Sunday, April 22, 2012

Canucks Off-Season: Raymond, Luongo, Vigneault?

After the Canucks were trumped by the Kings on Sunday night, questions will begin to be asked in Vancouver.  It's difficult to call this season one of promise, but it was filled with optimism and thoughts of redemption for last year.

The year began slowly but picked up steam.  The Canucks played well down the stretch and found themselves in the race for the President's Trophy to enjoy home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.  That did not turn out to help them however, as they went 0-3 on home ice in the post-season.

So as the off-season approaches, there are likely three main questions that will be asked in Vancouver.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Canucks power outage vs Kings

Two games into the Stanley Cup playoffs and the wheels are beginning to fall off in Vancouver.  It may not be time to panic quite yet for Canucks fans, but the end feels pretty close despite heading into the post-season with such optimism.

Sure the Canucks have only lost two games, but they're heading into Los Angeles down two games to none against a team that has completely owned them on special teams - the Canucks' supposed bread and butter.

The game was a confusing one for Canucks' fans, as they team recorded 48 shots on Jonathan Quick, including a 23-9 advantage in the third period, despite being short-handed four times in that frame.

So how did the Canucks' lineup fare individually?  Here's PuckWatch's take:

Roberto Luongo: A- : Lou was solid in net again.  Kept the team in the game and made several key saves.  Cannot be blamed for any of the goals tonight.

Keith Ballard: B : Not bad for his first game back.

Kevin Bieksa: B : Solid effort

Alex Edler: C : Edler's brain cramp cost the Canucks once again as they gave up the opening goal despite controlling most of the play in the first period.  Two games, two costly giveaways, and many others that were not converted.

Dan Hamhuis: B- : Caught out of position a few times, Hammer wasn't as good as Game 1.

Sami Salo: B : Tough to fault Salo tonight for much, but the power play was atrocious and he's a large part of it.

Chris Tanev: B- : Tanev rebounded from an iffy outing in Game one.

David Booth: A : Arguably one of the best Canucks' forwards.  Booth hit everything in sight and created some offense.

Alex Burrows: B : Burr wasn't particularly noticeable on offence tonight, except when he was trying to pry Quick's mask from his face.  Should stick to playing hockey.

Andrew Ebbett: B- : Didn't add much value to the power play, but maybe he can't be blamed for that.  Barely noticeable.

Jannik Hansen: A : Perhaps the Canucks' MVP through two games. Hansen brought consistent effort and scored the first Canucks' goal.  Pestered Drew Doughty and had four shots in only 12 minutes of ice time.

Chris Higgins: B : Higgins had 6 shots tonight and was good on the forecheck as usual.

Zack Kassian: C : Kassian had one good chance in the first period, but with only six minutes of ice time, I'm wondering why we traded Hodgson for this guy.  Surely Dale Weise could play six minutes.

Ryan Kesler: A- : Kesler shut up and played hockey tonight after being challenged publicly (vicariously perhaps) by Alain Vigneault.  Kesler had six shots and numerous dangerous rushes.  His line was the best tonight for Vancouver.


Max Lapierre: D : D for Diving. Rather than be a feisty distraction to the opposition, Lapierre was ineffective tonight and was lucky to not be called for diving for his horrible act on Drew Doughty midway through the game.

Manny Malhotra: C : Manny's giveaway led to the back-breaking goal that put the game out of reach.  Solid defensively for the most part, but he looked a bit lost out there tonight.

Samuel Pahlsson: B : Pahlsson scored a goal and was 5-1 on faceoffs.

Mason Raymond: A- : The favourite Canucks' whipping boy played a pretty good game tonight.  In typical Raymond fashion, he creates chances out of nothing, but subsequently fanned on his shot, fell down or missed the net.  But, he recorded 7 shots, was dangerous all over the ice in only 14 minutes of ice time.

Henrik Sedin: B : Hank's numbers and effort looked good tonight.  Six shots and an assist for the Captain look good, but he deserves some blame for the lacklustre (abysmal) power play.

Overall, the Canucks need a leader to step up and other than Roberto Luongo's inspired play, there aren't a lot of contenders.  These two games have been plagued by horrible turnovers in the defensive zone and an atrocious power play.

The Canucks had two chances in the third period in Game One to take a 3-2 lead on the power play but failed, and wound up losing.  Tonight, the Canucks could have taken the lead with their first period power plays, but dropped the ball again.  Their power play is now -2/9, while the Kings are now 3/12.  -22% vs. 25%.  Yikes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Canucks & Kings Playoff Preview

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings

Following a heartbreaking game seven loss to the Boston Bruins, the Vancouver Canucks stumbled their way to the President’s Trophy and appear poised for another deep run this year.  Unfortunately they’re running into a Kings squad that present a similar challenge that the Bruins did last year.  A hot goaltender, an elite defenseman, and a gritty bunch of forwards.

Are the Canucks up for the challenge?  They should be.  Considering the battered Canucks came a game short of the ultimate prize with a defense that was hanging by a thread, and a second line that boasted Chris Higgins and Jeff Tambelini when it mattered most, the improved depth and experience should bode well for the Canucks.  David Booth, Zack Kassian, Byron Bitz, and Dale Weise add size and toughness and some skill, while their defense enters the playoffs fairly healthy.

The Kings meanwhile return after two disappointing post-season exits where they had the prohibitive favourites on the ropes.  In 2010, the Kings were up 2-1 in the series and were leading in Game 4 when Roberto Luongo robbed Alex Frolov on a breakaway that might have been the dagger to Canucks’ nation’s heart.  Last season, the Kings were up 4-0 in a pivotal game in the series before collapsing and losing 5-4 in overtime.

Rest assured, the Kings will be hungry as well, and have a great goaltender and a strong defensive presence.  Their lack of scoring during the regular season is a bit odd considering their personnel, so the Canucks will have to be careful.

Roberto Luongo plays well in opening rounds and has been good against Los Angeles, while Jonathan Quick has struggled.  Look for the Kings to push the Canucks and potentially upset, but for the Canucks to prevail.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Can Luongo outduel Quick?
·         Can the Kings score enough to win the series?
·         Will the Canucks power play keep the Kings honest?

Top Scorers to Draft
VAN – Henrik Sedin
VAN – Daniel Sedin
VAN – Ryan Kesler
LAK – Anze Kopitar
LAK – Mike Richards
LAK – Drew Doughty

Series Prediction
The Kings will push the Canucks to the limit and could pull off an upset.  The Canucks could take a step forward or a step back.  Expect the series to be a physical affair that goes 6-7 games.  Canucks in 7.

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Blues & Sharks Playoff Preview

#2 St Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks

Ken Hitchcock has turned the Blues around to the point that they should have won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team.  Despite the Blues late slip down the stretch, they are an imposing team with balanced scoring, incredible defense and goaltending and some burgeoning young players.

The San Jose Sharks battled for a playoff spot all year and finally clinched when the Dallas Stars fell out of the picture.  San Jose has experienced heartbreak season after season and is a combined 1-8 in the last two conference finals.  This year they took a step back and are the #7 seed. Does this mean they’re saving themselves for the playoffs, or that they aren’t the team they once were?

Enough experts have said ‘this will be the Sharks year’ and been proven wrong.  Their mediocre goaltending and leadership are always called into question and this year will be no different.  It’s tempting to take an angry team of veterans over an upstart young squad like St. Louis, but don’t expect the Sharks to become world beaters, or a Ken Hitchcock led squad to fall off the rails so suddenly.

The Blues will play inspired hockey and should continue to stifle the Sharks offense.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Sharks experience vs. Blues youth/defense
·         Halak/Elliott vs. Niemi falls well in favour of the Blues
·         Is David Backes the darkhorse breakout player this post-season?

Top Scorers to Draft
STL – David Backes
STL – David Perron
STL – Alex Pietrangelo
SJ – Joe Thornton
SJ – Martin Havlat
SJ – Patrick Marleau

Series Prediction
Do not be sucked in by the Sharks’ potential and experience.  Arnott will keep the Blues calm and will help them overcome a game San Jose squad.  Blues in 7.
Other Playoff Previews
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Eastern Conference

Coyotes & Blackhawks Playoff Preview

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks

The Phoenix Coyotes have defied critics and won their first division title in the desert.  Their reward?  The revamped Chicago Blackhawks.  Shane Doan and the resilient Coyotes will bring their defensive brand of hockey that vaulted Mike Smith into the stratosphere late in the season to the Blackhawks and their offensive brand of hockey.  

The old maxim ‘defense wins championships’ usually holds true, but the Coyotes will be in tough.  The Chicago Blackhawks may be too talented to be held back by the Coyotes this year.  However, for the Hawks to win, they will need Corey Crawford to be the playoff hero he was last season, and a healthy Jonathan Toews.

As if the Hawks prolific offense isn’t enough of a threat, the Coyotes will be in tough at the Madhouse on Madison, while the Hawks should have a healthy fan base in the desert. 

This series should be an interesting one.  Most experts are picking the Blackhawks, but they’ve allowed far too many goals, had inconsistent goaltending, and of course – the questions surrounding the health of Jonathan Toews.  Meanwhile, the Coyotes will be led by veterans Shane Doan and Ray Whitney who will be looking to hoist Lord Stanley, or at least dive deep into the playoffs for the first time in recent memory.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Will Mike Smith keep up his stellar play?
·         Will the Coyotes’ defense shutdown the Blackhawks’ offense?
·         Can Jonathan Toews return and be a difference maker?

Top Scorers to Draft
CHI – Patrick Kane
CHI – Marian Hossa
CHI – Patrick Sharp
PHX – Ray Whitney
PHX – Shane Doan
PHX – Keith Yandle

Series Prediction
It may be easy to underestimate the Coyotes after being swept last year.  They’ll make it a series and could upset, but the Hawks should take it in 6.
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Predators & Red Wings Playoff Preview

#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
The Nashville Predators look to avenge their second round exist last year by going even deeper into the playoffs this year.  Unfortunately for Preds’ fans, the path to the Conference finals begins in Detroit against a veteran-laden Red Wings squad that are also seeking redemption for an early exit last year.

The Preds look quite intimidating this year, especially with late-season additions Paul Gaustad, Hall Gill and Alexander Radulov.  They boast the best defense pairing in the league in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and perhaps the best goaltender in Pekka Rinne.  Nashville is a popular pick as the darkhorse to emerge from the Western Conference.  

This will be a great series for fans, but unfortunate that a powerhouse team will be gone after the first round.  The Red Wings boast a well-rounded group as well and this series looks to go the distance.  Pavel Datsyuk  demonstrated his skill and two-way play once again and the Wings will not roll over easily.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Can Datsyuk battle through Weber/Suter and Rinne?
·         Will the Predators new additions overcome the Wings experience?
·         Can Jimmy Howard match Pekka Rinne?

Top Scorers to Draft
DET – Pavel Datsyuk
DET – Henrik Zetterberg
DET – Nicklas Lidstrom
NAS – Shea Weber
NAS – Mike Fisher
NAS – Alexander Radulov

Series Prediction
Expect this series to go the distance.  Home ice advantage may be key, and the Predators enjoy that luxury.  Predators in 7.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

Penguins & Flyers Playoff Preview

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 Philadelphia Flyers

Much like the Vancouver/Chicago opening round series was an instant classic, this Pens/Flyers series looks to be the 2012 equivalent.  Traditional rivalry aside, these geographic foes have had heated matches all year, culminating with the late-game scrums and trash talk post-game about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being dirty and the Penguins being arrogant whiners.

It’s a familiar refrain that the Vancouver Canucks had to hear a lot of last year.  Some are saying the Flyers are just scared of the Penguins’ talent upon the return of Sidney Crosby, but the Flyers are better than that.
Despite the Penguins intimidating offensive game, and Stanley Cup pedigree from a few seasons ago, the Flyers have the depth, physicality, and offensive flair to give them a run for their money.  Claude Giroux, Danny Briene, Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell will be a handful.

While Ilya Bryzgalov found his game late in the season, there will be question marks about his ability to shutdown superstars like Crosby and Malkin.  However, a hidden storyline is the horrible statistics that Marc-Andre Fleury has against the Flyers – the worst against any NHL team.

This series will steal most headlines in the opening round and rightfully so.  Home ice may mean a lot here.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Will the officials protect Crosby and Malkin (and Giroux/Briere) adequately?
·         Can Ilya Bryzgalov deliver when it matters?
·         Will the Flyers miss Chris Pronger?

Top Scorers to Draft
PIT – Sidney Crosby
PIT – Evgeni Malkin
PIT – James Neal
PHI – Claude Giroux
PHI – Scott Hartnell
PHI – Jaromir Jagr

Series Prediction
The Penguins have the proven goaltender and two game breakers.  Philadelphia will give them all they can handle, but it’s not enough to go against the Penguins this time around.  Penguins in 7.

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Eastern Conference

Panthers & Devils Playoff Preview

#3 Florida Panthers v. #6 New Jersey Devils

 For the first time since 2000, the Florida Panthers will be in the post-season.  In fact, the Panthers last won a playoff game in 1997.  That kind of futility is rare, but in their upcoming series with New Jersey, the devil really is in the details.  Despite the Panthers surprising many with their strong play this season, they faltered in the second half, falling back toward the pack within their weak division and making their fans a bit nervous in the final days of the season. 

The Devils rebounded well after a horrible 2010-11 season and look to be the favourites despite their #6 seed.  The Devil ousted the Panthers in 2000 in their last playoff outing, and boast a solid corps of forwards and a tight defensive game that should give the Panthers fits.

The Devils look pretty good and it’s hard to give the Panthers much respect, despite their first noteworthy season in over a decade.  The Panthers defence will likely find it difficult to handle New Jersey’s top forwards (Kovalchuk and Parise) and may be hard-pressed to find offense themselves.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Martin Brodeur is nearing retirement, but he’ll be ready for this series
·         Panthers backed into playoffs in a poor division
·         Kovalchuk, Parise, Clarkson should rack up points

Top Scorers to Draft
NJD – Ilya Kovalchuk
NJD – Zach Parise
NJD – David Clarkson
FLA – Stephen Weiss
FLA – Kris Versteeg
FLA – Brian Campbell

Series Prediction
Despite the seeding of these two teams, the Devils are the better team.  Buried in a tough division, they still manage to outpace the Florida Panthers.  Brodeur should be tough to beat.  Panthers might take two games at most. Devils in 6.

Other Playoff Previews
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Eastern Conference

Bruins & Capitals Playoff Preview

#2 Boston Bruins v. #7 Washington Capitals

The Boston Bruins begin their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions when they take on the under-achieving Washington Capitals.  Many predict Boston to end this series quickly, but the Bruins seem to have lost their swagger from earlier this year, while the Capitals are always tough at home.

Boston is a little banged up on their back end with Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid nursing injuries, and Tim Thomas does not appear to be the same goalie he was last year.  Having said that, the Bruins are still a very deep team with a big, mean defense, a well-balanced offense and one of the best goalies in the game. 

The Washington Capitals came out of the gate going 7-0 but soon stumbled and were unable to claim a division title in a very weak division.  Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have all underachieved, missed long stretches of the season due to injury or both.  The optimist would suggest that the Capitals are finally healthy and could challenge the Bruins and make it a series, but the Capitals are in tough if they have to go with Holtby as their goaltender instead of Neuvirth or Vokoun.  Holtby will be good, but it’s a lot to ask to take on the Stanley Cup champions.

Washington will be better than people expect, but the road to the cup will not be easy for them.  Meanwhile, similar questions exist in Boston.  

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Chara & Bruins defense will make Ovechkin’s life miserable
·         Backstrom & Green could be difference makers if Caps challenge
·         Thomas will out-duel Holtby/Neuvirth/Vokoun 

Top Scorers to Draft
WAS – Alex Ovechkin
WAS – Nicklas Backstrom
WAS – Mike Green
BOS – Patrice Bergeron
BOS – Milan Lucic
BOS – Tyler Seguin

Series Prediction
They may not win the cup again this year, but they still should be more than the Capitals can handle.  Bruins in 6.

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Eastern Conference

Rangers & Senators Playoff Preview

#1. New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators

The New York Rangers return the post-season as a veritable powerhouse compared to their recent showings as massive underdogs.  That role goes to the Ottawa Senators this season.  Indeed, the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, solid team defense and potent offense of Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards has vaulted the Rangers to an Eastern Conference title for the first time in a generation.

The Rangers already showcase a playoff brand of hockey on most nights – sacrificing bodies to block shots and taking advantage of timely bounces in low scoring games – and will look to strike decisively against a Senators group that should be happy just to be in the playoffs.

The Senators will have different plans however.  This may be Daniel Alfredsson’s last season and the team will want to win at all costs.  The Sens surprised everyone this year by rebuilding so quickly with a glut of good young forwards and the emergence of Erik Karlsson – a star in the making.  Karlsson’s tremendous season has garnered Norris Trophy consideration and has helped take the pressure off of goaltender Craig Anderson (or Ben Bishop, etc) who had a lot of goal support, allowing them to have a solid year and lead the team to the post-season.

PuckWatch Hat-trick:
·         Rangers will focus on Erik Karlsson and make his life miserable
·         Depth of Rangers vs Youth of Senators
·         Henrik Lundqvist

Top Scorers to Draft 
NYR - Brad Richards
NYR - Marian Gaborik
NYR - Ryan Callahan
OTT - Daniel Alfredsson
OTT - Jason Spezza
OTT - Erik Karlsson

Series Prediction
This series will showcase a very ambitious and hardworking Senators squad against a hardworking and determined Rangers squad.  The Rangers will be too much and will prevail in 5.
 
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Eastern Conference