Tag Archives: Stanley Cup Playoffs

Let The Head Scratching Begin

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The 2015-2016 National Hockey League season appeared to be the one in which the stars would fully align for the Washington Capitals. The Capitals won a franchise best 56 games en route to securing the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL for the second time in franchise history as head coach Barry Trotz pushed all of the right buttons. The Capitals had one of the best net minders in the league in goalie Braden Holtby who’s 2.20 goals against average was fifth in the NHL this past season, while left winger Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals with 50. The Capitals only had one, three-game losing streak in the regular season as they appeared ready to win their first first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history.

But as good as the Capitals were in the regular season, I knew that there was possible trouble lurking for them around the bend in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Caps found themselves some worthy adversaries in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as they could never figure out the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Eastern Conference Semifinals were another chapter in the rivalry between Ovechkin and Penguins center Sidney Crosby. The Caps made Ovechkin the first overall pick of the 2004 National Hockey League Draft, while Crosby was the first player taken in 2005. Both players are superstars with immense scoring ability as Ovechkin has 525 career goals, and Crosby comes in with 338. Ovechkin and Crosby met once before in the postseason with Pittsburgh getting past Washington in seven games in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals en route to their third Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history.

There was plenty of star power on display when the Caps and Pens got it on, but Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan devised a solid game plan which took away Ovechkin, while making somebody else on Washington’s team defeat Pittsburgh as for the six-game series, Ovie was held to just a pair of goals along with 5 assists. But even with that the Capitals were not dominated in the series by the Penguins as three of the six games went to overtime with two going in the favor of Pittsburgh. Overall five games in the series were decided by one goal, but unfortunately for the Capitals, four of those went the way of the Penguins.

And when the handshake line that signaled the end of the series in Pittsburgh last Tuesday had finished, Ovechkin and his teammates had to once again skate off of the ice without hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, as they’ve built a reputation of being unable to get it done when it matters the most.¬†Ovechkin is 30-years of age, and although that he has plenty of hockey left in him, what is it going to take for him to get the Caps over the hump?

The Capitals will head into the off-season knowing that the majority of their core players that includes Ovechkin, Holtby, center Nicklas Backstrom, and right winger T.J. Oshie are all under contract at least through next season. Center Marcus Johansson is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but I highly doubt that the Capitals will allow him to get away.

It will be very difficult for the Capitals replicate what they did this year when the 2016-2017 National Hockey League season begins, but they must find a way to use the disappointment of their playoff loss to the Penguins as fuel for next season.

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Ran Into A Buzzsaw

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When the New York Rangers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs this past Saturday at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it marked the earliest that their season has ended since 2011. The Rangers enjoyed their second consecutive 100-point season, but the action in the National Hockey League this season was tightly contested with several teams having a legitimate chance to win it all. The Rangers faced a very formidable opponent in the first round and after being unable to keep up with the Penguins, there will be a ton of questions that New York must answer heading into the off-season.

For the past decade, goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been the face of the Rangers. Lundqvist has been one of the most dominant goalies in the National Hockey League during his career which included him winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie in 2012. This season Lundqvist led the NHL in saves with 1,788. But against the Pens, Lundqvist wasn’t sharp as the Penguins blitzed him for 15 goals in the five-gave series which included him being benched in three games by Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault in favor of backup goalie Antti Raanta on three occasions.

Henrik Lundqvist

Lundqvist and the Rangers were fighting an uphill battle throughout the entire series as it was a clever game plan that was composed by Penguins head coach  Mike Johnston as they pressured Lundqvist. For the series only three periods of hockey saw the Pens not score a goal. And aside from winning Game 2, the Rangers only led for roughly 26 minutes in the series as they were always in catch-up mode.

Pittsburgh came into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the hottest team in hockey as they went 27-9-1 over the last portion of the season while the combination on center Sidney Crosby, right winger Phil Kessel, and rookie Matt Murray were too much for the Blueshirts to tangle with. And the domination by the Penguins in this series shows that the Rangers must find a way to get more athletic heading into next season while also finding a consistent go-to-guy as an offensive threat.

This past season the Rangers were seventh in the National Hockey League in goals per game average at 2.84, but they didn’t have any player finish in the top 20 in the league in goals, assists, or points. And that lack of a superstar player showed up against a Penguins team that is loaded with stars as the blue-collar approach that the Rangers have used over the past few years is not longer going to cut it if they want to win the Stanley Cup. But by hook or by crook, this will be a different Rangers team next season.

Center Dominic Moore, along with defensemen Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, and Eric Stall are all set to become unrestricted free agents and I don’t see the Rangers signing all four players as it comes down to either age and attrition. The Rangers already have roughly $53 million committed to salaries for next season which would also more than likely put them out of the running to sign Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But make no mistake about that the Rangers must find themselves a star player that can shoulder the scoring mode in the same fashion that Lundqvist dominates between the pipes. The Rangers were hoping that left winger Rick Nash would be that type of player for them after they acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012: However after a 42-goal season last year, injuries limited Nash to just 15 goals in this campaign.

Ryan McDonagh

The Rangers still have a solid core which is led by Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh who is their captain while Vigneault is the best coaching for the this team going forward. But after being so close in the past several years, the last thing that the Rangers want to do is to revert backwards which makes this summer very important for them.

Source: Hockey-reference.com

 

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Peaking At The Right Time

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Sidney Crosby

Ever since the Pittsburgh Penguins used the first overall pick of the National Hockey League Draft in 2005 on center Sidney Crosby, the bar of expectations has changed in Western Pennsylvania. By 2008, the Pens were back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992, and by 2009, they were hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Since 2007, the Penguins have made the playoffs in each year, but they’ve been unable to replicate the success of 2009. Since 2006, Pittsburgh has used four different head coaches and they made another coaching change this season when Mike Johnston was replaced by Mike Sullivan on December 12. Sullivan’s arrival to Pittsburgh has lit a fire under the Penguins as they are 33-16-5 on his watch, and with the Stanley Cup Playoffs set to begin tonight, this could be a very dangerous team.

The presence of Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury have made the Penguins a consistent contender, but when the team acquired right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, that is when the expectations went through the roof. But as it took that talent some time to mesh together, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford couldn’t wait which is why he made the move to bring in Sullivan in spite of the fact that the club had a winning record under Johnston. However it wasn’t until an under the radar trade happened that the Penguins began to live up to their potential.

In late January, the Penguins acquired left winger Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks. Hagelin had spent the first four years of his National Hockey League career with the New York Rangers and he was a member of their Eastern Conference Championship team in 2014. But last summer, Hagelin became a cap casualty which resulted in the Rangers trading him to the Ducks. But in Anaheim, Hagelin struggled mightily as he only managed to produce 12 points in 43 games which resulted in the trade to Pittsburgh which has given him new life. In just 37 games with the Pens, Hagelin has accounted for 27 points and with him on the roster, the team’s record is 27-9-1.

But make no mistake about it that the engine that makes the Pittsburgh locomotive go is Crosby. This season Crosby led the Penguins in points (85), and goals scored (36), while he finished just one assist away from his third consecutive year in which he would have tallied 50 assists. And although that Crosby will more than likely not be selected to be the MVP of the National Hockey League this season, his ability as a play maker could be the difference in how far that the Penguins will advance in the postseason. Crosby has the ability to put the Penguins on his back for long stretches of play as his ability gives Pittsburgh the edge that they need to compete with some of the better teams in the NHL this season such as the Washington Capitals. Crosby’s play making ability will definitely be put to the test as Pittsburgh is still without Malkin as he is recovering from an arm injury.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Pittsburgh will get the Stanley Cup Playoffs kicked off tonight against a team that they are very familiar with in the Rangers. The Rangers have knocked the Pens out of the postseason in each of the last two years. But it is the Penguins who had the 3-1 series edge over the Rangers during the regular season this time around. The Penguins must find a way to do something which is very difficult to do in the postseason, which is to get to Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist who can be more difficult to navigate than rush hour traffic in New York City. However the Pens have Fluery who himself is no slouch between the pipes as he only allowed 2.27 goals against him per game this season and he could be the difference maker in this series as the Rangers offense has been known to go through spells where they struggle to score.

Although that the Capitals finished this season with the best record in the National Hockey League, you cannot overlook the Penguins who not only have star appeal, but they are also riding a huge wave of momentum into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as it isn’t how you start, but more of how you finish. The Penguins have a core group of players that have drank out of Lord Stanley’s Cup before, and it would not surprise me to see them do it once more this June.

Source: Hockey-reference.com

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New York’s Road Team

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The first year for the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York has resulted in a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it will be unlike any other trip to the postseason for this franchise. For the Islanders first 42 years of existence, they called the Nassau Coliseum home as they were Long Island’s hockey team. In the Isles first 12 years as a hockey franchise, they would enjoy great success as they claimed four Stanley Cup Championships. But over the years as Islanders ownership was looking at either a new arena or upgrades to the Nassau Coliseum, they were always met with resistance from county officials which eventually led to them moving to Brooklyn.

The first year in Brooklyn has seen an adjustment period for the Isles who still practice in Long Island and then commute to Brooklyn for their home games via the Long Island Rail Road which stops underneath the Barclays Center. Even with the Islanders traveling woes, they still managed to go 25-11-5 at the Barclays Center this season, but it just wasn’t that same feel when the Isles wore their famed blue jerseys.

In spite of the Islanders playing in the largest media market in the world, they finished this National Hockey League season with third lowest home attendance in the league. The Isles might still call New York home, but the idea of their original fan base in Long Island willing to consistently make the commute to Brooklyn is a pipe dream.

With fares on the Long Island Rail Road consistently increasing and the Downtown Brooklyn area lacking affordable parking, there hasn’t been the rush of residents from Long Island making the trek to New York City to see their beloved Islanders. And once you factor in that the residences surrounding the immediate area where the Barclays Center is located being mainly comprised up of people who are converted New Yorkers, the Islanders home games sound and feel like a minor-league game.

But the Islanders moving to Brooklyn was their best option as the only other possible choices on the table for them would have been to relocate to either Quebec City, Quebec, or Seattle, Washington. And after the Islanders had exhausted all of their options in Nassau County, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman knew that the franchise was in dire straits as he wanted to keep the Islanders in New York City which made the Barclays Center the most logical choice.

However there are several silver linings in these storm clouds for the Islanders as their home games in Brooklyn have allowed more fans that follow some of their key rivals such as the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils to attend games which is good for overall attendance, but that still doesn’t gives the Isles the home-ice advantage that they need. However it is a credit to Islanders head coach Jack Capuano that he has gotten his team to focus and block out the white noise as it could have been very easy for this team to go off of the deep end with all of their commuting issues and true lack of having a home-ice advantage. But the Islanders have persevered all season long in the face of it which could work to their advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs set to begin this week, there is the possibility that there could be a bump in attendance for the Islanders being that the stakes have increased and more people might be interested in watching their brand of hockey. But going forward there will have to be an increased effort by the Islanders front office to increase this local support for this club that is talented enough to make a deep run into the postseason as they don’t want to consistently play in an empty arena. The Barclays Center might be nice and shiny, but there is still a large amount of people that consider themselves true fans of the Islanders who really enjoyed the dump that was the Nassau Coliseum which gave the Isles a true home-ice advantage.

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Lord Stanley Eludes The Rangers

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http://content.sportslogos.net/logos/1/20/full/145.gifWhen the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup Championship in 1994, it marked the end of the long suffering for their organization as their last prior title to that was secured in 1940. The Rangers are an Original Six club and they are also one of the most iconic teams in the National Hockey League. But twenty-one years later after hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Rangers are still searching for another opportunity.

The past four seasons have seen the Rangers become one of the top teams in the National Hockey League as they have enjoyed some deep runs in the postseason. In 2012, the Rangers made their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1997, but there they would meet an old nemesis in the New Jersey Devils who proved to be too much for the Blueshirts to overcome. Last year the Rangers made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since winning it all in 1994. But there the Rangers met a Los Angeles Kings squad that was a team of destiny and they succumb to them in five games. This season was the second one for the Rangers under head coach Alain Vigneault and they felt that this was going to be their year.

After a slow start to the season, the Rangers caught fire down the stretch of the regular season and they earned the Presidents’ Trophy for just the third time in franchise history. And in order for the Rangers to get back to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive year, they knew that they were going to have to go through some of the game’s best scorers. In the first round of the playoffs, it was all hands of deck defensively for the Rangers as they faced the Pittsburgh Penguins and their center Sidney Crosby. But the Rangers were up for the challenge as they got past the Penguins in five games. In the second round, the Rangers had to overcome a 3-1 deficit in their series with the Washington Capitals and their star left winger Alex Ovechkin, but the Blueshirts would prevail in seven games. In the Eastern Conference Finals. the Rangers knew that they would have to contend with Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos. But unlike the Pens and Caps as far as Crosby and Ovechkin respectively, Stamkos had plenty of help around him which meant that the Rangers defense could not completely zero in on him as the Lightning and Blueshirts counter punched in a grueling seven-game series.

http://dqmt5fo24ucpe.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/30041312/handshakes-FB.jpgMadison Square Garden in New York City has proven to be tough on Rangers opponents in Game 7 situations, but when the Lightning won their this past Friday night, it marked the third time in the series that Tampa Bay was victorious at the famous venue. And with that the Lightning added to the angst of the Rangers.

The Rangers pride themselves as a mentally tough hockey team. But toughness alone couldn’t get it done in this series as the Lightning have incredible team speed which was tough for the Rangers all series long. And just as New York torched Tampa Bay for 7 goals in Game 6, they were shutout by Lightning goalie Ben Bishop in Game 7. As always the Rangers rely on goalie Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out of any situation and even he cannot do it all as he is not a goal scorer. But aside from losing Game 7, the Rangers lost something else which is time.

http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Henrik+Lundqvist+New+York+Rangers+v+Washington+Gr79VO72eUvl.jpg

Henrik Lundqvist

The Rangers still have a solid core on their club which is led by Lundqvist, but in the world of sports you can never take something for granted as title windows can close rather quickly. With the NHL’s salary cap expected to climb next season, New York is in good shape as they have their key players under contract being that Rangers general manager Glen Sather has done a good job in managing the team’s payroll while giving them flexibility going forward. But unfortunately for the Rangers and the folks at MSG, the off-season got started a little quicker than they anticipated.

Source: Hockey-reference.com

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The Lightning’s Power Surge

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This spring has shaped up to be totally different than last spring for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last season was just the third time in the franchise history of the Lightning that they tallied more than 100 points. But in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in spite of the fact that they had home-ice advantage. The Lightning would once again enjoy a strong regular season this time around as they tallied a franchise best 108 points. The Lightning would once again qualify for the postseason and in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they met the always tough Detroit Red Wings who were making their 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.

The Lightning dropped Game 1 at home by the score of 3-2 and it appeared to be deja vu in Tampa. But the Lightning rebounded in Game 2 to even the series at 1-1. After swapping victories in Detroit, the Lightning would return home for Game 5 where they were shutout 4-0 and booed off of the ice by their fans. The Lightning would then pull off the impossible as they went to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for Game 6 where they won 5-2. The Lightning would return home for Game 7 where they would shutout the Wings 2-0 and advance to the second round where they would meet the same Canadiens who swept them out of the playoffs last season.

The Lightning were able to go to the Bell Centre in Montreal and outscore the Canadiens 8-2 in the first two games to take a 2-0 series lead. The Lightning would hold off the Canadiens to win in six games and they are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2011.

As always there are plenty of eyes on Lightning center Steven Stamkos who is the team’s biggest scoring threat. Only two players have scored more goals than Stamkos while wearing a Lightning uniform as he is always a threat to light the lamp. But so far during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it has been the passing of Stamkos that is propelling the Lightning. In 13 playoff games this spring, Stamkos has only scored 3 goals, but he is leading the club with 7 assists. Center Tyler Johnson has been the Lightning’s top goal scorer in the postseason as he scored 7 of his 8 postseason goals in the Lightning’s first round series victory over the Red Wings. And if you’re going to advance in the postseason like the Lightning have, you’ll need to have a strong net minder.

Ben Bishop

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop has risen to the occasion when the chips have been pushed to the middle of the table. After surrendering 3 goals in the Lightning’s Game 5 loss to the Red Wings, Bishop only gave up a pair of goals over the final two games of the series; including a shutout in Game 7. In the series clinching victory over Montreal, only one goal slipped by Bishop as he is playing his best hockey of the year.

For Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, his club is clicking at the right time as they haven’t slowed down after a very strong regular season. And as the Lightning are preparing to face the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, they know that they’ll meet a team with a workman like approach. The Lightning will also have a star goalie to contend with in Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers will be third straight team that the Lightning will face this postseason that is an Original Six club with a long and storied history. And as the Lightning have been knocking off traditional National Hockey League powers, they are out to write their own history. The Lightning became a team of destiny when they won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and they want to bring it to West Florida once more as they’re out to make Tampa a hockey town.

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