The season always seems long - and with the Olympics this year, it sure seemed (to me) that the playoff race had lost some of its sting.
That was until the last weekend - Sunday afternoon in particular. I was channel surfing through the Avalanche-Kings, Red Wings-Blackhawks, Rangers-Flyers and the Masters golf tournament all at once! I even had a couple of games being taped (so I could check them at intermissions) and I was thinking about how exciting the final push is.
As a player, the games become the easy part. You embrace the pressure, the absolute "all-in" of your team and the thin margin of error if you hope to qualify. Since the games were all going on at the same time, the players snuck quick peaks at the scoreboards for updates - and don't think for a minute that the Wings didn't know that L.A. had tied it up late and won in overtime. It's dangerous to try to figure out who you are going to play, but the fact is no matter how hard you try to figure it all out, the best solution is to finish as high in the standings as you can - playing the best hockey you can. That way, when it all starts anew this week you feel like your team is hitting a good streak.
Here are my highlights from this past weekend:
Here is the state of the Rangers' offense. When they got to a season-deciding shootout, they had their hopes on a waiver pick-up (Erik Christensen), a player who was in the minors most of the year (P.A. Parenteau) and an underachiever (Olli Jokinen). They made up significant ground during the last three weeks in a dogged pursuit of the teams above them - going 7-1-2 - but the Rangers are not good enough the way they are constructed. The Flyers dominated much of the game territorially and Brian Boucher was excellent. Philadelphia now gets the Devils, a team the Flyers handled pretty easily all year.
The Red Wings' run has been well documented, but it's the play of Jimmy Howard that's the story for me. I watched him early in the year in Edmonton and he looked over his head. All he has done since then is keep the Wings in games when they floundered (they were outshot 16-3 in the second period on Sunday) and will play his first playoff game in Phoenix on Wednesday.
Henrik Sedin's four assists on Saturday locked up the scoring title and with it (in my opinion) the Hart Trophy. He carried the Canucks when his brother Daniel missed 18 games and it's hard to believe there are many players more valuable right now to their team. I do not think he will win however, as most people in the East assume that the twins are interchangeable and probably don't know which one is the winger and who's the centre. If Henrik does win, he will be one of the most unlikely MVPs since Jose Theodore won it in 2002.
There was a bit of back biting over Steven Stamkos scoring into the empty net for goal No. 51 with the season winding down to tie Sidney Crosby for the goal-scoring crown. I say - big deal! Fifty-one goals is an incredible total, no matter how many empty netters you score (Stamkos had three, Crosby had one this year). If you want to split hairs, how about Crosby scoring 34 goals at home and only 17 on the road, while Stamkos had 28 at home and 23 on the road. See my point? These two players had fabulous years, and you can twist and turn the numbers any way you like, but it's impossible not to be impressed.
Now a couple of thoughts before my predictions (which I am sure will be mediocre at best!). Has there been a year with so much uncertainty in goal? Look at the first timers working as No. 1 netminders - Brian Elliott in Ottawa, Jaroslav Halak (three playoff games in 2008) in Montreal, Jimmy Howard in Detroit, Antti Niemi in Chicago, Pekka Rinne in Nashville, Tuukka Rask in Boston, Jonathan Quick (or Erik Ersberg) in L.A., Craig Anderson in Colorado. They are all wild cards. No one is sure who the starter is in Washington and that gives you nine teams that might have some uneasiness with the inexperience at their most important position.
Nobody wins without a solid defence and I'm looking at how Chicago and Vancouver will deal with depleted bluelines as their series get underway. The Hawks will not have either Brian Campbell (I bet you the Hawks believe right now that Ovechkin should have received more than two games for his push) or Kim Johnsson, which has necessitated splitting up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in an attempt to balance their back end. The Canucks won't have Willie Mitchell, Aaron Rome is questionable and Sami Salo and Shane O'Brien are banged up a bit. Interesting how 10 days can change a players' lot on their team! O'Brien was embarrassed for being overweight and now the team needs him badly. Never pop off, do your job and be ready for the opportunity when it shows up. O'Brien gets a chance quickly at the most important time of the year.
So here we go - prediction time! Since I write this column every week, I reserve the right to change my mind by next Monday (not really, but it is always a thought!).
In the West, I like San Jose over Colorado. Nothing is easy for the Sharks, but they are too much for a young Avalanche team and will win in five games. Chicago will have their hands full with pesky Nashville, but they will prevail in six. Vancouver was hoping to avoid Detroit and they get an L.A. team that hasn't been in a playoff game since 2002. The Kings' goaltending has been a mess of late and while Roberto Luongo hasn't been great, I believe that he will play well and the Canucks will win, but this will be a long series and Vancouver will need Game 7 to advance. Phoenix has been a great story, maybe the most remarkable, and they won't be an easy out. But the Wings are too deep, have too much skill and despite Howard's inexperience in goal, the Wings win in Game 6 in Detroit.
Out East, if there is a blowout, it will be in Washington. I just don't see any way that Montreal can stay in this series - even if Jaroslav Halak plays out of his mind. The Caps are too big and skilled and this one ends in five games. The Devils-Flyers series historically have been rugged and drawn out. The Flyers won five of the six regular season games vs. the Devils and have been a puzzle most of the year. But at some point, Marty Brodeur outplays Brian Boucher. This isn't easy, but the Devils win in six games. I said earlier that you can't win without defence, but you have to score obviously as well. Boston is banged up pretty badly on the blue line and they certainly can't score, so I like Buffalo to push the pace to a place Boston can't survive at. Buffalo in five games. The last series is Pittsburgh and Ottawa. The Senators will miss Filip Kuba and Alex Kovalev and even thought they can get streaky hot, I am finding it hard to believe their defence can stop Crosby and Malkin and company. Penguins in six.
1) The news that Sheldon Souray wants out of Edmonton is no surprise, but he left nothing to the imagination as to what he views the problems are. "Management," he says, "have soured on me and I have soured on them." Now Souray says GM Steve Tambellini has not spoken with him in months, and this - at the very least - is a PR mess for a team that doesn't have a lot of good will collateral in the bank. In my opinion, it's time to turn the page from the glory days (because that is not where the Oilers are anymore) and give the people today something to sink their teeth into - not something from 20 years ago.
2) This was the last NHL weekend for Dan Marouelli and Kerry Fraser. They have been very good referees for a long time, excellent managers of personalities and bold enough to make the tough calls. I always had a short fuse with the officials, in particular early in my career when I got frustrated at the drop of the hat. And at that time, Kerry told me in a very firm tone to quit yelling at him because it would never, ever help. I don't know how successful I was at that, but he commanded respect and I listened. I always felt that the game was in good hands with these two officials, who also happen to be terrific people. Good luck in retirement, the league will miss them.
And finally, this Wednesday can't come quick enough! Chris Cuthbert and I are in New Jersey and for us. This is the best time of the year. The Olympics were an intense, 17-day pressure cooker, but Wednesday is the beginning of a new story and the pressure there will bubbling for two months. It's the Stanley Cup playoffs - survival of the fittest.
Got a question for Ray? Send him an email at email@example.com!