OMW’s I-95 Adventures, Vol. LXXIV


OMW’s I-95 Adventures, Vol. LXXIV
M.D. Wright
7.4.2016

Let me preface this piece by stating that I expected a modicum of traffic, given that it was heading into a holiday weekend; a holiday weekend in which the actual holiday fell on a Monday, thereby pushing much of the travel from Thursday through Sunday. That said, this was a very trying trip, which was planned about as meticulously to avoid the pitfalls which awaited me on both ends.

I had originally planned to head down to Washington a couple of weeks ago, because I need to settle my housing arrangement in advance of moving down in order to attend classes on campus at Georgetown beginning in late August, but that did not come off for a couple of petty reasons (dealing with the ever-changing policies of rental car agencies). Since my uncle hit me up and said they were having a BBQ on Saturday, instead of the 4th, and the fact that I needed a break from the non-stop stress of ripping and running around the tri-state, along with being in class all calendar year, it was the perfect time to just get away for four days.

However, before I even got on the road, I had a ton of work to do across three classes; one at Seton Hall, and two at Georgetown, and despite the amount of work I did from Monday through Wednesday last week, I still only half of it done before I hit the road on Thursday morning. Even before picking up the car, I had been up since 9:45 am on Wednesday morning, when they proceeded to bang on the pipes for five hours, after shutting off our water for repairs (of jacklegged, shoddy work to begin with) for the 29th time in 23 months living here. I had a few arrangements to make, work to finish and a good number of people who I had to reach out to before I even attempted to get sleep Wednesday night.

That sleep never came.

Oh, I laid down for about three hours, but I never once got to sleep. So if you are using your stopwatches, I woke up 9:45 on Wednesday and went from there.

I got up on Thursday at 6:30 am, washed up, did some preliminary packing and headed over to Newark. No traffic at all, which was surprising, so I was able to get home, finish packing and get out on the road by 9:30 am. After getting some cash and my customary venti coffee from Starbucks in Iselin, I headed off to 287 and picked up the Turnpike at Exit 10 (I’m cheap). Smooth sailing the rest of the ‘pike, as expected. Smooth sailing through Delaware and even throughout Maryland. I didn’t see even one bottleneck until I got near the National Harbor, which is where I was stopping anyway. This was about 1:45 pm, and by then, I was already nodding and running on fumes. I had attempted to rest my eyes for a while, as I waited for my cousin to get out of work in Woodbridge. That never happened, either.

I needed to go over to the downtown area anyway. I went by Georgetown’s main campus, then over to the School of Continuing Studies, which is just up the block from the Verizon Center, where I HOPE to be working this fall. By this point, my cousin was out of work, but little did I know…

At this point, it was going on 4 pm, and outbound traffic was beginning to pick up. I know the area a lot better than the natives think I do (been in and out of this area for all my life), so I just cut out the back way from Chinatown over to Route 4. I figured it MIGHT take my cousin an hour and half or so to get home in peak traffic, so I knew if I was heading to that part of PG (Prince Georges) County, I may as well take the back way. I got there about 5:20 pm. This was when I was finally able to rest my eyes at any point in the previous 32 hours.

For 30 minutes.

My phone started going off left and right around 6 pm, and after intermittent updates about when he would be arriving, he finally got through the traffic at a nifty 8 pm. So I went through an hour’s traffic and then waited three more hours for him to make a drive that is only 30 miles’ distance. This is yet another reason I hate everything about driving through, working in (outside of Arlington or Alexandria) or even living in Virginia. Traffic bottlenecks at so many different junctures that there is no real way to avoid it other than working in a couple of specific locations and leaving early.

Needless to say, I was going to already be a good two to three hours behind my prescribed schedule from that point forward. I had planned to get to Greensboro around midnight, because I knew I was going to have to get up early and be prepared to basically run around the entire state on Friday.

I left my cousin’s house at 9:30 pm, and took US 301 southbound. I had several opportunities to cut across back to the Beltway, but I didn’t want to drive any back roads at that hour, since I was still tired. I got some food in Waldorf and kept going. Of course, since it had been humid all day, fog was beginning to roll in around the Potomac.

This is when I thought my life was going to end. Seriously. 

I had not managed to take one of the spur roads back to the west, and by the time I realized I had missed the last exit before the toll for the Harry Nice/Potomac River Bridge, it was too late. So it is pitch black dark (about 10:15 pm), and fog galore, and I’m about to get on a two-mile bridge that is one lane in each direction, with no shoulder, with bumps on the road every 50 feet, with trucks doing 60 mph coming straight at me, and cresting at nearly 200 feet in the air at the apex, with the “guards” only being the height of the doors of the car? In other words, the slightest pothole or veering across the double lines and your life is most likely over. I don’t get how people cross that bridge daily. Savages. I have crossed every bridge between Boston and Miami along the east coast, and not even the series of bridges and tunnels for the DelMarVa, nor the Bay Bridge, nor the bridges connecting Queens with the Bronx (which are both hazards, by the way), nor tame (by comparison) bridges connecting Philadelphia with Pennsauken and Camden in New Jersey, or any other bridge you can name even fazes me. I was SHOOK. Doing the dreaded 10-2, and literally praying the entire way, each time a passing vehicle got near, I was on it even heavier. Not much scares me in this life, but being so close to easily flipping over a bridge is one of those things. Especially a bridge that goes THAT high (for no friggin’ reason, as the ships pass through lower bridges with ease elsewhere along the Potomac).

But whatever, I got across, and proceeded down 301. I didn’t quite want to take 301 all the way to Richmond, because I knew I had about five more hours to drive once I crossed into Virginia. After about 30 miles, I took Route 17 across to the Fredericksburg junction. I thought, “alright, speed limit’s 70 for the next 35-40 miles, let’s make some time.” I go about 10 miles from Exit 128 and it hits.

VDOT 1.png

Look here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHTmiYpB2xkBOOAusG3DpgXUrN2Y7cE5vy1YvU0/?taken-by=esquire212

And here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHTfaPjBbRH7_52wAXyI_BbzpuEGvqzXFdEfa00/?taken-by=esquire212

And here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHTdVcrhNWDb1KDe1A4ogc8tnSk0iNBV8Ro3VQ0/?taken-by=esquire212

I sat in that (that’s Exit 118 to Exit 110, approximately 8 miles) for two hours and 17 minutes. I counted. I had time to dance with a chick in one of the cars next to me to the entire song of “El Cantante” (the 10 minute version) and not needed to move my car, if I wanted. We didn’t move at all for 10-12 minutes on a couple of occasions. I knew I was in deep shit time-wise from here.

Once I cleared that area, it was after 1 am, and I hadn’t even gotten to Richmond yet (which I know is exactly three hours to Greensboro for me, at least in daylight — I don’t speed at night). I did the customary from that point at Exit 110, all the way down to Dinwiddle County, at about 1:45 am, I saw some guy who had been flipped around, facing oncoming traffic, with about four EMS trucks, two fire trucks and the cops. The guy was out on foot pacing back and forth. His car was smashed in completely from one side to the middle. He was literally a walking miracle. Initially, before getting close to this crash (solo crash), I thought, “Oh God, not again with the two lanes closed.” But it APPEARED that he was the only person involved, so good for him that he was not seriously injured.

I made decent time from there, until I got to Henderson, where the inanity that exists with VDOT extends down to North Carolina, with a long stretch of I-85 is blocked off to one lane. Thankfully, by that hour, there aren’t as many people on the road, but some of the truckers who pass through there are falling asleep and veering across lines. I made sure I sped in front of them before the lanes cut down to one, because I was not trying to be behind these mooks.

I was able to finally get to Greensboro at 4:30 am, instead of around midnight as planned. I did not want to wake my parents, although my mom later revealed that she was in old-lady-on-the-stoop mode, and was somehow awake and had seen the motion sensor light and heard the car outside. I didn’t bother. I just crawled in the back of the SUV and slept in the back like a savage for three hours until she came and got me at about 7:30. From there, I immediately grabbed my stuff, got out of the clothes I drove down in, threw on my sleep gear and went right back to sleep. I had gone nearly 48 hours on just 30 minutes of shuteye. Of course, instead of getting up at 9 or 10 am and starting my day, I didn’t get up until noon, and still hadn’t been able to finish my work. I had to push back my appointment for my locs until 2 pm anyway, but I was able to do 90 most of the way to Raleigh before I hit traffic, thereby making me a bit late. Then again, since my cousin who does my hair drives for Uber, she’s always late anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal LMAO.

I wasn’t able to run any of the errands that I had down on my list because the four hours or so that I would have had were eaten up by sitting in traffic and waiting for my cousin who got stuck in traffic the day before. I basically left my cousin, called my homegirl to set up our usual dinner plans. Didn’t have time to get smokes or make a run to get some durags and what not for my hair (since I failed to pack any). I had to figure out SOME TIME to get the portion of my homework that was due that day — I’ll never understand professors who assign boatloads of work in advance of a holiday — so she suggested that I do it at her crib, since she had an errand to run herself before we would go grab some food. Of course, being the lifelong traveler and having studied road maps when I was growing up, I know how long it is going to take for me to get anywhere. I laugh whenever someone marvels at how I can tell them when I will arrive and I get there exactly when I say I will. That doesn’t always happen (traffic, etc.) but most of the time, I am as punctual as “that” neighbor is in calling the cops the minute your music gets “too loud” for their liking.

After dinner, I had to put the finishing touches on one of the five portions of homework due that day, and then went back to Greensboro. I’m still tired and had developed a headache, because my cousin basically pinches my hair into my brain tissue (which results in exceptional presentation of the hair, but sometimes a headache later). No matter, the pain I’ve had in my life makes that seem like nothing. I kept trucking and still got everything done on time.

I get up Saturday, and now was the time for me to run the errands that I couldn’t get done Friday, before heading to my uncle’s BBQ. Nothing eventful there, I am amazed (but relieved) at how little traffic was in Raleigh on a Saturday, but I was able to go from Greensboro to Chapel Hill, to Durham, to Raleigh and then to Bunn in under four hours (with about eight stops for various things in between). I did see a HUMONGOUS hawk on the side of the road on NC 54 East. He was literally just perched on the guard rail along the two-lane highway in Saxapahaw, midway between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. He had apparently been eating very well. Didn’t even budge as cars were passing just five feet away.

After the BBQ, the rains came in, so I left before any fireworks, and went to Henderson. Naturally, hardly anyone was around. There are only a few people who I even visit when I’m there, and one of them was at the BBQ, so that only left like three other spots. Another relative was in Raleigh at a wedding, so that was out, as well. If he’s not in New York, he’s out and about somewhere other than home. Good for him. I go by his sister’s house (who had a big hand in my formative years and who I love dearly) and break to her the news about Georgetown and my impending move, while she tells me that a cousin of mine who I interface with damn near every day has had a baby and I didn’t hear it FROM THAT COUSIN. I was flummoxed. But it’s all good. I went by my cousin’s crib and chopped it up for a while, since I only seem to get to see them on Thanksgiving and the rare time I go down south for Christmas. Thankfully, no traffic issues heading back to Greensboro.

I wish that was where the “adventures” part ended, but it was just waiting for me on 95 North.

Traffic wasn’t even bad at all. Anywhere. It’s just a maddening number of people on their phones veering into traffic and then looking straight ahead (avoiding eye contact with you, as you blast your horn and gyrate/curse them out) when they wake out of their stupor. These people irk me to no end. They’re not even talking about anything of substance 98% of the time. You’re risking your life and the lives of others to talk about some bullshit on Twitter or Snapchat? I halfway don’t even feel sorry (but I still have compassion as a human being with a conscience) when I find out people die in crashes when being on phones is involved. People think they’re invincible. Countless commercials and warning ads and you still have millions who have this, “Well, it won’t happen to me” mentality. Whenever you DO see me posting or texting while on the road, it’s when we’re at a parking lot point with traffic, or I’m at a light on a two-lane back road or something. None of this doing 95 MPH and texting and posting rants on Facebook. If someone ever hits me while driving and texting, I’m beating someone’s ass. Even if it’s a dude 250 lbs, I’m pulling out the crobar or tire jack. With how angry I get, my strength would be that of 10 men anyway. It makes no sense with these people.

I nearly got run off the road by a tractor trailer, some some idiot girl with a car full of her friends before I could even get into Virginia from North Carolina. I took 40 to 540 to 64 to 95, because I wanted no parts of I-85 through Henderson. I had to stop several times, but once I got through the little stoppage in Fredericksburg (a wreck backed up traffic for 11 miles, and I’ll never understand how people get into wrecks on straightaways).

I was all good through most of Maryland, then I get near Havre de Grace, near where the 95 crosses the Susquehanna River. Now, having driven since I was age 14, and my dad always schooled me to look at least 5 cars ahead, coupled with my obsessive compulsive checking of my perimeter on all sides every few seconds, I have developed this sixth sense for when someone is about to do some stupid shit. I can see them crossing the lines and know that I either need to pass them or change lanes.

I get right to the opening of the bridge and this broad decides she wants to check her Tinder or whatever she was doing on her phone (I could see her looking down, as I was behind her by a car length and watching her every move). I couldn’t pass her, I couldn’t move into her lane, and I had someone barreling down behind me. Just as we entered the bridge, she veers completely over into my lane. I don’t know how I avoided her WITHOUT hitting the barricade. But I sat on my horn and gyrated at her. Naturally she looked straight ahead, and then she did it again halfway across the bridge. I lost it then. Once we got across to the toll booth, she hurried up and went to the far left (I had been in the far right lane all this time), because she knew if I caught her with her windows down I was about to lay into her like that coach did with that chick in the lingerie football league. I was pissed until I went to bed last night.

Once I get back, of course these imbeciles are shooting off fireworks, nor flares or those quick crackers, but FIREWORKS on the ground below my window. They’re just dying to have a hand or eye blown out, or set something on fire. I just hope I’m not home when they eventually do. This has been going on for two weeks now. I have people in East Orange who can hear it from 20 blocks away, in case anyone thinks I’m exaggerating. And this is right outside my window. So now I’m tired, irritated and pissed off. Then they’re blasting this Summer Jam level-loud trap garbage until 1 am, until the cops finally decide to show up (I don’t care about the music as much as I do the fireworks, but I’ll never call the cops on someone for music). Thankfully this is the last trip I am going to have to make while living here. I am tired of throwing out my back lugging stuff up four flights of stairs every time I come back.

I can’t move to the DC area soon enough. The OMW I-95 Adventures should have a different feel thereafter.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final Prospectus
M.D. Wright
5.30.2016

WE’RE HERE. The Stanley Cup Finals are upon us, and in typical hockey fashion, at least one of the teams (in this case, both) were not expected by many to be here. This is what makes winning multiple Stanley Cups extremely difficult since expansion 50 years ago. There is so much parity in game, never mind throughout the league’s standings, that it is almost impossible to predict outcomes most of the time.

If we take a look back just since 2010, the Blackhawks weren’t the best team in the NHL in the regular season; that was Washington (as was the case this year, where the Capitals — you guessed it — choked in the middle rounds without making it to the Final).

In 2011, Boston did not have the best record or most points in the league. A couple of other teams did; most notably Washington (again, faltering before even making the Final), and the Vancouver Canucks, who won the President’s Trophy (coached by current Rangers head man, Alain Vigneault — notice some symmetry between these teams’ regular season outputs and playoff performances — who had an embarrassment of riches at goalie, but botched the situation horribly after dispatching the San Jose Sharks that season.

In 2012, one of the wackiest yet, New Jersey finished FOURTH in their own division and made it to the Final where they faced the Los Angeles Kings who finished THIRD in their division as a wild card team, as well. Vancouver once again nabbed the President’s and once again choked. Along with the St. Louis Blues, who didn’t know it yet, but had finished two points behind the Canucks with 109 points of their own, in the first of four straight first-round playoff defeats after great regular seasons, the pacesetters were gone before the Cup Finals.

In the lockout-shortened 2013, fittingly, chalk held, as the Chicago Blackhawks raced out with their stacked roster and never looked as if they were beatable clear through their second Stanley Cup victory in three seasons at that point.

The past two seasons, 2014 and 2015, the President’s Trophy jinx continued, as Boston failed to make it to the Cup Final, while the Rangers did so with a middling record, before losing in five (close) games to the Kings. In 2015, the Blackhawks struck again with a stacked roster and handled business.

However, the Capitals once again had the most points in the league, and once again faltered before even making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Pittsburgh and San Jose looked like muddled messes to begin the season, before coaching changes and roster makeovers (Pittsburgh) took hold. San Jose’s ascent began with the return of Logan Couture off an injury that caused him to miss roughly half of the regular season. The Sharks have not looked back since, nor have the Penguins since acquiring Carl Hagelin, who has been on three teams in one year’s time. In fact, Hagelin ended his current team’s season with the game winning goal in Game 5 of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The ironic thing about offering prognostications about this particular Cup Final is that the earlier rounds were more difficult to assess due to so many moving parts and variables. That is not the case with this series.

STANLEY CUP FINALS
San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan)
Every shift matters, every line change matters, because the neutral zone is often where the game can change with everyone attempting to manage the puck at peak efficiency. This is no time for goons to come out and play ice patrol. If you don’t have four productive lines, you do not make it this far. That said, injuries are at the forefront of this series.

Pittsburgh skated circles around the Rangers, and had the puck luck advantage against Washington. While Tampa could match the Penguins’ speed, the Lightning were unable to consistently generate anything in their offensive zone when they needed it most and were dispatched.

Pittsburgh has none of those advantages heading into this series.

For starters, Trevor Daley’s season-ending ankle injury forces more minutes upon Brian Dumoulin (he has managed them well), Olli Maatta and Ben Lovejoy (not so much). The Penguins had gap control issues against Tampa, and the Lightning did not take advantage. Someone on each of the four lines on the Sharks LIVES in front of the net in practically every shift. Then there is the prospect of Brent Burns taking off and freelancing by jumping into the zone. Kristopher Letang’s antics in prior series won’t work here. The Pens will have to be on their toes in their own zone and avoid the numerous coverage issues that they mostly got away with against Tampa.

The Sharks have all four lines rolling. They have really found something with Spaling-Tierney-Zubrus. They’ve not only altered the energy of the game, when necessary, but they’ve also been productive on the score sheet. Everyone knows Joe Thornton is one of the best passers the game has ever seen, and Joe Pavelski is generational with his ability to deflect and redirect shots in front. Add to it the versatile skating and shooting ability of Tomas Hertl, and the Sharks’ top line is going to make Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and whoever is on Crosby’s left work every minute they are on the ice.

It will be interesting to see how the Malkin line works against the Couture line. Couture leads everyone in points in these playoffs. Malkin’s line has been relatively quiet since the Rangers series.This is going to be a pivotal match up, unless either coach opts to shuffle to get a match up they want apart from second vs. second.

The Marleau line with Joel Ward has been physical and clutch, and one would have to believe that both coaches are going to watch to do some juggling in order to take advantage of match ups. Marleau can still skate like a 22 year old, but matching up with Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin is not the match up for the Sharks’ third line, much like the Sharks’ second line is decidedly more productive and a nightmare to cover for the Penguins.

The fourth lines have both been productive (hence why both teams are here), and it is tough to predict how much of an impact either one can have because they play so few minutes.

In terms of lines, the Penguins’ third line has a decent advantage. The Sharks’ second line has a decided advantage, and the Sharks’ top line is BOTH physical and productive (unlike what the Capitals showed), as well as high on the possession chart. It will all come down to goalie play, who can get the most puck luck (or create their own luck?) and finish A+ chances when they get them. Both have shown a proclivity for doing so to this point, although the Sharks’ power play AND penalty kill have been top  notch all playoffs. The Penguins’ power play was lethal against a pathetic Rangers’ penalty kill, but only middling since. Special teams will also play a large role.

Goalie play is the last thing to ignore, but in this instance, it is virtually a wash. Nearly all goalies go down into the butterfly position at the slightest hint of pressure against them. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the few who stood up quite often to make saves, unlike hardly any goalie since the late 80s. Martin Jones is quiet with his movements in goal. He has good size (both he and Matt Murray are 6’4″) and doesn’t give you much to shoot at. He rarely gets rattled and goes post to post without losing his net frequently. As with all butterfly technique goalies, he is prone to shots in the upper region of the net, but has absolutely stolen a couple of games in each series to this point.

Murray is similar to Jones in a few ways, but he has also shown that he can constantly be beaten high to his glove side, and by quick, cross-crease passes and shots. When he’s gotten beaten on those, he’s looked bad; although much of that is attributable to the earlier point about the Penguins’ coverage issues in their own zone. Generally, if Murray has seen the shot, he has stopped it 95% of the time. Rebound control was an issue for both goalies at times in their conference final series, and that will be worth watching as well. Murray shut down all rebounds in Games 6 and 7, as did Jones, after rebounding from a horrid performance where it appeared like he was playing a game of dodgeball in net before getting pulled in favor of James Reimer.

The Sharks are on a mission, and with Brent Burns serving as the ultimate “X” factor for this series, providing an element with which the Penguins have not had to contend thus far in the playoffs, it is difficult to pick against them at this point. Anything can happen, but since this is all about predicting, then you make a choice and stick with it.

Call: SHARKS IN 6.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
5.13.2016

We are near the promised land. The Conference Finals. The weed has been separated from the chaff. The cream has risen to the top. All of the superlatives you want to use apply here. The four best teams in hockey this year are on display for the conference finals (or the four teams that have withstood the attrition that comes along with injuries and player slumps?) Nevertheless, we will have the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference, and the San Jose Sharks will battle it out against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference. Here is the outlook heading into both series (TB vs. PIT begins Friday, May 13, 2016 at 8 PM, SJ vs. STL begins Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 8 PM).

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Tampa Bay Lightning (2 Atlantic) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan)
There are several layers to this series. The first being goaltending. The Pens will stick with Matt Murray in goal, although incumbent starter Marc-Andre Fleury is ready. Fleury had not been too hot in previous playoffs, and Pittsburgh undoubtedly hopes that Murray’s solid play in Fleury’s stead will continue. Tampa presents a relentless attack that the New York Rangers could not (would not?) muster, and one that the Washington Capitals could not sustain consistently throughout the previous two series. This will be Murray’s biggest test. Before last series, Tampa had a week off before facing the New York Islanders, and Ben Bishop appeared rusty in Game 1, before going into lockdown mode for four straight games thereafter. The Penguins are going to have to test him constantly, as they know Murray will be attacked regularly by Tampa’s forwards.

A key to look out for is the Pens’ defencemen’s propensity for jumping up into the play in order to force and generate more pressure in the offensive zone. This makes the Pens attack non-stop, as they have had all four lines contribute (although more so their third and fourth lines in the last series, while all four lines were productive against the woeful Rangers defence). However, what this often does is lead to giveaways and breakaways. Kris Letang and Trevor Daley are mostly the culprits for these, and this has to be limited against the speedy Tampa rush if the Penguins want to avoid being blown out of any game in this series.

Bishop still gets a nod over Murray at this point, but the difference between the two at the moment in terms of level of play is negligible.

Will Tampa get Steven Stamkos (blood clot in shoulder area) back for this series? Considering that while he is skating and doing drills to remain in playing condition, he is still on blood thinners and would have to wait 24 hours after coming off the medication to be ready to play. In other words, don’t expect him before Game 3 at the earliest. Anton Stralman (leg fracture), on the other hand, may return sooner; although that is not a surety, either. Despite it all, Victor Hedman has been the most dominant defenceman in these playoffs, and Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Slater Koekkoek and the mish mosh third pairings have been solid enough to not hang Bishop out to dry. Pittsburgh’s defence is better when they have a lead, while being prone to coverage gaffes and frustration penalties when tied or playing from behind. This has been evident in the games that the Pens have lost in the playoffs thus far (albeit only three). With the pressure that Tampa can sustain, the match up between the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line and Letang/Daley will be worth watching, while the Boyle line (with Namestikov and Callahan) will test the Pens’ third pairing quite often. The fourth lines of both teams pretty much cancel, but where Pittsburgh had a speed advantage in previous series is now vanished. Who can make a play? The Crosby and Malkin lines were quiet against Washington, and with the Killorn-Filppula-Drouin (especially Drouin) line emerging, more will be required of the Pens’ top two lines in order to emerge victorious in this series.

Overall, if Stamkos and Stralman return at all for this series, Tampa will have a decided advantage in goaltending, defence and offence. As it is, they get a slight advantage for now in each area, as their top two lines have produced consistently throughout the playoffs, whereas the Pens’ top two have been spotty or even invisible at times.

Call: Lightning in 6.
_________________________________________________________________

WESTERN CONFERENCE
San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific) vs. St. Louis Blues (2 Central)
This series will be antithetical to the Eastern Conference series, where there is speed, speed and more speed. Instead, there will be crushing hits, tons of board play and, while both teams can certainly skate, it will be a battle of physical wills more than anything else. Both teams are coming off grueling seven-game series, and will have a few days to prepare before consummating this series on Sunday, which makes for optimal hockey.

Much as Victor Hedman has taken over for Tampa, Brent Burns has done the same for San Jose. Alex Pietrangelo has been omnipresent all over the ice for St. Louis, and while Burns shoots and scores more, defence overall is a virtual wash between these two. It is all about goalie play and the forwards. Brian Elliott has had a couple of eyebrow-raising (negatively) performances, but has erstwhile been stellar, and the same can be said for Martin Jones. When both have been on, they’ve looked like Vezina candidates in these playoffs, against some relentless (save for Nashville’s listless effort in Game 7 for Jones) attacks.

San Jose is the most complete team remaining in the playoffs, top to bottom. Any one of their four lines can dominate on a given night, and in the 12 games San Jose has played, one of the lines has stood out in at least one of them. Sometimes two or three of the lines in one game. The Hertl-Thornton-Pavelski line has been deadly, so has the Donskoi-Couture-Marleau line. Additionally, the Nieto-Tierney-Ward line has been valuable (especially in the closeout game vs. Nashville) while the fourth line has been juggled at times, the contributors have done their jobs as checking forwards and agitators. The same can be said about the Blues’ fourth line combinations, which have also been juggled at times during their 14 games thus far.

The Lehtera line with Schwartz and Tarasenko has been active, but hit or miss on the score sheet (other than Tarasenko), while it has been the second and third lines (Stastny centreing Fabbri and Brouwer, and Backes centreing Berglund and Steen, respectively) that have done the majority of the work for the Blues consistently in the playoffs thus far.

The Blues defence has been prone to awful giveaways at times, which has caused Elliott some grief in net, but for the most part, the three pairings have been solid.

The Sharks are on a mission however. Barring injury or heavy slumps in play by several players (aided by the Blues’ defence, of course), it is difficult to see any of the three remaining teams beating the Sharks at this point, as they finally look to get to the Stanley Cup Finals and win their first up in their 25 years in San Jose — despite several years with stacked teams and coming up short in the past. If there are two players remaining in the playoff field who deserve to hoist the Cup it is “Jumbo Joe” Thornton and “Mr. Shark” Patrick Marleau. And both have been heavily involved in their team’s fortunes thus far, despite both in their age-36 seasons, which is remarkable in its own right.

Call: Sharks in 6.
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2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Semifinal Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Semifinal Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
4.28.2016

Despite the goofy machinations involving the seedings in the NHL, we have had some very intriguing matchups thus far, as the first round indicated. There were several “upsets” in some cases, and in others, some were upset with the slanted officiating benefiting certain teams. We will have a new Stanley Cup Champion, as the Chicago Blackhawks were ousted on the home ice of the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Western Conference’s first round. That series encapsulated all that is wrong with the seedings in the NHL, as the two teams were among the league leaders in points (3rd and 5th, respective to the Blues and Blackhawks; more than all but two Eastern Conference teams) and squared off in the first round (?!?!?!)

Nevertheless, what we have going forward are a series of even more intriguing matchups, even if there is no large market with which to reap a ratings bonanza (we are aware that the New York Islanders play in New York, but their fanbase is almost exclusive to the New York area, and no one else cares about the Islanders). So here are our thoughts heading into the semifinals.

Yes, the first game of the East semis began on Wednesday, before Game 7 of the final first round series involving the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators (which the Predators won), which is more goofiness from a goofy league and goofy commissioner, the prediction of that series (Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning does not change, even after the outcome of Game 1).

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan) vs. Washington Capitals (1 Metropolitan, 1 Eastern)
Playoff hockey is about attrition. The teams that give up soft goals do not last long. Every shift is a grind. Every game is a battle to see who can get to the finish without ending up in the locker room. Washington lost D Brooks Orpik to a clean, but vicious hit in the Philadelphia Flyers series. Some Capitals fans wouldn’t necessarily view this as a “loss”, per sé, as Orpik is a shell of his former self (in fact, the hit on him is one that he is long known for, albeit his were mostly of the late and dirty variety over the years), and it provides more ice time for young Taylor Chorney (whose own goal was the difference in Washington’s embarrassing Game 5 loss at home, while outshooting the Flyers 45-11) . Top lines typically cancel each other out at this point in the playoffs, until special teams are involved. Your depth forwards and third pair defence are key.

The Capitals have the slight depth advantage at forward, as several of their top nine have been to and/or won Stanley Cups. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have won a Cup as well, although the emergence of the Penguins pseudo fourth line (as Conor Sheary, who had been on the fourth, was moved up to the Crosby line during the first round series versus the New York Rangers) has had just as much to do with the Penguins advancing as the Pens’ two top centres.

Goaltending will be a focus. Braden Holtby has continued his likely (side note: how is Jonathan Quick even remotely a Vezina candidate this year?) Vezina Trophy season by being a brick wall. Granted, the Flyers only had one line working (and it was not either of their top six, which is why they’re home) all series, but Holtby has had a fantastic season, and he will face his stiffest test yet from the speedy and skillful Penguins. We do not know the goalie situation with the Penguins, however. The Rangers made Matt Murray looked like a multiple Vezina winner last series, but the Caps are a different animal. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played in nearly a month, and it is difficult to insert a goalie into the heart of a playoff series with that much time off. The Pens can hope that Murray’s efforts have a carryover effect and not a product of facing the extremely timid Rangers forwards, but if Fleury either starts the series or is pressed into duty, Pittsburgh must know that the Caps are going to come aiming for him every chance they get.

Alexander Ovechkin is going to shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot some more. What should be concerning for teams is that Nicklas Backstrom is shooting more. He has always had a fantastic shot (i.e. his roofer to basically end the Flyers’ hopes in Game 6), but spends more time setting up T.J. Oshie and Ovechkin than he does shooting. If Backstrom continues to be more inclined to shoot, the Pens better stay out of the box, because their average defence cannot hold up both on the penalty kill against Ovechkin & Co. and get into a chip and chase, board-banging game with the heavy Caps, should Washington manage to carve out leads in any of these games.

It is difficult to project out hockey over a series as it is, but even more so with an uncertain goalie situation. The Capitals are known to be historic chokers (never mind their entire franchise history, but just since the post-2005 lockout years since Ovechkin’s rookie season), and while they appeared to be well on their way to another against the Flyers, one does not transpose the outcomes of one series onto another, where matchups are different. The Penguins are going to come swiftly and deftly with their top six, with Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and netfront pest Patric Hornqvist, but Washington’s physicality and better top four defence may prove to be the difference.

Call: Caps in 6.
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New York Islanders (WC1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (2 Atlantic)
This series has already begun, as a result of scheduling. Some suggest the Ducks series — which began later than the others, due to the Ducks and Caps having to play a makeup game from the mid-Atlantic blizzard in January on the Sunday prior to the playoffs — having not concluded its Game 7 until Wednesday, because very few expected the series to get to that point, and having multiple days without hockey in primetime would not be good for ratings. No evidence of such, but it has been suggested by some.

Side note: NHL ratings are a tricky item, because its general constituency is starkly different than that of the NFL, NBA and MLB. Add to the fact that there are no Canadian teams (still responsible for most of the NHL’s ratings) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nearly a half-century, combined with small market teams comprising the rest of the playoff field, and you have a potential ratings nightmare.

Except the Islanders represent New York.

… and if you watched their first round series with the Florida Panthers, well, you could assert… you know what? Skip it.

The Islanders won Game 1 in Tampa and temporarily wrested home ice advance away from Tampa in the process.

As always, depth players make the difference, as the Isles got scoring from theirs, while the Lightning got nothing from theirs but giveaways and awful attempts at backchecking early on, as Tampa dug itself into a huge hole. Ben Bishop, who looked otherworldly in last year’s playoffs, became a sieve, although much of Tampa’s play could be attributed to a week-long layoff. They eventually found their game and got their legs midway through the game, but facing a 4-1 deficit at the time proved to be insurmountable.

Thomas Greiss has stood on his head since the puck dropped in Game 1 of the first round. While not entirely impossible that he continues to do so, one cannot expect it to project out over another long series, particularly with the Isles only having one real working line (Game 1 of this series was an outlier until proven otherwise). The Isles truly cannot skate with Tampa, as the Lightning’s feverish comeback illustrated. The Isles were pinned in their own zone for over two minutes multiple times in the second and third periods. If Steven Stamkos is able to return from his blood clot injury to play in this series (he is skating and doing drills at this point), the Isles are really in trouble.

If Game 1 was a sign of things to come with Ben Bishop, however, we can all toss aside everything we think we know about hockey. Bishop is a Vezina finalist, though (won’t win it, but deserved to be among the finalists) and odds are he will rebound. Tampa has the advantage across the lines, and while the Isles defence is very good, it isn’t enough to contain Tampa’s speed.

Call: Lightning in 6.


WESTERN CONFERENCE
Nashville Predators (WC1) vs. San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific)
We have documented what the Sharks bring to the table. We’ll not rehash that. This is not the decade-long chokers from the 2000s, or the gutless 2014 team.

All the focus is on Nashville.

The Preds play an outside-in game, as their defence generate so much in the way of scoring (scoring themselves, primary and secondary assists and moving the puck aggressively in general) and pitched a damn-near perfect Game 7 against Anaheim on the Ducks’ home ice.

Not to be overlooked is the combination of lines featuring Ryan Johansen and James Neal, and Filip Forsberg (on the second line). These are game-changing players, and it will be interesting to see how defensive-minded Pete DeBoer counters with the plethora of line combinations that he is capable of throwing out there himself.

This series can go either way, and the “Call” here isn’t a hard stance by any means. Pekka Rinne has been fantastic for Nashville, after a couple of rocky games (three in a row, in fact) against Anaheim, he shut down the Ducks in Games 6 and 7, which were both elimination games for the Preds. The Sharks seemingly haven’t played in eons, and it could be a similar situation for them which plagued the Lightning in Game 1 of their series. Long layoffs affect teams differently, however. The focus should be more on Martin Jones, the Sharks’ goalie when considering the effects of the layoff. This tends to affect goalies more than the skaters. I have literally gone back and forth in picking this series as I’ve written this piece, but all I can ask is do not overreact to the outcome of Game 1 either way.

Call: Sharks in 7.
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St. Louis Blues (2 Central) vs. Dallas Stars (1 Central, 1 Western)
Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, Tyler Seguin (if he is healthy — if not, Dallas was foolish to even play him at all in the one game he played vs. Minnesota, rushing back from an Achilles injury), Jason Spezza, Val Nichushkin, Patrick Eaves, etc. etc. etc. Dallas comes at you in waves, as if Lindy Ruff’s style. This series is going to be underrated by some, but loved by others who love a high-paced, physical game. Dallas does not like to hit, per , but they can really skate. St. Louis can match Dallas’ offensive exploits, and have the better overall defence.

Of concern is Alex Steen. He had a rough time of it in Game 7 vs. Chicago, and it is known that he had just returned to the lineup from injury shortly before the regular season ended. Some speculated that he may be playing injured. If so, the Blues have issues. However, with four solid lines, including all-world Vladimir Tarasenko, all would not be lost if Steen is indeed hindered by a recurrence of his injury.

I do not like Dallas’ goalies at all. The Stars cover up these average goalies (Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi) with their scoring ability, but outside of a couple of shaky games, Brian Elliott has been magnificent for the Blues all year and in five of the seven games against Chicago. He’ll have to be, but will Lehtonen and/or Niemi be? In the face of an equally-skilled offence like St. Louis? Dallas struggled with a Minnesota team that was missing former 40-goal scorer Zach Parise for the entire series, Eric Haula for a game, and a Minnesota team that has been prone to long scoring droughts throughout the 2015-2016 season.

The Blues don’t have that problem.

Call: Blues in 6.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
4.10.2016

Hockey is a total crapshoot once the playoffs begin. Most of us know this, and as such, these predictions should be taken as a grain of salt (excluding a couple of these series). However, the thing about this year’s pool is that all eight series will have a high level of intrigue and there will be no dull moments in any of these series (unlike the first round of NBA playoffs in recent years). Be there, or miss it at your own peril. The playoffs begin Wednesday night, April 13, 2016.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan Division; 1st, Eastern Conference; President’s Trophy Winner) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (2nd Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Capitals have plenty of depth throughout all four lines and have a solid defence, with Braden Holtby in goal, coming off what will most likely be a Vezina Trophy season. Part of the intrigue of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey is the randomness and the irrelevance of regular season. As it is, however, the Flyers and Capitals split four games during the regular season, with the Flyers winning both their games in overtime and in a shootout. Records don’t matter as much as matchups do, and the Flyers match up very well with the Capitals.

Claude Giroux is a master in the faceoff circle, Wayne Simmonds basically sets up a camping tent in front of the crease all game (particularly on power plays, of which there figures to be plenty early on in this series, for both teams — more on the Washington side of this later in this piece), and Jake Voracek is very strong on the puck, matching up well with the once-again-winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy, Alexander Ovechkin. The Flyers’ fourth line is productive, and the Flyers kill penalties very well. Then there is the newfound X-factor, Shayne Gostisbehere on the blue line for the Flyers, which will dictate how the Capitals play defence themselves. Steve Mason will be in goal for the Flyers and his right hand catching glove has presented some teams problems while he stands (or kneels?) at 6’4″ taking up a good amount of the net, with some of the largest shoulder pads that you will see in the NHL. Goaltending will be solid in this series. The key may be which blue line pairing can have a bigger impact in generating offence, as both teams’ top two lines will pretty much cancel out the other.

John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are well-established and solid on the power play, often looking for Ovechkin for arguably one of the best one-timers in NHL history on the left faceoff circle. Gostisbehere possesses a wicked wrist shot and a heavy slap shot (and a quick one-timer, as well). Simmonds tracks the puck very well from the point and redirects the puck better than most in front.

This series may come down to who can avoid the penalty box; particularly in the 3rd period of games. But it will be close, and to go out on a limb…

Call: Flyers in 6.
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New York Rangers (3rd, Metropolitan Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd, Metropolitan Division)
The Penguins were predicted to falter once C Evgeni Malkin went down with what many thought was (and can potentially still be) a season-ending injury, but they went in the complete opposite direction: winning 11 of 12 games (and the lone loss came in their final regular season game sitting several starters and playing second and third string goaltenders). However, their starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is battling concussion symptoms, and his backup, Matt Murray, may have one as well. It will be interesting to see who will be in goal for Pittsburgh for Game 1, whether it is Murray or Jeff Zatkoff. We can be almost 100% certain that it won’t be Fleury.

The Penguins’ top two lines have been lethal, and even their bottom six have been, as well, in Malkin’s absence. The Penguins moved Nick Bonino up to Malkin’s line to run with former Ranger Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, both of whom possess high-end skating ability, giving most teams nightmares on defence. Sidney Crosby elevated his game to near-Hart trophy levels since February, which has been key in the Penguins’ run. Outside of Kris(topher) Letang, the Penguins’ blue liners are nothing special to write home about, although they are solid enough that they do not cost the team games, regardless of the output of the offense.

The Rangers have issues across the board. Derick Brassard has not played well of late (although Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider are in playoff form already). Rick Nash is just finding his game after missing 20 games due to a leg injury. For long stretches of time, the Rangers’ fourth line was their best line, which is not a good thing. All world goalie Henrik Lundqvist appeared fatigued in the final weeks of the season (or fatigued by the ghastly play of the defencemen in front of him for most of the season), while injuries began to mount just as the regular season came to a close. D Dan Girardi has dealt with a cracked kneecap and various nicks and bumps — the latest being a heavy hit into the boards from former Ranger Brian Boyle in the 80th game — and is in rapid decline physically overall, while logging major minutes. Team captain Ryan McDonagh broke a bone in his hand in the 79th game. Dan Boyle has practically calcified before Ranger fans’ eyes since he came to New York before the 2014-2015 season, although he played well to close out the season. Kevin Klein has been steady (although a turnover machine of late), and Keith Yandle is always going to be high risk (giveaways and weak along the boards in his own zone) and high reward (arguably a top 3 defenceman in quarterbacking power plays in the NHL). Marc Staal has had an uncharacteristically shaky season overall, and with the uncertainty of McDonagh and Girardi’s respective availabilities, young defencemen Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath may be pressed into duty. Both have been far more efficient with the puck than Girardi and Staal, it should be noted. The Rangers have played the Penguins well enough to win three of the four games this season, but the team’s bugaboo all season has been giveaways in their own zone by defencemen (mostly) and those foibles cost them each time the Rangers lost to the Penguins this season (three out of four games). The Eric Staal line is one to watch in this series, just as much as the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line for Pittsburgh.

With the playoffs being a tighter checking game and generally less open ice with which to generate wide open scoring plays, and the Rangers having a decided advantage at goalie, much of the conjecture about teams wanting to avoid Pittsburgh is overblown. Had Fleury been healthy and in net, the predictions would have been amended in a major way, but as of now…

Call: Rangers in 6.
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Florida Panthers (1st, Atlantic Division; 2nd, Eastern Conference) vs. New York Islanders (1st Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 and their blatantly obvious tank job to close out the season will not be lost on the Panthers, who are a match up nightmare for the beat-up Islanders, who have injuries to a key defenceman (Travis Hamonic) and one of their netfront presences (Anders Lee), which will affect the Islandes’ power play. Goalie Jaroslav Halak will be out with a groin, pressing Thomas Greiss into duty, and it will be key to see whether the Islanders’ defence can handle the heavy Panthers forwards, including the ageless Jaromir Jagr, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and several others. The Panthers had Vincent Trocheck emerging in the second half of the season before he got hurt, but they still have the consistent Jussi Jokinen in the fold, as well. Another key will be the Panthers’ young defence. Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson (should he return from a concussion in time for the series), particularly the top pair against the John Tavares line with Kyle Okposo.

Former Islander Roberto Luongo (ironically) is in goal and had a good season for the Panthers, helping them to their best win total in team history. The Panthers are young, big and fast, and without Hamonic, guys like Nick Leddy, Calvin de Haan and others will log bigger minutes. Considering the Penguins’ goalie situation and lack of physicality (Phil Kessel hit hot dog stands more than he hit opposing players all season) one would think that the Isles would have done everything to maintain integrity of competition and draw a slightly more favorable match up than the nightmare that awaits them in Sunrise, Florida.

Call: Panthers in 5.


 

Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd, Atlantic Division) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3rd, Atlantic Division)
The Red Wings have made it to the playoffs now for the 25th straight season, and are in line for a rematch with the team that eliminated them last spring, the Lightning.

Lightning C Steven Stamkos (blood clot) will not play, nor will D Anton Stralman (broken leg). Stamkos’ loss is huge, but Stralman’s is as well, as he is important to the Tampa Bay power play.

This will be a speed game, and it will be interesting to see the deployment of the Lightning defence against the Wings’ speedy forwards such as rookie Pavel Datsyuk, Dylan Larkin, and Andreas Athanasiou. Overall, the Wings don’t have much quality depth beyond their top two lines, with Henrik Zetterberg, Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar rounding out those lines. Athanasiou is mainly a 4th liner, it should be noted, but maximizes his limited ice time in a way that could give the Lightning fits. Detroit only really has one very good defenceman, but at this point, the Lightning only have one, as well. Tampa’s X-factor will be Jonathan Drouin. If he can come of age and produce as the team envisioned when taking him early in the draft a couple of summers ago, then the Lightning will have a chance with Ben Bishop consuming nearly all of the net.

Then again, the Red Wings were beat up on the blue line last year and had the series wrapped up before choking it away — and this was with the Lightning healthy.

Barring something unforeseen from the Tampa blue line offensively, the Wings should win this series.

Call: Red Wings in 6.
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WESTERN CONFERENCE
Dallas Stars (1st, Central Division; 1st Western Conference) vs. Minnesota Wild (2nd Wild Card, Western Conference)
The Wild are in trouble. They have been maddeningly inconsistent all season, prone to long streaks of both good and poor play. Dallas is the most explosive offensive team in the NHL; leading the league in goals scored in back to back seasons. Their offence is spearheaded by C Tyler Seguin and winger Jamie Benn, along with an assortment of good forwards, including the still-useful Patrick Sharp. The major question with Dallas is their defence; and if Minnesota is to have any chance to win more than one game in this series, it will be because they take advantage of what has largely been an issue for Dallas the past two season: defensive lapses (although the team strangely got marginally better after Seguin’s late-season injury).

Minnesota has the ability to score, and goalie Devan Dubnyk will keep them in most games (while giving up three or four quick ones in one of these games, I can almost see it from here), but how well can the Wild defend after Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon? Too many questions and too much inconsistency from this team to think that they can generate enough on offence to match Dallas.

Call: Stars in 5.


 

Anaheim Ducks (1st, Pacific Division; 2nd, Western Conference) vs. Nashville Predators (1st Wild Card, Western Conference)
This series could go either way, if we’re being honest. The Ducks finally played up to expectations after a brutal start to the season that left many dumbfounded. Nashville has been similar to Minnesota in regards to up and down play over the past month, and as always, the play of Shea Weber (along with Roman Josi) will have a say in the Preds’ fortunes, but newly formed combo of Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg has lit up the skies since the trade deadline (especially Forsberg). Along with Pekka Rinne in goal, the Preds can beat anyone, but the Ducks are a heavy, tight-checking, puck-dominant team, and this will be a slugfest; which the Ducks want. Between Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry and the emergent Jakob Silfverberg, the Ducks have plenty of depth. Additionally, they brought up another big body in Nick Ritchie to bang even more throughout all four of their lines. The Ducks defence is solid and often jumps into the rush offensively, which will press the Preds’ forwards into duty all game. This may be the difference in the series, if, if we are to believe what appearances show… which is that goalie play is virtually a wash (even if Bruce Boudreau sticks with Frederik Andersen over John Gibson, who is potentially every bit as good). Andersen’s meltdown against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks last year is not a distant memory, however.

A tough call, but the Ducks’ home ice advantage is palpable. They’ve virtually not lost there (other than a game against the Rangers, strangely) in eons.

Call: Ducks in 6.
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Los Angeles Kings (2nd, Pacific Division) vs. San Jose Sharks (3rd, Pacific Division)
This could very well be a toss up. Joe Thornton  is still doing “Jumbo Joe” things, and Patrick Marleau came on late in the season, to help the consistent Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and the revelation that is Joonas Donskoi.

You know what you get with the Kings: goaltending (Jonathan Quick) big, heavy, mashing, high-possession (Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, Milan Lucic, Jeff Carter, etc.) and the best defenceman in the NHL: Drew Doughty.

The Sharks use former Kings/Quick backup Martin Jones as their starter, and should he falter (and it is entirely possible, given that nearly everyone on the Kings knows his strengths and weaknesses), James Reimer, but the Kings have a major advantage in goal. Brent Burns jumps into the rush at times as a “winger” for the Sharks, giving them a heavy presence out high and a hard shot from the point, with the hands of a 6′ centre. On the surface, one would think that this could go either way, with a slight edge to the Kings, but keep in mind that the last time the Sharks made the playoffs, they inexplicably blew a 3-0 series lead by losing four straight to the Kings, who won the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of that 2013-2014 season.

For now…

Call: Kings in 6.
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St. Louis Blues (2nd, Central Division) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3rd, Central Division)
Some tend to think that there is a magic light switch to turn on and off, but this is not the Chicago team that won the Cup last year, nor was there any expectation for it to be so, given the amount of roster turnover. Artemi Panarin, aka the “Bread Man” (Panera Bread, for my slow readers) may very well win the Calder Trophy for best rookie given the season he has had, filling a void left by the departure of Patrick Sharp. The Blues know what they are going to get from Art Ross Trophy winner, Patrick Kane, along with arguably the best two way centre in the NHL, Jonathan Toews, and the Blues are certainly equipped defensively to slow down the Blackhawks enough to manage offence of their own. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock preaches defence wherever he goes, and the Blues will be ready in that regard, from the blue line on in.

Corey Crawford is so schizophrenic. He led the league for most of the season in shutouts, but also had (seemingly) numerous games where he gave up goals in bunches. He had to be pulled several times due to ineffectiveness last year. Brian Elliott (presumably) will get the nod for St. Louis, which is awash in offensive firepower, ranging from the speedy Robby Fabbri, to the steady Alexander Steen, to the big bodied David Backes (presuming he will be able to go, coming off injury), Jaden Schwartz, and all world Vladimir Tarasenko.

That’s before getting into Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and the other stalwarts on defence who contribute in the offensive zone as well. The Blues are in the best position that they have been to beat the Blackhawks in ages (as they seemingly lose to Chicago each time they square off in the playoffs). Regular season means little, but the Blues did play Chicago very well this regular season (then again, so did the Wild, who swept Chicago, and the Wild had lost something like a dozen games in a row at one point, so there’s that). You can’t ever really bet against a team like Chicago, but in some regards this has to feel like a “House Money” season for them, regardless of the outcome of this series.

This might be the Blues’ year (and those who know me know I love to ridicule them for choking every year).

Call: Blues in 7.
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CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS PREDICTIONS FOLLOWING THE CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST ROUND.