Monday, April 16, 2012

Flailing Penguins and Fickle Canucks

By Andrew Jones

The NHL playoffs are underway and so far, nobody can complain of boredom. At press time, there had already been seven overtime games and even a couple suspensions, one of which includes a sheet of Plexiglas that has been suspended indefinitely for attacking Boston's David Krejci.

But before we look at the playoffs three most intriguing matchups, I have an observation and an unrelated idea.

Wild Failure

Has there ever been a team in NHL history that took as bad of a dive as the 2011-12 Minnesota Wild? I submit that there has not. On December 10, the Wild were 20-7-3, that's 43 points in 30 games. If you would have told me at that point that they wouldn't make the playoffs, I would have said, "You're crazy." Then, over their next 52 games, the Wild scored 38 points, going 15-29-8. Their final record was 35-36-11. That's 81 points. Ouch.

The Wild went from leading the NHL to clinging to a playoff spot to needing a miracle to even make the playoffs all in about 10 weeks. Despite that, the question is not "how did they fail at the end?" The question is "how did they succeed at the beginning?" Goaltending is how they succeeded. Not scoring goals is how they failed. The Wild have been offensively anemic since the departure of Marion Gaborik at the end of the 2007-08 season. Since Gaborik left, the Wild have not had a player score more than 25 goals in a season.

Scoring two goals is the norm for the Wild. They averaged 2.0 goals scored per game in 2011-12, dead last in the NHL, by a lot. The Kings scored 2.3 goals per game in 29th place. Only five goalies in the league averaged less than 2.0 goals allowed per game. None of them played for the Wild. The Wild ranked 13th in goals against this season with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding taking most of the time between the pipes, combining for 2.6 goals against. The first 30 games, however, saw the Wild only allow 2.13 goals per game. That goaltending waned while goals became more elusive and the Wild ended their season looking like a bottom-five team. The Wild need goal scorers and they need them badly.

Home Ice Advantage

I have never understood why 16 teams make the playoffs in the NHL (or the NBA). Do more than half the teams really deserve to make the playoffs? Inevitably, teams that are below .500 will regularly make the playoffs. If they do, they're only disadvantage over the best team in their conference is that the winner of the conference gets four home games, while the team that is the median of the conference gets three home games.

I don't like this. I truly think that 1 vs. 8 matchups should be far more lopsided for the better teams. In a seven-game series, I'd like to see six games at the one seed and one game at the eight seed — the first three to the 1 seed, the fourth to the 8 seed, and the final three (if necessary) to the 1 seed again.

For the 2 vs. 7 matchups, I'd like to see five games at the two seed and two games at the seven seed — the first two at the 2 seed, second two at the 7 seed, and the final three at the two seed again.

The 3 vs. 6 seed and 4 vs. 5 seed can stay as is, considering oftentimes the 6 seed has a better record than the 3 seed. In a season of 82 games, the teams that dominate those 82 games deserve more advantage than they are getting. I see no reason why this shouldn't be implemented as soon as possible.

Penguins vs. Flyers

The most exciting series has been the Penguins vs. the Flyers. The Flyers, down 3-0 in the first game, managed to come back and win in overtime. Game 2 looked to be similar as Pittsburgh was ahead 2-0 in the first period and had a five-on-three for around 30 seconds.

Then it all changed. The Flyers scored shorthanded — two players shorthanded! That simply cannot happen. The game was back and forth through the second period and the Penguins even took an early third period lead, only to have the Flyers answer 17 seconds later and erupt for a 4-goal period, paving the way for the Flyers to take a 2-0 series lead — all on the road.

The Penguins were a favorite for a lot of sports writers, and while they still may win the series, I think they have a number of problems hanging over their heads right now. Their biggest problem is Marc-Andre Fleury. I like Fleury. He's a solid goaltender and will be for years, but where is he mentally right now? He's allowed 11 goals in two games, at home. Getting out of the CONSOL Energy Center might be the best thing for him right now. But we are going to need to see major turnaround if the Penguins have any hope of advancing to the next round, much less contending for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Secondly, the Penguins have this tendency to lose focus and fall asleep. A 3-0 lead in the playoffs with a good goaltender should be insurmountable. It wasn't. A 5-3 for any amount of time should result in a goal. It didn't. It resulted in a short-handed goal for the Flyers at the absolute worst possible time. When the Penguins are focused, they look unstoppable. When they lose focus, they look like an oversized high school team that has succumb to the fact that they are overmatched … but the Penguins aren't overmatched at all. The Penguins failure to win even one of the first two games is simply bizarre. I don't see them turning things around.

Where can the blame fall? Certainly you can pin it on Fleury, but I think we have to look squarely at the Head Coach, Dan Bylsma. In 2009, Bylsma brought the Penguins on a wild ride, scoring 40 points in 25 games, gearing the team up for a playoff run that ended in the hoisting of that beautiful silver cup.

Since then, what has happened? The regular season has gone well. The playoffs have gotten progressively worse. In 2010, the Penguins lost in the conference semifinals to eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in seven games. In 2011, they lost in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. In 2012, it looks like another early exit for the Penguins — in less than seven games.

Another first round exit could mark the end for Bylsma, or at least the beginning of the end. His Penguins have too much talent to perform so poorly in the playoffs.

Canucks vs. Kings

What in the world is going on with the Canucks? You're playing the Kings? The only team that scores fewer goals than the Kings is the Wild. Sure, they have great goaltending, but if you're going to lose to them, lose 2-1 or 1-0, not 4-2 … twice … at home!

Let the curse of the Presidents' Trophy continue. I don't know if the Canucks can turn it around, but if not, at least it will save us all from having to hear Roberto Luongo complain about the opposing goaltenders not "pumping his tires."

Bruins vs. Capitals

The Bruins' 1-0 OT win in Game 1 was truly a great game. I was surprised by two things in that first game. Firstly, that the Capitals only managed 17 shots on goal and Alex Ovechkin only had one of those. Secondly, that the Bruins were unable to score in the first three periods on Braden Holtby. The 22-year-old goaltender played phenomenally in Game 1, and he repeated the effort in Game 2 and was rewarded with a win.

The Capitals needed double overtime to defeat the Bruins in Game 2, and Holtby was a major factor once again, recording 43 saves. Holtby vs. Tim Thomas looks to be a matchup that was meant for later in the playoffs, but only one team can get past the conference quarterfinals. David Krejci looks to be okay after the glass attack he suffered after Game 1. He and the offense are going to have to step it up for the Bruins to move on, but my money is still on Tim Thomas. The guy can flat-out shut people down. That being said, I wouldn't risk very much. Holtby looks good.

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