While the masses will tell you that the NCAA Sweet Sixteen begins Thursday, those of us in the know understand that the real 16-team tournament begins on Friday. The get-in-get-out format of college hockey’s national tournament makes it difficult to latch onto any previously unknown teams or story lines, save those who actually qualify for the Frozen Four. As my college hockey tracking has declined since my graduation from America’s system of higher learning, I’m not going to try to pretend to be an expert on NCAA hockey anymore. But I do follow the CCHA pretty well, and here’s a few things to look for and/or consider as we head into the first and penultimate weekend of the big ice dance.
Boston College is awesome. They’re ranked number one for a reason… right? (Ode to Chase Daniel, member of the all-insecure team). But seriously, though, they are ranked number one for a reason. As much as I hate to admit it as a CCHA fan, if there’s only one team you watch in this tournament it has to be the BC Eagles. Their skill level is very high, they play tough in all three zones, and they’re led by a head coach in Jerry York who has won four national championships — the first of which of course being in 1984 whilst heading former CCHA power Bowling Green — and three in the last eleven years with BC.

The Eagles’ road to the Frozen Four is arguably the easiest of any of the sixteen clubs, and not solely because they are the best team. They lead off with the lowest ranked team to qualify in Air Force. I’m not certain that the “other” Falcons are actually the 16th-best team involved, but they come from the conference that will always send only the tournament champion, and for that they are stuck as a bottom seed no matter what they do. Assuming BC gets by the AFA, they will get the winner of defending champion Minnesota-Duluth and Maine. Both teams are top-10 contenders, but BC just handled Maine in the Hockey East tournament finals rather easily. And alas, this regional is played in… Worcester, Mass.
Before Boston College gets started on Saturday, however, half the field will have already started. Friday’s play includes two of the four regions, and might as well be called the CCHA play-in round. Of the five CCHA teams that qualified for the tournament and the eight teams in total that play on Friday, four CCHA teams play on the first day.
The default pick for best CCHA contender is always Michigan, and despite not winning the league or postseason tournament, the deference to Red Berenson and a high total of NHL draft picks reigns again. The Midwest Region’s top seed will lead off with a Cornell squad that finished just 2 points behind national #3 Union for the ECAC title. Cornell was brutally beaten in the league semis by Harvard before recovering to trounce Colgate in the third-place game. So this one’s a matchup of two teams that won neither their leagues nor tournaments.
The other game in Green Bay will be CCHA champion Ferris State against perennial powerhouse Denver University, who finished third in the WCHA before falling 4-0 to North Dakota in the league title game. This game is intriguing thanks to that age old comedic tactic — the reversal. On the one hand, there’s Denver, a seven-time national champion that won back-to-back titles as recently as 2004 & ’05 with two different goaltenders. On the other hand, there’s the squad that’s ranked and seeded higher while also being able to boast actual hardware this season by winning the nation’s toughest conference over the league’s 28-game schedule. By contrast, Denver couldn’t even win the Denver Cup this Thanksgiving (because they lost at home to the CCHA’s fourth-place team).
Granted, the tendency is to go with Denver solely because of experience and tournament pedigree, but as a school, the last time Ferris State won the CCHA (2003 — check out Chris Kunitz’ stats from that year) they got shipped out west and beat a traditional WCHA power in the first round (5-2 win over North Dakota). All of this should make for an interesting region. It isn’t all that unlikely that the Midwest regional final is the CCHA’s 1 vs. 2 matchup that never happened in the conference tourney. And considering that Western and State may be in for first-round exits, this one would be for a “state title” as well. Not that the Frozen Four doesn’t trump the hell out of that.
The other half-CCHA region that kicks off Friday is that of the East, which will be played in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Second-seeded and zero-time national champion Miami (what up, 2009?) will face Mass.-Lowell in a game that I don’t have much insight into. I watched Miami play two games last weekend in Detroit, and they looked alright in half of them. I understand that the size and talent is there, but they took approximately one thousand penalties in getting whacked by Western Michigan in the league semis. Then they beat up a depleted Bowling Green team that was just playing out the string.
Bridgeport also plays host to the most ludicrous at-large bid in a while, when fourth-seeded Michigan State will take on ECAC champion Union College. It’s not so much the fact that MSU got in that bothers me, but rather the idea that the fifth-place team from its conference can get humbly crushed in its playoff series by a combined score of 10-1 and be a lock for NCAA qualification while the team that finished tied for second in that same league was a win-it-or-miss-out team. Western Michigan did in fact win automatic entry into the dance by beating Miami and Michigan in Detroit last weekend, but the idea that the Broncos were lower on the NCAA pecking order than the Spartans based on this season is absurd. There’s nothing that can justify this — not the pairwise rankings, not the polls, not the record against fellow teams under consideration, not the league finish, not the tournament finish. It is true that MSU went 2-0 against WMU this year, but it was early in the year, and those kinds of things are only supposed to ever be used as a tiebreaker. This comparison was nothing near a tie.
None of this is to say that Michigan State cannot upset Union, but odds are that the top seed will advance. 
The fifth CCHA team in the mix is of course the auto-bid Broncos of Western Michigan. They are the fourth seed in the West Region, which kicks off Saturday in St. Paul, Minnesota. While the Broncos are on a roll (who wouldn’t be after replacing Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning, eh?), they get a dreadful matchup here with top-seed and in my opinion #2 nationally North Dakota. Expect Western to fight the good fight but probably lose by one or two.
From a neutral point of view, the West has to be the most interesting region. Not only do we have conference tournament champions playing in the 1-4 matchup, but we have recent national champions squaring off in the 2-3 game. The champs from 2009 (second dig at Miami!), Boston University, have the tough and borderline unfair task of going into the Twin Cities and knocking off the University of Minnesota. I’ve never been a big fan of non-one seeds getting to play entire regionals at home, but the sites are predetermined and really there was no way the Golden Gophers were going anywhere but St. Paul anyway.
Minnesota won back-to-back national titles in 2002 & ’03, the latter of which largely behind freshman phenom Thomas Vanek. For all of the Gophers’ moxie and tradition, the main school in the “State of Hockey” has been pretty dire since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2005. In the last seven years, Minnesota is 1-3 in NCAA tournament play, and failed to qualify in each of the three seasons prior to this one. I know they’re at home and all of these teams are capable, but I get the feeling Minnesota is the third-best team in this region, and as such I doubt even the location will overcome what is likely a BU-UND gauntlet on back-to-back days.
If it’s prediction time, which I guess at some point it has to be, put me down for the following regional final results:
East: #1 Union d. #2 Miami
Midwest: #2 Ferris State d. #1 Michigan
Northeast: #1 Boston College d. #2 Minnesota-Duluth
West: #1 North Dakota d. #3 Boston University
After I go 1-for-4 we’ll pick the Frozen Four games and act like nothing happened. As for my BGSU Falcons, does anyone know the time and place of our NIT game?

Debating which NHL team should be the next to relocate has become one of the cool things to do in hockey, and the Thrashers / Jets move from Atlanta to Winnipeg over the summer has only served to ramp up the debate about which franchise will be setting up shop in Quebec City in the near future.
The two teams that are almost exclusively offered as the prime candidates to wear a hockey playing igloo on their chests soon are the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers. While I think that it is likely that one of them ends up in Eric Lindros’ favorite province soon, I would rather talk about the fact that Phoenix and Florida are sitting in 7th and 11th overall in points percentage, or points gathered per contest.
The reason I want to cite this stat is that it’s impossible to talk about the standings in just a total points construction because there will never be a point in the season in which every team has played the same amount of games. So to be fair to every team, we’ll use points percentage.
I thought about why Phoenix and Florida are so high in the league’s overall standings, and on the same line of thinking, why seemingly none of us saw any success coming for these two. It’s not like everyone was saying that each team should be contending for the eighth playoff spot in its respective conference. Rather, the general idea was that both teams would contend for a top-five overall draft pick.

We could cite the individual players, but that would be missing the point. Sure, Phoenix is led by Shane Doan, a man that has earned the nickname “Captain Canada,” but we already knew that coming in. So why the widespread prediction that a team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons would go into the tank? Some of the disfavor was surely linked with the departure of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia over the summer, but I don’t think that explains all of it.
And for Florida, we all knew of and followed the early-July spending spree that they went on just to try to reach the salary cap floor, but the prevailing comment on the situation was that the Panthers overpaid for players that nobody else would have offered anywhere near that much money to. In other words, they got a lot of players, but they didn’t get much value. And when you have a squad near the bottom in player payroll, and everyone thinks those players have essentially no trade value, then it stands to reason that things should go negatively for that franchise. Maybe we all overlooked how good Brian Campbell really is (and I think we largely have), but again, he’s one player. Stephen Weiss makes two. We all saw the rosters coming in, so why are the Panthers outdoing expectations by so much?
I came up with three reasons that despite very low expectations, the Coyotes and Panthers are sitting pretty through 13% of the season.
1. Predictions are based too much on last season
Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner recently hosted an episode of the podcast of the same name entitled “The Folly of Prediction.” In one of the interviews, he talks to researcher Hayes Davenport, who has looked at NFL predictions made by “experts.” Davenport cites the fact that any untrained animal could look at any of the NFL’s four-team divisions, throw out the worst team, and predict the division champs at a 33% success rate. He then reveals that the league’s pundits have been predicting NFL division winners at just a 36% success rate.
One main reason that he offers for the 64% failure rate is, “They tend to rely much too heavily on the previous year’s standings in making their picks for the following year. They play it very conservatively, but there’s a very high level of parity in the NFL right now, so that’s not exactly how it works.”
I would suggest that today’s NHL sees more parity than at any time in the league’s past. This is probably largely due to the existence of a salary cap (and salary floor), which mandates that all teams spend within $16 million of each other on yearly player salaries.
If we look at most hockey predictions, we see very little in the way of sweeping changes in the makeup of either conference. This is probably because when we go to make predictions, one of the tabs that we have open in our web browser is last year’s standings. I know it played a role in my projecting the Panthers for last in the east. Now, part of it was also the departure of Tomas Vokoun coupled with my expectation that Jacob Markstrom, an undoubted future all-star goaltender, would not be given the chance to play early and often for the big club this year. But, a lot of it also had to do with last year’s standings. And I know I’m not the only one guilty of that blunder.
2. Hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet
It’s easy to see how relying too much on last year’s standings could have led a person to shortchange the Panthers, but what about the Coyotes? They’ve been a playoff team the past two seasons, and play a rough and tough style that would be coveted by any northeastern city. So, the “last year made me do it” excuse couldn’t possibly explain the en masse assumption that Phoenix would suck this year.
Instead, I think many of us have read way too much into the Coyotes’ off-ice financial issues. It was widely assumed that they would be the team to move to Winnipeg (or in the Coyotes’ case, move back to Winnipeg). But, another $25 million set aside by the city of Glendale kept the team in Phoenix for another season, while Winnipeg’s thirst has been quenched.
As the business of sports has become much more covered in all facets of the media, fans have become de facto GMs. Or, at least they think they have. I mean, exists almost solely so that people like me can get on the internet and critique a player’s “value” based on his salary cap hit to his team. It’s fun and intelligent, and I’m not going to stop, but sometimes I think we all overrate how the financial struggles of a franchise’s ownership group will affect the team’s actual on-ice play.
Jokes about the L.A. Dodgers paying their players in ramen noodles have been rampant in the past year, but hockey doesn’t get that kind of coverage on ESPN. If it did, how could everyone not be making fun of the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes have been owned and operated by the NHL for a few years now, and operating at reportedly huge losses?
Well, hockey people are aware of it, and hockey people make predictions. I think there is a huge tendency to assume that bankruptcies and rumors over relocation or contraction will cast a cloud over the franchise, and that the players won’t be able to shine through the fog. But let’s get real: these guys are getting paid a lot of money to play the game they love. They’re going to play it hard and to the best of their abilities. Why would all of this balance sheet stuff enter their minds before laying down to block a shot or going hard into the corner to dig out a puck late in the second period of a game in November? It wouldn’t, and I think that for the most part it doesn’t.
3. It’s still very early
Pointing out the early successes of two franchises that everyone verbally craps on is nice, but it would be ill-advised not to point out that those successes are still just that — early.
We are 11 games into the season, and a lot can still go wrong over the next 71 for either team. The positives are that their styles of play and cohesion seem to be working. Each has a pair of goaltenders that can be relied on to be solid at times, although I’m not sure anyone would vouch for the absolute impossibility that Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera, Jose Theodore or Jacob Markstrom go sideways at some point this year.
Also, are these teams deep enough if and when the injury bug comes around? Surely the Panthers cannot afford a long-term injury to Campbell or Weiss, but what about the third through seventh-best players? Can Phoenix play the style it wants effectively if Martin Hanzal or Captain Canada go down? Will they create enough goal scoring chances in the absence of Keith Yandle? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no,” and so we must remember that these two teams are only 13% complete in their seasons. Surely their goals should be to make the playoffs and cram all of our predictions down our throats, and they’ve each got 71 more games to try to make that happen.

The general consensus following last night’s 1-0 victory by the Vancouver Canucks in the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals is that the underdog Boston Bruins missed their one great chance at stealing a game on the road, and now the Canucks will bring their A-games and roll the Bruins right out of this series in a hurry.  While I understand the immense respect being paid to the talent and record of the Canucks this season, somebody needs to review what we actually saw last night.

We saw a sloppy game for the first forty minutes.  Each team tallied 14 penalty minutes in the first two periods, and neither total was boosted by a major or misconduct.  Sure, one pair was offsetting and twice the Canucks were assessed double minors, but in the end the power play opportunities were the same.  In actuality, Boston’s power play was more effective than Vancouver’s.  The following table illustrates why I say this:

Time On PP
PP Shots on Goal
Shots per Minute on PP
0 of 6
0 of 6

So we saw a Vancouver power play that was unable to get going despite its 28% clip this postseason.  Surely there is one side of the coin that says the Canucks’ power play probably won’t be held down twice in a row at home, but there’s another side that says Boston didn’t allow anything to Vancouver’s special teams in Game 1, so why is it impossible for this to continue?

Going down the same route, Boston outshot Vancouver 36-34 in the game, including a 26-20 advantage through the first two periods.  Again, the people who want to call this series over, or one Canucks win away from being over, are going to say that this was a fluke and won’t happen again, or that Boston generated poor shots, or that Vancouver has made out just fine in playoff games in which they have been outshot.  It is true that with last night’s win, Vancouver ran its 2011 playoff record to 6-1 in games when the shots against total is higher than the shots for stat.  But most of the argument for Vancouver wiping the rink with Boston lies in the idea that the Canucks are so talented in every zone that they will dominate possession, and therefore dominate shots on goal.  This still might end up happening, but it did not happen in Game 1, and all I’m saying is, let’s wait and see.

What I did notice was two goaltenders playing like veterans who wanted to start cementing some legacies in their first cracks at hockey’s final series.  Both Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas were nothing short of spectacular, although history is already beginning to paint a picture of Thomas rolling into town as the lone gunslinger who just didn’t have anyone in his posse that could keep a steady hand, and Luongo as the cushy benefactor who stepped up big when he had to, but don’t ever forget, he almost never has to.

I find this dichotomy to be a little bit played, because while Thomas was great last night and will win his second career Vezina Trophy later this month, Luongo did nothing less than Thomas did.  But when Thomas gives up a big rebound, we say that his unorthodox, aggressive style leads to some amazing saves, but also some extra chances that might otherwise have been swallowed up by a safer goaltender.  When Luongo gives up a rebound, we say that he is an unsteady, flappable mental midget who was lucky to survive yet another self-inflicted scare.  Look, the narrative is there.  Luongo has had some poor playoff showings in past seasons, and was dreadful in Games 4 and 5 against Chicago this year, but it might be time to lay off the guy and acknowledge that he has dealt with every situation this spring as well as he could have.  I will be the first to admit that I never really liked Luongo’s seemingly moody demeanor or that he was named team captain for two seasons.  But the way we all refer to him as some sort of cancer that the Canucks must constantly win in spite of in no way reflects reality.  At least not present day reality.

But, back to why the Bruins are still in this thing.  Boston played a pretty good game, but was beaten in the end by another tremendous individual effort by Ryan Kesler, which was followed by an on-the-money pass from Jannik Hansen to the lone goal scorer, Raffi Torres, who lit the lamp with under 19 seconds to play in regulation.  In the wise words of Sam Elliott, “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar… well, it eats you.”  The Bruins were eaten in Game 1, but it’s just one game, and a road game at that.  There’s an old saying that I hate that goes, “A series hasn’t started until a road team wins.”  That’s not true, since the series starts when the puck is dropped in Game 1.  Additionally, many series, including the 2003 Stanley Cup final, would never have even started if we follow this logic.  But the point is, people use the saying when they like the road seed, but discard it when they think the home seed is a juggernaut.  Today, I’m not seeing many pundits trying to argue why this is actually a series, and so I’m just trying to offer my observations as to why we might be in for a better season finale than we think.

I’m obviously sticking to my “Canucks in 6” prediction.  Hope you enjoyed the opening game; Game 2 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. eastern time, and is again on NBC in the U.S.
The second round concluded today at the French Open, but not without one great big surprise.

After winning the previous two grand slam events, #2 Kim Clijsters was beaten by world number 114 Arantxa Rus, who represents the city of Monster, South Holland.  But the name of Rus’ place of residence isn’t the only intriguing thing about her.  The 20 year-old left-hander hovers around six feet tall and has the body structure of an attractive Peter Crouch.  Or Shawn Bradley, for any NBA fans out there.  And with a win over a player like Clijsters, the Dutchwoman may be on track for an ascension in the WTA rankings, and perhaps eventually a place in the conversation for the Hottie Belt.

Rus faced two match points in the second set, but Clijsters failed to take advantage and made a surprising early exit that only serves to to inflate the dreams of the other contenders, who already did not have to deal with either Williams sister in this year’s tourney.

There was almost another huge upset right afterward, as world number 188 Caroline Garcia of France took a 6-3, 4-1 lead on #7 Maria Sharapova, and had the serve to go up 5-1.  But the 17 year-old Garcia was unable to win another game, as 24 year-old Maria decided to rattle off eleven games in a row against an opponent that had to remind her of herself more than a little.  Garcia’s game was aggressive, and for a while it was working.  That style of play worked for Sharapova when she was 17 years old and won Wimbledon.  Many people are talking about the young Garcia as the next big thing in women’s tennis, as Andy Murray acted like he had never seen a Sharapova match before, and tweeted during the second set that Garcia would become a world number one someday.  That still may be true, but saying something like that usually implies that you believe that person will prevail on that day, and Garcia did not prevail.  Impressively, tennis legend Martina Navratilova said that she liked Sharapova’s chances when the score was about to become 3-6, 2-4 against Maria.  Nice call Martina.

There wasn’t a whole lot of intrigue on the men’s side, but it is worth noting that Croatian qualifier Antonio Veic won a fifth set against #28 Nikolay Davydenko.  I’m not surprised that Davydenko was bounced, because he often is.  But it is always a nice story when a qualifier reaches the third round of a grand slam.  Veic’s next opponent is Rafael Nadal.

In other news, #8 Jurgen Melzer was ousted in five sets by Lukas Rosol, a native of the Czech Republic.  Nothing to really talk about there, as nobody thought Melzer was a serious threat to win the tournament anyway.  Also, one of my favorite unknown players, Alejandro Falla, was victorious in four sets over #20 Florian Mayer, and has as wide open a path to the quarterfinals as he could ever have, where he would theoretically run into Andy Murray.

Friday’s men’s schedule is highlighted by the following matches:

#2 Novak Djokovic v. #25 Juan Martin del Potro; this match is only highly anticipated because of Delpo’s name and pedigree.  It won’t be close.

#3 Roger Federer v. #29 Janko Tipsarevic; Tipsy has given Federer runs for his money before, and that’s when Rog was Rog.  Still though, Federer in four.

#7 David Ferrer v. #31 Sergiy Stakhovsky; this is probably going to be the best match to watch, as both players play excellent defense and have a creative arsenal of shots.  I’ll take Ferrer in five.

#14 Stan Wawrinka v. #17 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France; I love watching the Frenchmen play at home because the crowd actually gets into it and gives a damn.  Also, these are two very good players who are both probably sitting at the B table of men’s tennis.  Tsonga figures it out and wins in five.

The women’s schedule isn’t too intriguing yet, except for the fact that every player can lose… Tomorrow is led by the following, I suppose:

#1 Caroline Wozniacki v. #28 Daniela Hantuchova, only because it involes Woz.  Though it’s always risky, I like Caroline in two sets.  I’ve never liked Hantuchova’s ability to finish.

#11 Marion Bartoli of France v. #17 Julia Goerges, who has been on fire in the clay season.  This one kind of screams “Roller Coaster Theory,” as Goerges has been among the talk of the tour lately, and has been pegged as the best bet to win the tournament amongst all “dark horses.”  Since Bartoli’s at home and has been here before, I’ll take her to win in three.

#10 Jelena Jankovic v. Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the USA; the clamor for Jankovic to win a grand slam has gone silent, and been transferred to new #1 Wozniacki, but that might be the perfect time for Jankovic to break through.  Jankovic was formerly #1 for a few minutes in 2008, and has made the semifinals of the French Open in three of the previous four years.  I like Jankovic in three sets, because it’s never a good idea to pick her in two.

Today is Monday, and there are no games on the NHL schedule, the IIHF World Championships are over, and there’s not even an expletive NBA game on tonight.  Seems like the perfect time to try to make sense of these conference finals matchups.

I touched on the first game of the Bruins / Lightning series the other day, but as far as projecting forward, this is as good a time as any.  My general feeling is that people shouldn’t overreact to the first game of a seven game series.  With this said, I already liked Boston coming into the playoffs to reach this round — the same cannot be said for Tampa Bay.  Like everyone else, I liked Boston’s punishing defenders, who can also get involved offensively.  I also thought the Bruins possessed a lot of different types of scoring options, from shooters like Recchi, Krejci, and Horton to the power forwards like Milan Lucic.  And of course, everyone loves Tim Thomas.

What I didn’t seem to quite understand until right around Game 2 of the second round was both how physical this Tampa Bay team can be, and how unhindered they are on the blue line.  The Lightning’s trade deadline acquisition of defensive defenseman (I hate that this phrase has to be stated, but it does nowadays) Eric Brewer from St. Louis.  The last time a team captain got traded in midseason, Joe Thornton collected the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophies as league leading scorer and MVP.  Brewer certainly isn’t up for MVP in June, but his arrival has shifted the way Tampa Bay has seen its own strengths and weaknesses.  When added to the early season trade for goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Brewer deal solidified the Lightning as a team that not only could light the lamp in the regular season, but could play the defense necessary to win playoff hockey games.  Kudos to Steve Yzerman for getting these deals done in his first season as general manager in Tampa.  Tuesday, the Lightning have a golden opportunity to knock Boston to the mat for an eight-count before boarding the plane to Tampa for Games 3 and 4.  I do not think the Bruins will go into Tampa and win both games, as they did in Montreal in round one, and therefore I think it is imperative that Boston finds a way to out muscle Tampa Bay and play the responsible hockey needed to keep the Lightning off the scoresheet as much as possible.

As far as the Canucks / Sharks opener goes, I hear a lot of talk about the Sharks choking and the Canucks using last night’s third period as a stepping stone to more victories in the series.  I have to say, a loss in Game 1 would have been far more costly to Vancouver than it is to San Jose.  First, and obviously, Vancouver was at home, and therefore “needed” to defend home ice.  But second, I sort of get the feeling that San Jose really likes this matchup with the Canucks.  It is true that Vancouver took 7 points from San Jose this year, compared to the Sharks’ 3, but anybody who has watched the NHL this year has to think that San Jose was just the slightest of underdogs coming in.  San Jose’s perfect 5-0 overtime record is still intact in these playoffs, while the Canucks have gone just 2-2 in the extra frame.  And San Jose isn’t really giving anything up to Vancouver line for line except for probably defensemen three through six.  That does matter, but not to the extent that San Jose “had to” win Game 1.  It was a solid game played by both teams, but Vancouver played better and deserved to win probably by one goal, which they did.  The Canucks did that in the last series against Nashville as well, only to have the Predators fire back with a vengeance in a Game 2 road victory that saw them outshoot the Canucks 46-33.  It will be funny to see how many flip-floppers there will be regarding this series if San Jose is able to do something similar in Vancouver for Game 2, which is Wednesday night.

And a final note:  it is being widely speculated that Winnipeg will indeed get a team next year, but that it will be the Atlanta Thrashers, and not the previously suspected Phoenix Coyotes.  I don’t care to discuss such things until announcements are made, but the talk is that it is almost a certainty.  What’s more interesting is that the Winnipeg franchise would be playing eastern conference hockey next year in a division with Washington, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida, because the NHL Board of Governors does not have enough time to get together and vote on this small matter of realignment in time for it to go into effect for the fall of 2011.  After next season, Winnipeg would then move to the west, and make way for a western team to head over to the east.  It has been speculated that the team would be Nashville, as it would make geographic sense to put them in the southeast division with the above-mentioned four teams.  Like I said, until announcements are made, I’ll save my time and yours.

Thanks for reading, cheers.

*** And a congratulations to Finland for winning the 2011 IIHF World Championship with a five-goal third period in the gold medal game over Sweden, to win the game 6-1. ***

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It seems that all anybody in the hockey world wants to talk about is how superior and crazy the NHL’s western conference is, even with only three games to go for most teams.  But not many writers have broken down what to expect come a week from now, when each conference will start its playoff with four matchups.  Instead of hailing the western conference race, or trying to predict a winner of a playoff that will take almost two months to decide, I’d like to give my take on what to expect and what’s important over the next 6 days and into the first round of the western playoffs.

Let’s acknowledge a few things.  First, the Vancouver Canucks are good.  Very good.  They have a complete team that largely has been playing together for some time.  They are creative and gritty offensively, but also have many two-way forwards to take the burden off of their impressive but now thin stable of defensemen.  They even have a seemingly capable backup goaltender, just in case the contractually-anointed King Luongo is less than stable in net.  But with faceoff and defensive specialist Manny Malhotra out and the aforementioned thinning blueliners, along with their lack of pedigree, it would be ignorant to consider Vancouver anything more than a slight favorite in the west.  Besides their two conference championships in 1981 and 1994 that were followed with Stanley Cup Finals losses to the Islanders and Rangers, the Vancouver Canucks have surprisingly never even made the conference finals.  That may not be as shocking to you as it was to me when I really looked at it, because it seems like Vancouver has been relevant in an on-and-off fashion since the Pavel Bure era.  But alas, for all of its talent and passion on the ice, the Canucks have not progressed to the conference finals since that magical spring of 1994.

With the top seed having no playoff mental edge yet, the door would have to be considered open for the next two teams, San Jose and Detroit.  It remains to be seen which team will grab the 2 seed this week, and it may come down to the weekend.  San Jose plays a home-and-home with Phoenix, while the Wings do the same with Chicago.  But regardless of who grabs the 2 seed (and I would lean toward San Jose doing so), the bottom line is each of the top 3 seeds in the west look very good at this point.  Detroit did well to win two games over the weekend to hopefully banish thoughts of the 10-3 beating suffered at the hands of the St. Louis Blues last week.  With Vancouver, San Jose, and Detroit grabbing their respective divisions, it means they will face the 6 through 8 seeds in the first round.  Are they all going to get through easily?  Probably not, but from the perspective of everyone who could finish 6th through 8th, you would rather let somebody else try to do the dirty work.

So what does this mean for all of the other western teams from fourth to eighth?  It means you really, really want that fourth spot.  And if you can’t get fourth, by all means, get fifth.  The only team that I think can make the playoffs but not get fourth or fifth is Dallas, who can win out to sit at 97 points.  Fourth and fifth right now are Phoenix and LA at 96 points.  With the advent of the three point game, I would say it’s impossible that Dallas gets as high as fifth.  But the team right ahead of Dallas is Chicago, who sits only four points behind Phoenix and LA with a game in hand.  This effectively puts them one win back.  While I don’t think that Chicago will get the 4 or 5 because I don’t think they’ll sweep Detroit, I do think it is possible for them or any team ahead of them to avoid playing one of the big three in the opening round.

When looking at the potential first round matchups, I think there are always a few things to look at.  First, how are the teams’ road records?  The reason I prefer road record to home record is because unless you have home ice and win all your home games, you are going to have to win a road game or two at some point.  That means winning with less than optimal matchups, as the home side gets to put their line on the ice last prior to faceoffs.  It means being on the road and having to deal with all of the effects of that from a human standpoint.  It means having to be able to overcome the eardrum rattling cheers of your opponent scoring on you.  While it is always cited that regular season hockey is nothing like playoff hockey, I can’t think of many better indicators of playoff road success than the very same stat over the prior six months.

Here are some things that stick out to me regarding road teams.  Phoenix and Chicago have good road records.  Nashville, Anaheim and Dallas are average, and LA is somewhere in between.  Not coincidentally, I think those are the two teams with the best chance of upsetting either of the top three teams in the west in a seven game series.  Most people tend to write Phoenix off because they have never won a playoff series and the future of the team is very much in question.  But on the ice this is a very physical team with rock solid goaltending and some sneaky fast forwards (if they ever get healthy).  Shane Doan is a coach in a captain’s sweater, and Ilya Bryzgalov has been a part of some playoff wins in the past with Anaheim.  Just last year the Coyotes went into Joe Louis Arena and beat Detroit by three goals in both Game 3 and Game 6, the latter of which to stay alive in the series.  Chicago, on the other hand, won the Stanley Cup last year.  Nothing more really needs to be said.  Over the last two seasons the Blackhawks have won big playoff road games against everyone they’ve played save Detroit.  They won the Stanley Cup in overtime on Patrick Kane’s sneaker in the Flyers’ building.  The other teams in the west’s middle of the pack have not proven much on the road either this year or in playoffs past, so it would be hard not to classify Phoenix and Chicago at least as 4 and 5 when trying to put the west into some sort of order.

Another item that is hard to quantify is the old playoff hockey legend of the “hot goaltender.”  We’ve seen it time and time again, where a supposedly high powered offense gets stymied over a series by a then-lesser-known goaltender, who is dubbed the sole reason the lower seeded team prevailed.  I think these situations are a lot more fluid than most people would have us believe, but I also think that some of these “out-of-nowhere hot goalie” upsets can be foreseen in some instances.  Or at least we can try.

Of the teams from 4th to 9th, I think the most obvious candidate for the next playoff “hot goalie” would probably be Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne of Nashville.  But I don’t think I’m predicting Rinne as the next hot goalie because I think he’s a cut above guys like Bryzgalov, Jonathan Quick or even Chicago’s rookie Corey Crawford, but instead because his team’s lack of an offense will force him to be the “hot goalie” if Nashville is to extend any series to a sixth game.  Also, Rinne has as good of a top line of defensemen in front of him as there is in the NHL.  Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have no discernible defensive weaknesses, which along with defensive forwards like Mike Fisher and the wingers that play under Barry Trotz’s system, give Rinne the needed support to post a 2.13 GAA this season.  In fact, Nashville has allowed fewer goals than any team in the western conference except Vancouver.  As long as Nashville doesn’t go against LA in the 4-5 matchup, there will at least be an intriguing clash of styles in both series involving those teams.  Let’s not forget that last year Nashville was poised to bring a 3-2 series lead home against Chicago before Kane tied it late and the Hawks stole Game 5.  So Nashville has worked its way into position to be able to pull one of these upsets, they just have not actually seen it through yet.

Another defensive team is the Los Angeles Kings.  I don’t know if it’s because they play in the Staples Center or because Anze Kopitar has provided some flashy moments, but it has seemed to me up until recently that people considered LA an offensive juggernaut.  The numbers simply weren’t there, but that’s a good thing defensively.  LA’s goals allowed total is only 3 more than Nashville, good for third in the west.  Their goal total of 214 is only five higher than Nashville though, as both teams bring it up the rear as far as western playoff teams go.  And now Kopitar has an injury that will keep him out at least another four or five weeks, which rules him out for the first round of the playoffs.  With this in mind, LA is still a good defensive team and has good blueliners in Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Jack Johnson and the rest.  They have one of the best tandem of goaltenders in the Jonathans, Quick and Bernier.  But without Kopitar and winger Justin Williams, I don’t see this team being able to score the necessary goals and keep from wearing down due to the grinding style it will have to play to be able to win four of seven games against any of the top three teams.  Frankly, the Kings must grab the 4 or 5 seed to have any real chance of a series victory.  And even if they do avoid the dreaded 6 through 8 spots, I wouldn’t peg them as favorites against any of the other teams that they could play.

The last team that I haven’t really talked about at any point on this blog is Anaheim.  I am a huge fan of Ray Emery dating back to his Senator days, but more so after reading his story last fall.  I was very glad to see a team sign him recently, and it has come as no surprise to me that Razor Ray has backstopped the Ducks into seventh place from what was in my opinion a certain ninth or lower finish.  When I watch the Ducks play, they seem to me like a very dangerous team.  They have two lines of premier NHL scoring, with the likes of American scorer Bobby Ryan, the center that does everything Ryan Getzlaf, league top goal scorer and MVP candidate Corey Perry, the Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne, who sits ninth in NHL point scoring, and former Montreal captain Saku Koivu, who still possesses the passing ability that can unlock a defense in a millisecond.  Visnovsky and Lydman offer support from the blue line, and with Emery now the Ducks look like a team to be reckoned with.  But the only team in the top three that would really be anywhere near a favorable matchup for the Ducks would be Detroit, because the Wings are the team up top that allows the most goals.  Any type of lockdown defense would be a bad matchup for Anaheim, because they don’t seem capable of playing lock down D themselves.  This isn’t really an indictment on the Ducks defensemen, it’s just that they are young and thin at the position.  I think rookies Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa have real promise, but I wouldn’t expect them to tip the scales of the 2011 playoffs in Anaheim’s favor.  Perhaps the Ducks could create some problems for San Jose on a historical basis alone, as no matter the seedings, Anaheim always seems to get the better of San Jose.  But to me, the matchup just isn’t there.  And with the Sharks having a goalie that doesn’t look like a playoff stinker for once, I would expect the Sharks to get that monkey off their backs if the Ducks come calling in round one.

As for predictions, I would say at this point it would be wise to take the top three seeds to move on, but I will update this after the matchups are determined on Sunday.  As far as the fourth team that will move into the second round, I think the preferred choice would be Chicago.  The problem with this, however, is that Chicago will probably end up playing one of the top three, and therefore someone else would be the pick.  With that in mind, I’m taking the Phoenix Coyotes as the team that I expect to join the top three seeds in the western semifinals, regardless of whether the Coyotes grab the 4 seed or have to open on the road.

It should be a great final week, with six of the eight teams playing home and homes with each other to close out the season.  San Jose – Phoenix, Detroit – Chicago, and Los Angeles – Anaheim.  This is where the seedings will truly be determined, so stay tuned.