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Sometimes writings take on a life of their own and go in a direction in which the writer hadn’t planned on going. It seems Richard Bachman has grabbed this blog and ran with it, at least for the time being.
For the second time in three nights, The Pen Name will lead the Dallas Stars out of their home tunnel and onto the ice in front of a national TV audience. Mind-boggling, if you ask me.
I’ve been very supportive of Bachman in his string of starts over the last two weeks, but that isn’t exactly to say I’ve gone out on a limb. The Pen Name is 4-1 as a starter since relieving Andrew Raycroft mid-game at San Jose on December 8. Tonight will be just his second home appearance after playing in five consecutive road games.

The opponent is the Philadelphia Flyers, who under normal circumstances would be heavy favorites to beat Dallas anywhere. But after the maiming over the weekend on home ice at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the Flyers skated decently to a disappointing result in Colorado two nights ago.
Philadelphia outshot the Avalanche 33-27, scored 1 power play goal in its 4 opportunities, and killed off the only two instances it had of being shorthanded. But Avs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was just good enough to steal the shootout win, and extend the Flyers’ “losing streak” to 1.5 games (I mean, we can’t really call it a 2-gamer, now can we?). These struggles probably make HBO very happy, since the Rangers are cruising ahead of the Winter Classic, and nobody wants to see two teams in cruise control.
Phoenix will bring its road warrior hockey club into Carolina tonight for a game against Cam Ward and the last-place Hurricanes. The Coyotes rock a 10-6-1 record away from the apathetic confines of the Jobing.com Arena, while playing even in front of the raucous crowd (7-7-2 home record). Apologies to Coyote fans for my exaggeration; you do create a pretty good scene during playoff games, and according to your Wikipedia page, ticket sales have increased and season ticket renewals are at an all-time high.
The Hurricanes have played some dreadful hockey this season, and look poised for a high draft pick. The results haven’t come yet under Kirk Muller, but the latest in a line of NHL ’94 stars-turned-head coaches (or in Randy Cunneyworth’s case, NHL ’94 bit players-turned-head coaches) hasn’t had nearly enough time. It was nice to see the Canes were able to unload Tomas Kaberle to Montreal recently, but the fact that he was on the roster only highlighted what I believe to be an uncertainty over the direction of the club. Carolina has multiple rookies and/or prospects that many still believe to be future impact players in the NHL. What they don’t have is a calming influence on the blue line, and with the only man on the team capable of delivering that, Joni Pitkanen, out indefinitely with a concussion, things look very bleak for the Canes this season.
Speaking of bleak outlooks, Montreal heads into Chicago tonight with very few believers left on the bandwagon. Professional writers are using terms like “gongshow” and “lack of direction” rather frequently these days to describe the Habs, and it’s hard to argue with any of them. The latest uproar surrounds new hire Cunneyworth’s lack of a grasp of the French language, but I’ve never been to Quebec so I’ll save any comment on that.
The Habs will concede the game try to spark the team by starting Peter Budaj at the Hawks, who just possibly might be tired from last night’s loss in Pittsburgh. One would have to expect a Chicago victory. Corey Crawford is expected in nets for Chicago, but nothing is yet confirmed at the time I write this, and Ray Emery has started the last six games to the tune of a 5-1 record. If it is Crawford tonight, it is an absolutely huge game for him. Most people expect Crawford to be the Hawks’ goalie going forward, but the season is almost halfway gone, and at this moment it’s hard to justify Crawford over Emery. A game against Montreal at home is the kind of game that any division title contender should wish for right now.
What should be noted is that this is exactly why the Blackhawks were so smart in giving Emery a tryout, and subsequently a contract and the backup job. I urged the Red Wings to make this same move, but instead Razor Ray is winning for the rival team. Things may turn and nothing is certain, but right now, credit must be paid to Emery for persevering through his terrible hip injury and to Chicago for realizing how important he could be to a roster capable of winning another Stanley Cup, but backstopped by a second-year starter.
St. Louis will start Brian Elliott at Colorado, who will counter with Giguere. Some people will go on about the Shattenkirk trade (my ode to MvsW), but I think enough time has passed that we can evaluate a game between the Blues and the Avs in a way that includes players besides Shattenkirk, Stewart and Johnson. Since I never pick the Avs, give me the Blues. David Backes will be the anti-Paul Stastny tonight in a micro-matchup between young American centers on different sides of the slope right now.
Tampa Bay plays at San Jose tonight, and I’m not going to waste anybody’s time going into detail on a game that, quite frankly, I’m not going to watch. I expect the Sharks should get this one done at home, but the NHL, like all professional sports leagues with built-in parity, is unpredictable. Not many people may remember this or care, but this game is a matchup between last season’s conference final losers. Give the winner a bronze medal, I say.
In what’s probably the game of the night, my Detroit Red Wings travel to Vancouver for the first time this year. Detroit beat Vancouver at Joe Louis Arena 2-0 on October 13 in a game that was unexpectedly dominated by the Wings, but that was when the Canucks were still in the beginning stages of their hangover. It seems the headache is gone now, and the home/road records would suggest a Vancouver win tonight. The Canucks are 9-4-1 at home this season, while the Red Wings are a simple 8-8-0 on the road. Detroit is usually a pretty good road team, but has instead opted for an eyebrow-raising 13-2-1 start on home ice en route to another good record through 32 games (21-10-1). Jimmy Howard is confirmed as the starter for Detroit, while Roberto Luongo is expected for Vancouver. That game starts at 10 p.m. eastern time.
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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.
While we are stuck in the waning parts of the summer, left to contemplate the effect of free agency, the rises or stagnations of young players and all things between the pipes, I feel it is as good a time as any to reflect upon some of the better and worse Stanley Cup Finals that we’ve seen in recent years.
I’ve read about and familiarized myself with the lineal history of the league, but I don’t have many chronological memories of given playoff years before the magical spring of 1994. As a nine year-old kid, I found myself trying to beat chants of “1940” out of my head during random parts of pretty much every day from May on. The Rangers’ crowd was intense during those playoffs, and fed upon the growing hysteria of the idea of taking back the Stanley Cup for the first time since that year that it kept chanting. The tone of the chants seemed to change as the playoffs went along, with it starting more as a reminder of the franchise’s impotence over the last half century. The chant grew to have a touch of controlled anger, meant to not only convey the fans’ pain and suffering, but also to motivate the group of star players that would cement their legacy at the end. By the end, the chant was pure joy, but that’s only because the Cup was already in hand, since even with 1.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the Finals against Vancouver, the Rangers still had to avoid a defensive zone faceoff disaster. The Rangers were able to dig the puck to the corner, and the ensuing celebration in the arena might put to shame anything that we’ve seen since. It, along with the playoff run itself, made a lifelong fan out of my then six-year-old brother.
Photo via here


But as beautiful as those playoffs were, in today’s world they may not have ever happened. The 1993-94 season was played without a collective bargaining agreement, and that situation manifested itself into the 1994 NHL lockout, which carved the 1995 season into a rapid-fire 48-game season that saw the playoffs start in May for the first (and hopefully last) time. Since that first lockout we’ve been lucky enough to see a statistically strange amount of Finals series go seven games, but not every Stanley Cup Finals lives up to the hype inherent in the fourth round of any bracket-style tournament. Here’s a look at the best and worst Finals from the standpoint of an objective third party, who either supported a team that was previously eliminated or just a casual fan without a dog in the fight to begin with. These series are rated based on excitement coming in, the teams and story lines involved, watchability and actual results, and are of course all my opinion.
The Good
5. 1997 – Detroit d. Philadelphia 4-0
I know, I know. How can a sweep be considered among one of the best series in any time frame? But remember that there were key story lines coming in for both teams, and that the Red Wings were decided underdogs prior to the drop of the puck in Game 1.
For Philadelphia, the story was supposed to be the punctuation on the Eric Lindros trade as one of the better moves in franchise history, and the first opportunity to reverse what happened the year before. For those that don’t know or remember, Lindros very publicly indicated that he would never play for the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him #1 overall in 1991 anyway. Among Lindros’ reasons for refusing to play for the club was reportedly that he did not want to have to learn French, which is kind of funny in today’s age of baseball players with translators and the like. Lindros stuck to his guns though, and the Nordiques fielded two trade offers for his rights. One was from the New York Rangers, and the other from the Flyers. New York threw the following at Quebec for the rights to Lindros: Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, John Vanbiesbrouck (apparently the biggest city in the USA didn’t like American players much), Alexei Kovalev, three consecutive first-round draft picks from 1993 to 1995, and $12 million in straight cash, homie.
Luckily for New York, the arbitrator deciding on the two offers ruled in favor of Philadelphia’s deal instead. The Flyers sent the following to Quebec: Peter Forsberg, who by himself made the deal a stinker for Philadelphia and a boon for Quebec (or rather, Colorado), Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1993 first-round pick that became goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, a 1994 first-round pick that was later traded to Washington, and $15 million. Quebec moved to Colorado in the summer of 1995, and that Avalanche team won the Stanley Cup in its first year, largely thanks to the contributions of the players sent over from Philadelphia.
Photo via
Lindros with the ’97 Prince of Wales Trophy. It would be the only team trophy he’d win with the club.
One of those players was not Hextall, who got himself traded to the New York Islanders after one season in Quebec. He was then shipped back to Philadelphia, which brings us back to the 1997 Finals. Hextall was a Flyer through and through, and Lindros was expected to cement himself as the legend that he was expected to be all along. He had already won a Hart Trophy as league MVP in the 1995 shortened season, and now was to come the Cup. Lindros and the Flyers destroyed everyone in their path en route to the Finals, going 12-3 in three consecutive five-game victories. To add hype to the already legitimately-based expectations, Lindros had two linemates that teamed up with him to actually have a universally recognized nickname — the Legion of Doom. The line of John LeClair, Mikael Renberg and Lindros tallied 225 goals in the previous two regular seasons alone. They would tack on 41 in those two playoffs, but it ultimately wouldn’t be enough and the line was broken up after the sweep at the hands of Detroit.
So while we look back and understand that this was the one and only chance at glory for Lindros and that era of Flyer hockey, at the time the mood was much different. They were rolling, had a player that people were actually calling the best in hockey, and were favored to win the Stanley Cup over a Detroit team that was known for “choking,” playoff disappointments and a “lack of toughness” that was coded language for “too many europeans.” Ah, the days of nationalism. Glad we’ve moved on and matured. Oh, wait…
The expectations and general feeling surrounding the Red Wings were very different back in the spring of 1997, however. It’s hard to remember now, but four Stanley Cups ago the Red Wings were seen as a team of regular season heroes who didn’t have it in them to close the deal and win hockey’s biggest trophy. While the Flyers were a three seed on an uptick, the Red Wings were a three seed coming off two Presidents’ Trophies in 1995 and ’96 that were mocked by solid beatings at the hands of New Jersey and Colorado. In fact, that 1996 season saw the Red Wings set a record with 62 regular season wins; that record still stands today. But it ended in the conference championship series when those Avalanche handily dispatched of Detroit with those players gained from the trade with Philadelphia. Coming into the ’97 playoffs, it was expected that Colorado should be able to get back to the finals as the winners of their very own Presidents’ Trophy that year.
All signs pointed to another season of Colorado’s dominance over Detroit until a game in late March changed the fortunes of both franchises. Remember that Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the ’96 conference finals. The Wings had already played against and lost to Colorado three times in the 1996-97 season, and were reinforcing their reputation for being too soft (read: european) by doing absolutely nothing to anyone on Colorado’s roster. That final meeting changed everything, and allowed Detroit to win the first of two Stanley Cups in a row.
It started when Forsberg took a swipe at Igor Larionov, who aside from having one of the most awesome daughters in the world today, also showed some mettle in getting involved in a wrestling match with Forsberg. That “fight” itself wasn’t much, but it set off a chain of events that delayed the Avs’ second Cup by four years and gave the Red Wings the forum they needed to jumpstart the franchise’s ultimate success. Darren McCarty beat Lemieux into the doctor’s office, and Patrick Roy came flying up center ice before being intercepted by a clothesline by new acquisition Brendan Shanahan. Roy eventually got up and challenged Detroit’s smaller goaltender, Mike Vernon, to a fight that saw Roy put on his back. It was the first time Detroit had gotten over on Roy since they hung 11 goals on him in a game that forced his way out of Montreal and into the Cup-ready hands of Colorado, and it was the first time the team had collectively addressed the illegal hit that could have ended the career of their young teammate ten months prior.

Video via HockeyFightsdotcom’s Youtube page
Pass Sports’ coverage of the March 26, 1997 brawl.

After a six-game upset of Colorado that ended at Joe Louis Arena and felt like a revelation of how to play hockey in the playoffs, the Red Wings found themselves underdogged for the second series in a row, and in the finals again after being swept by Lemieux and his New Jersey Devils in the conclusion to the lockout-shortened season of ’95. So after finally getting over on Lemieux and the team that the Flyers arguably handed the ’96 Stanley Cup to, Detroit had its chance to end a 42-year drought of its own. Let’s also not forget that while Vernon played in the most important regular season game in franchise history, it was actually Chris Osgood who played 47 games to Vernon’s 33. Osgood’s GAA and save percentage were better than Vernon’s through the regular season, and therefore head coach Scotty Bowman probably set himself up for criticism if Vernon didn’t come good and bring the Cup to Detroit right then and there. But, of course, he did.
The games themselves were pretty compelling early on, as the Red Wings played nearly perfect road hockey games to take a 2-0 series lead to Detroit. But it looked shaky early in Game 3, and the Flyers took their first lead at any point in the series in the first period. But the hope was short-lived, as Steve Yzerman tied the score on the power play two minutes later. Another two minutes after that, Sergei Fedorov made one of his best deke moves to put the Wings ahead. By the end it was a 6-1 Detroit victory that left fans’ jaws on the floor. By the time everyone had picked up their jaws, it was time to move on to piling on Lindros and the Flyers. That was perhaps unfortunate, as nobody will remember that the Flyers actually kept their heads and played Game 4 down to the wire; albeit they trailed by two goals throughout the third period until Lindros scored his first and only goal of the finals with just 15 seconds to go. Detroit held on for the 2-1 win and answered announcer Gary Thorne’s very appropriate question from three hours earlier, which was whether or not it was, at long last, time for a coronation.
Full Game 4 highlights, for your viewing pleasure.

The Wings went on to roll through the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Finals, which were utterly forgettable other than the Caps’ incredible collapse in Game 2 and the Brian’s Song-esque scene where fallen defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was rolled out onto the ice in his wheelchair and made into the centerpiece of the team victory photo. Since that series wasn’t worthy of the top 5 or bottom 5 (based on the Konstantinov / repeat / major franchise story lines), I figured I’d make note of it here.
4. 2008 – Detroit d. Pittsburgh 4-2
Yeah, the Red Wings were the victors in both of the finals that I’ve picked so far, but it’s hard to argue against the magnetism of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. On one side, we had a Detroit team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and had relatively little resistance from either Nashville, Colorado or Dallas on their way to the Finals. The Avalanche were by this time a shell of their former strength, and the Dallas series only went six games after the Red Wings went up 3-0 in the series before people remembered that blowing a 3-0 series lead was possible (see, I really don’t hate the Flyers).
The only real event of controversy for Detroit came prior to Game 5 of the first round series against Nashville, when after losing both road games Dominik Hasek was benched in favor of Osgood, who grabbed the reins and never let go. Osgood went all the way and won his second Cup as a starter (1998) and third overall, including that ’97 title as the playoff backup. Henrik Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe and the Wings were finally certain that they had successfully transitioned from the Yzerman, Shanahan & Co. era.
But the real intrigue of the series came from the runners-up. The Penguins finished dead last in their division from 2002 – 2006, and loaded up on high draft picks due to those terrible seasons. The Pens made the playoffs in 2007, but were eliminated in the first round by the deeper and more mature Ottawa Senators, who went on to win the east. But the 2008 playoffs put those negative memories in the past, and the three series wins had the hockey world questioning whether this 20 year-old Sidney Crosby kid was just too good. With Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and plenty of more-than-capable older players like Marian Hossa at his side, Crosby was trying to start a dynasty for team owned by the man who was housing him. But the Penguins played too similar a style to Detroit, and did so as less developed puck controllers. It’s long been an idea to fight fire with fire, but that strategy only works if your fire is as big as your opponent’s. Pittsburgh’s puck possession game was very good, but not as practiced and dominant as Detroit’s.
It almost didn’t matter though, as the Penguins were within inches of scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 against a sprawling Osgood. Pittsburgh had already stolen Detroit’s first opportunity to raise the Cup when Max Talbot tied Game 5 with just 35 seconds left in regulation. The Penguins went on to win in triple-overtime and took the series back to Pittsburgh, which had people getting excited and wondering if we could be in for one of the best finals series in recent memory. A 3-1 Detroit lead was cut in half with 1:27 left in the game, and for those moments the Penguins had the feeling of a possible team of destiny. But in a scene that would be almost exactly reversed the following year, Crosby, Hossa and the team in black ran out of time in Game 6 and the Wings raised the Cup on the road.

Pittsburgh’s final rush can be seen around the 2:35 mark.

3. 2011 – Boston d. Vancouver 4-3
This year’s final really was very good. Aside from the obvious fact that it went seven games, we had rumblings of a goalie fight, a couple of crushing injuries (which are unfortunate, but add questions and intrigue), a contrast of styles and two droughts that had lasted 40 and 39 years. This series is still fresh and the fallout is still unknown as far as the Canucks go, so a long writeup as if it were a new concept is unnecessary. If you want to know what I thought about the series, check out the June archive of this blog.
2. 2001 – Colorado d. New Jersey 4-3
As a 16 year-old Red Wings fan, I couldn’t think of a matchup between two teams that I’d rather see lose, but this series was a great one for hockey. These two teams, along with Dallas, had owned the three-year gap between Detroit’s second and third Stanley Cups. Colorado had lost the western finals to Dallas on the road in Game 7 in both ’99 and 2000, but surprisingly the Stars were swept in the second round by St. Louis. The Avs had no problem with the Blues, and finally got back to the finals after those two losses on the brink to Dallas, which were preceded by a blown 3-1 series lead against 7th-seeded Edmonton in ’98 and that conference finals upset loss at the hands of Detroit in ’97.
The team they faced was the defending champion Devils, who had beaten Dallas the previous season in a final series that we’ll get to. New Jersey had always seemed like an overachieving team, as they weren’t favored to win the Cup in their previous two finals appearances in 1995 or 2000 — but they won in four and six games despite being the road team in the series. The Devils again had to do this thing on the road, and it ultimately may have been the difference that led to the Devils finally losing a final series.
The big story throughout the season was the Cup pursuit of legendary defenseman Ray Bourque, who came to Colorado for one last shot at the title that had eluded him for twenty years of that drought for Boston that only just ended in June. After both teams traded road wins in Games 2 and 3, the Avalanche surrendered all advantages by getting smashed at home in Game 5 by a score of 4-1. The game had people wondering if there was just something about the Devils style of play and organization that lent itself to winning championships, and if Bourque would be shutout and kept off the Cup as a player for all eternity. That was not to be, however, as the Avalanche focused and put on a clinic in New Jersey for a 4-0 win that put them squarely back on the podium as favorites to grab the Cup back at home in Game 7.
They did just that, and after doing so captain Joe Sakic took the Stanley Cup over to Bourque so that the 22-year NHL veteran could be the first to lift the Cup that night. It was Patrick Roy’s fourth championship and second as an Av. He won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the third time, which is something that still has never been done by any other player. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Colorado won the final two series of the playoffs without Peter Forsberg, who was sidelined for over a year following the bursting of his spleen after 2001’s second round victory over the L.A. Kings. The lack of Forsberg took away from the beauty of the ’01 Finals, but his absence only highlighted the fact that the Avalanche were a great team, and one of the best of the era.
This series brought a merciful end to the Dallas-Colorado-New Jersey three-year round robin of sorts that was bookended by Red Wings titles in 1997, ’98 and 2002.
1. 2009 – Pittsburgh d. Detroit 4-3
As a fan of the Red Wings, this is the one that I think I’ll always remember. Subjectively, this series brought on all the emotions like a truly well-done story can. But objectively, this series had everything that a third party fan can ask for. It had a defending champion going up against the very team that it had denied the season before. It had a young challenger that made a few modifications to try and accomplish what it could not one year prior. It even had an element of treason to it in the form of Marian Hossa leaving Pittsburgh in the summer of 2008 and heading to the very Detroit team that beat the Pens in the ’08 Finals.
And don’t forget that all of this was played out in the cities of Pittsburgh and Detroit less than a year after the crash of the U.S. stock markets. A big rallying cry in Detroit was that the Red Wings needed to do it for the city and its struggling people. Two of the big three automakers had just filed for bankruptcy and employment was skyrocketing while the housing market closely resembled the equal and opposite reaction of something skyrocketing. The Tigers made a fluke World Series in 2006 but threw it away quickly, and hadn’t been back to the playoffs since (and still haven’t). The Pistons had just failed to qualify for the conference finals for the first time in seven years, and everybody knew in which direction that thing was trending. And the eight-year tenure of Matt Millen as head of the Lions front office had finally ended, but the team had little hope of quickly picking up the pieces of the worst eight-year record in modern NFL history (31-97). The city still had it’s Red Wings though, and the mood of the town felt desperate if not defiant. This was the last thing going right in the lives of many of those fans, but the team had to find a way to hold off the charging and maturing Penguins again if Detroit was to hold its title as kings of the hockey world and defend the Stanley Cup for the first time since, well, the Red Wings did it in 1997-98.
Doing so would have made a prophet out of ultra-talented but as-of-yet Cupless forward Marian Hossa, who in many ways led the Red Wings to the ’09 Finals. But in what was either an “english as a second language” misinterpretation or one of the greatest and most unnecessary digs ever, Hossa sat on the bench after Game 2 and told NBC that the reason he jumped ship is because he wanted to see what it was like to play with the top organization in the league. While I think I understand what Hossa was trying to say, it came off as ill-willed and shocking, since many figured the Penguins would rise to the top of the NHL soon, if not in that very series. Of course, they did, but Hossa’s embarrassment lasted only one season, as he immediately signed a long-term deal with Chicago and won the Cup the following year.
For my emotional retelling of how I spent my day and night on Friday, June 12, 2009, refer to this post that was meant to encourage fans of the Canucks and Bruins in the lead-up to their big one this past June.
But as far as the series went, it seemed like it might be a stinker early, or at the very least a long series of uncompetitive games. Detroit won both of its home games, just as it did the season before. Both games went to the Wings by a score of 3-1. But what didn’t follow 2008’s model was a series score of 3-1. Where Pittsburgh failed to get back on serve the year before, the Penguins actually managed to sway the opinions of many by producing back-to-back 4-2 wins to even the series and make it a best-of-three for the ultimate prize.
What happened in Game 5 was perhaps the most intentionally misleading slight of hand that I can remember in a playoff series. If we were watching the series as a film, Game 5 would have been seen as either a piece of writing and directorial genius or a liberty so unbelievable that it’d have us throwing overpriced fountain drinks at the screen. Back at Joe Louis Arena in a game that Detroit lost the year before, the Red Wings embarrassed the Penguins. The Pens seemed to come unglued in the 5-0 loss that had them picking fights about nothing and looking utterly stumped by the return of Pavel Datsyuk, who had missed the first four games of the finals with a foot injury. By the end, over 20,000 people were piling on and letting the Penguins know exactly where the city boy was from. The scene looked every bit like a proof. If the teams were relatively even before, and now Datsyuk was back and rolling, the Wings simply had to be better than the Pens.
But like most if-then arguments relating to sports, this proof turned into just another failed hypothesis. Pittsburgh locked down in Game 6 and made sure not to watch the Wings lift the Cup in Mellon Arena again. Dan Cleary was in all alone late in the third period, but was unable to lift the puck and got stoned by Fleury, who saved 25 shots in a 2-1 win to force Game 7 and give Pittsburgh a game to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 19 years.

And for as much as Detroit was struggling at the time, let’s not forget that this is a Penguins franchise that had to file bankruptcy itself in the late ‘90s, and had to fight through relocation rumors for a while before patron saint Mario Lemieux stepped in to turn the huge amount of money that the Penguins owed him into equity, and bought the team less than four months before Y2K hit. So as much as Detroit wanted to keep its grip on the one thing it still felt it had to hand onto, one can forgive Pittsburgh for not assuming the role of the overfunded tycoon that was beating the life out of the poor small business that had four Stanley Cups since the Pens had their last one.
Game 7 began with this, and ended with this. In between, Sidney Crosby got injured and Max Talbot scored the biggest brace of his career before Fleury stoned Nicklas Lidstrom as time expired. The Penguins won 2-1 again and the cinematic reversal was complete. It’s a loss that the Red Wings haven’t fully recovered from as a team yet, no matter what anyone might say. The quest to win another Cup in 2011-12 is as much fueled by the craving to banish the feelings of inferiority from three years before as it is by the fairy tale desire to send Lidstrom off in the ultimate style.
Pittsburgh’s playoffs have been disappointing since, as they bowed out early in both 2010 and 2011, to Montreal and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both series saw the Pens as the home team, and they’ve now lost their last five games when entering with the opportunity to clinch a series, with three of those games at home. That in itself has been a reversal from what they did inside the Joe on the 12th of June, 2009. They hope to stop the skid, but a lot of that depends on the health of Crosby, who even eight months after last playing doesn’t sound like a man who’s able to fully prepare for a hockey season. We’ll see what happens to both of these teams when the puck drops in just over a month, but for now we’ll have to settle for the memories they gave us from the best Stanley Cup finals since the first lockout.
The Bad
3. 2000 – New Jersey d. Dallas 4-2
It feels a little unfair to dub this series “bad,” since the level of play was pretty high and it had the defending champions in it. But episode two of the Colorado/Dallas/New Jersey round robin was hard to embrace as a third party observer. Maybe it was the slushy ice in Dallas’ hot summer. Maybe it was the Devils’ trap style of play. Maybe I was still at that age where I needed Detroit to be in the finals. Whatever it was, this series didn’t hold my attention and awe like any of the five listed above, or even like any of those that won’t end up on either list.
There were story lines that developed, such as Jason Arnott being traded to Dallas after beating them in this series. That trade famously brought over Jamie Langenbrunner and franchise legend and current GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and another Stanley Cup in 2003, to New Jersey. Dallas, meanwhile, has never fully recovered from that deal that put an end to their western dominance.
The goalies were Eddie Belfour and Marty Brodeur. The bone-crushing defensemen (and captains) were Derien Hatcher and Scott Stevens. But there’s just something about a series with one home win in six games that lacks continuity, and I never did feel like anybody could figure this one out. Maybe all of this made the series great. Maybe I need to go back and watch the 2000 Finals again. But comparing it with the other 15 finales since 1995 doesn’t allow it to finish high on the list.
New Jersey won in double overtime on the road on Arnott’s goal. The Cup was the Devils’ second and came between the two in 1995 and 2002-03. This series set up the third final in the round robin in 2000-01, when New Jersey entered the finals as the defending champion against Colorado. That series was #2 in “The Good” list above.
2. 2007 – Anaheim d. Ottawa 4-1
One franchise had finally gotten back, while the other had finally gotten there. Anaheim was a surprise entrant in the 2003 Cup finals and took New Jersey all the way to seven games, where the Ducks succumbed to the better Devils despite Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Ottawa had beaten two recent nemeses in Buffalo and those very Devils to get to the finals. Daniel Alfredsson had the chance to be the first european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Nick Lidstrom would become that just one year later).
Unlike 2003, the Ducks were heavily favored to win this Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and unlike ’03, they did. In fact, outside of the obligatory Game 3 that every home team wins when it’s down 0-2 if it even remotely resembles a good team, there was no real drama to this one. You could argue that Anaheim’s first three wins were sort of dramatic because they were all by one goal, but the games looked like what they were: a matchup between a relative dream team and its less tough, junior varsity version. By the time the series got interesting it got over, as the Ducks cleaned up the mess from the game before with a 3-2 road win in Game 4, which set up a 6-2 drubbing and coronation at home.
Anaheim’s roster is almost laughable when you go down the list, but it was the first Stanley Cup for a lot of them besides captain and Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer, whose career accomplishments provoke more laughter than the ’07 Ducks roster. The smooth-skating defensemen won all three of those New Jersey titles (’95, ’00 and ’03) as well as this one; he won two Olympic gold medals (2002 and ’10), a world championship (2004), a world junior championship (1991), the Memorial Cup (1992), and a Norris Trophy in 2004 to go with the Conn Smythe in ’07.
While Ottawa had a story of redemption to get to the finals, the team was unable to score the ultimate prize, and quickly fell apart afterward. Dany Heatley would request and be granted a trade just two years later, while goalie Ray Emery was waived in the summer of 2008. Jason Spezza remains on the team, but not without much rumor surrounding his impact on the locker room and desire to remain on what’s left of a once-contending team. Alfredsson tore his MCL in the ’08 playoffs, and has battled the aging process to try to find that form that took the Sens through the east in ’07. And in what was one of the worst decisions made, the Senators chose to re-sign free agent defenseman Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006, which was not an after-effect of losing the ’07 Finals, but it helped to ensure that the Sens would never get back, even as Chara polishes his ’09 Norris Trophy and ’11 Stanley Cup.
1. 1996 – Colorado d. Florida 4-0
This plain sucked. Not because Colorado won a Stanley Cup in its first year after relocation; not because Claude Lemieux got a title for smashing Kris Draper’s face in; not because it was a contest between a third-year franchise and a first-year team relocated from Canada to the western United States. This series sucked because this was like watching one of those private school vs. public school football games early in a high school season where the only questions of consequence are the winning margin and how many injuries piled up.
Florida had an amazing run to get to the ’96 Finals, largely on the back of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. The fans decided to try to make a staple out of throwing toy rats onto the ice, and like the first few innings of the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run in 2002 where thunder sticks became all the rage, for a while the ritual was kind of cool. It was almost even acceptable.
But the magic died quickly when the Cats ran up against that Avalanche team that was honed by the Lindros trade with Philadelphia. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Lemieux, Patrick Roy and the many other big names were too much for Florida, and the series ended mercifully as soon as it could have: in Game 4 on the Panthers’ ratless rink.  Colorado won the total goal count in the series 15-4. Plain sucked.

Even a rival winning in a sweep is exciting when it’s Cup-clinching.
The Ugly
Didn’t think you were gonna get this bonus category, did you? Well, these ones weren’t “bad” so much as they were ugly for one reason or another.
3. 1999 – Dallas d. Buffalo 4-2
This one was intriguing enough, and the competition was better than most people expected. The underdog Sabres had Dominik Hasek in net, and therefore had a chance to beat anybody. The Stars were expected to take this one though, as the western conference was seen as simply tougher after Colorado and Detroit had swept through the previous three finals.
Not only did Dallas fail to sweep Buffalo though, they actually needed one of the more controversial overtime goals to finish the series off in six games. In the spirit of competition, there’s no way Brett Hull’s goal should have been anything but a season-winner. But this was that two-year period where every single goal was under review and seemingly half of them were disallowed because a toe was in the crease on the opposite side of the goaltender. For this one, Hull was all up in the crease, but he kicked the puck out of the blue paint, which meant that it had to have come from there, which meant that being in the crease was allowed. Got that? You’re instincts are correct, the crease rule was destroying hockey and it was finally done away with (or just drastically altered) after the ’99 playoffs seemed to end a couple weeks late due to booth review.
So while the hockey was acceptable enough to avoid being one of the three “bad” series, any time you have a team celebrating with the holiest of sports trophies while the commentators are legitimately questioning whether there’s more hockey still to be played, that qualifies as ugly.



2. 2004 – Tampa Bay d. Calgary 4-3
There was a lot of beauty to this series. On one hand there was the Red Mile, in support of an upstart six seed led by one of the most beloved first-year captains league history, Jarome Iginla. On the other hand, there was the desire to spread hockey to the American south and build brands and tap into a mostly untapped hockey market. And there was the knowledge going into the series that this might be the last NHL hockey that any of us got to see for a long time.
Tampa Bay won the Cup at home in Game 7 by a score of 2-1, with Ruslan Fedotenko scoring both goals much like Max Talbot would five years later. But the team was powered by players like Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, 1998 top overall draft pick Vincent Lecavalier, winger Marty St. Louis, and younger versions of defenseman Dan Boyle and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who really justified the “Bulin Wall” nickname with his outstanding 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage in the ’04 playoffs. And on top of that, the Lightning were captained by Dave Andreychuk, who mirrored Ray Bourque’s ’01 triumph by winning his first and only Stanley Cup in his 22nd season of NHL play.
But again we had controversy, as Martin Gelinas appeared to have scored what might have held up as the Cup-clinching goal in the third period of Game 6. Certain camera angles appeared to show the puck crossing the line by the slimmest of margins before Khabibulin kicked it out, but the play was to go on. St. Louis ended the game just 33 seconds into overtime, and spoiled the Flames’ chance to win the Cup on home ice. But more importantly, we again had controversy determining a “true winner” after a questionable play in front of, or this time just behind, the goal line. To make the situation even uglier, there was no hockey for another sixteen months, as what could have been Alex Ovechkin’s true rookie season was lost to the lockout.

Here is a link to a video recap of the series.

1. 2005 – Season Cancelled
Come on, there’s never been a Stanley Cup Finals worse than this one. To the credit of everyone involved, the system needed fixed and it got fixed (as far as we all understand). But that doesn’t change the fact that we all had to swallow the mud for an entire year. Turning 21 in what should have been the lead-up to the all-star game may have allowed me to legally quell my heartache for a time with that sweet medicine, but nothing short of winning the Mega Millions could truly offer an even trade off.
The good news is that the puck will be dropped on October 6, and the games will start to count again. The bad news is that the current CBA is set to expire on September 15, 2012. But I am optimistic that a new agreement can be reached before that date, and even if one is not, the current CBA is set to continue on a year-to-year basis until one party notifies the other of a termination at least 120 days before that date. That would be in the middle of the playoffs at the latest, and if such a written notice of termination is delivered by either side in 2012 I’d be close to stunned.
There you have it — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Stanley Cup Finals from the past 17 years and 16 seasons. I had to give that one final twist into the 2004-05 lost campaign. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and check back periodically before the puck drops for real on October 6.






The NHL is as good as it has been since I started really following the league when the Pittsburgh Penguins were embarking on their first Stanley Cup run following my sixth birthday. At least five teams were pegged as more legitimate title contenders going into the 2011 playoffs than the team that actually won it (Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, and yes, Washington. I said going into the playoffs). The league is so saturated with effective players that we tend to think that almost all regulars are above average NHL players.
This of course is by definition not true, but what it does mean is that the average NHL player is better than he was maybe ten years ago. If you want another way of knowing that the NHL is amazing right now, check out the AHL. When the play of a minor league looks as good as it does in the A, the major league has to be great.
What I want to do today is begin a series of extremely-too-early looks at the various divisions in the NHL, and try to predict some orders of finish with some arguments. We’ll call it “Premature NHL Prognostication,” because it’s both self-deprecating and an accurate depiction of the league’s timeline. Let’s start with the division that both has arguably the most blood rivalries (Northeast fans can skip straight to the comments section to rip me a new one) and is also universally listed first when you look at the standings anywhere: the Atlantic Division.






1st: Pittsburgh Penguins 2010-11: 106 points, 2nd in division
The fact that the Pens actually tied the Flyers for the division lead without the services of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the second half of the season is pretty surprising. When you consider that Jordan Staal and James Neal only played 42 and 20 games for the team, respectively, all of a sudden the upcoming season looks very promising for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
All reports indicate that Malkin is ready to go for this season, and we also know that Crosby has been skating for a little while now. Of course, if Crosby were unable to play hockey this year, we would have to reevaluate the prospectus, but I think he’ll play and I think the Pens should be the best team in the division.
The Penguins have one of the better situations in the crease that can be found in the entire league. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off the best stretch of his career, and Brent Johnson was fantastic last year in keeping the Pens alive early, before Fleury found his game. Johnson seems to know his role as a backup, and so there shouldn’t be a situation where the backup thinks he should be a starter, which can lead to some dissension at times. I am big on teams with good backup goalies and/or tandems, and Pittsburgh is a team that falls into the first category.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has certainly one of the best two groups of top four defensemen in the division, along with Philadelphia. The Pens’ top four includes Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. Orpik skated 20:53 per game last year, while the other three all played more than 21 minutes a game. Letang and Martin were credited with 24:02 and 23:22 of ice time while contributing 42 and 21 assists apiece. Near the deadline last year, Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski away. While Goligoski is potentially a star on the blueline, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has a really solid top four without him, and also got winger James Neal out of the deal from Dallas. My feeling is that Dallas got the better end of the bargain if we look at trades in a vacuum, but real life and hockey are not played in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the Pens, the trade made sense. The offensive production of Neal will determine whether the Pens got what they bargained for in the dealing of Goligoski.
The Pens have another forward who plays a similar game to James Neal in the form of Chris Kunitz, the man who single-handedly won the CCHA in 2003 with Ferris State — a feat I’ve yet to see duplicated in college sports since. Kunitz probably won’t have as high of a point total as Neal by the end of the season, but he did a good job last season to prove that his offensive production isn’t entirely tied to Crosby. Kunitz tallied 28 points in 39 games before Crosby’s final game, and 20 points in 27 games afterward.
On the lower end of the forwards, the Pens have a good combination of gritty guys and young up-and-comers. Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will all be a year older and it will be interesting to see how much they improve. And while everyone knows about Matt Cooke, the Pens also have Craig Adams and Arron Asham, and it’s not exactly like the team’s scorers are weaklings either.
Why the Penguins will win the Atlantic Division
I think the Penguins have the roster that is best apt to play winning hockey in all three zones. Some of this belief is based on the idea that Crosby will return, but not all of it. The Pens tied the Flyers in points last year, and while Pittsburgh gets Malkin, Staal and Neal for presumably twice the number of games this season, the Flyers will have to deal with the loss of two of their top forwards. I expect Fleury to have a decent season and sport something like a .915 save percentage, and Brent Johnson can be relied upon to win more games than he loses. With the skaters that those goalies have in front of them, they don’t need to be Vezina-worthy to win the division, and probably even the eastern conference’s top seed.
2nd: New York Rangers 2010-11: 93 points, 3rd in division
I know, I know. I’ve listed two teams from the Atlantic already and haven’t gotten to the Flyers. The decision between Philly and New York was tough, but I’m more sure of the Rangers for a few reasons.
First there’s the obvious addition of Brad Richards. It may take more time for him to click with his new Ranger teammates than most fans will want to wait, but by the break I would expect Richards to be doing what he does: creating numerous scoring opportunities a game while not being a huge defensive liability. The player most likely to benefit from the addition of Richards has to be left winger Marian Gaborik. He’s had to deal with not living up to expectations in New York for a while now, but this year he has a legitimate top-end center to play with, instead of a steady rotation of rookie Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, and whoever else he had to hope to take feeds from last year. By no means is Gaborik an underrated player, but it is interesting that he is maligned while Rick Nash has always gotten the excuse of never playing with a capable center. That is probably because Nash plays a more likable style of hockey than Gaborik, but both guys have their chance to break out this year.
Another reason I like the Rangers to improve this year is that they have a really solid young core of players. This core has been pared down a little, but the big pieces still remain in the form of defensemen Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi, and forwards like Anisimov, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust (if you want to count 27 as “young”). Ryan McDonagh should be ready to compliment Staal and Girardi as a minute-chewing defensman who can skate, hit, block shots and move the puck. The Rangers also have a couple of guys in Wojtek Wolski and Ruslan Fedotenko who have the capability of contributing on the offensive end, but also could turn out to be worthless, as they have been at different points of their careers. One red herring on this Rangers team is the complete lack of depth on the blue line. After Girardi, Staal and McDonagh (who are all young by the way), the Rangers have only two defensemen on the roster: Tim Erixon and Mike Sauer. Neither should be expected to set the league on fire this season, although Sauer was a cool plus-20 last season with the Rangers. Erixon is 20 years old and spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea AIK. Erixon tallied a point every other game last year, and was a first round pick of Calgary in 2009. All things considered, the defensive leaders might have to play upwards of 24 minutes a game this year, and you wonder if that might take its toll on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Probably not though, since they are young and hockey players.
As far as goaltenders go, I wouldn’t take a single one ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. The 2006 Olympic gold medalist is steady and technically as good as anyone there is, and when he’s in the zone, Lundqvist can make it seem like somebody turned the video game level to the toughest setting. Backing up the best active goalie to never win the Vezina is Martin Biron, who posted a .923 save % and 2.13 goals against average in 17 appearances last season before breaking his collarbone. Biron’s record was only 8-6, but that’s more of an indictment of the Rangers’ anemic offense than Biron’s play, as his peripherals would indicate. It should be noted that in 68 games, Lundqvist matched Biron’s save percentage and himself only allowed 2.28 goals per game. With goaltending like that and a maturing skating corps that added a Cup winner like Brad Richards, there’s no reason the Rangers shouldn’t have a better 2011-12 than the season prior.
The key to this team rounding out its roster is getting right winger Ryan Callahan back in the fold. The hybrid forward is a restricted free agent and has an arbitration date set for July 28, but most times we see a deal get done before an arbitration ruling. If the Rangers are unable to lock Callahan down before an arbitration ruling, he would then be on a one-year contract and would be set to become unrestricted next summer. New York probably doesn’t want this to happen, but they are up against the salary cap. They have about $5.77 million to add three roster players, and a player of Callahan’s impact probably demands a good share of that available pie. The Rangers may be alright with an arbitration ruling because they know that they can use Wolski’s expiring $3.8 million deal, as well as a few other smaller contracts that are set to come off the books next July, to help fund Callahan when he would become a UFA next summer. There are two things I’m certain of — 1) The Rangers want Ryan Callahan to be a Ranger for a while, and 2) The Rangers need Ryan Callahan if they are going to have a chance at a top two spot in the division and/or a second round appearance in the playoffs.
3rd: Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11: 106 points, 1st in division
The Flyers might be the most talked-about team in the last month, and for good reason. On June 23, the team traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two centers who can also wing it who are both in their mid-20s. Those boys clearly weren’t aging rapidly, but it’s not like they were mere prospects either. Both Richards and Carter played integral roles in getting the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There have been insinuations that the Flyers had some locker room issues, but I’m not interested in sensationalism — just premature prognostication.
What we do know is that the 2011-12 Flyers should look a lot different than the team of the previous couple years. While those two borderline star players were shipped out, the Flyers brought in five forwards who should all see time in the top nine. Philadelphia scored a couple coups by bringing over Pittsburgh Cup-winners in Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot. Talbot adds toughness to an already tough team, while Jagr’s impact is less certain. Some people think that returning to the rigors of the NHL and its 82-game schedule after a three-year absence will be too tall an order for a player who will be 40 years old in February. But really, even if Jagr needs some precautionary scratch games, isn’t having him for 60 games potentially a boon for Philadelphia? I think that Jagr is primed for a solid 65-point season in which he probably won’t play all 82 games. And while most people criticize Jagr for his lack of defensive intensity and general disinterest in getting physical despite his huge stature, I would ask what the Flyers lost when Jeff Carter was shipped out. A big forward with elite hands who plays more like Sergei Fedorov than Chris Stewart? Okay, well, are Jagr’s hands not as elite as Carter’s? I guess we’ll find out.
Philadelphia got Jakob Voracek back from Columbus for Carter, and Brayden Schenn, hockey’s top prospect, from Los Angeles in return for Richards. Both players can contribute this season, but Schenn’s ceiling is higher as far as careers go. But while I enjoy looking pretty far into the future, this is supposed to be a writing of the 2011-12 season only. The Flyers also got winger Wayne Simmonds from the Kings in the Richards deal. Simmonds looks like he could be a hybrid-type of winger, but I’m not entirely sold on the scoring part of the deal. We do know what Simmonds goes full blast into the corners and plays a physical style that looks like it belonged in Philadelphia all along.
Defensively, it’s hard not to love the Flyers. The orange-and-black sported something of a “top five,” as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn all skated between 21:04 and 22:30 per game, in descending order. All five are back in the fold this season and make the Flyers one of the most formidable defensive teams on paper. The unit clearly missed Pronger during the latter parts of last season, but assuming he can stay healthy this year, nobody will be able to take a shift off against Philadelphia.
The biggest acquisition this offseason for the Flyers is the guy who will play behind those tremendous blue liners. Some of the purpose of dealing away Richards and Carter was to make cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, who comes over from Phoenix and gives the Flyers the big, athletically gifted goalie that the Flyers haven’t had since Ron Hextall. Bryzgalov is about as unproven in playoff hockey as a Cup winner can be, but he did get the Coyotes to a seventh game with Detroit in 2010, and also was 3-1 with the Ducks in 2007 while largely backing up J.S. Giguere en route to that Stanley Cup. I’m not sure that Bryzgalov will justify a nine-year contract that forced the moving of Richards and Carter, but the Flyers were desperately seeking the guy to fill their starting goalie hole, and we now get to see if Bryz is that guy.
The Flyers are not lacking big time physical players, but it’s two smaller guys who have come up huge offensively in recent seasons. Claude Giroux has emerged as a world-class playmaker, and Danny Briere has resurrected his once-drowning career by scoring timely goals and bringing it every shift. I believe that Briere and fellow forward James van Riemsdyk are the two swing players for the Flyers this year. If JVR is able to improve his game like a young player should, and Briere is able to maintain his high level of output, the Flyers can be the best team in the east. But if either JVR or Briere falters, the Flyers could finish third and barely get in the playoffs. I think they should be about even on points with the Rangers, but less than 50% of me likes the Flyers over the Rangers at this extremely premature point.
4th: New Jersey Devils 2010-11: 81 points, 4th in division
Everybody seems afraid to speak ill of the Devils as if they were the dons of hockey, but I can’t see where the return to a high level is going to come from for this team. Sure, they made a run of sorts last year, but they still finished 12 points out of the playoffs and don’t have any key additions save for probably Zach Parise’s return from injury.
New Jersey should be solid in net again with Martin Brodeur back in the fold. They don’t have a great backup, but Johan Hedberg did his job last season and certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s early season flub.
It’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk played a pretty great second half of last season, but he’s one man. Also, people seem to forget that New Jersey finished 4-5-1 in their last ten games last season, so it’s not really like they charged hard and just couldn’t dig out of their hole. Had they gone 10-0 they would have qualified for the playoffs with 92 points to NYR and Carolina’s 91 (assuming an April 9th win over NYR). I know that 10-0 shouldn’t be expected, but the narrative on New Jersey’s gladiator-like charge is kind of funny to me.
As far as Parise goes, I wrote earlier that endangering the ability to keep Parise by signing Kovalchuk to a ridiculous fifteen-year deal was about as smart as cheating on your Swedish model wife and mother of your children with waitresses and women who live in trailer parks. I’m looking at you, Eldrick Woods. The best American non-goalie is scheduled for arbitration on August 3, a week after his 27th birthday. I expect Parise to remain a Devil through that process, but it shouldn’t have come to this and if he is a UFA next summer I would liken that to Elin finding out about Woods’ indiscretions. If Parise has a reason and the ability to go, only dumb loyalty would keep him there.
To prove my point, let’s look at the rest of the Devils’ top six forwards and their salaries.
  • Patrik Elias $6 million — He’s a Devil through and through. I could nitpick the figure, but he belongs on this team the way Parise does.
  • Brian Rolston         $5.06 million — Are you serious?
  • Travis Zajac           $3.89 million — Yeah, I’ve watched him play. It’s not there, at least not for that money.
  • Dainus Zubrus       $3.4 million — This made me spit out my coffee. Then I remembered the ’97 Cup Finals and I smiled again. Oh, Dainus Zubrus, you’re all growns up now.
To add to the Devils’ lack of scoring at high prices, the back end didn’t play well last year either. Andy Greene was a solid -23, albeit mostly early in the season. And besides Greene and Henrik Tallinder, no defenseman played over 20 minutes a game consistently. Matt Taormina achieved just over 20:00 in ATOI, but that was in only 17 games played. Colin White was still Colin White. Anton Volchenkov appears to have done his best Greg Louganis impression with his career, although I like the big guy’s defensive game. What a relief that he signed that big six-year contract last summer!
All in all, people claim to like the Devils to have a bounce back year, but I think they’ll play to their ability in this division, which should leave them fourth again.
5th: New York Islanders 2010-11: 73 points, 5th in division
I hate to have to do this, but there’s no way I can pick a team owned by Chazz Wang to outplay any of the above four teams. The Islanders have a lot of really good young players, but I like to think that organizations need to be strong and efficient at the top in order to succeed. If my thesis is true, then NYI is due for an entertaining chase for fourth place that should ultimately come up short this season. I mean Chazz Wang was actually quoted as wondering aloud why 35 year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had spent a decade playing in important games, wouldn’t want to come play for the Isles. If Wang doesn’t know the answer to that question, then he’s as clueless as a sports owner can be.
On the positive side, the Islanders might get the most wins per dollar spent on salary this season, since they are currently $9 million under the cap floor with only three players left to sign. Blake Comeau has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4, and I’m actually not sure what the deal is with fellow forward Josh Bailey’s contract, but both players appear to be RFAs right now.
Aside from center John Tavares, who has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos since being drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Islanders’ most exciting question mark appears to be between the pipes. I’m about over Rick DiPietro, but some still think he has the stuff to justify his top overall draft pick from 2000. If Rick D falters or picks up yet another injury, the Islanders can feature a number of goalies with some upside. Al Montoya was really good at the end of last season, despite once letting a dump in bounce off the side boards and into his net against Bowling Green while a member of the University of Michigan (I was there, and the fact that Montoya was a “chosen one” only added to the hilarity of that moment). Montoya didn’t make it with the Rangers, who drafted him 6th overall in 2004, but he’s still only 26 years old and may have finally figured out the mental game of NHL goaltending.
Deeper on the depth chart sits Kevin Poulin, a 21 year-old Canadian who rocked a .924 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Islanders last season. Mikko Koskinen is a 6’6” former 31st overall pick of the Islanders in 2009 who is just 22 years old. Koskinen struggled last season in four games with NYI and throughout his season in the AHL with Bridgeport, but perhaps he can follow the Montoya timeline and figure it all out later. The Islanders drafted another big goalie in 2009 in the form of Anders Nilsson. He stands at 6’5” and has played 58 games over the last two seasons with Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League. All of these guys appear to be assets that the Islanders could hypothetically flip for established players, but who knows how these guys will turn out and whether Chazz Wang will put GM Garth Snow in a position to hunt for help before the trade deadline. Seeing as NYI flirts with the salary cap floor, I wouldn’t expect much.
I do like a lot of the Islanders’ young players, and I think it’s conceivable for them to finish fourth in the division, but when it’s all over I expect the team to bring it up the rear in the division, and the fans to take it there from old Chazz while he waits for the new arena that, to his credit, he has fought long and hard for.
I hope you enjoyed the Atlantic Division edition of Premature NHL Prognostication. Next up: the Northeast. Cheers.

By now you’ve probably heard, but the Phoenix Coyotes traded the negotiating rights for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia in exchange for a minor league winger and two future draft picks.

There are a lot of reasons this doesn’t make sense for the Flyers, and only one reason it does.  First, we’ll look at why it doesn’t.


Bryzgalov is an unrestricted free agent on July 1.  This means that if the Flyers do not sign the goalie to an extension before that date, then the trade brought them no value.  Sure, they could sign him on July 10, but they could have done that anyway, without dealing away anything at all.

So the Flyers must feel pretty confident that they can sign Bryz, or they wouldn’t have made the trade just for the right to negotiate terms with him.  This means they are confident that they will come to financial terms with a man who reportedly is asking for $7 – 8 million a year for eight to ten years.  You didn’t have to watch him quit in the playoffs against Detroit to know that these terms are ridiculous on their face.  And yet, Philly wanted to be able to negotiate with the guy.  Maybe Bryzgalov was setting outrageous prices just to get himself out of Phoenix, but that doesn’t really make sense, because he was free to leave on July 1 anyway.  All of this leads to the strong possibility that Bryzgalov actually believes he is worth being paid as one of the top players in the league.

One end-all reason that the Flyers should not have traded anything for the right to attempt to be rational with an irrational person is that in today’s world of a hard salary cap in the NHL, teams must always be looking for value.  How in the world is there any value at all in shelling out even $6 million a year to a goaltender who has never won anything?  Sure, he led two mediocre Phoenix teams to playoff appearances, but he went 3-7 in those games and twice was eliminated on home ice.  The much more valuable idea would be to find a cheaper goaltender that is worth more per dollar in terms of likelihood to bring a Stanley Cup.  Maybe someone like Semyon Varlamov, who despite being in the top five in the NHL in both GAA and Save %, earned less than a million dollars last year.  Varlamov is a restricted free agent on July 1, and it seems has run out of time in Washington.  I get the idea that if you add a very talented goaltender like Bryzgalov to a team that seems to have its only weakness between the pipes, the product could be a Stanley Cup championship.  But anything shy of the Cup would make any contract in the area code of what Bryzgalov is looking for a terrible one.

But that is, of course, the rub.  If the Flyers don’t figure out their goaltending situation, it’s nearly certain that they will not win a Stanley Cup with this excellent group of skaters that they have locked up through next year and beyond.  Therefore, a Cup championship to success-starved Philadelphia would almost justify any amount of money that would be paid to Bryzgalov, and the goalie and his agent know that.  They are undoubtedly using the fact that Bryzgalov fills a glaring need to their advantage at the bargaining table.  But if the Flyers cave and pay the man anything remotely close to what he’s asking for, everyone better understand that 2nd through 30th places are completely unacceptable.

Beyond the question of whether the Flyers want Bryzgalov at such a high price is the question of how they are going to manage to stay under the cap.  Per CapGeek.com, the Flyers have less than half a million dollars of cap space for next season, and this with only 18 players signed.  Eleven of those players are scheduled to make over $3 million in 2011-12, and not all of them are worth that.  It is without question that in order to sign Bryzgalov, or anyone else to fill out the roster, some of these big contracts are going to have to either be moved or bought out.  Jeff Carter, with his $5.27 million number, is the one that comes up in all the trade rumors, but I can’t understand why any other team would take the center on at anywhere near full price.  Believe it or not, Carter has eleven more years on his contract.  Again, the value just isn’t there.  Philly would have the same problem trying to move Daniel Briere and his $6.5 million deal, which has four more seasons left on it.  There are lesser players to move, like Kris Versteeg ($3 million) or Andrej Meszaros ($4 million), but in the end I’m not sure I see the salary dump happening — at least not enough of one to free up the amount Bryzgalov requires.

We’ll see what happens, but I wouldn’t blame the Flyers for letting Bryzgalov walk away from the table on July 1.  I’d only blame them for giving anything up to find out what everyone already knew.

Through three games of the 2011 NHL conference semifinals, the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings find themselves in exactly the same position against exactly the same opponents as 2010.  The only difference from last year is that tonight Philadelphia will be looking to start another 0-3 series comeback on the road.


Both the Flyers and Red Wings won their Game 4s last year to prolong their series, but it was the Flyers who cashed in on the opportunity and took the following three games to move on.  Detroit, on the other hand, dominated San Jose 6-1 in Game 4, before falling by one goal yet again in Game 5.  As far as coming back this year goes, I don’t think either team will pull it off, but there’s certainly no reason to think that either team with its backs against the wall can’t win tonight.

The two things to watch for tonight are, 1) Will the Flyers come together again, or was Game 3 an indication of their mental state, and 2) Are these the last 60 minutes to see Nicklas Lidstrom play at Joe Louis Arena?

I’ve liked the Flyers mental makeup for a few years now, but without Pronger they don’t seem to have the same belief in themselves that they played with last season.  Additionally, they’ve been blown off the ice in two of the three games, and that hasn’t left room for much optimism at this point.  But the puck will be dropped tonight, and as long as you’re playing hockey, you’ve got a chance to do something.  It would be nice for the Flyers if Jeff Carter and Mike Richards got involved early.  Too often lately the entire offense has been left for Claude Giroux to create, and Carter has been far less than good in these three games.  Boston will look to jump out early on Philadelphia’s shaky goaltending, and try to break the Flyers’ spirit early.  The Bruins know what can happen if they don’t go for Philly’s jugular.

As far as the Sharks / Red Wings game goes, I would tend to believe the Wings should win tonight for a couple of reasons.  First, San Jose has never swept anybody.  Ever.  Second, this almost certainly is the last game in Lidstrom’s NHL career if it’s a loss, and I think the team will rally around the first European captain to hoist the Stanley Cup.  Last year Detroit won this game 6-1, but I think what happened after that has somewhat dampened the hope this time around.  The Red Wings know that even if they kill San Jose tonight, they still went on to get eliminated on the road in the same situation last year, so there’s no groundwork that can be laid tonight.  But, there is a game that can be won, and while I’ve been writing that San Jose is a better team than Detroit, I don’t think they are four games to zero better.  And despite last year’s result curbing this year’s enthusiasm, it would be nice to see JLA rocking one more time, since after Lidstrom retires, there’s no guaranteeing that relevant games will be played there for some time.

One thing to watch for is whether coach Mike Babcock adheres to center Mike Modano’s wishes, and reinserts Modano into tonight’s lineup.  Modano has been less than amazing since returning from injury this spring, and has openly admitted that if he had it to do over again he would not have played hockey this season.  But Modano sounds genuinely concerned and exited to give it one more go, and his talent and savvy clearly make him a better option than some of the lower lined Red Wings for these games that matter.  In fact, playing Modano tonight would give the Red Wings the option of moving Valtteri Filppula down a line, which would certainly be a merit-based demotion.  Count me as one observer hoping that Modano gets the opportunity to write his own ending, and that it doesn’t come tonight at home.

*** UPDATE ***

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun is reporting that there are no lineup changes for Detroit in Game 4 tonight.  This means no Modano.  So much for that idea.

Games start tonight with Sharks @ Red Wings at 7 p.m., “simultaneously followed by” Flyers @ Bruins at 8 p.m.