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Giving The NHL Playoffs The Oscar Treatment

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For anyone who saw the outstanding Spike Jonze-directed movie Her at some point during this unending winter, there were a lot of things that made it an Oscar contender.

The futuristic yet not unrealistic setting, the fascinating questions about where human relationships are headed, the wardrobe choices – I’m looking at you, high-waisted pants – and Joaquin Phoenix’s subtly vulnerable performance were all captivating in their own right.

But nothing was quite as attention-grabbing as that voice. The sultry tone of Samantha, the operating system that made Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly begin to fall in love, was captivating enough to make even the audience forget it was actually coming from a computer.

The voice, that voice, was famously Scarlett Johansson’s, but you know whose it was supposed to be? Samantha Morton’s. Fine actress, Academy Award nominee, probably a nice person, but little more than your run-of-the-mill British accent.

Jonze brought Johansson in during the post-production process and, though no footage or audio seems to have been released with Morton voicing Samantha, the decision completely changed the experience viewing and hearing the movie. It’s a good flick if Morton’s is the voice you’re hearing Phoenix banter with for two hours, but the switch to Johansson made it borderline great.

The NHL regular season is a pleasant, satisfying Samantha Morton – always comforting, occasionally wonderful.

The NHL playoffs are ScarJo.

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of playoff analysis and regular-season award chatter around this time, but instead of simply breaking down the first round or delving into who should win the Calder and Hart trophies, why not combine some postseason prognostications with a bit of talk about which individual hockey hardware belongs where?

Without further ado, Checking The Score presents … the NHL playoff Oscars as we head into the best postseason in sports.

8.) Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay

And the Oscar goes to … the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.

Steven Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken leg and the relationship between GM Steve Yzerman and franchise mainstay Martin St. Louis was so damaged that St. Louis wound up being dealt to the New York Rangers. Yet here’s Tampa Bay, with 100 points and home-ice advantage against Montreal. Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn stepped up in Stamkos’ absence and Ryan Callahan – over from the Rangers in the St. Louis trade – became a positive presence after a somewhat difficult start. The Lightning’s biggest adaptation, however, may be yet to come. Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop has a sore elbow and won’t play in Wednesday’s Game 1, leaving backup Anders Lindback and his woeful .891 save percentage to start. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have gone from a team that relied too heavily on balance in 2012-13 – no consistent goal scorers, too much pressure on an inconsistent Carey Price – to one that has two stud scorers and a completely confident Price between the pipes. Max Pacioretty finished fourth in the league with 39 goals and Thomas Vanek had 15 points in 18 games after coming over for basically nothing from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. It’s Price, though, who may make the biggest difference. He’s 12-4-1 with a .945 save percentage since Jan. 28 – and oh, by the way, he led Canada to Olympic gold in that stretch as well.

Post-Oscar buzz: Bishop should return at some point in the series and Tampa Bay is a far better possession team that Montreal and figures to keep Price busy. He may be up to the task in a series that figures to be tight and low-scoring – these two produced just 11 combined goals in four games this season. I’ll take a healthy Stamkos to be the difference.

Academy consensus: Lightning in 7

Henrik Lundqvist doesn't let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

7.) Best Visual Effects

And the Oscar goes to … the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers

There’s just something appealing about these two matching up in the postseason for the first time since 1997, and what’s so striking might be the contrast in styles. Only conference No. 1s Boston and Anaheim have scored more goals since Jan. 1 than the Flyers, and no one has allowed fewer than the Rangers in that time. Claude Giroux has been a different player for Philadelphia after a rough first two months that cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, but like Price in Montreal, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist has been rejuvenated after leading Sweden to silver in Sochi. He’s 11-4-1 with a .939 save percentage since March 7 and he’s kind of owned the Flyers in recent years – if that’s what 13-3-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average in his last 16 starts means. He’s allowed 21 goals in 14 home games against Philadelphia in five years, and guess what? He has home-ice here. There are always questions in net for the Flyers and that’s no different here, with Steve Mason slated to miss Game 1 with an upper-body injury. That means Ray Emery, and that probably means trouble for Philadelphia.

Post-Oscar buzz: The advanced stats love the Rangers, who are fourth in the league in shot differential and far better in puck possession. The Flyers thrive on the power play but New York actually is four goals better overall in special teams differential. The Rangers are, quite simply, not a good matchup for Philadelphia.

Academy consensus: Rangers in 5

It's OK, this man is Swedish so he's allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

It’s OK, this man is Swedish so he’s allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

6.) Best Foreign Language Film

And the Oscar goes to … the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have imported more Swedish products than Ikea for the last few decades, but it’s one of their youngest who helped push their streak of consecutive postseason appearances to 23. Gustav Nyquist had 14 goals in his first 18 games back from the Olympic break, keeping Detroit afloat while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were down with injuries. Datsyuk is back but Zetterberg is no sure thing to return for this series. Even if he does, he’ll run into fellow Scandinavian stalwart Tuukka Rask, who’s 11-1-2 with a 1.68 GAA in his last 14 starts and was outstanding throughout the postseason while guiding Boston to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Boston’s defense has a lot of youth in front of Rask with Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg out, but it also has Zdeno Chara, a top-seven penalty kill and the fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Chara, in fact, was one of eight Bruins to score at least 16 goals for a team that had the NHL’s best differential (plus-87) since Ottawa and Detroit topped that in 2005-06.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Red Wings didn’t just miss Datsyuk and Zetterberg. There are still injuries to Mikael Samuelsson, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Weiss and Jonathan Ericsson to worry about, which will severely test their youth and depth against what’s probably the league’s deepest team. Detroit played well down the stretch but this is an awfully tall task. Had the Red Wings jumped Columbus for the first wild-card and landed a series against Pittsburgh, they might have had just enough to pull the upset. Rask was sick in the Olympic semifinals and his absence cost Finland against Sweden, but he’ll get a little sweet Scandinavian revenge here.

Academy consensus: Bruins in 6

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win this series, but still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win, but he still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

5.) Best Original Score

And the Oscar goes to … the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks

This was going to be the second-round matchup for the ages, the defending Stanley Cup champs against the loaded, deep machine that was out to run them down. Then something funny happened: the Blues became kind of mediocre overnight. Starting with a 4-0 loss at Chicago on March 19, St. Louis went 5-9-0 down the stretch, totaling an NHL-worst 21 goals and breaking out the fine china to serve up the Central Division title to Colorado in a 14-course meal that would make Thomas Keller blush. The Blackhawks’ woes date back to their return from the Olympic break, as they went 11-10-1 down the stretch and lost eight of 10 on the road. The last 13 of those, however, came without Patrick Kane and the last six without Jonathan Toews, both of whom will be back for Game 1. The Blues had a lot of injuries down the stretch as well, and not all of their walking wounded are likely to be back as soon. Shootout sensation T.J. Oshie and center David Backes should be, but Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow may not be ready for Game 1. If the ‘Hawks and Blues are even close to full strength, expect some offensive fireworks. Chicago was second and St. Louis seventh in scoring in the regular season and neither Ryan Miller nor Corey Crawford was particularly impressive in net toward the end of the regular season.

Post-Oscar buzz: Aside from injuries, a lot of both teams’ struggles may have had to do with complacency. It’s difficult to get up for each of 82 games the season after winning the Cup, and in the Blues’ case, the Olympics seemed to do plenty to slow what to that point had been the Western Conference’s speediest freight train. This is a heavyweight title fight in every sense, and it’d be no surprise to see it go the distance.

Academy consensus: Blackhawks in 7

He's no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he'll do. (AP)

He’s no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he’ll do. (AP)

4.) Actor in a Supporting Role

And the Oscar goes to … Frederik Andersen

Jonas Hiller was a Swiss Olympian and Anaheim’s unquestioned starter through the first half of the season, but he might not even be the backup when the top-seeded Ducks open the playoffs against Dallas on Wednesday. The starting job belongs to Andersen, who beat out Hiller and fellow rookie John Gibson to be the eventual target of coach Bruce Boudreau’s ire. Andersen wasn’t exactly awesome himself down the stretch, posting a 2.72 GAA since the Olympics, but he’ll be the Ducks’ man – at least initially. Both Anaheim and Dallas rely heavily on their top lines, and this series may come down to whether Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf or Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can produce more. Neither team has a particularly productive power play and neither has a starting goaltender with playoff experience – though Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen certainly isn’t without NHL experience. The 10-year veteran will get his first taste of the postseason since playing two games for Atlanta (remember them?) in 2006-07. He’s perhaps the best backstop in this series, though, having gone 13-5-1 with a 2.07 GAA since February and winning nine of his last 10 home starts.

Post-Oscar buzz: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of faith in the Ducks for a team that finished atop its conference, and with the questions in goal, many of those may be justified. Anaheim is not a great possession team and isn’t particularly good at faceoffs, and there’s a lot of pressure on Perry and Getzlaf to carry the team – particularly with the inexperience in next. The Stars haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, but Seguin should have a vested interest in stepping into the spotlight after his 2013 postseason disappearing act with Boston. The Ducks went down in Round 1 last season after winning the Pacific, so why can’t it happen again?

Academy consensus: Stars in 6

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

3.) Best Director

And the Oscar goes to … Patrick Roy

After no playoff appearances in their last three years under Joe Sacco, the Avalanche made the ballsy move to hand the reins to Roy, who had no previous NHL coaching experience. And … it couldn’t have worked out better. Roy made his presence felt from his first game behind the bench, nearly challenging Boudreau and Anaheim to a fight, and the Avalanche seemed to take their cues from their feisty and often crazy boss. Colorado won 12 of its first 13 games but was playing perhaps its best down the stretch, going 8-1-2 in its last 11 to seize the Central Division from St. Louis and likely lock up the Jack Adams Trophy for Roy. The Avalanche aren’t without their warts, though. Leading scorer Matt Duchene likely won’t play in this opening series against Minnesota due to a bruised knee. They’re 25th in the league in shot percentage, meaning they’ve perhaps too heavily relied on Semyon Varlamov at times. The Wild, meanwhile, are hitching their wagon to Ilya Bryzgalov, who was solid in the final two weeks of the regular season but has a spotty postseason track record – unless a 3.70 GAA in his last 15 starts is your thing. Minnesota lacks Colorado’s depth up front – especially down the middle – and is going to have to turn this series into a bunch of 2-1 games to have a chance.

Post-Oscar buzz: With Duchene out and his team’s sudden offseason transformation from the second-worst in the league to the third-best, Colorado would seem to be ripe for an upset. The Avs aren’t a great possession team and they’re relying on a lot of youth in key areas, but Minnesota – for as well as it played down the stretch – isn’t the team to knock them out.

Academy consensus: Avalanche in 6

That baby face my never seem to age, but the Penguins' gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

That baby face my never age, but the Penguins’ gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

2.) Actor in a Leading Role

And the Oscar goes to … Sidney Crosby

Yes, Flyers fans, it’s richly ironic that we’re giving the diving diva of a man you all love to call “Cindy” an award for acting. Very funny, but go back to booing your grandmothers so we can all move along. The NHL’s leading scorer is a shoo-in for his second Hart Trophy – and it really should be his third or fourth, but they have to give Alex Ovechkin some reason to keep playing. All that being said, Crosby’s Penguins have earned the label of postseason underachievers the past few seasons. The captain himself shouldn’t shoulder a ton of blame – he’s averaged 1.39 points in the regular season and 1.28 in the always more tightly contested playoffs while his shooting percentage (14.8) is identical – but he hasn’t really elevated Pittsburgh come mid-April since the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2009. The pressure is on, yet in reality this isn’t one of the Penguins’ strongest groups. They missed 529 man-games to injury – most in the league and 180 more than the No. 3 team – but Crosby played essentially his first full season in four years. Pittsburgh is a poor puck possession team and relies heavily on its special teams to succeed, generally lousy things to rely on if you fashion yourself Cup contenders. The forward depth isn’t even as good as it was last season, when the Penguins were last seen scoring two total goals while being swept by Boston. Enter Columbus, which has never won a playoff game in its 13-season existence, yet has turned into a solid two-way club with a stud goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky under coach Todd Richards. Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season, but he might have to be superhuman to keep Crosby and the Penguins from advancing.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Blue Jackets couldn’t solve Pittsburgh in the regular season, losing all five meetings, and Bobrovsky has a career 3.38 GAA in 11 games against the Penguins. Boston completely shut Pittsburgh down in last season’s Eastern Conference finals but Columbus won’t be able to rely on Bobrovsky doing it alone. The Penguins have been vulnerable in up-and-down, high-scoring hockey games the past few postseasons, but Ryan Johansen is the only consistently intimidating offensive threat for the Jackets.

Academy consensus: Penguins in 5

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

1.) Best Picture

And the Oscar goes to … the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings

These games might be low-scoring, but not in an “Astros-Marlins can’t get out of their way” type. I’m thinking more along the lines of “Greg Maddux-Pedro Martinez throwing zeroes for nine innings” type. The home team won every game in last season’s 7-game second round masterpiece, which featured five one-goal margins, and four of their five 2013-14 meetings were also decided by a single light of the lamp. San Jose had the highest shot differential since the Cup-winning 2009-10 Blackhawks, peppering the net with nearly 35 shots per game, but there may be no goaltender you’d rather have facing those than Jonathan Quick. Twenty-two goaltenders have started at least five games over the last two postseasons and Quick’s 1.62 GAA is nearly a quarter-goal lower than the man closest to him, Boston’s Tuukka Rask. The advanced stats love the Kings, who rank first in Corsi and also happened to allow the fewest goals in the league. The Sharks, meanwhile, can empathize with the Penguins’ underachiever label – but at least Crosby and company have one Cup to show for their troubles. San Jose has finished with at least 105 points in six of the last seven non-lockout-shortened seasons and hasn’t even made it out of the West once, losing eight of the nine conference finals games it’s played in that time. With Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and a healthy Tomas Hertl, there’s plenty of firepower to make this year the year for the Sharks. But it’s hard to believe it until we see it.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Kings had identical 23-14-4 records at home and on the road, and when it comes to the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing. They owned the road en route to their Cup win two years ago, though they had no success winning in San Jose last postseason. In fact, they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 in the Shark Tank and scored a whopping total of … 17 goals. Quick is good, but the Sharks are better, and more importantly, they have home-ice this time around. One bounce will probably decide that series, and San Jose is finally due to have it go their way. This is a series worthy of a conference final.

Academy consensus: Sharks in 7


Stanley Cup Finals primer: Bruins vs. Blackhawks

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Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Contrary to what some may believe, I haven’t sworn off hockey for good after the Penguins – the same Penguins who were averaging more goals than any team in the playoffs since 1990 – managed to score TWICE IN 275 MINUTES in their embarrassing no-show in the conference finals.

Rather than focusing on Pittsburgh’s ineptitude, though, don’t forget to credit Boston for controlling that series from the opening puck drop and Tuukka Rask for never allowing the Penguins the life they were so desperately seeking in the double-overtime Game 3 thriller, which was one of the best hockey games I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Blackhawks are a minus-150 favorite in Vegas, which means they should win this series approximately 60 percent of the time. But nearly all of the experts I’ve seen throwing their hat in the prediction ring have picked Boston, and it’s pretty easy to see why after the Bruins clogged up the neutral zone, beat down the Penguins’ forwards and allowed nearly no rebound opportunities.

The Blackhawks and Penguins are both similarly skilled teams, but Chicago is faster. The Blackhawks also will not allow Boston to put up police tape in a 20×20 area in front of the net to keep everyone out of Rask’s way.

Aside from Patrick Kane’s hat trick in Game 5 against the Kings, Kane and captain Jonathan Toews had combined for 4 goals in 16 playoff games. Yet here the ‘Hawks are anyway, having had little issue against either Minnesota or Los Angeles even with that Detroit scare in between.

Boston may very well win this series. They might have gotten that massive scare from the Maple Leafs in Round 1 and then taken off like a Lamborghini. After they held the Penguins scoreless for 60 more minutes in Game 4, I was all ready to pick the Bruins in six. But if there’s ever been a stronger case of recency bias getting in the way than this, I’d love to hear it. Chicago might be similar to Pittsburgh, but it’s also a smarter, more well-coached team that will adjust on the fly. Corey Crawford will need to be stellar, as Boston has the ability to get goals in bunches – Game 2 in Pittsburgh, anyone? – but he’s proven to be up to the task. This should be a tight series featuring strong goaltending, great penalty killing and not too many goals. I’d imagine we’ll have an overtime or two to digest in the coming few weeks, and plenty of nerve-wracking finishes.

The pick: Blackhawks in 7

Conn Smythe winner: Marian Hossa

The NHL Playoff Primer: Conference Semifinals, Part I

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Ohhh, Canada :( (Canadian Press)

Ohhh, Canada 😦 (Canadian Press)

I’m not going to lie and say that forecasting the NHL playoffs is as difficult as the NCAA tournament, but predicting the outcome of these series isn’t exactly like picking between pie and cake (HINT: ALWAYS PIE).

And after all, the purpose of Checking The Score’s postseason previews is to provide some meaningful, cogent analysis of what’s to come on the ice, not to toot my own horn like I’m some sort of master prognosticator. But I did pick the victor in seven out of eight series in the perennially fickle first round (thanks as always, Alex Ovechkin), meaning I have a pretty good grasp on the remaining eight teams competing for the Stanley Cup.

Or that I’m about to go 0-4 in Round 2.

(Probably that).

Nevertheless, it’s time to do what the Toronto Maple Leafs still haven’t done in nine years – move on to the conference semifinals.

Today we’ll tackle the two series that begin Tuesday, and on Wednesday we’ll take a trip down Original Six lane with Chicago-Detroit and Boston-New York.

Tomas Vokoun (USA Today)

Tomas Vokoun (USA Today)

1.) Pittsburgh vs. 7.) Ottawa

The Penguins will win if: They stop turning the puck over. Say what you want about Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation – which currently can be summed up as “Tomas Vokoun usually stops the vulcanized rubber disk that teams are trying to get past him and Marc-Andre Fleury does not” – but no netminder is going to look very competent when his defense is giving the puck away like Halloween candy in its own zone.

In case you needed an example:

The Islanders had an NHL-best 1.57 takeaways for every giveaway against the Penguins in the first round, nearly twice as much as their middle-of-the-pack ratio during the regular season. Pittsburgh was outplayed for large chunks of the four games they didn’t win by shutout, and really only survived thanks to its excellent special teams (7 for 21 on the power play, 18 for 20 on the penalty kill). For as much talent as the Penguins possess alongside a healthy Sidney Crosby and an occasionally motivated Evgeni Malkin, they’re not one of the league’s speedier squads. That was never as apparent as it was against the youthful legs of the Islanders, who were able to fly between the two blue lines and create plenty of good odd-man chances.

Now Pittsburgh will have to do a complete 180. Ottawa doesn’t want to get up and down as much as it wants to suffocate teams at center ice. The Penguins didn’t have a problem dealing with the Senators’ physical approach in the regular season, winning all three games despite only scoring eight goals and going 1 for 15 on the power play.

The Senators will win if: They don’t take a boatload of stupid penalties. Ottawa spent the fourth-most time of anyone killing penalties in the regular season and got somewhat drawn into a blood bath against Montreal, though neither cost it – the Sens had the best PK during the 48-game slate and killed 16 of the Canadiens’ 19 chances. The big storyline heading into this series is reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson’s return after Matt Cooke’s skate slashed his Achilles tendon in mid-February, but Ottawa can’t afford to get caught up in any sort of quest for retaliation – despite some CSI-like investigating from its owner. The Penguins’ power play is a different animal than most when it’s clicking, and like Herb Brooks said in Miracle … well, I’ll just hand it over to Kurt Russell.

Ottawa’s game is to sit back and wait for teams to make mistakes – something the Penguins have proven to be prone to – but the Sens shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances here. They’re outmanned talent-wise up front, but can rely on Craig Anderson to snuff out a few odd-man rushes the other way if a breakout pass goes awry. The Penguins will be thinking about every mistake they make, particularly if they’re forced to turn back to Fleury at any point.

Fun fact: The six series Pittsburgh has won under Dan Bylsma all ended on the road.

The pick:  Penguins in 6

Jeff Carter (Getty Images)

Jeff Carter (Getty Images)

5.) Los Angeles vs. 6) San Jose

The Kings will win if: They can get some production from Jeff Carter. Carter is generally looking to do one thing with the puck – he’s had more goals than assists six straight seasons, including an alarming 26-to-7 ratio in 2013 – but when you’re as accurate as this guy’s been, why look to pass? Carter scored 19.5 percent of the time he put a shot on net this season, making him the league’s second-best marksman of anyone who attempted at least 100. The Kings were 18-2-3 when the big winger scored in the regular season, and he combined for three goals in games 4 and 5 against the Blues in the first round. He had none on nine shots over four games against San Jose, yet the Kings managed to win twice and drop another in a shootout.

Both teams can roll out three dynamic forward lines and have goalies capable of stealing multiple games in a series, but there may be more consistent pressure on Jonathan Quick than San Jose’s Antti Niemi. The Kings were outshot by nearly five a game against the Blues and lost the faceoff battle badly in their two defeats.

Getting Anze Kopitar going wouldn’t hurt, either. Kopitar has 15 assists in his last 22 games but has scored just once in that stretch – a critical Game 4 goal against St. Louis. Kopitar was injured when the Sharks bounced the Kings in six games two years ago in the first round – the last series LA has lost – but he’s healthy this time, and Los Angeles would love for him to do more than just set Dustin Brown and Justin Williams up. That won’t be easy, though, as Logan Couture has turned into one of the game’s best two-ways centers and will be matched up with Kopitar and Co. as often as possible.

The Sharks will win if: The put the puck on net with regularity. San Jose averaged the fourth-most shots in the regular season and fired away a Western Conference-best 36.5 per game in the first round against overmatched Vancouver. Their big guns – Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau – scored at least three goals apiece, while Joe Thornton set up five and was a team-best plus-3. The Sharks had 24 power-play chances – scoring seven times – and they only gave the Canucks 10 chances with the man advantage. They had a stunning plus-35 disparity in the faceoff circle.

While the four big scorers will be needed to produce, they could also get Martin Havlat back from a lower-body injury at some point in the series. Even if Havlat is still out, there’s another winger that’s producing at a high level in San Jose in converted defenseman Brent Burns, who’s given the Sharks an outstanding presence in front of the net and somehow registered eight points in four games against the Kings this season. The move happened in early February, and to hear Joe Thornton tell it, the switch had even more to do with winning than your average playoff beard.

“It kind of changed around our season, to be honest with you,” Thornton told the Calgary Sun. “We were hovering around ninth or 10th spot and Burnsie comes up to forward. He’s such a big load to handle.”

Things aren’t going to continue to be as lopsided against a far more disciplined, wiser group in the Kings, but here’s why keeping Quick busy is so important. Last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner faced more than 30 shots 11 times this season – including twice in the first round – and the Kings won only two of those games. Since 1992-93, only one team – the 2010-11 Bruins – won the Stanley Cup while allowing more than 30 shots a game in the postseason. If the Kings let San Jose get too much space in the offensive zone, they could be in trouble – regardless of how much Quick seems to step up his game in these situations.

Finally, home ice is going to be more meaningful in this series than perhaps any other in the postseason. LA and San Jose were a combined 36-6-6 on home ice and 16-26-6 away from home, though they combined for three road wins in Round 1. The Sharks have had a week off since sweeping the Canucks, and considering the Kings have won 10 straight at Staples Center, stealing Game 1 on legs that haven’t gone through a back-and-forth playoff game in six days may not be their best bet.

Fun fact: These two Pacific Division pals have played 22 times over the last three seasons – including the 2011 playoff showdown. They’ve each scored exactly 63 goals in that stretch.

The pick: San Jose in 6

The NHL Playoff Primer: Part II – Eastern Conference

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Sidney Crosby (AP)

Sidney Crosby (AP)

Offense was a bit tough to come by last night – all three games would have finished 2-1 were it not for Anaheim’s empty netter – but with two ending in overtime, a pretty decent start to the NHL playoffs. On that note, if you’re not calling up your friends who may or may not know anything about hockey to participate in an overtime pool – pick one player on each team who you think will score, wager a small or large amount of money, food or booze with the winner taking all or the pot carrying over – you’re not truly enjoying hockey in May. Let’s hope the Eastern Conference can provide a few more goals while continuing to play to 60-minute stalemates.

If it’s scoring you want, the East’s 1-vs.-8 series should be a must-watch.

John Tavares (AP)

John Tavares (AP)

1. Pittsburgh vs. 8. New York Islanders

Odds of an upset: 10 percent

The Penguins will win if: Smallpox doesn’t surface for the first time in 36 years to wipe out their entire roster. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Paul Martin missed a combined 56 games due to injury, but all are ready to go for this series except Crosby – who won’t play in at least Game 1 as he continues to recover from a broken jaw. Missing the world’s best player would be a big deal for many teams, but with Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and trade deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, the Penguins should have more than enough offensive firepower to get past the Islanders. It won’t be a walk in the park, though. The Isles went 11-2-4 over the season’s final month, have an MVP candidate in the superb John Tavares and are going to win plenty of postseason series in the coming years. But considering Pittsburgh went 23-3-0 against playoff teams, making it to the second round for the first time in two decades will likely have to wait. Unless …

The Islanders will win if: Marc-Andre Fleury forgets how to stop the puck. Pittsburgh’s Fleur de Filet has a Stanley Cup on his resume but was brutal in last season’s playoff loss to Philadelphia, giving up 26 goals in six games – albeit behind a rather porous defense. That shouldn’t be as much of a problem in 2013. Rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik’s status is up in the air but the Penguins have a lot of depth defensively. Pittsburgh’s goals-against average over the last 23 games – essentially half the season – was an East-best 1.91, and backup Tomas Vokoun is a much better insurance policy if Fleury struggles than Brent Johnson was a year ago. The Islanders’ best hope is to capitalize on the Penguins’ iffy penalty killing, but New York converted just 13.6 percent of its power-play chances over its final 23 games. It also went 0 for 16 in losing the final four games of the season series to the Pens after going 2 for 2 in a 4-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 29. It’s imperative for the Isles to win one of the first two games on the road to put some doubt in the mind of the Penguins – who after going all-in at the deadline will be feeling plenty of pressure – and at 14-6-4 away from Long Island, New York has the ability to do so.

The pick: Penguins in 5

Craig Anderson (Getty Images)

Craig Anderson (Getty Images)

2. Montreal vs. 7. Ottawa

Odds of an upset: 60 percent

The Canadiens will win if: The power play continues to click. But we’ll get to that. First, a public service announcement: Ohhhh, Canada! The NHL’s first playoff series involving a North-of-the-Border battle since Vancouver and Calgary met in the first round nine years ago should be a good one that divides Tim Hortons all along the Ottawa River. The bar arguments over a case of Labatt and a slice of tourtiere with a side of poutine will be legendary for as long as this series extends! And with that, I’m out of cultural Canadian references.  Montreal surprised everyone to win the Northeast Division after finishing with the East’s worst record last season, earning just 15 more points than it did in 34 fewer games in 2013. The Canadiens were awful a year ago because they couldn’t score, but that wasn’t a problem this season as they finished tied for the fourth-most goals in the league. Slowing Montreal down isn’t easy because they have plenty of depth up front. Eight players scored at least 10 goals and Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk chipped in a combined 17 more.  The Habs boast a top five power-play unit, and the strength of that group is on the back end. There are two defensemen in the NHL that have scored at least seven power-play goals, and Montreal has both of them – Andrei Markov (eight) and P.K. Subban (seven). Throw in the 34 combined man-advantage assists that duo boasts and it’s a pretty formidable unit. Those special teams aren’t so special when the situation is reversed, though. Montreal’s opponents scored 11 goals in 36 power-play chances as the Canadiens lost five of their final eight games, and considering this is one of the league’s most penalized teams, that could be a problem.

The Senators will win if: Craig Anderson steps up and steals it. Ottawa gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, and the catalyst to their stinginess is this journeyman netminder, who led the NHL with a 1.69 goals-against average. And it’s not like the Senators simply aren’t allowing the puck to get to the net – among the 16 playoff teams, they allow the third-most shots on goal. They also spend a lot of time killing penalties – more than Montreal and third in the NHL – but have the league’s best success rate at doing so. Ottawa’s magic number is three. The Sens are 18-2-1 if they score three goals and 7-15-5 otherwise, so give Anderson just a little bit of a cushion and he’s proven that he can shut an opponent down. Problem is, sometimes even two goals are a stretch for this bunch. Ottawa scored two or fewer in 10 of 13 games prior to its season-ending 4-2 win in Boston. The good news is defenseman Erik Karlsson is somehow back after missing only 10 weeks with a lacerated Achilles tendon, a timetable Kobe Bryant could only dream of equaling. The Senators score a quarter-goal a game more with the reigning Norris Trophy winner in the lineup, and in what should be a tight, low-scoring series, that could be enough to spring what would be a mild upset.

The pick: Senators in 6

Alex Ovechkin and "Jaws" portrayer Richard Kiel (Getty Images)

Alex Ovechkin and “Jaws” portrayer Richard Kiel (Getty Images)

No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 New York Rangers

Odds of an upset: 50 percent

The Capitals will win if: Their first two months were a mirage. First of all, you can basically throw any upset talk out the window here since these clubs are essentially equals. Washington finished with 57 points and a goal differential of plus-19, while the Rangers had 56 points and a plus-18 differential. The Caps were lousy for nearly two-thirds of the season, getting 25 points from their first 29 games, sitting nine points out of first place in the pathetic Southeast Division while owning the second-worst record in hockey. But Washington’s season turned on a dime. It earned 32 points in its last 19 games – six more than anyone else in that span – and that turnaround coincided with Alex Ovechkin turning from the ordinary Russian supervillain we’ve come to know and love into a goal-scoring megalomaniac who’s hell-bent on winning scoring titles and probably at some point playing Jaws in a modern reboot of The Spy Who Loved Me. Twelve goals on 120 shots in his first 29 games, 20 goals on 100 shots in his last 19. That, my friends, is a big difference. Jaws comes with friends, too. Troy Brouwer, who scored 18 goals in 82 games last season, had 19 in 47 this season – including six in his final eight contests. The Capitals have converted exactly one-third of their power-play chances since March 31, and if that continues, this team could be primed for a deep run. One little issue, though …

The Rangers will win if: Henrik Lundqvist is in Washington’s head. You may have heard of him: well-dressed Swedish dude who was named one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People in 2006. Unfortunately for the Caps, he’s even better at goaltending than he is keeping his suave, Scandinavian skin blemish free. King Henrik helped the Rangers sneak past Washington in seven games in the second round last season and he played well against them again in 2013, giving him a nine-game stretch against New York in which he’s posted a 1.61 GAA. He’s also had Mr. Ovi’s number for a while now. Ovechkin has 9 goals in his last 24 games against the Rangers, including just two power-play tallies and zero multi-goal games. And for as well as Washington has played of late, New York had itself an amazing April, going 10-3-1 and outscoring opponents 51-27. This is a team that spends less time in the penalty box than anyone, which is as big a key to beating the Caps as anything. No team scored more than three goals in a game during last season’s playoff scrum between these two, and that’s just how Lundqvist and the Rangers like it.

The pick: Capitals in 7

Phil Kessel (Canadian Press)

Phil Kessel (Canadian Press)

No. 4 Boston vs. No. 5 Toronto

The Bruins will win if: Like Charlie Conway and company did in any number of confidence-deflating losses early in The Mighty Ducks, Toronto takes one look at the jersey of the team lining up across from it at center ice. Boston has won nine of the 10 games between these two over the last two seasons, though each of the four meetings in 2013 was decided by one goal until Tyler Seguin’s empty netter March 7. The Bruins, though, have been a pretty ordinary hockey team since St. Patrick’s Day – and that might even be generous. Boston went 9-10-3 over its last 22 games, giving away the Northeast Division in the process, and special teams were an especially big issue. Perhaps due to consuming too much Guinness on March 17 and the inevitable six-week hangover, the Bruins have converted just 10.9 percent of their power-play chances since while allowing opponents to find the back of the net 22.2 percent of the time. Boston’s offense has failed in general of late, scoring two goals or fewer in eight of its final nine games. The Bruins had to play the final six of those in a nine-day span due to the Marathon bombings, so wondering how much they have in the tank is a legitimate question. But any team as sound defensively as Boston that can roll out four solid lines – including a top two so good that 72-year-old-and-going-strong Jaromir Jagr is on the third unit – is a more-than-viable threat.

The Maple Leafs will win if: Phil Kessel produces. The Bruins’ former No. 1 pick turned trade bait for two first-round picks has put up impressive offensive numbers in four seasons in Toronto, but this is his first postseason rodeo since playing in Boston in 2009. Saying Kessel has disappeared when facing his former club would be an insult to David Copperfield. He’s scored three goals and is a minus-22 in 22 games against the Bruins, scoring once while a minus-15 in 10 the past two seasons. It’s not like much is going to change here. Gheorghe Muresan body double Zdeno Chara will still be shadowing Kessel wherever he goes on the ice, though if there’s a silver lining for the Leafs it’s that the former Norris Trophy winner hasn’t exactly looked like himself lately. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli went as far as to say Monday that Chara has “got to get his game back.” Tuukka Rask would certainly appreciate that as he plays in his first postseason since 2010 – which included a series he would certainly love to forget – but Toronto has a much-less experienced playoff goalie. James Reimer will take the ice for his first postseason game Wednesday night, and he’ll do it behind a defense that allows more shots than anyone in the NHL’s Chase for the Cup but Washington.

The pick: Bruins in 6

Penguins Marching

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There’s an inherent risk in dealing assets for a player who’s in the final year of his contract in any sport, and that’s only exacerbated in this ultra-short NHL season. Yet here we have Penguins general manager Ray Shero, trading for not one but three players who are slated to hit unrestricted free agency come July.

These aren’t just any rent-a-players. Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla had only known one team for the entirety of their careers before this week, spending nearly three combined decades toiling away for a pair of Western Conference teams that weren’t exactly regular championship contenders. The Stars got to the Stanley Cup finals in Morrow’s 1999-00 rookie season and  made it as far as the conference finals once since. In Iginla’s entire 16-year career with Calgary, the Flames won a playoff series in only ONE season – their run to the Cup finals in 2003-04. Throw in the acquisition of San Jose’s salad-challenged defenseman Douglas Murray, a hulking man who has been made out to be the love child of Hal Gill and Godzilla and may have dated Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, and that’s three pending free agents brought in over four days who have never worn another jersey.

“The team on paper doesn’t mean too much,” Shero told the Penguins’ official website. “We have to do it on the ice.”

So even though Shero only had to give up one solid prospect (Joe Morrow) and one desirable draft pick (a 2013 No. 1 that will mostly likely be 29th or 30th), it’s safe to say the Penguins are, for lack of a better term, “all in.” Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang will be around next year, but Morrow, Iginla, and fellow free agents Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams might not be.

Even though Pittsburgh is riding a 13-game winning streak that’s the NHL’s longest in 12 years, Shero’s moves were the right ones.

But they’ve also upped the ante to a potentially dangerous degree. If this were the NBA, where the best team is going to emerge out of a seven-game series 98 times out of 100, the Penguins would have essentially just locked up their fourth Stanley Cup. Instead, the pressure is on more than ever.

Win and the moves look brilliant regardless of where Morrow and Iginla are cashing their checks next season. Do anything short of accepting the Cup from Gary Bettman’s cold, weaselly hands in late June and this season is an absolute failure. It’s another season of Crosby and Malkin’s primes in which they’ve failed to skate around hoisting the world’s heaviest drinking glass. It’s another offseason of wondering who’s coming and going. It’s another nine months of questioning who’s skating on the wings of the two best players in the world.

This isn’t the NBA. A No. 8 seed won the Cup last June after dominating the postseason like they were the Canadiens of the mid-1970s. The champion Kings beat a New Jersey team that finished fourth in its own division in the regular season. Two years before that, the East’s seventh-best team played in the finals. Considering the 48-game sample size we’re dealing with in 2013, who’s to say the Penguins will even get out of the first round? That, by the way, is something they haven’t done in either of their last two trips to the playoffs.

Barring some missteps down the stretch, the Penguins will finish with the East’s best record and home-ice advantage until at least the finals. Problem is, no top seed in the East has played for the Cup since Tampa Bay in 2004.

Shero’s all in, and he did the right thing. But for a team that will only have 12 games to get adjusted to its new trio, the urgency to win is all on like no team in recent memory.

iginla crosby