4.26.2012

Reminiscing

Just some highlights from Caps/Rangers past....

4.12.2012

10 Reasons Why the Capitals Can Beat the Bruins

Alex Semin with the puck against the Bruins on March 29th. (Getty Images)
1. There's no pressure. Even just a few weeks ago, the Capitals' playoff chances were unlikely. Now, in their first round match up with the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Bruins have been picked as the likely winners almost unanimously among the media. The Capitals haven't had this low expectations for the playoffs since 2008, when they miraculously made the playoffs with a late season run under then-rookie coach Bruce Boudreau. This time, they get to play spoilers against the Boston Bruins, and nobody is going to blame them if they get swept. They have nothing to lose, and that can sometimes be the best thing to happen to a team.

2. History isn't on Boston's side. The last 10 Stanley Cup champions have failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs an overwhelming 7 times. Of course, if there's anything the playoffs are good for, it's making history.

3. Braden Holtby. Following the Tomas Vokoun signing, Braden Holtby's season looked pretty clear cut; he'd toil away in the AHL, lead the Bears to a playoff berth with Dany Sabourin, and then try to make it as far as possible in the Calder Cup playoffs. Now, 10 months later, he's the starting goalie for the Washington Capitals in their first playoff game. He is the second to last option for the Capitals at this point, and so the expectations are more or less zero. There's no pressure for the entire team, and doubly so for Braden Holtby.

4. Boston's battered blue-line. Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk are both questionable for Thursday's game, leaving Boston with no choice but to dress Mike Mottau and defensive disaster Joe Corvo. Beyond their top pairing of Chara & Seidenberg, the Bruins' defense is not the best it can be; they'd effectively have their 7th and 8th defensemen playing a good amount. If the Capitals can successfully exploit this, they can change the course of the series dramatically.

5. Alexander Semin. Chara & Seidenberg will be tasked with shutting down Ovechkin's line, so any contributions from him will be a plus. Thankfully, Dale Hunter seems to be using Semin & Backstrom on a separate line from Ovechkin, leaving the Capitals with two lines that can score. As long as Ovi keeps the top pair occupied, Backstrom & Semin have a chance to inflict some damage on the scoreboard, as long as "Good Sasha" shows up for the playoffs. Based on his recent performance, and based on his relative lack of playoff success lately, I'd say he's due for a good series. If Semin starting pumping in the goals, look out.

6. The Ovechkin–Laich–Brouwer line. The Capitals are among the largest teams in the NHL, and this has to be one of the largest lines in the league. Ovechkin and Brouwer are both fearsome hitters, and if this group can forecheck well (and make sure to hit anything and everything), Boston's players could end up hurting sooner than later. Considering this line will be facing Chara & Seidenberg all series long, they need to make sure to hit Chara heavily, and throw him off his game. Plus, some offense wouldn't hurt either.

7. Keeping their cool. Dale Hunter has to drill into the team that they can't retaliate to the pests that dot the Bruins' lineup. Lucic, Marchand, Kelly, Campbell, Thornton, and many more will be trying the entire time to get underneath the Capitals' skin – and the Caps cannot let that happen. The agitating is what Boston thrives on; you won't be able to out-pest or out-fight the Bruins, so there's no need to even try. Skate away, let them take penalties, and inflict the damage on the scoreboard instead of in the scrums.

8. Tim Thomas. The last time the Capitals saw Tim Thomas, he had just been embarrassed in the shootout by the likes of Matt Hendricks, and was tripping his way down the tunnel to the dressing room. Thomas also turned down a visit to the White House this past season, for personal reasons. Can Thomas keep his cool with the media attention that will surround the series? His stellar play is key to the Bruins' success, and if he falters there's only Anton Khudobin backing him up right now.

9. The bad regular season. The Capitals had to fight tooth and nail for every point they got this season. Partly due to injuries, partly due to a poor work ethic, partly due to bad goaltending, partly due to questionable coaching – the point being, they've been through it all. Now that the team is mostly healthy, can they put those lessons learned to good use? The team has been near unbeatable with all four "Young Guns" in the lineup... can that continue?

10. They can win if they score first.  The Capitals are 25-3-5 when scoring the first goal. As their performance Saturday against the Rangers showed, they can shut down a game with a goal or two early on. If the Capitals team that showed up Saturday does so in the playoffs, that there's little they cannot do. After all, the Capitals were a Cup favorite heading into the season, and for good reason. This is a skilled team, with a solid defense, a solid offense (though some question marks still remain at center), and the goaltending has been there. When they put everything together, they can beat the very best... and they have. Score early, play defense, keep the offensive pressure, and hope for good goaltending from Holtby... and the series is far from an easy win for the Bruins.

4.11.2012

Playoffs, Round 1: Preview & Predictions

Stanley Cup playoffs logos being prepped. (Getty Images)
The playoffs finally get underway tonight, with Philly/Pittsburgh, Detroit/Nashville, and Vancouver/LA all playing. Here's a quick preview of each series:

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
All season long, the Rangers have been playing a hard, playoff style of hockey under coach John Tortorella. Ever shift has mattered, and the team has reaped the results; they are first in the East and were points away from the Presidents' Trophy. Henrik Lundqvist has been fabulous in net (even more so that usual) all season long, and the Gaborik/Richards combo has produced sustained offense. Ottawa, meanwhile, surprised nearly everyone by handily making the playoffs, on the backs of great seasons from Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Erik Karlsson. Can either team match their regular season success? Were the Sens just a smoke-and-mirrors affair all season? Do the Rangers have enough left in the tank?

Prediction: Ottawa puts up a fight, but King Henrik powers the Rangers to a 4-2 series victory.

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
Last year's champions face off the team that many predicted would be this season's champions, though its safe to say that those predictions went out the window long ago. The Bruins look to be the huge favorites, with pundits more or less unanimously predicting a win for Boston. But, the Bruins have been less than fantastic after New Year's, with their season record largely coming as a result of their otherworldly November and December. This will be a very interesting season to watch... how will the Caps' react to having absolutely no pressure? Which Bruins team will show up?

Prediction: The Capitals shock everybody, and beat the Bruins, 4-2.

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
Somehow the Florida Panthers not only made the playoffs, but won the Southeast Division, and in fact have home ice against the Devils, a team with 8 more points and 10 more wins on the season. Both teams have relied heavily on the shootout for a large amount of their wins, but even without the shootout, the Devils are clearly the better team. As long as Martin Brodeur can shut the door in net, this should be fairly easy for the Devils.

Prediction: Too easy. Devils beat the Cats, 4-1.

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
Perhaps the two best teams in the Eastern Conference face off in the first round; a dream matchup for everyone except the two fan bases. It's going to be hard, probably dirty, and exciting. Both teams are more or less at full strength (save for the lack of Chris Pronger, who's been out for most of the season anyway), and this will be a power battle. Goaltending will be key.

Prediction: The Penguins, presumed Cup-champions-in-waiting, will get KO'd by the Flyers in 7. 4-3 Philadelphia.

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
The Vancouver Canucks are back as 1st in the West, and back as the Presidents' Trophy champs. They face the Los Angeles Kings, home of super-goalie Jonathan Quick and a curious lack of goal support. This has the potential to be a close series, but even if Jonathan Quick is fantastic in net, the Kings need to score more to have a chance. I doubt their chances.

Prediction: The Canucks slip by Jonathan Quick & the Kings, with a 4-2 series win.

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
The San Jose Sharks made the playoffs, after faltering for much of the season. The Blues, meanwhile, turned a new leaf after the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, and have not looked back. Save for some better high-end offensive talent on the Sharks, the Blues do everything better than San Jose. This should be a long series, but in the end the better team is going to win.

Prediction: The Blues manage to stop the Sharks in 7.

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
The Coyotes have succeeded because of Mike Smith and the coaching of Dave Tippett. The Blackhawks have succeeded despite missing their captain, Jonathan Toews, for much of the stretch run. Toews should be back starting for Game 1, and the rest of the Chicago team is the same as it has been. This could be the swan song for the Coyotes in Phoenix, and it will be a good one; but, the Blackhawks are better.

Prediction: Toews is back, and the Blackhawks beat Mike Smith & co. in 7 games.

Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
The Nashville Predators have finally arrived as an elite NHL team this season, and they get to face the king of kings in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings are the standard bearers in terms of franchise respectability and success of late, and deservedly so. But, the Nashville Predators' time is, I think, now, and will manage to not only beat the Detroit Red Wings, but everyone in the West and maybe even the Eastern conference champion too... en route to their first ever Stanley Cup. After which the team will be broken up of course, due to cap restraints (#SuterToTheCaps).

Prediction: Preds beat the Red Wings in 6, with Rinne shining in net.

* * *
Also, ever the optimist, here's my bracket for the playoffs...

4.08.2012

Playoff Time (with blank bracket!)

To say the NHL season ended with a bang would be an understatement. With 15 games featuring all 30 teams scheduled for April 8th, the conclusion for the 2011-12 NHL season was set up to be packed with action, and the addition of 11 teams still fighting for playoff seeding made it all the more exciting. At the end of over 12 straight hours of hockey, these are the final match-ups for the first round of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs!

EASTERN CONFERENCE
– New York Rangers (1st seed, Atlantic Division champions) vs. Ottawa Senators (8th seed)
– Boston Bruins (2nd seed, Northeast Division champions) vs. Washington Capitals (7th seed)
– Florida Panthers (3rd seed, Southeast Division champions) vs. New Jersey Devils (6th seed)
– Pittsburgh Penguins (4th seed) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5th seed)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
– Vancouver Canucks (1st seed, Northwest Division & Presidents' Trophy champions) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8th seed)
– St. Louis Blues (2nd seed, Central Division champions) vs. San Jose Sharks (7th seed)
– Phoenix (3rd seed, Pacific Division champions) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6th seed)
– Nashville Predators (4th seed) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5th seed)

Here's a lovely bracket I made for the playoffs (note: after the first round, the teams are reseeded, so the highest remaining seed will play the lowest remaining seed, then second highest will play second lowest, etc.); here's a PDF copy of it that you can print out.
Enjoy! Tell us what your picks are (on twitter!), and feel free to share the bracket!

1.01.2012

2012 IIHF World Junior Championships - Day 5 Recap

Photo via HHOF-IIHF Images
The preliminary round of the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship ended with a bang, as all four games, three of which were crucial to determine medal round seeding and what teams would end up in relegation, were filled with interesting twists and turns. The final standings for Groups A & B, with the medal round seeding as well:

GROUP A

TEAM
GP
W
OTW
OTL
L
GD
PTS
STATUS
1.
SWE
4
2
2
0
0
15
10
1ST SEED
2.
RUS
4
3
0
1
1
18
10
2ND SEED
3.
SVK
4
2
0
0
2
-6
6
3RD SEED
4.
SUI
4
1
0
1
2
-4
4
RELEGATION
5.
LAT
4
0
0
0
4
-23
0
RELEGATION

GROUP B

TEAM
GP
W
OTW
OTL
L
GD
PTS
STATUS
1.
CAN
4
4
0
0
0
21
12
1ST SEED
2.
FIN
4
3
0
0
1
9
9
2ND SEED
3.
CZE
4
2
0
0
2
1
6
3RD SEED
4.
USA
4
1
0
0
3
1
3
RELEGATION
5.
DEN
4
0
0
0
4
-32
0
RELEGATION

Recaps: