The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up a 1-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. This should be a grave cause of concern for the boys from the steel city. As a whole, Craig Anderson is statistically having his worst playoff run in terms of save percentage. Yet he is still in the Eastern Conference Finals. Lifetime the Park Ridge Illinois native has a .929 playoff sv% and that’s a pretty staggering number considering some of the teams he’s played behind.

This season his total is .920, and there’s been an enormous spike in the last three games where he’s seen an average of 33 shots per game, and had final numbers of .949, .964, and .966. Against the Rangers he had no consecutive games with a save percentage over .900, and he still dragged the Senators past their New York series. The Rangers put a lot more shots on net than the Penguins have managed. The only game of that series in which he faced less than 33 per game was the one he was pulled.

With Craig Anderson heating up, and Bobby Ryan looking like the guy who justified the “still there at two” appellation Brian Burke bestowed on him in his draft year, that’s alarming all by itself. Mike Hoffman has also been a pretty consistent points producer, and him going more than two games without getting on the score sheet is a rarity. Jean Gabriel Pageau has also proven to be an unsolveable riddle for defenses in the second season potting goals against the two previous goaltenders, both Vezina winners, and Fleury doesn’t seem to have an answer either.

Even leaving aside Ryan the three time 30 goal scorer, and both Pageau and Hoffman, the second scariest reason after a hot Anderson the Penguins should be worried comes in two bodies. Dion Phaneuf who seems to finally have learned not to take himself out of position for his earth shattering hits, and Erik Karlsson who has yet to produce a point in this series. Karlsson entered the Eastern Conference Finals one of a handful of skaters and the only defenseman with more than a point per game production. I don’t think it’s likely he’s going to stay off the board much longer.

This years playoffs have so many interesting matchups it is going to be hard to call a best series even if you see every minute of ever game.

The Chicago Blackhawks vs the Nashville Predators

This is the western conference’s David versus Goliath matchup. While the Blackhawks aren’t quite as formidable as they were when Kane, Toews, Seabrook, and Keith first hoisted the Cup, they are still one of the strongest, best balanced teams in the NHL. If the Predators do win this matchup it will be because the team refused to be intimidated, and everyone grabbed the rope and leaned. The Preds do have the players to be dangerous, Subban, Ellis, Arvidsson, and Forsberg are more than a handful themselves.

Biggest Strength

  • Blackhawks: Explosiveness
  • Predators: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Blackhawks: Special teams
  • Predators: Discipline

Ottawa Senators vs Boston Bruins

This is a first. The Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins have never met in the playoffs. The Sens have been in the NHL 26 years, and they and the Bruins have never gone eye to eye. The Senators ran the tables on the Bruins in the regular season. Both teams will enter the second season with banged up bluelines. Both coaches are relatively new to their posts. Each team has some very gifted players. Marchand, Bergeron, and Chara will need to shoulder the load for the Bruins to have a hope. Karlsson, O’Reilly, and Anderson can just be themselves so long as the rest of the squad shows up. This could be the best series to watch from an “x’s” and “o’s” point of view. This matchup probably has the highest regular season PIM total.

Biggest Strengths:

  • Senators: The ability to triple the gravity in the neutral zone
  • Bruin: Team defense and penalty kill

Biggest Weakness

  • Senators: Special teams
  • Bruins: Wildly inconsistent goaltending

 

Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Everything versus nothing. That is this series in three words. The Toronto Maple Leafs are at least two years ahead of projections. The Washington Capitals should have had at least one Cup in the last five years. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen are all years from being able to drink (legally) in the US. Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom are all well into their second half of a decade or more chasing the last win of the season and not even coming close.

Biggest Strengths

  • Caps:  Total package
  • Leafs: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Caps: Mental composure
  • Leafs: Defense

 

Predictions:

Boom or bust players are the players who’s performance have the ability to tilt the series.

Hawks vs Preds

For the Predators to win they need to stay out of the box they were penalized almost 50% more than the Blackhawks, for Chicago its pretty much a case of stay calm and be the Blackhawks. – Chicago in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series: Ryan Johansen

Caps vs Leafs

The Caps have more playoff experience, at least as good a coach, better performance at almost every measure. – Caps in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series: Alex Ovechkin

Ducks vs Flames

Goaltending wins championships, and the difference between Gibson’s season and either Johnson or Elliot is noticeable, but the Flames are not going to go down easy. – Ducks in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. – Johnny Gaudreau

Penguins vs Jackets

Repeating is tough, if I were ever going to pick a team to do it, this might just be it. Jackets in 6

Boom or Bus player of the series. – Cam Atkinson

Oilers vs Sharks

This Oilers team is pretty compelling. How the defense of the Sharks is matched with McDavid and company will decide the series. – Oilers in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. Milan Lucic

Wild vs Blues

This series is not as even as some people would have you believe. Wild in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series. Alex Peitrangelo

Habs vs Rangers

These teams have recent history, but one team is on the rise, and one of them has crested. Canadiens in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series. Derek Stepan

Sens vs Bs

This series will come down to how consistently the coaches can impose their will on their team and get them to execute the system. Sens in 6

 

It November 27th, one day before Thanksgiving in the United States of America and that’s about the time 80% or more of the playoff picture shakes out. Which teams will stay in the picture? Which are locks? Who’s most vulnerable to an injury or two that takes them out of the playoff picture?

Let’s take a look at the western conference first:

The interesting thing about the west is the amount of separation between the top seven or eight and everyone else. The Chicago Blackhawks have played one less game than the Vancouver Canucks and have nine more points. That’s their spread from sitting on the couch in April.

Western lock:

Saint Louis Blues, they’ve played just 23 games and have 8 points of separation on being on the outside looking in. Top to bottom they have the best defense in the NHL. They have the best team goal differential, and are one of just three teams to allow 50 or less goals today.

Most vulnerable:

The Colorado Avalanche, with the Varlemov situation on one hand, and the uncharacteristic play of most of the rest of the roster on the other, this is a team where one injury could result in a tailspin into mediocrity.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

Nashville Predators, with Pekka Rinne on the mend they will soon have a number one goalie to help out on the backend. That should in turn allow them to get a bit more offense out of their team.

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

The East:

There are more teams in the east, and more teams rebuilding, or very dependent on top line or top pairing talent.  The east is shamefully dominated by the Atlantic division with five of the eight playoff spots belonging to one of the teams in that division.

 

Eastern lock:

Boston Bruins, hands down the best team in the east, even if they haven’t played a full sixty minute game all season. They’re too deep and too good for even two or big injuries to drag them outside the playoff structure.

Most vulnerable:

New York Rangers, they don’t seem to know who they are. This isn’t surprising given the radical difference in coaching styles between the last coach and the current one.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

While the Carolina Hurricanes should be better, they’ve also not had good health in their key forwards. The team people should worry about is the Ottawa Senators. Craig Anderson can’t stay this bad this long, and the team will eventually start finding ways to win consistently.

 

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

 

Players:

  • that Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury would not only have more starts than Craig Anderson but better stats too.
  • that Tim Thomas would have more games played than Tomas Vokoun, Cam Ward and Anton Kudobin combined.
  • Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild would have more goals and points than Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks or any member of the New York Rangers
  • that Jeff Carter’s mystery foot injury of a couple seasons back might not have been a product of not wanting to play or live in Columbus but be part of some other long term health issue.
  • of the four players tied for the lead league in short handed goals at two, Bryan Little, Brandon Dubinsky, Brad Richardson, and Dwight King only King would be on a team currently in a playoff spot.
  • of the 734 skaters to take the ice since the beginning of the season the only player with more than one overtime goal would be Florida Panthers discard and Vancouver Canucks bargain pickup Mike Santorelli.
  • 22 games into the season none of the 14 game winning goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins would have come from Sidney Crosby, while Chuck Kobasew would own two.
  • Josh Harding could be labeled the front runner for both the Vezina and the starting job on the Canadian Olympic team.

Teams:

  • the Detroit Red Wings would have more overtime losses than any other team in the NHL.
  • through the first quarter of the season the Phoenix Coyotes would be fourth in goals per game at 3.29.
  • the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, and Toronto Maple Leafs would be the only teams even or with a winning record when trailing after one period.
  • with 23 games in the books the Buffalo Sabres would not have led at the end of the first period even once.
  • of the four teams with a winning record when trailing first, three would be in the same division the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings, while the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only team from outside the Pacific to do so.
  • the Colorado Avalanche would be undefeated when scoring first.
  • the Anaheim Ducks who are being outspent by 18 teams would lead the league in points.
  • the Buffalo Sabres were projecting for less wins in this 82 game season than in last years lockout shortened one. (18 vs 21)

This irregular feature will run when I get bored. It will ask one scintillating question about each NHL team.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Can this team take advantage of its abundance of youth to compliment its savvy and skilled veteran core?

Boston Bruins: Is there a single hockey observer anywhere who doesn’t think the team is dangling Matt Bartkowski for trade?

Buffalo Sabres: So ah, how about those Buffalo Bills?

Calgary Flames: Are you the one non Flames fan or executive who expected the team to start the season 2-0?

Carolina Hurricanes: Isn’t it great that the Canes put in a great effort for their goaltender Cam Ward opening night and only allowed 38 shots on goal?

Chicago Blackhawks: If the media doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s off ice antics to talk about, will they actually cover the team now?

Colorado Avalanche: We all know the limited shelf life of firey over the top NHL coaches like Guy Boucher and Patrick Roy right?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Do we blame Bobrovksy’s four goal opener on moving east, a lack of defenders who play defense, or just a fat pay day?

Dallas Stars: Will Alex Goligoski ever get recognized as top defenseman?

Detroit Red Wings: Is there a player in the system 30 or under who can emerge as the next “face of the franchise”?

Edmonton Oilers: Can prodigal son and eco-warrior Andrew Ference lead his band of merry man-children to liberate a playoff spot from and deliver it to their poor fans?

Florida Panthers: With new ownership and oodles of cap space this year, how wide with the tap be opened for established NHL talent in the future?

Los Angeles Kings: Without a proven backup will Quick get overworked in the regular season?

Minnesota Wild: Will the Wild faithful stay true if the team underperforms this season?

Montreal Canadiens: With the soon to be 35 year old Brian Gionta’s star waning and an expiring contract, will the Habs relocate the C to another jersey possibly before moving him?

Nashville Predators: Barry Trotz entered the season the NHL’s longest tenured head coach, will he end the season in his current position?

New Jersey Devils: With the leagues oldest team, and all but one of the free agents brought in this season over 30, does this franchise have a path to the future?

New York Islanders: The Islanders took a big step forward last year climbing into the playoffs and battling Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can Tavares and Hamonic make themselves household names this year?

New York Rangers: How long will it take Marc Staal, Brad Richards and the rest of the blueshirts to adapt to Alain Vigneault’s system?

Ottawa Senators: Captain Spezza, with Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson are more than enough to get this team to the second round of the playoffs right?

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will lead the Flyers in the three categories that have defined the team in recent seasons: missed games, PIMS and suspensions?

Phoenix Coyotes: Is Mike Ribeiro the right centerpiece for the teams offense or just another free agent that will do just ok and move on?

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy right? Right?

San Jose Sharks: Will Bruan, Vlasic, and Hertl emerge to form the new core of this team with Logan Couture?

Saint Louis Blues: Does this team have enough scoring talent and the right coach to take advantage of it?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Does Steve Yzerman who wants fighting out of the game have a punchers chance of seeing his team in the playoffs any time soon?

Toronto Maple Leafs: When the Olympic break rolls around will we be asking where they will find a center, or marveling at Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri as a one two punch?

Vancouver Canucks: With a new coach and system in John Tortorella and a general manager Mike Gillis, who has to be fighting for his own job, how much of the current roster will still be in place after the trade deadline?

Washington Capitals: We can all agree that Alex Ovechkin is good for 50+ goals this season, and Mikhail Grabovski will set a personal high in at least one offensive category right?

Winnipeg Jets: With Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and more in full stride, the biggest question about this team is once again in the crease isn’t it?

With so few of the division’s teams actually on the Atlantic, or even within an hour or two’s flight of the ocean, the name is a mystery. So is the number of teams that will see the second season. The top two are a gimmie, the next four are just a hairs breadth apart.  With three teams boasting Norris trophy winners, and two Selke winners you’ve got a very tough division to climb the ladder in.

Montreal Canadiens:

Good news: Never underestimate the impact of healthy, mobile, two way blueline. PK Subban, Markov, and company are more than a handful.

Bad news: Carey Price wore out last year from being played too much, this year they have the same backup goalie.

Buffalo Sabres:

Good news: The team is returning the highly likeable Tyler Ennis, and is clearly intent on playing the next stars of the team as much as they can.

Bad news: The lingering trade rumors around goalie Ryan Miller and Tomas Vanek are likely to drag the team below even its modest talent levels.

Detroit Red Wings:

Good news: Datsyuk is still wearing the winged wheel, as are Zetterberg and Kronwall.

Bad news: The off season addition don’t put the team over the top.

Toronto Maple Leafs:

Good news, John Scott didn’t manage to kill Phil Kessel in the preseason, and Tyler Bozak is looking energized.

Bad news: Coaches who drive one good player out of town for unknowable reasons, probably won’t stop their.

Ottawa Senators:

Good news: A healthy Spezza with an angry Bobby Ryan is a recipe for magic.

Bad news: With the players moved for Bobby Ryan, they sacrificed some youth, and maybe a little depth.

Florida Panthers:

Good news: They added a veteran goaltender in the person of Tim Thomas, and they picked up ownership that may just open the money tap.

Bad news: The Panthers don’t have much depth at any given position.

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Good news: Stamkos, Stamkos, Stamkos and some guy named Martin St Louis.

Bad news: Those are 100% of the teams valuable players.

Boston Bruins:

Good news: Savvy off season moves make this team arguably better than the one they won the Stanley Cup with.

Bad news: The only position you can’t say that about is goaltending if only because they’re backup is clearly a backup.

Top three teams:

Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens.

The Bruins are clearly the cream of the crop, The Senators probably have the best goaltender in Craig Anderson when he’s healthy, and the Canadians have admirable depth at forward and defense. The Red Wings, and Leafs are within striking distance of an assured post season berth. The rest of the division would all require some form of hefty upgrade between now and Thanksgiving.

Injuries were the definition and demise of the Ottawa Senators season 2012-13 season. Players who made it through the regular season healthy were as rare as honest politicians. Scoring was perhaps even rarer with only three players crossing the ten goal mark and a 27th place finish in goal for. As bright spots go, aside from unexpected depth at goaltending, there wasn’t much to speak of. Certainly, when you consider that half the games were played not by starter Craig Anderson but by two backups it is safe to say none of the shine on this season would require you to shade your eyes.

The off season saw the aging face of the Senators Daniel Alfredsson leave in a huff for a team just across the border.  General Manager Bryan Murray brought in the long scapegoated Bobby Ryan in exchange for depth. Arguably if the Senators had managed to massage Alfredsson’s ego enough to get him to stay the team would have had the most offensive depth it had seen in at least half a decade. But for now, this team belongs to Craig Anderson, Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Cory Conacher, and whomever else can carve themselves a piece of the pie. Among the most curious moves of the NHL off season was the signing of Joe Corvo, even at the rate he’s signed for, there are better uses for money.

The regular season opens with the Senators on a six game road trip. The Buffalo Sabres are the first team they will try to beat on the road, then fellow Ontario team the Toronto Maple Leafs. After that a tour of California, facing the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and finally a home coming for Bobby Ryan in Anaheim to drop the puck against the Ducks. Four out of five made the playoffs last year, and two back to backs will keep things lively for Paul MacLean and company.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities: 5

Best opponent: Anaheim Ducks

Weakest opponent: Buffalo Sabres

Home games: 0

Projected points: 4+

October does not have a pretty schedule in store for the Ottawa Senators. That said, many coaches like early road trips as both a bonding aid, and a way of eliminating home life distractions. Paul MacLean is one of the best coaches in the NHL, and while most of the team is the same as last year, the loss of Alfredsson’s leadership will make a difference. If the team manages to find time to sign Jared Cowen and return him to the line up, Cowen, Eric Gryba, and Patrick Weircioch can apply those hard earned lessons from last season and go about making up for the defensive deficiencies of the offense only Erik Karlsson.

Realignment has stirred the pot and the results in this division are curious at best. The big idea is clearly to draw fans into the arenas of all of the NHL’s second and third tier teams. In this case however, six of the teams are sorta close to each other, and the other two are at the other end of the continent. The shattering of the leagues second worst division brings the Florida Panthers and their Sunshine State companions the Tampa Bay Lightning into a division with all five members of the old Northeast division and a escapee of the former central division the Detroit Red Wings.

Boston: We know the Bruins would not have moved on from Tyler Seguin if they’d won the Cup this season, or if he’d actually shown up in games on a consistent basis. We know Iginla and Chiarelli are going to feel the heat if former Flames captain starts off with his usual October anemic start. We know who plays on the teams third line, and for that matter where Daniel Paille plays are questions that will be asked again and again all season long.

Buffalo: We know the first post Lindy Ruff season will not be same old same old. We know the team still hasn’t named a captain. We know that at least on paper it is hard to call this a better roster than last years. We know the hope that Tallinder will help turn Myers around might just be all that has kept Darcy Regier employed. We know that any 23 man roster that can find room for John Scott isn’t likely to be playing in May.

Detroit: We know that with their move east and the alleviated travel burden some of the older players might have better than expected seasons. We know that its likely Daniel Alfredsson will not get warm second, third and fourth visits to his old team. We know this team isn’t significantly better than it was last season, and that it is playing in a tougher division and conference than last year. We know that Lidstrom’s jersey retirement is likely to be nearly as lengthy and mind numbing as if the Habs were retiring a number.

Florida: We know that adding Steven Pinizzotto, Jesse Winchester, Scott Gomez, Bobby Butler, and Joey Crabb to a team does not constitute a significant upgrade of NHL talent regardless of where you finished in the NHL standings the previous year. We know they are hoping one or two prospects surprise the this year by earning a roster spot in camp. We know that with this roster we’re as likely to hear loud, boisterous fans of the visiting team in Sunrise as we are fans of the Panthers.

Montreal: We know the core of this roster should be better than it was last year in the playoffs, even allowing for injuries. We know that whatever tension there is in the locker room, most notably between a certain pair of long time forwards and an unnamed defenseman carries over to the ice and hurts the team. We know this team would be much better with a backup goalie who can be expected to play well in twenty or even twenty five games a year. We know Briere as a part of the package is probably the best improvement for the teams playoff chances they could have added. We know Emelin should go back to hitting and playing physically in exactly the manner he made a name for himself in, perhaps with one or two exceptions.

Ottawa: We know that Daniel Alfredsson will likely be cheered when he first takes the ice as a member of the Red Wings, and soundly booed after that. We know that if Jason Spezza ever wants to build a legacy for himself in Ottawa now is the time. We know that the team is better than it was last year by adding Ryan’s health, allowing for maturation of Zibanejad, Cowen, and Weircioch, even if they did bring back Joe Corvo. We know that Anderson is likely off to the Olympics in Sochi.

Tampa Bay: We know someone other than Steve Yzerman knows what he is doing, what we don’t is if anyone understands what he is doing. We know the best way to describe the teams defense would be Hedman, aging, aged, fragile and unknown. We know there are 157 inches of question mark in net, those inches answer to the names of Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. We know that even with 5 NHL seasons to his name, including a run to the eastern conference finals, there are only four younger forwards on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster than Steven Stamkos.

Toronto: We know the off season deck chair shuffling didn’t address the teams major issues; resiliency, defensive coherence. We know Joe Colborne is unlikely to contribute as much in any zone as Grabovski, and certainly won’t be as much of an impact player overall. We know Phil Kessel will probably continue to light up Tuukka Rask as he couldn’t Tim Thomas. We that someday Leafs fans will get a general manager who can build a winner, won’t they?

One thing that stands out right away when looking at the roster is the number of guys who have yet to play their first NHL game. Jacob Trouba is highly touted, but as the Vancouver Olympics showed us the national rosters with the most NHL players will win, and that’s a lot of talent for someone who might still not have an NHL game to their credit. Not long ago, I went over the old roster and looked at the potential new one.

Dan DeKeyser was the most talked about college free agent this spring, and yet he got into just two of the Detroit Red Wings playoff games this spring. If he’s not yet at level to play regularly against NHL competition it is curious to see him on even a preliminary Olympic roster. Jake Trouba and Seth Jones are a surprise because unlike DeKeyser they don’t have even a single NHL game to their credit. It is unlikely that even if all three make it they will play huge minutes for Team USA, but there are other NHL defensemen with a little more creditability as a possible Olympian.

The forward group shows that as always Team USA will be a team designed to win games in a complete manner, and not simply by scoring for dear life. TJ Oshie is a little bit surprising given the occasional questions about his conditioning. Trevor Lewis as a bottom six forward is surprising because he hasn’t shown any strong offensive upside in the NHL yet. Justin Abdelkader’s hits are enough to get anyone attention, but offensively, he’s had just two 20+ goal seasons in his hockey career, one for the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and once in the AHL. Paul Stastny is surprising, well only if you fail to look at his international numbers. His NHL numbers arguably do not justify a spot on the roster, but his international game is quite solid.

In goal, there isn’t an a team that can match the depth of the Americans at least on paper. Craig Anderson and Jonathan Quick in whichever order you care to list them are the easy picks as first and second goalies. But they probably shouldn’t be, even with strong performances in the last two seasons because Miller and Gibson are both en fuego  Miller, Howard and Schneider should spend their time at camp and early in the year looking over their shoulder at John Gibson who has a career 9.35sv% in international play including tours-de-force of .951 and .955 in separate tournaments this year. Of all the goalies there, Jimmy Howard probably has the least pressure on him.

The biggest surprises on the Team USA roster are who isn’t there. But that’s for tomorrow’s snubs post.