Kings Send Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter

With the NHL trade deadline fast approaching (Monday, February 27) the LA Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off the first significant trade — unless you consider New Jersey’s acquisition of Alexei Ponikarovsky: 10 points (4g-6a) in 13 games. Columbus acquired 25-year-old defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional 1st round pick from Los Angeles for former 40-goal scorer Jeff Carter. Current King Mike Richards and Carter were traded exactly eight months ago from Philadelphia and will now reunite in Hollywood hoping to save the goal-starved Kings season.

Carter, 27, has struggled this season in Columbus (who hasn’t), but the previous three seasons he netted 46, 33 and 36 goals; once you score 40 goals in a season in this league, you are always expected to reach that plateau and are held to high expectations — making Carter’s 15 goals this season an aberration.

Johnson is a steady two-way defenseman that should help the Jackets improve on the back end, and I always believe a team should build its foundation from the goaltender out. With linchpins Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski already on the blueline in Ohio, Johnson will help solidify that group and also possibly provide some help for floundering goalie Steve Mason (who may also be traded by Monday).

So who’s next to be traded….Rick Nash? Derek Roy? Ales Hemsky? Luke Schenn? Someone unexpected perhaps?

Expect Detroit to make a move, seeing as they have a nice chunk of space to reach the salary cap thanks to Brian Rafalski’s retirement. Los Angeles could still make another move, or two, possibly shipping goalie Jonathan Bernier to a team where he can be a no. 1 starter.

What will Washington do as they sit on the outside of the playoff picture after entering the season as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup? Will the NY Rangers be tempted to add an impact player such as Nash despite their success and risk messing with the chemistry of mostly homegrown players on their roster?

By 3pm Monday afternoon, we will know which teams improved and which teams are giving up hope on winning the 2012 Stanley Cup.

Devils Thankful for Brodeur after Topping Columbus in OT

Devils 2           Columbus 1    — shootout

Over his 17-year NHL career, Martin Brodeur has given the New Jersey Devils franchise and its fans a lot of reasons to be thankful — three Stanley Cups, the most wins and shutouts in NHL history would be a good place to start. But on Wednesday night at Prudential Center, everyone was thankful that Brodeur was in net, stopping 35 of 36 Columbus Blue Jackets’ shots — and then two more in the shootout — as New Jersey rebounded from a tough loss in Florida on Monday night and skated to a 2-1 victory on Thanksgiving eve.

After a scoreless first period, Brodeur would make one of his biggest saves in the game when he stared down two Blue Jackets coming at him with no defenders of his to slow them down. On the play Vinny Prospal attempted to hit Rick Nash with a backhand pass across the mouth of the crease, but Brodeur alertly poked the puck away with his goal stick to avert what seemed to be a sure goal.

About forty-one seconds later Dainius Zubrus gave the Devils a 1-0 lead when he collected a loose rebound in the slot and swatted it past Jackets’ goalie Curtis Sanford for his seventh goal of the season. “Our defenseman got a shot on the net and Zubie was in the right spot and he got that second chance,” said Patrik Elias who now has 20 points in 20 games. “He’s been in those right spots lately.”

The score remained the same until Jared Boll tied it 6:01 into the third when Marc Methot’s long shot deflected off his skate and past Brodeur.Columbus seemed determined to score in the third period as they out-shot New Jersey 17-3 over the final twenty minutes, but other than Boll’s goal they were unable to solve Brodeur.

The Devils gave the Blue Jackets six power plays throughout the game and were able to kill them all off, something that has become the norm at home –New Jerseyhas yet to surrender a power play goal at the Rock this season (36-for-36) and ranks first in the NHL on the penalty kill (94%). “Some nights it’s all about luck,” said Elias of his team’s PK, “the puck is bouncing around there and they had a couple of great opportunities. Marty makes the save or it gets blocked; sometimes it’s not about X’s and O’s, you have to get lucky.”

After a scoreless overtime, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise each scored on their shootout attempts, while Brodeur denied Nash and Mark Letestu — improving the Devils’ record to 5-1 in the tie-breaker. “It’s nice going second (in the shootout),” said Parise. “I can watch a little bit, I was able to watch when Kovy came in and watch the replay to see what their goalie was doing.”

The Devils captain was also very thankful that Brodeur was backstopping the team on this night as the team continues to pile up points early in the season. “He played very well, made great saves when we needed him to; we kind of got the play taken to us at certain points of this game,” explained Parise. “He’s a big reason why we got to overtime and the shootout.”

Game Notes: Adam Larsson assisted on Zubrus’ goal, giving him an assist in three consecutive games; Elias had the other assist and now has points in four straight games. Kovalchuk is 4-for-4 this season in shootouts; Columbus has never won a game in New Jersey (0-3-1). Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski led all skaters in ice-time with 28:56 while Kovalchuk led the Devils with 23:17. Parise led all players with seven shots on goal; Nash and Jeff Carter led Columbus with six apiece. Ex-Ranger defenseman Fedor Tyutin led all players with three blocked shots and New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov led all players with three hits. New Jersey (11-8-1) is back in action on Friday afternoon when they play against the NY Islanders (5-10-4) and Columbus (5-13-3) is on the ice again also on Friday when they host Buffalo (12-8-1).

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Martin Brodeur (NJ) – 35 saves, win (5)

#2 – Patrik Elias (NJ) – assist (12)

#3 – Curtis Sanford (Cbj) – 23 saves, ot loss (2)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Humble Kessel Key to Toronto’s Resurgence

It would be acceptable to suggest that Phil Kessel’s career would have been a success after he survived a bout with testicular cancer and returned to play in the NHL. But the soft-spoken Kessel forced Boston to trade him, inevitably to Toronto, has a burning desire to win the Stanley Cup and after the first month of this season the 24-year-old just may lead the Leafs to their first championship since 1967. “No hard feelings,” he said when asked if he was jealous. “They had a great year last year, I’m happy for them and hopefully one day we win one here (in Toronto).” Then he added with a grin, “Preferably this year.”

He currently leads the league in goals (10) and points (21), while helping Torontoto a hot start this season (9-4-1) good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference behind Pittsburgh. Brian Burke, the Leafs’ GM, paid a hefty ransom to acquire Kessel from Boston — sending two first round picks and a second round pick — and although the Bruins were able to obtain the uber-talented Tyler Seguin in the 2010 NHL draft (with the Maple Leafs second overall pick) and win a Stanley Cup last season, Toronto should be better in the long run if Kessel continues to evolve into a consistent sniper.

Drafted by Boston fifth overall in 2006, Kessel was two months into his NHL career when he was diagnosed with cancer. “By far, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he admitted. “It made me stronger.” Remarkably, he missed only 11 regular season games and was back in the Bruins’ lineup by January of 2007. “Obviously it changes you,” he said. “You live life to its fullest and you never take anything for granted.” His final season (2008-09) in Beantown is where his talent really began to show as he netted 36 goals in 70 games, beginning a stretch of three consecutive 30-goal seasons.

In 2010 Kessel enjoyed one of the highlights of his career to date — representing the United States at the Winter Olympics, where the squad earned a silver medal after losing to Canada in overtime. “It was a great experience, I had a great time,” Kessel recalled with a smile. “It’s too bad we didn’t win that last game, but it was great to be a part of.”

Last season he was selected to play in his first All-Star game and this season his hot play in October earned him NHL player-of-the-month. “I’m playing with a good team here,” Kessel said, spurning the spotlight. “I have good linemates; we’ve been clicking really well this year so far. But it’s a long year; hopefully we can keep it up.”

It appears the sky is the limit for Kessel who has already appeared in 388 NHL games, scoring 266 points (138g-128a), and his continued development will most likely determine if Toronto ends the league’s longest championship drought.

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Sharks’ Comeback Bites Devils in Shootout

San Jose 4              Devils 3   — shootout

Over the past few seasons the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks have played some wildly entertaining games and Friday night at the Prudential Center was no different, as the visiting Sharks rallied from two goals down and beat the Devils in a shootout after tying the game again with 33 seconds left in regulation. Johan Hedberg ended up as the hard-luck loser in this one as he was brilliant in goal for New Jersey, finishing with 37 saves. “I thought he was great,” said coach Peter DeBoer after the game, “he gave us a chance to win, to get a point.”

The Devils opened the scoring 13:53into the game when Patrik Elias scored off a perfect circle-to-circle pass from Ilya Kovalchuk, snapping a wrist shot top shelf past Sharks netminder Antti Niemi. The power play goal was the 92nd of Elias’ career, tying him with John MacLean for most in franchise history.

With 2:52left in the period, the Devils lost their second line center Jacob Josefson when he crashed hard into the boards behind the San Jose goal. The 20-year-old skated immediately to the bench and into the locker room with his right arm dangling; it was later announced he had a broken right clavicle.

Thirty-six seconds into the second period Zach Parise was awarded a penalty shot when Sharks defenseman Brent Burns pulled him down on a shorthanded breakaway. The Devils captain has become a master of sorts in penalty shots/shootout attempts lately and he continued that reputation as he increased the lead to 2-0, faking out Niemi with his forehand and slipping a backhand shot through the goalie’s five-hole.

Hedberg held the Sharks scoreless as long as he could with the shot total rising rapidly, but he was finally beaten 15:18into the second when Joe Thornton’s wrist shot slid into the net under the goalie’s pads. “I’m not sure how that went in,” Hedberg admitted, “it surprised me too; I don’t know why I didn’t stop that, I’m not sure actually.” Ryane Clowe completed the comeback and evened the score 1:03 later when the puck pin-balled off of his shin pad and found the back of the net.

San  Jose continued to outshoot the Devils but the game remained even until 13:18 had elapsed and David Clarkson scored his second goal in as many games, converting a beautiful spin-o-rama feed from Mattias Tedenby. “He made a great play to me in front,” said Clarkson, “I had enough time and found the back of the net.”

Victory for New Jersey seemed certain until the final minute when with their goalie pulled for an extra-attacker, the Sharks tied the game as Joe Pavelski wired a shot through a maze of players in front of the crease. Hedberg appeared to be interfered with on the play, and he tried to plead his case but the officials didn’t see it that way and the game was tied. “We were thirty seconds away from winning the game and we still had a chance in the shootout,” said Parise afterwards. “I think we know we have to be a lot better. It wasn’t our best game tonight and we know there are going to be more of those, but we definitely need to be better for tomorrow.”

The game remained 3-3 after a five-minute overtime, sending the outcome to be decided by a shootout. Kovalchuk scored first, beating Niemi with a rising backhand and Pavelski’s attempt went wide of Hedberg’s cage. Parise was denied on his attempt, evening the score between he and Niemi. “He made a good save on it,” said Parise. Niemi didn’t want to get burned on the same move as earlier and was ready. “You can’t really cheat too much,” said the Sharks’ goalkeeper. “You just have to try and wait him out.” Michal Handzus evened the tie breaker with a shot that hit the goalpost and then went in off Hedberg’s back.

Elias attempted a wrist shot through the goalie’s five-hole and was denied and Clowe won the game when he flipped a backhand over the Moose’s glove hand. “I’ve taken a few shootouts now over the years and that’s kind of my go-to move, I usually go backhand,” said Clowe. “It’s a little easier I guess when I face Eastern Conference goalies because they don’t get to see you as much. Hedberg’s kind of a smaller goalie and I have a long stick, long reach; I try to use that when I go to my backhand. I think he was over there, but I got it up over his pad.”

Game Notes: Thornton (the Sharks captain) played in his 1000th NHL game, and had two points, giving him 42 points in 34 career games against New Jersey. Colin White played his first game against the team he spent the past 11 seasons with and the two-time Stanley Cup winner was applauded by the Devils fans when he was announced during pre-game in the San Jose starting lineup; he played 14:44, led all players with three hits, was minus-1 and had one shot on goal. Kovalchuk led all skaters in ice-time with 32:25 and Dan Boyle led the Sharks with 31:23. Pavelski, Boyle and Clowe led all players with six shots on goal, and Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov led all players with four blocked shots. New Jersey (3-1-1) is back in action Saturday night when they play at Pittsburgh (5-2-2) and San Jose (2-3-0) will also be in action that night when they play at Boston (3-4-0).

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Joe Pavelski (SJ) – goal (3), assist (1)

#2 – Johan Hedberg (NJ) – 37 saves, OT loss (3-0-1)

#3 – David Clarkson (NJ) – goal (2), assist (1)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Three More Weeks Until Hockey is Back…

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote, so I will try to cover a variety of topics here:

Congrats to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 @ Vancouver. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were off the charts in that series, and Tim Thomas’ performance was legendary. That Claude Julien guy that coaches the B’s is pretty good, it’d be nice if the Devils had a coach like that…

The Atlanta Thrashers (and their fugly uniforms) are gone and the Winnipeg Jets are back! It’s a shame they won’t be wearing the old uniforms, but a new beginning does deserve a new look and I think I like what I saw from the logo and the uniform scheme.

My sincere and deepest condolences to the families of all of the hockey players that passed away this summer. I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Russia with the plane crash and I still cannot erase the images of Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek and Alexander Vasyunov’s faces from my mind; hopefully they didn’t suffer. They will all be missed and never, ever forgotten.

So the Philadelphia Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal this season, making him the 500th goalie they have employed since Martin Brodeur became a New Jersey Devil and the 1,000th netminder since they last won the Cup in 1975. They also traded their two best players — Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — in separate deals that did not bring back equal value and signed 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. Good luck with that.

It seems certain that Sidney Crosby won’t be ready for the start of the season, but could suit up at some point in 2011-12. Concussions are a delicate issue and Crosby’s career could be derailed like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya before him. Intentional head shots must be eliminated from the game, but certain players (ahem Criesby…) are also responsible for protecting themselves and need to stop admiring their passes.

Don’t be surprised if the New York Islanders (that’s right, I said it) make the playoffs this season. IF they can stay healthy! John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson seem primed to have big seasons and hopefully Evgeni Nabokov can add some stability to what has been a blue cross and blue shield crease the last few seasons.

The Rangers added the biggest fish in the free-agent pool in Brad Richards, but have we not learned anything over the past six seasons — the team that signs the top free agent never wins the Cup. They did make one right move this summer — naming Ryan Callahan their new captain.

The Devils had a semi-quiet offseason after selecting Adam Larsson with the 4th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They were able to rid themselves of Colin White and Brian Rolston’s ridiculous contracts, and they were able to re-sign Andy Greene and Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg. Both Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise have been cleared to start the season, but Travis Zajac may not be back until December after tearing his achilles tendon during an off-ice workout; Zajac’s team record consecutive games streak will end at 401. Cam Janssen is back with NJ and Petr Sykora could be too — he will be in training camp on a tryout basis. The new coach is Peter DeBoer who was fired from the Florida Panthers, the same DeBoer who helped the Cats reach 94 points a few years back — a remarkable feat in itself with the roster he was given. I predict Mattias Tedenby will net at least 20 goals this season and Jacob Josefson will have 30 assists as they help lead the Devs back to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup.

Boston begins defense of it’s Championship on opening night (October 6); the Rangers open in Sweden against the LA Kings the following day (October 7); the Islanders (vs. Florida) and Devils (vs. Philly) both begin their seasons on Saturday October 8; and the new Winnipeg/old Atlanta team makes it’s debut on Sunday October 9 vs. Montreal.

Rafalski and Weight Call it a Career

The NHL lost two veterans to retirement this week, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski (11 seasons) and New York Islanders center Doug Weight (19 seasons). Both American players had stellar careers, highlighted by winning every hockey player’s dream — the Stanley Cup.

Rafalski joined the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Wisconsin, whom the team’s scouts found playing over in Europe (for four years!). Perhaps his size (5’10”, 195 lbs.) was the reason he was overlooked by the other 29 NHL clubs, but he seamlessly fit in on the Devils’ blue line and partnered with legend Scott Stevens immediately and never looked back. As a 25-year-old rookie he helped guide New Jersey to a championship in 2000 and a return to the Finals in 2001. He was a major part of the Devils 2003 Cup win as well and also won silver medals with Team USA at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010. In 2007 he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent to be closer to his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan and the move paid off for both parties — Rafalski and Detroit hoisted the Cup in 2008 and made in back to the Finals in 2009. This past season he spent a lot of time playing hurt and missed a handful of games, which can be eye-opening for some athletes that the time has come to hang up the skates. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” he said at his retirement press conference, “That gets tiring.” He retired with one year ($6 million) left on his contract, citing that family is most important now, “What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family; I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that will be my focus.”

Rafalski’s career totals: (regular season) 79 goals, 438 assists, 515 points, plus-178, 833 games/(playoffs) 29 goals, 71 assists, 100 points, plus-42, 165 games/(olympics) 13 points in 17 games

Weight had a much different path to the NHL, he was drafted 34th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL Draft out of Lake Superior State University and made his NHL debut in a 1990 playoff game with the Blueshirts. He played parts of two seasons with the Rangers before being traded to Edmonton in a deal that helped New York secure the 1994 Stanley Cup. A scoring dynamo with the Oilers, he was part of one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with Bill Guerin and Ryan Smyth; Weight never reached the Finals in Edmonton and was sent to St. Louis in another blockbuster deal prior to the 2001-02 season.  After two and a half seasons with the Blues he was traded to Carolina in 2006 and finally lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after the Hurricanes’ amazing playoff run, topping the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game series. The following summer he re-signed with the Blues and played another 111 games before being shipped to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Prior to the 2008-09 season he signed with the Islanders, a place he and his family now call home. He provided leadership and guidance for the young Isles and was almost like a father-figure for their players; he even had John Tavares live with his family during Tavares’ rookie season. A severe back injury limited his time to only 18 games this past season, but at the end of the season he resurfaced  behind the Isles’ bench as an assistant coach, a preview of things to come. In announcing his retirement on May 26, it was also announced that he is now an assistant coach and special assistant ‘to’ GM Garth Snow (sounds very much like Dwight Schrute’s job!).

Weight’s career totals: (regular season) 278 goals, 755 assists, 1,033  points, 80 power play goals, minus-58, 1,238 games/(playoffs) 23 goals, 49 assists, 72 points, minus-13, 97 games/(olympics) 8 points in 16 games

Are they both Hall-of-Famers? Is just one of them destined for the Hall or will neither make it? Hard to say, but I think Weight could make it. They both will surely make the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d just like to add that I had the privilege of interviewing both players during their careers and they were both class acts who made my job fun and a lot easier.

Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Eastern Conference predictions

Round 1:

(1) Washington over (8) NY Rangers

(7) Buffalo over (2) Philadelphia

(3) Boston over (6) Montreal

(4) Pittsburgh over (5) Tampa Bay

Round 2:

(1) Washington over (7) Buffalo

(3) Boston over (4) Pittsburgh

Round 3:

(3) Boston over (1) Washington

Washington (1)      vs.    NY Rangers (8)

Last Cup Win: Washington (never), NY Rangers (1994)

Why the Capitals will win: They aren’t intimidated by the Rangers or their goaltender whom has been known to get in some of his opponents’ heads (see: New Jersey Devils). Washington is also one of the deepest teams in the league and they will wear their undermanned first round opponent down.

Why the Rangers will win: They spanked Washington twice this season (6-0, 7-0) and when they are on their game, the Blueshirts have all of the necessary components to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league; solid goaltending, timely scoring and team defense will lead New York to the upset win over the Caps.

Washington’s most important player: Tempted to say Alex Ovechkin, but it’s Mike Green; if he is healthy and has fresh legs he could bury the Rangers (a team that has taken a penalty or two) with his power play prowess.

New York’s most important player: The soul of the Rangers is Henrik Lundqvist, if he falters, they are cooked. He’s only won two playoff series in his career, but his league-leading 11 shutouts this season tell you that he is capable of shutting down any team in the NHL.

Washington’s biggest question mark: It has to be the goaltending, despite the fact that they won the East with three goaltenders — two of them rookies. Michal Neuvirth will get the nod to begin the series, and that’s probably the right call. He won back-to-back Calder Cups for the Hershey Bears and was victorious in 27 of his 48 starts with the Caps this season.

New York’s biggest question mark: Which version of Marian Gaborik will show up in this series? Will it be the same Gaborik that had only 48 points (22 goals) in 62 games this season or will he become the two-time 40-goal scorer that the Rangers are paying for?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Washington (Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble), New York (Chris Drury, Ruslan Fedotenko)

PREDICTION: CAPITALS IN 6 — Gaborik and Lundqvist will show up and the Rangers will put up a fight, but Ovechkin will eliminate them with a hat trick in Game 6.

Philadelphia (2)     vs. Buffalo (7)

Last Cup Win: Philadelphia (1975), Buffalo (never)

Why the Flyers will win: Since the start of last season’s playoffs Philadelphia has probably been the best team in the NHL. With the talent on this roster they should walk all over the Sabres, but only if their power play finds itself. This season they ranked 19th in the NHL out of 30 teams, with a putrid 16.6%. Offensive juggernauts that were ranked ahead of them: Buffalo, Colorado, Atlanta, Minnesota and Ottawa.

Why the Sabres will win: They have Ryan Miller and the Flyers don’t; it’s as simple as that. He has won playoff series as the favorite and the underdog in his career, and Buffalo is the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs. If Miller is at less than 100%, then the Sabres will be in trouble.

Philadelphia’s most important player: Chris Pronger’s presence alone will make a difference in the series, but only if he’s healthy enough to be there. His absence over the final weeks of the season is the reason the Flyers crashed and stumbled out of the East’s top spot.

Buffalo’s most important player: Aside from Miller, it’s Thomas Vanek who very quietly had a solid season — 73 points (32g-41a) in 80 games. If Drew Stafford can get into one of his hot streaks it will make a big difference in the series.

Philadelphia’s biggest question mark: As always since Ron Hextall left, it’s goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky will start Game 1, but lurking behind him are somewhat proven veterans in Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher.

Buffalo’s biggest question mark: Can Tyler Myers and the Sabres’ defensive corps stop the flock of talented Flyers forwards is a good place to start; also how will smallish rookie Tyler Ennis (who had a real nice season) hold up in a seven-game series against the rugged Philadelphians?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Philadelphia (Nick Boynton, Sean O’Donnell, Pronger, Kris Versteeg), Buffalo (Rob Niedermayer)

PREDICTION: SABRES IN 7 — Miller shines as Buffalo wins a l-e-n-g-t-h-y Game 7 in Philadelphia.

Boston (3)       vs. Montreal (6)

Last Cup Win: Boston (1972), Montreal (1993)

Why the Bruins will win: Boston’s depth is only matched by Washington in the East as far as I’m concerned, especially when your top three centers are Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Rich Peverley. The addition of Tomas Kaberle really balanced out the defense in Beantown too.

Why the Canadiens will win: If I had to pick one team in the East that would give Boston the biggest challenge, I’d say Montreal. These two teams know each other inside and out with all of their legendary battles throughout time. Also how will Boston react after blowing a three games-to-none lead in last year’s East semi-finals.

Boston’s most important player: Tim Thomas is the easy choice here, if he continues playing the way he did during the season (35-11-9, 2.00 GAA, .938 save %, 9 shutouts), the Bruins should be able to choke-out the sometimes offensively challenged Habs.

Montreal’s most important player: Where were you this season Scott Gomez? Horrible season (7g-31a, minus-15 in 80 games) from one of the veterans on the Canadiens, but during last spring’s run to the East Finals he put up 14 points in 19 games. If he can get on that type of run it would be much appreciated in Montreal.

Boston’s biggest question mark: The Bruins had a great year, but after choking away last season’s opportunity to beat the Flyers in the semis, anything less than a trip to the East Finals would be a failure. It will be interesting to see how they react if they get Montreal into an elimination game.

Montreal’s biggest question mark: Last season’s dramatic run was led by goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is now with the St. Louis Blues. Now it’s Carey Price’s turn and judging from the season he just had (38-28-6, 8 shutouts) he could be a difference maker, not only this season but for many, many more to come.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Boston (Mark Recchi (2), Shawn Thornton), Montreal (Gomez (2), Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Hal Gill, Brent Sopel)

PREDICTION: BRUINS IN 7 – Boston will bend, but won’t break as they hold off the Habs; Nathan Horton, playing in his first playoffs, will have a monster series.

Pittsburgh (4)                vs. Tampa Bay (5)

Last Cup Win: Pittsburgh (2009), Tampa Bay (2004)

Why the Penguins will win: They have an elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal will not only shut down Steven Stamkos, but he’ll also chip in a few big goals.

Why the Lightning will win: Without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the Lightning can focus their attention on solid team defense and timely goals. Whether or not Stamkos and Simon Gagne can score multiple times will be determining factors in the series.

Pittsburgh’s most important player: It will be all of their penalty killers; they led the league killing off penalties at an 86.2% clip and if they can shut down Tampa’s powerful power play the series could be a quick one.

Tampa Bay’s most important player: If he becomes a playoff-beast once again, it will be the league’s second leading point getter Martin St. Louis (99 points). He’s a proven playoff performer (48 pts in 45 games) and if he gets hot the Pens will become postseason spectators.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question mark: If there is a small chance he can play, does Pittsburgh risk everything and put Crosby out there? If Crosby doesn’t play, who else besides Staal is going to contribute offensively?

Tampa Bay’s biggest question mark: In the 2006 playoffs, Dwayne Roloson led the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and then blew out his knee in Game 1. That was the last time he played in a playoff game, so five years later it’s hard to tell what you are going to get from the veteran netminder.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Pittsburgh (Chris Kunitz (2), Craig Adams (2), Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Alex Kovalev, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Tyler Kennedy, Michael Rupp, Max Talbot, Eric Godard), Tampa Bay (Vincent Lecavalier, St. Louis, Pavel Kubina)

PREDICTION: PENGUINS IN 7 — The Lightning prove to be a valiant opponent but Fleury will top Roloson in a wild Game 7

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

How the West Will Be Won

How the West Will Be Won

Western Conference predictions

Round 1:

(8) Chicago over (1) Vancouver

(7) Los Angeles over (2) San Jose

(3) Detroit over (6) Phoenix

(4) Anaheim over (5) Nashville

Round 2:

(8) Chicago over (3) Detroit

(4) Anaheim over (7) Los Angeles

Round 3:

(4) Anaheim over (8) Chicago

Vancouver (1)        vs. Chicago (8)

Last Cup Win: Vancouver (never), Chicago (2010)

Why the Canucks will win: The team won the President’s Trophy (117 points), Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider won the Jennings Trophy (185 goals-against) and Daniel Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy (104 points). This team is built to win now and this is probably the first of their two-year window of opportunity to do just that.

Why the Blackhawks will win: Their nucleus from last year’s championship is still in tact despite losing several key pieces; and Patrick Kane brought his playoff-mullet back.

Vancouver’s most important player: Whichever player replaces Manny Malhotra (eye injury) as the third-line center; his ability to win key face-offs and his lead-by-example attitude will be sorely missed.

Chicago’s most important player: Captain Jonathan Toews has led the Hawks’ playoff push in the second half and he will need to continue with that effort to help his team advance past the Canucks.

Vancouver’s biggest question mark: Can Luongo finally beat Chicago? Two years in a row the Canucks were sent packing for the summer by the ‘Hawks; if Vancouver does win the series will it be a stepping stone to bigger and brighter things?

Chicago’s biggest question mark: The Blackhawks will try for a second consecutive spring to win the Cup with a rookie goalie. Corey Crawford had a stellar season, but can he duplicate Antti Niemi’s 2010 success? If Crawford falters, Chicago can always send in Marty Turco.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Vancouver (Mikael Samuelsson), Chicago (Dave Bolland, Toews, Troy Brouwer, Marian Hossa, Kane, Tomas Kopecky, Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, Jassen Cullimore, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook).

PREDICTION: HAWKS IN 6 Luongo may be crying again after this one as the rejuvenated champs begin their defense of the Cup by eliminating the Canucks swiftly.

San Jose (2)            vs. Los Angeles (7)

Last Cup Win: San Jose (never), Los Angeles (never)

Why the Sharks will win: San Jose’s players have a lot of playoff experience, just not too many winning experiences though. The additions of Antti Niemi and Ben Eager (who won the Cup with Chicago last season) should help, but will it be enough for this underachieving bunch to finally make the Finals?

Why the Kings will win: Two words — Jarret Stoll. One of the NHL’s most underrated players is very important to LA’s success. He was a key cog in the Oilers’ run to the ’06 Finals and whether it’s winning a key face-off or scoring a clutch goal, you can expect to see Stoll’s name a lot if the Kings are to do some damage this spring.

San Jose’s most important player: Dany Heatley, He had a very un-Heatley like season this year (26g-38a), but he can make that a distant memory if he’s clutch in the postseason.

Los Angeles’ most important player: Jonathan Quick, He’s made the big saves all season long and is the rock solid foundation of the Kings’ stingy defense. With the offense hurting, he will have to steal a game or two for his squad to advance.

San Jose’s biggest question mark: Niemi, yes he won the Stanley Cup in the Windy City in 2010, but the ‘Hawks defense was and is a lot better than the Sharks’ blueline.

Los Angeles’ biggest question mark: Where will the Kings’ goal scoring come from with their top two scorers (Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams) sidelined? Paging Wayne Simmonds

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: San Jose (Dan Boyle, Eager, Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin, Niemi), Los Angeles (Dustin Penner, Rob Scuderi, Williams)

PREDICTION: KINGS IN 7Quick will steal two games, including Game 7 in the Shark Tank.

Detroit (3)              vs. Phoenix (6)

Last Cup Win: Detroit (2008), Phoenix (never)

Why the Wings will win: Detroit has too many savvy and talented players to lose in the first round right? Look for Todd Bertuzzi and Mike Modano to have big impacts in this opening round series.

Why the Coyotes will win: For two consecutive seasons now Phoenix has hovered around the NHL’s elite with back-to-back stellar regular seasons. Obviously this is not a fluke and captain Shane Doan just might get out of the first round for the first time in his career.

Detroit’s most important player: Johan Franzen aka ‘The Mule’ is an absolute proven playoff beast — 69 points (35g-34a) in 75 career playoff games — and if Phoenix has any hopes of surviving this series they better find a way to corral the large Swede; he also has 11 playoff game-winning goals.

Phoenix’s most important player: Ilya Bryzgalov
is the backbone of the Coyotes and could be the biggest factor in knocking the Wings out. His 36 wins and seven shutouts this season place him among the NHL’s elite netminders going forward.

Detroit’s biggest question mark: How healthy is Henrik Zetterberg is the main question in the Motor City; if he is at less than 100% the Wings could be ripe for the taking against the hungry Desert Dogs. He will definitely miss Game 1 with a left leg injury.

Phoenix’s biggest question mark: Can they finally get past the big, bad Red Wings? They should be motivated and know what to do after being eliminated in seven games by Detroit in last year’s first round.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Detroit (Pavel Datsyuk (2), Zetterberg, Brian Rafalski (3), Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom (4), Nicklas Kronwall, Dan Cleary, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom (4), Kris Draper (4), Brad Stuart, Drew Miller, Darren Helm, Chris Osgood (3), Modano), Phoenix (Bryzgalov, Ray Whitney)

PREDICTION: RED WINGS IN 7 Experience wins out for the Wings, but they will get another scare from the gritty Coyotes.

Anaheim (4)           vs. Nashville (5)

Last Cup Win: Anaheim (2007), Nashville (never)

Why the Ducks will win: Who on Nashville can stop Corey Perry? No one in the league has been able to contain the league’s leading goal scorer (50) in the 2nd half, so good luck Preds.

Why the Predators will win: Defense wins championships, and Nashville has two of the NHL’s premiere defensemen (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter) plus a Vezina Trophy candidate in Pekka Rinne.

Anaheim’s most important player: I think it will be Saku Koivu’s time to shine in the first round. With all of the defensive attention (and rightfully so) being paid to the Ducks’ top line, watch out for the Finnish dynamic duo of Koivu and Teemu Selanne to wreck havoc.

Nashville’s most important player: If Rinne can stand on his head (and get in his opponents’ head) the Ducks might be in trouble here. His numbers (2.12 GAA, 33 wins, .930 save %, six shutouts) speak for themselves, but his ability to take over a game can’t be measured in numbers. Nashville’s penalty killers (fifth overall) will be tested against Anaheim’s power play (third overall).

Anaheim’s biggest question mark: Who’s in goal for them? Is it All-Star Jonas Hiller, vagabond Dan Ellis or head case Ray Emery? If one of these tenders steps up the Ducks will be hard to eliminate and SoCal could be celebrating their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.

Nashville’s biggest question mark: Who the heck is going to score for this team? They have only two 20-goal scorers (Sergei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist) and obviously rely on defense and scoring by committee. If Mike Fisher and JP Dumont find their scoring touches, the Predators could pull off the upset.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Anaheim (Ryan Getzlaf, George Parros, Perry, Selanne, Francois Beauchemin, Todd Marchant, Andreas Lilja), Nashville (none)

PREDICTION: DUCKS IN 5 The Ducks will be too powerful for the gutsy Preds; the series will only go five games, but each game will probably have a 2-1 final score.

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Devils-Canadiens PostGame Quotes [04.02.11]

Here are the postgame quotes following the Devils-Canadiens game on Saturday night:

Scott Gomez:

Talking about his team’s fans…

“It seems like everywhere we go on the road, there’s a huge Canadien-following; they’re passionate. It’s nothing new to us, everywhere we go there are a bunch of Canadiens fans and it’s unbelievable.”

Talk about the intensity of the game tonight…

“They (the Devils) are as good of a patient team that you are going to get in the league. I thought we stuck with it the whole way. We stuck with our game plan, we had some chances off their mistakes and that’s the way the Devils play. They wait for teams to make mistakes, I thought we kind of did that tonight (to them), and let’s face it — we needed the points, it was a big road game; especially after what happened last game and we’ll take it.”

Do you think Carey Price stopping the penalty shot changed the momentum?

“No, he’s at that level now where that’s expected. He actually got roasted on that penalty shot (laughs), no, that’s one area we don’t worry about. Pricer’s been, like I said he’s set the standard so high, you know he’s up there now with the Brodeur’s and the other guys. It shouldn’t be too shocking because he’s the best goalie in the world right now and that’s what he does. He’s a guy that, we know he’s going to come up with the big save and he’s done it all year for us.”

Your line was really flying out there tonight…

“It was good; (Mathieu) Darche, you know what you’re going to get out of him — he’s going to go to the net and put them in. I think Brian closed his eyes and I think he wanted to shoot and it just happened to slip off his stick and he passed it. He’ll probably tell you that he meant to do that, but what can I say; Brian played great, Darche was going hard and scored two big goals, that’s what we’re going to need. We’ll see what happens, hopefully we stay together. It was a great effort by the team: Pricer did his thing and we’re not in (the playoffs) yet, but we’re taking the right steps. Now we get to go back and play at home and we’re pretty excited about that.”

Brian Gionta:

Talking about the intensity of the game…

“We knew that their season was on the line, we knew they were going to come hard and I thought we did a good job of matching their intensity in the first period and we took advantage of some opportunities; fortunately we came out on top.”

It seemed like you were playing in Montreal tonight…

“Our fans have been great; they follow us all over the place and it means a lot to us to have them there.”

How big was that first goal for you guys tonight?

“It’s always big, anytime you can come out and score that first goal; it’s a momentum-shifter, so it was big for us.”

Talking about the play the first goal was scored on…

“They’re a team that’s known to lock down the middle and there are not many plays there, so you have to drive them wide. Matt Darche did a good job of getting his stick on it as I found him going to the net.”

Similar play on the second goal that he scored?

“Same play, I take it wide. Like I said, they take away the middle, there’s not much there. So you have to use that wide lane and hope for the best.”

Patrik Elias:

Some of the plays that they scored on it looked like vintage Gionta and Gomez…

“I don’t know, I didn’t even see the first one I was in the locker room; the second one was a power play right? Gio is a great player with a lot of speed. He keeps his head up all the time so he can make a play and he makes things happen.”

Martin Brodeur:

Were you surprised the coach didn’t pull you for an extra attacker at the end of the game?

“Yeah, I was looking (at the bench) the whole way, there was still a lot of time to maybe try to figure something out, but he chose not to.”

Getting eliminated tonight has to feel weird for you right?

“Well I think we knew it was going to come, it doesn’t come as a shocker really. But we had a good run, we played really hard to get ourselves in position to compete for the last ten or fifteen games or so, to try and get into the playoffs; but it was just too much (to overcome). We have four more games and we just have to keep doing what we are doing — playing hard and trying to get some wins.”

What did you think of Zach (Parise) out there tonight?

“He hadn’t played in a while but I think the effort was there, the energy; he looked pretty good to me. I think it’s like anything when you miss a lot of time, I think timing sometimes is not quite right; but he’ll work and I think it’s a good thing for him to be able to go through a full game and I’m sure we’ll really see how he feels tomorrow. It’s fun to see him back in the lineup, that’s for sure.”

Was the overall effort there tonight, you guys seemed to be a step behind?

“They played pretty hard, they were skating really well. I think we made them; we turned the puck over too much early in the game and they got a lot of momentum and it kept us on our heels most of the game. They dictated the play most of the game and it was still a ballgame until the third period — after that they scored a quick one on the power play.”

Was the first goal just a deflection that caught you off guard?

“He made a good play, I think he had one hand on his stick and I didn’t expect him to poke at it. It just went over my shoulder there.”

Kind of strange with the crowd tonight huh?

“It was impressive; that’s the only thing I can say. Better than the Rangers when they come in here (grins). It was impressive, I mean I know the Montreal Canadiens’ fans are die-hard, but to show up in the numbers that they did and how much noise they made, it was weird. It was definitely not something that I expected; I knew there were a lot of people coming, but not half the crowd (laughs).”

Did you have to check every now and then to make sure you were still in New Jersey?

“Well I don’t know about that, but it was definitely weird.”

They also behaved better than the Rangers’ fans…

“Well…I won’t comment on that one (smiles).”

What does it say about the team that you were able to extend this run for as long as you did?

“I think it’s pretty impressive for where we came from and I think we have to be happy to have done so. I think there could have been a lot more miserable way of playing the last 40 games of the season, and I think we all worked hard, listened to what our coach had to say and then we went out there and did it. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t continue as much as people believed that we could have, but it took a lot of energy from everyone to do it. The future will be bright, there’s no doubt about that.”

What do you take from the good run that you guys did have these last 37 games?

“Well I think just the experience that some of the young players took and some of the veterans, the way we stepped back into our own game and did what we do. I think we have to put it together right from the get-go next year, there’s a long way to go. There’s a whole summer to have everybody get prepared; and there’s still four games to go. We just have to try to make it fun for ourselves, and hopefully we’ll have a great game next Saturday (at MSG) that counts for our team.”

Would you like to be out there for the final four games?

“I like to play but I also understand that if they feel Heddy should play; he’s been playing so well, he deserves to get in there. There’s no sense playing all the games but if that’s what they want I’m okay with it; I’m here to play hockey, not here to sit on the bench, but hey if that’s what it is, that’s what it is.”

Everyone around this team says if you don’t win it all then the season wasn’t a success, but is there a reason to be proud of this group?

“Well you can’t be proud; our goal is to make it to the playoffs. Regardless of how you get in, this is the first goal that you need to achieve in the regular season and we’ve not done that. Right there it’s a failure because you always want a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and that first step is the playoffs and we didn’t make it. So it’s a failure of a season, regardless of how we came back and made it interesting, we’re not going to play when the playoffs come; and that’s what we want. That’s what, at the end of the day, we need a chance to compete for.”

After making it so many years in a row, what’s the feeling amongst the players?

“Disappointing, everybody’s real disappointed. I think it’s weird to have a feeling like that and it’s been weird for three or four games now. Even though we weren’t out of it, we were out of it. We believed that we could try to do our own thing and after that things had to fall into place, but it didn’t. We just have to move on from it.”

Jacques Lemaire:

Talking about being eliminated…

“It didn’t even cross my mind….you didn’t ask me why.”

Why?

“Because I was bothered by this game so much.”

Why?

“How we played. I was bothered so much by how we played that it never crossed my mind. How bad we were with the….you know the little round thing there called the puck? My lord!”

Was the effort or the energy not there tonight?

“No energy. I think it was more the mind, we couldn’t make a pass. Montreal played well, I don’t want to take anything away from them, they played a tight game. A lot of times we had the receiver open…and couldn’t complete it.”

Why didn’t you pull Marty for the last minute or minute and a half?

“Because of the way we were playing. We played so bad, I didn’t want another goal; I had enough. As a matter of fact they had a chance (at the end) and another chance after that. One game I did pull the goalie when we had a bad game and gave up a goal. I promised myself next bad game I won’t do that.”

How about Marty giving the guys a chance through two periods?

“Can you ask Marty to be better than how he was tonight? He had nobody in front of him; I’m sorry that’s what it was. Mistakes after mistakes, just a bad game.”

What did you think of Parise?

“He looked like a guy that didn’t play for a year. He’s got to go through this; it’s going to take a little time. And he didn’t get help either, I’m sure if his wingers would have been better, if his center would’ve looked better, I’m sure that it’s not because he didn’t try.”

You came in during a tough situation; do you feel that the team gave you everything they had most nights?

“Oh yeah, it’s just sad that it was not every game. It was not every game; I’m talking to you and I’m trying to find a guy besides Marty that played well (tonight). I can’t, I can’t…it’s got to be (Adam) Mair. Mair, (David) Steckel, you know, they played their game. After that… Teddy, Jo, Kovy, Rollie, Travis. I know they can be better than this.”

Pat Burns 1952-2010

Today is a sad day in the hockey world because we lost a great coach and a great man when Pat Burns passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. He coached in 1,019 NHL games (505-353-151) over 14 seasons for Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey. He is the only coach in the history of the league to win the Jack Adams Trophy (coach of the year) with three different teams, and he won his only Stanley Cup Championship in 2003 with the Devils.

When I think of coach Burns, I think of the time when I was just starting my journalism career, attending games at the Meadowlands as an intern with Stan Fischler. The first training camp I went to was in September 2002 and what I saw shocked the crap out of me — during a drill that the coach was running on the ice,  if a player made a mistake, no matter who they were, they had to roll around on the ice like a log. So there I am, my first time watching training camp in person, and I’m watching two former Conn Smythe winners/two multiple Cup winners — Scott Stevens and Joe Nieuwendyk — rolling around on the ice in front of everyone. That showed me that he commanded respect, and had it, and that his players were willing to do anything for him to reach their ultimate goal — the Stanley Cup. He was tough, but fair and reminded me a lot of my father, who also was a cop…but not a hockey coach.

Burns, who was a police officer before becoming a full-time hockey coach, had gotten teams close to the championship in his previous stops, but during the spring of 2003 everything came together for his Devils and he guided them to their third Cup in eight years. It was a shame that he wasn’t voted into the Hall-of-Fame this past year, but I think one day soon he will receive that honor; if it never happens, it will be a shame, but in a lot of ways, he is there already. His records speak for them self, and his name is etched onto the Stanley Cup, which in my mind is kind of a cooler thing to have anyway, because you don’t have to be a great player to get your name on it — you just need to be part of a great team.

Coach Burns will be missed, but I will never forget my experiences being around him and I will always remember that spring when the team I cared about gave me something to take my mind off of the personal loss that I was going through.