Down the Stretch They Come! The Final 5 Weeks of the NHL Regular Season
So here we are, with less than a quarter of the season remaining. I was able to take in my second Winter Classic, and I must say that Rangers/Flyers games have become a lot more fun since that dark day in March 2010, when the Flyers out-shoot-outed my boys in blue for the final playoff spot. My spell checker has just thrown its arms up in the air by the way. It was another fantastic game, nothing short of…well, classic. As the Rangers won, there is no need to harp on the officiating late in the third period. It was a tight, one-goal game against two fierce rivals, and King Henrik put his royal seal on it, in the form of stopping Danny Briere cold on a penalty shot that would have tied it with 19 seconds left. On a personal note, January was a good month all around. For the second time in four years, a seemingly mediocre New York Football Giants team held a Christmas team meeting and unanimously voted to start playing football. Another playoffs revenge tour, yada yada yada, and 18-1 is now 18-2. But now I’m off topic. In the words of the immortal Snoop Dogg, back to the lesson at hand.
Trading Deadline Moves:
While I said there were no game changers, what I really meant to say was that Rick Nash did not move. All of Ranger Nation held our breath, as we sat on the fence pondering if we wanted him, needed him, and if one solid shot at The Cup was worth what should be a few contending years to come. Instead, the Rangers dumped Wojtek Wolski for cap space and added defenseman John Scott, who in four seasons has only two more points than backup goaltender Marty Biron does this year. So what’s the appeal? He’s 6’8”, 270-pounds, and averages more penalty minutes per season than Gretzky did points. Oh yeah, I like him.
This year’s deadline winner is hands down the Nashville Predators. Mired in the middle of the western conference pack, they picked up defenseman Hal Gill, and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. Since the deadline, the Preds are 5-1-1. While they are currently flying under the perennial huge blips on the western radar Vancouver, Detroit and welcome back to the big time St. Louis, look for Nashville to be a potential contender come playoff time.
Honorable mention has to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning for, much like the Rangers, what they didn’t do. For a team stuck in 11th place on deadline day, big guns like NHL goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos, and ageless incredibles Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are explosive fire-sale fuel. GM Steve Yzerman resisted the urge, instead making smart moves for impending free agents Dominic Moore and Pavel Kubina, getting a few high draft picks in return. Although the intention was to set the stage for the next few years, the Lightning have won four straight to pull within two points of the final playoff spot in the east. And with firepower like the aforementioned big three, this is a team that can wreak havoc for a one or two seed.
What We’ve Learned; Another Mr. Ice Guy Top-4:
1) The Rangers are for real. Finally, they’re not spending their March battling for their 8-seed lives. After a slow, 3-3-3 start, they have had winning streaks of 7, 5, 5, 4, 4, and 3. They haven’t lost two in a row in regulation since December, and it’s only happened twice this year. Which means, much like the now immortal Eli Manning, they shake off adversity with that same “aw shucks” lack of emotion, bounce right back and make you pay for thinking you had them beat. They work hard, fore-check, back-check, block shots, and everybody contributes. Case-in-point: Winter Classic. Before Brad Richards scored the eventual game-winner, and the King made it stick, they overcame a 2-0 deficit by getting two goals from Mike Rupp, both assisted by Brandon Prust, who just happened to be the Rangers leading fighters. They are a perfect 8-0 combined against the defending Cup champion Bruins and rival Flyers, and oh yeah, they have the best record in the NHL.
2) The Bruins Stanley Cup was no fluke, and they will contend for another. That does not mean they are locked to go back to the finals. But if someone is to knock them off, they will certainly have to earn it. They are currently without the services of the injured massive guns of Rich Peverly, Marc Savard, and Nathan Horton. Despite a hard-charging Ottawa Senators, they are still holding onto their division lead. A lead that they’ve held, despite starting 3-7 due to a massive, extended Stanley Cup hangover. No seriously, check out their $156,679.74 bar tab from celebration night at Foxwoods and tell me if you think they get a pass for their sluggish start.CLICK HERE. (Thank you Boston.com for the breakdown and commentary of the tab.)
3) The Capitals juggernaut offense has run its course. While they are just one point out of a playoff spot, the artist formerly known as Washington’s high octane offense is done. The Caps have failed to put together any sustained winning all year, and have gotten shutout three times since February 20th, including their last two games at home. Tomas Vokoun, the supposed savior to fill the goaltending void this team has had for the past five seasons, hasn’t panned out as hoped. His goals against average (2.52) and save percentage (.917) rank 22nd and 18th in the league respectively. The Michal Neuvirth is worse, at 9-11-3, with a GAA and save percentage that rank 37th and 41st. The Ovechkin-era Caps have always had trouble keeping pucks out of their own net. But add a power outage to their offense, and this team doesn’t stand a chance. High-scoring defenseman Mike Green has been hampered by injuries and has a paltry 6 points in 18 games. Alexander Semin is on pace for about 50 points, by far his lowest for a full season. Nicklas Backstrom has also been sidelined with injury. Finally, the Great Eight, while collecting a respectable 49 points through 61 games considering the lack of usual setup men he’s grown accustomed to, cannot carry this team on his back.
4) The Penguins don’t need Sidney Crosby to be a contender. Last season, the Penguins lost Crosby to a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin soon after. Incredibly, they seemed to get better, finishing just one point behind conference-winning Washington, and lost an epic 7-game battle to Tampa in the first round. This year, they have been without Crosby for all but eight games, and with 18 games left, seem to be the team with the biggest chance of catching the Rangers for the division and conference. Malkin is not only healthy, but has all but clinched the Hart Trophy. Jordan Staal has returned from a knee injury and has 6 points in his last 4 games. And then there’s the always reliable Marc-Andre Fleury in net to a team that has had plenty of experience learning how to play without the best player in the world, and this team is just a much of a contender as anyone else.
Coming soon: Mr. Ice Guy’s: Top-4, What To Watch For, as well as some love for the western conference.
(February 29, 2012 – Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America)