Thursday, March 29, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Victory in the Pacific
This week, we break down the most entertaining game of musical chairs in human history.
Good morning hockey fans! Last week we got comfy with the Baltic Tornado himself, Dallas' Loui Eriksson. This week, with four Pacific and two lesser teams competing for just three playoff spots, it's time to take a good, long, deep, thrusting, lubed-up look at what it's going to take to get into what tiny gnomes refer to as The Pretty Big Dance.
Silencing the cries of millions of Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche fans -- let's face it, barring a miracle, you're not getting in, and nobody likes uninvited partycrashers -- it's a four-team race for the 3rd, 7th, and 8th spots. We'll handicap every team to give you an insider's look at who will win and who can suck fin this time next week.
Currently: 42-30-5, 35 ROW, 89 points
Remaining Games: @Van, @SJ, SJ, @Nash, StL
Strengths: Two scoring lines. While most pundits wrote the Stars off at the beginning of the season for Not Having Brad Richards, Dallas has quietly gone about producing one of the deepest top two lines in the NHL as the only team with four 60-point players. Since settling on a Ryder-Ribeiro-Eriksson first line and a Benn-Ott-Whomever second, the Stars have been a tough matchup for opposing teams as one line always seems to get free and put up multiple points every night. Combine that with stellar netminding from a new-and-improved Kari Lehtonen, and the Stars should make the playoffs next week.
Weaknesses: Secondary scoring. The drop-off after those four is pretty significant, with an underperforming and underphysical third "checking" line that rarely matches up well against other team's top scorers. The defense is not as strong as coach Glen Gulutzan would want, either, with four guys in the 21-28 points range and their top defensive defenseman (Mark Fistric, the Douglas Murray of the South) nursing an upper-body injury. More critically, this Stars team sometimes plays with more passion than energy: resulting in chippy, ugly affairs that invariably end up as lopsided blowout losses. The only reason Dallas hasn't already wrapped up this division is because the other three teams on this list all have double-digit Loser Point Games; when Dallas loses, they generally lose big.
If They Were a Band, They'd Be: Early Guns N'Roses. With some of the top highlight-reel plays of the year -- and some of the absolutely worst, Spaghetti Incident-level catastrophes -- the Stars are a young team on the rise in a mediocre field, a bunch of spotlight-ready rock stars that ain't afraid of getting filthy when they need to and appear custom-built for the high drama of the postseason (for good and for evil).
Playoffs? Playoffs?: Yes.
Los Angeles Kings
Currently: 38-27-12, 32 ROW, 88 points
Remaining Games: @Edm, @Min, Edm, SJ, @SJ
Strengths: Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. Jonathan Quick is the best netminder in the NHL, hands down (especially your hand, Lundqvist). This is a highly-dysfunctional, underwhelming team that has had their entire season saved by a lone hero, and as Quick goes, so will the Kings. I've lost track of how many 1-0 and 0-0 games the Kings have lost, but that just proves how extremely valuable Quick has been: It's amazing to watch a guy getting paid backup goaltender money ($1.8 mil) saving the hides of a team of underperforming multimillionaires.
Weaknesses: Leadership and drive. Up until recently, the Kings could be counted on to fold fast when the chips were down, year in and year out. For a team that, on paper, looks like a slam-dunk Stanley Cup contender, the Kings have had an awfully hard time putting a single goal on the board this season -- although now that they've got Jeff Carter in the mix, they only occasionally get shutout in big games. Still, it speaks volumes to the lack of drive in the room that this team is relying on a backup goaltender and two mercenary defensemen (Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi) to win games rather than, say, their allegedly Norris-caliber d-man Drew Doughty.
If They Were a Band, They'd Be: Chickenfoot. While Hagar, Satriani, and Anthony consistently underwhelm up front, drummer Chad Smith holds it all together in the background. Still, even with Smith back there the sum is less than the whole of its vastly-overrated parts. This is a team that's party-first and hockey-second, a team that pretends to be something it's not and never has been, and will likely crumble against whatever first round opponent is lucky enough to draw them. Again.
Playoffs? Playoffs?: Yes.
San Jose Sharks
Currently: 39-28-10, 31 ROW, 88 points
Remaining Games: @Phx, Dal, @Dal, @LA, LA
Strengths: Scoring depth. Easily the deepest forward crew of any of the bubble teams, even without Jamie McGinn, Dany Heatley or Devin Setoguchi. The Sharks are a well-coached team, and if their embattled coach is hitting the links two weeks from now, it won't be for lack of scoring. The Sharks have a murderer's row of high-scoring forwards stocking the top three lines, are one of the biggest teams in terms of height and weight, and have a north-south mentality that results in chaos, confusion, and blaring red lights.
Weaknesses: Lack of physicality. For a team with such fast-skating, hulking behemoths, the Sharks sure do play like the biggest pansies in the NHL. "Hits" aren't a scientific statistic by any means, but when you are dead last in hits, your natural advantages in size and speed amount to a big bag of nothing. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a team that can't/won't lay a single hit (a.k.a., does not get dirty along the boards and in the corners) is dead last in penalty killing as well, where four guys must outwork five. Hockey is a physical game, and teams that shun that in favor of a finesse game usually end up hoping for a top-5 pick in the draft every season. The Sharks' high-flying scoring attack covers up for some of that, but as the Sharks have proven every postseason for the last 15 or so years, a team of hard-working, hard-charging players will defeat a much more talented team every single time. And considering all five of San Jose's remaining games are essentially playoff games, that doesn't bode well for a return trip to the playoffs.
If They Were a Band, They'd Be: Will Smith. Slick and overhyped, the Sharks ultimately can't cut it with the teams that want it more. Their squeaky-clean, extremely-predictable game may impress the old ladies in the hockey media but it rarely translates into anything substantial on the ice. Plus, the way they annually crush Motown must drive the citizens of Detroit into a murderous rage.
Playoffs? Playoffs?: No.
Currently: 37-27-13, 31 ROW, 87 points
Remaining Games: SJ, Ana, Col, @StL, @Min
Strengths: Team defense. There are two things that Dave Tippett teams excel at, and one of them is rock-solid team defense. Goaltender Mike Smith was an undeserved national punchline when he replaced $10 million man Ilya Bryzgalov, and lazy sportswriters wrote off Phoenix before the season even started, because that's precisely the sort of thing lazy sportswriters do. Of course, Smith has been a "revelation" ... but really, a bag of chiclets could post a .920 save percentage behind a Tippett defense. Add to that that the Coyotes are one of the most veteran clubs in the league and you get a defensive coach's dream: one that works hard on every shift and almost never makes mistakes.
Weaknesses: Team defense. There are two things Dave Tippett teams excel at, and one of them is sitting on a one-goal lead for 55 minutes and playing for the charity point in overtime. No coach in NHL history has benefited more from shootout points, and that's not a good thing. Phoenix, like the mid-2000s Stars, eliminate the first 20 or 40 minutes of every game when they can, saving their "attack" for the final 20. That strategy results in lots of one goal games that end in the extra frame, and is a great way to game the system to accumulate regular season points. It is also a sure-fire way to disappoint come playoff time, but as a single passing glance at Tippett's .400 postseason winning percentage will tell you, playoff wins are the least of his concerns. Still, with the easiest schedule of any of these four teams and two willing shootout/OT dance partners in the final two games, Phoenix should squeak in over their (debatably) more deserving brethren in San Jose.
If They Were a Band, They'd Be: Kenny G. Slow, boring and excruciating to watch, both Kenny G and the Phoenix Coyotes have become famous for one thing: playing the same godawful note for almost an hour. Also, both of their fanbases are made up of white people that you've never met.
Playoffs? Playoffs?: Yes.