One of the greatest things about following the NHL is that, really, the season never stops. The Los Angeles Kings may have won the 2014 Stanley Cup championship, but the calendar has still been busy, and teams are already gearing up for 2014-15. We saw that this past week as major names changed locations during the start of the free-agent signing period.
Here are some of the biggest things I've seen since July 1:
THE STARS ARE SHINING
No team in the League, in my estimation, changed themselves for the better this past week like the Dallas Stars. Adding Jason Spezza in a trade with the Ottawa Senators was the biggest move so far this offseason as far as I'm concerned. This really changes that team. Dallas was already on the upswing, having returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and looking good doing it. Now though, when you add Spezza and Ales Hemsky to that team, there's another very good team out there in the West. In theory, Dallas has added 60 goals to an already potent offense.
We have a big weekend coming up with the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, but before everyone heads to the City of Brotherly Love, one of the League's other major events will be happening Tuesday in Las Vegas at the annual NHL Awards (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC).
Pick: Crosby. It's important to remember that these awards are voted on before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and are meant to reflect achievement in the regular season. If you look at the regular season, Crosby's League-leading 104 points (36 goals, 68 assists) was just so dominant you've got to think he's the pick. Getzlaf had a great season and Giroux was fantastic for two-thirds of the season, but I think Crosby is the guy. People might love him or hate him, but if you're being objective you can't ignore his accomplishments.
Well, after a thrilling regular season and an even more exciting Stanley Cup Playoff tournament, the ride is over for 2013-14 and the Los Angeles Kings are the last team left standing. The 2014 Stanley Cup Final ended in one of the most exciting games we've ever seen when Alec Martinez beat Henrik Lundqvist in the second overtime of Game 5 to lift the Kings to their second championship in three seasons.
As we reflect on an amazing postseason, this is what I took from this series and what I see for its two participants going forward:
We are two games into the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and there are plenty of things to talk about. As the series shifts to New York for Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), the New York Rangers will need a big win against the Los Angeles Kings on home ice to breathe life back into their Cup chances.
After a lengthy regular season and three thrilling rounds of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we've finally arrived at the last showdown. The Los Angeles Kings are in the hunt for their second Stanley Cup title in three seasons, and to earn it they'll have to go through a gutsy New York Rangers team that has made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final and only gotten better along the way.
As these two teams face off for the greatest trophy in sports, here is what I'm watching.
As the conference finals continue, the plot is thickening both in the East and the West. After Martin St. Louis' overtime-winner on Sunday night the New York Rangers are now one win away from their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, and the past two champions are locked up in a tight battle for a spot of their own.
Here are the things that have caught my eye in the NHL's final four:
Already down 1-0 after losing Game 1 at home Saturday, the Canadiens sustained a huge, huge loss with the injury to Price. After seeing how Montreal played in Game 1, I didn't think the Habs looked like a team that could beat the New York Rangers even with Price in net, but losing him makes it that much easier for New York.
Backup goalie Peter Budaj is adequate, but he's not Price, one of the best goaltenders in the sport. With the way the Rangers play, their goals are so ugly and slimy, they are very difficult to play against. They score those ugly goals. That was already causing trouble for Price in Game 1 before he was injured in a collision with Rangers forward Chris Kreider, but I have a hard time seeing Budaj faring any better against that kind of team.
The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is coming to a close this week, and what a second round it's been so far. We've got one series guaranteed to go seven games and three more that very well could. In addition, there's no shortage of storylines to watch as four different divisional rivalries reach their respective climaxes.
Here's what's catching my eye this week:
WINNING ONE FOR THE GIB-BER
Everyone in hockey has known about Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson for a long time. Every NHL team would love to have him in their organization, and Saturday night you saw why. The kid's an elite goaltender, he looked great in his playoff debut, he looked very confident and moved very well. It was a performance that not only may have saved the Ducks' season, but also paid off for coach Bruce Boudreau. Putting in Gibson to start Game 4 was a risky move, but Boudreau had the guts to do it and it paid off.
All four series in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway, and even though the Chicago Blackhawks currently have a 2-0 series lead on the Minnesota Wild, nearly every game has been tight and exciting and each series is full of storylines.
The first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs is just about in the books, but it's already been an incredibly revealing two weeks. With the field nearly narrowed down from 16 teams to eight, here are the things I'm thinking about.
DON'T BLOW UP THE BLUES
This was a devastating loss for the St. Louis Blues. There is no way to sugarcoat it. If you're up two games to none and you're one of the best teams in the NHL, the series you're playing should be just about over. To lose a first-round series is one thing, but to lose it the way they did, considering the same thing happened to them a year ago against the Los Angeles Kings, is certainly another.
We're less than a week into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs and already it's been a crazy ride. The hockey has been great, the drama has been unmatched and best of all, there's plenty more hockey still to come.
Here are some things I'm thinking about after watching the start of the postseason:
ALREADY A CLASSIC
This series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks has been everything we hoped it could be and more. We knew it was going to be great. We knew the history of these two teams and that they were two of the best teams in the NHL. But to have two games like we've seen to open this series -- all this drama, the comebacks, the blown leads -- this is a series for the ages. The only unfortunate thing is that this is happening in the first round and not the third.
After more than six months and 1,230 regular season games we've finally arrived at the best part of the NHL calendar. The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight at 7 p.m. ET when the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning drop the puck at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
There are still roughly two months and four rounds of playoff games to be played before we crown a champion, but as we drop the puck on the postseason, here is my take on the first round:
Well folks, after more than six months it all comes down to this. What precious few spots remain in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be gone in the next seven days as the regular season hits its final week. Here is how I think it will all shake out, as well as a few other things on my mind.
WHO IS MAKING IT?
Not every team in the top three of its division has clinched, but it seems pretty clear that the top-three teams in each division won't be changing. The wild cards are where most of the action is going to be.
In the Eastern Conference, it looks like the Detroit Red Wings are going to be a safe bet to extend their playoff streak for another season. The conference's final spot, in my mind, has come down to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New Jersey Devils. That the Devils are even in this discussion is a surprise, but they've been playing extremely well lately and haven't lost in regulation in seven games. I still think, however, that Columbus gets in. The Blue Jackets are playing too hard right now and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is too good for that team to let a three-point lead slip away in four games.
Less than 10 games remain for each team in the NHL, and while some of the races for berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have cleared up, there is plenty to be decided as we hit the home stretch. Here are some things I've been noticing and that I'll be watching over the next week.
VINNY VIDI VICI
One of the best players from the past decade reached a career milestone Sunday when Philadelphia Flyers center Vincent Lecavalier scored his 400th (and later 401st) NHL goal. When someone hits that kind of a milestone it's hard not to look back at his career and marvel. What makes Lecavalier's career so interesting, though, is how good it's been for him to make the change he made this offseason.
He didn't come into Philadelphia playing in good form. Lecavalier had struggled his last few seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and it didn't help that for a lot of those seasons the Lightning weren't very good. Finishing near the bottom of the standings multiple times can be good for a franchise if it can turn draft picks into Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman or Jonathan Drouin. But for an older player it can wear on you. Lecavalier had been great for most of his career. He'd won a Stanley Cup and he was the face of a new organization for a lot of years. Going from that kind of success, particularly when you're young, to being on a team that struggles can wear on an older player.
With just a few weeks to go in the 2013-14 regular season, teams are starting to hit their final 10 games. Even with so little time left, so much remains to be decided. That doesn't mean some teams haven't separated themselves and others haven't fallen back to the pack, though.
Here are some things I'm noticing as the season hits its home stretch.
SHARKS COMING OUT OF THE WATER
All season long we've talked about the Chicago Blackhawks or the St. Louis Blues or the Anaheim Ducks as teams to beat out in the Western Conference. We haven't talked very much about the San Jose Sharks, but they've been there lying in the weeds the whole time. Well, they aren't lying in the weeds anymore. San Jose has now jumped atop the Pacific Division and it's pretty clear they'll be a factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and may even be the team that wins the West.
As we hit the final 15 games of the season, races across the NHL are heating up as teams scramble to earn berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One team, however, is starting to make a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference and it just might surprise you who.
Now that the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline has passed and the dust around the League has settled, teams are gearing up for the final stretch run to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A number of big names changed addresses and several teams made additions to prime them for a run at the Stanley Cup. The big stories at the deadline are just a few of the things that caught my attention over the past week.
After two wild weeks the 2014 Sochi Olympics have come to an end, and Canada was the last team standing after a convincing win against Sweden on Sunday in the gold-medal game. Obviously if you're a native Canadian like I am it makes you extremely proud to see Canada win gold for the second consecutive Olympics and third time in the last four tournaments.
Each team in the tournament made its own mark and had its own interesting story though. Here is what stuck out to me:
CANADA'S DEFENSE NEARLY WAS PERFECT
I've never seen a defense dominate as much as this one did, and when I say dominate I mean in all areas of the game. Offensively they scored almost half of Canada's goals and defensively they made life easy for goalie Carey Price. While Price did a great job, Canada went into this Olympic tournament thinking goaltending might be a weak link. I think Price got a lot of help from his defense corps. Canada's defense did a great job with puck movement, picking guys up and making a great first pass out of the zone.
If you look at the goals Canada was scoring early in the tournament, Drew Doughty or Shea Weber were scoring while the forwards struggled. But even when the forwards made plays, like on Jamie Benn's game-winner against the United States, it was set up on a great pass from the blue line by Jay Bouwmeester. The more I watched those guys the more I thought this was how defense is supposed to be played. If you build a perfect defense it has to look something like this one did. Size-wise, skating ability, puck-handling, toughness, compete-level, this defense had all of those things and it's the biggest reason Canada came away with the gold medal.
After watching the group stage of the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics there have been a lot of surprises, both good (Slovenia and Latvia have played well) and bad (Russia and Slovakia have not). With the knockout stage beginning on Tuesday, the tension will be ratcheted up another notch and so will the excitement. As we look ahead, though, the first week of the games gave us plenty to talk about.
Here are the things I've noticed so far at the Sochi Games:
THE U.S. HAS BEEN THE BEST TEAM
We all knew the Americans were a talented team and after their performance in 2010 in Vancouver they were clearly going to be a medal contender, but I know I still thought the Canadians and the Swedes would have a leg up. That hasn't been the case. The way the United States has played, its goal-scoring, its defense, I just think they've been the best all around. They're the farthest ahead, they have the most chemistry and they have the most lines clicking.
That said, the United States didn't draw the ideal road for the knockout stages. The Americans will have to play the winner of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and both of those teams have been disappointing so far, but because neither Canada nor Finland won in regulation on Sunday, the U.S. can't avoid Canada until the gold medal game and instead is on track to face its rival up north in the semis.
As we get ready for the start of the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament when Sweden and the Czech Republic face off in Sochi on Wednesday, I imagine everyone just wants to know one thing after sifting through all of the analysis: Who is going to win?
Well, I can't guarantee I know the answers to that, but I have a pretty good idea. So with no further introduction, here is how I see things shaking out at the 2014 Sochi Olympics:
We're just two days away from the start of men's ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and with NHL players once again participating, it's sure to be not just an entertaining tournament but an intense one that features the best players in the world skating for national pride.
Few things can match the excitement of the Winter Olympics, and if you doubt that just ask any American who watched the Miracle on Ice in 1980 or any Canadian how they felt four years ago in Vancouver. I'll give my preview of who I think will win each group and who will take home the gold Tuesday, but there are several interesting topics that I'll be keeping an eye on throughout the tournament:
CANADA CHANGES ITS THINKING
Joe Thornton was leading the NHL in assists earlier this season and is No. 2 in the League right now. He's not playing in Sochi. James Neal is a big, physical power forward and he didn't make Canada's team. Claude Giroux didn't either. This is a sign that Hockey Canada has really changed how it makes the team. Canada has changed its thinking looking at the big ice surface and there's no doubt about it. Brent Seabrook, who was on the team four years ago, didn't make the team and he's one of the best defensemen in the NHL. This lineup definitely moves away from the more physical, grinding style Canada employed four years ago in Vancouver. If Canada was playing in Canada again you'd have those power forwards and those big, physical defensemen in the lineup. But with the international ice you don't see that now. Canada has learned in the past from its struggles on a big ice surface and that's why this team is built the way it is.
Since Paul Maurice took over in Winnipeg, there haven't been many teams hotter in the NHL than the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have gone 8-2-0 since Maurice took over and while the Stanley Cup Playoffs are probably still a long shot, the Jets are starting to make it interesting.
If you look at the reasons why, you probably have to start with goaltending. The Jets have gotten some very strong performances over that stretch from Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya, and teams that can score goals by the bucket, like the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, have been held to one or two goals when they've played them. But perhaps the biggest reason for the change is just that Maurice is a good coach. He came in there, didn't panic, didn't make a ton of changes and just added some confidence and gave the players a fresh voice to listen to.
In my career in hockey, I've done quite a bit of traveling, but I've had few experiences quite like what happened this weekend when I was in both Los Angeles and New York for the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. I experienced two wild scenes in cities 3,000 miles apart and had very little sleep in between, but if I ever had the opportunity, I would do it all over again. Here's a little taste of what it's like to cover hockey in America's two biggest cities in half a day's time.
When you were at the game between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings in Dodger Stadium, you could definitely tell there was some Hollywood to it. I was going up in an elevator and I opened the door and there was Cuba Gooding Jr. You open another door and there's Colin Hanks. Another door? Matthew Perry. This was a scene that had that Hollywood influence and that made it special. The park was beautiful too. The green grass contouring the white ice, the mountains beyond the outfield, the overlook of downtown L.A., all this combined to make the view spectacular.
Before the game you had Kerri Walsh Jennings, arguably the best beach volleyball player in the world, playing on the field, you had kids on the roller hockey rink, 10 people throwing around a football or a Frisbee. It really captured what L.A. is all about, what California is all about, and then there was hockey at the end of it. It was pretty neat, but really it was totally different. You can't do what they did in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or Boston. Instead of L.A. trying to be those cities, L.A. was L.A. It really hit the mark. They thought of everything. That's what L.A. does. They do events all the time and they know how to do them well. This was just another example.
Whether or not you're from New York, whether or not you care about any of the teams involved, I don't see how you cannot get excited about the two 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games being played between the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils over the next few days.
The games are being played in Yankee Stadium, a beautiful building and arguably the most famous stadium in America. The setting for it will be great, but what really sets these two games apart from the rest of the Stadium Series is that the teams playing in Los Angeles and the teams playing in Chicago probably are all going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In New York, all three teams are in the hunt but making the playoffs is no guarantee.
For the Rangers, Islanders and Devils, these games are going to be pivotal in the standings. The race for the wild-card spots is very tight and all three teams playing in the Stadium Series New York games are involved. That's going to add an extra angle of excitement when the Devils and Rangers take the ice Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC) as well as when the Rangers and Islanders face off Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2).
In this sport you always hear it. You always hear that hockey belongs in the cold. Yes, traditionally that's where it's played because, of course, you have to have ice to play the game. But that mold is going to get broken this Saturday when the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series kicks off in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS2).
Think about it. We're sitting here talking about a game at Dodger Stadium where two of the best teams in the NHL are going to play. Both of those teams have won the Stanley Cup in recent memory, and you could make an argument that either one is the best team in the NHL this season. That is amazing. It's amazing that southern California is the center of the hockey world right now and it's amazing that the NHL is scheduling major outdoor events to be held in Los Angeles.
I have to be honest; there is some sense of gratification here. I remember when I took over as coach of the L.A. Kings in 1992 people said to me, "Barry, you can't win there. Not consistently. They've had good teams there but it's just not conducive to winning. It's too soft of a place. It's too free of a place."
Mason has had his troubles, but this is now the second time he's been excellent in net in his career after winning the Calder Trophy with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009. This year he's played very well and he's been, by far, the Flyers' best, most consistent player. There haven't been very many nights this season when Philly hasn't gotten good goaltending, and since this is the second time in a still very young career that Mason has excelled, this could be the player he's really going to be. I think with maturity he's learned how to handle the rough patches better, and now that he's learned that the Flyers were smart to lock him up.
The biggest news in the NHL this weekend had to be the changes made by the Winnipeg Jets, and frankly it's hard to be surprised. When Claude Noel was fired as coach Sunday morning and replaced with Paul Maurice it was the culmination of what had been a very difficult first half of the season for Winnipeg. And if you watched Noel's press conference after the Jets lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets, 6-3, Saturday night, you probably saw the writing on the wall.
It was one of those news conferences where the coach was very honest. He said the Jets had lost their confidence, that they weren't a good team right now and they could barely pass the puck. Those are not the things that happen in a winning organization and this is a tough business. Success in the NHL is judged on wins and losses, and this is a team that has spent some money locking up its core players with little to show for it. Winnipeg had gotten to the point where something had to change, and this was the change general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the front office decided to make.
With the New Year behind us there are still many great events left on the NHL calendar for 2013-14. The Coors Light NHL Stadium Series and 2014 Sochi Olympics are right on the horizon, to say nothing of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but as we look back at the first half of the season there are already many exciting storylines and many great races brewing.
Here are my picks for the NHL's major regular season awards and who I think will be meeting in June for the Stanley Cup.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the most amazing stories in the NHL this season and continue to dominate the Metropolitan Division despite being riddled with injuries. On Sunday, two of the biggest missing pieces in Pittsburgh came back when Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang returned to the lineup. The return was a good one as the pair combined for four points in a 6-5 win against the Winnipeg Jets, but where some people see a strong team that only gets stronger, I see the potential for a drop-off.
A lot of times when a star player gets hurt and then returns, all of a sudden the guys that were so important to your success decide they aren't important anymore. Subconsciously they think that when reinforcements arrive they can ease up and take down their intensity. Very often you see a drop-off when key players return from injury and this is a reason why.
On the other side of the coin, how much better can Pittsburgh really play? The Penguins' record without all of those players was unbelievable and players like Brandon Sutter, Jussi Jokinen, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland made a huge impact. What happens when a team playing so well together gets its chemistry disrupted? What happens when a defense that was completely beaten up gets three or four injured top-four defenseman back suddenly, as the Penguins have with Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi? You may have already seen the answer on Sunday. Even though the Penguins won, they gave up five goals.
After months of waiting, the big day in Ann Arbor, Mich., is almost here. On Wednesday morning the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will face off in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), and it should be an amazing scene in an amazing building.
When it comes to outdoor games, of course the biggest concern is almost always going to be the weather. Sometimes that can affect the game like the rain did in Pittsburgh three years ago and it will certainly impact players, but personally, that's what I love about games like this. I like the fact that it's not going to be perfect. I like the fact that there might be snow, and that you'll see guys with cold breath coming out of their mouths and steam coming off their heads. Those are the images that make the event. It's not perfect. It's not controllable. That's what makes this so exciting compared to a regular-season NHL game.
Every building in the League is exactly the same now. They all hold 20,000 people, they're all bright, they all have the same-sized rink and they all have good ice. When the Leafs and Wings take the ice at Michigan Stadium, it won't be controllable and there will be elements the players aren't used to. That's what makes it so great.
The Chicago Blackhawks were flying high until Saturday night, when they got a rude awakening thanks to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 7-3 loss. If I were a Blackhawks fan, I wouldn't be terribly worried about that loss lingering. Sometimes those things happen in a long season, and the fact Chicago came right back and beat the Los Angeles Kings 24 hours later would seem to indicate things are fine, but games like that loss to Toronto are important because they provide a teaching moment to teams that might not think they need them otherwise.
I say it all the time: The time to coach is when a team loses. When you're rolling like Chicago has been most of the season, the players know everything. Everything's great, they're playing great, the system's great. The players just throw the sticks out there and win. When you lose 7-3, though, that's a good opportunity for coach Joel Quenneville to remind his team to stay focused. In the NHL, no matter who you play, you can never take a night off.
The usual suspects are there in the Central Division -- the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche -- but lately the Dallas Stars have been surging up the standings and playing extremely well. When you take into account how many games the Stars have played, they're right in the thick of the race and I don't see them going away.
I really like this team. I like their speed, and obviously Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have magic together. The Stars have a pretty good mobile defense, their goaltending has been very good and rookie Valeri Nichushkin has been awesome. He's a monster and he's got a huge reach that has made him very effective for someone new to the NHL. The Stars have some great young players like Brenden Dillon on defense, and if one of the teams above them falters, the Stars can catch them.
I don't think I see St. Louis and Chicago having a problem staying above Dallas. Colorado is a young team that will have its ups and downs and the Minnesota Wild have looked really good at times but they've also struggled at times. Dallas is going to have a lot of points even if it doesn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars are going to force teams to play well. You won't back into the playoffs in the West. You're going to have to play well all season long, and teams like Dallas are proof of that.
The annual "Circus Trip," in which the Chicago Blackhawks go on a long road trip so Barnum and Bailey's can occupy the United Center, is a rite of fall for the Hawks. Trips that long are not easy. Just two years ago Chicago had a lengthy road trip that coincided with a nine-game losing streak which led to rumors coach Joel Quenneville's job was on the line.
This season, Chicago's "Circus Trip" pitted it against stiff competition, including the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes, to add to the rigors of seven games and nearly two weeks living out of a suitcase. The Blackhawks may have dropped the first game, but they responded, amazingly, by winning the last six in a row, including a dominant 5-2 win in Phoenix against the stingy Coyotes to put an exclamation point on the trip.
To me, this says that not only are the Blackhawks a team you need to consider on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders -- after all, we already know that -- but this team is now a little tougher than it used to be. The Blackhawks are turning into the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1990s or the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. They expect to win every game and they expect to have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year. They've got that mentality where they think, "Why can't we win every year? Why should we have a down year?"
As if the Western Conference didn't have enough teams playing well lately, the Minnesota Wild over the last two weeks have played their way into the mix. I was very high on Minnesota last season after it added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but it looks like it took them a year to put it together and there are a few reasons why.
Obviously, a big reason is goalie Josh Harding, who has played exceptionally, and he did suffer an injury this past weekend, but the Wild have pretty deep goaltending with Niklas Backstrom behind him. Not many teams in the NHL have better goaltending than Minnesota.
Another big reason is their young players, especially Mikael Granlund. I thought Granlund was going to explode on the scene last season, and it's taken him a while, but he's playing very well this season, which makes the Wild a much deeper offensive team on the whole. Mikko Koivu is also playing better this season. I've been a fan of his for a number of years because he is immensely talented, but he hadn't quite put it together.
Then you look at Ryan Suter. It's hard to say this, but I think Suter is playing better than he did last season. Right now he'd be my pick for the Norris Trophy, and while he's putting up huge minutes every night, I don't think he's going to end up burning out. Suter plays huge minutes, but they aren't physical minutes. He doesn't pound his body like Zdeno Chara or P.K. Subban. He is such a skilled guy that he intercepts passes, he uses stick checking and he's a beautiful skater. He uses his body very well and cuts off angles, but at the same time I can't ever remember seeing him get drilled or drilling somebody else. Because of that, I don't think his body will wear down like someone else's might with those types of minutes.
We've reached the quarter-mark of the season and it has been a crazy 20 games so far. I think the most noteworthy and surprising thing this season, though, has been the total dominance of the Western Conference. You sometimes see a season where one conference is better than the other, but the way the West has just totally dominated inter-conference play is really amazing.
Obviously there are periods where one individual team is head and shoulders above the rest of the League. The Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders both had stretches like that in the 1980s. We always have one team that is dominant for a period of time, but for the whole conference to be this strong is crazy. You could easily say the four best teams in the NHL all play in the West. The truly amazing thing is it's not just five or six teams, either. Teams competing for the eighth spot in the West now are on pace for 110 points. That's an amazingly high number. I know a lot of that comes out of three-point games, but we've had three-point games for over a decade now and we've never seen anything quite like this.
One of the big stories this past weekend came Friday when the Florida Panthers dismissed coach Kevin Dineen and replaced him with Peter Horachek. I think there were a lot of reasons this move came about, with the obvious one being that for the second straight season the Panthers are struggling. New Panthers owner Vincent Viola, I think to some extent, wants to put his stamp on the team by pushing general manager Dale Tallon to make a change, but it's important to show your fans you won't settle for what's happening on the ice, and that's what this move does.
In addition to that, though, it looks to me like the players had quit listening to Dineen. In recent weeks you started seeing veteran players like Kris Versteeg as healthy scratches. When you have to start doing that as a coach, scratching veterans and guys that are supposed to be your leaders, that tends to tell you there's trouble in the dressing room. This was Dineen's third year in Florida and that third year tends to be when the majority of coaches get fired. They run out of ways to say what they believe in and the players can get tired of hearing you. I think that's what happened with Kevin.
Of course, some things were out of Dineen's control. There were a ton of injuries last season and this season, a number of guys they were counting on are having terrible years and a lot of the young guys haven't progressed as quickly as the team would have hoped. Don't forget, the Panthers also lost Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison to free agency over the past few years and you can't really replace those guys.
Right now the Ottawa Senators are sixth in the Atlantic Division, already eight points behind the division leaders. It's still early but this is not where we thought Ottawa would be. I don't know that I would say it's time to "worry," but I do think it might be time to be concerned.
In a lot of ways there are good things that are happening. Sunday, even in a loss, they caught some breaks -- literally in the case of Bobby Ryan's stick-breaking goal that tied the game in the final 10 seconds. In addition Erik Karlsson is starting to play the way we've envisioned and Jason Spezza has scored as well. Obviously there was a scary moment when Craig Anderson was hurt, but even if he misses extended time backup goalie Robin Lehner has been good.
I think they know they've got a good team and they're certainly not happy with the way they've played so far, but I also think when they start to watch the tape from this past weekend, when the Senators had back-to-back shootout losses, they'll see some good teams and manage to pull themselves together.
Without a doubt we had the biggest trade of the season so far Sunday night when the Buffalo Sabres shipped Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for two draft picks and Matt Moulson. Now everyone is going to rush to judgment on who won the trade, but when you're dealing with draft picks like that, a lot of times it doesn't come out until you see the draft picks play.
A few years ago the Boston Bruins traded Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of the draft picks the Bruins got eventually turned into Tyler Seguin. He was unbelievable with Boston at first, particularly when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, but now Seguin is gone and people are saying maybe Toronto won the deal because Kessel is playing so well. With draft picks, it takes some time.
Anyone who follows hockey saw something special Saturday when Mike Smith became the 11th goalie ever to be credited with an NHL goal. Few things are as exciting or as rare in hockey as when a goalie takes a shot at the open net, but I've got to say, I'm not surprised Smith scored a goal. I'm surprised it took him this long.
I coached Smith in Tampa Bay and I saw up close how good he is with the puck. He probably shoots the puck as hard as two-thirds of his team and he just handles it great. Now Smith has dialed his puck handling back of late. When he first came into the NHL he kind of over-handled the puck, but he could handle it so well that it makes him very dangerous when he has his opportunities.
When you play Mike Smith, you talk about that before the game. You talk about his puckhandling ability and how he can pass the puck so you're not lazy on a change. Smith is a guy that can accurately throw the puck from his net up to the far blue line, and if he's facing a lazy team on a bad change he'll create a breakaway on that pass. Some goalies have a great glove hand; he's a great puckhandler with great shooting ability. That's one of his weapons.
Out in the Western Conference this season we see the usual suspects like the Chicago Blackhawks, the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues among the leaders in the standings. But through five games there's one surprise team that's right there with them, and it's the Colorado Avalanche. After struggling the last few seasons this kind of 5-0-0 start is unexpected, but I think they're for real.
If you look at their goaltending, Semyon Varlamov's numbers have been fantastic, but even when he gets a night off Jean-Sebastien Giguere comes in to play one game and is awesome. The Avalanche have a backup goaltender that's won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Not many teams have that in hockey. Then you look at their defense. This was supposed to be their weakest link, but it's been very good so far. Everyone knew Colorado's forwards would score, but the defense and goaltending were expected to be weaknesses and they've actually been their strengths. Add that to their sheer talent up front after all the high draft picks they've had, and throw in what Patrick Roy has brought to the team as coach, and you've got a 5-0-0 record.
The Avalanche can score, but if it's a low-scoring game, they've now got the goaltending to compete and defensively they're committed. When you've drafted as high as the Avs have for as long as they have, you know you've got talent on your team. Next to the Edmonton Oilers, the Avs have had the highest picks in the NHL over the past five years and now that roster has Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog on it, and don't forget Erik Johnson was a No. 1 pick by St. Louis. This team was always going to be talented, but it takes someone to bring that talent out. That's where Roy has come in. Roy has done a great job and you've got to give him the credit for this turnaround. When you look at this team vs. who was on the roster a year ago, the only real difference aside from drafting Nathan MacKinnon is Roy. He's come in and demanded work ethic, he's demanded preparation, he's demanded commitment to winning and he's getting all those things.
The 2013-14 NHL season is underway and after the first week we're already starting to see who is playing great, which teams are real contenders and which teams might be in for a long 82 games. Here are some of my thoughts on the first week of the new season.
Toronto takes charge
After finally snapping their postseason drought last season the Toronto Maple Leafs exited the Stanley Cup Playoffs in about as brutal a way as any team can. There's the threat that a loss like that can carry over to the next season, but so far the Leafs look great. One of the things I like about them is in their second game, a 3-1 win at Philadelphia, I thought they were outplayed by the Flyers, but they ended up getting the victory. It's a good sign when you're able to win a game when you're not at your best. I don't know if that could have happened last season and certainly over the past number of years. If Toronto didn't outplay the opposition it had no chance of winning.
On any night the goaltending, whether it's Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer, has been very, very solid, the Leafs aren't giving up very many offensive chances against and they just look rock solid all around. The right names are showing up on the scoreboard, they've got some grit, they hit, they're tough to play against and they're finding ways to win. Toronto is showing last year's return to the playoffs wasn't a fluke. And don't forget, Toronto is 3-0 without David Clarkson. He's a guy who was brought over to change the team and they haven't lost a game with him out of the lineup.
As we wait for the puck to drop tonight for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks are right on the cusp of their second championship in four seasons. While it's been a great series so far, and these are two great teams, I have a feeling it may be pretty tough for the Boston Bruins to keep this thing going to a Game 7 on Wednesday.
Here are a few of my thoughts as we get ready for Game 6 tonight:
Bergeron's absence changes the game: Bruins coach Claude Julien said Monday he was "confident" Patrice Bergeron would play Monday night, and he had better hope so, because if Bergeron is out of the lineup, I just think it'll be too big a loss to overcome. When you look at what's happening here, the Bruins have lost two games in a row, they're not playing great, Zdeno Chara is struggling, Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr aren't doing much right now. And then you look at the other side of the coin. Chicago is starting to play the best hockey it's played all series, Patrick Kane is on fire, Bryan Bickell is playing well, the Sharp line is playing well, defensively they look rock solid and Corey Crawford has been much maligned, but all the guy does is win and now he's one win away from the Stanley Cup. I just think mentally and physically, the loss of Bergeron would be too much to overcome.
It's as even as we thought: The first two games had different stretches where each team had momentum, but in general they were evenly-matched games. These two teams are very close. Obviously if the game is faster, that favors Chicago and if it's slower that favors Boston. Special teams don't look like they're going to be a big factor given how strong each team is at penalty killing, but in general it just looks like these are two excellent, evenly-matched hockey clubs.
Strength in net: I've been impressed by both goaltenders so far, but in particular I've been impressed by Chicago's Corey Crawford. They've both been awesome, but as I said last week, Crawford is a guy I don't think has been getting enough credit for Chicago's success. He hasn't played a bad game in the playoffs and he may have given up one or two soft goals, but he's been rock solid in net throughout the postseason. His numbers are fantastic, he's been a very good puck-handler who makes good decisions when he has possession. Tuukka Rask has also been great and really showed how important he is in Game 2 Saturday. Without a doubt, Rask is the only reason that game was close going into the second period. Keeping your team in a game when its being outplayed is what a great goaltender is supposed to do, and Rask certainly did it.
Usually the two teams that get to the Stanley Cup Final have had to overcome something. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have both been tested. They've overcome the challenges and they're playing their best hockey right now. You don't get this far unless you're playing great hockey, and I think both these teams are playing the best hockey they've played all year long. They both have six excellent defensemen, they both play four lines and both teams are playing great, as you could see in their respective conference finals. To dominate two teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins the way Chicago and Boston did is just phenomenal.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Final is pitting two teams that are deep, talented, experienced and playing with a ton of momentum. You probably have to go back to the 1980s when the Edmonton Oilers were playing against the Philadelphia Flyers, or maybe when the Flyers faced the New York Islanders a few years earlier, to find two teams that are this experienced in the Stanley Cup Final. It's very unusual to have a Final with two teams that have each won the Stanley Cup so recently.
So, with all that said, who has got the edge?
The answer is probably that neither team has any edge, at least not one that's obvious. I think what you've got is a powerful offensive team like the Blackhawks against a team that loves to try and play matchups and match lines. I think that's exactly what Bruins coach Claude Julien is going to have to do. He's going to want Zdeno Chara out against Jonathan Toews' line and Patrice Bergeron out against Marian Hossa's line, and it'll go from there just like it did against Toronto, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh. And don't forget, this team returns a lot of the players that shut down a big offense in Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.
What a difference a week makes. Last time I wrote, the Chicago Blackhawks were on the brink of elimination against the Detroit Red Wings and now they're just two wins away from ousting the defending champion Los Angeles Kings and returning to the Stanley Cup Final. The conference finals have tons of storylines, but with two games done out West and Game 2 coming Monday night in the East, this is what I've noticed so far.
THE BLACKHAWKS ARE BACK
Chicago didn't look quite the same over the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but after two wins to start the Western Conference Final against Los Angeles, the Blackhawks are starting to look like the team that dominated in the first half of the season. They've won the last two games against the best defensive team in the Western Conference and they did it with a remarkable amount of composure. Chicago outplayed L.A. badly in the first period and still ended up trailing when the Kings scored first. That could have easily escalated in frustration, but the Blackhawks continued doing what they do. They didn't panic. They attacked Jonathan Quick, they looked faster than L.A., they were much more in control and they just kept shooting and going to the net and they got rewarded.
With at least two games played in each of the four second-round series in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the hunt for the conference finals is really in full swing. These are the things I've seen and that I'll keep watching for in each matchup.
RAINING ON OTTAWA'S PARADE
After the Penguins took the first two games of this series in relatively easy fashion at home, Ottawa made things interesting not just by winning Sunday night's double-overtime thriller, but by bringing Jason Spezza back in the lineup. Spezza certainly had an impact and as of Monday he says he feels good, but unless he really makes a huge difference on the ice, I can't see the Senators winning both games at home. They might if Craig Anderson stays hot in net, but Pittsburgh just has so many weapons. Sidney Crosby was so good in Game 2 and Evgeni Malkin hasn't even hit his stride offensively yet. It's really hard for me to look at these two teams against one another and think Ottawa will win both of its games at home.
The Sens are hard to discount. They played very well in the first round against Montreal and very well in Game 3, but I think Game 3 will be the best game they play all series. Ottawa's penalty kill made a big impact in Game 3 Sunday night, but they'll have to maintain that to tie this series up. Pittsburgh's power play was dominant in the first two games of the series and while the Sens handled it well in Game 3, the Penguins are so talented and so deep. I just don't see Ottawa getting back to Pittsburgh at two games apiece.
Another week of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books and it's almost time to start Round 2. With the first round set to wrap up Monday night with Game 7s between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, and the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, here are some things that have stuck out to me from the conference quarterfinals.
ISLE BE SEEING YOU SOON
The New York Islanders might be done after losing in Game 6, but they leave looking far different from how they did six months ago or even three weeks ago. This is a good hockey team. I think it showed at the end of the season when they finished strong, and then the way they played the Pittsburgh Penguins. You could easily argue New York was the better team in this series and the Penguins are lucky to have won. This team has definitely grown by leaps and bounds the last three or four weeks, and if you're an Islanders fan, it's got to be the best you've felt about this team in 20 years.
I think this postseason was a sign of things to come for New York. If you look at the Islanders, they're all young, they've got some good veterans like Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky, and I don't see any reason to think the young guys aren't just going to get better. They've found out there are a lot of great kids in their feeder system, like Brock Nelson, who came up and played very well. Finally, of course, they have John Tavares. This guy is for real and there's no doubt that he'll do next year what he did this year as long as he's healthy. Are they going to fight for first overall next year? I don't think so, but the Islanders are certainly a team that will be fighting for a playoff spot next year.
We're just about a week into the postseason and already we've got several exciting series, a number of interesting storylines and many hints for what's to come. Here are some of the things I've noticed so far from the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
ARE THE ISLANDERS CREATING THE BLUEPRINT?
In Game 3 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, the Isles jumped out to a quick lead and suddenly the Penguins took over. Now, the Islanders came right back before the Pens eventually won in overtime, but there were a few things worth noticing.
First, that quick Pittsburgh rally just shows that team's skill level and how few chances they need to score. The Islanders have had the better chances and more shots, but Pittsburgh gets a chance and it goes in. Douglas Murray gets a chance and he scores. Pascal Dupuis gets a chance and it's in. They're just so talented, and that's the difference. Everybody on that team can score and the Islanders don't have that luxury. Almost nobody does. Only a few teams in the NHL have that kind of luxury and Pittsburgh is by far the best in that area.
All right, folks. After 720 regular season games, it's finally time for what we've all been waiting for -- the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There were some surprises as for who made it to the postseason this year, but the one thing that won't surprise me is how much fun the next two months are going to be. There are some tremendous first-round matchups this spring, and as the playoffs move forward it's sure to only get better.
In the Eastern Conference we've got some great physical matchups like the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs and some exciting rematches like the New York Rangers against the Washington Capitals, and the Western Conference has some doozies as well. I won't waste any of your time here, though. Let's get to what you're all waiting for.
Here are my picks for the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As we reach the final week of the regular season, there are still several teams in each conference battling for that final playoff spot. This week we're going to take a look at each team and who has the toughest or easiest road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Games remaining: at Carolina, at Philadelphia, at Buffalo
My take: The Islanders have been a great story. For a number of years people wondered if they really knew what they were doing out there after hiring Garth Snow as the GM when he had no experience whatsoever and after making deals like that massive contract with Rick DiPietro. It looked like they were really out of control. But suddenly they've drafted pretty well, they've brought in some solid veterans like Evgeni Nabokov, Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit, and they've got John Tavares, who is as good a player as there is in hockey. Quietly this has become a very good hockey team, and yeah, they have to finish the season with five straight road games, but they've already won two of them and they've got Carolina next, whom you would think they would also beat. With the way this team is playing, where they are in the standings and who they've got left, I think it's safe to say the Islanders will end their six-year playoff drought.
It was only a few years ago that we were looking at Alex Ovechkin being one of the biggest stars in the world, and then by the beginning of this season it looked as if he was the highest-paid grinder in the NHL.
Well, after writing the poor guy off at the start of the year, it's no secret that Ovi's back.
Ovechkin had been written off by just about everybody, but now he's leading the League in goals after one of the most impressive offensive stretches we've seen in years, and the Washington Capitals, who struggled throughout the first half of the season, are reaping the benefits. It certainly looks like the Caps are going to win the Southeast Division unless they completely fall apart, and even when they've had obstacles lately -- like Saturday night when they nearly blew a 5-1 lead -- the Capitals have managed to stay afloat.
Washington's 6-5 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday was a wake-up call. The Caps tried to win without playing the third period, and I think it was a good lesson for them, but the biggest news out of that game might have been that Ovechkin scored yet again. At the start of this season Ovi was hitting everything that moves and making a number of hard checks, but he wasn't scoring at all. That's completely changed now. He's scoring highlight-reel goals, his wrist shot is happening again, he's confident and he's still continuing to hit and play aggressively.
Originally I was going to talk this week about who I thought would reel in the big fish at the upcoming trade deadline on Wednesday. You might see some big names move like Edmonton's Ryan Whitney or maybe Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, and there are definitely teams like the Boston Bruins or Chicago Blackhawks that I think will look to get deeper in certain areas before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But something strange happened last week.
All of the big fish got traded already -- and they're all in Pittsburgh.
If you had told me eight days ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be sitting here with Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, I would have said you were nuts, but the Penguins found a way to do it. The good general managers always find a way to do it, and Ray Shero's now done it a couple of times -- not only this season, but in past years with Bill Guerin and Marian Hossa. One of the main reasons Shero can make moves like this is that players know what kind of an organization the Penguins are and they want to be a part of it. Iginla wanted to go to Pittsburgh.
The Penguins were already probably the best team in the NHL before they made any of these trades -- at least if the last month is any indication. Pittsburgh has won 15 games in a row now, and that's not an accident. With these acquisitions, though, it's hard to think there's any other team that could be picked as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this June.
I will be honest and say that with the way the Tampa Bay Lightning had been going for the last two months, I thought coach Guy Boucher's days might be numbered, but I actually didn't think he would get fired until this summer. I thought Tampa Bay wouldn't do it during the regular season because the team is just six points out of a playoff spot right now but general manager Steve Yzerman must have felt Boucher had lost the team, because making a move like this with 18 games left in the season is somewhat unusual.
The reason I think this happened now is that Yzerman is trying to get a bump from his team. The Lightning have lost three games in a row, they gave up four goals in the first period Saturday night in Ottawa and they just haven't been playing well for a while. But they're also just six points out, and that's not a margin that's insurmountable. Sometimes when you fire a coach the players respond and rattle off five or six wins in a row. With the shortened season, we're basically in the middle of the playoffs anyway. Making this move allows Yzerman to appease the fans by doing something, it could potentially give the Lightning that bump they need to make the playoffs and perhaps most importantly, it makes Yzerman a proactive general manager. He's making it clear that losing and the potential of missing the playoffs for a second straight season is not acceptable.
I'm a lucky man because of when my playing career took place. I was in the NHL from 1979 until 1986, which meant I got to see all those new buildings, but I also got to play in some of the classic older buildings right as the architecture of arenas was changing.
The new arenas are gorgeous. They're much more luxurious. But they're all the same. They all hold 20,000 people, they all have private boxes, the ice is exactly the same, the lighting is exactly the same, the concourses are exactly the same. There's no uniqueness -- Philly is L.A. is Chicago is Pittsburgh. They're all beautiful buildings, but they don't have the character and the uniqueness of the old ones.
That's why the old ones are the ones that really have a place in my heart. These are my five favorite legendary arenas of all time.
As the NHL season chugs along, all but one team has reached the halfway point in its season, and the one team that hasn't, the Los Angeles Kings, will get there Monday when they play the Calgary Flames. With the abbreviated 2012-13 season moving so quickly, it's amazing that we're already halfway through the schedule, but it doesn't mean we can't see which players are having tremendous seasons and who has the leg up for this season's major honors.
Here are my picks for some of the NHL's major awards at the midway point:
One of the most important things to me is that I just don't think an MVP can be on a team that doesn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Plenty of players are having great seasons, but players like Steven Stamkos or John Tavares probably are not going to be in the postseason mix at the end. I've got to look at a team that's going to the playoffs and right now Pittsburgh is winning even if they really aren't playing that well, and Sidney Crosby is the reason. Sid is leading the NHL in scoring and assists. On Saturday night he scored a goal against Toronto and then got the winner in the shootout, and with Evgeni Malkin missing chunks of time, Sid is regularly seeing the other team's best players every night and he's still producing. He's very quietly had a great year, and it looks like he's playing hard as if his injury worries are a thing of the past. He's flying around and playing with reckless abandon because he's confident that his injury won't come back every time he gets nailed. He's past that mentally and all the good things in Pittsburgh this season -- the Pens' record, Chris Kunitz's 17 goals, Pascal Dupuis' 11 goals -- those just don't happen without Sid.
One of the unfortunate parts of sports is occasionally money becomes a big issue. This was the case over the last six weeks between the Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly, one of the best young players on Colorado, but also a restricted free agent. Now that Colorado finally has O'Reilly signed after matching Calgary's two-year offer sheet and O'Reilly was back in the lineup Sunday afternoon, it's time for both parties to move on until his new deal is up at the end of the 2013-14 season.
I know what this situation is like because it happened to the Los Angeles Kings when I was coaching them in the early 1990s. We went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 and the next season Marty McSorley, who had been a very valuable part of our club, had to be moved because of his contract. This was before the salary-cap era in the NHL, but the front office believed he was going to make too much money because he got a big raise after we won the conference title and as a result we ended up having to trade him to Pittsburgh. When it became apparent how valuable he was for us, we traded back for him.
This situation was different because it wasn't about matching offer sheets or dealing with free agency, but it is an example of when the economics of the sport have an impact on your team. His new contract just didn't fit in with our salary structure. A lot of the deals in the NHL are made without the coach being involved. A lot of it is about money. A great example of this is the Chicago Blackhawks trading away several valuable pieces like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg right after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. Those situations are out of a coach's hands. It's always a tough situation when money is more involved in a deal than a player's ability.
With just a few minutes left in the third period of their game with the Detroit Red Wings yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Blackhawks were down 1-0 and all I could think was they had played so well in that game they should have been ahead 3-1 or 4-1. I actually didn't think a loss in regulation would have been the worst thing for Chicago. It would have gotten a monkey off their back since they're going to lose in regulation sooner or later. This streak won't last for 48 games and the Blackhawks were going to win a bunch more games this season regardless of what happened yesterday.
But then Patrick Kane tied the game, he eventually won it in the shootout and a day later the streak continues.
What might be most amazing about this is that there's no shame in losing to Detroit, which is a great hockey club, but now that Chicago survived Sunday, its upcoming schedule isn't nearly as daunting. The Blackhawks play a talented, but struggling Minnesota team Tuesday night and their next four after that are a home-and-home with Colorado, a home game against Edmonton and a trip to Columbus. After Wednesday, Chicago won't have a back-to-back for more than a month, just one of the Blackhawks' next five games is against a team currently in the West's top eight and four of those games are against teams that currently occupy the bottom three spots in the Western Conference standings.
Obviously, it would be getting ahead of ourselves to predict that Chicago could run this streak from 22 games to 27 that easily, but the schedule sets up the possibility that if the Blackhawks continue to play as well as they did against Detroit, they could extend this more than just another game or two.
And what evidence is there to convince you that they won't? This team has got everything. The stars are great, the goaltending between Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been great and their depth is unbelievable. The Blackhawks have had 12 guys score game-winning goals this season, which is just phenomenal, and they're starting to look very, very similar to the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2010. The depth that team had on its third and fourth lines and eventually traded away to fit under the cap seems to finally be back, and they're just as deep on defense, too. Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy might be the top pair on a few teams in the NHL, and they would certainly be third and fourth defenseman on most. On Chicago they're the fifth and sixth defensemen because the team is just that deep.
After the comeback Chicago had Sunday afternoon, the aura of invincibility the Blackhawks have around them is just that much stronger. This is a team that expects to win every game and they expect something will happen to get it done for them. That's a great mindset when you're that confident and you can see it in how Chicago plays. Everybody wants the puck. On teams that are struggling no one wants the puck because they don't want to be the guy that makes a mistake. On this team everyone wants to be the guy that makes a difference. That's how you become a good team and the confidence it instills is just filtering down throughout the roster. Take a look at Rozsival. He's doing things he's never done before. He's cycling and dropping the puck and playing with confidence we haven't seen from him in a long time. Playing for a winning team has that kind of impact.
This stretch isn't a fluke. This team is for real and it has everything. The Blackhawks will lose a game in regulation eventually, but they're too strong to let it overwhelm them. I can't see this team just suddenly losing five or six in a row. One loss isn't going to change the mindset of the Chicago Blackhawks.
If you pay attention to the NHL on a regular basis, you're already well aware of the special season that's brewing in Chicago, but I'm not sure we all realize just how special it is.
After Sunday night's 1-0 win against Columbus, the Blackhawks are now 15-0-3, which is the longest any team has ever gone without a regulation loss to start the season. When you do something that's never been done before in a league that's 96 years old, that's pretty impressive.
Not only has it never happened, but they did it basically without any training camp as a result of the lockout. You also need to remember that, yes, the Blackhawks have been pretty healthy for the most part, but they've also beaten Vancouver a couple of times, they've beaten San Jose a couple of times, they've beaten St. Louis. They've really beaten everybody. This isn't just a case of them beating up on the weakest horses in the field every night.
To play 18 games and not really have a bad game except for, possibly, Sunday night, while using two goaltenders and not have a game where you let up or get tired, it's amazing.
The game has changed a lot in the past century, and some of the men on this list are reasons that the game has changed the way that it has. But there's one thing that will never change in the NHL, and that's that you won't be able to consistently compete -- or win a Stanley Cup -- without a great coach.
Now, some of you might be surprised that you won't see Toe Blake or Punch Imlach on this list, and while they and a few others were tremendous coaches in the Original Six era, they didn't have the same impact. None of them changed the game or revolutionized it the way the guys on my list did.
Here are my top five greatest coaches in NHL history:
5. Roger Neilson -- Many people will say Neilson didn't win much, and it's true he never won a Stanley Cup as a head coach -- he only reached the Final once -- but Neilson changed the way coaching was done. He was incredibly influential and innovative in ways the game had never seen. He was the first guy ever to study film, his practices were well thought out and much more organized than practices had been at the time, and the guys that played for him, Darryl Sittler, Dan Maloney, guys I played with in Toronto that had played for Roger loved him. They all talked about how creative he was.
One of the best things about Roger was how he would always look for ways to exploit the rule book, like when he famously had his goaltender leave his stick on the goal line after being pulled for an extra attacker because there was no explicit rule against it. They had to make rules to combat Roger's thinking. He was influential for workouts, nutrition and a number of other things, but really his use of video might be his greatest legacy. If you go into an NHL dressing room you can't imagine the money and time tied up in video, and that all started with Roger Neilson.
So we're just about one quarter of the way into the current NHL season, and while there is plenty of time for some teams to turn their fortunes around, there are plenty that are coming up short in the expectations department. From where I sit, these are the five teams in the NHL that have underachieved the most so far this season.
I think this is the most underachieving team of the year by far. When you look at their lineup, all the moves they've made and the money they've spent, for this team to be among the worst in the NHL is pretty crazy. None of their players are playing well, Mike Ribeiro hasn't been a good substitute for Alexander Semin, and despite their win Saturday night, they just aren't good at anything. Their numbers are bad defensively, they're bad offensively, it's sort of a complete breakdown.
Add into that that the goaltending has been inconsistent and it certainly doesn't help. Braden Holtby was very good Saturday night and Michal Neuvirth has been very good at times, but both have also been very average at times. To the goalies' credit, though, we need to keep in mind that they don't have the New Jersey Devils playing in front of them. Holtby and Neuvirth see a lot of two-on-ones and three-on-twos. That's tough for a young goaltender, and it goes right back to the defensive breakdowns the Capitals have been prone to this season.
This summer and this fall it was crazy in Canada. I was up there working for NHL Network, and I saw and read the press regarding the Vancouver Canucks goalie situation. In the end, by the time the season had started, everyone handled it the right way. Roberto Luongo handled it right, Cory Schneider handled it right, they didn't give the media any fuel, and now, as Luongo gets ready to make his fourth straight start, it looks like the situation has been settled on the ice -- the way it should be. Luongo has been the best goaltender, he plays the games.
Now, I think it's pretty clear at this point that Luongo is the No. 1 goaltender. In the last three games he's started, he's 2-0-1 with three goals against, a shutout and a .963 save percentage. Overall, his save percentage and goals-against average are the second-best in the League. I think he's taken over the job and there's just no way they can trade him now because coach Alain Vigneault just isn't playing the other guy. Right now, when wins are so important, he's going to Luongo.
You have to remember that it's not what they say, it's what they do. They can say he's not the No. 1 goaltender, but if he's playing three games in a row, he's the No. 1 goaltender.
Many people are probably surprised that Luongo might have won back his job and won it back this quickly, but he's a professional athlete, and while he kept his mouth shut and handled this whole situation very professionally, he's very proud like every professional athlete is. He's not going to take losing his job quietly. Of course, he didn't cause any problems. He didn't demand to be traded tomorrow, but he did his talking on the ice. That's all you can do when you're a pro. He's outplayed Schneider, he's earned the No. 1 job, and Vancouver, because they didn't pull off a trade, might be the luckiest team in the League right now.
A week isn't always enough time to tell you which of the preseason favorites has a real shot at winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it can be enough time to tell you which preseason favorite might not. This season several top contenders have exploded out of the gate (Boston, Chicago, San Jose), but others that we thought would be there right to the end have struggled early on.
Which of these teams are over their issues? Which of them still have reasons to be worried? Here is my take on which struggling contenders have righted the ship and which have tough sailing ahead.
This is a team that really looked like it was having some problems after it lost to New Jersey last week to give it three straight regulation losses to open the season, but I think they're on the way back now. Yes, Scott Hartnell is out for an extended period, and so is Andrej Meszaros. And yes, I know they lost to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, 5-1. But this team also just got Danny Briere back and if you look at Saturday night when the Flyers beat the Florida Panthers 7-1, you'll see that the guys they were counting on to score started putting the puck in the net. Guys like Matt Read, Sean Couturier -- the young players the Flyers got so much out of last year. They had to start scoring and we saw that on Saturday.
Now, I don't think this is a team that's going to get in a groove and rip off 10 in a row. Just look at Sunday. But I do think they'll go through a stretch where they win two games and then lose one, or win three and then lose two. I don't think they're a team that will take off because of their injuries, but they are clearly a good team and I think they're certainly a playoff team. Another big reason to be positive is that Briere's return gives Claude Giroux someone to play on a line with that can finish. With the work ethic and talent they have on their team I think the Flyers are through the worst part of their slump.
At long last we are back, and we're back in style, too. This season kicked off with a fantastic weekend of great games and great performances, and I think we can all agree that it feels good to be watching hockey again. In all of the games we saw there was plenty to take note of, plenty of players that impressed and plenty of reasons to feel good -- or feel worried -- about your team.
Here's my take on the major things I noticed during the 2012-13 NHL season's opening weekend.
The game isn't the only thing that's back
The first thing that jumped out at me Saturday night was how the fans have come back in droves. Every interview I did before the lockout ended, everyone was saying, "They won't come back, there will be demonstrations and buildings will be empty. People are going to send a message to the NHL." That was entirely the opposite of what we saw Saturday. We had record crowds, buildings that aren't usually packed were packed and the atmosphere was electric. The people have come back bigger and better than ever, so that was the one thing that really grabbed me opening night: the love affair between these fans and the NHL.
I think it maybe caught everybody by surprise. We knew Toronto would be packed and we knew Boston would be packed, but Tampa was packed, Florida was packed and Philly set a record for its biggest crowd ever. We could see this even before the season openers when we looked at attendance at training camp scrimmages. Minnesota had 13,000 people in the building for theirs. The way the fans have come back and showed their loyalty and their passion for our sport is just amazing.
Don't worry about the Kings … yet
Los Angeles was supposed to come out and celebrate raising its first Stanley Cup banner in style, but that didn't really happen thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, while the score was lopsided, this is one you just have to write off, and that's exactly what Darryl Sutter will do. Coaches hate that banner raising. It's emotional and a bit of a distraction, which makes winning your home opener after winning the Cup that much harder -- and the numbers bear it out. Of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions including the Kings, only three of them (and just one in the last five) has won the night it raised its championship banner.
Sutter will just write that off, but L.A. had better be good in its second game. Sutter won't be writing that one off.
Here come the Hawks
I think that opener in L.A. said more about Chicago than it did L.A. -- the Blackhawks looked great all night. Marian Hossa was not just back and healthy, but he looked unbelievable. He had the puck all night long, and so did Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were all over the ice.
That said, Corey Crawford is the big unknown with Chicago, and he looked OK against the Kings. You know Chicago is going to score and move the puck. If Crawford and Ray Emery -- who looked shaky but got the win against Phoenix on Sunday -- can give the Blackhawks adequate goaltending, that team could be at the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Rangers are staking an early claim for the most disappointing start to the season. In their opener they had very little going five-on-five against Boston, which looked like the better team Saturday by a mile. That was a game in which the 3-1 final score almost flattered the Rangers with how they played. Things didn't get much better in New York's home opener on Sunday when the Rangers got beaten by a very strong Pittsburgh team.
In that opener against Boston there were some things that could be chalked up to it being early in the season, like sloppy line changes, but Henrik Lundqvist was the best player on the ice for the Rangers by far, and that isn't supposed to be the case for the Rangers this year. Lundqvist wasn't going to have to win games 1-0 or 2-1, but if you watched the opener, that's exactly what happened. I thought Rick Nash has looked OK so far, but with all of the offense this team is supposed to have, I'm expecting much more than what they showed this weekend.
Trouble in Vancouver
If anyone has been more disappointing than the Rangers through two games, it's probably the Canucks. Cory Schneider is going to take some heat after a poor first performance, particularly since Roberto Luongo came in and looked a heck of a lot better, and was solid in a start against Edmonton the next night as well. Add into that that Vancouver's offense didn't create a lot of chances or a lot of pressure and there is definite cause for concern. People also forget that David Booth and Ryan Kesler aren't playing for Vancouver right now, either. Those guys are big, physical forwards that Vancouver is counting on for a lot of points.
I think a little of the problem with Vancouver was that with the talk of the goaltending situation, they may not have been mentally prepared. If a goaltending controversy really gets sparked that could hinder the Canucks' preparation significantly. Schneider will get a couple of games before he completely loses the job, but it will be interesting. It's very different being the lead dog than being the backup. Usually when you come in as the backup the game is over, there's no pressure on you and you go out and stand on your head and everyone says, "This is great." When you're the No. 1 goaltender and it's your job to go win games, it's an entirely different mindset and an entirely different way of playing.
Schneider flunked his first test. That was his opportunity to put an exclamation point on the situation. All he did was get people thinking the Canucks can't trade Luongo. One game means nothing at this point, but Schneider missed a great opportunity to make it clear he was the No. 1 goalie in Vancouver.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the big names in Minnesota now, but Dany Heatley was the guy who stole the attention Saturday night with two goals in the Wild's opener. That's a sign that this could be a special season in Minnesota, and the Wild's win Sunday night only adds to it. What happened in the Wild's first two games is exactly what I've been talking about. Parise is going to make those forwards better. He'll make Heatley better, he'll make Devin Setoguchi better and he'll make Mikko Koivu better. People forget that Minnesota was the first team to 20 wins last year and then they ran into an unbelievable amount of injury problems.
They also forget that Koivu is probably the best player in the NHL no one knows about. When I coached Tampa Bay and we played Minnesota he was the most dominant player on the ice. He can do that and he's done that at times when he's healthy. Then you throw in Mikael Granlund to give them a new weapon. Then you look at what Suter is going to do to make that young defensive corps better. Here's a guy that's going to be on the ice basically half the game, and that takes a lot of pressure off the young defensemen they've got there. Also, Backstrom is a heck of a goaltender.
I think Minnesota, with Parise and Suter, when you look at the West, they're as good as any team in the West. When you look at what they've done so far in their first two games I have to say I feel pretty good about my Stanley Cup pick so far.
There are no two ways around it. After finally defeating the Devils in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, the Kings, at long last, are champions -- and for the city of L.A., as someone who knows what it's like to live and coach there, that's just a great thing. It's always great any time you do something for the first time and this franchise has been in the League since 1967, so it's a great reward for the city to finally get one after 45 years.
For fans of those teams, though, seeing the Kings finally win it all after 45 years is proof that no matter the wait, it can happen. If L.A. can win it, Minnesota can do it. St. Louis can do it. All of those teams can do it, and what's more important is the Kings have done it the right way. They've traded well, they've built through the draft and groomed their prospects well. They've made the right moves in the front office, too and it's all paid off -- and it can all pay off for those other teams, too.
When the Kings took a 3-0 lead, this series looked like it was over. When the Devils won Game 4 to make it 3-1, it looked like they had saved some face but the Kings were still due for a date with the Cup. Now that the Devils have won two games in a row (something no one else has done against the Kings this postseason), however, we have a Game 6 Monday night in L.A.
If New Jersey wins that one, suddenly we've got a winner-take-all Game 7 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final Wednesday night. All of this begs one simple question.
Can the Devils actually do this?
The first three games of the Stanley Cup Final this year just seemed like more of the same for L.A.'s postseason. Whenever the Kings have needed a big goal or a big save or a big penalty kill, they always got it. In Games 4 and 5, however, it's started to roll the other way. Now the Devils are starting to get the breaks and one has to wonder if they're starting to feel what the Kings felt at the start of the series.
Well, after 1,230 regular season games and 80 more in the playoffs, here we are. In a matchup not many people could have seen coming, it'll be the New Jersey Devils and the Los Angeles Kings facing off in the Stanley Cup Final, which will start Wednesday night (8 ET, NBC, CBC).
Here is how I see the matchup shaking out:
When I look at these teams up front, there are a few things that stick out to me about the Kings. First of all, they've been on fire. They've played 14 games so they're healthy and rested, they're playing great in general and getting scoring from everybody. Anze Kopitar is scoring, Dustin Brown is scoring, Mike Richards is scoring … even Dwight King had four goals against Phoenix in the Western Conference Final. Every night, someone else puts in a goal for the Kings. With that scoring depth, I have to give them the edge.
I also give the size edge to the Kings. I don't think the defense of the Devils has seen a forward unit like this that can skate and is that big. The Rangers, apart from Mike Rupp, didn't really have any big forwards and especially physical guys. I think that's going to catch the Devils by surprise.
Overall, when I look at the 12 forwards, the Devils' forwards just don't match up to the Kings to me. I think Ilya Kovalchuk, of course, is dangerous offensively and Zach Parise's going to give you offense. But are they going to get two goals out of Ryan Carter this series? Can Stephen Gionta be as effective against L.A. as he was against New York? I don't know. I think this is probably where the Kings have the biggest advantage.
I will say this, however -- with the aggressive forechecking style these two teams have, I'm hoping it creates some great entertainment value. If they both play the way they can it should be fast, there should be a lot of hitting, there should be a lot of mistakes created because of the speed they forecheck with and when you forecheck, you're giving up goal-scoring chances because of turnovers. So, I'm hoping that this will be an exciting brand of hockey. Again, I think I give the edge to L.A. I just think that they're able to forecheck better because of their size. When you've got guys who are 6'3" or 6'4" forechecking they should be more effective than teams with smaller forwards, so I really think that we'll all benefit from the style of play, but I think size will definitely be a factor. That size plays into the Kings' hands. Advantage: Kings
Both teams have solid defenses and New Jersey's has been underrated throughout the playoffs, but to me, Drew Doughty is the only real difference maker in the lot. The Devils have nobody like Doughty, a guy that can run the power play. The Devils use Kovalchuk at the point on the power play because they don't have another D that can run it. Doughty, meanwhile, has been great and he's really been raising his play as the team has gotten deeper into the playoffs. Once you get by Doughty on L.A. you've got Rob Scuderi who's won a Cup, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov who've both played well, Matt Greene, who is a big physical presence and Willie Mitchell is probably playing the best hockey he's played in his life. It's a big defense and it's mobile, but Doughty is the X-Factor.
The Devils have nobody like that. Marek Zidlicky's been great for the Devils, everything they'd hoped he would be, Bryce Salvador has been creating offense but also rock solid defensively, Andy Greene has been a bit of an unsung hero and I think and Pete Harrold has come in and given them good minutes taking over for Adam Larsson, who I think was somewhat caught by surprise by the intensity of the playoffs. You've also got Mark Fayne, who's been playing solidly. You may not know some of the names, but if they aren't making mistakes their names aren't showing up in the newspapers. Sometimes that's what you want from a defenseman.
Still, I think the Devils need more help from their forwards and have to play more as a five-man unit defensively. They've played three solid teams and controlled strong offensive players like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, which is not easy to do. Apart from a few tip-ins, they haven't given up many goals. I do think the Devils' defense is very underrated, but I think because of Doughty the Kings just have a little more oomph. Advantage: Kings
Let's be honest here. Neither team's power play has set the world on fire so far this postseason. I don't see any reason to think the Kings or the Devils are going to suddenly turn it on with the extra man, particularly considering both teams have been great on the penalty kill. The Kings have put the pressure on and scored five shorthanded goals, and the Devils in general, apart from their series against Florida when the Panthers mysteriously just ate them up, have been very good. Frankly, we might get to the point where each team scores more shorthanded goals than power-play goals. In a series like this though, it may not be how many power-play goals you score. It might be when you score them. Still, I don't expect either team to get much of a push or an edge from their special teams. Advantage: Push
Marty Brodeur's been great. He outplayed Henrik Lundqvist the last two games, so if you do that, you're a pretty good goalie. What's more is that he's been here before. Nothing's going to faze him. Nothing's going to happen that hasn't happened to him before. He's been to the Stanley Cup Final touted as the best goalie in the world and he's been to the Stanley Cup Final being a young goalie no one knew about, so he's just going to come to the rink and he's going to play. He might let in a crazy goal somewhere, but then he'll make a great save like that double-pad stacked stop he made on Brad Richards in the slot in Game 6 or he'll make a save with his heel or another save with his toe. Also, he's still an unbelievable puck handler. It will help L.A. that they've already played against Mike Smith, who is similarly good at handling the puck. They know about keeping the puck away from a player like Marty and limiting his ability to set up plays and clear the puck past your forecheckers, and that's really the only edge he has against Jonathan Quick, though it is a big one if the Kings don't play it right.
If I'm the Devils, there is some good news here in that Quick looked human against Phoenix. In the first two rounds, he just ate every puck up. They can take some solace from that, but there's still no reason to think he'll suddenly become a bad goaltender. I think you've really got to concentrate on getting your second shot high if you're the Devils because Quick gets those pads on the ice and plays like a crab. If you're going to beat him, you're going to put the puck up under the bar. Quick is going to be great in this series like he has been all postseason, and I don't think the pressure will bother him because he's beaten the top three seeds and hasn't lost yet on the road.
Really, I think goaltending is a wash. When you make the Stanley Cup Final, you've played three excellent teams, you've battled, you've proven you can play, proven you're mentally tough and I think the way these two guys have played I don't think anyone sees one of them faltering. Advantage: Push
One could look at Darryl Sutter and Peter DeBoer and easily give Sutter the edge on experience. That's the kind of thing that always makes me laugh, because when we went to the Final with L.A. in 1993, every paper had me outcoached in every series because I coached against Dave King and Pat Quinn and then Pat Burns. All three of those guys were going to outcoach me. But once you've come up the coaching ranks and you've coached for a Memorial Cup or a Calder Cup, the reason you're in the NHL is because you're a good coach. You don't get to the NHL by failing, you get there by succeeding. These coaches have both already been tested. DeBoer has won a Memorial Cup and coached a Game 7 in the NHL, Sutter's been to the Stanley Cup FInal before, so nothing's going to happen that these coaches aren't prepared for and neither one is going to outsmart the other one. It's going to come down to the guys on the ice. Execution of the play, who's going to want it more, who will pay a bigger price -- that's what will decide it, but both of these teams are going to be well-coached and well-prepared. Advantage: Push
If you look at L.A. and New Jersey, they both have a few guys with rings, so they've both got Cup experience. I don't really see an edge for either team there. If you look at intangibles I'd probably say the karma, if there is such a thing, around Marty is an intangible because a lot of people probably want to see him win as a sentimental favorite so he can ride off into the sunset on his great career. Really, though, it will come down to execution and doing the little things right, like blocking shots and getting the puck out around the wall. It's the same things hockey always comes down to. Advantage: Push
People know that I'm a Kings guy. I've still got friends in the organization, I love the way they play and I've watched them play 14 times now and they're just really good all around. I don't see a weakness in their team right now. The forwards are a little better than New Jersey. I think their size will create some matchup trouble for the Devils and I'm not sure that Kovalchuk and his teammates can score consistently against Quick, and I just see L.A. with the edge in the end. Pick: Kings in 6
Now that Los Angeles has knocked off the Coyotes and won the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for the first time since 1993, the Kings will sit and wait to find out who their opponent is. Waiting isn't something these Kings aren't accustomed to, either. They've won their series in five, four and five games each, meaning a lot of sitting around waiting to find out who is next, but winning three postseason series in a grand total of 14 games is simply remarkable -- and something that doesn't happen often. After all, the Rangers played 14 games in the first two rounds alone. You don't advance to the Stanley Cup Final playing just two games over the minimum without being a pretty great team on an impressive hot streak, and that all leads us to one very important question:
Can anyone stop these guys?
Well, I don't really think so, but there are a few things to take into account. First, the Kings look very powerful right now. Their style of play looks better, and their players look better, but I temper it with the fact that the West is always more wide open. The West, since the 1970s and 80s, has always been a more wide open conference. It goes back to the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames and all of those other great teams of the 1980s. So when I look at the two conferences, I always take the style of play into consideration. The east is much closer to the vest, it's much more defensive-minded and it has been forever, so the teams don't look as good or as flashy or as talented. Saying that, I do think the L.A. Kings have the best team right now. When you put the L.A. Kings' lineup in there with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll -- and you almost have to put Dwight King in there now, too -- it does look like a more talented team when matched up with the Devils and the Rangers.
I remember one morning I walked into the office in 1993 and I saw Kings owner Bruce McNall and he looked completely dejected and I said to him, "Bruce, what the heck's wrong? We're going to the Stanley Cup Final!"
"I just got requests for 500 tickets for Hollywood," he said. "And I've only got 300 available."
That was Bruce's biggest problem. He had to find 200 extra tickets for the Stanley Cup Final for Hollywood stars. It was an unbelievable time to be part of the Los Angeles Kings. Every night, there were stars all over the place. President Reagan and his wife Nancy were at all of our games and they were in the dressing room after the game meeting the players. After a game, I would walk into the dressing room and Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn would be in my office with Goldie's daughter Kate Hudson, who was just 14 then. The dressing room would always be full of Hollywood stars wanting to meet the players, outside limos would be lined up along the Forum to pick up guys at the Forum Club after the game, and the Forum Club was just a who's who of Hollywood stars. James Woods, was a big hockey fan and he was at all the games. Mary Hart from Entertainment Tonight was a huge hockey fan and she was always there both in the regular season and the playoffs. During the Final that year the Forum was the place to be, the place to go and the place to be seen at.
The Devils and Rangers will play Game 4 tonight at Prudential Center in Newark, and if New Jersey plays its game it may very well get back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 Wednesday night with a 2-2 series split. One thing might literally stand in the Devils' way, though, and it's the thing that's stood in their way throughout the series' first three games.
There are no words for how good Lundqvist has been in this series, and there's no better example than Game 3 Saturday. New York ended up winning it 3-0, just as it did in Game 1, and if you just looked at the box score you might think the Rangers put together another strong, sound defensive performance, but if you watched the game, you saw it wasn't a good defensive effort. There were tons of breakdowns all over the ice and lucky for the Rangers, Lundqvist was always there to make the stop.
Simply put, the Rangers were greatly outplayed in the first two periods -- New Jersey outshot New York 26-14 through 40 minutes -- and they ended up winning a game they had no business winning because of Lundqvist. If Lundqvist plays two more games like he did in Game 3, this series is over. You can't do anything about it. If he does that for two more games you tip your hat and say, "You were great." You just can't beat a guy who stands on his head for a full series the way Lundqvist has stood on his so far.
That doesn't mean there's no hope for New Jersey, though. I do think the Devils will come out in Game 4 and Henrik will be good, but it will be hard for him to be as good as he was in Game 3. It would be hard for anyone to play like that two games in a row. I think we'll have a 2-2 series coming down to a best-of-three in Games 5, 6 and 7.
We have to remember that the Devils have shown in the first three games that they have the speed and the forecheck to tire out and overwhelm the Rangers. I think we saw in the Ottawa series that if you can skate, you can get chances against the Rangers. The Senators could skate and they attacked the Rangers with speed through the neutral zone and it became pretty obvious that speed bothers the Rangers. I think Washington would have had a better chance to win if it played faster and got the Rangers in foot races in the second round.
The Devils are seeing what Ottawa did against the Rangers and doing the same things now. There were several breakaways in Game 3 and defensive teams aren't supposed to give those up. The speed is bothering New York. The Rangers were lucky in that Lundqvist was there to make up for all the mistakes his teammates made, but it was clear the Devils were pushing the puck and getting the better of the play. They have to do the same thing Monday night, and if the Devils get as many chances in Game 4 as they did in Game 3, you have to think they'll have a good chance of winning.
The other thing you have to notice is that I think the Rangers are starting to show their exhaustion. Remember, New York has now played 17 games in just 38 days. That's a playoff game almost every other day. I think in Game 2 and Game 3 the Rangers all looked tired. No one looks fast except for Chris Kreider, who's younger and hasn't played a full NHL season because he was at Boston College most of the season. Even Carl Hagelin, who is known for his speed, doesn't look fast. I remember how fast Hagelin looked against Ottawa and Washington, and it's not there now.
The whole team is just looking tired. You don't notice it in guys like Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, guys that play a ton of minutes on defense, because they don't play fast. Their game's not speed. But in guys like Hagelin or Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, guys that play the fast game, you can see it. They have to be tired because they play a very physical style with shot blocking and grinding on the boards. That's very tough on the body. I think they caught a break with the extra day between Game 2 and Game 3, and the fact that there's only one day off before Game 4 means it will be very interesting.
Another important thing to remember for Game 4 is that the Rangers won't have Brandon Prust because of his one-game suspension after elbowing Anton Volchenkov in Game 3. Prust isn't one of the bigger names in the Rangers lineup, but I think they'll miss him big time. He kills penalties and plays a very physical style. That's a big hitter that New Jersey won't have to worry about. He also is very underrated at getting the puck out around the boards consistently. Next time the puck might come out to a guy who'll kick it into the slot. I think Prust is going to be a big loss. I never underestimate guys like him. He may not be a glamorous name, but if you know hockey, you know what guys like Prust bring to the team.
The loss of Prust and the Rangers' general exhaustion is just going to put more pressure on Lundqvist to perform again like he did in Game 3, but this is how the Rangers play. They bend, but they don't seem to break. Whenever they get into a series like this they seem to win it. Whenever they get to a game where it's on the line, the Rangers make the play like they did in the overtime games against Washington and Ottawa.
I still think this is going to be a six or seven-game series, but you never really know. The only thing I know is Henrik Lundqvist has been the star of this series, and maybe the entire postseason so far. If he plays two more games like he played Saturday, the Rangers will be in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
When I look at this matchup between New Jersey and New York in the Eastern Conference Finals, there's one thing that clearly sticks out to me: One of these teams was supposed to be going into the third round and one was not.
Anyone who has watched hockey this season knows which one is which, and I for one am unbelievably impressed that the Devils have gotten this far, especially considering how they played against Florida. After going seven games in the first round, I didn't think they had a hope of beating the Flyers, but the Devils didn't just beat them -- they dominated them. I'm very impressed by New Jersey and if you told me they could beat Philly without Marty Brodeur being unbelievable, I'd have laughed at you. Marty didn't have to be unbelievable. The Devils are just peaking at the right time and getting better and better. Against Philadelphia the Devils were great everywhere on the ice -- their six-man defensive unit was great, and their stars played great. Ilya Kovalchuk is playing some of the best hockey he's ever played, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias are great just like you'd expect them to be, but Petr Sykora's playing well, Travis Zajac is fired up and David Clarkson looks good.
The Devils are just awesome right now. The style of play is great -- it's an aggressive style, but you give up nothing. Right now they might be the most aggressive forechecking team of the four teams left, and they're definitely more aggressive than the Rangers. This team is fun to watch, playing great and generally a total departure from what the New Jersey Devils used to be.
That said, however, if the Rangers play in this series like they did Saturday in Game 7 against Washington, I don't think the Devils can beat them. That game I just sat back and watched and it was darn near perfection. The forwards were awesome, there was no space for Washington, the Capitals had no time to make plays and the Rangers won all the physical battles. The defense joined the rush and was great in its own end, the first pass most of the night was right on, and when there was a breakdown -- which was very rare -- Henrik Lundqvist made the saves. It was their best game of the playoffs and by far the most impressed I've been with them all playoffs. If they can string together a number of these games, it will cause a lot of problems for the Devils. They were great Saturday. I just sat, watched and thought, "This is how hockey should be played."
Most importantly, you knew it was good because Rangers coach John Tortorella actually was sort of happy at his press conference at the end of the game.
I like the Rangers to keep playing like this and win the series in six games, but there definitely are some things you need to watch out for if you're New York and New Jersey. Perhaps most importantly, the Rangers scored very early in Game 7 against Washington and that allowed them to sit back and play defense the rest of the game. Any team that's great defensively wants to score first. How many times have we seen New Jersey win the Stanley Cup with that same premise over the years? Dallas was that same way when they won in 1999. If they scored first, the game basically was over. That's definitely got to be part of New Jersey's game plan. The Devils have to score first to put the pressure on New York because if you don't score first against the Rangers, they can really clamp down on you. We've seen it over and over again and it's certainly something they did in Game 7. That's something the Devils have to be talking about. Any time you play a defense-first team, you've got to score first. It changes the dynamic big time, and while I don't know if it will be a weakness for the Rangers in that they have to score first, defensive hockey is what they're going to live and die by. And if you noticed, the team that scored first won every game in the Rangers-Capitals series.
The other big thing to note is that the Rangers play a tough, physical style, and they've also gone seven games in each of the first two rounds and won't have much rest before the start of this series. That's something New Jersey needs to take advantage of. There have to be guys that are hurting in that Rangers dressing room, especially after how physical that Capitals series was. If the Devils can come out and jump on the Rangers, I think they can take advantage of that. They've got to play a physical series and keep pounding these guys because they've played so many games in such a short period of time. That's got to be part of the game plan and I'm sure the Devils are talking about that -- making the Rangers play a high tempo game and forcing them to play wide open.
When I was coaching in L.A., I would talk to Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri and Marty McSorley and I'd ask them about their Edmonton days and what made them special and why they were able to win all those years. One of the things they always said was important was that in the early rounds they won quick. They thought it really helped them in later series to have that extra energy. It was always important to win in five games or four games in the early rounds while the teams they wound up playing later on already had gone seven or six. You have to wonder if after 14 games there will be a point at which the Rangers run out of gas. The longer this series goes the more it favors the Devils, who have had a big rest, gotten their guys healthy and are ready to go.
No team ever has won two Game 7s in the first two rounds and won the Cup, which is strange since to win two Game 7s you have to be a good team. It makes you think there has to be a reason, and the physical toll just might be it.
It will be a long, hard-fought series, but I still think it will come down to goaltending and defense. In this case I think the Rangers have the better goaltender because Henrik Lundqvist is in his prime and Brodeur isn't. It's just a fact -- and it may be the first time I've ever said that in a Rangers-Devils series. That will be a factor if the games are tight, but as I watched Saturday, I couldn't ignore New York's defense. It makes me wonder how guys like Adam Henrique or Sykora will get to the net. Clarkson and Parise will because that's their game, but you have to wonder about the other guys. Also, after watching how well the Rangers handled Backstrom and Ovechkin, why won't Kovalchuk have trouble finding space?
Because of all those factors, I think the Rangers will win this in six games.
The Devils' timely scoring and amazing forecheck are two of the biggest reasons they're leading this series, but we also can't forget how Martin Brodeur has played, and the fact that he won Game 4 on his 40th birthday is just incredible.
I think Marty is one of the remarkable stories in the NHL. Goaltenders notoriously develop later and here's Marty coming in and being a star when he's young, staying in the same city all these years, which doesn't happen anymore, and being as good as he has for so many years. His longevity is just as remarkable considering how physical and big the NHL has become and how they crash the nets now. It's amazing he's been hurt so few times.
We also can't forget how amazing he's been playing the puck. The NHL changed the rules of the game because of Brodeur. I always say that that's a sign of greatness, when they change the rules because of you. The trapezoid is behind every net because of Marty Brodeur.
I think we're talking about one of the five or six greatest talents that has ever played in the NHL, and with the Devils getting this far in the playoffs, it's definitely time to talk about them as a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. If they managed to win the Cup this year, it would be pretty remarkable both because they were unexpected and because of what kind of a sendoff that could be for Brodeur. A lot has been made of how he has been getting older and how this could be his last season. It's very difficult to watch the greats get older and to see them hang on for as long as they do sometimes.
I will say this from my perspective. I don't want to watch Marty Brodeur be a good goaltender. I want to watch him be a great goaltender. I don't want to watch Marty being OK. I don't want to see great players hang on to be OK. It's OK for guys like me to hang on and play as long as they can, but I don't want to see great players hanging on just to be average. I don't think that's right. No one wants to see the greats of our game look like Willie Mays falling down in the outfield. I would have loved to play until I was 40, too, but I just think players like Marty are too special to see them play beyond when they're great anymore. I hope they know when to hang them up.
If the Devils wind up winning the Stanley Cup this June, seeing Marty skate with the Cup one last time and then head off into retirement would be an appropriate ending. I won't say this from his shoes because he has to make his own decisions, but if that happens, I hope he decides to call it a career. I want my last picture of Marty Brodeur to be him carrying the Stanley Cup around. I think that is the ultimate, ultimate way to go out. It's like John Wayne in "The Shootist." I want to remember Marty at his greatest.
I would love to see him carry the Stanley Cup around his last time on the ice.
When New Jersey and Philadelphia began their playoff series I'm sure most people had their predictions for how it would go -- mine was Flyers in six or seven -- but I'm not sure many people thought we would see it this way. The Devils have a chance to close out Philly in Game 5 at Wells Fargo Center tonight and the fact that New Jersey is in this position, and the way the Devils have gotten there, really isn't a surprise.
It's a complete shock.
Coming off their first-round win against Pittsburgh the Flyers looked like world beaters and Claude Giroux looked like he might be the best player on the planet right now. The Devils, meanwhile, escape the weakest division winner in the East on a double-overtime goal in Game 7 and had to play two games facing elimination to advance.
Now it looks as if the roles are completely reversed. Giroux won't even be in the lineup Tuesday because of his one-game suspension for a high hit on Dainius Zubrus, but he's been struggling in this series anyway. Giroux has just three points in four games of this series after having 14 points in six games against the Penguins.
Philadelphia's power play was so good against Pittsburgh that it's still the best-ranked unit in the playoffs, but against New Jersey the power play has looked terrible. Just look at Game 3, when the Flyers had not one, but two power plays in overtime, and mustered all of one shot on net.
This is even crazier considering New Jersey, though it had one of the greatest penalty-killing units in NHL history, was abysmal against Florida's power play in the first round. This time around New Jersey's defense has looked great. And what's wildest about this is that Bryzgalov has been great this series. The only way this should conceivably be 3-1 for the Devils right now is if Bryzgalov has been terrible and Marty Brodeur has been good, but it's been the other way around. Marty has still been good, but Bryzgalov has been great and his teammates and his defense have been terrible.
I'm very surprised that the Flyers look so slow compared to the Devils whereas the Flyers looked so fast compared to Pittsburgh, and if you know hockey, you know Pittsburgh is one of the fastest teams in the NHL. The Flyers were dominant in the first round, getting on the puck first and finishing checks first, but now they're being totally outworked and outcompeted by the New Jersey Devils and their tremendous forecheck.
The Flyers still have a chance to come back and win this series, but with this deficit, I don't think I see it happening. You don't come back from down 3-1. It happens once in a while, and the Flyers know that as well as anyone after their historic comeback against Boston in 2010, but generally you don't come back from 3-1 -- and I have a hard time seeing it in this series.
The Kings beating the Canucks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was a big surprise -- but it wasn't a surprise to me. I pegged L.A. to win against the Presidents' Trophy winners and sure enough, here are the Kings in Round 2 instead of Vancouver.
But I did not think the Kings would beat the Blues.
St. Louis has looked like one of the strongest teams in the League all season to me ever since Ken Hitchcock took over, and I expected the Blues to be able to move on to the Western Conference Finals and maybe win the West, but after dropping Game 1 to the Kings on Saturday -- and not in a fluky way -- it's starting to look like the Blues could be in trouble, and they'll be in serious trouble if they wind up losing Game 2 Monday night.
I was surprised Saturday at how well L.A. handled St. Louis physically. St. Louis is a team that prides itself on being able to beat you up physically and battling physically, but I didn't see that in Game 1 against L.A. I saw at best a draw on the physical side of the game, and at worst for St. Louis, I thought maybe the Kings were the more physical team. That wasn't supposed to happen, so I think that's certainly something that has shocked St. Louis and that will have to change if they're going to turn the series around in Game 2 and once it goes to California.
I went into this series thinking, "Yeah, L.A. beat Vancouver, but I don't think Vancouver was nearly as good as St. Louis." I left the game thinking the Kings could beat the Blues -- probably for the first time this year.
Saturday night, everything clicked for L.A. Anze Kopitar was excellent, Dustin Brown started the play that led to the shorthanded goal with a strong move and Jonathan Quick, as always, was unbelievable. What's more is I really liked the L.A. defense. It's a very unknown group aside from Drew Doughty, but it's very good -- and very big. Matt Greene is 6-foot-3, Alec Martinez is 6-1, Doughty is 6-0 and Willie Mitchell is 6-3. That's a big defense, and they can handle that St. Louis forecheck. I was very impressed with the Kings in Game 1, even more so than I was in the series against Vancouver. Against the Canucks, I thought Quick won that series with his play, but Saturday night the Kings were every bit as good as the Blues.
If the Blues want to even the series Monday night and find a way to advance to the conference finals, they need to find a way to get to Quick. Vancouver was only able to do that once, so it's a tall order. When the Blues see the tape, they'll see they need that second shot on Quick to go upstairs. Quick is a butterfly goaltender.
Andy McDonald's chances in the first period of Game 1 were a prime example. McDonald had three chances and he hit the pads with all three shots. That second shot has to go under the bar, because Quick has those legs down on the ice taking away the bottom of the rink. You're not going to score against him down on the ice. The next one's got to go upstairs, so I think that's one thing the Blues can take out of it.
Also, they'll need to score some ugly goals. You're not going to score beautiful goals on Quick, so you've got to get in front of him, screen him and top it in, just like the Blues' first goal in Game 1. Quick never saw that shot. It hit Perron's stick, went up a little bit, and he just never saw it. That's how you've got to score on a great goaltender like Quick.
Every few years a goalie goes on a remarkable run and takes a team to the conference finals or beyond. It happened in 2010 with Jaroslav Halak in Montreal and it happened in 2003 with Jean-Sebastien Giguere in Anaheim. There's a chance we could be seeing that right now in the West with Quick and Mike Smith in Phoenix. This is a pair of teams riding hot goaltenders, which could easily lead them to the Cup Final.
The difference with L.A., however, and perhaps the reason St. Louis should be most concerned, is that it's not just Quick on that team. The Kings have to score goals for Quick and they've got a good cast of characters. I love their defense, I think Kopitar and Dustin Brown have been great, and you add in Jeff Carter and Justin Williams and that's a heck of a hockey team. The Kings have a great top two lines and they've got some great bangers and crashers on the third and fourth line.
In Game 1, the Kings looked like they really came into their own, and they have a deep lineup that can cause a lot of problems for the Blues when St. Louis isn't able to play its physical game. The Blues may be in for a bigger challenge than they expected in Round 2. And if St. Louis can't salvage a split at home tonight, it could be panic time for the top remaining seed in the West.
We're getting close to the end of the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there is still plenty to be decided, and there are still plenty of storylines coming out of what has been an entertaining tournament so far. For my money, however, one of the biggest stories is the way Nashville knocked out the mighty Detroit Red Wings in just five games, and it raises a pretty real question:
Are the Predators the team to beat?
When the playoffs began two weeks ago, I think if you weren't one of the people that thought this team had a chance to win, then you didn't know much about hockey. This is a heck of a hockey team, plain and simple, and its win over Detroit shows it. The interesting thing about this matchup was that it was something of a changing of the guard in the West. The Predators will tell you that their model for this team is Detroit. They want to build their team like Detroit, build their organization like Detroit -- they even throw fish on the ice like Detroit fans throw octopi. They want a tradition just like the Red Wings have.
If you look at how they're built, the Predators have great goaltending and maybe the best goaltender playing in the playoffs right now. Brian Elliot has been good for St. Louis, but he hasn't faced the shots that Pekka Rinne has, and Jonathan Quick has been good for Los Angeles, but other than those two, I can't think of a goalie who has played as well as Rinne.
Then you look at Nashville's defense, which has two studs on the top pair with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it's also got this kid Kevin Klein, who had two goals in the series and played great defense. And this is all without Hal Gill, who hasn't been in the lineup. If you look at their forwards, they have four lines that can all play, their special teams are very good and they have a very good defensive system to go along with a great goaltender. This team is for real.
I think the last piece to the puzzle was getting Alexander Radulov, because they didn't have that one pure goal scorer. They had a lot of guys who can score like Mike Fisher or Martin Erat, but the one pure goal scorer that only needs one chance -- Radulov is that goal scorer now, and we saw that in that last game against Detroit.
I picked Nashville to beat Detroit, so I thought they were ready to come out of their shell and go to the prom, but I didn't think it would be five games -- and I didn't think the Predators would beat the Red Wings in Game 5 giving up just 22 shots. When you can do that to a team like Detroit, with the talent level and history Detroit has, it sends messages to the rest of the League.
Beating Detroit in five games was impressive, but how they did it, with tight checking, great defense, controlling Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the most part, making Detroit's defense look average at times -- it all adds up to a pretty dominant win. Any series that ends in five games is a dominant win, but things like only giving up 22 shots in the last game, that's a message sender. That makes teams look at the tape and think, "Wow, how are we going to get through the neutral zone and get our chances?"
They're just solid from top to bottom.
Of course, we're only through one round right now. If Nashville is going to win the Cup they've got three more rounds to get through, but I like the way the draw shapes up for them. With St. Louis locked into facing Los Angeles in the second round, the Preds are going to face whoever wins between the Coyotes or the Blackhawks.
If you watch the way Phoenix and Chicago play, both have some question marks. Phoenix is up in the series, but they're giving up a bunch of shots and they were basically outshot 2-to-1 for a while in Game 5 Saturday night. It's not a case of Phoenix dominating Chicago. Mike Smith has been unbelievable and Corey Crawford can't stop the puck in overtime. That's the only reason this series has gone this far. Phoenix is a team that stresses defense and goaltending, very much like Nashville. Chicago will give the Predators a lot of offensive weapons to deal with, but if Marian Hossa's still out, that's a big weapon gone.
The Preds have two different matchups waiting for them, each with its own share of problems, but I think with the Predators' system, goaltending and depth, they match up well against both of them.
If Nashville gets through the second round it might very well face its division rival St. Louis. To me these are the two best teams playing in the West right now, and that would be a very difficult series for each -- and a very difficult one in which to see goals. Both of them look good, but Nashville's first-round win against Detroit has shown me something. When the playoffs began, I had Chicago coming out of the West, but with the way the field is shaping up and the way the Predators are playing, seeing them facing off in the Stanley Cup Final wouldn't surprise me one bit.
It's only been five days since the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs began and already we've seen an unbelievable amount of great hockey. All of the series have had their own drama -- seven of the first 15 games went into overtime -- and Sunday we saw an action-packed quadruple-header in which two games were decided by one goal, a third nearly featured a three-goal comeback, and a fourth featured enough drama to keep us talking for days.
And on top of it all, the Los Angeles Kings might be on the brink of one of the biggest upsets we've seen in years. Here is what has been on my mind so far during the first round of the playoffs.
The Intensity -- This is the craziest, meanest, toughest, most intense first round I can remember in a long, long time. The hitting, the fighting -- we used to go through whole postseasons and not see two guys drop the gloves, and it just shows how amped up the intensity level is. Even more amazing is that the parity level has caused these series to be mostly completely even, and the ones that aren't, aren't the ones you expected. Right know we've got an eighth seed in the West in Los Angeles that's a game away from sweeping the Presidents' Trophy winners, and in the East we've got an eighth seed in Ottawa that managed a split at the home of the best team in the conference all season. I'm just marveling at how hard the guys are playing, how tough the games are, how physical the games are and how tight each game has been. The product on the ice is just superb.
I've been very impressed with the physical play of San Jose. Two games in a row the Sharks have gone toe to toe with St. Louis and St. Louis is a very tough team physically. Nashville and Detroit have played an intense series just like we thought with two teams that are basically even. I can't believe that one won't go seven games. Los Angeles and Vancouver has been a dirty, nasty series, Ottawa against New York has been a nasty series, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have played a nasty series and Boston and Washington have been toughing it out, too. After watching Game 1, I didn't know if Alex Ovechkin would be able to play four games with the way he's been hit by the Bruins. The intensity level all around has really amazed me.
Home Sweet Huh? -- Need an indication of how hard the teams are playing? Only two teams managed to sweep the first two games of their series, and each one did it on the road. Every other series has closed out the first two games with a split, and it just goes to show how level our playing field is and how little home ice means because of it. Anybody in the NHL can win in anybody else's building. Home ice, when the buildings used to be different, meant a lot. When Boston was a small rink or Buffalo was a small rink or Chicago was a small rink -- when the ice surfaces were different, home ice meant something. Now that all the rinks are the same and they all look the same and they all seat roughly the same amount of people, home ice isn't a big thing and our athletes don't really care where they play. They're going to play as hard on the road as they do at home. Hockey's always been that way. So now home ice is not a big advantage and what we're seeing is the difference between No. 1 and No. 16 in the NHL is not that great. If the NHL ever winds up changing the playoff format to a 16-team seeded tournament, it's not inconceivable that a No. 16 could beat a No. 1. Look no further than Vancouver and Los Angeles for proof.
Holtby humming along -- I think the greatest story so far has been Washington goalie Braden Holtby. We're talking about a No. 7-seed that's 1-1 against the second-seeded defending Stanley Cup champions with their third goaltender starting and he's given up just one goal in regulation through two games. This kid has been unbelievable. If you look at Game 1, he was basically on his own. Washington was totally outplayed by the Bruins in that game. In Game 2, Washington played better, but Holtby still had to be great and he was. He's been the best story so far, and with the possible exception of L.A.'s Jonathan Quick, he's been the best goalie in the entire field.
The Blues' two-headed monster -- There might be some concern in St. Louis with Jaroslav Halak being out for Game 3, but we've all seen what Brian Elliott did splitting the job with him in the regular season and I think he'll be just fine in the playoffs. He came in Saturday and looked great, and his numbers are just as good as Halak's this season. He may not have Halak's history, but you don't win a Cup with history. Elliott has been every bit as good and I expect him to continue to be Monday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN). Typically having two No. 1 goaltenders doesn't work. As the saying goes, when you have two No. 1 goalies you really have none, but I think this could be an exception to the rule. This season, St. Louis might be a new case of Johnny Bower getting hurt and Terry Sawchuk coming in.
Which Blackhawks team is it? -- We all know what Chicago has done, tying each of the first two games of its series with Phoenix in the final 20 seconds of regulation. Those are some impressive late-game heroics, but the problem for me is I don't know if I love their character because they've played so hard and so smart in the last minute, or if I hate their character because they didn't for the first 59 minutes. In most of the third periods there hasn't been a lot of urgency from Chicago. What is also odd is compared to the other series being played, this one has been a walk in the park. With the exception of Andrew Shaw's collision with Mike Smith, there's been no hitting, no stuff after the whistles, no fighting. The hardest hit has been on a goalie. It's almost like these two teams don't even hate each other. It's been a strange series and I haven't liked how the Blackhawks have played for most of it, but they're 1-1 going back to Chicago, and at this point, I don't really think the Coyotes can play any better than they have.
Is it the New Jersey of old? Or just old New Jersey? -- I think New Jersey and Florida are pretty evenly matched, but I thought the Devils were going to score 10 goals in the first period of Game 1 with how they were playing. They looked unbelievable and Florida looked like it didn't deserve to be there. The Panthers had some early jitters and you can't have that in the playoffs. Patrik Elias' first-period goal went in so easy, and he toasted everyone so badly, that everyone on the Florida bench must have looked at each other and said, "Wow, this isn't what I signed up for." Most guys would have fired that puck right away, and it might have gone under the bar, but Elias had the patience to wait, wait, wait some more and then throw it in when Jose Theodore blinked. Martin Brodeur also looked like his old self, assisting on one goal by throwing the puck up to the blue line for a breakaway. It was deja vu for Devils fans, like everyone went back in time 10 years. After that, though, the Panthers made the first game close and came out strong in Game 2 Sunday to even the series. I'd like to get a copy of Kevin Dineen's speech after the first period of Game 1, because it must have been a beauty. It will be interesting to see which teams show up Tuesday in New Jersey (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN).
The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series has been crazy -- But you all knew that already didn't you? If you had told me Pittsburgh would score as many goals in this series as they have or that Ilya Bryzgalov would have given up as many as he had and Philadelphia would be up 3-0, I'd have said you were crazy. This series is totally bonkers and it's a mystery as to what's happened to the Penguins. They can't check, they can't hold a lead, their power play looks lost, Evgeni Malkin has been nonexistent -- it's just nuts. This whole series is crazy. Even with the series at 3-0, this has still been the most entertaining series, and the best series, but it has been totally bonkers.
As it turns out, this is not the matchup we thought we would be getting during the final weeks of the season. For a long time it looked like New York would be facing Washington or Buffalo, but surprisingly it will be Ottawa. The Senators can score and they've got a pretty good power play and some solid young players, but I just think the Rangers are too gritty, too strong and too good defensively. It could be a tougher series than people expect, but I have to think New York will be able to shut down Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson with the smothering defense it has.
In many cases the equalizing factor in these series is goaltending, but Henrik Lundqvist is so good that Craig Anderson will have a challenge matching up. Anderson would have to play like Jaroslav Halak did with Montreal in 2010, and in the end, I think that's the only way Ottawa pulls it out.
Washington, if you look at their history in the playoffs, they haven't had much success, so it's not like they're a confident team in the postseason, but they are dangerous this time around. They have nothing to lose and they'll be loose, which is different from coming in as favorites, which they haven't handled well.
All that said, I expect Boston to just have too much experience and grit. I think Zdeno Chara and company will be able to shut down Ovechkin and Backstrom, particularly because Chara proved last year when he went against the opposition's top guys every night that he can negate lines like Washington's. As well, Backstrom may not be 100% healthy, and the Bruins will make his life miserable. Plus, the Capitals will probably have to go with Braden Holtby in net. He's played very well at times, but he's also looked very young at times, and it's pretty tough to expect a kid to walk in there and beat the mighty Boston Bruins.
I know how the teams are seeded, but this, to me, isn't a real 3-versus-6 matchup. I think the Panthers are good -- they found a way to win their last game and get that third spot -- but I like the Devils. Jersey is a deep team, and don't forget that the Devils are much better offensively. They have three 30-goal scorers this season, which is a pretty impressive arsenal. They're very good defensively like always, and Martin Brodeur has played well. He isn't the Marty Brodeur of 10 years ago, but he's played well in a rebound year, and I just think the Devils are very solid all around, and I like the way they're playing.
Also, don't forget, the Devils had eight more points than Florida in a tougher division. That's a pretty good indicator. Florida, too, I think will be one of those teams that is just happy to finally be back in the playoffs after so many years. Making the playoffs was their goal and they did it. They may be one of those teams that's just happy to be there, and I don't think the stay will be long.
This is the one we've been waiting for. I think this is just going to be a great series, and it may be the best one of the entire 2012 postseason. These two teams both hate each other, they're both from Pennsylvania, they both have a bunch of star power and they've both been to the Stanley Cup Final recently.
I think this is a very evenly-matched series. The Flyers don't look quite as good as the Penguins on paper, but the Flyers know how to play Pittsburgh. They know how to get under their skin, they know how to goad them into penalties and they'll goad them into getting too emotional and losing their game plan. A lot of the reasons the Flyers win are intangibles that you don't see on paper. That said, the Penguins have so much scoring and a very deep defense. I see a very hard-fought, emotional, dirty, mean series, but I see Pittsburgh as the team that survives.
We have a major upset every year in the playoffs so you can't pick chalk all day long. I have a feeling this might be it. Vancouver is a great team again after winning another Presidents' Trophy, but I can see them walking into this series thinking it's going to win and underestimating the Kings. Remember, we don't know what's happening with Daniel Sedin, and that's a huge problem for the Canucks. I actually think L.A.'s goaltending is better than Vancouver's and don't forget, Chicago almost beat Vancouver in the first round last year.
I think L.A. is a much better team now than they were a month ago, I think they're playing better offensively than they have all season and I think Jonathan Quick is good enough to stand on his head and steal a series if he has to. I also think the Kings will remember how the Bruins beat the Canucks a year ago and they'll get in Vancouver's face and play physically, which we've seen them do before. Every year we see a big upset, and something tells me the ingredients are there to make this the one.
Before this season started we might have seen this matchup going the other way, but not now. I really think St. Louis is playing so well that at the moment they just don't have a weakness. The defense is big, young and mobile. Their goaltending tandem is great, and they're just playing great hockey. The Blues never stumbled down the stretch and I just think they've been a great team ever since Ken Hitchcock took over. He brought in accountability and a defensive mindset that really fits the players on the roster, and he also got to take over a team with talent. This is a team that has gotten to draft high picks for several years.
Ken was the right man in the right place at the right time for this team. I do think San Jose will play them well. With the experience and talent the Sharks have they can't be counted out lightly, but I just think St. Louis is too deep and they're playing too well right now.
I think Phoenix has had a great season. Mike Smith is probably the comeback play of the year, the team is playing great hockey right now going into the playoffs, they finished the season strong and they're just a good team all around. But all that said, I just like Chicago. I like the way the Blackhawks play, I like their speed, and everyone seems to think they'll finally have Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland back so they'll have the full team healthy for the first time in a long time.
The Blackhawks are just a team that knows how to win. They won a Cup a few years ago with this core group, they've added some guys to give them that grit factor and I also like the addition of Johnny Oduya on the blue line. Phoenix has really impressed, no matter what happens, coach Dave Tippett always has the Coyotes competing. But I just like the Blackhawks.
I think this is going to be awesome. This is going to be a very tough series for both of these teams, but a few things stand out. I'm not a big believer in home ice in the playoffs, but Detroit is definitely a different team this season on the road than at home. Nashville is good everywhere. I think the Predators' defense matches up well with the Red Wings' forwards, they're big and tough, I think Alexander Radulov has changed their offense and I think Pekka Rinne is as good a goaltender as there is in hockey.
Nashville's size will definitely be a factor. If you look at that defense with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Hal Gill, that's a big defense and then add in that they've got Paul Gaustad now and some other big forwards that will grind you. Also, the Predators have played Detroit a lot so they know how to play the Wings. I think Jimmy Howard will be good, but I don't think he'll be as good as Rinne. This will be a great series, but it could also be Nashville's years. They're a team to be reckoned with and if a few things go their way, they could be the team to come out of the West.
When we look back at this season, it may be remembered as the season of coaching changes.
More than a quarter of the League has replaced its coach during the course of the 2011-12 campaign, which is a remarkable total. The latest replacement came last week in Toronto when Ron Wilson was replaced by Randy Carlyle. In all likelihood, this will be the last time a coach is fired before the regular season is over, but with eight coaching changes this year, it's important to note that the previous changes all played a part in leading up to this one.
And they haven't all worked out for the better.
St. Louis Blues -- This was the first one and, obviously, this was a home run. When Ken Hitchcock came in and replaced Davis Payne he completely changed the culture of the team and brought in accountability. Obviously, when a coach walks in that's won a Stanley Cup the players can't say the coach doesn't know what he's doing. Given the results, it's clear he was the perfect man at the right time. St. Louis may be the best team in the NHL since the change, their home record is fantastic, and their goaltending, which was at one point a weakness, might now be the best in the League.
Most importantly for every other coach, however, is that this one probably accelerated the process for other changes around the League. When an owner or GM looks at St. Louis and says, "Well, look what this change did. That's clearly what we have to do," it has a wide-ranging impact.
Carolina Hurricanes -- When Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice at the end of November, it was another successful change. Paul Maurice is a good coach, but I think this was just a case of the message being lost. Maurice had been there for too long, the guys had heard from him for too long and some fresh air was needed. Since Kirk's come in the team has turned it around and played a style that's much more fun to watch and much quicker. Eric Staal also looks like he's responded and as Staal goes, so go the Canes. This was a change that has definitely paid off and it could get things going for this team next season.
Washington Capitals -- The Capitals are a total mystery, and Bruce Boudreau's getting replaced by Dale Hunter seems to have confirmed it. Washington was a team that started the season on fire with seven straight wins, Boudreau had everything going his way, and then the Caps lost to Detroit and the wheels just fell off the wagon. Personally, I think it's just a case of the players deciding they didn't want to play for Boudreau anymore, and GM George McPhee knew some change had to be made -- and the choice was basically change the coach or change the team. They weren't going to trade Ovechkin, they weren't going to trade Semin, they weren't going to trade Backstrom and any other move would have just been cosmetic. It's always easier to fire one guy than 25 guys and I think Boudreau was a victim of that. But as you can see, despite a few brief flashes, things haven't gotten much better with Hunter in the job now. I think this is a team with issues in the dressing room and issues with character and the solution might just be to blow the team up, because it looks like it doesn't matter who's coaching. They're probably the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season.
Anaheim Ducks -- Of course, it's hard to talk about the Caps without mentioning the Ducks, who brought in Boudreau just days later to replace Carlyle when they were in their own slump. Now, I have my three-year rule. After three years a coach can't find a new way to get their message across and the players get tired of hearing the same thing. The nucleus for the Ducks is very talented, but it's also been together for a long time by NHL standards. Sometimes things get stale and it looks like it was just a case of Carlyle getting shut out. Boudreau has been a breath of fresh air and the players have responded. This is clearly another coaching change the has worked out for the best. I think they've run out of time as far as the playoffs are concerned; but at the start of next year, you have to assume they'll be in the playoff mix with Boudreau at the helm.
Los Angeles Kings-- This is another group that might be in the same boat as Washington. They aren't as dramatic a disappointment, but when Terry Murray was fired the team was struggling to score and were fighting in that No. 7 to No. 10 cluster of teams in the West. When they won, they basically won with goaltending from Jonthan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Now, under Darryl Sutter, they're basically the same team. They're not scoring more, they're not assured of a playoff spot and, even with the addition of Jeff Carter, they're not putting up the numbers they expected even if they've won a few games with him. GM Dean Lombardi clearly didn't want to make this move when he did, and the apparent results might indicate why.
Columbus Blue Jackets -- What can you really say about this one? Columbus came into this season with massive expectations and it's just been a complete disaster. The trades have been terrible, there was the Nash boondoggle at the NHL Trade Deadline, and things haven't changed much since Todd Richards replaced Scott Arniel. It's a mess. Whether Richards loses the interim tag or they hire someone new this offseason, the Jackets will have a number of things they need to do -- most notably figure out the Nash situation. Either way, however, the season was lost long before the coaching change happened. This could be a real make-or-break time for the Columbus franchise. The fans in that city have been great since the team started playing, but they need something to repay them for coming year after year. The man who eventually is coach in 2012-13 has to give those fans a positive light for the future.
Montreal Canadiens -- This is another team that's just in a tailspin that a coaching change couldn't fix. I will be very surprised if both Pierre Gauthier and Randy Cunneyworth are still with the team next season as the team is going to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It's just been a tough season all around. When Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin I think he walked into a real no-win situation. The team was bad, he didn't speak French, it was just an uphill fight from the start. I love the way he battled and how he handled everything, but it was a can't-win situation for him. I expect there will be more changes this summer in Montreal.
Toronto Maple Leafs -- So after looking through all the coaching changes that happened this season before Toronto's, it was clear that some proved to be great moves and others have proven not to be or were just window dressing on bigger problems. The change in Toronto is particularly surprising, though, because Ron Wilson was given a contract extension midseason. I think GM Brian Burke did his friend Ron a favor by giving him that extra year -- remember, these two have a history together, most recently with Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics. I think Brian thought things would turn out OK when he did that, but it hasn't been the case.
The Leafs had lost six games in a row before Wilson was fired and and the two of them had had enough time to turn that team around, particularly since they're in a market where they can spend to the salary cap.
At this point, Toronto is clearly not where it expected to be with the moves its made and that hot start probably fooled the Leafs into thinking they were better than they are. All of that created a lot of pressure to make a change. I don't think Burke wanted to fire Wilson, but he had to to appease the fans. When your fans get riled up and the team shows no sign of turning it around, you have to make a move like that, particularly with a guy like Randy Carlyle available. Burke obviously has a history with Carlyle, too, since they won a Cup together in Anaheim in 2007. He knows what kind of a coach Carlyle is and he couldn't risk letting him get to another team. This is a guy who is a big name in Toronto, who knows what to expect from the media after playing there and who's won a Stanley Cup. Burke couldn't risk him getting hired away and knew he had to make a move now to get him.
This is probably step Toronto had to make to advance. Randy is a very good coach, and so is Wilson, but they're different kinds of coaches and Burke, knowing he had to make a move, probably knew he couldn't wait much longer because someone else might have hired his man first. Now, I tend to think that most times coaching changes are made in season, it's a panic move where the GM is trying to take the heat off himself. Sometimes teams improve afterward, but often the replacement doesn't do much better and it lets the players get off the hook for underperforming. If you look at the situations in Buffalo and Nashville, those players know that their coach isn't going anywhere, and as a result, they're going to be held accountable.
That wasn't what happened in Toronto, but the change probably brought the players a needed bit of fresh air anyway. The Leafs won their first game with Carlyle at the helm and with two games in hand on eighth-place Winnipeg, their playoff hopes are far from finished.
At this point though, the Maple Leafs could still wind up looking as much like Washington as they could St. Louis. Only time will tell if Carlyle is the right man for the job.
The trade deadline is always one of the most dramatic days of the season, with teams scrambling to make the right moves that will get them a Stanley Cup. This season's was no different, but there were some clear winners and clear things to take away from it in my mind.
Here are my thoughts on the biggest stories of deadline day.
Why did St. Louis stand pat?
A lot of people thought the Blues might have been left behind after each of their division rivals made moves to solidify their rosters before the playoffs, but I just think St. Louis likes its team a lot. The Blues don't really have any extra guys to trade, and they're mostly young aside from Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both of whom have been playing great (though Langenbrunner is hurt right now). Sometimes it's better not to tinker. Sometimes you know you've got a good thing going in your locker room and the window for the Blues is big because so much of the team is young and in its prime. They didn't want to give up draft picks or young players in older to bring an older player back, so I just think it was a case of Doug Armstrong liking his team and not wanting to shake it up.
I'm not surprised Nash stayed put in Columbus. I'm glad that it came out that he asked for the trade and I think Scott Howson and the Blue Jackets handled it perfectly. They asked for a big price -- if they got it they got a home run and if they didn't they don't trade him. People need to remember that Nash has several years left on his contract. They don't have to trade him. He tried to back them into a corner to make them deal him, but he also said he only wants to go to four or five teams. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Columbus held firm, and that was the right thing to do. Come this summer if the Jackets can get the group of guys they want for him then make the move, but if not then keep him. If you play it right at that point, maybe you can convince him to be a part of the rebuilding process. If you don't get what you want during the summer then he'll be a Columbus Blue Jacket next season if he wants to get paid.
Some might say Columbus was asking for too much and that's why it didn't get done -- at least with the Rangers that appeared to be the case -- but it didn't have to get done. Nash isn't a free agent and Columbus holds all the cards. And they have to hit a home run. They can't look like the losers in this to their fans. They can't look inept. They have to make it look like they did a great job and got maximum value for their top asset. They can wait until someone blinks and I think they're handling it the right way. Demand the Moon and if you get the Moon great. If not, Rick Nash is going to be a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Looking forward, who's the best?
Right now I rate the top contenders for the Stanley Cup in 2012 as Vancouver, the New York Rangers, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston. Of course, if Sidney Crosby comes back that changes things dramatically, because it adds the greatest player in the game to the team that has the greatest player playing right now in Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh would be right there with New York if he comes back. I don't think Dan Bylsma can count on that, I think he has to count on not having him, but they've done a masterful job of handling that all year long, which is why they're still in the thick of the hunt.
If I had to pick a team to win it all at this point though, I'd probably take New York because of its goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. I'm a big believer in goaltending and Roberto Luongo struggled last year in the playoffs for the Canucks. I know Vancouver has Schneider backing him up, but once you get to the late rounds of the playoffs, I think whomever Vancouver plays will have better goaltending.
It's possible we might have a rematch of the last time New York won the Cup in 1994, but despite the fact that Vancouver made several moves to improve and the Rangers didn't make many, I still think Lundqvist gives the Rangers the edge -- and it also makes them the team to beat from here on out.
The trade deadline is always one of the most dramatic days of the season, with teams scrambling to make the right moves that will get them a Stanley Cup. This season's was no different, but there were some clear winners and clear things to take away from it in my mind.
Here are my thoughts on the biggest stories of deadline day.
Nashville Predators -- I like what Nashville did for several reasons. First of all, it was great to see the Predators be buyers at the deadline. For so many years Nashville always had to sell players. They've always had to get rid of free agents because they knew they couldn't sign them. We've seen so many great players leave Nashville so it was nice to see them change their philosophy and take a run at winning. I think everyone that follows hockey is a Nashville fan. They know what Nashville's been through financially, and I think everybody deep down would love to see Nashville have a deep playoff run.
As for what the Predators did in the days leading up to the deadline, I love the Hal Gill deal, because Hal Gill plays his best hockey in the playoffs. Come playoff time he always plays against the other team's top forwards and he shuts down everyone he plays. As for Monday, I liked the move to get Paul Gaustad. I know the price is high -- a first-round pick -- but Gaustad is something they don't have. They don't have a big, physical forward -- a guy that can win draws, a guy that can check the other team's top player, a guy that can kill penalties, and a guy that has a physical edge to him. I thought that was a need that Nashville had and I thought they went out and filled that need.
I like the move to bring in Andrei Kostitsyn as well. I know he's an underachiever. You look at him and his points never add up to what his talent level is, but hopefully he'll get caught up in what Nashville's doing and get fired up about playing with his brother again. That is something, a little added spice, that other teams couldn't offer Kostitsyn. Hopefully the chance to play with his brother again will invigorate him and get him fired up for the stretch run. Nashville is a very defensive team -- they win by bottling you up -- and doesn't have a lot of offense, which is why Kostitsyn is such a good addition. He's a pure scorer, someone who doesn't need 10 or 12 chances to put the puck in the net.
The Predators have risen up a level with these moves and they're with the big boys in West now. Their goaltender gives them a chance to win every night -- an argument could be made for Pekka Rinne to be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy, not just the Vezina -- and now all of their players in their prime. They've also got to have a deep playoff run to take a run at keeping Ryan Suter and Shea Weber over the next two offseasons. That makes this a paramount time in the history of the Predators franchise. These moves have set them in the right direction at this important moment for that team, and I think they were the clear winner at the deadline this year.
San Jose Sharks -- I thought San Jose had to do something. They were in a free fall after going 2-6-1 on their recent road trip -- and coach Todd McLellan is out with a concussion, which doesn't help. Things seem bleak for them and they're dropping like a rock, so it was important that they did something to send a message to the team. They added two forwards who will be third- and fourth-line guys, but they're going to give them depth. Daniel Winnik is a big body who gives them a kind of physical presence they don't have enough of, and T.J. Galiardi is a guy I loved as a rookie. He can fly and he'll fit in well with San Jose's style and maybe he can recapture how he played in his rookie year. I thought it was a good move, they needed to do it, they sent a message to the team that they weren't going to stand pat and that they were going to try to jumpstart the team.
You could say they didn't add an impact player, but sometimes just the message you're sending is more important than what you actually do. I think this was a good message from the San Jose Sharks and don't forget they've still got Martin Havlat coming back, too. He's a top-six forward who will make their power play better, and while I think he's a bit of an underachiever, he's still one of the biggest pure talents the NHL has when he's healthy.
Vancouver Canucks -- I like what Vancouver did. A lot of fans might be upset that they traded Cody Hodgson to Buffalo, but I have no problem with that. He was only playing 12 minutes a game or so, and he wasn't seeing time on the power play behind Kesler and Sedin so where would he go. The Canucks felt they weren't tough enough last year against Boston, but going to get a guy like John Scott from Chicago wouldn't have been the move they needed. They needed a Milan Lucic-type player, someone with skill and toughness. I'm not saying Zack Kassian already is that kind of player, but you can see him becoming that type of player. He's skilled enough, he's a good skater, he's mean, he's big at 230 pounds, he's physical. Having him on the bench and the ice will make them a tougher team mentally -- and certainly give them more toughness physically. You could say that they overpaid for him, but unless you've been pushed around and you know your team's not tough enough you don't value toughness. You don't value toughness until you don't have it. I think Vancouver realized that was what they didn't have last year against Boston.
The Canucks' pickup of Sammy Pahlsson is also interesting because he had such a good playoff for Anaheim back in 2007. He scored some big goals, he was big on draws, and you can never have enough guys that score and can win draws come playoff time. Getting him was a good deal because of his playoff experience, and if you can get him to play well for three months, that's all you're looking for. Vancouver now has two solid centermen in Manny Malhotra and Pahlsson who can play on the third or fourth line. It also gives you the ability to put two centermen on one line if you need to have a second option on the ice for a key draw. Getting Pahlsson was a good, cheap pickup for Vancouver.
Boston Bruins -- In the East, Philadelphia made deals to add Pavel Kubina and Niklas Grossman a week before the deadline, but on the deadline day itself, the East was much quieter than the West. The West was much more aggressive. Boston cheaply added Brian Rolston, and people might wonder why, but the Bruins know Rolston. Claude Julien probably figures he can come in and play on the third or second line and play a little on the power play. I like Greg Zanon, too. He's a Boston-type defenseman -- very physical and he blocks a lot of shots. Mike Mottau is a veteran who doesn't beat himself. That's what Boston wants on its defense -- guys who don't beat themselves. They need to know what they're getting every shift and Mottau and Zanon are those types of defensemen. Boston got better.
With roughly 30 games left in the season for each team, playoff races are about to heat up pretty quickly -- and for several teams their place in the postseason is far from safe. Some teams will have to worry more about dropping out than others, and to me the difference between the standings now and the standings in April will be pretty slight -- but there will be a difference.
In the East, I think the only team that's going to drop out of playoff position is Ottawa. I think the Senators will get knocked out and the Washington Capitals will take their spot. Ottawa looks like it's in a free fall right now and it's come back to Earth. Other teams are starting to catch them and I think with Alex Ovechkin back in the lineup -- and when Nicklas Backstrom gets healthy -- the Capitals are only going to get better. Ottawa had its moment in the sun with that great stretch before the All-Star Game, but I don't think they've got the horses to finish the race.
Another team that may have to watch out for Washington is Florida, which is barely ahead of the Caps in the Southeast Division. Florida lost a tough game Saturday against Tampa Bay, which hurts them and they're going to be a team fighting right to the end. If you look at Washington and Florida you'd have to say Washington is the better lineup, but Florida, even when things have gotten tough this season, has managed to get back in first place. I think the Southeast is something we're definitely going to be watching and it'll be a heck of a race right to the end. Right now the difference is just one point, so I wouldn't be surprised if they flip flop by the end of the year.
That said, I do think Florida will make it even if they don't win the division. They're a better team than Ottawa. Their special teams are a little bit better and I think Ottawa has hit its top watermark. I really see the Sens struggling until the end of the year. Also, you see teams like Winnipeg that are six points out and you think it's nothing with so much time left in the season, but in the era of the three-point game it's not easy to climb past teams. For example, Tampa Bay is playing great right now and they've barely picked up ground on the eighth spot.
The other difference for Florida will be that the Panthers used to have a lot of guys who have lost their entire career. Now you've got guys that have won -- guys like Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. They will take the lead and they will teach the other guys to expect to make plays -- not to expect to fail, but to expect to succeed. Those guys will make a difference in the dressing room and they'll have the puck on their sticks at key times.
The West is very similar to the East, in my opinion. The only difference I see is I don't think Minnesota makes the playoffs. I think they're struggling right now and have a lot of issues. They just don't score enough, they have a lot of injury problems and I just don't think they'll be able to hold on. The team I would pick to get in is Dallas. Dallas has games in hand on the nearest competitors and while it's going to be a battle, I suspect they'll be the only team to make the jump.
I think LA's fine -- I like the way they're playing now. Obviously, Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago are better than anyone else in the West, so I think those teams are all safe barring something drastic. That leaves Minnesota as the weak link and I just think if you look at Dallas defensively, the goaltending and the fact that Jamie Benn is back and has made a big difference already, I just think it adds up to the Stars taking Minnesota's spot.
I do think there will be some movement up top in the West, however. I think the team that will wind up with the best record in the conference is Vancouver, because they don't have to play as many good teams as anyone in the Central. The Central teams will beat each other up and the Northwest is not nearly as strong, so it will be hard for a team in the Central to win first. Vancouver will get a tough matchup maybe once out of every three games, whereas in the Central the only break you get is Columbus. I do think Detroit will hold onto the division title. They're the best team and they walked into Vancouver and looked pretty good last week. The other teams in the division are solid, but I don't think anyone is playing as well as Detroit right now. Still, the Central is a gauntlet. I suspect that will give Vancouver the opening to slip into the top spot come playoff time.
Every year the All-Star Game gives us tons of great moments and the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place was no different. A number of memories stick out in my mind, but these are the things that I'll take with me after All-Star Weekend in Ottawa.
The Alfie Lovefest: This was the best part of the weekend to me. The building was really unbelievable for Daniel Alfredsson. The standing ovation he received after he scored his first goal with 17,000 people on their feet was amazing, all weekend long he was treated so well when he stepped on the ice, and you could just see that the city is in love with him and it honors him. I know it was an All-Star Game, and it was an NHL event, but it really turned into the Daniel Alfredsson show, and he deserves it. He's been there a long time, he's been a great professional and he's been a great ambassador of our League around the world, so I don't think it bothered anyone that it turned into his show.
Tim Thomas gets No. 4: We sat down with Timmy and he let us know that he's won the last three All-Star games and he was going to play the third period in this one so he could win four. No one had ever done that before, so late in the game Timmy was only concerned with winning, even as Alfredsson's teammates tried to set him up for a hat trick in the third period. Two was enough for Alfredsson as far as Timmy was concerned. He was going to win that game and he was going to be the goalie of record four straight years.
Chara's warm welcome:Zdeno Chara learned to be a pro in Ottawa. He became a professional, he became a good player and he generally learned his craft in Ottawa and the people responded to him very well. I guarantee everybody in Ottawa wishes they still had Chara on that team, and I think he was a little apprehensive about coming back in such a high-profile role, but he was really excited about the good ovation and the good hand he got when he was announced. He may have left Ottawa, but that's part of the business, and he never badmouthed Ottawa or said it was a terrible place. Everything that came out of his mouth was about how much he loved playing there and how much he enjoyed his time in Ottawa. It was a case of handling the situation properly and at the end of the day there were no hard feelings for either side, and this weekend showed it.
The Hardest Shot: This was really the best part of the skills competition. It's my favorite event to begin with, but when you see a record being set, that's always special, and we saw three shots break the old record in one night. It's really become the marquee event of the night with Chara and Shea Weber, and everyone's waiting to see if the record's going to get broken every year. Obviously the next step is if it's going to break 110 next year, but that was a great moment when Chara hit 108.8. It was a good, fun moment, and I think everyone will remember seeing the hardest slap shot ever taken. In addition, we were all surprised Alfie was in the hardest shot contest, too. I think most people thought high 90s would be a good showing for him since he's not known as a guy with a big shot. For him to go over 100 multiple times was pretty impressive.
The beauty of Ottawa: Ottawa was great last weekend. It's a beautiful city and all of the scenic visuals along the Rideau Canal with the winter snow falling was very picturesque. The parliament buildings were all lit up, all the events were packed, the parties were all busy. You really have to give Ottawa an A+ for the job the city did.
Players showing their personality: The players were a lot of fun all weekend. Marian Gaborik, in particular, for the first time really opened up and you could see his personality a little bit. He and (Henrik) Lundqvist battling back and forth on the ice and Gaborik eventually getting the hat trick was also great. Scott Hartnell's #HartnellDown campaign, when he would donate $1,000 every time he fell or scored a goal was great. Joffrey Lupul was great. There were a lot of guys having fun, and we've got to do more of that. When people see our athletes and meet our athletes and get to know our athletes, they fall in love with our athletes.
Skills on display: I also loved the skills relay on Saturday night with one-timers and pinpoint passing. That was the one drill that was what hockey players do. That's how you practice. You practice going through pylons. You practice carrying pucks through other pucks. You practice saucer passes. I thought it was a really great teaching tool for how hockey players learn their skills.
Overall, Ottawa was a great host this year and I think it gave Columbus a lot of ideas for 2013. That was one of the best parts of the weekend, too, to finally get some positive news for Columbus, which has had a tough year. Maybe this could be the start of a new period for the Jackets when they host the All-Star Game next January.
They'll just have to keep in mind that this season Ottawa gave them quite a bit to live up to.
Of all the events of All-Star Weekend, one of the best is happening tonight when Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara take their turns picking teams for this weekend at the 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft. Anything can happen and I know it'll be great to watch when the show comes on tonight at 8 ET (NBC Sports Network, TSN), but before we see what Alfie and Big Z do, I've got my own take on what will happen.
Here is what I would do with my first five picks if I were Alfredsson or Chara tonight.
I'm going to assume that Alfredsson wins the coin toss because he's the local boy with the game being at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. Now, I'm a big picture guy and I would want to do what's best for the NHL. If I'm Alfredsson and I'm the NHL, I want to work it so Alfredsson gets all the Senators on one team. I want the Sens fans to get to root for their guys together, so if I'm Alfredsson, I'm taking Erik Karlsson. I want that defenseman that can skate.
If I'm Chara, I could do what Eric Staal did last year and take my goalie with the first pick since Tim Thomas is out there; me, I don't care about goalies. They mean nothing in an All-Star Game. They all play only one period and they're just trying to get through it without being embarrassed. To me they're a second thought. A team has to pick its three goalies by the 10th round, so for me, I'm picking my starting five first. Let the other team waste high picks on goalies. I'm going after skaters. If I'm Chara, I'm taking Steven Stamkos, because few can score and skate like him.
If I'm Alfredsson, in the second round I've got to stick with my guys and I'm taking my teammate Jason Spezza. Now I've got two forwards and a defenseman as well as a goalie in my assistant captain Henrik Lundqvist. I'm on my way.
If I'm Chara, to go with Stamkos and my assistant captain Joffrey Lupul up front, I'm taking Phil Kessel. I want another flying forward and don't forget, Phil is still motivated about the All-Star Game after being embarrassed by being the last pick last year. I think he'll be fired up, and it's in Ottawa, which I think matters to a Toronto player.
My next pick as Alfredsson is Milan Michalek. Now I've got three forwards, a great skating defenseman and all of my Ottawa players on one team. Everyone in the stands can cheer for one team this way.
Now if I'm Chara and I can put another forward up top, I'm going with Henrik Sedin, a guy I can't imagine dropping any further than this. He's simply too good a playmaker to stay unpicked for long.
If I were Alfredsson, the next guy I would take is Dustin Byfuglien because I love a guy who plays with his size and does what he does, but with Big Buff injured I'll have to get a different physical defenseman. To fill that role I'm going to go with a big tough guy who can hit, and I'm taking Dion Phaneuf. Now I've got Alfredsson, Spezza and Michalek up front and Karlsson and Phaneuf at the back -- an all-Ontario team for a game in Ottawa.
If I'm Chara, I come back with Brian Campbell, so now I've got that skating defenseman alongside Chara. Chara's an offensive threat when he wants to be, but he doesn't lead the rush all the time. I want to give him that offensive defenseman that can do that, and that's Brian Campbell.
Fortunately, if I'm Alfredsson I've already got my buddy in the back with fellow Swede Lundqvist in net, a player who just happens to have been the best goalie in the League this year. With that, it's time to get the second line going, and I'm going to anchor it with one of the best centers you can find, and take Claude Giroux, a boy who grew up in Ontario, with my last pick.
As for Chara, with my last choice I'm going to fill out my team at the back and take my goalie, Tim Thomas.
That's the way the teams should work out. An event like this is all about the fans, it's about making everybody happy and I think this is what would make the most people happy. Tonight we'll get the chance to see how it all works out.
With All-Star Weekend coming up in Ottawa there are so many great events we'll get to watch. One of the best is the annual NHL All-Star Skills Competition, which will happen Saturday night at Scotiabank Place. Because the captains haven't drafted their teams yet, it's hard to predict who will win each event, but for the more individual competitions, I know who I like.
Here are the people I expect to shine Saturday night:
Hardest shot: There are a lot of people who can slap the puck pretty hard, but to me there are just two guys that matter in this competition: Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. It came down to those two last year and it was Chara that took it all, breaking his own record for the win at 105.9 miles per hour. This time around though, I like Weber to win the rematch, and I'll take him in the hardest shot competition.
Fastest skater: There are plenty of guys to watch out for here, but I know who I like and it's the local boy, Erik Karlsson from the Senators. This kid can fly, and kid might be the key word there. With these events, a lot of older guys don't want to do it, so I'm leaning toward the younger guys. If Marian Gaborik was in it, I would think he'd be one of the guys that would be right there, as would someone like Marian Hossa or Brian Campbell. But I think the younger guys are the ones who will get the spotlight -- after all, last year's final round was between Michael Grabner and Taylor Hall. I could see someone like Tyler Seguin getting in the mix, too, but I think it's Karlsson in this one.
Shooting Accuracy: I really like this event. I think it's more of a hockey contest than just some made-up drill, because you have to catch the pass, shoot the puck, and your timing is definitely involved, too. For this one I'm going to go out on a little bit of a limb and say Jason Pominville. I don't think anyone is talking about Buffalo unless we're talking about negative stuff, but Pominville is definitely one of the bright lights for the Sabres. If you watch his goals, they all go at an area. They're upstairs and they're rockets over the goalie's shoulder. Guys who can shoot like that are the ones who do well here -- guys like Jarome Iginla or Claude Giroux. I like Pominville this time around.
The Breakaway Challenge and Elimination Shootout are hard events to predict, but if I was going to pick a forward to watch in those I think my first guy would be Patrick Kane. He's just awesome. I know he's not scoring goals like he normally does this season, but if you saw that move he made on Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom in the shootout recently, you know he's still got it. That was tremendous. He might be the most dangerous guy on a breakaway in the League. I like the moves Tyler Seguin has, too, and of course Pavel Datsyuk has to be in the mix, but if I really wanted to pick one guy to look out for it would be Patrick Kane.
As for the Challenge Relay, without knowing who is on Team Alfredsson and who is on Team Chara, it's impossible to know who can win, but the guys I would look for in those events are the quick, smaller guys. Bigger players like Chara are mobile, but sometimes their mass is just too large and they can't turn quick enough to make a difference. The smaller, shorter guys who have a low center of gravity and not as big an area to turn are the ones to look out for, and I really think Phil Kessel is a guy who would be great in this kind of event. Datsyuk and Kane are also players to look out for in an event like this, but for a guy his size with those skills and the way he's playing this season, I think Kessel will be a huge factor.
With last week's Winter Classic and the regular season's official midway point coming at the conclusion of games Monday night, it's time for the focus to shift to the NHL's next big event, when the best in the game will take the ice together at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place.
The pieces are already falling into place as the big event approaches, with the fans picking their first six All-Stars last week and Rangers coach John Tortorella sealing up a spot as one of the bench bosses for the game on Jan. 29. Soon we'll find out the rest of the All-Stars being selected and the captains before the fun of All-Star Weekend gets underway.
Because of the NHL All-Star Fantasy Player Draft the teams won't be divided between the Eastern and Western Conferences, but with no real way to split the pool up without knowing who is going to Ottawa, I'm going to stick with the old format and give you my East and West All-Stars so far in 2011-12.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -- This one is a no-brainer. The No. 1 overall pick in 2008 has blossomed into one of the League's elite scorers down in Tampa Bay, leading the League with 28 goals and dishing out 17 assists to go with it. And has anyone been hotter than Stamkos lately? He has 8 goals in his last six games.
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs-- Kessel started off as the hottest player in the NHL and he hasn't cooled off since. He's trying to lead the Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time in a long time and if they finally break the drought, it will be in large part due to his 24 goals and 24 assists. His 48 points are tied for second in the NHL, and he's scored in each of his last four games.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers -- Philly got quite a scare when Giroux was diagnosed with a concussion earlier this season and it's a pretty safe bet there was some easy breathing when he wound up missing less than two weeks. Giroux has broken out in a big way this season with 18 goals and 30 assists. Playing with an all-time great like Jaromir Jagr certainly hasn't hurt, but Giroux is looking like a star for years to come.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins -- You could talk about how Chara is a major physical presence on the Bruins' blue line, how he's the captain of the defending champions or how he's on pace to break his career high in points. But to really know why he might be the best D-man in the game, look no further than his plus-minus, which, at plus-27, is the second-best in the NHL.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators -- Sometimes you see a player voted in by the fans because he's a hometown favorite and not because he's earned it, but Karlsson has definitely earned it. He's played solid defense all season for Ottawa and the only person with more assists than him in the entire League is Henrik Sedin. Giroux, Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Sedin, Evgeni Malkin -- those guys are all looking up at Karlsson.
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins -- There are 21 goalies in the League who have played in more games this season than Thomas, who has been splitting time with Tuukka Rask to keep his 37-year-old body fresh for a playoff run. But despite only playing in 26 games, Thomas has 17 wins. His .938 save percentage, 1.99 goals-against average and 4 shutouts are all in the top five in the League.
Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks -- Another year, another big season for each of the Sedins. Daniel isn't on pace to break his career high of 104 points from last season when he won the Art Ross Trophy, but 47 points in 41 games isn't bad either, and it's certainly deserving of a place on my Western Conference All-Star team.
Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks -- The Sedins had to play apart for the first time in last season's All-Star Game and with the player draft it could happen again, but I won't be the person splitting them up. Henrik and Daniel might be in a personal fight to see who gets the Art Ross Trophy each season and this year Henrik has the upper hand. His 49 points are the most in the League.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks -- Toews is one of the bright young stars of our game and each season, he just gets better. This year he's on pace for his best season yet, and he's among the top goal scorers in the League. He's a great scorer, but what really sets him apart from other forwards is how good he is both ways. He might be the best two-way center in the League.
Shea Weber, Nashville Predators -- After being a Norris Trophy finalist last year, Weber is probably going to be in the discussion again this summer. He's shown himself to be a leader in Music City, and his 21 assists are tied for third most among defensemen despite him missing a few games due to a concussion recently. Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver Canucks -- To win in the NHL, you need a solid man on the blue line and Bieksa has been as solid as they come this season. Bieksa has helped out offensively with 25 points, but he's provided a physical presence while shutting down the opposition's top players each night.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings -- Detroit's having a great year and you can look between the pipes for one of the big reasons why. No one in the NHL has more wins than Howard's 24, and the only team in the League with a better goal differential than the Wings won the Stanley Cup last spring.
Those are the guys I would put out there if I was looking for the top six players in each conference. I know it isn't the same as the first six players voted on by the fans last week, but that's fine. The All-Star Game is a time for the fans to have fun watching the players they love. Anything that makes the game better for the fans I'm all for.
Here's hoping we'll be in for another great show later this month.
It would be an understatement to say that French-Canadians are passionate about hockey, but even more than loving the game itself, they love the French-Canadian players that have made the game great. In that vein, here are, in my opinion, the five greatest French-speaking skaters and goalies of all time.
It was a heck of a year for hockey in 2011, but it was certainly better for some teams than others. As we saw the Bruins and Canucks battle it out for the Cup this spring, there were plenty of other teams looking at draft boards and planning how to be better in 2012 and beyond. Now that 2012 is just about here, we're going to take a look at the top five teams that wish 2012 didn't have to come, and the top five teams that can't wait for the calendar to turn over.
The holidays are right around the corner with both Hanukkah and Christmas coming this week. In the spirit of the season, I'm putting on my Santa costume on and telling different teams and players in the NHL that have been nice this year what they can expect to find under their trees on Sunday morning. Toronto Maple Leafs: I dug in my archives and I found the parade route that the Leafs used in 1967 when they won their last title. Everyone in Toronto thinks the Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup this year, so I want to do my part and make sure they're ready to march down Young Street like they did in '67. The people in Toronto have been long suffering, and it's not right that the last parade in Toronto was for a baseball team. I think that's got to change, so I'm going to do all I can for the people of Toronto and help out the Leafs and their fans with the actual parade route, so they'll be ready if it ever happens. Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks: I'm going to give these teams three free sessions with self-help guru Tony Robbins, because right now they are both screwed up mentally. Neither team has any confidence and both lose games when they have the lead going into the third period. So these teams just need mental makeovers. I know Tony and I know in three sessions, he'll be able to change both of those teams. Books will be given out and available at each session signed outside the door. Nashville Predators: Carrie Underwood is going to write a new song for the Predators and it's going to be called "Love and Pekka Rinne will keep us playing into May." Mike Fisher will be the tall, dark handsome guy in the video who says nothing and just smiles the whole time.
Philadelphia Flyers: I'm going to bring back Ed Van Impe to make a comeback in place of Chris Pronger. He's going to supply that nasty defenseman that slashes everything that moves around the front of the net. With Pronger out for the rest of the year, I had to do something for the Flyers because we saw last year in the playoffs that it's not the same defense without Pronger. Without Pronger I put the Flyers down in that second tier of teams. I'd put the Bruins, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Vancouver in that upper tier. The Flyers are now in that level beneath them with teams like the Rangers. The Pronger injury is catastrophic.
Evgeni Malkin: I'm going to continue to give Malkin superpowers until Sidney Crosby comes back. Malkin's been just great every game since Sidney's been gone. He had a hat trick Saturday night, Wednesday night he was fantastic in a losing effort. He's just playing awesome hockey right now. Pittsburgh is certainly a playoff team, but to be a Stanley Cup team, Malkin's going to have to be the guy that leads them. Arguably Pittsburgh's got its two best players out right now in Crosby and Kris Letang, but they're still scoring in bunches every night, and to keep doing it Malkin will have to keep playing at a high level.
Boston Bruins: I'm giving these guys nothing. I gave them the Stanley Cup last year and I also gave them Tyler Seguin, so I think that's enough to hold them over for another Christmas.
St. Louis Blues: I'm giving the Blues the exact same thing. I already gave them Ken Hitchcock and Brian Elliott, which has completely turned the team around. They have been overserved already. Right now, Brian is the most confident he's ever been and he's played well for stretches before with Ottawa. With a guy with his history, you're certainly taking a sigh of relief after each good game, but St. Louis is playing a good style of hockey right now and Elliott and Hitchcock are big reasons why.
Teemu Selanne and the Winnipeg fans: These two got their Christmas present this weekend when I gave them Teemu's emotional return to Winnipeg Saturday night. It was a magical night, the city came out and responded, a lot of great memories were rekindled and Teemu was cheered every time he touched the puck. The Winnipeg fans certainly loved the win, but I think they would almost have loved to see Teemu score a hat trick in a win for Anaheim just as much. It was a great night for Winnipeg, a great night for Teemu and a great night for the NHL.
New Jersey Devils: I'm going to give this team a return to their previous glory for Ilya Kovalchuk and Marty Brodeur. I think Kovalchuk is starting to come out of it, but for New Jersey to make the playoffs, these two guys will have to be the players of old, so that's the Christmas present I'm going to give the fans and players in New Jersey. If you really sit back and look at the play of Marty and Johan Hedberg, Hedberg should be playing more. You want to play Marty, but when he struggles you feel bad when you pull him. As a coach you don't want to put him in that situation, but hopefully with Santa's help, Marty will regain his greatness for the last 50 games of the season.
Detroit Red Wings: I'm going to give them access to the Fountain of Youth for one more year. They had that six-game losing streak at the beginning of the year, and boy did it wake them up. They look like the old Detroit Red Wings. Jimmy Howard has been good all year long -- probably their most consistent player -- but not Datsyuk's back, Zetterberg is flying, Franzen is scoring and Lidstrom and Kronwall and Stuart are giving them good play and the team looks great.
Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders: I know it's been a tough year for them, but I'm going to give them a great Christmas present: a lottery pick. Those will be the three teams that have the best opportunity to get a lottery pick come next June. I think the Islanders are a team that isn't ready to compete for a playoff spot just yet, Columbus is just in too big of a hole and Carolina is just a mess right now, particularly with Skinner and Pitkanen out. But if you're looking for a silver lining, these three teams are all going to get very good players next June -- and in the case of New York and Columbus, it might be the piece that finally pushes them into the top eight consistently.
New York Rangers: I'm going to give them the return of Marc Staal. I really like the Rangers. I think they're really close to being a really good team. Richards is becoming a bigger factor every game, Girardi is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL, they play with some grit and some character and they've always had the goaltender. If you put Staal back in that lineup, I think this will be a team that can do some damage come playoff time.
All in all though, this has been a great season so far for the NHL and only people like Jacques Martin or Randy Carlyle have gotten any coal. Bruce Boudreau got an exception. With a glance into Santa's crystal ball, the gifts I'm giving this holiday season will make sure the rest of the season is even better than what we've had so far.
Earlier this week, I gave you my greatest team of big men of all-time. Now it's time to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and check out the tiny team. A lot of you will notice that I have a few players missing like Dino Ciccarelli and Martin St. Louis. I thought of Dino and Marty, and they probably would have been the next guys on the team, but on the numbers my forwards have them beat. For the sake of Ciccarelli and St. Louis, I'll just say they were too tall to make the team.
Here's my greatest team of little guys in NHL history.
Gump Worsley, G -- Worsley was 5-foot-7, one of the most famous goaltenders in history, and he had one of the greatest nicknames in the history of the game. How many of us have pretended to be Gump Worsley playing in the backyard? He's one of the great characters of our sport, and he had some of the greatest lines. When he played for the Rangers someone asked him which defense in the League scared him the most and Gump turned and said, "My own." That's the type of guy he was. Again, though, he was a great goaltender. His numbers are fantastic. When there were six teams he was always one of the six No. 1 goaltenders in the NHL and he was just a great personality.
Curt Giles, D -- Curt was 5-8 and he was on those good Minnesota North Stars teams that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1981 and again in 1991, and he played a lot of minutes. He was a defensive defenseman, but he was very physical for his size. It was amazing to think that a 5-8 defenseman at that time -- that was a real tough era in the NHL, and he was certainly able to hold his own despite being that small.
Lars-Erik Sjoberg, D -- I played with this guy in Winnipeg. He's 5-8 and I know a lot of people won't know him because he only played one year in the NHL, but if you look at the history of Swedish hockey or the WHA, where he played for a number of years, he was always one of the best defensemen. He was one of the stars of the Swedish national teams that went to the Olympics in those years. He played the power play and was gritty and that was a tough time in hockey. It was a physical time and a nasty time and Sjoberg played against everybody and played very well. I caught him at the end of his career, but he was a great teammate and a very underrated hockey player.
Marcel Dionne, F -- He was 5-8, but he also had over 700 goals and is probably the greatest player never to win the Stanley Cup. He was part of the Triple Crown line in Los Angeles, which was arguably the best line in the NHL for a period of time, he was very quick and he was a shorter guy but he was square. He had immense power in his legs like Sidney Crosby. He was a great skater and very tough to play against if you were a defenseman. People probably don't give him the respect he deserves because he played in Los Angeles and didn't have a lot of playoff success, but this is one of the great players to ever play in our sport.
Yvan Cournoyer, F -- "The Roadrunner" was 5-7 and was a captain for a few years of those great Montreal teams. After Beliveau left and Henri Richard left he was the guy. There aren't many captains of the Montreal Canadiens. He scored over 400 goals and was one of the fastest skaters ever to play the game. He played in the '72 series and he played with a straight stick, which allowed him to use his backhand as effectively as his forehand. He was one of the last guys in the League to do it that way and he was great when he was doing it that way.
Theo Fleury, F -- Theo, at 5-6, is the shortest player on my team. I was coaching Medicine Hat the first time I saw Theo Fleury and he was a menace up in Moose Jaw, and I could not believe it the first time I saw him play. Our team was real good in Medicine Hat, we won the Memorial Cup, and that night Fleury scored a hat trick against us. The guy was unbelievable. He was so fast, so brave, and an unbelievable competitor. I just loved watching him play. I didn't like coaching against him, but he was one of my favorite guys to watch. We all remember when he scored that playoff goal in overtime and slid down the ice on his knees and fist-pumped at the world. He was an unbelievable, emotional player who played with a lot of heart and character, so he makes up my tiny line.
This was harder than I thought because there aren't a ton of bad jerseys, but there are a few. Here are what I came up with as my least favorite jerseys of all time.
Honorable Mention: New Jersey Devils 1982-1993 - Before we really get started, here's a jersey that I really wanted to put in this list: the Devils jerseys with the green and red "Christmas Tree" jerseys. That was a bad jersey. Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but it was never the most wonderful time of the year for the Devils. That was a color combination that I think everyone was happy it left the NHL.
5. The Calgary Flames in 1980 - There was not a lot of imagination here and nothing very innovative -- just a "C" with some flames on it. The white ones were especially poor I thought, but for lack of imagination and creativity, I'll give the white Calgary flames jersey the nod at No. 5. I'm not a lover of Calgary's jerseys in general. I like them better now that they have black in them, but I've never been a lover of their jerseys.
4. The New York Rangers in 1978 - I hate that long stripe from one arm across the shoulder to the other arm. A lot of teams did this in the late 1970s -- including the Toronto Maple Leafs -- when I played for them. The Rangers had it with that square crest on the front. The Rangers had the stripe, Philly started the stripe, Toronto went to the stripe, Winnipeg went to the stripe, and I just never really liked it. I like the Rangers jersey when it just has Rangers across the front much better than the crest.
3. The Gold L.A. Kings jerseys - The purple and gold that they wore for a while they took because they had the same owners as the L.A. Lakers, and purple and gold just aren't hockey colors. They don't invoke fear and intimidation. I've never liked the L.A. Kings' purple and gold jerseys, but the gold jerseys with the gold socks and the gold pants were the worst. I just felt that was too much gold in any one area. Thank God they didn't bring those out when I was the coach there. It's good for basketball, but just not for hockey.
2. The Islanders Gorton's Fisherman - If this one's No. 2, it's hard to imagine that anything is worse than this. That was a jersey that scared kids. That was a bad crest. I'm so glad to have seen the Islanders get back to their original jerseys. They should never have changed. They won Stanley Cups with it, it was a nice jersey and to do that with the Gorton's Fisherman was just bad planning. I'm a traditional guy. If you're lucky enough to have tradition -- so few teams have it -- that should be something you go towards, not something you go away from. You don't see the Leafs or the Canadiens making major changes, and the Islanders, say what you want, are one of the great franchises in our game. They've won a number of Stanley Cups, so I think tradition is what they should be striving for -- not being gimmicky.
1. The Vancouver Canucks: Every jersey from 1978-1997 - It's not just one jersey. It's an era -- right from when they brought the "V" in to the goofy skate on the crest. That whole era is the worst collection of jerseys the NHL has ever seen. At first they had the Hockey Night in Canada jerseys with the stick through the TV screen, and now they're back to that with their alternate, but then they had so many jerseys that were ugly, from the "V" to the goofy skate. There is just no redeeming that group of jerseys.
When he was in Vancouver, he was so scary against. If he got a step on you, it was going to be a breakaway. The saying everyone used to use with Bure was, "if he's even, he's leaving" because if someone was side-by-side with him, no in the NHL had a chance of catching Pavel Bure. For about a five-year period there, I don't think anyone had as many breakaways in the NHL as Bure did.
Former Canucks forward Pavel Bure could beat everybody wide. (Getty Images)
He was just so fast, so slippery, so quick. He could beat everybody wide, so if you got aggressive and tried to cheat out wide, he'd jump to the middle and beat you. If you tried to stand up on him, he'd throw it through your legs and go around you. He was just a great, great offensive player and speed was his major weapon. He could make some great moves, but he beat everybody with his speed.
Bure had a tremendous second gear. You'd be going with him and think you had them, and then … bam. He was a lot like the roadrunner in that cartoon. It seemed like the coyote had him a bunch of times and the roadrunner would just kick it into another gear and the coyote would be left in the dust. Well, a lot of defensemen were left in the dust with Pavel.
Former NHL head coach and player Barry Melrose starts a new gig this season: He will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-2012 season.
When it comes to jerseys, I'm a traditionalist. I hate third jerseys. I love the history of our sport, I love the tradition of our sport, and you'll see that in my favorite sweaters. Today's jerseys are too busy. They're scared to be simple. Maybe that's what the kids want: the bells and whistles and all the stuff going on. People think different means more, but if you look at the jerseys I've picked you'll see they're very simple. I still think that makes the greatest jersey. Just look at the Green Bay Packers of the NFL. To me the simple jerseys are the best by far.
I love the Buffalo Sabres jerseys, but I'm talking about the "French Connection" Buffalo Sabres of the early 70s. Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Rene Robert -- the jerseys that Buffalo had when it came into the NHL. I just love the colors, and I love the striped socks, which are very similar to the Toronto Maple Leafs' striped socks. It was a different color than the old original six though. Very similar, but the colors popped and were sort of innovative for the time.
These are the Bobby OrrBoston Bruins of the 60s and 70s. They had the socks that were striped right from the bottom to the top, very simple, and I loved the black and yellow. When I played for the Cincinnati Stingers in the WHA, we basically had the same jerseys as the Boston Bruins. They were simple, the colors popped, and they had the yellow circle spoked "B" on their chest. Just a great jersey. I think I might love it so much because you used to see Bobby Orr skating around in it scoring all those goals and making all those great plays. Just a great look.
I played in Toronto in the late 70s and early 80s when they switched to the jerseys with lines down the shoulders. Awful. I waited my whole life to play for Toronto and I never got to wear the traditional Toronto jerseys from the 1960s, which I think are the third greatest sweater of all time. I was excited about playing for the Leafs. They were my team forever and I always dreamed of wearing the old jerseys from when they won three straight Stanley Cups with Dave Keon. The jerseys are so simple, the blue and the white, the simple small Maple Leaf embroidered on the front. It's just great. They're sort of going back to them now, but it was always a mistake to switch it in the late 1970s. Philly brought the shoulder colors all the way down and a lot of teams started doing it. I didn't like it then and I don't like it now.
The Red Wings have maybe the greatest crest in sports: The Winged Wheel. It's so simple, but it's just perfect. The wing symbolizes the speed of hockey. The wheel is Detroit, the car capital of the world. The embroidery on the red and white jersey, so simple on the front. A couple of red stripes here and there. Just a great jersey. The colors are good, but the crest is always what I thought set that uniform apart from everybody else. The Wings haven't even made minor changes in decades and there's a reason why. It'd be sacrilegious. That crest is so perfect. Other teams if you look at the TV quick you can't necessarily tell who it is, but if you just glance at the TV and you see the Red and white, you know it's the Detroit Red Wings.
This is the greatest jersey in sports. No doubt about it. The colors are awesome, and even the third jersey I like the most is the black Blackhawks from a few years ago, but I still love the red. I love the color and everything about it: the great crest, the crossed tomahawks. It's just so eye-popping. The socks are great. The black pants are great, and you can still see Bobby Hull flying up the wing. It's just a great jersey -- the greatest jersey in sports, hands down.
Former NHL head coach and player Barry Melrose starts a new gig this season: He will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-2012 campaign.
There is a certain criteria a player has to fulfill to meet my definition of a great power forward. He has to be a frontline player, he has to be very physical and he has to fight. A power forward to me is not just a big guy who scores goals. He is a big, mean, nasty, physical, tough guy to play against as well as being a very good hockey player.
My guys will have a lot of penalty minutes, they have a lot of goals, but they were also the type of guy the other team didn't like to play against. Here are my five best power forwards to ever play in the NHL:
Wendel Clark played 793 NHL games for the Maple Leafs, Nordiques, Islanders, Lightning, Red Wings, and Blackhawks, racking up 330 goals and 1,690 PIMs. (Photo: Getty Images)
During the early 1990s, Wendel was probably one of the three toughest forwards in the NHL. He was scoring 40 goals a year, he was one of the best fighters in the League -- he was just a real physical presence out there. If you look at his numbers he played 793 games, he's got over 300 goals and he's got close to 1,700 penalty minutes. He could hit, he could fight and he could score goals.
I coached against him in 1993 when I was with L.A. and Wendel was with Toronto and Wendel was their best player. We stopped Doug Gilmour, we stopped Dave Andreychuk, but we just couldn't stop Wendel. It seemed like he scored every game against us. Gilmour got a lot of ink, Andreychuk scored a lot of goals, but to me, Wendel was the heart and soul of that team. I will always remember late in Game 1 of our playoff series against the Leafs in 1993 when Gilmour came across the middle and Marty McSorely hit him with a great check. Wendel came in and he and Marty had what I think was the last great fight in the playoffs. It was late in the game, they already had it won, but here's Wendel still sticking up for his teammates fighting one of the toughest guys in the NHL.
Wendel's got more goals than Clark, but Clark's got the Stanley Cups. I think that means something. Look at his numbers: close to 1,000 games, over 300 goals, close to 400 assists and over 1,000 penalty minutes. If anyone knows the 80s and followed that Islanders team -- they had Bossy and they had Trottier and they had Potvin, but they were playing against those Philly teams and most nights Clark Gillies would have been the MVP. He was big, he was tough, he was good enough to play with Bossy and Trottier and he could fight anyone in the NHL to a standstill. Because he has more Cups than Wendel, I have him at No. 4.
Back then we said he "kept the flies off Bossy and Trottier". Opponents knew that if anybody did something to them they'd have to answer to Clark and that's what a power forward does. He's a deterrent. He was as tough as anyone in the NHL, but he was also an excellent hockey player. It's not just enough to be a tough guy. You have to be an excellent hockey player, too. Clark Gilles certainly was.
Obviously Cam's numbers aren't as high is they normally would be because he was struck down by injuries, but he played over 700 games, he's got 395 goals, 299 assists and more than 1,200 penalty minutes. For a few years he was arguably one of the best players in the NHL. He was scoring 50 goals a year, he was maybe the toughest guy in the NHL, he had a rocket of a shot, and he might have been the best fighter in the NHL for the period of time he was in the NHL. Just a great, great hockey player. Without a doubt, he was one of the scariest guys in that era to play against.
If he stayed healthy his numbers, and the Bruins' would have been even more impressive. Don't forget, of the 726 games he played, he was probably on one leg for half of those. He was hurt and he was not 100 percent for most of his career. He still scored more than a goal every two games. If you put him at 1,000 games, he's got 600 goals. This guy was a great goal scorer, and on the list I have, he was probably the best fighter. If these five guys fought, I would have to say Cam Neely would probably be at the top of it.
Brendan Shanahan is a member of the Triple Gold Club, having won a Stanley Cup (1997, 1998, 2002), World Championship (1994), and Olympic gold medal (2002). (Getty Images)
In more than 1,500 games, he was durable, he scored 656 goals, had 698 assists and almost 2,500 penalty minutes. This guy did it over a long period of time. He fought everybody, his numbers are fantastic, he won Stanley Cups -- just a complete, complete player. He might not have been as tough as Neely, but he may have been a better goal scorer. He was also a great passer, tallying more assists than he did goals. What's more is that he came in as an 18-year-old, and he did it from Day 1.
As for his current job as the League's disciplinarian, I think how he played and what he went through on the ice give him a better understanding of what is going on on the ice with fighting and hitting. He's been there. He's done it. He knows what's going through the minds of tough guys and why they're fighting at that point of the game. He can tell when a fight is done on purpose or when it's done as a tool by the coach. I think Brendan, his career and what he went through as a player and how he played will make him better qualified for that job than a lot of people would have been.
This may be a surprise, but I think this guy was the first great power forward. More than 1,700 games, 801 goals, over 1,000 assists, but I don't know if people realize that he's got close to 1,700 penalty minutes. And he was big. In Gordie's era when he first came in, hockey players weren't very big. They'd be 5'7", 5'8", 5'9" ... Gordie was 6'2". I played against Gordie when he was in his 50s in Houston. The first thing that struck me when I saw Gordie on the ice was how big he was. He was still nasty and shifty. I can't imagine what he was like in his 20s. He was big, he was mean, he would fight, obviously he was one of the greatest goal scorers we've got in our sport and he was a great passer. If you look at power forward in the dictionary, there's probably a photo of Gordie Howe next to it.
You watch film of back in those days and he towered above guys. You see him going to the net and the D can't handle him because he's so big, so powerful and had a rocket of a wrist shot. I played against Gordie and I know. You knew where he was at all times -- and you did that because it was for your own safety.
Former NHL head coach and player Barry Melrose starts a new gig this season: He will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-2012 season. Plus, Melrose will be appearing as an analyst for NHL Network during every League-wide NHL event, starting with today's 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic announcement at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
To start off each week, look for "Melrose Monday" on NHL.com. Melrose will look ahead at the biggest days on the NHL calendar that week. "Melrose Monday" starts today with Barry's unique take on the Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers Jan. 2
Let's take a look at the best five forward pairs in the League for this Monday's blog entry. We'll count down my picks:
Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos combined for 76 goals and 190 points for the Lightning in the 2010-11 season. (Photo: Getty Images)
Their games are perfect for the new rules in the NHL. Both of them can fly. One is a right-handed shot and other is a left-handed shot. That doesn't happen too often.
Both Stamkos and St. Louis have great vision on the ice — which is even more difficult to defend when they move at such great speed. I think St. Louis might be the most underrated player in the entire League.
It's tough for young players to come into the League and play at a high level early. Some elite players are great at 19, but it took Steven a little while to get going. It was about a half-year of adjustment for him. I will tell you this: Playing with and learning from St. Louis is the best thing that has happened to Stamkos.
St. Louis is such a warrior. Things have never come easy for him. He was placed on waivers by Calgary and cleared. He has made himself into a great player. He is what hockey is all about. People have told him he is not good enough for the NHL and he has proved them wrong.
I know what you are thinking: If these two are No. 4, let's see who is 3-2-1. Probably the only reason Zetterberg and Datsyuk rank only No. 4 is their age. They both are getting hurt a little bit more.
But this is an unbelievable pair when they are healthy and on the ice. They are best defensive pair of the top 5, with Datsyuk winning multiple Selke awards as the League's best defensive forward. They are amazing stickhandlers and they have won Cups. They are ultimate professionals.
Datsyuk has the best hands in the NHL and both Datsyuk and Zetterberg play a physical style of play.
5. Roberto Luongo, G, Vancouver Canucks: Luongo was outplayed by Tim Thomas in the Final. He was pulled from games [and passed up for starts] earlier in the playoffs. So is the year that Luongo shows he is as great as we thought he could be or does he show he is one of most overrated goalies?
I think he has lost the invicibility tag. He has a lot of flaws in his game. We can see that now.
Goaltenders feel the most pressure of any position. If a forward makes a mistake, the defensemen can pick him up. If a D-man makes a mistake, the goalie can make up for it. If the goalie makes a mistake, the puck is in the net. Plus, the goalie plays the entire 60 minutes. Luongo will be feeling the pressure in goal this season.
4. Dany Heatley, LW, Minnesota Wild: Heatley had a terrible regular season and playoffs last year. Now he’s going to Minnesota. The Wild gave up their best player to get Heatley.
Heatley is going to a hockey place, where everybody knows you. I think that will be good for Dany. He has to respond to the pressure and I think he will. Minnesota need goals. Look where Heatley played his best–in Ottawa, another hockey place where everybody knows you. Some guys need the fear of pressure of performing. Heatley is one of those guys.
Former NHL head coach and player Barry Melrose starts a new gig this season: He will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-2012 season. Plus, Melrose will be appearing as an analyst for NHL Network during every League-wide NHL event, starting with today's 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic announcement at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
To start off each week, look for "Melrose Monday" on NHL.com. Melrose will look ahead at the biggest days on the NHL calendar that week. "Melrose Monday" starts today with Barry's unique take on the Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers Jan. 2.
When we started our journey we made a commitment to our fans to be relevant and to see the Chicago Blackhawks become the best professional hockey organization. There are not two finer symbols of that than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The commitment we have made to these incredible young men is equal to the commitment they have made to our team, our fans, our entire organization and the city of Chicago.
— Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to contract extensions