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30 Things... Down to the Wire


Jason Chen

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Hopefully everyone had a good Easter weekend. I know I did. It's also been awhile since my last post, and my sincerest apologies to my readers... however few of you there are (ha!). Anyway, if any of you ever get a chance to visit Atlantic Canada (not exactly the most exotic place, I know) be sure to visit Baddeck and Cape Breton. It's beautiful.

But back to hockey. There's only a handful of games to go in the season and things are really starting to shape up. The East has been dominated by Washington all season long, but their lacklustre showing in an elimination game against Pittsburgh last year (6-2 loss) questioned the overall mental toughness of the group. RJ Umberger wasn't afraid to express his opinion on the matter but despite Caps owner Ted Leonsis' great comeback, Umberger has a point. In the West, with the Sharks, Hawks, and Canucks (all 5-4-1 in past 10) stumbling to the finish line, the West might be as open as ever. Here are 30 storylines to watch/think/talk about (in no particular order):

30. Nikita Filatov and Kirill Kabanov's departures to Russia have been well-documented and once again it may really hurt the stock of other Russian hopefuls. Remember that because no one was quite sure of Alexei Cherepanov's status his stock fell dramatically. Just in case anyone hasn't noticed, the Olympic tournament showed that the era of European hockey dominance is over. Less and less Europeans are being taken and making the NHL. The best players in the league, asides from Alex Ovechkin, are either Canadian or American. There's an ebb and flow when it comes to young talent (just ask USA Hockey) and right now it's right in North America's backyard. The NHL has to capitalize on this and the playoffs are the best marketing opportunity. For more on European hockey, check out Elliotte Friedeman's blog. It's fantastic.

29. Central Scouting's final rankings for 2010 eligible players will be released tomorrow. There's talk that the Oilers will take Taylor Hall, due to his goal-scoring ability and has played with Jordan Eberle in the past. I agree that Hall is the sexy pick, but my belief is that Tyler Seguin may be a better fit. He's a smart hockey player that I think will be better than Hall in the long run. Hall didn't impress me much during the World Juniors, despite his statistics. He holds on to the puck for too long and isn't strong enough on the puck to do that (yet).

<img src="http://cdn.nhl.com/stars/images/upload//2008/06/modano_draft250.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">28. One of my favourite players growing up was Mike Modano, and now in his 19th NHL season and with diminishing ice-time, this may be his swan song. It seems as though retirement is likely - Modano, along with Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky, have shown interest in buying the Stars from current owner Tom Hicks. #9 will be hanging from the rafters by October, guaranteed. Chris Chelios, of course, will still manage to find a place to play next year.

27. There are only five teams that are fighting for a playoff spot. The Bruins, Rangers, and Flyers in the East and the Avs and Flames in the West. The Habs haven't clinched but they will soon. For the Flames' sake I hope they miss it - and not because I'm a Vancouver fan, but because if they make the playoffs it gives less reason to overhaul that organization from the top down. The Avs have played over their heads all season long and deserve it. In the East, I hope the Rangers make it ahead of the Bruins, but only because I know at some point a John Tortorella outburst is coming. The guy is a sound bite gold mine.

26. The Caps bring a lot of offensive firepower, but once again their 224 GA is second-worst among playoff-bound teams (the worst is Ottawa, with 227). Jose Theodore is having a great season - he has 29 wins to just 7 losses all year, with a respectable 2.83 GAA and .910 SV%. He's the shoo-in for the Bill Masterton Trophy in my books. The annual award is given to the player who has shown the most perseverance and dedication to hockey, and no player may be more qualified than Theodore, who seemed to be on the verge of losing his job to Semyon Varlamov and also lost his 2-month old son over the summer. He's also qualified for the King Clancy Trophy for humanitarian contributions with his Saves for Kids campaign.

25. The Caps also lack a shut-down defenseman that so many of the past Cup-winning teams have featured. The breakout candidate here is Jeff Schultz, whose +39 leads all NHL defensemen. Of course, it really helps when Mike Green is your defensive partner. The Caps need Theodore to continue to play well. Should Theodore have a meltdown, the Caps will make a very early exit. Teams just don't allow you to score 5 goals in the playoffs.

24. The Devils have only won 4 of their last 10 games and Martin Brodeur, arguably the key to the Devils' success, hasn't been playing well. The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk helps things up front and Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire pull rabbits out of their hat on defense, but goaltending is something they don't have any control over. Despite finishing with 3 division titles in the last 4 seasons, the Devils have been eliminated in the semis twice and the quarters the past two years. The Devils aren't the favourites to advance, but you have to wonder if Brodeur's time really is up.

23. Ryan Miller is the Sabres' backbone and everyone knows it, so they'll go only as far as Miller takes them. Lindy Ruff will have a tough challenge in front of him. The Sabres' offense has been buoyed by Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and the surprisingly healthy Tim Connolly. None of them, however, will finish the season with over 75 points. Tyler Myers has been excellent all season but let's face it, the puck's been bouncing for him all year long. When playoff hockey starts and the tempo is ratcheted up, we'll see how he responds.

22. The Penguins just can't seem to turn it on some nights. Even with Sidney Crosby's goal-scoring campaign, the Pens have seemed anemic on offense some nights. The Pens need Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to hit their stride as the playoffs hit. Dan Bylsma isn't worried and believes that the Pens will crank it up when the playoffs start, but I don't necessarily share his optimism. Sergei Gonchar has to stay healthy.

21. Jason Spezza has the ability to single-handedly take over a game and would be a top five centre in the league, but for some reason he just refuses to do it. Alex Kovalev has been an absolute waste of money and it's actually a wonder how Cory Clouston has coached this squad to fifth place. If the competition against him this year wasn't so tough, he'd be a Jack Adams favourite. They'll face the Pens or Devils in the first round and they won't make it past that. The Sens are still missing too many pieces, but what a player they have in Erik Karlsson.

20. Much like the Sabres, the Habs' playoff hopes hinge on Jaroslav Halak. He will no doubt by Jacques Martin's starter in the first round, but he has an excellent backup plan in Carey Price. Price has taken a lot of heat this year for his play, but take a look at his numbers - 2.77 GAA, .912 SV%. They're not bad at all, but Halak has been simply outstanding this year. I've been saying it all year though - Price should be the Habs' long-term option, not Halak.

19. Defense wins championships, but you can't win if you can't score. The Bruins' defense is among the league's best despite a subpar season from Tim Thomas, but they must miss Phil Kessel. With only 195 goals, the Bruins' offense is the league's worst, and they will be without Marc Savard. You'll be seeing a lot of one goal games here that could go either way but don't expect them in the Conference Finals.

18. There have been persistent rumours that the Flyers' locker room is a mess. First, there was Mike Richards' refusal to speak to the media after accusations of partying too hard. Now there's rumblings that Chris Pronger is not the most popular guy in the locker room (what else is new?) but if the Flyers aren't on the same page they have no chance. The big "but" here is that Pronger's been able to reach the finals in his first year in a new city every time. That trend will be snapped this year. Did I mention they're the Enron of cap management?

17. The Rangers are on the outside looking in, for now, and like the Bruins and Habs they don't have an easy time scoring goals. What they do have, however, is a healthy Marian Gaborik, one of the best goalscorers in the league (40 markers with minimal help), Henrik Lundqvist in net, and the fiery John Tortorella. Besides, more Rangers hockey = more rounds of Tortorella and Larry Brooks. Who would say "no" to that? Sorry, Atlanta, but I don't think you guys will cut it.

16. The Sharks are stumbling and are in danger of losing the West title to Chicago. Todd McLellan, like his predecessor Ron Wilson, continues to find regular season success in San Jose, but the playoffs are a completely different story. I don't envision a lot of first round upsets this year, but anything shy of a Conference Finals appearance is a disappointment. Joe Thornton needs to play big in big games but the Sharks need Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau to fire on all cylinders for them to advance. Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle are two very important players as well.

15. The Blackhawks are my favourite to reach the finals. I don't think their goaltending is as bad as everyone portrays. Cristobal Huet isn't synonymous with more accomplished West goalies like Evgeni Nabokov or Roberto Luongo, but he's starting material in the NHL and Antti Niemi isn't a bad Plan B. Marian Hossa has reached the finals two years in a row and there's no reason why it can't be three. But maybe this time the third time's the charm. Expect big postseason performances from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Just a gut feeling.

14. Dave Tippett is one of the most underrated coaches in the NHL (along with Barry Trotz) and Phoenix is the team of the year. Riding on the coattails of Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes are a great dark horse pick. They're young, fast, talented, and hard-working, a formula for success at the NHL level. It's rather unfortunate that the Coyotes may end up facing Detroit in the first round, and if that's the case Phoenix won't advance. We'll have to see if Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak can keep the wheels turning.

<img src="http://www.cbc.ca/gfx/images/sports/photos/2008/04/22/trotz-barry080422.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">13. You can't not like the Preds. They're the Hoosiers of hockey... except they've never won a playoff round. The Preds scored by committee but have only scored 2 more goals than they have allowed. The Preds can't afford to lose any of their offensive firepower because despite having Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis on the blueline, Pekka Rinne will have to stand on his head to keep them afloat. Another early exit is likely for Trotz and co.

12. No team is heading into the playoffs with more momentum than Detroit. 7-1-2 in their past ten games, the Wings are finally healthy and Jimmy Howard has emerged as a capable NHL goaltender. Both Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk's production declined this year but you never count out the Wings, especially with Mike Babcock behind the bench and Nicklas Lidstrom on the blueline. Detroit's everyone's favourite dark horse pick and it's not unjustified. Could you imagine how giddy Gary Bettman would be with a Detroit-Chicago Conference Finals match-up?

11. Ideally, the Kings want to face the Canucks in the first round and avoid the Hawks, especially the 8-3 drubbing they put on last week. The Kings seem to have flown under the radar this year with most storylines focusing on Phoenix, but the Kings do have a nice mix of veteran and young talent. It'll be the first time the Kings have made the playoffs since 2002, and it's a bit of a shame that they have generated relatively little buzz. For a man so worries about American ratings and fans, Bettman seems to have dropped the ball with this one. There's also the east coast bias here.

10. I'm personally rooting for the Avs to make the playoffs, but that's like choosing the lesser of two evils. You have to respect what Joe Sacco and his staff have done, especially many, including myself, wrote them off as the league's worst team. Matt Duchene has had an incredible rookie season and will be a Calder finalist and even with a first round exit, the Avs' future looks pretty bright.

9. Add Calgary to the list of dysfunctional teams that includes Edmonton, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia. While the Flames are really making a push for the final spot, made easier by Colorado's recent play, I can't help but think that in the long run the Flames are better off not making the playoffs. By missing the postseason the management will really have to make some changes from the top, starting by relieving Darryl Sutter of his GM duties. Olli Jokinen was a mistake and it doesn't seem like he's learned his lesson with Jay Bouwmeester. The Flames have terribly mishandled the cap which resulted in Dion Phaneuf being shipped out. If the Flames make the playoffs, the Sutters will have an excuse for "one more year." Actually... forget what I'm saying. I hope the Flames waddle in mediocrity for the foreseeable future. Let's seem them get erased 4-0 in the first round.

8. Alright, enough league talk, let's focus on the Canucks. The first question that's been buzzing has been Luongo's recent play. Subpar would be a nice way of putting it, but no matter how much Luongo's struggling, he'll be Alain Vigneault's pick for game one. There's no way around it - Luongo has to play. The Canucks looked like real Cup contenders a couple of months ago but now seem like smoke and mirrors. In a recent poll done by NHLers for ESPN, Luongo was voted as one of the most overrated players in the league.

7. Will Henrik Sedin win the Art Ross? At this point it seems very likely but even if Sedin wins the scoring race don't be surprised if he's not in talks for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He'll be running against the usual culprits like Crosby and Ovechkin. The goals race is tight as well, with Crosby (47) having a one goal edge over Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos (46 each).

6. That's how many 25+ goal scorers the Canucks will have. Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Mason Raymond all sit at 24 at the moment, so I'm jumping the gun a little here, but it's very possible. The Canucks may boast one of the league's best offenses after Chicago and Washington. Scoring depth will be vital in the playoffs and the Canucks have that in bunches. Michael Grabner and Pavol Demitra have both been putting the puck in as of late.

5. Will the defense hold? If there's any question marks with the Canucks' chances with their current roster, it's on the blueline. Vigneault and the coaching staff will have to work on the defense, which hasn't been as effective as it was earlier this year.

4. Who's Eddie Lack? Asides from knowing that he's a Swedish netminder, I didn't know a heck of a lot about him either. But obviously Mike Gillis felt comfortable enough to sign the guy, who might start for Brynas next year when the Panthers bring Jacob Markstrom overseas. Either way, it's another goaltending prospect in the system that may eventually takeover for Luongo or just be some attractive trade bait.

3. It seems unlikely that the Canucks will move away from this position so they'll be hoping that it's not Detroit at 6. Whatever the case, it seems as though this year's playoffs won't feature many upsets in the first round. The top tier teams are just too good. It's the second division title in three years for Vancouver and perhaps many to become, considering the woes of Minnesota, Edmonton, and Calgary. Colorado is still a couple of years away.

<img src="http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/gallery/000049/000305048.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">2. The Canucks' single season record for points is 110 (Pavel Bure, 60 goals, 50 assists), and Henrik is only 4 away with 3 games to go. Just one goal away from hitting 30, Hank has only fired 159 shots on goal this year. That's 50 less shots than 30-goal scorers Mikael Samuelsson and Alex Burrows. The Sedins have been efficient all year and are finally getting the recognition they deserve. It's unfortunate that Daniel went down with an injury early this season, otherwise the Canucks would have the league's highest-scoring duo, topping Washington's Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

1. That's Kesler's +/- this season. Surprising, I know, considering the type of season he's had. He's having another Selke-worthy campaign but once again it'll probably be Datsyuk who takes the award. It just goes to show how misleading that stat can be. Kesler's 80 takeaways are only second to Datsyuk's 125, and also wins 55.5% of his face-offs.

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