Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Playoff Competition, Sizing up the opposition

Montreal's streaking, 6 straight wins right now and are in excellent position to hold a playoff spot, with the sagging Rangers and everyone behind the Rangers being even worse for wear, so let's consider the competition.

Barring impossible collapses really, Washington is the No. 1 seed, Pittsburgh will likely claim 2nd with the Devils having a more up and down performance post-Olympics, but with the Sabres struggling, the Canadiens are within reach of the Division title, an automatic #3 seed and home-ice advantage for the start of the playoffs. But that's no guarantee, but let's consider all our opponents regardless, who knows what could happen in the final drive, I've ranked them by level of the threat I believe they pose to the Canadiens, with the Capitals and Penguins tied as the top threat.

1. Washington Capitals, the offensive juggernaut of the NHL.

- How they beat you: Scoring and size, they are going to be the first team in years to score over 300 goals in a season, they have 6 20-goal scorers right now, and could have as many as 4 30-goal scorers by the end of the season and a total of 8 20-goal scorers, not to mention Ovechkin's likely to go over 50 goals for a 4th time in his 5 NHL seasons. They also pack a large amount of size in their roster, they have only 3 forwards under 6'1", making a good number of them very hard to move and tough for smaller teams to play against. Playing that volume of scoring forwards and big players in general could severely tax the older players on the back end such as Spacek and Hamrlik, a 7-game series against such forces could quickly wear them out. If they get a chance to dicate the pace of the series by making it about offence, they will be nearly impossible to beat.

- How you beat them: Their defence has never been a vaunted part of their game, top prospects John Carlson and Karl Alzner are just that, prospects who are not truly ready for NHL action I believe. Mike Green may be the scoring sensation among all NHL defencemen, but he is hardly noted as being equally as good in his own end. Tom Poti is probably the most reliable D-man they have, but he is 1 in 6 on any given night. Jose Theodore has rarely performed in the playoffs and the health and ability of Semyon Varlamov to recover for the playoffs is questionable.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins, current Cup Champions:

- How they beat you: Two of the three best players in the world, Crosby and Malkin. They're elite players, young guys and they already have two Stanley Cup Finals under their belt. They have the best 3rd-line centre in the NHL in Jordan Staal, who makes 2nd line on a lot of NHL teams. They have great defensive depth with players like Brooks Orpik, Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. Marc-Andre Fleury may be a bit overrated, but he has two Cup Final appearances himself and he's played very well in those series for the most part.

- How you beat them: A lack of scoring wingers has haunted the Penguins when they are blessed with their two superstars as centres. It has very much become the Crosby show for scoring in Pittsburgh this season, the acquisition of Ponikarovsky from Toronto indicated the organization was fearful about their depth in wingers. If Crosby can be frozen out, don't expect Kunitz and Guerin do much by themselves, nor Malkin with the who's who of nobodies he often has played with this season. The sometimes questionable play of Fleury could be an advantage, as is the simple fact that the Penguins power play has been impotent this season, while Montreal is 2nd-best in the NHL, often when they've been missing at least two Top 6 forwards. A strong power play and freezing out Crosby could make a series win possible.

3. Buffalo Sabres, home of the top Goalie in the NHL.

- How they beat you: RyanMiller, the best goalie in the NHL this season has the ability to win a series by himself. The Sabres possess a number of quick, mobile forwards that can be threatening and Thomas Vanek can be a 40-goal scorer on the right year, even if he has struggled this season. Their defence is generally well organized and rookie sensation Tyler Myers is looking like a future defensive superstar with his play this year. He and Miller could send Montreal off to the golf course.

- How you beat them: Miller will likely be a bit worn out from what will probably be over 70 games played in a compressed NHL schedule and a hard Olympics, if he does show fatigue, the Sabres MVP can be beaten to win the series for Montreal. Beyond Myers, who lacks playoff experience as well, the defence of the Sabres is not much to write home about and the Canadiens stack up better on depth at forward than the Sabres do. If the Canadiens test the depth of the Sabres roster, it's another way to beat them.

4. New Jersey Devils, home of Montreal's sworn enemy.

- How they beat you: Heard of Martin Brodeur? Or Martin F. Brodeur as the Canadiens have known him, he has always played his best games against the Canadiens and it has cost the team many points over the years, keeping them out of playoffs and higher playoff seeds when they do qualify. If he puts on his usual terrifying ability to hold off the Canadiens shooters single-handedly, it could be a short series. Zach Parise showed his chops at the Olympics and could be the top threat for the Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk, while not very productive for the Devils considering his ability, if he raises his game for the playoffs, that's a 40-goal scorer and a 50-goal scorer both raising hell against the Canadiens. Jacques Lemaire's trap scheme in coaching has also greatly frustrated many teams over the years, slowing games down to a crawl and making the other team suffer for any mistake they made.

- How you beat them: Martin Brodeur has a spotty playoff record over the last few years, his tendency to play at least 70 games before the playoffs has often worn him down and left him far from his best when he is needed to be his best. Ilya Kovalchuk's lack of playoff experience and the apparent display that he is just not a player who can really work with Jacques Lemaire, which wouldn't be the first time an all-offence player didn't work with Lemaire. Their no-name defence, while well organized is still just that, no-name, if the Canadiens can strike with their top 6 forwards and the great speed and ability they have displayed this season, it could overwhelm them. The Canadiens can not let this be determined by the trap, they must force Lemaire to react to them.

5. Philidelphia Flyers

How they beat you: The Flyers are heavily invested in scoring and defence. Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Kimmo Timmonen, Chris Pronger. All big threats and all capable of causing Montreal great trouble. They are physical and they don't back off, the Canadiens do not have a true enforcer to keep them honest, Ryan O'Byrne is still basically a rookie to me and Travis Moen is not in the weight class of their big bruisers. They can physically shove the Canadiens around the ice and are dirty enough to injure Canadiens players to give them the edge in the series. Size and physical forecheck will challenge Montreal's D.

How you beat them: Don't play their smash-and-grab game, roll the forward lines and challenge them every step of the way. If it becomes about goaltending, they are right fucked with their AHL-quality starter Mike Leighton injured and forced to use Brian Boucher as their starter again. This team can be frustrated by a fast, skilled team that doesn't want to get into their style of play, hence how the Penguins have ejected them from the playoffs for two years in a row. That and the Canadiens need to kick these hacks out of the playoffs if they face them, they're a bloody disgrace to the NHL. Detestable players and no character at all.

6. Ottawa Senators

How they beat you: No one expects much from the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs, so they will go in without being taken very seriously at first, as they are renowned playoff chokers. Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev and Mike Fischer are their big guns and could cause trouble if they do go hot in the playoffs, coach Cory Clouston has had them all activated at once to cause great damage to the opposition. Kovalev may feel the need especially to outdo his old club and try to show them up, albeit he has a higher chance of being invisible with his enigmatic performances. If they are underestimated and their big players go big, it could be trouble.

How you beat them: Their forward depth is really not much to look at and Alfredsson, Spezza are general playoff underperformers, Fischer's been hot/cold all season and Kovalev is a pure enigma. Their goaltending is highly suspect, Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire? I don't think they present that much of a challenge to the Canadiens shooters. Ottawa's defensive depth has been laughable for years and have been lacking a true top-ranked defencemen since they foolishly let Zdeno Chara go.

7. Boston Bruins

How they beat you: Bruins are always a bitter rival of the Canadiens and they tend to play some of their best hockey against the Canadiens. Many of their forwards have underperformed compared to last season, but the playoffs could light a fire under them and get them going. Zdeno Chara has had an average season, but his play in the Olympics indicated he's still capable of playng like a Norris trophy defencemen. Tukka Rask has been a pleasant surprise for a Boston team that has seen Tim Thomas struggle, he could frustrate the Canadiens shooters and turn the series for the Bruins.

How you beat them: Marc Savard is done for the season, Milan Lucic is a shadow of his former self, Michael Ryder is back to his lazy ways and I'm pretty sure Mark Recchi voted for Trudeau when he first ran for office. Zdeno Chara has not been a major force for the Bruins this year and Dennis Wideman has been widely invisible this year. Tukka Rask has no playoff experience and the Canadiens are well-equipped to outskate the slower skaters on the Boston Bruins.

Those are our opponents, that's how I rank them in terms of threats to the team. With a full roster, a win is possible but I'd feel a lot better if the Canadiens caught the division title, broke a weaker team and had time to rest before going into a grinding series with a top team.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Habs are making the Playoffs and here's why they are dangerous

I'm convinced at this point that the Montreal Canadiens will feature in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs and they're going to be a hard fight for anyone who takes them on in the first round.

The first reason is all about the best line the team has right now. Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Benoit Pouliot would be a potent scoring line for nearly any NHL team. They're dangerous, Gomez can carry the puck in to the zone with great speed and Gionta is even faster than he is plus has incredible reflexes that he can convert in to goals. Benoit Pouliot has excellent size, speed and very smooth hands, probably the most talented of the three, but he's still a rather raw NHL player, but he's learning quickly with the veterans and they're giving him every opportunity to prove he's a superb talent.

The return of Michael Cammalleri in about a week, he is the most natural sniper the Canadiens have had on their roster in a very long time. He has scored 26 goals in 56 games, he has two hat tricks and four game-winning goals to his credit. He's fast, he has smooth hands and brings leadership to the ice, Andrei Kostitsyn had not played as well as he did on the Plekanec/Cammalleri line since he teamed with his brother and Robert Lang in the 08-09 season. Had both Cammalleri and Kostitsyn not been sidelined by knee issues, I imagine the Canadiens would have at least 3 more wins on their record. His presence will raise his line with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn to just as much a scoring threat as the Gomez group. Canadiens will be able to hit their opposition with two top scoring lines that threaten with incredible speed and shooting ability. The Canadiens have never been more successful than when they simply killed their opponents with speed and these men are all capable of carrying that out. Mike is a big-stage player, playing at the Bell Centre in the playoffs will only lead to him being an even more dangerous scoring player when the post-season fever hits Montreal.

Andrei Markov, I've said it before and I will say it again, is there a single defencemen in the entire Eastern Conference that has a better outlet pass than Andrei? Even if his skating is not 100% yet (which I don't find it is), his hands and vision are in perfect working order certainly. I've never seen anyone Montreal play against who has a defencemen who can reliably send a puck from the goal line to the far blue line and set up a breakaway opportunity like Markov can. I can't really confirm best in the NHL, as I don't see Detroit often enough to gauge Lidstrom's passing ability but I can't imagine it could be much better than Markov's. He has great offensive instincts and is a workhorse that will play all game if you ask him to and is fully capable of handling defence in his own end. He is the base of Montreal's defence and provides on-ice leadership every game he plays, the power play runs off of his efforts and he never gives up on any game he plays in. No player brings as many important elements to each game as #79.

I was dubious about the Dominic Moore trade, he was a pending UFA, but he is playing himself in to a new contract right now. Since he arrived in exchange for a 2nd-round pick in the 2011 draft he has stabilized the 3rd line, which has been in flux for most of the season, often featuring at least one ineffective player. With the arrival of the stable centremen who is more than willing to fight in the corners and win, things have improved considerably. He has the speed to work with young Sergei Kostitsyn, who is emerging as a very potent two-way forward and their work together has produced good results. With Travis Moen providing physical force on that line, they've become vital to the team's efforts on each night. Moore's ability to play on the penalty kill has given great relief to the team's MVP forward Tomas Plekanec, who too often would serve too much time on the penalty kill and be unable to contribute offensively by the end of a night. Sergei Kostitsyn, Dominic Moore and Travis Moen provide scoring potential, defence and a 3rd line no coach would mind throwing at the opposition.

Ryan O'Byrne is getting better this season, he's had his weak points but he is learning to play top minutes in the NHL being Andrei Markov's partner and that's not easy. He can hit with great force, he can fight if necessary and is a very big-body player that can be hard to work around. Markov can generally cover the mistakes of his partners and that gives him room to grow. Josh Gorges is always a model of the player who plays with heart and Hal Gill keeps the penalty kill running smoothly and is just a nice veteran presence to have in the room. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek took on a lot more work than they should have had to endure but the Markov injury forced Martin to play his two veteran defencemen as the top pair and they performed as well as they could, even better than most suspected they could. They've had some rest and with Markov and O'Byrne taking top pair minutes, they can play fewer minutes and play much better because of it. Hamrlik is a model of consistency and Spacek as his partner has created a solid, although unspectacular pair that works well together and can be used freely in most situations.

Glen Metropolit, a good guy and a solid 4th-line man as you can find across the NHL. He's topped his career best in goals with 15 and has shown a knack for being on the power play this season, with a team-high 9 PP goals. He's a dependable player who can be used in all kinds of situations and isn't a deterrent on the 4th line. A general mix of the dependable Darche, Pyatt and a Lapierre who's getting back to his old self will allow the 4th line to be effective down the line. Marc-Andre Bergeron is simply a luxury the team can't afford anymore though, he can't bring a true prescence to the 4th line and there is no place for him on the back end.

Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, a lot of teams would like to have two young goalies who can be No. 1 guys. Yes I said, I still consider Price a No. 1 type and you never know if the playoffs are what will make him go hot. Halak is going to be the starter in the playoffs but if he stumbles and Price takes over, he is entirely capable of carrying the load. He's been dominant in many games this season and gotten the team games they should've lost, or played dominantly and lost because the team in front of him failed. Halak has had a better year, but having Price being ready to take over is an excellent alternative.

The team has the tools to succeed, they just have to keep playing like they are and they will make the playoffs and perhaps go farther than anyone would have expected them to do, including themselves. I'm not talking about a certain Cup Run here, but a hard-fought playoff battle is something they can take home and plot to build on next season certainly. It is playoffs though and anything's possible, who would've thought the Hurricanes would knock off the Devils and Bruins last year?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Southeast Division is just utter crap.

Because of the absolute wretched nature of the SE Division, The Washington Capitals on March 11th, with a full month remaining on the NHL schedule have clinched their division title. That's ****ing sad considering this...

At the start of the season, the Southeast Division was looking like they finally might stop being the laugher division of the NHL.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had selected Victor Hedman 2nd overall, who had favourable comparisons to Nik Lidstrom and was said to be a fantastic skater for a 6'6" player. They had signed Matthias Ohlund to mentor him and expanded their D in other ways. They had picked up Alex Tanguay for a cheap 2.5 million, looking for him to make a Flying Frenchmen connection with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier who had just come off of surgery to fix his wrist problems. Steven Stamkos had ended his season strongly and had a good IIHF World Championships. It seemed like they had a solid lineup to contend, so much for that, 66 points in 66 games and 12 loser points in that total.

The Atlanta Thrashers were committed to the playoffs, 4th overall pick Evander Kane made the team, while Nik Antropov had been acquired to centre their superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov signed cheaply as a restoration project, Pavel Kubina to enhance their PP unit and Zach Bogosian looking to improve on his rookie stats and perhaps a rejuvanated Kari Lehtonen? Nope, 66 points in 66 games like Tampa, but with only 10 Loser points instead of 12.

The Carolina Hurricanes had fought a surprising campaign in the post-season to arrive in the Conference Finals last season, so they were considered a possible threat to at least not directly hand the Division Title to Washington. They went on one of the worst losing streaks in recent NHL history, lost their franchise men in Staal and Cam Ward for various amounts of time and Rod Brind'Amour seriously showed his age. The team was flat, uncompetitive and nothing like the feisty Hurricanes who had outworked their Quarter and Semi-Final opponents in the Playoffs. Despite a late surge, they stand on 64 points in 67 games, but have the fewest OT losses in their division at 8.

The Panthers, well nobody expected ****-all from them really, permanent Sunbelt loser squad and was supposed to be easy 4-point game for the rest of their divisional rivals. They've actually been fairly competitive and if not for the Booth hit by that **** Richards they could probably have at least 3 more wins in their column, 64 points in 65 games, but with Booth around who knows, maybe they'd be tied up with Boston for the 8th Playoff spot, but would still be 29 points behind Washington.

Worst Division in the NHL or what?