Saturday, March 27, 2010

Today's Games to Watch 3/27

Alright folks, the Eastern Conference playoff preview is on hold for now, for a couple of reasons. First of all, with the recent struggles of the Boston Bruins & especially the Philadelphia Flyers, the bottom of the East is nowhere near as locked-up as the bottom of the West, so I'm going to give it a few more days just to see if things get sorted out and we have a more clear view of who is finishing in 7th & 8th in the East. The Thrashers and Rangers, teams who we thought might have been out of it, are back in the race moreso due to the aforementioned teams' struggles than anything they've done (though the Rangers tying the game vs. the Devils with just 16 seconds left and then pulling out the extra point, in Jersey on the second night of a back-to-back no less, was admittedly impressive).

The second reason we're putting it on hold is today's schedule is among the most interesting we've seen in a while, so it's as good of a time as any to bring back Today's Games to Watch. As always, here's the awards we'll be handing out:

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Saturday, March 27th
Definitely one of the most intriguing schedules we've seen in a while, full of teams fighting for their playoff lives as well as teams who are already near-locks for the playoffs going head-to-head.

Marquee Match-Up: Vancouver Canucks (45-25-4, 94 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West) at San Jose Sharks (45-19-10, 100 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
National TV: CBC (Canada)
Following their six-game winless streak that was the Sharks' longest since November of 2005, San Jose appears to finally have turned things around after winning in Minnesota then coming home and winning that always-tough first game back from a long road trip against the Stars. It's of course worth noting that neither of those teams are playoff teams, but it's also worth noting that sometimes the hardest games to win are the games you're "supposed" to win this time of year. Just ask the Canucks, who dropped a game at home to the Islanders of all teams, how hard it can be to beat a team that's playing loosey-goosey hockey. However, now the Sharks will be faced with a much different test, as they welcome in the Northwest-leading Canucks. The Sharks are used to having everything wrapped up with a pretty bow at this time of year, but they currently sit just 1 point ahead of the Blackhawks (who have a game in hand) for 1st in the conference and 2 points ahead of the Coyotes for the division lead. If they want to hold on to the top seed going into the playoffs, they need all the points they can get. Vancouver, meanwhile, is looking at this as a statement game. Ever since the Sharks and Hawks have displayed their recent struggles, more and more pundits are shifting their Stanley Cup-favorite status in the West to the Canucks. If they can come into San Jose and beat the Sharks, it will be a huge reaffirmation of those words. No matter what happens, two division leaders meeting this close to the playoffs is always a huge deal, and this should be a fantastic game.
Prediction: Canucks 5-3

Runner-Up: Philadelphia Flyers (37-31-6, 80 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 7th in East) at Pittsburgh Penguins (42-25-7, 91 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
1:00 pm EST/10:00 am PST
The Flyers are, to put it simply, in a tailspin of epic proportions. Brian Boucher has looked even worse than people probably expected since Michael Leighton went down with an injury, going 1-4-1 and giving up soft goals in every game he's started. Blowing a 3-1 lead going into the 3rd period against the non-playoff Wild on Thursday was the most blatant example of this, as he gave up 2 goals from just not having his pads down in the right position coming across from one post to the other. That's basic, goalie school level stuff folks. As if that wasn't bad enough, Jeff Carter, the team's leading scorer in almost every category, is gone until the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs. Whether or not he'll even get a chance to come back this year is becoming more and more in question, as the Flyers absolutely need to get things turned around right now if they want to make the post-season. The Thrashers & Rangers, two teams playing pretty well right now, are nipping right at their heels (4 and 5 points back respectively), and the Flyers must be looking over their shoulder at the Rangers with the most nervousness. The Rangers have a road-heavy schedule, but they're also playing 6 of the next 7 games against non-playoff teams. Then, the two teams will meet in a home-and-home set to end their respective seasons, and given the way the Rangers have played the Flyers at times this year, the Flyers do NOT want it to come down to those two games to decide which of these two teams makes the playoffs. So with all that said, they have decided to throw rookie goaltender Johan Backlund to the proverbial wolves today, as he will make his first-ever NHL start in Pittsburgh of all places, a place where the Flyers have struggled to win since the lockout even without a rookie goalie in net. Even worse, they're playing a Penguins team that is just as desperate for points as they are, trying to chase down to the Devils for the Atlantic division lead. Flyers-Penguins games are always chippy, hard-hitting affairs, but this game has twice the intrigue as usual just because we'll get to see if Backlund can be entrusted to carry the ball. Given how bad Boucher has been, the Flyers better pray he can.
Prediction: Penguins 5-2

Under the Radar: Detroit Red Wings (38-23-13, 89 points, 3rd in Central, 8th in West) at Nashville Predators (43-27-5, 91 points, 2nd in Central, 5th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
The Red Wings are the hottest team in hockey right now, having won four in a row and only dropped 2 games (1 in regulation) since the Olympic break. They've put 6 points of separation between themselves and 9th place Calgary, and now they can concentrate on trying to move up the standings in the top 8 before the end of the season. It's hard to believe considering how hot the Predators have been, too, but they now sit just 2 points ahead of their division rivals in Detroit, and that's with a game in hand for the Winged Wheel. So this game is incredibly important for both teams, as Nashville will want to put up a 4 point cushion to try and give themselves some breathing room. Either way, Detroit will still have a game in hand, so this game could very well end up being the deciding factor for which of these two teams finishes ahead of the other.
Prediction: Red Wings 4-3 (SO)

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: New York Islanders (30-34-10, 70 points, 5th in Atlantic, 14th in East) at Columbus Blue Jackets (30-32-12, 72 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
I always get a ton of crap from my Isles-loving friend when I pick the Isles for my Ice Dancing game, but tonight it's not even close. This is one of only two games of the night between non-playoff teams, amazing given how many of those games we've had all week. It's the 14th-place teams of each conference which of course means no rivalry to speak of, and the only thing on the line here is the loser putting themselves in better draft position. I guess what I'm trying to say here is, who really cares? With all that said, admittedly both teams have played well against better competition of late, really taking to that spoiler role. The Isles beat the Flames, who desperately need those 2 points to keep pace with Detroit; in fact, you could probably argue that loss has ended Calgary's season. Columbus, meanwhile, welcomed in a Chicago team that needed 2 points to keep pace with San Jose atop the Western conference, and absolutely pounded them 8-3. Of course, the problem is neither team can spoil the other, so this is gonna be a tough game to get up for.
Prediction: Isles 2-1

The Rest
Flames @ Bruins, 1:00 pm EST: Well, like I just said, the Flames have probably already squandered their only chance to catch the Red Wings for 8th in the West. The question now is, do they come out flying in Boston trying desperately to salvage their season, as we saw the Rangers do this week after their potentially season-ending loss to Boston? Or do they come out flat knowing their season is probably over? Boston of course needs the points to stay ahead of those Rangers & Thrashers. This could be a good game between two desperate teams, or it could be one desperate team absolutely pounding the crap out of a team that's already given up. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Lightning @ Sabres, 7:00 pm EST: The Sabres are on the second-half of a back-to-back coming off a disappointing loss to division rivals Ottawa at home last night. A win here will probably put a kibosh on any hopes the Senators have of challenging Buffalo for the division title, given the games in hand the Sabres still have. Meanwhile, the only chase the Lightning are really in is Stamkos chasing the Rocket. They could be up for it to try and play spoiler, but for some reason the Lightning always seem to play really poorly against Buffalo. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Thrashers @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: The only other game between non-playoff teams, Atlanta is at least still right there in the race, 2 points back of 8th place Boston and 4 points back of 7th place Philadelphia. Their hosts in Carolina have been one of the best teams in the second-half of the season, and if it wasn't for their awful, awful first-half they'd be comfortably in the playoffs right now. Atlanta needs these 2 points desperately with the Rangers now nipping at their heels just 1 point behind, but everytime you think Carolina is ready to roll over and give up on their slim playoff hopes, they keep winning games. This should be a good one. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Devils @ Canadiens, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC & RDS in Canada, NHL Network US) Martin Brodeur always plays very well in his home province against his childhood favorite team, and tonight should be no exception with the added incentive of staying ahead of Pittsburgh in the Atlantic race. The Habs, meanwhile, are probably the East's hottest team since the Olympic break, reeling off a 6-game winning streak that was interrupted only with a loss to Ottawa and an OT loss to the Sabres, then responding by bouncing right back with a clutch home win against the Panthers on Thursday night. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Panthers @ Senators, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC) Speaking of the Panthers, they will once again be without David Booth after he took yet another hit to the had against the Habs on Thursday. Unlike the blindside hit Mike Richards gave him earlier in the season, however, this one was totally Booth's fault, as he skated into the Montreal zone with his head down (something you're taught not to do as a 6-year-old) and paid the price for it. The Sens finally seem to have come out of their post-Olympic funk, and the only thing that could stop them from pounding on the Booth-less Panthers is this being the second night of a back-to-back. Either way, this game probably won't be very exciting. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Rangers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC) Alright, New York, here's what everyone has been waiting for. Every since the Rangers lost that disappointing game to Boston on Sunday, everyone pointed to their six-game road trip where 5 of the 6 teams are far out of the playoffs as their chance to make up ground. The Rangers already made up some ground by pounding the hapless Isles into submission with a 5-0 home win then following that up with their gutsy victory in Newark the very next night. Now that they've finally put themselves back into the race, they absolutely need to start these games against non-playoff teams on the right foot. If they lose to the Maple Leafs (who are in the middle of their yearly "well, we're out of it, so I guess we might as well finally play some hockey" March surge), it will get this make-hay run off on absolutely the wrong foot. A win, on the other hand, would be the Rangers' first 3-game win streak in almost three months and really get that snowball of momentum rolling downhill (and right towards the playoffs). The Maple Leafs aren't gonna roll over for them and have beaten better teams in Toronto of late, and as a result this should be a pretty good game. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Avalanche @ Coyotes, 9:00 pm EST: Colorado's position in 7th is very tenuous, as they have been extremely inconsistent since the Olympic break. Now they have to go into Phoenix and beat one of the NHL's best home teams, with Detroit breathing right down on their neck (tied in points but the Avs have a game in hand). The 'Yotes are looking to bounce back from actually, gasp, LOSING a shootout to the Predators, and want to keep pace with the Sharks for an incredibly improbable Pacific division title. With all that said, both these teams aren't all that exciting on most nights, so this game might not be all that exciting, either. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Stars @ Kings, 10:30 pm EST: Speaking of teams that the Red Wings are breathing down on, the Kings are only 1 point up on the Winged Wheel and absolutely do not want to fall back into that 7-8 hole. This is another team that's been very up-and-down since the Olympic break, as they've shown flashes of brilliance but also shown some signs of mental and physical fatigue, especially from starting goaltender Jonathan Quick. Coming back after going 0-1-1 in a brief 2-game trip, the Kings could use a pick-me-up, and beating the non-playoff Stars would be just what the doctor ordered. Dallas, on the other hand, was playing pretty well of late before dropping a 3-0 decision in San Jose, so they'll be trying to bounce back as well. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Alright folks, that'll do it for another edition of Today's Games to Watch in the NHL. We've got two early games that are incredibly important for all four teams, so enjoy some afternoon action then get ready for the main event late tonight between the Sharks and the Canucks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Breaking Down the Playoff Chances: Western Conference

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict! Today, we're going to try something a little bit different. As you probably know, we usually break down the day's schedule in the NHL and tell you which games are worth watching. But taking a look at the schedule for today, there really isn't much of a point in doing that; of the 11 games on tap for today, only 1 (Phoenix @ Nashville) is between teams currently in playoff position. And as great as the hockey as been this year, there's something that's become increasingly obvious as the weeks go by. The playoff races are, to be quite frank, the worst we've seen in years.

For all the talk of parity in today's NHL, the fact is in both Conferences, most of the teams have little to no shot of making the playoffs. There is real separation heading into the final weeks of the regular season. In the West, 9th place Calgary sits 4 points behind Detroit, and with their respective schedules that will be a very difficult point differential to make up down the stretch. 10th place Dallas sits 9 points back, and Detroit has a game in hand on all the teams sitting 10th-14th. While all those teams are still *mathematically* in it, realistically they haven't got a shot in hell.

The East, for all its mediocrity compared to the West (those some 10th place Stars would be tied for 8th if they were in the Eastern Conference, and virtually everyone other than Columbus & Edmonton would still be in it in the East), isn't much better. 8th place Boston sits 3 points ahead of 9th place Atlanta, and 5 points ahead of the 10th place Rangers, with a game in hand on both. As a Ranger fan I do want to point out that our schedule, despite being road-heavy, is actually a lot easier than Boston's. If the Rangers can beat the Devils tonight, they have a real chance to go on a run against non-playoff teams: they'll play at the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Lightning, Panthers, Buffalo (the only playoff team here), then home to the Leafs again. If they can make hay on that schedule and win 5 of 6 or even run the table, then they may be able to make this race close again. Realistically, they're still out of it until they get it done, and Boston still has their fate in their own hands.

With all that said, the "parity" that we're seeing this year in the NHL has been replaced a bit by three real "tiers' of teams. You've got your Elite Tier, the teams at the top of the conferences who have put a ton of separation from everyone else (and one could argue Washington and their 108 points, which have already tied a franchise record with 9 games left to play, should be their own tier). Washington, Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo would be your elite teams in the East, with Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver, & shockingly Phoenix being the elite teams in the West. Then you have your Playoff Tier, the teams in each conference who aren't quite in striking distance of the elite teams, but who have put a great deal of separation between themselves and the non-playoff teams in each conference. Ottawa, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Boston comprise this tier in the East, while Los Angeles, Colorado, Nashville, and Detroit (maybe Calgary) comprise this tier in the West. Finally, you've got your non-playoff teams, which are everyone else.

This is what I like to call the New Parity in the NHL. Other than Washington, who like I said should be their own tier, in the East you've got the Pens, Devils, and Sabres all separated by just 1 point. In the West, Chicago, San Jose, Phoenix, and Vancouver are only separated by 4 points. Then when you get to the playoff teams, in the East 5th place Ottawa and 8th place Boston are only separated by 5 points, and in the West it's even tighter as 5th place LA and 8th place Detroit are only separated by 3 points. Finally, the non-playoff teams are just as tight: 2 points are all that separates 10th place Dallas and 13th place Anaheim in the West, while 5 points separate the 10th place Rangers and 14th place Islanders.

So while things are still tight in today's NHL, there's also a lot more separation than there are in years past, and that makes this year's playoff race seem a bit more, well, boring than usual. Like I said in my last blog, how excited can you really get for a race for 8th in the East when your "reward" is playing the most dominant regular-season team the NHL has seen in almost a decade? In the West, you have the opposite problem: all the teams in the playoffs right now seem so good and seem like they can knock off anyone, so when those eight teams just keep winning games, who could you really see dropping out of it so Calgary can get in?

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. The trade-off for having a less-interesting stretch drive than we might usually have is we may have one of the most exciting playoffs ever coming up in just a few short weeks. And that's saying something coming off one of the most exciting playoffs in almost two decades last year, but this year's has all the potential to top it. The East may not be as interesting as last year (it really looks like Washington's conference to lose, but we'll get more into that next time), but can you ever recall a time when the West was this wide open? You've got 4 teams atop the West all within 4 points of each other, and you've got an 8th place team in Detroit right now that NO ONE wants to play in the first-round. Any single one of these eight teams could win the Western conference.

So here's what we're going to do today. We're going to take a look at all of the teams currently in the playoffs, break down where they were expected to finish before the season started, and then break down what they could do in the playoffs. Each team will get a High and a Low, in another words where we think their potential is and where they could flame out. We'll list their records, overall, home, and away, and we'll also list their rankings among all 30 teams in the NHL in both offense & defense (goals for/goals against per game). Finally, we'll talk briefly about what their possible playoff match-ups and which ones would most benefit them. Alright folks, with all this intro out of the way, let's get started in the Western conference!

Western Conference

1st: Chicago Blackhawks
(46-19-7, 99 points, 27-7-3 at home, 19-12-4 away, 3rd in Offense, 4th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Cup Favorite
High: Stanley Cup champions
Low: Second-round exit

The Blackhawks went into this season with the high expectations of winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, and they've been right at the top of the Central division & Western conference standings since pretty much the season began. People had issue with their goaltending heading into the season, and some still do, but for the most part the duo of Huet & Niemi have gotten it done in the regular season. The big question heading into the post-season is who will be the starter, but the Hawks will at least be able to comfort themselves with the knowledge that if whoever they go with flames out, they've still got the other one to hand the ball to.

Even though the Blackhawks are currently matched-up with the Red Wings in the first round, I can't see them going out any earlier than the second. They're simply too good on both sides of the puck to get upset in the first round. A second round upset is possible if their goaltending, which just isn't playoff-tested, gives out on them. But realistically, this is probably as close as the West has to a favorite to make it to at least the Conference finals, and until someone knocks them off they have to be considered the favorite to win the West.

Possible playoff match-ups: Detroit, Nashville, Colorado
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: Detroit
(The Hawks have had their problems with Nashville's trapping style over the years, but Detroit still has to be the most feared team to the Blackhawks and especially their fans. Despite Chicago's mastery over the Central this season, the Red Wings have already shown in recent weeks that, when healthy, they're still very capable of playing the Blackhawks evenly. I would still favorite the Hawks in any of these potential match-ups, including against the Wings, but there's no doubt they'd like to avoid facing Detroit in the first round if it's at all possible.)

2nd place: San Jose Sharks
(44-19-10, 98 points, 22-6-8 at home, 22-13-2 on the road, 4th in Offense, 9th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: ???
High Expectation: Conference Final
Low Expectation: First-round exit

The question marks are pretty much what everyone put down for the Sharks heading into the season. Every year this team looks great on paper, and then everyone year they find a way to flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. So finally, almost no one picked them to win the Cup this year, saying they wouldn't be fooled again by San Jose, even after they retooled a lot of their roster, striped Marleau of the C, and acquired Dany Heatley from Ottawa. The Sharks at first did that usual San Jose domination of the regular-season, but they're recently coming off a six-game winless streak (their longest since November of 2005, and five straight losses came in regulation) that was just snapped this past week in Minnesota.

The problems with the Sharks are numerous: despite the fact that their leaders continue to bang the drum in interviews that "this isn't the same team as last year", who were their leaders last year? Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Rob Blake, Dan guessed it, they're all on the team again this year. The only difference is the aforementioned Heatley, who no one has ever confused with a clutch performer. So does changing around a bunch of role-players on the lower lines really mean this is a totally different team? I don't buy it.

There's an argument to be made that all these recent struggles is actually a good thing for a team that got it easy for most of the season, but I don't buy that, either. First of all, even though they didn't lose so many in a row last season, they had their fair share of struggles around this time last year, too, and look how well that worked out for them. Second of all, the big two problems among this team- lack of effort from backchecking and defensive-zone coverage amongst their "big guys" and sub-par/inconsistent goaltending from Nabakov (ask Russia how well he handled clutch games for them in the Olympics)- aren't just magically going to go away once the playoffs start. So that's why the farthest I can see this team going is the Conference final. I just don't see how, in a 7-game series, these guys can beat Chicago or Vancouver. Hell, I think I'd favor teams like Detroit, Phoenix, and LA against them, too. They could easily get bounced in the first-round again, and then I just have no idea where you go with this team. It might be time to blow this thing up, let Marleau walk in free-agency, and see if you can trade Jumbo Joe and let him be someone else's problem in the playoffs.

Possible playoff match-ups: Nashville, Colorado, Detroit
Wants to play: Nashville
Wants to avoid: Detroit
(Seeing a pattern here? No one wants to play the Red Wings in the first round. The Sharks have had, for the most part, an easy time with the Predators this season, including that five-goal 3rd period explosion at home. The Wings, on the other hand, have beaten up on the Sharks all season, even when they had a ton of people out with injuries. If the Wings can climb into 7th and face San Jose, we'll probably be looking at yet another first-round exit for the Sharks.)

3rd Place: Vancouver Canucks
(45-25-4, 94 points, 27-8-2 at home, 18-17-12 on the road, 2nd in offense, 7th in defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Dark Horse
High: Stanley Cup champions
Low: Second-round exit

Coming into the season I saw the Canucks as a classic dark horse team: a team that is not quite as strong as the real favorites, but should one or two of them get knocked out, is very capable of winning the West. Now, with less than 10 games to go in the regular season, I think they have to be upgraded to Cup favorites right alongside Chicago, and if you're looking for the reason why, it's their offense. No one would have predicted Vancouver, who has always been a good defensive team (and one could argue that 7th, as good as that is, is actually a little disappointing for the Canucks, who you'd probably expect to be in the top 5), would be the 2nd-best *offensive* team in the NHL. In fact, they have the best offense in the Western conference, ahead of the likes of Chicago & San Jose.

Their Achilles heel is their lackluster road record. If they can't turn that around in the post-season, well, they'd better hope they can climb into one of the top two seeds down the stretch or someone eliminates them for them, because they'll need home-ice throughout the playoffs. You also have to keep in mind that as great as Roberto Luongo has been in the regular season, he's yet to really get it done in the playoffs (remember last year's game 6 meltdown against Chicago?), and that's why I think they could still get knocked out in the second round. They should make it through the first round easily, however, and I'm personally placing bets on a Chicago-Vancouver re-match in the Western Conference finals, which would be a hell of a show.

Possible playoff match-ups: Colorado, Los Angeles, Nashville
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: Nashville, I guess
(Of the teams sitting 5th-7th that Vancouver is most likely to play, they really haven't had any trouble with any of them this season. Whoever it is, the Canucks would be the heavy favorite.)

4th Place: Phoenix Coyotes
(46-23-5, 97 points, 26-10-2 at home, 20-13-3 on the road, 26th in Offense, 3rd in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Misses the playoffs
High: Conference Final
Low: First-round exit

If you honestly said you thought the Phoenix Coyotes would be sitting not just in fourth place, but comfortably in 4th place and only 1 point behind division-leading San Jose at this point in the season, you, sir, are a liar. This is a team that has taken everyone by surprise, and make no mistake about it, they are *the* story this year in the NHL.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, there will be a ton of issues that will probably prevent them from carrying that success over to the playoffs. The most obvious one is their 26th-ranked offense. Yes, they are really, really good defensively, but traditionally the teams that make it far in the playoffs are teams that are top 10 (or at the very least, top 15) in both categories, not 3rd in one and 26th in the other. The second issue is one that happens to a lot of Cinderella teams: I like to call it the "exhale" factor. In another words, this team played so far out of their minds to defy everyone and just make it into the post-season, there might be a bit of unconscious exhaling, so to speak. They make it to the playoffs and they think to themselves, okay, we made it. And then they exhale and relax a little bit, which naturally leads to you playing worse than you played when you were on that mission in the first place.

Now, if there's any coach who might be able to combat the "exhale factor", it's Dave Tippett, who is about as big of a lock to win the Jack Adams as I've ever seen in my lifetime. And that's why I'm still giving this team a chance to run all the way to the Conference final if they can get the right combination of goaltending and timely goals they've been getting all season. But this is a team that could also very easily go out in the first-round, and then the challenge will be not to turn into next season's version of the Columbus Blue Jackets or St. Louis Blues; that is, a team that made a huge run to the post-season they weren't supposed to make (albeit on a bigger scale for the 'Yotes) and then flames out next year under the newfound pressure of expecting to make it this time.

Possible playoff match-ups: LA, Colorado, Nashville
Wants to play: Colorado
Wants to avoid: LA
(Phoenix hasn't played too badly against any of these teams, but of the three, to me the team with the most dynamic offensive potential is the Kings. They're 2-2-1 against the Kings this year, not bad but not great, and since any first-round match-up will be them relying on their defense, you don't want to have to worry about shutting down all the Kings' weapons throughout an entire series.)

5th place: Los Angeles Kings
(42-24-6, 90 points, 21-12-3 at home, 21-12-3 on the road, 9th in Offense, 10th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Playoff bubble
High: Dark Horse
Low: First-round exit

The Kings have followed the Chicago/Washington model to perfection: they've built from within with a ton of young players (Kopitar, Brown, Johnson, Doughty, Quick, Frolov, Simmonds....I could go on), added a few big pieces in free-agency and trades (Handzus, Smyth, Williams, Scuderi), and now after almost a decade out of the playoffs they're skipping the bubble and heading in right near the top of the Conference. If they can keep it up down the stretch and stay right around the 5th spot (or maybe even climb into 4th if Phoenix or San Jose falters), they have to be considered the West's dark horse pick to make it to the Cup finals.

The numbers back it up: the Kings have identical home and road records, meaning they can get it done at home or on the road if they're a lower seed in a series. Teams that are top 10 in both categories tend to get it done in the playoffs, and they're sitting right there at 9th in offense and 10th in defense. They can play pretty much any style of hockey: they have a ton of guys who love to hit and get gritty down in the corners (which is playoff hockey), and then they've got their skilled guys like Kopy & Frolov who can make a breathtaking move in the slot, too. They've got perhaps the best TEAM cycle-game of any team in the NHL (Vancouver has the Sedins that do it better, but LA has FOUR LINES that can cycle the puck down low like demons). They have to worry about that same "exhale factor" I talked about for Phoenix, but their run hasn't been quite the Cinderella story that Phoenix's has been. Yeah, they're maybe a year ahead of schedule according to some pundits, but this team was called "the sexy pick" to make the playoffs before the season started. In another words, they're out of nowhere, but not out of NOWHERE.

Potential playoff match-ups: Phoenix, Vancouver, San Jose
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Vancouver
(Some people will think I'm insane for saying the Kings want to play the Sharks, but hear me out here. If the Kings do in fact play San Jose in the first round, it will be because, barring a total meltdown by the Kings, the Sharks lost out the division to Phoenix and fell into that 4-5 hole with them. That's a wounded animal already. The Kings also play the exact kind of hockey that wins in the playoffs, and the exact kind of hockey the Sharks seem to shy away from too often: that is to say, gritty, dig-the-puck-out-of-the-corners hockey. They've got a good record against them in the regular season, including scoring 7 goals against them twice, once in their own building. Yeah, I'd favor the Kings in that match-up. The Canucks, on the other hand, have had the Kings' number all season, so avoiding falling into 6th and having to deal with them in the first-round is really, really important for them.)

6th place: Colorado Avalanche
(41-25-7, 89 points, 23-11-2 at home, 18-14-5 on the road, 6th in Offense, 11th in Defense)
Pre-season pick: Misses the playoffs
High: Second-round exit
Low: First-round exit

Avs fans will probably cry out that I'm not giving enough respect to their team, and they might have a case. They do have some pretty good numbers in the two stat categories; they just barely miss being top-10 in both of them. What stops and gives me concern for the Avalanche's playoff hopes are three things: the aforementioned "exhale factor" we talked about for the Coyotes, as the Avs were also picked to miss the playoffs and probably used that as motivation all season long. Secondly, the overwhelming youth of this team has to be a concern. So much of the Avs have never gotten in done in the playoffs before, including their netminder Craig Anderson. You could say the same about the Kings and their own netminder, but they have more of a veteran presence than the Avs do to go along with all that youth.

Finally, the Avs' road record is cause for great concern considering they will almost certainly not have home-ice advantage in the first round and throughout the playoffs. The Avs are only 4 games above .500 on the road, and that kind of play isn't good enough in a Conference loaded with teams who are much, much better road teams. I think that with some bounces they could win their first-round series, but I wouldn't favor them to do it in any stretch of the imagination, and I definitely can't see them getting any farther than the second round. Still a hell of a story, though.

Potential playoff match-ups: Vancouver, San Jose, Phoenix
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Vancouver
(Unfortunately for the Avs, the team they're currently slated to play in the first round is the Canucks, who are a dominating 4-1-0 against them this season. If they fall back into 7th with San Jose at 2nd or climb into 5th with the Sharks falling to 4th, that will be a much better match-up for them, as the Avs have played the Sharks well all-season, including an opening night win.)

7th Place: Nashville Predators
(42-27-5, 89 points, 21-13-2 at home, 21-14-3 on the road, 14th in Offense, 16th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Playoff bubble, probably out of it
High: Second-round exit
Low: First-round exit

The Predators are another surprising story in a year full of them in the Western conference. This is a budget team that year after year manages to stay consistently around the bubble, and this year they're in even better shape than usual to make the playoffs after missing last year. The Preds' were always a good defensive team (and at 16th they're probably having a bit of a down year for that, oddly enough), but their 14th-ranked offense is nothing short of a huge shocker. They're getting contributions up-and-down their line-up, and their dynamic, high-scoring blueline is a big factor in their success.

Of the three teams that I'm picking to finish out of the playoffs by the second-round (Phoenix, Colorado, and the Preds), the Predators have probably the biggest chance of proving me wrong. They've got that dynamic back-end lead by Olympians Shea Weber (Canada) & Ryan Suter (US), they've got some of the most underrated goaltending in the league from both Pekka Rinne & Dan Ellis, and they've got some decent forwards who play gritty, playoff-style hockey (Arnott, Dumont, Tootoo, etc.) I still can't see them getting past the second round and it will be enough of a struggle to make it past the first, but who knows.

Potential playoff match-ups: San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Chicago
(The Predators haven't played their Central rival Blackhawks very well at all this season, so they want to avoid that match-up if at all possible. They've had pretty good showings against both the Sharks & Canucks all season, but I'm still going with San Jose as their "want to play" just because I think all of the lower seeds probably want to play the Sharks if they can help it.)

8th place: Detroit Red Wings
(37-23-13, 87 points, 21-10-5 at home, 16-13-8 on the road, 15th in Offense, 8th in Defense)
Pre-Season Pick: Dark Horse
High: Conference final
Low: First-round exit

Ah yes, we finally make it to the elephant in the proverbial room that is the NHL playoffs. No one wants to play these Red Wings in the first-round. The only reason they're sitting so low in the West is because of their incredible streak of injuries earlier in the season: now that they're finally healthy again, they've been on an absolute tear since the Olympic break, to the tune of 8-2-1. But saying that this is the same team that went to the Cup finals two years in a row now is a little bit of an over exaggeration. The fact is, they're still missing key guys on offense (Hossa to the Hawks, Samuelssson to the Canucks, Hudler to the KHL) and they're going with a rookie in goal instead of Chris Osgood, whose game has finally appeared to fall off once and for all this season. They've made up for their decrease in offensive production by climbing up to having the 8th-best defense in the league, which is up significantly from a poor defensive season last year.

It's also worth pointing out that the Wings, along with the Penguins, have played more hockey than any other team in going to those back-to-back Cup Finals. While all those injuries may have actually helped the Red Wings by giving their key players some rest, all that still tends to add up, especially once you get back into the post-season grind. Along with their lackluster road record, that's why I can't see the Wings getting farther than the Conference final this year. They also have the potential to be eliminated in the first-round, like any other lower seed. Still, it won't be an easy out for any of the high seeds, by any stretch, and you can bet none of them will be happy to draw the Red Wings in the first round.

Potential playoff match-ups: Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver
Wants to play: San Jose
Wants to avoid: Chicago
(I honestly think Detroit would be comfortable playing any of these three teams in the first round, but of the three they've had their most success this season against the Sharks. Like I said before, even when they were suffering from all their injuries, they still went into San Jose and won. There's something about the Red Wings that just seem to scare the crap out of the Sharks. Of the other two, the Red Wings have a 2-2-1 record against Chicago, so that's probably not the best match-up for them. But don't get me wrong, no one in Chicago will be happy about that match-up should it come to fruition.)

Alright folks, that will *finally* do it for this very, very long blog. I'll be back at some point, maybe tonight or maybe tomorrow (since it's a 3-game schedule so once again not much of a point in doing a Today's Games to Watch) to break down the Eastern conference. Until then, try to enjoy the hockey we've got left and keep in mind, the playoffs are right around the corner!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Today's Games to Watch 3/23

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict after a few days off, as now it's time for the real stretch run, and the NHL hits the ground running with a ton of really interesting games this week. Yeah, there's still plenty of teams who are out of it (although some of them are playing like no one's told them that- Anaheim and your 4-game winning streak, I'm looking at you) to drag down the schedule a little bit, but this week also has a ton of really interesting match-ups between playoff teams. It started last night, as the Red Wings man-handled the Penguins in a Stanley Cup Final re-match, and the Kings and the Avalanche had a really gritty, playoff-style game to begin a crucial home-and-home that could go a long way to deciding who gets 5th place locked down.

Tonight, it continues with two top teams going head-to-head for the second time in four days. So let's get right to it. As always, these are the awards we'll be handing out:

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Tuesday, March 23rd
A bunch of potential clunkers on tonight's schedule can't drag down a few big, big match-ups.

Marquee Match-Up: Phoenix Coyotes (46-22-5, 97 points, 1st in Pacific, 2nd in West) at Chicago Blackhawks (45-19-7, 97 points, 1st in Central, 1st in West)
8:30 pm EST/5:30 pm PST
It don't get much bigger than this, folks. The two top teams in the West, tied in points (Phoenix has one more win, but Chicago has two games in hand), going head-to-head for the second time in four days. In case you've been living under a rock for the past two weeks, the Desert Dogs are the hottest team in hockey, tying a franchise record with 9 wins in a row. Now, you can't talk about the 'Yotes and all their success without including the asterisk that 12 of their wins have come via the shootout (the most of any team), including their 5-4 victory over Chicago in Phoenix on Saturday night. But let's not take too much away from what this team has accomplished. They've overcome all those off-ice distractions in the off-season to rebound in a huge way, defying the pundits and grabbing partial hold of top spot in the West with just three weeks left in the regular season. That's insane, folks. As I told my best friend (who happens to be a huge 'Yotes fan), if they had shootouts in the playoffs, I honestly think the Coyotes would be the easy Stanley Cup favorites. We're still in the regular season, so you have to give a slight edge to the Coyotes here just because of how they've played of late and their incredible ability to come back late in games and take it to that extra frame to begin with. But the Blackhawks are playing much better hockey of late, and it looks like they are finally getting things going again. Either way, this should be another close, super-exciting game, one you won't want to miss.
Prediction: Coyotes 4-3 (SO)

Runner-Up: Anaheim Ducks (34-29-8, 76 points, 4th in Pacific, 11th in West) at Calgary Flames (36-27-9, 81 points, 3rd in Northwest, 9th in West)
9:00 pm EST/6:00 pm PST
It's worth noting that even though this award is called the "runner-up", tonight wasn't even close. But of all the other games on TV tonight, this is easily the second-most important. After staggering out of the Olympic break with an 0-4-1 record, the Ducks have finally found their legs and reeled off four straight wins. Probably too little, too late as far as making the playoffs, as they still sit 9 points back of 8th place Detroit (wh0 is also playing really, really well of late), but this is a game in hand they're making up on the Wings, so if they're going to make any kind of desperate last-minute push, these are 2 points they must have. Things are not quite as dire for the Flames, who sit 4 points back of the Wings, but you also have to keep in mind that the Flames have probably the hardest schedule of any of the teams down the stretch (while the Wings have one of the easiest). They've got a staggering 6 of their remaining 10 games against teams in playoff position, so while a loss against the Ducks wouldn't quite be season-ending, it would definitely throw make it that much harder for them down the stretch.
Prediction: Flames 3-2

Under the Radar: San Jose Sharks (43-19-10, 96 points, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West) at Minnesota Wild (35-31-6, 76 points, 4th in Northwest, 12th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
National TV: Versus (US)
While this game probably wouldn't jump out at you on first glance, this game becomes a lot more interesting when you think of the Sharks' current slump as a car crash. That is to say, you just can't look away. These Sharks have looked absolutely awful in dropping 6 in a row for the first time since November of 2005, including losing 8-2 in Dallas and 5-1 in Edmonton. People can point to the fact that their six-game losing streak included a five straight on the road, but good teams should be able to find ways to win games on the road. Even with those five straight losses, the Sharks' road record is still 21-13-2, so it's not like they haven't been able to win road games all season long up until this point. The fact of the matter is, the Sharks are in a tailspin, three weeks earlier than their usual playoff meltdown, and they have got to find a way to get out of it. Heading into Minnesota to play yet another non-playoff team, it will be interesting to see if the Sharks play with any desperation at all, as this will be their first game since Phoenix finally passed them up in the Pacific division. They're one point back of the 'Yotes with a game in hand, so there's still plenty of opportunity here for the Sharks to reclaim the division lead, but they've got to start playing like they've got something resembling confidence, and stop standing around in their defensive zone and leaving Nabakov hanging out to dry. You've got a starting goalie who's never gotten it done in the playoffs, who's coming off a VERY disappointing Olympics for Russia, and you play like the Sharks have been playing in their own end? They're letting passes go right across the crease for tip-ins, they're poking at the puck instead of taking the body, and they're just playing like a team that couldn't give less of a damn right now. If they keep playing like that, this meltdown has the potential to get worse, not better.
Prediction: Wild 4-1

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Columbus Blue Jackets (29-31-12, 70 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West) at New Jersey Devils (42-25-4, 88 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
Ah yes, it's that dreaded worst-of-all-worlds: a team that's out of it vs. a team that's a playoff lock, and in separate conferences so there's absolutely no rivalry here to speak of. Add that up to the fact that both teams aren't exactly going to win any "most exciting" awards in the NHL and you've got the potential for one hell of a dull game. One alarming trait the Devils have shown over the past few weeks is playing down to their opponents, as they'll come out and play great in getting two more wins over their Atlantic rival Penguins, then lay stinkers against teams like the Islanders & Maple Leafs. That's not what you want your team to be doing when they're still in a dogfight to win their division.
Prediction: Devils 2-1

The Rest
Panthers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: Telling you whether or not you should watch this game really depends on what you're looking for. Of course, this game could not possibly matter any less, being that it's two teams that are out of it. But it's also two teams who are playing like they're out of it, playing with reckless abandon, and they'll have no trouble trading offensive chances like nobody's business. So if you can get past the fact that it means absolutely nothing, this will probably be a pretty exciting game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Bruins @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: I almost put this up as one of my picks, but I feel like the East is just so less interesting than the West right now, and that's coming from someone who lives in the Eastern timezone. The battle for the last playoff spot in the West features teams who are very capable of upsets in the first round. Meanwhile, here you've got the 30th-out-of-30 in goals for/per game Bruins battling the Kovalchuk-less and also defense-less Thrashers for "who gets to be swept by the Capitals in the first round". There's only so much excitement that can really generate. Still, it'll probably be a real good, hard-fought game between two teams separated by 1 point in the standings. I just don't think it really matters which of these two teams get in, that's all. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Flyers @ Senators, 7:30 pm EST: (National TV: RDS, Canada- French only) The Sens finally got things back on-track with a big road win against the streaking Canadiens last night, and now tonight they'll invite the walking wounded Flyers into their house to try and build some momentum up. Really their turnaround started with Spezza's hat trick in a losing effort to Dallas, and that's how it tends to go in hockey: you'll start playing yourself out of it before you see the end result, so you're still losing a game but you're back on the right track. Meanwhile, the Flyers dropped two straight to the Thrashers as new de facto #1 Brian Boucher did absolutely nothing to inspire any confidence from anyone. Seriously, if his own mother was asked how she felt about her son in goal heading into the playoffs, there's no way she'd be able to say anything positive with a straight face. Then, just because apparently the hockey gods decided they weren't done picking on Philly yet, Jeff Carter, man who leads this team in just about every offensive category (goals, points, game-winners.....the list goes on-and-on), fractured a bone in his foot and is gone for 3-4 weeks. So the Flyers will either come out tonight looking to make up for it, or they'll come out tonight feeling sorry for themselves and get pounded. You should know what verdict that gets you. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Hurricanes @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: Going 2-3-0 in their last 5 games has really hurt the Hurricanes' chances of completing what has been a miracle revival of their playoff hopes, as they now sit 8 points back of the Bruins and the B's still have a game in hand. Tonight's game against a Tampa team that's been playing like they're out of it for a while now will go a long way to determining whether or not the Canes still have hope. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Stars @ Predators, 8:00 pm EST: The Stars are playing some pretty decent hockey of late, which is pretty normal for teams once they're finally out of it. The Predators, meanwhile, have won 6 in a row and have gone a long way towards solidifying their return to the playoffs. It's been overshadowed a bit by the Avs and 'Yotes in the West, but the Preds are a great story, too: almost no one picked them to be back in the playoffs after narrowly missing last year, yet here they are, shoe-string budget and all. Anyway, one has to imagine they keep it rolling against Dallas. The Stars remain an awful, awful road team, meaning this one probably won't be watchable. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Canucks @ Oilers, 9:00 pm EST: With the decline of the Sharks coming a few weeks earlier than scheduled, many pundits are bumping Vancouver up from "dark horse" to "legitimate Cup favorite", right there with teams like Washington & Chicago. It's hard to believe, but the Canucks are still sitting there with the 2nd-best offense in the league. The Sedins have been even more Sedin-like than usual, Ryan Kesler is having another great year doing the kinds of things that Ryan Kesler does (and he was rewarded last week with a 6-year-extension), Alexander Burrows has turned into a goal-scoring machine at times, and Mikael Samuelsson has been an even better pick-up from the Wings than people thought he would be. The Oilers, meanwhile, picked up a few surprising home wins over the weekend against the Red Wings & Sharks, so they'll be looking to keep it rolling and keep catching some very good teams off-guard. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Alright folks, that'll do it for today. I'll be back soon looking at teams' playoff chances as we are getting closer and closer to the best time of the year: playoff hockey is almost here!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Today's Games to Watch 3/18

Welcome back, after a night off, to Today's Games to Watch here on Center Ice Addict. First of all, an explanation: last night's schedule consisted of three games at completely different times, so there really was not much of a point of me telling you which ones to watch since theoretically you could have watched them all. With that said, it was definitely an interesting night. The Devils completed a 6-0 sweep of the Penguins, the Flames went into Colorado and took a big 2 points away to stay right in the hunt in the West for the final playoff spot, and the Blackhawks' injury woes on their blueline continued as Brent Seabrook took a high (and dirty) hit and will probably be out at least a week.

Tonight, we get back into the swing of things with an 11-game schedule. So let's get right to it. As always, here's the awards we'll be giving out:

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Thursday, March 18th
An 11-game schedule provides some real excitement, especially in the West where 4 of the top 6 teams will match-up with each other in what could be some playoff previews. If you're on the East coast, staying up late for some real top-notch hockey could be worth it tonight.

Marquee Match-Up: San Jose Sharks (43-16-10, 96 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West) at Vancouver Canucks (43-24-3, 89 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
The Sharks are in the spin cycle right now: they've lost 2 in a row and if it hadn't been for a third-period explosion at home against the Predators, it would be 3. Theoretically they hit rock-bottom on Tuesday in Dallas, losing 8-2 and surpassing their previous worst efforts against Chicago & LA (7 goals allowed in each, twice against the Kings). Suddenly, teams they had thought were long forgotten in their rear-view mirror are right there staring at them: the Coyotes are only 5 points back for the division lead, and the Canucks are only 7 points back for 1st in the West. Granted, the Sharks do have a game in hand on both of those teams, but a game in hand is fairly worthless when you're playing as bad as San Jose is right now. So this game becomes far more important than it might have been months ago, when the Canucks were still double-digits behind San Jose: this is a 4-point game, as a win by the Sharks makes that gap 9, but a win by the Canucks shrinks that gap down to just 5 points. Will San Jose be this year's version of the Calgary Flames, a team that jumped out to a gigantic, double-digit gap in their division and then played so badly down the stretch they squandered it and were passed just before the playoffs? Obviously it goes without saying it would be an unmitigated disaster for this Sharks team that is built to win now.
Prediction: Canucks 3-2

Runner-Up: Chicago Blackhawks (44-19-6, 94 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in West) at Los Angeles Kings (40-23-5, 85 points, 3rd in Pacific, 6th in West)
10:30 pm EST/7:30 pm PST
This game is a battle between two teams who have hit a bit of a skid: the Kings are a middling 3-3-1 since the Olympic break, while the Blackhawks are bruised, battered, and dropping games left-and-right (sometimes in devastating fashion, like over the weekend to the Flyers & Capitals). Is there reason to worry? Not really. The Kings have, for the most part, played very well even in their defeats, most of which have been by 1 goal. Playing down the stretch has been a learning process for this young team, and despite falling to 6th they're only 1 point behind Colorado with two games in hand on them, and 6 points behind Phoenix, also with 2 games in hand. So they can make up that ground fairly easily, and they'll get a hell of a chance to do it tonight playing a Chicago team that took yet another big hit to their blueline last night in Anaheim. The Hawks, meanwhile, find themselves in the unfamiliar position of not having a hell of a lot to play for in March; they've got the Central all but wrapped up, as even with their recent struggles they still lead 2nd place Nashville by 11 points (with a game in hand). It's nothing we haven't seen year after year from Detroit when they've had these gigantic leads in the Central with only 13 or so games remaining. It's hard to get up for these games, especially when your primary concern is just getting healthy again in time for the playoffs. And I've been pleasantly surprised to see MOST of Chicago's fanbase recognize that. Look for them to drop another game here, but it's no time to panic.
Prediction: Kings 3-2 (OT)

Under the Radar: Pittsburgh Penguins (41-24-5, 87 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East) at Boston Bruins (31-26-12, 74 points, 4th in Northeast, 8th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
National TV: NHL Network (US only)
This game is really only "under the radar" if you haven't been paying attention and missed last week's Matt Cooke hit, so I guess today this award functions more like a third runner-up. There was just nothing else on the list that really striked me as a must-see game, but this one certainly is. You have the aforementioned Cooke-on-Savard hit, although those expecting retaliation should remember that teams tend not to come out and retaliate when you expect them to, especially when Colin Campbell will be in attendance and both teams are in desperate need of two points. The Penguins are coming off yet another loss to their Atlantic division rivals last night, and now must pick up points to keep pace with them, as the Devils have one more win and a game in hand on them. The Bruins are looking to continue to separate themselves from 9th place New York; they've still got a game in hand on them, and with a win here and some help from St. Louis they could open up a huge 5-point lead that would really start to put the nail in the coffin of the Blueshirts' playoff hopes.
Prediction: Penguins 4-1

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Phoenix Coyotes (43-22-5, 91 points, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West) at Florida Panthers (28-30-10, 66 points, 4th in Southeast, 13th in East)
7:30 PM EST/4:30 pm PST
The Coyotes have hit upon a winning formula in their 6-game winning streak: score a few early goals and then just hold on tight. It doesn't exactly make for much in the way of excitement, and there's few things less exciting than a Florida Panthers game in March anyway. With a ton of teams battling for playoff position on at the same time, there's really no good reason to watch this game.
Prediction: Coyotes 3-1

The Rest
Capitals @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: Carolina's miracle run back towards playoff contention has hit a bit of a snag of late, as they've dropped two in a row at the worst possible time. Their gap for 8th is back to double-digits, and their season is back to being on life support. A win at home over the Southeast division-leading Capitals is absolutely essential to keep their hopes alive, and you can say a lot of things about how they played against Boston in that loss but you can't say the effort wasn't there. Expect the effort to be there again tonight, and it should make for a pretty entertaining hockey game. The Ovechkin-less Capitals continue to show they're no longer a one-man team. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Blues @ Rangers, 7:00 pm EST: Now, while Carolina came out with a lot of effort in their loss to Boston, the Rangers, a team who is FAR closer to it than the Canes, inexplicably came out flat against the Habs on Tuesday. King Henrik played great, but he couldn't do it single-handidly, and the fact that they had just 10 shots through two periods is honestly astounding. They need to bounce back quickly at home against a middling Blues squad who is also desperate for points to keep their own, far more slim playoff hopes alive. If they find the effort they had against the Flyers on Sunday again tonight, this one could be worth tuning in for, but if they play like they did on Tuesday, take a pass on the Rangers' latest "must-win game". Prediction: Might Be Worth Your Time

Senators @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV on RDS, Canada & French only) The Sens continue to struggle, their latest loss in a 3-game losing streak coming on Tuesday to their southern Ontario rivals. It's not a good thing when the Toronto Marlies featuring special guest starts Phil Kessel & Dion Phaneuf are largely outplaying you en route to a 4-1 victory. They're heading into Atlanta to play another team that's been bad of late, and sometimes two bad teams produce a great game as both teams look at it as a perfect opportunity to turn things around. Other times, however, they both just kind of flail at each other. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Sabres @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: Tampa Bay has been playing better, which you wouldn't know since they've dropped 2 in a row at home, but they could have easily won those games against two very good teams in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. Unfortunately for the Lightning and their increasingly slim playoff hopes, tonight they invite another very good team, the Northeast-leading Buffalo Sabres, into the Forum. A win here would be a great way to turn things around, but a loss will shovel the last little bits of dirt onto their playoff hopes. Either way, with the desperation Tampa's been playing with of late, this should be a good game. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Devils @ Maple Leafs, 7:30 pm EST: The young and hungry Leafs are actually playing some pretty fun hockey of late, as they are in that part of the schedule where they have no pressure and are playing like it. They've played the Devils very well this season, winning 2 out of 3 and it easily could have been 3 had their goalie not collapsed in the 3rd period just before the Olympic break. The Devils are coming off a huge win over Atlantic rivals Pittsburgh last night, and this has all the makings of a classic letdown game. I'm gonna go with a middling answer for the verdict, as this game's worthiness honestly depends on whether or not the Devils decide to show up and if they have enough left in the tank after yet another hard-fought win over the Pens 24 hours ago. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Wild @ Predators, 8:00 pm EST: Two teams that are riding 3-game winning streaks meet up in Nashville. The Predators are slowly inching away from playoff bubble status, now 3 points up on 8th place Detroit & 4 points on 9th place Calgary. The Wild are still 6 points back of Detroit, and need to keep piling up those wins if they're going to get back in it. Neither of these teams are what you would call exciting, but this has the potential to be a better-than-average game just because of how hot both teams are right now. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Flyers @ Stars, 8:30 pm EST: Philadelphia begins life without Michael Leighton in Dallas tonight, as the Stars are coming off that epic 8-2 win over San Jose. Not much else to say about this one: the Stars need to keep picking up wins to keep their very faint playoff hopes alive, while the Flyers will be looking to get a good first start out of Brian Boucher to try and inspire some confidence in him from his teammates while Leighton is out with his high ankle sprain (a very tricky injury, especially for goaltenders). Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Alright folks, that'll do it for another look at the night's NHL action. Enjoy the games.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Versus returns to DirecTV; Today's Games to Watch 3/16

Alright folks, I know I missed a couple of days, and no it wasn't just out of the shame of being there in-person for my Blackhawks' 2.1 second collapse against the Flyers on Saturday. The Hawks weren't the only things collapsing on Saturday; the sky itself apparently decided to join them, as this entire region was just flooded nonstop with rain on Saturday & into early Sunday. So I ended up staying overnight in one of my least favorite places, putting the kibosh on any hopes of getting a blog up before the first NHL game at 12:30. As far as yesterday goes, did you really need me to tell you which of the THREE games to watch? Probably not. But we've got a full slate of 11 games to get into today, so here I am.

But before we get back into the swing of things, I wanted to talk a little bit about the return to DirecTV of the NHL's oft-maligned cable partner, Versus. As a DTV customer this kind of hits home, and obviously I'm thrilled the NHL playoffs will be on the satcaster. Before we put the kibosh on this story for good, let's take a look at a few of the details that came out in the network's return.

There should no longer be any debate on what the REAL cause for this outage was, thanks to some very telling quotes from both sides. From the beginning of this whole mess (way back in LATE AUGUST), we heard two different sides to this story. There was the Comcast/Versus side, which said that DirecTV wanted to put them on a lower programming tier (a sports-specific tier, apparently), and they would not accept losing a very large percentage of their viewership just when they were adding a ton of new properties. Meanwhile, the DirecTV side never said anything about a tier, they just said Comcast wanted more money and they were refusing to pay it.

Well, read the quotes from yesterday closely enough, and one thing stands out: Versus is not only back on DirecTV, but they're back on *the same tier they were on back before all this started*. The quotes go on to specifically state they will stay there from here on out. This not only means that Comcast's quotes were, at the very least, quite a bit less dishonest than DirecTV's, but it also means that there should be no question who blinked first and who, in the end, "won" this whole mess. Comcast said they were open to negotiations on money (and I imagine they did have to take a bit of a hit from what they were originally asking), but being placed on a lower tier was a non-starter and no deal would be done with that included. Not that I should have to reiterate it for you again, but that's exactly what happened.

DirecTV was facing mounting pressure from three different sides to get the network back; namely, the NHL fans we all know about have been increasingly pressuring the satcaster to get the network back on the air in time for the stretch run and the playoffs. It's worth noting that Versus has probably their strongest schedule I've ever seen from them for the rest of the regular season, including both of the remaining meetings in the NHL's most high-profile rivalry, the Capitals and the Penguins. A shocking amount of fans had already switched to their rival Dish Network in the past six months, thanks in part to a clever ad campaign that specifically pointed out Dish had Versus and DTV didn't, and you have to believe that number only would have jumped tenfold once the playoffs started and people were theoretically missing games not just twice a week, but every single night! It's also worth noting that several articles I've seen have mentioned that the pressure on DirecTV from hockey fans went up significantly after the Olympics, saying that hockey's "increased visibility" from the Games greatly helped Versus & the NHL put more pressure on the satcaster.

Besides that increased pressure from hockey fans, DirecTV was also under pressure from fans of mixed marital-arts, as the juggernaut UFC promotion has its first-ever event on Versus scheduled for this weekend. Finally, cycling fans have apparently been making some noise to DirecTV as well, as Lance Armstrong will be back in the Tour de France this year, which airs exclusively on, you guessed it, Versus. So facing all of this mounting pressure from all sides, DirecTV finally gave in and dropped their ridiculous demand, and what do you know, a deal got done almost immediately.

Hopefully they learned something from this whole sideshow mess: if you're going to promote your satellite service as having "the most sports coverage", you can't just ignore several sports because you don't think they're important. Yes, Versus is nowhere near as important as ESPN, everyone is aware of this. But when one of your sources of subscriptions is having one of the best all-around NHL Center Ice packages out there, you can't simultaneously thumb your noses at hockey fans and tell them their sport doesn't count. They lost a ton of this money through this whole process from irate hockey fans calling up, complaining, and getting 25, 50, and yes, even 100% refunds off their Center Ice packages, and they lost even more money from fans who finally just gave up on the service altogether. This all could have ended when the regular season started in October if they had just dropped their silly demand and put Versus back on the air, and hopefully the people in charge can look in the mirror and realize they just wasted seven months and a lot of profits and, in the end, had to give up on their demand altogether anyway. They lost, Versus won, end of story.


Okay, with that bit of business out of the way, let's get back to the hockey. As always, here's the awards I'll be giving out to tonight's games:

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Tuesday, March 16th
An 11-game schedule provides some excitement, but there's really no genuine best-on-best match-ups to really get our hearts pumping.

Marquee Match-Up: Montreal Canadiens (35-29-6, 76 points, 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East) at New York Rangers (31-29-9, 71 points, 4th in Atlantic, 9th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
National TV: Versus (US) & RDS (Canada, french only)
Two original six teams step into the spotlight on Versus (hey, a tie-in to the rest of the blog, yay!), as the Habs make a rare national TV appearance in the US as they visit the suddenly revitalized Rangers. The Rangers are sitting 1 point back of the struggling Bruins (who are in Carolina tonight), but the Bruins will still have a game in hand after tonight's games, making a win here for the Blueshirts even more important. Meanwhile, the Habs have been playing great hockey as of late, and they'll be riding a 5-game winning streak into the Garden. They couldn't have picked a better time to get hot, as they've still played more games than anyone else in the East (including the Rangers), so even though they're coming closer to locking up a playoff spot with each win of this streak, nothing's guaranteed just yet. If both these teams play as well as they've been playing of late, this should be nothing short of a great match-up, well worthy of marquee status. And hey, DirecTV customers, you can actually watch it! How about that?
Prediction: Rangers 4-3 (SO)

Runner-Up: Toronto Maple Leafs (23-34-12, 58 points, 5th in Northeast, 15th in East) at Ottawa Senators (37-27-5, 79 points, 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
Though it's hard to pick the Maple Leafs for runners-up in anything other than "biggest failures" (and actually, that might offend Oilers fans since they, unlike Toronto, at least still have their 1st round pick), on a relatively weak night in marquee-quality match-ups, I have to give the nod to the Battle of Ontario. Here's something that might surprise you: that same Senators team that went on their club-record-setting 11-game win streak just a few short months ago has the exact same record as their southern Ontario counterparts in their last 10 games: 4-5-1. For the Leafs, that's a reflection of stronger play of late as some of the kids have stepped into the line-up and looked promising. For the Sens, on the other hand, that's a reflection of how they've suddenly run out of goals, and they've gone from having a slight lead over Buffalo in the Northeast to starting to fade fast in that particular race. You have to believe the Leafs would love nothing more than to beat their Ontario rivals and help continue that slide out of contention for home-ice advantage, in their own barn no less. This game could provide some excitement as a result.
Prediction: Sens 4-2

Under the Radar: Philadelphia Flyers (36-28-4, 76 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 6th in East) at Nashville Predators (38-26-5, 81 points, 2nd in Central, 7th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
This may be hard to believe when we're talking about an 11-game schedule for a league where MORE THAN HALF of the teams make the playoffs, but this is the only game of the night where both teams are in playoff position going into the game. So even though a game that reads "Flyers @ Predators" probably doesn't jump off the page at you, in actuality this is probably the night's best match-up, at least as far as the quality of the two teams goes. Both teams are also playing relatively well of late: the Flyers are 7-3-0 in their last 10 and the Preds are 6-4-0, with both teams coming off huge late victories over good opponents (the Flyers with the aforementioned 2.1 second shocker over the Hawks, while the Preds scored with about a minute-and-a-half to play to continue their mastery over the Kings). This should be a good, tight-checking, low-scoring battle between two teams who know how to play defense. As Mike Babcock said last night after the Wings-Flames game, even though people like to say "such and such game had a playoff feel", it's still not the playoffs. But this is probably as close as you're going to get tonight.
Prediction: Preds 3-2 (SO)

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Edmonton Oilers (21-41-7, 49 points, 5th in Northwest, 15th in West) at Minnesota Wild (33-29-6, 72 points, 4th in Northwest, 11th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
I'm sure there will be some smart-aleck who will read this and think to themselves "But John, at least this is a divisional rivalry! What about, say, the Avs and the Blues?". And to you, imaginary person, I say, hogwash! How much of a divisional rivalry can it really be when one team is 20 GAMES BELOW .500 and it's a battle of 4th and 5th in the division? Please. At least the Avs and the Blues are both above .500. Hell, one of those teams is even in the playoffs! Don't get me wrong, I'm not gonna tell you to watch that game either, but as far as games on tonight's schedule that are completely useless, I still give the edge to this one. Then again, given how the past few games I've given this award to have turned out (Sharks-Panthers was a 3-2 overtime thriller win for Florida, the Wild upset the Sabres 3-2 as well), I'm sure this game will turn out to be exciting, just so I can be wrong again.
Prediction: Wild 4-1

The Rest
Bruins @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: The Bruins are bad, but it's not for a lack of effort. They play hard and they usually play physical, but they just don't have the goal-scoring on most nights to get things done, especially now with Marc Savard out. It's hard to believe considering they're still holding onto a playoff spot in the East by the skin of their teeth, but the Bruins are 30th in goals for per game. Yes, out of 30. Meanwhile, Carolina's still got their sights set on a miracle comeback, 8 points back of the Bruins going into tonight, so obviously a win here would be huge. 4 point game, might just make it exciting. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Sabres @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: The Thrashers' playoff hopes are fading fast with each heartbreaking loss, and they suffered yet another one to the Coyotes in a shootout. How many home games can Atlanta squander before they're officially out of it? Tonight they've got Eastern heavyweights Buffalo in, and this will either be a slaughter for the Sabres, or a very competitive, up-tempo game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Coyotes @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: I heard one of Tampa's beat writers say he thinks the Lightning played their two best games of the season over the weekend; unfortunately for Tampa, that was still only good enough for a 1-1-0 record, thanks to a heartbreaking late goal given up against the Penguins. They won't have much time to dwell on that as they'll welcome the streaking Coyotes into the Forum. I'm expecting a physical, competitive game, as it's do-or-die time for Tampa. Of all the "rest" games, this is easily your best bet. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Capitals @ Panthers, 7:30 pm EST: Fortunately for the Panthers, Ovechkin got suspended two games for his hit on Brian Campbell. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Capitals have a great record without Ovie in the line-up this season, as this isn't 2007 anymore and they're much more than a one man show. The last time these two teams played in Florida, it was a super-exciting, high-scoring comeback win for the Caps; then again, the last time the Caps played in Florida, the Panthers were still a playoff contender. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Avalanche @ Blues, 8:00 pm EST: Hey, so, remember when I said that this game wasn't quite bad enough to win tonight's Ice Dancing award? That should in no way be construed as telling you to watch it. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Sharks @ Stars, 8:30 pm EST: Remember when Dallas was sitting in 10th for the longest time and kept flirting with the idea of being an actual, honest-to-goodness playoff contender? Well, they're sitting in 12th now, 9 points back of 8th place Detroit. So much for that. Oh yeah, this game will probably suck, too. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Islanders @ Canucks, 10:00 pm EST: I've been getting a lot of crap from a very good friend of mine who happens to be an Isles fan about how often I tell people not to watch Islanders games. To be fair to the Isles, they've won 2 in a row and they've been better of late. But beating a Devils team that's actually not playing Marty and beating the Toronto Maple Leafs are two totally different things from beating one of the NHL's best in the Vancouver Canucks. With all that said, since it's the only late game tonight anyway, I'm gonna give the Isles the benefit of the doubt and say this MIGHT actually be competitive, if only because the Canucks are due for a let-down game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Alright folks, that's it from me. As always, enjoy the hockey!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today's Games to Watch 3/13

Yes, it's another supremely early edition of Today's Games to Watch, as yours truly will be making his way to the City of Brotherly Love to watch his Blackhawks takes on the Flyers, live and in-person. But don't worry, I always think of you guys, so before bed to make it up in time for a (relatively long) drive to Philly, let's talk...

About Last Night...

Devils 3-Penguins 1
(My Prediction: Devils 4-2)
Oh yeah, another really close one! Not that picking the Devils to beat the Penguins this season is really a tough pick....that's their fifth straight win over their Atlantic Division rivals, and they will play one more game next week, still in New Jersey. With the victory the Devils move within 2 points of the Penguins, still with 2 games in hand, so I'd be sweating a little bit if I was a Penguins fan. Especially now that Ilya Kovalchuk finally exploded for 3 points against the Pens- if that's a sign of things to come down the stretch for Kovy, the Devils should be looking at not just back-to-back Atlantic titles, but possibly doing some actual damage in the playoffs for the first time since the lockout (they've only been past the first-round once, and never past the second).

Predators 1-Ducks 0
(My Prediction: Ducks 4-1)
Well folks, that's officially the last time I'll make the mistake of expecting the Anaheim Ducks to show up for a hockey game. Just like they've been doing in EVERY GAME since the Olympic break ended, the Ducks showed up for about 10 minutes in the 3rd period, and it was too little, too late against a very, very good defensive-minded Nashville team. This is a Preds team that's very proud of their defense, and you could tell they came out looking to make a statement after being embarrassed giving up 6 goals to San Jose in the 3rd period the night before. The Ducks would have required someone in the rafters with an automatic rifle pointed at the Preds' defensemen in order to get anywhere near a rebound, and as a result their season is pretty much over.

Kings 2-Stars 1 (SO)
(My Prediction: Kings 4-1)
How's this for a random stat: AHL standout Jonathan Bernier (he of the 2.09 GAA and .939 save %) was 0-5 in shootouts this season. In his very first NHL start, he not only won a shootout, but was perfect in stopping all six Dallas shooters he faced before Jarrett Stoll finally finished for another LA win. And stop and look at who showed up in this game for the Kings: Bernier, AHL call-up replacing the Kings' record-setting starting netminder who went home in preparation for his wife giving birth. Stoll, second-line center who's played as low as third-line for this incredibly balanced team, wins it in the shootout. Freddy Modin, who scored his third goal in four games as King (after scoring just 2 in 24 games as a Blue Jacket). That goal was assisted by captain Dustin Brown and reinvigorated sniper Alexander Frolov. Guess who I didn't mention, at all? You guessed it, the ENTIRE TOP LINE, the reunited Smyth-Kopitar-Williams line who looked like they were still getting used to getting back to playing together again. How many NHL teams can win, consistently mind you (Williams & Smyth were injured throughout the season and Kopitar went through a LONG scoring drought), when their top line isn't producing? That's why this Kings team is so good and so exciting to watch: they are deep at almost every position, and poised to be a powerhouse for years to come. But I digress.

Wild 3-Sabres 2
(My Prediction: Sabres 3-0)
Hey, I'm happy to be wrong about a team I thought was left for dead, so good on the Wild to bounce back from their embarassment in Motown and pick up a huge win, on the road, over an Eastern Conference power. The more teams who manage to stay in it, even by the slimmest of margins, the more exciting that makes the stretch run. So I'm happy for the Wild and their fans.

Okay folks, you know the drill by now: here's the awards we'll be handing out for tonight's night (err...and day) of hockey action.

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Saturday March 13th
Not much compared to a normal Saturday, just 9 games and not a ton of big-time match-ups either, but that's what you have to expect now that the NHL actually has games on Sunday, too.

Marquee Match-Up: Boston Bruins (30-24-12, 72 points, 4th in Northeast, 8th in East) at Montreal Canadiens (34-29-6, 74 points, 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
National TV: CBC (Canada) & NHL Network (US)
This has all the makings of marquee: first of all, it's the Bruins and the Habs, hockey's oldest and arguably greatest rivalry. Second of all, it's Hockey Night in Canada. Finally, it's a battle of two teams sitting in 7th and 8th and seperated by just two points. While the teams sitting below them will just be praying that this one doesn't go past regulation, you have to expect both these rivals to come out looking to put a wrench in each other's playoff hopes. Both teams are aware of how many games they've played- namely, the fact that the Bruins have THREE games in hand on the Habs. This is a huge chance for the Bruins to really make the Habs sweat and sit them right off on the edge of that playoff bubble, or it's a chance for the Habs to keep moving up in the standings. Either way, something big will happen in the East playoff race, you can be sure of that.
Prediction: Habs 3-1

Runner-Up: Chicago Blackhawks (44-17-5, 93 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in West) at Philadelphia Flyers (35-27-4, 74 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 6th in East)
1:00 pm EST/11:00 am PST
I'm not picking this one just because I'm going to it: this is a game between two teams who many, many people had picked to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals before this season started. Of course, the Flyers haven't quite played up to those lofty standards for the better part of the season, but they've still shown flashes of it at times. Meanwhile, both these teams have the common fear of their goaltending not quite being good enough to make it to a Cup final. Chicago will be looking to pick up points here on the first night of a back-to-back, with a much harder game coming tomorrow at 12:30 in Washington (probably the greatest pick for an NBC game of the week I've seen all year, but that's for tomorrow's blog). Philly, meanwhile, needs to bounce back from getting embarrass at home by the Bruins 5-1, and for the most part they've been a very resilient team this season. Look for this one to get physical and go down to the wire.
Prediction: Blackhawks 5-4 (SO)

Under the Radar: Ottawa Senators (37-26-5, 79 points, 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East) at Vancouver Canucks (41-23-3, 85 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
National TV: CBC (Canada)
A meeting between the suddenly goal-starved Senators and the high-powered Canucks probably has the look and feel of a blowout at first glance, and it probably will be, but you should still watch this game. Why? Because it's the Canucks' triumphant return to Vancouver after putting up a very, very good 8-5-1 record throughout their 14-game road trip, the longest road trip in NHL history. This is a city that was already energized from the Olympics, and now they're welcoming back their Canucks as Northwest division-conquering heroes. The crowd reactions alone should be able to bring chills up and down your spine. The game, quite frankly, is secondary at best.
Prediction: Canucks 5-1

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Florida Panthers (27-29-10, 64 points, 4th in Southeast, 13th in East) at San Jose Sharks (43-14-9, 95 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West)
4:00 pm EST/1:00 pm PST
Woof. There's quite a few clunkers on today's schedule, but this is by FAR the clunkiest of them all. What else can you say about the Panthers that hasn't been said already? They're the only team in the NHL whose ownership actually came out and told their fanbase that they're giving up on the season (seriously, and not even the Oilers did that). If you asked your buddy to name all 30 NHL teams, this is the team they're most likely to forget, even above such luminaries as the Ohio Something-Jackets, the Other New York Team, and That Team That Traded Kovalchuk to New Jersey. So yeah, those guys are IN SAN JOSE to face the Western Conference's best team. If you needed me to tell you this game will probably be worthless, I'm not sure how you found your way to a computer to read this blog to begin with.
Prediction: Sharks 5-0

The Rest
Sabres @ Red Wings, 7:00 pm EST: While it's nice that the Red Wings are healthy again, they haven't exactly been the model of consistency of late: they've only won 2 in a row once since the Olympics, as they've gone win-loss-win-loss otherwise. If they really want to not just catch the Flames & Predators, but perhaps put them in the rear-view mirror permanently and take hold of a playoff spot for themselves like everyone expects them to, they have to start beating the good teams consistently. Beating the Minnesota Wilds of the world is fine, but now if they can come out at home and beat a very good Buffalo team, it will send a message that they are finally back. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Coyotes @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: The downsides to this game are that it's intra-conference and Phoenix can play a pretty boring style at times. But the upside is that both of these teams will be pretty desperate for points for entirely different reasons: the 'Yotes are expecting to win against the 14th-place Canes as they try to keep pace with Los Angeles in the (increasingly insane) race for 4th in the Western Conference. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are coming off another huge win over the defending Cup champion Penguins and are looking to continue their magical run back towards the playoffs. If the Canes are gonna have a shot in hell, they can't afford to drop points on home ice. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Devils @ Islanders, 7:00 pm EST: Yeah, okay, I have nothing funny or witty to say about this game. You got me. It's the Devils and the Isles, it's a really good team against a really bad team, film at 11, just don't watch the game. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Oilers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV on CBC, Canada only) Normally a nice pointless battle between two teams that are out of it is automatic don't-watch material, but this game actually might be kind of interesting. I know, I'm going against pretty much everything I've ever said on this blog, but hear me out: since the trade-deadline moved out a few older bodies, both the Oilers & the Leafs have been playing pretty good hockey. It's normal this time of year for teams that are out of it to start playing better: they have nothing to play for, and with the trade deadline over they don't have to worry about who's getting moved and can just focus on showing up to the rink. So this game could either be a boring one between two teams that don't matter and play like it, or an exciting clash between two young teams who are loose as all hell. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Blues @ Blue Jackets, 7:00 pm EST: It's very bad when hockey games remind me of 2000 WCW wrestling angles, but the first thing I think of when I see this game is the "feud" between Booker T and the former Ahmed Johnson (now "Big T") with the winner getting the RIGHTS TO THE LETTER T~! Yes, this actually happened, and poor Booker T lost and was called just plain 'ol "Booker" for months as a result before it was mercifully forgotten. So here's my pitch: the winner of this game gets the RIGHT TO USE THE WORD BLUE for the rest of the season! Imagine, the Columbus Jackets entering battle without their prized color in their name! Are YOU ready for a world where the Jackets can no longer properly express the majesty and reverence of Columbus hockey, circa....uh....2000? Or, on the flipside, having no other word in their name to fall back on, the world is suddenly treated to the St. Louis Oranges, completely with half-peeled fruit for a logo. Okay, really dumb idea that I spent way too much time talking about, but it hopefully distracted you from the fact that I, like every single other person on the planet earth, have nothing to say about this game. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time...unless they take my idea, then MUST-SEE TV~!!!

And that's it folks. I'll be back as always, unless of course you hear about an unfortunate Blackhawks fan strangled with their own jersey and left for dead in the middle of Philly, in which case it was a pleasure to serve you all! See you around!