Thursday, April 29, 2010

Conference Semifinals Preview and Predictions

By Eric Bancker

Well the first round of the 2010 NHL playoffs is over and now we move on to the semifinals but before we do that lets see how we got here.

#1 Washington vs #8 Montreal: Montreal wins series 4-3
How did this happen? The Capitals came into this series heavily favored, some even picked them to sweep the Montreal Canadiens. But Jaroslav Halak had other ideas as he had a brick wall behind him in the last three games of the series and sent the President's Trophy winning Capitals home. He also helped prove that winning the President's Trophy doesn't mean anything, just ask the San Jose Sharks.

This is without a doubt one of the biggest first round upsets in NHL history. Just a fun fact about the team that wins the President's trophy, since 1986 only 7 of the 25 teams who won it went on to win the cup, that's a measly 28%.

#2 New Jersey vs #7 Philadelphia: Philadelphia wins series 4-1
This wasn't a surprise to me. Every year the Devils are a top seed in the East and every year Martin Brodeur falls apart and everyone goes "Wow, I can’t believe Brodeur played so horribly" Well as the future hall of famer gets older his workload during the season doesn't seem to be getting any lighter. Marty plays almost 80 games a year...and people wonder why he is tired in the playoffs. The real surprise was the fact that he was out dueled by Brian Boucher.

#3 Buffalo vs #6 Boston: Boston wins series 4-2
The Sabres really set themselves up for failure in this series with their inability to hold a lead. Thomas Vanek being hurt and out of the lineup didn't help matters either. Tuukka Rask played really well for the Bruins and so did Mark Recchi who captured people by surprise and had five points in the six games.

#4 Pittsburgh vs #5 Ottawa: Pittsburgh wins series 4-2
Sidney Crosby was able to carry the Penguins on his back to help them advance to the second round of the playoffs with 14 points in the six games. Ottawa got off to a good start by taking the first game of the series but the defending Stanley Cup champs didn't want to go down so easily.

They took the next three and had a stranglehold on the series but momentum started to shift. Ottawa won game five in triple overtime and went back home for game six and got a 3-0 lead. But Sid and the Pens overcame the deficit and Pascal Dupuis scored in overtime to capture the series for the Pens. But looking back, Ottawa was starting to take that series over. If they had held on in game six and pushed a game seven then the defending Stanley Cup champs might have been sitting at home right now.

#1 San Jose vs #8 Colorado: San Jose wins series 4-2
This series had to be one of the most strange series in recent memory. Colorado looked poised to try to knock the San Jose Sharks out of the playoffs but they fell short of that goal. San Jose was able to beat the 8th seed, something they couldn't do last year. Maybe they should get a cookie for their good efforts.
Craig Anderson was amazing for the Avs and he kept them in the series. He faced 245 shots in six games, that's an astonishing 40 shots a game. Yet his save percentage was still .933. The Sharks threw everything except the kitchen sink at Anderson and they had a very hard time solving him. Hell, I think when Dan Boyle put that puck in his own net he was sort of relieved that his team didn't have to face Anderson anymore that night. Ok, maybe he wasn't relieved but still Anderson gave the Avs a chance.

#2 Chicago vs #7 Nashville- Chicago wins series 4-2
This was another series that was just down right odd. The Predators put up a good fight and really put Chicago to the test but Antti Niemi proved to be too much of a challenge for the Preds as he had shutouts in games two and four. Game six was the most exciting game of this series. Seven goals were scored in the first period and you thought by the end of the game maybe 20 goals would be up on the board but no. No other goals were scored until 19:52 of the third period when John Madden (No not the football guy) scored an empty net goal to seal the win for the Blackhawks.

#3 Vancouver vs #6 Los Angeles- Vancouver wins series 4-2
This series was nasty and it was just what you wanted to see as a fan. Tons of hits being thrown around and among all the rough stuff a lot of goals were being scored. Surprisingly Mikael Samuelsson was the main source of goal scoring for the Canucks as he had seven goals in the six games. In Samuelsson's playoff career which has seen 69 games he only had 13 goals. So for him to step up and score like that when no one expected him to was a nice lift for the Canucks.

#4 Phoenix vs #5 Detroit- Detroit wins series 4-3
Every series in the Western Conference was exciting and this one may have been the most exciting. Phoenix was a team no one expected to be here, they have gone from the cellar in the Western Conference to a Stanley Cup contender. I didn't think the inexperienced Coyotes would have been able to take the Red Wings to seven games. The Wings have been to the Cup Finals the last two years and they ooze experience. Give the Coyotes a ton of credit as they went out and played hard and proved to the entire NHL that they are for real.

Well now that we took a nice trip down memory lane of the first round, lets move on to the last eight teams that are fighting for the Stanley Cup.

#1 San Jose vs #5 Detroit- prediction- San Jose wins in 5
This series is going to be downright nasty. These two teams always put a good show on every time they play each other and I wouldn't expect any less from this playoff series. Even though Detroit was able to go 3-0-1 in the season series, I expect the Sharks to finally get the monkey off of their back and push toward the Stanley Cup

Impact Player(s) for the Sharks: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley. These guys did not show up in the first round, the threesome that had over 100 goals this season combined only mustered one goal against the Avs in round one, Joe Thornton being the biggest problem of the three.

Thornton has now played in 82 playoff games, which is just as many games that are played in the regular season. In those 82 games Thornton has only 56 points, which only 12 are goals. In the last four seasons Thornton has played 82 games in each one except for this season where he played 79. His point totals in those four seasons are as such 114, 96, 86, and 89. Thornton has proved throughout his career that he is not a good playoff player but if the Sharks stand any chance of making a run at the Stanley Cup then he is going to need to wake up.

Impact Player for the Red Wings: Jimmy Howard. Howard has played great all year and he played solid in the Red Wings series against the Coyotes. This is going to be Howard's first real test. The Sharks, although they haven't gotten deep into the playoffs, have a ton of experience and they will look to pick the young netminder apart.

#2 Chicago vs #3 Vancouver- prediction- Chicago wins in 7
This series is just going to be fun to watch. It’s a rematch of last years Western Conference Semifinals where the Chicago Blackhawks were able to defeat the Canucks in six games. These two teams hate each other and Vancouver is looking to take revenge on the Blackhawks and send them home. You want old school, dirty, nasty hockey? Well you got it with this series.

Impact player for the Blackhawks: Antti Niemi. The young goalie will be facing a much tougher offense opponent in the Vancouver Canucks. Not to knock the Predators but they can’t match the offense that Vancouver has. Look for them to get in his face and screen him. If he can withstand the onslaught then the Blackhawks will have a good chance of moving on to the Conference Finals.

Impact player(s) for the Canucks: Roberto Luongo and the penalty kill. Roberto Luongo was kind of beat up by the young L.A Kings and he now moves on to a much more experienced and powerful team in the Chicago Blackhawks. Luongo will need to be in regular season form to slow down the Blackhawks offense. The Canucks surrendered 10 power-play goals in six games against the Kings...yikes. The penalty kill will need to be much better in this series otherwise the Blackhawks will send them home early

#4 Pittsburgh vs #8 Montreal- Pittsburgh wins in 6
Montreal shocked the hockey world last night when they defeated the Washington Capitals in game 7. Jaroslav Halak stepped his game up big time and solved the Canadiens goaltending problem. The only problem for the Habs is the fact that they were outplayed heavily by the Caps. The Capitals had all the chances, they out shot Montreal 292-194, that's a 98 shot differential. Not to mention all the blocked shots that Montreal had, so that number could have been much higher. Expect the Penguins to put up the same amount of shots as Washington did as Pittsburgh has one of the most lethal offenses in the NHL.

Impact player for the Habs- Jaroslav Halak. Without a doubt Halak is the foundation for Montreal. He is going to be forced to stand on his head once again to give the Habs chance to beat the Pens. Halak was amazing in the first round, can he do it again?

Impact player for the Penguins- Marc-Andre Fleury. Fluery is one of the most overrated goaltenders in the NHL. He didn't play well in the first round against Ottawa and he is going to need to be much better against the Habs. The only thing that may stop the Penguins from repeating as Stanley Cup champs is Marc-Andre Fleury.

#6 Boston vs #7 Philadelphia- prediction- Flyers win in 7
Two teams who struggled all season long, come into the playoffs and upset the #2 and #3 seeds will now face each other to see who gets into the Eastern Conference Finals. Does it really get any better then this? Philadelphia is going to come out and be aggressive like they always are. This is a tough team to face and they are going to take it hard to the Bruins. The glaring problem for the Flyers, other than Boucher, is the fact that they are without Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne.

Impact player for the Bruins- Marc Savard. Savard is one of the best playmakers in the NHL and he adds another dimension to their offense. With Savard back it gives the Bruins a real chance to win this series.

Impact player for the Flyers- Brian Boucher. Boucher is the most important player on the Flyers because he is going to have to play well to keep them going. Boucher is not a world class goalie and is best served to be a backup but the Flyers have had injuries at the goalie position and it is up to Boucher to lift this team up on his shoulders.

Well no matter what way these series go, one thing is certain and thats the fact that all of the games will be exciting and maybe we will see even more surprises this round then we did in the first round.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New York Rangers End of the Year Report and Offseason Plans

By Eric Bancker

The Rangers' season didn't end as they had hoped, as they missed the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

The Rangers played inconsistent hockey all season long, and that proved to be their downfall.

If it weren't for a seven-game win streak in the beginning of the season and a record of 7-1-2 in their final 10 games, the Rangers wouldn't have even come close to a playoff spot.

The Good

The Rangers were led by superstars Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik, who seemed to put this team on their shoulders.

Lundqvist once again proved why he deserves the title "The King" because Hank was phenomenal all season, especially down the stretch, when the Rangers needed him the most. Hank posted a record of 35-27-10 with a goals against average of 2.38 and a save percentage of .921 in 73 games this season. He was also named the team’s most valuable player for the fourth straight season.

Henrik's numbers don't exactly show how great he was all season. The defense in front of him was once again awful and left him to win games all by himself night in and night out.

Gaborik signed a five-year, $37 million contract with the Rangers last offseason, and he showed why he deserved that contract. Gaborik was the Rangers' only true offensive threat this season, collecting 42 goals and 44 assists. Gaborik tied his career high in goals and set a new career high for points (86)—not too bad for his first year on Broadway.

The sky is the limit for Gaborik so long as he stays healthy. Don’t be surprised if he scores 50 goals next season.

The emergence of young talent was a good sign for the Rangers' future. Players like Artem Anisimov, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan, and Brandon Dubinsky proved that the Rangers have a strong foundation, but they just need to find the right veteran players to complement their young talent.

The Bad

Where, oh where to start with this team?

Chris Drury was nothing short of awful this season. Drury only had 14 goals and 18 assists this season, his lowest totals since his rookie season with the Avalanche back in 1998-1999. Even that year he had 20 goals and 24 assists. Drury only had two power-play goals this season, whereas he had 22 power-play goals in his first two seasons with the Rangers.

Other than penalty killing, Drury wasn't a factor at all this season. But he cannot be totally to blame for this because Rangers coach John Tortorella kept him on the third and fourth lines all season. Drury didn't see much ice time, and his numbers prove that.

There was a rumor floating around that Drury might be retiring after this season, which would be a godsend for the fans of this team. He is making $7 million a year and is not proving to be worth the money, but I don't see him hanging his skates up just yet. He will most likely play out his contract and then retire. The only problem is that his contract expires at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden are without a doubt the two biggest underachievers on this team. The tandem consumes an amazing $11.5 million a season on the cap. For all you math geeks out there, that is roughly one-fifth of the Rangers' salary cap space.

They were supposed to add offense both on the power play and five-on-five play. But they only managed to combine for 37 points this season, which is just as many points as rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto had by himself. Oh, and Del Zotto only made $1million this season, $10.5 million less than Rozsy and Redden. Do I even have to say any more?

Looking ahead to this offseason

The Rangers have the 10th overall pick in this year's draft, and they need to expand on their already great young talent. Derek Forbort would be the ideal choice for them at the 10 spot. Forbort is a tough and physical defenseman. He is smart in his own end and is not afraid to throw his weight around. He would be perfect for the Rangers considering their only true shutdown defenseman is Marc Staal.

The Rangers also need to decide who they want to bring back out of their current group of free agents.

Vaclav Prospal was a great signing for the Rangers last offseason. Shortly after being released by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Prospal signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Rangers, and it proved to be one of the best signings of the offseason. Prospal chipped in 20 goals and had 58 points. He should be back in a Rangers uniform next season, as it seems Glen Sather would like to hold on to Prospal.

Erik Christensen was a great waiver pickup. In 49 games he had 26 points and played top-line minutes down the stretch. Christensen has never really reached his potential, but after coming to the Blueshirts it seems like he has reinvented himself. Expect him back in a Rangers uniform as well.

Olli Jokinen was acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames, and in 26 games he had 15 points. Jokinen seems to be exiting his prime and is no longer the No. 1 center that he used to be. If he does in fact come back, it will be for about $3-3.5 million, not the $5 million he makes now.

Dan Girardi is interesting because the Rangers could very easily part with the inconsistent defenseman and pursue other interests.

The same holds true for Enver Lisin. Lisin wasn't really a factor this season and was scratched throughout most of the second half of the season. Don't expect him to be back.

Marc Staal will without a doubt be back with the Rangers next season. His offense is starting to come around, and his defense gets better with each passing game. He is the Rangers' only shutdown defenseman and does a good job against the other team’s top players.

Brandon Prust and Jody Shelley should be brought back as well. These two led the charge down the stretch not only with their fists, but with their offense as well. These guys are two of the toughest and best fighters in the NHL and make the Rangers more intimidating to face.

Once the Rangers figure out who they are bringing back and who they are not bringing back, the focus will then switch to who they want to bring in to better this team via free agency. There are a few guys that the Rangers will have their eye on, but if Sather can’t work out another Scott Gomez-type trade, then there will be very little money for the Rangers to spend this offseason.

Ilya Kovalchuk is on top of their free agent list, as well as on the top of every other team's list. Kovalchuk is looking for a contract that will pay him $10 million a year, so if the Rangers don't move some other big salaries, then they won’t even have a chance to negotiate with the Russian superstar.

Patrick Marleau is another player the Rangers will have their eye on. Marleau is still a No. 1 center and would go very well with Marian Gaborik. The Rangers tried to acquire him a few years ago, but negotiations didn't go anywhere. Now that he is on the open market, expect the Rangers to make a strong push for him.

Anton Volchenkov is a dominant force on defense and someone the Rangers could really use to complement Marc Staal. "The A-Train" is not afraid to hit or throw his body in front of the puck. He leads the league in blocked shots almost every season.

No matter what route the Rangers decide to take this offseason, one thing remains certain and it’s that this team needs help, badly. The fans are starting to grumble, and when they start holding "Fire Sather" rallies outside of Madison Square Garden, you know all is not well on Broadway.

Sather needs to get to work this offseason and turn this team around because this is without a doubt the most important offseason of his tenure in New York.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Flyers Dominate to Eliminate Devils in 5 Games

By: Tim Brennan

Before the playoffs even started, the Flyers were fighting for their lives in the last stretch of the season just to secure a position and now they can say that they took down a playoff contender in the New Jersey Devils. Even though the Devils haven't won a playoff series in four years, New Jersey accrued 2 Stanley Cup championships and 6 Atlantic Division titles in the 10 years prior to this post season. The pressure was on the Devils this year to finally break the pattern and bowl over teams in the playoffs but not only did they succumb to the pressure, but were also outplayed by the Flyers the entire series.

The Flyers needed just one more win over the Devils in Game 5 of their quarterfinal series to accomplish what many felt wouldn't happen. There was plenty of doubt about both teams: whether Brian Boucher could really backstop the Flyers to any postseason victories since he wasn't the starter for the majority of the season and if the Flyers inconsistency would continue into the playoffs; and for the Devils could they break out of their current funk and get past the first round or fall again and if their acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk would pay off in getting over that hump to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Those questions were answered after Philadelphia defeated the Devils 3-0 in Game 5, giving New Jersey yet another first round exit and making the Flyers the first team to move on to the next round.

The Flyers were going to be without forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne due to right foot fractures that required surgery so head coach Peter Laviolette put Ville Leino and David Laliberte in the lineup to replace them. But it wasn't just this that helped propel the team to victory. Laviolette decided to use Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and Laliberte on a rotation for the vacant spot on Mike Richards line, forcing the Devils to be sharp and aware of which player was going to be heading out onto the ice with the top line. The extended ice time for Giroux and Briere was successful for the Flyers as the two combined to score all 3 of the Flyers goals.

The animosity kicked up in this game as well, leading to 11 penalties for the Flyers to the Devils 9. With numbers like that, the game is dependent on special teams to get the edge. The Flyers cashed in twice on the powerplay, with Danny Briere's back handed tally in the first and Giroux slamming home a rebound in the second on a double minor. Giroux also tallied midway through the second with a slapshot over Martin Brodeur's right shoulder. There is a strong case that can be made for Claude Giroux as the best player for the Flyers in round 1 as the 22nd pick in 2006 delivered 6 points in 5 games after struggling down the stretch during the season. The combination of precision passing, dazzling moves and physicality make Giroux a complete player and a huge asset for the Flyers now and in the future.

The Flyers other valuable player in this series was goaltender Brian Boucher, who stopped 28 shots to shutout the Devils in the victory clinching game. The great thing about all of this is that Boucher was signed to backup Ray Emery this season and struggled when he played, leading to the Flyers acquiring Michael Leighton via re-entry waivers and leaning on him until an injury struck and the Flyers season dependent on the one guy that many had counted out as being past his prime (I know I did). Boucher proved everyone wrong when he came up with a few strong wins at the end of the season and propelled Philadelphia into the postseason. The defense in front of him has been excellent, blocking a total of 85 shots in the series, so Boucher doesn't need to carry the team on his back. What made Boucher such a strong contributor to the team's success is when the pressure mounted on, Boucher came up big and produced some stellar saves. In other words, Boucher hasn't needed to play like a superstar goaltender, just good enough to give the Flyers stability on the back-end but he has played better than most thought he would.

The unsung hero for the Flyers throughout the series was rugged forward Ian Laperriere. If he isn't nominated for the Selke then there must be something wrong with the selection process. Laperriere lays everything on the line whenever he is on the ice, from fighting to defend teammates or rile up the team to setting the pace with hits to laying down and blocking shots. Not only does he provide a huge physical presence to the team, but he also chips in offensively, brings leadership and is one of the best penalty killers in the league. That's why Flyers fans were horrified when Laperriere went down to block a Paul Martin slapshot on the penalty kill and took the puck off the face, cutting him over the right eye. Laperriere received 70+ stitches to close the wound and in a post game interview stated that from now on he will wear a shield. This is the second time this season that Laperriere took a puck off the face, the first incident happening against the Sabres when he blocked Jason Pominville's slapshot off the mouth, leading to seven lost teeth and a huge cut on his face. The surprising part was that Laperriere returned later that game. The extent of the injury is uncertain at this time so the Flyers defeating the Devils in 5 games will give "Lappy" plenty of time to heal.

The Flyers came into this series looking to prove a point that they weren't going to lay down in front of the Devils and give them a game like they did at some points of the season. If anything, the series gave the Flyers an identity that they didn't have for most of the season: a strong willed team with everyone giving their best effort every game.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Flyers Lose Gagne, Carter to Injuries

By: Tim Brennan

After the conclusion of the Flyers huge 4-1 victory over the Devils in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quaterfinals, the Flyers were given some bad news: two of the team's best forwards are going to need surgery. Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter will both undergo right foot surgery on Friday due to different incidents and will more than likely miss the rest of the playoffs. Gagne has been given a time table of possibly three weeks before he can return but Carter's status is long term as he is listed as indefinitely.

Gagne's injury occured during the second period when he stepped in front of a Brian Rolston slapshot, which caught him in a soft spot on his skate and forced him to leave the game. Gagne produced two assists in four games against the Devils. Meanwhile Jeff Carter fractured a bone in his right foot when teammate Chris Pronger fired a slapshot on net that hit Carter and led to the team's 4th goal and his 2nd of the game. Carter had missed eight games near the end of the season for a similar injury to his left foot.

What does this mean for the Broad Street Bullies?

The impact of these injuries will force the Flyers into a position where they need certain players to step up and fill in for the production that will leave the lineup. Although he didn't score until Game 4, Jeff Carter was getting plenty of scoring opportunities and led the team in shots in three of the four games, racking up 17. The frustrated feeling Carter was getting melted into relief when he tallied twice in Game 4 and the Flyers were hoping this would lead to a spike in confidence for the eleventh overall pick in 2003. Carter also led the team in goals and shots, collecting 33 and 319 respectively. Simon Gagne is no slouch either picking up 40 points in 58 regular season games and is always a steady contributor for the Flyers.

The loss of these two forwards means that the pressure will be placed upon sophomore center Claude Giroux and high priced winger Daniel Briere to pick up the slack. There's no doubt that one of the Flyers best players in the playoffs has been Giroux so with increased ice time, look for him to shoot the puck more. Just like Carter, Briere struggled through the first 3 games of the series until a goal and two assists in Game 4 shook him awake and helped the team to a convincing win. Another player that needs to chip in as well is Scott Hartnell who has 0 points and has a -3 rating through 4 games.

The Flyers have a chance to close the series Thursday at the Prudential Center so they need to get offense quick and often to put the Devils away early and move on to the next round.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Boucher, Flyers Take Game 1 Away From Devils

By: Tim Brennan

Questions have surrounded the Flyers goaltending throughout this season and even in the past but Brian Boucher made a claim for solidifying the position. After an inspiring effort in the final game of the season to give the Flyers a playoff berth, Boucher stepped his game up and made 23 saves to record his first postseason victory since May 20, 2000. When the goaltender comes up big in the first game of a series, the team feeds off of the positive energy and goes to another level.

The Flyers didn't look sharp in the first period, surrendering nine shots and giving up odd man chances, which luckily were turned away by Boucher. The Devils took a different approach in the first period, using a run and gun system instead of their usual defensive trap mindset. Their top forwards were breaking through the Flyers defense and creating plenty of scoring chances lead by Zach Parise with 3.

It wasn't until halfway through the second when the Flyers tallied on the powerplay. Chris Pronger parked out in front of Martin Brodeur and proceeded to tip a pass attempt from Mike Richards after it went off of Simon Gagne. The momentum quickly turned in the Flyers favor when Ian Laperriere knocked down a dump in and sent a pass behind his back to Mike Richards who fired a slapshot past Brodeur to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead. Frustration settled in for the Devils as they continued to create chances but couldn't solve Boucher. Ilya Kovalchuk provided plenty of spark for the Devils offense with some dazzling moves and shots but was turned aside each and every time, resulting in an angry Kovalchuk punching the glass at one point.

An early penalty in the third taken by Oskars Bartulis resulted in a four minute powerplay for the Devils. What resulted was a strong effort from the Flyers penalty killers, with Ian Laperriere and Blair Betts leading the charge. Betts was a member of one of the best penalty killing units last year with the New York Rangers while Laperriere is well known for making blocking shots an art. The focus from the Flyers standpoint was to limit Kovalchuk's chances, block all passing lanes and keep the Devils on the perimeter. All of those were accomplished, leading to a defeated feeling from the Devils. It would take New Jersey until the 17 minute mark in the final period to pick up a goal off a blast from Travis Zajac. With Zach Parise screening Boucher, Zajac fired a shot towards the net that blew past Boucher. The Flyers would hold off the Devils in the final seconds however to claim victory by a score of 2-1.

The big story from this game was not only the tremendous play of Brian Boucher, but was also the strong effort on the penalty kill. The Devils powerplay is eleventh in efficiency and contains plenty of weapons like Kovalchuk, Parise and Patrik Elias so it was vital to the Flyers success to shut them down. The physical play of the Flyers was also a huge factor in the win. Those who provided the physicality included Mike Richards, Chris Pronger, Ian Laperriere and Darroll Powe who set the tempo and energized the team with bone crunching hits. The Devils didn't have anyone to counteract the ferociousness of the Flyers so the Flyers should look to expose the Devils in that category as the series goes on.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flyers Create Must Win Situation After Loss at the Hands of the Rangers

By: Tim Brennan

The scenario was simple for both teams: the Flyers needed a win to get into the playoffs and the Rangers needed a win to stay alive and keep the Flyers at bay for a final matchup on Sunday afternoon where they could clinch a spot by winning in Philadelphia. The Flyers were coming off of two monumental victories against the Red Wings and Maple Leafs before heading to Madison Square Garden while the Rangers picked up a win against the Maple Leafs after getting shelled against the Sabres where star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was pulled after letting in 3 goals on 16 shots. This would create a playoff like atmosphere as both teams were willing to do whatever it takes to get into the playoffs.

For the Flyers, a win in New York sounded reasonable enough because of their long time success at MSG so it was important to come out hitting and scoring to set the tempo. They did just that when Flyers captain Mike Richards intercepted Marc Staal's breakout pass and streaked in on net, firing a shot over Lundqvist's right shoulder only 40 seconds in. This is something the Flyers haven't done a whole lot of this season so getting on the board early was a good sign for the team's possible success. Almost immediately after the Richards tally, the Rangers came alive and created odd man rushes over and over that frustrated the Flyers.

As a result of the Rangers strong offensive play, Dan Carcillo took a dumb penalty on the back check when he clipped Brandon Prust in the face, leading to a double minor for high sticking as Prust was cut on the play. With the Flyers scrambling to get the puck out of the zone on the penalty kill, the Rangers hopped on the opportunity as Chris Drury scored the equalizer off a no look pass from Eric Christensen. Then the unthinkable happened...right off of a faceoff halfway through the first period, Brandon Prust passed the puck to Jody Shelley who wasn't covered and put the puck past Boucher to give the Rangers the advantage for a 2-1 score.

If the Flyers thought they were going to mow over the Rangers in the second period, their assumptions were ill-advised. The Rangers added to their lead when Brandon Dubinsky scored his 20th of the season. Marian Gaborik utilized his speed to the best of his ability, flying around Flyers defenseman Matt Carle to the outside and sent the puck back to Dubinsky who fired it into the empty side where Boucher had left anticipating a wrap around. However Danny Briere countered less than two minutes later when he wired a slapshot over the glove hand of Lundqvist. Keeping with the Flyers theme, Mike Richards tied things up on a breakaway which looked to hit Lundqvist first, then bouncing off of Michal Rozsival's skate and into the net. The Flyers kept the intensity up but would succumb to the Rangers speed on the game winning tally from the team's best player Marian Gaborik. The Rangers sent the puck out of the zone where Chris Pronger went to sent the puck to Matt Carle but fumbled it instead where Gaborik blazed past and took a shot that deflected off of Carle's stick and into the roof of the net.

The final period got progressively chippy as skirmishes broke out after every whistle, bodies flying everywhere, hits and jabs after the whistle and plenty of verbal abuse between the players. The Flyers gave the Blueshirts an opportunity to increase their lead when Scott Hartnell took a foolish penalty by cross-checking Michael Del Zotto in the chest. Although the Rangers didn't score on the powerplay, they did stick up for a teammate when once again Scott Hartnell got involved and demolished Rangers rookie Artem Anisimov near the boards. As a result of the hit, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi challenged Hartnell and ultimately won the fight. Even after this the Flyers still had a chance to tie when Aaron Voros threw a blindside hit on Lukas Krajicek, leading to a powerplay chance with 4 minutes left. The Rangers penalty kill neutralized any threat from the Flyers and claimed the victory 4-3.

From a Rangers standpoint, this was one of the best efforts presented this season and it shows how this team is hungry to launch themselves into the playoffs instead of bowing out gracefully. The strong play of the Rangers fourth line consisting of Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust and Jody Shelley created a challenge for the Flyers defense and ultimately the Rangers got the upperhand on Shelley's goal in the first period. Another factor in this game was Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 24 shots with 10 of those coming in the third period. Lundqvist kept the Rangers in the game when the going got tough and the Flyers peppered the net, with a game saving stop on James van Riemsdyk's in close opportunity which Lundqvist blocked with his toe. The intensity and urgency from the Rangers was obviously there and contributed to their victory.

Now from a Flyers perspective there are a few things that can be taken out of this game. For one, the Flyers got their leading goal scorer back when Jeff Carter suited up for the first time after missing eight games with a fractured bone in his left foot. Although he didn't get nearly as much ice time as he usually does, Carter still helped out and made an impact on the game, firing off 3 shots. The Flyers captain Mike Richards picked up his game for such a pivotal moment, adding two goals and playing with a fire and intensity that hasn't been there for most of the season. With Richards contributing, this will help propel the rest of the team as well as add to his confidence after getting just one assist in the eight game span that Jeff Carter was out. The team also play with a heart and desire for such a big game and although they came up short, they never quit.

If there were two problems with this game, it had to be Chris Pronger and Brian Boucher. The Flyers acquired Chris Pronger to help out what was deemed an "inexperienced" blueline and was brought in to provide leadership and an All-Star caliber game that Flyers fans hadn't seen since Mark Howe. If Friday's game was an example of a strong game by Pronger, then the Flyers are in trouble. Pronger was on the ice for 3 of the Rangers 4 goals, with his turnover on the game winning goal the biggest example of poor play on his part. The other two goals he was out for were a result of his lack of coverage and picking a player to defend. His numbers may say something different but Pronger has been one of the worst defenders on the team this season, aside from Ryan Parent. Along with Pronger's horrendous play, Flyers goalie Brian Boucher was almost as bad, allowing the Rangers to get second chance opportunities off of huge rebounds given up by "Boosh". Not only was he out of position on three of the Rangers' goals but he also provided quite a gaffe that would have popped the Flyers balloon of momentum. While trying to pass the puck behind the net, Boucher rushed the pass that ended up going towards the net, almost going in, and went off the post right to Jody Shelley, who almost scored again after going 62 games without scoring a goal. Boucher was able to slide back to make the save but the terrible play from the goaltending position hasn't helped the Flyers chances to get a playoff spot.

With this in mind, the Flyers and Rangers face off at the Wachovia Center at 3pm on Sunday afternoon so look for both teams to fight and battle until the death to reach the playoffs. The home ice advantage will help the Flyers mainly because of the rambunctious crowd.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Devils Can Secure Atlantic Division in Final Two Games

By: Tim Brennan

The New Jersey Devils are an elite team in the National Hockey League and there is no question about that. They've dominated the Atlantic Division year after year, capturing eight division titles since it's establishment in 1993. If you take a look at the standings during the course of any season, the Devils will be most likely in the top 4 because of their consistency and winning pedigree. The Devils are close to claiming another division crown and can do so by winning their final two games of the season.

Throughout this season, the Devils have battled with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, with the lead flip flopping almost every other game. This race for divisional pride, if you will, has intensified with every matchup between the two teams, turning into a playoff atmosphere. Although the Devils and Penguins have the same record and same amount of points, the Devils have the edge after sweeping the season series against Pittsburgh. With the Penguins nipping at their heels, the Devils take on the New York Islanders Saturday and the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.

A recent Southeast road trip led to shutout wins over the Carolina Hurricanes and Atlanta Thrashers before hitting a brick wall in former teammate Scott Clemmensen and the Florida Panthers on Thursday, dropping a 3-2 decision despite grossly out-shooting them 44-18. Despite missing an opportunity of closing the deal on the division lead, the Devils can push themselves ahead with a win over the Islanders, whom they've enjoyed plenty of success against this year posting a 3-2 record. The more daunting task will be when the Devils face off against the Sabres, who are a hard team to beat due in large part to the team's franchise player and MVP, Ryan Miller.

In order to avoid a letdown, New Jersey must play with urgency so that they end up on top of the division and face teams that will be worn down from battling until the end of the season to clinch a spot, like the Bruins or Canadiens. The pressure will be on the top guns like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and of course Ilya Kovalchuk to continue to produce and keep the offense flowing. There's no doubt that Martin Brodeur will more than likely start the final two games and will be looked upon to provide the help necessary to secure a division win. If they fall behind and can't get the points needed the Devils will more than likely face the Ottawa Senators, who have been on a tear lately going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and are equipped with a highly talented offense, bruising defense and impressive goaltending. Not something the Devils want to face in the first round, especially after the last few years of finishing high in the season and bowing out early.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Devils Look to Push Thrashers out of Playoff Picture

By: Tim Brennan

It's that time again when every team that is in the playoff picture buckles down to make sure that they get a chance to go after hockey's coveted prize, the Stanley Cup. The Devils, like always, sit comfortably in the top rung of the Eastern Conference, currently in 2nd place. A big win against the Hurricanes on Saturday pushed them into the Atlantic Division lead for the time being. Meanwhile the Thrashers are fighting for their lives to claim a spot, sitting three points behind the 8th place team, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Thrashers have run into a wall in the past two games in the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and face some of the toughest teams in the East for their last three games starting tonight against New Jersey.

What makes this matchup so appealing is that it will be Ilya Kovalchuk's return to Atlanta since the superstar was traded on February 4th. The Thrashers acquired rookie Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a 1st round pick in that deal. Both Bergfors and Oduya have picked up their games and the change of scenery has been beneficial to not only their careers but the team's success as well. Bergfors had 17 points in 54 games with the Devils before being sent to Atlanta, where since then, he's gone on a tear with 17 points in 24 games while playing alongside Nik Antropov. Oduya picked up his game as well, going from 4 points and a +2 in 40 games with New Jersey to 9 points and +9 in 24 games in Atlanta.

And just how the newcomers have helped out the Thrashers, Ilya Kovalchuk has provided a strong impact on the Devils. Although he struggled to find the back of the net early on in the red and white, Kovalchuk picked up his game and is on a hot streak with 11 points in his last 7 games. It's understandable that a star player like Kovalchuk would stumble early on due to New Jersey's defense first system. But now that Kovalchuk has overcome that rough patch, the Devils have allowed him to do what he has done before, just as long as he makes sure to get back defensively and help out. With Kovalchuk in the lineup, the Devils pack a 1-2 punch with him and Zach Parise.

The Thrashers will do whatever it takes to get a win tonight and the Devils, especially Kovalchuk, will be looking to deny them the opportunity of a playoff berth. It's important to the Devils to make sure that they don't come into this game thinking that this will be no problem and an automatic win. The Thrashers are a hungry team and even with a few key players out with injury, will still take it to the Devils and try to prove everyone wrong. For the Thrashers to keep themselves in the hunt, they need to bother Martin Brodeur and get him off of his game and need to get the first goal to give themselves momentum. The Devils need to expose the Thrashers injury problems and force the inexperienced players to make mistakes.