Original Six Stanley Cup Final This Year? Not likely.

With the second round well underway, NHL fans see four Original Six teams battling to advance: Boston and Montreal in the Eastern Conference and Chicago and Detroit in the Western Conference.

In case you’re wondering, the last time two Original Six teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals was in 1978/79 when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers in five games.

Could we see two Original Six teams make it to the Stanley Cup Final this year?

My guess: not likely.

In the Western Conference, an Original Six franchise could well emerge, though the Wings are now facing a steep uphill battle down 3-0 to the Sharks. The Red Wings are a better team than one that’s in such a hole and they’re more than capable of putting a win streak together even now, but it’s asking a lot to win four in a row against any one team in the NHL playoffs, especially one of such high-caliber like the Sharks.

The best hope lies with Chicago, who was and still is favored to beat the Canucks. Though the Hawks played poorly in Game 1, they bounced back in Game 2, using their speed and tenacity to overcome the Canucks in the third period. The Canucks may have a tough time keeping up with the Hawks unless they can slow things down and play a stronger puck possession game for 60 minutes. Luongo also needs to be huge. My view: Chicago will elevate its game and move on to the conference finals against the Sharks (now that the Red Wings have dug a hole for themselves) and win in six or seven games.

In the Eastern Conference, we have the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. Their Goliath, however, is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are most certainly the favorites to win the Eastern Conference crown. The Pens were impressive in holding off a surging Ottawa Senators team, which showed the skill and will to upset the Stanley Cup champions. And so far, the Pens are proving a tougher opponent for the Habs than the Capitals. I see the Pens and Bruins in the conference finals, with the Pens winning in five or six games.

So… that leaves us with the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in the final. That should please the NHL brass… and make for some exciting hockey.

As for an all Original Six Stanley Cup Final… for those fans who’d love to see it happen, they’ll have to keep waiting and hoping. The best hope just might be a Detroit Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs final in two or three years.

I know… I know… Not likely.

Photo credit: cn174 from Flickr

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Second Round Predictions

Once again, just like my first round predictions, I’m late in posting my second round predictions. But here’s what they look like:

How the West Will Be Won:

  • Wings Outlast Sharks: I’m not at all surprised to see the Sharks up by two games. San Jose has a very good team. They are getting secondary scoring for the first time in the playoffs in many years and they seem determined to prove the doubters wrong. That said, I think the Wings will storm back at the Joe and make this series go deep. In the end, I think the Wings will be better prepared to handle a long series.
  • Hawks Overcome Canucks: After Games 1 and 2, the temptation is to give the edge to the Canucks. Had Vancouver not given up late goals in Game 2, they would be up 2-0 heading back to Vancouver. However, as we saw in Game 2, the Hawks are a fast skating team that can wear down their opponents. The Hawks are too quick and too powerful on offense.

How the East Will Be Won:

  • Pens March Over Habs: We now know the formula for a Montreal win: (blocked shots + outstanding penalty killing + opportunistic scoring) x Halak . The problem here is that the Pens are not going to make life as easy for the Habs and Halak as the Capitals. As we can see, they’re placing plenty of traffic in front of Halak and they will create more scoring chances down low than the Caps managed. Scoring also won’t come as easy against the Pens for the Habs. Pens in six.
  • Bruins Maul Flyers: Okay, this one may not turn out to be a mauling (aka: a four-game sweep), but I am giving the Bruins the edge in this series because of their defensive game. Rask is turning heads with his solid play and he’s getting lots of support. The Flyers just don’t seem to have the endurance of the Bruins and nor do they have the tenacity. Maybe Boston learned something from last year after all.

So I’m predicting three Original Six teams will advance to the third round. A Red Wings-Hawks series would certainly add to the renewed rivalry between the two franchises. While I’d love to see a Habs-Bruins series in the East and then perhaps a Habs-Red Wings Stanley Cup final, I don’t see it playing out like that.

What are your predictions? Where do you think I have it right or wrong?

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First Round Predictions

With the first round of the playoffs almost at its end, posting my predictions now may seem a bit silly. In my defense though, my predictions are on record over at the Backcheck’s Facebook page. I simply feel the need to get them on record here because I do plan to have more playoff posts as we move into the second round and not including my early predictions would create a void.

By the way, I plan to continue posting blurbs and small bites of hockey commentary on Facebook so if you’d like another way to get updates and join the conversation, be sure to like the page.

So, here is a look at my first round predictions.

How I Said the West Would Be Won!

  • Sharks Stop Avalanche: I said the Sharks would do it. They did. But I felt they would do it because the Avs’ tank was empty, especially after reeling so badly near the end of the season. However, the Avs surprised with a lot of energy and came oh-so-close to taking a 3-1 lead. The Sharks got better as the series went on.
  • Hawks Prey on Predators: Nashville was impressive this season and they gave the Hawks a lot to handle. Still, the Hawks’ offense proved too potent.
  • Kings Reign over Canucks: I had a gut feeling that the Kings were due for a playoff series win. I had my doubts about Vancouver’s overall game. I thought Luongo might struggle. The Canucks proved me wrong.
  • Red Wings Roll over Coyotes: I said the Wings were too deep, too healthy and too experienced. I believe all these factors will come into play in Game 7. But one thing for sure: the Coyotes have proven they aren’t going to be rolled over by any team.

How I Saw the East

  • Capitals Handle Habs: The Habs have surprised in this series. Most of us thought the Caps would win handily, possibly in a sweep. Now the right to advance comes down to one game. All the pressure is on Washington. Nobody expected Montreal to have a one-game-one-chance shot at moving on to the second round.
  • Devils Stick Pitchfork in Flyers: What can I say? I sure got this one wrong. I thought the Devils would find a way to win despite their dismal record against the Flyers this season. But not even Kovalchuk could help. The Flyers now look like a legitimate threat in the East.
  • Buffalo Stampede Over Bruins: Another prediction gone wrong. I thought Miller and a more balanced attack from the Sabres would be enough over a less-than-potent offense. The Bruins, however, played with grit and toughness and found a way to win. Rask was also a factor.
  • Pens March over Sens: The Senators are a team with skill and will. But I didn’t believe the Penguins would go down so quickly in their Cup defense. Pittsburgh’s best players were their best players and that’s why they have advanced to the second round.

Two Game 7’s to go! I am sticking with my predictions: Detroit will triumph over Phoenix; the Capitals will ratchet up their game and play desperate to overcome Halak and the Habs.

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Avalanche-Red Wings Rivalry Dead

Letting go isn’t easy.

Perhaps that’s why some fans on both sides still lay claim to a bitter rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings.

I was surprised recently when a local sports radio station posed the question as to whether the rivalry lives on.

I say this rivalry died a long time ago. If I had to pinpoint the final chapter, I’d go with Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002 when the Red Wings took out the defending Stanley Cup champions and embarrassed Patrick Roy with a convincing 7-0 win.

The next season (02/03), Roy retired. When he left the game, the rivalry left with him.

Claude Lemieux may have been the central figure initially, but Roy was a huge part of the heated rivalry. Who can forget his role in the Red Wings-Avalanche brawl in 1997 when he fought Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon and his follow-up bout the next season with goalie Chis Osgood? Roy loved the spotlight, didn’t he?

Some fans and hockey commentators have suggested that a scrappy playoff series between the two teams could revive the rivalry.

I don’t see it that way. As NHL.com correspondent Rick Sadowski says in his look back at the rivalry on NHL.com, few players remain from when the rivalry was at its highest point. Draper, Maltby, Lidstrom and Osgood are still there for Detroit. Yelle, Foote and Hejduk remain for Colorado. Any passion and intensity of feeling though are missing.

The Red Wings and Avalanche met in the playoffs in 2008 and it wasn’t much of a contest… and it wasn’t fought with the same brand of passion that we saw in some of the epic battles from the past. The Wings dominated from the first drop of the puck in the series and went on to sweep the Avs.

The rivalry had died long before.

Could a rivalry resurface? Sure. But then we’d have a new story, not a new chapter. As I said, the last chapter of the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry was written back in the Western Conference finals in 2002.

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In Defense of Sidney Crosby

Let’s get something out of the way right from the get-go. I like Sidney Crosby.

Yes, I like Sidney Crosby.

I say this in the face of the many haters out there. You know who you are. You’re the ones who call Sid “Cindy,” “Cinderella,” “Cry Baby” and a whole palate of unflattering nicknames that I’d rather not repeat here.

After the Pens’ recent game against the Wings, the haters were at it again. They didn’t like the crosschecks and cheap shots Crosby gave to Zetterberg in the dying seconds of a 3-1 Detroit win. I’ll say this as a Red Wings fan: I too didn’t like seeing Crosby take his frustrations out on one of our star players. Leave Z alone, Sid!

Playing without Malkin for a third straight game, the Pens showed little jump. Crosby himself was kept in check all night long. He scraped together three shots over 20 minutes of ice time and finished a minus-2.

Crosby is a competitive kid. He doesn’t like losing. What we saw at the end of the game was a mental breakdown on the part of no. 87 more than anything else. Am I excusing his behavior? No. But I also understand that Crosby is as susceptible to mistakes as anyone else. In this NHL game, he is, after all, still a kid.

Isn’t that what many call him? Sid the Kid?

Crosby is only 22 years old.

Perhaps we expect too much from a kid who was widely viewed as the “Next One.”

Has he tallied the same numbers as Gretzky? No. But the game has changed since Gretzky’s glory days. And unless the game changes in some other radical way (e.g. increasing the size of the nets), I’m not sure anyone will challenge Gretzky’s totals.

Still, he is what he is: a fantastic talent, the youngest captain ever of a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic gold medalist, a superstar.

The haters:

“He’s talented, but… ”

“He’s undeniably a superstar, but… ”

“He’s one of the game’s best, if not the best, but… ”

But nothing. Crosby, regardless of the expectations placed upon him, and regardless of the microscope and spotlight he’s been under since an early age, is playing his game the way he knows how at this point in his young career. I have news for the haters out there: it’s working!

Look, I get it. We all do. From his first year in the league, Crosby built a reputation as a complainer, a whiner who turned far too often to the referees. And from season one to season four, not much has changed. His penalty minutes have gone down from his rookie campaign, but his aggression and over-aggression still gets him in trouble… and he’s still over-reacting on the ice. He hasn’t won any fans among NHL players, who single him out as the game’s biggest whiner.

Without a doubt, he needs to whine less. He needs to temper his edge, but that will only come over time.

Again, he’s only 22 years old. He’s only four years into this NHL game.

At the conclusion of Crosby’s rookie year, CBC’s Jesse Campigotto wrote about The Education of Sidney Crosby. In this piece, Campigotto quotes Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey, who predicted that Crosby will “mellow with age.”

At the time, Hrudey pointed out that Gretzky himself had a similar reputation to that of Crosby. “But over time he learned to temper that,” said Hrudey.

I agree with Hrudey. I believe over time Crosby will mature. He will learn to control his emotions, while not losing his aggressive edge on the ice.

I believe Crosby’s rival Alex Ovechkin will mature in a similar fashion. He will learn to play his own aggressive, all-out style, without crossing the line as we’ve seen him done on several occasions (the push on the Hawks’ Brian Campbell as the latest example).

Sid and Ovi are kids. They’re learning. And I believe at the end of the day, Crosby’s coming of age will prove the haters wrong.

Photo credit: puckdaddyblog on Flickr

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Will Favorable Schedule Squeeze Rangers into Playoffs?

I had already predicted Atlanta was a playoff poser. After losing to Boston and scraping out one point against Toronto, we might be ready to stick a fork in the Thrashers and call them done. And yet, they’re only two points out.

But I’m not as focused on Atlanta. From what I can see, we should not count out the New York Rangers. They’re closer than you might think. And they have one big thing going for them: a favorable schedule.

The Thrashers and Bruins have a tough final stretch ahead. Both teams will face the Caps twice and the Devils. The Thrashers will also need to get past the Pens, twice. Atlanta does have a game remaining with the Leafs and two with the Hurricanes. They desperately need to win those games outright.

Boston, meanwhile, must also face the Sabres, twice. They will face three teams below them: the Leafs, Hurricanes and Panthers.

And then we have the New York Rangers: two games with the Leafs and one each with the Lightning, Panthers and Islanders. Their toughest games will come against the Sabres and Flyers, with a pair of contests coming against the latter. The Rangers have played well against the Flyers this season, beating them 3-1 just five games ago.

Only three points out with a more favorable schedule, can the Rangers sneak into that final eighth spot? The Bruins do have a game in hand and a goalie with a hot hand in Rask, but with the problems they’ve had offensively this year, they’ll need to be at their best on this stretch run to hold off the Rangers.

The Thrashers have proven too inconsistent and with a tough schedule ahead I don’t believe they’ll be able to pull this one out.

Photo credit: Big-Terp on Flickr

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Playoff Race Imposters

Take a quick look at the conference standings. Mathematically, many teams are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. But I believe some teams are essentially done.

Eastern Conference
The only team with hope of cracking the top eight is the New York Rangers. Hank Lundqvist gives the Blueshirts a chance. And they need solid goaltending because they’re not finding the back of the net on the other end. Offense, or lack thereof, has been a problem all year. Gaborik has helped, but even with his contributions up front the Rangers are mired in 23rd place in goals for. To make it, they need Lundqvist to get hot.

The imposters are Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Florida and Carolina.

The one team that could surprise is Tampa Bay. I like a lot of the players in their line up. Stamkos is challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy and his output has inspired the team. Lecavalier, St. Louis and Malone are winners, and this team has played well as of late. But ultimately, I believe this team is too inexperienced on the blueline and inconsistent to get into the final eight.

Atlanta has lost five in a row at a critical time of year. They’re done. Florida can’t get it done in the offensive zone. They’re done. Carolina? I can’t believe we’re even talking about Carolina at this point. This team has actually done well considering the horrific start of their season. Unfortunately for them, the hole they dug for themselves in the first quarter of the season is just too deep to dig out of.

Western Conference
I’m ready to declare the playoff race in the West a four team affair: Nashville, Calgary, Detroit and St. Louis.

I’ve written previously on the Blues’ bounce back performance and how we shouldn’t be surprised to see them in the top eight when all is said and done. I’d say most have written the Blues off at this stage and I’m close to doing so as well. However, with the exception of a 7-3 loss to Colorado, St. Louis has been moving along nicely. I don’t see Mason duplicating his stellar goaltending of last season’s stretch run, so this year the Blues will need to find other ways to win. Getting back into contention isn’t going to be easy. They’ll need help. But at this point, I still see a slight possibility for the Blues.

I don’t see possibility for Dallas, Minnesota and Anaheim.

Turco has spelled trouble for Dallas this season. He’s just not capable of carrying this team into the playoffs.

Minnesota has been a Jekyll and Hyde team this season. They’re hot, and then they’re not. But it’s the most recent stretch that’s the most telling. They’ve lost four of six since the Olympic break, including losses in critical games against the Flames and the Wings.

Anaheim was quietly climbing the standings for a while, but they’ve lost all five games since the Olympic break. This appears to be a team that’s out of gas.

In the Eastern Conference, what you see in the top eight today is likely what you’re going to get.

In the Western Conference, I believe the Predators will falter and miss the playoffs, opening the door for the Flames and Wings to seal spots. St. Louis will need to be almost perfect to translate the slight possibility they have into reality.

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