Thursday, April 14, 2011

Playoffs?! Don't talk about playoffs!!

Ok, I'm gonna talk about the playoffs.  Despite the fact that the Avs finished far from the playoffs, this is still a very exciting time.  I love the Stanley Cup Playoffs!  There are some great first round matchups this year.  The great thing about the NHL Playoffs is that there are no clear-cut favorites.  Very, very rarely in the NBA do you see a #8 seed upsetting a #1 seed.  The #8 Indiana Pacers will not beat the #1 Chicago Bulls and the #8 Memphis Grizzlies will not beat the #1 San Antonio Spurs.  However, last year in the NHL, the #8 Montreal Canadiens defeated the #1 Washington Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.  This year, the Caps are again #1 and will face the Blue Shirts.  If Henrik Lundqvist gets hot, who knows what could happen?  He's certainly more proven than Varlamov or Neuvirth.  In the West, the #1 Vancouver Canucks will face the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.

With that said, I do expect both #1 seeds to advance.  Where we could see an upset, is more likely in either 4 vs. 5 matchup.  The Ducks have found a way to keep it going after their all-star goalie Jonas Hiller went down with vertigo.  Will he be ready for the playoffs or will they rely on the resurrected Ray Emery and Dan Ellis to carry the load?  They do have plenty of offensive weapons in Rocket Richard winner and this year's lone 50-goal scorer Corey Perry who was the offensive MVP of my fantasy team!  What a 5th round pick that turned out to be!  They also have the ageless Teemu Selanne.  Why couldn't he play like this when he was with the Avs?  They will be facing the Nashville Predators.  Here's a team who, seemingly every year, is projected to finish on the outside looking in and every year, makes the playoffs.  The negative of course, is that they've never won a playoff series.  Last year, they did give the eventual champion Blackhawks some trouble.  They looked like they were going to take the series for a bit.  I think this is their year...not to win the Cup, but to at least get out of the first round.  My advice to them; have Carrie Underwood sing the National Anthem at all their home games.  Actually, let's get Carrie to sing the Anthem at all of the Avs' home games.  Anyone else tired to death of Jake Schroeder?

The Pens/Lightning series will come down to one word...goaltending.  You expected me to say Crosby, didn't you?  Actually, goaltending could be the key to win any playoff series, but I especially like the Fleury/Roloson matchup here.  Early in the year, Fleury struggled and fans and experts were declaring him a bust and that the starting job should go to veteran backup Brent Johnson, who is a good backup and a good fighter (ask Rick DiPietro), but certainly not a franchise netminder.  Crosby carried the team for the first half of the season and looked like a runaway for every MVP award and scoring title.  A hit in the Winter Classic and another one by Victor Hedman changed all that.  Crosby's been out for the last 4 months now and there's still no word on his return.  The Conn Smythe winner from their Cup run in '09, Evgeni Malkin, has also been injury plagued this year, most notably with his torn ACL and MCL, which will keep him on the shelf until next year's training camp.  Fortunately for the Pens, Dan Blysma has wisely transformed the team from an offensive juggernaut to a defensive-minded team.  Fleury has also turned a 180 from his early struggles.  I love his attitude.  He was one of my favorite players to watch during the HBO 24/7: Pens/Caps series.  How can you not love a goalie doing push-ups and jumping jacks during a shootout?  Since his late season debut on January 1st, Jordan Staal has also come on strong.  He's had to live in Crosby and Malkin's shadow his whole career, not to mention currently being the junior Staal brother in the NHL.  However, he has embraced his new top line center and leader role.  Similarly to Crosby and Malkin, let's not forget that Fleury and Staal were #1 and #2 overall picks respectively in their own right.  Speaking of offensive juggernauts, Tampa Bay is loaded with Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Gagne, and former Penguin, Ryan Malone.  They also have their most reliable goalie since Khabibulin in Dwayne Roloson.  He used to give the Avs fits when he was with Minnesota and Edmonton.  This will be a good, exciting series.  As the old saying goes, offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.  Pens in 7 (6 if Crosby returns).

Another really good matchup will be the Boston/Montreal series.  Two Original Six teams, division rivals, not to mention the controversial Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty.  You think Chara will have a 6'9" bullseye on him?  Absolutely!  Do I think that hit was dirty?  I can see both sides.  I don't think Chara's a dirty player.  Sure, he's a big hitter, but it's not his fault he's 7 inches and 50 lbs. bigger than Pacioretty and virtually the rest of the league.  On the flip side of the coin, if I were a Habs fan or part of the team, I would be livid at the hit and also the lack of discipline the NHL punished Chara with.  Will they go after him in this series?  Hard to say.  You can't let emotions get the best of you in the playoffs.  And how do you go after a giant like that anyway?  The old stone right between the eyes David and Goliath style?  The men between the pipes are a great story in this series.  Both had very forgettable seasons last year in which they lost their starting jobs, only to regain them this year along with all-star status.  Weren't Thomas and Price even sitting together during the all-star draft talking about not wanting to get hit by Chara's shots?  Well, Price is going to have to if Montreal is going have a change in the series.

I think the Sharks will beat the Kings.  The Kings are a good team, but the Kopitar injury will just be too much to overcome.  The Sharks got a taste of playoff success last year, making it to the Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual champs.  As much as I would like the Coyotes (or should I say the Jets) to beat the Red Wings, I don't think it's going to happen.  Even without Zetterberg, the Wings just have too much talent.  If I had one wish for these Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is for the Red Wings to lose.  I will NEVER go for a team with Todd Bertuzzi on it.  Period.  The guy does not deserve to be in the NHL, let alone win a Cup.

Finally, here are my first round predictions:

Capitals in 5
Flyers in 5
Bruins in 7
Penguins in 7
Canucks in 6
Sharks in 5
Red Wings in 5
Predators in 7

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

Ok, so the Avs did not have a good season.  That's an understatement.  After exceeding all expectations in 2009-10 with a Calder Trophy candidate (Duchene), Jack Adam candidate (Sacco), and a goalie who finished top 5 for the Vezina and almost made the roster for Team USA (Anderson), not to mention a playoff berth and a great series with the Sharks where the Avs were a couple of bounces from taking the series, the Avs finished the 2010-11 season in 29th place.  Ironically, they were picked my many experts to finish there in 09-10.

I'd like to think of the 09-10 season, the 10-11 season, and the upcoming 11-12 season as a trilogy; more specifically, the original Star Wars trilogy.  Episode IV: A New Hope ended happily with the rebels destroying the Death Star.  That was the Avs season last year, in which they made the playoffs and took the Sharks to the limit.  This season was Empire Strikes Back.  Han Solo is frozen in Carbonite, Luke Skywalker just got his hand cut off and found out that Darth Vader's his dad.  The Avs lost 474 man-games to injury and finished 29th out of 30 teams.  I may be a glass half full kind of guy, but I expect the Avs to return to the playoffs next year and return balance to the Force, like in Return of the Jedi.

Easier said than done.  One can argue that the Avs success of a year ago can be attributed to teams not taking them seriously.  Whether that's the case or not, the Avs will have to make some changes this summer and compete at a higher level next year.  First off, there will be some free agents come July 1st, who the Avs should certainly get locked down before then.  The biggest is Milan Hejduk.  He has publicly expressed his desire to stay here in Colorado and I expect the Avs to get him signed.  With the retirement of Foote, he is the last veteran leader on the team.  In fact, Hejduk (35) and Liles (30) are the only players over the age of 30 currently on the roster.  Needless to say, the Avs are a very young team.  The million dollar question of course is, are they a young, up-and-coming team as the 09-10 run would indicate or are they a young, inexperienced team who will be cellar dwellers of the NHL for the foreseeable future like the Oilers and Islanders have been for a while.  I certainly believe the former.

The next issue the Avs will address is the NHL draft.  Last night's lottery turned out to be an underwhelming one for the Avs.  The Devils defied odds and jumped from 8th to 4th.  The Avs were of course unable to grab the 18.8% change of winning the #1 overall pick.  Therefore, they will get the 2nd pick and St. Louis' 11th pick.  The #2 overall pick will be an interesting one.  This will be the highest the Avs have picked since moving to Denver.  The top 3 prospects are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog, a center, defenseman, and left wing respectively.  While there's not really a clear-cut #1, Edmonton is expected to pick Nugent-Hopkins.  That would work out for the Avs as center is probably the one position where they are stacked.  Duchene, Stastny, O'Reilly, Dupuis, and McClement provide talent and depth up the middle.  Not to mention the Avs first round pick from 2010, Joey Hishon, who is also a center.  I suspect that if he's ready for the big show this year or next, he would be moved to wing like previous Avalanche centers-turned-wingers Alex Tanguay and Wojtek Wolski.  I could see Hishon on left wing with O'Reilly in the next year or two and they were childhood friends growing up. 

Anyway, that leaves an interesting pick between Larsson and Landeskog, both top Swedish prospects.  Landeskog is enticing because he is being described as a "power forward."  Since trading Chris Stewart, the Avs are clearly without one.  David Jones has size, but his injury history cannot bode well for him trying to play a "power" game.  If Landeskog is NHL-ready this year, which most #2 picks are these days, he could very realisticly play with Duchene or Stastny.  Larsson, however, is a 6'3", 200lb. D-man.  The Avs were dead last in team defense and penalty killing last season, so a chance to improve their defense is very hard to pass up.  Plus, could Johnson and Larsson on the points be the next Bourque/Blake combo or Proger/Niedermayer in Anaheim?  Way too early to say, but it's a tempting thought!

In 2009, they said Tavares, Hedman, and Duchene were all can't-miss picks.  The Avs picked 3rd, so Matt Duchene pretty much fell into their lap.  It was a win-win for the Avs and Duchene.  I love that pic of a young Duchene wearing what looks to be a Forsberg jersey, standing in his room covered in Avs memorabilia including framed Sakic and Roy jerseys.  Mark my words, Duchene will be (if he's not already), the face of the Avalanche franchise.  Hopefully, whatever hole they choose to fill with Larsson or Landeskog, will be the can't-miss variety as well. 

My last topic of the day involves the captain's "C."  For the second time in three seasons, the Avs have seen their captain retire.  Sakic was the best player in Quebec/Colorado franchise history and Foote was its most reliable, toughest stay at home defenseman for nearly two decades.  Big shoes to fill!  I think Paul Stastny is probably the front runner to inherit the "C."  Milan Hejduk is certainly a candidate as well, but Stastny is a lot younger and could potentially hold the captaincy for many years to come.  Adrian Dater of the Denver Post picked Liles as his candidate.  Another good choice, but he's never even been a full-time alternate.  Moreover, Stastny is the obvious choice and a very good one, but I would love to see it go to Duchene as well.  He seems like the kind of guy who would truly chersh the "C" and even at the age of 20, be responsible enough to handle the pressures and responsibilities.  I would also like to see the four rotating alternate captains from years past.  Back in the day, on any given night, you could see Forsberg, Foote, Blake, Bourque, or Drury sporting the "A."  If Stastny's given the "C," I would like to see "As" on the sweaters of Hejduk, Duchene, Liles, and Johnson.  All those guys have proven leadership and captain capabilities in their own right.  Ironically, at the end of last season, Jay McClement wore the "A" the most often when Foote and Stastny were hurt.  He had 1 goal and 4 points in 24 games with the Avs.  I don't want to knock the guy.  The Avs brought him in for his defensive play and penalty killing.  As I mentioned previously, they finished dead last in both.

I'll leave you with this, my ideal lineup for the Avs' 2011-12 season:

Winnik/O'Reilly/Jones (Galiardi)
McLeod/Dupuis/McClement (Koci, Yip)

Quincey/Elliott/Barrie (Cumiskey)


Monday, April 11, 2011

My History of the Colorado Avalanche

Welcome to the first edition of The Avalog!  This is my personal perspective into the Colorado Avalanche and the National Hockey League.  I became a hockey fan in 1995 during the Avs' inaugural season.  Before the season started, my middle school was lucky enough to attend a lunch at McNichol's Arena with the Avalanche players and coaches.  Thanks to Kevin Walton and my mom for making it possible for me to attend!  I remember meeting players like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Adam Deadmarsh, Stephane Fiset, and Jocelyn Thibault (Roy had not yet been traded to the team).  That lunch instantly made me hockey fan.  Over the course of the season, I learned the game and even attended a few games at The Big Mac.  It was certainly a privilege to learn a new sport by following a new, exciting team who was actually really good!  Denver's previous new team was the Colorado Rockies.  While the city was excited to have a baseball team, the Rockies were an expansion team and not quite championship contenders at that time.  The longstanding Broncos and Nuggets had also not won anything yet.  The Nuggets still haven't.  So, when the Avs entered the playoffs as Pacific Division Champions (and would later set the record for most consecutive division titles), there was a definitely a buzz in the Mile High City about its new hockey team.  They dispatched the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games as well as the Chicago Blackhawks.  Denver got a taste of Patrick Roy's colorful personality and got to know 'Hawks star Jeremy Roenick as well.  Then, the Avs were matched up against the Detroit Red Wings, the team many had picked to win the Cup that year.  The Avs won this series in 6 games as well, but this would be the beginning of the most heated rivalry I've witnessed in my lifetime.  Sure, there's the Broncos-Raiders rivalry, but when was the last time both teams were good?  Finally, the Avs swept the Eastern Conference Champion Florida Panthers and won the state of Colorado its first ever major sports championship.  Joe Sakic's 34 points in 22 games earned him the Conn Smythe.  No one can argue with that.  However, #33 was brilliant in the playoffs as well.  No Avalanche fan will ever forget his 63-save triple overtime performance capped off with Uwe Krupp's Stanley Cup game-winning goal.  My parents let me stay up until 2:30 that morning.  Everyone could sense history was about to be made.

Over the next several years, the Avs became accustomed to success.  They won their division 8 consecutive times.  However, it was painful every year the Avs would make it to the Western Conference Finals and lose to Detroit or Dallas.  I remember my high school graduation party in 2000.  My parents rented the neighborhood clubhouse and there was no TV there and of course, it just so happened to be game 7 between the Avs and Dallas Stars.  I was probably the most anti-social person of the class of 2000 that day.  I was huddled around the radio during the game, listening to Mike Haynes' call and after the loss, I was in no mood to celebrate.  We got Bourque for one reason and failed.  Fortunately, he decided to give it one last go and then the big trade that next season paid huge dividends!  Adam Deadmarsh was a fan-favorite here in Colorado (you'll still see an occassional "Grateful Deadmarsh" shirt today) and many fans were sad to see him go, but getting a perennial all-star like Rob Blake made it worth it!  Hopefully the Avs will see similar returns in the recent Erik Johnson-Chris Stewart blockbuster trade.  From Day 1, the 2000-2001 Colorado Avalanche team seemed like a team of destiny.  Pepsi Center played host to the NHL All-Star Game that season.  The Avs, fittingly enough, were loaded with all-stars.  I still love the all-star patch on Avs jerseys from that season.  My Forsberg jersey, the first authentic jersey I've owned, is from that year!  The Avs finished the regular season with the Presidents Trophy, which, as anyone who knows hockey will tell you, is certainly not a guarantee for a Cup!  The Avs took care of Vancouver in 4 games, and then ran into a tough opponent with a good series storyline in the Los Angeles Kings.  The Kings of course, had former Avalanche favorites Adam Deadmarsh and Aaron Miller and the Avs had former Kings captain and Norris Trophy winner, Rob Blake and also Stephen Reinprecht.  Blake was booed ever shift he touched the puck in LA (ironically, he was booed by Avs fans in 2010 after knocking out Peter Mueller with a concussion).  The Kings took the Avs to the limit, but Colorado prevailed on its home ice in Game 7.  The Avs beat the St. Louis Blues in 5 games, who were coached by Joel Quenneville.  The Stanley Cup Finals faced the Avs against the defending champion New Jersey Devils.  This was a dream match up.  In Roy and Brodeur, you had, arguably the 2 greatest goalie who've ever played the game.  There were talented scorers on each side.  Sakic, Tanguay, Hejduk, Drury (Forsberg was lost after the Kings series with an unfortunate spleen injury.  He would miss the entire next regular season too).  Patrick Roy however, played like he wanted Ray Bourque to win a Cup.  He bested Martin Brodeur and captured his record 3rd Conn Smythe Trophy.  Equally as memorable and Krupp's triple OT goal is the moment where Joe Sakic handed the Cup to Bourque.  The single classiest moment I have witnessed in pro sports.  Period.  Has there ever been another captain who handed the Cup off without hoisting it himself first? 

The Avs were still good after that.  Bourque retired in the manner of John Elway.  Riding off into the sunset a champion and his #77 hangs in the rafters at the Pepsi Center despite playing fewer than 100 regular season games in burgundy and blue.  After a disappointing first round loss to Minnesota in 2003, Patrick Roy decided to call it a career.  He retired with virtually every goaltending record, although Brodeur has since passed him in career wins.  The following year, David Aebischer took the reigns as starting goaltender and, for the first time since moving to Colorado, the Avs made a huge splash in free agency.  The Avs were notorious for making blockbuster trades.  Roy, Fleury, Bourque, and Blake were the big ones, but the Avs had never gone out and signed guys during the offseason.  That changed when they inked Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.  Unfortunately, both likely future hall-of-famers had their worse years with the Avs.  As classy as Sakic passing the Cup to Bourque was, the Bertuzzi hit on Steve Moore was equally as appaling.  That was the single worst act I've witnessed during the course of a professional sports game.  It still disgusts me that Bertuzzi is allowed to play in the NHL.  Steve Moore never played another game.  His younger brother Dominic has made a decent career for himself, currently with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  If you're looking for a good hockey book, check out Saving The Game, by Mark Moore, the older brother of Steve, who was an aspiring hockey player himself, until his career was prematurely ended by concussions.  Along those lines, I would also recommed, Blood Feud by Adrian Dater, which chronicles the Avs-Wings rivalry.  As a goalie, I'm also a fan of Martin Brodeur's autobiography and Patrick Roy's biography, which was written by his dad.

Since the lockout of 2004-05, the Avs have been up and down.  They lost Forsberg and Foote due to the new salary cap.  However, both would return in 08 to the burgundy and blue.  They've made the playoffs every other year since the lockout, never getting past round 2.  We've also recently seen the retirement of Avalanche legends like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Adam Foote.  I suspect we'll see #21 and #52 hanging in the Pepsi Center rafters very soon!

Well, that was much longer than I was planning.  Sorry about that!  Not all my blogs will read like novels.  More to come soon including the draft lottery (tomorrow), the Avs future, and the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs!