Sunday, February 28, 2010

Questions, Questions... Part 5

Four down and two to go in our look at the big question concerning each team down the stretch of the NHL season. Next, the Northwest Division.

Vancouver: Is this how Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did it?

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made seven pictures together in their careers commonly referred to as the “road pictures.” The pair, teamed with Dorothy Lamour, would take the road to such exotic locales as Singapore, Zanzibar, Rio de Janiero, or Hong Kong. Well, the Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of taking their own road production to such locales as Columbus, Nashville, and Phoenix, a product of having to get General Motors (excuse us, “Canada Hockey”) Place ready for and broken down from the Winter Olympic games.

Vancouver has already spent eight straight games away from home, going 4-4-0. Coming out of the break they still have six road dates to complete before returning home on March 13th. It will be a telling six game road trip for several reasons. First, the Canucks will play two sets of three games in four days. Maybe they’re rested, maybe they’re rusty. Second, all of the games are against Western conference teams. This could have seeding implications for the Canucks down the road as they are currently in third by virtue of their leading the Northwest Division, but only tied for sixth in points in the conference (they hold the tie-breaker – more wins – over the team with which they are tied, division foe Colorado). Third, Vancouver is the only club in the top-eight in the conference with a sub-.500 road record (14-15-1). If they can get past this stretch of games in fair shape, they have 10 of their last 15 games at home. If, on the other hand, they stumble along the road, they could tumble rather quickly through the floor of playoff eligibility; they have an eight-point lead over ninth-place Dallas and Detroit (all three with 21 games remaining).

Vancouver seems a pretty safe bet at this point to make the playoffs, but this six-game road trip to start the home stretch will go a long way toward determining where they will start those playoffs – in the friendly confines of General Motors Place or on what has been the less than forgiving road.

Colorado: Can the Avs be more than Craig Anderson?

Goalie Craig Anderson has received a lot of praise this year for the season he is having. It is well deserved – tied for fifth in wins (31), 13th in goals-against average (2.42), seventh in save percentage (.924), tied for third in shutouts (six). Only twice this year has he lost consecutive games in regulation (a two-game streak on October 30/November 1 and a three-game streak in late January).

But while the surprising Avalanche, largely due to Anderson, have the ninth-best goals-against mark in the league, what might be getting lost is that they also have the ninth-best offense in the league. And they have done it largely by going young. The top three goal scorers are all 24 or younger – rookie Matt Duchene (19), Chris Stewart (22), and Wojtek Wolski (24). As a matter of fact, of the seven players for Colorado with at least ten goals, only Milan Hejduk (34) is older than 25.

Colorado has been reasonably consistent over the past few months – 8-5-1 in December, 7-5-0 in January, and 5-2-0 in February. If they can maintain that consistency, they will finish comfortably in the top-eight (they have an eight-point lead over ninth place Dallas and Detroit). If they can improve upon it, they can move past Vancouver, with whom they are tied at 76 points, into the three-seed in the West.

The question is not so much whether Anderson can keep up his pace. In two years as Tomas Vokoun’s backup in Florida before this year he had a combined record of 23-13-6, 2.54, .924, with five shutouts. The question will be whether the young guys can continue to keep up Colorado’s scoring pace over the season’s last 21 games.

Calgary: Will fried Kipper taste good in April?

Miikka Kiprusoff has played the third most minutes in the NHL this season. He was tops last year with more than 4,400 minutes. He was fourth the previous year with a few ticks under 4,400 minutes. He was third the year before that. Since the lockout Kiprusoff averaged 4,404 minutes a season. And this year, he played more than 250 minutes in backstopping Team Finland to a bronze medal in the Vancouver Olympics. Now, here is another set of numbers, Kiprusoff’s record in his last 15 decisions of the regular season since the lockout: 9-3-3, 8-6-1, 7-7-1, 6-9-0. See a pattern there?

Calgary is hanging on for dear life to a playoff spot. They stand in eighth place in the West, one point ahead of Dallas and Detroit, two points ahead of Anaheim, four ahead of St. Louis, and five ahead of Minnesota. That means that Kiprusoff isn’t likely to get much – if any – of a break down the stretch (he appeared in Calgary’s last 13 games heading into the Olympic break). Given that the Flames scored only 44 goals in the 22 games since January 1st, there will only be more pressure on Kiprusoff to hold the fort.

Minnesota: Can the Wild climb out of the hole they keep digging for themselves?

The Wild dug themselves a hole right out of the start this season. In their first dozen games the Wild were 3-9-0. The Wild dragged themselves out of that hole by going 17-7-3 in their next 27 games. Since then, though, Minnesota is 10-11-1.

These last 21 games has been a roller coaster ride for the Wild – a four-game losing streak, a four-game winning streak, then another four-game losing streak and a three-game winning streak. They keep digging holes, and then climb almost out of them, only to find themselves digging again.  It is the theme of their season.

Part of Minnesota’s problem, and one of the things that makes their performance look more and more like a roller-coaster ride (and not in a good way) is that they do fine in one-goal games (19-11-4), but in games decided by two or more goals, they are 11-16. That points to a certain defensive problem, and in fact the Wild have allowed at least four goals in nine of their last 21 games (they are 1-8 in those games).

Coincidentally, the Wild have scored at least four goals in nine of their last 21 games and are 8-1 in those games. This is a club that just cannot put together a consistent mix of offense and defense over any stretch of games. And until they do, they will spend their time digging and climbing, digging and climbing.

Edmonton: Can we get this over with?

Last in points, tied for last in wins, 29th in scoring, last in defense, last in 5-on-5 play, 29th in penalty-killing. Since a five-game winning streak to open December, the Oilers are 4-23-2. Their goaltender has run afoul of the law. The only thing Edmonton fans have to look forward to is the possibility of seeing Jaromir Jagr in an Oiler jersey next season. And as a Caps fan, we’re here to tell you, “good luck with that.”

No comments: