Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions - Otto

West:
Anaheim vs Dallas: (Season series: Stars 2-1)
The Ducks wrapped up the top spot in the West a few days before the end of the season. Their opponent was still up in the air until Dallas was able to overtake the final wildcard spot from the Mike Smithless Phoenix Coyotes.
Anaheim has been among the trio of California teams batting for the top spot in the Pacific Division all season. The Ducks have been one of the league’s best home teams this season, their 29 home wins are good for second best. They do not struggle to score, however they do not have the scoring depth of some of the teams in this year’s playoffs. They will need to get good goaltending from Jonas Hiller if they are to make a deep run this year.
The stars quietly made their way back into the playoffs for the first time since the 07-08 season despite a loss to the Coyotes in the final game of the season. A balanced scoring attack led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is what helped the Stars back to the playoffs.  Steady goaltending provided by Kari Lehtonen didn't hurt their chances either. They will need the same performance that they got in his 33 wins to get past the Ducks in the first round.
While I like to think that the Stars have the ability to grind it out with Anaheim’s top two lines, I think that in the end the Ducks will be able to overpower the Stars.  I’ll take the Ducks in 6.

Colorado vs Minnesota (Season Series: Avs 4-0-1)
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche were near the bottom of the league in virtually every category. Their only major win was the draft lottery, which provided them with the first overall pick. This season has been a complete change in fortune. The Avs were competing for the top seed in the west up until the last game of the season. While that bid came up short, they were able to pass both the Blues and Blackhawks to claim the Central Division title, landing them a date with the Minnesota Wild in the first round. They keys to success for the Avs were outstanding goaltending from Semyon Varlamov  (a team record 41 wins in 63 games played) and unbelievable play from the young stars. They Avs are a threat to score at any point of the game while not sacrificing defense to do so. They speed that the Avs possess doesn't compare to any team I have watched this season.
The Wild put together a nice push at the end of the season to walk away with the top wild card spot. After a quick scare that they might falter like they did to close out the 2012-13 campaign, not counting a lopsided loss to the Predators on the final day of the season, the Wild won their last 4 meaningful games. In that stretch, the wins came against Pittsburgh, Boston, St Louis, and Winnipeg. Healthy goaltenders have been an issue for the Wild this season. 4 goalies have made 10 or more starts, all 4 of them registering at least 5 wins. It appears Ilya Bryzgalov will be the starter for the Wild, though youngster Darcy Kuemper will be ready to go if called upon.
Although I will be rooting for the Wild to win, I have a feeling they have one more year to go before making a playoff run. Qualifying for a second straight year is definitely something to build upon. Overall it’s the speed and goaltending that will allow the Avs to win this series in 5.

San Jose vs Los Angeles (Season Series: Kings 3-1-1)
This battle of California is the series that I am looking forward to watching the most. They Sharks have been sharp all season while battling for the Pacific division title. However, they have struggled this decade (and some of the last) to get their wins when it matters. On paper their team game should be successful, they have a great combination of leadership and youth. They have consistent goaltending which is all that they need when everyone buys in to the system.
The Kings are one of those teams that don’t play their best hockey in the regular season. As long as they are in position to make the playoffs they re content. Their grind it out style game is exactly what is needed for the second season. A healthy Jonathan Quick may be the difference in this series, unless trade deadline Marian Gaborik can shake of his playoff struggles and provide some offensive firepower. If the Kings can start scoring some goals to go along with their team defense, they may become the team to beat in 2014.
Seeing San Jose win this series at home wouldn't surprise me in the least. However, since they have been there before and have proved that they can win, I’ll take the Kings in 6.

St Louis vs Chicago (Season Series: Blues 3-2)
Just two weeks ago, the Blues were looking to knock off the Pacific powerhouses and claim the top spot in the west. Six games, and six losses later, not only did they not get the top spot in the west, they didn't even finish with the top spot in the Central. Ryan Miler has looked average at best, possibly the result of few to many pucks in Buffalo. They Blues haven’t been able to score lately either. They will need both to get back on track to make a run at the Blackhawks, even though the Blues are the higher ranked team.
Chicago might have gotten an odd form of benefit from the injuries to Jonathan Towes and Patrick Kane. Both players are keys to the success of the Blackhawks and were important to their Olympic teams as well. So, given that both return above 90% healthy, the rest could rejuvenate the defending champions. Cory Crawford has been reliable again this season, registering 32 wins.
I don’t know if the Blues can snap out of their slump in time to beat a very talented and experienced Blackhawks team. Chicago in 6 is my pick.

East:

Boston vs Detroit (Season Series: Wings 3-1)
Boston is the most balanced team in the East by a long shot. They can score goals, they have great defense, and their goalie is in the running for the Vezina trophy. The Bruins have been able to take it easy down the stretch, resting a few key players without the threat of being caught by anyone else in the East. The idea that it might have been a bad thing that most of season was played without much competition is concerning for those outside of the Boston locker room. Whether or not they are able to flip the switch to playoff competition will be interested, especially against an opponent like the Wings
The Red Wings simply don’t know how to miss the playoffs. Only a few weeks ago, the possibility of a Detroitless playoffs seemed to be real. As the weeks wound down, the young players took over and the Wings started to get healthy. Datsyuk and Zetterberg returned to the lineup, providing the leadership and experience that was needed to make the playoff push that always seems to happen. They Wings have to like their chances against the Bruins as well given their regular season success against them. They play of Jimmy Howard will be the key to this series. If he can steal a game early, especially on the road, it may swing the momentum enough to change the series.
Of all the wild card teams, I think Detroit has the best chance to move on. However, I think that Boston might just be too good to lose this one. I’ll take the Bruins in 7,

Pittsburgh vs Columbus (Season Series: Penguins 5-0)
Baring another collapse by Marc-Andre Fleury, I believe that this series will be the most lopsided for the first round. The Pens can score with anyone in the league, as long as they are able to stay healthy. While that wasn't the case for most of the year, they are getting most of their key guys back as the playoffs start.
Columbus cannot match the offensive output of the Pens so they will be relying heavily on the services of the Bob. Sergei Bobrovski led the Jacket to 32 wins this year, 5 by shutout, while posting a .923 save percentage.  He will need to keep up those numbers just to keep the Blue Jackets in the series.
I think Bobrovski steals one at home but it will be just that. The Jackets get overpowered and the Pens take the series in 5.

Tampa Bay vs Montreal (Season Series: Lightning 3-0-1)
This match-up pairs 2 of the hottest teams in the league headed into the playoffs. Both have registered 7 wins in their last 10. While the season series looks like the Lightning dominated, 3 of the 4 games were decided in a shootout.
Tampa Bay has continued to succeed despite the departure of Marty St Louis. The team play of Ryan Callahan has allowed Steven Stamkos to excel as one as the league’s best players upon his return from injury. Ben Bishop, another potential Vezina candidate, has been important too. An X factor to start the year, his 37 wins kept the Lightning near the top of the division all season.
Montreal has quietly had a good season as well. Olympic goal medalist Carey Price led the Habs to second place in the division. Trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek helped solidify a solid offensive group. 
I think Carey Price’s career year continues and he leads the Canadians on to the second round in 6 games.

New York vs Philadelphia (Season Series: Tied 2-2)
This match up is arguably the biggest rivalry of the first round on the eastern side, though Detroit and Boston might not be too far behind for long.
The Rangers battled most of this year with the transition between the old and new style that comes with the hiring of a new coach. Now that they have settled in and added experience in Marty St. Louis, the Rangers have become a formidable opponent for anyone in the East. Brad Richards returned to being a 20 goal scorer, along with Rick Nash, while 5 other players got within 3 of the 20 goal mark. If Henrik Lundqvist can find playoff consistency to match his 2.36 regular season goals against average, this team looks mighty dangerous.
Philadelphia is surprise team in these playoffs given their terrible start to the season. A quick pull of the plug and changing of the coach allowed the Flyers to turn their season around and climb back into the playoff hunt. Another surprise this season for the Flyers is the play of Steve Mason. Written off by many, he returned this season and posted 33 wins. Seven, twenty goal scorers is the key for the Flyers. The Rangers might be able to shut down a line or two but if they can get secondary scoring, the Flyers have a chance to make a run.

I feel that the Rangers are going to have a good post season this year. They have the weapons to score goals and Lundqvist is due for a big playoff performance. In what should be a very intense series, I’ll take the Rangers in 6. 

The Draw of the NCAA Hockey Tournament

Although I’m a little late to draw in anyone new to watch this year, the NCAA frozen four tournament is one of my favorite times of the year for sports. For each of the last 3 years, and while I was in college before that, I've taken a Friday off just to sit and watch college hockey games which I have no particular rooting interest in. I decided to take a look at why I find these games so interesting and why you should watch them if you don’t already.

Being from Utica, I have quite the variety of hockey experiences. The Utica Devils, before I can really remember. Followed by CHL/UHL teams in the Bulldogs, Blizzard, and eventually the Prowlers. Eventually, after all of the semi pro teams left, Utica College brought hockey back to the area. Ten years later, they are still thriving, even with the arrival of Utica’s latest pro team, the Comets of the AHL. Given the timeline, most of the experiences I remember are of the Pioneers. Watching years of college hockey here before attending SUNY Brockport and becoming part of one of the best fan bases in D3 (at least while we were there) has certainly influenced the style of hockey that I like to watch.

While I can watch NHL hockey any day of the week, the college game has more draw to me, especially in a loser goes home format. College hockey has a different intensity to it than a typical NHL game does. While it’s trying to compare regular season to playoffs, it is fair at times to do so. As is the case with most college athletics, many of the players on the roster will not make it to play at the top level in their sport. This being said, once the tournament starts, the athletes face the potential that this may be their last game. No one wants to go out a loser, thus the extreme emotion seen in college hockey games.  

There are more intense rivalries in college hockey than in the NHL. Normally rivals in the NHL will play each other about 4 time over the course of an 82 game season. In college, they might play a rival the same number of times, but with only 40 games in a season each game means much more. Especially when only the “top 16” teams get into the tournament. Less when you consider the conferences with automatic bids for their tournament winners. There is also the school spirit part of the intensity. Players dislike each other based on what logo is on their jersey, never mind if they are competing for a single playoff spot. The crowds can get into it as well, even on TV you can hear chants from students and the pep band that travel with the teams. The more energy in the building, the more energy the game seems to absorb. When crossover play starts in the tournament, you see older rivalries that may not get renewed as often, for example the second round game between North Dakota and Minnesota this year. Just because they haven’t played lately, doesn't mean they like each other. 

While fighting isn't part of the college game, it certainly doesn't mean games don’t get heated and physical. Scrums can still happen, instead of throwing punches players have to look to make a big hit to get even later on. Some of that is lost with the hitter being responsible for the player getting hit, but that’s an issue I have for another day.

College hockey is one of the few sports where simply being the better team won’t get you very far. Upsets are common in the tournament. Just take a look at Bemidji State a few years ago. The equivalent of the last team in college basketball made a run all the way to the final four. If your goalie gets hot for the tournament, you can go from an “easy out” to a title contender.

My favorite part of the tournament might be the frequency of games in the first weekend. There are constantly games on from noon until about midnight on the first two days of the tournament. Usually, multiple devices are needed as well, since overlapping games occur with multiple locations being used. Hockey overload is certainly never a bad experience as long as you are prepared.


College hockey is just fun to watch. Whether you cheer for a team year round, pick a team at the start of the tournament, or just watch to see who the next stars might be (i.e. Johnny Gaudreau playing in the championship game and then scoring his first NHL goal a night later). There are plenty of reasons to watch college hockey during the tournament and during the regular season when you can find it. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Utica Comets Experience

As the season begins to wind down and slim playoff hopes becoming even slimmer, I have decided to take a look at what has been good and some things that could be done to increase the home town advantage. Yes, I know some of these would be expensive and there may be restrictions on how business works, but they are just some thoughts that would increase the atmosphere in the AUD.
I'll start with some of the things that have been good so far in the first year of having professional hockey back in the Mohawk Valley. First, we have hockey and people are coming out in full force to watch it. Nine games so far this year have sold the maximum 3,815 tickets for admission. It is a very telling number of the support for hockey in the area. By ticket sales, Utica College has continued their stretch of being tops in NCAA D3 attendance. Through the regular season, they averaged 3,779 tickets sold per game, according to USCHO.com. The Utica Memorial Auditorium is also turning back into a modern arena. The fresh coat of paint(and vinyl wrap) provided the initial face lift. The season ticket holder bars, The Horton Room and Kilfoils, have added a new experience for those who have been going to the AUD for years. More changes are still in the work, I personally cannot wait to see them continue. The Comets have done an excellent job of using promotions to sell tickets as well. Teaming up with other local and national businesses, there has been a giveaway of some sort for around half of the home weekend games. As well, weekday games have featured discounted tickets and discounted beer. Lets be honest, what brings Utica hockey fans out more than $2 beers? The Comets have stayed very connected to the community as well, as would be expected with their ownership group. They have featured several local groups with pregame ceremonies, had local celebrities such as now Olympic goal medalist Erin Hamlin and America's got talent celebrity Leon Etienne drop the opening puck. Local youth teams have played between periods and been honored during games. Of course, they have also added the "hall of fame" for the past Comets, honoring the history of the game in the area. There has been lots to love so far this year, with still more to come in the remaining games and into the future.

The first change I would like to see made applies to both the Comets and Utica College. Both teams have excellent season ticket sales which is great but limits tickets available to the general public. I believe there needs to be a way for season ticket holders to surrender their tickets if they are not attending a game. This would allow the AUD to come closer to filling up on games which they are technically "sold out". Utica hasn't been in this scenario in a long time, before the invention of stub hub to be sure, so people don't think about or want to go online to sell their tickets. Facebook can work for some but only if people are going to be in the area to physically exchange them. An option on the Comets website to surrender them for resale (maybe with reimbursement to the original ticket holder) would benefit both the Comets an their fans.

The second change I would make is creating a sponsored "energy section." The premise would be that fans could buy specific tickets with the intention being that they will bring energy to the game. Utica has always had "The Chicken Man" and years ago it was his section that led all the cheers at The AUD. Needless to say he isn't in his prime to do so any more and The AUD lacks the energy he used to bring. I personally would try to get a radio station to but out one of the stage end sections and resell them to the fans who are interested. Utica College has a general student section area that occasionally provides the passion and leadership to the crowd. We've heard how loud The AUD can get in the closing seconds of the game, why not more often when the team could use a lift?

The third change I would make would be using the downstairs pub to its maximum potential. Opening the pub for game where the Comets are away from The AUD could be a big draw, especially against local teams where the rivalries are growing. I know the games are available on the radio and AHL Live, but for some streaming isn't worth the money. If the Comets streamed the games in the pub it would allow fans to get together to support their team, not to mention additional revenue from beer sales, maybe even partnering with The AUD concessions to make it food available. Another idea would be selling tickets to just the pub for Comets home games which are sold out. While this one would hurt season ticket holders, it would increase the number of people able to be in the building for the big games.

The Comets have been extremely successful so far this season on and off the ice. These ideas could add a bit more to the atmosphere at the games to help them continue. What do you think? Any other ideas? Feel free to share them on here or with me on twitter at @oisen25

Thursday, January 16, 2014

#ThruwayPuck Season 2 Episode 2



 In the first episode since the beginning of the season, Dan and Otto hit a variety of topics. The Olympics, Comets, Amerks, and a quick rundown of the surprises in the NHL are among the many. Download the podcast on ITunes and be sure to leave your feedback here.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dan's USA Olympic Roster

Coming off of a Silver Medal effort at Vancouver in the 2010 Olympics, the American Men's Hockey team will be looking for another solid showing in Russia this coming February.  To make that possible, many familiar faces will return with a few additions.

Here is my 2014 USA Men's Hockey Team:

Forwards:

Zach Parise*(A) - David Backes (C) - Patrick Kane
This top line has a little bit of everything.  Kane has some of the best hands in the world, Parise has the skill to match his never ending work ethic and Backes has the two way game that can match up with other top centers in the league while not holding back his own skilled wingers. Parise is struggling with a foot injury and could be in jeopardy of missing the games.

James vanRiemsdyk - Joe Pavelski - Phil Kessel
My second line has a Maple Leaf flavor as I keep Kessel and JVR together since they do so well with virtually nothing at center during the NHL season maybe they can be a dominant line with a good (sometimes great) two way center in Joe Pavelski who has a flare for the dramatic.

Max Pacioretty - Ryan Kesler - Bobby Ryan
When I made notes on the possible roster in the summer I did not have Pacioretty even as an extra, but he has had a very solid NHL campaign and has the speed and size that plays well on European ice.  Kesler and Ryan are returnees from 2010 who are both solid two way guys.  Kesler is finally healthy again and could be a big factor in match ups vs other countries top centers.

Dustin Brown - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan*
My fourth line has two NHL Captains and a sneaky scoring center.  Brown and Stepan haven't played as well as the are capable of and Callahan has been hit by he injury bug this year and might be in danger of missing the games.  Brown might be on the bubble but his past experiences and leadership keeps him in.

Reserve Forwards:

Brandon Saad - Jason Pominville* - Paul Stastny
Saad has proven able to play with top players and could find himself on a line with Patrick Kane if an injury occurs.  No one really is sure about Jason Pominville's Olympic eligibility.  He has not played internationally for the USA in the past but I have heard him mentioned as someone who could play for the Red While and Blue in Russia.  If he is eligible, then I would strongly consider sliding him into Callahan's spot.  If Pominville is not eligible then Stastny slides in as a reserve.

Defense:

Ryan Suter (A) - Erik Johnson
Paul Martin - Keith Yandle
Kevin Shattenkirk- Jack Johnson
This defense corps is very mobile and can log lots of minutes if need be.  Suter will log as many minutes as anyone else in the tournament, while Erik Johnson has started to showcase the skill set that led to him be picked 1st overall a few years back.  Martin and Yandle are a solid puck moving pair.  Shattenkirk and Jack Johnson could be a danger in their own end but could also be major assest on the PP.
I'll bring along two young kids in Fowler and Jones to gain experience and if need be fill in.

Reserve Defensemen:
Cam Fowler, Seth Jones

Goaltenders:

Starter- Ryan Miller
The team in front of him might be terrible but it is not because of him that the Sabres are in last place.  For those who get to see him on a nightly basis, this choice is a no brainer. Also, don't forget his efforts in Vancouver.
Back-up - Jonathan Quick
A long term injury has kept Quick off the ice for most the the NHL season.  He can be a lightning hot goaltender who wins games 1-0 night after night as we saw when LA won the cup but he played a lot of games during that stretch and might not have time to do so before Russia.
3rd Goalie- Cory Schneider
I listen to a couple of podcasts who have "goalie gurus" on to talk goal tending.  Many of them agree that because Miller and Quick are "aggressive goalies" who play high in the crease and challenge shooters, the 3rd goalie for the Americans needs to be someone who stays back in his crease and isn't as aggressive, in case the other two have trouble adjusting to the larger ice surface.  Schneider isn't having a great season in New Jersey but he is someone who is used to not playing for multiple games and then hitting the ground running.  Let's be honest though, if the U.S. has to use three goalies they won't be playing for a medal.



Thursday, October 3, 2013

#ThruwayPuck NHL Preview Podcast


In their first podcast since last seasons wrap-up show, Dan and Otto take a look at what they think will happen around the league this year. Some things may surprise you others maybe not so much. Be sure to share your thoughts on what you think the outcome will be. @barrelofsports @oisen25 @dpron1

For easier reference the picks are outlined below.

Dan's Picks:
Atlantic Metropolitan Central Pacific
Detroit* Pittsburgh* Chicago* Los Angeles*
Boston* NY Rangers* St Louis* San Jose*
Ottawa* Philadelphia* Minnesota* Vancouver*
Toronto NY Islanders Dallas Anaheim*
Montreal Carolina Winnipeg Phoenix*
Buffalo Columbus Nashville Edmonton
Florida Washington Colorado Calgary
Tampa Bay New Jersey
* Denotes playoff team

Picks for the cup:East Representative:
Dan - Pittsburgh
Otto - Pittsburgh

West Representative:
Dan - St. Louis
Otto - Los Angeles

2013-14 Stanley Cup Champions:
Dan - St. Louis
Otto - Los Angeles

Saturday, July 13, 2013

#ThruwayPuck Episode 11

In this episode, Dan and Otto finally get their season recap done. They take a look back at the draft and the free
agent frenzy. A few side notes and a look ahead to an in person podcast next week! Subscribe to the podcast on 
ITunes and give the guys a follow on twitter. @dpron1 @oisen25 and @barrrelofsports