Three more critical Western Conference games tonight and as has been the case, nothing was really resolved. San Jose gave Edmonton a chance to get a more solid foothold on 8th place but failed to hold the lead against Minnesota. Colorado, battling for the 5th/3rd position, put in a decisive victory against Anaheim which gave them the Northwest Division lead for now. However, a perilously small margin still separates the Avalanche and 9th place. This week should put things into focus more -- and possibly eliminate the LA Kings.
The problem is that every team competing for the playoff spots has a glaring weakness. Here's a rundown of what each teams' Achilles' heel is:
Calgary Flames: Scoring, scoring, scoring. If Miikka Kiprusoff has a bad game, the Flames generally lose. Jarome Iginla never got into a full groove this season, and Daymond Langkow/Tony Amonte have had disappointing seasons. If Kipper or Iginla go into slumps, the Flames will flirt with sliding out of the playoffs.
Colorado Avalanche: Goaltending and health. Losing two of your best forwards is never a good thing for a playoff push. Having an unproven goalie while your new #1 goalie, fresh off battling doping accusations, family felonies, and bad ice on the porch, heals up. The Avalanche are lucky to be in the position they're currently in considering all of the things that have gone wrong for the team. There are rumors that Jose Theodore is getting ready to return; at this case, it's a complete crapshoot whether that will be better or worse than Peter Budaj. Alex Tanguay can't come back soon enough, though there's no miracle cure bringing Marek Svatos back.
Edmonton Oilers: Goaltending and consistency. Let's face it folks: getting Dwayne Roloson was not THAT much of an upgrade from the previous Oiler netminders. While fairly loaded on paper, the Oilers have been maddeningly inconsistent for their fans. Roloson certainly hasn't propelled the team to greater heights, and the fact that Ales Hemsky left tonight's game with a back injury is a cause for concern. Still, any team that has Pronger, Smyth, Samsanov, Tarnstrom et al should have the firepower to make it. It's up to Craig Mactavish and company to make sure the engine runs smoothly.
Vancouver Canucks: Goaltending and missing superstars. While Alex Auld is trying to hold down the fort in the Vancouver net, the Vancouver Canucks will only go as far as Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi take them. The fact that the team finally has secondary scoring after all of these seasons of relying on Naslund/Bertuzzi/Brendan Morrison would be laughably ironic to all but Canucks supporters. There have been flashes of the Big 2 snapping out of their funk, but consistency has yet to be found.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks: Scoring and goaltending consistency. Quick -- name a scoring forward on Anaheim besides Teemu Selanne. While Andy MacDonald is quietly having a great season, there's still not a lot of support behind the Finnish Flash. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathon Hedstrom, and Joffrey Lupol have all taken turns sharing the secondary scoring mantle, but there still lies some questions on consistency. In the net, the Ducks seem content with Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov, but there are still plenty of whispers that Brian Burke made a mistake by holding on to Giguere. Still, if anyone can get hot and steal a playoff round, it's Giguere -- he's certainly got the resume to back it up.
Los Angeles Kings: Consistency, chemistry, health. This whole team is inconsistent, from the goaltending out. Other than Lubomir Visnovsky and Craig Conroy, no other King is really having a season to write home about. Losing Pavol Demitra hurts big time, though the return of dynamic Alex Frolov helps. On paper, the Kings were an overachieving bunch when things were going well; now that injuries and a coaching shake-up have affected the squad, things seem to be falling out of reach. The 7-3 loss to Vancouver certainly didn't do anything to boost spirits, and the Kings need to put together a solid 3-4 game winning streak to charge back into playoff contention.
San Jose Sharks: Inexperience and lack of grit. How many teams have won the Stanley Cup with rookies taking up half of the ice time on the blue line? Regardless of what Doug Wilson thinks, veteran experience does count for something down the stretch. It stabilizes the mood during a crisis and prevents teams from getting too high during a win. While Christian Ehrhoff and Josh Gorges are playing well on the blue line, handing them the reins and saying, "Bring us to the promised land!" is an awfully big task considering their overall lack of NHL experience. Up front, the addition of Ville Niemenan has helped the Sharks in the grit department, but the team still lacks fire from time to time. Talent-wise, the Sharks should make the playoffs, but they are prone to stupid mistakes and a lack of urgency -- two areas that could prove costly in the remaining few weeks of the season.
Perhaps I'm just in a 90s British music mood today, but I felt that some of the themes popping out of yesterday's action came straight out of songs by Blur. If you'll indulge me as I try to bring my two favorite things (hockey and music) together yet again...
There's No Other Way from Leisure
The Sharks got their butts handed to them by the Red Wings. While Evgeni Nabokov finally played a great game, the rest of the team looked ridiculously tentative, and basically gave the Red Wings the win. Perhaps it's the bright red jersey that strikes fear into anyone wearing teal, but I still remain convinced that the Red Wings' record is better than they actually are. I'm sorry, but when you spend 1/4 of the season beating up on Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis, your numbers get inflated.
But back to the Sharks, the team still has 2-3 games in hand on the teams in front of them. The problem is that a loss like this, while not entirely unexpected, is a setback, especially since Vancouver and Edmonton split a 3-point night. There's no other way other than to go out and throttle Minnesota. Anything less will take away much of the good momentum that the previous seven games have garnered.
Similarly, one of my early season picks was Atlanta. Flipping through Center Ice yesterday, I figured the Thrashers were toast and that the Habs would re-take eighth place. Now, I didn't see the controversial play on Scott Gomez, but a win is still a win and the Thrashers keep pace and remain ahead of the Habs. Don Waddell's squad faces a similar situation to the Sharks: win or go home. It's a sports cliche, but for these two teams on the playoff bubble, it's what has to be done.
No Distance Left To Run from 13
Sorry Maple Leafs fans. Unless Mikael Telquist goes on an insane 9-game winning streak, it's time to pack it in. Over the next two months, Toronto sports radio is going to be filled with calls roasting GM John Ferguson Jr. for not trading Bryan McCabe and Mats Sundin to accelerate the rebuilding process. The Leafs are in a strange state of limbo right now. With Sundin fading into the sunset and the questionable star potential of Matt Stajan and Alex Steen, the Leafs are neither here nor there and Ferguson's inactivity only accentuated this. Because of salary cap issues, the Leafs can't buy a bunch of players during the off-season. No, I'm afraid that Leafs fans will have to settle for a few years of mediocrity (more so than this season) until the team gets a new identity. Until then, Toronto fans can conjecture about Aki Berg for Alex Ovechkin trades until their heart's content.
For Tomorrow from Modern Life Is Rubbish
The Checketts group finally completed the purchase of the St. Louis Blues for a whopping $150 million. Dave Checketts and co. have been rumored on and off with their interest in the Bluenotes, but it has finally come to pass. The Blues were a prime example of how the playoffs mean nothing if you never go all the way, so the post Pronger/MacInnis era will have to focus on rebuilding the team completely. The defense is off to a good start with Barrett Jackman and Eric Brewer, and Curtis Sanford showed enough to give him a chance at being a #1 goalie. The rest of the team? Hey, there's always hopes that they can win the Phil Kessell lottery.
On Your Own from Blur
After 3/4 of the season spent being the golden child of the NHL (stealing the title from Sidney Crosby), the Alex Ovechkin backlash has begun. Perhaps all of the same critics who bashed Crosby for nothing other than being an 18-year-old with a spotlight following him will shower Ovechkin with the same criticisms. In both cases, the constructive criticism is warranted but the overzealous criticism is just the media stirring up a frenzy for no good reason other than to bash. Perhaps it's just the backlash against hype, but everyone has to remember that AO and Sid the Kid are just rookies. Lay off, let Glen Hanlon and Michel Therrien do their job, and watch what happens next season. By the way, don't people remember how Wayne Gretzky used to carry the nickname Wayne the Whiner?
Running off my criticism of the standings system, there's a great post over at Japer's Rink that analyzes how the standings would change under different point systems. Props to JP for doing the number crunching.Random thoughts as we approach the playoffs
Back from Vegas and damn those Islanders for not beating the Panthers and costing me $10. Betting on hockey, especially during March Madness weekend, is kind of stupid. Nonetheless, the 40-1 odds on the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup were pretty hard to pass up.
Who's made a difference in the NHL playoff race? Look at Kari Lehtonen at 16-12 and a .911 save percentage. Considering that the rest of the Atlanta goalies are .500 with a GAA of around 3.5 and a save percentage around .880, you gotta think that if Lehtonen was healthy all season, the Thrashers would have 6-8 more points.
Speaking of difference makers, fiery Steve Bernier has finally given the Sharks stability on the second line with Patrick Marleau. Since Bernier's recall, the Sharks have gone 10-4-4.
The Vancouver/Edmonton mini-series is essentially a play-in round. If one team sweeps, you can pretty much kiss the loser's playoff hopes goodbye. The most even for things to come out is if Vancouver wins two of the three; currently, Vancouver stands with one less point and more game played than Edmonton.
The Maple Leafs, who many have already left for dead, may make one last rush for 8th place. If they take back-to-back games against Montreal, suddenly the Leafs come within striking difference.
Do traditionalists truly hate the shootout? They looked pretty darn excited for the Detroit-Nashville shootout tonight over in Hockeytown (well, until Detroit lost). Actually, there have been few non-converts to the entertainment value of the shootout. My only gripe is the point system. I still remain an advocate of 2 points for a win in regulation and overtime and 1 point for a shootout win and NO POINTS for a loss of any type. Losing should never be rewarded.
I won't be blogging over the all-important Dallas and Colorado games this weekend as I'll be out of town, but here is an update on the Push for 96:
Games played: 64
Games remaining: 18
Points needed: 23
Necessary record: 11-7-1
Suddenly, the insurmountable task seems very much at hand. With LA, Vancouver, and Edmonton all within two points of each other and games at hand on all three, the Sharks firmly hold their own destiny in their hands.
I'm expecting one loss out of the two weekend games. I'm hoping it comes against Dallas while winning another big four-point game against Colorado. If the Sharks do make the playoffs, their opponent better watch out -- this team is finally coming together after a 2/3 season-long chemistry lesson. Credit Steve Bernier, Milan Michalek, and Christian Ehrhoff for turning the season around -- without those three finding their groove, the team would still be a one-line team. While Cheechoo, Thornton, and Marleau are impact players, that is no good without any support. Bernier, Michalek, and to a lesser extent, Ehrhoff, have given the Sharks what Alyn McCauley, Mark Smith, Scott Thornton, and others couldn't -- support.
...but once you get past all of the (deserved) hype that has been following Alexander Ovechkin over the past few months, it's clear that the race for the Calder Trophy has actually become a race again. Yes, the boy wonder, scourge of Don Cherry and 99% of hockey fans Sidney Crosby has quietly been playing catch-up with Mr. Ovechkin. Sid the Kid has a nice four-game point streak going with seven points on a Penguins team that just jettisoned Mark Recchi to Cup contender Carolina.
Meanwhile, the only press Crosby has received despite his recent flurry of scoring was a nice shot in the press from Daniel Alfredsson about being a crybaby.
Look, I'm not saying Crosby's better or Ovechkin's better or getting into a debate as to who would win a fight if the two were trapped on the moon with one hand tied behind his back. But the media is a funny beast. Before the season started, it was Crosby-mania in any and every hockey publication. Ovechkin's name was mentioned, but there wasn't too much hype surrounding him other than he was a potential Calder candidate.
Now that Ovechkin has scored his share of highlight-reel goals and established himself as one of the best players in the world, suddenly everyone hates Sid. And why is that? Because he's mouthed off like a -- gasp -- teenager? Because he was the golden child of Canadian hockey before Don Cherry tore into him? Because Peter Forsberg -- one of the most notorius divers in the game -- accused him of diving?
Folks, what's being lost here is an incredible rookie season by a pure talent that will dominate the league for years and years. Yes, his work hasn't been as showy as Ovechkin's, but his numbers are good enough to warrant respect and admiration. And remember that Ovechkin is 21 while Crosby is 18. They're both going to get even better in the next five years, but Sid the Kid has an additional three years in his pocket to mature physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Don't believe the hype from Don Cherry and Daniel Alfredsson. Ovechkin will probably win the Calder, and I'm not arguing that he shouldn't. But don't let the negativity that's followed Sidney Crosby for the past few months cloud your judgment on a true talent that should be enjoyed, not reviled.
First off, apologies for the formatting issues of the past week. Pivot's been acting strange lately and I hope the code hasn't become corrupt again.
Here's where the Sharks stand on their push for 96:
Points needed for 96: 31
Necessary record: 15-6-1
Next game: Edmonton, Thursday night
Boy, the team really shot themselves in the foot against Anaheim. You can blame a number of things -- a few bad defensive miscues, Joe Thornton's failure to convert on the OT breakaway, Steve Bernier's shot off the post, Patrick Marleau's blunder at the end -- but the bottom line was that the team fired a ridiculous number of shots at JS Giguere and only a handful got through. However, this was indicative of earlier in the season when the Sharks would regularly outshoot opponents, but because there were no screens or players available for rebounds, the shots were easily stopped.
What's the key? On the Sharks broadcast, Doug Wilson basically admitted to what many of us have been thinking -- the team is soft. Whereas the Darryl Sutter-coached teams featured too much grit and not enough willingness to let skill come through, this current team is built on speed without a lot of grit. Steve Bernier certainly has shown some sandpaper in his game, but it's a bit much to let a rookie dictate the on-ice performance (with all apologies to Ovechkin, Crosby, et al).
I question the decision by Ron Wilson to move Bernier and Michalek off of Patrick Marleau's line. Yes, they haven't been producing at the same level of the Thornton line, but the chemistry between the three was evident. When Wilson moved Michalek back on the line and flanked the pair with Niko Dimitrakos, you could plainly see that Dimitrakos didn't have the speed or vision to keep up with the pair. Look, I'm sure Niko's a very nice guy, but he just ain't an NHL-caliber hockey player, especially at the tempo of the "new" NHL.
Coming up, the team has a six-game home stand. The Sharks have a really strong record at home and the schedule shows that they should win five of the six (assuming one loss in there to Dallas or Colorado). I hate to sound like Doug Wilson, but if the team plays to its abilities (and keeps Marleau/Bernier/Michalek together), there's no reason to throw the towel in yet. However, we will know by the end of the homestand whether those playoff ticket deposits will be refunded or not.Great minds...
Looks like James Mirtle was thinking along the same lines as me on my last post about 96 points. Check out his post for a league-wide view of the situation.