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NHL – Conference Finals Predictions

13 May

The Detroit Red Wings came up just short in their bid to dig their way out of a 3-0 hole in their Stanley Cup playoff series against San Jose, losing a 3-2 decision in Game Seven last night. The Conference Final matchups are now set, and here are my picks for those series:

Tampa Bay vs. Boston – the Lightning were fortunate to get to play the Penguins minus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and took advantage to advance to this point. I had picked Pittsburgh to win the series based on a goaltending advantage, but Tampa’s 41 year old veteran Dwayne Roloson did a great job for his team. He now will battle Boston’s Tim Thomas, probably the best goalie left in the NHL’s final four. I have to go with Boston to win this series, since the Bruins are a more experienced, more talented and more physical team. It also helps that they now have the added confidence boost from avenging their playoff collapse against the Flyers last season. Nathan Horton has become a playoff scoring hero for them, and defenseman Zdeno Chara sets a physical tone that the Bolts won’t be able to match.

Vancouver vs. San Jose – the Sharks will certainly be more worn down physically than the well-rested Canucks, and in my mind their goalie, Antti Niemi, is better than the inconsistent Roberto Luongo. Both of these teams blew 3-0 series leads this year and survived game sevens to advance this far, so neither has a particularly strong killer instinct. I’ll pick the Canucks to win a seven game series, with the assumption that the Sedin brothers will raise their games and be factors offensively. Both of these teams have a recent history of being regular season juggernauts who come up small at playoff time, so it’ll be interesting to see which one shakes that label and moves on to the finals.

 
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NHL – Sabres’ Season Ends Abruptly

27 Apr

When I wrote the blog predicting the result of the Buffalo Sabres/Philadelphia Flyers deciding Game Seven the other day, in the back of my mind I was thinking…well, boys, surprise me….prove me wrong…show me some magic. But, alas, the result of Game Seven was, well, very predictable. The Flyers, beaten twice on their home ice already in the series, were not going to lose for a third time, and they came out and totally dominated Buffalo 5-2 to win the series and advance to the second round. My original post picking the Flyers to win listed Ryan Miller’s failure to play up to expectations as a reason why the Sabres would lose, but in this series he changed my mind. Although the fact remains that he couldn’t outduel 3 different Flyer goaltenders, all of whom were terrible at some point in the series, Miller was the main reason the series went the distance rather than being decided in fewer games. The Sabres were beaten because they couldn’t handle Philly’s ferocious forechecking throughout the series, not because Miller didn’t do his job.

The season is now over for Buffalo and the familiar cry of local sports fans of “Wait ‘Till Next Year” now begins. But for Sabre Nation, there is reason for real optimism, and that reason is named Terry Pegula. Pegula has vowed to pursue the Stanley Cup at all costs, and there’s no reason not to believe him. Pegula seems to have made it clear that Lindy Ruff isn’t going anywhere even though his contract is up, and Ruff deserves the chance to coach this team under the new ownership, even though the last few seasons have mostly resulted in playoff failures. Ruff is a solid coach, although in my opinion when he spouted off at press conferences during this series, he didn’t do his team any favors. I love Ruff’s candid style, but I’m afraid with this current group of players he has, he is writing checks with his mouth that his players can’t cash. And that leads me to the person who now becomes the most important person in the organization – the team’s much-maligned general manager Darcy Regier. The Sabres, in reality, did well to push the Flyers to seven games considering the huge leadership vaccuum on the roster. They have no captain, and there really isn’t a player on the team who appears to be “captain” material. I always felt it was a telling sign that when Craig Rivet was acquired he was immediately made team captain. That was an embarrassing indictment of the entire roster. In my opinion, the player who shows the most leadership on the Sabres is probably Miller. There are people, myself included, who have said that the goalie is overrated and overpaid and not really an elite goalie, but there’s no doubt that if Buffalo can improve the rest of their roster, they can win the Stanley Cup with Miller in goal. Trading him would be repeating the mistake made when Tom Barrasso was dealt years ago. Barrasso was always considered an underachiever here, but when he wound up on a Pittsburgh team with Mario Lemieux and other talented players, he won the Cup. So now the spotlight falls on Regier. In his tenure here, he traded Chris Gratton, a monumental underachiever, for Daniel Briere, and it would be nice if he could find another diamond in the rough like that now. The best thing about Pegula now owning the team is that now, when the GM brings in the next wave of Brieres, Michael Pecas, Chris Drurys, Dominik Haseks or Brian Campbells, they’ll STAY here.

 
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NHL – Sabres – Flyers Will Go Seven Games

25 Apr

My original prediction of the Buffalo Sabres – Philadelphia Flyers opening round playoff series was that the Flyers would win in six games, and that pick will be incorrect since the series is now going to a seventh and deciding game. I see no reason to change the pick of the Flyers as the team that will eventually win the series. I still stand by my original reasoning that the Sabres are not mentally tough enough to outwork a team in a long series, and their 5-4 overtime loss in game 6 is a great example of that lack of a “killer extinct”. They had 2-0 and 3-1 leads and blew them, went ahead again 4-3 in the third period and couldn’t hold that lead, and lost the chance to put Philly away when Ville Leino scored the game winner in the OT. Now they have to win for a third time on the road in Philly to win the series, and despite the Flyers’ huge deficiency in goaltending, I don’t see that happening. In fact, I don’t see the game even being close. Philly has been overwhelming the Sabres with their dominant forechecking and I expect them to come out flying and make sure they score early and often enough to ensure that goaltending isn’t even an issue.

 
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NHL – Playoff Update

22 Apr

It’s time to check in and see how my first round predictions for the Stanley Cup playoffs are doing. For starters, in the Western Conference I picked the Phoenix Coyotes to win their series with Detroit, and the Red Wings have already swept the disappointing Coyotes out of the playoffs. I picked Vancouver to oust defending champion Chicago, and the Canucks have a 3-2 edge in that series. Like I said in picking Vancouver, the Black Hawks are nowhere near the same team that won the Cup last year, but after falling behind 3-0 in the series have staved off elimination with 2 resounding wins. I still feel Vancouver will eventually win. I had San Jose defeating the Los Angeles Kings and the Sharks have a 3-1 lead in that series, so it’s so far so good there. I picked Anaheim to knock out Nashville based on the Ducks’ experience, but the Predators have proven to be a tough out, as that series is tied at 2-2.

In the East, I chose Washington to cleanse the bad taste of last year’s playoff collapse against Montreal, and they are well on their way to doing that, holding a 3-1 edge over the New York Rangers. Of course, the Caps had a 3-1 lead on Montreal last year and blew it, so it’s not over until they secure that fourth win. However, when the Caps overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat New York 4-3 in double overtime the other night, it probably deflated the Rangers to the point where they won’t come back. As predicted, Pittsburgh appears to be making quick work of Tampa Bay, holding a 3-1 edge after beating the Lightning, also in double OT, in game four. Boston and Montreal always play memorable playoff series, and this year is no exception. The Habs shocked the hockey world by winning the first 2 games in Boston, then Boston came back and returned the favor by winning  games 3 and 4 in Montreal. The emotions are running high in this series, as shown below by Bruins’ defenseman Andrew Ference’s one-finger salute to the Montreal fans after he scored a goal in the fourth game. I picked Philadelphia to eliminate Buffalo based on the Flyers being a more mentally tough team, and on the fact that Ryan Miller still hasn’t shown me that he’s truly an elite goalie. However, the series is tied at 2-2 and both Sabres’ wins have been 1-0 shutouts backstopped by Miller. He was terrific in winning the opening game in Philly, but his performance in game four may have been a series, and career changer. His save on former teammate Daniel Briere in that game was a highlight reel one, and Miller may be writing himself a new playoff story this year.

                                                      Andrew Ference salutes Montreal fans after scoring.

 
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NHL – Flyers vs. Sabres Playoff Preview

15 Apr

Due to some technical difficulties, I wasn’t able to post the preview and prediction for the Stanley Cup opening round playoff series between Buffalo and Philadelphia until after game one was already completed. For that reason, I’ve decided to handicap the prediction by picking the loser of the opening game, the Flyers, to win the series. The two teams have switched roles since last season. In 2009-10, the Sabres won their division title and then proceeded to lose in the first round to the lower-seeded Boston Bruins. This year, they battled all the way to season’s end before finally clinching one of the 8 Eastern Conference spots, clinching the spot by beating the Flyers in overtime in the second-to-last game of the regular season. That was similar to the route the Flyers took to the playoffs last year. Of course, they then shocked the world by advancing all the way to the Cup Finals, where they lost to Patrick Kane and the Chicago Black Hawks. Included in their journey to the finals was a stunning seven game series win over Boston in which they dug themselves out of a 3-0 hole to win. That’s one reason why it’s not difficult to pick the Flyers to win this series, since a 1-0 deficit will hardly intimidate them. I made a point in a previous blog post that the Sabres haven’t proven to me that they have the mental toughness to win a long, grueling series, and that goaltender Ryan Miller has not proven to be the “All-World” netminder he’s hyped up to be. I’ll stand by those comments until proven to be wrong. Miller’s 35 save shutout win in the opener is a good start, but let’s see if he can sustain the high level of play for the entire series. Remember, in last year’s playoffs the Sabres won Game One at home and then pulled ahead in Game Two going into the third period, and in the regular season had been undefeated going into the third period with the lead. They lost to the Bruins in that game and blew another third period lead later in the series and never recovered. I’ll pick the resourceful Flyers to win the series in six games, despite the fact they weren’t playing their best going into the postseason.

 
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NHL – First Round Playoff Predictions

13 Apr

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight and just like every other season, there are some really interesting first round matchups. I’ll preview the Buffalo Sabres / Philadelphia Flyers series on Thursday.  Here are my predictions on how the remaining  first round series will turn out:

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay – this is a 4 vs. 5 matchup as far as seedings go, which should make it a close series. The Lightning are an interesting team. They have a lot of potential scoring ability with players like Vincent LeCavalier, Martin St. Louis, Simon Gagne and young Steven Stamkos, and may benefit from a highly motivated Ryan Malone, a former Penguin. The Pens, on the other hand, are minus Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby ( at least to start the series), who are out with injuries. This pair is not only Pittsburgh’s two best players but two of the best in the NHL. That appears to leave the Penguins at a huge disadvantage, but I’m going to pick them to win the series for 2 reasons – 1) the NHL playoffs are more of a grind-it-out marathon where great offensive players are often negated with tight checking, and the loss of their 2 stars has forced Pittsburgh to play that style to survive, and 2) Marc-Andre Fleury gives the Penguins a big advantage in goal over Tampa’s Dwayne Roloson.

Boston vs. Montreal – there have been some epic, historic series played between these old rivals, and this one should be close. A lot of people are looking at the Bruins as a solid contender to win the Cup, and I feel that they’ll win this series, although it may go the full seven games. The Bruins had mixed results in last year’s playoffs – upsetting higher-seeded Buffalo in the first round, then blowing a 3-0 lead in games to the Flyers and losing in seven games in the second round. The spectre of not being able to close out Philly last year will be hanging over Boston’s collective heads if they jump out to a lead in the series, and Montreal is just the type of team to extend the series to the max. Nothing would please Canadiens’ fans more than knocking off the Bruins, but I don’t see it happening. Boston was a solid team last year, then added Ethan Horton, top draft pick Tyler Seguin, and late trade additions Thomas Kaberle and Chris Kelly. Montreal, on the other hand, traded away the player who was key in them advancing to the conference finals last year – goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Washington vs. New York Rangers – the Capitals and their star, Alex Ovechkin, are Exhibit A in showing that having flashy players with great offensive ability doesn’t win you Stanley Cups. The Caps were dumped from the playoffs last year by a less-talented Montreal team, even though they had a 3-1 lead in games at one point. The Rangers are a lot like last year’s Canadiens, and have a goalie in Henrik Lundqvist who could get hot and stone the Caps. Washington has got to be highly motivated to erase that playoff upset from last season, and they are a better team than the Rangers, so I’m going to pick them to win the series. They’ve added grinders like Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott to a talented roster, so I see them outlasting the Blueshirts in a long series.

Vancouver vs. Chicago – this may be the most intriguing matchup of all in the first round – the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, with the best regular season record in the NHL and a roster loaded with talent, against the defending Stanley Cup champions who squeaked into the playoffs this year only because the Dallas Stars couldn’t win their final game. On the surface, this looks like one of those series where the seasoned, playoff-tested defending champs knock out the higher seeded Canucks, who have a history of playoff failure. I see the Canucks winning the series, however. Chicago is nowhere near the team it was when it won the Cup last year. They basically had a fire sale of players after winning the Cup, dumping salaries and losing players who were major contributors last year, including playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien and goalie Antti Niemi. Vancouver has a roster loaded with talent and grit, led by the Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik, and will win this series, giving the team confidence to make a long run in this year’s tournament.

San Jose vs. Los Angeles – like Vancouver, San Jose has a history of fielding awesome regular season teams that flop in the playoffs. The Kings have one of the NHL’s best young defense corps, led by Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, and some good forwards like Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth. The difference in the 2 teams is between the pipes. The Sharks have better goaltending and more experience, so I see them winning them this all-California series. By the way, the NHL has to be thrilled that California has 3 teams competing for the Cup, including both Los Angeles-based clubs, the Kings and Anaheim Ducks. It can only help to grow the game.

Detroit vs. Phoenix – these 2 teams played a grueling opening round series last year, won by Detroit in seven games. The Wings, with a proud, winning tradition, needed every ounce of effort they had to eliminate the Coyotes last year, then were beaten by eventual champion Chicago. The feeling here is that Detroit, although a strong club, is starting to age somewhat and is vulnerable to being eliminated this year by Phoenix. The Red Wings have problems in goal, while the Coyotes have Ilya Bryzgalov, capable of getting hot and stealing the series on his own. Phoenix has only one 20-goal scorer – captain Shane Doan – but gets balanced scoring from a roster of unknown grinders, just the type of team that thrives in the NHL playoff crucible. I’ll pick the Coyotes to win this series.

Anaheim vs. Nashville – this is not exactly a traditional hockey matchup like Montreal vs. Toronto, but it is a confrontation between two tough, disciplined hockey teams that should be very entertaining. Nashville plays a sound defensive system that should serve them well in the close-checking playoffs, and one player to watch as a potential game-changer for the Predators is newly-acquired forward Mike Fisher ( AKA Carrie Underwood’s husband). Fisher’s style of play is conducive to NHL playoff hockey, and I see him being a force for the Preds. Anaheim won the Cup in 2007 and has a lot of playoff-tested veterans – like Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Bobby Ryan and captain Ryan Getzlaff. For that reason, I have the Ducks winning the series, continuing Nashville’s playoff drought. They are winless in five previous Stanley Cup playoff series.

 
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NHL – Sabres Playoff Push Almost Complete

06 Apr

                                                       Sabres’ rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth

The Buffalo Sabres needed to secure a total of 3 points in their final 3 regular season games to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, regardless of what the other contending teams did, and they put themselves on the brink of clinching that spot with a big   4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. Rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth, filling in while Ryan Miller recovers from an “upper body injury”, posted another huge win, and Thomas Vanek netted a hat trick to supply Buffalo with some offense. The Sabres jumped out to a 3-1 lead, then gave up a goal in the opening moments of the third period. Fans had to be having flashbacks to the recent meltdown against Nashville (see the last blog post I wrote about the Sabres), but to their credit, the home town boys kept their composure, played a “playoff” style of game for the rest of the period and locked down the win with an empty-net goal by Vanek in the game’s final minute. Best case scenario for Buffalo now would be to wrap up their home season on Friday, in a game being billed as “Fan Appreciation Night”, by beating the struggling Phildelphia Flyers with Enroth in net, then having the luxury of using Saturday’s season finale at Columbus to play Miller and make sure he’s healthy and ready for the postseason. I’m still not convinced that the Sabres have what it takes to face down a tougher team in the playoffs and win a seven game series with their current roster, but coach Lindy Ruff has orchestrated playoff surprises with less-talented rosters in the past, so who knows?

 
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NHL – Devastating Loss For Sabres

21 Mar

Crushing, disheartening, devastating – choose your adjective to describe the Buffalo Sabres’ loss to Nashville on Sunday – they all fit. The Sabres have played some maddening games the last couple of seasons, and have given their fans fits, but Sunday’s meltdown may have been the worst. The club is in a battle for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot and needs every point it can get, yet somehow they managed to blow a 3-1 lead with a little less than 3 minutes left in regulation, then lose within the first 30 seconds of overtime. The Predators, like Buffalo, are striving for the last playoff position, in the Western Conference, but they had no business winning this game. The Sabres completely choked, giving a 2-goal lead away with terrible turnovers. Their supposed world-class goaltender, Ryan Miller, couldn’t make the big save when they really needed it either. Miller may be one of the bright young faces the NHL is trying to market, but that doesn’t make him a great player. He is average at best most nights, and regularly loses to supposed “lesser” goalies in head to head matches. On the other hand, Coach Lindy Ruff has said he plans to spell Miller in back-to-back games, and young Jhonas Enroth has played great in his opportunities. So Ruff starts Miller in this game, not only a back-to-back game but an afternoon game following a night game. Was Miller spent by the end of Sunday’s contest? And does Ruff share the blame for panicking and not sticking to his plan?

The Sabres  are still sitting in a pretty good position to secure a playoff spot, controlling their own destiny, but after going 30-0 when leading after 2 periods last season, the club has followed a disappointing pattern. They blew leads in 2 playoff games last year, costing them the series with Boston, and lead the NHL this season in blowing two-goal leads. That’s a sign of a team that lacks mental toughness, and if they happen to sneak into the postseason this year, any likely top-seeded opponent, like the Philadelphia Flyers for instance, will eat them alive in a playoff series much the same way the Bruins did last year. They know that mounting any kind of a forceful forecheck will result in the Sabres wilting and coughing up the puck with regularity, and I don’t get the feeling that any top-seeded team has any fear of being “stoned” in a playoff series by Miller, the way they might have with Dominik Hasek in the past, since Miller has never really shown the ability to do that. He has had his good moments, but in my opinion possesses the same trait as the rest of his teammates – a lack of mental toughness necessary to sustain the effort needed to close out a playoff series. I hope they prove me wrong, but I doubt if they will. The good news is that new owner Terry Pegula will likely not any waste time weeding out the dead weight on the roster after the season ends, and will spare no expense to upgrade the team next year.

 
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R.I.P. Rick Martin

14 Mar

New Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula with the famed French Connection line – from left – Rene Robert, Rick Martin and Gilbert Perreault.

Sunday was a sad day for Buffalo Sabres’ fans, and the organization, as the news of the passing of French Connection legend Rick Martin became public. Martin was a bonafide superstar in the earliest years of the franchise, and a key player in the club’s quick rise from an expansion team in 1970 to playoff team in 1973, and Stanley Cup contender in ’74-75, when they lost to Philadelphia in the Finals. When the Knox brothers were awarded the franchise prior to 1970 they made the wise decision to hire Punch Imlach as coach and general manager, and Imlach’s first two number one draft choices were brilliant, as he picked 2 players who would help form one of hockey’s most famous lines ever – Gilbert Perreault and Martin. At the time, when professional sports added expansion franchises, they did little to help those teams. They would usually get to pick old, washed-up players in an expansion draft and take a decade or more to develop into competent teams (baseball’s New York Mets and Houston Colts/Astros, added in 1962, are good examples). But Imlach did what was considered impossible back then – he built a team that qualified for the playoffs by their third season. The Sabres were beaten in six games by a powerhouse Montreal Canadiens club but in the waning moments of the deciding game, they were chanted with “Thank you, Sabres” by an appreciative home crowd. The team took a bigger step forward the following season when they advanced to the Cup Finals, losing to the defending champion Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games. The Flyers had an intimidating, stifling team and much superior goaltending, with Bernie Parent, probably the best in the NHL at the time, matched up against Gerry DesJardins, who had been signed at midseason, and an aging Roger Crozier. Martin was a standout in the ’73 series loss to the Canadiens, totaling 5 points (3 goals) in the 6 games. Martin was just as good in the 1974 run to the Finals, racking up 7 goals and 8 assists for a total of 15 points, in 17 total playoff games. The Sabres this time eliminated the vaunted Canadiens in the semifinals. Martin was all of 23 years old at the time. “Rico” is second to Perreault on the team’s all-time goal scoring list, even though he’s ninth on the list in career games played, playing 681 games with the team compared to 1,191 for Perreault. Unfortunately Martin’s career was cut short by a devastating knee injury that forced him to retire at the age of 30. He has yet to be voted into the sport’s hall of fame, probably held back by the lack of total numbers due to the injury-shortened career. Martin’s biggest asset as a player was his wicked slap shot. Bobby Hull was always considered to have the hardest shot of any player in history, but Martin’s coach, Joe Crozier, once said “Hull may have the harder shot, but Rick gets his away quicker and is always on target.” He had a reputation for having a hair-trigger with his shot, and for it being so hard that it routinely would knock goaltender’s gloves off their hands. He was truly what hockey experts refer to as a “sniper”, a natural goal scorer.

After he retired, Martin was a successful businessman, owning a bar that was appropriately named Slap Shot. He was active in the Sabres’ alumni association and participated in many charity golf events, and was a supporter of local law enforcement. Those who knew him say that what they’ll miss most about him is his sense of humor and his general all-around “regular guy” personna.

 

NHL – Sabres’ Brad Boyes, A Good Investment

11 Mar

The Buffalo Sabres are hunting for critical points in the standings on a nightly basis these days, and their 4-3 overtime win over Boston last night was as huge a win as they’ve had all year. The winning goal was scored by Brad Boyes, the team’s only trade deadline acquisition. It was Boyes’ 3rd goal since joining the Sabres, set up by some good hustle from Nathan Gerbe. This game started out as expected, with the Bruins flying high on home ice. They took a 1-0 lead in the first period, then stretched it to 2-0 early in the second period. Buffalo, as has been the case for most of their current long road trip, didn’t wilt under the heat. Tyler Ennis got the team on the board on the next shift after Boston’s 2nd goal, scoring as the Bruins’ PA announcer was still announcing the Bruins’ goal. The Sabres tied the score near the end of the period, with Thomas Vanek scoring on the power play. After Boston got the lead back  early in the final period, Buffalo tied it with another power play goal, from Tim Connolly, setting up Boyes’ OT heroics. Boyes has been a great addition to the Sabres’ lineup so far, and besides scoring the game winner he also assisted on Connolly’s goal. The two were junior teammates with the Erie Otters, and hopefully will continue to show some chemistry into the playoffs. Ennis also had an assist to go along with his goal. One key to the win was the Sabres’ ability to match Boston’s physical intensity, something they didn’t do much of in last year’s playoff matchup with the Bruins. Cody McCormick picked up 2 fighting majors, Paul Gaustad also had one and Mike Grier and Chris Butler got roughing penalties in scrums while sticking up for their teammates. With the win, the Sabres moved up into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They close out the long trip in Toronto on Saturday night. Hopefully they can add 2 more points to their total for the year.

 
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