Stanley Cup

NHL Stanley Cup: Kings 2 Games From Coronation

DustinBrownKings’ captain Dustin Brown’s Game 2 winner put the Kings halfway to another Cup.

by Drew Sarver

Watching the relentless style of the Los Angeles Kings makes you wonder why the Kings aren’t going for a three-peat of the Stanley Cup rather than their second title in three years.  The Kings have taken the first two games from the New York Rangers in overtime and double overtime. Both games played on the left coast saw Los Angeles come back from two goal deficits to force the extra ice time. They’re the first team to come back from two goal deficits to win in three straight games. The first was the finale of the Western Conference Finals when they topped the Chicago Blackhawks.

While the Rangers tremendous speed has been their biggest asset in the series, the big-bodied Kings hit from beginning to end. And they just keep coming.

Saturday night the Rangers were hoping to bounce back from their Game 1 disappointment and it appeared they might just do that. Game 2 started out in much the same manner as Game 1 with the Rangers netting the first two goals. But things turned around in the third period with New York ahead 4-2.

The Kings’ controversial third goal will be talked about for some time to come, but the aftermath was more frustrating for fans who saw the Rangers lose control of the game. It started when the Kings’ Matt Greene shot the puck from the right point. Kings’ winger Dwight King was  a sandwich between goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the Rangers crease. Greene’s shot hit King and got past Lundqvist for the goal. A two-goal lead was suddenly one and the shift in momentum was palpable.

Lundqvist immediately expressed his frustration to referee Brian O’Halloran, who signaled good goal. O’Halloran’s two part explanation was the puck was already past Lundqvist when contact was made and the contact was initiated by McDonagh.1 There is currently no video review for goaltender interference, but that could change as a result of the impact of the Kings’ goal. It was an odd no-call considering the Rangers Benoit Pouliot had gotten called for goaltender interference earlier in the game on a play that had less contact with the puck nowhere in sight.

The goal came within the first two minutes of third period and fired up the Kings’ fan base. Just as they had in the first game and throughout this year’s playoffs, the Kings took advantage of their opportunities. Former Ranger Marian Gaborik swept a loose puck in the slot past Lundqvist to tie the game at four apiece with a little over 12 minutes remaining in regulation.

After a scoreless first overtime – kept that way when Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick stopped the Rangers’ Chris Kreider on a breakaway – Dustin Brown redirected Willie Mitchell’s blast from the left point past Lundqvist for the game winner at 10:26 of the second extra session. Just like that the Kings are in command of the best of seven series.

Notes

Many in the media predicted the Kings would be tired entering the series after having gone the full seven games in their three previous series. The Western Conference semi-finals concluded with a Game 7 overtime. While the Kings may be tired, they don’t look tired. In fact, it’s the Rangers who appear to be more tired. The Rangers, particularly in Game 2, often fell to the ice without contact. Bad skates or tired legs?

Only five teams in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the championship. The 2011 Boston Bruins and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins rallied from two down to win the title. They’re the only teams to do so in the last 40 years.

Rangers defenseman John Moore returned from a two game suspension for elbowing Montreal’s Dale Weise in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Defenseman Rafael Diaz was a healthy scratch. Dan Carcillo’s 10 game suspension, for abusing an official, was reduced to six games and he could return for the fourth game of the series.

1 – sports.yahoo.com

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Stanley Cup Final – Kings vs. Rangers

StanleyCup

The Stanley Cup champion. There can be only one!

by Drew Sarver

When you think about Los Angeles sports teams, physical toughness isn’t usually what comes to mind. The Magic Johnson-led Lakers couldn’t handle the Larry Bird-led Celtics until the Lakers upped their physical game. The result was two more championships in 1985 and 1987. The LA Kings epitomize toughness and physicality.

On the other hand, when you think about New York City sports teams, physical and mental toughness is one of the first things that come to mind. Whether it’s rebounding from 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers and the residents of the Tri-State area are made of tough stuff. Against this backdrop of steely stoicism, you don’t necessarily think about people being in touch with their emotional side. Yet the New York Rangers are fine representation for family and watching each other’s backs.

The two biggest markets in sports are ready to clash in what could be an epic Stanley Cup Final. Major League Baseball saw the two cities duke it out four times, but the last World Series final between the Yankees and Dodgers was 1981. The Knicks and Lakers met in classic NBA finals in 1970, ‘72, and ‘73. The east and west coast powers have not met in football, which now stands as the only one of the four major sports where that is the case.

Beginning tonight, the Kings and Rangers will maneuver, coach, hit, shoot and pass the puck and kick- and glove-save it away for up to two weeks. When one team reaches that magical fourth victory in the best-of-seven series, the Stanley Cup will be wheeled out by white-glove clad men for the greatest celebration in modern sports.

The Teams

LA Kings (Stanley Cup Victory – 2012; Runner up – 1993)

Don’t let the words of Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter fool you. He’s trying to play the underdog. But his team, which is largely intact from when they won the Stanley Cup two years ago, is the clear favorite.

After playing three conference series, the last of which ended in a Game 7 overtime victory on Sunday night, will the Kings show any fatigue? In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup, that’s not happening, at least from the outset when adrenaline takes over. The third period will be the true indicator of whether there is any lag from the Western conference finals.

The Kings are a beast that you better finish off when you have the chance. Their first round series with the San Jose Sharks saw the Kings fall behind three games to none. Four straight wins followed, including a 5-1 wipeout in Game 7.

The Anaheim Ducks looked like they would be the ones to knock the Kings off their throne when they erased a 2-0 deficit in games and won three straight. Forget about it…the Kings forced a Game 7 with a 2-1 victory at home and then dominated another seventh game on the road, 6-2.

Though not necessarily well played at times, the conference finals between the Kings and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks was a classic. This time it was the Kings blowing a lead when the series appeared to be over. Back-to-back victories were earned by Chicago in Games 5, which went to double overtime, and in Game 6 which forced yet another seventh road game for LA. In their 21st playoff game of the year, the Kings’ Alec Martinez got a fortuitous bounce off of Blackhawks’ defenseman Nick Leddy, and the puck sailed past goalie Corey Crawford for the game winner.

NY Rangers (Stanley Cup Victories – 1928, 1933, 1940, 1994; Runner up – 1929, 1932, 1937, 1950, 1972, 1979)

No one expected the Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup final this year. There was no reason to expect it with the inconsistency that plagued the regular season or the powerless power play or their inability to score goals.

Then the trade deadline came and GM Glen Sather had a tough decision to make. Should he hold on to free-agent-to-be captain and spiritual leader, Ryan Callahan, or deal him so as not to lose out on any return if he walked after the season? Martin St. Louis was doing his own deliberating down in Tampa Bay. The 13-year veteran, possibly prompted by the decision of Lightning GM and Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman to pass over his selection for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, demanded a trade. He had one destination in mind, the New York Rangers, which would put him near his home in Connecticut.

On March 5, the Rangers sent Callahan, a first round draft pick, and a conditional first round pick to the Lightning for St. Louis and a pair of conditional picks. St. Louis managed just one goal and eight points in 19 games, and many wondered aloud if the 38-year old could handle playing in New York. But his teammates, especially friend and former Lightning teammate Brad Richards, knew better. The playoffs began and St. Louis started clicking.

The Rangers battled division rival Philadelphia before they squeaked out a 2-1 win in Game 7 at home. When they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the conference semi-finals, most pundits and fans started making their offseason plans. Then a tragic event seemed to turn things around.  St. Louis’ mother, France, died unexpectedly at the age of 63.

St. Louis and his family were embraced by the Rangers and a close team became even closer. The team, sparked by the play of St. Louis and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, won three straight games to capture the series. Like the Kings, the Rangers had won Game 7 on the road. The specialty units, especially the power play, had improved dramatically.

In the conference finals, the Rangers faced off against long-time “Original Six” rival, the Montreal Canadiens. The played their best game of the postseason in the Game 6 clincher, which saw Lundqvist and the Rangers win 1-0.

The Coaches

Head man Darryl Sutter is part of hockey royalty. Along with his brothers Duane, Brent, Brian, Ron, and Rich, he played in the NHL, and Brent’s son Brandon is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to coming to LA, Sutter coached the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. He was behind the bench for the Flames team that went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals with the Tampa Lightning in 2004. The Lightning, which included St. Louis and Richards, won the finale 2-1.

Sutter was also GM of the Flames and resigned as coach after the 2005-2006 season to concentrate on his front office position. He stepped down in the middle of the 2010-2011 season and was hired a little less than a year later to replace Terry Murray as the Kings’ head coach. Sutter then won his first Stanley Cup when the Kings swept the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 final.

Alain Vigneault knows what it is like to get to the mountain top, but also how rough it is to come back down. The former defenseman played just 42 games over parts of two seasons in the NHL before going into coaching. After not finding success in parts of four seasons with Montreal, Vigneault was hired as the Vancouver Canucks’ head man in 2006-2007. The Canucks finished with the best record in the division and/or NHL six times in the regular season, but made it to the finals just once. There they lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games after holding a 3 games to 2 lead. After being swept in the first round last year, the Canucks fired Vigneault, who basically swapped jobs with fellow fired coach John Tortorella.

The Goalies

Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick’s resume shows a Stanley Cup championship, an Olympic Silver medal for Team USA (2010) and a second place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, for the league’s best goalie, in 2012. The Kings current playoff run in no way reflects the way they blew through opponents en route to the championship two years ago. That team went 16-4 in the playoffs and Quick held opponents to a 1.41 goals per game. He also stopped nearly 95% of the shots he faced. This year, Quick has a 2.86 goals-against-average (GAA) and the team has allowed many more shots on goal than the winning squad. The 28-yr old is at his best when he stays in the crease area and doesn’t wander too much. He has a tendency to drop down too quickly at times, which can allow an opponent to roof the puck to beat him.1 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?5348

Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist has won Gold and Silver Olympic medals representing his native Sweden, and won the 2012 Vezina Trophy, beating out Quick. He was the runner up last season. This is the 32-year old’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. After a rough start to the season, in which he was at times benched for back up Cam Talbot, Lundqvist was outstanding in the second half of the year and carried that level of play into the postseason. He has a 2.03 GAA and has stopped 92.8% of his opponent’s shots. Lundqvist likes to play deep in the crease and has a strong glove hand. His style is used to take away low shots, so expect opponents to try to beat him in the upper part of the net.2 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?2585

The Defense

The Kings’ Drew Doughty is arguably one of the best defensemen in hockey. He was the second overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, following high-scorer Steven Stamkos. The Ontario native has scored 10 or more goals four times in his six-year career and is smooth as glass when handling the puck. He finished third in the Norris Trophy voting, for best defenseman, in 2012 when he collected a career-high 59 points. He added 16 points, including a tournament-high 12 assists, as the Kings won the Cup. The Rangers need to be aware of Doughty’s tendency to pinch into the offensive zone. The durable 24-year old averaged better than 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season and upped that by two minutes in the playoffs.

The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh was the 12th overall pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 draft. That same year, the Rangers signed free agent center Scott Gomez to an awful seven-year, $51MM contract. After two mediocre seasons in the Big Apple, the Rangers were desperate to trade Gomez and the Canadiens were desperate for a top center. Gomez and Tom Pyatt headed to Montreal for three players, including McDonagh. Whether he knew what he had at the time or not, it turned out to be one of the best deals that Sather ever made. The soon-to-be 25-year old defenseman stepped up his offense this season and set career highs with 14 goals and 43 points, but it’s his transition from offense to defense and stopping shooters in the defensive zone that makes McDonagh special.

The Snipers

Marian Gaborik knows what it’s like to wear the red, white, and blue of the New York Rangers. He did so for three-plus seasons and scored 41 goals for NY two years ago. But his style of play was stifled under former head coach John Tortorella’s “defense first” approach, and he was sent packing to Columbus for three current Rangers – Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Derek Dorsett. Gaborik missed half of this season due to injury and was dealt to the Kings at the trade deadline in March for two draft picks. Gaborik is now healthy again and has topped all playoff scorers with 12 goals, 10 of them at even strength. Many of “Gabby’s” goals come from his ability to elude defensemen around the net.

The Rangers’ Rick Nash was acquired from Columbus prior to the 2012-2013 season for three players and a first round pick. The hope was that he could combine with Gaborik to give the Rangers a pair of solid scoring lines. A player’s strike/owner’s lockout didn’t help, but the experiment failed and the Rangers parted company with Gaborik. Nash was solid in his first year in New York with 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. A concussion had a major impact on Nash earlier this year and he finished with just 39 points in 65 games. He also lacked playoff experience and postseason success, and the Rangers’ fans let him have it when he went without a goal in the first two rounds this year. Nash finally got his offense going in the conference finals with three goals and a pair of assists. Just as importantly, he’s been responsible in his own zone and has played a physical game.

The Prediction

The Kings have an experienced, playoff-tested squad that has just about seen and done it all this year. They find ways to win, not ways to lose. For that reason, the prediction here is the Kings in six.

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL: Teemu Selanne – The End of an Era

Teemu Selanne Ducks 2014 playoff previewTeemu Selanne had a Hall of Fame NHL career he’ll now reflect back on.

by Alli Baker

On May 16, 2014, the Teemu Selanne era came to an end when the Anaheim Ducks fell in an emotional Game 7 to the Los Angeles Kings, 6-2. Although the Kings had just won a spot in the NHL Western Conference semi-finals, the end of Selanne’s career took everyone’s attention over the King’s victory.

After the end of the game, the Kings and Ducks players stayed on the ice and tapped their sticks in a salute to Selanne as he said his final farewell to the Anaheim crowd. While the 43-year old fell short of winning a second Stanley Cup, Selanne by no means fell short of putting together an impressive NHL career.

The sure-fire future Hall of Famer began his career playing for the Finnish junior league team, Jokerit. After spending three years in the development program, Selanne ended his junior career in 1987-1988 with a junior-A championship and an impressive 43 goals and 66 points in 33 games. 1  His notable performance sparked the interest of the Winnipeg Jets, who then selected Selanne tenth overall, in the 1988 NHL amateur draft.

After being drafted, Selanne continued playing in Finland with SM-Liiga until he was signed to a North American contract with the Jets in 1992. From there, he began an incredible twenty-one year NHL career. He played his first NHL game on October 6, 1992 against the Detroit Red Wings.

Nicknamed the “Finnish Flash” because of his speed and agility, Selanne quickly proved himself in his first few games in the NHL.  The rookie collected his first career hat trick just five games into his professional career.  He went on to score 76 goals, including four hat tricks and one four-goal game. 2 Selanne broke the National Hockey League record for most goals scored by a rookie, earning himself the Calder Memorial Trophy as the top freshman in the NHL.

He was also a first-time All-Star, and was chosen for the All-Star team another nine times over the course of his career. Though Winnipeg lost in the first round of the playoffs, Selanne collected six points in six games. He maintained consistent play throughout the next three years with the Jets, reaching 100 career goals in 1994, in only 130 NHL games. Only the New York Islanders’ Mike Bossy was faster to reach that milestone.

Unfortunately, after that feat was accomplished, Selanne tore his Achilles tendon and was forced to sit out the last 33 games of the 1994 season. He finished with just 25 goals on the season. The 1994-1995 NHL lockout the following year caused Selanne to return back to his native Finland for half a season, where he played for Jokerit Helsinki-Finland and was named tournament All-Star when the team won the 1995 European Cup.

Once the lockout ended, Selanne returned to the Jets, but was traded halfway through the season to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Upon hearing of the trade, Selanne was apparently furious. According to the Seattle Times, he stormed out of practice and ripped the nameplate off from above his locker. He left Winnipeg Arena without talking to reporters. 3  Although it took time to adjust to the trade, Selanne later said that it was the best thing to happen to his career.

In his first stint with the Ducks (from the 1995-1996 season into the 2000-2001 season), Selanne scored 225 goals and had two 50+ goal seasons. His performance led to five All-Star appearances, chief among them the the 1998 All-Star game, where he became the first European to score a hat trick and to be voted Most Valuable Player. The 1998 season also saw Selanne win the inaugural Maurice “The Rocket” Richard Trophy for the league’s highest goal scorer (47). 4

At the 2000-2001 trade deadline, Selanne was sent to the San Jose Sharks for two players and a draft choice. He fell just short of 30 goals the next two seasons and left the west coast for a free agent deal with the Colorado Avalanche. The 33-year old struggled for the better part of the season, scoring only 16 goals (and 16 assists) in 78 games. After failing to win a Cup in Colorado and being placed on the fourth line for most of the season, Selanne took the 2004-2005 lockout year off from hockey to recover and then came back with the Ducks for the 2005-2006 season.

A revitalized Selanne scored 40 or more goals for two straight seasons and notched his 1,000th career point. He also joined Jari Kurri as the only Finnish-born players to score 500 goals, when he accomplished that feat in 2006. Selanne than took part in what every NHL player dreams of: a Stanley Cup championship. The 2007 Ducks defeated the Ottawa Senators for the franchise’s first title. After 14 seasons and a Stanley Cup win, Selanne contemplated retirement annually, but continued to play with the Ducks for another seven seasons. He finally decided that the 21st season of his career would be his last in the NHL.

The 43-year old Selanne,  a fan favorite in Anaheim, received a standing ovation and the first, second, and third star in his final regular season game against the Avalanche. The Ducks organization later announced that Selanne’s number 8 would be the first number retired by the franchise.

Selanne’s illustrious career wasn’t limited to his NHL accomplishments. Internationally, the Finn played in six Olympic games and holds the records for most points scored in the Olympics. He is also the oldest player to medal in Olympic Ice Hockey after he picked up a bronze medal this past winter at age 43.

Outside of hockey, Selanne is a collector of cars and has entered the World Rally Championship two times.  He is also the owner of  a Laguna Beach restaurant and the previous owner of four establishments in Finland. In his native country, he is the focus of a biographical film, “Sel8nne”, which looks at his life in and out of the NHL.

And because Teemu Selanne is apparently capable of doing just about everything, he was a kindergarten teacher before he began his hockey career.

Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, he was also voted Sexiest Man Alive in Finland by the magazine “Eeva.” 5. Way to go, Teemu. That’s the life of a legend.

 

1 – wikipedia.org
2 – nhl.com
3 – seattletimes.nwsource.com
4 – ocregister.com
5 – localemagazine.com

 

Alli Baker is a hockey fanatic and contributor for Designated for Assignment.  She can be reached at allibaker23@aol.com or followed on Twitter at @allibaker23

Spirit of St. Louis Propels New York Rangers

Martin St. Louis celebrates his OT winner (Courtesy of Getty Images)

by Drew Sarver

Sunday night, Alex Galchenyuk came within a millimeter of evening up the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece. He had already been credited with the game winner, after the puck pin-balled off of of him and past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in Game 3. This time, however, the puck rang off the crossbar and deflected harmlessly away. The game went to overtime, where the Rangers’ Martin St. Louis snipered a shot over the left shoulder of rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski for a 3-2 win and a three games to one lead for the Rangers in the best of seven series

It’s been well documented by now that St. Louis’ mother passed away prior to Game 5 of the conference semifinals with he Pittsburgh Penguins. From that moment on, St. Louis seemingly elevated his game as his teammates embraced him and his family as if France St. Louis was related to all of them.

After a Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh, the Rangers returned home to try to even the series with the Penguins. St. Louis was accompanied by his grieving father and sister. The Rangers’ diminutive winger with a big heart scored the game’s first goal and in doing so, ignited the Madison Square Garden crowd. The Rangers won 3-1 and St. Louis was named first star of the game.

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Alex Galchenyuk scores Game 3 winner (Courtesy of USA today)

The Rangers edged the Pens 2-1 in the finale, with St. Louis assisting on good friend Brad Richard’s go ahead goal. Acquired at the trade deadline for popular captain, Ryan Callahan, St. Louis has had six points (three goals and three assists) in the last five playoff games. His six goals this postseason  is the sixth best among all players.

Sunday night’s Game 4 was crucial for both teams in the series. The game was rough, rugged, and chippy after the thrown elbows and shoved linesman of Game 3. Montreal’s P.K. Subban scored a third period power play goal that erased a 2-1 Rangers’ lead. Then Galchenyuk found himself alone at the side of the left circle and came that close to erasing the series lead with the shot heard ’round the Garden.

Six minutes into overtime, Richards dug the puck out of the boards and flipped it Carl Hagelin. The Swedish-born winger found St. Louis all alone in the right circle. The shot  made by St. Louis could only be made by a player with his type of elite offensive skills. He got the puck on the tape of his stick blade, skated through the right circle and put the puck between the narrow opening above Tokarski’s left shoulder and the crossbar.

Game over.

Most of us have gone through what St. Louis and his family are in the midst of weathering. From personal experience, I know how difficult it is to balance the loss of a parent and going to work every day – ; trying to keep your life as balanced and normal as possible. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in front a packed, frenzied arena. It makes St. Louis’ play all the more remarkable.

Notes

Montreal goalie Carey Price skated for the second day in a row on Tuesday and was in full uniform. But coach Michel Therrien insisted Price would not be available in the conference finals.

Rangers center Derek Stepan skated with his squad and could return Tuesday for Game 5. Former teammate Brandon Prust caught Stepan with an elbow in Game 4, breaking the Rangers’ jaw. Prust received a two game suspension for the hit.

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: BLUES VS. BLACKHAWKS

Ryan Miller Blues 2014 playoff previewRyan Miller must find his game if the St. Louis Blues are to have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
by Christopher Wenrich

Fans in St. Louis were probably singing the blues lately, as their Blues ended their regular season with a six-game losing streak. One of the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the Blues had an excellent regular season as they were among the National Hockey League’s best teams both offensively and defensively. Injuries, however, began to take their toll in the stretch run of the season. Vladimir Tarasenko (broken thumb) and David Backes

(foot) will be available for a Game 1 showdown with division rival and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. T.J. Oshie will be unavailable. Patrik Berglund (upper body) is also unavailable.
St. Louis Blues
239 goals for (7th)
188 goals against (3rd)
19.8 PP% (7th)
85.7 PK% (7th)

Alexander Steen led the way in scoring for the Blues with 33 goals and 62 points in 68 games. If not for missing 14 games, Steen likely would have posted his first career 40-goal season. Oshie amassed 60 points in 70 games while Backes scored 57 points in 74 games. In addition to his offensive contributions, Backes was third in the NHL with 273 hits. Youngsters Tarasenko (43 points) and Jaden Schwartz (56 points) rounded out the Blues’ scoring depth.

In addition to Backes, Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott were also physical forwards. Center Derek Roy provides the blues with depth down the middle and Sobotka won 61.9% of his faceoffs this season. Up front, the Blues have skill, grit, and two-way players in what may be the most balanced collection of forwards in the NHL.

Alex Pietrangelo (51 points) and Jay Bouwmeester (37 points) form what is arguably the NHL’s best defensive pairing. Pietrangelo averaged 25 minutes of ice time per game. Both are strong defensively and generate offense with their skating and their quick puck movement. Had Bouwmeester scored three more points, the Blues would have had three 40-point defensemen, as Kevin Shattenkirk notched 45 points this season. The Blues have plenty of experience on the blue line, with stay-at-home defenseman Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Jordan Leopold.

Although goaltender Jaroslav Halak was solid, the Blues traded him at the deadline to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Ott and goaltender Ryan Miller. Despite having virtually no defensive support with the Sabres, Miller looked like a Vezina candidate. Miller is an elite goaltender who conceivably puts a talented Blues team over the top in their quest for the Cup. Miller had a nice start in his first few games with the Blues, but struggled along with the team in their season-ending six-game losing streak. The Blues are counting on Miller to quickly regain his top form in order to have a chance against a tough Chicago squad.

Chicago Blackhawks
261 goals for (2nd)
212 goals against (12th)
19.5 PP% (10th)
81.4 PK% (19th)

Just as the Blues have their captain (Backes) returning for game one, so do the Blackhawks. Captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be playing in Game 1. Surprisingly, these young superstars were not the team’s leading scorer, as Patrick Sharp amassed 34 goals and 78 points in 82 games. Kane registered 69 points in 69 games while Toews had 68 in 76 games.

Versatile winger Brandon Saad played on a line with Toews and Sharp at times this season. Saad is a very underrated player who can play any forward position and contribute on any line. Saad’s versatility gives the Blackhawks more flexibility to juggle their lines or possibly stack the top line with a Sharp/Toews/Kane trio. Veteran Marian Hossa is still going strong, having scored 30 goals and 60 points this season. When fully healthy, the Blackhawks possess perhaps the best offensive team in the NHL.

Chicago has an experienced core on the blue line with the likes of Michal RozsivalBrent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya, but the defense begins and ends with Duncan Keith. Keith is a superb two-way defenseman whose improved defensive play tends to be overshadowed by his brilliant puck distribution. Keith’s 61 points was second among NHL defenseman, trailing only the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson (74 points). The ability of Keith and Nick Leddy to generate an attack in transition is the engine that makes the Blackhawks’ offense run.

Although not an elite goaltender by any stretch of the imagination, Corey Crawford is solid and has stretches where he plays like an elite goalie. Crawford was 32-16-10 this season with a 2.26 GAA, a .917 SV% and two shutouts.

nhl bracketThe Blues will be worthy of advancing to the next round if they defeat the Blackhawks, especially with the injuries they’ve had to deal with. While waiting for the rest of their key players to return, Miller must return to the form he showed earlier this season with the Sabres.

This series has the potential to be the best first-round match up in either conference. With the Blues’ depleted squad, the Blackhawks have the advantage in the early going. They’ll need Crawford to be on top of his game and not give that advantage away. Look for this to be a hard-fought seven-game series, and do not be surprised to see the Blues come out on top despite their recent play.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment. Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).

2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: PENGUINS VS. BLUE JACKETS

Sidney Crosby Penguins 2014 playoff preview

Still just 26-years of age, Sidney Crosby has 105 points in 82 career playoff games.

by Christopher Wenrich

The Pittsburgh Penguins will showcase their offensive talent as they face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the National Hockey League playoffs.  Led by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins were one of the top offensive teams in the league this season.  Crosby racked up an NHL-best 104 points in 80 games to win the scoring title (nobody else even reached 90 points) and reached 100-plus points for the fifth time in his career.  Crosby led the league in assists (68) and points while finishing third in faceoff wins.

Pittsburgh Penguins
242 goals for (5th)
204 goals against (10th)
23.4 PP% (1st)
85.0 PK% (5th)

Despite losing Pascal Dupuis to a season-ending injury, Evgeni Malkin missing 22 games andKris Letang missing 10 weeks due to a stroke, the Penguins were still among league leaders in goals scored.  Malkin notched 72 points in only 60 games, but may be unavailable for the start of the series.  After Letang suffered a stroke, there were fears as to whether or not he would ever play again.  Fortunately for Letang, he played the final games of the regular season without incident.

Although Malkin may be unavailable for the start of the series, the Penguins still possess plenty of firepower up front.  Chris Kunitz scored 35 goals and 68 points in 78 games this season. James Neal scored 27 goals and 61 points in 59 games and Jussi Jokinen scored 21 goals and 57 points in 81 games.  During Malkin’s absence, Brandon Sutter showed the ability to chip in offensively.  Letang – 22 points – was limited to 37 games this season, but Matt Niskanenpicked up the slack offensively, posting 10 goals and 46 points in 81 games.  A healthy Letang will only add to the Penguins’ great firepower.

Marc-Andre Fleury went 39-18-5 with a 2.37 GAA, .915 SV% and five shutouts this season.  This is the fourth consecutive season in which he posted a sub-2.40 GAA.  Fleury is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL when he is on top of his game.  However, he suffered through postseason struggles in recent years.  If the Penguins are to make a deep run, Fleury will have to be sharp.

Columbus Blue Jackets
226 goals for (12th)
214 goals against (13th)
19.3 PP% (11th)
82.1 PK% (14th)

Blue Jackets fans had to be thrilled to finally witness the breakout year of Ryan Johansen.  He led the team in goals (33) and points (63) in 82 games.  Johansen is an excellent puck handler who is unafraid to drive to the net and he possesses a good shot.  This long-awaited breakout may be just the beginning.  In terms of talent, the Blue Jackets simply do not match up with the Penguins; however, if they are able to limit the production of the Crosby line and get an excellent performance from Johansen, they may have a chance.

Defenseman James Wisniewski had another strong season for the Jackets, scoring 51 points in 75 games.  Johansen and Wisniewski were the only Blue Jackets to post 50-plus points.  Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson were the only others to reach 40-plus.  Sergei Bobrovsky went 32-20-5 this season with a 2.38 GAA, .923 SV% and five shutouts.  Bobrovsky has been nothing short of spectacular in his time with the Blue Jackets, and he must continue to play that well for his team to have any chance to upset the Penguins.


General expectations for this series favor a victory by the Penguins.  The reality is that the Blue Jackets do not possess the collective star power the Penguins have up front.  This will likely be a very short series, unless the Blue Jackets can grind out 1-0 or 2-1 victories.  The Blue Jackets will not be scoring four or five goals in a game unless Fleury struggles as he has in recent years.

2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: LIGHTNING VS. CANADIENS

Thomas Vanek Habs 2014 playoff preview

With 11 wins in their final 15 games, Tomas Vanek and the Canadiens look to upset the Lightning.

by Christopher Wenrich

At first glance, many would think that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 46-27-9 regular season record, the presence of their now-healthy superstar Steven Stamkos, and the play of goalie Ben Bishop would make them a heavy favorite over the Montreal Canadiens.  Bishop, in particular, was outstanding.  He posted a 37-14-7  record  with a 2.23 goals against average (GAA), a .924 save percentage (SV%) and five shutouts.  As pretty as these statistics may look to the casual observer, they don’t tell the whole story.  The following stats and league ranking are a truer indicator of the Lightning’s season and their playoff hopes.

Tampa Bay
232 goals for (9th)
209 goals against (11th)
18.5 PP% (13th)
80.7 PK% (23rd)

The team ranked ninth in the National Hockey League in goals this season, despite the leg injury which limited Stamkos to 37 games.  When healthy, Stamkos was a goal-scoring machine.  He scored 25 goals and added 15 assists for 40 points in 37 games.  Youngsters Ondrej Palat(59 points in 81 games) and Tyler Johnson (50 points in 82 games) were productive for the Lightning, as well.  Veteran forward Valtteri Filppula added 58 points in 75 games.  The offense took a big hit, however, when their leading scorer was dealt at the trade deadline.

Martin St. Louis topped the Lightning score sheet with 29 goals and 61 points in 62 games before being traded on March 5 to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Callahan.  Although Callahan is an excellent all-around player who can contribute to the Lightning’s penalty kill (PK), the absence of St. Louis may potentially hinder the offense of the team and the effectiveness of Stamkos.  There is no question that Stamkos is a bona fide  superstar, but the loss of St. Louis puts more pressure on him to fill the net with vulcanized rubber.

Questions about the offense aside, trading for Callahan made sense for the Lightning, as their PK ranked 23rd in the NHL this season.  It’s an alarming statistic, particularly when you consider how fantastic Bishop has been in goal.  The goalie’s numbers may be misleading though, as his play declined sharply after the Olympics.  Prior to the international games, Bishop was 28-8-4 with a 1.98 GAA, a .933 SV% and four shutouts.  After the break, Bishop went 9-6-3 with a 2.79 GAA, a .904 SV% and one shutout.  While a goalie can never be solely blamed for a decline in performance, the drastic changes in the numbers are still startling.

At the moment, the bigger question about Bishop is his health.  He is already scratched from Game 1 due to the upper-body injury he suffered last week.  Backup goalie Anders Lindbackgets the start in his place.  Lindback heated up at the right time, with a 3-0-0 record, 0.67 GAA, .975 SV% and a shutout in his three games in the month of April.  The Lightning will need Lindback to carry that momentum into the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens
209 goals for (21st)
201 goals against (8th)
17.2 PP% (19th)
85.1 PK% (4th)

Having ranked 21st in the NHL in goals, the Canadiens will not be mistaken for an offensive juggernauts.  However, their trade deadline acquisition of forward Thomas Vanek may have been the move of the year.  The Canadiens lost their first three games after they acquired Vanek, but finished the season 11-3-1.  Vanek was a big contributor to the Habs’ hot streak with 14 points in the last 15 games.

A player of Vanek’s caliber was sorely needed in the lineup, as the closest thing the Canadiens had to an all-star forward was the one-dimensional Max Pacioretty.  The 25-year old scored 39 goals and notched 21 assists for 60 points in 73 games.

Vanek’s presence also takes the pressure off of youngsters David Desharnais and Alex Galchenyuk.  Although they are past their primes, veterans Tomas PlekanecDaniel Briereand Brian Gionta provide valuable experience which may come in handy during the playoffs.  Having a good mix of veterans reduces the pressures and expectations on younger players and allows them to find their game and grow.  If Galchenyuk shows flashes of his potential in the playoffs, the Canadiens can be a very dangerous team.

Defensemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov jump-start the Canadiens attack and get the puck to the finishers.  Subban was among the NHL’s highest-scoring and most reliable defensemen this season, with 53 points while playing in all 82 regular season games.  Markov recorded 43 points this season, including 36 assists.

Should the Canadiens defense be beaten, Carey Price awaits in net to stymie any attack.  While having an elite goaltender like Price does not absolve players of their defensive responsibilities, it does give them more offensive freedom to take chances, thus enabling defensemen like Subban and Markov to shine.  Price was superb this season with a 34-20-5 record, 2.32 GAA, .927 SV% (3rd in NHL) and six shutouts (2nd in NHL).  He also was the goalie for the Gold Medal winning Canadian hockey team in this year’s winter Olympics.

The Lightning/Canadiens series is indeed an interesting match of misleading statistics.  The Lightning’s offense and goaltending might not be as good as the regular season numbers indicate.  Likewise, the Canadiens’ offense might not be as bad as the regular season numbers indicate.  Do not be surprised if you see the Canadiens eliminate the Lightning in this opening round series.  They have a proven goaltender, a good defense and an underrated offense that continues to improve.  If Galchenyuk takes his game to another level in the playoffs while the others continue to contribute, the Canadiens could conceivably make a deep run and win the Stanley Cup.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).