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.

April 30, 2013

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Bold Predictions for the 2013 NHL Playoffs

By: Matt Bowen

The 2013 NHL playoffs promise to be as fast paced as the abbreviated season. The strike-shortened season was roughly only 100 days long and the league carries plenty of momentum into the “second season.”

The league began the season with a black eye but with a jammed packed schedule that went down to the wire, the NHL recovered nicely from a near catastrophe.

With fans back on board the playoffs will be as captivating as ever. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks dominated their respective conferences this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re destined to meet in the Finals.

Remember, it was just last season when the Los Angeles Kings were the first team in history to win it all as a No. 8 seed.

Who will hoist the Stanley Cup in 2013?

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, expect the unexpected during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals Will be the Best Round 1 Matchup

As a hockey fan, one can’t help but lose sleep over this series. Coming into the season this was an all-or-nothing type of season for both sides. After a poor start, both teams rebounded well to finish the season on a strong note.

Now, two teams under the microscope will duke it out in a series that screams seven games. The CapitalsAlex Ovechkin finished the year with a league-best 32 goals and needs to continue that trend if his team is to advance.

The Rangers spent a ton of money in the offseason only to be seller’s at the trade deadline. What’s done is done and the team found a way to manage the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. New to New York, star Rick Nash led the team in goals with 21, now it’s his duty to lead his team to a Stanley Cup victory.

So, who will win the series?

Capitals in seven games

The Rangers may be facing an intense amount of pressure, but Ovechkin and the Capitals have their backs against the wall.

The Detroit Red Wings Will Upset the Anaheim Ducks in Round 1

The Detroit Red Wings didn’t play consistently good hockey until a week ago, but now they’re hot at the right time.

Spoiled by decades of success, Wings fans were looking lost until recently. The playoffs seemed like a mirage, but the good organizations always seem to get their way and the Wings are in as the No. 7 seed in the West.

Now, the Anaheim Ducks are the underdog in the series even though they are the No. 2 seed. The Wings took the season series 2-1 and have too much momentum right now for Corey Perry and company to stop. Wings stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are carrying their team nicely right now.

The Wings won four straight games to make the playoffs and in that time Zetterberg notched 10 points.

Red Wings in six games

The Wings are too hot to lose in the first round but will run out of gas shortly after.

One Not So Bold Pick–Sidney Crosby Will be Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been without their captain Sydney Crosby since March 30 due to a broken jaw, but he’ll be on the ice in the playoffs.

He may have missed the final 12 games of the season, but he scored 56 points in just 36 games. The Penguins should be considered great without him and with his presence on the ice they are the most dangerous team in the league.

It may take a game or two to get back into the groove, but Crosby is the best all-around player in the league. Even with missing the final 12 games, Crosby only lost out on the Art Ross Trophy (most points/season) by four points. Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis took the trophy with 60 points. St. Louis was then followed by teammate Steven Stamkos’ 57 and then Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby with 56.

Crosby makes everyone better and knowing that Penguins acquisition Jarome Iginla has only played a total of :50 seconds with Crosby, the best is yet to come.

Crosby tallies 17 playoff points—6 goals, 11 assist

The Toronto Maple Leafs Will Win Their Series against the Boston Bruins

A classic Original Six matchup here, the Toronto Maple Leafs square off against the Boston Bruins in an instant classic.

These rivals won’t back down, but the Maple Leafs will surprise most when they survive and advance. The Maple Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 and although both teams stumbled to the finish line, the Leafs carry positive momentum because the city is buzzing.

The Bruins have looked incomplete of late and can’t seem to finish the game. They have dominated the series between the two of late, winning 9-of-10, but the tides will turn here.

The Leafs are well balanced across the score sheet. Expect Nazem Kadri, a 22-year-old center to get under the Bruins skin and light the lamp. In the end, the Bruins won’t know what hit them.

Maple Leafs in five games

Montreal Canadiens vs. Vancouver Canucks in the Finals

What?!

That’s correct, an all Canadian final is in store.

How?

The Montreal Canadiens are almost forgotten about but the finished second in the Eastern Conference. The have a goalie in Carey Price who is made for these moments and a perfect blend of toughness and finesse. They are the team that doesn’t have a scoring sensation but rather a group of guys who pitch in at the right moment. A number of players could get hot and spell disaster for their opponents.

The Vancouver Canucks are playoff tested and feel disrespected. They’re almost forgotten about at the moment. Don’t make a mistake by overlooking  them and consider them a “has been.” Remember, they have the Sedin twins. Last time I checked they have some weird twin thing going on that gets the puck to the back of the net with regularity.  The Canucks X-factor is Ryan Kesler. He’s a world-class player coming off of injury. With only 17 games played this year, he’s seen just enough ice time to make a big difference in the playoffs.

This series will be a slugfest. Plenty of grit combined with a series littered with scrappy goals will make for a memorable final.

Canadiens in six games

Carey Price wins the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP

April 10, 2013

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Alexander Ovechkin Is Back To Being A Star

By: Matt Bowen

The Washington Capitals were expected to win a handful of Stanley Cups not too long ago. Led by Alexander Ovechkin, the team was winning and had a plethora of young talent. A fortuitous future was in store for the franchise.

Ovechkin is currently tied for the league lead in goals (26).

The organization signed Ovechkin to an 8-year, $124 million deal in 2008, which was the largest in NHL history at the time. As we all know, money neither buys happiness nor championships.

Now, some five years later the franchise is Cupless and until recently, the fan base was scratching their collective head. The once solid core of talent that filled the Caps roster was either traded away or plagued by injury. Their star seemed to nearly disappear in recent years. Until recently, it was as if Ovechkin forgot how to score.

He took the NHL by storm as a rookie in 2005-06. He netted 52 goals and finished with 106 points and took home the Calder Memorial Trophy for Rookie of the Year honors. Remember, that season was also the debut of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who was dubbed “The Next One”, drawing comparison to “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky. Ovechkin quickly won fans over as the “other” great player of his class.

He followed up his rookie campaign with 46, 65, 56, and 50 goals in his first five seasons. That’s 269 goals in five years. Holy cow!

Then, a surprising regression occurred. He scored 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12. While most teams would be happy with that output from their top player, “Ovi” was put on a higher pedestal. He only produced 65 total points last season, and thoughts begin to swirl that something was wrong with the star.

Even with all the previous success that Ovi has had, the Capitals have yet to make an impact in the playoffs. They have not reached the Stanley Cup Finals with Ovechkin as their leader. With the dip on the scoring sheet in 2011-12, many pundits began to wonder if he was the answer in Washington. They wondered if he was a “winner.”

The organization stood by their man and lately, he’s making them look good. The team is currently leading the Southeast Division and is currently third in the Eastern Conference.  Yes, their division is rather weak, but someone has to be king of the mountain and right now, it’s the Capitals.

Most importantly, “Ovi” is back to being a star. He can score in bunches and he’s doing just that this season. His 26 goals are currently tied for tops in the league with Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ovechkin looks like he’s having fun again. It’s like he remembers that he can dominate. That he’s Alexander Ovechkin and others aren’t on the same level that he is. He hasn’t gone back-to-back games without a point in nearly a month. He’s lethal on the power play—his 14 goals with the extra man are five better than the next man, John Taveras of the New York Islanders. The Capitals capitalize on the power play around 25 percent of the time, which is tops in the NHL. He’s scored 16 goals since March 17th.

The Capitals were considered an afterthought in early February, now they are the most dangerous team in the league. Hockey enthusiast will remember that the Los Angeles Kings were in a similar situation last season before they squeaked their way into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. All they did was win the Stanley Cup.

Don’t be shocked when the Capitals catch fire and go all the way this season. “Ovi” will be the first one to hoist the Cup as he silences the critics.

Quoting the man himself, “It’s good to be Ovi.”

April 2, 2013

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Why NHL Realignment Makes Sense

By: Tyler Vespa

With the NHL realignment approved for next season, the league will now feature four divisions instead of six. These would be the Midwest, the Pacific, the Central and the Atlantic. The Midwest and Pacific divisions would makeup the Western Conference, while the Central and the Atlantic divisions would make up the Eastern Conference. The Central and Atlantic divisions will have 8 teams each, while the Pacific and the Midwest will each have 7 teams.

The Red Wings will say goodbye to the Western Conference and move to the East nest season.

Here is what the NHL will look like next season:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Midwest

Chicago Blackhawks

Colorado Avalanche

Dallas Stars

Minnesota Wild

Nashville Predators

St. Louis Blues

Winnipeg Jets

Pacific

Anaheim Ducks

Calgary Flames

Edmonton Oilers

Los Angeles Kings

Phoenix Coyotes

San Jose Sharks

Vancouver Canucks

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Central

Boston Bruins

Buffalo Sabres

Detroit Red Wings

Florida Panthers

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Atlantic

Carolina Hurricanes

Columbus Blue Jackets

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

The playoffs will still feature 16 teams, eight from each conference, but will not be division based with a new wild-card feature. The top 3 teams from each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs The final 4 places will be filled in by the next two highest placed teams in each conference, and will be based on regular season points, regardless of their division. This means one division could send 5 teams while another could only send three.

Regular season points will also determine the seeding of the teams. Meaning, the division winner with the most points will play the wild card team with the least points, and so forth.

This plan is exactly what the league needed after two lockouts in the past 8 seasons. Something needed to change. As you can see the only two teams changing conferences will be the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Detroit has been crying for this move for years.

With that I give you 4 reasons this plan for realignment is a win-win for the league and everybody associated with it:

Geographic simplicity: We will see fewer issues with time zones and travel. Teams in the same conference will enjoy easier travel simply because they are now crossing over fewer time zones.

More Original 6 matchups: Detroit is now in the same division with 3 other teams from the Original 6: Boston, Montreal and Toronto. Also, the Red Wings and the New York Rangers are in the same conference.

New Playoff Format: With the imbalance of teams in each division, there is talk of a “Wild Card Format” being added to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This could mean a play-in game where two teams play one game to become the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Another win or go home game would be genius.

Dream for Television: The Eastern Conference would have a rivalry game almost every night. Teams in Canada will get awesome exposure, with a myriad of Canadian vs. Canadian rivalries. New rivalries and big matchups will be made out West such as with the 3 California teams; San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles. Even more Canadian exposure is bred with Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

February 6, 2013

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Early Stanley Cup Contenders

By: Matt Bowen

The 2013 NHL season may be just a few weeks old, but in this abbreviated season every game, period and point are critical.

Which team will win the Stanley Cup in 2013?

Considering the season is nearly a quarter complete, the crystal ball is now beginning to clarify which teams are true Stanley Cup contenders. Some teams are in a familiar situation while others face a must-win season.

Here are the early season favorites to lift Lord Stanley at season’s end:

The Darkhorse Candidates: These teams are considered sleepers, who if they catch fire at the right moment could ride the lightning all the way to a championship. One of these such teams is the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who had everything come together at the right time to steal the deal from the No. 8 seed last season. They were one of the favorites coming into the season, but they have been plagued by injuries early on. Not to be counted out quite yet, look for Kings to right the ship.

The Edmonton Oilers are another darkhorse contender. Given, they’ve been near the bottom of the standing for three consecutive years, but have hit the jackpot in recent draft history. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have all been the No. 1 overall selection over the past three NHL season and now all play for the Oilers. The team currently holds a playoff spot and will take their lumps as they learn the ropes of the NHL, but they’re building a winner in Edmonton.  There’s always a year when the perennial downtrodden turn the page and blossom into an unstoppable force—this is that year for the Oilers.

A team in the Eastern Conference that could go the distance is the Montreal Canadiens. The league’s most storied franchise are contenders once again. Behind all-world goaltender Carey Price, they have a real chance this season. There’s a perfect storm of youth and experience in Montreal right now, watch out for the Habs.

The Usual Suspects: To no surprise, these teams have thrown their hat into the ring—the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins look like they’ll all make deep runs in the playoffs.  Each team is well balanced and built for the long haul.

This Year’s Worst to First Contender: The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs last season, but they won’t this time around. With stars like Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, they have the skill needed to lead a franchise on the brink of greatness. They currently lead the league with a plus-18 goal differential and are scoring nearly five goals a game. Rookie Cory Conacher currently leads all first timers with 12 points and could end of the biggest surprise of the season.  He already has five games with multiple points.

Who doesn’t like a team who consistently lights the lamp?

The Lightning are simply electric this season.

The Team Facing the Most Pressure: Let’s cut to the chase—the San Jose Sharks are in a must-win situation this season. They may be somewhat forgotten about but they are stacked from top to bottom.

Thanks to the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, they can keep the opposition off balance and on edge for 60 minutes a night.

Together with Joe Pavelski, the fearsome foursome already has 10-plus points each.  Marleau is in the early running for MVP and the team’s defense is surrendering less than two goals a game.

The Sharks have been talked about early as contenders for many seasons now and without a Cup to show for it this season, the organization could decide to restructure. More than any team, they are in a do-or-die situation, but so far, they look up to the task.