2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Round Prospectus

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

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).

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.

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.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Semifinal Round Prospectus

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

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).

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Sports Fandom: How I Became a Fan Series

Sports Fandom: How I Became a Fan Series
M.D. Wright

Every few years, we like to look back on the history of the teams that we support (in some cases, become fanatics of, which I am not personally), the circuitous route that is sometimes taken to becoming a fan of certain teams. Everyone’s story is different, which makes this fun. Feel free to share your story. Here is mine.

New York Football Giants.
1985, even though it was a “down” season for Lawrence Taylor in retrospect, his play jumped off the screen to me, as I was just 6 years old. No, I didn’t become a fan because of the hit that ended Theismann’s career. Again, my relative dislike (and even that is a strong word) for the arrogant Theismann didn’t develop until he began doing Sunday Night Football games on ESPN, where he was a know-it-all. 1986 solidified my support for the Giants, although I continued to have favorite players on other teams until my teen years, when rivalries became the centerpiece (excluding Deion Sanders when he went to San Francisco and Dallas).
New York Knicks.
Patrick Ewing. You had to have been around, either as a kid or someone older, of age, to understand how much gravity Ewing had on basketball in the early-mid 80s. All you heard was Georgetown was Ewing this, Ewing that, and Bernard King (who my dad constantly talked about, but I only got to watch play a handful of games with the Knicks with my own eyes live). Once the Knicks drafted Ewing, it was a wrap. I remembered King’s injury a few months before that draft, but I didn’t become a fan until Ewing was drafted that summer in 1985. Yes, I was always a Jordan supporter, and wanted him to do well as long as the Knicks won. Sometimes that happened, but more often than not — especially in playoffs — it did not.
New York Yankees.
I was not a day one Yankee fan. I grew up breaking my neck to see every Darryl Strawberry at bat that I could, and tried to catch every Dwight Gooden start that I could, and that occurred from 1985 when I began watching baseball (my grandmother used to play the tickets and even had me run them for the lady who would come to pay up when my grandmother’s tickets hit) during the 1985 playoffs when my sister and I were living with my grandmother that fall. I only became a Yankee fan (during their worst years) because Deion Sanders went there in 1989. Not sure that I would have become a fan otherwise. Probably would have become a Pirates fan if Deion had not come to the Bronx, as the Pirates had several players who I liked… Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and a couple others.
New York Rangers.
Hockey has pissed me off over the years with their numerous lockouts. I’ve been watching hockey since about 1988, and remember when Ron Greschner and others left the team. I watched copious amounts of hockey in the 90s, as I was home sick for most of my high school years with my illness (was in bed sick as ever in June 1994, otherwise I might have missed the Stanley Cup title, while getting sicker watching NBC preempt a Knicks Game 5 with that OJ trash). But a series of lockouts in the past 15 years nearly caused me to stop watching altogether. After about 2001, I watched a couple of years, and then after the 2005 lockout, I stopped watching altogether until 2010, when I began watching religiously again.
UConn Huskies.
Same as the Yankees, I was not day one with UConn. Not many are. Jim Calhoun is one of the greatest recruiters and coaches of all time, though. My original team (and I still support them) is North Carolina. I still have a beanie from 1982 that I got at the state fair. I became a UConn fan in 1994 when Donyell Marshall owned the Big East (my favorite conference, and the one I purported over the ACC even when I was living in ACC country and supported UNC, as some of my buddies from high school will tell you). I used to cut class every March to watch the Big East tournament (not the ACC tournament) and that was further solidified when Ray Allen came through, then Khalid El-Amin, then Rip Hamilton, then Caron Butler, then Emeka Okafor, then Ben Gordon, then Rudy Gay, then Kemba Walker, then Shabazz Napier, then Boatright, and now Kevin Ollie — who was on those teams that I originally became a fan of, is back as head coach and already has a national title under his belt.
Florida State Seminoles.
Deion Sanders. Period. Before I learned that idolatry was an affront to God, I idolized #2. Wanted to, and eventually did, play corner because he did. Wore the same number in every sport that he did, high stepped like he did, ran faster than every one (except this one cat who I swear was juicing) through high school, but the aforementioned illness killed any hopes of playing sports collegiately. But from 1987 onward, I have been all about Garnet and Gold.

North Carolina Tar Heels.
I was born 9 miles away from Carmichael Auditorium (where the Heels played when I was born, before the Dean E. Smith Center was built), at DUKE HOSPITAL of all places. Yet I have hated Duke all of my life. Did not get to watch Jordan in college, and only got to watch a compromised Kenny Smith (after that dirty foul that broke his wrist vs. LSU, I believe it was), but those teams with King Rice, JR Reid and those guys were fun to watch. I did support them through the 1993 tournament run, but they have been secondary to UConn since that season.
San Diego Chargers.
I have always liked the Bolts. Not nearly on par with the Giants, but ever since they had Marion BUTTTSSSS (Chris Berman voice when he did Chargers highlights back then… BTW… FROMMMMMM???) and Junior Seau, I always supported them. Except, of course, when they faced the Giants; including that snowball game at Giants Stadium in the 90s. I even go back to 1986 when the Giants knocked the rat piss out of Dan Fouts, who ended up retiring the next year. But again, the Giants came first in that game, and every subsequent game when it’s G-Men/Bolts.
And yes, I want Spanos to sell the team and for them to remain in San Diego where they belong.
Feel free to share your story with me.

2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide

2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide
M.D. Wright

This week we will decide the two teams who will participate in Super Bowl 50. It is fitting that they don’t call it “Super Bowl L”, in keeping with longstanding affinities for Roman numeration. However, for some of us handicappers, an “L” is what many of us took throughout the year both on money lines and spreads. Last week was no different.

Last Week:
SU: 2-2
ATS: 0-4

SU: 6-2
ATS: 2-6

Conference Championship Weekend:
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium
Denver, Colorado
Denver Broncos 4
3:00 PM EST
Coverage: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
My Call: DEN +3
Over/Under: Under 44.5

The conjecture and posturing done through the media this week has been palpable, but it does not have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

New England did not have their chain-mover, Julian Edelman in their loss to Denver here in the previous match up, which is big (as the superlative affixed to Edelman suggests). New England’s drives tend to stall at times, especially now with a non-existent running game.

Injuries are not going to play a major role, as virtually the players who started games last weekend will play; or, at the very worst, be a game-time decision. The keys to this game, and how it will affect your wagering is whether Denver decides to play press coverage and use a lot of nickel to limit the run after the catch, which is a staple of New England’s dink and dunk offense. They really do not need to honor the run game, as Steven Jackson could not out-run a parked car at this point, and with Wade Phillips’ default Phillips (named after his father, not him) 3-4 attacking defense, they can more than handle it, even if New England did attempt to sneak in a run here and there.

Denver will devote underneath and over the top help on Rob Gronkowski and dare Tom Brady to beat them with players like Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Scott Chandler. New England knows this, and expect to see multiple two (or even three) tight end looks.

Denver’s main issue is whether they can sustain drives and run the football effectively without fumbling and losing those fumbles. Peyton Manning does not need to air it out to beat New England: rather; do what he does best: patiently take what the defense gives (and hope that his receivers don’t have a half-dozen dropped passes in this game). It is somewhat understandable that Denver is getting points at home, but the altitude will play a role by the 4th quarter, and if New England is unable to rattle Manning in the pocket all game, there will be plays available against a decidedly average Patriots secondary. There won’t be a plethora of points or any blowouts here (barring impossible-to-predict turnovers), unlike what some claim, but Denver gets it done here.

New England                               19
Denver                                          23

Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers 31
6:40 PM EST
Coverage: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman)
My Call: ARZ +3
Over/Under: Over 47.5

Unlike Seattle, who fell short in a comeback attempt, after digging themselves into a hole fooling around with the Panthers’ intentional shenanigans with the field conditions, the Cardinals are well-prepared for what they will face with the turf in Charlotte on Sunday. And it will be just as bad as it was last week, as Charlotte was hit with a decent amount of snow and (mostly) ice. Temperatures will be moderate, which certainly helps, but overall, field conditions don’t appear to be slanted toward one team that is accustomed to practicing on a choppy, sloppy field, versus the other. Let’s just get that out of the way before handicapping.

As for the Cards’ offense, they have an answer at every slot: running back, X, Y, Z and backups at each position. What would haunt them all summer is if they were to lose this game and know that they would have gotten Chris Johnson back had they done so. That may not play as a motivating point, but Arizona could use a bit more depth at RB, as David Johnson and Andre Ellington’s production is rather duplicitous. David Johnson appeared apprehensive and somewhat overwhelmed at the moment last week, which may or may not impact his running in this game. It should be noted that Green Bay plays the run differently than Carolina, so Johnson’s results against Green Bay have little to no bearing in this game.

Jonathan Stewart caught Seattle off guard with his initial rushing attempt last week, and tacked on a few yards here and there to push his total over 100, but he did little to nothing outside of that first run. The Cards’ defense has been solid against the run all year (but not spectacular, which they were under Todd Bowles), as they have been prone to giving up a big run here and there (i.e. Eddie Lacy last week). Same goes for their pass defense — particularly now without Tyrann Mathieu — as they are generally very solid, and attacking, but are prone to a big play here and there; usually the side opposite of where Patrick Peterson (who has actually played like a lockdown corner this season, unlike zone coverage specialist Josh Norman) lines up.

Carolina is going to run the football. If they go down with the ship, it will be while running the football. There are two concerns: 1) Can the Panthers avoid costly turnovers and/or 2) Can the Panthers — should they earn a lead — hang on without blowing the lead for seemingly the millionth time this season? The Cardinals are more quick strike than any team that Carolina has faced all season, and can capitalize quickly on coverage gaffes (of which Carolina has had many, including several in Seattle’s comeback attempt [while Carolina was held scoreless for the entire second half, despite truly attempting to move the football and add to the lead]) and it should be cause for concern…

… Unless Carson Palmer is throwing wild passes that are more at-risk than runaway ward of the state, as was the case last week against Green Bay. Green Bay’s secondary is better (collectively) than Carolina’s, by far, but Palmer’s mistakes with the football did not cost him, because Clay Matthews is not on Luke Kuechly’s (or Thomas Davis’) level in terms of playing in coverage downfield.

If Palmer avoids turning over the football, the Panthers are going to have to play a near-flawless game in order to win. You know what you are going to get from Carolina: 25+ rushing attempts (including a few designed for Cam Newton), about 20-23 points, and a big play or two on defense. Rarely does anything outside of that occur.

What you don’t know is what you will get from Arizona. This game could either be disastrous, and marred by turnovers on the part of the Cards, or it will be a pick-your-poison scenario for Sean McDermott, who plays a lot more zone coverage than people think the Panthers truly do, before watching film. Larry Fitzgerald is going to get his, because he lines up at every slot and runs all of the routes in the tree. What you don’t know is will it be David Johnson or John Brown who takes advantage of what will be favorable matchups (particularly Brown, as you can expect Arizona to use Michael Floyd on Josh Norman’s side in order to force some coverage to that side and isolate opposite field). And if it’s not John Brown, will it be JJ Nelson? Or Floyd? Or even Darren Fells? The Cards have more weapons than the Panthers, and the teams are equal defensively, but will Carson Palmer be John Wayne with those weapons, or will he be Jayson Williams?

For now, all conjecture about his prior playoff performances aside, we are going to go with the former, rather than the latter.

Arizona                      27
Carolina                    23