Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Five-Year Wait Is Over....

It begins tonight.

A season of ups and downs, triumphs and adversity is now over.

Tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets begin their second-ever postseason run... and just like the one five years ago, the Jackets are facing an opponent against whom no one is giving them a chance in hell to advance: Disney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As of yesterday afternoon, when I got some sort of notification from the NHL GameCenter app, some 91 percent of fans participating in the Stanley Cup Playoff Bracket Challenge on NHL.com have the Penguins winning the series.

And why not. The Jackets were 0-5 against the Pens this year. The Penguins are getting Evgeni Malkin back in time for this series, more than likely. The Penguins have the usual suspects on the ice: Crosby, Kris Letang, James Neal, Brooks Orpik and so forth.

The Jackets are down Nathan Horton, RJ Umberger and Nick Foligno. Horton is out until likely the Stanley Cup Final, should the jackets make a deep run. Umberger and Foligno are expected to miss the start of this round... possibly the whole thing for Umby.

So... yeah. On paper this looks like a pretty Herculean task. More the half the CBJ roster has never seen Playoff action.

So, it could be said that they're about to grow up rather quickly.

The Jackets are young, led by Ryan Johansen in a breakout year. His ability to integrate into Playoff-style hockey will be a big determining factor in this series. It will be a tall order for sure, because RyJo's not going to sneak up on anybody, which makes other young guys like Boone Jenner and veterans like Brandon Dubinsky critical to the attack. Expect the Pens to put bodies on the Jackets... and no one needs a reminder that anytime you see James Neal on the ice -- like his predecessor and former teammate Matt Cooke -- keep your head up and watch your back.

The CBJ also need to match that physical play... they can not afford to give the Pens too much respect. However, they do have to proceed with caution. Crosby has become notorious for getting calls, whether he's looking for them or not (he will lobby for calls, though, and he will get some of them). Keep in mind a stiff wind could put Crosby on his ass.

I'm not saying rough him up... but if he's going to fall down anyway, remind him what an impact feels like.

And if you see him skating toward a stray ref's elbow... get clear of the situation. Take no chances, eh?
(Vine by Mad Chad Nolan... this is not a Kristen Stewart re-enactment... this really was that poorly acted by Crosby)

Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Sergei Bobrovsky could be the marquee matchup of this series... and the Pens' success could hinge on Fleury being able to keep his head. Fleury famously collapsed last year and left the Pens to use Tomas Vokoun to save them.

Rattle Fleury, and the Pens are vulnerable.

Columbus played the Penguins close in this series in four out of five games, despite the fact they held a lead for less than a minute (count on the Dispatch to have that stat ready). Bobrovsky was also absent in four out of five games.

0-5 means nothing tonight.

Tabula rasa... clean slate, baby.

Split the first two games in Pittsburgh, and this is a series.

But the Blue Jackets will have to win two games in Pittsburgh, because you can bet they'll steal one in Nationwide.

Two in Pittsburgh. Including Game 7.

Is some of that heart? Absolutely.

But my head knows it's possible.

That's my call: Upset Of The Century.

Bring it.

Go Jackets!

Follow @MartiniHockey on Twitter....
and/or you can "Like" the blog on Facebook....

Fast, Fearless And Feckless Picks For The First Round...

30 teams have played 82 games apiece, and now 16 are left standing in mid-April... ready to run the two-month gauntlet to hockey's Holy Grail -- the Stanley Cup.

Who emerges? Well, we'll find out beginning tonight.

But here are my official predictions -- or if you prefer, "crazy, wild-ass guesses" --  for an interesting batch of first round matchups:

CENTRAL DIVISION
Minnesota (1st Wild Card) vs. Colorado (1st Central)

Colorado is easily one of the NHL's best stories this year. Last year, they were a story told only for the purpose of scaring young children. Worst team in the Western Conference, a mere 16 wins, the fourth-lowest goal total in the entire league. The organization cleans house, puts Super Joe Sakic in a suit and a front office job, and puts legendary goaltender Patrick Roy behind the bench.

And damned if it didn't work. The Avs got hot at the right time, as the St. Louis Blues hobbled through their stretch run. In the meantime, Minnesota rode the hot play of Ilya Bryzgalov into the postseason after he joined the team just a matter of weeks ago.

Bryzgalov may be the only thing that stretches this series to six games, but expect Colorado to advance from this one.

PREDICTION: Avs in 6.

Chicago (3rd Central) vs. St. Louis (2nd Central)

This isn't that tough a call. With the Blackhawks getting key forwards like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp back, and the Blues ending the season on that awful slide, this could be over quickly if the Blues don't play well in front of Ryan Miller. He will need help. Even though his resume boasts two trips to the conference final, neither of those was against a team in the West.

PREDICTION: Hawks in 6.

PACIFIC DIVISION
Dallas (2nd Wild Card) vs. Anaheim (1st Pacific)

This might be the series to watch in the West in the first round. Dallas' makeover has made them a Playoff team for the first time in six years. The trade that brought Tyler Seguin to Dallas for Loui Eriksson was huge, with Seguin logging 37 goals and 84 points in 80 games. Seguin also has two deep Cup runs -- including one Cup -- under his belt, and could be a big leader for this Stars team for years to come.

The question is whether Dallas' defense can protect Kari Lehtonen from the offensive weapons that Anaheim has. Lehtonen has not seen much Playoff action -- remember the 2007 Atlanta Thrashers? 'Nuff said.

This series could go longer, but I think Anaheim's too loaded.

PREDICTION: Ducks in 5.

Los Angeles (3rd Pacific) vs. San Jose (2nd Pacific)

San Jose have been perennial contenders -- and perennial bridesmaids -- for the past several years. For as good as they are... they are also running our of time with guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau getting older. Antti Niemi has never been able to recapture his Cup-winning form from his days with the Blackhawks, but the Sharks' core of Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture remain formidable weapons who can make a difference in this series.

L.A. has offensive weapons as well as a top defense, and if Jonathan Quick can keep up what he has been doing since returning from a groin injury in the first half of the season, expect him to give the Sharks fits. Marian Gaborik was a great Trade Deadline grab for the Kings as well. I say this one goes the distance.

PREDICTION: Kings in 7.

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Detroit (2nd Wild Card) vs. Boston (1st Atlantic)

Boston is a frightening and dominant team. Detroit is a perennial snake in the grass -- I swear that's not just a commentary on how evil Detroit is. A first-round series with an underachieving (by their standards) Wings team has the potential to be the Bruins' worst nightmare. Detroit has a way of coming up big -- as they typically do in the stretch run in any given year. The big difference is that they have had to do it to just barely make the Playoffs in the last two years.

Detroit knows urgent, desperate hockey.

Boston also knows how to win, and did it with a very young defensive corps this season. The good news is that a few of these young defensemen -- despite that youth -- have some solid Playoff experience from last year's run to the Stanley Cup Final. They have to continue to improve. Boston will make its third Cup Final in four years this year, but this Wings team will be the toughest team they face in the postseason.

PREDICTION: Bruins in 7.

Montreal (3rd Atlantic) vs. Tampa Bay (2nd Atlantic)

Tampa Bay's biggest question is in net, since Ben Bishop -- probably the biggest reason for the Bolts' success despite losing Steven Stamkos for much of the season -- missed the last few games. The next two guys down the line are not tested, although Kristers Gudlevskis has certainly impressed -- not to mention played -- on every level this year (ECHL, AHL, NHL and the Olympics).

Still, the Montreal Canadiens are loaded, and -- for once -- may actually have found an elite goaltender. Yes, I know... people say that every few years. But the team that has never been able to find a netminder who could even sharpen Roy's skates has managed to find a guy they can trust in net. And Carey Price has been trustworthy.

Sorry, Habs fans... I may have just jinxed him.

The length of this series could very well be determined by Bishop's health. Best case scenario is Habs in 6, though.

METRO DIVISION
Philadelphia (3rd Metro) vs. New York (2nd Metro)

Steve Mason is a big question mark for the Flyers.

Stop laughing... I'm talking about him being hurt.

Still, even when healthy, Mason does not have a lot of Playoff experience -- just that 0-4 Playoff experience in 2009. This series could hinge on which team can break the other's home ice advantage, as well as goaltending. New York did a great job down the stretch holding onto second to get that home ice. Mason had a breakout year, while Henrik Lundqvist has been his typical, solid, regular-season self.

Does Lundqvist have 16 Playoff wins in him? Absolutely not. But he does have four here.

PREDICTION: Rangers in 5.

Columbus (1st Wild Card) vs. Pittsburgh (1st Metro)

C'mon... this is a Blue Jackets blog. This one gets its own post...

Follow @MartiniHockey on Twitter....
and/or you can "Like" the blog on Facebook....

Saturday, April 12, 2014

One More Time... With Feeling

To say last night's loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was disappointing would be a gross understatement. The work ethic was there. The skill was there. The goals... just... weren't.

Except for the Lightning, anyway.

Even down 3-1, the Jackets turned on a physical game that helped turn the game back in their favor... they just didn't have enough time to tie it up.

You just hate to see the 2-1 and 3-1 goals come like they did... out of a crowd following a faceoff with Curtis McElhinney apparently unable to see the shot, and another coming off his shoulder and trickling into the net.

It's a further bummer -- after some great performances in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky this year -- to see him so maligned among the CBJ faithful, in what could have been his last game in a CBJ sweater.

So now the Jackets face a game against the Florida Panthers -- an opponent with nothing to lose -- and a situation where they can still climb, but they need significantly more help, by way of two Philadelphia losses. The good news is that as long as the Jackets win in regulation... it doesn't matter how the Philly losses come.
Courtesy: NHL.com... but you probably already knew that
See that ROW number? This year, that's the CBJ's friend, baby. A regulation or OT win would be the Jackets' 38th... the same as Philly. So if Philly loses today and tomorrow, the Jackets move up on the merit of the third tiebreaker -- their 3-1 advantage in the season series.

So, it's okay to like the Penguins a little bit today.

So one more game, and then the waiting game.

And then Pittsburgh, New York or Boston.

Go Jackets!

Follow @MartiniHockey on Twitter....
and/or you can "Like" the blog on Facebook....

Standings Stalkers: Last Chance to Rise

After a loss that can only be described as upsetting, the Blue Jackets need a win to ensure the first Wild Card spot is theirs -- along with a first-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The good news is that Detroit lost to Carolina last night -- their first loss in The Joe since Carolina was still Hartford. That's a loooooong time, kids.

So, if the Jackets win, they're seventh... with an outside chance to take over third should Philadelphia lose twice.

Philadelphia (3rd Atlantic) at Pittsburgh (1st Atlantic)

So, Pittsburgh has a say in whether or not the Jackets play Pittsburgh. Nothing will ever make me say "Go [well, you know]," but a Pens win is a good thing... just this one last time.

Follow @MartiniHockey on Twitter....
and/or you can "Like" the blog on Facebook....