Lacing Up with Ash and Stoosh - 04.05.09
Lacing Up is a weekly column taken from an email conversation between Ashley Gallant and CJ. “Stoosh” Jiuliante. Stoosh is a former Faceoff Factor staff writer and a long-time hockey fan.
FF’s Matt Bodenschatz drops by this week to discuss the upcoming playoffs.
Ash: With the regular season is winding down, more and more teams are securing playoff spots.
Take a moment and think of all of the teams in the playoffs, and all of the teams that have a shot at making the playoffs. Which team(s) would you rather avoid? Are there any overrated teams? Why?
Matt: Ash, great question! I’ll stick to answering about the East and defer to you and Stoosh to add insight on the West, as I just don’t follow it closely enough.
This could easily be answered with a look at the standings, but that wouldn’t tell the whole truth. In the East, I think the teams to watch are the Devils, Penguins and Hurricanes. All three have the elements that make teams successful: solid goaltending, a system tailored to the players’ strengths, and depth. The Penguins and Hurricanes are peaking at the perfect time and, while the Devils are floundering a bit of late, one of their strengths is their experience, which will help them get back on track before long. These are the teams to avoid.
The Bruins are a solid team, no doubt, but their second half just hasn’t had the same feel that their first half had, and I wonder if the improbable, early success of their youngsters could be their Achilles heel. Will they be able to handle the rigors of the playoffs, or will we see a quick first round exit ala the Penguins of 2007? My money is on a quick exit — though it may not be in the first round, as they appear to have a favorable matchup against a struggling Canadiens team. More on that in a bit. File them in overrated.
The Flyers and Capitals have strong teams with plenty of depth, but both are weak at arguably the most important position: goaltender. Both Biron (Flyers) and Theodore (Capitals) have played adequately for the regular season, but neither has shown the ability to win games for their teams. Consider these teams to be good, but not good enough.
The Rangers, Canadiens and Panthers have done everything they can to miss the playoffs. Fortunately for them, the NHL requires eight teams per conference, so two of the three will get a chance — albeit a likely short one — in the postseason. The Rangers have one thing going for them: Lundqvist. Remove him from the equation and the team is in 10th place or worse. As for the Canadiens and Panthers, well, they’re just a mess. Neither team has much to write home about, and neither team is playing hockey worthy of the postseason. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the wannabes.
Ash: My poor Habs are repeating the mistakes of their rivals in Ottawa. Last season, the Senators began very well, but fell apart after Christmas. The Canadiens have had a nearly identical season and they may end up on the outside looking in, or swept in the first round – not the happy ending to their 100th season. There are plenty of fans this way who are ticked off at the team.
I agree with your assessments for the most part, but I think the Rangers could be upgraded to the “Consider these teams to be good, but not good enough” category. Torts has this team playing some decent hockey as of late, and I don’t think they will be embarrassed in the first round like the Habs…but that doesn’t mean that I think they will see the second round.
Now on to the West, where history is being made…
San Jose and Detroit are contenders. Detroit is, well, we all know what they are like. I will go out on a limb and say that this year is San Jose’s year. I don’t think this team could get any more perfect. The only thing that will beat the Sharks is the Sharks, but I don’t think that this is the year that San Jose will choke.
Vancouver is another team that I would not want to see in the playoffs. They kind of sucked earlier in the season, but as of today (Wed) they lead the division and have gone 8-2-0 in their last 10 games.
Chicago and Columbus are good teams, but they are not good enough. They will be entering the playoffs for the first time ever (Columbus) or for the first time in many years (Chicago), but neither team is strong enough to make a serious run at the Cup. They will gain valuable experience, and watch out next season.
As much as it pains to say, Calgary is a tad overrated. I really like this team and they have played well for most of the season, but it’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish. The Flames have been struggling lately and they have been giving up a ton of shots on Kipper. They may scrape their way into the second round, but I don’t see them going deep into the playoffs.
Anaheim, Nashville, St Louis, Edmonton and Minnesota are all on the cusp, but I see them as mostly wannabes. The Ducks may be able to pull something off, but I doubt it seeing as they will likely face either Detroit or San Jose in the first round (if they make it, that is).
Now here’s another question…do you honestly think that the Penguins have a shot at repeating as Eastern Conference Champions?
Matt: I am not so sure I feel as strongly about the Sharks as you do, Ash. I guess I feel that, after their years of choking, they’ll need to prove to me that they can do it. They’re one of the best teams in the NHL, if not THE best, but the best teams don’t always win. Like you said, it’s not how you start the season…or, for that matter, how you play in November, January, or even March. It’s how you play when something is on the line…in April, May, and June. And they have a reputation for falling apart when it matters most.
With that being said, I’ll answer your next question with a resounding YES! What’s not to like with the Penguins? Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Letang and a slew of other youngsters are a year older, a year wiser, a year more experienced, and, most importantly, a year better. And let’s not forget that they all are healthy. Last year at this time, Crosby was having injury issues that had potential to keep him out of the lineup moving into the playoffs. As of today (Thursday) that is not the case….knock on wood.
I did a roster analysis a few weeks back, looking at this year’s lines and defensive pairings and comparing them to those of one year ago. What I found was that, at the very least, this team is just as good. Now, again, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily win the Eastern Conference, or even make it out of the first round for that matter. But they are peaking at the perfect time and essentially have been playing “do or die” playoff-style hockey for more than a month. They know what it takes to win in pressure games — something I’m not sure the majority of the Eastern Conference teams can say, at least looking at what they have been doing of late.
To put it simply, I think, of all teams, safe money is on the Penguins to go to the Cup, and why not? They are owned by a man who defied odds as often as most people take a shower; they are captained by a player who seems alergic to losing; they are led in stats by the leadings points leader; and they are backstopped by a goalie who seems to be building a brick wall in front of the net.
A few very short months ago, many, many Penguins fans felt this team had zero chance at making the playoffs. Now they’re considered one of the league’s best. I’ve learned never to count out the “Boys of Winter,” which is exactly why I have them going to the Stanley Cup, regardless of who they meet in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Now, a question to both of you — after you answer Ash’s question, of course. If the Penguins aren’t a team you feel can repeat as the Eastern Conference champions, what team will represent?
Ash: You’re right, the best team doesn’t always win. Perhaps the Sharks will have an early exit again this year, but there’s something inside me that says that they won’t. If Calgary and Vancouver can’t come out of the West, I’d love to see San Jose do it.
I would have to agree with your assessment of the Penguins. They had a rough go at it earlier this season and have turned things around under Bylsma. They seem to be a better team for it, too. Combine that with their experience from last year’s Cup run…I don’t know. They have the capability of doing what Edmonton did in the early 80s – lose in the Finals and then win the following year – but it won’t be an easy ride.
As for your question…I think the ‘Canes have a legitimate chance of being the EC champions this season. They have found their groove and who knows, they may be the dark horse for winning it all this spring.
Has your assessment of the East changed in the last week, given the turnaround of the Habs and the continued woes of the Devils?
I would have to say that my position on the Canadiens has changed slightly given their current situation. If they can hold on and make the playoffs, I don’t think they will be completely embarrassed like last year’s Senators, but to win a best-of-7 series…I doubt it.
As for the Devils, time is running out and my doubt is growing by the day. I had a ton of confidence that they would turn this thing around and get on track before the playoffs, but this losing streak is just getting worse and worse. I believe they struggled in the final weeks last season and were subsequently kicked out of the playoffs by the Rangers. The longer this current losing streak goes on, the harder it will be for them to win a series.
Stoosh: As the season has wound down to the last few regular season games, I think the two teams with the best chance of representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals won’t even win their respective divisions – Carolina and Pittsburgh. That said, I think you could easily make the case for five, maybe even six teams that are very capable and very deserving in the East.
The Bruins probably have the least to be worried about among the top three. The Bruins roll three lines, get good support from their blueline and play a physical, up-tempo style designed to win in the playoffs. Goaltending might be their biggest question mark, as Tim Thomas has taken a little bit of a step back over the last couple of months. And while they’re incredibly balanced at the forward position, I’m not sure they have someone capable of taking over a game if need be.
The Devils have Martin Brodeur in net, which is usually enough by itself to make them a favorite. But they’ve hit a really rough stretch since Brodeur broke the wins record, and he’s looked very ordinary. Perhaps his age is finally catching up with him. Furthermore, the Devils defense isn’t what it used to be (they’re too small and not physical enough), and I’m not sure they’re capable of generating the offense needed to match up against some of the teams in the East that can really skate.
The Capitals can obviously score. Can they keep the puck out of their own net enough to compensate? Of all the teams in contention in the East, only Carey Price and Jose Theodore have save percentages below .910 right now. The Caps are also one of the league’s biggest teams. Can their defense keep up with the up-tempo pace that you see night in and night out in the playoffs?
Philadelphia runs into the same issues. They can score. They can roll three lines. But can they stay out of the penalty box when emotions run high? Can they shore up their defense a little? And will Martin Biron be,...well, Martin Biron? There isn’t a goaltender in the East – outside of Carey Price, perhaps – who seems to easier to rattle emotionally.
This is why I like Carolina and Pittsburgh coming out of the East. They’re playing the most complete hockey in the Eastern Conference over the last two months or so. They’re each getting solid goaltending. Each team is getting good scoring depth and each is capable of playing an up-tempo, physical style of play that is needed to win in the playoffs. In fact, given their abilities to possess the puck for extended periods of time, each team seems to overwhelm its opposition as they attack in waves. I see these teams giving their playoff opponents absolute fits because of the way they play.
Out West, I still think it’s a two-team race between San Jose and Detroit. Vancouver, Chicago and Columbus all have the potential to make some noise, but I see them being a decided step down from the Sharks and Red Wings.
I think the Sharks are the better overall team. They may not have quite the star power up front that the Wings have, but they’ve got incredible balance across all four lines and all three defensive pairings. They’ve got a decided goaltending advantage over the Wings. They’ve got a coach in Todd McClellan who has finally been able to match the talent on this team with the system that suits it. McClellan has also come from the Wings’ system, so he’s seen the blueprints and knows how to coach against it. San Jose’s problem may be that they’re their own worst enemy; they have to learn how to put years of playoff frustration behind them.
The Wings obviously have their system, their history and their almost machine-like efficiency. They also have a gaping goaltending issue that was not addressed at the trade deadline, as well as expectations created by the high-profile addition of Marian Hossa last summer. Osgood was good enough last year, but he’s been absolutely brutal far too many times this year and it seems like Wings management and coaching had to be dragged kicking and screaming into settling on him as their #1 goaltender.
Something about the Wings just smells of a first-round upset to me. Anaheim and St. Louis can both score goals, and both teams have been playing some very good hockey over the last several weeks. Those are two potential first-round matchups for the Wings who could easily exploit Osgood and Conklin.
Ash: This may be mean to say, but I like the idea of the Red Wings being upset in the first round…