The 5 Canadian Teams in the Playoffs

The Los Angeles Kings are out, the Flames are in.
Now I am thinking about the Blues or Flames final. Wouldn’t that be grand?
The team I have loved to hate for the past 4-5 years is officially no better than my Toronto Maple Leafs. Proof that in this wonderful league, anything is possible.
Reason to rejoice for every single team that does make it in, they won’t have to put up with those once-no-name kids from California who weren’t even that good prior to 2011.
I have always thought that pressure was never a problem for that Kings team, now apparently I am wrong. They don’t get a crack at their 3rd Stanley Cup in 5 years.
Now it is officially time to take a look at the Canadian Stanley Cup playoff teams, along with a reason or 2 why each may do what those Kings were able to do, almost at will.

The Winnipeg Jets: where did the Winnipeg Jets even come from? At the start of the season, like Calgary, nobody ever gave them any respect. Now all of the sudden, they are looking like one of those teams that all of the experienced teams do not want to play against. Like the Kings the year they won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, they are going to be one of the teams with zero pressure on them. I think that all they have to do is go out and try and have fun, and they could be having fun all the way to the Final. Winnipeg is so pumped right now they have a playoff anthem recorded to the tune of Eminem’s ‘Without Me.’ Look it up on youtube. Count Winnipeg as one of the few teams with nothing to lose.
First round opponent: Anaheim Ducks
Prediction: Jets, if they don’t play afraid

The Ottawa Senators: the Sens are going to the playoffs. The best news for them? They won’t have to face my Leafs in the playoffs. Technically that means they could win it all. I don’t know much about Mark Stone or Mika Zibanejad, or even the burger guy, but they sure seem to have been playing well lately, plus they have a GM whose health lately hasn’t been great, and it actually seems to be serving as some kind of motivation. Ottawa’s recent tear has been absolutely ridiculous. Twenty wins and three losses and three OTLs is one of the most impressive late-season stretches ever.
First round opponent: the Montreal Canadiens.
Prediction: I don’t think the Habs could lose if they tried to lose. Hopefully the Sens will make an interesting series but I can’t see them beating Carey Price enough to win 4 games.

The Montreal Canadiens: not much more needs to be said other than Carey Price. He plays well, Habs win. Pretty simple. I would love to get a copy of the Senators’ game plan for Game 1.

The Calgary Flames: can we all recognize the season that former Red Wing Jiri Hudler is having? He’s 31 years old and he has the same number of goals. Hudler ranks eighth in the league with almost a point-per-game production (76 points in 78 games) and has been vital in helping the team clinch a playoff berth. Sean Monahan and Johnny Hockey have the ability to light it up. They are playing against a team that doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success in recent years.
First round opponent: the Vancouver Canucks.
Prediction: a Canadian team is going to win this series, that is about the only guarantee right now, but I think the Flames have a slightly better-built team. It’s Eddie Lack, likely for the Canucks vs Jonas Hiller for the Flames.

The Vancouver Canucks: Whether or not Vancouver can survive this series will depend largely on whether or not goaltender Ryan Miller will be able to hold the fort; if he cannot, Calgary will win, maybe even easily. When Miller played for the Blues last year, he lost four in a row.
Vancouver has the Sedin twins but I think I like Calgary’s younger talent (Gaudreau, Monahan, Josh Jooris, Markus Granlund) can probably do more damage. I don’t think either of these 2 teams will have much pressure on them, especially considering how surprised I am that I am writing this at playoff time. I predicted early in the season that Canadian teams will definitely make the playoffs, just not these 2 teams.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin are going to have an impact on this series, if they do not, Calgary win cruise easily. Henrik has 69 points, Daniel leads the team with 72 points.
The last three times the Flames and Canucks have met in the post-season, the winner went to the Stanley Cup final.

Prediction: Flames.

A Special Day In Manitoba: Playoff Hockey Comes To The MTS Centre

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of the playoffs. It’s what all hockey fans wait for all season long. The emotions, the ups and downs and the intensity is all about to get ramped up past 100%. However, there’s one storyline and one city where the excitement will be even greater. For the first time since a 4-1 defeat to the Detroit Red Wings on April 28, playoff hockey will be played in Manitoba.

That game was played with the knowledge that the team was headed to Phoenix. A desperate effort helped the team earn a 3-1 victory at Detroit to take the series to six games and guarantee at least one more contest at the Winnipeg Arena. A passionate fan base was denied an NHL team in an era when small markets were struggling to survive.

Manitoba is still a small market and the MTS Centre seats less than 16,000 people, but this is a passionate fan base. Since returning to the NHL for the 2011-12 season, Winnipeg’s home crowd has been known as one of the loudest.

They haven’t had all that much to root for as the Jets struggled to establish themselves during their first three seasons. They finished ninth in the Eastern conference in 2012-13 during the lockout-shortened season, but appeared to regress finishing significantly adrift from the playoff places last year.

The Jets looked stuck in a perpetual rebuild that wasn’t getting anywhere. Frustrations reached enough of a peak for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to take one of the biggest decisions he had taken to that point by removing Claude Noel 47 games into the 2013-14 season. Experienced NHL coach Paul Maurice took his place and was charged with the responsibility of leading a young core to the postseason.

Maurice has succeeded. Playing in a tough Central division that includes St Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota, Winnipeg spent most of the season in playoff position before eventually holding off the Los Angeles Kings/Calgary Flames for the final Wildcard spot.

They’ve done it without excelling in any one statistical category. They are a middle of the road team in terms of goals scored and goals conceded and their special teams are actually below average in terms of success rates.

However, the Jets have excelled at limiting the penalties they take and at locking teams down 5-on-5 - they finished with the eighth best GF-GA record in 5-on-5 play in the NHL last season.

More than that, Maurice’s team consistently found an extra gear. They got goals at important times, won some of their biggest games and were able to lean on goaltending tandem Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson.

The Jets were instantly rooted for upon entering the league and over the last three seasons, this roster has arguably become even more likeable. Andrew Ladd, a hockey player through and through, leads them and there was no place on the roster for the dramas on and off the ice that followed Evander Kane.

Instead, Winnipeg depends upon a solid defensive structure and scoring-by-committee combined with speed and physicality throughout the lineup. Their tenacity is hard not to like and there will be few neutral fans supporting the Anaheim Ducks in their first round playoff series.

The Ducks are Winnipeg’s reward for reaching the postseason. A team coming off a third consecutive division title and a team that expects to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. The superstars in the series all play for Anaheim – Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler – but when they travel to Manitoba on April 20, these Ducks will be a side-story to the main event. They will become a part of a different kind of history.

A lot goes into assessing the market viability of a franchise. However, even in the salary cap era, making the playoffs and being regularly competitive is still the ultimate elixir for boosting your franchise. It played a big role in the league’s decision to works towards greater parity and it was pretty clear in the regular season finale, a 5-1 thrashing of the Calgary Flames on Saturday, that hockey supporters in Manitoba had been re-invigorated by their team’s recent success.

Of course, every fairytale has to have an ending. This one’s ending is likely to be in five or six games against a deeper and playoff tested opponent. We hope that fans will get a Game 6 and a third home playoff matchup.

Still, Maurice and Cheveldayoff aren’t ultimately paid to write fairytales. They’ll know that however long this postseason run lasts, reaching the playoffs is a critical step in the building and development of this franchise - a necessary step towards the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup. That’s something that even the older Winnipeg fans will never have experienced.

On Monday April 20, Winnipeg and hockey fans alike can enjoy an event that few will be remiss to see. Playoff hockey is coming back to Manitoba.

A Breakdown Of The Best Round 1 Stanley Cup Playoff Matchups

          After a long and hard fought 82 game season, the 16 teams that will move on to hockey’s second season and fight for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup have been determined. Every series has the potential to spark a new rivalry or rekindle an old one, and no matter whether your team made the postseason or not, it’s hard not to get excited about the best time of the year. That said, of all the head-to-head matchups slated to get underway as early as this Wednesday, there are definitely some matchups that stand out above the rest.

          One such series features the Montreal Canadiens hosting the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre. The two teams took very different paths to earn their playoff spots to say the least. On the one hand, the Habs finished the season with the second most points in the NHL and played pretty consistently throughout the year, thanks in large part to a banner year by goaltender Carey Price, who set a new franchise record by recording 42 wins.

          On the other hand, the Sens made the playoffs on the last day of the season after topping the Philadelphia Flyers in a win-and-your-in scenario that was only made possible thanks to a remarkable run by goaltender Andrew Hammond, who finished the season with a 20-1-2 record in just 23 starts. The team’s success this year was as improbable as it was amazing, as most analysts predicted that the Senators were more than likely to have a losing year reflective of a team working through a full on rebuilding process. Instead, the club goes into its series against Montreal as perhaps the most feared team in the first round playoff bracket. No matter how this series shakes down it should be a good one.

          Over in the Western Conference, the series between the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames will prove to be equally exciting. At times throughout the year, it was hard to know if the Canucks were indeed a playoff-bound team and well, almost nobody expected the Flames to be in the mix.

          In Vancouver’s case, it wasn’t a complete stretch to picture the team doing well, with goaltender Ryan Miller providing the team with a definitive number one option between the pipes, removing a distraction that had previously plagued the team for years. Outside of Miller the core of the team still featured the Sedin twins a supporting cast that could get the job done.

          As for the Flames, their run was almost as magical as the one the Senators put together in the East, the difference being that Calgary surprised people at the beginning, middle and end of the season. Nobody would have guessed going into the playoffs that the team would boast a player who finished top-10 in regular season scoring (Jiri Hudler), a veteran goaltender playing some of his best hockey ever after seemingly falling out of favour in Anahiem (Jonas Hiller) and a small, speedy forward not named Sam Bennett who would emerge as a future star (Johnny Gudreau).

          Regardless of how both clubs got to where they are now, it’s obvious that neither one is going down without a fight, which should make for a quite an entertaining series in Western Canada.

          As for the other matchups outside of the Great White North, there’s no doubt there are some good ones. Then again, who can resist the Hamburglar taking on Carey Price, and Johnny Hockey trying to lead the Flames past the Cancucks? Do yourself a favour, don’t resist…just watch the NHL in all its glory as the chase for the Stanley Cup heats up.  

Why Watching The Tampa Bay Lightning In The Playoffs Just Got More Interesting

Someone should put the NHL on notice; the Tampa Bay Lightning are dead serious about winning the Stanley Cup this year, and they expect their fans to be too. How serious you ask? So serious that if you buy tickets to the team’s playoff games this year and your credit card doesn’t have a Florida address attached to it, you’ll get a full refund for your purchase and not be allowed inside the building.

          That’s right. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s powers that be are doing everything they can to keep fans of visiting teams from being able to attend the team’s games. Throughout the season, the organization noticed large and boisterous groups of fans from the Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens in the building.

          Lightning fans need not fret though, fans wearing the jerseys of visiting teams in the postseason won’t be allowed to sit in the Chase Club section of the rink. That means if you hope to watch Steven Stamkos and company while sitting in some of the best seats in the house this spring, you’ll need to consider purchasing some Lightning apparel. Of course here at Sports Jerseys Canada, you’ve got tons of options to choose from should you be heading south for a game, whether you’ve got your eyes on Stamkos’ number 91 or you’re a fan of Ben Bishop, Ryan Callahan and the other leaders of the team.

          While it may surprise some that teams are even allowed to invoke such policies, there really is no clear rule against it, so Tampa’s sales staff can indeed refuse to sell tickets to anyone they choose, as long as the reason obviously isn’t related to blatant discrimination.

          Good for the Lightning for taking a stand against tourists and fans of visiting teams who take away from the atmosphere in the arena. Home ice advantage is huge in the playoffs and the Lightning have not iced a real cup contender since 2004. This may indeed be the year that the team gets beyond the first round again and if the club does, the energy inside the Amalie Arena will no doubt play a factor.

          Although Tampa’s first round opponent is still unknown, visiting fans should be prepared to sport a team jersey even if you do plan on rooting for the opposition. At least that will guarantee you access to the Chase Club section of the arena. What remains to be seen is whether this new team policy will translate into playoff success for the Lightning.

Five gruesome reminders that there is nobody tougher than a hockey player

One of my favourite one-liners of all time goes something like this:
“Soccer players try to pretend that they are hurt. Hockey players try and pretend they aren’t.”

Hockey players don’t sit on the sidelines with blisters or hangnails. They are tough. Don’t believe it? 

Drew Miller’s recent skate-to-the-face injury is all the proof we need, and he is far from the only one to take a blade or puck to the face.

There has been one fatality as the result of a play on-ice in an NHL game. Read on to find out who that was.

Hang on tight…
Drew Miller, NHL, Detroit Red Wings
During a faceoff in the offensive zone in a home game vs the Ottawa Senators, Miller was struck by the skate blade right off the face off. Ottawa’s Mark Stone got tripped up and his skate blade made contact with Miller’s face. Miller went down then got right back up miraculously and skated to the Wings’ bench frantically motioning with his right hand for his team’s training staff to help him. He skated off so fast that most of the players on the ice at the time likely had no idea what was happening. During the stitch-up in the dressing room, word broke that Miller wanted to return to the game. This guy has heart. I think the Leafs should trade for him, or at least his coach Mike Babcock, then acquire a player with Miller’s heart and courage.

Ryan Olsen, AHL
In a game on March 27, Winnipeg Jets prospect Ryan Olsen took on Phil Lane of the Portland Pirates. The fight happened in the first period. Olsen took a puck to the face in the second period. You should have seen his face at that point. Olsen’s third period was a piece of cake.

Martin Havlat, NHL, New Jersey Devils
In a game on Oct. 16, 2004, Havlat was pushed into referee Darcy Burchell and was somehow cut for 40 stitches. He suited up for the next game. That’s pretty tough.

Taylor Hall, NHL, Edmonton Oilers
During a pre-game warmup, Mr. Hall decided to do what a lot of pro hockey players do these days and that is skate in the pre-game warmup sans the helmet. They do this because it’s like fresh air for your hair when you are not wearing a helmet. Anyways Hall was skating around and collided with a teammate and wound up cut on his head and his forehead. Not pretty. This is not the kind of headshot you want on your driver’s license. Hall looked a lot like Jason from the Friday the 13th movie series, minus the hockey mask, no pun intended.

Anyways Hall needed 30 stitches to close the gap, and it was not a pretty picture the next day when he faced the media.

Borje Salming, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Cut on the face after being accidentally stepped on. During a game against the Red Wings, on Nov. 26, 1986, Salming collided with Gerald Gallant and wound up needing 200 stitches to close up the gap. He was back on the ice only 3 days later.

Clint Malarchuk, NHL, Buffalo Sabres
This is the granddaddy of them all right here.
The infamous moment that Malarchuk is perhaps most known for occurred during a game on March 22, 1989, between the visiting St. Louis Blues and Malarchuk's Buffalo Sabres. Steve Tuttle of the Blues and Uwe Krupp of the Sabres collided at the mouth of the goal, and Tuttle's skate caught Malarchuk on the neck, severing his jugular vein/carotid artery.

With pools of blood all over the ice, Malarchuk somehow left the ice under his own power with the assistance of his team's athletic trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, ATC.
Many spectators were physically sickened by the sight, with nine fainting and two suffering heart attacks while three teammates vomited on the ice. Local television cameras covering the game cut away from the sight of Malarchuk after realizing what had happened.

Malarchuk, meanwhile, had only two thoughts: He was going to die, and he had to do it the right way. "All I wanted to do was get off the ice", said Malarchuk. "My mother was watching the game on TV, and I didn't want her to see me die." Aware that his mother had been watching the game on TV, he had an equipment manager call and tell her he loved her. Then he asked for a priest.

Malarchuk's life was saved by Pizzutelli, the team's athletic trainer and a former army medic who had served in Vietnam. He reached into Malarchuk's neck and pinched off the bleeding, not letting go until doctors arrived to begin suturing the wound. Still, Malarchuk came within minutes of becoming only the second fatality to result from an on-ice injury in NHL history (the first was Bill Masterton). It was estimated that if the skate hit 1/8 inch higher on Malarchuk's jugular, he would have been dead within 2 minutes. In the dressing room and on his way to the hospital, doctors spent 90 minutes and used over 300 stitches to close the wound. It was also said that had the incident occurred at the other end of the ice (Malarchuk was on the locker room end of the ice, as the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium had the locker room exits at the end of the ice instead of the normal locations behind the benches), Malarchuk never would have made it and would have died.

There has been one fatality on the ice in NHL play and that was Bill Masterton

NHL Head Coaches: Hot Seat and Respecting the Job

In the NHL – and many other sports’ leagues – the decision to change the head coach is treated like a magical potion that will cure everything. Missed the playoffs? Fire the head coach. Star players underperforming? Fire the head coach. Advanced one less round in the postseason than last year? Fire the head coach. Haven’t won a Stanley Cup in four or five years? Fire the head coach.

It isn’t that changing head coaches is never the right decision, but it’s also a pretty well accepted fact that the man behind the bench is often “scapegoated” and made accountable for problems that go far beyond the realms of his influence.

In a salary cap era and in a league where there is as much parity as there ever has been, being a successful NHL head coach is tough. New coaches enter the league every year and only a select few make it past their first two seasons on the job. Coaches who enjoy initial success and are unable to maintain it don’t have the longest lifespan either.

In fact, even coaches who bring a Stanley Cup to a franchise usually only have a few seasons before job pressures begin to grow again – see Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle and Peter Laviolette in the post-lockout era.

Laviolette is an interesting case in point. It is clear that he is a quality NHL head coach. He won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06 and reached the Finals again with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. He is now coaching the Nashville Predators, who are sitting atop of the Central division after missing the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons.

There’s definitely an argument that Laviolette’s message is a little unsustainable. However, he pulled Philadelphia together for what was a near remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, he followed that up with two second round defeats during a period when the Flyers over-hauled their team trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter before the 2011-12 season. He was fired just three games into the 2013-14 season. Craig Berube has hardly improved on those achievements so far with the team set to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

His Carolina team just barely missed the playoffs in 2007-08. They were 12-11-2 the next season when Laviolette was relieved of his duties. They’ve reached the postseason on just one occasion since. It’s easy to fire the head coach, but NHL teams with bad records usually have bigger problems than just their head coach.

Of course, there are always counter arguments. The Pittsburgh Penguins halfway through a season hired Bylsma at a time when Michel Therrien had the team playing above .500 hockey, after reaching the Stanley Cup finals one year earlier. Only a couple of months later, the Penguins were champions and the decision to change coaches was considered a big part of that success.

Darryl Sutter was also hired as a head coach to replace popular incumbent Terry Murray. The Kings had made a so-so- start to the 2011-12 season, but Murray was widely credited as the experienced coach who had helped the franchise reach consecutive postseasons for the first time since the early 2000s. Sutter’s success in LA is now legendary with two Stanley Cup championships to show for it.

General Managers are also in a pressure situation and most need to be seen as doing a proactive job if they want to keep it. Firing the coach is often the only obvious move they can make, especially in a league where the salary cap can make it difficult to shift bad contracts.

However, at the core of most successful franchises is alignment throughout the organization. The coach, general manager and executives work together on a clear vision, particularly as it relates to personnel and style of play. That’s been fairly obvious in many of today’s most successful partnerships including; Ken Holland and Mike Babcock in Detroit, Dave Tippett and Don Maloney in Arizona, Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli in Boston, Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, and Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman in Chicago.

These relationships don’t always have to bring about a Stanley Cup - Todd Richards and Jarmo Kekaleinen in Columbus, Jack Capuano and Garth Snow on Long Island, and Bob Hartley and Brad Treliving in Calgary are evidence of the progress that franchises can make over longer periods of time when GM and coach are on the same page.

The challenge of coaching an NHL team and the lack of job security are worthy of respect.

There’s already been four in-season head coaching changes in 2014-15 with Paul Maclean (Ottawa), Peter De Boer (New Jersey), Randy Carlyle (Toronto) and Dallas Eakins (Edmonton) losing their jobs. Here’s a quick look at the coaches who could be on the hot seat this spring with the playoffs and offseason fast approaching.

Todd McLellan – San Jose Sharks
McLellan is the longest tenured coach in serious trouble this offseason. There is a feeling that San Jose has missed its championship window and McLellan was loyally entrusted with that window. The Sharks must win all of their remaining games to stand much chance of reaching the playoffs and even then the odds are actually quite slim. Maybe the organization will put their faith in the fact that McLellan can coach, which he clearly can, but it feels more likely that he will be lost in the overhaul.

Adam Oates/Scott Stevens – New Jersey Devils
It doesn’t seem likely that the Devils will start the 2015-16 season with a dual coaching set up. The team has played better under the Oates and Stevens combination, but not great. In fairness, it’s a pretty flawed roster. It’ll be interesting to see if either of these coaches gets the chance to take the job full time this offseason, or whether Lou Lamoriello looks outside of the organization for his man.

Ted Nolan – Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres have a horrible record and no coach with that sort of record is likely to survive without questions. Nolan has inherited this situation more than he has created it, but Buffalo’s organization will presumably be making some big decisions about future direction after the next few games are out of the way.

Craig Berube – Philadelphia Flyers
Berube has lost in the first round of the playoffs and then missed the playoffs altogether. We’d point towards injuries and a flawed roster as a big source of that, but none of that saves Laviolette. Philadelphia have some core pieces, which should enable them to turn things around quickly, but will Berube be a part of that?

Bruce Boudreau – Anaheim Ducks
It’s only fair to point out that the Washington Capitals ultimately fired Boudreau because regular season success didn’t marry up to postseason success, but it certainly hasn’t gotten any better for them since he left. That doesn't change the fact that if Anaheim doesn’t make some sort of a run in this season’s playoffs, Boudreau’s job could be on the line.

Mike Yeo – Minnesota Wild
After two seasons of consistent improvement, the Wild have endured an erratic 2014-15 campaign. It appears that Yeo has “saved” it with a strong second half run pushing seemingly securing a postseason spot, but an uncompetitive effort in a playoff series could still prove costly.

Paul Maurice – Winnipeg Jets

Maurice hasn’t had long to work with the Jets and he has them as close to a playoff spot as they have been since returning to Manitoba. However, if they lose out on a playoff spot to the Flames and Kings, expect Maurice’s job to be under review for an organization that's starting to lose patience.

The Surprising Rise Of Devan Dubnyk

It’s not often that a hockey player has his breakout season 11 years after being drafted, but that’s exactly what has happened to Minnesota wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

The conventional wisdom of the hockey world would tell you that it does take a little bit longer for a goaltender to mature in comparison to a position player, which is why it would have been no surprise to see Dubnyk solidify a permanent spot between the pipes for himself midway through his career with the Edmonton Oilers, but even though he had shown flashes of steady play with the club, things just didn’t come together for him.

It’s not all Dubnyk’s fault of course. His big 6’6 frame is built to cover up the net and he accomplished more than enough in his four years in the minor leagues to warrant an extended look in the NHL. As luck would have it, the Edmonton Oilers, the team that drafted Dubnyk in 2004 have been struggling for years, despite the fact the team seems to have lady luck on its side when it comes to the league’s draft lottery.

Thanks to the good fortune, or misfortune depending on your point of view, the team has managed to draft the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Dubnyk over the last 11 seasons. Had each of those players played up to the potential they displayed in their junior careers all at the same time in the NHL, the Oilers could be in the middle of a dynasty right now.

Unfortunately that’s not the way things worked out for Duby and the gang, which led to Devan being shipped to the Nashville Predators halfway through his fifth year in the league only to once again find himself moving on, this time to the Arizona Coyotes.

Although there was no chance that he was going to find himself any significant playing time behind Mike Smith in Arizona, Dubnyk did finish his tenure in the desert with a 9-5-2 record, which was just good enough to draw the interest of the Wild, where the former 14th overall pick finds himself with a spectacular 26-6-1 record through 34 games to go along with 5 shutouts. Those numbers aren’t too bad for a guy who’s never had more than two shutouts in an entire season prior to this year.

Of course what really matters is that now Minnesota finds itself in the middle of a playoff race when at the beginning of the season things seemed to be all out of sorts for the club and it looked as if the team was more likely to be booking spring tee times rather than playoff games.

While the team as a whole has played better over the last three months, the bulk of the credit definitely goes to Dubnyk. He has officially risen from the ashes and brought new hope to the Wild organization.

Although a hot second half of the season does not a career make, it’s safe to say that Dubnyk may have just found the perfect place to continue his career, although probably many years later than he thought he would have.

Potential Playoff Matchups

Part of the fun in any pro sports league is picking the potential matchups come playoff time. There is always going to be at least a couple matchups that everybody has reason to look forward to. With the NHL very much near its post season play, here are some of the potential first or second-round matchups that I would love to see, followed by a few that I hope do not happen.
Now if the post season were to being today, it would feature two clubs that I can’t stand to see winning (regular season or post season), so maybe I will begin with this one.

Montreal Canadiens vs Boston Bruins
The number-one match I don’t want to see, ever, would be Montreal, who would finish in top spot in the East, vs Boston, the one team that I have never, and will never side with them. I don’t like Boston. I never will like Boston. I wouldn’t even go to Boston if somebody paid me to go. But right now they would have a wild-card spot clinched so they would make the cut. Last year’s second-round set went the distance and saw Montreal almost easily win the deciding game. I will re-iterate though, I hope that this does not happen.

Montreal Canadiens vs Ottawa Senators
The other series that I hope does not happen is Montreal vs Ottawa. When more than half of the Canadian content (team wise) in the National Hockey League qualifies for the playoffs, you never want to see two of them face off against each other. It’s almost like watching two fat chicks get into a fistfight over a guy or something. Nobody wins when that happens. And thus the same may be said in a playoff matchup like this (actually, should the show start tonight, the Canucks and Flames would be meeting each other in the Western conference playoffs. Again nobody wins.
And now…

The playoff matchups that I would love to see:

Number one, Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning would be nice
Last season’s first-round matchup was supposed to be good. It wasn’t good (unless you are a Montreal fan), the series went by in four games, Tampa and Steven Stamkos were virtually non-existent. You have to think that should the two clubs meet up again next month, Tampa should make it a bit more entertaining. As of Monday afternoon, the Lightning trail Les Canadiens by a mere three points. If they do meet again this year, the Bolts should spray paint the work ‘Payback’ in gigantic letters somewhere in the dressing room…in both arenas.

The next top matchup….Montreal Canadiens vs New York Rangers
What the Canadiens did last year to the Lightning, the Rangers did to the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup semi-final. This cannot happen again. Hopefully the Rangers’ Chris Kreider will not jam his skate into Carey Price again if they do meet; but if they do meet, I would expect the Habs to exact some revenge on the Rangers.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks
Now, possible awesome first-round or second-round matches over in the West, I am going with the St. Louis Blues again this year, and the way things have been going for them as of late, they will probably end up playing someone more heavily-favoured than they are. There is only one team that really comes to mind right here, and that is the Chicago Blackhawks.
What the Chicago Blackhawks have been doing to the Blues lately in the post season, is like what the LA Kings have been doing to everybody in the playoffs the two years that they won the Stanley Cup, and that is make everybody else look stupid.
LA beat up on San Jose so bad that they forced the entire team to check themselves over and they are still not finished doing it; Chicago does the same thing to the Blues the two years that they have met in the playoffs. I would like to think that this year, that may change.
Surprise, surprise, should the playoffs be starting tonight, it’s St. Louis vs Chicago, only three points separates these two, and St. Louis would appear to have home-ice advantage.
And the final series that I would love to witness again this year is…

Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche
I had such a good time watching them beat each other up last year, what better way to celebrate the greatest season of all than watch these two teams battle in the playoffs?

I think overall, Colorado would be favoured, however, first they would have to get there, as they remain in the hunt and are eight points behind the Winnipeg Jets, and they have seven games remaining in which to get back into it.

Carolina Hurricanes, New Regime and Hope In Future

The Carolina Hurricanes have been a strange franchise since the team moved from Hartford. In 16 seasons, they have only managed five appearances in the NHL playoffs, but they have made the most of those trips reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, winning it all in 2006 and reaching the conference finals in 2009.

Despite that success, fans have been deprived of a consistently competitive team. The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs in five straight seasons and in seven of the last eight. An organization that has traditionally favored stability over an “overhaul” finally broke a habit at the end of a fifth successive failure removing Jim Rutherford and Kirk Muller from their respective positions as GM and head coach in April last year.

Ron Francis was appointed as the team’s new GM and he hired former AHL coach and Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peter as his bench boss. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in immediate progress – Carolina holds the sixth worst record in the NHL and are set to miss the playoffs for a sixth straight year and eighth time in last eight years – but there are signs of hope for this franchise’s future.

It starts with Francis, a man who rightfully commands tremendous respect in the NHL The Hall-of-Famer was the type of player that every team wanted in its locker-room, and also out on the ice, intuitively it feels like Francis is a man who can bring a fresh and clear vision to Carolina.

It should be noted that the previous regime didn’t do a bad job of drafting and recruiting young talent. Francis inherits a roster that includes: Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Riley Nash, Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy to name just a few. The prospect cupboards aren’t completely bare either, Haydn Fleury promises to be an excellent NHL defender, while forward Brock McGinn and goaltender Alex Nedelikovic are among other notable recent draft picks.

Peters is the man charged with bringing the “Red Wings way” to this talented, but extremely young group of players. Known as a defensive specialist, Peters also has a history of coaching in the AHL where player development is a key part of the job description. His task isn’t too dissimilar here and he has spent the best part of this season learning more about what the organization possesses talent wise.

In December, a month where they went 3-10-1, the Hurricanes moved into contender status for one of the first two picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, many fans welcomed and even hoped for an opportunity to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. However, Peters was determined that his team would not tank and that posting a miserable record over the last three and a half months of the season would not be tolerated, even with playoff aspirations already spoiled.

The result has been a relatively competitive 18-13-7 record in 2015. A losing run at the beginning of March spoiled a combined 14-7-3 marker posted across Jan and Feb, but nonetheless, the young Canes are adapting to Peters’ system and there are reasons to be hopeful that the team’s absence from the postseason needn’t last forever.

A key piece in that turnaround will be leading scorer, captain and face of the franchise Eric Staal. The now 30-year old had struggled for production in the month of March, until he registered six points in a three-game stretch last week. 2014-15 looks set to be Staal’s worst campaign productivity wise since he scored 31 points in 2003-04 – his rookie year.

Peters has done just about everything to jump start his superstar’s production, including moving him to play on the wing last November. That decision has stuck with Staal spending most of his time paired with his brother – Jordan.

Staal didn’t have a great season in 2013-14 either. He scored just 21 goals and 61 points in 79 games. Some of it is undoubtedly talent, previous teams have been deeper and Staal has probably had wingers that better compliment his skill set. It can be challenging to retain focus and intensity on a team that doesn’t have the opportunity to seriously compete for a playoff spot.

It’ll be a challenge for Peters next season to spark his captain at the beginning of the season. Carolina are likely to start the year as a more experienced, but still exceedingly young roster, and the core of their success will still need to be regular scoring from more experienced players like Staal, his brother and Jeff Skinner (who is still only 22 himself).

The other significant area for Peters and Francis to dissect is in net. There may be some temptation to stick with a two-man set up in 2015-16, but both have expiring contracts after next year presumably forcing a decision on a definite starter.

Neither player has had an easy time of it playing behind an inexperienced blue line (even more so since Andrej Sekera was traded).

Ward is the player with a Stanley Cup on his resume and the most experience as a heavily used starter. However, he has been plagued with injuries in recent seasons and there are signs that a heavy workload might have started to take its toll on his body. He’s also always been slightly erratic between the pipes, though he backstopped both of Carolina’s recent playoff appearances impressively. Meanwhile, Khudobin has hinted at being that “lights out” starting goaltender. However, he’s never actually managed to put a full season together at that level. He doesn’t have the same wear and tear as Ward, but he’s only three years younger.

Whichever route Francis and Peters go, there is a clear vision. Expect Francis to have a busy offseason with a good stockpile of draft picks to utilize. This Hurricanes roster – with a few select additions – could have the potential to be very competitive in 2015-16. A new regime has brought new hope to this franchise.

Why The Islanders Gave Johnny Boychuk The Big Bucks

          Perhaps most hockey experts would call New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk a bit of a late bloomer. He is after all having a career best year at the ripe young age of 31, an age where most players are expected to be in the middle of their prime already and maybe even trending on a downward slope. Of course it didn’t exactly help that Boychuk spent the first five full years of his career on a Boston Bruins team filled with talented defenseman, including the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Dougie Hamilton and former perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara.

           One of the positive things about being a Boston Bruin to start his career is that Boychuk learned how to become a winner, something that the Islanders franchise hasn’t done a lot of since the glory days of the 1970s. Of course coming over from Boston with a winning attitude alone isn’t what gets you a long term contract in the NHL in this salary cap conscious, analytics focused era in hockey… it takes a lot more than that.

           Normally one would automatically refer to the box score and point out a defenseman who is going to make an average of $6 million per season for the next seven years as one who can likely light the lamp on the power play and be his team’s best defenseman on any given night. Boychuck undoubtedly has the ability to be his team’s best defenseman, but until he started putting up career numbers this year, he wasn’t exactly lighting up the lamp or picking up helpers quarterbacking the powerplay.

           So what is it exactly that got a guy who, prior to this season, has never scored more than five goals and 23 points in a campaign a $42 million deal? He’s steady. Boychuck blocks a ton of shots and he’s not afraid to throw his body around. He does also have a career high in goals and points during what was just a little while ago a contract year.

           Let the detractors and naysayers say what they want about players on the cusp of their best years getting paid way too much in advance of their performance. That’s just the way the game is these days. Only time will tell whether the Islanders have found themselves a key piece that will help them build towards making the Islanders a perennial contender once again, or whether they’ve just signed the next Nathan Horton or David Clarkson. It’s also important to keep in mind that this isn’t the first time a player has stayed in a market that most of his colleagues would rather not entertain for the sake of inking a long-term, big money deal.

 As far as Boychuk is concerned however, he’s obviously okay with the idea of having long-term security while playing for a franchise that is on the upswing and likely will continue to be just that for the next seven years.

          At the end of the day no matter how things work out for Boychuk, he’s getting paid what the present day market allows, and now it’s on him to prove the Isles right for paying him a premium to stay on Long Island.