Wednesday, April 11, 2012

POISON PEN: Round one preview, Western Conference

Yesterday, we took a look at the first round matchups in the Eastern Conference. Today, we delve into matchups featuring our good friends in the Western Conference. Once again, we will be assisted in our puckish prognostications by fabled Tonight Show guru and soothsayer, Carnac The Magnificent. These previews have NOT been sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk And Wagnall's front porch since noon today.

(1W) Vancouver Canucks
(8W) Los Angeles Kings

The Matchup: This is a rematch of a 2010 series between these two teams that absolutely nobody remembers. I'm assuming the Canucks won, because losing to the Kings wouldn't have been nearly painful enough for Canucks fans. This year has a different feel from the Kings' standpoint, as they have imported nearly 74% of the Philadelphia Flyers' roster in an attempt to make it to the finals and lose. Meanwhile, the Canucks are back to defend their Western Conference title. Giggle. If this series comes down to goaltending, the Kings may have the edge in Jonathan Quick, who racked up 10 shutouts this season. The Canucks will be backstopped by Roberto Luongo until they're backstopped by Cory Schneider, until they've decided that Luongo is ready to give it another shot, until they see he isn't and Schneider is re-inserted, until the Canucks remember they're basically married to Luongo until 2022 and put him back in for good. By that point, the second period of game 1 will be underway.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: All eyes will be on Mike Richards, the former Flyers' captain for whom the Kings paid a... well, a Them Ransom. Richards is looked at as a prototypical playoff player, a leader who can hit, score, fight, and make plays. Richards figures to see time matched up against Ryan Kesler, which will tie an NHL playoff record for the least amount of charisma between two opponents at one time.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Canucks forward Dale Weise, who missed the cutoff for NHL players named "Dale" by 25 years.

Carnac Says: "Twin Peaks".

"What does one Sedin do when the other Sedin is having sex?"

Prediction: Canucks in 7

(4W) Nashville Predators
(5W) Detroit Red Wings

The Matchup: The Nashville Predators are on a mission to finally take that last step in their journey to win the Stanley Cup, and fittingly, their first obstacle is their previously insurmountable rival Detroit Red Wings. David Poile's carefully crafted 15-year plan is finally coming to fruition, and that was never more evident when he threw caution to the wind and traded their first round draft pick, Paul Gaustad. Alrighty then. Meanwhile, the Red Wings and their fans are more excited for the playoffs this season than usual, as they won't be inconvenienced by late game starting times against opponents on the west coast this season. YOU CAN GO TO BED BEFORE 11:30 NOW, WINGS FANS. Think of how nice it will be to have that extra two hours of sleep when you go in the next day for your 4PM-10PM shift at McDonalds.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: Prodigal son Alex Radulov returned to the Predators after nearly four seasons playing in the KHL. Radulov and the Preds had each other by the short-n-curlys, as Radulov wanted the free agency that playing the last 10 games of this NHL campaign offered, and the Preds needed the dynamic gamebreaker they have under contract with Radulov for the most important playoff season in franchise history. A productive Radulov will raise the blood pressure of rival GMs, coaches, and fans who don't understand the concept of a player that's "under contract".

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Expect game announcers and Red Wings fans to be force-feeding you the "Valtteri Filppula has matured into the next dominant Detroit forward" storyline. Don't buy it. Filppula is a milquetoast player that benefits from playing with Henrik Zetterberg. Without Zetterberg, Filppula is Josef Beranek.

Carnac Says: "Mathieu Dandenault."

"What's the answer when Mathieu Dande asks you if the Red Wings are going to win this series?"

Prediction: Predators in 6

(2W) St. Louis Blues
(7W) San Jose Sharks

The Matchup: Everybody has that one moment they wish they could go back and do over. For Blues fans, it's the 2000 first round series against the Sharks. The Blues were the President's Trophy winner that season, Chris Pronger won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, but the team stumbled and gagged away their first round series against the up-and-coming Sharks. This time, the Blues are the up-and-coming team, and the Sharks are the ones who get the lump at critical moments. A very real question to be asked: if the Sharks aren't able to upset the Blues, have we seen their window close on a suddenly aging core?

Most Interesting Player In This Series: The Blues allowed blueliner Alex Pietrangelo to bake properly until his game was golden brown and crispy, and have been rewarded by two consecutive stellar seasons. As big as Pietrangelo looks on the ice, that's how smooth he looks as well. This will be his first taste of playoff action, and it will be interesting to see how the young Blues defender holds his ground against a veteran Sharks group that is big enough and experienced enough to feel comfortable attacking Pietrangelo directly.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: I wish I could get behind Joe Thornton. I really do. He seems like a nice enough guy, he is supremely talented and blessed with elite on-ice vision, and has put up eye-popping stats over the years. The problem is, we've seen this movie before, over and over and over again for nearly 15 years. Joe's a deadbeat dad of a hockey player, one with far too much to offer to have such a spotty track record. Like the Sharks, the Blues play a physical style, and they won't be shy about getting in Thornton's face, hitting and agitating him at every turn. Until Thornton proves he can thrive in a playoff hockey setting, it will be easy to dismiss what he brings to the table.

Carnac Says: "Hitchcock".

"Name a painful way to tow a boat."

Prediction: Blues in 6

(3W) Phoenix Coyotes
(6W) Chicago Blackhawks

The Matchup: The Chicago Blackhawks replace the Detroit Red Wings as the co-stars of the now annual Phoenix playoff passion play. The Coyotes get into the playoffs on the NHL's dime, the cloud of relocation hangs over the series, the Coyotes lose the series, the Coyotes are spared for "one more season". Lather, rinse, repeat. Hard fact: NOBODY WANTS TO SEE THE COYOTES IN THE PLAYOFFS TO BEGIN WITH. I'm openly rooting for the Blackhawks in this series.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: A bit overshadowed by Sidney Crosby's late-season return has been the ongoing concussion saga of Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, who missed the final 21 games of Chicago's regular season and is sketchy as a candidate to play early in this series. The Blackhawks may have the depth to replace Toews's scoring production, but there's no one on the roster that will be able to replace his lustrous playoff muttonchop sideburns. Ex-Hawks GM Dale Tallon's failure to submit a qualifying offer to former US president Chester A. Arthur in 2009 could come back to haunt the franchise.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Phoenix plugger Boyd Gordon, a fine defensive forward, may be the most nondescript player on the most nondescript team in the NHL. Plus, he's another one of those guys with "Last Name First" disease. Stop bullshitting us, Gordon Boyd, there's supposed to be a comma in there somewhere.

Carnac Says: "Coyote Ugly".

"Describe Dave Tippett's gameplan."

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

May Brian Burke loosen the ties on your sister's undergarments.

Enjoy the first round!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

POISON PEN: Round one preview, Eastern Conference

Does it suck that the Colorado Avalanche failed to make the NHL's annual postseason party? It sucks hard, real hard, sucks big giant rocks. But does that mean there isn't still hockey to be played? Of course it doesn't, and with that in mind, let's take a look at the 8 playoff matchups, where we test our powers of prognostication with an assist from Tonight Show legend Carnac the Magnificent. Today we start with the Eastern Conference, and tomorrow, we preview the Western Conference.

 (1E) New York Rangers
(8E) Ottawa Senators

The Matchup: The top seeded Rangers somewhat improbably emerged as the survivor of the Atlantic Division battle royal, earning home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Aside from star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and porcelain sniper Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are a mostly anonymous bunch led by media expert godd--n motherf---ing head f---ing coach John F---ing Tortorella. Meanwhile, the Senators somewhat improbably emerged from a division with arguably more talented teams like Montreal and Buffalo, to secure a playoff berth. The Sens attack is led by captain Daniel Alfredsson and giggling idiot Jason Spezza. The surprising Spezza-led Sens sparkled this season, suffering some setbacks and sliding from sixth to seventh and soon eighth. If GM Bryan Murray speaks that sentence out loud in your vicinity, wear a raincoat.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, who will be leaned on to keep the dangerous Spezza and Milan Michalek from getting to Lundqvist and using their dual powers of "Creepy" and "Injury" as an attack.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Sens goalie Craig Anderson, who has been known to build small ice barriers in front of the goal line using nothing but his own tears.

Carnac Says: "A John Tortorella press conference...Hugh Jessiman...and a goon."

"Name a gust, a bust, and a Prust."

Prediction: Rangers in 6

 (4E) Pittsburgh Penguins
(5E) Philadelphia Flyers

The Matchup: Finding information on this series has been kind of difficult, as both of these teams have been largely ignored by fans and media.

Fine, we'll try. The Pens and Flyers spent this season shadowboxing with each other, without much real doubt that they would be the 4/5 matchup in the East. Pittsburgh was led by the Terminator-like Evgeni Malkin and underrated goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, while Kris Letang was the engineer of a sometimes-frightening attack that AVERAGED over four goals a game through March and April. The remodeled Flyers successfully integrated newcomers Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and uberprospect Brayden Schenn into a lineup that already featured superstar Claude Giroux. The Flyers lost Chris Pronger to a concussion in November, and have scrambled at times to ice an NHL-caliber defense. Niklas Grossmann revealed to the world that they've been spelling his name wrong for years, and he STILL can't find one of those little license plates with his name on it for his bicycle.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: Former Penguin, current Flyer, alltime troll Jaromir Jagr. Jagr was a pipebomb to start the season, but tailed off statistically in the second half of the season. I honestly have no idea what to expect from the now 40 year old Czech; he could score 5 goals in game one, he could wear a hoodie under his jersey in game two, or he could have that bizarre vertical mustache he grew in the 2008 playoffs by game 7. One way or the other, Jagr will be in the spotlight as he leads the charge against his former team, who he cockblocked over 9 months ago.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Sounds silly, but Sidney Crosby is about the least compelling character in this series, in the same sense that Superman wasn't compelling. You KNOW what's going to happen, right? Crosby will get his points, pout his lips, and drive all non-Pittsburgh fans into a rage every time his mug shows up on the TV screen. Not at all boring, but there's no real suspense either.

He IS going to obliterate the Flyers, though. Sorry guys.

Carnac Says: "Superstar treatment".

"What's the name of the triple penicillin shot at all the free clinics in Pittsburgh?"

Prediction: Penguins in 5

 (2E) Boston Bruins
(7E) Washington Capitals

The Matchup: Tim Thomas vs Washington DC? Sure, why not? The Caps and the Bruins are a classic-ish matchup, one that preseason geniuses would have expected to see in the conference final. Alas, while the streaky Bruins accrued enough points to gain home ice advantage, the Caps were uneven, to put it politely. To be fair, who would have guessed that a team that traded its best goalie in order to sign a veteran with three career playoff wins would struggle? When Tomas Vokoun was unable to shoulder a lion's share of the games due to injury, Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby filled in to varying degrees of success. Holtby looks to be the starter to begin the series. Meanwhile, Alexander Ovechkin probably would not have selected Zdeno Chara to be his prom date for the first round. Ovechkin struggled against the rangy Hal Gill in the 2010 playoffs as the Caps were unceremoniously dumped by Montreal. Zdeno Chara is, uh, slightly better (and bigger!) than Gill. Ruh roh.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: Will Alex Semin stain his reputation heading into unrestricted free agency? Or will he rise to the occasion and go on a spurt? With Ovechkin and Chara likely trading musky European cologne scents with one another for the entirety of the series, Semin could be the difference between a spirited Caps upset bid, and a meek "Thanks for the invite" dismissal at the hands of the defending champs.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Bruins ogre Milan Lucic is interesting in the same way that Nelson Munz is interesting. A one-dimensional rockhead, he's a perfect fit in Boston, where one-dimensional rockheads have been revered since the days of John Wensink. Milan Lucic has done exactly one productive thing in his life, and that's piss off Canucks fans. Lucic will find at least one opportunity during this series to drag his knuckles down the ice and give that dumb dog look to a frightened Capital.

Carnac Says: "Catch-22".

"Name something any average fan wearing ice skates for the first time could do in a race with Mike Knuble."

Prediction: Bruins in 5

 (3E) Florida Panthers
(6E) New Jersey Devils

The Matchup: Wow. Devils and Panthers, you say? And it's the playoffs? Well, Florida has that one guy... uh, he scored some goals for them. And their goalie must have been pretty good, right? Or did they have more than one goalie? Wait, who's Florida's goalie? Bouwmeester doesn't play for them anymore, right? Hmm. Okay. Dave Lowry, he's gotta be retired by now. We'll come back to the Panthers. Hah, just kidding, we won't. Isn't it just precious that they made the playoffs though?

The Devils are still the Devils. Even though Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin have moved on, every time I watch a Devils game, I hear "Zach Parise", "Ilya Kovalchuk", and then Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin dubbed over every other name, and I hear it in Gary Thorne's voice, even though Gary Thorne is out sailing a boat somewhere or something. I suppose that's a compliment for the Devils, who are basically a package of hockey Saltines. Lou Lamoriello looks like what Stewie Griffin would look like in about 60 years if he was a real person.

Most Interesting Player In This Series: Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who is doing his damndest to give us the answer to the "So why dont they just get a really fat guy to play goalie?" question that every non-hockey fan asks. Marty The One-Man Party, very quietly, has been really stinky in the playoffs since the lockout ended. The only way Brodeur can top his spectacular implosion in the final two minutes of Game 7 against Carolina in 2009 would be to strip naked and run one off on his ex-wife's mother in the postgame interview after the Devils are again eliminated in the first round. This needs to happen.

Least Interesting Player In This Series: Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski, the 2011-12 recipient of the "wait a second, he's still in the league???" trophy, annually voted on by newspaper writers. Wait a second, they still make newspapers???

Carnac Says: "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten".

"How many NBC affiliated networks begged not to be stuck showing this series?"

Prediction: Panthers in 7

COMING WEDNESDAY: Poison Pen previews the Western Conference

Saturday, April 7, 2012

AVS GAMEDAY PRIMER: Nashville Predators, 4/7/12

The Good Guys: Bowed out of the 2011-2012 playoff chase with a listless 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. I prefer to consider that the Avs simply ran out of gas, after a spirited late-season run saw them gain minimal ground on other teams who remained hot themselves down the stretch. The next game after tonight is in October.

Bunch Of Dicks: Tonight is also Nashville's final regular season game, although for the Predators, there are at least four more to be played. Of all the teams in the postseason tournament, I'd be the happiest for the Preds were they to win the Stanley Cup, because they're a team that (for the most part) does things the right way. David Poile and Barry Trotz have put together a very good organization, and I like the idea of seeing them be rewarded for it. Their first round series will be against Detroit... so yeah, go Preds.

We Like: There's so much to like about what we saw from the Avalanche this season. That's not to say it was without its frustrations and inconsistencies, but for the optimistic fan, there's alot to look forward to next season. Guys like Ryan O'Reilly, Semyon Varlamov, and Erik Johnson showed evidence that they are evolving to varying degrees of stardom, that they are becoming more consistent players, and that all the hype isn't unwarranted. Rookies Stefan Elliott, Tyson Barrie, and Brad Malone got their first taste of NHL action, and none of them looked out of place. Trade deadline acquisitions Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn provided much-needed sandpaper and scoring to the wings. Veteran JS Giguere provided leadership, and had a bit of a renaissance filling in for a struggling Varlamov during a stretch of midseason.

Oh yeah, and that Landeskog kid. He seems like a keeper.

We Don't Like: There are a few negatives, but I don't want to dwell on those tonight. Instead I want to spend a few words on Milan Hejduk, who may be playing his last game in an Avs uniform tonight, and very well may be playing his final NHL game altogether.

Hejduk came into the NHL in 1998-99, the same season as Chris Drury. Drury ended up winning the Calder Trophy that season, while Hejduk finished third. Hejduk had a solid rookie season, netting 14 goals (the last time, until this season, he failed to score at least 20 in a season) and became the first and only rookie in NHL history to score two overtime goals in the same playoff series (against the Sharks in the first round). Hejduk was fairly durable, silky smooth, and has a relatively startling goal celebration to his credit:

Hejduk also captured the Richard Trophy in 2002-03 as the league's top goal scorer, and evolved into a veteran leader for an increasingly youthful squad.

In the event that this is in fact Milan Hejduk's final game, take a second to enjoy watching him out there tonight. He's been a special player for the Avs for a long time, and I'm gonna miss watching 23 lurking around that net, just beyond the radar of defenders, ready to use those gifted hands to put another puck behind the goalkeeper. Thanks for everything, Hedgie.

Randomly: Yeah, alright, I have a little lump in my throat after writing that.

Potential Hero: Win or lose, if Hejduk can pot one more tonight in front of Avs fans, it'll make it a special night.

Potential Goat: If Joe Sacco spends this final game of the season trying to prove whatever stupid point he's been trying to prove by gluing Matt Duchene to the bench, so help me god, someone needs to strangle him with his tie.

Final Thought: I'm a mostly-happy camper with this season. It sucks not to make the playoffs, but hey, growing pains for the youngest team in the NHL, right? The next time I do a primer, I'd like to be talking about the O'Reillys, the Duchenes, the Landeskogs, the Johnsons, the Varlamovs...and how hard they worked over the summer... and what a great preseason they all had... and dreaming big about the season ahead... I hope. I hope.

Oh yeah, and we want Parise and Suter too.

Go Avs.

Avs 3, Predators 2

Thursday, April 5, 2012

AVS GAMEDAY PRIMER: Columbus Blue Jackets, 4/5/12

The Good Guys: Colorado goes into game #81 with a razor thin shot to make the postseason, needing two regulation wins, two regulation Sharks losses to the suddenly-popular Kings, and needing Dallas to not accrue more than two points in their last two games. Other than that, it should be pretty simple.

Bunch Of Dicks: The Blue Jackets are terrible. Any further analysis of this would require more thought than Columbus GM Scott Howson put into constructing this dumpster-fire of a team. The yearlong smear campaign against Rick Nash as a player from clueless fans and media who don't understand that one elite player is useless if he's surrounded by AHL players virtually guarantees an undervalued Nash will be traded for pennies on the dollar in the offseason, because hey, Rick Nash is incapable of carrying a team all on his own.

We Like: Alcohol, because we're gonna need it tonight and Saturday if we don't want our nerves to literally jump out of our bodies and start dancing on the rec room floor. Not to be overdramatic or anything.

We Don't Like: March 1, 2012 may have been the night Avs fans look back on and grit their teeth if the team misses the playoffs. That was the night the Blue Jackets last visited Denver, and walked out with a 2-0 win in the Avs' most listless, uncaring performance of the season. There have been plenty of blown points at various times during the season, but that game was inexcusable.

Randomly: I never really put two and two together, but the Penguins have both Pascal Dupuis and Richard Park on their roster, meaning they'd be a nightmare in a playoff series against the 2003 Avalanche. Shudder.

Potential Hero: This is, by all rights, a playoff game. Gabriel Landeskog seems like the type of player that can (and will) elevate his play the higher the stakes. We'll see that tonight.

Potential Goat: Nothing but heroes tonight. No goats.

Final Thought: Hey Avs fans: if I would have told you in September that the team would have a shot at the playoffs in April, you'd have taken that deal in a heartbeat, right? Let's push this thing to Saturday.

And... Go Kings?

Avs 4, Blue Jackets 1