Early Early Playoff Preview

The Stanley Cup playoffs are so close, you can almost smell the hipster playoff beards. No matter how deep your love of vulcanized rubber, this is what we have been waiting for since training camps broke eons ago. There are still several playoff spots up for grabs, and seedings will change, but if the playoffs started now, here are some of the most intriguing matchups of the first round.
Western Conference
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
Ducks have been nothing short of spectacular.  In February they were practically unbeatable, going 12-1-1, and sit only two points behind the L.A.Kings for the Pacific Division lead after a horrific start to the season.
San Jose has played well, but have had little success this season against the mighty Ducks (see what I did there), posting a 1-3-0 record. The Sharks won’t complain if Anaheim stays hot and gets a higher seed. No team in the league wants the steamrolling Ducks in the first round.
Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks
If you haven’t been paying attention, for some odd reason, the Wild have had Chicago’s number this season. There’s still two games left on the docket between these teams. But right now, Minnesota is 3-0-0 against the defending Stanley Cup champs, including a 6-1 ass-kicking in front of 50,000 in a February 20, 2016 Stadium Series game.
Of course, the Wild actually have to make the playoffs to realize a potential Earth shattering upset. They sit tied for the last spot with the Colorado Avalanche, and had a brutal stretch after the New Year, dropping 13 of 14 while getting coach Mike Yeo fired. But they’ve played better under interim coach John Torchetti and should they sneak in, they could give the Blackhawks a test.
Eastern Conference
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals are in total cruise control for the number one seed. Now imagine the tension if the Caps have to face a resurgent Sidney Crosby AND a healthy Evgeni Malkin in the first round.  All those regular season wins would mean nothing if Pittsburgh could push the Capitals to an extended six or seven game series. Washington has to reach the conference finals this postseason, or heads could roll on the National Mall.
New York Islanders vs. New York Rangers
Who doesn’t love it when New Yorkers fight each other? This one is long overdue. The Islanders and Rangers haven’t tussled since 1994 when the Rangers broke through and won the Stanley Cup. 

The Isles have taken the first two contests this season with two to play. Both games were tight, and a playoff series would be no different. Should this series become reality, expect it to go seven, with the edge going to the Rangers, who will be able to lean on their recent playoff experience to pull out a win.

Sega NHL 94. I Love You!

How does one fall in love? If the object of your affection is the sport of hockey, there are many ways. For me, it started on the floor of a dorm room in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Just me, my roommates, a 12-pack of Natural Light — and NHL ‘94. The greatest video game in the history of video games.
I’ll come clean, for the majority of my young life, I watched the great sport of hockey in a manner that most puckheads will hate. Growing up in Los Angeles, I barely paid attention unless my dad was bringing me to the Fabulous Forum. Shout out to the old Forum Club and their wicked strong drinks.
Of course that started to change when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings in 1988. After that, hockey was pushed into a different stratosphere on the West Coast. Still it didn’t capture my imagination until I went to college.
My first year at Michigan, a great way to bond with the roommates was to play sports video games and talk some trash. No, it wasn’t like the famous scene in Swingers. It was far more foul mouthed, and drunk. I had a Sega, and for no particular reason, I bought NHL ‘94 and flipped it on one fall morning. I didn’t go to class for 3 days.
This game became one of the hallmarks of my college existence, and like many, exposed me deep into the NHL and it’s players for the first time. Despite being an LA native, I lived, breathed, fought, and died with the Chicago Blackhawks in NHL ‘94. What Bo Jackson did for football video gaming in Tecmo Bowl, Jeremy Roenick did for hockey. In my agile thumbs, Roenick was unstoppable. At one point in the winter of 1995, the “Roenick wraparound” was outlawed in all ‘bet gameplay’. For those who aren’t quite familiar, there was a flaw in the game where players of certain speed and skill could essentially skate in a circle around the goal and on the backhand — score every time. This was my genius, my nirvana. The guaranteed equalizer. But if there was a bet on the line, the “Roenick wraparound” was outlawed. What were the bets? Typically it was beer — loser buys. There were a few more …ummm… colorful bets. Loser runs naked through the dorm. You get the picture.
I knew every line for almost every team, three deep. Only video games would force a young man to commit to memory the checking line of the Detroit Red wings: Keith Primeau, Bob Probert, Ray Sheppard.  My roommate, a diehard Red Wings fan, had a strange fetish for the New York Rangers and … Alexei Kovalev. Like Rocky on top of a Russian mountain, he would scream “KOVALEV!!!” at the top of his lungs when he would light the lamp. Both he and his Russian foil were worthy opponents.

Alas, my gaming days are now over. I’ve played the XBOX, the PS4, and even the ColecoVison. It will never get better than the Sega Genesis and that one game. No, THE game. NHL ‘94. I love you.

Let’s Make A Deal

Ah, the trade deadline. Honestly, it’s a sports writer’s dream. Agents floating stories to drive up prices, disgruntled superstars, and drunk GM’s at happy hour spilling the beans (this has happened). Grab my hand and we’ll wade into the waters as the NHL trade deadline rapidly closes in to the February 29th conclusion. Let’s look at the players most likely to find a new home.

Andrew Ladd
You don’t often see players with a “C” on their chest moved, but that could happen if the disappointing Jets decide to trade their captain. Ladd has followed up a career 2014-15 campaign with a lackluster season. At press time, he’s notched 13 goals and 17 assists, with a 0.58 points per game. Winnipeg is thinking about unloading Ladd because he can walk as a free agent after this season and can still command some value in return.
Possible trade destinations: Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks

James van Riemsdyk
Continuing the 20 year rebuild, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in full fire sale mode.
They’ve already dumped Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa in a chunky nine-player swap.    van Riemsdyk is probably next, and could be the most desirable and expensive commodity on the market.
He’s only 26-years-old and on pace for his third straight 50 point season. Perhaps most valuable from a front office perspective is that the left winger is under contract through the 2017-2018 season at a reasonable $5 million per year. Toronto’s phone is undoubtedly ringing off the hook with offers so expect van Riemsdyk to be moved before the deadline. And because he’s not a one year rental, many teams are probably trying to put together a deal for his services.
Possible trade destinations: Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers.

Jonathan Drouin
This is the one that has puckheads intrigued. The former No. 3 overall pick from the 2013 draft has demanded a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning after two years of professional hockey. And it’s not like he’s been tearing up the league. In his first season of limited duty Drouin posted 4 goals and 28 assists. Not bad. Not world-beating either. This season, there have been grumblings about his attitude, demotions, then the trade demand. He’s still considered a top prospect and he’s only 20, but the once can’t miss player has suddenly become a risky proposition. We all know NHL GM’s won’t be able to stay away from giving this guy second, third and fourth chances to be star. But who is willing to part with the king’s ransom it will take to get him out of Tampa Bay?
Fresh off that fat nine player deal, multiple sources are reporting the Ottawa Senators are the frontrunners to bring Drouin back home to Canada.

Possible trade destinations: Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche

The Case for Another Coronation

As we break into the second half of the season, NHL fans are preparing for the crescendo of their year – the race for the playoffs and a run to the Stanley Cup.
For the last four seasons the ping-pong match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks has made for good theater, if not great hockey. But will one of these teams once again be holding the Cup this June? While the rest of the league tries to catch up, it looks like it will be deja vu all over again.   The smart money is on the team that dominates even numbers like a Vegas card counter… the Kings.
Right now, LA is running Darryl Sutter’s system to perfection. The Kings fly under the radar because they lack the scoring, style, and finesse you see in Chicago, Dallas, or Washington. But make no mistake, this is a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.
To understand why the Kings have hit such a groove, you have to look back to the off-season.
The team had hit its lowest point in the Sutter era. LA failed to make the 2015 playoffs, their second best defenseman Slava Voynov was deported after a domestic violence incident, and there were whispers that the coach had lost the locker room. So what did GM Dean Lombardi do? He doubled down on his coach.
After the Blackhawks third Cup in five years, every pundit with a microphone was screaming one word – speed. To match Chicago, you have to get faster. Lombardi and Sutter extended their collective middle fingers and went the opposite direction. The trade for Milan Lucic made the Kings slower, meaner, gritter, and tougher. The perfect foil for Sutter’s game. Lucic is on pace for about 20 goals and 50 points for the season. If you ask Sutter, he’s probably more concerned his winger hits the 100 penalty minute mark. Sutter loves how Lucic plays at the edge, an ingredient missing from last year’s squad.
Meantime, the blue line begins, middles, and ends with Drew Doughty. He’s favored to capture his first Norris Trophy as the game’s best defenseman, an honor that may be long over due. He’s never going to put up the blistering numbers of an Erik Karlsson or a P.K. Subban, that’s not part of the Kings’ system. He’s simply rounded into the best end-to-end blue-liner in the game, and the league knows it.
While the team is performing well, it’s well documented L.A.’s ace-in-the hole come playoff time is netminder Jonathan Quick. He’s proven over the last half-decade to be the best crunch time goalie in the game. He’s having another stellar campaign, currently notching 27 wins in 43 games with a 2.24 GAA. The only question for Quick and for the Kings is how the team manages his minutes down the stretch. Last season, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner was 2nd in the NHL in total ice time at a whopping 4,184 minutes played. One of the team’s goals in the second half of the season will be keeping Quick fresh, so expect to see a lot of Jhonas Enroth in the weeks to come.

With two cups in the last five years, the Kings have the experience and the system to win it all again. Wake me up some time in late May when they drop the puck for Game 1 against Chicago in the Western Conference finals. It’s going to be another titanic struggle. Winner gets the Cup. Sorry everybody in the East… you’re playing for second again.