Monday, March 22, 2010

Ten games left, ten things to watch

We are down to it now – ten games or so left in the regular season. There is no mystery about where the Caps will finish the year. Absent being spirited away by aliens, they will win the Southeast Division (already clinched), they will win the Eastern Conference (16 points ahead of Pittsburgh with ten games to play), and they will likely win the President’s Trophy (nine points ahead of Chicago and Phoenix with ten games left to play).

But there are a number of issues still to be resolved as the other 29 teams head into their last ten games. Here are ten in no particular order…

1. Race for the Hart

The Hart Trophy picture is still quite out of focus. There are five players who, in our mind, merit serious consideration as finalists – Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller, and Ilya Bryzgalov. If Tampa Bay was a more serious contender, Steven Stamkos could make it six. But it is this group of five players from which the Hart Trophy finalists will be taken.

Statistically, Alex Ovechkin would appear to have a slight edge over the other two skaters in the mix – Sedin and Crosby. He and Crosby are still fighting for the goal-scoring title, and he and Sedin are fighting over the overall scoring title. Ovechkin has accomplished this in ten fewer games. But the Caps’ record when he missed those ten games is 7-2-1. What’s more, the Caps scored 46 goals in those ten games, above their season average of 3.88/game. Crosby has assumed a greater goal-scoring burden this year and has improved his productivity in the faceoff circle. It has been especially important, given a bit of a dropoff in the play of Evgeni Malkin and some inconsistency from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Sedin is having his best career year in this, his ninth season in the NHL. He has had 30 multi-point games this year and has been the glue that has held the Vancouver Canucks together, still with a chance to win the Western Conference (they are five points behind the Blackhawks and Coyotes).

As for the goalies, it could be fairly said that without either Ilya Bryzgalov or Ryan Miller, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Buffalo Sabres are not playoff teams, and it would not be a stretch to think of either as a potential lottery team in their absence. Bryzgalov is tied for first in wins, Miller is sixth. In goals against average Bryzgalov is fourth, Miller is second. Bryzgalov is tied for eighth in save percentage, while Miller leads the league. Bryzgalov leads the league in shutouts, while Miller is sixth. Both have had a large number of their appearances end with only one or no goals for the opposition (both having done it 17 times). Both have had hiccups along the way (Miller a five-game winless streak in early February, Bryzgalov a six game run straddling New Years Day in which he went 1-2-2, then was yanked in a sixth game after allowing 4 goals on 15 shots to the Islanders, but they have been rare.

We won’t pick the winner (that comes later), but we can say with a betting certainty that the finalists will come from this quintet. It will be quite a race to the finish for what might be the closest Hart voting in a while.

2. Rules on the fly

The NHL is not beyond effecting a change in the rules in mid-stream. The most famous recent example of that might be the “Avery Rule” that was instituted after Sean Avery used his stick as a distraction, waving it in the face of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur during a game. This year, the stakes are higher. With as many head shots that have taken players out of the game, it isn’t beyond the pale to think the league might institute a rule, even in the season’s last weeks, to try to head off any more nonsense. Even if the league was inclined to wait until the end of the season for a more measured examination of the issue, there have been reports that it wants to fast-track a new rule discussed at the general managers’ meeting in Florida recently. Over the weekend there was a report that a change could come this week. Will it stem the tide? It will be something to watch for as teams fight it out for those last precious playoff spots.

3. 19 or not

The last time the Detroit Red Wings did not make the playoffs, there was no Internet (at least as we think of it). April of 1990 was more than a year before CERN published its “World Wide Web” project. But 1990 is the last time the Red Wings sat out the dance. They are hanging on by a thread to make it 19 seasons in a row, two points ahead of the Calgary Flames in points with a game in hand.

Neither the Red Wings nor the Flames have been backing into a spot. Detroit is 7-2-1 in their last ten games, the Flames are 6-4-0. Detroit would appear to have the scheduling advantage down the stretch. Of their last 11 games, six will come against teams currently in the top-eight of their respective conferences (Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville (twice), Philadelphia, and Chicago), although four of those games are on the road. The Red Wings do, however, get Columbus three times down the stretch. Calgary, on the other hand, plays seven top-eight teams in their last 10 games. In fact, seven of their last eight games are against such teams (Boston, Washington, Phoenix, Colorado, Chicago, San Jose, and Vancouver), five of them on the road. Although they do get Minnesota, Anaheim, and the Islanders, any of those non-playoff teams have the ability to surprise (they lost to the Wild in their last outing), certainly more than one might expect Columbus to surprise Detroit.

We suspect that in the end, the Red Wings will be skating in the spring for a 19th straight season.

4. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 1

Six teams in the Eastern Conference are fighting for four playoff spots – Ottawa, Philadelphia, Montreal, Boston, Atlanta, and the Rangers. Eight points separate them, and it is like watching some perverse NASCAR race made of beat up jalopies as they draft one other and wheeze to the finish line. The Flyers were not supposed to be in this position, but with ten games left they are left to wonder who will be their goaltender to take them home.

The Flyers catch something of a scheduling break in this sense – in the ten games they have left, they aren’t facing any real offensive juggernauts. Working backwards, they face the Rangers in the last two games of the year, and by that time the Blueshirts could be done (more on that later). That’s twice facing the 25th ranked team in offense. Again, working backwards, they also get…

- Toronto (20th)
- Detroit (16th…really)
- Montreal (19th)
- Islanders (27th)
- New Jersey (23rd)
- Pittsburgh (5th)
- Minnesota (15th)
- Ottawa (17th)

That’s eight games against teams in the lower half of the offensive rankings, four against teams in the bottom third. You can hide some goaltending sins with that kind of schedule.

Ray Emery is out for the season with a hip injury that might ultimately end his career. Michael Leighton, who was as close to a savior as the Flyers had in net in some time (16-5-2, 2.48, .918 since being picked up on waivers from Carolina), is lost for eight to ten weeks with a high-ankle sprain. That puts the hopes and dreams of the Flyers’ season in the hands of Brian Boucher, now in his second tour with the team that drafted him in 1995. The 23 games in which he has appeared so far this year is the most since the 2003-2004 season, when he was with Phoenix. The trouble is, in those 23 appearances he is 5-14-2. More ominously, he hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000. But we get ahead of ourselves. The Flyers have to get that far, first, and they are only four points ahead of Atlanta. Well, at least Boucher is rested.

5. Will Marty party?

From January 14th through March 7th, New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur went 6-11-2, 3.15, .883. Then there was that whole Olympic thing. One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this was the beginning of the end of Martin Brodeur’s reign as king of the crease. Well, he won four in a row before giving up a single goal in a 1-0 loss to St, Louis on Saturday, stopping 127 of 136 shots along the way – 93.4 percent of those shots. And twice in that streak he beat defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. Not so fast with the eulogies.

But Brodeur has appeared in 66 of the Devils’ 71 games this year and has played more than 3,800 minutes, leading the league in ice time. When you consider that Brodeur is 9-14 in the playoffs over the last three years and was knocked out in the first round the past two years, you still have to wonder how much he has left in the tank for the playoffs and whether Jacques Lemaire is going to give Marty more of a breather down the stretch.

The thing that complicates Lemaire’s decision on how much to play Brodeur is that the Devils are battling the Penguins for the Atlantic Division title (they are two points out of the top spot with a game in hand), but they haven’t yet clinched home ice for the first round – nine points ahead of the Flyers with 11 games left to play.

Backup Yann Denis has played in two of the last five games for the Devils, which is tantamount to a vacation for Brodeur. If getting Denis more playing time continues it could cost the Devils the Atlantic Division title and a top-three seed (Denis lost both decisions in those last five games), but it could provide dividends for the Devils when the games matter more down the road.

6. It’s a dog’s life

For most of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes have been a surprise in occupying a top-eight spot. It is a team that not many had hope for at the start of the year. But now, with nine games left, not only are the Desert Dogs safely among the top-eight, they are almost assured of home ice in the first round (an eight-point lead over fifth-place Nashville with nine games left to play), and they could yet finish atop the conference (they are now tied in points for the top spot with Chicago).

Since dropping three in a row in early January, the Coyotes are on a 20-6-0 run (the last nine wins in a row, and counting). Three of those losses came in succession in late February-early March as the only real hiccup along the way. The odd thing about those six losses, though, is that only one of them was by a single goal. Meanwhile, Phoenix has 14 one-goal wins (nine in extra time) among those 20 wins in this stretch.

Are the Coyotes running a bettor’s string of luck? Or are they becoming “battle hardened” with all these one-goal decisions heading down the stretch. These last ten games will be a guide to whether Phoenix is a contender, or merely a pretender.

7. Is San Jose swooning a month early?

No team is on a longer losing streak than the Sharks (0-5-1 and counting), and they are a thoroughly mediocre 7-9-1 since February 1st. It is hard to point to something specific. It is more of a systemic let down. The offense? 44 goals in their last 17 games (2.59/game). The defense? 58 goals in those last 17 games (3.41/game). Power play? 17.5 percent (10-for-57). Penalty killing? 78.5 percent (51-for-65). It is pretty much a full team effort at suck.

What is especially alarming for the Sharks is that through five games of a six game road trip, they have allowed 24 goals. Evgeni Nabokov was the goaltender of record in all of them, and in his last two starts he was torched for nine goals on 49 shots against the 28th and 29th-ranked teams in the league in offense (Calgary and Edmonton). Since February 1st he is 6-8-0, 3.36, .897. He has been a mess since the Olympics, where he finished 2-1, 4.16, .853.

Of course, it isn’t helping that Patrick Marleau, who was once the league leader in goals, has only three goals in his last 15 games. Or that Devin Setoguchi, who is depended on for secondary scoring support (he had 31 goals last year), has four in his last 23 games. Or that in his last 19 games Dany Heatley has three times had streaks of four games without a goal. There might be too many moving parts on this team that are not moving in sync, and unless they stop the bleeding in the last ten games, that could make them ripe for the hooking in the first round of the playoffs.

8. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 2

OK, imagine for a moment that you are Henrik Lundqvist, goaltender for the New York Rangers. You’re out there night after night watching the team in front of you redefining “ineptitude” as it applies to the art of scoring in hockey. The only reliable offensive threat you have – Marian Gaborik – has two goals in his last nine games. Then on Thursday morning, you read this…

“The Rangers might be able to overcome deficiencies on the power play, problems in their own end and the inability to create a sustained attack, but they simply cannot overcome an average performance from Henrik Lundqvist.”

Gee, thanks Larry Brooks. Lundqvist has been anything but “average,” except on the rarest of occasions. Since January 1st he has a goals against average of 2.49 and a save percentage of .915. These are not elite numbers, but given the margin of error with which Lundqvist has to play each and every night behind those skaters, it is amazing how well he has held up.

It is interesting to note that in 20 of 27 appearances since January 1st, Lundqvist allowed two or fewer goals. But when he melts down, he melts down – four times he has allowed at least five goals, and in two other instances in which he allowed four goals, he did so facing fewer than 20 shots. One could argue that such a performance is symptomatic of a goalie who keeps his fingers in the dike as best he can for long stretches, but when he can’t, it has disastrous results.

The Rangers have 79 goals in 32 games since January 1st – 2.49/game (only two teams – Edmonton and Boston – have lower averages for the full season). It gets worse. The Blueshirts have been shut out five times in those 32 games and scored a single goal in nine other contests. No goaltender can overcome that kind of ineptitude on offense. The Rangers are five points on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff point. If they can’t find a way to provide some sort of relief for Lundqvist, they have no chance of making up the difference.

9. Three different players, three different positions – one trophy

In the four seasons since the lockout, whatever suspense has been generated in advance of the final Calder Trophy tally to honor the league’s top rookie faded with the publication of the voting results. In those four years, the Calder winner garnered an average of 1,250 points and beat the runner-up by an average of 375 points. The narrowest margin of victory came in 2008 when Patrick Kane “edged” Nicklas Backstrom, 1,078 – 872.

This year, we have a bit of a twist. There are three players who comprise what appears to be the consensus group of finalists for the trophy – Colorado’s Matt Duchene, Buffalo’s Tyler Myers, and the Islanders’ John Tavares. Three different players, three different positions, three different settings in which they play. Handicapping these players is more a chore of comparing their relative disadvantages as they approach these last ten games in advance of the voting.

Duchene suffers from playing in the West. This is no small consideration. East coast bias – a tendency to give greater weight to East coast teams and players when evaluating their performance – might or might not exist, but to the extent it does, it could influence the decision. Duchene is a cornerstone of a team that has overachieved all year. But the Colorado Avalanche do not get a lot of buzz from the usual media outlets, and what attention they do get seems directed at that “overachieving” angle and the performance of goalie Craig Anderson. Duchene is the third leading scorer for the Avs, has the second most goals, and leads all rookies in scoring. But is anyone paying attention?

Myers suffers by virtue of the position he plays. Statistical measures in the NHL (at least those that the writers doing the voting seem to pay attention to) don’t provide much to defensemen for them to shine. Myers does, however, rank third in overall rookie scoring (behind Duchene and Tavares), is second among all rookies in plus-minus (behind Nashville’s Cody Franson), leads all rookies in ice time (by a whopping two-plus minutes a game). But here is the thing – Myers leads all Buffalo defensemen (veteran or rookie) in just about every statistical category. On a team that depends so much on limiting opponents’ scoring, this is no small consideration.

Tavares suffers the burden of high expectations. The first overall pick in the 2009 draft, he came into the season as the front-runner for the top rookie award, despite the fact that the top overall pick won the award only twice in four seasons since the lockout, and one of those winners – Alex Ovechkin – was a winner one year removed, owing to the lockout. Tavares also suffers by virtue of being the only one of these three players not likely to be playing in the spring. While the voting is based on regular season performance only, the Islanders’ slim prospects of making the playoffs can’t help but figure into the voting, at least on the margins. A pity, since Tavares is second in rookie scoring (behind Duchene), is tied for the rookie lead in power play goals and game-winning goals (with Duchene), and is second among rookie forwards in ice time (to Colorado’s T.J. Galiardi).

This race would appear to by Myers’ to lose, but with ten games left there is certainly enough time for any of these three to make a final statement on who should tote home the hardware.

10. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 3

It was the best of teams (won four in a row, best active streak in the East), it was the worst of teams (five losses in a row, worst in the East).

It was the age of wisdom (trading away their marquee player...ok, we'll see about this one), it was the age of foolishness (trading for a large, immobile defenseman who has one point and is minus-5 since the trade).

It was the season of Light (sweeping the Flyers for the season and closing to within a point of a playoff spot), it was the season of Darkness (dropping out of the top spot in the Northeast Division and within four points of dropping out of the top-eight altogether).

It is a tale of two teams – the Atlanta Thrashers and the Ottawa Senators.

On February 4th, Atlanta traded their marquee player – Ilya Kovalchuk – to the New Jersey Devils. Since then, the Thrashers did not sink silently into the tar pit that is the bottom third of the Eastern Conference. Rather, they are 8-6-3 since the trade and have that four-game winning streak, during which they laid ten goals on Buffalo and Ottawa (presumably the class of the Northeast), and then swept a home-and-home against the Flyers to sweep the four-game season series. Oddly enough, the Thrashers have done it with a respectable offense (3.06 goals/game since the trade) of a sort no one thought possible when Kovalchuk was traded.

Then there are the Senators. Remember, this was a team that won 11 in a row and 13 of 14 from January 14th through February 11th. But in retrospect, you could see the collapse coming before the winning streak. Before the successful run, the Senators lost five in a row and did so in particularly ugly fashion. They were outscored 22-5 in those five games and every loss was by at least three goals.

After the 13-in-14 streak, the Senators are 2-8-1, and the old problems have returned. They have been outscored 39-21 in their last 11 games and have fallen by three or more goals six times in nine losses. Getting defenseman Andy Sutton in trade from the Islanders at the deadline has not been an answer.

The thing to look for in these last ten games is whether the momentum each team is carrying will continue in their respective directions. If so, you might find that in the last ten games, Atlanta and Ottawa will end up exchanging places in the standings.

So there you have it – ten issues to keep a watch on over the last ten games. Happy stretch run.