Who Are the Playoff Dark Horses of 2012?

Written by Brian McCormack on .

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As we approach the All-Star break, naturally the tendency around the NHL is for analysts to start putting together their playoff picks: their Cup favorites, their round-by-round pairings, divisional races, and deadline needs.

Yet each year a good chunk of the conversation is dominated by the one or two teams who have surged from the basement, busted through the shackles of mediocrity, and put a substantial scare into the two or three teams fighting tooth-and-nail for eight place, if not even succeeding in making themselves the first round's most feared band of reckless rebels.

Last season alone we saw the likes of Calgary, Toronto, and New Jersey make significant pushes in the season's final two months, while Carolina and Dallas were only separated from the playoffs by stunningly disappointing performances in Game 82.

And yet once again this season the league will ignore these rising powers until the final week, when the thought of an upset seems all too real.

So why let it sneak up? Let's talk about it.

Can the Ducks Keep Up Their Torrid Pace Come the Trade Deadline?

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

Don't look now, but the Anaheim Ducks have just gotten into the Flying V and are propelling up the Western Conference standings. When the Ducks ousted former head coach Randy Carlyle and brought in Bruce Boudreau just days after he himself was sent packing from Washington, the team was in utter disarray. 

With a 7-13-4 record, and a heavily under-producing offense, it seemed as if the Ducks were going to be battling Columbus for a lottery pick, rather than the top dogs in the West for a high seed in the playoffs.

Fast forward six weeks, and the Ducks are currently the hottest team in the NHL.

After hiring Boudreau in early December, the Ducks continued to produce more of the same, puttering to a 3-8-2 record under their new coach. 

Enter January.

Call it a New Year's resolution if you wish, but since the calendar flipped to 2012, the Ducks have been nearly unstoppable. Perhaps Bruce Boudreau channeled his inner Gordon Bombay after the Holidays, because after looking like D-5 for the first three months of the season, the Ducks have transformed into a well-oiled machine.

Over their past 10 games, the Ducks have posted an eye-opening 8-1-1 record, outscoring their opponents 35-19 over that span.

Despite their tenacious start to 2012, the Ducks have built themselves one giant-sized hole to crawl out of. When Boudreau took over the team, the Ducks sat dead last in the Pacific division, and just one point out of last place in the Western Conference.

Although their game has done a complete 360, they still remain dead last in the Pacific, and 11 points out of eighth place.

With the trade deadline looming, and many general managers around the league starting to feel the pressure of tinkering with their lineups in anticipation of the final leg of the regular season, the Ducks and general manager Bob Murray are in a tricky situation.

With the way the team has been playing of late, will Murray be less intrigued to start shipping key parts of his team away?

As Pro Hockey Talk's James O'Brien pointed out, February will be a strong test to whether or not the Ducks can really make a run at the postseason.

The Ducks will spend a the majority of the month on the road. After a four-game home stand, the Ducks will get ready in the visitor's dressing room for nine of the final 11 games of February.

Not only will the fact that they're on the road be an obstacle, but the caliber of teams they are playing is also a battle. Outside of a couple of winnable games against Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers, Sabres, Hurricanes and Tampa Bay, the Ducks have their work cut out for them.

Will the Ducks prevail through the tough stretch next month or will they be like the rest of America, who is rapidly starting to give up on their resolutions after five weeks?

Red-Hot Malkin Leading Surging Penguins

Written by Mike Salerno on .


Sidney who?

In our inaugural podcast a few weeks ago, the THS editors discussed who might be the recipient of a couple different NHL awards had they been given out at the midway point of the season. Among our Hart Trophy finalists were Claude Giroux, Jonathan Toews and Henrik Lundqvist. We also made a brief mention of Evgeni Malkin, you know, as an honorable mention.

Fast forward three weeks later, and the Hart Trophy is a no-brainer. Despite the absences of Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang, Malkin has returned to the unstoppable force that helped him win the Art Ross Trophy in the 2008-09 season.

Malkin's three points yesterday, including the overtime game-winner, helped the Penguins erase a 2-0 deficit and sink the Capitals, 4-3. In Pittsburgh's last six games, all wins, Malkin has eight goals (three game-winners) and 13 points.

During that stretch, the Russian sniper has carried his team from ninth place in the Eastern Conference to sixth, just two points behind the Ottawa Senators for fifth. They've also got two games in hand on the Sens.

Malkin's resurgence, while not shocking, is all the more impressive considering the questions that surrounded him heading into this season after a knee injury limited him to just 37 points in 43 games a year ago. It was the only time in his career he's averaged less than a point per game.

Rehabilitation was long, and a setback early on this season had Pittsburgh fans fearing the worst, already not knowing when their captain would return. Malkin missed seven games in October dealing with discomfort in the same surgically-repaired knee.

But since returning, Malkin has given the limping Penguins a hitch in their step. In 41 games this season, Malkin has a league-leading 58 points.

Now, with improved play from Marc-Andre Fleury and the return of Kris Letang on the blue line, the Penguins are looking more and more like the worthy adversary they've been since the lockout.

No one is expecting Malkin to sustain this furious rate of scoring through the entire season, but nobody would exactly be surprised if he did, either. While the Rangers and Bruins are busy bludgeoning each other in a race for the top spot in the East, could the Penguins quietly be joining the conversation of the conference's elite?

Even without Crosby, at this pace they project to be anything but the easy out they were in last year's postseason.

Ponikarovsky Deal Should End Parise Trade Talk

Written by Brian McCormack on .

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The trade deadline looms nearer each day, and NHL analysts are already tearing apart the rosters of the bottom-dwellers of each conference. The Blue Jackets, the Hurricanes, and the Ducks have been deconstructed and sold off in fantasy draft fashion by pundits nearing February 27th, and that includes the members of this site.

But one of the more intriguing deadline scenarios concerned the future of Zach Parise in New Jersey. Friday's acquisition of Alexei Ponikarovsky should put an end to any trade speculation concerning Parise.

Ponikarovsky, despite having a rather disappointing season for the Carolina Hurricanes with seven goals and 15 points in 49 games, was a popular candidate in deadline discussions due to his past success. His awful production the past two seasons overshadows the fact that he has four 20-goal seasons in his career. It makes him worth taking a chance on for the right price.

For a fourth-round pick and an ECHL defenseman, the price was right for Lou Lamoriello.

But what this trade signifies more than anything else is that the Devils are buyers, as a team sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference should be. And while their biggest issue at this point most certainly appears to be goaltending, their other most glaring weakness is secondary scoring. The addition of Ponikarovsky can offer that, or it could fail.

But to take that chance and to part with a mid-level draft pick in the process, Lamoriello appears to be set for a playoff push. And while the risks are high, as Dallas proved last year in losing Brad Richards for nothing, it is in New Jersey's best interest in the future to lock up Parise, as there's no guarantee any return package would ever make up for his departure. We got a very grim look last season of what this Devil team looks like without Parise, and thus how they would look for the next 5 years or so were he to leave.

In addition, the Devils don't face the handcuffs the Stars faced in dealing with Richards as the NHL struggled to sell the franchise.

The Devils have no excuse not to sign Parise. The mammoth deal to Ilya Kovalchuk, already uncharacteristic to the Devils, set the precedent for Parise and will perhaps force Lamoriello into a trend of spending with which he's uncomfortable. But he won't have much of a choice.

And as we've learned in the past from his dealings with the likes of Bobby Holik, Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, and others, Lamoriello has no issue taking his dealings with high-profile fee agents into July. Parise may have to wait until then as well. But with no question, the Devils need Parise, both now and in the future. And Ponikarovsky's arrival in Jersey tells us that at least until the summer, Parise isn't going anywhere.

Lupul, Lundqvist Named Alternate Captains for All-Star Game

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

Oh, what a difference a year could make! It seems like just yesterday, Toronto's Joffrey Lupul was on the receiving end of a hilarious Twitter prank, which saw the 28-year old forward being shipped to Alcatraz Long Island in a deadline deal. Luckily for Lupul, he wasn't sent to the Nassau Mausoleum where careers go to die, and was kept north of the border to spend more time with buddy Phil Kessel.luplund

Lupul, who has been traded four times over the course of his seven-year NHL career, is en route to shattering his personal best in goals, assists and points. His 20 goals and 31 assists ranks him fourth in the NHL in the points category, which helped earn the honor of being Zdeno Chara's assistant captain for this year's All-Star game.

Standing opposite Chara and Lupul, will be the Swedish tandem of captain Daniel Alfredsson and his assistant, Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist, who will be playing in his third All-Star Game, has once again been dominant in net for the New York Rangers. King Henrik is enjoying another stellar season, stealing 21 wins for the Blueshirts, with a minuscule 1.93 goals against average and 9.36 save percentage.

Both Lupul and Lundqvist will help their respective captains in all areas of All-Star Weekend, being held in Ottawa from January 26-29. In addition to helping set the lineups for both the Skills Competition on Saturday and the actual All-Star Game on Sunday, Lundqvist and Lupul will have their hands in perhaps the most entertaining part of the All-Star festivities: the draft.

This coming Thursday, both Chara and Alfredsson will select which players they want on their team, gym-class style.

An idea which came to fruition during last year's All-Star game, the draft has become many fans' personal highlight of the weekend. The draft, which will be televised live on the the brand new NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. EST, should make for some great storylines heading into the weekend.

Hey, maybe with Lupul helping pick the teams this year, Phil Kessel wont have to wait until the last pick until his name is called...

POLL: Who Had The Best Save From Thursday's Action?

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur and Mike Smith all made show-stopping saves that left opposing forwards staring at the rafters last night. We can't decide which one we like the best, so help us out!

Scroll down for videos of all three mind-numbing stops!

                         <a href="http://www.sodahead.com/living/who-had-the-best-save-from-thursday-nights-action/question-2406793/" title="Who had the best save from Thursday night's action?">Who had the best save from Thursday night's action?</a>                                                                               View Results

"The Two Man Advantage" Airs at 6

Written by Brian McCormack on .

"The Two Man Advantage", Geneseo's #1 Hockey Talk Show airs tonight at 6 PM, the first show of the second semester and the first broadcast available to our Scratches readers! Tonight the McCormack Brothers will discuss the pending trade deadline, the turmoil facing the Buffalo Sabres, and all other NHL business.

Send your questions to Brian in the Contacts link!

Click here at 6 to listen live!

Making A Case For Extended Video Review Implementation

Written by Mike Salerno on .

NHL officials have always taken their fair share of grief. But lately, ever since some questionable calls in the Winter Classic drew the ire of Rangers head coach John Tortorella, controversy has reigned supreme in the NHL, especially when it comes to disallowed goals.

No officiating system will ever be perfect, regardless of sport. But what if some calls recently are less about the officials' inadequacies and more with the way the NHL has implemented the use of instant replay?

Just like the NFL monitors every touchdown, the league's video review headquarters in Toronto watches every goal. So why is there any rule preventing the eyes in the sky from getting the call right?

With the technology in place in every NHL arena and multiple camera angles that almost always give definitive evidence of what the call should be, there is no excuse why any play involving a goal should be deemed unreviewable. Of course, the idea of asking for all plays to be reviewed, such as offsides and icing touchups, may not be feasible, but controversial goals are a completely different story.

Currently, all plays that are blown dead for use of a high stick, hand pass or goaltender interference are not allowed to be reviewed. In most cases, these infractions go by without much of an argument. But in the case where one of them involves a goal, the "War Room" in Toronto absolutely must be at least capable of taking the call out of the on-ice official's hands.

In each of the last two nights, this problem has surface. There has been a goal disallowed by the referee on the ice that was not deemed reviewable by the NHL's league officials. In fact, one of those goals took place in overtime of a heated contest between Calgary and San Jose.

Sharks defenseman Justin Braun took a drop pass from Joe Thornton and fired on net, beating Mikka Kiprusoff for what seemed to be the game-winner. The goal was immediately waved off, however, because it appeared that Tommy Wingels had interfered with Kiprusoff as the shot approached the crease:

As you can clearly see, it was Flames center Olli Jokinen, not Wingels, who bumped Kiprusoff prior to the puck arriving. There was no interference by Wingels or any Sharks player, so in theory, the goal should have stood and the Sharks should have won the game. Luckily for them, they earned the extra point in the shootout just minutes later, but it should never have come to that.

As it stands now, the Sharks have one less Regulation Plus Overtime Win, which is the first tiebreaker. But even worse, what if the Flames had won that game? Then they're unjustifiably one point closer to that coveted eighth playoff spot in the West they're so vigorously "going for."

In case that wasn't enough, there was another call in last night's Sabres-Blackhawks game that really drives the point home. With the Blackhawks leading 4-2 in the final moments of the second period, Chicago rookie Andrew Shaw made an acrobatic play in which he leaped, caught the puck to the left of the Buffalo net and placed it down where eventually Marcus Kruger slammed it into a wide open net:

Even Doc Emerick was expecting to hear "Chelsea Dagger" one more time after referee Tom Kowal's brief conversation with Toronto, as if he hadn't heard it enough already.

Much to the surprise of both Emerick and the packed Madhouse on Madison, the play was deemed no goal as Kowal blew the play dead as a result of a hand pass. The problem? Shaw's stick touched the puck prior to Kruger's, making it theoretically a good goal as per Rule 79.1:

79.1 Hand Pass - A player shall be permitted to stop or “bat” a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the Referee, he has directed the puck to a teammate.

However, Kowal halted the action, in theory, as soon as Kruger touched the puck via a hand pass. If the official is at least in the action of blowing his whistle to stop play because of a hand pass, the play may not be reviewed in Toronto.

The game resumed without even as much as an explanation for the national audience tuning in on NBC Sports Network, but why?

At the very least, the NHL should mandate reasoning for the fans in attendance. Word eventually got out through the Hawks radio station, who confimed the call, but there were still over 20,000 fans on hand who had no clue what the reasoning was. Replays continued to show in the United Center and fans cheered what should've been a good goal. How ugly would this have gotten if it was a tie game in the playoffs?

Take a look at this baseball/soccer-esque goal by the Flyers that was not allowed to stand in a game last season against Tampa Bay. Cool? You bet. Legal? Absolutely not.

Obviously Claude Giroux touches the puck with a high stick and his linemate, James van Riemsdyk, was the next person to touch it. That one's easy. Play was stopped as soon as van Riemsdyk made contact with the puck. But what if Giroux's stick, for argument's sake, was much closer to the crossbar than the referee originally thought? Would it really be that much of a hassle to stop play and have Toronto take a look?

If it's worth getting just one more play per year correct, then it's worth it every time, right Sabres fans?

A concept was introduced by Drew Remenda, San Jose's color-commentator, in the aftermath of the disallowed goal that suggested allowing each head coach the chance to risk their timeout by challenging one call per game, also similar to NFL procedures.

It should never even get that far. The implementation of instant replay has helped referees make the correct calls for years, but it has also been handicapped by those who regulated it's use at all. The time has come for instant replay to make it's presence known on all controversial plays around the net, regardless of situation.

Taylor Hall Denies Report That He's Done For The Season

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

Rumors began to swirl around Twitter earlier tonight, that the Oilers' Taylor Hall might be done for the season following last night's freak accident. Although there is no timetable for Hall's return to the lineup, both Hall and the Oilers denied reports via Twitter the 2010 first overall pick will miss the rest of the season.

If you missed last night's scary scene, Hall was severely cut above his eye during practice prior to the Oilers' game with the Blue Jackets. Hall and teammate Ladislav Smid became intertwined falling to the ice, as Corey Potter attempted to avoid his two teammates by jumping over them. Instead, Potter landed on Hall's face, leaving him with a 30-stitch gash.

Hall, who is fourth on the Oilers in scoring with 15 goals and 16 assists, despite already missing seven games due to injury earlier this year, was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. That raises the question: Should it be mandatory for players to wear helmets at all times? Even if it is only the shoot-around before a game?

Had Hall missed the remainder of the season, it would mark the second-consecutive year that the budding star winger had his season cut short. He missed the final 17 games of the season last year with an ankle injury.

The Oilers are already playing without their second leading scorer, and last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins has been out of commission for the past seven games with an upper body injury.

The Oilers have four more games on the schedule before the teams break for All-Star Weekend festivities, which would leave Hall an ample amount of recovery time.

Are the Rangers Ready For a Cup? More Importantly, What Did Dolan Give To Sather?

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

For those of you who aren't familiar with the situation; New York Rangers' owner, James Dolan, makes as many Rangers-related media appearances as Mike Emrick has breaths of air in between words.

So, when he graced the media with his non-sense two cents last night, he certainly made a lasting impression. Here's what Dolan had to say about the first-place Rangers, prior to John Tortorella taking the stage following the Rangers bounce-back, 3-0 shutout over the Predators:

"I'm particularly proud of Mr. Sather, because all the way back to 2004 — when things weren't going so well and we had a lot of free agents in here — and we decided to basically redo the strategy, Glen and I made a pact." Dolan said of the dismal years prior to the 2004 lockout. "I actually gave him something, and I won't reveal what it is today, but I gave him something to seal the pact and I said you can't give it back to me until we win the Stanley Cup. And I think we're pretty close to be gettin' that thing back."

In typical post-game Tortorella fashion, the hardly subtle coach immediately brought the media/world back down to Earth for a moment, following Dolan's bold statements.

Now, normally when a very seclusive, hands-off owner makes such a brash statement like Dolan made last night, followed by Tortorella's response, most of the attention would fall onto whether or not this would be a distraction for the team.

But not here. Oh, no my friends. You see, I tossed and turned in my sheets last night over these statements. However, it wasn't the idiocy of Dolan mentioning the Rangers in the same sentence as that "S______-C__" phrase, that caused my lack of sleep. No, I stayed up all night because of the my naturally curious instincts: WHAT THE HELL DID DOLAN GIVE TO SATHER?!

I haven't been this curious to find out something since the season finale of season one of LOST, when John Locke was pounding on the hatch door!

Editor's Note: Yes, that is the second LOST reference made by me in the past week. Get over/use to it, the show was life-changing.

After spending all night, and most of my morning wracking my brain, I've since narrowed it down to a list of three items that I believe James Dolan might have handed Glen Sather back in 2004, in an effort to bring Lord Stanley back to Broadway.

3) Mark Messier's tear ducts

Sure, the Oilers dynasty might have had names like Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and a slew of other high-end talents on its roster during the '80s, but don't be fooled: Mark Messier is what fueled that team to greatness. And I'm not talking about Messier's talents both on the ice as a player and off the ice as a leader.

No, Messier had a secret weapon, and it came in the form of tears. That's right, tears.

Rare fact here: Whenever the Oilers were in trouble, Mark Messier would spend intermissions crying in the locker room into buckets of water bottles, he would then pass the bottles out to his teammates, a la Michael Jordan's Secret Stuff in Space Jam. It was the power of his tears that propelled the Oilers of the '80s to greatness when arguably the greatest collection of NHL talent ever assembled just wasn't enough.

2) The secret code allowing his Time Warner cable box to watch MSG

Apparently Dolan and Sather are just as pissed about not being able to watch the Knicks as Brandon Dubinsky is:

 

1) The incriminating pictures of every other GM in the NHL

This, perhaps is the single, most important thing that Dolan could have given Sather. There's no other explanation to how Sather pulls off some of the deals that he does. When Dolan handed Sather his check book, he also handed him a little collateral to help Slats bail himself out of the horrific free-agent signings that he would surely make.

I mean, how else does Sather convince Bob Gainey to not only take Scott Gomez and his ulcer-inducing contract off his hands, but send him back one of the better young defensemen in the game today, in Ryan McDonagh? That's just one example on the laundry list of deals that Sather has flat out robbed his trading partner in. Does Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins for Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust, ring a bell? Or how about being able to trade the human pylon Donald Brashear at all? I was shocked that he was able to get back a bag of pucks, for that contract, let alone an NHL player.

Well, I guess the speculation can continue as to what James Dolan gave Glen Sather back in 2004. There's only one way to truly solve the mystery. Will our questions be answered mid-June? We'll just have to wait and see.


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