Saturday, May 29, 2010

Philly and Chicago prove that depth top bright lights

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Deatsyuk, Nik Lidstrom, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Roberto, the Sedin twins, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Semin, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise are all sitting at home right now because the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks (with some help from the Montreal Canadiens) have proven that bright lights can be turned out by a swarm of depth.

In rounds 1 and 2, the Habs managed to slow down Ovechkin and Backstrom along with Semin and Green (although one could argue that those two took themselves out) of their first round matchup. No such thoughts could exist after the Canadiens used the blanket of Josh Georges and Hal Gill to completely shut down the NHL's golden boy Sidney Crosby and help continue Evgeni Malkin's season long fog. Jordan Staal was by far the Pens most effective player when he played in the series. However once they reached they reached the Eastern Final, not only were they out of gas but they were simply overmatched by the Philadelphia Flyers. While the Habs had two players who were absolutely rolling (is. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta) none of their teammates up front were contributing all that much offensively except for the occasional goal from the third line. The Flyers on the other hand had three lines that seemed to be able to score on any shift: Richards-Carter-Gagne, Leino-Briere-Hartnell, Giroux-Van Riemsdyk-Aasham. All three of these lines have talent and the testicular fortitude to head to the net hard. On defence the Flyers possess the All-World jackass Chris Pronger (whom also just happens to be an all-world talent) along along with calm and cool Kimmo Timonen and two up and comers in Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle form a very solid/at times spectacular top four that has made career journeyman Michael Leighton look like the second coming of Bernie Parent. Ryan Parent is also a promising up and comer as their current #6 guy. No team in the East could possibly match their depth. (Blair Betts is one of the top PK guys in the league whom along with blood and guts warrior Ian Laperriere and Darryl Powe form a very good fourth line).

The bad news for Philly is that their opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, are even deeper then they are. 22 year old captain Jonathen Toews-Patrick Kane-Dustin Byfuglien form the first line, Patrick Sharp-Marian Hossa-Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland (who has become one of the best checking centers in the NHL this season)-Kris Versteeg-Andrew Ladd/Tomas Kopecky form the top three lines that are even better then Philly's because a) they have more balanced speed and b) Ladd or Kopecky aren't an anchor on their line like Aaron Asham can be. As good as the Flyers fourth line can be, John Madden-Colin Fraser/Adam Burish-Ben Eager line is a little more physical, a little more annoying to play against, and Madden bring cup winning experience to the lineup. Much like Philly, the top four on D borders on phenomenal with the top pairing in the league with Canadian Olympians Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell with the very underrated Nik Hjalmarsson following them. One more place that the 'Hawks have a slight advantage is in the 5-6 pairing as Brent Sopel and Jordan Hendry bring the physicality and shot blocking ability that you want out of your bottom two. Finally in net Antti Niemi has shown (after that blooper reel goal in game on of the Nashville series) that he is solid and will not give up that bad big goal. You can bet that other teams have taken notice and the copycatting will take place starting this summer as the league will now think about trying to build through depth rather then a few big stars. The next lesson however that the league will learn from these two is in a year or two that in a cap era, depth is nearly impossible to hang onto as Philly and Chicago will have to make some very tought choices on which players to keep.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

D-Fence, D-Fence! First round analysis

If there has been one lesson that this year's edition of the playoffs has taught us it's that, no matter how well your goaltender is playing or how good your forward corps is, if you don't have a calm puck moving defence you can't win. The first round of the playoffs had clear examples of this in each series victory in both the East and the West.

In the San Jose (1) vs. Colorado (8) series, the tentative Sharks were tied up at 2-2 in the series when Dan Boyle, who had scored the game winner on his own net in game 3, stepped up his game in a big way along with Douglas Murray and Marc-Edward Vlasic. With these three elevating there game's the Colorado Avalanche were never able to get on prolonged offence going in San Jose's end while Colorado's defence simply isn't that good (John-Michel Liles, Adam Foote, Kyle Cumiskey, Scott Hannan, Tom Preissing, Kyle Quincey, Brett Clark and Ruslan Salei? Blech). In the Chicago (2) vs. Nashville (7) series the Predators were able to take the Blackhawks to 6 games (and might have beaten them if not for some suspect officitating on Marian Hossa's mugging of Dan Hamhuis and their porous power play) even with no real legitimate goal scoring threat with Patrik Hornqvist on the shelf and Alexander Radulov abandoning the team for the KHL is because they probably have the best defence in the NHL. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are both legitimate #1 dmen with Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Klein, Cody Franson, and Denis Grebeshkov they formed what is an enviable defence and with Jonathan Blum and Mike Green clone (albeit I think he's overrated and that his play in this past year's World Juniors showed that PK Subban made him look good the previous year) Ryan Ellis coming this isn't going to change. Chicago's much publised D with Olympic duo Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith along with Brian Campbell, Nik Hjalmarsson, and Brent Sopel is just a step below Nashville's. In the Vancouver (3) vs. Los Angeles (6) series, beyond Drew Doughty, LA's defence did not play well. Jack Johnson has been a dissapointment so far in his NHL career, Matt Greene wasn't effective, Sean O'Donnell showed his age and Rob Scuderi wasn't nearly as good as he was in Pittsburgh last year. Vancouver's D, while unspectacular, was very steady and didn't make mistakes which made a huge difference. In the Phoenix (4) vs. Detroit (5) series, Phoenix's defence was the better of the two for the first 6 games which allowed the Coyotes to take the more talented Red Wings to 7 games before getting pummeled in game 7.

In the Eastern Conference it was the same story. The Pittsburgh Penguins (4) were able to defeat the Ottawa Senators (5) not just because of Sidney Crosby (although don't tell the Canadian media that) but also because their D is alot better. With Philip Kuba on the DL the Senators simply couldn't move the puck out of their own zone while Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, and Alex Goligoski did to great effect. Lou Lamirello's insistence on not spending any money on his defence once again blew up in his face this spring. With the heavily favoured New Jersey Devils (2) going down shockingly easily to the Brian Boucher goaltended Philadelphia Flyers (7), defence was once again at the forefront. The Devils once upon a time had a defence that included the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Bryan Rafalski (whom the Devils refused to pay), Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko has become one of the worst in the league and was weakened even further when the traded Johnny Oduya to the Atlanta Thrashers as part of the package for Ilya Kovakchuk who did not work in "The Swamp". Beyond the undersized Andy Greene they couldn't move the puck to save their life while the Flyers, with the likes of Matt Carle, Kimmo Tiomenen, Braydon Coburn, Ryan Parent, and of course the all-world Chris Pronger, didn't give the Devils many second chances or the oppurtunity to cycle down low because they moved the puck out too quickly. The Boston Bruins (6) were able to defeat the Buffalo Sabres (3) for two reasons: Buffalo's power play couldn't manage a single goal and their defence was far superior to Buffalo's. Zdeno Chara was his usual self, Dennis Wideman steadied himself after a poor year, Matt Hunwick quietly does a good job moving the puck out of his own end and Johnny Boychuk (whom Chara has made look good because he's his partner) has had the time to move the puck. Beyond Tyler Myers, Buffalo's defence simply doesn't have enough talent to win. Finally, in the biggest upset of the playoffs in years, the Montreal Canadiens (8) managed to come back to defeat the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals (1) in 7 games because of Jaroslav Halak and because their defence was better then Washington's. While Joe Corvo played well, Mike Green has solidified his reputation as the Joe Thornton of defensemen as for the 3rd straight playoff year he was brutal. Shaone Morrison, Milan Jurcina, John Erskine and Jeff Shultz aren't great at moving the puck and Tom Poti, who had been their best dman (that's right Oiler fans) through the first 5 games was knocked out of the series with a broken orbital bone and was not replaced. John Carlson, who was also great through the first 5 games, really started to fall off in the effort department after that and so his effectiveness plummeted. Andrei Markov, while unspectacular, managed to badly outplay his counterpart in Mike Green while Josh Georges and Hal Gill became the top shutdown pair in the NHL playoffs as they shut down Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom. Roman Hamrlik was brutal through the first 5 games until his buddy Jaro Spacek (who had been very steady) went down with an illness and next seasons Calder Trophy winner (you heard it hear first!) PK Subban was called up. Subban got increasing ice time and controlled the play when he has been on the ice. The Capitals never got any second chances because the Habs D cleared the puck after Halak made the first save while the Caps D couldn't do the same.