illness. This was a decent blow to a defensive unit that had already been struggling. Then about halfway through the opening period, Duncan Keith was assessed a five minute major and game misconduct for an “intent to injure” Charlie Coyle of the Wild.

Keith’s ejection left Niklas Hjalmarsson as the only reliable defenseman in the lineup. At the time, the overwhelming thought was that the Hawks were absolutely screwed moving forward in that game given Seabrook and Keith would be out. Turns out, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. The Blackhawks did lose the game, but it’s not like Minnesota torched the Hawks’ defensive corps the whole night. It could have been a lot worse than it actually was.

All of that is just the short-term effect of Keith’s penalty though. The long-term effect could be a lengthy suspension for the two-time Norris Trophy winner.

I’ll be the first one to try and defend a Hawks player when a questionable situation arises. In this instance, however, I cannot defend Keith’s actions against Coyle. You can’t, under any circumstances, intentionally slash a guy in the face with your stick. It does not matter how heated you might be in “the moment.” Doing what Keith did is just stupid, plain and simple, and he deserves a suspension.

The big question now is how many games Keith will have to miss.

If I had to make my best guess as to what kind of punishment the Department of Player Safety will hand down to Keith, I’d say he will probably be looking at a suspension of anywhere from 3-5 games. The possibility exists that he could get even more.

On the one hand, yes it was a bad move by Keith to do what he did, but there have been a lot worse actions by other players that have only warranted suspensions of 5 games or less. On the other hand, however, Keith was suspended during the 2013 Western Conference Final for a very similar reason when he slashed Jeff Carter in the face at center ice. Seeing as how he has done this more than once now, the NHL may look to send a stern message to the Hawks’ d-man and suspend him for 5 games or more. Any suspension of more than 5 games would mean Keith will miss at least one playoff game, seeing as how there are just 5 games left on the Blackhawks’ schedule.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation for the Blackhawks. They are already all but eliminated from possibly ending up second in the Central Division, and they also have Nashville sitting just 4 points behind them in the top wild card spot. Losing Keith now is not what this team needs if they’re looking to lock up third place in the Central.

Guys like TVR, Rozsival, and maybe Ehrhoff are going to have to pick up more minutes now, which isn’t exactly a great thing. Luckily for the Blackhawks, 3 of their remaining 5 games are against non-playoff teams.

And as if this Keith stuff is not bad enough news, here’s some more for you.

It was reported on Tuesday by Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times that Corey Crawford’s “upper body” injury is in fact a head injury, and it could be that he’s dealing with vertigo symptoms much like Bryan Bickell was last spring and summer. The problem with vertigo is that there really isn’t a timetable for recovery. One person may see their symptoms disappear a lot quicker than others.

In Crawford’s case, no news is bad news, meaning that no updates to his condition likely mean he’s not improving. He has yet to skate since leaving the lineup, and Quenneville is still calling him day-to-day while hoping that he will be ready for Game 1 of the first round.

I, personally, am growing more and more concerned about this. The Blackhawks have, for the most part, been relatively quiet about the Crawford situation. Quenneville has repeatedly given the same quick answer when asked about Crawford’s condition (“he’s day-to-day, hopefully ready for Game 1”), and having listened to Q over the years, his quick answers usually mean he’s a little worried.

I guess time will tell with Crawford.

As for the Blackhawks as a team, their recent play is a bit bothersome, but I still can’t get overly concerned about them. Anyone who has watched the Hawks play over the last 8 years or so knows just how quickly this team can turn things around and go on to win multiple playoff series’ and even the Cup.

With just 5 games left in the regular season and Keith likely to miss at least a couple of those, winning 3 of those 5 would be big for the Hawks. They cannot afford to end up in a wild card spot.

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NHL Central Division preview

Today we’ll take a look at what many consider to be the toughest division in the NHL. Every team in the Central finished with at least 90 points last season, which is something no other division can say. And really, you could make a strong case for each team in this division as to why they should make the playoffs this season. It’s incredible. Here we go.

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Blackhawks’ 2014-15 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)

Chicago comes into the ’15-’16 season after winning their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons, which has many people calling them a modern day dynasty. Much like the summer following their 2010 Cup title, their roster took a major beating this offseason. Just look at who they lost: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, and Kris Versteeg just to name a few. To replace those guys, the Hawks acquired players such as Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Trevor Daley, Ryan Garbutt, Artemi Panarin (he signed last spring), and Viktor Tikhonov. They also have a handful of prospects trying to crack the team’s opening night roster. Needless to say, it’ll be a new-look team this season, but still a good one. There are some question marks though, such as how impactful can young guys like Dano and Panarin be right off the bat? Will Teuvo Teravainen see the majority of his time at center or wing, and how big of a leap will he take in his game? Will their defensive corps be deep enough? And that’s not even to mention the whole Patrick Kane debacle. Who knows where that whole situation may end up, and depending on the outcome, that could significantly affect this team’s makeup. While I’d still expect the Hawks to be a good team and a playoff team, there are simply too many questions right now that prevent us from knowing just how good they can be.

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Avalanche’s 2014-15 record: 39-31-12 (90 points)

After a major shocker of a 2013-14 season, the Avs predictably took a step back last season and finished last in the Central despite earning 90 points. This offseason, they signed Francois Beauchemin, most notably, to help on the defensive side of things. They also traded Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo. Other than that, we’re looking at relatively the same team from last season, but with another year of experience under their belts. They are still going to be a very fast team with players like Duchene, Mackinnon, and Landeskog, but that won’t mean much unless they see more offensive production from them than they did last season, along with their depth forwards. Much like the Avanlanche as a whole team, Nathan Mackinnon also took a step back last season while only registering 38 points in 64 games played. So while Colorado needs their bottom six forwards to produce, they also need guys like Mackinnon to perform up to their potential. Defensively, the Avalanche are weak, and this should put Semyon Varlamov under a lot of pressure on a nightly basis yet again.

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Stars’ 2014-15 record: 41-31-10 (92 points)

Dallas was quite active this summer in upgrading their roster. They traded for Patrick Sharp, traded for the rights to Antti Niemi (who they then gave a contract extension), and signed Johnny Oduya (all three players won at least one Cup with Chicago). In acquiring Sharp, the Stars did lose Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt, but they more than made up for that by getting Sharp and signing Oduya. Right now, it’s looking like a top line of Benn, Seguin, and Sharp could be a real possibility to begin the season, making that one of the best lines in hockey. Their offensive depth is well above average, and now their defense should be at least somewhat better than it has been in the past. That combination should lead to more victories. Arguably their biggest problem last year was keeping the puck out of their own net, where Kari Lehtonen had a pretty bad year. Now, they have not only Lehtonen, who can be one of the game’s better goalies, but also Antti Niemi. Essentially two number one goalies. If one gets hot, they’ll ride him until he burns out and then switch to the other. Dallas is a team that I thought would have made the playoffs last year, and they didn’t, but now I’m not sure how they miss them again.

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Wild’s 2014-15 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)

Minnesota looked like a team destined to miss the postseason heading into January of last season. Then they acquired Devon Dubnyk and stuck him between the pipes and everything changed. They finished the second half of the season with the best record in the NHL and wound up with 100 points on the season and a spot in the playoffs as the top wild card team. They even went on to eliminate the Blues in the first round, only to be ousted by Chicago for the third consecutive season. This summer, they didn’t really do much of anything to make themselves better. They extended the contract of Devan Dubnyk, but that’s about it. They lost Chris Stewart via free agency and didn’t sign anyone notable other than Mike Reilly, the free agent defenseman coming out of college. Essentially, this is the same Wild team we saw last April. And to be honest with you, when I look at their roster and compare it to those of their divisional foes, I don’t see Minnesota finishing close to the top three in the division and they may very will miss the playoffs. Teams like Dallas, Calgary, Edmonton, and even Nashville all got better while Minnesota did nothing. It’ll be an uphill battle right from the beginning.

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Predators’ 2014-15 record: 47-25-10 (104 points)

Nashville kind of shocked us all with how well they played last season. I’d be willing to bet that no one had them pegged to finish as a 100-point team. They ended the season right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals per game, which is nothing spectacular, but finished in the top ten in fewest goals against per game. It would be accurate to say that their defensive corps had their “coming out party” last year. Couple that with the fact that Pekka Rinne had a real nice comeback season, and that’s how they finished so well in the goals against per game category. This year, their offense is nothing great again. They were able to re-sign Mike Ribeiro, but that was their biggest news at any forward position. Defensively, they may have the NHL’s best group of d-men. Shea Weber is consistently one of the league’s best, and now he has Roman Josi alongside him to help shoulder the load of holding down the opponent’s top lines. After them you have Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and newcomer Barret Jackman. Top to bottom, an extremely solid group of defensemen. It is because of that reason and the fact that they still have Rinne in goal that I don’t think it would be surprising to see this group in the postseason once again.

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Blues’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Blues were yet again one of the best teams in the league through the 2014-15 regular season, but again fizzled out in the opening round of the playoffs. This trend of making early exits from the playoffs nearly cost Ken Hitchcock his job this past summer, and you’d have to believe he will lose his job if it’s more of the same next spring. In terms of player personnel, the Blues dealt T.J. Oshie to the Capitals in exchange for Troy Brouwer most notably. Brouwer should fit perfectly into the Blues’ system as he’s a big, physical power forward capable of being pretty effective as a top six forward. After him, no big names were added to the roster. They’ll have Vladimir Tarasenko entering his third full season in the NHL, and one that will undoubtedly turn into must-see TV once he starts scoring impossible goals again. He is St. Louis’ biggest goal scoring threat, and losing him to any lengthy injury could be costly. The Blues also have Jaden Schwartz coming into the beginning of his prime years, as well as Jori Lehtera. Those two, specifically Schwartz, were legit surprises to a lot of people last year in terms of their production. If they can continue to let their games evolve, the Blues will have a real nice top two lines or so. On the blue line, St. Louis still has a great top three in Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Shattenkirk, but after that there are some concerns. In net, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen will both be back. As is the case each year it seems, goaltending could be this teams’ biggest question mark.

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Jets’ 2014-15 record: 43-26-13 (99 points)

For the first time since moving back to the ‘Peg, the Jets made the playoffs last season as the West’s number two Wild Card team. This year, it may be a challenge to repeat that feat. They traded away Evander Kane near the end of last season, who was arguably their best offensive talent despite not putting up the numbers, and now lack a true scorer. Blake Wheeler can definitely light the lamp, as can Ladd and Little, but that’s just not enough offense. They also lost Michael Frolik via free agency and will need to find some bottom line depth from within the organization. One positive that the Jets’ group forwards has going for them is their ability to combine speed and physicality. They are a big team, both vertically and in poundage, but also a very fast team. Being able to combine those two assets is always an advantage. Look no further than the Canucks of 3-6 years ago, the 2010 Blackhawks, and the two Kings teams that won the Cup. In return for Evander Kane, the Jets acquired former “future” star Tyler Myers from the Sabres. He will be a nice addition to the team now that they’ll have him for a full season. Winnipeg has built themselves a nice group of defensemen that could be considered one of the better units in the West. If this team is serious about making the playoffs again, they’ll need another stellar campaign from Ondrej Pavolec and Michael Hutchinson in goal.

So there you have it for the Central Division. As was the case last season, I wouldn’t be shocked if this division saw five teams make the postseason, although I’d lean more towards that number being four this year.

Predicted Standings:

  1. Blues 2. Blackhawks 3. Stars 4. Predators 5. Wild 6. Jets 7. Avalanche

Predicted Western Conference playoff teams:

  1. Ducks 2. Blues 3. Blackhawks 4. Stars 5. Flames 6. Kings 7. Oilers 8. Predators

Pacific Division preview

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd round predictions

Alright, so I went 6-2 with my first round predictions this year. Not bad, but not great. I should have known better than to actually think the Blues would get out of the first round. Their annual disappearing act in round one is something everyone should witness. My other hiccup came via the Calgary-Vancouver series. I had Vancouver in seven. Give credit to the Flames for playing as well as they did in what was the first career playoff series for a lot of their players.

The second round features some really intruiging matchups. Hopefully they live up to expectations. Due to time constraints on my end between now and the first games Thursday night, this is going to be a quick post.

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New York is coming off a fairly easy first round win over Pittsburgh while the Caps needed seven games to oust the Islanders. For me, the forward depth of these two teams is comparable with New York probably having the slight edge. It’s the defensive depth that separates one team from the other here.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Montreal began playing with fire against the Senators in round one after going up 3-0 in the series. It took a home loss in Game 5 to wake them back up and shut out the Sens in Game 6 to advance. As for Tampa Bay, they’ll be coming into this series fresh off of a Game 7 win at home over Detroit. They possess major speed and a guy named Steven Stamkos. The Habs have Carey Price, though. Expect a back and fourth series here with home ice ultimately being the deciding factor.

-Montreal wins series, 4-3.

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Not many people saw a sweep coming from the Ducks against Winnipeg. If it wasn’t for their ability to mount multiple third period comebacks, that series would have gone the distance. While Anaheim did play well, their habit of trailing heading into the third is not a good one. Calgary, on the other hand, played a hell of a series against Vancouver. Despite their season-long poor possession numbers, they found a way into the playoffs as well as into the second round. They’ll need all four lines and Jonas Hiller to be great in this one.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

I already posted my preview of this series, so here’s a recap. This is the third straight year these two have met in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning the first two series. The Hawks didn’t play great in their victory over Nashville, but got clutch performances from their star players. Corey Crawford, as well as the same star players on this team, will need to play great this series. For Minnesota, they’re feeling pretty good about themselves right now after knocking out the Blues. Devan Dubnyk has to perform at a Vezina-type level, and the bottom two lines for Minnesota need to contribute for them to advance. In the end, Chicago just has too many weapons.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Central Division preview

Now that we’ve finished with the Pacific Division, I’ll take a look at the Central Division here. There’s a solid chance that this could once again be the NHL’s top division.

CENTRAL DIVISION 

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Chicago: The Blackhawks are coming into the 2014-15 season with high expectations yet again. This team was one goal away from advancing to their second straight Stanley Cup Final this past season, where they probably would have won their second straight Cup in no more than six games. For the first time in a long time, they will actually have a real number two center in the form of Brad Richards, which should only make Patrick Kane that much more dangerous. They traded away Brandon Bollig this offseason to make room for guys such as Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, and maybe even Teuvo Teravainen. The lack of depth on last year’s team was a big reason for them not knocking out the Kings in the Conference Final, and it is an area that I believe they have improved on this summer just by making the room for the players mentioned above. Corey Crawford, who had a decent but not great 2013-14 season, will need to be better this year, as will Antti Raanta. I’d expect the Hawks to finish no worse than second in this division.

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Colorado: The Avalanche were without a doubt last season’s biggest surprise. After finishing the 2012-13 season with the second fewest points in the NHL, the Avs came almost out of nowhere last year and ended with 112 points. Granted, they couldn’t get out of the first round, but it was still an impressive season. This offseason, they traded away P.A. Parenteau in exchange for Daniel Briere, and signed Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, and Zach Redmond. They also lost Paul Stastny to the Blues. All of this sets the Avalanche up for what should be a very interesting season in Denver. If you look at Colorado’s team stats from last season, they are pretty great. If you also look at the players that performed best for them (I’m looking at you Varlamov), you might be a bit surprised. Semyon Varlamov put together a fantastic season for Colorado; one that he probably won’t duplicate this year. Their defensive corps are not great at all, to say the least, and this was proven in the Avs’ first round loss to the Wild last year. While Colorado definitely has a potentially lethal offense again, I just don’t see their defense being good enough to be anywhere close to as good as they were last season.

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Dallas: In my season preview last year, I noted that the Stars were being underrated by almost every NHL analyst at the time. I also said that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this team ended up as a playoff contender. Well, sure enough the Stars made the playoffs last season as the West’s second wild card team. This summer, they’ve only gotten better. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are the two biggest names to join the Stars since the end of last season, and Dallas fans have reason to be excited about that. The Stars now have two extremely good centers in Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza to go along with wingers such as Tyler Seguin (who can also play center) and Ales Hemsky. After that the names aren’t as recognizable, but the Stars are full of good role and depth forwards. On defense, Dallas really should have aggressively pursued one of the available top defensemen this offseason. As it stands now, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are arguably their two best d-men. In goal they still have Kari Lehtonen, who I firmly believe is one of the game’s most underrated players. Lehtonen was good last year, and he’ll need to be again this year seeing as how he will have a mediocre defense in front of him.

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Minnesota: The wild finished last season with 98 points, which I think a lot of people were surprised by. They went on to knock out the Avalanche in the first round (maybe the biggest “upset” of last year’s playoffs), and then lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the second round. Nonetheless, a successful season for the Wild. Like the Stars, I believe Minnesota has only improved since their season ended in May. They lost Matt Moulson to the Sabres via free agency, but they nicely replaced him with Thomas Vanek. On defense, they added some depth by signing Stu Bickel. Other than that, no new names on the Wild this year. So why are they better than last year? They now know what it takes to win a playoff series and their young guys gained valuable experience during last year’s playoff run. Guys like Coyle, Granlund, Haula, Neiderreiter, Brodin, and Spurgeon, all of whom are very young, should only be better this season. That’s not to mention they still have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu who are all elite players. I guess the only real question mark with this team is who will be their number one goalie to begin the season. Look out for the Wild this year.

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Nashville: Again, here’s another case of a team really improving this offseason. In exchange for Patric Hornqvist, the Predators acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh, and they also signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy (all three are centers). There’s no doubt that Nashville’s offense should be better this season than it was last year, as they ranked in the bottom half of the league in G/G. Defensively, they are still led by their captain Shea Weber who is also one of the NHL’s top d-men. Along with Weber, they’ll have Seth Jones entering his second professional season, as well as newcomer Anton Volchenkov, among a few others. Pekka Rinne will obviously be the team’s number one goalie again as he looks to have a bounce-back season after injuries plagued him all of last year. All in all, when you look at what the Predators have on their roster this upcoming season, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a tough team to play against. However, because of the division they’re in, we won’t see them in the playoffs.

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St. Louis: The Blues were a popular pick to win their first ever Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, their first round opponent was none other than the defending champion Blackhawks, and we all know what happened there. Since then, the Blues lost their top goalie, Ryan Miller, but they did sign the top center on the market in Paul Stastny. They also signed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Other than that, we’re pretty much looking at the same team this year as the one that exited the first round of the playoffs last year. My concern with St. Louis over the past few seasons has been their lack of firepower on offense. There’s no doubt that they have a great group of defensemen and defensive forwards, but they just haven’t had that player that can take over at any given time. Paul Stastny is a step in the right direction in that department, but I’m still not convinced that this team has the offensive weapons to go deep into the playoffs. Plus, they lost Ryan Miller to the Canucks and are left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their two goalies. Elliott is not going to win you a Cup, and Jake Allen really has zero NHL experience. So while I’m sure a good handful of people will pick this team to win the Cup this year, I’m still not sold on their offense and definitely not their goaltending.

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Winnipeg: The Jets are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time since coming back to Winnipeg. They finished last year as the bottom team in the Central Division with 84 points, which was the highest point total of any team to finish last in their respective division. This season, the Jets are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago at this time. Evander Kane has been the victim of many trade rumors over the last few months, so it will be interesting to see if he is still a Jet by the time the trade deadline rolls around in the spring. Their offense is not great by any means, and their defense is sub-par. Goaltending may be the Jets’ biggest weakness as Ondrej Pavelec finished last year with a .901 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average. All of that said, the Jets do have a handful of young forwards who could take the next step in their game this year. Unfortunately for Jets fans, however, this team won’t be a contender for a few years to come most likely.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild 4. Stars 5. Avalanche 6. Predators 7. Jets

(One through six are all legitimate playoff contenders, and they could really finish in any order. Chicago is the only clear-cut number one team in the Central.)

PREDICTED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:

1. Ducks 2. Blackhawks 3. Kings 4. Blues 5. Sharks 6. Wild 7. Stars 8. Avalanche

(That’s five Central Division teams again, with the Stars and Avs grabbing the two Wild Card spots.)

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.

 

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.

That’s more like it

1306350614After suffering disappointing and bad losses to the Lightning and Wild in consecutive games, the Blackhawks got back on track last night with a 5-1 victory in Minnesota over the Wild. It took the Hawks a couple periods to really get going, but the end result was very satisfying. After two periods the Blackhawks led by a score of 3-1, and everyone was anxious to see if they could finally pull away from their opponent and seal the deal in the third period. Well, they did, and they did it with an exclamation point.

Sharp, Brookbank, and Leddy accounted for the Hawks’ first three goals last night, with Leddy’s coming on the powerplay. Then just under three minutes into the third, Brandon Saad pulled of a beautiful spin-o-rama, behind the back pass to Patrick Kane that resulted in a tap in goal for Kane. Easily the prettiest goal of the year up to this point for the Blackhawks. About six minutes after that, it was Brandon Saad again, this time scoring his own highlight reel goal after receiving a perfect pass from Duncan Keith. This put the Hawks up 5-1, and it remained that way for the rest of the game.

So here are my observations from last night’s game:

  • Brandon Saad is without a doubt a top six forward on this team. He’s got all kinds of skill, he’s smart, and he is responsible defensively. Looks like he and Kane have developed some chemistry together as well, which never hurts. 
  • Brandon Pirri finally got his first crack at centering the second line with Michal Handzus scratched for the game. I’ve been calling on Quenneville to make this move for a while now, and finally it happened. Pirri finished the game with two assists (all three players on that line had two points in the game), and now has 5 points in 7 games since being brought up to the NHL.
  • Sheldon Brookbank is making a strong case to be the Blackhawks’ number six defenseman. This is three games in a row now that he has played really, really well. His goal last night didn’t hurt either.
  • Corey Crawford had a nice bounce back game after giving up 5 goals to the Wild on Saturday night. He really made some big stops through the first two periods to keep the game close.
  • The powerplay scored again. I believe that’s five straight games now with a powerplay goal. Compare that to last season, and I’ll take it. There are still times when they don’t shoot enough, but last night was better.
  • Banner-Raising-2013-1600Sharp finally scored. He’s got just two goals on the year now, but maybe last night’s goal will get him going. He seems to be a streaky scorer based on his past.

If the Hawks can figure out how to play every game like they did last night, then they should be just fine moving forward.

Getting back to Brandon Pirri, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as soon as he joined the second line, all three forwards had a great game and totaled six points combined. Michal Handzus, love him or hate him, is not a second line center, especially on this team. He is way too old and slow and doesn’t have the skill. He is good for winning faceoffs and that’s pretty much it. I honestly don’t see a place for him on this team on a nightly basis. He might be okay as a “plug-in” player who might play every 4 games or so, but he’s not good enough to play every game as the Hawks had hoped coming into this season. Guys like Pirri, Smith, and Morin should not be taken out of the lineup to make room for ‘Zus.

Speaking of Jeremy Morin, he has looked really good since being recalled prior to Saturday night’s game. He has really improved his game since last season and looks like he’s here to stay. Brad Mills has also looked good in his first two games with the Hawks. Looks like he may have found a home on the PK with Marcus Kruger.

Tonight, the Blackhawks take on the Senators at the UC. Ottawa is 3-5-2 in their last ten games and has struggled here in the early part of the season. I’m expecting a Hawks’ victory tonight.

That’s all for now.