Tuesday, April 13, 2010

NHL Playoffs: Top 10 Players With Something to Prove

10. Antti Niemi, Chicago Blackhawks – I hope Joel Quenneville doesn’t make me look bad by going with the other guy here. The 26-year old Niemi has earned the right to start by being the better Chicago goaltender down the stretch. He has no track record to weigh him down but he needs to shut his critics up. Clearly his 7 shutouts and 26 wins in 39 starts this year weren’t enough to do that. It doesn’t help that Niemi has been less than stellar in his non-NHL playoff career with Kiekko-Vantaa and Pelicans Lahti in Finland. Expectations are high in Chicago and Niemi may be on a short leash.

9. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils – Yes, Martin Brodeur has won everything there is to win. He’s entering the twilight of his career and when all is said and done it will likely be impossible to argue with the numbers. The reason I included Brodeur in this list is his recent struggles in the playoffs. It doesn’t help that the Fyers owned Brodeur this year. It doesn’t help that Brodeur lost the number one job to Roberto Luongo at the Olympics. It doesn’t help that Brodeur is 15-22 in the playoffs since 2003-04. Brodeur isn’t the only Devil under pressure but a run to the finals would shut up anyone who says he’s over the hill.

8. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks – Sedin’s regular season totals speak for themselves but a bad playoff would make it all a distant memory. As the leader of a very strong Vancouver team he needs to carry his strong play over to the postseason and be the go-to guy for his team. Roberto Luongo may have the “C” but it will be Sedin leading this team on the ice. His 30 points in 53 career playoff games would be good enough for most guys but we’re now talking about an Art Ross winner. He also needs to turn his -7 career playoff rating around.

7. Evgeni Nabokov , San Jose Sharks – Terrible Olympics. Perennial playoff disappointment (32-31 record). Nabokov has a very good team. He has had many very good teams in years past but hasn’t been good enough to put them over the top in the playoffs. At age 34, the window is closing and Nabokov is in a contract year. A strong postseason could put him in a position to get another 3 or 4 years at huge money from a desperate team this offseason. From a personal standpoint, he could silence all of his critics and put the memory of getting yanked in the Olympics against Canada behind him by winning games for his team. He’s not the only guy in San Jose who’s under the microscope but his age and contract put him in a unique situation.

6. Marian Hossa, Chicago Blackhawks – The man who played for back-to-back Stanley Cup losing teams has a new address this year. His 51 points in 57 games and a +24 rating through the regular season were great but he needs to produce in the playoffs to make his mammoth contract worthwhile. He has struggled against Nashville with just 6 points and a -2 in 17 career games. It’s hard to imagine Hossa making it to the finals and losing again but if anyone can do it...

5. Jose Theodore, Washington Capitals – Theodore starts against his former team in a good situation. He’s undefeated in regulation through his last 23 regular season games but that means as much as the habs 2-1-1 record against the Caps this year. The Capitals are heavily favoured against the Habs and there’s very little reason to think this series will go long. It’s beyond the first round that Theodore will earn his stripes. He’s won three first round series in his career but his team has been swept out in the second round in each case. This is the playoffs, the Caps will need to count on their goaltender at times regardless of their firepower. Theodore will be the key in the 2-1 and 3-2 games his team may be a bit unfamiliar with. The Washington Montreal could very well see all four goaltenders involved see action if the starters don't perform for either team.

4. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks – Luongo may have won a gold medal this year but his well-deserved reputation as a goalie who isn’t at his best in crunch time hangs over him like a Vancouver raincloud. When it mattered most last year Luongo gave up a touchdown and an extra point to Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s conference finals or bust for Luongo. It’s going to be hard to improve on his lifetime playoff statline of .930, 2.09 but it’s the 11-11 record that needs to change.

3. Joe Thornton , San Jose Sharks – This one doesn't really require any explanation.

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals – You could make a strong argument that Ovechkin has nothing to prove and that’s definitely true from a regular season standpoint. His forgettable Olympics magnified the fact that he hasn’t won anything significant outside of individual achievements. The fact remains that the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby comparisons abound and the fact that Crosby added a gold medal to his trophy case this year throws more fuel on the fire. George McPhee showed he’s committed to winning now with his deadline moves and it’s now on Ovechkin to lead the way as the team captain. He has an impressive 30 points in 21 career playoff games and needs to keep up that pace while providing his unparalleled physical presence.

1. Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils – The biggest name entering this year’s thin free agent crop has almost zero playoff experience and he was disappointing in the few games he played while a Thrasher(4 GP, 1 G, 1 A, -2). He’s now part of a team with high expectations. New Jersey gave up less than I thought they would have to when he was acquired but the fact remains that he likely won’t be a Devil after this year. Lou Lamoriello sent his team a message when he picked up Kovalchuk. He thinks they can win now. There’s enough pressure to go around but a strong performance from Kovalchuk in the playoffs gives them the “secondary” scoring they may need and could be the difference between an $8 million and $10 million deal on or after July 1st.

The order is debatable but most of these names are going to be heros or goats in the next few weeks. Five goaltenders make the list because the position becomes all the more important in the playoffs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Springing Forward

First of all, I haven’t written about the Habs all year so pardon me while I shake off some rust. I haven't felt I had a feel for this team. I still don't but I'm starting to get some ideas.

The Habs impressive post-Olympic run continued last night with a win over the Rangers in New York. It was Montreal’s sixth straight victory, the most games they’ve won in a row since 2006. Bob Gainey's science experiment has lost only once, to the mighty San Jose Sharks, since the Olympic break.

Glen Metropolit got his 16th, a career high and his 10th on the power play. Metropolit LEADS the Canadiens in power play goals.

Sergei Kostitsyn had the game winner and Tomas Plekanec scored on an empty net to ice the win.

Perhaps even more impressively, the Habs allowed only 20 shots against a team fighting for their playoff lives so Jaroslav Halak wasn’t busy while picking up his 23rd win of the year. Halak hasn’t lost an NHL game since February 13th. Before Canada ever won a gold medal on home soil. Before the Hurt Locker achieved Oscar glory. Before Justin Bieber became the worldwide phenome... You get the idea.

How about the guys in contract years? SK74, Halak, Plekanec and Metropolit are all free agents at seasons end. All will get raises.

The Flyers lost last night so the Habs leapfrogged the Flyers into 6th place in the East although the Flyers hold three games in hand.

The Senators lost as well so Montreal now sits just just one point behind the Sens for 5th place. Ottawa has just three wins in their last ten games and Alex Kovalev hasn’t scored a point in over a month, right around the last time Jaro Halak lost an NHL game.

That loss came against Philly, right before the Olympic break. It looked very likely at that moment that Montreal would miss the playoffs.

What a difference a month, really two weeks, makes.

Jacques Martin gave his team a well-deserved day off today and they have some time to prepare for their next test, Saturday night in Toronto.

Martin had a revelatory moment late in the game last night, after Plekanec’s empty netter, when the RDS camera caught him leaning in to talk to some players and grinning like a Cheshire cat. We’ve seen that grin in postgame press conferences a few times but never on the bench.

When he was hired, many said he was unpopular among players and he’d have trouble getting along with the guys in Montreal. That has never been my impression in the locker room (with a few younger exceptions, notably Sergei, who is now thriving with Dominic Moore and Travis Moen).

I think the veterans appreciate the structure he provides. There’s no ambiguity about the gameplan with Martin. He’s not learning on the fly at the NHL level like several Canadiens coaches before him. He doesn’t panic when his team falls behind and that calm is evident on the bench.

He looks like he’s having fun after those dismal years in Florida with the Panthers. Those years may very well have taught him to appreciate times like these. His players are having fun too.

Go ahead and smile Jacques, somewhere in this city, Bob Gainey is watching sports on his HDTV and smiling too.

The question now, and I’m sorry for asking it, but was Rejean Tremblay right (gulp!) about Mike Cammalleri?