2016-17 NHL Final Stanley Cup Playoff Report

 

Well we’ve come to the end of another entertaining NHL season and from my point of view there is no surprise about the final outcome. There is no surprise that the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully defended their championship. Before the playoffs started, I said in my predictions for the first round that Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east and Chicago was the team to beat in the west. So my east prediction was ho hum and the west an electric shock. But what did the whole thing mean? This article tries to make sense of what happened in the NHL from April to June. Before I get down to business I must take a moment to congratulate myself and pat myself on the back. I finished 12-3 for the playoff rounds, predicted Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east. If Chicago had played up to expectations, I might have done even better. So before recapping, I’ll put away my wizard’s hat until next year…

No Surprise

The only surprise about the Penguins repeating as champion was how strong and how good this team is. They won without their best defenseman, Kris Letang playing a single playoff game. They won with their best goaltender Matt Murray missing three quarters of the playoffs. And they won with their best player Sidney Crosby missing one game with a concussion. Baring injury or the unexpected, the Penguins can win a few more in row. By a country mile, they are already the team to beat for next year.

Biggest Disappointment

The early exit of the Chicago Blackhawks to a team they never lost to before in the very first round, in the minimum four games, including two shutouts on home ice had to be the biggest upset and shock of the whole playoffs. It is true that the core of this team that has won 3 Stanley Cups since 2010 is starting to age, but much better was definitely expected. What really hurt this team is that all the new players who are expected to lead the way in the future showed absolutely nothing, a bad omen for the future of this team. A team that I expected to be Pittsburgh’s main challenger has now got lots of doubts hanging over its head.

Biggest Surprise

Under talented Ottawa upsetting the New York Rangers and then nearly pulling off an equal upset of Nashville’s elimination of Chicago by taking Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final.

Honorable mention: St. Louis which lost a lot of top talent in the off season and then by trades winning a playoff round and then putting up a good struggle against Nashville.

Feet Kisser

That guy everybody saw in the Pittsburgh dressing room after the Stanley Cup victory who was on the floor kissing every Penguin toe he could get his lips around was really General Manager Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens. Bergevin stood to lose his life either by lynching or by honorable suicide before the mob got to him because he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and traded him to Nashville. If the Predators had won and Subban won the Conn Smythe Trophy which nearly happened, his worst nightmare would have come true. Kissing a few Penguin toes are small tokens of gratitude for sparing him the fate of what could have happened if Nashville won the Stanley Cup. He still isn’t off the hook. Montreal fans will still remember the trade next year. For now at least, his life is spared.

Best Playoff Series

Gutsy under talented Ottawa taking powerful Pittsburgh to a Game 7, double overtime thriller. If Pittsburgh’s other more talented opponents had put out the same effort, they might have pulled off an upset.

Most Unfortunate Series

Columbus, which has always had attendance problems and has never won a playoff round, had to play the one team, Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, that they probably had no chance of beating. Columbus gave their fans the finest regular season in their history, but any attendance gains certainly got discouraged by the usual first round defeat. Columbus fans needed to see progress that could be measured by a playoff victory over anybody. Sure it was champion Pittsburgh, but hockey patrons are still going to stay away from the box office and say, “Same old Blue Jackets…”

Best Opponent Wasn’t There

The playoff series during the Crosby-Malkin era between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay was tied 1-1. Last year, with Pittsburgh even healthier than this year and Tampa Bay missing star forward Steve Stamkos for every game except the last one, the Lightning took Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final. This year, Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman signed all his star players, clearly expecting to win the Stanley Cup. But again Stamkos got injured early in the season and the Lightning never recovered and missed the playoffs. With this year’s Chicago debacle, Tampa Bay may be the only team with the talent when it is completely healthy to really challenge Pittsburgh in the immediate future. Pittsburgh has never beaten Tampa Bay when it has had a healthy Stamkos for a full playoff series. With a healthy team, expect the Lightning to be back in the playoffs next year.

The Usual Stanley Cup For Wheel Spinners…

Once again the eastern champion Washington Captials met the western champion Minnesota Wild for the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, a regular occurrence for the past half-decade. Inglorious Minnesota was put out easily in the first round by underdog St. Louis with the extra spice of the Blues being coached by ex-Wild coach, Mike Yeo. The main culprit is Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher who has never added any significant talent to his roster since he signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Poor Yeo had to stomach this do-nothing improvement by Fletcher until he was inevitably fired. Minnesota’s easy exit to underdog St. Louis, coached by Yeo, is the lowest playoff blow yet.

In Washington’s case, you cannot blame the General Manager Brian MacLellan who signed T. J. Oshie last year and Kevin Shattenkirk this year. The real culprits are a group of players led by Alexander Ovechkin who consistently fail to rise to the occasion in the NHL playoffs and in Ovechkin’s case, internationally as well with Russia. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman Kris Letang, had to use the erratic Marc Andre Fleury as its goaltender, lost Sidney Crosby for one game with a concussion, and still beat the Capitals who had all the advantages. Pittsburgh won three games in Washington, its home away from home. Ovechkin, by his own admission was playing poorly and was demoted to the third line in despair by coach Barry Trotz, who like all other Washington and Russian coaches, cannot make a winner out of him. The so-called Crosby-Ovechkin “rivalry” is a dud. The score in playoff meetings is Pittsburgh 3 Washington 0. There are 3 Stanley Cups, 2 Conn Smythe Trophies, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and a World Cup championship for Crosby to none for Ovechkin. For the first time I’m reading articles about Washington finally trading the underachieving Ovechkin who has never risen to the occasion. The Capitals can also probably trade the equally uninspiring Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Backstrom, goaltender Braden Holtby, and new guy Shattenkirk who was supposed to put Washington over the top as well.

Compare this with under talented Ottawa who chased Fleury from the nets and then took Pittsburgh with their best goaltender Matt Murray to double overtime in the 7th game in Pittsburgh instead of being shut out in the 7th game on home ice in Washington by backup goaltender Fleury.

Consolation Prizes

  1. Nashville

The Predators biggest victory of the playoffs may have been off the ice. Before this playoff run, nobody really has called Nashville a hockey town. But like the agonizing Tennessee Titan Super Bowl loss, the Predators caught the imagination of most of the city. In previous years, there has been talk of Nashville losing money and even about its survival. Hopefully now, being a Predator fan will be fully ingrained in this city in the future. There is already talk of awarding Nashville an outdoor stadium game sometime soon. If the Predators keep icing competitive teams, they will increase their following, and a once hockey-ignorant city will become as knowledgeable as the best of NHL cities.

  1. New York Rangers

On the very day of their defeat by Ottawa, the Rangers were awarded next year’s outdoor Winter Classic game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Welcome Back Strangers

Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Columbus Blue Jackets who have seldom made the playoffs recently finally made it back to the post season. Edmonton won a playoff round, Toronto played credibly against Washington and the unfortunate Columbus had to play the best team in the playoffs in the first round. Hopefully they will be able to build on what they accomplished this year.

Are You A Stanley Cup Goaltender?

Carey Price can win the big one internationally when he plays for Canada but cannot win more than one playoff round for Montreal. This year he was put out in the first round by the equally puzzling Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. Ironically in the World Cup, Price defeated his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe who took the Canadiens farther in the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done.

Also on this list is the horrible Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Going to head-to-head against erratic backup goaltender Marc Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh, he actually turned in Fleury-like playoff performances of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. Like his other teammates who I have noted above, he never rises to the occasion when he is needed most.

The Flip Flop Man

Lundqvist beats tough Montreal, then loses to under talented Ottawa and then beats tough Canada in the World Championship Final. Jekyll-turned Hyde-turned Jekyll.

Who Can Beat Pittsburgh Next Year?

Nobody.

Actually assuming the correct additions, subtractions, injuries, trades and draft choices take place the teams with the best chances seem to be…

  1. Tampa Bay

This assumes that Steve Stamkos finally doesn’t get himself injured, Tampa makes a good draft choice and/or an astute trade and the new goaltending tandem replacing Ben Bishop works out.

  1. Ottawa

Under talented Ottawa drafts and trades for more talent at forward who play with the same inspired enthusiasm and dedication as this year’s team did in the playoffs.

  1. Anaheim

The Ducks continue to improve under their old Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle. The add more talent by a good draft and astute trades to finally being able to beat Nashville and make the Stanley Cup Finals. And goaltender John Gibson who showed promise this year continues to develop.

2016-17 NHL Stanley Cup Final Prediction

The third NHL playoff round has now come and gone, concluding with a classic double overtime playoff game between the Stanley Cup champions and over-achieving, heavily underdog Ottawa. I had a 50% winning percentage this time, being wrong about Anaheim and just narrowly missing going 0-2 thanks to Ottawa’s gritty play. So my record is now 11-3. I usually start off writing about teams and players who won and lost big. There are no losers in this round, so I’ll just be listing the positives.

Biggest Winners – Players

1.  Filip Forsberg

Forsberg had an exceptional series against Anaheim where he established himself as a money player who comes through in the clutch when his team needs it the most. This is a break through playoff year for Forsberg who is establishing himself as Nashville’s offensive leader, the star forward they have never had in the past. Nashville will especially need him to come through big again against Pittsburgh. He gave the kind of performance that his old team, the Washington Capitals who stupidly traded him desperately needed against the Penguins.

2.  Marc Andre Fleury

Unless Matt Murray gets injured, Fleury has probably played his last game in Pittsburgh. The surprise was that Pittsburgh has kept him and his big contract this long. His erratic playoff goaltending between the first Pittsburgh victory in 2009 until 2016 when the Penguins switched to Matt Murray was a major reason why the Penguins did not win the Stanley Cup any more and why Dan Bylsma is no longer the coach and Ray Shero no longer the general manager. His career seemed finished but he showed enough in this year’s playoffs for some team to take a chance on him next year. His 7th game shutout of Washington has probably saved his NHL career.

3.  Matt Murray

The Ottawa series proved that if Pittsburgh wants to win future Stanley Cups, Murray is their goaltender. Pittsburgh plays with more confidence knowing Murray is in the nets. He should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. The Penguins are now completely his team, not Fleury’s.

4.  Chris Kunitz

If ever a player played the greatest game of his career when his team needed it the most, it was Kunitz who scored two goals, including the winner and assisted on the other during the double-overtime 7th game thriller. That’s coming through in the clutch. Were you watching, Alexander Ovechkin, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom?

5.  Craig Anderson

Anderson gave a Conn Smythe Trophy performance in every playoff round except that he can’t score. Is there a lesson there for you Braden Holtby? Anderson almost fashioned the greatest heartwarming North American professional sports story since Jim Plunkett returned from oblivion with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL in 1980. His team hung in without him while he was at home nursing his wife who had cancer and when he returned he was the key in the New York upset and nearly made a bigger one over Pittsburgh. Ottawa simply does not have enough talent, especially at forward to match Pittsburgh. He showed enough that if Ottawa can significantly upgrade their talent, he might be able to take them all the way.

 

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

 

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle who corrected their choking problem of recent years. He got the Ducks to keep their heads during the last part of the regular season which saw them overtake the San Jose Sharks and stay ahead of the Edmonton Oilers. The Ducks then won two playoff rounds, including a 7th game at home against the Oilers where they had been choking under previous coaches. The Ducks are clearly the best team in their division right now.

Two problems for the future: Is goaltender John Gibson good enough to take this team all the way to the Stanley Cup? He showed promise in winning two playoff rounds before being put out by Nashville. They still have problems winning playoff games at home. And Nashville itself is another problem. The Predators have eliminated the Ducks two years in a row so they have their number. Before that, the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated them. So Anaheim’s problem is not its own division but in beating the best teams of the other Western Conference division. There will have to be some changes made and a good draft choice added that fills a hole to take the next step forward.

Ottawa Senators

Before the Pittsburgh series started, I wondered if the Senators would even belong on the same ice. They had already over-achieved including a mild upset of the New York Rangers. But the gritty Senators went toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champions until they lost a 7th game double-overtime thriller. Unlike new kids Columbus and choker Washington, Ottawa was smart enough to get to Marc Andre Fleury and chase him from the nets. Unfortunately, by this time, Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray was ready to play and that meant no more easy games. It may well be that if Fleury had been forced to continue, Ottawa would have won the series. The difference was at forward where the Senators have nothing to match the high powered Pittsburgh offense. Credit has to go to coach Guy Boucher who devised a defense system that except for one game, made Pittsburgh play at Ottawa’s offensive level. Ottawa came closer to the Stanley Cup than was ever expected. Upgrading their offense in the off season is essential if they want to go all the way.

Nightmare Continues…

Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin was relaxing, accepting all kinds of praises early in the season after he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and then seeing the Canadiens be on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff spot. These days he seldom leaves his office without a body guard and grits his teeth and curses while he sees Subban’s smiling face advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If Nashville wins the Stanley Cup and Subban wins the Conn Smythe trophy, will he use the pistol that is rumored to be in his drawer before the mob with the noose and the tar and the feathers gets to him first? They’ll probably strip him first to see if he really has been wearing a Nashville jersey under his suit and if they can spot the Predator logo that is supposed to be tattooed to his butt.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Nashville Predators

The over-the-hump Predators now face the greatest challenge they have faced in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. They have already scored the greatest upset of the current playoff year by eliminating Western Conference favorite Chicago, a team they never came close to beating in the playoffs before in the minimum four games. But it has to be remembered that Chicago was severely hurt by the fact that all the new, young players whom they were developing showed absolutely nothing, a dark portent for the future of that team. Now the Predators are facing the Eastern Conference favorite Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Both Peter Laviolette and Mike Sullivan have won the Stanley Cup so the coaching is even. There are two reasons why Pittsburgh is the defending champion. First, the Penguins finally got championship playoff goaltending after years of bad performances by Marc Andre Fleury by Matt Murray. Second, Sullivan got everyone on the team, including star performers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to concentrate on playing good defense. Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne is just as good a goaltender as Ottawa’s Craig Anderson. He can significantly outplay Fleury but like Anderson, he won’t significantly outplay Murray. More significant is that Nashville does not have anyone to compare with Crosby and Malkin. They are the best players they have yet seen. And Pittsburgh is getting clutch performances from other guys like Chris Kunitz. The combination of Crosby, Malkin, clutch performances, good defense, return of Matt Murray is too much for Nashville. In fact it is too much for every other team in the NHL. Pittsburgh will defend its championship over Nashville in 6 games.

 

 

Toronto Blue Jays Got What Washington Capitals Did Not Get

In trying to explain what happened to the Washington Capitals in my previous article, I put forward the theory that the players, particularly Alexander Ovechkin, simply are not good enough, that fans, ownership, management, coaches, and maybe even the players themselves are believing myths that cannot come true. Ovechkin of course is the up-front guy. He has never had a big performance either in the NHL playoffs for Washington, nor for his Russian teams in major tournaments like the Olympics and the World Cup.

As to why it never happens for him, I don’t know. I once read that a quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, Darryl Lamonica was frightened about being hit and that all his teammates knew and that silently to themselves knew that Oakland would never win the Super Bowl as long as he was at quarterback. The problem was human fears that probably everybody has in one form or another. What is wrong with Ovechkin? A fear? Does he freeze under pressure? Does he try too hard? Does he concentrate on offense too much which means that after almost every playoff round he has a horrible plus/minus statistic? I am not there so I don’t know. Someone with some inside knowledge will have to write those articles.

Right behind him is goaltender Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist. He was not good enough against Pittsburgh last year and this year there were two games of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. He was pulled in that game. Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom have been around as long as Ovechkin. Neither of them have ever been a difference maker, who have carried Washington at least to the Eastern Conference Final. And the new guy, prized acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk failed to impress, failed to put Washington over the top. All are now candidates to be traded.

Washington and Minnesota are the champion wheel-spinners of the NHL. Every year now it seems, for at least the past half-decade they have met in the Stanley Cup playoff final of wheel spinning. Minnesota’s problem can easily be explained. General Manager Chuck Fletcher signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, figured that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion and has not added any significant talent since. This state of affairs finally caught up to his coach Mike Yeo who was fired when he could not take the Wild deeper in the playoffs. This year, Fletcher and the Minnesota ownership and management were punished in the worse way when the Wild was humiliatingly ejected from the playoffs in only 5 games by the St. Louis Blues coached by none other than Yeo. I have already written an article about their need to be shaken up, to have more top talent added.

But the Washington situation cannot be explained so easily. General Manager Brian MacLellan added T.J. Oshie last year and Shattenkirk this year and it still has not been enough. So it is not that ownership and management are walking around with blinkers, stuck with their heads in the sand. Washington has changed coaches too during the Ovechkin era and that has not helped either. Certain players are not rising to the occasion, to perform at the peak when they are needed the most. One just needs to see the unheralded Jean-Gabriel Pageau, of the still-playing Ottawa Senators, who has never been a star, who has low scoring statistics but a good plus/minus record, who is now coming through big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most, to see the kind of the player Washington has never been able to get.

So are wheel spinners always doomed? Not necessarily, and the best example that comes to my mind is the story of the baseball Toronto Blue Jays. This is what should have happened to the Capitals, what the Washington ownership, management, and coaches were trying to do, what the Capitals fans envisioned.

The Blue Jays were formed in 1977 and in 1983 fielded their first division-contending team. Two years later they won their first division title and then lost in the American championship series to the Kansas City Royals who would win the World Series. No problem. That was the new kid learning the ropes, paying his dues. Great things were projected for Toronto in the future.

But then came the wheel-spinning years lasting from 1986 to 1991, just like they have been for Washington. Toronto would win its division or just fail to do it. Somehow the chemistry of the team was wrong. Detroit, Oakland, and Minnesota would regularly fatten up on these kings of playoff chokers. Toronto would move to the SkyDome and set American League attendance records. Manager Jimy Williams would be fired and replaced by Cito Gaston. (Does this sound like the Washington Capitals?) Nothing worked.

General Manager Pat Gillick acquired an unfavorable nickname, “Stand Pat”. The fans all knew the Blue Jays were not good enough and demanded changes. Gaston was brought in and then Gillick tried a block buster equivalent trade. He sent top shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugger Fred McGriff to San Diego for Roborto Alomar and Joe Carter. It still was not enough. Then (unlike Chuck Fletcher) Gillick added more top talent. Pitchers like David Cone and Jack Morris would be signed. And frustrated wheel spinners Dave Winfield (labeled cruelly “Mr. May” by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner) and Paul Molitor would be installed as the designated hitter.

Then with this added talent came the turning point. In the 1992 American League Championship series, Oakland brought in top reliever Dennis Ekersley to mop up the Blue Jays as usual. But Roberto Alomar hit a home run and the whole Oakland stadium went silent. Suddenly the Blue Jays were no longer wheel spinners, no longer chokers, could no longer be counted on to be a loser who would self destruct, players who never came through when the pressure was on. They were over the hump. Dave Winfield would no longer carry the label “Mr. May”. Paul Molitor would be the MVP of the next World Series in 1993. Tony Fernandez would be reacquired and win a World Series.

That is what the Washington Capitals have been trying to do. Are there any lessons for them here? Can they get over the hump and turn things around like Toronto did? Will there be the moment where the guy comes through when his team needs him the most; do it like Alomar did?

And by the way, after the Alomar home run, the Blue Jays lived happily ever after.

But the Washington Capitals…?

 

Washington Capitals Defeat Should Mean The End Of An Era

How much longer can this go on? How much longer will the Alexander Ovechkin era in Washington continue? The ugly truth is that it should be ended now. Cold, hard, and sober. Alexander Ovechkin cannot win a championship, at least as the leader for either Washington and Russia. And probably he can take long time loyal Capitals Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik, goaltender Braden Holtby, and new guy Kevin Shattenkirk with him. Coach Barry Trotz is 50-50.

Let’s review the ugly facts. Pittsburgh was playing without its best goaltender, Matt Murray, its best defenseman, Kris Letang, and Washington even got the bonus of having the best player in the NHL, Sidney Crosby, cross-checked with a concussion and missing one game. And Pittsburgh still won.

Meanwhile Washington added T. J. Oshie laat year. They added Kevin Shattenkirk this year. And Pittsburgh still won. Not even Pittsburgh having to play erratic playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury could save the Capitals. In fact Holtby outdid Fleury and gave performances that Fleury used to give Pittsburgh in the playoffs since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory. 3 goals on 19 shots, 3 goals on 14 shots. He was pulled in that game. Holtby is as unreliable as Ovechkin.

For those who believe in these things, and there may be some truth to it (especially over the long decades I’ve watched sports) there may be a hex by one team over another. For example Montreal beat Boston in the playoffs consecutively for over 40 years. Not even Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito could change it.

The problem with the “hex theory” in the Ovechkin story is that there have been many years when Washington never played Pittsburgh in the playoffs and still lost. And Ovechkin’s Russian teams have a dismal record with Ovechkin as leader. He is the common denominator. Washington has changed coaches. Ovechkin has had different Russian coaches. None could make him a winner. Management should remember that if they have a hankering to dump Trotz.

In fact Trotz in desperation, mindful of Ovechkin’s self-admitted poor play, demoted him to the third line where he could do less damage. The ugly truth is that every playoff season, Alexander ends up with a bad plus/minus statistic. That means he is actually a liability, not an asset to a team in the playoffs, both internationally and in the NHL.

It’s a sad thing to have to write this, but I have been writing about Ovechkin’s limitations for several years now on different blogs. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby when he entered the NHL, the first international player who could be the best player in the league, he has lots of pretty individual statistics but a horrid team record. Crosby has 2 Stanley Cups, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, a World Cup victory and a Conn Smythe Trophy to Ovechkin’s none. The score in direct playoff meetings is Pittsburgh 3, Washington 0. This so-called “rivalry” has been a dud. And it could be argued that Crosby’s colleague, Evgeni Malkin has been the best Russian player in the NHL all along. He has 2 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and is leading this year’s playoff scoring.

This defeat is even worse because with all the player additions and subtractions, Ovechkin’s limitations became more clearly focused for all to see. By his own admission he was playing poorly. That he had an unrevealed injury cannot be used as an excuse either. Erik Karlsson of Ottawa is playing with a more serious injury and Crosby came back after a concussion. As noted above, Trotz demoted Ovechkin to the third line, a open admission about Ovechkin’s performances in the playoffs.

The problem of such an open admission is that it makes Ovechkin harder to be traded. The most obvious solution it might seem is to trade him to a contender where he might be “the last piece of the puzzle”. The problem with this is that when one scrutinizes Ovechkin’s playoff record, he becomes someone to be avoided. Why would any contender want to get an aging player, with a huge salary, who consistently fails to come through for his team when he is needed the most? There are no records of Ovechkin – and for that matter Backstrom, Orpik, and Holtby – being the difference maker in the playoffs. I have no memory of Alexander playing so well that it can be said he put his team in the next round.

From the NHL’s viewpoint, the best thing that Ovechkin can still do is sell tickets. So the best place for him to go is to a city that is not worried about icing a winning team, but increasing attendance. The Capitals do not want to trade him to an Eastern Conference team, so that rules out Carolina, the New York Islanders, Florida, and Columbus. So by default, the best place for Alexander to go is the Arizona Coyotes.

Before concluding this article, it is wise to put things in perspective. I, the critic, the blog writer, am telling maybe the truthful thing that Alexander Ovechkin and the others are not good enough and have to be traded for the good of the Washington Capitals. But it must be remembered that I am talking about humans. NOBODY likes to be told that they are not good enough in their job. It means the end of their of the dreams, their hopes. It means an admission of failure, hurt pride, which is hard to swallow. Being traded means having to move to a new city. What about their children’s education, their friends? They get uprooted and lose them all.

I don’t like writing an article like this. I’d rather believe in “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, where everybody wins and gets in. But Ovechkin chose sports as his profession, where sometimes one player is chosen to win consistently and another is chosen to lose consistently. That is the ugly side of sports, part of its nature when a person chooses that occupation. Ovechkin’s career closely resembles Marcel Dionne who also never made it to even a conference final. They would be fully justified to go to a bar together, order a beer and then sob in each other’s arms.

Writers go through a phase too. I don’t dislike Alexander Ovechkin. But you start out saying, “Wait until next time”. Then it is, “He still hasn’t done it.” Then it becomes “When is he going to show something?” Disillusionment comes. Now it is, “He is not what they say he is.” Finally it becomes, “He should be traded.”

If things had gone the way happily ever afters go, I would be writing, “They finally overcame…” “At last he rose to the occasion…” “They overcame adversity and past history…” “At last, over the hump…”, etc. (That last line can be said about this year’s Nashville Predators.) But as the second President of the United States, John Adams said when he was defending in court, the British soldiers being tried for the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” So I can’t write any of that.

Sometimes the story has a happy ending. Phil Esposito was consistently overshadowed in Boston by his teammate Bobby Orr, until the 1972 Canada-USSR series when he, probably more than any other player saved Canada’s bacon. It was the type of performance under pressure that Alexander Ovechkin has never given in any playoffs for either Washington or Russia.

 

2016-17 NHL Third Playoff Round Predictions

It’s half way through the playoffs and I went 4 for 4 in my second round predictions, including an Ottawa upset of the New York Rangers. My overall record is now 10-2, the only serious blot being the Chicago debacle. Like every other playoff round, some teams and players won and lost big, meaning that there is more significance for them than for others who won or lost. As usual I’ll start with giving my view about the significance of the second round before concluding with my two third round predictions. In no particular order…

Biggest Winners – Players

Pekka Rinne

Rinne was always a good goaltender but his team never had the talent until now to do much in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Predators have finally done something they have not been able to do before. First they eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks and now the have reached the Western Conference Final for the first time. How good a goaltender is Rinne? We are about to find out.

P. K. Subban

There has to be some inner satisfaction for Subban who was singled out by Montreal general manager, Marc Bergevin as the main reason for Montreal missing the playoffs the previous season when goaltender Carey Price was hurt. For a while this season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference, Nsahville was out of the playoffs and seemed likely to miss the post season. Subban was playing with a bag over his head. But now Subban is going farther in the playoffs with the Predators than he ever did in Montreal which can only sit, wring their hands and watch him play after being eliminated in the first round.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

The Ranger Destroyer. Sometimes an unknown, unexpected player emerges during times of crisis. Such is the case in this round of Pageau who at least in the Ranger series, gave Ottawa something they haven’t had for a long time, a real threat on the forward line, someone the opposition has to stop. You also like a player who comes through when they need him the most. He only had 33 points during the regular season but significantly an excellent plus/minus statistic. The question is can he continue this excellent play against a tougher opponent in the third round for over-achieving Ottawa.

Marc Andre Fleury

If Pittsburgh had lost, he would have made the Biggest Losers list. But thanks in large part to coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to get the entire team to commit to playing good defense, starting with last year’s Stanley Cup victory, Fleury who has looked horrible many times in the playoffs since the first victory in 2009 has been able to hang in. That he posted a shut out in game 7 when he needed to do it the most speaks volumes.

Biggest Winners – Teams

Nashville Predators

They are going places and doing things they never did before. First they humiliatingly eliminated the Western Conference Stanley Cup favorite, the Chicago Blackhawks, a team they had never been able to beat in the playoffs before in only 4 games. Now they got over a second hump and are on their way to their first Western Conference Final. Suddenly Nashville is a hockey town. Everybody is talking about the Predators. Regardless about what happens in the next round, Nashville has taken some significant steps forward.

 

Ottawa Senators

If Nashville is the over-the-humpers, Ottawa is the over-achievers. They caught a break in the first round when they played probably the only team they might be favored against, the Boston Bruins. But eliminating the Rangers was a significant upset. The two players who they needed the most came through big for them, goaltender Craig Anderson, and defenseman Erik Karlsson. And unexpectedly they got a significant contribution on the forward line from emerging hometown hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Like Nashville, no matter what happens in the third round, they have taken a significant step forward.

Biggest Losers – Players (And Coaches)

Henrik Lundqvist

The Jekyll and Hyde of NHL goalies became Hyde again at the wrong time. He eliminates tougher Montreal in the first round and then gets beaten by upstart Ottawa in the second round. He let in wrong goals at the wrong time just like he did against Europe and North America in the World Cup. His time to win the Stanley Cup as a starting goaltender is starting to run out. He joins the goaltender, he eliminated in the first round, Carey Price, as a net minder with a real question mark over his head about whether he really is a good Stanley Cup playoff goaltender.

Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nicklas Backstrom

The gang at Washington failed again, hopefully for the last time. This team needs to be torn apart and built again. It simply is not good enough. What has to happen before people realize this? I’ll break this down even further.

1a & 1b Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom

These two can be easily disposed of. They, along with Ovechkin have been around the longest and like him have never had a playoff series where they were the difference makers. All you have to do is compare them to unknown Jean-Gabriel Pageau (see above) who without hype came through when his team needed him the most. Did Washington beat Pittsburgh because of them? Has there ever been a playoff series where Washington won because of them? The ugly truth is that they are not good enough and have to go.

1c Kevin Shattenkirk

He was supposed to be the prized acquisition of the trade deadline from St. Louis, the desperate trade that General Manager, Brian MacLellan made mostly at the request of Alexander Ovechkin to put Washington finally over the top. Like Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom, he failed to distinguish himself. The difference maker, the player who got Washington over the hump never occurred. What is even more galling is that his old team in St. Louis dumped him and his huge salary to get cap space, and the Blues instead of folding, rallied and did almost as well as Washington without him and other significant talent losses during last year’s off season. St. Louis now has a chance for the future while Washington is now a team with large salaries for players who do not win.

1d Braden Holtby

He cannot beat the highly questionable playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury, never mind Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray. When I made my predictions for the second round, I said that Washington had to get Fleury to be his usual horrid playoff self and be pulled from some the games. Pitted against the real thing, Holtby out-Fleuryed Fleury, and gave performances of 3 goals on 19 shots, and 3 goals on 14 shots (He was pulled in that game). This series should prove once and for all that Washington cannot be a champion with Holtby as its goaltender. Incredibly he is somehow a contender for the Vezina Trophy.

1e Alexander Ovechkin

I have listed this group from least worst to worst of the worst, and this series instead of enhancing him is probably the series in which Ovechkin’s over-rated status has most clearly been brought into focus. When drafted by Washington, he was billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby. He has lots of pretty individual statistics but horrid team records both in the NHL with Washington and internationally with Russia. Almost every playoff year, he ends up with a horrible plus/minus record, meaning in spite of all his offense, he is actually a liability for Washington in the playoffs. Like the others listed above he is no difference maker, the player who comes up big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most. By his own admission, he was playing poorly in this series, and coach Barry Trotz, finally dropping his belief in the myth of Ovechkin, in desperation demoted him to the third line where could do the least damage. The ugly truth is that it should be over in Washington for Ovechkin, he should be traded, and a new era begin.

Todd McLellan

Ever notice that Todd McLellan’s playoff record is very similar to that of the undistinguished Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota? Like Boudreau, his teams never do much in the playoffs. They beat weak playoff teams and nobody else. Right now everybody in Edmonton is rejoicing because they are back in the playoffs after a decade and won a playoff round against declining San Jose. But I, at least am going to file this defeat in the back of my mind with an eye to the future. McLellan’s team came up short again against a true contender. His playoff record should be closely noted next year.

Biggest Losers – Teams

Washington Capitals

There is only one big team loser in this round and we all know who it is. Washington has yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind challenging for the Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin era. And don’t say, “Oh they played tough Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh.” There were many years during the Ovechkin era when they did not play Pittsburgh and were upset by other underdog teams. The Pittsburgh-Washington “rivalry” is itself a dud, a myth. Washington is actually Pittsburgh’s home away from home. (3 of Pittsburgh’s victories were in Washington.) Pittsburgh has had more trouble in the past in the playoffs during this era with Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Ottawa, Boston,  Philadelphia, and Montreal. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman, its best goaltender, and Sidney Crosby for one game and they still won. The Crosby-Ovechkin comparison is a mismatch. I’ve broken down a lot of reasons for Washington’s continued defeat above. The bottom line is that this team has never been good enough and now needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt with players who can come through in the playoffs when they are needed the most.

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

The St. Louis Blues lost significant talent during the off-season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and still won a playoff round and put up a good struggle against Nashville. They did not go as far as they did in the playoffs last season, but considering all the negative changes, their season has to be considered a success and now they have cap space and a new coach with potential to build a good future.

And of course Edmonton, after being exiled from the playoffs for a decade can celebrate a triumphant return and a first round playoff victory.

Consolation Prize

The New York Rangers improved from last year, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. And on the very day they were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators, they were awarded next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game against the Buffalo Sabres. But I think they would rather trade that game for an opportunity to keep playing in this year’s playoffs…

Still No Answers…

The NHL playoffs are now half way over and the NHL has made a significant decision about the Olympics, announced they would play regular season games in Europe again, and have now set up next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres. But the three most important issues remain unresolved. Will the New York Islanders get a new arena? Will Quebec get an NHL team? And where will the Arizona Coyotes play?

The End Of Agony/The Humiliation Continues

Two teams, the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild were suffering this second round because of the St. Louis-Nashville series. Minnesota refused to significantly upgrade its team during Mike Yeo’s period of coaching which led to his inevitable firing. Minnesota’s punishment was to be humiliatingly eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round in only 5 games, coached by none other than Yeo.

In Montreal during the off season last year, General Manager Marc Bergevin was looking for culprits who failed to respond during the previous season when goaltender Carey Price got injured and caused the Canadiens to miss the playoffs. He zeroed in on P. K. Subban and traded him to Nashville for Shea Weber. For a while he triumphed. During the early part of the season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff position with Subban and the team playing badly. But Subban got the last laugh. His Predators are now going to their first Western Conference Final while Montreal sits on the sidelines, eliminated with home ice advantage in the first round by the New York Rangers. Bergevin, who was taking bows for his shrewd trade earlier now has to grit his teeth and smile and try to explain things.

For both Minnesota and Montreal, the humiliation will be remembered after this season is over. For Minnesota, at least, they do not have to watch Yeo still coaching the Blues in further playoff rounds. But for Montreal the anguish and frustration will continue…

The Start Of A Beautiful Rivalry?

Edmonton with Connor McDavid is the team of the future. But right now, their best playoff rival is the Anaheim Ducks. They had a thrilling 7 game series this time. Is this the start of an era where we will see many intense Duck-Oiler playoff series in the immediate future?

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Ottawa Senators

When Sidney Crosby made his playoff debut, it was against Ottawa who at the time, iced the best team they ever had since their reincarnation, led by Daniel Alfredsson which defeated Pittsburgh and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Anaheim. Since then it has been all Pittsburgh in future playoff meetings. It should be the same again. Pittsburgh simply has more talent than Ottawa, particularly at forward where Ottawa has nobody to compare with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On the other hand, Ottawa has the best defenceman, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson is a better goaltender than Marc Andre Fleury. Will we see Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray in this series? And mysteriously, Ottawa again has a winning record against Pittsburgh this year, just like they did against Boston and the New York Rangers. One of their victories was when Fleury was in the nets for Pittsburgh. Again, the only chance for Ottawa is to do what Columbus and Washington failed to do and make Fleury revert to his erratic playoff self. Craig Anderson has to significantly outplay him. That will be tougher to do because since last year, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan got the team to commit to playing good defense which was probably the main reason Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. This series may be closer than I think it is and I’d love to predict an upset, just like I did for Ottawa against the New York Rangers. But I am too much of a realist this time. It is the end of the line for the over-achieving Senators. Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks Vs. Nashville Predators

This is a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series which the Predators barely won in 7 games. This is going to be a really tough series to predict. There have been significant changes since last year. Nashville, playing in its first Western Conference Final, has added P. K. Subban and Ryan Johansen. For Anaheim, the most significant change was the dumping of mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, and the rehiring of their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. So who has made the most improvements? The coaching is even. Both Carlyle and Nashville coach Peter Laviolette have won the Stanley Cup. How does the unknown John Gibson of Anaheim, who has responded extremely well so far match up with Nashville’s goaltender, Pekka Rinne? Nashville has a psychological edge because they beat Anaheim last year. But Anaheim did not have Carlyle who steadied the team down the home stretch in the regular season, overtook San Jose and beat off Edmonton’s challenge. And then in the playoffs, the Ducks eliminated Calgary with authority in a hard played 4 game series, and then beat off Edmonton in a 7th game at home where they had been choking under previous coaches. Anaheim has home ice this time but that has meant nothing to the 8th seeded Predators. Nashville is the new kid on the block who have been doing things in these playoffs that they could not do before. Anaheim has lots of experienced pros who have been corrected from their choking habit by Carlyle. What do I do? Flip a coin? It won’t be an upset if either wins. But I’ll continue to believe Carlyle’s coaching and Anaheim will win in a series that goes the full 7 games.

 

2016-17 NHL Second Playoff Round Predictions

I think in future I’ll stop making Stanley Cup winner predictions at the beginning of the first round because I am being made a fool of. The last two years, the team I have picked to win it all has been ingloriously eliminated easily in the first round by upstart, underdog, longshots. Last year it was the Los Angeles Kings and this year even more shockingly, the Chicago Blackhawks. I have to learn to keep my mouth and pen shut at times. Still I can accurately recap the previous round and explain who, both players and teams, won and lost big. Despite the Chicago debacle, I still went 6-2 in the opening round, so I suppose I know at least a little about what is going on.

Biggest Winners: Players (And Coaches)

In no particular order…

1. Randy Carlyle

A few years ago, I protested on another blog, in which would be my last article, that Carlyle was a good coach who should not have been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs who were (and may still be) paying for the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. The Anaheim sweep of Calgary gives me some vindicated satisfaction and reason to gloat. Carlyle took a team that was choking under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, steadied them down the last part of the regular season where they overtook San Jose, beat off Edmonton, and won their division. Now they beat Calgary in a tough, but convincing series. With the elimination of Chicago, Carlyle’s Ducks have to be the new favorite in the Western Conference.

2. Marc Andre Fleury

Fleury’s erratic playoff goaltending was a major reason the Pittsburgh Penguins did not win more Stanley Cups during the Crosby-Malkin era since their first cup in 2009. With the victorious switch to Matt Murray last year, it seemed that Fleury’s career in Pittsburgh was over, even whether ANYBODY would want him at the end of this season. The victory over Columbus at least makes him marketable to somebody next year who wants to upgrade their goaltending and might be willing to take a chance on him.

3. Henrik Lundqvist

Lundqvist still has to be able to win the big one, but he can take some satisfaction of beating Carey Price, the World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal winning goaltender, but who has a horrid NHL playoff record. That is what is maddening about Lundqvist. He is too unpredictable and inconsistent. He can beat quality opponents like Montreal this time and then let in goals at the wrong time like he did against the two hybrids, Europe and North America in the World Cup which put Sweden out of the money. He has never been consistent enough to take New York all the way. But he can take some quiet satisfaction from this victory.

4. Mike Yeo

Yeo became coach of the Minnesota Wild, kept getting them into the post season, but watched while management, particularly General Manager Chuck Fletcher, did nothing to improve the team so that it could go farther in the playoffs. Of course that led to his inevitable firing. So it must have been particularly satisfying to take over the St. Louis Blues, a team that lost talent in the off season, who then traded their star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk so that they could start concentrating on rebuilding, to get them into the playoffs in spite of the significant talent losses, and then eliminate his old team without too much trouble, the same old Wild whom Fletcher refuses to significantly improve.

Biggest Losers: Players (And Coaches)

1. Carey Price

Price should stick to international play where he has won the Olympics and the World Cup. But in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he has a horrid record. Ironically in the World Cup Final, he beat his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak who took Montreal deeper into the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done. There was some debate about who should have been traded and who should have been kept, and these two recent episodes are going to revive it. Price, like Ovechkin and company in Washington, has never ever made it even to the Eastern Conference Final. That he lost to Henrik Lundqvist, a goaltender with a similar puzzling record is not going to help his reputation.

2. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher

Boudreau, the unremarkable playoff coach, added another notch to his unremarkable playoff record when Minnesota humiliatingly lost in only five games to underdog St. Louis which had lost significant talent in the off season and then traded its best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, to make it easy to be defeated. When Minnesota hired Boudreau (saving Calgary and Ottawa from making the same mistake), I wrote an article saying that it was a marriage made in heaven: The mediocre Minnesota Wild who can never beat a true playoff contender hiring a mediocre playoff coach who can never beat a true playoff contender. As I predicted, it turned out to be the perfect match.

But the real goat horns should belong to General Manager Chuck Fletcher who hired Boudreau in the first place. That Minnesota lost to its old coach, Mike Yeo, rubs it in further. A few years ago, Fletcher got free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, patted himself on the back and said that was enough to make Minnesota a Stanley Cup Champion. But as mentioned above, they are good enough to get Minnesota into the playoffs, beat weak playoff teams, and nothing more. Fletcher has never added any significant talent since then to take Minnesota higher. In Buffalo, owner Terry Pegula ordered a review of the team from top to bottom after the Sabres missed the playoffs again. This led to the firing of both the general manager and the coach. The same thing should be done in Minnesota which keeps spinning its wheels under Fletcher’s management.

Biggest Winners: Teams

1. Nashville Predators

It goes without saying that the Predators fashioned the biggest upset in the first round, maybe even in the entire playoffs. All this by a team that nearly did not make the playoffs themselves and only with a late surge of good hockey grabbed the last playoff position. For a while P.K. Subban whom the Predators got in the big trade of last year, must have been playing with a bag over his head when the Predators were out of a playoff position and his old team, Montreal, was leading the Eastern Conference. Many NHL expert predictors at NHL.com were contemplating suicide because they picked the Predators to be in the Stanley Cup Final. Now a totally unexpected sweep of a recent 3 time Stanley Cup champion, a team they had never beaten in the playoffs before, including two consecutive shutouts on enemy ice has to make everyone rethink yet again about this most puzzling of teams. Are they finally the team the experts predicted they would be? Whatever happens later, they have won the biggest playoff series in their history and have been the most impressive team in the first round.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Blues lost significant talent in the off season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach, Ken Hitchcock who got them to the Eastern Conference Final last year, and then traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. They seemed to be ripe for the picking, intent on rebuilding their team and giving themselves salary cap space. Instead they rallied behind new coach Mike Yeo, made the playoffs, and have now eliminated Minnesota easily despite all the talent losses. Right now they are enjoying an unexpected bonus.

Biggest Losers: Teams

1. Chicago Blackhawks

This team must be in total shock. Favored to win the Western Conference, if not the Stanley Cup itself, it was ignominiously sent packing in the minimum four games including two shameful shutouts on home ice by an underdog, longshot team of upstarts. A year ago, I wrote an article about Chicago letting one of its core players, Patrick Sharp, go because of salary cap reasons. I put forth the theory that Sharp was the kind of player who would get a goal in the playoffs just when Chicago needed it the most and Chicago would get a spark and go on to victory. They certainly needed Sharp or somebody like him in this round. But whether Sharp would have been enough against Nashville is debatable. They were beaten convincingly. The Blackhawks brought back Johnny Oduya and he had a horrid series. But what is really disturbing was that none of the new, young players whom Chicago had brought in and were developing stepped up. There were no young Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kanes, Duncan Keiths, or Brent Seabrooks eager to make a name for themselves in the playoffs. That is not good for the future of this team.

2. Columbus Blue Jackets

I have gone over this in finer detail in a previous article, but Columbus had to win a playoff round for attendance reasons. Actually they should be proud and satisfied with the best year of their team’s history and not worry because they lost to Pittsburgh who may well win the Stanley Cup again. But Columbus plays in a region where top level, professional hockey is unpopular, so they were playing for attendance improvement and the very future of the franchise. Unfortunately they got the worst playoff match-up they could possibly get. Even playing first place, playoff choking Washington would have been better. They HAD to win their series, no matter who their opponent was. Normally, a team that did what Columbus did this season should forget this defeat and look forward to next year. But this playoff defeat did nothing to improve attendance, undid whatever good the team accomplished during the regular season, and the possibility of relocation still haunts this team.

3. Minnesota Wild

One of the two perpetual wheel spinners (Washington is the other one) who never do anything significant in the playoffs. This is because management has never added any significant new talent since Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Now they have lost to lowly, underdog St Louis and their old coach, Mike Yeo. This is the lowest playoff blow so far. This is a mediocre team, with a mediocre coach, a mediocre general manager, and maybe mediocre ownership if it refuses to shake up this team that perpetually goes nowhere.

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

Toronto, Boston, and Calgary can go home glad that they got back in the playoffs and build on what they accomplished this year and look forward to taking the next stepping stone next season. Columbus would be on this list except for the attendance problems mentioned above. And Montreal will publicly proclaim they are happy to be on this list but secretly will be cursing because Nashville advanced (see below).

Players With The Pressure Still On Them

1, 2, 3

Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby

As mentioned in the article about the first round predictions, it is not enough for Washington to win one playoff round. The absolute minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. These players (and Nicklas Backstrom could also be added to this list) have been the core of the Washington failure for the past decade. Now they have even more pressure on them because management added T J Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years. They are all getting older and if they prove yet again that they are not good enough, it should be time to consider trading them and go in a new direction.

4 Henrik Lundqvist

He passed his first test and put doubts about the Stanley Cup career of Montreal goaltender, Carey Price. Now he faces Craig Anderson of Ottawa who will be just as tough an opponent. But Anderson has been playing for inferior playoff teams, not Stanley Cup contenders like Lundqvist so he does not have the same pressure. Lundqvist’s goaltending will be scrutinized if New York loses and he is a major reason for the defeat.

Teams With The Pressure Still On Them

It goes without saying that the Washington Capitals remain the team that has to win the next round which they have never done during the Ovechkin era. No other team has the same amount of pressure on them though that could change if certain other teams do not do well this round too. At least Washington has gone farther than their western cousins in Minnesota who have a similar sorry stagnant record in the playoffs.

The Last Laugh

At one time, P. K. Subban was playing with a bag over his head while his old team, the Montreal Canadiens was leading the Eastern Conference, the person he was traded for, Shea Weber was flourishing, and the general manager, Marc Bergevin, was taking well earned bows for his bold trade that propelled the Canadiens higher; while his new team, the Nashville Predators were out of a playoff position, playing bad hockey, and seemed unlikely to make the post season. But now the Predators have scored their biggest playoff victory ever, eliminating 3 time Stanley Cup champion and one of the two favorites to win this year, Chicago Blackhawks in the minimum four games, while the Canadiens, who had home ice advantage lost to the New York Rangers. There is going to be bitterness in Montreal every time their fans have to watch Nashville continue to play in the current playoffs while their team is on the sidelines. Bergevin can say that he improved Montreal and that they made the playoffs instead of choking like last year, but this is not a result he will enjoy watching. It now puts his job as general manager under an unwelcome spotlight.

Revenge

Alain Vigneault, coach of the New York Rangers defeated Claude Julien, coach of the Montreal Canadiens who had beaten him in the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. But how many Vancouver fans wish that Vigneault had won back then and lost this time instead?

Honorable mention: Mike Yeo eliminating his old team Minnesota fairly easily in a humiliating manner. There is going to be bitterness in Minnesota because of this.

Oh Canada

Ottawa and Edmonton made it to the next round after beating American teams. Believe it or not, this has been the first time a Canadian city has beaten an American city in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2014.

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

Ottawa Senators Vs. New York Rangers

Surprisingly Ottawa, which may be the weakest team in the playoffs has a season winning 2-1 record against the Rangers so this may be a closer series than I thought. But then the Rangers had an 0-3 record against stronger Montreal, Claude Julien had a Stanley Cup victory against Alain Vigneault and look what happened. To make matters even more interesting, the off season trade between the two teams, Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers and Derick Brassard to the Senators produced significant results in the first playoff round. The leading scorers on each team during that round were (you guessed it) Zibanejad with 4 points for New York, and Brassard with 8 points for Ottawa. One other unknown element that has to be tested is the unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur to Ottawa, who made a significant contribution to beat Boston. Erik Karlsson’s health is supposed to be impaired by a heel injury but it did not seem to be a factor when he got 6 assists against Boston. The Rangers do not have a big shooter but they have based on scoring average, the best equal 4 lines in the NHL. The goaltending is very equal between Henrik Lundqvist and Craig Anderson. Ottawa has home ice advantage but less points than the Rangers. Common sense tells me to pick the Rangers but I’ll have a bit of fun this time (I can’t do much worse than the unexpected Chicago debacle) and this will be my one upset this round (I did pick the St. Louis upset correctly last round) and pick Ottawa to win in 6 or 7 games.

 
Washington Capitals Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

All the cards are on the table for Washington now. Management added T. J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years to the perpetual chokers listed above. When Washington got Alexander Ovechkin the same time the Penguins got Sidney Crosby, he was billed as the equal of Crosby. That meant that when the two teams met in the playoffs, Washington would win at least 50% of the time. That meant that as the years passed, they would have equal numbers of Stanley Cup team and international team triumphs. But it is not even close. Ovechkin has a horrid playoff record with Washington and an equally horrid record internationally with Russia. It can even be argued that his Russian counterpart on Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin is a better player.

Washington HAS to win this series (Of course they HAD to win last year too). Oshie was supposed to put Washington over the top last year. It was not enough. Now they have added Shattenkirk this year. They HAVE to win this year or it is time to have a thorough review of the entire team and start trading these losers, including Ovechkin. Perhaps coach Barry Trotz would have to go too, but then NO COACH in the NHL or internationally has made Alexander Ovechkin a winner.

Washington’s best chance of victory is that Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray is injured and Pittsburgh has to go with the erratic Marc Andre Fleury again, who between the 2009 Stanley Cup victory and the victory over Columbus in the last round gave Pittsburgh mostly horrid playoff goaltending, particularly in one series against Philadelphia which is probably the worst playoff goaltending I have ever seen since watching the playoffs in the 1960s. Washington has to do what Columbus could not do, make Fleury resemble his old horrid self. For victory, Washington has to have Fleury pulled in several games for poor performance. Washington also has to take advantage of the injury to star defenceman, Kris Letang. There has never been a better chance for Washington to defeat Pittsburgh than now. And with all the additions and subtractions made to this match, if Washington STILL cannot defeat Pittsburgh than there is no hope for this team.

But Washington is the “show me” team. They have to prove they can defeat Pittsburgh no matter how many additions and subtractions are made. Until they do so, you go with the tried and the true. Pittsburgh in 6 or 7 games.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues Vs. Nashville Predators

This is certainly not the match I expected with Chicago’s unexpected ouster. The two underdogs of the division are meeting instead and it is a tough match to pick, especially the coaches. On one hand, there is Peter Laviolette, the coach of Nashville, who has won the big one with Carolina and has now coached the Predators to their greatest playoff victory. Then there is Mike Yeo who suffered under mediocre management in Minnesota, who somehow rallied the Blues who suffered significant talent losses in both the off season and at the trade deadline, who got the Blues into the playoffs and then beat his old team easily. Pekka Rinne is a better goaltender than Jake Allen and gives Nashville an edge at this vital position. The biggest negative for Nashville is that they have never made it to the Western Conference Final and it’s a hump to get over, but then again, the Predators had not beat the Chicago Blackhawks ever too. St. Louis, which seldom makes the third round did so last year but lost a lot of talent from that team this year. Still you’ve got to like how they have rallied around Yeo. St. Louis also has home ice advantage. I think Nashville is for real and will get to new territory for the first time and win in 6 or 7 hard fought games but it would not be surprising if the Blues continue to rally to Yeo’s coaching and won instead.

 
Anaheim Ducks Vs. Edmonton Oilers

This series is just as tough to pick as the other Western Conference match. Experienced Anaheim against newly arrived Edmonton. In their previous round, the Oilers had been playing against a team that had run out of gas and was playing bad hockey. But this time they are playing a team that pulled itself together during the last quarter of the regular season, played steady hockey when they needed to the most and then put Calgary out of the playoffs with authority in a hard-played series. The past few years, Anaheim has choked in the playoffs but then Anaheim made one significant change during the off season and got rid of the mediocre Bruce Boudreau (see above) and replaced him with their old Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. He is probably the main difference why Anaheim is this far. He gives the Ducks a big edge over Oilers coach Todd McLellan who has not won anything significant as an NHL head coach.

The big plus for the Oilers is Connor McDavid, projected to be Sidney Crosby’s heir on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain (the list of Canadian players who are head and shoulders above every other active player for their generation beginning with Maurice Richard). He did not have a particularly distinguishing playoff debut but he played well enough to win in his first crack at the NHL playoffs, something not even Wayne Gretzky was able to do with the Oilers. (It took Wayne three tries before the Oilers won their first playoff round. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison.) Anaheim has nothing like him but if they want to win the Stanley Cup, they will have to learn to beat this kind of player because if they go all the way, it is likely they will be facing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Final. That task starts right now. McDavid will have to be everything he is projected to be for the Oilers to beat Anaheim. I don’t think he will be enough this time. Anaheim will win in 6 games but like the other Western Conference series, it would not be an upset if the Oilers won.

Minnesota Wild Have To Be Shaken Up

In my previous article, I wrote about how the Buffalo Sabres made a review of their entire organization and then shook it up after missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive year and fired their coach and general manager. The same thing needs to be done with the Minnesota Wild. They are in a better position than the Sabres because they make the playoffs each year, but they are not going to win the Stanley Cup if the current situation continues.

A few years ago, Minnesota was like the Sabres and consistently missed the playoffs. Then General Manager Chuck Fletcher made two free agent signings, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter. Since then, the Wild have made the playoffs each year.

Unfortunately that is as far Fletcher was prepared to go. Every year the Wild make playoffs, are able to beat a bad playoff team, or lose in the first round and nothing more. They cannot beat a true contender. Fletcher has not added any significant talent since to take the Wild to higher levels. Along with the Washington Capitals, Minnesota gets the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, to the most mediocre team, year after year.

Evidently winning this prize along with Washington was not enough for Fletcher so he went out and hired the most mediocre playoff coach he could find, Bruce Boudreau, himself a former Capitals coach who consistently swims in such waters. Boudreau’s playoff coaching record is identical to that of Minnesota; a coach that can either beat a bad playoff team or lose in the first round. As I wrote in an article on this blog last year, it was a marriage made in heaven. Minnesota and Boudreau both deserved each other.

But this year there is an extra pang in the usual playoff defeat. This time they lost to the St. Louis Blues, an underdog team that even TRIED to help Minnesota win. First they lost significant talent during the off season from their team that went to the Western Conference Final for a rare time. Then they fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock who was going to retire anyway at the end of the season (He is since unretired with Dallas). Finally they obligingly traded star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to give them salary cap space and concentrate on rebuilding for next year. They seemed like easy pickings for Minnesota in the first round.

Instead the Blues rallied around – and just to rub it in even more for Minnesota and Fletcher – Minnesota’s old coach, Mike Yeo, who took the team into the playoffs despite the talent losses and has now put out the Wild with an easy 5 game playoff victory. Yeo had coached the Wild for several years and watched while Fletcher and other management do nothing to improve the Wild so they could advance farther in the playoffs. Nobody really knows how good a playoff coach he really is because after Fletcher improved the Wild by signing Parise and Suter, he left Yeo with the same mediocre team year after year. This led to Yeo’s inevitable firing.

Yeo himself said the usual playoff victory things: That defeating the Wild was nothing special, that Chuck and Bruce were doing a great job. But everybody else knows the truth. It must have been extremely satisfying to beat the Wild after watching Fletcher do nothing significant to improve the team during Yeo’s tenure as coach. And Chuck and Bruce are NOT doing a great job.

It is one thing to lose to a true contender who wins the Stanley Cup like Chicago. It’s quite another to lose to a lowly, upstart team like St. Louis, that stripped itself of talent and was coached by Minnesota’s ex-coach. This defeat has been the lowest playoff blow yet, a real humiliation.

So where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? In Buffalo (perhaps envious of Toronto making the playoffs this year), the owner ripped out the heart of the organization and wants to start over again. How long are the Minnesota Wild going to continue in this wheel-spinning trend? They need significant changes. If Fletcher won’t make them, maybe the first thing to do is make a change at Fletcher’s position. There has never been a Stanley Cup for chokers but if there was, Minnesota, and its eastern counterpart, Washington would be in the Finals for the last several years. For the Wild at least, it is either change or stay the same and probably sink.

Undeserved End For Inglorious Blue Jackets

Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to make the playoffs. They were the biggest surprise of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They over-achieved and finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

But their reward was to face the team with the second best record, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly the team to beat in the east, if not the favorite to win it all again for the second straight year. They were probably the worst team the Blue Jackets could have drawn in the first round of the playoffs. Even playing first-place choker, Washington would have been better.

Actually this should not be an issue at all. Indeed, this article should not have to be written. Everybody should be proud of the Blue Jackets, giving their fans the finest season in the franchise history which included a near-NHL record of 16 straight wins, making the playoffs, and then winning a game in the first round against the team that is probably the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. But it’s not enough.

The Blue Jackets play in probably the strangest area for NHL professional hockey in North America, Ohio-Indiana, close to the Canadian border where hockey should be a hotbed. Instead mysteriously, top level hockey is very unpopular in this region and nobody has ever been able to explain why. In my articles, I refer to the region as the “Death Valley” of top level professional hockey. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are failed NHL-WHA franchises. Not even Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier could save hockey in this region when they played for the various defunct teams. Columbus is simply the best and longest surviving NHL team.

So the pressure was on the Blue Jackets to win this playoff round, not because it was Pittsburgh, not because it meant progress for the team, but to convince the Ohio-Indiana sports fan to support the franchise. Ever since the founding of this team in 2000, it has been a precarious franchise. In many of its seasons, the team has lost money. Gimmicks and low ticket prices have been used to attract fans. During many of its seasons, there have been rumors of it being folded or moved to another city.

Its history is inglorious. The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs three times in 17 years and have yet to win a playoff round. Their playoff record is now 3-12. That record is not going to pack them in. I don’t care if their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, the likely Stanley Cup winner. Columbus HAD to win that series.

Sure the Blue Jackets had their best season ever and sure the Blue Jackets nearly broke the NHL record for consecutive wins. The Ohio-Indiana fan is going to smile and be proud, but they won’t be convinced and believe in this team unless they see progress in the playoffs where it really counts. A playoff victory over somebody is the symbol of that progress or lack of progress. Instead the Blue Jackets drew the worst opponent that they and the NHL could have wanted. For this year at least, the NHL has to rue the playoff format that they had set up. Calgary can be swept in four games by Anaheim but that’s okay. The fans are going to be pleased with the progress made and come back next year. Not so in Columbus.

In my prediction article, I wrote that Columbus would have been better off if Pittsburgh’s goaltender Matt Murray had been injured instead of defenseman Kris Letang, because Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. But Pittsburgh played without Letang AND Murray and still won easily. Columbus made Fleury look better than he really is. They are far from being a true contender. That is not going impress Ohio-Indiana fans.

Columbus is mostly a team of no-names who played good, dependable hockey this year. They have few star players to attract crowds. And next year, it is quite conceivable that they won’t make the playoffs again. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers and Montreal are still around. Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston all improved. It is quite conceivable that Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Florida, Carolina and possibly Buffalo will be good enough to make the playoffs next year if they draft and trade well in the off season. It will be very difficult for Columbus to replicate this year’s success.

By losing so ingloriously to Pittsburgh (even if they do win the Stanley Cup) in the first round of the playoffs, Columbus will probably lose most of the attendance gains they made this year. They needed to make believers out of people in a region where hockey is unpopular, but this playoff episode did more harm than good. The NHL has been praying for this franchise to turn around but they got the worst playoff pairing that was possible. The shadow of Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford or wherever still hangs over this franchise. A sad ending for a team that deserved better this season.

2016-17 NHL First Playoff Round Predictions

Well it is the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs again with 7 new teams in this year’s tournament.  Changes are particularly noticeable in the Eastern Conference where 5 new teams have made it.  And Canada which had no teams last year has 5 this year.  As customary, before going into each playoff matchup, I’ll list players and teams that have extra pressure on them and thus have more to lose than other teams.

Overjoyed

The CBC, which has five Canadian teams in the playoffs this year, including its biggest market, Toronto.  Big ratings are coming.

 Players With Extra Pressure

  1. Alexander Ovechkin

Every year Ovechkin tops the list of players with the most pressure on them in the playoffs.  He has a basket load of individual honors, both in the NHL and internationally, but he has the most horrible team records.  The latest was his Russian team making the semi-finals at September’s World Cup where they were badly out-shot and beaten by Canada.  Believe it or not, that was actually an improvement.  Washington under his leadership has never even made the Conference finals in the playoffs and frequently gets upset by lesser teams.  He is past the peak of his playing days and time is running out for a Stanley Cup victory.  He used to be compared to Sidney Crosby but his team record is nowhere on the horizon.  Unless he wins a championship, his mentor is Marcel Dionne who had a similar career.  Somehow the pressure on him increases every year, especially this year because Washington has acquired top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, largely at Ovechkin’s insistence.  Washington is expected to win it all and if they do not, and Ovechkin is in the spotlight because of it, perhaps it is time to trade him and go in a new direction.

  1. Brooks Orpik

Right behind Ovechkin is his long time teammate Brooks Orpik who played like a bonehead in last year’s playoffs and was a major reason Washington lost to Pittsburgh.  Like Ovechkin he is past his prime and time is running out on him in Washington.  He too could be shoved out the door if Washington flops in the playoffs.

  1. Braden Holtby

The goaltender of the Washington Capitals, giving the team the hat-trick of players under the gun.  Holtby is not a bad goaltender but he is nothing special.  One just has to compare his work with that of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray last year who seized his chance and ran with it all the way to the Stanley Cup where he should have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.  Holtby has to rise above what he can usually do and outplay the goaltenders of other top contenders.  He has extra pressure on him now that Shattenkirk is here.  If he cannot do it, Washington may have to get another goaltender to complete the final piece of the puzzle.

  1. Henrik Lundqvist

The Alexander Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders.  At least he has a better record than Ovechkin in the playoffs because he took the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Los Angeles.  But that was only once and his record in playoffs and international competition is undistinguished.  The latest unremarkable effort was in September’s World Cup where he let in two critical goals to the hybrids Europe and North America and Sweden was put out of the playoffs.  Now he has to go up against Carey Price in the first round and outplay him.

  1. Carey Price

Price at least has a distinguished international record both at the Olympics and the World Cup.  But his Stanley Cup playoff record is not good where he has the Montreal defense, not the Canada defense to protect him.  As noted above, he faces another top goaltender in the first round, Lundqvist in a similar situation, and the loser is going to come out, especially if one badly outplays the other, with a diminished reputation and questions hanging above him.  That will mean increased pressure in future Stanley Cup playoffs.  Something has to give.

  1. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry

Under mediocre playoff coach, Bruce Boudreau, the Anaheim Ducks have choked against lesser teams.  But they have rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again so the pressure will now be more focused on the players who failed to rise to the occasion under Boudreau.  If the Ducks fall to a lesser team in the playoffs this year, management might conclude that the roster is not good enough and does not respond any more.  Top players like Getzlaf and Perry would come under serious re-evaluation and could be traded as part of a rebuilding process.

  1. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher

I know this section is supposed to be about players but Boudreau and Fletcher, the coach and general manager of the Minnesota Wild belong on it.  Boudreau is like Ovechkin in the playoffs.  His teams can beat lesser lights but never a true contender.  Fletcher’s team, Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few years ago, patted himself on the back and then assumed that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion.  Alas Minnesota has never risen above mediocrity in the playoffs and has never added significantly better talent since to rise any further.  Then last year, Fletcher hired mediocre playoff coach Boudreau.  The perfect combination.  Minnesota had better show something in this year’s playoffs or attention and pressure will be focused on the management, coaching, and ownership where it will belong.

Teams With Extra Pressure (The “Show Me” Teams)

  1. Washington Capitals

It goes without saying that the team with three players on the list above and the now two-time President’s Trophy winner has the most pressure on it again.  The minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make the Eastern Conference Final which has never happened during the Ovechkin era.  Coach Barry Trotz will be under fire if the team underperforms because now Kevin Shattenkirk has been added, but NO COACH either in the NHL or internationally has been able to make a winner out of Alexander Ovechkin.  General Manager Brian MacLellan got himself and the owners off the hook by boldly and bravely getting Shattenkirk at the trade deadline.  Last year they got T. J. Oshie who made a notable contribution but it still was not enough.  As noted above, if Washington flops and any of the three players listed in the above section is a part of the reason, it may be overdue time to try to keep Shattenkirk and Oshie, trade the others and go in a new direction.

  1. Minnesota Wild

Right behind the Capitals are the Minnesota Wild, especially since the Bruce Boudreau Regular Season Machine did so well this year.  But Minnesota looked brittle coming down the home stretch and only their excellent earlier record kept them in second place in their division.  Even more ominous was that they did poorly head-to-head against Chicago, who is the favorite in the Western Conference.  As noted above, Minnesota added Suter and Parise and have done nothing since.  If the Wild flops again and continues to stagnate, there should be a shake-up of both the roster and the management.

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets

Actually neither players, coaches, or management should have any extra pressure on them.  They have overachieved.  But Columbus plays in the Ohio-Indiana area, close to the Canadian border, where hockey is mysteriously unpopular, which I have termed the “Death Valley” of professional hockey.  The Blue Jackets get consistently bad attendance.  They have only made the playoffs three times in their history and have never won a playoff series.  Sure Columbus had the finest regular season in their history, but is that enough to convince local fans to support the team?  The cynical fans may be saying “Show me” before they really start believing in this team and that means a playoff victory.  And if that is still not enough to attract increased attendance, perhaps it may be time to consider a franchise shift to Quebec, Hamilton, or Hartford.

Stanley Cup First Round Predictions

Eastern Conference

  1. Washington Capitals Vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

All the pressure is on Washington but at least in this round they should not have to worry.  They have to be heavily favored over newly arrived Toronto which is a team full of rookies making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts.  As if the Leafs didn’t have enough to worry about in this round, the Capitals added star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk to push them over the top.  This is the first playoff meeting ever between Washington and Toronto.  It may seem a mismatch but the season series was very close, Washington winning 2-1 with one game going into overtime.  The best things the Maple Leafs have going for them is that they have the young, up-coming superstar Auston Matthews, the overall number one pick this year who has been everything the Leafs wanted, and wants to make his playoff debut just as good as his regular season debut was; and the coaching of Mike Babcock.  But with all the experience and star players, the Capitals should win in 5 games.

P.S.  If the Capitals somehow blow this series, I would not want to be a Washington Capital in the off season.

  1. Montreal Canadiens Vs. New York Rangers

These two teams probably knew for months that they would be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs.  At one time it seemed that both of them would be challenging for the President’s Trophy but they faded and weaknesses have showed.  Montreal went so far as to fire its coach and replace him with their old mentor, Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien who won with Boston.  The Canadiens swept their series with the Rangers, establishing a clear edge over them.

Coaching wise the hockey gods mischievously matched up French Canadian coaches Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers against (you remember) the coach who beat him in the Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games, Claude Julien, another edge for the Canadiens.  Canadiens have home ice.  Henrik Lundqvist can be counted on to let in at least one goal at the wrong time.  Montreal in 6 or 7 games.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Poor Columbus.  They overachieved and ended up with the worst playoff matchup possible, the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, just when they needed to convince local fans that they were for real the most.  Even playing against choker Washington would have been better.  The only good news that Columbus got was that Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang is out for the entire playoffs.  But Evgeni Malkin will be back and combined with Sidney Crosby that should be enough for victory for Pittsburgh over Columbus who are a team of no-names.  Sergei Bobrovsky is a good goaltender but Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray won it all last year.  It would have been better for Columbus if Murray had been injured instead of Letang and Pittsburgh would have had to start the erratic Marc Andre Fleury.  In Columbus’s favor is that they played Pittsburgh even head-to-head this year.  Pittsburgh has the home ice edge and is vastly superior in talent and playoff experience.  Columbus’s only hope is that the Letang injury means a serious drop-off in defensive performance but that won’t happen with Murray in Pittsburgh’s net.  Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

  1. Ottawa Senators Vs. Boston Bruins

This is the first playoff meeting between these teams since the 1920s.  The Senators played bad hockey down the stretch and on paper may be the weakest team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  They would probably lose to every other playoff team in the conference – except the Boston Bruins who are 0-3-1 against them.  For that reason, the Senators have to be favored in this series though it could go either way, especially if Boston goaltender Tukka Rask gets hot and outplays Craig Anderson.  Ottawa in 6 or 7 games.

Western Conference

  1. Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Nashville Predators

When Nashville got P. K. Subban from Montreal for Shea Weber, many Predator fans and a whole bunch of predictors at the NHL website assumed that the Predators had got the “final piece of the puzzle” and that Nashville would at least be the Western Conference champion.  Instead the Predators nearly finished out of the playoffs and only a late surge of good hockey got them back in.  Subban is certainly not enough to topple Chicago who have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and have to be the favorites this year to win it all again, especially since Pittsburgh lost Kris Letang.  Chicago has too much talent and is too well coached to lose to a team like Nashville that needs a lot more talent than Subban to become a champion.  Chicago in 5 games.

  1. Minnesota Wild Vs. St. Louis Blues

Bruce Boudreau is a mediocre playoff coach.  The Minnesota Wild are a mediocre playoff team.  The St. Louis Blues made a bit of a break-through last year and reached the Western Conference Final, where they seldom go, but then lost talent in the off-season and then obligingly traded one of their top defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk so that Los Angeles could make the playoffs while they rebuilt their team.  Instead the Blues responded and made the playoffs while Minnesota had a horrible last quarter of the season.  Minnesota which is supposed to be superior cannot lose to a team which at least on paper is much worse than last year.  Can they?  Then again, they are the Minnesota Wild and he is coach Bruce Boudreau…  And the hockey gods continued their weird sense of humor by matching Minnesota against their old coach, Mike Yeo.  This is tough to predict.  It could go either way.  At least on paper, Minnesota should win, but I’ll go out on a limb and say St. Louis will rankle Boudreau and General Manager Chuck Fletcher and win for Yeo in 7 games.

  1. Edmonton Oilers Vs. San Jose Sharks

Last year, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer took a team that was supposed to be over the hill and on the way down into new territory, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.  For part of this season, San Jose looked like that team, but the Sharks had a horrible last quarter and tumbled out of first place in their division to third.  Has an aging reality finally caught up to the Sharks?  Meanwhile the Oilers, under Sidney Crosby’s heir, Connor McDavid made the playoffs after 10 years of futility.  Added to the spice and intrigue is that the perverted hockey gods decided that the Oilers coach should be San Jose’s old coach, Todd McLellan.  Martin Jones, who played so well for the Sharks in net during last year’s playoffs gives San Jose an edge at a key position.  Unknown positive factor for the Oilers:  How good is Connor McDavid?  San Jose has nothing like him, just like they had nobody like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year’s final.  Unknown negative factor for the Oilers:  It took Wayne Gretzky three years before the Oilers won a playoff round.  If San Jose had been playing good down the stretch, I would take them based on their playoff experience and Jones’ goaltending.  But I don’t think San Jose will find themselves this time, McDavid will be the difference, and the Oilers will win in 6 games.

  1. Anaheim Ducks Vs. Calgary Flames

The Ducks had been choking in the playoffs under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, so they reached back into their past and rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again.  So far it has paid off.  The Ducks kept their heads while the Sharks faded and the Oilers and Flames also took a run at them and ended up winning their division.  Carlyle certainly has the experience and knowledge to keep them playing that way in the playoffs.  Meanwhile Calgary got hot at the right time and put together a 10 game winning streak in the last quarter of the regular season, just when they needed it the most.  Rookie coach Glenn Gulutan should also be saluted because he took a team that seemed headed for the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the beginning of the season, turned it around and got it into the playoffs.  Unknown factor:  The coaching of Gulutan.  Will he be just as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season?  Can he match the experienced, Stanley Cup winning coach, Carlyle?  And how will the goaltending match up?  This could go in Calgary’s favor if all the unknown factors go their way.  Anaheim’s veterans have more to lose in this series than up and coming Calgary.  Based on what I know about Carlyle, I’ll take the Ducks in 6 games.

Early Stanley Cup Prediction

Since the beginning of the season, until otherwise proven, I’ve consistently said that the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were the teams to beat and I still hold to that.  When Pittsburgh built its team around the latest member on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, Sidney Crosby (A list of the top Canadian players of their generation who is head and shoulders above everyone else, dating back to Maurice Richard), and top Russian, Evgeni Malkin, it was predicted that Pittsburgh would win many Stanley Cups during the coming era.  But while Pittsburgh floundered under the bad goaltending of Marc Andre Fleury, Chicago seized its opportunity to win every other year.  Chicago is back again this year and Pittsburgh has been hurt by the injury to top defenseman, Kris Letang.  A dream matchup will be a Chicago-Pittsburgh final and the Blackhawks will continue their pattern by winning their fourth Stanley Cup in 8 years.

Chemistry Gone From The Los Angeles Kings

It’s over. With the St. Louis Blues victory over the Colorado Avalanche last night, the Western Conference playoff teams have been determined. It will be combinations of Chicago, Minnesota, San Jose, Edmonton, Anaheim, Calgary, St. Louis, and Nashville. Realistically the Los Angeles Kings, the only team currently out of a playoff spot that has any remaining hope of making the post-season will not make up the eight point difference that stands between them and St. Louis and Nashville with only ten games left. Los Angeles is not going to suddenly right the ship and go on the long winning streak necessary, nor are the teams they are trying to catch going into a prolonged slump.

It is quite a fall for the Kings who were Stanley Cup champions only three years ago in 2014, after winning their first Cup in 2012. Somehow the winning chemistry has been lost and the Kings will be out in the cold despite almost being handed a playoff position on a silver platter during this final quarter of the season. What is revealing is that at the trade deadline, the Kings added goaltender Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning and then Jerome Iginla from the Colorado Avalanche, while the St. Louis Blues obligingly traded their best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington and the Kings fell while the Blues rose.

Only a year ago, Los Angeles and Chicago were trading Stanley Cups, each winning on alternative years. Last year it was supposed to be Los Angeles turn to win but one of the teams favored to win it all was instead eliminated in the very first round in only five games by the supposedly over-the-hill San Jose Sharks. The Kings had brought in Vincent Lecavalier and Milan Lucic to bring them back to the top but the chemistry obviously did not click.

This year, Lecavalier retired and Lucic was allowed to go to Edmonton, but the Kings have been mediocre at best. Star goaltender, Jonathan Quick got injured but backup Peter Budaj did a credible job until he was traded for Bishop who has not been what Los Angeles expected. It was a strange trade anyway with the Kings just getting back Quick after a serious injury and who would obviously be doing most of the goaltending. The Kings needed help elsewhere and the aging Iginla, well past his prime was not enough. It has to admitted that huge sums of money have been wasted where they could have been spent more wisely.

Still it is a mystery why the Kings, once so formidable have fallen so far so fast. Jonathan Quick is still here and so is star defenseman Drew Doughty. Up front there is still Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar and coach Darryl Sutter is still behind the bench. The goal differential is a bad -6 but that does not tell the story. The Kings are actually a good defensive team but they are not scoring goals. It would have been better to have made a trade for forwards and defensemen who would have boosted the attack, not Ben Bishop. A top forward or an attacking defenseman are the obvious choices in this year’s draft.

It is still possible for the Kings to make the playoffs but it is highly unlikely. The forwards who were making a difference with Kopitar and Carter have been allowed to leave and the wrong players have taken their place. The Los Angeles attack has to be rebuilt. The winning chemistry that brought two recent Stanley Cups has vanished. The Kings, so recently one the envied teams in the NHL are in a real muddle.