Toews Versteeg

Blackhawks fans watched Brooks Orpik steamroll their captain on Sunday night, likely the hardest hit he’s taken in his NHL career save for the Willie Mitchell massacre, and come up wounded. They had to have panicked with playoffs on the horizon. I know I immediately tweeted something to the affect of “Welp, bet losing Toews throws a wrench into the Blackhawks playoff hopes” (or something with a similar message). It didn’t look promising.

Well, the good news is Orpik apparently didn’t turn Toews’ shoulder into ground chuck, and he’s going to be back for playoffs “at 100%.”

What that confident statement from coach Joel Quenneville says to me is that the Blackhawks are in a unique situation for a hockey team: they know exactly who they’re going to play in the first round despite there still being a half-dozen games and two weeks to go in their season, so there’s no need to rush anyone back. I’m willing to bet they aren’t that passionate about beating themselves up down the stretch to earn home ice. A healthy team on the road is better than a damaged one at home.

So the Hawks wisely want to maximize his rest time before heading into the same field of battle they’ve conquered twice in the last four years, and rightfully so. They know the physical sacrifice it takes. But for Toews, and quite possibly his also-wounded partner-in-crime Patrick Kane, that first game might not be easy, especially since they’ll likely be opening up in a fired-up building in Denver, Colorado. Those fans haven’t seen a playoff game since 2009-10, and that young Avs team is going to come out like gangbusters. Read the rest of this entry »

alex ovechkin

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Not sure if you’ve heard this tasty little tidbit yet or not, but Alex Ovechkin is minus-4,000 in his 2013-14 NHL campaign. I mean, if you’re rounding. He’s actually minus-36, which is a few worse than the likes of Nail Yakupov (-33), Alex Edler (same) and Steve Ott (-31). Winning the “green jacket” for being the farthest “below par” during a hockey season requires a combination of being on a bad team, playing a good amount of minutes, and usually not being great defensively.

But it’s Alex Ovechkin, so this has been a big thing. He’s going to lead the league in goals, and (might) finish last in plus-minus. That’s a pretty special accomplishment. Also, he’s Russian, so that whole stereotype gets the Mario-finding-a-mushroom bump in some eyes.

The problem is, his coach just made the spotlight on him stronger, which he probably didn’t enjoy. Adam Oates had this to say about Ovi’s defensive effort on the Stars fourth goal during a completely embarrassing 5-0 loss at home in the midst of a playoff race. From Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:

“Ovi quit on the play coming back,” Coach Adam Oates said. Whitney “forced [the play] down the ice and just goes to show you you’ve got to hustle the entire time, the whole entire time.”

Carrera corrected herself that it was Dustin Jeffrey that beat Ovi down the ice on the play.

Here’s the play in question:

As a winger – as any forward, actually – you don’t really have to get back to the zone as fast humanly possible when your team has “numbers” (enough people to cover those on the rush). What you do have to do, is shoulder check, and make sure your desire to be lazy and save your energy so you can use it offensively doesn’t leave your team in a bad situation. As in, if it’s a 3-on-3 headed back towards your own goal, you need to, at the very least, stay a step ahead of whoever their fourth guy is. Usually it’s a d-man who won’t try to press by you, but you do need to be sure. (Your coach will say you need to get back ASAP, but you’re usually fine dawdling.) Read the rest of this entry »

carey price

As the NHL schedule winds to a close, there’s still a number of playoff matchups to be determined. In the West, however, it’s almost certain the Chicago Blackhawks will be going head-to-head with the Colorado Avalanche thanks to the NHL’s new format that sees the two and three seeds from every division face each other in round one. In the East, that format makes it clear that Tampa Bay and Montreal will be paired up to duke it out.

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And damn, is that going to be one close playoff series.

The Lightning are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, while the Canadiens are 8-2-0 over that same span. Both teams are playing well during a time on the NHL schedule when teams begin scrapping for every last point they can muster, which is a real testament to the make-up of both groups. Tampa scores a bit more (barely), while Montreal gives up fewer goals (barely). They both rely on undersized forwards who contribute. The both have great goaltending. They are, if you haven’t picked up on the direction I’m headed here, very similar teams.

So then, the differences that will decide their inevitable series:

Goaltending

Carey Price and Ben Bishop have been two of the NHL’s best goaltenders this year, both potential Vezina candidates in a year filled with many. Their comparables (Bishop on top, Price on bottom): Read the rest of this entry »

Mark Giordano

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You would’ve been hard-pressed to find a hockey analyst heading into the 2013-14 NHL season that picked the Flames to finish anywhere but in the League’s bottom five. The main reason for that forecast was obvious: the roster. Their best offensive players were Jiri Hudler and Mike Camalleri (not quite Getzlaf/Perry), they didn’t have great goaltending, and their team was young.

The Flames, predictably, were never a seriously threatening team in the first half of the year. But since that was the consensus outcome for them, nobody really batted an eye, and because the Edmonton Oilers sucked in a year people foresaw a turnaround, the other Albertan team took the brunt of the abuse.

Lately, however, the Flames have been drawing a lot of something that borders on praise. Analysts on Canadian TV are calling for a Bob Hartley extension for the great work he’s done, Elliotte Friedman wrote about how hard they work, and while not exactly “praising” them, Tyler Dellow wrote about their improved Corsi over the past 25 games or so.

And for the most part, the compliments are just: they do work hard, they’re still a young and learning team, their Corsi has improved.

I hate to be the guy to burst another team’s bubble here – I already have Avalanche fans after my head – but this is still a team that’s about to finish second last in the Western Conference, and that’s with Mark Giordano having a season that has people chucking his name into the Norris mix. They’ve needed every ounce of his season to avoid being the Sabres, and I’m not convinced they’ve suddenly got it figured out.

The Flames (26th overall) went 9-7 in the month of March, prompting the positive talk about their direction. Six of those wins were against teams currently not slotted to make the playoffs: the Oilers (29th), the Senators (23rd), the Islanders (27th), the Stars (17th), the Sabres (30th) and the Oilers (29th) again. While they did have three quality wins (all at home), and you do have to beat the bad teams too, I think the schedule at least partially helps explain their recent “turnaround.”

The team is at their best with Mark Giordano on the ice, and it’s not even close (from Dellow). They lean on him hard to stay competitive, and fortunately for them, his numbers this year are staggering.

He’s 10th in points by a defenseman despite having played 10 less games than any other d-man in the top-25. That’s more points in considerably less games than names like Chara, Doughty, Ekman-Larsson, and Suter, while playing for the Calgary Flames. He’s plus-12 on a team with a minus-31 goal differential, and that’s while playing the most minutes of anybody on the team (10th in the league) and facing the toughest competition. He’s been dominant in shot-attempt differential despite starting in his zone more often than not. There’s a reason the Flames were 5-13 during the month of November when he was hurt. I think if he’s healthy that month, he owns a gold medal right now. I also think if he’s not healthy for another month, they’re awfully close to still being that team.

The long and short of it is, when Giordano isn’t on the ice, this still isn’t exactly a shining example of what a team should be.

I fully understand that this is a team in the depths of a “re-tool,” and they could be worse (though not much, standings-wise). I know that they’re not the Sabres, and they’ve worked hard, and don’t deserve to be derided for not being better. That’s not the point. It’s not derision to say that this is still a comparably bad hockey team with a great player that still looks miles from the playoffs.

Maybe Burke makes some big moves, maybe they get to playoffs sooner than later, maybe, maybe, maybe. But for now I think it’s a little bit batty to be clamouring for a contract extension for a coach because the team is going to finish, what, five points higher than most forecasted for them?

As a guy analyzing hockey, I don’t believe in the old adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I did. But if you’re someone who does subscribe to that, I suggest you still opt for silence when the Flames come up. Unless you’re talking about Giordano, of course.

Ducks win

“Score effects” has become the blanket term for a concept we’re all familiar with in sports: when one team jumps out to a big lead, they often “sit back” while the other team takes it to them, and the momentum appears to shift.

It’s not uncommon to see teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs push back late after a rough start, get close to making a comeback, than say things after the game like “We just need to play like we did at the end of the game for 60 minutes,” because they’re somehow oblivious to the fact that they didn’t get better, the game got easier for them. (You’ll hear the same from teams that run out to a great start then falter – gotta play the full 60.)

Take last night’s Winnipeg Jets/Anaheim Ducks game last night. Here are the shots from a game in which the Jets led 4-0 and managed to lose 5-4 in overtime:

shots

Yikes.

What we think we see is hockey’s version of the “prevent” defense, where you let a team bite off huge chunks of yardage to avoid the one big play. But it’s different than that.
Read the rest of this entry »

Avalanche Blackhawks

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The Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks are going to play in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – that’s more or less unavoidable at this point. The two and three seeds in every division play in the first round, and the Avalanche are a full seven points behind St. Louis for first in the Central, while Chicago is a full 12 up on Minnesota in the three spot. So yeah, happening.

Avs fans have been pleasantly surprised by their team during Patrick Roy’s first year at the helm, storming out of the gates and taking a major step as a group that wasn’t expected to win this often. That combined with their success against the Blackhawks this season – they’re 4-1 in five games – and you have a recipe for some people to be hopeful about their odds in a seven game series.

But they’re going to get smoked. I’m sorry, Avs fans. No prejudice here – I just can’t see it ending any other way.

When I learned today that Matt Duchene is out with a knee injury that will keep him off the ice for a month, a timeline that takes him past the first round of the playoffs, I tweeted something semi-trolly (but also something I legitimately meant):

Read the rest of this entry »

martin st. louis4

We’re coming up on a full month since the trade deadline that saw the New York Rangers make a big splash and acquire defending Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Ryan Callahan. The team has done well for themselves since the move, going 9-4-1 in 14 games, climbing up the standings to second in the Metropolitan division, only…it hasn’t exactly been thanks to their new offensive weapon.

In fact, St. Louis hasn’t really provided the Rangers with much of anything.

He’s still yet to score a single goal for the Blueshirts (stuck on 29), and has only picked up three assists. He put together an eight game stretch where he tallied a mere six shots, never putting up more than one in a single game. For a guy playing 19 minutes a night (including three on the powerplay) with your best players, you’d expect a little more.  Read the rest of this entry »