Sunday, February 28, 2010

Questions, Questions... Part 4

Done with our big question for each team in the East, we head west and the Central Division…

Chicago: Can Huet do-it, or is Niemi dreamy?

No team in the NHL has a lower goals-per-game average than the Chicago Blackhawks (2.31). But in that number lies another – 24.4. That would be the number of shots that Chicago goaltenders face per game, also the lowest in the league. If you put them together, then the performance of their goaltenders – Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi – looks rather pedestrian, a combined .905 save percentage.

Drill further… Huet has never won a playoff series (he is 6-10 over three playoff series with three different clubs), and Niemi hasn’t yet appeared in an NHL playoff game.

We are getting into uncharted territory for Huet. With his next appearance he will top his career high in regular season appearances in a season, which currently rests at 42 (with Montreal in 2006-2007 in addition to this year). He has been a bit shaky of late, too – 2-2-1, 2.83, .881 in seven appearances heading into the Olympic break. Niemi, on the other hand, has been hot… or lucky. He is 8-2-0 in his last ten appearances, but with a 2.60 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. In his last three appearances he has allowed 11 goals on 82 shots (.866) but has won them all.

As good as Chicago has been this year – currently holding the third highest point total in the NHL – this pair of goaltenders is likely to be quite sufficient to get the Blackhawks to the playoffs with the first or second seed (they hold a nine-point advantage over third-place Vancouver and trail top-ranked San Jose by two points). But is this the pair that will take them home?

Nashville: Is average good enough?

Out of the 30 teams in the NHL, Nashville is 16th in scoring, 17th in defense, 12th in 5-on-5 play, 13th in shots on goal, 12th in standings points overall, they are 9-9-2 in the 2010 portion of the season. They’re standing in the town square of Averageville. It is a club that boasts – if that is the term – one 20-goal scorer (Patric Hornqvist). The Predators do not have a player with as many as 40 points. Both goalies have goals-against number that are north of 2.5 goals per game.

You wonder how this team is ten games over .500. But there they are, seventh in the Western Conference at the moment, but only seven points ahead of 13th place Minnesota. Their hold on that playoff spot is not the tightest.

Where Nashville is not average, though, is in special teams. And this might be the fault line on which the club’s success down the stretch might ultimately rest. The Predators have struggled on the power play this year – they are tied for 24th in the league at 16.7 percent. And it’s not as if they’re getting a lot of chances to improve on their success (tied for 22nd in total power play opportunities). They have, however, given hints of improvement. In the six games leading up to the Olympic break Nashville was 8-for-29 on the power play (27.6 percent).

While their power play has struggled, but shows some recent signs of life, the penalty killing has been a more troubling problem. The good news is that here, like the power play, they face fewer chances than most teams – tied for fourth fewest penalty killing situations in the league. But killing off only 76 percent of them – tied for third worst in the league – could be the club’s biggest problem down the stretch. In those same six games leading up to the Olympic break the Predators killed off only 20 of 28 shorthanded situations (71.4 percent) and allowed at least one power play goal in each of the games. If they don’t right themselves on both sides of the special teams equation, they could find themselves on the outside looking in, in the competitive West.

Detroit: Will the Gimmick be their downfall?

Folks keep waiting for a Detroit run. Well, the Red Wings haven’t won consecutive games since winning at San Jose and at Los Angeles in early January. They haven’t won more than two consecutive games since mid-December. Still, with all that the Red Wings sit in a tie for ninth place in the Western Conference, one point behind eighth-place Calgary.

But if there is one thing that could haunt Detroit in the off season, it is this – in their last 15 games the Red Wings have gone to a shootout six times. They lost five of them. Had they split those six games, instead of going 1-5, they would be a point ahead of Calgary rather than a point behind. They would be ahead of Dallas, instead of tied with them (one of the losses coming to the Stars). No team has lost more games in extra time this year than the Red Wings (perhaps ironically, they are tied with the team with which they are tied in the standings – Dallas).

Having played 18 of their 61 games into extra time, they could have another six or seven at that pace down the stretch. If they don’t find a way to win more of those games, things are tight enough in the west where it could be the difference between games or golf in April.

St. Louis: Will it be Chris Mason or… Chris Mason?

How is this for streaky… lose five, win four, lose three, go 2-1, lose two, win three. That is Chris Mason’s last 20 games in goal for the Blues since Christmas. Overall in that span he is 9-7-4, 2.47, .911, and two shutouts. Fair numbers, but there is the problem of that streakiness.

If streakiness can be a good thing, then Blues fans might take a look at Mason’s record from last year. He finished up the regular season 9-1-1 in his last 11 games, with a 2.08 GAA and .924 save percentage with two shutouts. Then again, there was his finish two years ago with Nashville… Starting on Valentine’s Day he was 1-5-2 in his last 11 appearances (he had three no-decisions in relief of Dan Ellis and lost three other games in which he started but did not finish), 3.80, .862.

St. Louis is four points out of a playoff spot. Which Chris Mason shows up will likely be the biggest factor in whether the Blues can make up that difference, hop over the four teams ahead of them, and find their way into the playoffs.

Columbus: Can we get a do-over?

Off of their first-ever playoff appearance last year, as well as being an over-.500 club as late as December 14th this season, Columbus finding itself three games under .500 and in 14th place in the West has to qualify as a huge disappointment. December was hardly the stuff of happy holidays for the Blue Jackets, as they went 2-9-5 for the month, including a nine-game losing streak (0-7-2). What killed them was an utter lack – absence, in fact – of offense. They scored only 29 goals in 16 games for the month (1.81/game) – only 15 in the last 11 games of the month – and their only two wins came via shutout, one of those in overtime.

Even if they stopped the bleeding since (10-10-1 in the 2010 portion of the season), the December fall killed their chances for the rest of the winter. There will be no spring on the ice for Columbus, even if they are only nine points out of a playoff spot. Having to climb over six teams is too much to overcome, and for the Blue Jackets, it’s “wait ‘til next year.”

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