Thursday, April 28, 2011

RTHF's 2010-11 Playoff Predictions, Round 2

Quarterfinal Round: 6/8.  I whiffed on Sabres/Flyers and my upset pick, Rangers over Caps.  OK, so maybe Washington has this playoff thing figured out after all.

Has there been a better first round in recent memory?  For my money, the answer is no.  Tons of storylines emerged from the quarterfinal round.  Rivalries were renewed, scores were settled, and in the case of the Vancouver Canucks, demons were exorcised.  Hockey fans in Nashville finally know what it's like to win a playoff series.  All but two series went at least six games, half of them went to seven... and half of the Game 7s went to overtime.  Great stuff.

The second round promises to be at least as intriguing. Two more rematches from last year await us in the second round: Bruins/Flyers and Sharks/Wings, along with a divisional matchup (Caps/Bolts) and a first-time playoff winner vs. Goliath.  Let's get to the predictions, shall we?

1) Washington Capitals vs. 5) Tampa Bay Lightning
There are so many similarities between these two teams that it's mind-boggling.  Offensive stars are plentiful on both sides, and newer defensive systems will be employed by both teams to shut those players down.  (I'm especially interested in how Tampa's 1-3-1 fares against Ovechkin, Semin and Co.)  Goaltending is a wash, statistically speaking - Washington's Michal Neuvirth (1.36 GAA, .946 SV%) and Tampa's Dwayne Roloson (1.77 GAA, .949 SV%) took the top two spots in both goals-against average and save percentage in the first round. Tampa's power play clicked at nearly 30% in Round 1 and could be a difference, but I think Washington will ride a wave of momentum from finally having won a playoff series in convincing fashion.  The Caps had little trouble with the Bolts during the regular season, going 4-1-1, and I believe that continues here. Caps in 6.

2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. 3) Boston Bruins
The Flyers' serious goaltending deficiency was comically exposed by the Sabres in Round 1, while the Bruins survived a serious scare from a Montreal team that knows how to win in the playoffs by boring the other team to death with a total team commitment to defense.  Philly has forward depth that is probably superior to anyone, but they better pray that Boucher is the answer in goal.  He won't be.  Boston will avenge their hilarious collapse from a year ago to this same Flyers team.  Bruins in 6.

1) Vancouver Canucks vs. 5) Nashville Predators
Congratulations to the Predators for finally making it to the second round.  Their reward?  A 117-point regular season juggernaut.  Good luck with that, fellas. Now that Roberto Luongo has finally evicted the specter of the Chicago Blackhawks from his brain, I doubt the Preds will be able to keep up their 3.67 goals per game pace - meaning that Pekka Rinne is going to need to be much better than the 3.29 GAA/.876 SV% he posted in the first round for the Preds to have any chance at all.  The clock is about to strike midnight for this year's Cinderella.  Canucks in 5.

2) San Jose Sharks vs. 3) Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings haven't played in about five weeks after dispatching the Coyotes with shocking ease.  Is that time off enough for injured stars Zetterberg and Franzen to heal?  The Wings better hope so, because the Sharks are a much tougher opponent. The Sharks seem to finally be evolving into a team that not only doesn't choke, but is in fact (gasp) clutch - at least that's the impression one gets when it's a team's big-name players (Pavelski and, yes, even Joe Thornton) that are scoring overtime game-winners. Antti Niemi needs to be better in net, but it's not like he's overmatched by Jimmy Howard at the other end of the rink.  I think the Sharks continue their roll, especially if Zetterberg and Franzen don't play.  Sharks in 6.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Odds and Ends, Playoff Edition: Night 1

(Ed. Note: I'm going to try to make this a regular thing throughout the playoffs.  At least for the first round. Oh, who am I kidding... I'll be lucky to make it through the week.)

Random thoughts from Night One of the 2011 NHL Playoffs:

- What a save Nashville's Pekka Rinne made on Teemu Selanne.  You may have heard of Selanne - he's scored over 600 career goals, so he's kind of good.  Selanne received a cross-crease pass that left Rinne badly out of position, forcing him to slide across the paint and throw his right pad out.  Unbelievable stuff.  I have watched this about 20 times and I still can't believe what I'm seeing.

- I said yesterday (or, at the very least, insinuated) that the Ducks' goaltending was the weakest of the playoff teams.  Anyone surprised, then, that Dan Ellis got the hook against Nashville?  Yeah, me either.  Anaheim needs better goaltending if Rinne continues to stifle the Ducks' high-powered offense.

- Couldn't help but get that "here we go again" feeling with the Caps last night when Matt Gilroy made it 1-0 Rangers early in the third period.  Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin don't want to hear that noise, though.  Give them credit for doing what they failed to do last year vs. Montreal - show up and score when it counts.

- Interesting piece by Steven Ovadia of Puck Update on John Tortorella's strategy last night, claiming in essence that Torts wanted to keep the game scoreless for as long as possible to lull the Caps to sleep.  I only got to see OT, so I have no idea if Ovadia is correct.  But if he is, kudos to Tortorella for what I think is a brilliant (if boring) bit of strategy.

- Marc-Andre Fleury is doing his best to prove me wrong when I say he's the most overrated goaltender in the NHL, but we'll see exactly how long he can shut down Tampa's stars.

- Noticed that Kyle Turris opened the scoring for Phoenix last night, which prompted me to remember when it was assumed either he or Patrick Kane would be drafted #1 overall in 2007.  Boy, the Blackhawks sure made the right call there, didn't they?  I was surprised to see that Turris even played with the Coyotes this year.  He spent all of last year in the minors and it seemed to me like the 'Yotes might have given up on him.  Good for him.

- I didn't stay up to watch the conclusions of Chicago/Vancouver and Nashville/Anaheim.  I'm really disappointed about that, but I've been so tired lately that staying awake late is a chore.  This better not be a trend because late-night hockey is one of my favorite things about the first round.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RTHF's Playoff Predictions, Round 1

I'm really excited for the playoffs this year, and not just because the Sabres battled through so much adversity to qualify for the postseason.  Just look at all those grudge matches!  Five first-round matchups are rematches of series that have happened since the lockout, two of which are repeats from last year (VAN/CHI and DET/PHX).  Boston/Montreal should be a mandatory component of any postseason tournament.  Meanwhile, the Sharks and Kings have never met in the playoffs, but these two teams hate each other (not on the level of Sharks/Ducks probably, but it's there).

So without further ado, here are RTHF's predictions and analysis of the 2011 NHL Quarterfinal Round:

Washington Capitals (1) vs. New York Rangers (8)
There's been lots of chatter about how Washington has changed its style. Gone is the freewheeling, score-at-all-costs attack; in its place is a more defensively sound system that's more suited for the playoffs.  The Caps gave up the second-fewest goals in the East despite not having goaltending that seems all that remarkable. (Yes, really. Yes, I did a double-take too when I looked at the stats). I just have one question about all this newfound defensive responsibility: have you tried it in the playoffs yet, Mr. Boudreau?  No?  OK then.  And did anyone alert the Caps yet that they're about to run into goaltending that's probably better than what bounced them out in the first round last year?  I realize that the Rangers are in dire straits without Ryan Callahan, but I'm sticking to my guns and assuming Washington will continue to be a fraud until proven otherwise.  I'll believe the Caps are built for the playoffs when I see it. The Rangers were up on the Caps 3-1 two years ago and couldn't close the deal, but they will this time. Rangers in 7.

Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo Sabres (7)
Yeah, as if I'm going to pick against my team.  As you all know, the Sabres are the hottest team in the East since the calendar flipped over to 2011.  The Flyers, meanwhile, have only won 7 of their past 21 games.  You know, because it's not the playoffs yet.  Or something.  The Flyers seem to think they can flip a switch and turn on playoff mode whenever they feel like, and they'd better be able to or else they're in real trouble against a team that's been in playoff mode since January.  The Flyers have the edge at forward and defense but not in net, and the Sabres have a history of making rookie goalies look bad in the playoffs.  Ray Emery, anyone?   Sabres in 6.

Boston Bruins (3) vs. Montreal Canadiens (6) Boston gave up the fewest goals in the East and features a goaltender who led the league in GAA and save percentage.  Meanwhile, Montreal couldn't score down the stretch and at one point was shut out in three straight games for the first time in 60 years.  Yep, no reason for concern there, just like there was no reason to be concerned about the 7-0 shellacking the Bruins handed the Habs in the game after the Chara-Pacioretty incident - a game they should have been more than motivated for.  Unless Carey Price plays out of his mind and the Habs get extremely lucky, there will be no overturned burning cars in Montreal this spring.  Even if this series isn't very competitive (and I doubt it will be), how can you not love the potential for hatred and violence that a Boston-Montreal series promises to offer?   Bruins in 4.

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
Tampa's goaltending has been stabilized by Dwayne Roloson, and having three top-notch scorers (Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis) will be enough to overtake a Pittsburgh team that has been held together with Band-Aids and Scotch tape for months.  Dan Bylsma definitely deserves the Jack Adams for keeping the Penguins afloat, and he'll continue to do just that for a while in this series, but this is Tampa's time.  Lightning in 7.

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)
The first of two highly anticipated rematches from last year. I'm not convinced the Canucks are as unbeatable as everyone thinks.  Sure, they were first overall in the NHL in both goals scored and goals allowed, and that's pretty impressive. But they get to play 24 games against the most terrible division in hockey - the Canucks piled up a 18-4-2 against Northwest Division "foes" (read: "teams that would be facing relegation if the NHL worked like European soccer leagues").  I'm not saying the Canucks are a fraud - I'm just saying their record is a wee bit padded, and I don't like their chances to go all the way.  Still, they're clearly one of the best teams in hockey, and they're clearly better than the Blackhawks, who lost eleventy billion players in free agency last year and then spent the last 82 games shoehorning other players into those vacated roles.  Did I mention the Hawks are on their third goalie (and second rookie goalie) in the last three years as well?  Some point to Vancouver's exits vs. Chicago in each of the last two years and say the Hawks are in the Canucks' head; I maintain that Dustin Byfuglien's butt in Luongo's face was the real issue, and he's in a place where they don't play hockey in April now.  Canucks in 6.

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (7)
The Kings somehow finished 6-4 over their last ten games despite losing Kopitar and Justin Williams, also known as "the vast majority of LA's scoring attack".  The adjustment to a more defensive style in compensation for those injuries will catch up to them in the playoffs vs. the Sharks, who finally shed their reputation as perennial playoff chokers last year (and by the way, now have a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender as well).  Jonathan Quick has had a great season in net for the Kings, and he's going to need to be even better if LA wants to be competitive.  Should be a fun series, as there's no question these teams hate each other. Sharks in 5.

Detroit Red Wings (3) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (6)
This series is the other return engagement from a season ago, a series that may have surprisingly been the best of the first round.  I had the hardest time coming up with an opinion on this series than any other, for some reason. The Wings are in trouble without Zetterberg, and Jimmy Howard's 2.79 GAA is by far the worst of any presumptive playoff starter (assuming it's Emery and not Ellis starting for the Ducks, that is).  But to what degree do those two factors hinder Detroit's chances?  That's what I'm struggling with.  I think Detroit's depth and experience (the advantage they've had over everyone else for the last two decades, seemingly) will give them the edge, but if Zetterberg doesn't play and if Howard doesn't improve, it'll be a dogfight, especially with an opponent as well-coached as the 'Yotes.  Wings in 7.

Anaheim Ducks (4) vs. Nashville Predators (5)
I don't know how Nashville does it.  They seem to make the playoffs every year featuring a roster of who-dat players and riding a balanced scoring attack.  This year is no different; 12 different skaters recorded at least 20 points, with the leading scorers (Kostitsyn and Erat) recording just 50 points each.  Nashville's strength is in its goaltending and team defense; Pekka Rinne has a 2.12 GAA and .930 save percentage, and only Vancouver gave up fewer goals in the West.  Meanwhile, Anaheim has a fearsome scoring attack with four 70-point scorers, a 50-goal scorer, and possibly the best line in hockey in Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan, but not much depth or goaltending to speak of (especially without Jonas Hiller in net).  I like the Preds to finally get over the hump and win a playoff series, but honestly, the middle of the pack in the West is so tight that I have no idea what's going to happen.  Predators in 7.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sabres vs. Flyers 4/8/11 - Playoff-Bound Edition

I haven't done a game recap in quite some time, but I would be remiss for not talking about the most important game of the year.

Important because a team that struggled all night defensively found a way to hold on and get the single point that it needed.  Important because Thomas Vanek put an exclamation point on a festive night with an overtime goal that just may have sent a message to a potential first-round opponent. Above all, important because Nathan Gerbe ensured a playoff spot for the Sabres with an absurdly clutch spinorama goal in the third period to tie the game.

But for me, this game was also important because of a different little guy.  This one.


Meet my son, Tyler, who is six months old today.  Happy half-birthday, Tyler!

You can call him "Tyler Three" if you like; his name was at least partially inspired by Tylers One and Two (my wife's idea, not mine, believe it or not).  Last night was his first Sabres game.  We hadn't really planned on taking him to any games this year, but found ourselves lacking babysitting at the last minute. I was alternately excited and terrified about taking my son to his first game - I'm always a bit worried about people getting judgmental with us for bringing such a little baby - but we started bringing his big sister Sarah to Bandits games at an even younger age, so I was sure everything would be fine. I'm proud to say he was a good boy and handled himself well, and we got lots of "awwww"s and positive comments from people sitting nearby.  (And yes, we did bring earplugs.  Both kids certainly needed them - HSBC was rockin' last night.)

As for the game itself - how freakin' clutch is little Nathan Gerbe?  He has responded to being completely left for dead by the media and the fanbase by scoring 15 goals since January 1st, usually in the most timely of fashions - last night's third-period spinorama backhand being the latest, and possibly the best, example.  I've always admired his grit and his heart - he threw a hit on Chara in the playoffs last year, for crying out loud - and it's awesome to see him starting to become the clutch performer he was in the 2008 Frozen Four.  Paul Hamilton nailed it on WGR last night - Cody McCormick may have been voted the Unsung Hero by his teammates (well-deserved, I might add), but Nathan Gerbe couldn't have been far behind in the voting.

While I'm at it, I want to touch on Enroth being pulled for Miller to start the third period.  There's been a lot of consternation about this, but I was fine with it. I felt a bit bad for Enroth - if not for his outstanding goaltending in pressure situations over the last two weeks the team wouldn't be in a playoff position right now, and although I didn't like the second and third goals he gave up last night, I didn't think he was terrible.  But I didn't view it as a lack of confidence in Enroth; rather, I viewed it as Lindy telling his team "These are the most crucial two points of the season, and we need our best players in there. Now go get it."  It was a bold decision that could have backfired - but as happens with Ruff so many times, it was the right decision.

The Sabres are now undefeated with Tyler Three in attendance.  Thought that was worth pointing out.

Bring on the playoffs. I don't care who we face, they won't know what hit 'em.  Let's go Buffalo!
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