The Chase for Lord Stanley – Round 2

Well, I am all messed up.  I want to write up my round 2 predictions, as Tampa Bay and the Islanders are kicking us off tonight.  However, in Mr. Bettman’s infinite wisdom (or more likely that of some executive at NBC Sports) we have a game 1 being played on the same night as a game 7.  This has not happened since the 80’s…and for good reason.  It is purely idiotic.  But I don’t want to get too far into a rant here.  But I do smell a top ten dumb Bettman moves list…but I will need a long time to whittle a list down to 10.

Anyway, despite this nonsense, lets get to 3 of my 4 Round 2 previews, and I will add the fourth once the Ducks and Predators figure out who knows the way to San Jose.

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Eastern Conference:

Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins

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OK, maybe I am a Penguins homer, but I am pumped for this series.  So many story lines, as there are old Pens playing key roles with the Caps (Niskanen and Oprik if he can get back healthy) and then there is old Cap Eric Fehr on the Pens roster.  There is of course the the Ovechkin – Crosby matchup.  The best of this matchup might be that these are two teams playing at a very high level – the Capitals obviously were the best team over the entire season, and the Penguins were the best team from March onward. It really sets up to be great hockey.

The Penguins took the season series 3-2, but I am not sure the regular season bears a lot of resemblance to the playoffs all that often.  What we can see are trends.  Good news for the Penguins is that they won 2 of the 3 late season games, but 3 of the 5 games were one goal games.

To me this series comes down to three keys:

  • Can the Penguins D handle the physical toll that Ovi and the Caps forwards will look to place on the smallish Pens.
  • Can the Capitals D handle the speed and depth of the Penguins attack.
  • Can the Pens goaltending committee outplay Braden Holtby.

I think this is going to be a great series.  So much elite talent and skill.  Both teams are deep and balanced.  It is a crutch too often used, but this one likely comes down to goaltending and penalty killing.

Special Teams:

  • Washington finished the regular season with the 4th best PP (22.4%) with the 2nd best PP+PK (107.2%).  They followed that up in round 1 with the 2nd best PP in round 1 (29.6%) and 2nd best PP+PK (125.4%).  All was good here.
  • Except Pittsburgh was the best on both counts.  The Pens entered the playoffs concerned with their 16th best PP (18.5%) , but comfortable with their combined 10th PP+PK (102.7%) rating.  In round 1, their special teams exploded, with a 28.1% PP, and an 89% PK for a playoff best 127.6 PP+PK.
  • Both teams penalty killers will be under enormous stress to win this matchup.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Too many variables here to list, as this is going to be a doozy of a series.  Yes, I am going to take my Pens, but not with booming confidence.  I think this one could be as tight and back and forth as the Blues – Blackhawks series.
  • Big wildcard here is Holtby as I mentioned earlier.  This is a series that could really cement him as a bigtime elite goalie (for those who have not paid attention to the past two years)!  If he can steal a game or two, and provide the Caps with solid goaltending all series, the Caps are going to be tough to beat.
  • Another factor I alluded to is the ability of the Penguins D to weather another long physical storm. The Rangers hit the Pens D a LOT in the last series, and Washington’s physical forwards will be looking to be even more physical.  This is not a big sturdy core in Pittsburgh, and their most important guys (Letang, Daley and Maata) have had their share of injury concerns.
  • Don’t go to a game 7, as Justin Williams doesn’t lose those.

The Pick: Penguins in 7

Tampa Bay Lightning vs New York Islanders:

Again, this series has already started.  The Islanders rode their momentum to a game 1 win.

I am trying not to read too much into this one game.  I think the schedule played a big part in game 1.  The Islanders are still riding the wave of their victory over the Panthers, while the Lightning had the better part of a week to have a mini holiday.  I think the rest is great, but it does take a little time to get back into the mental frame that playoff hockey demands.

That said, this is a dangerous Islanders squad.  They have the feel of those “pesky Senators” from three years ago.  John Tavares looks to me like a guy who knows his time is now.  He veritably willed his way to game 1 and 6 victories in the series.  And he has plenty of help.  The Islanders roll four lines, and their fourth line may be the best in hockey.  It is a “next generation” old school grind line.  They hit everything that moves, and they can play the puck and defend as well.  It seems to me that Greiss should not be able to take a series from the Lightning…but I bet against him once already, and he out-dueled Bobby Lou. I find myself humming some Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

But then, this Lightning team showed me something in round 1.  Yes, they dispatched the Red Wings in a tidy 5 games, but it was not an easy 5 games.  That may have been the chippiest series of the first round.  It was also a very competitive series, with tight games, but the Lightning found a way to win games.

Kucherov stepped up and really showed his sublime skill in the first round, and his triplet pal Tyler Johnson finally looks healthy again.  Yes, they are still missing the “human lottery ticket” Stamkos, but they had no issue winning games so far.  Ben Bishop is a very good goaltender, and he can only build on last years long run.

Special Teams

  • The Lightning entered the playoffs with the 27th best PP (15.9%)looking like an  Achilles heel, worst among playoff teams, with a combined 16th PP+PK (100%) rating is buoyed by a good PK unit.  In round 1, their stellar PK unit operated at 96%, but their PP was third worst among surviving teams.  Improving, but still worrisome.
  • The Islanders brought the 13th best powerplay, at 18.75%, an even better PP+PK  (5th) at 104.2% to the playoff dance.  Round 1 saw their PP operate at 23.8%, but their PP+PK rating (110.5%) trailed the Lightning.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • The clock strikes 12 on the Thomas Greiss pumpkin.  Halak does not appear to be ready and waiting, and Greiss needs to steal a game here for the Islanders to have a chance.  If the Lightning open the flood gates, I don’t think the Islanders can win 6 five games.
  • The physical Islanders get a little loose on their discipline, and allow the Lightning to make this a special teams series.  Me thinks the Islanders want this to be a 5 on 5, roll four lines contest.
  • Stamkos magically comes back and lights it up, providing the Lightning with a very dangerous second line and powerplay.

The Pick:  Islanders in 6

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Dallas Stars vs St. Louis Blues:

I am sorry Dan Balac.  I really am.  I like the Dallas Stars.  I do.  Jamie Benn is among my five favorite players in the game.  The Stars are trying to win a Cup the way the 91 Penguins did (against your Stars)…by simply outscoring you.  I applaud that!  I have Lehtonen on one of my keeper fantasy teams.  Lindy Ruff to me is one of those coaches who just doesn’t get enough respect.

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But I simply don’t like the way this series feels for your boys.  I think the Blues had an exorcism Monday night. A lot of demons were vanquished, and a lot of baggage was removed from a lot of shoulders.  Ken Hitchcock may yet keep his job.  And I fear a looser, invigorated Blues team may just be too much to handle.

This has long been a pair of teams with questions in goal.  For one team, that may be over.  Brian Elliott was a difference maker, not a place holder, in their first round series.  He looked almost unbeatable in getting them to a 3-1 lead, and then held the fort in a very nerve wracking game 7.

The Stars on the other hand, can’t break old habits.  Lehtonen also looked stellar in games 1 and 2, but then he lost game 3…and found the bench for 2 games, before getting the net back and just barely keeping his toe in the crease (pun intended) with a game 6 victory.

The Blues are simply deeper at forward. And much deeper on defense.  And that d-core, with Pieterangelo and Bouwmeester and young stud Parayko, are mobile enough and big enough to handle the elite Dallas lines.

Special Teams:

  • Dallas was the regular season’s 5th best powerplay running at a 22.1% clip, and a PP+PK rating of 104.5%, which is 4th best in the league.  Their power play ran an surprisingly consistent 21.1% PP in round 1, but their PK was obliterated by the Wild, only killing 75% of their short handed situations.  PP+PK is second worst among advancing teams at 90%.
  • The Blues are a well balanced team, sporting the 6th best powerplay (21.8%) and the 3rd ranked PP+PK (106.8%) in the regular season.  The PP was even better in their victory over Chicago (27.7%) but struggled to handle the ‘Hawks PP, only killing 78.6% of their chances, for a 6th ranked PP+PK (106.4%).

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Does one series really erase a decade of playoff futility?  More importantly, are the Blues satisfied having slain the beast?  And can they recover the immense amount of energy they had to use to beat the Hawks.
  • Goaltending will be a question for both teams until one of these guys actually runs the table.  Both Lehtonen and Niemi are capable of stealing a game.  More critically, can the avoid giving one back.
  • Dallas should get Sequin back early in this series, and with Tyler going at 100%, I think the Stars top 6 forwards are more dynamic than the Blues.
  • The Blues continue to struggle shorthanded, and they may take a few more penalties against this Stars track team.
  • Was the Tarasenko – Hitchcock spat more than a heat of the moment thing?  Vlad may be the most important skater in the series.

The Pick: Blues in 7

 

Not to downplay my picks, but these 3 series are all much more difficult picks, and the San Jose vs whoever will be a tough call as well.  I will update with that series tomorrow night once I know he they will play.

Enjoy the second round folks, and hit me with your thoughts.  I missed out on 2 in the first round, and both of those were picks I felt good enough in (Kings and Panthers) that I had significant investments in those teams in the playoff pool.  We can only hope we get more games like that Blues – Hawks game 7, which may be tough to beat for best game of the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks vs Nashville Predators:

OK, so this is the “Sweeney Got It Wrong” bowl, as neither of these teams were in my bracket for the second round.  Both teams get full credits for impressive victories, and I don’t think either team’s series upset was a fluke.

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On the Sharks side, man did they look good.  This was the sort of performance we have been waiting for over the better part of a decade.  Few would argue that the Kings are no joke, and the Sharks beat them in a number of close games, but my overwhelming reaction was that the Sharks looked faster and more dangerous than the Kings.  Brent Burns lead the way for the Sharks in round 1 scoring, when I would have expected (and drafted accordingly) Drew “Give Me My Damn Norris” Doughty to have been a scoring leader.  Shameless plug here – Burns needs to find himself on Canada’s roster for this years World Cup.  Too good not to be included.  Joe Pavelski had 5 goals in the series, and simply adds to his claim as one of the NHL’s under-rated stars.  The deep Sharks scoring continues from there, as the Thornton, Marleau and Couture are all contributing to erase memories of playoff failures past.

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For the Preds, I really think people overlook this team, especially this year.  Pekka Rinne was long lauded as the “reason for relevance” for the Predators, but he was mediocre this year in the regular season.  He was brilliant in the upset over the Ducks, and in my mind stole game 7.  However, this Predators team is not just a bunch of muckers and a hot goalie.  They may boast the best top 4 defense in the league, and while they don’t have an elite line, they do run 4 good forward lines that chip in at key moments.  Case in point, yes the top of the Nashville scoring list contains familiar names of Weber, Neal, Josi and Forsberg.  The top of the list has Colin “where were you all year” Wilson and prize mid-season addition Ryan Johansen is right near the top as well.  I think Johansen is the start of a change here in Nashville, where they are starting to assemble some upper end offensive talent to go with their defense and goaltending.  To top it off, Paul Gaustad, he of the fourth line, was a monster in game 6 in terms of face-offs and game control, and then chips in the game winner in game 7.

Special Teams:

The Sharks boasted the second best powerplay in the NHL (22.7%) and 9th best PP+PK rating (102.9%) for the season (one of the things I sited for a potential upset of the Kings).  In round 1, the PP was an effective 23.8%, but their PK struggled at 78.6% rate.  The Preds may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Predators special teams were a strength for the Predators in the regular season, with a 10th ranked powerplay (19.6%) combining with the 13th best PP+PK rating (100.9%).  These units, as alluded to above, struggled badly in the Ducks series.  Their PP ran just a 3.8% in the 7 game Duck series, and that will have to come around to have a chance to swim with the Sharks. Their PK was respectable at 84%, but their combined PP+PK of 87.8% is easily the worst among remaining teams.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Martin Jones was called upon to win the goaltending battle in round 1 versus the more established Jonathon Quick.  It would seem a relatively easier assignment to outplay Pekka Rinne, but if he doesn’t, the Predators may keep the good times rolling.
  • The Predators d-core, as indicated above, is very good, and did a great job of keeping a deep and nasty Ducks forward group in check.  They have size and speed, and could really stymie the Sharks forwards.
  • Is there some regression in order here on the Predators side, at least in terms of the powerplay?  I would expect me and 4 friends to be better than 5% on the powerplay.  A unit boasting Shea Weber’s out of this world bombs, snipers Neal and Forsberg, and passers Riberio and Johansen, should not be this ineffective.
  • Aren’t we due for another magical ride by a Peter Laviolette coached team?  Carolina in 2006, Philadelphia in 2010 (albeit in a losing bid).

The Pick: Sharks in 6

 

 

 

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Round 1 – How Am I Doing So Far?

This one going to be just an off the cuff look at how my predictions are fairing so far.  Quick analysis – not too bad, but on reflection, I think my picks were too close to the norm.  Or said a different way, I needed more upset specials.  Without further babble, lets get to it.

Eastern Conference:

Capitals vs Flyers:

Where are we: Capitals have a 3-1 lead

What I said: Caps 6

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Thoughts: For most of the series, it has just seemed the Caps have too much for the Flyers.  Too much firepower, too much composure, and too much Holtby.

Seems strange to say it as a lifelong Penguins fan, but I was happy to see Philly get a win.  Ed Snider deserved better.

Have to feel a little bad for Steve Mason, he has truly been victimized, traumatized and vilified in this series.  As good as he was at time this season, this was a  truly “Little Shop of Horrors” party for Mason, who likely will need to wait until next year to post his first playoff win.

None of the things I thought could derail the caps have occurred.  Holtby has been good, but really hasn’t had to steal one. The Caps certainly appeared to get the energy up for the playoffs, and Philly’s physical game has deteriorated to goonery, and the Caps powerplay has taken advantage.

Bottom Line: I expect I am missing the call here by a game.  Caps put Flyers to rest in 5.

Penguins vs Rangers:

Where are we: Penguins have a 3-1 lead (game 4 5-0 win as I type)

What I said: Penguins in 6

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Thoughts: Other than a lackluster game 2 loss, the Penguins have looked faster, more explosive and better defensively (something I am not sure has ever been said about a Pittsburgh hockey club!).

Most amazing, in a series facing Henrik Lundqvist, the Penguins have started two goaltenders with 0 playoff starts, and have a series lead. Jeff Zatkoff started game 1, and was solid early before the Penguins got their legs beneath them, on their way to a big opening win.  He was a little less stellar in game 2 (but in my mind he was not the reason for the loss) so on comes Matt Murray.  In my mind, Murray looked calm and composed in leading the Penguins to a big win at MSG.  More of the same in game 4.

Of my concerns, so far it does not appear that the Pens got hot too early.  They have looked very good at times, and getting Evengi Malkin back from injury only adds to the Pens chances.

Phil Kessel has looked like a committed hockey player in this series.  Eric Staal…not so much.  My new favorite young Penguin is Connor Sheary.  Should I order a new jersey?

Bottom Line: Penguins have a chance to end this in 5, and get some rest ahead of a tough match-up with the Caps.

Panthers vs Islanders:

Where are we: Series tied 2-2

What I said: Panthers in 6

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Thoughts:

Well, I kind of felt this one could be interesting, and to my own detriment, I ignored much of my analysis.  For those of you living under rocks, this has been a John Tavares coming out party.  He has been dominant at times, and his will to win has been evident.

Special teams have been an advantage in this one, as expected the Islanders have performed well. Islanders rocking along at a 30% clip on the powerplay.

Reilly Smith has channeled his inner John Druce in this one, already with 8 points in the playoffs.

This has been a wildly entertaining series to watch, but this is the biggest thing that has startled me.  Roberto Luongo has not been the clear cut best goaltender in the series so far.  He needs to be to get the Panthers to the next round.

Bottom Line: My Panthers in 6 pick looks shaky, I am awful worried the Isles may pull a bit of an upset here.

Lightning vs Red Wings:

Where are we: Lightning have won series 4-1

What I said: Lightning in 7

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Thoughts: This series was my opening night game, given that I was in Detroit, and no bar I went into was willing to put my life at risk for the Penguins game.  I do enjoy both of these teams, and this series has been good, and surprisingly full of”old school” chippy at times.

Kucherov has been dominant at times for the Lightning, and my “sleeper” Drouin has looked like a guy with a lot to prove.  He has certainly given Stevie Y a good problem to have.

Too easy to say goaltending has been a factor for Detroit.  They lost 4 close games, games they could have won with a bounce or two.  Mrazek gave them a boost in game 3, but they simply didn’t have enough to win this series.

I hate it for Pavel Datsyuk, who we may have seen the last of now.  Would have preferred a Kobe-like departure for the cerebral “Magic Man”, but not all endings are written by Disney.  This one appears to be more like Little Caesers.  Not horrible, but not great either.

Bottom Line: It’s over Johnny.  Ken Holland has a lot of work to do to get the streak to 26!

Western Conference:

Stars vs Wild:

Where are we: Stars lead series 3-1

What I said: Stars in 5

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Thoughts: Pretty much what I expected so far.  Dallas far too good for a Wild team without their heart and soul guy Parise.

Kari Lehtonen has been stellar so far when he has needed to be for the Stars.  Still hard to imagine we dont see Niemi at some point in the playoffs, but so far so good for Lehtonen.  No issues so far with goaltending, though there really hasn’t been a significant, sustained push.

Jason Spezza has been a force as well so far, and of course Jamie Benn has been as advertised.

Special teams have not been a huge advantage to either team; the problem there is that Dallas is far superior 5 on 5.

Bottom Line: Pick looks solid here, Stars in 5.  They really need the rest, because they will need the health advantage, facing winner of Blues and Hawks.

Blues vs Blackhawks:

Where are we:  Blues lead series 3-2 (Chicago wins game 5 in OT).

What I said: Blues in 6.

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Thoughts: This series has seen a remarkable amount of controversy.  Coaches challenges, Crawford losing his mind and drawing a powerplay, more reviews, and questionable calls.

Other than that, mostly as I saw it coming in.  Blues have benefited from their depth.  Elliott has had a serious coming out party, he really has been a difference maker in the series.  Close games, overtime games.

St. Louis has also been better on the powerplay (a 33% clip) which has been a deciding factor.  Oh, and this Tarasenko kid is pure sniper.  If you missed it, go look at the highlights.

The Blackhawks to me have exhibited the heart of champions, but maybe the wear and tear of this dynasty run is getting the best of them.  That and the lack of a #4 defenceman.

Bottom Line: Blues can make me look pretty good here, if they can just channel their Karate Kid quotes:

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Ducks vs Predators:

Where are we:  Series tied 2-2 (Ducks win game 4).

What I said: Ducks in 7.

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Thoughts: This one is hard to figure out, and it is not a series I have seen a lot of.  They jumped out to a lead in game 1, and that seemed to rattle the Ducks.  My boy “Real Deal” James Neal got another party started.

So I start to dig into stats to find some reasons for this surprise series.  To try and find some heroes.

Is there a hot scorer leading Nashville?  Not really, Filip Forsberg leads the Predators with 3 points in the series.

Is Pekka Rinne stealing games?  Not really, he has a pedestrian 0.900 save percentage.

I would suggest he was a little better though than John Gibson, who despite the prodigy status, does not appear to give the Ducks the best chance to win. Freddy Andersen stepped in and gave the Ducks a shutout in game 3.

It now appears that after an early wobble, the Preds couldn’t get the knockout on the Ducks.  I think there is some LL Cool J playing in that Ducks dressing room.  “Don’t call it a comeback…”

Bottom Line: Shaky start, but my Ducks in 7 still appears safe.

Kings vs Sharks:

Where are we:  Sharks lead series 3-1.

What I said: Kings in 6

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Thoughts: I don’t know how I got this so wrong.  I should have known, I mean look at those Sharks playoff beards!  They started growing those Canada Day.

Its a 3-1 series, but the games have been close.  Four one goal games. And the games have been fast and intense, really for what I have seen nearly perfect playoff hockey.

The Sharks have been great on the powerplay,at nearly 28%…but the Kings have clicked at nearly 23%.  But in a close series, 2 more PP goals for the Sharks have provided the necessary two wins.

The Sharks best players have been their best players.  Burns and Pavelski have 5 points a piece.  The Kings leading scorers – Jake Muzzin and Tanner Pearson with 3. To quote Paris Hilton; “That’s Huuuuuuuggggge!”

And finally, goaltending.  Surprisingly, Martin Jones (with a 0.922 save percentage) has been just a bit better than playoff legend Jonathon Quick (with a 0.905 save percentage).

Can the Sharks vanquish a playoff demon?

Bottom Line: I am not feeling good about another playoff comeback for the Kings.  It could happen, but this feels like Sharks are in control.

Video Review – Technology to Ruin Sport

OK, my first blog was a whimsical look at sports in my life.  My second blog was a more technical article, breaking down my predictions for round 1 of the NHL playoffs.  This, my third blog piece, will be pure rant.

I can’t take it anymore.

Technology is ruining ALL of the sports I love.  And what has sent me over the edge is not some “my team lost, refs you suck moment”.  It is simply an  “enough is enough” this is getting ridiculous as a fan of the game.  What has sent me over the edge is the Blues – Blackhawks game tonight.  What was a wildly entertaining example of playoff hockey became a farce of sport in the final 10 minutes.  And I think it is the perfect illustration of why video review is ruining not just hockey, but all sport.

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For those of you not watching the game tonight, this was the subject of a coaches challenge on an offside call.  The goal by Tarasenko was taken back based on Lehtera lifting his back foot a fraction of an inch off the ice as puck crossed the blueline.  Full disclosure, to the LETTER of the law, the call was correct.  He was offside.  His skate is not on the ice.  But no player on the ice knew that.  Play continued, both teams competed, and a fair amount of time (i.e. not immediately after) a goal was scored.  The Blues would have been up 2-1.  As it was, they go back to 1-1, and Tarasenko later gets a penalty, and the Blackhawks score a controversial powerplay goal to take the lead.

Sorry folks, I was always told you don’t argue offside calls.  How this ever was included in “Coach’s Challenge” by the NHL is ridiculous.  Not to mention the “Goaltender Interference” reviews, which represents the worst in sports. A poorly written, too much grey area rule then exposed to slow motion, HD review?  The NHL’s Goalie Interference rule makes the NFL catch rule look like gospel in comparison.

Again in fairness, the Shaw go ahead goal for the Blackhawks was a good goal.  Contact with Elliott was not made until puck was in the crease, which per the rule as it stands today is allowed.  But nobody was sure.  Even after several looks.

So, riddle me this? Where has video review improved sport?

  • The NHL, as indicated above, is awful. It is a coin flip, even among experts, what the call will be once it goes to review.  And offsides, this is such a bad application it is laughable.  This is the equivalent of football allowing false starts to be reviewable.
  • The NFL seems to have taken it on the chin repeatedly, with the catch rule, which has left NFL players, coaches and officials proclaiming “I don’t know what a catch is anymore!”  It seems to be a weekly issue now.
  • And don’t get me started on the CFL, which have taken it to the absolute worst common denominator, by allowing pass interference to be subject to review.  PI simply can’t stand up to video review.  There will always be some contact.
  • MLB, long thought to be the bastion of tradition, have resisted allowing balls and strikes to be reviewed, but will look at base plays, foul/ fair rulings, and now slides and interference.  Not to go on a homer rant, but I think the early season ruling in the Blue Jays/ Rays game where Bautista was ruled to have interfered with the second basemen, ending the game.

Bottom line, the beauty of sports is the human element.  It is putting people in high pressure situations, and watching them rise to the challenge.  Mistakes and errors make the games great, as the perfect game in almost all sports would mean nobody scores.  I think that this human element applies to the officials as well.

Have I been guilty of yelling at my TV at the officials over a missed call?  Hell ya.  If these wall could talk!  I will say this though, more often than not, in my mind those guys get it right.  Or at least they used to, before technology came in.  Slowing it down frame by frame, enlarging it 2000x, to see what happened in a split second, has exposed the stripes to a microscopic level of scrutiny that sport simply doesn’t need.  Remember, these officials are generally making these calls, in split seconds, in motion, within the field of play.

So, what has video review brought us?

  • Delays to the game, sometimes to games that are already too long.  But in all cases, delays that suck the energy, momentum and flow from the game.
  • Exposed rules, where the definitions (hello catch rule, I see you Bettman, and I don’t know what goalie interference is either) simply don’t hold up to the spirit of which they were intended under frame-by-frame review.
  • Referee’s who defer making calls (or feel obliged to call what they suspect instead of what they know they saw) because they know that video is there to get it right.  Now to clarify, I am not sure that this is truly the case YET with NHL officials, but it is ABSOLUTELY the case in the NFL.

Agree or disagree, would love to hear your thoughts?

I dont call that progress.  I call it another reason to drink as a sports fan.  Bottom up St. Louis, make it a double.  Win or lose, hit the booze, and dont laugh at your shoes.

 

The Chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup

Round 1 of the NHL Playoffs is where the surprises come.

It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year.  The Masters has captivated us with all the beauty that is Augusta National.  Baseball is back.  Spring is in the air (though unfortunately so too is snow!).  And of course, Round One of the Stanley Cup playoffs is here.

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I wont try to argue that the NHL has some kind of monopoly on crazy results, or upsets, or even the drama that the playoffs evoke.  It is a fools errand, you can never convince somebody your sport is better than theirs.  What I would state is that no sport has the drama that round 1 of the NHL playoffs has repeatedly delivered.  Seems to me, if an upset is going to occur, it is right here in the first round.  And with the change in format, with divisional alignment plus 2 wildcards, I think it has kicked it up a notch.  My format will be pretty simple;  I will just tell you what my gut says, why, and what scares me in terms of getting it wrong.

OK, let’s do this:

Eastern Conference:

Metro Division:

#1 Washington Capitals vs #8 Philadelphia Flyers

You’ve all heard the old joke:

“Bartender get me an Ovechkin – you know, a white Russian with no Cup.”

Ya, Alex is tired of that one too.  And this is his best shot at ending that joke.

ovi

I don’t foresee round 1 being a problem for the Caps.  Truth is, they really have a pretty easy route to being the representatives for the East in a Stanley Cup final.  They are the deepest team in the East, easily.  They can score, they have good character guys who will do the little things right, they have good goaltending in Braden Holtby, fresh off tying the greatest goaltender to play the game, Martin Brodeur, for the single season win mark.  They have playoff magician Justin Williams to turn to when the going gets tough.

To the Flyers credit, they have had a remarkable run of their own to make it into the playoffs after a slow start to the season.  Claude Giroux is an all-world player, and Wayne Simmonds was born for playoff hockey.  They have rode Steve Mason for 12 straight games to make the playoffs, so how much gas does he have left?  He has not be relied upon this much since his Peach Kings days (OK, I guess he was the horse in his rookie campaign for the Blue Jackets too!).  The Flyers have also played the Capitals tough this year, going 2-2.  I think the Flyers can give the Caps a scare.

Special Teams:

  • For Washington, they combine the leagues 4th best PP (22.4%) with the 2nd best PP+PK (107.2%).  Playoff hockey is often won on special teams, and Washington is the best in the East.
  • For Philadelphia, their 17th best PP (18.3%) is a cause for concern, and their 19th rated PP+PK (98.5%) does not give indications of an upset in the making.

What could go wrong?

  • The “On” switch is not always all that easy to flick back to the hot position come playoff time.  The Caps have been resting on their laurels for at least the past month.
  • Ghosts of failures past – both the core of this roster, and coach Barry Trotz, have some demons to conquer here.
  • One of my prevailing theories of playoff success – can your goaltender steal you one game per series. Is Holtby capable – hell yes.  But he too has only been good, not great, down the stretch.  And he has not had a long playoff run yet.
  • Could the Flyers physical game get the Capitals out of their comfort zone?

The Pick: Capitals in 6.

 

#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #3 New York Rangers

Homer alert!  It has been the “March of the Penguins” this spring, as they have rode a red-hot March to the best record in the league since March 1, and have vaulted from tentative wildcard team to the squad nobody wants to face in round 1.  I have heard plenty of commentary that the Rangers were backing out of the 3 hole to avoid the Pens.  Not sure I buy that, but it would make a lot of sense.  Currently on an 8 game winning streak, and
39-0 when they lead after 2, coach Mike Sullivan has these Penguins flying.  Is this a “history repeats itself” squad from 2009, where a mid-season coaching change ends with a Stanley Cup parade?  Why not?  All of this has been done while missing Evengi “I am score” Malkin and #2 D-man Oli Maata.  For the first time in nearly a decade, they are 4 lines deep, and Marc Andre Fluery is no longer a porcelain doll of mental stability.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger should be MAF’s theme song.  Though with him it is likely Taylor Swift “Haters gonna hate” playing in his mind.

On the Rangers side, they are not exactly coming in at a blistering pace, but this is a veteran, playoff tested team.  They are a great 5 on 5 team, and certainly match anyone’s playoff depth in the East.  The concern here is the injury bug has bit this team hard.  They have a great defense core, but if McDonagh and Girardi miss extensive time, that depth will be stressed.  It puts a lot of pressure on Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle to play uncomfortable minutes.  All that said, any team with Henrik Lundquist will have more than a punchers chance come playoff time.

Special Teams:

  • For Pittsburgh, their 16th best PP (18.5%) is a big concern, but how can it be this bad with all this scoring talent?  But their combined 10th PP+PK (102.7%) rating is buoyed by a dangerous PK unit.
  • The New York Rangers made a deep run in 2014 despite an awful powerplay, and they will try to do so again, with a 14th rated unit (18.75%).  That is part of a PP+PK unit that rates 23rd in the NHL (97%)

What could go wrong?

  • Did they get white-hot too early?  Can they continue to be this dominant over a 2 month playoff run?
  • Ghosts of failures past – the core here in Pittsburgh has had a rocky go since 2009.  And don’t forget, in the Cup clinching game, Uncle Sid left in the 1st period.  Max Talbot was the hero.
  • Marc Andre Fluery – not because I think he will poop the bed again, that has been vanquished atleast 2 years ago.  I am concerned about health at this point, as he is currently out with a 2nd concussion this year. Love me some Matt Murray, but he may be concussed too.
  • The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Penguins had them down 3-1, but couldn’t finish,  as King Henrik stole the series back.  He is more than capable of stealing this one.

The Pick: Penguins in 6

 

Atlantic Division:

#1 Florida vs #7 New York Islanders

How do you not love the story that is building around the Florida Panthers.  This is a young core that is growing before our eyes, and the old guy Jaromir Jagr appears to be drinking in their youthful energy.  Dale Talon has methodically built a team that will compete for years to come, and is going to get better.  Roberto Luongo appears to be getting the last laugh here, as Vancouver looks headed for a long rebuild, while “Lou” keeps chugging along.

The Islanders come in having seemingly backed into the playoffs, seemingly choosing to play the Panthers over the Penguins.  This team was thought to be on the precipice of playoff success coming into the season.  Yet right now, it just doesn’t feel like a team that is peaking in time for the playoffs. They do have a physical squad with speed, that could push the young Panthers more than they’d like to be.  The hit squad of Martin, Clutterbuck and Cizikas will “let em know your there” for Reg Dunlop.  And there is elite scoring here when you look at Tavares and Okposo.  The defense is a young, emerging unit, led by Boychuk and and Leddy.  The real concern continues to be goaltending here, as Jaroslav Halak has found IR once again, as has young backup JF Berube. This has left Thomas Griess to carry the load, with mixed results down the stretch.

 

Special Teams:

  • For Florida, the 23rd best PP (17.0%) trails only in state rival Tampa Bay as worst in the playoffs.  That’s a concern.  Their combined 25th PP+PK (96.7%) rating is also 2nd worst in the playoffs.  That’s smells like an upset waiting to happen.
  • The Islanders boast the 13th best powerplay, at 18.75%, which could be even better come playoff time with Boychuk blasting and Tavares dishing.  Their PP+PK is even better, ranked 5th in the NHL at 104.2%.  Again, in contrast to the Panthers, this sets up well for New York.

What could go wrong?

  • Is it one year early to see a long run for the Florida Panthers?  A lot of players on this team will see their first playoff action.  It has been 20 years since they last won a playoff series.  Prepare yourself for the Scott Mellanby/ John Vanbiesbrouk highlights.
  • Will Florida hockey fans really bring back the rat toss?
  • Special teams as noted above stink.  That has traditionally killed you come playoff time.
  • Florida does not tend to play well in the third period, and as games get tighter, more games will be won or lost in the third period.

The Pick: Panthers in 6

 

#2 Tampa Bay vs #3 Detroit

This is one of the match-ups that I find myself reaching for a coin on.  There has not been much to choose between these teams over the season, splitting 2 games a piece in the regular season.  Neither team is coming into the playoffs on a massive high, though lets pause for a tip of the cap to the Red Wings for 25 straight years in the playoffs.  In this day in age, with a salary cap and all, it is a most impressive record.

But with all due respect to my many Red Wings friends (I see you there Tara Robertson, and Dru Burgess you just go back to watching that Bronco’s Super Bowl video) I see a short playoff run again this year.  I just don’t see much magic (other than Datsyuk, who is among the three or 4 best players I have ever seen live) left in Detroit.  Their D does not look worthy of a playoff run, with Kronwall playing on one leg, and not much else to talk about back there.  Sensational rookie Dylan Larkin also appears to have worn down after 82 games.  I don’t think enough can be said about the difference between a 40 game NCAA season and the 82 game grind that is the NHL.  Zetterberg and this gang of Swedish men will need to really step up to have a chance.

But you Red Wings can cheer for all-time great Wing Stevie Y’s team.  Yes, I know the injury bug has bit this team hard, and I am sure that they will miss both Stralman and Stamkos…but not until round 2.  I just think Bishop is better than either keeper in Detroit, their defense is better even without Stralman, and the Lightning still boast a deep forward group.  Poolies may be feeling jilted by Drouin’s regular season, but I would not sleep on this guy in playoff pools.  I think the Triplets will be too much for the Red Wings to handle.

Special Teams:

  • For Tampa Bay, their 27th best PP (15.9%) is their Achilles heel (and those stats were mostly with Stamkos and Stralman) and is the worst unit among playoff teams.  But their combined 16th PP+PK (100%) rating is buoyed by a good PK unit.
  • For Detroit, 15th rated PP (18.7%) gives reason for hope, and you know they have the guns to get it done come playoff time.  Their PP+PK unit is 15th (100.1%) so just slightly better than the Lightning.

What could go wrong?

  • Is the injury bug hitting Tampa Bay at the wrong time?  I would argue Stralman is a more important loss to this team than Stamkos.  I know I will get vilified for that, but fact is the Lightning basically went to the Cup last year with Stamkos essentially a passenger, but they don’t have the depth to replace Stralman.
  • That Lightning PP scares me – if you cant score in the playoffs, you are ripe for an upset.
  • Does this aging core for the Red Wings (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall) have one more run of glory left in them.
  • Again, recent performance has been awful, but Peter Mrazek has always had that look to me (back to World Juniors) as a guy that can get hot and steal a game.  He was in the Vezina talk up until mid February.

 

The Pick: Lightning in 7

Western Conference:

Central Division

Dallas #1 vs Minnesota #8

The Dallas Stars feel to me like the black sheep of the Western Conference elite. Perhaps it is fed in part by East coast bias, but Dallas doesn’t seem to have the “heavy” game of the Kings, Ducks or Blues, nor the winning pedigree of the Blackhawks.  Feeling to me is that they are pure octane, lead by the dynamic duo of Tyler Sequin and Jamie Benn.  Let me say this, however; Jamie Benn might be the prototype when it comes to “heavy” game players.  He is big, skilled, and can bring out the nasty when need be.  Despite the success the Stars have seen, I have a lot of questions come playoff time.  First and foremost, how soon can Sequin get back, because he is critical to their success.  (Ya, I see you Bruins fans over there in the corner pouting!)  Next for me, is this a deep playoff run defence?  Go ahead and color me doubtful.  Third issue for me, I abide by the old saying “when you have two goalies, you have none”.

Seems to me the race for first in the West is as much a scramble to play the Minnesota Wild.  As deep as the conference is, this is the only soft landing on this side of the bracket.  One can argue that the Wild would be an upper seed in the East, but that really is irrelevant here.  I just don’t feel that the Wild pose a huge threat to Dallas.  Beyond Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, I just don’t feel a lot of buzz here.

Special Teams:

On the special teams side, Dallas is very good as well, boasting the 5th best powerplay running at a 22.1% clip, and a PP+PK rating of 104.5%, which is 4th best in the league.

Special Teams support my blah feeling for the Wild.  Yes, Minnesota boasts the 12th ranked powerplay (19.6%), but the PP+PK rating of 96.6% is last for playoff teams.

What could go wrong?

  • Has to go to the top of the list, but if neither Niemi or Lehtonen steps up and seizes the reigns, Dallas will be in trouble.
  • Can Minnesota call back Jacques Lemaire and lock down the ice, limiting the Stars run and gun offence?
  • Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter simply will their way past the Stars.

The Pick: Stars in 5

St. Louis Blues #2 vs Chicago Blackhawks #3

If you are Ken Hitchcock and the Blues, you have to be thinking “Our reward for a 107 point season is a 1st round date with the Blackhawks?”  Is this the year they finally take down their nemesis in Chicago, or do they end the year asking for a move to the Eastern Conference?  They seem built for playoff hockey, boasting stellar defense, deep scoring and solid goals against numbers.  They are the 6th best team in terms of Corsi, so the advanced stats community says they are among the league elite as well.  Ken Hitchcock has long been considered a great coach, and has been to the Cup Final, winning with Dallas.  And yet, the song remains the same – do they have elite scoring to get the goal you need to win tight games, and will a goaltender grab the job and lead this team to a long run. Goaltending will remain the story until it’s not, but I think Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz give them the snipers they have been missing.  Poolies dont sleep on Alex Steen, who has missed a bunch of time, but is the straw the stirs the drink for the Blues.

Ok, full disclosure.  I was the guy last year who felt the Blackhawks would run out of gas.  That didn’t turn out to be all that brilliant a prediction.  A stuck clock is right twice a day, so I will stick with this assessment this year. The core of this team (Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Hossa) have played an incredible amount of hockey over the past 3 years.  Yes, I know all these guys do is win Cups.  Yes, they added a key piece in Andrew Ladd, who has raised the Cup in his last run in a Hawks uniform (which by the way is the best in the NHL).  Doesn’t it feel though like things are conspiring against them.  Keith gets to miss 1 game in the playoffs for his latest momentary lapse of reason.  Corey Crawford has missed the last couple of weeks.  Saad and Sharp, so important in the past couple Cup runs, are no longer here.  After Keith and Seabrook, do you really trust that D core?  Yes, I am setting myself up for a lot of abuse when I am wrong, but I just dont feel it here.

Special Teams:

As one would expect, the Blues are well coached, and this is exhibited in their Special Teams.  They have the 6th best powerplay (21.8%) and the 3rd ranked PP+PK (106.8%).

This is another area that should be shouting “downplay the Blackhawks at your own peril”.  They have the 3rd ranked powerplay (22.7%) and 6th rated PP+PK (103.2%).

What could go wrong?

  • The regular season record was extremely close, with 3 OT games and 1 goal against in favor of St. Louis.  Do the Blues really believe they can beat Chicago in close games? They had them as close to on the ropes as anyone ever did last year, but couldn’t finish them.
  • Who takes the reins in net here for the Blues?  If Elliott or Allen falter early, all the old demons come back out.
  • The Blues would be wise to play this one out 5 on 5, as Chicago’s power play is just a little better.

The Pick: Blues in 6

#1 Anaheim Ducks vs WC#1 Nashville Predators

It just feels to me that this Ducks team is now better built for a playoff run. We all know how good Getzlaf and Perry are.  These guys have done it before, and their strengths are so well suited for playoff hockey.  This defensive core is as deep as there is in the league, and Kevin Bieksa (Grimsby’s own!) gives them the bite they need come playoff time.  Ryan Kesler takes on the difficult defensive assignments, and chips in on offense.  Hard to believe this was a team that looked ready to blow it up in December.  They are a favourite of the fancy stats crowd, having the 2nd best Score-Adjusted Corsi in the league.

The Predators are a hard team to get a read on, and I think part of that is that the identity of this team is changing.  Pekka Rinne has not been the story this year.  Frankly, I own him in a keeper fantasy pool, and he has been mediocre at best this year.  All the sudden, this team can score in bunches though.  They have always boasted a deep forward group, but they had to score by committee.  Now, they have two truly dangerous scoring lines, with the growth of Fillip Forsberg (hey Caps, you want that Martin Erat trade back?) and the mid-season arrival of Ryan Johansen.  They are supported by sniper “Real Deal” James Neal, Mike Riberio, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mr. Carrie Underwood, I mean Mike Fisher.  Despite having to deal Seth Jones in the Johansen deal, they still boast a deep, talented defense.  In name value, Shea Weber leads them, but partner Roman Josi’s emergence has really strengthened this team.  Poolies Ryan Ellis provides a sleeper option if you have minimum defenseman rules.

Special teams:

Anaheim boasts the leagues best powerplay unit (nearly 23%) and combine the best PP+PK rating in the league at 110.1%.  It’s not even that close folks, they are 5% better than the
# 2 Capitals in this area.  This screams playoff success.

Special teams are a strength for the Predators as well.  With a team that can have Shea Weber blasting away from the point, their 10th ranked powerplay (19.6%) is no surprise.  They also boast the 13th best PP+PK rating (100.9%).

What could go wrong?

  • Do the Ducks revert to the team of October/ November when the going gets tough, and the scoring deserts them?  You know the Predators will be focused on limiting Perry and Getzlaf.
  • Anaheim continues to play hot potatoe with their goaltending, and if Bruce Boudreau can’t ride one, does it become a problem again.
  • Bruce Boudreau certainly has enough bad memories of past playoff failures.
  • Pekka Rinne, despite his recent struggles, is MORE than capable of stealing a series.

The Pick: Ducks in 7

#2 LA Kings vs # 3 San Jose Sharks

Last year, the Kings seemed to think they could coast following their 2013-2014 Cup win, and expected to flick the switch in March and ride into the playoffs again.  What they forgot is that other teams would need to co-operate with that plan, and the result was they were on the outside looking in come playoff time.  I don’t see Darryl Sutter having spent a lot of time “enjoying” last years playoffs.

This team is battle hardened, and simply knows how to win playoff games.  I cant imagine there would be anybody in the Western Conference that would want a playoff series against this team.  Anze Kopitar is among the most under-appreciated players in the game, Drew Doughty is my Norris winner this year, and Jonathon Quick is one of the great playoff goaltenders of the current generation.  Add in warriors like Lucic and a rejuvenated Vinny Lecavalier, and this team is scary.  And the fancy stats folks agree, as the Kings boast the best Score-Adjusted Corsi in the NHL.

Is this finally the year, after so many years of disappointment, that the Sharks can get to the Stanley Cup final?  Joe Thornton may be the guy named most often as a guy we’d like to see get a Cup.  And he has been terrific again this year.  The Sharks get scoring from 3 deep lines, and have a solid defensive core behind Brent “Chewbaca” Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.  The secret weapon here for poolies is Joe Pavelski, who is also the trivia answer of “Who has the most goals the past 3 years after Alex Ovechkin”.  That’s all great, but my concern with this team making a long run is goaltending. I like Martin Jones, but he has been less than stellar down the stretch, and doesn’t the addition of James “nice guy” Reimer speak to the confidence the Shark’s brass has?

Special Teams:

No surprise, but the Kings are pretty good on special teams (like they needed more positives).  Their powerplay is ranked 9th at 20%, and their PP+PK at 101.2%.  The only surprise is that their PK is what hurts them in this ranking – maybe the one weak link is that they have not replaced Mike Richards and Jared Stoll’s contributions in this area.

The Sharks are once again under-rated.  They boast the second best powerplay in the NHL (22.7%) and 9th best PP+PK rating (102.9%).

What could go wrong?

  • The Kings collapse in Game 82 against the Jets puts them into a much tougher matchup versus the Sharks.
  • The Kings, despite their superb possession stats, don’t always score in bunches.
  • The Sharks won the season series 3-2, and Jonathan Quick didn’t beat the Sharks this season.
  • In a long series, the Sharks have a deeper forward core than the Kings.  If the Sharks shut down Carter and Kopitar, can the Kings score enough?

The Pick: Kings in 6

 

Having said all that, the first round is where the surprises happen.  Enjoy the channel surfing folks, and I will check back in before the second round begins.

Win or lose, (yes Dru Burgess I will quote the full line!), hit the booze, and don’t laugh at your shoes!

Sports Have Always Been My Comfort Zone

I have long considered doing this, but it wasn’t until an old friend of mine, Doug Millar, made his own leap, and later challenged me to do the same, that I finally gave in. (Here you go Dougie, your double-dog-dare you, online push has worked!)

I have often delayed in getting started on something almost supernaturally, or perhaps it is simply Sweeney stubbornness (ya, I hear that is a thing. Don’t buy it!).  I was one of the last to get HDTV…I was one of the last to join twitter (and I am now a twit addict…or maybe just a twit).  But here we go, why not make the leap.  After all, I have never been accused of having nothing to say, and anyone who knows me will tell you the limits of 124 character on the Twitter-verse are far too confining for me.

What will this blog be?  I am not sure, it is such an infantile germ of an idea right now.  With all due respect to my friend Doug, who has begun his adventure in a humorous but thoughtful dive into his very existence, it will be nothing like that.  It will be a slightly less blusterous, slightly more literate Coach’s Corner, but with a lot less focus.  I will hit any and every sport that tickles my fancy at that moment.  But never soccer, I would never dignify soccer with my time.  Beautiful game my ass.

In my youth, I was always described as a hockey nut…and at my core, I still am.  Where so many of my friends of childhood no longer play the game, I have ineptly decided to take it on in adulthood.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory could not be more true when it comes to the game of ice hockey.  I say it all the time – how can I be expected to ever make up for 15 years of minor hockey most of my friends have played.  How do I make up for 3 practices a week, travel hockey, road trips to the far reaches of the province and beyond? How do I overcome a lack of formal instruction, power skating, or ever having been asked to perform a crossover?  I can’t (and I am not just referring to crossovers)…though it doesn’t stop me from holding myself to this impossible standard, or moments of frustration.  Reality is, I have never been a gifted athlete in any arena (unless Newfy Horseshoes is considered a sport, because I consider myself pretty damn good at that!).  I think my most charitable friends and teammates would call me a high effort athlete, a glue guy, and thinking mans player.  At worst, I was a guy people didn’t mind having around for a timely joke or to pass out post game beers.

Beyond that, I am a poolie…if I take even a moderate interest in a sport, it will likely involve some form of pool.  I usually get dragged into a March Madness pool, though like many, I generally do not hold any interest beyond the opening weekend.  I have become a hardcore fantasy football player.  I just entered our work Master’s Pool.  I am in two insanely deep, multi category keeper hockey pools.  And this Sunday, a group of friends, most of whom I have know since our Hillcrest days or earlier, will hold our 25th annual Playoff Hockey Pool.

The format has never changed, some of the teams have, guys have come and gone, but at its core, we likely have 10 of the 16 spots filled by the same guys for 15 years.  Up until about 5 years ago, we did the draft old school, live in my basement, with cut and paste newspaper stats, beers and a large heaping of trash talk.  There is always a running contest of who will try to take a player already selected, though it has consistently been done by the same two guys (sorry Rudgey and Roman, but it is true!).  And it is always so much fun to see how the different strategies play out.  The Hillman’s are the creators of the pool, somehow I have inherited stewardship of it, even though Shawn and Todd have never missed a year.  And usually the “East End Mayor” Terry Hillman joins us, though he still wants to draft Harold Snepsts and Shawn Burr.

Without fail, I will get asked what my strategy is this year?  The truth (and likely most of my pool will read this) – I don’t have a strategy.  With 16 guys drafting 10 players and a teams goalies, a random serpentine draft, to borrow one of my favorite Mike Tyson=ism “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.  This format requires you to bob and weave, react to what others are doing, and change on the fly.  My theory has always been I want 2-3 players from a team in each conference that I think can go the final.  And then 1-2 players from another team in each conference that I think can put up 8-10 points in a round or two.  More often than not, one of those “other teams” making a run will set me up to be in the money.

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Playoff hockey, and the pools, are my favorite.  It is truly a marathon, a grind.  And I think this year is going to be wild.  I don’t think there are clear locks in either conference.  But each conference has their own unique mood.

The Western Conference is going to be a war.  Once again, 2 very good teams with real Cup hopes, will lose in the first room.  It’s just reality.  Think about it, 2 of LA, San Jose, Anaheim and Nashville will go home in the first room, to be joined by at least one of Chicago, St. Louis or Dallas. If I gave you a Cup Final with two of those 7 teams, it would be great hockey.  But half of them are 1 and done.  I haven’t even hit on the fact that those Pacific playoff series are going to be physical hell to boot.  I simply think it is too tough to call on this side.  I worry the Blackhawks have to run out of gas at some point, as the core has played an incredible amount of hockey the past 3 years.  But that core is so sublimely talented, so focused on playing the game the right way and paying the price to win, it is hard to write them off.  I did so at my own peril last year.  The Kings have that look again that they are going to be a tough out.

I will go out on a bit of a limb here.  One of the teams that have seemingly personified playoff disappointment for the last decade (Sharks, Ducks or Blues) are going to come out of the West.  Going to be some late nights in April, as most of this will go down in Pacific time.

Now the Eastern Conference is a very different story…I would not describe there to be seven potential Cup winners on this side of the bracket.  In fact, between injuries and mediocrity, I think there are only three contenders.  Washington has been the best team in the league all year.  They are deep, they are explosive, but this is a franchise haunted by the ghosts of playoff failures past.  But they are certainly a contender, and in some “puke in my mouth as I say it” way, I think this may be their time.  My other concern for the Caps – they are not exactly rolling into the playoffs on a high, but more coasting in having clinched everything.  It is great to get a little rest before the grind of the playoffs, but history has shown that that “Go Switch” can’t always be flicked back on once the real games begin.  I am including Florida on my list for the East, though I think it is a year early for them, but why not.  They have an all world (and Twitter Mastermind) goalie, an underrated, deep defense, and a wealth of emerging forward talent.  Oh and did I forget the man, the myth, and the legend, #68?

Which takes me to my third contender {HOMER ALERT…HOMER ALERT – I must declare myself to be highly biased here, as a lifelong Penguins fan.  And I have the never to fit again #66 jersey to prove it!} the Pittsburgh Penguins.  This spring has been the March of the Penguins, as the coaching change has lit a fire under this team.  Do I have concerns, hell yeah.  This team has been a perpetual fraud since 2009.  Marc Andre Fleury has been more fragile come playoff time than a box of beer at a Friday night East End bush party.  Their best players (ya, looking at you Uncle Sid) have seldom risen the challenge when the times get tough.  The defense to my liking is a little soft for playoff hockey.  The powerplay has been an embarrassment given the wealth of talent.   So there, I have hit all the usual criticism and some that maybe not everyone has pointed out.  But there is a different vibe to this team right now.  They have some youth that can play.  Speed kills, and they have plenty of it. In my opinion, MA Fleury has been a brick house the past two playoffs (they have lost despite his excellence).  And for the first time since the ‘Ol 29er Phil Bourque was running amok in the 90’s, they can legitimately roll 4 lines, with guys that can hold a stick the right way, and identify the net at the far end.  And with that, I have likely cursed them to a 4 game sweep.

Well, one thing I didn’t promise was to be short.  As my middle school gym teacher once proclaimed, I am prone to bouts of verbal diarrhea.  I hope someone out there found this a useful distraction for 5 minutes, or got a couple of chuckles.  I doubt I will be this long again, but there is so many other topics to cover.  Until next time, win or lose, don’t laugh at your shoes.

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