Stanley Cup playoff preview: Round 1

Stanley Cup

Welcome to the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and the beginning of a new format. No longer will teams be seeded from 1-8 in their conference, but instead will have to play out of their division first. Teams are no longer re-seeded after the opening round and will face the other winner in their division in the second round.

THN gets you prepared for the action, which will start Wednesday, April 12. Below is our introduction to each series, insider analysis from CBC’s Kevin Weekes and TSN’s Jeff O’Neill, and THN’s prediction.

And be sure to vote on our poll: Who do you think will win the 2014 Stanley Cup?


EASTERN CONFERENCE

BOSTON BRUINS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
Introduction: A classic Original Six matchup welcomes the Detroit Red Wings to the East side of the playoff bracket and it won’t be a warm reception. The Bruins are the most complete team in the East and asserted their dominance by going through the East with a 12-4 record last playoff season. But the Wings are also an unfortunate draw for Boston. If any team, no matter its drawbacks, is capable of a shocking upset, it’s the experienced Red Wings machine. Just last season, Detroit upset Anaheim in the first round and took Chicago all the way to Game 7. This season, Gustav Nyquist should be even better for them. Read more

Why your team will not win the 2014 Stanley Cup

Boston Bruins lose Cup

Just like the start of the regular season, any fan with a horse in the race starts the NHL playoffs with a giddy optimism. Even if you don’t believe your team will win it all, you’re surely thinking they can pull off an upset or two.

Well, sorry to break it to you, but you’re wrong. Your team isn’t as good or as complete as you believe it to be. They will not win the Stanley Cup.

And here’s why your favorite team will come up empty this spring:

Anaheim: Because the stats community says you’re doomed to fail. Your team’s 49.8 percent Corsi percentage is second-worst among Western playoff teams, which means you don’t possess the puck enough. You were upset last year and it’s going to happen again. Read more

Why an Evgeni Malkin for Alex Ovechkin trade makes sense

Matt Larkin
Malkin Ovechkin

Look at the headline. Take a deep breath and count to 10. The idea is preposterous, yes, but try to entertain it for a few minutes.

If and only if the Pittsburgh Penguins bow out earlier than expected for the fifth straight post-season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2008-09, an Evgeni Malkin for Alex Ovechkin trade could benefit the Penguins and Washington Capitals.

In Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Pens have been blessed with two future Hall of Famers and two of the top five players of this generation. They’ve combined for four scoring titles (including Crosby’s this season), two Ted Lindsay Awards, seven First-Team All-Star selections, a Rocket Richard and a Conn Smythe. Crosby and Malkin rank fourth and 11th, respectively, in NHL history in points per game. Add up all those amazing accomplishments and it’s mildly disappointing they’ve yielded but one Cup five years ago.

Sooner or later, it’s going to feel like the Pens are “wasting” these prime years.

And what about Washington? Ovechkin is just as decorated as Crosby and Malkin, if not more, minus a championship. ‘Ovie’ is a three-time MVP, soon to be a four-time goal-scoring king and he belongs on that same short list of this era’s greatest players. But to say he’s been a polarizing figure in D.C. this season is an understatement. He’s been called out for a lack of effort by coach Adam Oates, and Ovie’s defensive ineptitude has made his 50-goal campaign the most criticized in NHL history. First in goals with 50 but 870th in plus-minus at minus-36, Ovie is entertainment incarnate, ain’t he? You know some team is scoring whenever he’s on the ice.

After missing the playoffs, the Caps are in desperate need of a shakeup. If the Pens flop this year, they will be, too. Swapping Malkin and Ovechkin straight up would rock each franchise’s foundation without robbing either of elite talent. Here’s why the trade works a lot more than you may think:

1. There’s a precedent for it. Not just for a superstar trade, but for a trade between division rivals. Edmonton dealt Wayne Gretzky within the Smythe Division in 1988. As the cliché goes, if he can be traded, anyone can. Other superstars dealt while still at the peak of their abilities or close to it: Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr. Yes, those trades were largely contract-related, but they still happened and shifted the balance of the league.

2. Money is not an issue, at least cap-wise. Malkin, 27, is due $9.500 million annually for the next eight seasons. Ovechkin, 28, is due $9.538 million annually for the next seven seasons. Remarkably similar situations, meaning the swap would have no impact on either team’s salary cap structure. Ovechkin’s actual salary for the rest of his deal is $500,000 higher at $10 million, but Malkin is due $5-million signing bonuses in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Those payouts are far enough away that they shouldn’t deter the Caps in this fictional deal.

3. Malkin is better than Ovechkin at making others around him better – and Malkin plays his best sans-Crosby. As dynamic a talent as Ovie is, he’ll never be mistaken for a complete player. On top of the defensive deficiencies, he has assisted on just 27 goals all season. Malkin is more capable of controlling the flow of a game. His most dominant season was arguably 2011-12, when he tallied 50 goals and 109 points, won the Hart and was widely considered the best player on the planet. That came in a year when Crosby played just 22 games. ‘Geno’ has never needed Crosby’s help to dominate and they have rarely been linemates, anyway.

4. Ovechkin on Crosby’s wing? Are you kidding me!? It’s the equivalent of uniting Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. If they fought for one side, our brains and televisions would melt from sheer awesomeness. (Maybe they do, eventually? I haven’t read the books. No spoilers, I beg of you.) And any talk of Crosby and Ovechkin’s alleged dislike for each other would rapidly evaporate the minute Sid started feeding Alex the biscuit. I’d set the over/under for Ovechkin goals at 65.5.

5. Pittsburgh could fill its void at center with Ryan Kesler. If the Penguins pursued Kesler already, we know they can afford his $5-million cap hit. Ovechkin only puts $38,462, a.k.a. a decent luxury sedan, more than Malkin toward the cap, so that wouldn’t change much. In my zany hypothetical world, the Pens would only make the earth-shattering Ovie deal once they’ve acquired Kesler, whose talents would be wasted in a No. 3 role behind Malkin anyway.

6. Massive void on Washington’s wings? Move Evgeny Kuznetsov to Malkin’s wing. Pairing them on the first line and, say, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson on the second looks pretty dangerous to me.

While “hockey trades” of this magnitude simply don’t happen anymore, the deal could genuinely improve both teams. It’s a tougher sell for the Pens, who don’t exactly have trouble scoring and would be adding the one league’s weakest defensive players to a team that already ranks in the middle of the pack in important advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick. Adding a Kesler type first would make Ovie more than worth it, though.

A hilariously far-fetched idea, of course. Agree or disagree? If you vote nay, constructively tell me why it’s dumb in the comments.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

Wild WHL game includes multiple suckerpunches and a KO

Nic-Petan

The Portland Winterhawks have dominated the Western League for years now and are back in the conference final thanks to a five-game series win over Victoria. But that last victory over the Royals was a brutal one, with several dirty plays marring the game.

To start, you have Florida Panthers pick Steven Hodges rabbit punching Pittsburgh Penguins blue-chipper Derrick Pouliot while Pouliot is fighting defenseman Joe Hicketts. Pouliot then KOs Hicketts, a small but feisty prospect for the 2014 draft.

But that wasn’t the end of it!

Read more

If Fleury makes saves like this in the playoffs, Pens fans can rest easier

Jason Kay
Detroit Red Wings v Pittsburgh Penguins

Marc-Andre Fleury channeled the ghost of Dominik Hasek last night when he made an incredible save on Detroit’s Daniel Alfredsson in the shootout.

OK, so Hasek isn’t deceased and Alfie could have done a better job of elevating the puck, but the point is Fleury is still a difference-maker. Usually in a good way.  He reinforced last night, as he has done much of the season, he has as high a skill and athleticism level of any goalie on the planet.

Read more

Kris Letang returns to Penguins lineup less than three months after stroke

Rory Boylen
Kris Letang

The last time Kris Letang played in an NHL game was Jan. 27. He began missing time due to a “mystery illness” which later was revealed to be a stroke. He discussed the scary details about his episode about a month later and then a few weeks after that, on March 17, Letang returned to Penguins practice and has been in full-contact mode.

Today, less than three months after his stroke, the Penguins announced Letang will return to their lineup against the Detroit Red Wings.

The first question a lot of people have about a situation as serious and concerning as this is why not just play it safe and shut him down for the rest of this season? Why not start again in September at training camp and return to action in October? What’s the rush?

Penguins GM Ray Shero discussed that today with the media: Read more

Sunday’s standings a game of thrones for NHL teams trying to make the playoffs

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury

The post-season is coming.

And on a night when many will be watching the Game of Thrones season premiere, it’s fitting that Sunday saw plenty of intrigue as teams set their sights on the playoffs.

Take the Pittsburgh Penguins. With top spot in the Metropolitan Division assured, Sidney Crosby, Brooks Orpik, Olli Maatta and Chris Kunitz joined the already injured Evgeni Malkin on the sidelines with various upper- and lower-body injuries.

Those are five names this team will lean on heavily come playoff time, so while Malkin’s broken foot is a well-documented, long-term issue, sitting the other four has me raising an eyebrow.

Are these players really dealing with injuries?

Probably, to a degree. The bumps and bruises sure build up over 82 games. Still, you can bet those four players would be in the lineup if this were the playoffs.

But we’re not there yet, and the Pens are basically playing out the string. Win or lose, they won’t be moving in the standings.

Are the Penguins obligated to play their best lineup?
Read more

Top 10 second overall picks show there’s plenty to win after losing the draft lottery

Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton celebrate a goal for the San Jose Sharks

For 14 NHL teams, next year begins now. In a little over a week, fans of the NHL’s non-playoff teams will eagerly look to the future as the league runs its draft lottery to determine the owner of this summer’s first overall draft pick. This year, unlike years past, all 14 teams will have a shot at that top slot, meaning the league’s worst franchise has a better chance to lose the lottery, too.

But despair not, Buffalo Sabres fans: as one look around the league shows, second place isn’t so bad.

This list of active second overall picks is hardly second-rate.
Read more