Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pacific Division Preview

The sound of skates on ice and the ping of the puck hitting the post has finally returned to stadiums all over the US and Canada, after the season premier series in Europe ended Saturday. A (somewhat) new NHL franchise has been reestablished in Winnipeg, creating a mad rush for retro jerseys. The addition is requiring some teams to play musical chairs to even out the divisions in years to come. In the Pacific Division, it’s looking like another competitive season for the southwest.

The Anaheim Ducks are looking to best their poor showing in last year’s playoffs, after losing in the first round to Nashville in six games. Unfortunately, that’s not all they lost this summer.

Todd Marchant announced his retirement in late June, but will stay with the franchise as the Director of Player Development. The hole he’s left in the center of the ice will be taken up by new acquisition Andrew Cogliano, who will most likely add two-way smarts to the third line and speed to the penalty kill.

Also on the outs is goalie Ray Emery, which had left fans wondering if the streaky Dan Ellis will be stable enough to handle the pressure of the number one position if Jonas Hiller’s vertigo returns. Hiller has reportedly been feeling better, according to all reports, but fans can breathe a little easier after the Ducks picked up Jeff Deslauriers. Based upon his .901 save percentage in Edmonton, he’ll play the third string, but his character and size make him an adequate backup in the big show if Hiller gets dizzy again.

Fan’s wishes were granted on September 15, just days before training camp. Teemu “One More” Selanne announced his intent to keep playing for at least one more year. Since winning the cup in 2007, he’s flirted with the idea of retirement, but has always decided he’d rather be slapping hockey pucks than putting golf balls. The Ducks lured him with a season opener in his native Finland and the $4 million that’s left of the Duck’s internal payroll. The Ducks are right to be so invested – last season Selanne was number three on the team for goals with 31, and first for power play goals with 16.

Kurtis Foster, who should make an impact on the power play, was also acquired from Edmonton. Foster gained 14 of his 22 points on the power play last season. It’s a chance for Foster to add depth to the Duck’s volatile power play unit, and a big step up from Edmonton’s lackluster line. Another stand-out acquisition from the off-season is left wing Andrew Gordon, from the Washington Capitals. He was outstanding during the preseason, playing strong as part of the PK unit and scoring three goals.

Going into the season, the Ducks will still be relying pretty heavily on their first line of Corey Perry, the Hart Trophy winner last season after scoring a league-leading 50 goals, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf . Rated as one of the top lines in the NHL, the three were a little underwhelming in the preseason, but should pick up the pace in time for the home opener on Friday.

Thirty miles up the 5 interstate freeway finds the Los Angeles Kings sharing a stadium with only two other sports franchises, instead of four since the lockdown of the NBA.

Drew Doughty’s re-signing has fans hopeful for a better performance in the post-season than their first-round loss to division rival San Jose last season. After missing the last seven games of the regular season and six playoff games on an injured ankle, Anze Kopitar is back in his skates to put the pressure on high. Also returning is netminder Jonathan Quick, who stood on his head to keep the Sharks on their toes in the playoffs.

One of the biggest off-season news stories was Ryan Smyth’s trade to Edmonton for an injured Colin Fraser. The Kings have filed a grievance with the Oilers, stating that the Oilers claimed he was days away from being healthy at the time of the trade. When the Kings took a closer look, it was determined that Fraser will need foot surgery before he can even think about putting on his skates. Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi is having serious buyer’s remorse, claiming he “would have rather invested my money with Bernie Madoff than invest in Edmonton’s word,” according to the LA Times. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will have to make a ruling eventually, but it’s doubtful there will be any direct changes.

What has changed will leave fans mourning the loss of center Michal Handzus in the faceoff circle, but a nice addition was center and former captain Mike Richards in exchange for Wayne Simmonds to the Philadelphia Flyers. Richards is an elite two-way center and a born leader. With Richards and Kopitar, the Kings are strong in the center.

Richards is also a familiar face to coach Terry Murray, who coached him in Philadelphia. Richards is looking forward to playing for him again, and possibly notching 70-75 points this season, after getting 23 goals and 66 points in 81 games in 2010-2011.

Richards also has a buddy in former teammate Simon Gagne from Tampa Bay, who played with Richards in Philadelphia in 2008-2009. Gagne scored 34 goals that season, and could have a much bigger impact in California if he can stay healthy. Though he’s been plagued by several injuries, Gagne is a superb skater with solid defensive instincts that can be deadly on the penalty kill. If he spends a few days building his strength at nearby Muscle Beach, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

The Kings still lack a big enforcer to protect their top scorers, an issue they’ll have to work out before they get too deep in the season.

Last season saw the Kings surrender to the San Jose Sharks at the end of six games in the first round of the playoffs, a disappointing end for the Kings. San Jose was also left wanting more when they were knocked out in the third round in five devastating games to the Vancouver Canucks.

In a bizarre team-up with the Minnesota Wild, the Sharks have made key decisions in trading away some of their top players, including Dany Heately, prized prospect Charlie Coyle and Devin Setoguchi. In return, the Sharks landed Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, respectively, and also acquired James Sheppard in exchange for a third-round draft pick in 2013.

While Martin Havlat was somewhat underwhelming in Minnesota, he’ll have a supporting cast in San Jose with players like Joe Thornton and Ryan Clowe that ought to let his star really shine. His speed will also be an asset in scoring highlight-worthy goals. He’ll have to watch out for heavy hits though, as he’s prone to more injuries than a diving Italian soccer player.

Brent Burns’s contract came at a steep price, $28.8 million over the next five years, which equates to just over $5 million each year. That’s the equivalent of 1,577,218 gallons of gas. San Jose is hoping he’ll be worth it. Burns has proved himself to be a superb defenseman, though he started out as a right winger. At 26, he’s got great size and a high-octane speed that should take some pressure off of Dan Boyle and make a volatile power play. In 80 games, he had had 17 goals, 46 points, 133 hits, and 106 blocked shots last season.

The Shark’s third Minnesota deal landed center James Sheppard in the Bay Area. Sheppard was the ninth overall pick in 2006 but has yet to live up to expectations. He missed all of last season after breaking his kneecap, (Tonya Harding has denied any involvement in his off-ice accident) but has notched 11 goals and 38 assists in 224 career games. He’ll make an impact in the bottom six, which gives the Sharks some depth.

The Sharks also signed the recently bought out defenseman Colin White from New Jersey. White will be traveling from the Shore to the Bay to be yet another penalty killer and Stanley Cup winner to add to the Sharks roster. He’s a nice complement to the already-intimidating blue line that now includes Burns, and newcomer James Vandermeer from Edmonton.

These were blockbuster trades, but they were necessary. The Sharks have been in the playoffs every season since the 2002-2003 season, but still do not have a Stanley Cup to show for it. Perhaps this will be the turning point for the franchise.

A postseason appearance was all that the 2010-2011 Dallas Stars team could hope for, after a late-season push proved to be not enough to secure the 8th seeded spot. Their 95 point season trailed the division-leading Sharks by only ten points. They were the only team in the Pacific Division excluded from the playoffs, and had to watch from the sidelines as they have for the past four seasons.

Much like San Jose, the franchise is begging for a change. It seems the team has recovered nicely from the loss of Marty Turco in goal, relying on Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft to defend between the pipes. But the loss of Brad Richards might be more detrimental as they’re looking to fill the space left by the sharp-shooting center.

Winger Michael Ryder could be a major contributor to make Richards absence less noticeable. Coming off a Stanley Cup win with Boston, Ryder had a solid season with 18 goals and 41 points in 79 games. He’ll need a strong center to set him up with a sniper shot, and the Stars think they found an answer in Radek Dvorak. Dvorak will be a top-six winger with the Stars this year, after getting only seven goals and 22 points in 63 games last season. Inheriting the spotlight from Richards, players like Dvorak will have an outstanding opportunity to improve on that record.

The versatile Vernon Fiddler will also have a chance to shine. Fiddler can play on the wing or center in the bottom six forwards, and plays with enough hockey smarts to be a defensive threat as well. Also looking to make an impact is the almost-healed Adam Pardy, an acquisition from the Flames. Pardy has the size and defensive know-how the Stars need to add depth to their blue line, but remains on the injured reserve list for the time being.

It was a rough season last year, and perhaps toughest for coach Marc Crawford, who was relieved of his duties as head coach just two days after the Stars lost their last game to Minnesota, eliminating them from the playoffs. Crawford was faced with a tough conference, and Dallas was the only Pacific Division team that was left behind. He has been replaced with Glen Gulutzan, the former coach of the AHL Texas Stars who made it to the playoffs both seasons since its inaugural 2009-2010 season, and even advanced to the Calder Cup final that first year. Under his direction, the Stars hope to not only make it to the playoffs, but become a contender for the cup they haven’t won since 1999.

Phoenix has also been struggling for a Cup win, and the changes they made this summer could give them a chance to make another playoff appearance. The 'Yotes first off-season move was to fill the spot left by the sometimes spectacular, but mostly solid Ilya Bryzgalov.

Mike Smith’s saving grace came at the right time. Smith was traded to Phoenix from Tampa Bay where he was denied a chance to start and was shuffled down to the minors after Tampa acquired starter Dan Ellis and veteran Dwayne Roloson. Smith will have competition for the number one spot from Jason LaBarbera, who served as Bryzgalov’s backup last season, but Smith will remain in the big show either way.

It was a big day in Phoenix when the ‘Yotes captured defenseman Keith Yandle. Yandle scored 11 goals and ranked third among defensemen with 59 points in 82 games last season. His game has improved considerably over the past few years, and he’s got the offensive instincts that will become crucial in a power play situation. He’ll be the top defenseman in Phoenix, where he can continue to improve.

The Coyotes were seeking some true grit for their third line, and Raffi Torres came for the reward. Torres is tough in the corners, hard-hitting and, most importantly, can score goals. He’s not afraid to crash the net and by doing so, earned himself 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games with Vancouver last year.

The team’s defense-oriented system will be necessary as they will not be able to rely solely on Smith and LaBarbera. The franchise re-signed key players like Lauri Korpikoski and Radim Vrbata that work well in that system to shut down their own zone.

With four out of five teams making a postseason appearance, the Pacific Division has produced more championship contenders than an underage Chinese gymnastics team. Unfortunately, only three Stanley Cup championships have been awarded in the Pacific Division since its inception in 1993. However, that might change this upcoming season. At the end of the 2010-2011 season, there was only a ten point difference between San Jose’s division champion team, and the Stars team that was shunned from the playoffs. This division keeps getting tougher, it’s only a matter of time until Stanley comes calling again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back in Black

The San Jose Sharks dominated in Anaheim at the Honda Center tonight, as the Ducks struggled to work out the kinks in their second pre-season game, with a score of 6-1.

The lone goal went to an off-season acquisition, 25-year-old right wing Andrew "Flash" Gordon, who seemed to always be on the ice during the critical moments for Anaheim. After a dull 18 minutes, Gordon caught San Jose's goalie, Thomas Greiss, out of position. Though he stood out among his teammates as a fast skater and smart player for tonight's game, the lineup might not have the space to keep him in the Big Show.

For those who are guaranteed a spot, tonight was the first night for the Duck's A-line to stretch their legs, but their performance was underwhelming. Perry, Getzlaf, Ryan and Beauchemin each notched a -2 for tonight's game.

The obvious issues this team needs to work on are taking too few shots and too many penalties. Half of San Jose's goals were scored on power plays, which became more frequent as the game wore on. In the second stanza, the Ducks gave up two penalties and allowed 13 shots, ultimately giving the Sharks the chance to score three goals.

A little forecheck would prevent teams like San Jose from passing the puck so easily in the Anaheim defensive zone. Senseless penalties are always the Achilles Heel for the Ducks, it seems this year is no different.

There are plenty more issues to consider. The Ducks are still a big question mark in the net and whether Hiller will be ready to play as he says he is. Perhaps more concerning was the performance of the Duck's best line. The first line of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan went a combined -6 against the B-Team for the Sharks tonight. San Jose played none of their stars and delivered quite the beating to the Ducks.

The real test will be on Friday, when the Ducks travel to San Jose to face Boyle, Clowe, Marleau, Pavelski, Thornton and new acquisition Havlat, for the first time.

Stay Mighty.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ducks sign Emery, Getzy's back.

Many of us remember chanting "EEEEEEMMMEEEEEEERRRRRYYYY" at the Stanley Cup finals in '07. After stellar performances to get his team in the final, the poor guy couldn't get out of his own way. In game 5, he actually scored a goal on himself, adding to the Ducks 6-2 win.

Ray Emery was just signed to a one year, two way contract for the Ducks organization this morning, with the intent of sending him down into the AHL to play in Syracuse.

Although he's been recently plagued with injuries, most recently undergoing a hip surgery, Emery has had some consistent good play. He currently has a SV% of .907 and has appeared in 163 games with a record of 87- 51-15.

If he can clear waivers by 9 p.m. tomorrow, Emery will become a part of the Duck's proud organization. There's some uncertainty with all of the goalie drama in New York after Nabokov refused to play for the Islanders, but because Emery is coming off an injury and the contract is for one year, there's very little fear that he'll get snatched up off waivers.

Hiller has lately been battling health issues. Thankfully, the backup Curtis McElhinney is proving himself useful in replacing Hiller when necessary.

In other news, Ryan Getzlaf is expected to return on Wednesday after more than four weeks off for a facial fracture. The Ducks have been doing pretty well without him, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts to having him back.

Let's Go Ducks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Black and Blue- St. Louis at Ducks

The hat trick that had eluded Bobby Ryan the last few games finally came together tonight against the St. Louis Blues, leading the Ducks to a 7-4 win at the Honda Center.

The game started out with a quick goal at 3:31 by Ryan on a powerplay after Blues player Philip McRae was called for tripping. It would be the first of three goals for Ryan and the first of many penalties of the night.

Jason Blake scored the second goal of the night just four minutes later, off a shot that was redirected off a Blues players' skate. It was an unusual goal, but it tallied for Blake's ninth goal of the season.

Ducks player Andreas Lilja earned a penalty for holding McRae down to the ice, but the Ducks quickly killed the penalty at 9:21 and then responded with Ryan's second goal of the night at 18:17. Ryan's redirect off a Corey Perry shot put him one goal away from a hat trick.

Jonas Hiller (the Shark Killer) held the Blues scoreless for the first period and for the beginning of the second, giving him a scoreless streak of 178:34 minutes. His past two games have been shut outs against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the San Jose Sharks. St. Louis broke the streak and got on the scoreboard at 3:44 of the second period, off a breakaway goal by David Backes. Barely three minutes later, Backes scored again, right past Hiller's stick side.

At the end of the second period, the game had a one-goal difference at 3-2, and each team had earned two penalties each on minor offenses. In the third stanza, all hell broke loose.

Just 0:30 seconds into the third period, Ryan found the back of the net for his third career hat trick and second of the season. Of the club's last four hat tricks, three have belonged to Ryan and one to Perry.

Perry scored the next goal at 6:17, catching Blues netminder Ty Conklin behind the net to retrieve the puck. Perry got ahold of the puck from Conklin, and swung it into the net, putting the game away for the Ducks with a score of 5-2.

Blues right winger, BJ Crombeen earned a penalty at 13:00, giving Lubomir Visnovski a chance to get in on the scoring action. Visnovski found the back of the net just 0:20 seconds into the powerplay.

While the Blues have typically been a very physical opponent for the Ducks, there hadn't been too many opportunities for either team to throw down. The sixth goal for the Ducks triggered a violent reaction from the Blues, as Barret Jackman tossed his gloves and petitioned George Parros and His Mustache to a brawl. Jackman got one hit in that drove Parros to the ice, but Parros popped back up to retaliate and made Jackman regret his decision to throw down.

Both earned a couple of penalty minutes for the show, but just as play resumed, Ducks player Maxim LaPierre and Crombeen add to the yardsale and threw down the gloves to fight. After the fight was broken up, LaPierre pointed to the scoreboard as he's led away to the sin bin, with a grin from ear to ear.

Rarely seen in the NHL is a team fight, but the 12,499 fans saw all ten men on the ice get into fisticuffs, earning a slew of penalties. Luca Sbisba and Joffery Lupul each earned penalties, and two Blues players, Eric Brewer and Brad Winchester were also escorted to the penalty box at 15:16.

With each penalty box packed to capacity and the announcer out of breath from reading the long list of penalties, Brandon McMillan added to the excitement by scoring a goal just one minute after the last fight, causing the goal foghorn to interrupt the list of penalties and a loud cheer to erupt from the stands. St. Louis retaliated with a goal by Ryan Reaves at 16:20, leaving the score at 7-3.

One last fight between Matt Beleskey and Blues player Vladimir Sobotka gave both teams penalties, but St. Louis earned a powerplay goal from it by Brad Boyes, settling the final score at 7-4.

The game left the boys black and blue, but energized. This is the third straight win for the Ducks, extending their home statistics to 16-7-1. The six game homestand they just completed had a 5-1-0 record.

Until the third period of tonight's game, the PK unit has stopped 18 consecutive powerplays over a seven game span. Against teams like San Jose, that proved to be critical in earning the Ducks the win.

It was a great game, and the Ducks are looking ahead to Phoenix on Saturday. Let's Go Ducks!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ducks killed by Predators

The Ducks fell to the Nashville Predators tonight at the Honda Center, 4-1. A contested goal by Predator right winger Jerred Smithson in the first five minutes of the game gave them the momentum and a stellar performance by Predator netminder, Pekka Rinne kept them in front of the Ducks.

The first goal managed to slip under Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller at 5:10 in the first period. Smithson fired the puck at Hiller, who covered the puck. Intially ruled as no-goal, after a review by the referees, it was determined that the puck did cross the line, and a point was awarded to the Predators.

Another Nashville goal in the second period by Patric Hornqvist at 3:56 further dampened the spirit of the Ducks. It wasn't until the first and only Ducks goal just past the middle of the third stanza that the Ducks started showing signs of life. A pass from Dan Sexton to Saku Koivu in the slot finds the back of the net to put the Ducks on the scoreboard at 11:46.

A desperate Ducks coach Randy Carlyle pulled Hiller from the net in the last two minutes of the game, but the Ducks couldnt capitalize with the extra player. Nashville found the back of the empty net twice more before the buzzer could put the Ducks out of their misery.

Rinne had 40 saves to keep Nashville ahead of the struggling Ducks. Jonas Hiller saved 20 of the 22 shots Nashville took.

The Ducks next face Columbus at the Honda Center on Friday. Hopefully they come back with more energy to take down the Blue Jackets.

Let's go Ducks!