It's the final countdown...
You can almost hear the screaming lyrics from the 1980s, Swedish glam rock, Mega-group
How about the one hit wonder group, Europe
in the final countdown...Man, I love this time of year!!
With just a little more than 24 hours remaining in the NHL’s version of last minute, Christmas Eve shopping, the trade deadline looms on the hockey horizon. In that time, buyers and sellers are deciding (or having it decided for them) which they are, who and how much they need and what it will cost to get it. Oh and if you make a bad move...it might not only cost you your job, but also put the team in either financial or personnel peril for years to come.
This is a desperate time in the season and the potential risks and rewards are huge...some teams will rise to the occasion (Washington, Jersey and Boston) and others might falter and risk slipping into the abyss of failed expectations (see Pittsburgh, the Rangers and the immeasurable Centennial pressure in Montreal). For every blown defensive assignment, every lazy backcheck that results in the puck behind your netminder, every 5-on-3 shorthanded goal against (Mike Richards is now officially off Tom Renny's Christmas card list), the sense that things are spinning out of contol and that something has to be done NOW
, can become that all pervasive, elephant in the corner.
As Ek mentions frequently, this is a time of dominos - where every actual move and the thousands of what-ifs and instances of team sponsored subterfuge play out in high stakes, high risk games of "GM Chicken." The names of players in this year's version of "Let's Make A Deal" have been well chronicled here at HB by Ek and the likes of Timmy P, Howard Berger, Andy Strickland, Eric Engels, et al. While the thought of the likes of Chris Pronger, Vinny Lecavalier, Jay Bouwmeester, Tomas Kaberle, Ilya Kovalchuk Scott Stevens and Nik Antropov possibly wearing another sweater in a few days is enough to keep any well respecting puckhead in a tizzy, it is the play in the final months of the season that gets my hockey blood boiling.
In amongst all the scenarios of who might change addresses, in a final, glorious attempt to hoist Lord Stanley's hardware, is the furious sprint to the finish line that is the 2008-09 NHL playoffs.
Beasts to Least - East Playoff Picture
As the ides of March approach, the murky playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is very slowly, beginning to coalesce.
Here are the standings in the East:
1) Boston* 63 93
2) New Jersey* 63 85
3) Washington* 64 85
4) Philadelphia 61 76
5) Montreal 63 75
6) Florida 63 72
7) N.Y. Rangers 64 72
8) Pittsburgh 64 70
9) Buffalo 63 69
10) Carolina 64 69
* = Division Leader
A few things we know. The obvious is that the top three teams (Boston, Washington and Jersey) are clearly the class of the Conference. We also know that these three teams do what they do very differently.
The Bruins are doing it, as they have all year, with solid goaltending, from stalwart netminder Tim Thomas (who got jobbed for the All-Star MVP), the wizardry of Marc Savard and the solid play and timely scoring from young guns David Krejci (22) and Phil Kessel (21), and a hugely solid D, anchored by Zedeno Chara and Dennis Wideman. Boston is a very scary team that is well balanced, poised and has all the right pieces in place. In fact, of the teams in the East, the Bruins are the best positioned if they were to do nothing at all. (Though the Devils might have an argument with you on that). The 42 win Bruins are tied with San Jose for the best record in the league and in points at 93. It might not be an unrealistic scenario for these two teams to meet for all the marbles come playoff time. By way of comparison, the Bs had one less win (41) all of last year and finished with 94 points in 2007-08. With more than a month remaining, coach Claude Julien will have to ensure his troops continue playing on a razor’s edge. Over the course of the last 10 games, the Black and Gold have gone a “mortal” 3-4-3, including an OT loss to their nemesis, the Washington Capitals – who appear to be the Bruins’ kryptonite. The Bs have gone 1-2-1 vs the Caps this year, while destroying the rest of the Southeast at a 13-2 mark. Don’t count out the possibility of seeing Bs vs Caps in the Conference Finals and what a series that would be. If the Bs were to come up with a solid D-man (Leopold or Morris) and a scoring winger (hometown native, Keith Tkachuk or injured winger, Marian Gaborik, perhaps), the Beantowners might have a championship team besides the Celtics to cheer about.
The New Jersey Devils are the comeback team of the year in the East. Given up for dead when they lost goalie-extraordinaire, Marty Brodeur, on November 1st to a torn tendon in his left arm, the Devils simply went about their business with Scott Clemensen, who has played flawless hockey for nearly four months (and might be traded at the deadline). Minneapolis, Minnesota native, Zach Parise, has shown the hockey world why the Devils selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft by leading the team in scoring with, a career-high, 34 goals and 69 points. Parise was named the first star of the week on February 16th by scoring eight points and helping his team to four victories during that stretch. Devil forwards, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Gionta have all been instrumental in carrying the load when Brodeur went down. This is a scary Devils team that can out-defense you, run and gun or win on special teams. They have all the talent needed to run and hide in the Atlantic, though the Flyers, Habs and Pens might have something to say about that. The wildcard in this equation was the return of Marty “Flyer-Killer” Brodeur after the excellent play of Scott Clemmensen. Could Brodeur return to the rigors of the NHL grind? Would his immense skill set be somehow diminished by a long layoff for someone who far from a spring chicken? Would he, could he, be “the old Marty?” Not only did Brodeur return from a 50 game absence and shut out the Colorado Avalanche 4-0, but also beat the Panthers 7-2 and blanked the Flyers 3-0 last night for his 100th career shutout. The man who will ultimately supplant St. Patrick as the winningest goalie ever showed us how rare a breed he actually is. After this three game performance, how can you not count New Jersey as the team to beat in the East? In a relatively minor move, Lou “the Don” Lamoriello has added former Thrasher d-man, Niclas Havelid, to his blueline. Don’t count out “Uncle Lou” from making a major move, including looking to reunite former Devil Scott Neidermayer or add perennial All-Star, Chris Pronger to patrol the crease in North Jersey. Either player of that caliber would make New Jersey an even more formidable challenger to bring the hardware to the top of the Turnpike.
The Caps have flourished under Bruce Boudreau and his leading scorer and all-world talent, Alexander Ovechkin. A.O. is a human highlight reel and lives to score goals, we know that. But, what he came up with in D.C. versus the Habs seems to defy the laws of physics. See for yourself...
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While A.O. is the heart and soul of this team, it is the amazing rebirth of Jose Theodore and the undeniable skill of future-Norris-winner, Mike Green, which has vaulted Washington back into the elite of the East. The sensational play of center Nicklas Backstrom and right winger Alexander Semin are often obscured by the all-consuming presence of A.O., but those who know the game appreciate the vital roles these young studs play in the success of the team from the U.S. capitol. While I love the way the Bruins are constructed and are playing, the Caps scare the heck out of me and would hate to face them in a series. Washington is a team that could be bound for the Cup Finals this year after the painful seasoning that came from a heartbreaking loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers last year. Bruce Boudreau has his club hungry and playing as the best home team in hockey - that bodes well for a deep playoff run. If the Caps could get a nasty, stay-at-home D-man (maybe Sean O’Donnell?) to complement Mike Green’s already fruitful powerplay skills, watch out!
The Best of the Rest...
It becomes a lot less clear who will emerge from the pack of Philadelphia, Montreal, Florida, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Carolina to challenge for the remaining seeds. You could toss a blanket over these seven teams and any one of them might emerge as the 4 seed, currently held by Philadelphia. Let’s look at these teams and gauge their psyche heading into the deadline and the playoffs that loom in the not-too-distant future.
The Flyers have 76 points and sit in the #4 seed in the East and second in the Atlantic Division. The Boys from South Philly have been led by their two outstanding, young Centers, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Richards was awarded the Captaincy prior to the season and is well on the way to cementing his name as one of the best all around players in the game today. The young Captain plays all phases of the game with grit, intelligence and a knack for finding the puck.
Jeff Carter might not have been a household name around the league before this year, but that has changed. Jeff Carter now finds himself mentioned in the same breath as some of the greats in the game today and leads the Flyers in goals, with 36, and points with 65 – not bad for a second line center. His career-highs in goals and points, with more than a month remaining, illustrate just how high the ceiling is for this young man. Could his days playing with linemate, Joffrey Lupul be numbered, as Lupul’s name continues to surface as trade bait to land a stud d-man? We will see…
As the Flyers welcome back Danny Briere for the stretch run, the issue of chemistry is one that Coach John Stevens will have to address. One thing is for sure; adding an offensive talent the likes of Briere is like making a huge splash at the deadline without adding a single penny to the existing payroll. If Briere can successfully integrate himself back into the lineup, the Flyers have the potential to wield as much diverse offensive firepower as any team in the NHL. The first question is will the Flyers pull off a trade for Jay Bouwmeester? And if not, is there a second option at a lesser cost – Derek Morris, perhaps?? The second question, as is always the question in Philly, is do they have enough (or the right) goaltending to go deep in the playoffs???? Only time will tell…
Les Habitants, Nos Glorieux, Le Tricolore, Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge or simply the oldest, most storied, winningest professional hockey team on the planet – the Montreal Canadiens. If the Rangers are a whos’ who, then the Canadiens wrote the book. To begin to list the greatness of professional hockey in Montreal would fruitless, for simply they are the Habs and the very soul of an entire city. No greater stage on which to perform when playing well and no harsher a spotlight when not playing up to perceived expectations, especially during a year when they are celebrating their Centennial season. The latter is where the team, and many its players, find themselves these days.
The Canadiens have the uncomfortable position of occupying the 5/6 spot in the Eastern Conference tied with the Rangers with 69 points. While mere points out of the 4th seed, the Habs find themselves in a Northeast Division looking up at the league leading, Boston Bruins, who have a 19 point lead at the moment. While making the playoffs each year is the goal in most NHL cities, winning the Division and one of the top three seeds in the East is an expectation in Montreal. To this point the Canadiens have not met those lofty goals and have taken a beating in the press for it. As with other contenders, Montreal is backstopped by a goalie with all-world skills, in the person of Carey Price, and supported by his excellent understudy, Jaroslav Halak. Price was anointed the heir apparent to Patrick Roy as the next savior of hockey in Montreal. While he has been spectacular at points, especially in last year’s playoff run, he has lacked some of the consistency needed to excel night in and night out. To his defense, he has not been alone in underwhelming the hockey-mad city celebrating its 100th season, as the team suffered through a 3-6-1 mark over its last 10 games. Make no mistake, Price has all the talent in the world and is a game-changer in net.
Beyond the allegations sited by La Presse, the Habs have been dealing with motivation issues with All Star MVP-forward, Alexi Kovalev. His unwillingness to play sound hockey infuriated GM Bob Gainey so much, that he benched the Russian star for two games. It appeared to work, because Kovalev returned with a three point night (1g,2a) and a solid two-way game against the Senators. The sooner this, and other off-ice issues, are settled the better the chances for Montreal to play to their potential.
The one trade that has occurred in Montreal is the return of skilled defenseman, Mathieu Schneider, to Les Habitants. Schneider brings his PP quarterbacking prowess to Montreal and it immediately paid dividends in their 4-3 overtime victory in Philadelphia, where Schneider scored the game winner on the powerplay. His ability to get the shot on net, find the open man and play a smart game will be a huge asset to Montreal in the extra season and should help take some of the pressure off their powerplay.
Speaking of pressure…in their Centennial, year the pressure to play to high expectations is only compounded by the persistent trade rumors of native-son, Vinny Lecavalier, returning to his home, donning the sweater of le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge and carrying the team on his broad shoulders to Lord Stanley’s Cup. Whether or not that occurs is yet to be seen, however, until it is finalized the talk around Montreal will continue to swirl around #4. Imagine the potential strength down the middle with Lecavalier, Koivu and Plekanec (assuming one is not headed the other way). If Gainey happens to pull off the trade for Lecavalier, it is certain that the cost will be dear. However, there might be no more poignant moment for pulling off a blockbuster than this year, in this city. Mon dieu!
The Florida Panthers might not have the rich hockey history of the Canadiens, but they are only three behind the Habs with 72 points. The Panthers have not reached the NHL postseason gig since 2000, that’s eight long years. While GM Jacques Martin has his team on the precipice of that returning to the hockey promised land, the swirling storm that is the Jay Bouwmeester situation grows like a category two hurricane over the warm waters of the Caribbean. The team has a young core; led by Center, Steven Weiss, with 41 points (10g,31a), Left Winger, David Booth, who has broken the 20 goal barrier for the second straight year, and Bouwmeester, who leads the team in PP goals with 7 and could be a free agent this summer. The team is anchored by top goalie, Tomas Vokoun, who has done his best to keep the puck out of the net despite a slightly porous defense. That being said, the Cats are 6-4 over their last 10 games and have been playing very good hockey. They are in the midst of a road trip that has put them squarely in the sights of some of the East’s best – Washington, Jersey, Boston (twice). The Panthers managed to split with Boston, beat the Rangers and blow away Washington with a 6-2 victory. Their last game before the deadline is a tilt with the Atlanta Thrashers tonight and it is possible that their next game with Pittsburgh has them fielding an entirely different lineup. The most important thing to GM Jacques Martin is making the playoffs. If he can accomplish that while moving JayBo and getting a high return of a player(s) who can step in immediately and a mix of picks and prospects, without taking on salary, then he would be wise to seriously consider such a deal. I firmly believe that he can both move Bouwmeester, and save losing him for nothing, and still make the playoffs with the players he receives in return. Truly a win-win. As the Clash said, “Should I stay or should I go now?” I just hope JayBo has his bags packed before he leaves for the roadtrip…
Messier, Gretzky, Leetch, Jagr, Dionne, Gartner, Gilbert…the list goes on and on. The New York Rangers are a veritable who’s who of hockey.
The 2008-09 incarnation of the Rangers find themselves in 7th place with 72 points. So much history, so much pressure, so much top level talent and so much dysfunction. This year’s incarnation is no different. When on their game, as the first month of the season proved, they can be offensively unstoppable – sending names like Zherdez, Naslund, Gomez and Drury crashing the net - and defensively stingy, backstopped by King Henrik. Their young guns include the likes of Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Nikolai Zherdev, but too often recently the Rangers have relied too heavily on the young players to carry the load. There has been much talk about the high prices free agents the Blueshirts have acquired not living up to their billing – specifically Markus Naslund (20g,19a), Chris Drury (16g,25a) and Wade Redden (3g,18a), whose contract resembles that of an Albatross around the neck of the Ranger organization.
One thing the Rangers have going for them, is the hiring of John Tortorella. He got shafted in Tampa Bay and very well could be exactly the answer to what ails the Blueshirts. The second thing is that they have Henrik Lundqvist going for them. Nothing particularly brilliant by me saying that he has the ability to single-handedly take over a game or series; if he were to go on a hot streak, the King could carry the Rangers right into the playoffs. The third, and maybe most important, thing is that the Rangers have NEVER been afraid to throw big money at high prices talent to bring them in and bolster the team’s chances of winning a Cup. The question that remains is will Glenn Sather continue to call the shots when it comes to deals and how much credence will a new coach, even the likes of a Tortorella, have in the players he wants to bring in. If Sather can keep his hands out of the cookie jar and let Torts have some meaningful input, then the Boys in Blue might put a serious hurting on any first round opponent that chooses to take them lightly. The Blueshirts seem to need to either make a huge splash, along the likes of Vinny or Pronger or Tkachuk, or risk the season spinning uncontrollably out of the playoff orbit. They have never been shy about making a big time move…what now?
Prior to this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a clear contender to repeat their final-two appearance in the Cup Finals. They were to have matured and learned from their loss to the Wings and be ready to take the next step. They have the two of the top three scorers in the league - with 119 assists and 171 points between Evegni Malkin and Sidney Crosby - they have a very good, young nucleus and a first round, first pick in the 2003 draft in backstopping them in net. This was supposed to be the year when they put it all together, when the kids got their nose bloodied after a taste of the big dance and when Sid would fulfill his destiny (with the help of his Boy-Wonder, Malkin) and sip from Lord Stanley’s chalice. Something happened on the way to the celebration…
If you had told the Penguins that they would have fewer points than Florida and the Rangers, sitting in 8th position and facing a first round matchup on the road against Boston – you might have gotten a laugh and most certainly would have been on the receiving end of a snicker or two. Not quite the way Mario and company envisioned it, I’m sure. All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that the Pens have failed to live up to expectations.
In an effort to bolster Sidney Crosby’s line, they traded Ryan Whitney, a promising young defenseman in whom they invested $24 million over six years back in 2007, to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz and a prospect, both left wingers. In Kunitz the Penguins have found a big body for Crosby that has skill, toughness and can score goals - and who wouldn’t want to play with two of the most prolific scorers in the game today? The question is, what else is up Mario’s sleeve, if anything?? Will they try to bring in a defenseman to replace Whitney, who was a major cog in their long-term defensive plans. Or does the return of Gonchar make that unnecessary? What do you think Pens fans??
The Buffalo Sabres have had a remarkable year considering the exodus of top players that left western New York state last year. With the likes of Drury, Gomez and Briere gone, the Sabres have relied on stellar goaltending from Ryan Miller and timely scoring from Center, Derek Roy and Left Wing, Thomas Vanek. Unfortunately for Buffalo, Roy is the only one of the three that is still on the ice at this time. Miller received a “high ankle sprain” in a win over cross-state rival New York Rangers this past weekend and is out of commission for an undetermined period of time – ankle injuries being hugely serious to goaltenders as their ability to move laterally and push off is seriously compromised. The other piece of horrible news is older and closer to resolving itself, as high scoring winger, Thomas Vanek took a puck to the face and broke his jaw on February 7th game against the Senators. He has had his jaw wired shut ever since and is hopeful to miss only 3-4 weeks, however a more likely timetable for his return is 5-6 weeks. While it is not impossible for the Sabres to make a run to solidify their playoff hopes until the cavalry arrives, they had better hope that the combination of Stafford, Pomminville, Kotalik, Spacek and Connelly can make up the difference in both ends. They certainly have the talent to pull off such a tall task, but they have very little room for error as Carolina and Pittsburgh are nipping at their heels. Could the addition of someone like Tomas Kaberle or Derek Morris take the pressure off the goaltender…or as Ek hinted, maybe a return engagement by Marty Biron could be in the offing?? This one will be fun to watch…
The Carolina Hurricanes have the unenviable position of looking up at the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division and, therefore, having to fight their way into playoff contention. That is exactly where the boys from Raleigh/Durham find themselves as they throw elbows with the Florida Panthers to make the grade in the Eastern Conference. Carolina is led by Left Winger, Ray Whitney who has 18 goals and 33 assist for 51 points and the Center taken as the second pick in the 2003 draft, Eric Staal, who has a team leading 27 goals to go with 19 assists for a total of 46 points. Cam ward has 25 wins, a 2.59 Goals Against and a .908 Save Percentage and has done quite a bit of heavy lifting as the Canes have had numerous players out of action, including RW Justin Williams with a broken hand, defenseman David Tanabe with a concussion and veteran winger, Scott Walker who took a shot to the head (that was penalized with a suspension by the league) from Pittsburgh Penguin, Matt Cooke. Walker had a similar experience in 2002 and needs to not only come back from concussion symptoms, but also has to overcome the fear of being hit and playing with the abandon that a player like Walker is used to. The sooner these players can get back to the game, the sooner coach Paul Maurice can begin to field regular lines. Will it be soon enough? The Canes are 6-4 in their last 10 and might be looking for some relatively inexpensive backline help…perhaps Derek Morris?
This is my view of the East. Until Marty Brodeur calmly strode back into the NHL and pitched two shutouts in three games, I had the Caps as the team to beat (no disrespect to a great Bruins team). However, Marty just radically altered the landscape and if the Devs were to come up with a scoring winger, along the lines of an Eric Cole, then the team at the top of the Jersey Turnpike has to get my vote as the 900 pound gorilla that everyone else must knock off. While Boston, Washington, Philly, and the Pens realistically have the talent to do it, the Devils possess the one thing that is most prized come playoff time – a money goalie.
Is Tim Thomas that goalie? I think he certainly has the talent. Could Carbs get an early, early Christmas present under the tree of #4 in bleu, blanc et rouge? Could Marty Biron catch that playoff lightning again and take the high-scoring Flyers to the Cup? Could be. Is the rebirth of Jose Theodore a mirage or can he take the Caps where A.O. and Mike Green want to go? We shall see. How about the raw talent of Henrik Lundqvist? Can the dysfunctional family that is the Rangers put it all together with the addition of a key player or two? Could Florida make some noise with an infusion of more youth? Perhaps most dangerous is the Penguin team lying in wait in the 8th position – I guarantee you that any one of the top seeds would not want to face the Pens in the first round.
From the very last tick of the clock at 3pm on March 4th to the final playoff seeding, the Eastern Conference race is going to be one of the most intriguing, fun to watch and memorable sprints to the finish line in recent hockey memory. Put on the foil, boys and girls, it’s going to be fun.
Thanks for reading,