The NHL returns to action tonight after being off since February 9 for the Olympics in Sochi. The regular season runs to April 13 and TheSportsNotebook has been preparing for the stretch run with a series of articles over the past week that have focused in specifically on the top contenders, along with checking on several of the longshots that always have a chance in this sport.
I’ve posted links to all the articles that were part of TheSportsNotebook’s NHL Olympic Break Extravaganza—or mini-extravaganza anyway. The Cliff’s Notes version of them all is the following…
*Four teams are congregated near the top of the betting lines as quad-favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Chicago and Pittsburgh have been there all year, and St. Louis and Anaheim have each played their way to that status.
*Boston and San Jose are the live challengers coming out of each conference.
*When you look at the playoff bubble and the teams with longer championship odds, the Los Angeles Kings clearly stand out. Though they sit #7 in the West today, this is a team only two years removed from the 2012 Stanley Cup and with an elite goaltender in Jonathan Quick who demonstrated last year that he could flip the switch after a mediocre regular season and get it going in the playoffs.
*Seven teams are in the status of true longshots and we have to be surprisingly generous to even put the Detroit Red Wings on that list.
*The notable injury developments right now are Detroit’s loss of Henrik Zetterberg for the year. On the flip side, Tampa Bay is set to get Steven Stamkos back in the early part of March.
*The injury to New York Islanders center John Tavares got attention during the Olympics because of the ruckus raised by Islanders ownership, but while Tavares is very good, the bigger ruckus should be about how badly the Islanders have underachieved—they weren’t going to make the playoffs with Tavares.
*The MVP race is going to be close. Sidney Crosby for Pittsburgh and Ryan Getzlaff for Anaheim lead in points, but neither are scorers. Alex Ovechkin is running away with another scoring title and Phil Kessel is carrying Toronto into the playoffs. If you like goalies as much as I do, don’t overlook Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who has kept the Lightning in strong contention even with Stamkos out most of the year.
Below are the links to the nine articles ran over the past week…
The NHL Central Division is home to the 2013 Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The champs of last spring are looking every bit the part of a team ready to make another run at glory. With 60 points in the bank, Chicago again has the best record in hockey and has a firm, though not infallible, grip on its division.
St. Louis has endured playoff frustration in recent years, but the Blues remain a well-coached team that’s fundamentally sound and that’s being demonstrated by their second-place showing. The third spot—a crucial benchmark since it’s the last guaranteed playoff berth under the new alignment—belongs to the improved Colorado Avalanche.
The Central Division is the weaker of the two in the West and if the regular season ended today, Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado would be the only three teams in the playoffs. The two floating wild-card spots would go to the Pacific Division. The current benchmark for the final postseason spot is 46 points.
Minnesota is in fourth in the Central and only one point off the playoff pace, while Dallas is also in hot pursuit with 44 points. Winnipeg and Nashville have more work to do, at 39 and 36 points respectively, but neither is hopelessly out of the picture.
The Predators are dealing with an injury to goaltender Pekka Rinne though. Rinne has been out since the first week of November with a bacterial infection and perhaps his anticipated return shortly after the New Year will give Nashville a lift.
Ultimately this division is about Chicago and the weakness of the competition make it likely the Blackhawks will at least maintain their first-place standing and probably hold off all comers out of the Pacific for the #1 seed at playoff time. The fact Chicago has played this well without goaltender Cory Crawford, who has been out since December 10, speaks volumes. Crawford will be back soon. And there’s no question the Blackhawks are back for more.
The NHL Metropolitan Division has thus far been defined by dominance from the favorite and injuries holding back other potential contenders. The Pittsburgh Penguins are off and running to another big year, and have a 12-point lead in this division. But in the rest of the Metropolitan leaves this division confined to only the minimum three teams in the playoffs.
With the new NHL alignment having just two divisions per conference, the top three are guaranteed postseason spots, but the final two berths in the East can go either way. As of today, the NHL Atlantic Divisionwould get five teams in. Here’s how the rest of the Metropolitan is shaking out…
*The Washington Capitals are a solid second with 41 points, although that’s only two points better than the fifth-place team in the Atlantic, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
*Philadelphia would be in the playoffs as the third-place team with 36 points, but the Flyers have both the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils just one point back, the New York Rangerstwo back and the Columbus Blue Jackets are at 32.
*The big disappointment is the New York Islanders, a playoff team a year ago, who only have 27 points and a long row to hoe to get back in sniffing distance of the 8-seed in the East.
Injuries are a big factor. Columbus has been without forward Nathan Horton all year, and Marian Gaboriki has also been banged up. Horton and Gaborik were supposed to provide scoring punch to a defense-oriented team, although with Horton’s injury history I’m not sure what else the Blue Jackets were expecting.
The Rangers are missing Ryan Callahan with a knee injury and that won’t change until next month at the earliest. Philly lost defenseman Chris Pronger at the start of the year, and even Pittsburgh hasn’t been immune. The Pens are missing Kris Letang, one of the league’s best passing defenseman.
The NHL Atlantic Division is out to a strong start as the best division in the Eastern Conference. This is the year of realignment in the NHL, with two divisions per conference, rather than three, and the new playoff format makes division strength a significant issue.
Each division is guaranteed its top three teams in the postseason, with only the final two berths able to float. As it stands today, the Atlantic Division would get the maximum of five teams in the playoffs–Boston, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto would all qualify.
To further underscore the point of division strength, sixth-place Ottawa would be in fourth in the Metropolitan Division, and only three points out of the playoffs.
The Boston Bruins are setting the pace in the Atlantic with 46 points, and their archrival Montreal is right behind at 43. Montreal was a surprise division winner of Boston in last season’s alignment, and the Canadiens early success suggests they’re back to stay as a contender.
Tampa Bay is sitting on third, but with Steven Stamkos out indefinitely with a serious leg injury, you have to wonder how long that will last. Stamkos is more than just the best player for the Lightning, he’s one of the most electric scorers in the league, rivaled perhaps only by Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the San Jose Sharks—which is saying something, because the compressed schedule wouldn’t seem to lend itself to a lot of ups and downs. But with the season entering its final two weeks, the Sharks’ roller-coaster is at the top. They’re in fifth in the Western Conference, with a comfortable seven-point margin between them and the playoff borderline. For today’s NHL analysis, we’ll examine their strengths and weaknesses and see if this the San Jose team that can finally reach the Finals.
San Jose’s strength is in its defense, where they’re seventh-best in the NHL at goal prevention, but that’s really a roundabout way of saying that goalie Antti Niemi has been carrying them for a good chunk of the season. The ability to prevent shots has been lacking, and the defense team led by Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart has been subpar at limiting Niemi’s exposure. Fortunately for the Sharks, Niemi has bailed them out.
Offensively, the team is similarly one-dimensional, although in this case it’s much tougher for one player to save you. San Jose has good scorers in Patrick Marleu and Logan Couture, and another decent one in Joe Pavelski. But other than veteran center Joe Thornton, they do not a good job moving the puck. Indeed, Thornton is the only player on the team who ranks in the top 90 in the NHL for assists. That’s tough to fathom when you have players that can finish. Consequently, San Jose is better than only four other teams in hockey at lighting the lamp.
The offensive problems are further accentuated by the fact Pavelski, Couture and Thornton all play center and consequently are not on the ice at the same time. A forward besides Marleu has to step up. Maybe Raffi Torres can show a little something. Otherwise, the Sharks are left hoping for a few random players just doing what people like Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner did for the Los Angeles Kings a year ago, and that’s suddenly and without warning, morph into offensive juggernauts in the playoffs. Stranger things happen every year in the NHL postseason, but that doesn’t mean you want to count on it.
San Jose burst out of the gate this season at 7-0-1, but then had a very tough February, losing 10 of 12 games. March wasn’t a lot better, with a 2-7 stretch that bottomed out on March 20 with a shutout loss at Minnesota. Since then, the Sharks have gotten it back in gear. They’ve won eight of ten games, and one of the losses was in a shootout, enabling the team to still pick up a point in the standings. And this strong play isn’t because of a break in the schedule—San Jose has beaten Anaheim twice, Detroit twice, plus Vancouver and Minnesota, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Sharks have been a consistently good franchise, having made the postseason 13 of the last 14 years. And they’ve done reasonably well in the playoffs, winning 11 series and making the conference finals three times. Most of those advances have taken place in recent years, with the team having won at least one round in six of the last eight years. The people of northern California have gotten used to extended runs of playoff hockey, just not championships.
But it’s championships—or close to it—that NoCal has gotten accustomed to in other sports—a World Series title, a trip to the Super Bowl and a Rose Bowl win. The nearby Golden State Warriors are going to the NBA playoffs. San Jose is looking to make sure hockey is a part of the equation. They have the goalie to do it and in the NHL that means you have to be taken seriously. But if the Sharks want to go beyond getting respect and into playing for the Cup, some offensive help has to step up, particularly when it comes to feeding the scorers.
Hockey in the New York Tri-State area has no shortage of excitement going right now, with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils are battling around the borderline of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s possible all three could make it, and it’s possible all three could miss. Although neither extreme is likely, it adds to the drama these final seventeen days of the regular season. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will compare all three teams in each phase of the game.
OFFENSE: The Islanders have been one of the league’s surprise teams, as they fight for relevance for the first time since their dynasty of the early 1980s. They’ve done with an offense that’s one of the NHL’s ten most prolific, and the best of the group is center John Tavarez. He’s an elite scorer and a very good passer. Tavarez gets support from forward Matt Moulson, with some complementary help coming from Brad Boyes passing the puck and Michael Grabner lighting the lamp. This team does a good job both generating shots and finishing.
It’s the Rangers who’ve had a lot of problems scoring goals, but the big caveat we have to note is that there is a significant discrepancy between the number of shots they get (6th in the NHL) and the number of goals they score (23rd). Remember, if this were a normal season, we’d only be at about the halfway point, and likely to dismiss this as a statistical fluke that would work itself out, and likely in favor of more goals being scored. That’s got to give Eastern Conference powers pause if they contemplate the Rangers as a first-round opponent.
It’s also an offense that’s undergone some changes. The team acquired Rick Nash from Columbus during the offseason and he’s a solid scorer. Then at last week’s trade deadline they shipped out last year’s main scorer, Marian Gaborik, also to Columbus, completing what amounted to a de facto trade. Derek Stepan and Brad Richards are good passers at the center spot, and Stepan can also score. Ryan Callahan has been an adequate scorer at forward, but is a prime example of a player who can significantly lift his game before this is over.
New Jersey lost Zach Parise in the offseason to Minnesota, and Ilya Kovalchuk has been down with a shoulder injury. Those were the two best offensive players on the team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last year, and their absence/injuries really shows. The Devils are below average at getting shots and even worse at converting. There’s nothing positive to speak of at center, where action has to flow from on most good offenses, and while Patrik Elias is a nice player, he’s better served in the complementary role he had last year. Kovalchuk’s expected back in a few days, but with the Devils already being in 10th in the East, that could be a few days too late.
DEFENSE: This segment starts with the Rangers, who are the one team in the Tri-City Trio that really excels at shutting down opponents. Due primarily to Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers are a top five team in goal prevention. Lundqvist has taken some heat for playoff losses, but don’t overlook the fact that if this year’s team gets in, it will be heavily on his shoulders, because the defense in front of him is mediocre. Some of it is due to injuries at the defenseman spot, but whatever the reason, the Rangers are below average at stopping shots, while being elite in stopping goals. That tells you something pretty good about the goalie.
New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur is a legend in the sport, with three championships to his name, plus a couple more trips to the Finals, including last year. I hold him in high regard, but that can’t stop us from pointing out the obvious—he’s just that not good anymore. His 90.8% save rate might sound good to basketball fans who correlate it to free-throw shooting, but in reality that ranks him at the bottom of regular NHL goalies. The defense is doing a great job limiting his exposure, and in any one-game shot I’d never bet against a proud veteran with Hall of Fame credentials—ask the Florida Panthers about last year’s Game 7 in the first round—but over the long haul, there’s no denying Brodeur’s significant decline.
If the Islanders don’t make the playoffs it will be because of their goaltending, and whenever they lose it will be because of it. Evgeni Nabokov’s save percentage is down there with Brodeur’s, and in this case, there’s no reason to think the Islander netminder could gut it up for one big game when it really mattered. The defense in front is decent, but not dominant enough to bail out a bad goalie.
5-ON-5/POWER PLAY: The Rangers and Islanders are the study in contrasts here. The Rangers have the most success in regular 5-on-5 play, while being subpar in both converting their own power plays and killing the oppositions. The Islanders aren’t very good in standard play and are mediocre killing penalties, but have excelled when they enjoy a man advantage. New Jersey just hasn’t played very well in any situation, which explains why at this writing, they are the one team of this group that would miss the playoffs.
I prefer the Rangers’ numbers when it comes to projecting long-term success, with the precondition that the team must improve its ability to kill penalties. But when your offensive is reliant on the power play to score, that places you at the mercy of how a game is officiated, and as the playoffs progress, it’s less likely that a good team will give you a lot of chances.
CONCLUSION: If you had never followed hockey before and looked at these teams’ basic statistical profiles, I’d suggest that you would say the Rangers have the best long-term potential, with the Islanders close behind and the Devils a very distant third.
If you do follow hockey and have some context, I’d say the Rangers’ edge becomes even wider—we can reasonably assume their offense will get better and there’s at least a decent chance the penalty kill will improve. And with that same context, I’m hesitant to dismiss the Devils, especially with Kovalchuk’s return imminent. But if anyone in the Tri-State area makes noise this spring, it’s going to be the Rangers. Now, it’s just a question of whether they earn the chance over these next 2 ½ weeks.
The Minnesota Wild have had a less than stellar history since their founding prior to the 2001 season. The franchise has only made the playoffs three times, the last of which was five years ago. But the strike-shortened year of 2013 has been good to the Wild, and they’re tied for first in the Northwest Division—with powerhouse Vancouver no less—and in third in the Western Conference overall. Today’s NHL analysis will look at whether or not the Wild is the real deal, after an offseason where they splurged on free agents.
Minnesota went into the market last summer aggressively and signed defenseman Ryan Suter away from Nashville and forward Zach Parise from New Jersey. Suter was important to a team that rode its way into the top four of the West on the strength of defense, and Parise was one of the key players on a team that came two wins away from taking the Stanley Cup. Parise has scored 15 goals, putting him in the top 30 overall in the NHL and Suter’s 25 assists give him a similar status in that category. It looks like money well spent.
What the Wild don’t have is great depth of talent—make no mistake, center Mikko Koivu is a points-producer, thanks to his exceptional passing skill. Matt Cullen is a good passer at the forward spot, and both Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley can contribute when it comes to scoring. But for the most part, when you look at the numbers on the second, third, and fourth lines, you see a big drop off.
To that end, it’s easy to understand why Minnesota just traded a couple draft picks to Buffalo to get forward Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. Pominville is a decent scorer and can also move the puck well. On balance, I don’t find this an overwhelmingly talented offense. But it’s fair to say that it’s at least as good—if not better—than we would have perceived the Los Angeles Kings’ lineup at this point in the season last year before they suddenly came together in the postseason. And Minnesota has players with postseason experience.
A bigger concern is the goaltending question, and that’s where the comparison to last year’s Kings starts to diverge. Niklas Backstrom’s save percentage is 91.3%, but this isn’t free throw shooting—that’s not a very good percentage, ranking just 22nd in the NHL. We’re now entering the point of the season where dominance at this position is vital to success and Minnesota not only doesn’t have dominance, they’re dealing with subpar performance. The defense overall is above average, ranking 12th in the league at limiting shots, but Backstrom has to do a much better job stopping what’s thrown at him.
Ultimately, this just looks like a team that needs to come together. The individual talent may lack depth, but it does exist. Overall though, the Wild have no teamwide stats that really jump out at you. They’re roughly in the middle of the league in most everything—scoring, defense, shots taken, shots allowed, penalty killing and 5-on-5 play. The only standout is a negative and it’s a 21st ranking when they’re on the power play.
It’s tough to see Minnesota as being better than Vancouver and the Wild’s contention for the division title is likely a product of a shortened season. Minnesota is a legitimate playoff-caliber team though. The need for the individual pieces to mesh better will take care of itself with time and this team will be better next year than it is this year. Ultimately they need better goaltending if this is going to be more than just a playoff team. Although given the franchise’s record “just a playoff team” is likely more than enough for the good people of the Twin Cities this time around.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago continues to be atop the conference, but Anaheim is only two points back, with both teams having separated themselves from the pack. Then you have the Minnesota/Vancouver joust for the 3-seed, and the runner-up is battling with San Jose and Los Angeles for the 4-spot and home ice advantage in the first round. Although given the history of the NHL playoffs, home ice probably means more in terms of revenue for the host team than it does for fans just interested in who’s going to advance.
Detroit is in seventh and is the most notable of several playoff teams from last year that are in trouble. At least the Red Wings are in the field of eight if the season ended today. The same can’t be said for St. Louis, Nashville and Phoenix—not only did all three make the playoffs last year, but they all won first-round series. The fall of last year’s leaders has opened the door, not just for Minnesota, but for surprising Edmonton, who’s holding a narrow edge for the final playoff berth. Maybe this year’s Oiler team can recapture some of the magic of 2006.
The Chicago Blackhawks are all the rage in the NHL in this shortened season. Don’t look now tough, but the Anaheim Mighty Ducks are lurking in second place in the Western Conference. Anaheim’s only four points behind Chicago and has played one fewer game. Are the Ducks the real deal, or are they a pretender in the West? That’s the question TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will try and answer today.
In Anaheim’s favor is a stellar showing in 5-on-5 play (when there’s no power play in effect either way). They are the second-best in the NHL when the teams are at full strength. And when they get the man advantage no one has been better at cashing it in. The Ducks are balanced offensively and defensively, ranking in the top five for both goals scored and goals against. Viktor Fasth is giving them stellar play in goal, with his 92.9 save percentage ranking him fourth in the league.
Furthermore, Anaheim has quality talent in its regular five. It starts with Corey Perry, who won the MVP in 2011. Perry is on a brief suspension right now, but he’s having a good year with nine goals and fifteen assists. Even better, Perry’s track record suggests he can give much more. Both of those stats put him in the top 60 of NHL players, making him, on average, the second-best player on a team if talent were equally distributed. But Perry is more than capable of elevating to the top 15.
Thus we have a team that does almost everything well, and has a star player not quite playing at peak levels. All of these argue for Anaheim’s staying power.
Before you get set for a Ducks-Blackhawks conference final though, there are some negatives. It starts with shots. Put simply, Anaheim allows a lot of shots and doesn’t get very many of its own. They rank just below the league average at shot prevention. Fasth has bailed them out, but the team defense simply has to pick up. And on the offensive side, Anaheim is 26th at pressuring the opposing goaltender. Is it really realistic to produce a top five offense over the long haul while ranking in the bottom five in shots? Or does the statistical disparity suggest some luck as it work here?
We can also pick nits with Anaheim’s penalty kill team, one of the five worst in the NHL, but that’s almost inconsequential when measured against the question of shots. The issue would be whether Anaheim has the kind of team that can produce goals at a significantly higher rate than the shots they take and do it as a matter of course, rather than coincidence.
There are some positives here. The teams whose goals outpace their shots usually have a signature offensive player, one whom tends to cash in his own shots and create better opportunities for his teammates. Perry certainly qualifies. Center Ryan Getzlaff is having a top 30 offensive year, scoring 10 goals and dishing 21 assists, a total that ties him for fifth in the NHL. Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne are nice offensive options on the wing.
But the negatives outweigh the positives. If the statistical disparity were relatively small—let’s say Anaheim ranked 10th in shots while being 3rd in goals, you could say that the quality of a player like Perry makes that sustainable. A gap between 26th and 3rd is positively monstrous and unless Corey Perry is ready to make Wayne Gretzky look like a bumbling stiff, there’s no way Anaheim can sustain this.
Therefore you have to put me the category of skeptic when it comes to Anaheim. They are a good team, genuinely playoff-caliber, and they have an offensive talent that can potentially transform a game. But the fact they’re running this close to Chicago is more a fluke than anything else. The guess here is by season’s end, Anaheim will be on the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff standings and open the postseason on the road.
The Chicago Blackhawks will put an undefeated record on the line when they take the ice against Columbus shortly after this post goes online. The Blackhawks are rolling at 14-0-3 and pulling away with the top spot in the Western Conference standings. Our question for the day is whether Chicago is winning in the kind of way that can signal a playoff run, or whether this team will just be a regular season wonder.
I’ll admit to being a skeptic about the Blackhawks, at least when it comes to playoff hockey. They have tremendous offensive talent, but some bad goaltending last year made them a postseason disappointment waiting to happen. Sure enough, they played Phoenix in the first round and were eliminated by a team that had only a shadow of the talent, but did have a top-caliber goaltender in Mike Smith. Teams that win by offense alone are made for the regular season, regardless of the sport.
The statistical data inside Chicago’s 17-game run of getting at least one point indicates something different this time. While the team is obviously doing everything well, it’s actually defense that’s slightly more responsible than offense for the success. Chicago ranks second in the NHL in goals allowed, with goalies Ray Emery and Corey Crawford splitting time and each playing at a high level. The defense in front of them has been above average, doing a good job at limiting exposure to high shot volumes.
Even more encouraging for Chicago fans is the improved power play. Last year’s special teams were terrible on both sides. This year the Blackhawks are in the top half of the league with the man advantage and they’ve been positively outstanding when it comes to killing opposing power plays. The combination of good defense, excellent goaltending and solid special teams work is enough to grind out wins even when the offense doesn’t run smoothly.
Now, about that offense. Chicago is very deep in skilled offensive skaters. It starts with center Jonathan Toews, who both scores and rings up assists. And this team goes to its right side so frequently that one might think they’re running in a Republican primary. The top three players on the right wing are all outstanding scorers. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa could all be the main offensive weapon on a lot of teams. There’s depth underneath all of this, with the second, third and fourth-line centers all chipping in points, along with Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg on the left side. The defensemen are good passers, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
The offensive success is nothing new, as Chicago has been in the top six of the NHL in goals scored each of the last four years. The defensive play is at its highest level since 2010—not coincidentally a year the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup. Furthermore, in addition to the solid power play work this season, Chicago is also posting its best results in 5-on-5 play in this four-year period, including the ’10 championship team.
What it adds up to is that I’m a little less skeptical of Chicago than when the season began. When you show the ability to kill power plays, limit shots and generate your own offense without reliance on the man advantage, you’ve got the formula for sustained success. I do wonder if the two-goalie system will work in the playoffs—doesn’t it always seem that postseason series are won by a single hot goalie that catches fire? But right now everything’s looking bright in the Windy City. And while it would be unreasonable to expect this scorching success to continue, or even to make winning the Cup as the barometer of success, this does look like a team built for its first extended run since winning it all in 2010.
We’re almost one-third of the way through the lockout-shortened NHL season and the Washington Capitals have to feel a sense of urgency. The Caps are only four points behind in the race for the last playoff spot, and as this article goes online, they play head-to-head with the New York Rangers, currently the team holding the cutoff spot at #8. But Washington also opened Sunday in 15th place among 15 Eastern Conference teams, meaning it will take some sustained winning to leapfrog everyone else. Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the Caps this year and how it compares to the last two years.
The problem isn’t on the offensive end. While Alex Ovechkin hasn’t really cut loose yet, with five goals and five assists, he’s at least productive. And the rest of the Washington front line is very balanced and deep when it comes to scoring threats. Joel Ward has five goals on the opposite wing of Ovechkin, as does Troy Bouwer. The passing is excellent, with centers Mike Riberior and Nicklas Backstrom, along with forward Jason Chimera, doing a good job getting the puck to the scorers. Washington can attack from any point on the ice and do it two lines deep.
Washington is 10th in the league at lighting the lamp, so clearly it’s not goal-scoring that’s the problem. That only leaves one other possibility and the defensive end has been a disaster in the early part of the season. The Caps are 29th in a 30-team league at stopping goals. Most of the blame for this falls, as you might expect, on the goaltenders. Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have split time and been equally ineffective.
Furthermore, the defense in front of the goalies has not exactly been stellar. While the Caps aren’t rock-bottom awful at preventing shots, they’re still in the lower half of the league. Thus, you have a team that leaves it goalies exposed, and those goalies aren’t any good. Yes, that would qualify as a problem.
If we flip back to the offensive side, you might say things are actually going to get worse, because Washington’s scoring ranks significantly above its ability to generate shots on goal, normally two stats that merge together. However, I’d go to bat for the Caps on this one—the same phenomena existed last season, and it’s not unusual for teams with a signature offensive star (in this case Ovechkin) to be able to convert goals at a rate higher than their total shots would suggest. And in fact, Washington is doing a better job getting shots this year than was the case a year ago.
What’s most alarming about this franchise though, is the way the defensive play has fallen off steadily for two consecutive season. The 2011 Caps were a vintage team that got the #1 seed in the East before losing in the second of the playoffs. Last year’s team got some respect for winning a playoff round over Boston as an underdog, but it was still a second-round exit and the team was obviously worse throughout the regular season, coming in as the #7 seed. Now the Caps are sitting on #15. Their ranking in goals allowed has gone from 4th to 21st to 29th over this timeframe, with the ability to prevent shots going from 9th to 16th to 19th.
Thus, while the loss of goalie Semyon Varlamov after 2011 obviously hurt, and seeing last year’s main goalie Thomas Vokoun performing at least respectably in Pittsburgh, the Caps can’t ignore that the defensive play has been a team-wide problem. Maybe the 22-year-old Holtby is just going through some growing pains and can find the insanely hot mojo he had in the Boston playoff series a year ago. Because that’s what it’s going to take. Fixing a team-wide defensive epidemic takes time, and time is not something that’s on Washington’s side in a season where there’s no time to dig out of a hole.
Twice in their history the Vancouver Canucks have come within one game of winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup and come up short. The most painful was last season, when they had the best record in hockey, had the Boston Bruins down 2-0 and 3-2 in games in last year’s Finals, before finally being hammered in Games 6 & 7 to end the dream. The Canucks are riding high this year too, leading the Western Conference on the strength of a seven-game win streak and tied with the New York Rangers for the most points overall. Ironically the Rangers are the other team to beat Vancouver in Game 7 of the Finals, that being back in 1994. Can the 2012 Vancouver Canucks get that one additional win? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the team overall and looks specifically at their current seven-game win streak to find some answers…
Vancouver does everything well offensively. Even with Daniel Sedin, one of the game’s top scorers, out with a concussion—his status for the playoffs is unknown—the Canucks still have his twin brother Henrik Sedin, who leads the NHL in assists and has some lamp-lighting ability of his own. Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows are respectable, if unspectacular scorers on the wings. With Daniel Sedin healthy, Higgins and Burrows are potent role players. With Sedin out, Higgins and Burrows are at least good enough to keep the offensive ship afloat. Vancouver also gets help from its defensemen, where Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa are effective passers.
Defensively the bottom line numbers are championship-quality—Vancouver is 4th in the NHL in preventing goals. But that’s thanks entirely to the goaltending duo of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Because this team is terrible in the area of preventing shots, where only five teams in the league do a worse job at protecting their goalie. We know a hot goalie forgives more sins than anyone this side of a Catholic priest, but the poor work of the defenseman on that side of the ice gives rise to the concern that this Vancouver team is too soft to go all the way.
Whether it’s the power play or straight 5-on-5 seems to matter not to Vancouver. They cash in their chances with the man advantage as well as anyone and they’re very good at killing penalties, thanks to Schneider and Luongo.
The month of March hadn’t been going well for Vancouver. They were trailing St. Louis in the Western standings and it looked like the Canucks were destined for the #2 seed in the West. When they arrived in Dallas on March 22 they’d lost eight of eleven. The Canucks haven’t lost since. Let’s take a walk through the ensuing seven games…
*A 2-1 win over Dallas was keyed by goals from Bieksa and Mason Raymond, the latter being a player who stepped up throughout this streak, with Schneider delivering a shutdown effort.
*The next two games illustrated what I mentioned further up about the goalie vis-à-vis the defense overall. On March 24 in Colorado, the Canucks were outshot 40-32. Two days later at home against Los Angeles the Kings outshot them 38-25. Vancouver won both games, Luongo the former and Schneider the latter. In the Colorado game the penalty kill had an offnight as the Canucks fell behind 2-0 early on power play goals, but a two-goal night from Higgins, the last one in overtime got the win. The game against Los Angeles ended 1-0.
*Another 1-0 win came against Colorado, as the Avalanche made a return visit to the Pacific Northwest. This time Vancouver dominated the goals, winning shots 43-22 and killing five penalties. Even though a shorthanded goal from Higgins was the only scoring chance, Vancouver played a complete hockey game.
*The month closed with back-to-back home games against Dallas and Calgary. Henrik Sedin’s passing was all over the first one, a 5-2 win. Sedin had two assists in the second period and another in the third as the Canucks gradually pulled away. In a 3-2 win over the Flames, Sedin has the feeder on the first and last goals.
*A sloppy 5-4 win over a lousy Anaheim team kept the streak going last night. The score was 2-2 after the first period and 4-4 after the second period. Sedin’s passing again drove the offense, with both Higgins and Burrow being on the receiving end for goals. The game ended up in a shootout where Vancouver continued to score, nailing all three of their chances.
The positive part of this win streak is that Vancouver has shown how well their offense can function without Daniel Sedin. The twin brother does a superb job creating scoring chances and the players around him can still capitalize. Obviously bringing Sedin back takes it to new levels, but Vancouver isn’t adrift without him. Another positive is that, with the exception of Anaheim, the teams beaten had varying degrees of playoff chances and none were sure things. One hopes, therefore, that Vancouver was beating teams playing at max intensity.
If we look to play naysayer we can point out that six of the seven wins were by just one goal and that while all the teams involved were contenders, none were strong contenders. A reasonable observer can say that all we learned from this win streak is that Vancouver can dominate its first-round opponent, which is not something anyone had in serious doubt to begin with. I think such a judgment might be a little harsh—in professional sports, winning seven in a row takes quality play under any circumstances, but it’s reasonable. The same goes for the close-game theory. If there’s any sport that’s diametrically opposite college football in terms of “style points” its hockey. A team playing well can make a one-goal lead seem impossible to overcome.
Ultimately the question will be one alluded to above—is this team physically tough enough to win championships or are they just an artistically sound team that will fold at the key moment? I’ll give full disclosure here—as a Boston fan I loathe Vancouver, not because we played them in the Finals, but because the Canucks played what I consider to be cheap and dirty hockey. You can note this horrid cheap shot that Aaron Rome inflicted on Boston’s top scorer Nathan Horton. Or the fact that Burrows tried to bite Bruin center Patrice Bergeron. Or the fact the city decided to riot after losing Game 7.
This year’s team would be better off playing genuinely tough—as opposed to dirty—hockey. They have the talent to win, and in spite of my biases, there’s no denying this is a team that knows how to move the puck. I would draw an analogy to where the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson’s era stood in 1984. There was no doubt the “Showtime” Lakers were fun to watch. But there were questions about whether they were tough enough to win in Boston Garden. This analogy only goes so far, because Magic had a couple rings, but circa 1984-85, the team was under fire for losing the Finals in seven games to a physically inferior Boston team that played tougher. Vancouver’s road to the Cup might not have to go back through Boston the way Magic’s Lakers did, but whether it’s St. Louis or Detroit in the West, or Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers in the East, Vancouver is going to have the answer the question about toughness if they want to leave a championship legacy.
Eight more days. That’s how much time is left in the NHL regular season, which wraps up on Saturday, April 7. The Eastern Conference race looks to be stabilizing, while the West appears ready for a wild crackup in the Pacific Division. The SportsNotebook summarizes the landscape for fans distracted by March Madness and the onset of baseball season…
Washington and Buffalo are tied for the last playoff berth in the East, and it’s fair to say these two cities haven’t been on each others’ minds this much since the Redskins and Bills dominated the NFL all year long in 1991 and ultimately met in the Super Bowl. This historical reference is my coping mechanism as a Redskins fan. Our present state of affairs is so porous that I’m desperate for any reason I can find to insert 1991 into a discussion and the year that ended with a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 37-24 win in the Super Bowl.
While the Capitals and Sabres are tied in points, Buffalo does have one additional game left. They play Pittsburgh tonight. Then on Saturday, both contenders are in action, as the Sabres get NHL Network coverage in Toronto at 7 PM ET, and Washington hosts a Montreal team that’s in disarray. As a Bruins fan, seeing Montreal in disarray is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Lakers and Cowboys in disarray. Which is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Yankees in disarray. And once the latter happens, I can die in peace.
Anyway, back to hockey and away from my personal musings, the rest of the East is pretty well set. The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins appear to have staved off divisional challenges from Pittsburgh and Ottawa respectively and will likely be seeded 1-2 in the East bracket. Florida’s comfortable in the Southeast Division and will probably be #3. The Penguins and Flyers look headed for a 4-5 series, and while Pittsburgh holds a two-point lead right now, home ice is very much up in the air for that one. New Jersey is settled in at #6. It’s possible any of these could change, but with just a handful of games left, it would take a dramatic move to upset the applecart beyond who’s #8.
Now that wild, wild, wild West. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose are still separated by one point. There’s still only room for three of the four in the playoffs and that number could be reduced to two. Some of the pressure has been eased by Colorado’s four-game losing streak. The Avalanche are still just two points back of the Pacific quartet, and Calgary’s three points back, but in this race, being up two points seems like a lot. Of the Pacific Four, Dallas and Phoenix are tied for first at 89 points, while Los Angeles and San Jose are at 88. The division would pick up the 3, 7 & 8 seed positions if they can hold off Colorado and Calgary.
Dallas is the team under the gun this weekend. They visit Vancouver tonight and then have a road trip to San Jose. Even stealing one win from this road swing would be a huge relief for the Stars. Phoenix’s next game is on Sunday against lowly Anaheim. Los Angeles is the team you have to wonder about—they have the opportunity in front of them, with games against Edmonton and Minnesota, both non-contenders. But both games are on the road and teams like the Kings are ultimately in the position they’re in because they haven’t been consistent. Los Angeles needs to step up and get two take-care-of-business kind of wins. On the outside of this group, Colorado visits Calgary tonight in a game that has all the earmarks of a de facto elimination battle. The best case for the Pacific teams would be for Calgary to win there, and then go lose at Vancouver on Sunday, with the Canucks playing well, sitting at #2 in the West and still just two points back of St. Louis and New York for the best record overall.
Elsewhere in the West, the biggest note would be that Chicago has finally given its fans room to breathe. The Blackhawks had been sitting in the 6-spot and had the Pacific Four at arm’s length, but a strong 7-1-2 run in their last ten games have put seven points of distance between Chicago and the end of the playoff ladder. It looks like the Blackhawks will pair up with whoever wins the Pacific. The Blackhawks could move up to #4—they’re only two points back of Detroit. But here’s the question: Given that the #6 seed gets the Pacific champ even though the division winner will be one of the three worst teams in the draw, are you better off being there, rather than moving up to the 4-5 matchup? It would certainly seem so. I never like to suggest teams should lose, as I think an anti-competitive mindset within is more dangerous than any opposition from without. But if you’re a fan with vested interests in the Detroit-Nashville-Chicago trio, there’s no reason to get too worked up about being #6, unless you’ve got access to playoff tickets and want the 4-spot and an extra home game.