Bench Warming is back! Hooray, I hear at least three of you say! So are the NHL Playoffs. Let’s take a look out east first.
Guess who’s back, back again….The AKs back….tell your friends. Or not, it’s really up to you I guess, but while your here, why not check out my NHL Eastern Conference Preview? Ppppppllleeeaaase!!!!!!!
Ottawa vs Montreal
It’s a rematch of two seasons ago, where the upstart Sens embarrassed the Canadiens and things got…..ummmmm……ugly. The O is white hot, while Montreal has been at or near the top of their division all season. Steady and consistent or blazing hot stretch runners? It’s the first of two all Canada affairs in this season’s opening round.
She’s on fire, fire, fire! Remember that memorable tune from GTA 3? And, holy crap, Scarface!? Didn’t remember that at all. Anyway, my point is the Sens have been on a miracle run over the past few months pushing themselves into the post season, all while dropping Pittsburgh to the 8th seed and bouncing the under achieving Bruins out entirely. They’ve lost only thrice in regulation over their last 26 games, and are currently riding a 7 game point streak which includes wins over PITT, Washington, Detroit, Tampa and the Rangers. Yeah I said thrice, deal with it. They’ve also averaged over 3 goals per game in that span and have quietly snuck into the top ten in scoring, 9th to be exact, finishing the regular season with a 2.8 gpg.
If you wanna beat the Habs, you gotta pay the (Carey) Price. Montreal features the leagues best goals per game against, averaging just above 2 tallies per game. And while stifling d-men like intimidating PK Subban and reliable defensive forwards such as +/- leader Max Pacioretty (more about him later) should garner praise for their efforts, the puck literally stops at the feet of Price. While the title of best goalie will always be subjective, it’s hard to argue against his top of the mountain status this season. He finished with the league lead in save %, gaa, wins and is just 1 back of Fleury for most shut outs. He will more than likely win the Vezina for best goalie, some have picked him as league MVP, and with an Olympic gold already pinned to his wall, the only thing still missing from his trophy case is a Stanley Cup.
Just what are the Ottawa Senators? They’ve been riding a strong wave of emotion following the firing of their former head coach and the cancer diagnosis of GM Brian Murray, and their final months of the season seem to point to some strong magic emanating from the Canadian capitol. Magic so strong that when they tap their opponents, they don’t untap during their next untap phases. Yes I play Magic, get over it, it’s awesome, but I wonder how awesome Ottawa really is. Despite their recent heroics they were an awful team after the 1st week of the season, at one point losing 7 of 8 games which eventually led to the aforementioned firing of head coach Paul MacLean. A sad day considering we all lost the ability to stare in awe at the hockey worlds best cookie duster. In addition, while it’s always nice to be riding high going into the playoffs, the amount of wear and tear playoff hockey puts on your body, mind and very soul is unlike anything most people can imagine. It’s difficult enough playing a full 82 game season and then having to up your out put for the post season tourney, but how much more taxing is it when you essentially have to start that extra effort two months early because of your lack of production early in the season. Do the Sens have anything left in the tank and do they feel as if they’ve already accomplished something this season just by reaching the spring games?
Montreal’s gpg average nearly matches their ga average. Wait, does Price play for both teams whenever Montreal plays? Damn he’s good! As if ranking 20th in goal average wasn’t at least a little alarming, a large portion of those goals were scored by forward, average ice time leader Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty has been out of the line up ever since taking an awkward hit on April 5 against Florida. As mentioned, he leads the Habs in ice time for forwards, goals (37), points (67), and +/- with a +38. While Subban and center Tomas Plekanec are only 7 back of him in total points, the next highest goal scorer for Montreal, also Plekanec incidentally, is 11 behind Max and Montreal features only 2 other players with more than 20 goals. Currently Pacioretty is listed as questionable for game 1 and nobody in the Montreal clubhouse is giving any indication as to when he may be ready to play.
Ready your Big Macs, it’s time to talk about Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond. Nicknamed the Hamburglar, Hammond has been a sensation over the last few months not only for his terrific goaltending , but also for the shower of hamburgers that get thrown his way from the Ottawa faithful following his incredible 20 wins this season. In only 23 games played, Hammond has an astonishing 20-1-2 record, finishing with a ridiculous 1.74 gaa and a save % that is about as close to 1.00 as you will ever see (.942). He’s also 2-0 against Montreal, allowing only 2 goals each game and posting a .945 save %. It’s also worth noting that in both of those wins Ottawa scored 9 total goals and faced Price each time. That all sounds great on paper, but as we all know the playoffs are a completely different atmosphere. If Hammond can continue to robble-robble the Habs, we may be looking at a first round upset. However, if the heat of the playoff kitchen becomes too much for the rookie’s buns, Sen fans will have to go back to flipping burgers at their homes and not on to the ice at Canadian Tire Centre. That last clip brought up fond memories of my old favorite happy meal toys, the changeables. Robo-Cakes was the bomb!
I mentioned it at the start of this preview that it wasn’t that long ago that this same Sens team gave the Canadiens all kinds of fits in their opening playoff round. Montreal was thrown completely off their game. PK Subban was screaming at his teammates and head coach Michelle Therrien seemed more concerned with yelling at Paul MacLean and the officials than making an attempt to calm down his squad. Consequently, Montreal was embarrassed in front of the hockey world and was ousted in a short 5 game series. Last season Montreal seemed to really learn from that experience. They swept Tampa Bay and defeated east favorite, not to mention arch rival, Boston en route to an Eastern Conference Finals series in which they just seemed to run out of gas after a tough second round. MacLean might no longer be around, but I’m sure plenty of the Ottawa players can still remember how that series went down. If they continue to stay hot, if Hammond can keep Montreal from scoring even fewer goals than their accustomed to and they can creep into the Canadien psyche, it may just be the recipe for another early Montreal playoff exit.
Given how well the Senators have played of late and how well the Canadiens have played overall, it would be kind of foolish to think this will be a short series. Both of these teams have some strong factors working for them. You can’t touch anybody in a Sens uniform right now without risking spontaneous combustion and Montreal has Price. That movie sucked by the way. On one hand I could see the playoff pressure and tiresome playoff push being just too much for Ottawa to overcome. On the other hand, the Pacioretty injury scares the hell outta me. Even if he does return how effective and fragile will he be, and do the Habs have enough to advance without him? It is damn near impossible for me to pick against Price, but if Montreal can’t get some more consistent scoring from other sources and they find themselves in a quick hole to the streaking Sens, it just might be to much for them to overcome. I see this series going 7 and that final game might be anybodys for the taking, but in the end I suppose I gotta pick somebody to move on. I’m putting myself on the line and saying suplex city bit…I mean upset city. SENS in 7
Detroit vs Tampa Bay
It’s the Yzerman Cup! Tampa GM Steve Yzerman, will take the most talented team he’s built over the last five seasons, not including these of course, to face the historic franchise he helped rebuild, including these of course 🙂.
The Bolts lead the league in scoring and upon occasion their final scores resemble this. By the way, that old cartoon captures the speed, ferocity and spirit of the game amazingly well. I highly recommend watching it in it’s entirety….after you read this article that is. With 4 players over the 20 goal threshold and nearly 6 with 50 or more points, the Lightning live up to their electrifying name. Steven Stamkos just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL, he’s a world class player that seems to get no respect. Leading his team with 43 goals, 2nd overall in the league, as well as 72 total points, Stamkos is a potential game changer every time his skates hit the ice. Add in the emergence of the small but incredibly effective 5’9″ center Tyler Johnson, who shares the team lead in points with Stamkos, plus 3 defensemen who have 30 points or more and you have an offense that seems to favor TD’s over simple goals.
For a large portion of the season the Red Wings had the most lethal power play in the league. At one point in the season they had scored at least 1 pp goal in 13 straight games and touched a pee-wee house league % of nearly 40% in two months. They added that right handed d-man everybody said they needed with Marek Zidlicky at the trade deadline, and they feature a nice spread amongst their forwards, 4 of which have 20+ goals and 50+ points. Counted among those is still the ever amazing Pavel Datsyuk, who’s goals are so filthy, kids will often switch from his highlights to porn when their parents walk into the room.
Tampa’s lack of playoff success should not go unnoticed. Since hoisting the cup in 2004, the only one in franchise history, they’ve won only 2 playoff series. Last season their was high expectations for the Bolts but, as was briefly discussed in the previous segment, they were dominated by Montreal and sent home after just 4 games. The Wings hold only 1 win over Tampa this year, but it was a shut out just a few weeks ago in which Detroit carried the vast majority of the play. Detroit slowed down the game and got dirty with Tampa. It was exactly what Montreal did to them in the playoffs last year, something they in turn learned from Ottawa the year before. They ran their mouths, got physical, even used a cheap shot or two to frustrate the Bolts and get their minds off of their game. To use a wrestling term, they turned heel and it most certainly got them over. If the Lightning can’t deal with a few mind games from the Detroit coaches and their veterans, they might be looking at a second consecutive 1st round exit.
Their is an old saying in football, if you’ve got two quarterbacks you’ve really got none. The same can be said for NHL goalies. In general teams play better behind one guy and the Wings have been searching for that guy ever since January. Jimmy Howard was having an all star season before he hurt his groin for about the 86th time in his career. That also reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield. Do you remember Ladybugs? Yeah, that movie was rather inappropriate then and it’s only gotten creepier with age. That actor killed himself…………Anyway, back to the Red Wings. Since his return Howard has been sub par and his gaa has sky rocketed from just under 2 before his injury to over 3 in the time since his return. Holding down the fort while Howard was out was rookie Petr Mrazek. Mrazek was terrific during Howard’s absence but has been just as inconsistent since his return. It was announced Monday that it will indeed be Mrazek who gets the start in game 1. One has to wonder how short the leash will be though, and how the pressure of NHL playoff hockey weighs upon the young Czechs shoulders. He did lead Detroit’s AHL affiliate Grand Rapids to an AHL championship two years ago, but that isn’t nearly the same animal.
Since being named as a full time starter for the first time in his career last season, Ben Bishop has only surpassed expectations. At 6’7″, the 28 year old 3rd rounder from Colorado is a mountain of tender, who takes up a sizeable portion of the net without even having to move. Well, maybe not that much. He’s a bit more mobile as well. Many believe that had he not gotten hurt at seasons end last year, the Bolts would have had a far better fate in the playoffs. Well Bishop is healthy this year and he will get his first taste playoff hockey against a team that hasn’t not tasted it for over 24 years. He finished the season with a nearly .700 winning percentage and is 7-2 over Detroit lifetime. Still, it’s not really easy in your first ever post season, especially given some of the Lightning injuries to Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison, Alex Killorn and trade acquisition Brayden Coburn.
Mike Babcock will be one of the most coveted free agent coaches in sports history once his contract officially expires at seasons end. If for no other reason than his tell it like it is attitude at press conferences. He’s arguably the best coach in the NHL and is unarguably the best coach to have never won the Jack Adams as coach of the year. He’ll be stared at by more people than a naked Kate Upton, taking an awkward selfie with a goofy looking Justin Verlander once July comes around, and I wonder how that’s affecting his team. What? Oh sorry, you expected some type of link there? Find it yourselves sickos. At any rate, there’s a theory floating around Detroit that the team’s lackluster 2nd half is stemming from their uneasiness with the coaching situation. People within the organization seem split as to whether Babcock stays or leaves. But his job status has been a story line all year and one can’t help but wonder if he simply can’t wait for the Wings to be eliminated so he can concentrate on his next position, or if he’ll try his damndest to push all of the right buttons because he wants to prepare this team for future playoff success.
I don’t want anyone to assume I meant Babcock will do anything less than try his hardest this post season with my above comment. I just believe that had he already signed an extension with Detroit, his players would perhaps feel a bit more comfortable adhering to his message. Given that and their goalie controversy, it might be easy to conclude this to be a short series in Tampa’s favor. At least most of the experts are saying this, as I have yet to run across a single talking head who has picked the Wings to win this series. Which is rather fascinating to me especially considering their long playoff history, Tampa’s lack of post season success and all of their injuries, specifically to some of their top D. I’m willing to acknowledge I’m in the minority here, but I actually think Detroit matches up rather well against TB. Tampa has speed, but so does Detroit. Tampa has some prolific scorers, but Detroit has a pretty balanced attack and a strong power play. Tampa has a quality goalie making his playoff debut, and now apparently so does Detroit. I don’t buy this idea that the Wings are overwhelmed in this series. It’s hard for me to fathom as well, but I’m going for my second straight under dog. I might have a few more apologies after this first round than usual 🙂 . Wings in 7
PITTSBURGH vs NY RANGERS
The Penguins narrowly avoided an embarrassing playoff absence (cough-BOSTON-cough) while the Rangers finished as the best team in hockey, wrapping up the Presidents Trophy last week. Incredibly impressive considering they were on the outside of the playoff picture for a decent portion of the year.
The Rangers are a lot like the Senators this season, only with greater talent and more household names. NY went from playoff bubble after the first 1/3 of the season to regular season champions, and starting their remarkable run even more remarkably after Lundqvist went down with an injury. I had to remark on this feat as to appease the NY Ranger marks. Ok, I’m done remarking about remark. Anyway, the Rangers have done an excellent job balancing goals for and goals against this year. Lundqvist struggled at the start of the season but has recently found his game in the last few weeks following his return. Cam Talbot showed remarkable (there’s that word again) poise while manning the net in the Kings absence and while I’m sure nobody would rather rely on him in the playoffs, at least his regular season play makes him a viable option. Perhaps more impressive though is the reemergence of Rick Nash. Nash has been the Ranger MVP, leading them in goals (42) and points (69). But his commitment to playing strong at both ends of the ice was an immeasurable help with Lundqvist out, as displayed by his team leading and very impressive +29 rating.
Love him or hate him (I tend to fall in the latter) you can’t deny Sidney Crosby is one hell of a hockey player. Given all of the Penguin injuries this year, Crosby showed tremendous leadership by putting Pittsburgh on his back and dog paddling them into the playoffs. Yes, much like that. He’s a real Amer- errr Canadian. Crosby leads his team in every major category with 28 goals, 56 assists and 84 points. He leads all forwards on his team with nearly 20 minutes played per game and is one of only two PITT forwards to play at least 77 games this season. Despite his teammates dropping as if they were victims of a Yapapi Indian Strap Match (just watch the clip), he was in line to be the first PITT player to win 2 consecutive scoring titles, since Jagr won it 4 years in a row from 97-01. Speaking of Jagr, he just resigned with Florida for another year. That guy never gets old.
Considering their offensive strength, it’s kind of puzzling as to why the Rangers have struggled on the power play so much this year. They rank in the bottom third in the league with a 16.8% efficiency, and they don’t have a single player even sniffing double digit pp goals. They also feature an astoundingly weak 7 goal total from their entire defensive core combined. Hell, they don’t even feature a d-man with double digit assists. In fact, the only player in that category is center Derick Brassard with 12. Unfortunate numbers considering how often Pittsburgh finds itself in the box, but we’ll talk more about that later.
Taylor Swift has a long list of ex-lovers, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a long list of injured ex-players. Yet you know you love these players and, despite being hurt, they love the game. Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang are both still out with injury, the latter of which was labeled as “unlikely” to see any action in the first round. Ehrhoff, out with an upper body injury, was on the ice for an optional skate on Monday, but is still being officially designated as highly questionable for a return any time soon. And then there is superstar Evgeni Malkin, who has missed a fair amount of time in the last month or so with a lower body injury. It’s clear that he isn’t 100% on the ice and he hasn’t scored in 10 games. He’s also failed to secure even a point in his last 5 and is a -6 over that span. Crosby has carried the load, but without another consistent scorer the Pens are most likely doomed.
Martin St. Louis is an interesting character. After being spurned by Yzerman in Tampa when St. Louis felt he deserved to make the original Canadian Olympic roster, St. Louis got Yzerman to work out a trade that seemed to help both clubs. He played well for NY last year, bringing a much needed veteran stability and playoff experience to a perhaps frightened locker room, and got the Rangers all the way to the cup finals. This year he’s picked up right where he left off, recording 21 goals, 31 assists and 52 points. He even has 5 points in his last 6 games since returning from a knee injury. A full season of his focus, drive, leadership, competitive spirit and overall play might just be what this team needs to make it back to the finals.
Did you know the Pens lead the league in penalty minutes, with an almost admirable 1123? Seriously, at what point is the total so high you stop feeling shame and instead just put on the foil and embrace your status as a 21st century Hanson brothers team? They average nearly 14 minutes per game, have 266 more minutes than the closest Eastern Conference playoff team Washington, who’s 857 season total makes them appear as choir boys in comparison. A silver lining to this is that they do rank 3rd in pk, but they seems to be out of simply playing the odds. I mean you can’t get scored on while short handed every time, right?
Hey I went an entire Penguin segment without mentioning Marc-Andre Fleury….whoops….Oh well. Hey, I actually have mostly positive things to say about him this year. He’s a huge reason why Pittsburgh got off to a great start to the year, without which they might not have found themselves in the post season. His last outing against the Rangers was a rough one, he was pulled after giving up 4 goals on 17 shots, but he did finish 1-2-1 against them this season, so I guess it isn’t all bad. As for the Ranger goaltending I usually never have cause to worry about Lundqvist, but his late return from his injury is something of note as we head into this series. It’s nice to think that if he struggles you can count on Talbot, but he’s yet another goalie with little to no playoff experience. In the end though, this series probably boils down to healthy talent and the Rangers just have more of it. Crosby won’t let the Pens go down without a
whine fight (sorry, low blow), but the Rangers should still take this series with relative ease. NYR in 5
NY ISLANDERS vs WASHINGTON
Just before they tear down their longtime home, which people seem to love by the way, the Islanders decided to get good for a season and send their fans off with a nice playoff farewell before they head to Brooklyn. Washington said good bye to a former style of play, adopting a more Barry Trotz approach, and thus perhaps finally making themselves true cup contenders.
What else is there to say about Alexander Ovechkin, many believed his production wouldn’t be very Ovie like given his new coach, yet all he did was win another scoring title, his third in a row. But while a fair amount of the Caps production is linked directly to Alex, the team also features a talented group of forwards who have complimented their captain with nice contributions of their own. Nick Backstrom finished only 3 points behind Ovie for overall team lead with 78. Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer have helped catapult the Washington power play into the number 1 slot, with 11 goals and 18 assists between them. Speaking of power plays, Ovie has 25 goals and Backstrom has a ridiculous 30 power play assists. As the kids would say, that be cray. But I can’t forget to talk about the emergence of rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s peaking at just the right time for Washington, with 12 points in his last 15 games and his average ice time increasing considerably over the last month and a half.
They may not have an Ovechkin, but the Islanders have been able to put up some strong offensive numbers themselves. Led by John Tavares, another forward who seems to get little to no attention paid to him, the Isles quietly managed to score the 4th most goals in the league, averaging 2.99per game. But let’s go back to Tavares for a second. A Isle draft pick and admirable captain, Taveres finished just 1 point behind Jamie Benn for most points in the league. Overall he’s 4th in goals (38), 9th in assists (48) and leads his team in every major category except +/-, whom he concedes to Ryan Strome with a +23. But lest you believe it’s all Taveres, think again. The Isles boast a pretty solid attack with lots of scoring to spread around. In fact, every forward on their team who has played at least 52 games has double digit goals and assists.
Washington had the 2nd highest total penalty minutes for east teams. Their penalty kill is decidedly average at just north of 80% , which doesn’t bode well against the Isles spread attack. With that being said, the Islander power play also finds itself in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency but, if given enough opportunities, they might just find some life.
It’s a bit confounding that the Isles can be so good 5 on 5, yet so mediocre with the man advantage. But if their 16th pp ranking doesn’t worry you, their 23rd ranked gaa and abysmal 26th ranked pk should terrify you more than a FNAF jump scare. Screw that puppet. Anyway, we already spoke about the Caps having the highest ranked power play, not to mention the league’s highest scorer. If this turns into a special teams affair the Isles will be stuffed away in the back faster than you playing 20-20-20-20 mode.
It’s not just the Washington forwards that like to get in on the action, their defensemen are more than capable of scoring as well. Washington has 4 D with 20 points or more and doesn’t have any of their top 6 with a negative rating. John Carlson has come into his own this year, nearly doubling his career high in points last season. Mike Green has been on a point per game pace over his last 6 games and Matt Niskanen, while not scoring as often as his defensive counterparts, has 27 assists and has proven worthy of that nice free agent contract he signed this season.
So it’s the end of Nassau Coliseum and the last days of hockey out on the Isle. All season long the Islander players have claimed that they were super serial about playing for something much greater than themselves. What better time to show they were serious than now in the playoffs? It’s interesting the affects these types of emotional situations can get out of teams. You can imagine very raucous crowds for these home games, as the old share their memories and the young try to soak in what history they can. Speaking of the crowds, if the Islanders happened to get eliminated at home, the angry fans just might save the city a demolition budget. That song never gets old. #AXEANDSMASHDEMOLITIONFORWWEHALLOFFAME
I was skeptical as to how Barry Trotz would do with Washington and Ovie. It’s been a terrible place to coach the last few seasons, as the egos in that locker room have been far to large for anyone to handle. Trotz is a great coach who preaches a strong defense first and also looks like Phil Collins, and who doesn’t love them some Philly? Apparently only the Ultimate Warrior. But after a rough start the Caps, Ovie included, have seemed to buy into Trotz’s philosophy and it might just be what finally propels this team to contender status. As for the Isles they’ve been a great story all year and it would be nice to see them pull off some type of long playoff run for the fans of the Isle and the old coliseum. If Halak, who’s having another nice season featuring a gaa well under 3, can stand on his head and frustrate the Caps, that wave of historical emotion might be just enough to push them through. But given NY’s awful pk and tendency to give up plenty of scoring opportunities, I’m afraid Washington just has too much firepower to be held down in this first round. Caps in 6
Well that’s all for now folks. Please be on the look out for my Western Conference preview in a couple of days. Until then, it’s great to be back and enjoy the playoffs everyone. Its the most wonderful time of the year! Yes, even better than that. And believe me when I say, that speaking as a parent, that’s really hard to top.
(Note from the author: Sports incite great passion and emotion in all of us, which is why they are so popular the world over. I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments section, on Twitter or Facebook, but please do it responsibly. I have no agenda with Bench Warming other than to share my love of sports and perhaps get a few people to grin from time to time. Thank you for stopping by and I hope you enjoy reading this column as much as I enjoy writing it.)