Can Holtby continue to fuel the Capitals’ Stanley Cup hopes

It wasn’t much longer than a week ago that everyone in the NHL was asking what was going to happen to Washington in the offseason. They dropped the first two games of the series at home and were preparing to head back to Columbus for two critical road games.

Goaltender Philipp Grubauer started the series for the Washington Capitals but was replaced with Braden Holtby in game two after allowing 4.57 goals per game with just a .837 save percentage.

The Capitals still lost game two, but the change at goalie by head coach Barry Trotz proved to be the difference maker for the rest of the series.

Holtby posted a 4-1 record in the series with a 1.92 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. Holtby’s strong play saved the series for the Washington Capitals, and now they will have a shot at the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Series

Once he came in Holtby was completely in control. The Capitals as a whole began to feed off the momentum of a hot goaltender. When the Blue Jackets shoot they usually find ways to hit the net, and this series was no different. Holtby faced a tremendous amount of shots, and 53 percent of them were on goal.

Stanley Cup Hopes

(Photo By: Zimbio.com)

In a pivotal game three Holtby took over the game making 33 saves on 35 shots; including nine saves in the two overtimes. He only allowed two goals throughout the whole game, and only one of them was at even strength. Game three was a momentum builder for both Holtby and the Capitals, and it translated to the rest of the series.

The penalty kill for the Capitals hit a whole new level with Holtby in the net in games four, five and six. The Caps went a perfect 13 for 13 in those games on the kill; completely stalling out the Blue Jackets power play.

Holtby did benefit a lot from his best-friend behind him. The Blue Jackets hit the post five times in the series, which stands as the highest total throughout the entire first-round.

Beating The Pens

The Capitals and Penguins are meeting yet again in the postseason, but this time Holtby and the Caps will be looking to take them down.

After a tremendous series against the Blue Jackets, Holtby is looking to keep it going against the Pens, but Pittsburgh has proven they can exploit any players weaknesses.
But what are Holtby’s weaknesses?

Shots From The Left Slot

It has been a known weakness for Holtby for awhile now, but he is susceptible to shots from the left slot area, specifically on his low blocker side.

The Blue Jackets tried to exploit this, but couldn’t. Columbus scored nine goals with Holtby in net this series, of those nine, five came from the left slot.

In an article written by Kevin Woodley, it is pointed out that Holtby allowed 18 goals to his low blocker side. The highest total of anywhere on his body this season.

This weak link on the left side will open the door for Pittsburgh’s right-handed scorers to potentially have a more significant impact.

Pittsburgh Exploiting It?

Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust are the most notable right-handed players for the Penguins this year, and they have had success against the Capitals this year.

In four games against the Capitals this season, Kessel was able to score three goals and added an assist as well. Hornqvist also added the same numbers. Rust had two assists against the Caps as well as one goal.

The three scorers combined for six goals and eight assists in their series against the Flyers, but they will be looking to put up even more significant numbers against Washington.

Of course, players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are going to score, but if these players can attack Holtby’s low blocker from the left side, they could find some success.

NHL Super 8

Not so super 8 – Feb. 17

This week finally picked up a bit in the top 16.

However, a couple of teams were snubbed by the panel in place of what feels to be less deserving teams (LA Kings and New Jersey Devils.)

Let’s get right to it.

ANAHEIM DUCKSSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

The Ducks should’ve had a spot in the Super 16. Some of the other teams that made it into the top 16 definitely are not as hot as the Ducks right now. They likely missed because of their close victories with below average teams.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

The Ducks need to start showing up and taking command against lower-ranked teams as stated earlier. They only beat the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers each by a score of 3-2, and then lost to the Detroit Red Wings 2-1. They are getting destroyed by the better teams in the league and barely squeaking out wins against every other team. The Ducks are 5-3-2 the last 10.

COLORADO AVALANCHESuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

This is another team that is in the top 16 rankings wise that didn’t make the power ranking cut. They probably also should have made the Super 16 over a couple other teams, but they missed due to their just “ok” last 10 record of 4-5-1.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

Last week they got destroyed by the St. Louis Blues and then lost to the Carolina Hurricanes. This week they barely beat the Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens and then were blown out by Winnipeg. Much like the Ducks, they need to start finding victories against better teams and need to limit the scoring of lesser teams.

They are also seeing impressive offensive numbers from their forwards. Nathan MacKinnon has 61 points followed closely by Mikko Rantanen with 52 and Gabriel Landeskog with 42. They just need their goalies to pick it up a bit. They only have a combined .914 save percentage.

CAROLINA HURRICANESSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

The Hurricanes have honestly done pretty well over their past 10 games, but aren’t really in a ranked position to be in the Super 16. They are 5-4-1 in their last 10 and won three straight before losing their last two to the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

The Hurricanes are on an upward path. Their victories have come against some quality teams. They beat the LA Kings 7-3 earlier in the week. If they continue to play well against teams like the Kings, they have a shot to move up significantly in the standings.

FLORIDA PANTHERSSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

While the Panthers have won their last two and are 6-4-0 in their last 10, they have been struggling to shut down their opponents offensively not only in their losses, but also in their wins. Like when they beat the Oilers on Monday by a score of 7-5.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

Roberto Luongo has stepped up his game in the crease, but the backups need to become more reliable. James Reimer and Harri Sateri have a combined .910 save percentage. Considering Reimer has started the most games this season, those numbers just won’t cut it.

New York IslandersSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

This is where things start going downhill. The Islanders are 4-5-1 in their last 10, which is “ok” but not great.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

If the Islanders can see more goaltending performances like that of Jaroslav Halak against the New York Rangers (50-save shutout), then they may start looking up. His .912 save percentage is less than average, but if that changes, they may be ok. Especially with the impressive offensive numbers they are seeing. John Tavares has 64 points so far this season and is followed just barely by Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey, who each have 62.

DETROIT RED WINGSSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

The Redwings are 4-4-2 their last 10. They are low in the standings and can’t seem to find a winning rhythm, which is why they keep missing out on the Super 16.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

Turn those two OT losses into wins and their record the last 10 is 6-4-0, and they are up three spots in league standings. Regulation wins would really help boost this team, especially at home where they have a league-leading seven OT losses.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETSSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

The Blue Jackets were 3-5-2 in their last 10. Their record in the last 10 games alone is what is keeping them from even getting close to the Super 16.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

The Blue Jackets have been on a significant downward spiral these past three weeks. They barely missed the Super 16 three weeks ago. Now they aren’t even close and are traveling closer to the bottom of the standings.

This past week, they have been very hot and cold. They will beat teams by large margins, like when they beat the Islanders 4-1 and the Devils 6-1. They also lost by significant margins to the Leafs (6-3) and the Washington Capitals (4-2).

The Blue Jackets really need to stay consistent here to even have a shot at breaking into the Super 16.

ARIZONA COYOTESSuper 8

WHY DID THEY MISS?

They are last in the league, so it is clear why they missed. But they are more deserving to sit in this spot just due to their efforts in their last 10. Their record sits at 5-4-1 the last 10 and they are on a three-game winning streak.

WHAT CAN THEY CHANGE?

They can actually keep winning games. It is hard to break this down because everything needs to change for the Coyotes. In reality, they have no shot of even getting close to the Super 16, but their effort the last stretch is worth recognizing and their fans should appreciate it.

 

Team logos and featured image from NHL.com

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Metropolitan Division

Things are very much congested in the Metropolitan Division

I have been slightly incorrect in the past. The central does have have the better collection of teams overall. However, the Metropolitan Division currently has the most traffic…

Prior to games on February 8th:

  1. Washington Capitals – 67 points – 29 games remaining
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins – 63 points – 27 games remaining
  3. New Jersey Devils – 62 points – 30 games remaining
  4. Philadelphia Flyers – 59 points – 29 games remaining
  5. Columbus Blue Jackets – 58 points – 29 games remaining
  6. New York Islanders – 58 points – 28 games remaining
  7. Carolina Hurricanes – 57 points – 28 games remaining
  8. New York Rangers – 55 points – 28 games remaining

This is not the most talented division, nor does it possess a top three team, but each club is in play for the postseason. Both wild card spots in the East are held by a member of the Metro. It is one hundred percent a three-man race in the Atlantic. This makes for just a 4-point separation between the number one wild card spot (held by the Flyers) and the last place Rangers. The margin for error gets smaller and smaller as every single game now has playoff implications.

So, we meet again…probably

The matchup everyone now looks forward to every season is most likely forthcoming again. It is always known that Sidney Crosby is a three-time Stanley Cup Champ while Alex Ovechkin has yet to reach a conference final…in fact, Crosby has served as Ovi’s kryptonite having never beaten him in the playoffs. The past two years each of their teams have met in the second round with the Penguins winning in six in 2016, then in seven in 2017. There is a very good chance we see this movie yet again this Spring…

Metropolitan Division

Photo from NHL.com

Washington Capitals: Why they will finish in the top three of the Metro

Alexander Ovechkin – 32 goals (leads league)/26 assists/58 points (11th in league)/+12

Depth – Four Players (Ovechkin/Kuznetsov/Backstrom/Carlson) with at least 40 points

Braden Holtby – 27 wins (tied for 3rd in league)

Pittsburgh Penguins: Why they will finish in the top three in the Metro

Trending upwards – 7-3-0 in their last 10 – 20-7-1 on home ice

Special Teams – Power play is 26.8% (leads league) – Penalty Kill is 82.5% (7th in league)

Experience – 15 of their 20 current players on roster have won a Stanley Cup together

We have the cast and crew ready to go. The two teams battled it out on the Friday before the Super Bowl in D.C. with Pittsburgh prevailing 7-4. Will we see the same ending to this trilogy as we have seen in the previous two??…or will the Washington Capitals finally breakthrough and compete for a Stanley Cup??

You gonna make a move or stand pat??

Philadelphia Flyers: Sell it seems like

The Flyers are too inconsistent to be true contenders in the East (5-4-1 in their last 10). Therefore, selling would be smart to keep adding prospects and draft picks to keep building for the future. Ron Hextall added a first rounder in the offseason for Brayden Schenn. Seeing what the market would bring for someone like Wayne Simmonds (which would be a bundle) would be smart. “It all depends on what’s coming back” Hextall says (The Inquirer).

Columbus Blue Jackets: Buy more than likely

The Jackets have scored the least amount of goals (139) of any team in the Metropolitan Division. They are -11 on the year and will look to bolster their roster offensively. Columbus is a league-worst 14.1% on the power play as well. Looking around the league, a reunion with Rick Nash may be the best option.

Metropolitan Division

Photo from NY Daily News

New York Islanders: Toss up

Star Center for the Isles John Tavares is on pace for a 40-goal/90-point season. He is in his prime at 27 and has an expiring contract and will become a free agent on July 1st. Islanders’ GM does not expect to move him before the deadline, but seeing what the market will offer may be in his best interest. The team also knows how to put the puck in the net better than any team in the Metro with 181 goals on the year, but gives up more than anyone in the division (197 goals against). Bolstering their defensive core will be on their minds one way or the other.

One point separates these three teams. All are in play for the postseason. If you have a shot to make the playoffs, the advice should always be to go for it. The parity is real…ask Nashville.

Close, but no cigar

The Hurricanes and Rangers round out the bottom two in this jam packed division. The Rangers have asked Rick Nash for his no-trade list, but GM Ron Francis has not ruled out buying before the deadline. Two different approaches, but similar team finishes if changes don’t soon occur…

Metropolitan Division

Photo from NHL.com

New York Rangers: Selling most likely

Trending downwards – 3-7-0 in their last 10 – 8-14-2 on the road (16 road games left)

No elite scoring – 0 players with 40+ points

Carolina Hurricanes: Buying??

Trending downwards – 4-5-1 in their last 10 – -20 goal differential (worst in division)

Elite scoring and depth – two players (Teravainen/Aho) with 40+ points – five players with 30+ points

As constructed, neither of these teams are dangerous come mid-April. However, if either GM decides that this year is worth giving up significant pieces for their future with how tight the standings are, this could be extremely interesting down the stretch.

Do it

Whether you’re buying, selling or standing pat on February 26th, do it. Very rarely do all seven-eight teams in a division have a clear shot at ending up in the playoffs. All you have to do is get to the dance and right now, the last place Rangers are just three points out of that last wild card spot…

The Hurricanes have a Stanley Cup-winning net minder in Cam Ward and the Rangers obviously have a hall of fame goalkeeper in King Henrik. You can win any playoff series with hot goaltending. Anything can happen. Whatever these teams are thinking, each have a shot…so do it.

 

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Flyers Gain

Wednesday Picks: Can The Flyers Gain On The Capitals?

Wednesday Picks: Can The Flyers Gain On The Capitals?

Only three games to be played for the NHL tonight. The Maple Leafs and the Islanders face off in a battle of two top-end Eastern Conference teams. Also, the Sharks will be looking to hold off the Red Wings who will be looking to play spoiler. And finally, can the Flyers gain on the Capitals?

Capitals vs. Flyers

Pick: Capitals

The Flyers head to D.C to take on the Capitals at Capital One Arena. In the teams first two meetings Philadelphia has had the Capitals number winning 8-2 and then 2-1 later in the year. This is both teams’ first game after the all-star break; therefore both sides will be looking to start the second half of the year off on the right foot.

The Capitals have a seven-point lead on the Flyers in the Metropolitan division race, but as I stated earlier, the Flyers have had the Capitals number. The Flyers have also been extremely good since their losing streak. So can the Flyers gain some key points on the Capitals?

Flyers Gain

(Photo By: Dave Stevenson)

Braden Holtby

Holtby needs to play better in the second half of the year. Holtby’s 2.66 goals against average and .917 save percentage are totals that are average among goalies. Consequently, they are 14th in the NHL in goals against and are 12th in save percentage as a team. Both stats are in the top half of the NHL, but the Capitals want those numbers to be higher, and they know they should be higher.

Capitals At Home

The Capitals at home compared to the road are a completely different team. At Capital One Arena this season Washington is 18-7-1. The Flyers have been an average road team. As a result, their record on road ice stands at 11-8-4.

The Pick:

I like the Capitals to take this one. It’s the first game for both teams after the all-star break, and I like the Caps on home ice to come out fired up ready to set the tone for the second half of the season. For the Flyers to play it, they will have to get a goal or two early, but if they don’t I think Washington will start the second half off with a win. So can the Flyers gain on the Capitals? They can, but not tonight.

Maple Leafs vs. Islanders

Pick: Maple Leafs

The Islanders defensive woes have been the story of my season so far. Their offense is elite and can put up three to four goals every game, but unfortunately, their defense does the same. They are tied for second in the NHL with 3.4 goals for per game but are dead last in the NHL giving up 3.54 goals per game.

In this game, they will be going up against a Maple Leafs team that can score the puck and play defense. Until the Islanders fix their defensive issues, I cannot pick them to beat a team that scores more than three goals per game. Especially when that team has Auston Matthews and William Nylander scoring goals. Toronto will frustrate the Islanders, and they will win this game scoring more than three goals.

Red Wings vs. Sharks

Pick: Sharks

The Red Wings are on the outside looking in for the Eastern Conference playoff race. These next two or three weeks will determine if they pack it in or if they try to make a run. The Sharks are in the thick of it out in the Western Conference. Just one point separates the two through five seed in the Pacific division, and every game will feel like a playoff game from this point on.

The Sharks have had a lot of success against teams that are at the bottom of the league; therefore I believe San Jose will handle the Red Wings. The Sharks Power Play will prove to be the difference maker in this one. I expect the Sharks to get a man-up goal on the way to beating Detroit convincingly.

 

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NHL All-Star weekend

An All-Star weekend to remember

The game’s brightest stars were on display this All-Star weekend. This past Saturday, we had the skills competition followed by the 3-on-3 tourney Sunday. Much of what we already knew was confirmed.

Connor McDavid (only repeat fastest skater champ): The fastest human to ever play hockey.

Johnny Gaudreau (puck control relay champ): His hands are right up there with Patrick Kane’s.

Alex Pietrangelo (passing champ): Proved defensemen are some of the best passers in the NHL.

Marc-Andre Fleury (save streak champ, 14 consecutive saves): Is and always will be elite.

Alex Ovechkin (hardest shot champ, 101.3 MPH): Can still bring it with the best of them at age 32.

Brock Boeser (accuracy champ and All-Star Game MVP): He is a rookie, but already a superstar.

All-Star weekend is a showcase of the league’s best. In the past, the game itself has been classified as a show instead of real competition. The new 3-on-3 structure has tied both elements into the game and has been a success the last three years. The year before this establishment, the score of the game was 17-12. The past three championship games have been 1-0, 4-3 and 5-2.

Game 1: Central vs. Pacific

NHL All-Star weekend

Photo from LA Kings Insider

The two Western Conference Division All-Stars squared off in Game 1 of the 3-on-3 tournament..

Nathan Mackinnon opened up the scoring with a wicked wrister from the top of the slot that beat Marc-Andre Fleury and rang right off the back bar and into the shelf to give Central a 1-0 lead after one.

Drew Doughty then found himself on a breakaway halfway through the second and beat Connor Hellebuyck blocker side to tie the game with 5:47 left.

James Neal later was left all alone at the top of the slot to complete a tic-tac-toe passing play from Brent Burns and Connor McDavid to put Pacific up 2-1 with 3:03 left.

32 seconds later, P.K. Subban went in all alone on Mike Smith, who tried to stack the pads, and Subban went shelf to tie it up 2-2 with 2:31 to play.

45 ticks later, Brock Boeser sent a missile top left from the top of the slot to put Pacific up 3-2 with 1:46 remaining.

Brent Burns and James Neal added two empty netters and the Pacific took Game 1, 5-2.

Connor McDavid may not have scored, but the 21-year-old showed why he is already among the game’s best. The Oiler and Pacific captain registered four assists and generated a scoring chance with his speed seemingly every time he was on the ice. McDavid and the 20-year-old Boeser showed why the first and second-year players are indisputably a part of the NHL’s most talented players.

The Pacific Division All-Stars then awaited the winner of the Metro and Atlantic Division game.

Game 2: Metropolitan vs. Atlantic

NHL All-Star weekend

Photo from Sporting News

The two Eastern Division All-Stars went toe to toe in Game 2 of the 3-on-3 tournament.

Just over a minute in, two career-long rivals connected (Sidney Crosby from Alex Ovechkin) to put Metro up 1-0 with 8:51 left in the first. Four minutes later, a third and second-year player (Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews) tied the game 1-1 with 4:30 left in the first.

Claude Giroux then went in on a two-on-none with Brian Boyle where he waits, looks and fires a pellet past Andrei Vasilevskiy blocker side to give Metro a 2-1 lead with 2:18 left in the first. 34 seconds later, classic Ovechkin went far side from the top of the circle to make it 3-1 Metro with 1:44 left in the first. 11 seconds later, the hometown All-Star, Nikita Kucherov, went in on a breakaway and fired one top right on Henrik Lundqvist to cut Metro’s lead to 3-2 after one period of play.

The two teams traded goals to start the second and the game was tied at four with 5:27 to play. Erik Karlsson then scored what would have been the go-ahead goal, but the play was reviewed and ruled offsides.

Two minutes later, Jack Eichel fired one from the bottom of the circle to officially take the lead where he and Auston Matthews both pointed for a memorable goal celebration. Atlantic led 5-4 with 3:20 to play.

Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov capped off the Atlantic’s victory with two more goals for a 7-4 win. It took a five-goal second and a hat trick from No. 86. The three-goal performance was the first in the 3-on-3 tourney’s young history. Kucherov put on on a show for the Lightning faithful and showed why he is an elite scorer and a Hart Trophy candidate.

Championship Game: Atlantic vs. Pacific

NHL All-Star weekend

Photo from SB Nation

The remaining two teams from the East and West then competed for $1 million.

59 seconds into the first frame, Rickard Rakell cleaned up the garbage in front to put Pacific up 1-0 with 9:01 remaining in the first. Just over four minutes later, Brock Boeser extended his team’s lead to 2-0 with 4:55 to play in the first.

63 seconds later, Mike Green was left open at the bottom of the far side circle to get the Atlantic on the board. Pacific led 2-1 with 3:52 remaining in the first. Two and a half minutes later, Drew Doughty took a feed from teammate Anze Kopitar at the top of the slot and ripped a one timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy to give Pacific a 3-1 lead after the first frame.

Just under two minutes into the second, Johnny Hockey went in all alone to make it 4-1 Pacific with 8:09 to play. The two teams traded goals down the stretch, and Pacific won 5-2, taking home the $1 million prize.

In the end, it was the stars in the somewhat less competitive divisions battling in the championship game. It goes to show that this league is filled with talent at every turn. Brock Boeser may play for the lowly Canucks, Jack Eichel may play for Buffalo, but these two and others are all very much elite players in the NHL. All-Star weekend is a representation of the state of the league, which is in a very good place with the excess amount of talent it possesses.

Let us get back to business

This past weekend was fun as always. However, it’s time for teams to get back to work and play every game like a playoff game. There are races in each conference and division. This is no longer a marathon, but a sprint to the finish.

Can the Golden Knights continue what they’ve started? Is it too late for the Blackhawks to overcome their subpar first half? Will the Penguins become contenders once again? Will the Caps no longer be pretenders?

Are the Bruins and Jets for real? Are the Avs more than just way ahead of schedule? Will the Preds run back to the Final?

These questions will soon be answered. Let us all get back to work.

 

Featured image from NHL.com

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NHL first month

First month in review: One down, six to go

The first month of hockey for this season is in the books. Nine teams are currently in a playoff spot that were not at the end of last year. An expansion team registered 16 out of a possible 22 points. A pair of teammates are the top two point getters in the league. However, there were 118 more slashing calls than last season through the first 57 games and has continued to spiral.

Frustration has hit with these penalties, but hasn’t dissipated the entertainment value whatsoever. We are fans of the most consistently ultra-competitive league. Any team on any given night can win a hockey game. The parity in the NHL is unbelievable, which gives fans the hope that their team always has a shot and anything can happen. Adding that up with the overall entertainment of hockey, the first month was a success.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues are at the top of the Eastern and Western Conferences respectfully. Eight points and seven points separate those two teams from themselves and the two eighth seeded teams. Therefore, regardless of what the current power rankings indicate, we are in for a wild ride into mid April. Special teams may have been overkill this first month, but they have made games even more interesting at times. It’s a sample size, but we have no idea where everyone will be at the conclusion of the regular season.

Lightning Bolts and Musical Notes

The top teams in the NHL after one month reside in Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Each of these clubs notched 10 wins in their first 13 games. The top three scorers in the league play for both of these teams. They both battled one another in Tampa the second week with the Bolts winning by one goal. There are positives and negatives to both of these starts, but they have clearly proven to be where they stand.

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the best duo in hockey right now. Together, they netted 45 points and are a combined +13 to start the season. Their top goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is 10-1-0 with a 2.42 goals against average. Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev had a great first month in the league with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

However, not having Ben Bishop has put some pressure on their goalie situation as backup Peter Budaj let in eight goals and posted a .855 save percentage in his two starts.

St. Louis has one of the best lines in hockey with Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. They totaled 42 points and were a combined +30 in October. Their defensive core has a league-high 14 goals. The Blues have the best goalie tandem with Jake Allen and Carter Hutton through the first month as they combined for a 2.07 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. Depth is the concern as only five of their 43 goals have come from their bottom six.

The Blues and Lightning have the potential to remain at the top of the standings with the pieces they have in place. They also can be removed in a day. Therefore, there is no time for any form of complacency. It’s a long way to go, but will these two link up in the finals?

Caps/Hawks Right in the middle

Two of the NHL’s regulars at the top of the standings have had mediocre starts to their seasons. Chicago finds themselves in the final Wild Card position and just a game over .500. Washington notched just five wins, a game under .500, and are out of the playoff picture after the first month. Both teams were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences a year ago. What has sprung this inconsistent start?

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

The Blackhawks made a number of offseason transactions. They traded away former rookie of the year Artemi Panarin. Niklas Hjalmarsson was sent to Arizona, which has put their defensive depth in question. Scott Darling got traded to Carolina, which has deeply weakened their goaltending situation. Corey Crawford has posted a 1.91 goals against average and recorded all of their wins, but backup Anton Forsberg has yet to get a win letting in 11 goals in his three games of work.

Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners are out of sorts at the start of November. Needed money was given to players in the offseason, but all of the scoring as been in one place. The Caps’ top line is still the best in the league with Nicklas Backstrom centering T.J. Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin. However, Barry Trotz has attempted to spread the wealth by putting Ovechkin on line two recently as those three have netted 19 of the team’s 35 goals. Braden Holtby has been less than what he has been to start the year with backup Philipp Grubauer 0-3-1 with a 4.08 goals against average and a .876 save percentage.

This could be what these teams need. They have never been in this position very much as of late. The Hawks and Caps both have new young talent that are waiting to get comfortable. Expect them to still be playoff fixtures once again come mid April.

Sustainable Hot Starts for Devils/Knights?

Parity is a huge element to the National Hockey League as discussed. Two teams not expected to be where they are, but find themselves near the top play in New Jersey and Vegas. The Devils won nine of their first 11. The Golden Knights won eight of their first 11 in their first month in franchise history. How did these clubs get off to such great starts?

NHL first month

Photo from CBS Sports

The New Jersey Devils landed the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft with Nico Hischier, but no one expected a 9-2-0 start. Everyone had them in rebuild mode. However, they have a superstar in Taylor Hall, who recorded 15 points in their 11 games. Rookie defenseman Will Butcher registered 11 assists. Furthermore, they have a formidable goalie tandem in Cory Schneider (6-1-0) and Keith Kinkaid (3-1-0).

Las Vegas has come in hot to the NHL. The Golden Knights grabbed 16 out of 22 possible points to begin their history. Most “NHL experts” and league followers had them in the cellar all year like most expansion teams. No one saw this coming, but expansion rules are different presently. There is more talent in the NHL than ever before and you can’t protect as many players in the draft.

Many teams get off to unexplainable hot starts that are very difficult to maintain over the course of a season. New Jersey and Vegas could be in the thick of it or easily well out of it by March and April. However, no matter the circumstances, these two clubs have added to this season’s already hectic news feed.

We’ve Only Just Begun

One month is a big enough sample size to get a feel for future results for one’s work. It’s also very small when you put it up against close to seven months worth of work. Therefore, we take note of what has happened already, but expect almost anything for the months ahead.

Hockey is a sport that is unparalleled in a multitude of ways. There are generally favorites in sports like football and basketball. This sport can never mess with that concept at this point in time. Tampa Bay had the third best odds to win it all in preseason, but St. Louis had the 18th best odds. Edmonton had the second best odds and only Arizona had a worse record in the first month of the year.

We can highlight good and bad team traits after one month of play, but this is just the beginning. No one knows where anyone will be at the end of the regular season. That is why hockey stands alone.

 

Featured image from NHL.com

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big brother little brother

Best NHL rivalries: Big brothers and little brothers

The NHL is full of great historic rivalries that are usually between two cities in close proximity. Bad blood runs deep on and off the ice. You see it during the games in the players and in the stands with the fans. These brutal hatreds are a part of what drives the emotional investments in what many call just a game.

Many of these mutual uneasy feelings involve one team playing the big brother role, with the other playing little brother. One usually has championship pedigree while the other has been in dire search for that particular respect for years. There is appeal to both sides. You either root for sustained excellence or the fighting underdog.

History deals with evolutionary concepts. This is what makes these rivalry stories so intriguing. Two teams have been hating each other ever since their existence. The hatred is passed down through generations of fans that must never fade away. You either pick a side or are born into a side that you must never switch.

Canadiens/Maple Leafs

One of the most historic rivalries in the sport is between two Canadian teams. Two franchises that are the oldest in the league.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: NHL.com

The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs joined the NHL in 1917 (league’s inaugural season). There has been no love lost between the two cities since.

A combined 24 Stanley Cups were won between the two from 1917 to 1967. The two teams were in a class of their own and a competitive rivalry ensued. However, Montreal would claim the big brother role of the feud as Toronto has yet to win a championship since 1967.

Thirty-seven cups have been won in total between the two organizations which is the most by any rivalry and any pair of teams. Twenty-four have been won by Montreal and 10 since the last time Toronto did so in ’67.

It is something the Leafs are reminded by every time they visit Montreal as they look up at each banner. Oct. 14 was the first Maple Leaf victory in Montreal in the last 14 tries thanks to an OT-winner from none other than Auston Matthews.

Now that these two hockey clubs are both playoff caliber teams, we may see the first postseason meeting between the two in 38 years.

Blackhawks/Blues

Fighting in the stands is never appropriate, but it seems to be when St. Louis and Chicago play each other. These two hockey communities are one of today’s biggest big brother/little brother rivalries.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

These arch rivals are separated by under 300 miles and both fan bases find their way into enemy territory every time they link up. The dispute spreads further than the ice. It goes into the stands and onto the baseball diamond.

Both cities are crazy about their teams and it is a true war zone when they play. However, in terms of the teams on the ice, one of these teams has had all the fun recently when it comes to winning.

It used to be a true battle between the Hawks and Blues as both teams had two of the three longest cup droughts. Chicago had not won since 1961 and St. Louis had not since 1967. That changed in 2010 as the Hawks won their first of three championships within the last seven-year time frame.

Today, the two clubs have met 12 times in the postseason with Chicago winning eight of the 12 series. The Blues are still in search for their first Stanley Cup as the Hawks continue their reputation of being the league’s modern-day dynasty. This is truly a big brother/little brother rivalry with one team uncomfortably admiring the other and one team giving the other little respect. Nevertheless, the hate is very much mutual.

The Hawks and Blues meet for the first time this year on Oct. 18 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Penguins/Capitals

A rivalry with undeniable similarities to Chicago/St. Louis is between Pittsburgh and Washington. One team has reached the top of the NHL mountain multiple times while the other has yet to capture such glory.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: NHL.com

This could be the most lop-sided of the rivalries discussed. The two teams have met in the playoffs 10 times. Pittsburgh has won nine of those meetings and has captured five Stanley Cups since the berth of the rivalry.

This would usually make a similar matchup unwatchable. However, the 2004 and 2005 drafts have made this matchup unquestionably entertaining.

The No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Capitals in 2004 was Alex Ovechkin. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins was Sidney Crosby.

These two have been the faces of the league since the 2005-06 season putting their teams near the top of the standings each year since. Ovechkin and the Caps have won three Presidents Trophies as the No. 1 team in the regular season. Crosby and the Penguins have eliminated the Capitals three times en route to three Stanley Cups in the Crosby/Ovechkin era.

The Penguins lead the all-time regular season series against the Caps with 145 wins including a win in their first meeting of the year on Oct. 11. Washington has yet to reach a conference final since Ovechkin arrived in the nation’s capital. However, as long as they have the talent they possess to compete with Pittsburgh with the potential to win, this rivalry will never be unwatchable.

Today’s most heated Rivals

Historic rivalries will never die, but today, California is host to three teams who may hate each other more than any two teams do in the NHL.

This is unlike the big brother/little brother rivalries in that all three of these teams have had success. Three Stanley Cup championships are combined by each organization since 1993. This is like three big business rivals fighting each other to be the dominant force. Each of these teams are in the same division and meet regularly. The battle of California is heated and is home to extremely passionate fans from Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

Rivalries are important. Professional sports and all forms of competition need motives to put those involved in the right frame of mind. Mental toughness and a teams’ psyche is one of the biggest components in winning a hockey game. The teams that win it all are the ones that are mentally tough. Therefore, there is no room to like the opposition.

 

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power rankings

NHL week one review

We have completed one week of hockey. Three stories headline the past week that involve the league’s best teams. Connor McDavid increased his speed in the offseason (if that’s possible). The Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks are really good. Alexander Ovechkin is a man among boys still on his team that dominates the regular season.

Referees have enforced the slashing a bit too much for my liking at times, but it was a great week. The Golden Knights won their first three games in franchise history, which no expansion team has ever done. We saw 235 goals scored. Jaromir Jagr signed with Calgary to prolong his illustrious career to a 24th season. This all took place in week one, but the excitement will continue to grow until early June.

There is always a chance something special could happen on any given night in the NHL. Keep your eyes open as this is only the beginning.

Well-Oiled Machine

NHL week one review

Photo: Matchsticks and Gasoline

Edmonton is off to a slow start, winning one of their first three, but no one is doubting where they will be at the end. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen Connor McDavid skate and possess the puck from end to end, you need to.

The 20-year-old league MVP has recorded four points in his first three games including a hat trick in game one.

Eight minutes into the third period of that game, McDavid took the puck from his own defensive circle. He then proceeded to skate past every player on the ice, posses the puck at full speed and put it past the net minder Smith- untouched.

The Oiler captain is impressive by his leadership on and off the ice. McDavid is always looking forward and knowing that tonight was great, but “we have a long way to go” (NHL.com). It is this mindset the third year superstar has that may prove the Oilers to be prominent contenders in the West this year.

Leafs/Hawks

Toronto and Chicago may have the two best offenses in the league. No club has registered more goals than these two.

You expect these numbers from teams like Chicago, but it’s nice to see a new face in the department. The Leafs scored 19 goals through their first three games and the Hawks notched 18. Both teams met Monday night in a thrilling game between two of the league’s current top tier hockey clubs. Will we see these two link up in late May and early June?

NHL week one review

Photo: SB Nation

The game started out with the Blackhawks jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Toronto would tie it in the third, fall behind 3-2, then tie it on the power play with under five minutes to play.

It headed to overtime where Auston Matthews would net one of the most gorgeous wrist shots you will see as the Leafs took the game 4-3 in overtime. A battle like this can be very telling even at this early stage of a season.

Teams are trying to put points in the bank right now and set themselves up to in good position in the second half. Two points in October is worth the same as two points in March.

The games played to start the year are played with such high energy. This one between the Hawks and Leafs definitely set the precedent of what we hope to see more of as this season progresses.

Alexander is still the great

So, Alexander Ovechkin recorded seven goals in his first two games. He became the first player to do so since the NHL’s inaugural season (1917-18). Alex attributes his two hat tricks to his sister-in-law because “every time she’s in town, like I score a hat trick,” he said (ESPN). His theory proved possible as he was held scoreless Monday night as his sister-in-law traveled back home. Ovy was said to have a down year last season after his 33-goal output which is amazing in itself.

NHL week one review

Photo: ESPN

The three-time MVP has never scored less than 32 goals (even in a shortened season) and has scored 50 or more in seven seasons. His speed is still there and his shot is obviously still there at the age of 32. No one doubts his ability to score and put up points. It is his ability to lead his team to victory and take the next step in his 13th season that is questioned.

The Washington Capitals have finished atop the league standings in each of the past two seasons, but have lost to Pittsburgh in the second round both years. The franchise has yet to reach a conference final in the Ovechkin era.

Therefore, each successful regular season will not be held in high regard until we witness the Capitals take the next step. Alex Ovechkin will still be looked at among the NHL’s elite, but like many of his counterparts, you are judged by wins, losses and championships at the end of the day.

Week one

I did not care for a few of the calls made this past week as I discussed earlier. However, the entertainment value did not diminish in the slightest.

This subtle protection package we have now may be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. There was an exceptional amount of offense this week, which is what we wish to see in all sports. We want to see more homers, touchdowns and goals. It would be very difficult to lessen the excitement of NHL hockey. Week one was a success, can’t wait for the next 35.

Good news is, we don’t have to wait..

 

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Get the Rallies Goin'

NHL fans: How much do they affect the game?

The art of waving rally towels and the overall buzz and hype in big games gets me. The relationship between the in-game experience and the play on the ice intrigues me. Fans unquestionably have an impact on the game. But, how much truth goes into that idea?

Management, coaching staff and the players themselves are always the number one reason for a team’s success. But, “without fans, there would be no game” said Hall of Famer Brett Hull. The crowd, atmosphere and electricity is always the most memorable part of a big game. A player’s duty is always to thank the fans after a win for their support. The fans are the fuel and the team is the race car.

Organizations across the league have gone through countless changes to their in-game experiences. And team success has immediately followed. The last 10 years have seen Washington, Chicago and now Nashville take on makeovers on and around the ice.

Capital one arena (capitals)

Alexander Ovechkin has reshaped the culture in the nation’s capital. But, the most overlooked piece to their return to prominence is how they “rock the red” on a nightly basis.

It’s not a common trend to change team colors. But, the Caps did so prior to the 2007-2008 season. They have made red stanchions around the arena to reflect the team’s colors. And they chant “rock the red” before every home game.

NHL fans

They Rock the Red in the District of Columbia. Photo Courtesy of Flickr

The Washington Capitals have qualified for the postseason each year since the changes. They have also had one of the better average attendances in the NHL.

Most notably in 2015, the Caps on average drew 19,500 fans per night, which is 110.5 percent capacity at the Capital One Arena. Business has been good for the organization. But, there is definitely room for improvement.

Caps fans have yet to see a conference final in the Ovechkin era. According to espn.com, the Capital One Arena has 100 percent of vendors inside the arena that are in violation of health requirements. The venue was recently renamed (formerly Verizon Center) and could also be revamped.

Change is difficult to execute because arenas are often not owned by the teams themselves. But, more change to the in game experience may be what the Caps need to take the next step.

united center (Blackhawks)

The Chicago Blackhawks are the modern day NHL dynasty. Their success began with the consecutive drafts involving Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. But it’s the deafening crowd at the United Center that makes it one of the toughest environments for the opposition.

NHL fans

Blackhawks celebrate their 1st Stanley Cup win on home ice. Photo Courtesy of Journal Star

Jim Cornelison (Blackhawks anthem singer) started working full-time at the United Center in 2007. It is one of the most authentic and unifying acts in the sport. Silence is golden typically when the anthem is being sung.

But at the United Center, the fans have stood and cheered during the singing since Cornelison took the reigns. Tickets are very expensive in Chicago, but a seat in section 300 has said to feel the same as any other.

An even more iconic song sung at the United center is that of Chelsea Dagger. It is sung in unison by the Chicago faithful after every Blackhawk goal scored. Rarely is a goal song widely known across the league. But, since 2008, Chelsea Dagger is one of the most recognizable facets of hockey in Chicago.

The significance of these facts is simple. The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2007. Season ticket base has increased over 300 percent, and they have sold out 414 consecutive games as of April 5, 2017. The degree of difficulty there is high with United being the third largest arena (in terms of seating capacity) in the NHL. You cannot ignore the correlation between the crowd at the “Madhouse on Madison” and the team itself.

Bridgestone Arena (predators)

The Nashville Predators entered the NHL in 1998. Nineteen years later we witnessed their run to the Stanley Cup Final. And according to Pierre McGuire, “if you haven’t been here, you got to see a game in Nashville”.

The Music City heroes of this past year are still a young franchise that has not yet seen an enormous deal of success. But, this past spring the Preds went toe-to-toe with the champions of Pittsburgh. And all people could talk about was the roaring crowd of the Nashville faithful.

NHL fans

“You can’t stop Preds fans, you can only hope to contain them” – Bob Hille Photo Courtesy of The Sporting News

Small market teams do not usually get this kind of recognition, but this season was different than all others for this organization. They had their highest average attendance in team history, and almost broke the world record for loudest crowd roar during the postseason. The decibels inside the arena during the conference finals came in at 129.4, which nearly reached the Guinness book’s 130.4.

The team’s invigoration from the Nashville crowd helped them achieve the unthinkable. They swept the No. 1 seeded Chicago Blackhawks as an eight seed and carried that momentum all the way to the finals. The Preds even outplayed Pittsburgh for the majority of the series and fell just short.

Every fan wants to know that their crazed emotional investment is impactful. These teams undeniably prove that fact. The troubling times during rebuilds and being a new team in the league is rough. But, I guarantee the fan bases in these markets will tell you the wait was worth every second.

 

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Justin Williams free agency: Drawing interest as productive veteran

Justin Williams is going to get a ton of money, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

At 35 years old, Williams is on the final years of his NHL career. With the way he played last year, one wouldn’t know he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Last season, the 16-year veteran tallied 24 goals and 48 points in his second season with the Washington Capitals. According to Hockey Reference, he had his highest career shooting percentage at 14.4 percent. His Corsi and Fenwick ratings were both above 50 percent, signaling that the Caps possessed the puck well with Williams on the ice.

Williams’ contract with Washington expired, and with T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov signing deals, it is unlikely the right winger reunites with them in the nation’s capital. And so, he hits the open market, presenting a quandary for front offices: how many years and how much money do we give an aging player who’s still producing?

Justin Williams’ Value

Justin Williams free agency

Williams won two of his three Stanley Cups with Los Angeles. Photo by Victor Decolongon, Getty Images.

He has the most value in his overall experience in the postseason. In 140 playoff games, he’s notched 94 points while winning three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

During that postseason, Williams scored nine goals and 16 assists. Even as the elder statesman with the Capitals this past year, he recorded nine points in 13 games. As perplexing as it is to outsiders, players and fans know that Justin Williams is reliable in the playoffs.

Justin Williams can help any team that needs a championship-caliber player with his playoff expertise. Combine his resumé with need and teams should fork over the dough to sign him.

Justin Williams’ Cap Hit and the RW Market

Looking at the rest of the free agent market, he can sign at about any time that he wants. Williams is the second-best right wing on the block. Alexander Radulov is the top name on the right side, but they’re both different players at different points in their careers.

Radulov enjoyed a breakout campaign with Montreal after a stint in the KHL. At 30 years old, he still has a handful of good years left. Teams are likely to ink him to a longer deal than Williams. Radulov will go to a team that wants him for the long haul. Williams should sign around a two to three-year deal.

The Capitals paid Williams a modest $3.25 million the past two seasons, per CapFriendly. He hasn’t made more than $4 million in his career. Based on his overall recent production, he should achieve that milestone. Justin Williams can use his play at an old age as leverage to raise the monetary value. Teams will balk at 35 years old. Anything more than three years is excessive. Two or three years, until his skating and his scoring declines, are the fairest lengths for both sides.

Justin Williams free agency prospects

Justin Williams has his own list of coveted places. His list is reportedly down to three, though it is unsure what those teams are. Yesterday, TSN’s Darren Dreger listed Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the New York Islanders as teams interested in him (he said the quoted tweet is incorrect so it has nothing to do with his commentary).

The Islanders are looking to add another productive scorer as they look to return to the playoffs. CapFriendly says they have $9 million to play with in cap, so they won’t pursue another big free agent if Williams signs there. Plus, they’d have to shuffle their lineup to accommodate him. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Josh Ho-Sang and Cal Clutterbuck are all right wingers. Williams would have to slot elsewhere or the Isles have to swap someone on the roster.

Justin Williams free agency

Justin Williams may join the orange and white next year instead of roughing them up. Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images.

Would Justin Williams return to the city where he made his NHL debut? The Flyers have slightly more cap room than the Islanders, but still less than $10 million. However, Williams is a great fit for a team that needs to replace Brayden Schenn’s output. Williams can fit on the second or third line and help a team with postseason potential. Philadelphia is an up and coming team. With Williams’ veteran leadership, he can push them over the top in a daunting Metro Division.

Of these three teams, Tampa Bay makes the most sense. Williams would be their best winger not named Nikita Kucherov. With over $20 million in cap space, the Lightning can afford to overpay him while not restricting their budget. If that’s what it takes for Tampa to replenish their forwards, then they should’ve already been on the phone when midnight struck today.

Justin Williams, at 35 years old, is still a capable NHL player and is one of the better free agent options. Word is he wants to stay in the East, though it’s unknown what teams he is interested in playing for. Whichever team he signs with, they will pay big bucks to land him, but receive a valuable piece for it.

 

Feature image by Nick Wass, AP/Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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