NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview


By Ailyn Diaz of Chics Hockey.com and the Big Hair Hockey Show
 

The newspaper headlines for the Pittsburgh Penguins focused on the rivalry between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby for the crown as best player in the NHL.  The storyline for the Eastern Conference Finals will shift to brother against brother.  Carolina’s Eric Staal, a center, and the older more seasoned brother will be matched up against Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal, a natural center with a keen sense of scoring. 

But, this is not the first time two Staal brothers were pitted to duel against each other in a playoff series.  Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jordan Staal faced the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. 

 Jordan Staaal hasn’t reached the 50-point milestone in his first three NHL seasons.  He stands at only 5 points in his last 13 playoff games while his older brother Eric Staal has nine goals in his past 14 playoff games.  Interestingly enough, the brothers have never been matched at any level of playoff hockey before.

 

The Matchup:

“You’re going to see fast hockey”  — Sidney Crosby

Offensively, the matchup will rely on the speed of their forwards.  Sidney Crosby who just came off from a hat trick duel against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitalsill  in the last round now has 12 goals leading the playoffs. Counting his total 21 points, Sidney Crosby is now tied with teammate Evgeni Malkin and the Capitals’ Ovechkin for the league lead.  In fact, going head-to-head against Ovechkin, Crosby had 8 goals and 13 points.  Will he prove the same against Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes?

The Canes need to power up offensively against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Jussi Jokinen has been adding up goals solo with 6 total in the playoff series. He leads the league in game winners.  Other players like left wing Eric Cole needs to step up in the power play to contribute to the overall team offense. After 14 games, Erik Cole still does not have a goal.  Playmaker Rod Brind’Amour only contributed during Game 7 against the Boston Bruins at which time he obtained his one and only goal of the postseason.

During the last series, after Sidney Crosby scored 4 of the Penguins’ first 5 goals, the offense shifted to goals from ten other Penguin players.  Evgeni Malkin geared up offensively after game 3 of the series with linemates Ruslan Fedetenko and Maxime Talbot.  In fact, Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin scored 3 each.  Also, fourth liners such as Craig Adams and Miroslav Satan were able to produce. Adams scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7, and Satan had assists in three of the last four games, including a pair in Game 7 against the Capitals.

Carolina relies on a transitional game.  In a wink of an eye, the puck moves from defensemen to the forwards lingering around the neutral zone directly to the net.  The Penguins will need to be disciplined and rely on their defense to control any turnovers.  The Penguins held the record for blocked shots in the season.  The triumphant return of Sergei Gonchar made for remarkable plays. Gonchar returned from the right knee injury to have an assist in 15:06 of ice time in Game 7. Kris Letang  during defense into offense with 9 points and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill held the blocking during the series against the Capitals.

Carolina’s defenseman Anton Babchuk, struggled against the Boston Bruins and was replaced by Frantisek Kaberle.  Dennis Seidenberg  and linemate Joni Pikanen attempted to generate scoring opportunities in the series but could not convert.  At the end, Tim Gleason provided the physical grit needed to keep the puck away from Cam Ward’s net.

The Carolina netminder has yet to lose a game 7 in a playoff series since his debut in 2006.   The former Conn Smythe winner is unstoppable with a  .927 save percentage.  The Pittsburgh Penguins must overcome excellent goaltending similar to that of Simeon Varlamov during the last playoff run against the Capitals.  Most importantly, Marc Andre Fleury has battled with consistency capturing rebound goals.  However, his goaltending skills appeared to peak during game 7 against the Capitals.  Fleury holds a .901 save percentage. 

Both the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins rely on excellent coachies that base their philosophy on communicating with the players.  Carolina’s Paul Maurice has the most experience in playoff hockey. Paul Maurice refused to allow his team to lose after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Boston Bruins.  He is a motivator and a tactician known to implement quick changes on the ice.  Dan Blysma, the rookie coach, follows an organized playing system which his players have learned to embrace.  “I’m a believer that there are adjustments that need to be made throughout the game, and you don’t just make them in Game 7,” Bylsma said to NHL.com.  “If you make them just in the playoffs or just when it heats up, players begin to question it.”

Prediction:  Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games as their offensive power builds.  If the Penguins were able to beat Simeon Varlamov’s excellent goaltending and Ovechkin’s offense in the series against the Washington Capitals then they will overcome Cam Ward’s goaltending abilities and outshine Eric Staal’s scoring in the Eastern Conference Finals.   The Carolina Hurricanes must increase their offensive abilities in all lines to be able to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The newspaper headlines for the Pittsburgh Penguins focused on the rivalry between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby for the crown as best player in the NHL.  The storyline for the Eastern Conference Finals will shift to brother against brother.  Carolina’s Eric Staal, a center, and the older more seasoned brother will be matched up against Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal, a natural center with a keen sense of scoring.  But, this is not the first time two Staal brothers were pitted to duel against each other in a playoff series.  Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jordan Staal faced the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.  Jordan Staaal hasn’t reached the 50-point milestone in his first three NHL seasons.  He stands at only 5 points in his last 13 playoff games while his older brother Eric Staal has nine goals in his past 14 playoff games.  Interestingly enough, the brothers have never been matched at any level of playoff hockey before.

The Matchup:

“You’re going to see fast hockey”  — Sidney Crosby

Offensively, the matchup will rely on the speed of their forwards.  Sidney Crosby who just came off from a hat trick duel against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the last round now has 12 goals leading the playoffs. Counting his total 21 points, Sidney Crosby is now tied with teammate Evgeni Malkin and the Capitals’ Ovechkin for the league lead.  In fact, going head-to-head against Ovechkin, Crosby had 8 goals and 13 points.  Will he prove the same against Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes?

The Canes need to power up offensively against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Jussi Jokinen has been adding up goals solo with 6 total in the playoff series. He leads the league in game winners.  Other players like left wing Eric Cole needs to step up in the power play to contribute to the overall team offense. After 14 games, Erik Cole still does not have a goal.  Playmaker Rod Brind’Amour only contributed during Game 7 against the Boston Bruins at which time he obtained his one and only goal of the postseason.

During the last series, after Sidney Crosby scored 4 of the Penguins’ first 5 goals, the offense shifted to goals from ten other Penguin players.  Evgeni Malkin geared up offensively after game 3 of the series with linemates Ruslan Fedetenko and Maxime Talbot.  In fact, Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin scored 3 each.  Also, fourth liners such as Craig Adams and Miroslav Satan were able to produce. Adams scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7, and Satan had assists in three of the last four games, including a pair in Game 7 against the Capitals.

Carolina relies on a transitional game.  In a wink of an eye, the puck moves from defensemen to the forwards lingering around the neutral zone directly to the net.  The Penguins will need to be disciplined and rely on their defense to control any turnovers.  The Penguins held the record for blocked shots in the season.  The triumphant return of Sergei Gonchar made for remarkable plays. Gonchar returned from the right knee injury to have an assist in 15:06 of ice time in Game 7. Kris Letang  during defense into offense with 9 points and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill held the blocking during the series against the Capitals.

Carolina’s defenseman Anton Babchuk, struggled against the Boston Bruins and was replaced by Frantisek Kaberle.  Dennis Seidenberg  and linemate Joni Pikanen attempted to generate scoring opportunities in the series but could not convert.  At the end, Tim Gleason provided the physical grit needed to keep the puck away from Cam Ward’s net.

The Carolina netminder has yet to lose a game 7 in a playoff series since his debut in 2006.   The former Conn Smythe winner is unstoppable with a  .927 save percentage.  The Pittsburgh Penguins must overcome excellent goaltending similar to that of Simeon Varlamov during the last playoff run against the Capitals.  Most importantly, Marc Andre Fleury has battled with consistency capturing rebound goals.  However, his goaltending skills appeared to peak during game 7 against the Capitals.  Fleury holds a .901 save percentage. 

Both the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins rely on excellent coachies that base their philosophy on communicating with the players.  Carolina’s Paul Maurice has the most experience in playoff hockey. Paul Maurice refused to allow his team to lose after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Boston Bruins.  He is a motivator and a tactician known to implement quick changes on the ice.  Dan Blysma, the rookie coach, follows an organized playing system which his players have learned to embrace.  “I’m a believer that there are adjustments that need to be made throughout the game, and you don’t just make them in Game 7,” Bylsma said to NHL.com.  “If you make them just in the playoffs or just when it heats up, players begin to question it.”

Prediction:  Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games as their offensive power builds.  If the Penguins were able to beat Simeon Varlamov’s excellent goaltending and Ovechkin’s offense in the series against the Washington Capitals then they will overcome Cam Ward’s goaltending abilities and outshine Eric Staal’s scoring in the Eastern Conference Finals.   The Carolina Hurricanes must increase their offensive abilities in all lines to be able to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Twins Pitchers, Catchers and Grounds Crew Reporting

By David Palmer

With pitchers and catcher officially reporting to spring training in the next couple of days, the Twins go to war with basically the same roster they had to finish last year.  The biggest acquisition we made was hiring a groundskeeper for Target Field.

Before Twins General Manager Bill Smith came around, Terry Ryan was widely known as one of the league’s best and smartest.  I have raked on the Twins front office quite a bit this off-season, but for good reason.  Trades and free agents continue to slip through our fingers for no particular reason.  We are like the Troy Williamson of professional franchises.  As Peter Christian has mentioned before, Bill Smith might possibly be the worst negotiator of all time.  I would love to hear the phone conversation between Bill Smith and Scott Boras in negotiations for Joe Crede.  It probably goes something like this:

Smith: Hey Satan, it’s Bill Smith.

Boras: Umm, Who?

Smith: You know, GM for the Minnesota Twins.  Any chance of coming down on the Crede price?

Boras: Minnesota has a baseball team?

Smith: How is his back doing?

Boras: He’ll be fine, and we’re only asking for $7 million for 1 year.

Smith: Whoa, Whoa, Whoa there Scotty, who do you think we are, the Yankees?

Boras: Sorry Bill, that’s the best we can do.  I’ve got to go, there are some orphanages that I have to burn down.

Smith: Okie dokie, before you go, do you have any free agent pitchers over the age of 40 that we could sign?

Boras: No, but I hear Scott Erickson wants to come out of retirement.

Smith: NICE! Do you have his number?

It might be the biggest negotiating mismatch since the US purchased Alaska from Russia for 2 cents an acre in 1867. 

You will be hearing a lot about the Twins bullpen over the next six weeks, and rightfully so- they sucked ass last year.  If Guerrier can’t regain his 2007 form and Mijares doesn’t pan out, we are in serious trouble.  No fear though, Luis Ayala brings his 5.71 ERA from the Mets to our ‘pen.  That should straighten things out.  Hopefully he can bring some of that great Met karma with him too.

On a lighter note, as I mentioned before, we just picked up our second groundskeeper in franchise history; the great Larry DiVito was hired to head the crew at Target Field in 2010.  For those who haven’t followed Larry’s career in depth, he was head groundskeeper for the Nationals the past three seasons.  He cut his teeth as a groundskeeper in Rhode Island for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox.

This is where he first learned his craft under the tutelage of the legendary Dino Caparelli. Things didn’t come easy at first for Larry.  He struggled with the fortune and fame of groundskeeper apprentice.  Fast women, a faster buzz (from mixing Vicodin and laundry detergent), and high-stakes games of cribbage consumed his nights.  But, it all caught up to him on August 2nd 1999.  During a day game between Pawtucket and Scranton, DiVito ran naked onto the field with some sort of spray screaming, “the dung beetles are everywhere, we’ve got to get rid of the dung beetles!”   He was checked into rehab the next day.

This is where he became a born-again Christian and vowed to never touch laundry detergent again.   Ok, I obviously made that whole behind-the-music type of story up, but if Larry can keep the infield grass a little longer, Gomez might have 150 bunt hits in 2010.  Brett Butler, who had 41 bunt hits in 1992, holds the MLB record.  That is well within reach for Gomez.  He led the majors with 30 last year, on turf I might add.  The left side of the infield at Target Field should be a marshland.

This is one of the best times of year because this is when hope springs eternal for all major league squads; everyone thinks they have a chance, even the Brewers.  The weather is thawing a little bit, and baseball can seriously be discussed for the next 8 months.   I couldn’t be happier, World Series here we come.