Here’s a Playoff Preview Video with my friend and colleague Aaron Murphy at ESPN America. Enjoy!
ESPN America is your home for 2011 NHL playoff coverage and more.
Be sure to check out my blog (Spencer Honeyman) and Murph on Ice for Playoff Previews and Inside Scoops.
Thanks everybody, its playoff time!
Here we go… playoff time. I hope everyone shaved this morning. The beards should be in full effect once your team hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers: The Capitals playoff struggles have been well documented over the past few seasons. Despite a mid-season losing streak captured on the HBO series “24/7 Road to the Winter Classic”, the Capitals were able to win the Eastern Conference regular season title. They are a new-look team, as their offense has fallen off its torrid pace of the past few seasons, but their defensive game has been elevated. This will suit them nicely in the playoffs and they should be more comfortable playing close, grind it out games. They still have plenty of firepower up front with Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin. Vice President and GM George McPhee did a great job bringing in Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman who have been perfect fits. The Capitals expect Wideman back in the near future, and Mike Green is also questionable for game 1. The Rangers are a gritty bunch but will sorely miss Ryan Callahan who broke his ankle on a wicked Zdeno Chara slap shot hovering around 106 MPH. The Rangers are lead by the ever consistent Henrik Lundqvist who is a rock in the net for the blue shirts and had 11 shutouts on the season. Marc Staal has elevated his game to an elite level and the Rangers enjoy a decent amount of depth on the blue line. New York also hopes Marian Gaborik can find his stride and quiet the talk of him not being able to play through physicality in the playoffs. The Rangers should be able to put a valiant effort, especially with Lundqvist stealing a game or two, and injuries to Washington’s defenseman, but New York wont have enough over a 7 game series. Prediction: Capitals in 6
(2) Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo: The big question in this series centers around the health of all-world goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller has been sidelined for the past few Buffalo games, and mums the word on his injury situation, but look for him to be ready to go. If not, rookie Jhonas Enroth, who has been good, will be in net. The Sabres added Brad Boyes at the deadline, which came on the heels of new ownership in Buffalo. The new ownership has pledged to spend the money, and get results. The new attitude seems to have jumpstarted the Sabres a little bit. They have depth up front with Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek, and Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers on the back end. Myers struggled earlier this year, but has come out of his Sophomore slump to play solid hockey for Buffalo. The Flyers have been stumbling into the post season, going 3-4-3 in their last ten games. Chris Pronger, the Flyers hulking 6’6 defenseman has been sidelined for the past few weeks. He will most likely return during the series, and his playoff experience will be a huge benefit for the Flyers. The Flyers have tremendous depth all around. They boast three scoring lines up front with tremendous leadership in Mike Richards and Claude Giroux has blossomed into an all around superstar. They have grit with Scott Hartnell and Co., and are the reigning Eastern Conference Champs. On the back end, even without Pronger they boast a line up consisting of Brayden Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle. The question mark is in net for Philadelphia. The Flyers are putting their playoff hopes on the shoulders of rookie Simeon Bobrovsky, who has had a good rookie season. But, can he hold up come playoff time? I say probably not. Prediction: Buffalo in 7
(3) Boston Bruins v. (6) Montreal Canadiens: Its got to be fate. I wont bore you with a recap of the brawl filled games, or Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident, but all those games will contribute to the sky high emotion level in this series. Now on to the respective teams. The Bruins played a consistent regular season, riding the goaltending of soon to be Vezina winner Tim Thomas. The forwards showed signs of excellence, but were largely inconsistent. Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic both had solid seasons and played for stretches with physicality and effort. When the big hulking wingers don’t move their legs and finish their checks, they dont score goals. When they are physical, and are skating at full speed every shift, they make themselves available to the crafty, playmaking center David Krejci. This line is key for Boston. The Bruins are hoping a few games in the pressbox can motivate the seemingly emotionless Michael Ryder. Many in Boston are calling for his head, but if he can get hot playing on a line with Rich Peverly and Chris Kelly, and pot a few goals, the Bruins could be headed for a long playoff run. Bergeron will center a solid line between Recchi and Marchand which will be defensively responsible and hopefully contribute offensively. On defense, the big boys in Chara, Mcquaid, and Seidenberg got rest last week and should be ready to go. McQuaid’s games has fallen off a bit, but he should be back to his shot blocking and physical ways. The Canadiens have an element of team speed the Bruins cannot match. If the Canadiens can get production out of Scott Gomez, look out. Montreal did win the season series 4-2, and are hoping to match Boston’s physical intensity. If Boston can play a physical game, without getting duped into stupid penalties, they are the better team. If they dont come out, every single game, playing hard and initiating the physical aspect of the play, the Canadiens will skate around them. But, they must also be disciplined, and this is the fine line Boston will tread throughout the entire postseason. Prediction: Bruins in 6
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning: The Penguins are a truly remarkable story. They have lost the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby, and another all-star in Evgeni Malkin, and still finished the season strong. It is a testament to the coaching job of Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero, who both have done all they can to salvage the season. Crosby has been skating, but will not start the series against the Lightning. If the Penguins brass considers the long term, they should hold Crosby out for the playoffs. But, thats a different conversation for a different day. The Penguins will be lead by Jordan Staal and the tandem of defensive tandem of Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, who are battle tested and have been oustanding. Secondary scoring from the newly acquired Alexei Kovalev and James Neal will be important. The Penguins have role players in Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz who have all been through many playoff battles and will be ready to go. The Lightning are back in the playoffs and are lead by scoring machine Steven Stamkos. Stamkos struggled a bit down the stretch, but will be a weapon in the post season. Martin St. Louis has had an MVP-like season and is joined up front by Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone. The question for the Lightning is in net. Can 42 year old Dwayne Roloson help the Lightning overcome the Penguins? With Crosby and Malkin, no way. Without them, still no. Prediction: Penguins in 7
The Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver Canucks v. (8) Chicago Blackhawks: It took a super human effort from Jonathan Toews and co. to overcome early season struggles to squeak into the playoffs. The Canucks cannot be happy to be playing the reigning Stanley Cup champs, and this series will be a war. As far as im concerned, Toews is the league MVP and is the epitome of a captain. He has been phenomenal all year, and has elevated his game to a new level. The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp to join their fearless leader, and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke on the blue line. In net, they are trusting their playoff fate with net-minder Corey Crawford, who is a rookie and not battle tested. Vancouver was the best NHL team in the 2011 season. They are solid top to bottom. The Cancucks have the tandem of Daniel and Henrik Sedin to go along with Ryan Kesler up front, as well as a slew of talented forwards. They are deep on the back end as well, headlined by Christian Erhoff and Alexander Edler. In net, Roberto Luongo has had another good season. Yet, Luongo has struggled on the big stage and in the olympics. This will be a hard-fought, well played series. Whatever team makes it through this series will certainly be banged up and battle-tested. It wont be easy for the Canucks, but they are the best team in the NHL. Prediction: Canucks in 6
(2) San Jose Sharks v. (7) L.A. Kings: The Sharks are always a great regular season team. They are fueled by their great forward group including Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau on a line with Dany Heatley. They have excellent depth at center with Rookie of the Year candidate Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Their true leader is power forward winger Ryane Clowe, who will be back up from an injury and suited up for game one. They are solid defensively, but will have to rely on Dan Boyle an awful lot, which could come back to hurt them in later rounds of the playoffs. The Sharks will need Joe Thornton to elevate his game, not in a scoring sense, but in a physical sense. He has never been able to put a team on his back in the playoffs, and needs to show leadership and toughness for the Sharks to make a Cup run. The Kings just lost Anze Kopitar for the remainder of the season. They have scoring depth up front, and a gritty and speedy bunch, but will most likely struggle without their all-star center. Drew Doughty is an elite defenseman who has yet to fully reach his potential, but will do an admirable job. The Kings will try and get the puck in deep and pound the Sharks defense on the forecheck and wear them out throughout the series. The Kings will put up a fight and do their best to hold off the Sharks mutli-faceted attack. But, the Kings will not have enough without Kopitar to win the series. Prediction: Sharks in 6
(3) Detroit Red Wings v. (6) Phoenix Coyotes: The Red Wings are usually a favorite going into the post season and have sort of slid in under the radar this year due to the play of the Canucks. This marks the 20th straight season they have made the playoffs, a truly remarkable feat. They are still the same team, with Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom leading the charge. They have multiple veterans with playoff experience and depth on the blue line with Brad Stuart and Brian Rafalski. Jimmy Howard will be in net for the Red Wings who are a very scary playoff team. The Coyotes enjoyed another solid season lead by Captain Shane Doan. Doan led the Coyotes with 60 points, and he was there only 20+ goal scorer. Defenseman Kieth Yandle has had a break-out season. The boston native will have his name in the Norris Trophy discussion and totaled 59 points and a +12 rating on the campaign. Ilya Bryzgalov has had another tremendous year and will also have his name in Vezina contention. But, the Coyotes do not have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Red Wings and will fall in the first round once again. Prediction: Red Wings in 5
(4) Anaheim Ducks v. (5) Nashville Predators: The Ducks really brought it down the stretch. Corey Perry amassed 50 goals and finds himself in the MVP discussion. The Ducks are a tough, gritty team led by their captian Ryan Getzlaf. He and Perry are joined by talented winger Bobby Ryan to form a scary top line. Teemu Selanne is still scoring goals! Will he ever stop? He even had his first NHL fighting major this past week, and seems fully engaged. The Ducks have gotten more than expected out of rookie defenseman Cam Fowler, and Lubomir Visnovsky will be up for the Norris Trophy. Who will be in net for the Ducks? Ray Emery, Jonas Hiller or Dan Ellis? Injuries have complicated this situation, and I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow night to find out. The Predators aren’t a high scoring team, but can get the job done up front. Pekka Rinne was stellar in net for the Predators and is a top 5 NHL goaltender at the current time. Can he play this well in the playoffs? The Predators are successful due to the best defensive tandem in the league in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber struggled with Suter out of the line up, but now that both are healthy, they will have their hands full trying to contain the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line. That matchup will decide the series. I like the Ducks chances to progress deep into the post season if they can get solid goaltending, but it is definitely a question mark. Due to the lack of clarity in Anaheim’s goaltending, I think the series will go seven games. Prediction: Ducks in 7
Extensive Playoff Preview coming up tomorrow, but until then, take a look at this heart warming story courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins Website. Hockey can seem like life or death, but there is far more to life than hockey. Feel free to donate to the Cleland family, as donations are still being accepted.
Rupps Reach Out to Family In Need
Nicole Cleland had been in the hospital ever since she and her two daughters were involved in a horrific car accident in the beginning of December.
Cleland suffered a shattered pelvis when her car was struck head on by a drunk driver in the South Side of Pittsburgh – a crash that killed her daughter Lexa, 7, and caused Nicole to lose her unborn child. Nicole and her husband Mark’s one-year-old daughter, Kathleen, survived with minor injuries.
Nicole has progressed to doing some walking with a walker and a cane in the South Hills rehabilitation center where she is recovering, but hadn’t been able to leave the facility until Monday night.
And on her first day away from the center, Nicole and her family came to CONSOL Energy Center to attend a fundraiser organized by Mike and Christi Rupp to raise money for the Clelands.
“What an honor, that today is her first day out of the hospital and she came to meet everybody here,” Christi said.
Not only have the Clelands been dealing with unfathomable emotional trauma, but they have also been under significant financial strain. The family lost their only car in the crash, the hospital bills have been piling up and they are in danger of losing their home.
So the Rupps teamed with the Penguins to organize an autograph session that consisted of Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang and Pirates players Paul Maholm and Pedro Alvarez. The fundraiser lasted about two hours and the $35 wristbands required for admission sold out in less than an hour.
“I don’t think you need to be a parent to kind of think of what they’ve gone through,” Mike Rupp said. “I have three kids, and I can’t fathom it. So if this is something that can help alleviate a little bit of pressure in some areas so they can focus on doing what needs to be done and be there for one another, so be it. We just want to try to help any way we can.”
Christi first learned of the Clelands’ situation while watching television. A local news station did a piece on a Pittsburgh woman, Samantha Savoy, who organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser to benefit the Clelands that drew more than 1,000 attendees.
“As I sat there and watched this woman do a spaghetti dinner and a thousand people showed up at this church, I thought, ‘Wow. If these people can get together and do this, then we can certainly do something here,’” Christi said. “And as I sat there and cried over the father and his story, I called Mike and I said, ‘We need to do something to help this family.’”
The rest was history.
Christi also called her friend Jessica Maholm, Paul Maholm’s wife, and asked for her help.
Both Jessica and Paul agreed it was a no-brainer to get involved.
“I don’t think you can ever put into words what the family’s going through,” Paul said. “Whenever Mike and Christi came up with the idea to do this and for us to come out for a couple hours and sign for the fans and for them to support the family, it’s easy. What they went through, nobody should have to go through. Hopefully we can help them out just a little bit to get through.”
The wristband sales procured $10,500 to help the Clelands. When Jeff Nobers, the vice president of marketing and public relations for 84 Lumber/Nemacolin Woodlands Resort heard of what the Rupps were doing, he pledged exactly half of the proceeds – $5,250 – to show his support to both the Clelands and the players for their proactive approach in helping out.
“It’s just amazing. It’s overwhelming,” Nicole said, who learned of Nobers’ donation after the session ended. “There’s not even enough words or enough ways to say thank you.”
“I think what spurred us was certainly a concern for the family and wanting to be able to help,” Nobers said.
“It’s as much to help the family as to recognize the efforts of those players and really, just to say we’re all fortunate to live in a city where the professional athletes, as Mike Rupp said, use their celebrity for the good as opposed to just their own personal things.”
Tina Vita and her husband Joe got a text from the Penguins informing them of the fundraiser. It was one of those things where they just couldn’t say no to coming out and showing their support.
“We have three children of our own and we couldn’t imagine something like this happening. So we’re here to support the family,” Tina said.
Like Nobers, the Vitas are blown away by the players’ efforts to give back to their community.
“We were just talking about this last night, how wonderful it is what the players are doing,” Tina said. “Here, the players are really helping out the community. Honestly, you see them at Children’s Hospital with the kids – they’re always out there helping out. It means a lot. It does.”
Pittsburghers have kind demeanors and even kinder hearts. When a stranger asks for directions, a Pittsburgher won’t just tell them where to go – they’ll personally escort them to their destination. And the response from the community has been the one positive to come out of such a tragedy.
So while the fans were impressed with the players’ willingness to give back, the players and their wives felt the same way about the people who came out for the fundraiser.
“It’s been a great showing from the fans,” Mike said, with Christi adding, “We’ve been all over the country in different teams and lived in different cities. And I’ve never been to a city where people are just so welcoming and just so caring and so loving as they are here in Pittsburgh.”
The Clelands still have a long road to recovering from their terrible tragedy. But they’re slowly healing from their excruciating ordeal, and are grateful to have the community supporting them along the way.
“There’s no way to truly thank people for things like this,” Nicole said. “To say thank you is not enough, and all you can do is pay it forward. That’s all I can do and all I can think to do is try and think of ways to help other people.
“We’ll never get over the loss of Lexa, and when you talk about giving back, that’s what makes me want to give so much. She was such a giving and loving child, that you want to just follow in her footsteps. It’s hard to say as a parent that you want to follow in your daughter’s footsteps, but she just loved so much and so hard that you can’t help but want to do the same.”
If you would like to help the Cleland family down their road to recovery, donations still can be made to the Cleland Family Trust, 1918 McCague St., Swissvale, PA 15218.
The St. Louis Blues have been statistically eliminated from the NHL playoffs. So why are we talking about them? The Blues have only gone 10-12-1 since they sent defenseman Erik Johnson to the Colorado Avalanche for Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart, but it still looks like a steal to me. Looking at the Blues style of play, and future prospects, St. Louis is poised to be a playoff team for the years to come, and heres why.
Up front, the Blues are lead by 30 goal, gritty center David Backes. He showed his heart and passion playing for team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics and has been just as good for the Blues. Backes is a future NHL captain for sure. Chris Stewart has been a nice addition up front, and will continue to play a power game and be a 30 goal scorer for the next decade. You really have to question the Avalanche management in giving up a premier power forward, which are tough to come by. Swedish 22 year old center Patrik Berglund is a formidable second line Centerman totaling 50 plus points this season, and will only get better. Winger David Perron had his season cut short with a vicious early season hit from Sharks Center Joe Thornton, but will be healthy for next season. Along with Perron, the Blues have a slew of offensively talented forwads. Forwards TJ Oshie, Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen will compliment the Blues top Centers. McDonald has not been able to stay healthy the past few years, but if he can put together a full 82 point season, he could play at a point per game pace. The Blues have a bunch of players who can provide toughness and drop the gloves in BJ Crombeen, Cam Janssen, and newly called up Ryan Reaves, as well as little sparkplug Vladimir Sobotka who can provide energy.
The Blues did lose 1st overall pick Erik Johnson in the deal with Avalanche, but were able to get Kevin Shattenkirk. St. Louis will continue to re-stock the blue line with off-season aquisitions. Alex Pietrangelo has had a break out season the Blues, posting over 40 points and a +20 rating on the campaign and has held down the defense with 22 year old Ian Cole. The Blues pipeline is stocked with future top 6 forwards, so they will need to use the free agent market and draft to add more defenseman to this already promising core.
Last offseason, the Blues acquired the rights to netminder Jaroslav Halak, an ex-Montreal Canadien. Halak has had a solid season for St. Louis, but his play has been nothing compared to the way he played in the playoffs for Montreal last Spring. The Blues are hoping for Halak to return to top-notch status next year and lead the charge for a playoff birth.
The Blues are stocked with top-end talent and have a goaltender who will stand on his head come playoff time. They are arguably the toughest team in the league top to bottom, and will probably look to add a gritty veteran defenseman to the mix in the off season to compliment their young, puck-moving defenseman. Look for the Blues to make the playoffs next year and be a competitive team for the years to come.
Leadership can take many forms. Leading by example, a voice in the locker room, or standing up for a teammate. In the NHL, leaders are often awarded the captain or assistant captain role on a team, with a “C” or “A” placed on the appropriate players jersey. Hockey is a game of leadership and lets take a look around the league at young and unheralded leaders.
Jonathan Toews: Toews lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup as a 21 year old Captain last season. This year he has lead the resurgent Blackhawks back into the playoff picture in the second half of the season with his stellar two-way play and leadership. The high-flying center has another gear that allows him to excel in late game situations and gives it all for the team.
Ryane Clowe: The Sharks have been known for their regular season success. They havent had the same results in the playoffs and lack of heart and leadership have been used to expain their post season struggles. Clowe will end the season with 25 goals, 60+points, and 100+ PIM. He is a voice in the San Jose locker room and has stepped up his role on the team this year defending teammates. Last week he fought Cory Sarich and enforcer Paul Bissonette in situations to protect his teammates. Here is a look at Clowe defending his younger teammates:
Eric Staal wears the “C” as the Captain for the Carolina Hurricanes and he has earned it. Staal took over the “C” from a great leader in Rod B’rindamour and has done a great job in the past two plus seasons. Maybe it was growing up with 3 brothers who were NHL bound, but Staal’s non-stop mentality is unrivaled around the league. He has carried the Hurricanes within a couple points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and his Stanley Cup ring is a testament to his will to win. The 26 year old all star center has played through injury and brings his skating game every night, leading by example and standing up for teammates.
Mike Richards is the Captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. His leadership abilities were on full display during last year’s playoffs against the Bruins as the Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit to win the series. The Flyers captain will drop the gloves to get his team going and excels in all facetes of the game. Here is a look at what is called “The Shift” by Flyers Fans, an example of Richards great work ethic.
Lets take a look at the lower seeds in each conference and see if any of the teams have the potential to make a Stanley Cup run.
Eastern Conference: The New York Rangers: The Rangers are poised to end up in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and will most likely end up between the 6th-8th seed. The Ranger Line up looks like this:
The name that stands alone at the bottom of the list is the most important; Henrik Lundqvist, who leads the NHL with 11 shutouts on the season. Goaltenders can propel teams through the playoffs with a hot streak, and Henrik is certainly capable of giving the Rangers a necessary boost. The Rangers also have a nice mix of youth and experience throughout their lineup. Up front, rookie Derek Stepan just scored his 20th goal of the season and is seeing top line minutes. For the Rangers to be successful they will need more out of their highest paid forward, Marian Gaborik. Gaborik has immense talent but often lacks intensity and is very injury prone. But, if Gaborik can find his game and stay healthy, he will be a huge weapon for the rangers. On the back end, Marc Staal has turned into a top tier defensemen and they have depth all the way through their 6 defenseman. The Rangers are 8-1-1 in their last ten games and hope to finish the season on the similar note going into the post season. Timely scoring, solid defense, and Henrik Lundqvist could lead the Rangers to a suprise Stanley Cup run, and I think they’ve got a shot.
Western Conference: The Chicago Blackhawks
You might say, wow, you think the reigning Stanley Cup Champs are a dark horse? Brilliant. Well, based on this season alone, and the Blackhawks sitting in 8th place in the Western Conference standings, and not even guarunteed a playoff spot, we can call them a dark horse.
Here’s a look at the Blackhawks lineup: (Minus Patrick Sharp, Knee Injury)
The Blackhawks have been encouraged with the improving health of leading scorer Patrick Sharp, who is currently out with a knee injury, should be back come playoff time. The Blackhawks lost grinder Andrew Ladd, choo-choo train of a man Dustin Byfuglien, speedy winger Kris Versteeg and goaltender Anti Niemii as salary cap casualties in the off season. Yet, the resurgent Blackhawks have made a run to climb into the Western Conference playoff picture once again. This has been due in large part to the outstanding play of young Captain Jonathan Toews. Toews has elevated his play to a level we have not seen before, and is the undoubted leader of this bunch. Toews play has put his name into the Hart (MVP) Trophy consideration and he has shown no signs of slowing up. The Blackhawks have great depth on defense with reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke. If rookie netminder Corey Crawford can play solid in net for Chicago, the Blackhawks are a nightmare match up for any top seed in the West and are a true Cup Contender once again.