Saturday, January 24, 2009

San Jose Officially NHL's Team to Beat

With the 2008-09 NHL season entering the All Star break, this is a perfect time to analyze what we have seen so far as well as what we can expect in the remaining 11 weeks. We have seen enough to know the quality of each team, even as far as getting an idea of whether teams might be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

So let's get right to it; the top ten teams are listed in order of how I believe they will finish the season in the standings:

1. The Boston Bruins have shown enough to make me believe they can hold on to the substantial lead they have over other Eastern Conference teams and will finish with the best record in the league because they have an easier road than the Sharks or the Red Wings, including a home game against the former in February and a win against the latter already. They lead the league in goals for and goals against, and are eighth in penalty kill and third in power play.
2. The San Jose Sharks are the best team in the league right now. They have proven themselves with an almost invincible home record and are a full game ahead of the Boston Bruins (equal points, two games fewer played). They have survived significant injuries to such key players as Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo, Rob Blake, Torrey Mitchell (out the entire season so far), Mike Grier, and Jeremy Roenick. They are in the top five in shots on goal and shots against, in goals scored and goals against, and in power play and penalty kill.
3. The Detroit Red Wings are still an elite team, with the league's best power play and offence and the experience and savvy to make things happen—they are definitely clutch. However, they have horrible defence. Only 11 teams give up more goals per game and only 10 have penalty kills ranked lower than Detroit's. This is primarily because of goaltending, as the Red Wings give up the third fewest shots in the league. As we all know, goaltending is the most important position in all of sports, and especially critical in the playoffs.
4. The Washington Capitals will finish with the fourth-best record in the league for a few reasons. First, they survived a plethora of injuries earlier in the season and fought through it. Second, they are in the weakest division in the league, possibly in the history of the league. Third, they have possibly the greatest player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, a player that is not just among the most skilled in the league but has the physicality to play on a checking line.
5. The New Jersey Devils have the league's fifth best point percentage despite playing in a competitive division without one of the five best goalies of all time. Martin Brodeur will be back before the end of the season, and this time will have an offence that is tied for eighth in the league in front of him. They have the savvy and experience to win when they have to.
6. The Calgary Flames have been struggling on defence, with only six teams giving up more goals per game than the Flames. But they have found their offence, ranking sixth in the league in that category, and they have one of the league's best goaltenders and blue lines, so I expect them to turn it around defensively.
7. The Chicago Blackhawks are among the league leaders in points despite a 0-2-0-2 record against the Red Wings, who they do not play again until a home-and-home series in the last two games of the season. By then, the games may mean less to Detroit than Chicago. With two of the other teams in the division being weak, they should be able to have the best record of the non-division winners. They have the fourth-best offence and fourth-best defence, and in the top ten in both power play and penalty kill.
8. Les Habitants de Montreal are doing well despite their typically vaunted power play sputtering—they are currently ranked 24th in that category. Despite this they are tied with New Jersey for the eighth in offence, and they are in ninth in both goals against and penalty kill. Expect their power play to turn around and for them to feast on their mediocre division.
9. The New York Rangers have only spent most of the season in "first place" in the Atlantic because they have played more games than anyone else. They were off to a hot start in October, but their point percentage has been lower than New Jersey and Philadelphia since about Thanksgiving. They have the goaltending and, on paper at least, the forwards and blue line to be an elite team, but they have actually given up more goals that they have scored andseem to often play for the shootout; that will not be a strategy they can employ in the post-season.
10. The Philadelphia Flyers can score with almost anyone and have similar clutch capabilities to the Red Wings, but their defence and goaltending are also similarily suspect, and I do not believe they will be able to win this division with that weakness.

Best of the rest: I expect the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks to see their positions rise in the remainder of the season. When Pittsburgh gets Sergei Gonchar back, he will be the catalyst for the power play the team needs. Now that Roberto Luongo has returned and Mats Sundin is rounding into form, Vancouver is a dangerous team.

Other playoff teams: Western Conference teams will see great defensive teams in the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets join a young but fundamentally sound Phoenix Coyotes team squeak in, leaving behind the resurging Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and fading Anaheim Ducks. In the East, the Florida Panthers will ride their weak division schedule into the post-season just as I predicted (and was derided for) before the season, with the Buffalo Sabres being the the odd-team out.

Playoff results by round, Western Conference:

1. Sharks over Blue Jackets in six—Columbus plays the Sharks tough and will be able to slow the game down, with rookie standout goalie Steve Mason making scoring tough. Red Wings over Wild in six—I see a clash of styles with much the same results as above. Flames over Coyotes in five—Phoenix just does not have enough depth of talent to win this series. Canucks over Blackhawks in six—Chicago relies too much on overtime losses for their points and does not have the playoff experience Vancouver does.
2. Sharks over Canucks in six—San Jose has dominated Vancouver and is simply too deep. Red Wings over Flames in seven—Calgary is physical and well-rounded, but their propensity to take penalties will be their undoing against this power play.
3. Sharks over Red Wings in seven—I firmly believe that whichever team wins home ice for this round wins it, and with a three game lead and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Lidstrom being suspended for the first game after the All Star break, San Jose will hold off the Wings despite a slightly tougher schedule the rest of the way. By avoiding the tougher and more physical opponent in Calgary as well as one less trip over three time zones, San Jose edges out the defending champions.

Playoff results by round, Eastern Conference:

1. Bruins over Panthers in five—Florida's goaltending will get them one win, but they do not score enough to be a serious threat in this series. Penguins over Capitals in seven—I am doing a rare thing here for me by picking a road team in game seven, but I think Pittsburgh is deeper and more experienced than Washington and that will carry them. Devils over Flyers in six—New Jersey is the better all-around team, especially with Brodeur back in net. Rangers over Canadiens in seven—I trust Henrik Lundqvist more than Carey Price in that pressure cooker, so I am picking another road team in a game seven.
2. Penguins over Bruins in six—Boston will be in uncharted territory, and I do not think they are ready. They have only one third period comeback on the entire season, and that does not indicate a team resilient enough to overcome the adversity they are likely to face. Devils over Rangers in six—New Jersey has never had a rested Brodeur in the playoffs, and will be hard to beat with that plus an offence.
3. Devils over Penguins in seven—Pittsburgh avoids the pitfall of the West by playing two of its three series against teams in their back yard, but they will still have to travel more than New Jersey. The Devils are the only team in the East with more late-round experience, they have better goaltending, and they have home ice; this is too much for Pittsburgh to overcome.

In the finals, the one less cross-country flight because of owning home ice will not even compensate for San Jose's much more demanding playoff itinerary. However, New Jersey does not have the depth of talent on the blue line or even among their forwards that San Jose does, and if the Sharks get this far, they will have the confidence of having slain the dragon in Detroit—there will no longer be the worry of choking. Brodeur is a better goalie and will be less weary, but it is not enough; Sharks in seven.

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