Wow, it's Saturday March 26th already, and in some ways it doesn't seem like we are already almost one quarter of the way through with 2011. I mean, hey here I am in Bristow, VA ten days into the season of spring and The Weather Channel is telling me it's going to snow tomorrow so in that respect it seems more like January or February. However, if you're an NHL player you know that's not the case since the All-Star break is well in the rear-view mirror and the end of the regular season are now no more than nine (9) games away for any team. So of course that means when you think about the NHL you can look at the remaining few games and really understand the impact or potential impact of a few simple things: a) three point games; b) "hot" teams at the bottom of the standings aka "spoilers"; c)injuries to teams who are fighting for playoff spots aka "bubble teams" key/star players; and d) injuries to "playoff" team's key/star players. So because I don't want this post to ramble on infinitely I'll only be musing "aloud" about two of those items this morning, "don'tch ya know."
So at the bottom of the standings, teams who are either mathematically eliminated or nearly so from the playoffs sit teams who are to my thinking eight or more points behind the eighth place team in their conference. That means that in the Eastern Conference I consider: Atlanta, New Jersey, the Islanders, Florida, and Ottawa, and in the Western Conference: Minnesota, Columbus, Saint Louis, Colorado, and Edmonton all teams that may as well be cleaning their golf equipment in preparation for late April vacations. Of course between now and then there is a little matter of the basic traits of competitiveness and personal pride that all professional athletes share for those ten (10) teams. That's what can, and often does, make them the biggest threats to the "bubble" teams or anyone else fighting for points these next two weeks in order to get better playoff seeding. So when you look at those ten teams who's shaping up to be the biggest, most consistent spoilers? To answer that question, you need to look at the play of each of them during the past four (4) weeks or so - basically their performance in games since March 1. Based on looking at the results of those ten (10) teams for the month of March to date, there are three teams I'd now classify as "spoilers" - teams who will not make the playoffs, but who will have affected already and will likely continue affect who makes the playoffs and how they are seeded, unfortunately for the Eastern Conference "bubble teams" they are all the East:
1) Islanders 6-2-4, or 0.667 hockey, basically if the Isles played this way all season, they'd be on track for 109 points.
2) Ottawa: 9-5-0, or 0.643 hockey, a 105+ point season pace.
3) New Jersey: 7-4-1 or 0.625 hockey, a 102+ point season pace.
The other seven (7) are all playing 0.500 hockey or worse so facing them is no different, IMO, then playing any other team in the League, in that they meet the criteria of "On any given night ..." Of course, if you are a Caps fan and watched last night''s 2-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators, you knew they were playing very well of late; and if you're a hockey fan of any type who isn't completely/totally "dead" (not nearly dead) then you know the Devils have been pretty much "on fire" since mid-January; however, the late-season play of the Islanders may have escaped your attention. By the way, that's part of the reason why I think Michael Grabner is likely, and should be this season's NHL Rookie of the Year.
So who do the "spoilers" play that matter in particular (i.e. "bubble teams") over the remainder of the season:
a) The Islanders have eight (8) games remaining, six of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" opponents include: the Rangers on 3/31 and the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2nd, both are home games for the Islanders.
b) Ottawa has seven (7) games remaining, five of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" or opponents whose play could affect their seeding include: Tampa Bay on 3/29, Toronto on 4/2, and Montreal on 4/7. The Tampa Bay game is on the road but the games against Senator rivals Leafs and Habs are in Ottawa.
c) New Jersey has eight (8) games remaining, seven (7) of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" opponents include: Buffalo tonight in Buffalo, Montreal on 4/2, Toronto on 4/6 (both in New Jersey at "The Rock), and the Rangers at MSG on 4/9.
So as long as I can I plan on watching or at least channel flipping between the Caps game and the following, as they should be really good games and I have the NHL Center Ice Package:
Tonight: Devils - Sabres
March 29th: Ottawa - Tampa Bay
March 31st: Islanders - Rangers
April 2nd: Senators - Maple Leafs
April 7th: Senators - Canadiens
April 9th: Devils - Rangers.
Now about "headshots." First there's no question in my mind they are an issue that needs to be addressed by the NHL, there's also no question that it took the injury to Crosby to get the league to do something about it - and that's a bad thing that also should be a subject to ponder by both the NHLPA and the Board of Governors as the CBA approaches. I say this because Mike Green is a star no doubt, at 25 he's been a Norris Trophy finalist twice already; he's been out for a month already with a concussion and outside of the DC blogsphere and MSM there has been little mention of it. Simply put the only other player getting a concussion that might have gotten the NHL's attention to the degree of the Crosby injury has generated would be Ovechkin. I say might because with Ovie's style of play I'm not even sure it would have done so. The issue to me isn't that the Crosby injury is overblown, it's that with 70+ concussions this season, that number alone without an injury to a star or multiple star players should have been enough to get the level of debate going. It wasn't and anyone who says it was, please explain to me the basis for that statement. As for the Matt Cooke suspension, it's a start but frankly, I don't think it was harsh enough - he should have been suspended for the remainder of the season and the entire playoffs, in my opinion. Do I think Cooke can change the way he plays the game as he has indicated he knows he needs to do - I don't have an answer to that other than I think he has the talent and skills to play in the NHL effectively without playing the way he has been these past few seasons that has gotten hi four (4) suspensions since he's joined Pittsburgh. That said, I think two other places the game needs to change to address this and lower the risk to the players, besides stiffer penalties and suspensions are a) The equipment - specifically the shoulder pads, bottom line they are allowed to be too big and too hard; and b) The pace of play - the changes to the rules that have increased the number of interference calls have also increased the speed of the game. The goal was to make the game more exciting and also likely higher scoring. It's more exciting for sure - the increased risk of injury does that; as for higher scoring, the fact that at some point everyone knows defense wins Stanley Cups means that everything is regressing to a norm here and that's not so much the case anyway. The rules re: interference need to be looked at again so when someone does make a hit they have more options that don't result in an interference penalty than hitting them at full speed since the difference between hitting someone who is and isn't able to defend themselves can often be literally a split second. That's just my view but I think the general point that the rules other than just the hit to the head rule need to be considered here. I'm going to end these musings with a final thought - here's hoping both Mike Green and Sidney Crosby a) are out on the ice again soon and b) after the season is over get involved in these discussions and help the NHL come up with some changes that make their workplace a little safer in this regard.
So I'm not doing a recap of the Ottawa game there's several good ones out here in the blogsphere but I will make sure everyone who reads my blog sees that my favorite quote of the evening came from Matt Hendricks when asked about a another particularly bad call by another NHL official - one of the latest of many this season. In this case a blatant 4:00 high sticking call that was waved off was the subject in question. Hendricks response: "My view?” he said. “It was an Easton Synergy in my face.” As for tonight's game in Montreal, as usual I'll be rooting for the Caps from my den here in Bristow and happy that I'll see the game in HD tonight - for some reason my CSN-HD Channel had a poker game on last night, what was that about?
LETS GO CAPS!!!