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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Playoff predictions for the Metropolitan Division

     At nearly half way through the 2016-17 season it is time to start thinking about which teams we expect to see in the playoffs this spring.  The Metropolitan division has been one of the hardest divisions to make the playoffs in as it has been comprised of many of the league's strongest teams in the last several years.  As it stands in this first half of the season I predict that the Mertopolitan Division will send the Penguins, the Rangers, the Capitals, and shockingly the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.  If they hold onto the Eastern Conference's second wild card spot as well the Flyers may make the cut too.  Right now the division holds the top five slots not just in their conference but in the entire league, so competition is fierce and standings can change rapidly.
     Not surprisingly the Pittsburgh Penguins are holding strong to the top spot in the division.  With tonight's overwhelming 7-2 win over the New York Rangers  the Penguins are 21-7-5 with 33 games played.  They have been having an incredible season despite having several injuries to some of their top performing players.  Sidney Crosby missed the first 6 games due to concussion.  There are currently 4 Penguins who are out on injury, Kris Letang  is day to day with a lower body injury, Tom Kuhnhackl is out week to week with a lower body injury,  Trevor Daley is out week to week with an upper body injury, and  Thomas Di Pauli is out until sometime in February 2017 with a back injury.  Despite these rather notable team mates missing the Penguins have gone 8-0-2 in their last 10 games.  The depth and scoring capabilities of all 4 of the Penguins lines is one of their strengths and has allowed them to succeed even when key players are out.   This season the Penguins are going for back to back Stanley Cup wins, which they have not done since 1992 and 1993.  The last team to achieve back to back cups was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.  If they can manage the very difficult task of staying on top of the Metropolitan Division and winning the Eastern Conference Championship again this season I think they have a very good chance of repeating their Championship again in the playoffs this season.
     Second in the division, again not surprisingly, is the New York Rangers.  Currently they have a record of  23-11-1 with 35 games played so far in the season.  The Rangers are easily the Penguins strongest competition not only within the division but in their efforts to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions for second time in recent memory.  They have played the Penguins 3 times so far this season and have won one of those 3 match-ups.  The win they got was a decisive one too, it was one of the Penguins worst losses of the season so far.  The other two matches have resulted in equally decisive Penguins wins, including tonight's game where the Rangers suffered a 7-2 loss.  Despite their difficulties with the Penguins the Rangers have still gone a respectable 7-3-0 in their last ten games.  The Rangers hold on second in the division is most precarious, if for no other reason than that they have played more games already than any other team in the division.  As such the rest of the division has a little bit of room to try to catch up over the second half of the season.  The Rangers have made the Playoffs every season since 2009-10.  Despite their stellar record for making the playoffs, the Rangers have not manages a Stanley Cup win since the 1993-94 season.
     The big surprise of the Metropolitan division is the third place seed as of tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The Blue Jackets have had an amazing season so far.  Tonight's win against the Kings in a shoot out marked a franchise record ten wins in a row.  That's right the Blue Jackets are 10-0-0 in their last ten games.  In addition to this impressive accomplishment, they also managed the highest scoring of a single team in a game this season when they shut the Canadiens out 10-0 earlier in the season.  The Key players thus far for Colombus have been Cam Atkinson with 14 goals and 19 assists so far, Alexander Wenberg with 6 goals and 20 assists, Nick Foligno with 10 goals 13 assists and 33 penalty minutes, and of course Sergei Bobrovsky who has a record of 19-5-2 over 26 games played with a goals against average of 1.94 and a save percentage of .932.  If they can keep their key players healthy, and continue to play consistently well as a team they have a good chance of making the playoffs.  I don't see them making a deep run if for no other reason than they lack the stamina.  Their team is simply not used to playing that extra month or six weeks and each successive game the toll on the stamina and energy is higher, and the chances of injuries due to fatigue are also greater.  Despite my fears I would love to see the Blue Jackets make the effort and at least make it through the first round.  They have only made the playoffs twice in the last ten years, and have been eliminated in either the first of second round on both of those occasions.  That being said however, they are doing great this season and stranger things have been known to happen, so they can not be counted out.  The one thing I can say with certainty is that the Blue Jackets will not get the first round draft pick for 2017-18.
    Holding the fourth spot in the division and the first wild card slot for the eastern conference as of today are the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Flyers are 19-11-4 with 34 games played so far this season.  In their last ten games they have a record of 8-1-1.  This may be one of their best stretches of the season.  Even with as well as they have been playing in the last two weeks I do not think they can sustain this level of play long enough to hold onto the 4th spot in the division or to finish above where they are now.  Their history is against them and they do not have a large group of high performing players.  Really they only have two key goal scorers this season, Jakub Voracek with 11 goal and 23 assists so far, and Wayne Simmonds with 16 goals and 13 assists so far.  The other great weakness that the Flyers have over their Metropolitan playoff contenders is that they do not have a strong goal tender.  Their lead goalie is Steve Mason who has played 27 game with a record of 13-9-4, he has a 2.68 goals against average and only a .908 save percentage.  His first back up is Michal Neuvirth who has played 9 games and has a record of 4-2-0 with a dismal 3.54 goals against average and a save percentage of .859.  Their third string goalie Anthony Stolarz has only played two games but has a record of 2-0-0 with a 1.47 goals against average and a .950 save percentage.  With only 2 games played though these stats are not an accurate representation of skills, it is unlikely that his stats could be maintained with the work load expected of a first or even second line net minder.   The Flyers have missed the playoffs entirely in 3 of the last 10 years.  In the seven years that they made it in they have lost the final round twice, and lost the semi final round twice, the other 3 years they were eliminated early.  They have not won a Stanley cup since 1975.  So despite their strong history of making it into the post season, even deep into the playoffs they have an equally long history of disappointment at the end of their run.  Given their relatively weak goal tending and the fact that they only have 2 consistently effective scorers I do not think that this is going to be their year either. 
      In fifth right now in the division are the Washington Capitals.  That is a bit of a surprise as I expected them to be in the top three.  As it stands today the Capitals would be in the second wild card spot in the eastern conference, and make the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.   With still half a season to go they could easily move up, especially if one of the top three teams right now has a bad couple of weeks.  They have a record of  19-8-3 in 30 games played.  In their last ten games the Capitals are 6-3-1.  I expect to at least see the Capitols pull ahead of the Flyers in the next few weeks, and possibly the Blue Jackets as well, to put them back in the top three before the end of the regular season.  The Capitols are another one of the teams in the NHL who have never won a Stanley Cup.  They have a very strong history of making it into the playoffs and even making deep runs, but have always fallen short of that most coveted of prizes.  The key players so far this season for the Capitals are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Braden Holtby.  Back-up goaltender Philipp Grubauer has also been performing exceedingly well, his stats are actually better than Holtby for goals against and win loss record, but he has only played 7 games to Holtby's 23 so far in the season.  If any of these guys was injured and out for any significant length of time it could shatter the Capital's post season hopes for this season, yet again.
     The remaining three teams in the division are the Carolina Hurricanes in 6th right now, the New Jersey Devils in 7th  and at the bottom of the division are the New York Islanders.  I think it very unlikely that any of these teams will make the playoffs this season.  Sadly for them they might have a chance in any other division, but the competition is just too strong in the Metropolitan for a team that is already 6 to 8 wins behind playoff position at the halfway point in the season to recover enough to make the post season.  If there are any major injuries that take one or more of the top teams out of the running there is a possibility that one of these teams could squeak by into a wild card slot but I believe this to be highly improbable.

Jaromir Jagr is Tied for 2nd in All Time Career Points!

By Michael Wifall [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

     Tonight the Florida Panthers played a close game with the Buffalo Sabers.  They managed to win the game 4-3 in regulation bringing them with in one win of taking 4th place in the Atlantic division, but that was not the big news for the Panthers tonight.  Jaromir Jagr made 3 assists bringing him to a career points total of 1887! This ties him with Mark Messier for 2nd place in career points scored.  Messier and Jagr are 2nd behind Wayne Gretzky.  The Great One holds the record still with an astonishing 2857 points over the span of his career.  Jagr has had an amazing career thus far with multiple seasons where he has scored over 100 points, most recently in the 2005-06 season where he played for the New York Rangers and scored a seasons total of 123 points.   Gretzky's career points record however is not likely to fall anytime soon.  Gretzky has held this record since October 15th 1989, and he had 15 seasons where he scored 100 points or more during his career to get there.  At this point it would take a player 20 seasons of averaging 140 points a season to break the career points record.  The last player who was able to score more than 140 points in a single season was Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1995-96 season, where he posted an incredible 160 points.  That being said it is entirely possible that Jagr will continue to score points throughout this season and in any future seasons he may play before retirement.  I fully expect that Jagr will within the next month or two hold the 2nd place spot in most career points on his own.
       Jagr already holds the record for most points scored by an NHL player 42 years or older with his points total last season of  27 goals and 66 points.  In fact he is one of only 10 players to continue playing in the NHL after the age of 43.  As of February 15 of this year, along with  Gordie Howe and Mark Chelios he will be one of three players to play after the age of 45.  At this point along with ranking 2nd in all time points he is also 3rd in career goals scored at 755, right now 2nd is Gordie Howe with 801, and again in the top spot is Wayne Gretzky with 894.  Jaromir Jagr took a hiatus from the NHL in 2008 when he left to play for the KHL for three season between 2008 and 2011.  He returned to the NHL for the 2011-2012 season.  One of the biggest questions regarding NHL scoring records is, where would Jaromir Jagr stand if he had not taken that 3 season break?   I don't believe he would have overtaken Gretzky's career points goal, but he very well might have taken second in all time goals from Gordie Howe.  There has been some speculation that he might even have surpassed Gretzky to take the record in most career goals. While anything is possible, I do not believe that he would have overtaken Gretzky even if he had stayed with the NHL for those 3 seasons.   In the three years before he left the NHL in 08 he scored 99 total goals, but in the 3 years after his return in the 11-12 season he only scored 35.  Since the low scoring 2012-13 season with Boston where he only scored 2 goals he has had a drastic improvement in goals scored, but is not likely to ever get back to his seasons of scoring 30 goals or more.  Even if he is not able to take second in career goals scored from Howe, Jagr has had and is continuing to have an amazing career and I look forward to seeing him play throughout this season and hopefully at least one more as well.  Any more records he manages to set are just gravy on what has been an awesome professional Hockey career.  We are sure to see Jaromir Jagr in the hall of fame as soon as he is eligible to be inducted.  Congratulations Jaromir Jagr on moving into 2nd along with Messier in total career points, and may he earn many more points before the end of this season!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Playoff Predictions - Pacific Division

     At this point we are now nearly half way through the 2016-17 regular season, and it is time to start looking at which teams we are expecting to see in the Playoffs next spring.  There have been many surprises in the standings league wide so far this season, but nowhere more so than in the Pacific Division.  My predictions based on how the first half of the season has gone are that the three Pacific division playoff slots will go to the Oilers, Ducks, and Sharks.  I believe that the Pacific Division will also take one of the two wild card slots and would expect to see either the Flames or the Canucks take that spot.  The Kings are an outside chance this season, and if they are able to play a significantly better second half of the season they could grab a wild card playoff slot.
      About a month ago the Edmonton Oilers claimed the the top spot in the division, which has been unheard of in recent years.  They have managed to stay in the top three spots in the Pacific ever since.  Presently they are tied for first place again with the Ducks.  Usually in the first half of the season the Kings and Ducks are the teams in close contention for the top placement in the division, but not this season.  The Edmonton Oilers have had a very strong season so far and show little evidence of an early burnout.  Though they have had two tough losses this week, they are still tied for first in the division.  The last time The Oilers made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season where they lost in the final round to the Hurricanes.  Edmonton has not won a Stanley Cup since the 1989-90 season where they defeated the Bruins in the final round.  New head coach, acquired last season, Todd McClellan has rebuilt the Oilers self image and created a team that plays with a confidence that they have been desperately lacking in the last decade.  As I have previously sated captain Connor McDavid and the newly acquired Milan Lucic have been instrumental not only in improving the play of the team, but also in keeping the confidence and morale of the entire team strong.  The other key player for the Oilers is Goalie Cam Talbot who has so far had a very strong season and made some amazing saves to keep his team at the top of the Pacific.  An injury to any of these three decisive players could put a quick end to the Oilers playoff hopes.
     The Ducks had a rough start to their season for the second year in a row, but like last season they have bounced back well in the last several weeks.  Kessler, Perry and Getzlaf are the keys to the Ducks offensive strategy both finishing off the regular season and for their playoff hopes as well.  The other instrumental player for the Ducks is of course Goal tender Gibson, and to a lesser extent his back-up Bernier.  If any of these players takes a significant injury it could damage or destroy their playoff, or Cup hopes.  Rikard Rakell has also been a dark horse for the Ducks this season who despite injuries has scored 10 goals and made 4 assists in the first half of the season.  Rakell brings a high energy level to his team when he is on the ice and has generated some faster and better play for all of the players he is on the ice with.  That being said if the Ducks keep playing as they have in the last six weeks they should easily make the playoffs, and could potentially make a deep run.
       The Sharks have made the playoffs 11 of the last 12 seasons and are in a good position to return to the playoffs again this season.  As with the Oilers they have claimed the top place in the division on multiple times during the first half of the season.  Presently the Sharks are fourth in the Pacific Division, after suffering a 3-2 loss to the Ducks tonight.  There is a lot of pressure both within the league and within the Sharks organization itself to prove that their trip to the Stanley Cup finals last season was not a fluke.  I believe that they will make the playoffs in 2017, but to make a deep run like they did last year they need to work on their speed and endurance which was their downfall in the final against the Penguins last season. The other important factor is to make sure they avoid further injuries, and get Tomas Hertl healthy again.  They other key players for the Sharks defensively are Goalie Martin Jones, Blueliners Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brett Burns.  For the offensive line up Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture are important to efforts in a deep playoff run.
     Currently the other Pacific Division team in the standings to make the playoffs is the Flames.   They are in third place in the division as of today.  Calgary is a bit of a surprise to see in strong contention because they have not had a good recent history with the post season.  They were barely edged out of the playoffs last season, and made it in by the skin of their teeth in the 2014-15 season.  Before that they had a five year drought where they did not make the playoffs at all between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 seasons.  The Flames have not made it to the finals since their loss to the Lightning in the 2003-04 post season, and have not won the Stanley cup since the 1988-89 Stanley Cup match up against the Canadiens.   The Flames have fought hard to keep in playoff position this season and if they can keep up the pace or even improve on their performance a little bit in the second half of the season they have a good chance of making the post season in 2017.
     The Canucks are presently in sixth position in the Pacific Division with a slightly less than 50% win loss record at 12-13-2.  The Canucks have missed the post season in 3 of the last 10 seasons, most recently last season where they finished the season in 6th place in the division.  The Canucks have played in the final round for the Stanley Cup three times in franchise history 1982, 1984, and most recently in 2011.  Unfortunately they have never managed to win a Cup.   They started out this season very strong  and held the top slot in the division for a few weeks early on.  They have a strong team and have played some remarkable games in this first half of the season, so while they are not currently in playoff position they can not be entirely counted out.  They would need to play more consistently well and make sure everyone was on their game every game going into the second half of the season to push into playoff position.  As with any other team they also need to avoid any further major injuries as well.
     The other big shock in the Pacific Division standings this season is the Kings.  As things stand this week they are not in playoff position.  Historically the Kings have a strong playoff performance, when they make the post season.  However, four of the last ten seasons they have missed the playoffs.  Last season they were unexpectedly eliminated by the Sharks in the first round.  They spent the remainder of the off-season preparing to make a strong comeback in the 2016-17 season.  Unfortunately in the season opener against the Sharks Goalie Jonathan Quick was injured and has remained out for the entire first half of the season with no timeline for his return.   The Kings Goal tender problems did not end there, back-up Jeff Zatkoff was injured as well in his second game of the season causing the Kings to call up Peter Budaj from the Reign.  Budaj has done remarkably well this season, but can not be compared to Quick.  The Kings also lost Anze Kopitar for several games due to injury, as well as defensman Braden McNabb who is still out on injured reserve.  Even with all of these injuries the Kings are only just barely out of playoff position in 5th place in the division.  The Kings currently have a record of  13-11-2.  This is actually a much better position than many experts expected with Quick out indefinitely.  At just about half way through the regular season the Kings are not completely out of playoff contention, they could still make a comeback.  In order to do so however they are going to have to step up and play much more consistently than they have so far.  They need to provide more support in front of the net for Budaj or Zatkoff as neither has the presence in net that they are used to in Quick.  The offensive lines also need to show a better performance, they have often not played well together as a unit this season.  The biggest key for the Kings other than avoiding injuries is to play a strong first period in every game.  They have struggled this year to come back from behind and have been weak in the early minutes of the game frequently, making many more games into a come from behind situation than they should be.
     The Arizona Coyotes are the weakest link in the Pacific division so far this season with a record of 8-13-5.  They Coyotes are another of the pacific division teams who has never won a Stanley Cup, and this does not look to be their year again.  They have only made the playoffs in three of the last ten seasons, and currently have a four year playoff drought.  The strongest players on the Coyotes have been captain Sane Doan, and Max Domi on offence, and defensively Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  Goalies Louis Domingue and Mike Smith both have only 4 wins each and the Coyotes are currently in a 6 game losing streak.  Their streak is not likely to break soon as they are playing the Predators tomorrow and are not at all favored to win, especially since they are 0-4 in their last four appearances against Nashville.  Unless they are able to make a complete turnaround in the second half of the season, or at least two other teams in the division completely flame out I do not think it is likely that they will make the playoffs this season.
     As it stands now the pacific division teams that would make the playoffs if they started next week would be the Oilers, the Ducks, the Flames, and the Sharks.  The Sharks would be in one of the Western Conference's two wild card slots.  Right now the Kings would be in the second wild card slot beating out the Central Division fourth place Jets who have a record of 13-14-3 to the Kings 13-11-2.  I would not count on the Pacific Division holding onto both wild card slots in the Western Conference however, so if the Kings want a slot in the playoffs they need to improve their position in the second half  of the season.  Of the teams in the three pacific division slots, the Flames are in the most precarious position with a record of 15-13-2, with 30 games played.  They have played  more games so far this season than the Sharks or the Ducks who both have equal or better win loss records right now.  The Canucks have played three fewer games this season so far, and are only 3 wins behind them in the standings.  The Kings have played four fewer games and are only two wins behind the Flames.  So if the  two or more of Sharks, Canucks, or Kings have a stronger record in the second half of the season they could easily push the Flames out of the post season once again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

An interesting emergency goalie scenario for the Blackhawks

With Corey Crawford on IR recovering from an appendectomy, the Blackhawks are looking to backup goalie Scott Darling to help the team hold their lead in the Central Division. The Blackhawks are currently 16-8-3 and are three points ahead of the St. Louis Blues. Darling's record this season is 4-2-1 with a 2.71 GAA and .912 SV% compared to Crawford's 12-6-2 record, 2.27 GAA and .927 SV%.

While Darling gets the starting nod, the backup spot will be filled by 29 year old Lars Johansson, who was signed in May by the Blackhawks after several seasons in the Swedish Hockey League. Last year he led the SHL in GAA and SV%. So far this season with the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs, Johansson made 16 starts and arrives in Chicago with a 6-7-1 record.

This all sounds pretty straightforward but there was an interesting twist to the story... the Blackhawks were in Philadelphia when Crawford became ill. The Blackhawks goalie coach wasn't eligible to step in as a backup for Darling because he is a former professional player and there was no room in the Hawks salary cap to sign him. So with just a few hours to find another goalie, the Flyers (and the NHL's quirky backup goalie rules) were called on for help. 

A staff member identified Eric Semborski, a 23 year old former Temple University club hockey goalie, as a possible emergency goalie replacement. Semborski was working at the Flyers' practice facility with youth hockey leagues when he got the call just 2 hours before game time. He raced to the Wells Fargo Center and was signed to an amateur tryout contract before hitting the ice to warm up with the Blackhawks. (Ironically he is a lifelong Flyers fan and had actually been holding a grudge against the Blackhawks for beating the Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.) He did not ultimately get to play in the game and did not get any money for his appearance, but he left with some great memories and Blackhawks gear. An interesting emergency goalie scenario played itself out once again!