Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ode to the Sleepers and Stinkers

There’s nothing I love more than watching sports analysts be proven wrong. I don’t know why, and it’s strange considering I am a budding sports journalist who one day hopes to be one of these analysts. There’s just some weird, undiscovered pleasure to be found when a team proves one of these guys wrong.
Going into every NHL season, the so-called “experts” make their picks and predictions as to who will win each division, and who will qualify in a playoff spot, and so on and so forth. And every year there’s a few teams who just screw everything up, whether it’s by being a feel-good story taking everyone by surprise, or a team who just manages to stink it up. This week I salute those sleepers and call out the stinkers, and thank them for disrupting the experts since, well, as long as there’s been experts to disrupt.

Eastern Conference
Florida Panthers – who would have picked this group to be leading the Southeast division right now? For the past few years it’s almost been a gimme pick to have Washington atop the divisional standings as a pre-season prediction, but led offensively by Kris Versteeg and helped by Brian Campbell from the blueline, it seems as though Florida is set to take the division. It doesn’t hurt that Jose Theodore has managed to re-discover what it’s like to be an adequate goaltender, and he’s been in net for 19 of the Panthers’ 32 wins this season. A no-name group of players for sure, but one which is ready to de-throne Washington as perennial division champions.

New Jersey Devils – Every year the Devils are picked to be out of the playoff picture, and every year they make playoffs. This year will be no different, as once again the Devils give the metaphorical middle finger to all those doubters. They won’t win the Atlantic division (Rangers, Penguins and Flyers are all ahead of them in the standings), but they’ll still provide an interesting playoff matchup for whoever they play. Ilya Kovalchuk is maintaining his superstar status, while the ageless wonder Martin Brodeur is still, yes still backstopping Jersey to a respectable playoff position. In all likelihood, they’ll finish sixth, but there is a chance they could catch Philadelphia for fifth place in the East. Take that, doubters!

Ottawa Senators – Rank these kids right up there with Florida as surprise team of the year. Not many could have seen the Sens in any type of playoff position in September, with such a young team on the ice every night. However this group of kids has had the right type of veteran leadership provided by Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, and Erik Karlsson could very well be the next great NHL superstar defenceman. Craig Anderson has been steady all season, and Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop have stepped up well in his relief recently. A balanced offensive outburst aided by players like Chris Neil and Zack Smith has allowed Ottawa to find themselves comfortably in sixth place in the East, where they will likely end up. And don’t even try and tell me Paul MacLean’s moustache has nothing to do with their success this year…

Winnipeg Jets – So I know right now the Jets are in tenth in the East, four points behind Washington; but did anyone predict they would be anywhere near this spot? None of the experts did, but I bet the city of Winnipeg saw this coming. Ok, maybe not even they saw it coming, but that’s beside the point, which is that Winnipeg is still realistically in the playoff race. Right in the middle of it. Andrew Ladd’s leadership and the fanbase of Winnipeg have spurred the Jets on all season long, and while they’ve stumbled recently it isn’t because of goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec has been outstanding recently, allowing the former Atlanta Thrashers, who had only made playoffs once in their franchise’s history, to find themselves with a shot. A team essentially ignored by the experts at the beginning of the season has proven they have what it takes to prove these experts wrong, so I salute you Winnipeg!

Washington Capitals – At times this season it seems like the Capitals can’t buy a goal. Which brings me to this thought, which is that they’re paying Alexander Semin way too much money. A coaching change mid-season hasn’t brought about a change in their success, although they do now find themselves in the eighth playoff spot. Still, in a division with teams like Florida and Tampa Bay, you’d think Alexander Ovechkin’s Caps would be able to run away with the division. You would think.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Again, a team making a late-season charge at a playoff spot, but it might be too little, too late for the Lightning, who seemed destined to be a playoff team after making it all the way to the Conference Final  a year ago. Dwayne Roloson hasn’t been the same goalie, and Steven Stamkos has only recently turned on the little goal light in his head that makes him score on a regular basis. Too bad really, they seemed like they were about to challenge for the Southeast division title…

Toronto Maple Leafs – As if you thought they were actually going to make playoffs. Shame on you if you did.

Western Conference
St Louis Blues – Can you believe that the Blues are first overall in the NHL? Can you believe that nobody would have thought that at the beginning of the year? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you’re definitely not alone. Incredible goaltending from Jaro Halak and Brian Elliott has boosted the Blues in the standings all season long, and now they find themselves on top. They don’t have a point-per-game player, but they do have eight players with double-digit goals, showing that any player can contribute offensively on any given night. They’re sure giving these experts the Blues now.

Dallas Stars – Yes, Dallas, the team of the NHL’s best players you’ve never heard of. In the media vacuum that is hockey in Texas, players like Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson provide the offensive spark, while Michael Ryder has scored 30 goals for the first time in five years. Kari Lehtonen has been rock-solid in net for the Pacific-leading Stars, who only lead the division by two points, yet are 9-0-1 in their last ten. If they stay on this roll, playoff hockey will be coming to Texas once again. Not that anybody there really cares.

Phoenix Coyotes – it is truly amazing how this ragtag team of rejects does it year after year. They’re in seventh in the West right now, only two points back of the Pacific Division lead, and they’re doing it with players like Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney leading the charge. Vrbata, who went through five teams in nine years before finding a home in the desert, Whitney, who had played for six different teams and is now 39 years old. Up and down the roster, you can find players who you remember scoring goals for some other team five years ago, and who you hadn’t heard from in a couple of seasons. Well, they’re emerging (sort of) now in Phoenix, and thriving under Dave Tippett’s coaching. When all is said and done, the team will likely make playoffs for the third year in a row, once again likely amidst rumours of relocation and ownership changes. Take that, experts!

Colorado Avalanche – Oh, those pesky Avalanche, always screwing things up in the Northwest division. Experts tend to take the sexier picks like Calgary, or even this year Edmonton (good one), but the Avs are showing they can never be counted out. Or maybe they should always be counted out, because that’s when they’ve thrived recently. Winners of seven of their last ten, and winners of seventeen games in 2012, the Avalanche are currently holding down eighth spot in the Western playoff picture, ahead of perennial playoff teams like San Jose and Anaheim. A playoff spot would look good on this group, led offensively by a young man named Ryan O’Reilly (sure he’s no Burnaby Joe, but the kid’s got talent).

Los Angeles Kings – I remember one of TSN’s “experts” prior to the season commenting how the Kings were going to have no problem finding offence this season, and the only question mark would be their goaltending. Well, the Kings can now laugh heartily in this “expert’s” egg-covered face, because you guessed it, the opposite has happened! LA has had no luck offensively this season, and goalie Jonathan Quick has single-handedly been what has kept them in the playoff race for so long. They’re not completely out of it (yet), but they desperately need to find that lost offence really soon if they want to have a chance. Nobody knows how to take an expert’s prediction to heart like the LA Kings, they really showed that guy!

San Jose Sharks – Again, a team not completely out of it, sitting only one game back of Colorado with three games in hand. But the Sharks, on paper, should be division leaders, no? Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe, a Cup-winning goaltender in Antti Niemi. No? This doesn’t sound like a perennial division champion to you? Ok good, me either, I was just trying to appease the hungry Sharks. But they should definitely be a playoff team, and the fact they are in ninth is somewhat surprising. Maybe the only good news for the Sharks is that if they make the playoffs, it wouldn’t be very likely at all that they’d play their playoff-nemesis Nashville Predators until the third round at least.

Calgary Flames – Oh, those pesky Flames, always screwing things up in the Northwest division. Sound familiar? It seems like when the consensus is for the Flames to do well, they suck, and when the consensus is for the Flames to do poorly, they do well. This year I don’t think there really was a consensus either way, which explains why the Flames are now floundering in the middle of a tight group racing for the final two playoff spots in the West. Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, as always, lead the Flames’ charge, which is starting to heat up a bit, as is Curtis Glencross. Still, the Flames should be doing better than tenth in the West, especially in the same division as perennial stinkers Colorado, Minnesota, and Edmonton.

Anaheim Ducks – While I do take great pleasure in watching the Ducks fail this season (they just haven’t been the same in my eyes since they ditched the “Mighty”), it is with some surprise. On paper they look like more than a sleeper team, but they’ve turned into a bit of a stinker this year. I guess that’s what can happen when a 41-year old leads your team in scoring, and the guy who’s supposedly the best power forward in hockey (hey Ryan Getzlaf, ever heard of Jarome Iginla?) only scores nine goals. Jonas Hiller has been missing in action as well, with a personal record far below .500. 

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