Thursday, April 24, 2008

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Red Wings vs. Avalanche

We still have the West to cover, so let’s get to it…

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (6)

Season series:

Dec. 27: Detroit 4 – at Colorado 2
Jan. 8: at Detroit 1 – Colorado 0
Feb. 1: at Detroit 2 – Colorado 0
Feb. 18: Detroit 4 – Colorado 0

Colorado hasn’t scored a goal in this series in 204:04. We’re thinking they have to break that streak to have a chance in this series. But before we get to that, Detroit and Colorado have met five times in the playoffs, starting in 1995-1996 (the two never met in Colorado’s previous incarnation as the Quebec Nordiques). These two teams have engaged – both in the playoffs and regular season – in some of the most memorable battles in this era of hockey. Patrick Roy versus Mike Vernon, Claude Lemieux versus Darren McCarty, Roy versus Chris Osgood…and there was some fine hockey played, too.

While there are a few members of the 2001-2002 Red Wing team – the last to face Colorado in the post-season – with the 2008 club, there aren’t many Avalanche from that year with this year’s version of the club (Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote, Peter Forsberg), but we still might see some fireworks outside the strict boundaries of the rulebook.

In this year’s season series, though, here is how the Red Wings fared:

Goals for/against: 11/2
Power play goals for/against: 2/0
Even-strength goals for/against: 9/2
Power play: 2/13 (15.4%)
Penalty killing: 11/11 (100.0%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-0

For the Red Wings, their defense – obviously – has been stifling. Colorado averaged only 19 shots a game against the Red Wings and broke 20 only in their first meeting this year. And even though Colorado was not especially adept this year at drawing penalties to get power play chance (22nd in the league in power play opportunities), the Wings limited the Avalanche to fewer than four man advantages a game.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to Detroit’s puck possession skill. Outshooting the Avalanche 130-76 in four games is lopsided, any way you look at it. In the regular season, at least, Detroit has had its way with the Avalanche – methodically, efficiently.

Looking at the Red Wing’s top scorers this year:

Pavel Datsyuk: 1-5-6, +7
Henrik Zetterberg: 3-0-3, +4 (three games)
Nicklas Lidstrom: 0-1-1, +4
Brian Rafalski: 0-2-2, +2 (three games)
Daniel Cleary: 0-0-0, +2 (three games)

Datsyuk and Zetterberg have done the bulk of the scoring, but account for only four of the 11 total goals scored by the Red Wings, and the other top season scorers were held without a goal. Where did the rest come from? Valeri Filppula accounted for three of the remaining seven goals, four different players splitting the last four. Seven players in all split 11 goals. It speaks to the remarkable balance Detroit has – they had eight players with more than 40 points this year (Colorado had five).

If there is one other player, though, who could leave a big red welt on the Avalanche’s playoff hopes, it is Johan Franzen. While he was only 0-1-1, even, in four games against the Avalanche, he was 15-5-20, +5 in his last 16 regular season games and was 2-1-3, +2 in the opening round series against Nashville.

In goal, Dominik Hasek was 3-0-0, 0.67, .966, with two shutouts against the Avalanche this year. And he’s the goalie who won’t be starting. Chris Osgood is likely to get the call; he was 1-0-0, 0.00, 1.000, and one shutout in his only appearance against Colorado. Pick your poison. Osgood gets the call for coming in relief of Hasek in the Nashville series and closing it out, going 2-0, 0.39, .982, and a shutout in three appearances.

For the Avalanche, their top scorers did the following in their regular season contests with the Red Wings:

Paul Stastny: 0-0-0, -2 (two games)
Andrew Brunette: 0-0-0, -1
Milan Hejduk: 0-0-0, -3
Wojtek Wolski: 0-0-0, -4
Joe Sakic: did not play

Except for Hejduk, given that Sakic did not play against the Red Wings this year, these are not your father’s – or maybe your older brother’s – Avalanche. And only half of the players (ok, there are only two) who actually scored a goal against the Red Wings will play in this series. Cody McLeod, stand and be counted.

The Avalanche have to get scoring from somewhere in the series, and Sakic is the obvious player to look at for it. Even on a prorated basis though (he scored 13 goals in 44 games this year), it would have been his slowest 82-game goal scoring pace for his career. He was 2-4-6, even, in the Minnesota series, but the Avalanche might have to count on additional scoring support. Hejduk had a pair of goals in the Minnesota series and scored seven goals in his last seven regular season games. One would have to think he must approach this level of production for the Avs to have a chance.

In goal, Jose Theodore received no support from the offense, and he went 0-2-0 as a result, even though his 2.53 GAA and .923 save percentage against the Red Wings was more than respectable. Does Theodore have a shutout (or three) in him for this series? It might take a game (or three) like that to give Colorado a better chance.

Why Detroit will win…

Detroit not only led Colorado, but led the league (or was near the top) in every meaningful statistical measure. And, they beat the Avalanche like a drum four times…more than 200 minutes without yielding a goal, and counting, is domination.

Why Colorado will win…

The ghosts of playoffs past – the Red Wings have gone past this round only twice in the last eight tries. The Red Wings are a regular season wonder, but they seem to find a way to fall in the playoffs.

In the end…

If the Red Wings do falter again, they will do it to themselves. On paper, Colorado has no chance…but the Red Wings will find a way to make it interesting.

Red Wings in six

Access is not just a data base application

It applies to hockey, as in "hockey is the most fan-accessible sport." Well, in perusing James Mirtle's blog, we came upon this evidentiary morsel to support that assertion...

"Fan relations," in this instance, is defined as "ease of access to players, coaches & management." Nine of the top 16 teams on this measure, including the Caps (at 14) are from the NHL. But you suspected this to be the case, anyway.

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Penguins vs. Rangers

And now, the other half of the Eastern semifinal...

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. New York Rangers (5)

Season series:

Oct. 23: at Pittsburgh 1 – Rangers 0
Nov. 8: At Rangers 4 – Pittsburgh 2
Nov. 17: Rangers 4 – at Pittsburgh 3 (OT)
Dec. 18: at Rangers 4 – Pittsburgh 0
Jan. 14: at Pittsburgh 4 – Rangers 1
Mar. 18: at Rangers 5 – Pittsburgh 2
Mar. 30: at Pittsburgh 3 – Rangers 1
Mar. 31: at Rangers 2 – Pittsburgh 1 (OT)

Caps fans, take solace…the Rangers have never beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series (at least the Caps won once). The Penguins are 3-0 against the Blueshirts in their playoff history, the latest a 4-1 series win in 1996. So, it’s been a while.

This is a difficult series to get a handle on, for a lot of reasons. First, Pittsburgh man-handled the Ottawa Senators in round one, but it isn’t as if anyone really expected the Senators to do much after their second half swoon (16-21-4). Second, the Rangers certainly haven’t been in awe of Pittsburgh’s fire power, going 5-3-0 in this year’s series and going 3-3-2 last year. They’ve played the Penguins a little more than even. Third, while Marc-Andre Fleury might have quieted critics of his playoff performance with his 4-0, 1.26, .955 performance against the Senators, we’re not sure he’s silenced them entirely. Fifth, while the Penguins come in hot on the result of their sweep of Ottawa, the Rangers dispatched what was likely a superior opponent – not to mention a demon of theirs – the New Jersey Devils in five games, their lone loss coming in overtime. Sixth, will Jagr comparing Sidney Crosby to Mario Lemieux – not in terms favorable to Crosby – give the kid an incentive? Seventh (trust me, we’re getting to the end of this), will the controversy about the “Avery Rules” be a distraction to the Rangers? Eighth…with Jagr perhaps not even returning to the NHL next year, and this being a series against his old club, will he be inspired to leave a skate marks on the Penguins on the way through? That’s a lot of stuff going on…

The season’s history between these two teams, from Pittsburgh’s perspective – reflects the edge to the Rangers thus far:

Goals for/against: 16/21
Power play goals for/against: 5/9
Even-strength goals for/against: 10/11
Power play: 5/35 (14.3%)
Penalty killing: 9/42 (21.4%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-2
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-2

Both teams get their share of power play chances – they ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in power play opportunities in the regular season. But in this series, the Rangers have averaged better than one power play chance a game more than the Penguins and have made good on that greater frequency of chances to the tune of almost twice as many power play goals as Pittsburgh. That pretty much describes the difference in scoring between these teams.

Looking at the top scorers for Pittsburgh and their records in the season series:

Evgeni Malkin: 5-2-7, +1
Sidney Crosby: 1-7-8, +4 (seven games)
Marian Hossa: 1-1-2, even (three games, one with Atlanta)
Sergei Gonchar: 2-4-6, +3
Petr Sykora: 1-2-3, -3

Malkin, Crosby, and Gonchar lead the way, as might be expected. But in their numbers is the hint of a certain familiarity on the part of the Rangers with their play. Those numbers – particularly those for Malkin and Crosby, about a point a game -- are not consistent with the numbers they put up against other opponents.

If there is a key to this series for the Penguins on offense, it might be Ryan Malone. This would seem to be, at first blush, a close fought series in the making. Malone has the size, skill, and grit to be a difference maker here. His performance against the Rangers isn’t noteworthy (0-1-1, +1, in seven games), but he was 7-6-13, +6, in his last 17 regular season games and 2-3-5, +3, in the four-game sweep of the Senators in round one.

If you subscribe to this being a tightly-contested series with a lot of one-goal games (I do), then Marc-Andre Fleury will be a key element to the Penguins’ success. He was 2-1-2, 2.19, .929 in five games against the Rangers this year. And, he had that stonewall effort against the Senators in round one. You’d have to think he’s ready to take the next step.

As for the Rangers, their top scorers fared as follows against the Pens:

Jaromir Jagr: 2-5-7, +1
Scott Gomez: 3-4-7, -2
Chris Drury: 2-4-6, -1
Brendan Shanahan: 0-2-2, -1 (seven games)
Martin Straka: 2-2-4, -1 (five games)

Sean Avery could be a key in this series for the Rangers. He played in only five games of the season series with the Penguins (3-2-5, +3), but the Rangers were 4-1-0 in those games in which Avery played. And, if he could get under Martin Brodeur’s skin (as he seemed to do in the opening round), he sure as the dickens has the ability to make Fleury’s life miserable.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist is a Vezina Trophy finalist – again, for the third consecutive year. This guy can and should be mentioned in the same breath as Brodeur and Luongo when consideration is being given to the best goalies in the NHL. Against Pittsburgh this year, he earned the decision in all eight games, going 5-3-0, 1.87, .916. He shaved about three-quarters of a goal a game off his GAA against the Penguins from last year.

Why Pittsburgh will win…

It was hard to envision a team that could play with more confidence than that which the Penguins displayed in round one. It wasn’t cockiness, but the air of “we’re good, we know it, and we have a job to do.” The biggest question mark – Fleury – was more than up to the task of shutting down what was still, at least on paper, a potent Ottawa offense. The club has just about everyone they’d need to have healthy and ready. This is also a team that can play with an edge – in addition to their top-end skill – with players like Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu, and Malone.

Why the Rangers will win…

No fear. It’s not like the Penguins’ ability to score, score quickly, and score often is going to be a secret to the Rangers. They’ve handled that aspect of the Penguin’s effectively this year. And, unlike the bloated carcasses that were the Ranger teams earlier in the decade, this one is a hard-nosed bunch that can actually play defense. Plus, having the imperturbable Lundqvist backstopping the enterprise doesn’t hurt. The Rangers were – and are – the team in this tournament set up to derail the Penguins.

In the end…

While Pittsburgh is the better team, on talent, it also has more of the “moving parts” that can go wrong in a series like this. The Rangers won’t score much, but they won’t need to, either. Pittsburgh might get a four or five goal explosion in this series, but not enough of them to win in the end.

Rangers in six.

The Silent Honor of the Hockey Player

In some circles (mostly those that rhyme with "concussion gourds"), the Capitals were -- are, for that matter -- a "soft" team. That adjective is especially derogatory to a player in a sport where an ability to play with a physical edge is among the sport's paramount virtues. addition to Chris Clark (groin), Michael Nylander (shoulder), and Brian Pothier (career-threatening concussion) having missed considerable time this year, we learned this in this morning's report on the Capitals in the Washington Post...

"[Bruce] Boudreau said [Shaone] Morrisonn played the final two weeks of the season with a broken jaw and that [Boyd] Gordon played with a torn hamstring in the playoffs. [Alex] Ovechkin also was nursing an injury for the final month of the season..."

And Jeff Schultz -- who seems to have been designated the poster boy for whatever perceived lack of physical play the Caps possess -- also missed the last several games with an "upper body" injury, and Mike Green had a hip pointer.

Ask yourself...if you had a torn hamstring, a broken jaw, or an injury that even the club still won't disclose, and your job involved a desk and a chair, would you still have been showing up every day without missing time? These guys came to work and performed admirably when their very job was directly related to and impacted by the injuries they had. And there was not a peep about it from the players, even after the fact. Hockey players don't indulge in such things.

So, if you do nothing else this summer, dear Caps fans -- well, some of you (you know who you are) -- make a resolution...

"I hereby swear that from this moment forward, I will just shut the *&$# up about players being 'soft.'"


Much has been made in the last 36-hours about Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig removing his nameplate from his locker immediately after the game-seven loss to the Flyers and declining to meet with reporters.
Well, from the "tempest in a teapot" file, we have this explanation from the man, himself, courtesy of Tarik El-Bashir in the Capital Insider...
First, Kolzig said he doesn't want to give any interviews for a few days as he collects his thoughts. He said he obviously has some decisions to make and will talk soon.

Second, he also said he didn't remove his nameplate from his locker stall at Verizon Center out of anger. He acknowledged that the Caps' Game 7 loss to Philly could "possibly" have been his last game in Washington, so he wanted to take the nameplate as a memento. He plans to frame it with a jersey.

"It had nothing to do with not playing or pouting," Kolzig said in the message. "I was real proud of the way the guys played. I thought there was going to be destiny with the way the last two weeks went. So I was probably as disappointed as anybody."

This isn't even a "let's give him the benefit of the doubt" issue. Kolzig has been seemed to us nothing other than a stand-up guy -- in the community, on the ice, and for himself -- ever since he arrived in Washington. Why anyone would think differently is puzzling, even in the context of his de-facto demotion over the last several weeks of the season.

As Kolzig noted, he has some decisions to make, among them possibly including: whether to come back for another season, whether to do it in Washington or another city, whether to accept a diminshed role as his career enters a different phase.

He's earned an opportunity to do just that, and we don't suppose he's going to string the club out in a Brett Favre-ish manner in making those decisions. Whatever he decides, his body of work in Washington -- as a player, as a representative of his sport, and as a member of the community -- stands among the greatest in Washington sports history.

We're happy to have been here to enjoy his work and hope he still has some hockey left in him -- we'd like to think it being here -- to earn that Cup.

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Montreal vs. Philadelphia

Much as we'd rather be doing this for the Capitals versus the Penguins, we'll have to settle for starting with the Eastern Conference semifinal...

Montreal Canadiens (1) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (6)

Season series:

Nov. 1: at Montreal 5 – Philadelphia 2
Dec. 13: Montreal 4 – at Philadelphia 1
Feb. 16: at Montreal 1 – Philadelphia 0
Feb. 17: Montreal 5 – at Philadelphia 3

This is the fifth time these franchises have met in the Stanley Cup tournament Once in the finals), and the Canadiens hold a 3-1 edge in the four series they’ve played. As these things go, this is the wannabe gold standard for hockey royalty versus the real thing. And that is not unlike the general character of this series – a team that aspires to be among the elite versus one that is. And that, if you haven’t figured it out is the Flyers playing the “wannabe” role, and the Canadiens as the club on whose perch the Flyers hope to sit.

Both teams come into this series having survived hard-fought series – one expected, one not. The Canadiens were expected to have an easier time with the Boston Bruins than was the case, and the problem there should be a bit unsettling for the Habs. Montreal scored 19 goals in a seven game series, which is respectable for this time of year. But they gave up 11 goals in their three losses – 10 of them in games five and six. And that brings us to the question, for all of his talent, does goaltender Carey Price have the steel and seasoning – at age 20 – to be the guy to carry this team deeper into the playoffs? How one answers that question answers the question of who will win this series.

As far as the season’s history between these two teams, the record – from Montreal’s perspective – reflects the 4-0 edge in games

Goals for/against: 15/6
Power play goals for/against: 6/3
Even-strength goals for/against: 8/2
Power play: 6/25 (24.0%)
Penalty killing: 20/23 (87.0%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 2-0-0

For the Flyers, the ominous statistic has to do with the power play, specifically the number of chances. Philadelphia was the most penalized team in the East this year, so the incidence of power plays is not surprising. But, if the Flyers thought that they would have problems with the Caps’ speed (they did), they will have that problem in depth with Montreal. They appeared to have that problem during the season. The Flyers took 27 minor penalties in four games. Of that number, 17 were of the “obstruction” variety (holding, holding the stick, interference, hooking, tripping). And, the Canadiens made the Flyers pay to the tune of six power play goals – as many as the Flyers has of all varieties of goal in the series. After a tough seven-game series against Washington, one wonders if the Flyers, especially among the defensemen (four of whom are 33 or older), have the legs to survive another tough series.

Looking at the top scorers for Montreal and their records in the season series:

Alex Kovalev: 2-4-6, +4
Tomas Plekanec: 0-3-3, +2
Mark Streit: 2-1-3, +2
Andrei Markov: 0-6-6, +3
Saku Koivu: 2-2-4, +1

This is, as the season series would suggest, a solid and balanced result. What the Canadiens might need, though, is some additional punch. Montreal had four players with 25 or more goals, two of whom do not appear on the list above. Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn could be key to the Canadiens success on the offensive side of the ledger. Latendresse had one goal (his only point) in four games against the Flyers, Kostitsyn was 2-2-4 in his four games of work.

But, it is in goal where the key for the Canadiens lies. Carey Price was given the keys to the car by general manager Bob Gainey when the latter traded Cristobal Huet to the Capitals. He responded by going 12-3-0, 2.12, .936 after the trading deadline. Against the Flyers this year, he also posted a 3-0-0, 1.34, .961 record. But there is that Boston thing and the ten goals he gave up in games five and six with an opportunity to close out the series. If that was his “trial by fire,” one might conclude that he passed it with a 25-save whitewashing of the Bruins in game seven. Although, Montreal took a three goal lead into the third period of that game (winning 5-0), alleviating some of the pressure from his young shoulders. Price cannot suffer meltdowns in this series, as the Flyers showed themselves to be an opportunistic and resourceful team in their series with Washington. They can step through any such opening the Canadiens give them.

Speaking of the Flyers, their top scorers fared as follows against Montreal:

Mike Richards: 2-1-3, -2
Daniel Briere: 0-2-2, -3
Vaclav Prospal: 4-2-6, +2 (all with Tampa Bay)
Mike Knuble: 1-1-2, -2
Jeff Carter: 0-1-1, -2

It is not, as one might expect, a very good record. And, Knuble is injured, his status for this series uncertain. Complicating the situation further is the matter of Daniel Briere. He was 5-4-9, +5 in the first five games of the Washington series, but 1-1-2, -3 in games six and seven. He is also the hometown boy who didn’t sign with the hometown team when he had the chance last summer. He hasn’t had especially sterling numbers against Montreal in his career, either. Since the 2000-2001 season, he is 8-9-17, even in 24 games. He’ll have to be better for the Flyers to advance.

The Flyers will also need to get others to step up, most notably the other two members of the 20-goal brigade – Joffrey Lupul, the hero of game seven in the Washington series, and Scott Hartnell. Lupul was scoreless and -2 in three games against the Canadiens this year, while Hartnell was scoreless and -1 in four games. If they repeat that performance, the Flyers will be going no further. Odd thing about Hartnell’s performance this year and something to keep in mind. True, he is one of the seven 20-goal scorers the Flyers have on their squad, but seven of his 24 goals came against the Islanders. He has more than one goal this year against only two non-Atlantic Division opponents (Carolina, Ottawa).

In goal, can Martin Biron do it again? Fans had better hope that he plays more to the level he showed against Washington than he did in his lone appearance against Montreal this year – five goals on 41 shots on November 1st. He did what he had to do against Washington – give his team a chance. His statistics are not spectacular (2.67, .908) so far, but if plays at that level, he will give his team a chance.

Why Montreal will win…

They play to the Flyers’ vulnerabilities…their power play can make Philadelphia pay for their all-too-often indiscretions, and they can make Philadelphia’s defense uncomfortable with their speed and depth. While undertaking a seven-game ordeal with Boston, they come in as the somewhat more rested team (the Flyers played two overtime games among the last four, including the game seven, covering six days). Plus, they have considerable success this year against the Flyers to draw upon.

Why Philadelphia will win…

Carey Price is not impregnable. The Bruins demonstrated that. And, the Flyers will do to him what they did to Cristobal Huet in the Washington series…crowd him, crowd him again, then crowd him some more. Further, although the “Vengeance Now” has value only as marketing schtick for the Flyers front office, this club does play with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. That can’t hurt in a series where they will be a substantial underdog.

In the end…

Montreal is too deep, too fast, and too good on its power play, even if Price has the occasional rookie moments.

Montreal in six.