NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.

Blackhawks’ injuries could be blessing in disguise

130107_gq_trout_aA few weeks back, Patrick Kane was injured during the Blackhawks’ tilt with the St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Shortly after, he was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season with a “lower body injury.” A week and a half later, Jonathan Toews was injured during the second period of the Hawks-Penguins game after a bone-crushing hit from Brooks Orpik. Like Kane, Toews was ruled out for the rest of the regular season. Many, myself included, thought the Blackhawks would go into a tailspin and struggle to win games for the remainder of their schedule. That, however, has not been the case.

The Blackhawks are currently riding a three-game winning streak after wins over Minnesota, Columbus, and St. Louis (all playoff teams). They trail the Avalanche in the standings by two points, while Colorado has a game-in-hand. During this three-game winning streak, multiple Blackhawks players have had a chance to step up and make their mark on the team in Kane and Toews’ absence. Guys like Andrew Shaw, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, and Peter Regin have stepped up their game lately and are a huge reason for the team’s recent success.

940-couture-loganWhile one would assume having Kane and Toews injured at the same time is never a good thing, it has actually opened the door for Jeremy Morin to prove he belongs on the Blackhawks NHL roster and in the starting lineup heading into the playoffs. All season long, Hawks fans have wondered why Morin has been stuck down in Rockford while players such as Bollig and Handzus have continued to play every night in Chicago. In the coaching staff’s defense, Morin wasn’t showing any signs of improved defensive awareness in his stints with the Blackhawks earlier this season, thus the reason for him spending ample time in Rockford. Now, however, Morin is back in the Blackhawks’ lineup and he looks like a much-improved player in all facets of the game (see, spending time in the AHL can be a positive).

Morin has scored two goals in the last two games and also added an assist against St. Louis in the Hawks’ most recent game this past Sunday. He’s always been a physical player, but now he is playing a smart physical game rather than running around like a chicken with its head cut off. One aspect of Morin’s game that has really stood out to me is his willingness to crash the net in the offensive zone after a shot. This is how he scored against the Blues the other day. Come playoff time, the Blackhawks (and all other playoff teams) will need some ugly goals to help get them victories, and Morin is the type of guy who will get you those.

Here’s the issue. When Kane and Toews do re-enter the lineup for Game One of the playoffs, two players will have to exit. If I could have it my way, I’d like to see Handzus and Bollig be the ones to get scratched for the postseason. My ideal lines would look something like this:

Saad-Toews-Hossa

Sharp-Shaw-Kane

Versteeg-Smith-Bickell

Morin-Kruger-Regin

I think you could flip/flop Shaw and Smith if need be, but for the most part I think those are 139990-330-0the best lines Quenneville could put together. Handzus, while good on the penalty kill, is too slow and not skilled enough to be effective in this lineup. Too often he holds up the rush, makes terrible passes, or gets trapped along the boards due to his lack of quickness and turns the puck over. Bollig, on the other hand, can be a physical presence on the ice, but he has next to zero offensive skill and cannot be trusted in his own end come playoff time. Insert Morin and Regin in place of Handzus and Bollig and you have a lot more skill, a lot more speed, and a much deeper and smarter team.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that Teuvo Teravainen is not in the team’s plans for this postseason as Joel Quenneville continues to not play him. I can’t say I blame the team for not wanting to use up the first year of Teuvo’s contract right now, but I do think he could be a dangerous center on a line with Patrick Kane in the playoffs.

While none of us enjoy having our captain and best playmaker injured at the same time, their injuries have opened the door for guys like Morin, Smith, Regin and Shaw to step up their game leading into the playoffs. I don’t know how much more Jeremy Morin has to do to prove he belongs in the lineup for the postseason, and hopefully Quenneville sees that as well. The Hawks should be healthy come Game One against Colorado, whether it be at home or in Denver, and I think a healthy Blackhawks team can take down the Avs in a seven-game series.

Not looking good

7327531For the second game in a row, the Blackhawks were badly out-played and have left us fans questioning their desire and work ethic. In Boston on Thursday night, the Hawks were shutout 3-0 and never once looked like they wanted to be playing in that game. In tonight’s 5-2 loss, the Blackhawks looked even worse than Thursday for about 35 of the 60 minutes played against Ottawa, a team that won’t be making the playoffs, and a team that the Blackhawks need to be beating at this time of year.

I’m not quite sure where to even begin trying to explain how bad the Hawks were tonight, but here we go:

  • They came out looking OK through the first 5 minutes tonight, but then proceeded to lose all energy, all effort, and all competitiveness for the remainder of the first.
  • This may have been the worst game of the season for the Hawks’ defensemen. Ottawa torched them multiple times for odd-man rushes and breakaways. If it wasn’t for Raanta, this could have been a 7-2 final, at least…
  • How much longer are we going to watch guys like Versteeg, Sharp, Keith, etc., continue to pass up open looks at the net to try and force a pass through traffic? When you’re down 3-0, you need to shoot the puck as much as possible. This did not happen against the Senators.
  • I am beginning to wonder if Quenneville is losing his mind a little bit. At what point will he see that Bollig and Handzus are bigger liabilities to this team than they are assets? Yeah, Bollig will “fight” now and then (big help that was tonight….not), but he is terrible offensively and just average on defense. Handzus’ only upside is his work on the PK. The rest is flat out bad. Nothing a guy like Morin couldn’t do better.

Maybe it’s that time of year where the playoffs are so close, yet so far away and the Blackhawks are losing focus on the remainder of the regular season. I hope that’s the case, because this effort cannot continue. Multiple times over these last two games have I caught myself saying “they aren’t even trying,” or “this team has no desire to win.” It shouldn’t be that way, not with a team this talented, not with a team this experienced, and not with a team that represents a very proud organization. It’s on Quenneville now to get their heads back into place.

Joel QuennevilleSpeaking of Quenneville, like I mentioned above, his decision making is becoming extremely infuriating. Peter Regin has done nothing but play his butt off since he joined the team by crashing the net, winning board battles, and effectively backchecking the opponents. Yet, Q benches him seemingly every other game in favor of Handzus. Near the end of tonight’s game, it was Regin going hard to the net prior to Seabrook’s goal that may have thrown Anderson off, thus causing the goal. This is what the Hawks need more of, but Regin will probably sit in a sky-box Sunday in Pittsburgh instead. In the case of Brandon Bollig, why Bowman ever gave him a 3-year extension I will never understand. He is not very skilled, he’s a defensive liability, and he makes some bad decisions. In a playoff series, I’d MUCH rather take my chances with someone like Jeremy Morin who can create offense and hustles.

Teuvo Teravainen was not in the lineup tonight after playing in each of the team’s last two games. The Blackhawks still have not hinted one way or another as to what their plan is with Teravainen right now. My gut unfortunately tells me they’ll keep him under 10 games played to avoid using up the first year of his contract. I don’t agree with that move, but I can see that happening.

As a few side notes, Antti Raanta appeared to hurt himself during the first period tonight after falling awkwardly on his right leg. He played the rest of the game, but this is something to keep an eye on. Also, Niklas Hjalmarsson was blatantly kneed by Chris Neil near the end of the second period and looked to be in a lot of pain. He too continued playing, but then appeared to have been held off the ice for most of the third. Hopefully he doesn’t miss any time. Andrew Shaw was called for spearing late in the game and received a game misconduct. By rule, the NHL has to review the incident to determine 130107_gq_trout_awhether or not further penalty(s) are warranted. Lastly, Matt Carey made his NHL debut tonight. Unfortunately for him, it was not a memorable debut. Cody Ceci’s shot from the point in the first period deflected off of Carey’s stick before going into the net past Raanta for the Sens second goal. Then Carey took a bad delay of game/faceoff violation penalty early in the third that led to Ottawa’s fourth goal (a dagger).

With the way the Blackhawks are playing at the moment, I don’t see any reason why the Avalanche couldn’t put them away in just 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. Granted, the Hawks are without Patrick Kane right now, but still.

They better show up in Pittsburgh Sunday night.

Beginning of an era

130107_gq_trout_aTeuvo Teravainen, the Blackhawks’ number one prospect, made his NHL debut Tuesday night in a 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars at the United Center. The hype surrounding his debut is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before with the Blackhawks, which had me worried about how well Teravainen would handle the pressure. In his first shift just a few minutes into the game, he put all of those concerns to rest by winning a neutral zone faceoff and creating some offense with linemates Brandon Saad and Ben Smith. Right before this, he received a huge ovation from the UC faithful as he stepped over the boards and onto the ice.

Teuvo ended up winning all seven faceoffs that he took Tuesday night, while the Blackhawks as a team dominated at the faceoff dot by winning 49 of the 71 draws. It didn’t take long to realize just how much talent and potential Teravainen has in this league. Early in the game, he intercepted a centering pass by the Stars and instantly made a beautiful lead pass to Brandon Saad who was already streaking up the ice. This led to a quality opportunity at the other end for Ben Smith. Later in the game, Teuvo caught Saad completely off-guard with an incredible pass that only the elite passers can make. On the powerplay (yes, Quenneville already had him on the top PP unit), Teravainen basically took on the role that Patrick Kane fills. He did not look nervous at all and ended making some good passes that eventually led to Andrew Shaw’s unbelievable goal from his knees.

7327531After the game, Hawks players were very impressed with how Teravainen played and seemed to be quite excited about playing with him from here on out. Joel Quenneville, who rarely trusts any rookies in crucial points of the game, had Teravainen on the the ice with under five minutes left in regulation in a one-goal game. Afterwards, Quenneville stated, “I thought his awareness around the rink, both sides of the puck, and in the faceoff circle was very strong, very good. He did a nice job. Good start.” I don’t think we ever heard him say anything close to that about Brandon Pirri. If Teravainen is already gaining trust from Quenneville, especially on the defensive side of his game, I would think we’ll see a lot more Teuvo this spring. However, that raises a big question.

If Teravainen plays ten games or more this year, regular season and/or playoffs, it will count as a full season played under his contract. He is currently signed to a three-year deal, and many people are speculating as to whether or not the Blackhawks want to use up one of those three years right now. Chris Block, writer for The Third Man In, had this to say about Teravainen’s situation. Chris is a trusted writer and has a lot of inside information regarding the Blackhawks and Icehogs. In contrast to what Chris believes may happen with Teuvo, Stan Bowman came out last week and said “whether he plays two games, 10 games, 20 games, that’s not a factor,” meaning he’s not worried about burning up a year of Teravainen’s contract.

My belief is this: It is the job of a general manager to put the best possible team together in order to win a championship, which in this case is the Stanley Cup. If Teravainen shows that he can make this Blackhawks team better before reaching ten games played, then the Hawks should keep him in the lineup for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. Use up the first year of his contract if he shows he can make this team better and help them try and win the Cup. I understand that Bowman may be concerned about losing a year of Teuvo’s contract in a situation like this, but if he makes this team better, let him keep playing. After watching him play Tuesday night, it’s hard to imagine him not making the Hawks a better team moving forward.

139990-330-0The Blackhawks will have Patrick Kane back for the playoffs, and I can only dream about what it would be like to have him and Teravainen on the same line together. That is, assuming the Hawks decide to keep Teuvo in the lineup. If you think about it, when was the last time the Blackhawks had a real number two center? When was the last time Kane had a real center not named Toews on his line? This will be a very interesting situation to watch play out, and I can only hope the Blackhawks brass makes the right decision with Teravainen.

Blackhawks gaining ground/ NHL update

Ryan-MillerSince their loss to the Predators on March 14th at the United Center, the Blackhawks have all of a sudden achieved seven points in their last four games and have taken a three point lead over the Avalanche for second place in the Central Division. With the Blues’ loss earlier today in Philadelphia, the Blackhawks now have a chance to bring the deficit between them and St. Louis down to just two points for the division lead if they can win tomorrow night against Nashville and if the Blues lose in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long ago that the Blues had a nine point edge and the Avs a one point edge over the Hawks, but things can change quickly in the NHL as we are currently witnessing.

For the Blackhawks to hold onto second place in the Central or take the division lead, they are going to need a lot of guys to step up. With Patrick Kane now sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, they need to fill his shoes by committee. In last night’s win over Carolina, Sharp (who had been in a major scoring slump) and Versteeg both stepped up to the plate and delivered with big goals to help lead the Hawks to a 3-2 win. Toews added the third and game-winning goal in typical Jonathan Toews fashion. The Blackhawks will need guys like Sharp, Versteeg, Shaw, Bickell, and Saad to pick up their game down the final stretch here to help make up for Kane’s absence from the lineup.

7327531One positive that we can take away from Kane’s injury is the fact that it opened up a roster spot for Teuvo Teravainen, the number four prospect in the NHL who’s team in Finland was just eliminated from their playoffs last week. Teravainen was introduced to the media on Friday and is expected to see playing time within the next two games. How well he adapts to the NHL and ultimately how well he plays will determine whether or not he becomes an everyday starter for this team from here on out. The Blackhawks badly need a number two center, and Teuvo Teravainen appears to be that guy in the future. Can he be that guy right now is the real question, however. Only time will tell. If Teravainen does become an effective and dangerous player between now and the playoffs, then one would have to think the Blackhawks will make yet another strong push for the Stanley Cup, not that they couldn’t already.

130107_gq_trout_aThe Hawks also signed Matt Carey who just finished up his first collegiate season of hockey at St. Lawrence University. Carey, 22, is a center who tied for his team lead in goals this season and is said to be a solid two-way player. He will most likely see action in a few games before the end of the regular season, but he won’t be on the playoff roster. It’s a similar situation to the one we saw with Drew LeBlanc last season at this same time.

Looking ahead, I am very anxious to see just how well Teravainen adapts to the NHL and whether or not he becomes a guy the Hawks can trust as their number two center. Staying focused and not letting the pressure from the media and fans get to him will be key for Teravainen.

As for the rest of the NHL, the Bruins seem to be the biggest story at the moment. They have been near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, but now they have won eleven straight games, are tied for the league lead in points with the Blues, and are the first team in the league to have clinched a playoff berth. They are on a serious role right now and appear poised to make another deep run in the playoffs. Their defense and goaltending are just about as good as you’ll find in the NHL, and everyone knows you can’t win a Cup without those two things.

Out west, the Sharks have overtaken the Ducks in the Pacific Division for the division lead. San Jose is 8-1-1 over their last ten games while Anaheim is a weak 4-4-2. I mentioned in a previous blog post that the Ducks have been susceptible to late season collapses over the past few years, and it appears they are headed in that same direction again unless they can turn things around in the next couple games.

The Metropolitan Division still seems to be the most crowded division point-wise. The second place team in that division (Philadelphia) and the fifth place team (Washington) are separated by just six points, with New Jersey sitting in sixth just four points behind the Capitals. It’ll be fun watching these teams to see who gets hot and makes their way into the postseason.

As I previously mentioned, the top of the Central Division is now a lot closer than it was even just three days ago. The Blues lead the Blackhawks by four points for the division 940-couture-loganlead at the moment, and if the Blues lose tomorrow afternoon and the Hawks win tomorrow night, that gap will be down to just two points. Colorado lost last night to Boston while the Blackhawks won, stretching Chicago’s lead to three points over the Avs for second place in the Central. It will be huge for the two-seed in this division to get home-ice during the first round of the playoffs. As a Chicago fan, I know that having home-ice in a series against the Blues will be even bigger.

The season is quickly coming to an end, yet only one team has clinched a playoff spot. We are in for another good finish.

NHL trade deadline update

roberto_luongo.jpg.size.xxlarge.originalWell if you didn’t know any better, you would probably think that today was the NHL’s trade deadline based on the number of moves that have been made. However, the deadline isn’t until tomorrow afternoon. With so many teams currently in a possible or definite playoff spot, over half the league is looking to make themselves better heading into the home stretch of the season. At the same time, because so many teams are battling for a playoff spot, that lowers the number of “sellers” at this year’s deadline.

We all know by now that the Blues got Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo in exchange for Christ Stewart and Jaroslav Halak. This trade basically lit the fuse for the rest of the NHL, and now that fuse is reaching, or has reached its end. Here are some of the more notable acquisitions that have been made in advance of tomorrow’s deadline:

  • St. Louis: Ryan Miller and Steve Ott
  • Buffalo: Chris Stewart and Jaroslav Halak
  • Minnesota: Ilya Bryzgalov
  • Washington: Dustin Penner
  • Anaheim: Stephane Robidas
  • Edmonton: Viktor Fasth
  • Philadelphia: Andrew MacDonald
  • Florida: Roberto Luongo
  • Vancouver: Jacob Markstrom
  • Chicago: David Rundblad

Lots of names already on the move, and some of them big names. One move that has me intrigued is Dustin Penner leaving the Ducks. In return from Washington, the Ducks got a 4th round pick that they in turn used to acquire Stephane Robidas. I am left wondering though if they are done making deals. Penner was a useful winger for Anaheim, and they dLxi8wStraded him essentially for a defenseman. Are they in the process of trading for a winger to replace Penner? The name Thomas Vanek has been linked to Anaheim quite often today, so it will be interesting to see if anything transpires there. If the Ducks do get Vanek, then that may put them above and beyond the rest of the NHL.

Mike Gillis, Vancouver’s general manager, may be the biggest idiot in any NHL front office. Last year at this time, he had Corey Schneider and Roberto Luongo as the two goalies for the Canucks. After today’s deal with Florida, Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom are Vancouver’s number one and two goalies. Essentially, Gillis traded Schneider and Luongo, two number one goalies, for a first round pick, Jacob Markstrom, and a prospect. What is he trying to do? Why trade Schneider last summer if you weren’t going to keep Luongo as your number one? Now all Gillis has done is weaken his team substantially without really gaining much of an asset in return.

All eyes are now on players such as Vanek, Marian Gaborik, and Canucks’ center, Ryan Kesler. If Mike Gillis trades Kesler, I think its safe to say the Canucks are attempting a “rebuild.” If he doesn’t trade Kesler, well then I don’t know what Gillis is trying to do up there. The Penguins and Flyers are being mentioned as the two teams heavily pursuing Ryan Kesler, although some reports are indicating that Philadelphia is involved only to raise Kesler’s price for Pittsburgh.

Blackhawks update

7327531The Blackhawks have also come up in rumors regarding Ryan Kesler. This one puzzles me. The Blackhawks have about $52,000 in cap space right now according to Capgeek. Ryan Kesler is getting paid $5 million/year all the way through the 2015-2016 season. Currently, the Blackhawks do not have anywhere near the amount of money they would need in order to get Kesler, unless they trade someone like Bryan Bickell and someone else with a smaller contract. Plus, you add in the fact that the Hawks will be looking to extend Kane and Toews this summer (those will be significant pay raises), and they simply will have very little money to play with. Unless of course they trade some of their bigger contracts, which I don’t see them doing. Everyone wants to say “Chicago is in on Kesler,” only because the Hawks could use a true number two center at the moment. People forget about the money situation and the fact that Teuvo Teravainen could very well enter the NHL next season and be that long-lost number two center for the Hawks.

As I began writing this, the Hawks traded this year’s second round pick to Phoenix for David Rundblad and Mathieu Brisebois. Both are defensemen. Rundblad (23 years old) will join the Blackhawks, giving them eight defensemen on the roster, and Brisebois will david_rundblad_phx_030512head to Rockford. David Rundblad was the Blues’ first round pick in 2009 before being dealt to Phoenix. He has only appeared in 50 NHL games. Rundblad is more of an offensive-defenseman and has some decent potential upside. The problem he has faced up to this point is lack of playing time. In Phoenix, Dave Tippett likes his d-men to be defensive-minded. That didn’t bode well for Rundblad. Also, he was never really given a good chance in the NHL. I don’t know what will happen now that Rundblad is in Chicago, but my guess is he will be given a better opportunity to prove himself. Just look at how the Hawks handled Nick Leddy.

A lot has happened over the last 12 hours or so, and a lot more may still happen. In fact, it was literally just announced that Thomas Vanek is not dressing for tonight’s game in Winnipeg. Clearly, the Islanders are trying to trade him. Whether or not a deal gets done, we shall see.

I’ll try to add more as it happens.

 

 

Blues acquire Miller, Ott; Pressure on West’s best

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo SabresYesterday the St. Louis Blue traded Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. It had been rumored for quite a while that Miller was on the trade block and that St. Louis seemed to be his likely destination. Steve Ott and Chris Stewart appear to have been an “add-ons” during the trade discussions yesterday. Many believed that if the Blues could acquire Miller or any high-end goalie that they would put themselves in a great position to win the Cup. Well, now they have Miller and most analysts believe the Blues are the team to beat in the NHL. I’m not so sure that I agree 100 percent with that, but they definitely are one of the top 3 teams in the league.

With St. Louis trading for Miller, they also put the pressure on the rest of the top teams in the Western Conference to get better prior to the passing of the March 5th trade deadline. Teams like Chicago, Anaheim, L.A., and San Jose now need to take a good look at themselves and ask the question, “Are we good enough to come out of the West and reach the Stanley Cup Final?” St. Louis put themselves in a spot where they now believe they are good enough, and it’s up to the other top teams to respond.

Stan Bowman, Chicago’s GM, was asked last night while on the NHL Network if he is planning on making any moves at the deadline. To sum up his response, he said that he is confident in the team that the Blackhawks have, and brought up the facts that this is basically the same team that won last year’s Cup, and they already went out and traded for Kris Versteeg earlier this year and acquired Peter Regin and Pierre Marc-Bouchard right before the Olympic break.

Because I live in Chicago, I hear mostly everything that Bowman says regarding the Blackhawks. I cannot say the same for the teams out west, so I don’t know what those GM’s have said over the past few days regarding the trade deadline. However, let’s look at what those teams, along with the Blackhawks, may try and look for at the deadline.

L.A. Kings

Drew+Doughty+Jonathan+Quick+MJL-W9uwx26mThe Kings currently find themselves sitting in third place in the Pacific division. Many believed they would finish no lower than second in the division coming into this season. Unfortunately for them, they once again are putting together a somewhat disappointing season. They are second to last in the West in goals-scored this year, which has been a problem for this team over the past few seasons. Looking ahead to the trade deadline, the Kings may want to try and upgrade their depth at left wing, and they may want to add another top three center. Their defense is among the best in the league, as the Kings as a team have allowed the second fewest goals in the NHL. It goes without saying that they’re just fine in net.

San Jose Sharks

San Jose is second in the Pacific at the moment with a 12 point lead over L.A. They are 940-couture-logangetting a healthy Logan Couture back now that the Olympics are over with. He will most likely slide right back into one of the top two center positions, bumping Joe Pavelski back out to the wing where he has played much of this season and on and off throughout his career. Looking at the Sharks depth chart, it couldn’t hurt them to add a skilled winger to the team, but I believe their biggest need is another defenseman. They don’t have a bad defense right now by any means, but their age is what could hurt them if they get deep into the playoffs. They are one of the older blue lines in the west.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are the league’s leading team in points right now, so you wouldn’t really think they need to do a whole lot with their team moving forward. And truthfully, they don’t. If they can go out and somehow trade for a solid top 5 d-man, they would really have themselves img24461606set for a deep, deep playoff run. Jonas Hiller is having a great season so far. He was arguably the best goalie at the Olympics with 2 shutouts there, and he added a league-leading 5th shutout last night against the Blues.

Chicago Blackhawks

The never ending storyline in Chicago isn’t going to end anytime soon. Who can be their number two center? So far this year, Joel Quenneville has tried Michal Handzus, Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and now Peter Regin 139990-330-0in that position. No one seems to be the right fit. It makes it hard for a guy like Patrick Kane who keeps having to adjust to a new center on his line. At the same time, however, this was the same issue facing the Hawks just a year ago, and we all know how last season turned out. I don’t think they will be trading for another center at the deadline. If they do make a trade, it will almost positively be for a depth defenseman. Right now Sheldon Brookbank is their 7th d-man, and the thought of him having to be the guy to step up if one of their top 6 defensmen goes down is scary. Adding a proven guy to their blue line depth would be quietly very important for this team.

You could even throw the Avalanche into this discussion if you wanted to, but I don’t think they will get a top two seed in the Central.

Looking at the West’s top teams right now with Miller and Ott now on the Blues, I think that they are the team to watch out for. Anaheim leads the league in points, but for whatever I’m just not sold on them. Maybe it’s because I don’t get to watch them as often as I do Chicago and St. Louis. The Blues are a rough, physical and big team that can also put the puck in the back of the net just as well as almost any team in the league. Not to mention that they are third in the NHL in fewest goals against.

I would not expect any of the other top teams in the West to make a huge move like the Blues did. For one, those are not easy trades to make. Secondly, I don’t think any top team wants to trade a significant piece of their NHL team (along with prospects) to land a big name player, which is what it would take to do so. Ryan Kesler’s name has come up in trade rumors, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere until this summer, and that’s if he even does get traded.

This should be an interesting deadline in seeing what moves certain teams do and/or don’t make.