The Home Stretch

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Only 5 weeks remaining in the NHL regular season and we’re in for a helluva finish in the WC and there are still 3-4 teams that could grab the final wild card spot in the EC.

The Boston Bruins just defeated the Flyers in OT.

Boston moves to 73 points, up 3 on Florida and 4 on Ottawa and Philly. Given that Florida is without their top 2 goaltenders they may be all but out of it and I’d keep an eye on the streaking Senators who are 8-1-1 in their last 10GP, somehow.

Much more interesting in the WC where Minnesota, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles, San Jose and even Dallas, are still all vying for a playoff spot.

I had all but counted the Stars out of the race but there’s word today that Tyler Seguin is expected to return from injury tonight much sooner than expected and, if they can get even average goaltending, they may well be right back in it.

As for the others, I would bet a sizeable amount that the Minnesota Wild will make the playoffs with a very good chance to overtake the Blackhawks and/or St’ Louis for 2nd or #rd in the Central Division.

Then it gets really interesting.

Winnipeg has been exceeding expectations all season but now they are without their best player, Dustin Byfuglien, and their top centre, Bryan, Little for an extended period. I’m not sure they can withstand that double body blow.

Vancouver is almost impossible to get a read on. In their last 10 games, they’ve beaten Minnesota, the Rangers, the Islanders, Boston and St. Louis but lost to Buffalo, Arizona and New Jersey. You have to wonder why they can’t beat the teams they should beat.

The Calgary Flames continue to amaze. Everyone was counting them out when Mark Giordano went down with a season ending injury but all they’ve done is beaten Detroit, Boston and Philly…all on the road….since he went down. What the Flames are accomplishing with the lowest payroll in the league (other than those who sold the farm at the deadline) is a testament to great coaching and hard work. Yes, I know they are getting hammered in the possession stats but what many of the staszis don’t often recognize is that shot blocking is a demonstrable, repeatable skill and the Flames are exceptional at it. Flames defenseman Kris Russell leads the league in BS by a wide margin with 221 compared to 175 for the second place shot blocker Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Dennis Wideman, TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano are also among the top 20 in the league. Shot blocking may not be good for your Corsi rating but it sure does stop goals from being scored.

It also helps that the Flames are among the top scoring teams in the league (11th) at 2.82 while the supposedly young, fast talented Oilers will all those #1 picks are 28th at a paltry 2.17…only Arizona and Buffalo are worse.

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are both providing great numbers fro such young players and those who expected Monahan to fall back this season have been very disappointed…he could hit 30 goals and 60 points.

Both Los Angeles and San Jose remain just outside the wild card spots and, while I expect LA will make it, San Jose appears to be in serious trouble despite their star-studded lineup.

Buckle up…it’s going to be a great ride.

 

 

 

 

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Snap Shots

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1) Lots of mirth and glee in Oilerland that the Calgary Flames have lost 4 in a row. Most of the blather is based on the Flames “Fenwick” being below 50% as that means “without a doubt” that the Flames will plummet down the standings and battle the Oilers for 30th overall.

That, of course, is nonsense. Last night, the Flames, playing their second game in two nights against the powerhouse Penguins outshot the home team 27-22.

In their previous loss to Buffalo, the Flames outshot the Sabres 45-19. In a 4-1 loss to the Leafs two nights earlier they again outshot the opposition 33-29 and in the first game of their 4 game losing streak, out shot the Sharks 35-30.

While the Flames have benefitted from high shooting percentages early, they are generating plenty of chances and, on the season they are averaging 27.7 SF/G while giving up 28.5 SA/G. While those are not world-beating numbers, they certainly don’t scream regression either. In fact, those shot numbers are very close to those being produced by the Oilers…the difference is Calgary has goaltenders who can stop the puck and forwards who can score.

And the bottom line is that the Flames don’t have to give back the 36 points they’ve earned in the standings. If the Flames win only half of their remaining 51 games, they would finish the season with 87 plus what ever Bettman points they pick up on the way.

2) Sam Gagner Jakub Voracek has taken over the NHL scoring lead with 11 goals and 37 points.

3) Further to my recent post on the Red Wings…I forgot to include another potential steal. The Red Wings signed undrafted WHL defenseman Joe Hicketts to an entry level deal and the 5’8″ defenseman has scored 39 points in 30 games to lead all D in the WHL and has been invited to the WJHC evaluation camp. More on Hicketts and the WJHC D here.

4) Missing in the discourse over the Edmonton Oilers two “close” losses to the Anaheim Ducks this week is that Ducks were playing without one of the best pure goal scorers in the league...Corey Perry. In the first period of Wednesday’s game, in which the Ducks outshot the Oilers 15-7, Ryan Getzlaf set up his RW twice with empty net shots. The RW just happened to be, not Perry, but Rene Bourque who missed both chances. Perry would have buried both of those…game over. The Ducks play just well enough to win and they win a lot.

5) A picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a million. This video from last night’s game has gone viral because of Fasth blowing his stack but, to me, the most telling aspect of it is the last few frames featuring Dallas Eakins. The man is done!

6) The Vancouver Canucks have just returned home from a 7 game road trip that started almost 3 weeks ago. You would think the schedule makers could come up with something a little less gruelling than playing almost 1/10 of a team’s season on one road trip. The Canucks lost the last 4 of those games but now have 9 of their next 11 games at home so there is that.  The Canucks have a 7-3-1 record at Rogers Arena so I expect they’ll be challenging for top spot in the WC by the middle of January.

7) No one seems to be paying attention to the Florida Panthers. The Cats have been slowly creeping up the standings while no one is watching and have parlayed a bunch of games in hand they held into a wild card playoff spot (Boston is 1 point ahead after an OTL today but Florida has 3 games in hand). They’re among the lowest scoring teams in the league (2.18 GPPG) but solid team defense and solid goaltending from Roberto Luongo has them moving up the standings. Aaron Ekblad, their rookie defenseman would likely win the Calder Trophy had Filip Forsberg not gone supernova. The rookie is playing more than 20 minutes a night and has 18 points in 27 games despite the Panthers low scoring ways. Dale Tallon has rebuilt the Panthers the right way with 2 potential superstar D in Ekblad and Kulikov, tremendous depth at C and solid goaltending. He’s now in a position to start moving out some of the veteran support players like Fleischmann and Kopecy for more assets and has a ton of cap space (about $25 million) going into the offseason.

8) Speaking of rookies…Nathan MacKinnon scored the most points by a rookie in the recent past with 63 in 2013/14. Forsberg is on pace for 82 points.

9) Speaking of the 2012 draft when Forsberg was selected 11th overall, the 1st overall pick in that draft, Nail Yakupov, is on pace for 21 points. Oops.

10) Just another note on my recent post on the Calgary Flames rebuild. There’s been a day long debate raging over at Lowetide that the Flames are, essentially, no better off than the terrible Oilers and their failed rebuild. Of course this is just nonsense being spewed by those with a severe case of myopia. Not once in the “discussion” over there has it been mentioned that The Oilers are already a capped strapped team at the bottom of the standings while the Flames have the most free cap space in the entire league. To amplify the huge advantage that gives the Flames going forward, here is an excellent article from Ryan Lambert at Puck Daddy on how the stagnant cap next season (the Canadian dollar will likely keep falling) and how that fact is going to have a huge impact around the league.

And if it so happens that the cap doesn’t go up as much as projected — because the Canadian Dollar faded more than anticipated or the PA didn’t elect to use the cap inflator, or hell, both — then it seems as though there could be a feeding frenzy of teams with cap room and serious roster concerns trying to rip what they need from well-off, overstuffed contenders. And probably succeeding.

Among those hockey executives waiting to pounce on the roster shaving of the “haves” will be Brian Burke, and the GM’s of Florida, Ottawa, Buffalo, Nashville and Winnipeg. They’ll be able to pick up very good players for pennies on the dollar or take on bad contracts in return for high end prospects or draft picks. That strategy has already worked for the New York Islanders when they picked up Johnny Boychuck and Nick Leddy which resulted in them rocketing up the standings.

Calgary is going to go into the offseason with about $25 million in free cap space and no significant free agent signings to worry about.

It’s a good time to be Brian Burke.