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 »

wg stick al

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It was November 25th, 1989, six months after my Dad had retired from the Los Angeles Kings and moved the family to Kelowna, BC. He decided to make the drive to Vancouver with my brother and I to see a Kings/Canucks game. I was granted the privilege of taping Luc Robataille’s stick before the game (I’m sure he re-taped it) on a night he recorded a hat-trick. After the final buzzer, we popped back into the Kings room for Dad to say his see-ya-laters, and he introduced us to his old Canada Cup teammate Wayne Gretzky. That day is one of my best childhood hockey memories.

Gretzky used the stick you see above that night, took the tape off and signed it. Look at that thing! Pre-made foam grip? Shiny as all get-out? NOT WOOD? How cool is that thing?

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The first time I used an Easton Synergy one-piece hockey stick, I was playing Junior B for the Osoyoos Heat of the KIJHL (Kootney International Junior Hockey League, out of BC). At that level you still paid for your own sticks, so I had to go full puppy dog eyes on Mom and Dad for weeks to finally convince them to drop the dough. There was a cool new toy on the market, and I needed it to succeed.

At $200-plus a pop, it wasn’t a small investment, and I wanted to have it forever. I was terrified to take a slapshot with it for fear it would break, which is sort of ironic – “Mom, Dad, I need this great new tool that will completely minimize my arsenal of shot options, y’know, to get better at hockey.” First generation Synergys were nearly unusable tools, comprised of a substance that I believe was mostly hardened sugar (I mean, they had to have been). Two shifts into my second game with it, there I was, using my old Easton Aluminum Silver Tip (convex) just like I had been a few days before. My Synergy was in two tidy pieces after it failed to withstand a puck battle that involved someone breathing on it (30 day warranty though!).

Eventually, Easton – a former employer of mine, full disclosure – found their stride, in a big way. They make arguably the best sticks in hockey today. But prior to their takeover, there were a ton of companies vying for the “Mommy and Daddy will pay too much for junior’s sporting equipment because they think he’s the next Sidney Crosby” market. And that’s one lucrative market.

I’m going to say the true Easton Synergy matte silver one-piece became truly popular and relevant around 2001-2002, and they changed the game. The one-piece revolution was on. Prior to that and in the transition years, there were some neat twigs, which we’ll reminisce about below. Hell, I once tried a triangular-shafted twig called the “Trilage” at one point; companies were trying everything and anything. Wood sticks took major strides around this time too (they had to), while non-wood sticks got more creative. It really was the glory days for gear fiends.

The 10 Best Pre-Synergy Hockey Sticks

Sherwood PMP 5030 (Coffey curve mandatory) Read the rest of this entry »

Matt Irwin2

He may not be a household name just yet, but San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Irwin may work his way into your mental NHL player directory yet. Now in his second NHL season, the 26 year old British Columbian is continuing a trend from his amateur career that has seen his point totals, ice-time, and contributions to his team’s success dynamically increase every year.

Irwin spoke with me at length about his long road to the NHL and what he’ll have to do to stay there, the tough decisions he was required to make and small window of opportunity he had to live out his dream, past teammates that helped get him where he is now, current ones that help make him better, what the San Jose Sharks will have to do to win their first Stanley Cup, what it takes to be consistently inserted into a lineup full of Olympians, All-Stars, and Stanley Cup champions, and more.

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Let’s start at the beginning. In 04-05, you got to play three games of Junior A hockey just up the road from your hometown of Brentwood Bay, BC, with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL. You didn’t record any points, but did skate alongside future NHLer Jason Garisson. In 05-06, you played alongside future NHLer Colin Greening in Nanaimo for 56 games and had 9 points. In 06-07 you exploded for 49 points, was the team’s top scoring d-man, the Clippers won the BCHL, and you were named the BCHL’s best defenceman. 07-08 was more of the same, as you’re again the team’s top scoring d man, and win league’s best defenceman. So explain your rather dynamic development in junior hockey — what did you take away from the guys you played with that went on to play at higher levels of the game, and how did it help influence your junior career to produce what it did? 

Irwin: “Those three games were as an affiliate player. I played Junior B with Saanich in Victoria, and got an opportunity to play in three games [with Nanaimo] and see what it was all about. It was a big step for me. From there, I got the opportunity to sign and play [the following season] with them for the whole year where I got to play on a consistent basis. Not a lot of power play time, more five-on-five minutes. The following year when everything picked up, Bill [Bestwick] gave me a great opportunity to play on the power play. The first five games of that year I had five or six goals. It was all happening really fast, I wasn’t expecting it. I was working on my shot, Bill had me working on it all the time. That’s where the offensive side of it started to come together.”

After you completed your junior career, you moved on to play NCAA hockey with UMass Amherst from 2008 to 2010. Instead of playing four seasons you only played two, joining the AHL’s Worchester Sharks at the end of the 09-10 season, and did not return to the NCAA. Why did you choose not to stay for all four years after taking the BCHL scholarship route rather than major junior? Talk about making the choice to abandon a fully funded education. Read the rest of this entry »