April 16, 2014

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Bold NHL Playoff Predictions

By: Matt Bowen

The 2014 NHL playoffs bring a jolt of energy to the league that it’s been looking for. Along with revamped divisions this season is a new-look playoff format. Gone are the days of reseeding and here are the days of the NHL bracket. Matchups are determined by divisions with each quadrant of the bracket representing a division.

There are still eight playoff-eligible teams with the top three teams in each division guaranteeing themselves a spot with two final wild card spots available. The division winner with the best record will play the lesser of the wild card teams in the first round.

That being said it’s the greatest postseason in all of professional sports. The new format is nice but diehard hockey fans with ice in their veins know anything can happen. Expect the unexpected. Here are some bold predictions for this year’s NHL playoffs.

Boston Bruins

Will the Boston Bruins hoist the Stanley Cup in 2014?

There will Be 4 Series That Go to Game-7 in Round 1

Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you—there will be four series that go to Game 7 in Round 1. With the new format there are despised rivals pitting off against one another right off the bat. Not wanting to give an inch these series will go the distance.

They are as follows:

Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche

The most surprising matchup to go seven out of this group is the Wild v. Avalanche.  Minnesota is the hockey state and the pride of natives like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will show through. In the end the Avalanche will get the series win because of the young bevy of talent they have. Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon along with others will be too much to tame for the Wild.

Other game seven winners will be the Canadiens, Rangers and Kings.

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, He’ll Take the Hockey World by Storm

He was selected No. 1 overall in the 2013 NHL draft. He scored the most points by a rookie this season with 63. He also set a record once set by Wayne Gretzky for most consecutive games with a point by an 18-year-old. Yet, Nate MacKinnon is just about to be discovered by the hockey masses.

He’s being mentioned in the same breath as Gretzky and is from the same town, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, as Sydney Crosby. Reminder, he’s only 18 but like The Great One and The Next One before him he’s living up to the hype.

MacKinnon will explode in the playoffs with nine goals and 11 assist as he leads the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

The Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers will Feature 4 OT Games

Let’s get something straight—the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers hate each other. It’s okay, it’s hockey and that’s why we love it.

One thing that didn’t about the NHL playoffs this season is that overtime will be played as 20 minute periods until a winner is determined. There’s not an abbreviated period possibly followed by a shootout. There’s sudden-death hockey until the lamp is lit. What’s not to love about nearly endless hockey?

This series will not disappoint in that department, Games 2, 3, 4 and 6 will got to OT with each team splitting the affairs. The Rangers will win game 6 with a goal by Carl Hagelin in the second OT and laugh last in Game 7 as they’ll survive and advance.

This one will be intense throughout.

The Boston Bruins will win the Stanley Cup

Before you become outraged with the selection of the regular season’s best team being chosen to hoist the Cup hear us out.

The winner of the President’s Trophy for most points during the regular season doesn’t mean postseason success. Nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. Since 1920 only 40 teams have won both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season. Since 1985 this has only happened eight times. Keep in mind the league has expanded from 21 to 30 teams since 1991.

The Chicago Blackhawks did it in 2013 and the Boston Bruins will do it again this year. The Bruins fell in six games last year in stunning fashion to the Blackhawks and have unfinished business this time around.

The Bruins have four solid lines and a goaltender in Tuukka Rask that has been the best in the league this season. They’re loaded with veteran leadership with just enough youth to keep them fresh.

They’ll face the Colorado Avalanche you will capture the hearts of many on their way to the Cup but fall short to the experience of the Bruins.

Bruins in six games

Jarome Iginla will win the Conn Smythe Trophy

The Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs will belong to Jarome Iginla this postseason.

Iginla is a Hall of Famer who is after his first Cup. He signed with the Bruins this offseason on a one-year deal to capture every player’s dream. Even at the age of 36 he scored 30 goals this season. The fact that he knows he’s still a prolific scorer and this is his shot at glory will ignite Iginla.

Expect him to have the look of a kid in a candy store when he’s on the ice this postseason. In the end he’ll have 12 goals, 11 assists and one Cup.

March 6, 2014

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5 Big Winners at the NHL Trade Deadline

By: Matt Bowen

With the Olympics put to bed, the NHL season is once again traveling at warp speed. March 5 marked this year’s trade deadline and there are roughly 20 games left before the playoffs begin. With little time to spare teams were feverously jockeying for position at the deadline. Some won, some lost and some sat back quietly. While many trades involved future draft picks we are focusing on the teams that made moves to greatly impact this season’s playoff push. Never mind the future, these teams made it clear they want to win now.

Bonus: The New York Rangers/Tampa Bay Lightning Trade

There’s no question the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning made the biggest news of the day. The two teams traded captains. Martin St. Louis went to New York while Ryan Callahan was sent to the Lightning.

I have mixed emotions on this trade—St. Louis is a future Hall of Famer that can hopefully maximize the Rangers potential. Callahan isn’t the scorer that St. Louis is but is a proven leader. The Lightning also got healthy draft picks in the trade but let’s stay focused—we’re talking about now.

Personally, I wish the best for both players and organizations but don’t like the idea of swapping the letter “C.” The Rangers dealt Callahan because of impending free agency and the Lightning granted St. Louis’ request and traded him.

The Lightning are currently fourth in the East and get Steven Stamkos back from injury soon. It’ll be interesting to see if he can score at the same rate without St. Louis setting the table. As for the Rangers, can St. Louis suddenly bring the arguably underachieving team to life?

Los Angeles Kings

Did the Kings do enough at the trade deadline to become Stanley Cup contenders in 2014?

No. 5: Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings took care of business at the deadline by trading for lamp-lighter Marian Gaborik. The 32-year-old has been often injured since being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets last trade deadline but the Kings hope his woes are behind him.

Remember, the Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup are determined to reappear in the Finals. They have an excellent goaltender in Jonathan Quick and a well-balanced roster with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty. The team has won five straight as of 03/05 and leads the league with just 134 goals allowed.

Problem is they’ve only scored 152 and that slim margin urged the front office to add some offense. In the past Gaborik has been a sniper and with good health and a fresh start he should flourish in the City of Angels, especially on the power play. The Kings made themselves contenders at the deadline.

No. 4: Montreal Canadiens

Despite only scoring six more goals than their allowing, the Canadiens sat third in the Eastern Conference with 75 points. Those two factors were the reason why the franchise acquired playmaker Thomas Vanek at the deadline from the New York Islanders.

This is now Vanek’s third team of the season and he’ll look to stay put in Montreal. He’s scored 53 points this season in 60 games with the Buffalo Sabres and Islanders. The Canadiens are a team with balanced scoring, but no star. Prior to Vanek joining the roster the team had 10 players that have scored 20-plus points this season but P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty led with 42 points per. That’s only good enough for 65th in the league.

Vanek brings a spark and a message to the fans that the Habs are making a serious push for the Cup.

No. 3: Washington Capitals

This is a make-or-break time for the Washington Capitals. They have to make a deep run in the playoffs or face the reality of blowing up the roster and starting from scratch.

Led by Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals have immense talent but lack a premium goaltender. They addressed that need at the deadline by trading for Jaroslav Halak from the Buffalo Sabres who got him in a deal from the St. Louis Blues over the weekend. What a whirlwind week for Halak—now he lands in Washington for a team eager to win.

The Capitals currently are fifth in the NHL with 186 goals scored. Too bad they’ve allowed 184, which just so happens to be the fifth-most. Halak is the remedy they’ve been looking for.

The Caps also traded for Dustin Penner who isn’t the flashiest man on the ice but brings plenty of toughness who makes a living in front of the net.

Overall, the Capitals made themselves better at the deadline.

No. 2: Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild deserve credit—they make a number of trades that bolstered their lineup this year at the deadline.

The Wild currently sit in seventh in the Western Conference with 75 points. They spent a king’s ransom last offseason by singing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The West is definitely the stronger of the two NHL sides and Minnesota is the heart of American hockey.

The Wild have to win—now.

They made a head-scratching trade on March 4 by trading for goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, formerly of the Edmonton Oilers. Bryzgalov is talented but puzzling at times. He makes for good television but is inconsistent. If the Wild can get on his level and get the most out of him they have a legitimate shot at a playoff run.

The Wild also acquired Brad Winchester who will give their blue line depth down the stretch.

Where the Wild won is by trading for Matt Moulson of the Buffalo Sabres. Moulson is as underrated as they come. The Wild have only scored 153 goals this season and struggle on the road. Moulson has scored 30-plus goals in three straight seasons from 2009-12 and 17 this season. Like the aforementioned Vanek and Halak, this too is Moulson’s third team this season.

Like the men he’s mentioned with, Moulson will make an impact in his final destination.

The Wild just made themselves better—they just made hockey better.

No. 1: St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues let it be known that they are a force to be reckoned with. Even though they had solid goaltending they dropped a bombshell when they traded for goalie Ryan Miller. Arguably the best in the world, the Blues put the rest of the NHL on notice when they acquired Miller.

The Blues currently have the largest goal differential in the league at +63 and solidified that stat by acquiring Miller. For the first time in a long time he’ll have a good defense in front of him. Now is his time to shine.

The team did trade Jaroslav Halak to get him, who’s a top-10 NHL net minder. Why trade strength for strength? After a few unsuccessful playoff runs the organization obviously see Miller as the fix they need to win it all. The window to win it all isn’t open forever.

As if they weren’t already, the Blues are now a favorite for the Cup.

November 15, 2013

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Admiring the Competitive Balance of the NHL

By: Matt Bowen

Nearly 20 games into the 2013-14 NHL season and the competitive balance is evident. The future of the league is mighty bright. Even after a strike that nearly erased last season, the NHL is thriving at the moment.

The league’s decision to change the divisional structure proved to be a stroke of genius. Now, there are four divisions containing eight teams each in the Eastern Conference and seven in the Western. The league is logistically sound now—this year the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets moved east while the Winnipeg Jets headed west. Suddenly, the NHL makes sense in respect to placement of teams.

Chicago Blackhawks

Can the Blackhawks keep the Central Division lead away from the Colorado Avalanche?

Albeit early, the standings are a bit surprising at the moment. The Tampa Bay Lightning currently leads the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division at the moment with 28 points. Yes, star Steven Stamkos is out with a broken right leg for some time, but his team is flush with young talent and veteran leaders like Martin St. Louis. Seeing Stamkos go down was a punch to the gut to devout hockey fans.  The kid is miraculous on the ice, have faith that when he returns he’ll be better than ever. He’s only 23 years old and a superstar—like the Terminator, he’ll be back. The Lightning surely didn’t let his absence affect their mood as they won the first game without him on November 12, 2-1 over the Montreal Canadiens. That’s good to see that resilience.

The Lightning can’t let up now, nipping at their heels are perennial power houses in the Boston Bruins, Detroit and an up-and-coming Toronto Maple Leafs team that just won’t quit.

Another surprise are the Colorado Avalanche, who led by 22-year-old Matt Duchene are second in the Western Conference’s Central Division with 28 points. This is somewhat hard to believe, but new head coach and Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy clearly knows how to get the best out of his bunch. Top to bottom, this is the best division in hockey right now with the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators. This race will go down to the wire come playoff time.

The Central Division may have the most balance, but the Western Conference’s Pacific Division is the league’s strongest. This one will be a dogfight every time teams take to the ice. The Anaheim Ducks are currently the best team in the league with 31 points, but there’s little breathing room. The Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings all have 10-plus wins at the moment. Yes, they’re all going to beat up on each other throughout the season, but they currently have five playoff teams right now.

So, who’s the best team in the league? Right now it’s anyone’s guess and that’s why it’s great.

Don’t forget about the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan division. The Penguins still have a guy named Sidney Crosby while it’s still good to be Ovi in Washington. Crosby is currently tied for the lead with 23 points while Ovechkin is atop the goal list with 14.

The bottom line is that the NHL got it right this time. Everyone should have a smile on their face. The league is as competitive as ever and here to stay. Embrace it, enjoy it, and fall in love with it.

September 30, 2013

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5 Things To Watch As The NHL Season Approaches

By: Tyler Vespa

With only days until a new NHL season begins, let’s take a look at what happened this offseason, and look forward to a schedule that includes 6 outdoor games.

The Red Wings and the Leafs outside at the Big House? Check. Dodger Stadium? The Ducks? The Kings? West Coast? Check. A double dip in the Big Apple? Check. The Rangers will play the Devils and Islanders three days apart at Yankee Stadium. It wouldn’t be complete without the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field.

The Big House in Ann Arbor, MI will host the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

Canada’s version of the Winter Classic, the Heritage Classic will continue after a two-year absence. The Ottawa Senators will take on the Vancouver Canucks at BC Place in Vancouver on March 2nd.

With that here’s 5 things we should keep an eye on as the new season begins:

Realignment: Will the Red Wings march through the Eastern Conference? Is Winnipeg out of their league?

Training Camp: Will teams be sharper due to full offseason?

Olympic Year: Who’s going to challenge for the U.S. and Canadian rosters? Will certain players on worse teams focus more on country’s Olympic run?

Best Offseason – Dallas Stars: New GM Jim Nill traded for Tyler Seguin and also brought in Rich Peverly, Shawn Horcoff, and Sergei Gonchar. Combine that with star forward Jamie Benn and goaltender Kari Lehtonen and its great expectations in Dallas.

Worst Offseason: Tie- Buffalo, Calgary, Florida: The Sabres lost leading scorer Thomas Vanek, and star goalie Ryan Miller has been inconsistent. Buffalo failed to make a move to replace Vanek.

The Flames lost franchise star Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Youth and inexperience haunts                               Calgary.

Of all the teams in league, the Panthers would probably win for negative effects brought on by the realignment. The competition for the Panthers in the new Atlantic Division is a considerable change as the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings are ready and waiting. Keep in mind, the Panthers finished dead last in the weakest division in the NHL last season.

It’s time to drop the gloves. Let’s play hockey.

May 29, 2013

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The Mystique of Game 7

By: Matt Bowen

Sports mimic life, the movies, and folklore—Game 7 in any playoff series is the cat’s meow.

Nothing is better than a winner-take-all, no-holds-barred bout between two teams that have grown to hate one another over the previous six rounds.

For some, the rivalry is just blossoming as teams and their fans quickly grow a disdain for all things opposition. For others, the enemy is familiar and not welcome.

The Red Wings and Blackhawks face-off in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Nothing brings such a rivalry to a fever pitch as a Game 7. With the season, pride and bragging rights on the line, losing to a despicable foe stings the worst. Players don’t get to wash away the pain in their soul with a win the next time out. Fans have to stomach the body blow knock-out dealt by the gloating faithful of their rivals. Sometimes these memories torment players, fans, and franchises for an eternity.

Even though one may find themselves on the wrong end of a Game 7, the love of the game leaves them desiring more.

The NHL has received a gift from the hockey Gods—on May 29 the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks will duel in a Game 7 that promises to be one for the ages. You see, this game will be something special. This is not a normal Game 7, this is THE Game 7. The next time these bitter rivals will meet in the playoffs it will be in the Stanley Cup Finals.

With NHL realignment set to take place, the Detroit Red Wings will venture into the Eastern Conference next season. This leaves the Chicago Blackhawks as the lone Original Six team in the Western Conference.

All of a sudden there’s much more on the line in this Game 7. The winner gets the satisfaction knowing that they got the last laugh with so much at stake. Sure, the loser may exact their revenge in a somewhat meaningless regular season game next season, but the playoffs are different. Game 7 is different. This rivalry is different.

Two blue collar cities such as Detroit and Chicago are too hard-nosed to lie down for their opponent. Expect both sides to come out swinging and fight til the end. Both sides know how much this means to their diehard fans.

Every year there’s a playoff game that just won’t end—it lasts way past your bedtime. Five overtimes later, you can’t fall asleep, can’t stop watching. Don’t worry, your boss will understand. The whole city understands. The outcome will shape the mood of the office for the rest of the week.

Hockey enthusiasts hope it’s this game. The game and its fans deserve it. History is what we want—expect nothing less.

The lore of Game 7 will undoubtedly leave us in awe.