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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Ice Life: Round Two

Wild on Sports
An Ice Life: Round Two
By Wild on Sports NHL Analyst Brian Peirce

I am going to recap the first round and preview the second in one shot, for your enjoyment.

An interesting first round has ended in marathon fashion. A record number of overtime games and a couple of series that went to seven games made this an extremely entertaining first round, unless your favourite team went down. There certainly is reason to believe that anyone can win the whole thing now that every team showed some form of weakness, with the exception of the Sharks who already are known as chokers.

Personally, I missed on some of the series. The biggest mistake I made was thinking the Islanders had no chance or that Vancouver had a chance. I also totally got it wrong thinking the Rangers were going to lose, and that was the only round I got wrong in predictions. I got seven out of eight of the winners’ right, which was the same as my last year predictions. I might as well keep it going with my second round preview.

Boston v New York

Boston beat Toronto to get here
It only took the background of a bombing and a historic come back down three goals in the third for ESPN to cover hockey on their supposed “Sportscenter” show. What a wild, wild game for the Bruins to come from behind and win. I did not think Toronto stood a chance and they had to go and steal the final game of the series. Patrice Bergeron needs to be the biggest story in sports right now, considering that he has had serious concussion issues in his career.

He has held in and recently returned from a fourth concussion when I thought his career was over two concussions ago. On top of that, he is one of the classiest players on any team in the world. He managed to tie and win the biggest game of the year in all of hockey and gave Boston original six bragging rights and a date with New York. He has established himself as the soul of the Bruins well before this win, but lifted the hearts of an entire city. He is a major reason why I picked the Bruins to win the cup. I will admit that I had turned the game off. I was thinking of how to write about how impressive Toronto was as well as eat my crow when I heard the game was now tied.

Toronto fans should not feel down. Boston was the better team on paper and had all the experience and the better goaltender coming in to the series. After the series, you have a goaltender that played better than Tuukka Rask did in Reimer, and he was almost was benched at the deadline. Toronto was a joke of a team that did not deserve any respect until this series. Now there is a core of players who will be hungrier, and they have a shot at the playoffs next year in what I believe to be the hardest of the new divisions.

New York beat Washington
New York got here by going into Washington in game seven and beating the team that was supposed to be too hot to touch. Henrik, who I thought was off even though he had a very good season that will see him finish third in Vezina voting, turned up the level of play. I thought Holtby was a better goaltender all around in this moment in time, but Lundqvist stepped up and proved me wrong. Staal gave a go at returning but might not be totally healthy yet. Regardless, his survival from a brutal eye injury will inspire the team going forward.

The Rangers proved themselves capable of shutting down big scoring and being gritty, enough to dominate in a road game seven. There is little reason to doubt them going forward as their goaltending is elite and they have a rough forward core that can score as a whole. The blue shirts are a dangerous team, and surprisingly for the first time in 40 years will play the Bruins in the playoffs. This is going to be a good series.

Boston is a powerhouse of a team that now has awakened, much like the sleeping bear. Rask is the better of the two tenders, but not in experience or the performance of the first round. This makes predicting this series difficult, if not impossible. It is going to be another duel between the pipes, though Rask has the better defense in front of him. The Rangers will target Lucic and his play will have a big bearing on the results, mostly if his temper gets the best of him. I think the Bruins have more skill, but don’t think that is all that will decide this round.

If Henrik stays the way he was in the first round, this will be no contest. I just assume that Rask will get slightly better and Lundqvist will get slightly worse. I am going to have to pick Boston in seven games. I still think they have what it takes to go the distance and I do not see the Rangers winning on the road as they only managed to do it in game seven, and I cannot see them doing it in Boston this year.

Pittsburgh v Ottawa

Pittsburgh beat the Islanders
The Penguins beat the Islanders 4-2, yet it felt like they were going to lose the series for a moment there. In fact, it took benching their franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (one of my favourite names to say in hockey) for Tomas Volkoun to get past the upstart Islanders. I don’t think any goaltender looked as bad as Fleury did and they were lucky to have inked Volkoun who had New York’s number.

Just like Toronto, the Islanders shook the banner of the loser with their play in the first round. They managed to win two games against the most powerful offense in the league. They did it in shootout fashion, but the next round will not be like that for the Pens, because they drew the Sens.

Ottawa beat the Habs
Montreal was the second best team in the East. Ottawa was not as well put together as the Habs on the front end, but they were better on the backend. When Karlsson came back from a catastrophic Achilles injury to play only 10 weeks after he was brutally assassinated, (more to come on that) the Canadians were in serious trouble. Montreal could have beaten any other team in the first round, but not the Senators. This is because Price needed to out duel Craig Anderson, and it just couldn’t be done. If Anderson and Karlsson weren’t injured most of the season, they likely would have walked away with both the Vezina and Norris trophies, respectively. I know because I had them both on my fantasy team.

Anderson is a goaltender that has been near the top of the league in total saves every single year he has played as a starter. He can carry a bad team, and the Senators are not a bad team. The team defense and rough depth overwhelmed the Canadians and they were done so fast, leaving a well-rested Ottawa team and a goaltender with a .950 save percentage.

Of course, they managed to line up the Penguins on different nights than the Chicago series, now NBC can get their top ass kissers to nationally televise both of the series and say Sidney Crosby’s name every single night of the week. They start the show tonight and it will be an interesting series.

The biggest x factor is the goaltending. I always will pick based on goaltending when in doubt, but this series isn’t in that big of doubt. The Penguins are the better team in almost every regard. I think Ottawa has the best leader in Alfie, the best goaltender, and the best defenseman. The Penguins have the best five forwards in the series and Letang who is the best defender when healthy. Penguins have better depth of skill, while Ottawa has better depth of grit and heart. Ottawa has the better coach, the better fans, and the better system. Penguins have the top two scoring centers and a player who wants it more than anyone in Pascal. Something has to give in this series, and I think it will be the refs.

I always think the refs have too much power in deciding the series, and I think they have a formula they use to be consistently “fair.” The refs always call more early in the series to try to control the violence, and they tend to favor whichever team is acting less goonish to start. There is always at least one game that the refs make more calls for the bigger market team. They always hide this by using liberal amounts of makeup calls to keep the penalty tallies close. This means the special teams are extremely important, as is the discipline in the start of the series.

This could all be a huge problem for the Senators. They don’t score much on the power play while the Penguins score at will. They also have to deal with punks like Cooke who they owe a world of hurt to for the aforementioned dirty play on Karlsson. As much as I would like to see him physically removed from the series, or even the league, Cooke must be left alone now. He is an idiot who will try to get those power plays for the Penguins and if the Senators many tough players can just ignore him, the calls will go their way. The best they can hope for is that no calls are made, because anything will get a makeup call to balance it out and the Pens will benefit from having more calls overall.
If you are following me, what this means is that the longer the series goes the better the Senators chances at escaping, because the calls will go in the Penguins favor until the end when the whistles will disappear. This also goes for inside the game as well, where Ottawa will benefit if they can have a goal lead in the final minutes of the game, rather than a two-goal lead with the third period to go. They will also benefit by either forgetting the Cooke business to when all hope is lost, or when they have a four-goal lead with minutes to spare. I personally wouldn’t touch him until next season.

Beyond the zebras, the Senators need not let this get away from them. The goaltending is their strongest suit, which means close games benefit them more, and if they go into Pitt and are blown out in the first two games, they might be swept. However, if they let three goals over two games and win one of them, they could win the whole thing in six or seven games. I think the Senators have the best chance at beating the Penguins right now, and if the Senators played, the Penguins in the first round as I was hoping for, Crysby would be teeing off right about now. I think the Pens are the favourite here, but they will never be my favourite. I am pulling for the Sens in seven, so that is what I am going with.

San Jose v Los Angeles

San Jose beat Vancouver
The Sharks dismantled the Canucks in quiet fashion. There isn’t much to say here about this, except that in the battle of two chokers the Sharks did not choke. They are well rested and buoyed by the victory over the Canucks. It wasn’t even interesting.

Los Angeles beat St. Louis
Los Angeles had a tougher time than I thought they would against the Blues and I think that helped them. The Kings are a fully developed team that is deep and strong, but they always start slowly and seem to lean too heavily on one part of their team at a time. They won the Cup by getting on Quick’s back too often. I saw the Blues challenge them across the board when they shouldn’t have and I saw the Kings respond while picking up momentum. This Kings team is better than the one that won the Cup, and thanks to the first round, they are better still.

This is going to be a California affair that most of the country will ignore due to sleep deprivation. That might be a mistake if the Sharks truly have shaken off the curse they seem to be under, because then it would be a great series. Both teams have hard players that fight for the puck while having the skill to make plays happen.

Niemi has been better than Quick on the year, so much of this series is going to depend upon whether or not this stays the same. I could go point by point, but this is a balanced series and I said the Kings were going to win the west before, so I might as well insist that they will win this round. I do think they will win, but it might be a hairy six game series.

Chicago v Detroit

Chicago beat Minnesota
I think the Wild lost the series more than Chicago won it, but that isn’t a slight against the Hawks, who look to be the strongest team in the playoffs. The Wild didn’t stress them and that might weaken the Blackhawks. One this is for sure, they are better rested than the Red Wings

Detroit beat Anaheim
Anyone who reads me knows I am a Wings fan, but this series pushed that to the limit. It was a seven game series that left me feeling that neither team deserved to move on. It made me feel that Zetterberg and Pavel deserved to move on, and that Perry and Getzlaf deserved to be locked in some sort of jail. Etem impressed me and so did the fact that so many rookies contributed for the Red Wings. The only lesson to be learned is that the Ducks could win the Cup with these guys if they only would grow up and play more like the guys who are elite leaders like Toews, Pavel, and Bergeron. Zetterberg also has shown that he wants to win as a Captain.

The second of the second round original six match ups will be a knockdown, drag out war. The Hawks are the only team that Detroit actually considers a true rival in my opinion, which means a lot when you were on the top of the league for so long. The Blackhawks hate the Red Wings more than any other team, and the fans chant in classless manner “Detroit sucks.” The Hawks have Red Wing killers in their depth, and two of the top five two-way superstar forwards. They have two of the top goaltenders in the league and no glaring holes. Every single projection will have the tired Wings losing to the Chicago team.

I will then just state the reason why the Wings may not lose to Chicago. I think Pavel and Zetterberg have shown they are more clutch than anyone in the league. They pushed this team to four overtimes of which three were wins, and a game seven with the youngest Wings squad in a long time. The defense is improving rapidly over the year, as is the offense. The weaknesses that kept the Wings from winning before were the lack of hungry puck hounds that hunted down loose pucks and kept the puck possession system going. They seem to have a few more of those with Nyqvist, Eaves, and the new look Abdelkader.

The Blackhawks have had the better top two lines since they got the Hossa, but the Wings have usually had the better bottom six lines. This feels the same, but I don’t see where the Wings have the defense to match the top two lines. They could win games on depth if the Euro twins match the output of the big three of Chicago. Jimmy Howard is also a better goaltender by himself than Crawford, even though Crawford had better numbers. If it comes down to goaltending, Detroit will win.

This is going to be a series where the winner is the team that plays together, from top to bottom, more consistently. Leadership plays into that, which favors the Wings, but so does how much youth is on the team and that favors the Hawks. As much as I hate to say it, I do not see the Wings winning this. I want to say they will lose in six games. I think that if it makes it to seven games you will see the best game of the entire playoffs and the Wings could win. I feel the Wings are going to stress Chicago the way the Ducks stressed the Wings. I predict the Kings and Blackhawks are going to meet in the Conference finals and start the new rivalry that will define the West.

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