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

 

The first three days of the NHL season are in the books and while I’m not prepared to hand out any major awards or declare the Stanley Cup a given to anyone, there’s been some fun stuff to watch.

The Los Angeles Kings are so thin at forward that even when Marion Gaborik gets back on the ice it is still quite likely that Dwight King and Trevor Lewis will see top six minutes. Good guys, honest players they are, the core of an offense they should not be.

Did someone hide Jonathan Toews’ prescription strength discipline? He’s had a couple iffy penalties, and fight just two games into the season. I’m not sure anyone knows what’s going on here, but this looks more like the rattled guy Seabrook felt the need to comfort in the penalty box back in 2013 than ice cold muscle and sinew of the franchise people depend on.

A Patrice Bergeron deficient Boston Bruins squad is nothing the Causeway faithful have had cause to look forward to int he last twelve seasons, but in their first game of the season, fans were exposed to just that. The play wasn’t just iffy in the first half of the game, it looked like a scramble of eight year olds in their own end. They did right the ship and win, but only because of the extraordinary efforts of Marchand, Backes, Pastrnak. A quick look will tell you six forwards were held to one shot or less, including David Krejci the highest paid player on the team.

Auston Matthews put on a very memorable show, there are a couple things worth keeping in mind. First, the only notable defensive defenseman on the Senators is Phanuef, and he was only on the ice for one goal against. And two, a lot of the players who have had very memorable debuts  have gone on to be not very much. Matthews has talent, drive, and passable size, but no one knows what the future will bring.

It’s clearly October, Edmonton is at the top of the standings, where they will likely stay for two or even three more games.

Pay no attention to the rumors that Joe Thornton’s beard has acquired it’s own agent, and is looking to be traded.

The NHL schedulers have conspired to keep the Vancouver Canucks out of the loss column for as long as possible, on this the fourth day of the season they will play their first game.

The Arizona Coyotes who are a team to watch this season have an exciting mix of young stars up front, and what may be the most under rated top four on their blueline in the NHL.

Even knowing that he’s spent the bulk of his career in markets with less assertive media than places like Toronto, Boston, New York or Chicogo, I don’t know how James Neal escapes a well earned reputation for being one of the dirtiest players in the NHL. Head shots, slew foots, and more are a routine part of his game. Sure players like Shaw and Marchand are annoying, but they are looking to keep people off their game not off the roster.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.

 

This series could be described as “A Tale of Two Cities In Freefall” by someone who particularly loved Dickens. That writer would no doubt treat their readers to a wordy, drawn out description of the teams records fillled with references to the a book most people never bothered to suffer through; that writer isn’t me. Neither the Blues who ended the season on a zero for six slide, nor the Blackhawks who played mediocre hockey have much to shout about coming into the post season.

Saint Louis Blues

The list of players dinged up over the last month of the regular season for the Blues reads like a who’s who of the team. David Backes spent time on the shelf, Olympic sharp shooter T.J. Oshie was down-checked, faceoff stud and defensive stalwart Valdimir Sobotka is down and out. Vladimir Taresenko hasn’t taken the ice since mid march, and both Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund found themselves in need of time to heal. Which makes it remarkable that the team was still within striking distance of the President’s Trophy until the final games of the regular season. This is a very talented team when healthy, who work hard and are coached well.

Best Players

On a team this deep, it is hard to winnow the list. Backes and Steen have gotten a lot of attention, but Oshie was second on the team in scoring. On the backend, it is hard to argue that the a more talented group has hit the ice for a playoff run since Bourque and Roy were in Colorado together. This team has three defensemen who could be considered number ones in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In net they have Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Ryan Miller who is having one of his better years despite how much of the year he spent on the woeful Sabres.

X-Factor

This team has all the talent in the world, how well the execute and stay focused will determine how deep they go. Two years in a row they ran into the Kings and produced two brilliant, beautiful series which they lost. This year its the Chicago Blackhawks on the agenda.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champions had a very fast, very talented roster. Where the Blues thrive in games that are ultra physical and play a counter punch style many nights, the Blackhawks are quite happy to win on pure skill and determination. This team can make lots of great passes, the core group has been together a long time, and know each other very well. Of that core, Hossa, Toews, and Kane have all missed time due to injuries.

Best Players

Like the Blues, this is a pretty deep roster. Sharp led the team in scoring in the regular season, Seabrook is a very effective defensive-defenseman, Keith might be on the shortlist for the Norris, and not many GM’s would take too long thinking about a trade package coming their way that included Toews or Kane.

X-Factor

How much will fatigue and the physicality of the Blues affect this team? The Stanley Cup finals didn’t end until just before the draft in late June and most of this roster was part of that win, many of their top players played in the Olympics, and they do not have home ice advantage in this series.

The Western Conference has run over the east so far this year. The odd thing is how concentrated the losses are, so many of the east’s teams are in complete disarray while most of the weakest of the western teams are either over performing or have finally started to turn the corner on rebuilds that their is an imbalance.

Anaheim Ducks: We know that despite injuries to Sheldon Souray, Matt Beleskey, Viktor Fasth, Jakob Silfverberg, Saku Koivu, and Sami Vatanen, no team has wracked up more points or an equal amount of wins in the six week old season.

Colorado Avalanche: We know the Avs may be led by Matt Duchene, but they are getting contributions deep into the forward pool. In 14 games (or less for some) seven forwards have at least 9 points. Matt Duchene’s 10 goals are complimented nicely by five each from Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, PA Parenteau, and Ryan O’Reilly. We know the goalies are beating the competition with silly ease in wins, neither Giguere nor Semyon Varlemov have allowed more than 2 goals in a win.

San Jose Sharks: We know that two regulation losses in sixteen games is pretty damn spiffy. We know that a certain player might be tempted to celebrate this with his rooster out. We know the Sharks defense is going to be overlooked when people point out why the team is succeeding this season. We know not to get our hopes to high about this team and the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks: We know that even with Toews and Kane at just under a point per game this team has another gear.  We know it is nice not to be talking about the team’s powerplay. We know they team would rather not talk about their rather dismal penalty kill.

Phoenix Coyotes: We know the media stopped paying attention to this team when the arena deal went through. We know they have as many regulation or over time wins as the San Jose Sharks. We know that their powerplay is just .4 behind their Pacific division rival Sharks. We know that this team won’t get any real attention until the second round of the playoffs, and then only reluctantly from certain media outlets.

Vancouver Canucks: With 18 games played and 11 ROW’s the team is currently in the first wild card spot in the west. We know they have either played well after their adjustment to a new coach or that they are getting good puck luck with four of their last ten games going more than sixty minutes and victories in three of those.

Saint Louis Blues: We know the off season moves, and maturity (and health) are playing a big part in this teams success. We know that this should be the season Alex Pietrangelo becomes a household name. We know Vladimir Sobotka is on pace for a career season. We know Alex Steen will remember every moment of this season.

Minnesota Wild: We know that if this team were allowed just a little more offensive freedom they might just move into one of the divisional playoff spots and avoid the wild card chase. We know that Nino Niederreiter must be enjoying his escape from New York given that he’s played all 17 of the Wild’s games this year. We know being 16th in goals for and 3rd in goals against is very traditional Wild hockey and makes for a lot over very tight games.

Los Angeles Kings: We know this is one of just three teams without an overtime loss. We know that Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas present a pretty good case for a curse of the Conn-Smythe, at least for American goaltenders. We know that hovering low in the playoff picture has been just about perfected by this team. We know Anze Kopitar’s point per game pace is pretty surprising for this team and will be ignored, again.

Nashville Predators: We know 14 points in their last 10 games should tell us a lot about how bad the Preds first few games were. We know the team is a very uncharacteristic 19th in goals against. We know that having done nothing to improve their forward pool in the off season that no one is surprised they are 21st in goals for. We know that the forward group’s lack of offensive zest will likely cost Shea Weber another Norris and could cost Seth Jones the Calder.

Dallas Stars: We know that despite adding Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin in the off season the team is still being outscored by their opponents. We know that Valeri Nichushkin is the only draft pick from the last four drafts on the roster. We know a Lindy Ruff coached team is never going to be more than mediocre offensively so the rest of the team has to be high end and that this roster doesn’t qualify.

Calgary Flames: We know that a 6-8-2 is about where most people expected this team to be. We know Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler are doing what heavy lifting is getting done in Calgary. We know those same two players are probably preventing the team from locking up the first overall pick that has to be the aim of the front office. We know that as bad as other teams are playing the return of Mark Giordano means management will have to come up with a better plan for tanking.

Winnipeg Jets: We know that this teams lack of a number on center and arguably of a number two center are making the shortcomings on the back end even more apparent. We know the time to burn this roster to the ground and spare no one over the age of 25 is coming real soon.

Edmonton Oilers: We know there’s just no excuse for this team to be this bad. We know they’ve had all sorts of high draft picks. We know Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner are legitimate NHL talents. We know goaltending is a big, big issue. We know that the defense as a whole can’t get out of its own way much less get the goaltender a clear view or move the puck out of their own end. We know that unless they overpay one or three of the pending UFA defensive defensemen in July, hopes should not be high for improvement any time soon. We know that less than twenty games into the season injuries have played a big part with only seven skaters playing all 17 games.

October 1:

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will get the headlines, but if you want the best game of the night, it isn’t this one. It isn’t The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, it is the Washington Capitals taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, you’ve got a banner raising, the return of Russian Olympic torchbearer Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, John Carlson, Mikhail Grabovski, and Brooks Laich all ready healthy and ready to go.

The star power on both sides is great, goaltending is about equal. This may be the best game of the week.

October 2:

With just three games on the docket, another easy choice. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers both underwent huge roster turnover since last spring. One was a playoff team and may manage it again, the other needs to get into the playoffs or heads will roll. James Van Riemsdyk and Luke Schenn will faceoff against their old teams, and it least one of roster will sport a different goaltender than the last time these two teams met.

October 3:

This is an almost impossible night of coverage to choose from. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning always put on a good show, and this will be the first night on the ice for the Bolts new captain. The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings should be a good tilt, the jilted former champions versus the rising power looking to wash away the stain of being pushed out of the playoffs so easily. The Saint Louis Blues and Nashville Predators will square off with what could be two of the best backends in the NHL.  But the game of the night will be the San Jose Sharks and their playoff feast the Vancouver Canucks. The changes in the Canucks lineup and coaching will make the game even more compelling.

October 4:

Friday night will be a smorgasbord of NHL action. The game of the night is easily the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. These two division rivals will square off with both hoping to be in the top three in the new Atlantic division. With Boston and Montreal to compete with every point, every game, every shift counts and these teams know it. Ottawa was in the mix last year, but new captain Jason Spezza will want to bring the boys to the top of the standings from the starting pistol to the final horn.

October 5:

Saturday’s game of the night is easy: Original 6 action. The Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins were laid low by the Chicago Blackhawks last June. With the Red Wings playing as an eastern conference team for the first time in a generation, both fan bases will have to work overtime to get this rivalry to something with a bit of hate in it. Kronwall and Lucic will provide devastating open ice hits, Bergeron and Datsyuk will be on display as three zone aces, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard will be in the crease making their case for inclusion on their nation’s Olympic rosters for Sochi, and Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg will be captaining each ship in the first of five regular season battles.

Since the last full season lost to disputes between players and owners, there has been one face of a 30 city, league that plays in two nations, adherents of a dozen religions, and millions of people. With the aid of enormous advertising dollars, his own native talent, and the cooperation of the NHL’s owners and media organs, that face has been Sidney Crosby. He won a cup early in his career, and has won a Hart Trophy, the Mark Messier leadership award, the Maurice Richard, and picked up not one but two Ted Linday Awards. We know he prepares the right way, every time he comes back from an injury, he slides right back into place with the same skill and guile as before. His preparation, or skill aren’t the question. They never were.

The question is; can you count on Crosby?

When the chips are down, will he be there. In the past three seasons he has missed more games than he’s played. To put things in perspective, goalies even the elite ones rarely play more games than elite skaters. Sidney Crosby got into 36 games in the lockout shortened season. In a normal 82 game season the busyiest goalies top out at about 50 games. Some will hit the 70s, but those are rarities, those are goalies equivalent to skaters who go two or three season without missing a game at all. Sixteen goalies played as many or more games as Sidney Crosby last year. Of those goalies, Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars and Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild considered injury prone. Evgani Nabokov was 37 and appeared in 41 of the Islanders regular season games, and all six playoff games. Jonathan Quick had back surgery in the off season, and was not himself for stretches of last season and played 37 games with a solid backup.

Sidney Crosby is now entering his ninth NHL season. In exactly 0.0% of his seasons has he played all of the games. He’s come close twice, in two seasons he’s played 81 games. Of all the injuries, that have been disclosed, you can only point to the games lost to groin injuries as possibly being related to fitness, but those can happen in normal training, game action or just day to day life. There isn’t much that can be done about them and most athletes will get them.

It’s the other injuries that are worrisome. The concussions and post concussion syndrome which have cost hims more than 100 games are concerning all individually, cumulatively they are troubling. On top of those are bone injuries that suggest that however willing the spirit might be, the body isn’t able to keep up with the punishment of being an NHL star. Multiple ankle and foot injuries dating from to the first half of his rookie season, and then the mysterious and apparently contagious “lower body injury”, and most recently a facial injury that cost him a dozen regular season games and a playoff match. By comparison Alex Ovechkin who plays a much more physical style and entered the league at the same time has never missed more than 10 games in a season, has played all 82 twice. Another comparison is Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers who’s combined hits and blocked shots trend from the mid 300’s to well over 400 each season. Since being called up in the 2006-07 season has missed just four games to injury.

When the ultimate crucible of the sports world is ended and the Conn-Smythe trophy is handed out you look at the players, and see who performed their best, who reached a new height, who carried their team. Sometimes it is the guy you expect. Those occurrences aren’t a real surprise, Tim Thomas was invaluable in the Boston Bruins win, take it back a year and it is absurd to even ask if the Chicago Blackhawks would or could have won without Jonathan Toews. Flip your history book forward to the Los Angeles Kings becoming the second California team to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and no one in the world doubts that that Jonathan Quick is the sole reason the made the playoffs much less won the Cup. Look back to when the cup was raised skyward for the fourth time after the lockout and you have either an anomaly in the win, or an incongruity in the NHL’s marketing.

Evgeni Malkin won the Conn-Smythe that year. Malkin and Crosby played an equal number of games. Malkin only averaged 9 seconds more per game than Crosby as well. But break down the numbers and Malkin was better; 7 powerplay goals to 5, 22 assists to 16, and 36 points to 31. At crunch time, Malkin put up 8 points. In the same spot light, Sidney Crosby had just three, essentially 1/3rd the production of his team mate. In the same series Malkin also went way out of character and engage in his first NHL fight earning and instigator and a misconduct.

Injuries undoubtedly played a part in the tremulous performance of Crosby in that series, but isn’t that the point? Every regular season and or post season chips away at him. A sometimes funny man once said eighty percent of success is showing up. So I’ll ask the question; When its crunch time, can you count on Sidney Crosby?

This is an occasional feature that will take a look at multiple issues, each in 100 words or less.

Chicago Blackhawks Captain, keystone, and bubbly play maker*, is slightly dinged up with the highly contagious “lower body injury“. Please remember to wash your hands after interviewing.

 

One of the Dallas Stars summer reinforcements is going to be down-checked for almost a month. Rich Peverley, former Boston Bruin, Atlanta Thrasher, and Nashville Predator had surgery to repair a heart condition. The former St. Lawrence Saint came over with Tyler Seguin as part of the effort to establish depth at center.

 

The war is over now, and Alex Pietrangelo is signed to a new seven year deal with the Saint Louis Blues. Capgeek lists his hit at $6.5m per year, and that gives the Blues the 9th highest payroll in the NHL, with six teams still having to make moves to bring them under the cap by opening night.

 

Darryl Sutter was understood to utter the word “awesome” at the Los Angeles Kings training camp. He says this years camp has guys playing for jobs. With at least four forwards, and two defensemen who saw light if any use during the post season last year, we expect the competition to be awesome.

 

Also caught by the dastardly “lower body injury” is Nashville Predators goaltender prospect Magnus Hellberg. Viktor Stalberg is said to being fitting in great after one training camp practice by Barry Trotz who will no doubt be shamed into upping the superlative compete level when he hears what Darryl Sutter said.

 

*One or more of these may require additional verification.

Last season was one for the record books. They ran through the regular season with an absolute vengeance. The took home the Presidents trophy. The beat second place by five points in a shortened season, and packed up 30% more wins than several teams to make the playoffs. Their forward momentum carried them through the first round against the overmatched and deeply inexperienced Minnesota Wild. The Red Wings fought out of their weight class and overachieved to take the Blackhawks to seven games helped along by the uncharacteristic slump of team camptain Jonathan Toews. Round three and four were shorter, and the parades and parties came after the cup went up. Since then they’ve lost Bolland, Frolik, and Stalberg upfront, Emery in net. Also gone is Daniel “@CarBomb13” Carcillo.

The BlackHawks will start their Stanley Cup defense with three of their first five against teams who were in the playoffs last season. They square off with the surprisingly plucky New York Islanders, a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that for the first time since the 97-98 season will not include Vincent Lecavalier. They also cross swards with the St Louis Blues and the Buffalo Sabres after opening up against the Washington Capitals.

Number of Days 1-5: 12

Number of cities: 2

Best Opponent: Saint Louis Blues

Weakest Opponent: Buffalo Sabres

Home Games: 4

Projected Points: 6

The two biggest challenges for the reigning champs will be recovering from a long playoff run with a compressed regular season, and of course trying to have overcome getting everything they wanted from their NHL careers. Just months ago all of the players not on the team 4 years ago put themselves in elite company, the returning putt themselves in the rarefied company of multiple winners. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the others all made major contributions to both wins, and none of them are as young as they were. Overall the team is certainly a playoff team and probably the best team on the paper in the Western conference, but we don’t yet know what the physical and emotional toll on the winners will be.