The Chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup – The Final

Stanley-Cup-Final-Schedule-DL

Well friends, its here.  The Stanley Cup Final.  I debated not writing a column for the final, because any of you reading already know; I am a die-hard Penguins fan.  Can I really be an analyst in this condition of euphoria?  So I am not going to write an analytical column here, more of an opinion column.  For those of you who liked my previous format, I am sorry!  Reality is that I was not going to pick against my Pens here, so why be disingenuous with you, the good reader.

First question I want to cover off for you is “how does a Hamilton, Ontario kid become a Penguins fan?  Well, please let me present you with “Exhibit A”:

I was at this game, the single greatest sporting event of my life, at the wonderful age of 13!  Yes, I know, by this point in history, five hundred thousand people attended this game.  I am pretty sure I still have my ticket stub, and my oldest friend Scotty Carrick was right there beside me.  It was a magical tournament, and an incredible game. Copps Coliseum was brand new back then, full of unrealized hope of an NHL dream that never came to be.  Ottawa stole what really should have been Hamilton’s franchise (along with greed in Toronto).

Do I think NHL hockey would have survived in Hamilton?  No, I am one of the few dissenters who consider Hamilton home.  Reality is that the corporate base is not there to support a team.  It would have thrived for 5 years, but then I think the glamour would have faded, and attendance dwindled.  Face it, the Hammer has always been considered a “walk up city”, and walk up attendance is not a recipe for success in today’s NHL. Ask the Ticats, the Bulldogs, and countless failed pro franchises that called this city home!

Now, if they had built the shiny new arena at Clappison’s Corners like I would have…well that is a discussion for another time.

So there I was, a lifelong hockey fan at the impressionable age of 13, mystified by this graceful giant.  66.  Yes, I had enjoyed the early Gretzky years like all kids my age. He is the Great One after all.  But anyone who has known me over the years knows I have always wanted to be a little outside the crowded bus, so the Penguins were a natural fit.  And the colors fit my background, as the black and gold was the same as our hometown Ticats.  OskeeWeewee!!!

The rest is history.  Mario became a key figure in my formative years.  That first black 66 jersey my Mom and Dad bought me Christmas of 87 may be the most worn garment in the history of mankind.  It became known later in my life as simply “The Jersey”.  It saw bush parties and countless street hockey games.  No it does not fit any longer, but I do still have it.  And 66 was my number for a long time, in fact throughout high school.  It was not until my university days that I finally decided to retire #66.  Why? Because I was now starting out on my attempt at ice hockey, and anybody as terrible as I was could not be running around the Double Rinks wearing #66. It was a travesty!

Even in my short, nondescript Bulldogs football career, 66 came calling.  Of course, entering that first tryout, I had dreams of being a corner back, which would not have worked well for that number. However, my inability to run with any speed soon saw me as a special teams ace, and backup center and linebacker.  You know, slow, smart guy positions!

And of course, I threw in my Zoids jersey, which harkens back to our Hillcrest Hockey League days.  (Why am I suddenly humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”?

jersey

The Stanley Cup runs of ’91 and ’92 were some of the greatest memories of my childhood.  I was finding myself in highschool, but those runs brought so much joy.  Of course, the party at Dave Whitworth’s when Kevin Steven’s had his face (and life) rearranged, and thus the Penguins dynasty, was a dark spot!

One more video clip.  Some times, I swear Bob Cole is the narrator of my life inside my head!  Oh Baby!

I loved those Penguins teams, and have come to love this one.

OK, enough nostalgia.  You asked why I was a Penguins fan, now you know!

On to the series.  As I said earlier, I would be dishonest to do anything but pick the Penguins.  So I will just move on from that, other than saying Penguins in 6!

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What I do want to say is that I expect this to be a great series.  Both teams seem to have taken a little bit of the Chicago model, trying to play the game with high speed and high discipline, but have added depth to the equation.  Of course, the early Chicago teams also preached that depth, but in a salary cap world, that is impossible to maintain.

Massive props to the Blackhawks organization for the job they have done in steering through their cap issues to maintain competitiveness. They have managed it better than the Penguins, Bruins and Kings.

The Sharks have really been a great story.  Those beards on Thornton and Burns are absolute beauties, but they may be overshadowing their play, which has been stellar.

Sharks Beards

But it has not just been the bearded ones.  Pavelski and Couture have been stellar as well, and Patrick Marleau (the Grey Beard and original Sharks pick) has chipped in as well.  Joel Ward has been the glue guy getting the unsung goals…you think Washington misses him?

I see two distinct advantages for the Sharks – their Power Play and their defensive depth.

First, the Power Play for the Sharks has been lethal at 27%.  Given the personnel they put out there, two one-time shots being fed beautiful sauce by Thornton, plus the ultimate rover in Burns, it is going to be very difficult to contain.  Which is why if I had one word for Coach Sully, it would be this “Play the series 5 on 5”.  I think that is the Pens best chance.  The Sharks special teams combined score(PP+PK), which I have sited throughout the playoffs, is 107.4%.  Surprisingly, the Penguins are slightly worse at 107%, but I think that is inflated a little by earlier rounds.  If I am the Penguins, I don’t want that to be a key in this series.  I do admit that their penalty killing has been a strength, but I would rather not go to that well too often here.

Second, I feel the key factor that could win this series for the Sharks is their defensive depth.  I could make an argument that would satisfy most fans that Burns and Letang are both great, and for fairness, call them a wash.  After that, especially with the Trevor Daley injury, I don’t think I could formulate an argument to say that the Penguins can match the next three the Sharks put out – Vlasic, Braun and old friend Paul Martin are simply better than anyone the Pens have.

Sid Pavs

So, why do I think the Penguins still prevail.  Speed kills. Both teams have shown an ability through the playoffs to dictate the game.  The biggest take away from the last two rounds for me has been that Penguins speed.  Against both the Capitals and the Lightning, the series started with a lot of “Ya, but the Penguins didn’t play a team this good, and this fast”.  And both series ended with “Wow, the Penguins at their best made the Caps/ Bolts look slow”.  I am betting that is the case here again.

I also love the newly named “HBK Line” as a key difference.

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You know at times in this series, San Jose will be able to contain the Crosby line.  You never know when Malkin will decide he wants to play.  But this HBK line gets premium matchups for that reason, and their speed has been a huge advantage.  Hagelin is so fast, and so good on the backcheck.  Bonino has embraced his role, and knows he can’t skate with these guys 200 ft, but he can get them the puck.  And my punching bag Phil “Cheeseburger” Kessel has been dare I say clutch in these playoffs.  If the Final ended right now, and the Penguins won, I am pretty sure he is holding the Conn Smythe.  And if that happens, Gary Roberts is never going to see him this summer!

Letang, who may be my favorite current Penguin, has been a pillar of strength playing half of each game for the Penguins. My fear hear is that 3 rounds already in the books, plus these heavy Sharks forwards making him pay every trip into the zone, will break him down.  He doesn’t have the dependable Daley to give him a breather and help drive play any longer.  More than any other single skater (goalies don’t count, too easy.  Goalies are always key this time of year!), “Tanger” is the linchpin to this series.  If he can drive possession and keep the Penguins from getting trapped in their own zone, well, all I can say is…start carving his name back into that mug!

cup

For those of you not watching playoff hockey this year, shame on you.  The hockey has been great.  And please stop the inane “but their are no Canadian teams”, because why does that matter when we have all these Canadian boys to cheer for?

Crosby

Kunitz

Letang

Thornton

Burns

Marleau

Couture

Are you kidding me?

Enjoy the games everyone, you know I will be, win or lose! And I will have to hit the booze to tolerate Glenn Healy!  #BecauseHealyWontShutUp!

 

 

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The Chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup – Round 3

Well, here it is, round three.  One step away from the final.  I was correct on 3 of 4 series last round (the Lightning/ Islanders series tripped me up!), and I am once again having to write after a series has already started.  Oh well, lets get to it!

Stanley

Eastern Conference Final: Penguins vs Lightning

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Programming note:  I am a bad person.  I did not watch the game last night.  So my thoughts will be devoid of information from game 1 which Tampa Bay won.

This one has set up as a mirror image series, as both teams boast blazing speed and scoring talent throughout the lineup.

The path for Tampa Bay’s return to the Eastern Conference final has included 5 game series wins versus the Red Wings and Islanders.  The Lightning should be getting credit for efficiently taking care of business, not apologizing for their schedule.  The triplets (Kucherov, Johnson and Palat) continue to carry the load for Tampa Bay, along with the stellar play of Victor Headman.  As predicted pre-playoff preview, Jonathon Drouin has been a force as well.  You have to think this little run, without Stamkos, has made Steve Yzerman’s dilemna a little more bearable.  He can point to the success they have had without their captain as a reasonable sign of hope for continued success if they are unable or unwilling to win the Stamkos auction.

Like the Penguins, the Lightning defense does not get a lot of accolades, they just get the job done.

The Penguins run has seen them vanquish their recent playoff nemesis Rangers, and follow it up by knocking off their historical playoff punching bag, but President’s trophy winning, Capitals.  The second round upset really highlighted the Penguins improved depth, as Crosby and Malkin were held to 4 points in that series.  It was the Bonino – Kessel- Hagelin line that took care of business in the second round.  They are going to need to get bigger contributions from the “Big 2” guns if they are to reach the final.  It’s about time NBC started to acknowledge that this Penguins team is good, not just hot!  I thought Milbury was going to be physically ill when Pittsburgh eliminated the Caps.

Matt Murray continues to be a huge story for the Penguins.  The rookie is giving them cool, calm and composed goaltending throughout these playoffs, well beyond expectations for a 21 year old rookie goaltender.  But playoff history is full of these types of stories.  Cam Ward being a very similar (replaced starter due to injury and ran with it all the way to a Cup and big contract) story.  For the Penguins, they can only help it ends the same way.  I do want to throw out a cautionary comment here – I have a feeling we do see Marc-Andre Fleury here at some point.  It’s just a gut feel nothing to base it on.  And I must compliment Fleury on the way he has handled this since coming back from injury.  Absolutely pure class, a true pro and great team mate!

Keys to the Series:

  • Penguins got themselves in trouble against the Caps when they took penalties.  They were better than Washington 5 on 5, and I suspect that will be the case here.
  • Goaltending is always a key this time of year.  Will Murray continue his run of excellence, and beat another Vezina nominated goalie.  Note I am not sure what status is now of Bishop, and if he is down, we could have dueling surprise starters, with Vasilevskiy every bit as calm and capable as Murray.
  • Cliche I know, but at this point in the playoffs, your best players need to be at their best.  Past few years, the Penguins undoing has generally been linked directly to Malkin and Crosby disappearance.  That can’t happen.

Special Teams:

For the Lightning, Tampa Bay saw their penalty killing take a major tumble in round 2, from 96% rating against the Red Wings, to 87.2% following the Islanders series.  Combined PP+PK now stands at 105%, lowest among the remaining teams.

For the Penguins, both their power play and penalty kill numbers took a major slide against a good Capitals special teams.  Of particular concern, their powerplay was not real good in spots against the Caps…and got nothing done in an early 5 minute major in game 1 versus the Lightning.  PP+PK rating of 109.1% is second best of those remaining, but that is 20% worse than it was after round 1.

What could go wrong:

  • Matt Murray turns into a pumpkin in this series, and Cinderella does not get to go to the ball.
  • The Penguins big guns (Crosby, Malkin – I’m calling you out here) don’t find a way to contribute, and the Lightning find a way to control the Bonino – Kessel – Hagelin line.
  • Game is played too much on special teams, which limits the Penguins superior depth.
  • Wear and tear of 3 rounds catches up to Penguins smallish D-core.

The Pick: Penguins in 6 (yes, stubborn given I know they have lost Game 1!)

 

Western Conference Final: Blues vs Sharks

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Well, good news here.  One of these long maligned teams for their playoff performance will finally get the monkey off their back.  Bad news, one will be so close, only to hear all the same criticisms again.

The Blues are on a great run, having knocked off defending champ Chicago and Western Conference regular season champion Stars.  The worry for me is that they seemed to take the hard way in both rounds, instead of finishing them quickly.  That can be a problem this time of year, especially for a team like the Blues that must play a physical, heavy game to be successful.

On the positive side, I think the Blues are the deepest of the remaining teams, and have always seemed built for long playoff runs.  They have 4 lines that can contribute, 6 solid D that are the envy of most the league, and not one but two starter caliber goaltenders.  On the goaltending side, Hitchcock appears to have finally stopped tinkering, and Elliott has earned right to run with the job.  He has been so good for the Blues.

They are also getting contributions throughout their lineup.  We know Tarasenko and Backes would perform, but Robby Fabbri has provided another dimension to the Blues.  He has even made Paul Statsny relevant again.  Like the Penguins, it has been this “third” line of Fabbri – Statsny- Brouwer that has come up big for the Blues.

On the Sharks side, it has been a remarkable run for a team most were thinking had seen it’s Stanley Cup window close.  The kids are alright…but the vets can still play!  Logan Couture has had a coming out party in these playoffs, currently leading the league in scoring.  This kid is good, I don’t think us “Eastern time zone non-zombies” get to see him enough. He also plays in the shadow of the “Joes” in Thornton and Pavelski, who have both had stellar playoffs as well.  The wildcard for the Sharks though has been Chewie, Brett Burns.  Again, us folks who like sleep don’t see these West coast guys enough, but Burns is so good.  He is mobile, he is dynamic, and he defends.  I will say it again, a must add to any Team Canada going forward.

Martin Jones continues to provide great goaltending for the Sharks, quietly doing his thing under the hype of the Matt Murray story.  I don’t think Jones has stolen a bunch of games for the Sharks, but he has been a pillar of strength and stability back there.

Keys to the Series:

  • To me biggest key here is who can dictate the pace and style of play.  Both teams are more than capable of playing heavy or fast…but Blues would prefer to keep this game on the boards and fight it out in hand to hand combat, where Sharks would prefer a bit more of a track meet.
  • Can the Blues forward depth expose the Sharks 2nd and 3rd pair defence?
  • As always, the tale of the twine will be big also.  Elliott versus Jones will be very interesting.

Special Teams:

For the Blues, they have consistently boasted a plus power play (27.5%) but have struggled on the penalty kill (79.5%).  Their PK will need to improve greatly if they are to advanced.  Combined PP+PK rating of 107% is solid third of those remaining.

The Sharks have feasted on special teams throughout the playoffs.  They got better on the powerplay in round 2, now at a 31% rate with the extra man.  That is intimidating. Their PK also improved over the course of the playoffs, now at 82%, for a combined rating of 113.2%, easily a playoff best.

What could go wrong:

  • If the Blues take too many penalties, they will get eaten alive.  As noted above, the Sharks have rode their powerplay so far.
  • Elliott appeared to have sprung a couple of leaks in round 2, and to right now the Sharks are every bit as dynamic as the Stars were.
  • Coaching – as good as Hitchcock is, it is Peter DeBoer who has guided his team (Devils) to a Cup final most recently.  He certainly seems to have a more even keeled approach to Hitch, and really has this team playing well.

The Pick: Blues in 7

Can’t wait to watch these two series, we sometimes get a dud in the third round, as a Cinderella falls apart, but I expect both of these series to continue to exhibit great hockey.  Enjoy everyone!