Reflections On Round One And Predictions On NHL Round Two
Well, round one of the NHL playoffs is over, and I went a sparkling 7-1 in my playoff predictions.
While I said it would not surprise me if Anaheim won, I should have remembered never count on a team led by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to beat a team that had already won the Stanley Cup and knew what it took to win another one.
This article is divided into three sections. In the first section, I'm going to list the players whose careers took a downward turn thanks to their performance in the first round of the playoffs.
In the second section, I'm going to try to assess the immediate future of the first-round losers.
In the third section, I'm going to try to continue my soothsaying ways successfully and predict the conference final combatants.
I. Players In Trouble
In compiling this section, it is wise to remember the human aspect of sports. It is easy for any critic like myself to sit back and say, "Can the bum!" based on their actual performance, and forget that people are only human and do not perform like automatic machines.
All these failures are example of players who made mistakes and for some reason could not rise in a pressure situation. I make lots of mistakes too in some situations, but I don't have thousands of critics/fans calling for my execution/firing.
Fans should also remember that in a lot of these cases, the player has a family to support.
That said, the nature of sports is ruthless with only one winner. In most of these cases, there is a continuous pattern of failure which fans will not tolerate if they want a winning team.
1. Patrick Marleau and 2. Joe Thornton
I have already mentioned these two above, so they are most obvious place to start. Seldom in pro sport have two "star" players played so poorly. They were on the hot seat before the playoffs started, and their latest playoff performances only confirmed critics low opinion of them.
They only turned up for one game. Their names were seldom mentioned by the play-by-play announcer, except when a bad play occurred. Holiday Joe's performance in the fourth game alone should punch his ticket out of San Jose. Marleau was openly being criticized in every game by the CBC color commentator.
People wondered if Boston had lost its senses when they traded Thornton, but his performance in the playoffs for San Jose these past few years makes the Boston GM look like a genius. A columnist in the Toronto Sun said he probably played his way off Canada's Olympic team.
I can't see San Jose keeping them if they want to progress, and now it is going to be tougher to trade them. They've played themselves into a peripheral position and no team with playoff ambitions is going build to a team around them, and would only want them for a secondary role.
The only other type of team that might want them is a team struggling at the gate who wants a "name" player to fill the arena.
The real mystery is not that they had bad performances, but why these players are able to pile up points in the regular season and not be shut down like they are in the playoffs.
3. Jose Theodore
He's always claimed he was a number-one goaltender but Montreal did not buy it and traded him a few years ago. Mostly he's confirmed Montreal's decision, and his only appearance for Washington has sentenced him to a permanent back-up role—if not out of the league.
4. Carey Price
The other goaltending casualty is Price, who has established himself as a suspect goalie. It is unfortunate that he is Montreal's goaltender, because Canadians' fans have memories of the young, untried Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden stepping into the pressure of the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup.
This is not some Hollywood fictional script but an actual fact in Montreal's hockey history, and especially after Dryden's 1971 performance against Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, the fans have come to expect it from young, rookie goaltenders.
The latest to do it was Cam Ward for Carolina. When the fans remember this, Carey Price compares badly.
The hype surrounding Price has not helped, as he was projected to be the Canadians' long-term goalie of the future. Instead he lost his job for a while during the regular season, and his two playoff years have sowed distrust and doubt.
Whether he should be Montreal's starting goalie next year—or even be in the league—is now debatable. Instead of rising to the exceptional level of Dryden, Price's performance only emphasizes the more common story of the average goaltender and the lonely brittleness of the position.
5. Todd Bertuzzi
The Flames got little from Bertuzzi, once a star for Vancouver, who did not score until Calgary's final playoff game after going goalless for the previous fourteen games. Instead, he took bad penalties that blunted any momentum Calgary had.
Already blackened by the Steve Moore incident, there will be few tears shed if his career ends.
6. Mike Cammalleri
Cammalleri was Calgary's leading goal scorer in the regular season, but only could get one goal in the playoffs—a major reason for Calgary's exit. Though not in the situation of Joe Thornton, I won't be surprised if his future playoff performances will be scrutinized like Thornton's until they change for the better.
II. The Future of the Losing Teams
A. Didn't Belong On The Same Ice As Their Opponents
They played poorly for stretches during the regular season, and their playoff performance only confirmed what many people predicted would happen.
Carey Price is simply the most up-front of all their problems. Everything is in flux in Montreal including the ownership, management, and coaching levels.
There are a lot of potential free agents whom they must decide whether to keep or let go. There is a lack of character and talent on the team.
A big upheaval is coming, and who knows how long it will take before the team finds itself again? Things will probably get a lot worse in Montreal before they get better.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The good news for Columbus was off the ice, where Ohio fans filled the arena and cheered loudly for their team. It indicates that given a decent team, Columbus will support hockey and the game will be established in Ohio at last.
The bad news is that this team, despite its improvements, lost critical games during the last part of the season, and ended up with a tougher opponent who thoroughly outclassed them.
Even against a potentially weaker opponent, this team did not look like it was close to winning a playoff round. This is a brittle team that needs lots more talent—or it could find itself like Atlanta, out of the playoffs after only one chance, or like Nashville, still looking for a playoff-round victory despite several attempts.
B. Miserable Again
San Jose Sharks
They laid the biggest egg in the playoffs again. As I mentioned in my previous playoff article, they had the most pressure of any playoff team and had to reach the third round for their year to be termed a success.
This should be the end of the Thornton-Marleau era. Evgeni Nabokov did not make the big save, but it's tough to blame a goaltender who got virtually nothing from "star" players who allowed themselves to be shut out twice by an unproven playoff goaltender from Switzerland.
Marleau and Thornton are the obvious players to be rid of, but there are a host of others. Goodbye to Jeremy Roenick and his dream of winning a Stanley Cup. Only Dan Boyle looked like he belonged consistently on the same ice as the Anaheim Ducks.
Todd McLellan, used to gritty, championship performances in Detroit won't tolerate this. What he should do is make a list of all the players he felt didn't put out, pass it to Doug Wilson and say, "Get rid of these floaters." Big changes are coming—and like Montreal, things will get worse before they get better.
As I mentioned in my previous playoff article, right behind the Sharks were the Calgary Flames who had the most to lose after San Jose with a first-round playoff defeat.
Two ugly facts stand out: After getting a talent upgrade at the trade deadline, the team developed spiritual rot instead, played badly, and lost the division lead they had sewn up. And in the playoffs, Calgary's stars from the goalie out are not better than an opponent's stars.
There were some games where it looked like the Flames were casting off the spiritual rot and finally playing like the team everyone imagined them to be, but that didn't last. The management, the coaching, the team character chemistry are all on the table to be examined and dissected. No one, even Jerome Iginla, is safe from being traded.
Like Montreal and San Jose, there is an upheaval coming—and like them, things will probably get worse before they get better.
C. Game, But Will Get Better
St. Louis Blues
They may have been swept by Vancouver, but they weren't supposed to make the playoffs anyway. Unlike the first three teams I listed, the Blues weren't outclassed and were in every game. They need to upgrade the talent, and there will be changes—but with the right ones, they will have future playoff success.
The gap between them and Pittsburgh closed a bit, but they are still a "middle-of-the-pack" playoff team. If they get more talent in the right positions, this team will be ready to go deeper in the playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup.
New York Rangers
They were better than I expected against a more talented team. Unlike Montreal, which showed no improvement after firing their coach, the Rangers revived and nearly pulled an upset.
They need more top talent, especially at forward to progress. A good draft and some astute free-agent signings will help them to go deeper in the playoffs.
D. Not Far Away
New Jersey Devils
They lost their playoff round in one of the most bitter ways in NHL history. But this team is not far away from challenging for the Stanley Cup.
The problem is that they have lost too much talent from their championship days. They need one to three top stars to put them over the top. Since Martin Brodeur is getting older, adding these top players is essential to take the pressure off him as he ages.
III. Second-Round Predictions
The pressure is off Boston, who had to win a playoff round in order to escape the fate of San Jose and Calgary. They have progressed, and aren't too far away from challenging for the Stanley Cup.
But this is the end of the line. Like Anaheim, Carolina has won it before and knows what it takes to win the big one. Cam Ward knows what it takes to win and has already met the major challenge of Martin Brodeur.
At one time Carolina looked like it would not make the playoffs, but since then has been the hottest team in the NHL, beating teams in pressure situations that had more talent than they had.
I don't care that Boston has won all four regular-season games this season, this is not the same Carolina team they faced before. The Hurricanes will win four games to two.
Washington escaped from the last round thanks to superior talent—and the unexpected blessing of having Jose Theodore play so poorly in the first game that he was replaced by Simeon Varlamov, who provided big-league playoff goaltending.
A position that was supposed to be a weakness turned into a strength and a Washington goaltender actually won the final game for the team after they were being outplayed in the first 30 minutes.
This series could go either way, and common sense tells me to take Pittsburgh—especially because Washington plays like San Jose at times. But now that they are getting good goaltending, I'm going to take Washington. Ovechkin won't want to be outplayed by Crosby and Malkin in a direct confrontation, and somehow Washington will win four games to three.
I like how Vancouver went for the jugular and put away St. Louis, a team that played very well, despite its untried, low-talent roster, and could have been a real problem if allowed to hang around.
I was also impressed by the way the untried, young Blackhawks beat Calgary, refusing to quit even when they were behind in the score. They also got great goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, one of the few goaltenders like Cam Ward who has won the big one and knows what it takes to do it again.
Roberto Luongo wants to join him in that status. Vancouver is a much better team defensively and played at a higher level during the stretch run, while Chicago alternated between good and bad. Chicago has a better offense, but Vancouver has a better defense and has home ice.
It would not be an upset if Chicago won, but Vancouver will win a tough series four games to three.
The Red Wings weren't tested by Columbus, and are still the team to beat in the NHL. They will have a tougher time against Anaheim, a team that, like themselves, has won the big one and showed in the first round that they are a force to be reckoned with—especially if they hit the way they did against the San Jose Sharks.
The Ducks' goaltending and defense are as good as Detroit's, but the Red Wings have more top forwards than Anaheim who won't disappear like Joe and Patrick. Anaheim can win this series, but Detroit will do it four games to two.
Playoff prediction record: 7-1
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