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Boston Bruins

It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.
What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.
The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.
Eastern Conference
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators – For all the talk that I seem to be hearing amongst the hockey world about a lot of people picking Ottawa to win this series, it sure didn’t show up with regard to the experts. Of the 35 to vote, 33 took the Rangers to advance, making New York the most sure thing to win a round amongst all NHL teams. At -240, the Rangers are also the most expensive bet. No matter how we slice it, NYR is the most favored team of any in the first round of the playoffs.

I think that suits Ottawa just fine, what with their Roland Deschain attitude both in net and throughout the roster. Craig Anderson lives for big games, and is the kind of goalie that almost guarantees his team won’t get swept out of any series. Unfortunately, the flipside is a lack of consistency at mundane times, which leads to a lot of doubters. I am unsure if Ben Bishop is in the team’s plans as far as playing in this series, but I am confident that what won’t happen is Ottawa getting swept out by New York. Their offense is too dynamic at the top and Anderson is going to have at least a pseudo-Game 3 moment at some point.
Photo found here
Sir Craig Anderson, F.M. (Fuckin’ Man)

But, I also don’t believe Ottawa would go into New York and win a Game 7 against such a deep, physical team with the best goalie in the world. Game 7s are typically only lost at home by uber-talented, smooth skating offensive teams that get the yips when everything is on the line in front of their demanding fans. The Rangers are not this type of team. They are too physical and deep, and whedn the moment gets as big as it can get, I like teams that base their games around the simple things to be most likely to close out a home Game 7.
I want to put this out there right now: there is only 1 way that Ottawa can win this series, and it basically looks like the blueprint for any underdog in a seven-game series. The Sens must split the first two games, then bring it home and ambush the Rangers. If Ottawa can grab the coveted 3-1 lead, then I would expect they can close it out at home in Game 6. Let’s also point out that New York is not as seasoned as the stereotypical #1 seed, so there is always the possibility that MSG eats its young in Game 5 when the chips are down, whether the series be at 2-2 or 1-3 against the Rangers.
My ones of loyal readers know that I do not like picking “good” teams to get eliminated at home, but I’m struggling to pick against Ottawa winning two games in a series against a team that has truly no playoff success to speak of. I can’t deny that I feel the most likely (safe?) outcome is that the Rangers will do enough to take a 3-2 lead back to Ottawa and find a way to play a grinding, shutdown road game to knock the Sens out in 6.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 33-2 NYR; Series price NYR (-240) OTT (+190); What Won’t Happen: NYR in 4, OTT in 7.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
This one smells like a rat. A cheese eater. Another member of that nation that Frank Costello so resented toward his end.
Let’s play a game called “go back twelve months.” It’s fun. You can often spot forests through trees. Here we go.
Twelve months ago, people were giving the Washington Capitals one last chance to make things right and get to the finals (or at least the conference finals). The Caps came into the playoffs on fire and grabbed another #1 seed. They would even go on to casually handle the New York Rangers in an albeit contested five-game series with playoff rookie Michal Neuvirth in nets. Washington then got swept by Tampa Bay, and all of us proverbial Ned Starks dropped our proverbial Ices through the necks of Alex Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau and everyone involved with the Capitals’ organization.
We were pissed. Much like Mrs. Bobby Petrino, we all knew we were looking the other way on a team that had not under its current makeup seriously challenged for a spot in the eastern final. And don’t give me “’09 Game 7,” because I watched that damn game. I said “seriously.” But we went ahead and picked them anyway, and if we didn’t, it’s because we picked them to lose in the second round to Pittsburgh, who actually lost in the first round to Tampa Bay. Once the second round was set, everybody was back on the bandwagon and unafraid to admit it. We weren’t sure Washington was going to win it all, or even get past PHILADELPHIA in the east, but they were damn sure not losing to a division rival who plays in the state of Florida.
Then the Caps got swept, and we got embarrassed. “We’ll never back you again,” we said. And from the looks of it, we haven’t reneged on that promise yet.
Boston, meanwhile, was still having to deal with questions about their most recent playoff collapse — that of blowing 3-0 series and Game 7 leads at home to the Flyers. Boston squeaked past a Montreal team that most had pegged for what actually happened to them this season. The Bs entered the second round on the road at the team that had not only done them dirty the season before, but had led the eastern conference for much of the season. I don’t remember Boston being a consensus pick to beat Philadelphia, but maybe I have amnesia. Or maybe all the rest of you do. That’s why we’re playing this game.
Then Boston swept the Flyers en route to two more series that had to end with victories in deciding seventh games. Kudos to the champs, they earned it. But that’s what happened. Boston won a 16-team, 4-round tournament in which 3 of those 4 rounds saw them pushed to the brink, and that’s having the league leading Vezina-in-waiting goaltender backstopping every game. Tim Thomas is still there, but he’s only shining out the string with regard to that trophy.
So, what are the numbers, you ask? Of the 35 “experts,” 32 of them have picked the Bruins to defeat the Capitals. In other words, this is the second-most surefire bet in their eyes. I get that it’s a 2-7 matchup, but this 32-3 vote still raises my eyebrows. This whole thing stinks of revenge. If you don’t believe me and are countering with, “Yeah, but Boston will win this series and almost anyone would think so,” let me get to the rest of the tallies here in a minute. And remember, it’s the Washington Capitals here. Despite all of their transparent playoff problems, it never stopped the majority of people from picking them to win before. So, what’s changed so drastically? Our egos, maybe…
The betting line represents Boston as tied for the second biggest favorite, along with Vancouver, at -225.
I’m not going to pick Washington to win straight up, and I certainly have never liked some of their key players, but if you’re looking solely for value, the Caps on the money line has to be a candidate.
Here’s what won’t happen: Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby will not get deer-faced and give up terrible goals to get the team eliminated. It’s funny, Neuvirth was a playoff rookie until he looked incredibly solid last year against the Rangers. Most people think Holtby is more talented than Neuvirth, and has been pretty good in limited big league action over the past two seasons. Yet, Holtby’s assumed status as fill-in starter is cited as a big reason why Washington will lose. Seriously? The Caps might lose because they are not as well set up to enjoy playoff success as the Bruins are, but it won’t be because Holtby shits the bed.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 32-3 BOS; Series price: BOS (-225) WSH (+188); What Won’t Happen: Caps lose because of Holtby.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
This one’s just comical. I understand it’s the Florida Panthers. I understand it’s the Southeast Division. I understand it’s a traditional power with the winningest goalie ever. But the degree to which the Panthers are being written off as glorified sparring partners for a team that has accomplished exactly nothing over the last four seasons can only be explained by the “name on the front” theory.
See, it doesn’t matter that the New Jersey Devils have won only two first round series (and zero beyond that) since the lockout, or that the Panthers have home ice in this series, or that until upgrading the size of his pads, Marty Brodeur looked like he might not be able to start in the ECHL. None of that matters, because this series is between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils.
Who cares that the best defenseman in the series is Florida’s Brian Campbell, or that six of the eight points that the Devils have on the Panthers this year are via the six extra shootout wins that New Jersey “earned,” or that, again, Florida has home ice in the series. None of that matters, because New Jersey is going to pound their asses and it’s unfair that all of us have to sit through such an undeserving playoff qualification (never mind that we love watching the Capitals… who lost the division to Florida…).
New Jersey ought to be the favorite, but the gap is too wide for a road favorite that led the league in shootout wins. If they play their cards right, the Devils will be lucky enough to bring a 3-2 lead home, where they would logically close it out. But this is far from a sure thing.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 30-5 NJD; Series price NJD (-210) FLA (+170); What Won’t Happen: Devils in 4, as projected by a few of the experts (including Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, who I tend to agree with on most hockey arguments).
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s really too bad. This one could have been so badass. The league could have went and let everybody believe that this was a true grudge match, that no holds were going to be barred and that the face would have to go through hell to get past a very worthy adversary just to advance to the second round.
Then the league went and started fining anyone and everyone who used anything relating to Pittsburgh in a paragraph with anything relating to a putdown. You aren’t reading this for information on the league’s clear “no shit talk on the Pens” directive, so I won’t go into detail, but over the past few weeks no fewer than three fines have been levied at three separate entities who may have used words to call into question basic things like fairness, toughness or a propensity to bitch and moan.
Lots has been said recently on the matter, and I don’t have much to add except that the complaints by fans, coaches and all those around the game are very warranted and on point. Quite simply, the first rule of the NHL is that you do not talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins (unless it’s to select roster players as either award candidates or all-time great fodder). The second rule is that you do not, under any bleeping circumstances, talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The whole situation is pretty sad, and not the least of which for the Penguins themselves, who through league memos regarding unfair practices that they went on to use themselves, medical incompetence that was masked as the need to give special officiating for special players, and the public silence regarding these ridiculous, arbitrary and capricious fines that are getting levied against any and all dissenters, have adopted the roles of Craig Kilborn in Old School or Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers — men who have all the tools and do not need to win by cheating or having others cheat for them, yet go down that route nonetheless.
It’s embarrassing to the league, it’s embarrassing to the Pens and it makes a mockery of notions of justice. But, the rules are the rules, and the commissioner’s office makes the rules.
Of course, there’s no way that office would let an anti-shit-talking directive leak over into an on-ice anti-shit-officiating directive that would screw the Pens’ opponents. Not after losing Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs last year. Not a chance.
Don’t like the conspiracy theorist? Then don’t give him all the reason in the world to believe in the likelihood and practicality of the conspiracy.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned a player in this series yet. It’s because I don’t have to. Sorry Flyers fans, there’s no way you’re winning this series. I’m surprised the votes and line are as close as they are. The sad thing is, I think the Flyers actually match up alright with the Penguins. Oh well, what could have been…
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 27-8 PIT; Series price: PIT (-220) PHIL (+180); What Won’t Happen: Philadelphia winning the series… or the penalty minute battle… or the lowest fine competition…
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Sundays are almost always lean in terms of NHL scheduling. In my younger 20s, we would refer to Sunday as “the day of reflection,” which usually tied in with getting our minds and bodies right after a few nights of good ways to make bad decisions. I think given my advanced age and rededication to the upkeep of this blog, Sundays are a good day to reflect upon the week that was with specific regard to Tram’s Table posts that previewed something that could use a little reviewing as well.

Boston Bruins d. Philadelphia Flyers 6-0


On Friday I previewed the Saturday afternoon duel for first place in the eastern conference between Boston and Philly. The title of the post was “Concussions Hinder Flyers Ahead of Saturday’s Tilt with Bruins for East’s Top Spot.” While I may have upset some Boston fans by glossing over the B’s issues, specifically the concussion suffered by Daniel Paille, the angle probably was spot on. Granted, it would have taken more than just Giroux and/or Pronger to reverse a 6-0 drubbing on home ice, but the Flyers had the look of a team that was more limited than a typical “9-1 in their last 10” team should be.

The Bruins looked like a team capable of winning a(nother) Stanley Cup. To do so, they may have to face the Flyers for a third straight year, and after last spring’s second-round sweep, it’s hard to find anything from yesterday that would suggest a reversal of the outcome of this potential series. It’s even harder when you consider that Chris Pronger is, at least as it stands right now, not going to take part in any more hockey this season.

Bachman d. Poulin 3-2 as predicted… then gets torched at NJ


On Thursday I keyed in on the Dallas at New York Islanders matchup because it involved the two goaltenders with the least amount of combined NHL experience. Dallas trotted out its AHL usual, Richard Bachman, formerly of Colorado College. The Isles sent out their preferred AHL tender as well: Kevin Poulin.

There is no need to retroactively preview the game, since that was another post, but the “something in the realm of a 3-2 Dallas win” turned out to be something of an exact final score.

Since that game, New York went back to this season’s best starting option in Al Montoya (of the University of Michigan… gotta plug NCAA hockey & especially the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA). Dallas, meanwhile, chose to roll Bachman again on Friday night in New Jersey on Scott Niedermayer jersey retirement night. It didn’t go well for The Pen Name. The Devils beat the Stars 6-3 with no empty netters.

Dallas plays next on Monday night on Versus at 8:00 eastern time, where they will host the horrendously struggling Anaheim Ducks. We will see if Bachman gets his fifth straight start or if Dallas benches The Pen Name in favor of regular backup Andrew Raycroft (he of the 3.53 GAA).

Red Wings blast Kings 8-2


On Tuesday I put my two cents in on the firing of Kings’ head coach Terry Murray, and the possible changes in playing style that may necessarily follow. It was recently announced, to nobody’s surprise, that Murray will be replaced by a Sutter brother for the second time. Eleven years ago, it was Duane Sutter who took over for Murray in Florida. Now it will be Darryl Sutter to try to lead the Kings back to the playoffs.

One possible side effect of Murray’s axing that I noted was a rise in the goals against department for the Kings. This would not necessarily hurt the team, as they could allow 0.5 more goals per game, but score 1.0 more and end up doing better in the overall standings. But the opening up of play would have a negative effect on goaltender Jonathan Quick, and to a lesser degree his backup, Jonathan Bernier. The drawbacks would probably be more fantasy-related than actual hockey-related, since the goal of any netminder is ultimately to just win games. But both gentlemen are up for a contract renewal after next season, and statistics can have a way of affecting a free agent’s next deal.

In the end, I don’t think there should be too much to worry about for L.A.’s goalies, because I don’t believe many people consider Sutter’s style to be all that different from Murray’s. Sutter presided over Miikka Kiprusoff, who in 2004 was not all that unlike Quick as far as career plot. That Calgary Flames team came within one goal line review of winning the Stanley Cup. And who knows, maybe the best forward from that ’04 Flames team will be a King before long… I should note that I doubt this will happen, but the Flames probably should be preparing themselves to trade captain Jarome Iginla before he retires and they get nothing in a potential deal.

After noting that L.A. was 6th in goals against per game in the NHL at the time of Murray’s firing, we looked at the five teams playing “better defense,” and noted that of the five, only Detroit had seemingly no shot at toting a Vezina-winning goalie. I’m sure my opinion is at least a little bit skewed by the fact that I root for the Red Wings, but I constantly hear people saying that Jimmy Howard is not that great, but that he plays for a team that doesn’t require great goaltending.

We broke the shots against per game statistic down and hopefully made a dent in some of that misguided armor.

Last night was a perfect Rug Game (it really tied the room together), as the Kings went into Joe Louis Arena and promptly got blown out of the building. Quick allowed 3 goals on 7 shots and was yanked less than 9 minutes into the contest. Bernier provided little relief, as he was only able to stop 15 of the 20 shots he faced en route to an 8-2 mauling. Howard saved 27 of 29, but as usual, that was of little note. Sutter will reportedly take over head coaching duties for the Kings on Tuesday, per Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.

The news out of Philadelphia that Flyers’ captain Chris Pronger is out for the remainder of the 2011-12 campaign with “severe post-concussion symptoms” comes juxtaposed with the current seven-game win streak that the team has used to propel itself to the top of the eastern conference standings.
While on the one hand Pronger is the type of do-it-all minute chewer that no team can truly “afford” to lose, the fact remains that the team is getting better results than any other team in the league. The Flyers are the only team with a 9-1 record in that patented “L10” column, and their top overall points percentage is largely due to a league-best 12-3-1 record away from home.
Flyers’ fans have long complained that but for the team’s shaky goaltending, the Stanley Cup would go to Philly on something of a regular basis. While this season was supposed to be the beginning of the end of that narrative, all we’ve really seen is more of the same.

The bullies currently sit first in the NHL in goals per game, but have let themselves down in their own zone en route to a 2.79 goals against average that sees them sit 18th overall. While the overreacting and short-sighted types are starting to declare the Ilya Bryzgalov era a failure just a few months in, many others believe the goalie will progress to his mean and turn in a season that should see the Flyers at least in the top 12 in total defense. There is no guarantee that will happen, but backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky enjoyed a successful stretch with Brian Boucher last season before both goalies (and Michael Leighton) fell apart at the end. If Philly can find that stretch of quality defense and goaltending soon, they can separate themselves in the division.
Perhaps the more concerning stat is the offense. Sure, it’s never concerning to lead the league in goals scored, but now the Flyers have to deal with team and league leading scorer Claude Giroux being sidelined indefinitely, also due to a concussion. Doubly frustrating has to be the fact that the wound was self-inflicted, as Giroux took a knee to the head from teammate Wayne Simmonds, who came over from L.A. in the Mike Richards trade. Giroux should be back before too long, which is nowadays simply to say sooner than Sidney Crosby came back, and when the catalyst does return he should give the Flyers a boost that by that time they may end up needing.
If I were a Flyers fan, I’d be depressed over the nature of Giroux’s injury largely because he has such a small frame. That Giroux picked up a nick is not shocking, but one would “hope” that it would have been acquired in the normal course of a hockey season — in other words, the summation of a small man being continually checked by bigger men. Here, we have what many would consider terrible luck rather than the normal cost of doing business.
All of these successes and injuries sets up a rather large Saturday night duel with the defending champion Boston Bruins, who sit two points back of Philly and lead their own division by six points over Toronto and eight over Buffalo. The game is in Philadelphia, but Boston’s road record is a solid if not under-represented 9-3-0. Twelve road games in the first 30 means the Bruins will have to make up six over the rest of the season, but their division does not seem to be able to pose a legitimate enough threat for that to matter in the end. Barring injuries or a massive dip in form (like, say, their start to the season), the Bruins will probably be playing down the stretch for seeding within the top 2 or 3, not battling it out within the division against noticeably less complete teams.
The matchup between Boston and Philly is always heated, but with first place on the line (technically a tie for first — Philly would have the tiebreaker even with a loss) and the recent news surrounding concussions affecting the Flyers’ roster, this one takes on a heightened sense of midseason importance. Throw in the fact that these two have met in the conference semifinals the last two seasons and have each won a Wales Trophy over those seasons, and the atmosphere could be downright hockey-worthy.
Of note is that while the Flyers lead the league in scoring, Boston is right behind them in second. But as Philly has been just below average defensively (18th), the Cup champs are doing what they do best. The Bruins lead the NHL in goals against, giving up exactly 2 per game. Based purely on the gaps between the averages, the Bruins would win this game 3.05 to 2.83. Put the Flyers on home ice, and like I said, should be a damn good game for that (not at) all-important first place spot 31 games in.
The game is an afternoon one, which should add another variable in this edition of the rivalry. Game time is 1 p.m. eastern time, and the game is being carried on the NHL Network.
It’s time for the second of six editions of Premature NHL Prognostication, and we’ll pick up with the division that sports the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Northeast Division looks to be a three-team race this year with Ottawa and Toronto still rebuilding, but by no means should this division be ignored.
The talking points are there for every team contending for the top spot. Boston comes into the season as the defending champions for the first time in nearly 40 years, and brings with it nearly the same roster. Buffalo enjoyed its first offseason while under the passionate ownership of former natural gas drilling mogul Terry Pegula, who has turned his attention to hockey by funding Penn State’s startup program and buying the Sabres, as well as making some lower profile sports acquisitions. And Montreal is Montreal. They’ll always have their fan base, but they bring a squad into 2011-12 that has earned a reputation as playing tough and being better than the sum of its parts after advancing to the eastern conference finals in 2010 and pushing the Bruins to the brink in 2011. Let’s get to the unnecessarily early projections.
1st: Boston Bruins 2010-11: 103 points, 1st in division
The Bruins looked like an upper-echelon team early last season, but really at no point were they “supposed to win” the Stanley Cup. Even coming into Game 7 at Vancouver, the Bruins were a betting underdog, as almost any road team would be. The usual questions that follow a championship season exist:
  • Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
  • Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
  • Will the makeup of the team be the same?
The last question can be answered in the affirmative. Boston has only lost Michael Ryder (to Dallas) and Tomas Kaberle (to Carolina) from its group that played most of the 25 playoff games this past spring. The money wasn’t right for either of them, and so the Bruins did the logical thing: let them walk. Most assume that 43 year-old Mark Recchi is done playing NHL hockey, and the team still has to get third-line winger Brad Marchand back under contract. Perhaps part of the holdup on Marchand’s new deal is due to the fact that team captain Zdeno Chara essentially deported Marchand back to Canada for “partying too hard” in Boston in the weeks that followed the Stanley Cup win. While I think young people drinking too much can be a serious problem, Marchand certainly sounds and plays like a character guy that most hockey teams would appreciate having, and I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be back in the fold for the Bruins this fall.
Boston’s only free agent acquisition of note is left wing Benoit Pouliot from Montreal, who can be loosely seen as filling the positional hole left by the retiring Recchi.
The goaltending situation in Boston doesn’t really need to be examined too deeply. Tim Thomas is coming off his second Vezina Trophy in three years and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Also on the roster is 24 year-old Tuukka Rask, who started 45 regular season games in 2009-10, along with all 13 playoff games that year. Rask figured to be the Bruins starter coming into last season, but Tim Thomas pretty much led the league in peripheral stats from wire to wire, giving the Bruins no choice but to roll the guy enjoying a season for all-time. Rask still managed to make 29 appearances last year, but regressed with a record of 11-14-2 to go with a 2.67 GAA. His .918 save percentage was solid, but didn’t measure up to his own .931 from the previous season, nor to Thomas’ .938 last year. All in all, there’s no reason to expect the Bruins goaltending to be anything shy of top ten in the league this season, and that’s almost a worst-case scenario.
The thing I love about the Bruins is their ability to do it all. They play a physical style, but also have guys with great skill. David Krejci revealed himself as a sharp shooter in the playoffs, and Nathan Horton came up with huge goal after huge goal before meeting his season’s untimely end early in Game 3 of the finals. Everyone knows about Patrice Bergeron’s two-way game, and Rich Peverley adds some B-Table offense to the team. Nobody is quite sure what to expect from sophomore center Tyler Seguin this year, but he certainly made good of his few opportunities in last year’s playoffs. Seguin has the potential to be the best forward on the team, but it will probably take some time for him to get his grip on the little things that make a guy like Bergeron so effective.
Defensively, the Bruins blue liners sum up the team as a whole. They are big, bruising guys who can jump in offensively and contribute. The back end is obviously led by the big customs agent, 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. But beyond Chara, the Bruins have minute chewer Dennis Seidenberg, who is defensively sound and a good enough skater and puck handler to factor big offensively as well. The rest of Boston’s defenders are less polished, but they all play a role. Johnny Boychuk can lay a big hit, and Andrew Ference makes sure not to get beat. Ference was plus-22 last season, and tallied two-thirds the number of points in the playoffs as he did in the regular season while playing only one-third the number of games. Then he, er, didn’t flip off the Montreal crowd in the first round of the playoffs. Joe Corvo’s best asset is his belief that he can shoot the puck 120 mph, but if the Bruins are smart Corvo won’t be called upon to do too much this season.
Considering that the Bruins won the division by seven points last season before going on to win the league’s ultimate prize, I see no reason not to peg them as favorites in the Northeast this season.
2nd: Buffalo Sabres 2010-11: 96 points, 3rd in division
Buffalo and Montreal ended up tied behind the Bruins last year, and both teams ended up losing Game 7s on the road in the first round. But unlike Montreal, the Sabres went ape shit trying to land new players under the still new ownership of Pegula. The state of the franchise is a far cry from a few years ago when contraction or relocation seemed like a real possibility.
The reason I like Buffalo to finish ahead of Montreal this season is based on the idea that if two teams start out as equals (both had 96 points and lost in Game 7 of the first round last year), then the team that improves the most should be better in the near future. We’ll get to the breakdown of Montreal next, but the Sabres scored a couple of players in the offseason that signaled their ascent to free agent relevance, in case some people still hadn’t gotten the Pegula memo.
The biggest of the offseason grabs was German-born defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who had spent the previous two seasons with the contending Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s new 10-year, $40 million contract has been much debated, but the fact is he’s a Sabre now, and that can’t be anything but good for Buffalo on both sides of the puck. Ehrhoff’s fluid skating and puck movement should increase the Sabres’ time of possession and create scoring chances that previously were given to the Sedins and company in Vancouver. Ehrhoff tallied 94 points and played at a plus-55 in his two seasons with the Canucks (159 games played).
The Sabres also scored free agent winger Ville Leino, who came onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Detroit. The Red Wings were suffering from their typical injuries, and Leino held down the fort well enough to get the Wings through to the finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Pittsburgh. Leino was traded the following season to Philadelphia, where he put together his first legitimate NHL season last year. The Finnish forward contributed 53 points in 81 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and played in all of the team’s 11 playoff games. Leino appears to have solid offensive potential, as he skates well while also using his solid frame to compete for position around the circles. Leino amassed 77 points in 55 games in his final season in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki in 2007-08. He will be 28 years old throughout the upcoming season.
But the best new addition to this squad might be an old edition in the form of returning top-line center Derek Roy. The 32nd overall pick from ten years ago was rolling with 35 points in as many games before he tore a quadriceps just before Christmas. Roy returned to play only in the team’s final game in which they were brutally eliminated by Philadelphia. Roy may not quite be Brad Richards, but he is a huge boost to a Buffalo team that had to figure out how to score without him for the final 47 games of the regular season and the first six games against the then-defending eastern conference champ Flyers. Roy is shifty, quick and an excellent passer. I would expect nothing shy of 55 assists assuming Roy is able to play close to 80 games this season.
The Sabres recently resigned backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, but I wouldn’t expect him to see a whole lot of time this year. Ryan Miller just turned 31 years old and could be entering the final stages of his prime. Most of the Sabres’ acquisitions have to do with owner Pegula’s seriousness about winning, but some of them also have to do with the fact that Buffalo knows that the window for having an all-world goaltender might be closing, albeit slowly. Between the success of elderly chaps like Tim Thomas and Marty Brodeur, and Miller’s own lack of having to carry a lot of weight around (6’2” but only 175 lbs.), I wouldn’t expect to see much decline in Miller’s play for at least four years. But that doesn’t change the fact that goalies are hugely important to winning championships, and Buffalo currently has one of the best. It’s not now-or-never, but it’s somewhat-soon-or-maybe-not-for-a-long-while.
The Sabres still have to figure out how to get into compliance with the salary cap, as they are rostering over $3.5 million too much with their current 23-man squad. But that will get figured out somehow, and I don’t expect it to include any huge losses. The resignings of defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber help fill out the blue line. Sekera played over 21 minutes a game last year, adding 26 assists. Weber brought the thunder with 158 hits in just 58 games. Bringing back winger Drew Stafford was also a priority in the offseason, and the Sabres did what they probably will do for a while now: they got their man. Stafford scored a four-year deal worth $4 million per season, and he will be expected to bring more consistent scoring than in seasons past. Stafford scored 31 goals in 62 games last season, and will only turn 26 years old in late October.
Two Sabres to Watch
Brad Boyes was brought in at the trading deadline from St. Louis, and the catchphrase that everyone wanted to use to describe Boyes was “sharpshooter.” Well, the gun misfired, because Boyes did not bring the Sabres that offense they desperately needed. He went for 5 goals in 21 regular season games with Buffalo before marking only one up on the board in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Flyers. Boyes has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit, and one has to wonder if he will be around at the end of the season, and maybe even at the beginning.
On defense, Tyler Myers enters his third NHL season. The 6’8” Texas-born Canadian was the rookie of the year in 2009-10, but took a long time to get off the ground last season. Myers was playing better by the end of the season, and contributed five assists and a goal in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. If Myers can emerge as a big-time NHL defenseman this year, then the Sabres have a very formidable group of blue liners. If he cannot, then a lot will be asked of guys like Ehrhoff, Sekera, the offensively-minded Jordan Leopold, and rock-solid Robyn Regehr, who had 180 hits and 142 blocked shots while skating 21:29 per game last year. Leopold is a career minus-28 in eight NHL seasons, despite playing for playoff qualifiers in six of those years. I know that plus/minus is sometimes a misleading or unfair stat, but in this case, I think the numbers fairly represent what I’ve seen on the ice. Leopold did manage 13 goals and 22 assists in 71 games last season, however. In short, the progress of Myers should help determine whether the Sabres are stuck between 6th and 8th in the east or if they can put it together and separate from Montreal while challenging Boston for the division title this season.
3rd: Montreal Canadiens 2010-11: 96 points, 2nd in division
The Canadiens have made a living lately by stuffing their detractors’ words right back where they came from. I doubted that Montreal would even make the playoffs last year, and then wrote that they probably couldn’t handle Boston’s size in round one. Well, they acquitted themselves just fine, again, and I’m done doubting them as a playoff team that can contend with anyone. On paper I don’t think the Canadiens should finish any higher than 8th in the east, but they seem to have a toughness that can’t be quantified.
Toughness means nothing without a good goaltender, and last season Carey Price established himself as one of the better ones in the league. We kept waiting for the immature Price to rear his ugly head, but that never did happen. From the first game of the season all the way to allowing Nathan Horton’s overtime eliminator in Game 7, Price was outstanding. He stood out. I’ve questioned his mental makeup in the past, but after last season, I’m convinced. Price looks like an uber-talented guy who finally grew up and figured out how to get out of his own head and just play hockey hard every night. I actually think a .920 save percentage can be expected this season, and it might need to be achieved. Price’s backup situation went from bad to bad when the Habs replaced Alex Auld with former Avalanche left-hander Peter Budaj. Price played 72 of 82 games last year, and he’ll need to play close to 70 again this year if Montreal wants to make the playoffs. The last time Price had to battle a Slovakian backup, he lost his job to Jaroslav Halak. Don’t expect history to repeat itself with Halak’s international backup, Budaj.
In front of Price will be a group of defensemen with different playing styles. Smooth-skating and hard-shooting Andrei Markov is back from injury and ready to go. The Habs resigned his polar opposite, Hal Gill, to a new one-year deal in the offseason. Gill is a towering man who uses his length and strength to keep defenders from Price’s crease. Youngster P.K. Subban is something of a combination of aforementioned two, possessing neither the size of Gill nor the polished offensive game of Markov, at least not yet. But Subban is just 22, and was able to come up with 14 goals and 24 assists in his rookie campagin last year. He also produced when it counted, as he was the one to notch the power play goal with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 to force overtime in Boston. Although Horton eventually knocked Montreal out, that doesn’t erase Subban’s biggest clutch moment of his young career. Subban had over 100 hits and blocks last year, an indicator that he gets involved often. Much like Tyler Myers in Buffalo, the Canadiens’ back end largely depends upon the progression of its bright youngster, P.K. Subban.
Montreal’s forwards appear to be less threatening on the whole than your typical contender, which is why I can’t project them higher than third in the Northeast. Outside of the short-but-dynamic center Tomas Plekanec, the Habs don’t seem to have a lot of firepower. There’s Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and the newly-signed Erik Cole, who score but can’t create the way Plekanec can. Gionta quietly scored 29 goals last year, while Cammalleri added 19 with 28 assists while missing 15 games due to injury. Cole was Montreal’s big offseason signing, and he is coming off a 26 goal, 26 assist season with Carolina. The Habs need Cole to at least match that output if they are to have a chance to go higher than Buffalo or Boston in this division, but realistically his contract should demand 30+ goals for a team that needs them to come from some consistent sources.
Scott Gomez and his $7.3 million cap hit continue to be talking points, but salary aside, he is the one forward besides Plekanec who has the speed and touch to create for others. Frankly, Gomez was not good enough last season. He limped in with 38 points (only 7 goals) and was minus-15 in 2010-11. But if Gomez can channel previous seasons, then the Habs can have their second centerman that they desperately need offensively. Since the lockout, Gomez had assist totals of 51, 47, 54, 42 and 47 before last year’s disappointing output of 31. The Alaskan is only 31 years old, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill and has no chance to physically recapture the magic, although it seems like Gomez should be older by now. He broke into the NHL in 1999 and played all 82 games in his Stanley Cup winning rookie season with the Devils. Since then Gomez won another Cup in 2003 before playing two seasons each for the Rangers and Canadiens, which brings us to the present. A two-time Cup winner with 508 career assists at the age of 31 shouldn’t be written off, but the Habs need a bounce back season by Gomez in a bad way.
Given their goaltending, talent at the very top, and fighting spirit, I think the Habs have the chance to compete with anyone. But considering what I think is a lack of depth up against a big spender and a defending champion, I think third place is what Montreal should expect this season, which should be good enough to get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
4th: Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: 85 points, 4th in division
Based on my love for Craig Anderson, I really wanted to put Ottawa here. But I just couldn’t. The Leafs have done what they could do lately to improve the squad while also focusing on the long-term health of the organization. They dealt away players that they knew were either leaving or demanding big paydays, as well as wingers who couldn’t live up to top-six responsibilities without all-star Cup winners around them.
The Leafs got a passionate effort out of no-name goaltender James Reimer, and rewarded him with a new three-year contract that more than tripled his pay grade. Reimer is expected to be the Leafs’ starter in net, but the previously anointed one, Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, is still hanging around and certainly doesn’t want his NHL career to go down in flames. A little healthy competition could turn out to be beneficial for the Leafs, if not this season, then later on down the line after one of them had to actually win a competition.
I’m almost done talking about winger Phil Kessel. The guy’s a great shooter, he’s got potential as well as past performance, but he hasn’t totally lived up to the trade that brought him to Toronto yet. In fairness, we all give Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik the asterisk of not having played with a great center, and yet Kessel’s situation hasn’t been any different in Toronto. The Leafs brought in Tim Connolly from Buffalo, so we’ll see if he’s the answer to Kessel’s goal scoring consistency questions.
The team also scored forward Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville in exchange for Robert Slaney and former Red Wing bust Brett Lebda. At the very least, the Leafs upgraded at each position this season with that trade. At most, they robbed the Preds. We’ll see how it turns out, as Lombardi is coming off a concussion that basically erased his entire season (he played two games). Franson notched a surprising 21 assists from the blue line last season, despite only playing 15:10 a night.
Toronto had a couple of forwards who “came up” last season, including center Clarke MacArthur and his linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Those guys played out of their minds from the second line last year, and we’ll see if either of them was a one-hit wonder or if the Leafs found a couple gems.
There were also some forwards who didn’t quite live up, starting with center Tyler Bozak. I think some of the Leafs’ youngsters suffered a little bit from being under the microscope. Bozak and Nazem Kadri should have better seasons this year, and one never knows if winger Joffrey Lupul is ready to return to being a sniper like he was with Anaheim once upon a time (and I mean “once;” Lupul only really overachieved during the 2006 playoffs). The Leafs hope so, as Lupul is the third-highest paid forward on the team. Anyone willing to bet that he scores in the top three? I didn’t think so.
Toronto has a few winners on defense. Besides the newly-acquired Franson, the Leafs boast one of the better overall defensemen in Dion Phaneuf. The big guy leads the team in salary, and rightfully so. Phaneuf must continue to bring it at a high level while also bringing along Toronto’s young defensemen, Keith Aulie, 22, and Luke Schenn, 21. Schenn is an RFA right now, but is really just waiting on a new contract. I can’t see any way the Leafs don’t come to terms with the promising blue liner who has the gifts to become one of the league’s best.
The Maple Leafs look like a team in rebuilding mode, and they seem to have a fan base that is ready to stay the course. Playoff appearances are always desired, but there’s almost no chance of the ultimate success this year, and I expect the team to keep building toward that ultimate goal somewhere down the line through consistent improvement. Fourth place is the status quo this year for Toronto. Finishing fifth would be underachieving, while beating out Montreal, Buffalo or Boston would be pleasantly unexpected. I don’t expect it, and the Leafs should finish around 10th or 11th in the eastern conference in 2011-12.
5th: Ottawa Senators 2010-11: 74 points, 5th in division
I really want to believe in the Sens. They have a goalie in Craig Anderson who rocked a 2.05 GAA in 18 games with the team last year, following a dreadful 3.28 behind a group of skaters who seemingly couldn’t care less in Colorado. One reason I wanted to pick Ottawa ahead of Toronto this year was based on Anderson’s first game with the Senators on February 19. He had one of his patented “give a damn” games and stopped all 47 shots in a 1-0 road shootout win over the Leafs. I expect Craig to enjoy a fresh season in Ottawa playing behind a group of players who seemed to love playing for the vocal goalie.
But then I looked at the rosters and realized the two problems with taking Ottawa over anyone this year. First, they just aren’t deep enough at NHL positions. They have plenty of solid young talent that contributed big time in bringing the AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators its first Calder Cup championship. But those guys aren’t ready to be day-in, day-out performers at the level needed to succeed in the NHL. And that would be fine, if the Senators had big time top-line players who took care of business.
Enter Jason Spezza, one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel. The Sens top center is still rolling at almost a point-a-game clip, and still rolling at a miss 20 games a season clip. And honestly, a team that is as young as the Sens needs its big time offensive talent to deliver at least a point a game. Fifteen players of consequence scored at that pace last season, and a team like the Sens need a guy like Spezza to be in that top 15 if they’re going to be able to overachieve. But despite Spezza’s talent, I doubt he’ll top 70 points this year, for inexplicable reasons. I mean it shouldn’t even be plausible to go back and relive the Alexei Yashin trade in 2001, but Spezza at least makes you wonder. Ok, you’re right, no he doesn’t. But still.


Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?

Spezza reminds me of one of the many memorable quotes from the movie The Big Lebowski, where Jackie Treehorn sends a couple of collectors to The Dude’s apartment to collect sums of money that didn’t exist in The Dude’s household. After dunking The Dude’s head in the toilet and peeing on his rug, the thugs start to figure out that they got the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski. One intruder looks to the other and asks, “Woo, isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” Woo takes about a second before concluding that The Dude “looks like a fucking loser.”

Photo via
“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”

Perhaps these words are a bit harsh and untrue, as Spezza is a multi-millionaire and has enjoyed periods of winning, most notably during the three-year stretch immediately following the lockout that saw the Sens make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Spezza did manage 90, 87 and 92 points in those seasons, respectively. Yet the Lebowski summary remains. You watch him play, and you realize why he was the #2 pick in the draft in 2001. He shows control with the puck, speed and precision passing that can get any fan base excited. But then you keep watching and you notice that he can’t stay on the ice. You notice that his assist totals went south around the same time that fellow #2 overall pick (from the 2000 draft) Dany Heatley wore out his welcome in Ottawa and was subsequently traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, who isn’t a top-six NHL forward, and Jonathan Cheechoo, who inexplicably led the NHL with 56 goals in 2005-06 before he forgot how to score and was waived, sent to Binghamton, and bought out of his contract before quietly rejoining the Sharks minor league team.
And so now, outside of aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza has almost nobody to turn to for support. Spezza’s individual talent leads one to compare him with the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire. But he’s quietly letting a promising career slide into irrelevance, albeit with the help of the organization dealing away talented players in exchange for very little. It’s too early to write Jason Spezza off, but from a team game standpoint, per Woo in Lebowski, he’s starting to look like a bleeping loser.
Aside from Spezza, the rest of the Senator veterans didn’t do enough last season, and from top to bottom don’t really have the ability to score enough goals to contend. Ottawa outscored only New Jersey in the entire NHL last year, so simple improvement may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year, or even to beat out Toronto in the division. I love Anderson, and I like the Sens talent on defense in the forms of Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, but I just don’t see enough offensive depth for Ottawa to contend for the playoffs in 2011-12. Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will take over head coaching duties for the Senators this year. It’s a rebuilding process, and one that the B-Sens showed has real promise. The time just hasn’t come yet.
Next up, we’ll round out the eastern conference with our premature picks for the order of finish in the Southeast Division.
Following the Boston Bruins’ hoisting of the Stanley Cup last week, many in the media were using the old clichés about teams beating talent and will beating skill.  I understand what those phrases are supposed to mean, but I think it’s a little misleading to insinuate that the Vancouver Canucks were not united, or that the Bruins lacked skill or talent.  The better team won the series.  Boston won four of the seven games.  They won their four games by 7, 4, 3 and 4 goals, respectively.  They lost their three games by one goal apiece.
I read a lot of opinions that the Canucks blew a golden opportunity.  I know on the surface it sounds nuts, but I disagree.  In fact, had the Canucks won Game 7 at home like the -150 money line said they were supposed to, it would have been the Bruins who blew the opportunity.  You see, when teams take each other seven games, it’s the team that lost games that it could have won that really has the burden of a blown opportunity.  Vancouver lost exactly zero games that it could have won, if we agree that the 4.5 goal margin equates to no opportunities, which of course it must.  Boston is the team that twice blew stellar one goal allowed efforts from MVP Tim Thomas, and tacked on an overtime loss to boot.  People can misremember this series all they want, and talk about how Vancouver really let it slip away, but the facts show that the Canucks truly almost stole the series from the Bruins, who would have had a hard time dealing with their blown opportunity.
With this said, I want to look ahead to next season to see which, if either, team can be expected to get back to the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver Canucks


For some time now, people have been applauding the job that Vancouver has done to build such a great roster despite the limitations of the salary cap.  While I agree that the Canucks looked rather stacked, they were a team that was really built to win in 2011.  The pieces are in place for a smooth transition into next season, but the Canucks have ten roster spots to fill in the offseason and only about $13.7 million with which to do that.  This average of $1.37 million per roster opening ranks 24th in the league.
The biggest of the big names are all back for the Canucks.  The Sedins are signed for 3 more years; Ryan Kesler is locked up for 5 more campaigns.  Manny Malhotra and Alex Burrows are entering their penultimate seasons under contract, and Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond both have one more year left.  Whether or not the Canucks buy out Samuelsson’s $2.5 million contract remains to be seen, but they can probably expect some delays in production from Raymond, who is out at least four months from now after suffering that terrible injury to his back in Game 6.  The rest of Vancouver’s forwards — Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass — are all free agents on July 1.  It should be noted that Lapierre and Hansen are RFAs, which will make it much easier for the Canucks to retain them, should they want to do so.  Remember though, only $13.7 million to go around…
The situation on the blue line really makes it clear how important the 2011 championship was to this team.  Going into the free agency period, the Canucks have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Alex Edler locked up past the upcoming season.  They have Aaron Rome on retainer for this upcoming season at a discount price of $750,000, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if not signed to an extension beforehand.  The Canucks’ once-heralded stable of defensemen is now down to four, and one of those players is Ballard, who brings a $4.2 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and the Canucks refuse to use him in games that mean anything.
This leaves Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrew Alberts all as UFAs in eleven days, and again remember, there’s only $13.7 million to go around.  While the Canucks can bring some players up from the AHL at six-figure prices, there’s almost no way they can pay all of these defensemen the money that other teams will be able to offer.  I would assume that of the four listed above, the Canucks would soonest part ways with 36 year-old Salo, but just refusing to resign him doesn’t add money to that $13.7 M pool with which to pay the other three D men.  All three played well this season, but one would think that Alberts can be had at the lowest price.  The soon-to-be 30 year-old Alberts came with just over a million dollar price tag last year, and Vancouver seemed to get at least what they paid for out of him.
Bieksa and Ehrhoff, on the other hand, are coming off $3.5 and $3.4 million seasons, and at 30 and 28 years old, probably aren’t looking to make financial concessions.  Even if those two will sign for the same money, that’s 7 of the 13.7 in available funds.  Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
All the rumors are that Bieksa will be the one to leave, and while I understand that Ehrhoff is the better defenseman per se, I don’t particularly like the idea of a team known for being “soft” washing their hands of one of the few hard-nosed producers it has.  I mean all they would have to do at that point is trade Kesler for Ilya Kovalchuk, and the caricature would be complete.  But alas, the salary cap restrictions…
Even if Bieksa is allowed to walk and Vancouver brings back Ehrhoff and Alberts to add to the four blue liners under contract, there’s no denying that on its face the 2011-12 squad would be worse off just without Bieksa, let alone Salo.  The elder statesman from Finland wasn’t worth the money he got last year, but he was still an effective hockey player, usually.  Ehrhoff and Alberts would probably cost the team somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million next season, given that Ehrhoff is an outstanding player and Ballard makes $4.2 million.  This would leave $7.7 million for more defensemen and all forwards beyond the seven currently under contract.  What would solve Vancouver’s problem is finding a taker for Ballard’s contract.  While it would seem obvious that nobody could be that dumb, I assure you there always is that one moron who tilts the game in someone’s favor.  If Islanders’ owner Wang is serious about taking on more payroll, perhaps Vancouver should give Garth Snow a call.
The Canucks are set at goalie for next season, as Cory Schneider will turn in his 28 games with a 2.30 GAA, and all for less than a million bucks.  Roberto Luongo is entering his tenth-to-last year on his contract.  Gulp.
Boston Bruins


As far as the Bruins go, I was really impressed after looking at their roster entering next season.  I mean the bottom line here in Beantown is, damn near everyone is coming back!  The Bruins have five roster spots to fill, and just over $7 million to do it with.  Their average number, only one spot ahead of Vancouver’s, is $1.43 million per opening.  But the key difference is that the B’s don’t have a lot of big earners who need to be resigned.  Assuming Mark Recchi is serious about retiring, the only Boston forwards not under contract already for next season are Brad Marchand and Michael Ryder.  Marchand is due for something of a raise after his integral role in bringing home the Cup, but a raise is acceptable when the starting point was an $821k cap hit last year.  I expect the Bruins will do everything necessary to keep Marchand, and I also expect the price not to exceed $2.5 million.  Ryder is somewhat of a different story, as he banked $4 million in each of the last three seasons.  But I have a feeling he’s a guy that the Bruins will be alright parting ways with, since they must see Marchand as a more valuable piece in their efforts going forward.  Ryder is a very good talent, but he even still has lacked the consistency to justify such a large salary.  Ryder tallied 41 points in 79 regular season games.
On defense, Boston brings back five of its six Cup-winning regulars.  Only trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle is a free agent, but the Bruins are likely to bring up Steven Kampfer before giving Kaberle close to half of their available offseason funds.  Whoever the sixth D man is, he will join the ring bearers Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk and McQuaid.  To make matters better for the Bruins, only Boychuk and McQuaid are even entering their final seasons.
Like the Canucks, Boston is also bringing back its two goaltenders, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.  Also like the Canucks, the Bruins have around $1.4 million per player this offseason.  But unlike the western champs, Boston only has five spots to fill, and only one must-sign — Marchand.
In order to properly evaluate which team has a better chance to return to the SCF, one would have to do a similar accounting of each’s opponents, but for now, I must say that contrary to popular belief — Vancouver is an early 5 to 1 favorite to win next year’s Cup — it is the Bruins who are better set up to make it back next year.
Thanks for being patient with me over the past week.  Like my brother’s favorite, Craig Anderson, I had to avoid burnout.  I’m strongly looking forward to doing some more of these team offseason evaluations.  Feel free to join me via comments, Twitter or email.
What do you guys think?  Will either of these teams defend their conference crowns?  Will we have a rematch in 2012?  Or are we looking at new blood next year?

I want to add, I get all of these salary numbers from CapGeek.com, and I highly recommend it for anyone desiring to know anything about player salaries, team cap restrictions, or anything related.
I remember my Game 7 day like it was yesterday.  Friday, June 12, 2009 was one of the most optimistic days of my life.  I was unemployed at the time — a result of a combination of the terrible job market and my own apathy following another year of law school — and I couldn’t have been happier.  My Red Wings were about to do the deed on the Penguins for the second straight year, and we were in for an aggressively emotional parade that was going to feel like a defense of the Motor City, much like the Eminem Chrysler commercial did during the Super Bowl a year and a half later.

What was going to stop us from having this three-month celebration, anyway?  Sure, it was Game 7, and in the past I would have been a nervous wreck over the possibility of losing, but the two teams had shown nothing to suggest a Pittsburgh win on that Friday night.  Aside from dispatching of the Penguins in six games the summer before, Detroit had won its first three home games of the series by a total score of 11-2, with no one-goal games in that stretch.  This was the scene at the end of Game 5.  The Red Wings had shown that they ran the best puck possession system in the league.  If anything, the Penguins were just a junior varsity version of the Red Wings.  That argument held up in 2008, so why not in ’09?
It was a hot and sunny day, and I felt obliged to amp up my strangely calm heart rate with about seven cups of coffee over the course of the afternoon.  I made the obligatory Sour Patch Kids run, my lone superstition applying to Red Wings home playoff games.  I made the mistake of buying them from the package, instead of hitting up a candy shop and getting my magic candies in a stock white bag, but what could that hurt?  We had this thing on lock.
At that time I was lucky enough to live far enough north to get CBC, and I will never forget Don Cherry’s intro to Game 7.  Click the link, and do not go away from it if you have not yet reached the 2:45 mark of the video.  “Nine months of war for one game.”
Then the actual game happened.  The Wings looked flat early, and found themselves trailing 2-0 after 40 minutes thanks to a pair of Max Talbot goals.  It was around that point that I realized this thing was getting away.  Sure, the Penguins lost Crosby earlier in the game, but the Red Wings were doing nothing to convince anyone that they planned on scoring any goals that night, let alone three.  All I remember are a lot of blank stares, trying to get a head start on processing the devastation that was headed my way.  This was it.  My team was going out like suckers.  Not like the defending champions that they were, but like overmatched weenies afraid to push back.
Then the third period unfolded, and the Wings outshot the Pens 8-1.  Jonathan Ericsson cut the deficit in half with just over six minutes to play, and the Wings proceeded to throw everything they could at Pittsburgh.  They decided that if they were going out, they were going out like champions.  The dream for the repeat finally collapsed when Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Nick Lidstrom from point blank range with about a second to play.  What I remember next was a mixture of pain, shock and a quickly developing sense of appreciation for what the Penguins had just done to my team.  They came into a building in which they had been beaten down three times to conclude a series that, for the second straight year, they had never led.  And they won the game without their best player.
Fleury saves. Internal crying commences. It hasn’t stopped yet.

It didn’t seem at that time that the loss was the end of the Red Wings, and until Lidstrom retires it won’t be, but we Detroit fans have spent the past two years hoping desperately for a return to that very spot.  We haven’t come close, and there appears to be a two-week window now in which Lidstrom might lock up that era of glory that ended on a Friday night in June of 2009, and throw away the key.
My advice for Canucks and Bruins fans is this:  relax, remember this moment, and enjoy the lead up and the game.  When it’s over, it’s over.  Even if your team wins, attention will soon turn to offseason moves and trying to defend what you already have.  If you lose, it will be hard to take.  But life will go on, and all the losing team can do is attempt to get right back to where they are today — on the brink.
“It’s the deep breath before the plunge.” – Mithrandir

But that’s what makes today so fun.  Everything is on a knife’s edge.  History is hanging in the balance.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon, and we know it will soon.  It is very possible that as fans, your team will never get to this point again.  And even if they do, there’s no telling how you’ll feel about it as compared to this 2011 campaign.  So don’t fret about losing, and don’t pray for a win to come and go as quickly as possible.  Enjoy the game tonight, and go get your Stanley Cup.
Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is tonight at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT live on NBC, CBC and RDS.
On Wednesday night the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks will stage one game for the Stanley Cup, and will give all hockey fans all we could ask for: a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals.
This is even funnier now.
In this 21st century world of saturated media (I offer as evidence that I have a blog, and you’re reading it!) we seem to have become obsessed with assigning blame to teams or athletes that lose.  The word “choke” is thrown around by hate mongers to describe each and every time someone comes up a little short, even when that loser was the underdog to begin with.  Everyone’s loving Tiger Woods’ life implosion, and he is talked about more now than he was when he was winning at an incredible rate.  America rejoiced the other night when the Miami Heat had to eat the platter of excrement that they prepared for themselves when they talked about winning seven or more championships before they had ever ran a drill together (going out of your way to stick it to an entire franchise on national television didn’t garner any sympathy points either).  And as great as Roger Federer is and was, he got more chatter relating to his decline (which lasted all of 16 months, by the way) than any of his amazingly dominant grand slam runs.




Remember when Federer was “done?”



The list of examples of our obsession with piling on losers rather than celebrating winners goes on and on, but it should not see a single entry from the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs on it.  Up to this point, I believe the playoffs have played out exactly as they should have.  Obviously, there was Ilya Bryzgalov quitting on the Phoenix Coyotes, and the much maligned Sharks doing what they do, but nothing has really happened in these playoffs that loosely resembles a choke.  Even the Capitals did what they always do, which is lose early to a team that nobody foresaw beating them.  And even then, the story was predominantly Washington, not Tampa Bay.
We’ve already laid the foundation for the Roberto Luongo “choke” in Game 7, and everyone rooting against him is ready to invalidate his entire career with any loss Wednesday night.  The jokes are locked and loaded — Monday night saw the term “Roberto LeBrongo” trending worldwide on Twitter (see paragraph 2).


Today is the biggest game of Luongo’s career, again.

But as hockey people, we’ve always held ourselves to a higher standard than fans of the other big sports, so let’s do what we should do, and focus on how wonderful it is that we have this series of moments that is a Game 7 in the season’s final series.  Someone will win, and let’s focus on celebrating them, before turning our attention to next season.  Oh, and our next season will be played in a few months, unlike those other leagues.  So absorbing yourself in Game 7 won’t go without value — you’ll get to carry that backstory into this fall and pick up where you left off.





As far as who will win Game 7, nobody knows.  But Canucks MVP candidate Daniel Sedin thinks he does.  Sedin said that Vancouver will win Game 7, just as they’ve won every home game in the series so far.  Most people are doing what we do these days and calling it a guarantee just to get eyeballs and clicks, but Sedin never used that word.  All he did was say that he believes his team is going to win, and really, there’s nothing to criticize about that.  If he’s right, then maybe he will elevate his and his brother’s status in the eyes of North American hockey fans, who have long been slammed for being “soft.”  But I don’t think Daniel making these comments have anything to do with the aftermath of a Canucks win.  For one, a Canucks win make all talk and former panic irrelevant.  Also, Sedin probably feels more free to go out and make things happen knowing that he quipped the talk early and said that the team will just win the game.  It sounds obvious that he should go out and play freely and create and score goals in the biggest game of his career, but it’s not always that easy to feel free in these games.  The magnitude of big moments has restricted the weak of heart for as long as mankind has existed.  This is Sedin saying “screw it, let’s just play.”

Luongo scared? That’s not true! Come after me, I’m a man! I’m 30!



Another possible motivation for Daniel to speak out and “guarantee” a Game 7 win is that it will lead people to talk about his statement, and not Luongo’s state of mind.  This is a tactic that has been used by coaches for a while, but it’s not something we’ve seen come from the quiet Swede before.  To me, this is proof of Sedin’s continuing evolution as a hockey player and as a man.  It takes guts to make declarations prior to do-or-die games, despite the obvious reality that these statements do not really matter.  We’ve been asking for heart and grit out of the Sedin twins for a long time.  Here’s a start.  Wednesday can be something of a finish.
Regarding Luongo’s state of mind entering Game 7, there are conflicting schools of thought, and either could prove to be right.  The conventional thinking seems to be that Luongo has been money at home, and therefore should continue to be.  A dissenting opinion is that a man can only be beaten down so many times, and Game 6 solidified that the earlier beatings in Boston were no fluke.  Luongo has been pulled twice now in the finals.  Perhaps the 19-8 overall score line has Luongo shaken in the lead up to what is close to a 50/50 game for all the marbles.
But Luongo has prevailed in this situation before.  Granted, he had an amazing team in front of him for the 2010 Olympic gold medal game, but he also had exponentially more pressure on him.  This Stanley Cup run has been very important to all Vancouver Canuck fans for the last few months.  The Olympics were an all-or-nothing proposition for the host country for four years.  Luongo managed that game well, despite allowing a game-tying goal with under a minute left in regulation.  On top of that, he fared just fine in Game 5 after two shellings, and was superb in Game 7 against Chicago in the ultimate panicked negativity situation around the team.  I wouldn’t expect another yanking of Luongo in Game 7.
A better reason that Luongo and the Canucks won’t bring home the Cup is the man in the other crease.  Tim Thomas has had one of the most outstanding goaltending seasons in recent memory, and he only upped his game for the Stanley Cup finals.  By all accounts, Thomas already has the Conn Smythe Trophy wrapped up.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t, as both teams are 15-9 through 24 postseason games thus far.  If Thomas is the unanimous MVP through 24 games, what could happen in the 25th to turn that on its head?  Nothing, and Thomas should bring home the hardware tomorrow.  The only question is whether he will do it Giguere style.  He, and Bruins nation, hopes not.

Tim Thomas wants no part of a J.S. Giguere dichotomy tonight.

Besides the goaltenders, one key for both teams is to be aggressive and not find themselves trying to counterpunch.  I think both teams will come out assertive, but Boston probably has the bodies to do it a little bit better.  While the Bruins don’t have Nathan Horton up front, they still have Chara, Lucic and the rest of the lumberjacks to bend some wills.  And speaking of Horton, how cool was it to see him at the glass swinging a towel and rooting on his teammates?  

Thank the Lord I’m somewhere that cares.
You think that guy loves finally being on a competitive hockey team after wasting the first six years of his career in South Beach?
But the Canucks won’t let the B’s come into their own building and shove them around.  I expect Vancouver to bang as much as Boston, and that’s another reason I have no problem with Daniel Sedin saying the Canucks will win.  If anything, it should galvanize the team.  Makes you wonder if the right Sedin is looking to become the second european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Lidstrom ’08).
I don’t think Boston has to do much differently to win the Stanley Cup in Game 7.  They’ve been in every game this series, dropping all three losses by one goal.  We know Thomas and the rest of the Bruins’ vets are going to show up.  It just comes down to who executes better and gets some breaks.  One positive thing the Bruins have going for them is the power play disparity in the series.  Vancouver, who brought a 28.8% power play success rate into the finals, is sputtering at 6.5% in the finals.  Boston, on the other hand, couldn’t throw in a power play goal leading up to the finals.  But the Bruins have bucked the trend and rolled at a 19.2% clip against the Canucks.
Moving onto strategy, one thing I would do if I was Vancouver is roll out Dan Hamhuis.  I know he’s probably very hurt, and it seems unlikely that the defenseman will play in Game 7.  But if he can skate, he needs to play.  Ryan Kesler has been doing it the whole series.  The only question really is, who gives you more, Hamhuis or rookie Chris Tanev?  That’s a rhetorical question, and therefore I just can’t see how Hamhuis would be held out of this one if he can give the Canucks even 12 minutes of pain-impaired but responsible hockey.  What do they have to worry about, next year, when they might not have a home game to win the ultimate prize?

Guess who’s feeling better Wednesday morning

Another question for Vancouver is who will replace winger Mason Raymond, who fractured a vertebra in Game 6.  By all reports, Raymond’s injury is a vicious one, and I hope he can get through his time of pain.  He is listed as out for at least four months.  It seems that CCHA product Jeff Tambellini would be the most likely replacement, although coach Vigneault has not indicated his Game 7 roster at this moment.
With all of this said, let’s realize again that these two teams have given us everything that we ask for as sports fans.  Both teams have given it everything in taking it to the final game, all while playing as collectively hurt as they’ve been in their hockey careers.  Wednesday will be the 107th game for each team this season, and it will be that magical seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.
In many ways, we’ve become spoiled with these Game 7s in the Cup finals.  This will be the sixth Game 7 in the finals since the turn of the millennium.  The home team won the first four, before the Penguins prevailed in Joe Louis Arena in 2009 in the single most painful loss of my adult sports life.  But these games are a treat.  Just ask anyone who watched hockey from 1966 to 2000, only to see three such spectacles in those 35 seasons.  And so the moral of the story is this: enjoy the hell out of this Game 7 between the two most deserving teams in the league, and don’t pile on the loser; instead, celebrate the winner.  Not much more to say, good luck to all parties, and let’s have a great game.  Can’t wait to look ahead to the offseason.