Monthly Archives: February, 2014

Five biggest keys to Bruins success coming back from break

At the start of the break, I wrote that the Bruins are a really, really good team.  They’re not my bet for best team, but they’re my pick for the Cup at this point because of their weaker conference — and therefore easier path to the Finals.

But, there are always questions, x-factors, and keys to success that could swing the race for another cup one way or another.  I tried to narrow down the 5 things that are a little up in the air, but the B’s probably need to go right in order to get their 2nd cup in 4 years.

1) Chara holding up:

Sorry to start off with the one that’s most likely to put you in a terrible mood, but the Bruins lost the last 3 games of in the Cup Finals because Chara and Seidenberg wore down from being the entire Bruins defense last year (with some help from Boychuk).  Now, Chara turns 37 next month, played 2 games more than usual because of the Olympics, doesn’t have Seidenberg, and might be the anchor of a defensive group that will literally have Chara, Boychuk, and four guys in their first or second year, as McQuaid could be injured or just playing terrible.  Also, he’ll be coming off of last year’s 22 playoff games, 48 regular season games, and 25 games in Europe — all in a season that was backed up due to the lockout, therefore creating a shorter offseason.  It looks like the B’s are gonna realistically lock up the 2 seed with about 7-10 games to go, so I would rest Chara and give Warsofsky some minutes in early April.  Maybe sign someone out of college and play him because of his fresh legs, Torey Krug in 2012-style.  Chara not being Chara would be the biggest reason that the B’s would unexpectedly get knocked out in the first two rounds.  But this leads us to…

2) Will Chiarelli trade for someone — preferably a defenseman, at the deadline?

The more I think about this one, the more I think it’s a must.  Dougie has improved from his rookie year, but he’s not a 3rd defenseman yet.  Krug isn’t either.  I’m comfortable with Krug getting about the 5th most even-strength minutes for a contender and then a ton of power play time, but if he has to get 3rd or mayyybe 4th Dman minutes, that’s a problem.  Bartkowski is fine, but hasn’t been doing as well as expected.  McQuaid isn’t good at anything in hockey that involves a puck, and both he and Miller should be 7th defenseman for a contender.  Shane Hnidy stuff.  I’d take McQuaid assuming he’s healthy for 5 minutes at the time of the playoffs, but I’d rather not have either play.

That means that the B’s need a 3rd defenseman.  This would change so much, as it’d give Dougie the 4th most minutes, Krug the 5th, and Barts the 6th.  Suddenly, that looks pretty solid.  But if Chiarelli doesn’t pull the trigger, then it’s Chara playing Suter-like minutes, Boychuk being a 2nd defenseman for the first time in his career at age 30, Adam McQuaid, and the youngsters.  Not a good thought.

So, who could they get?  I wrote about this when Seidenberg went down, but I don’t know if the list would be the same today.  Stephane Robidas plays for Dallas, who might actually try to make the playoffs, which wasn’t as certain back then.  Tom Gilbert looked absolutely horrible in a Panthers-Bruins game last month, and that kinda turned me against wanting to get him.  That leaves Ron Hainsey from the guys that I was really excited about.  And, honestly, I really like that idea.  I’ll have more for the trade deadline later, but here’s a tease: 52.4% Corsi For while only starting 50.1% of the time in the offensive zone, all while playing for the freaking Hurricanes.  Do it, Chiarelli.

3) Chris Kelly Needs to be the answer at 3rd line center.

I really like Carl Soderberg has been playing of late.  I really like how Reilly Smith has been playing this entire year, as has everyone in Boston and their mother.  Watching them on the power play together has been borderline orgasmic at times, and we obviously hope they can do the same things together on the 3rd line come playoff time.

So what do we know about Kelly?  Kelly was absolute shit in the first three playoff rounds last year, and many, myself included, were slightly leaning towards wanting the Bruins to buy him out.  I have faith in the first two lines to step up, and the Merlot Line is the Merlot line.  They’ll be better than most other 4th lines, but they likely won’t swing a series again like they did against the Rangers last year.  That leaves Kelly as the biggest question among the forwards.  This year, he’s doing pretty well, with 49.9% CF despite 40.4% OZS.  If he does that, he’s worth the $3 million that seemed too pricey last summer.

But is he really the fit for Soderberg and Smith?  They’re both offensive players, and Kelly is being used much more defensively than people realize.  And that could mean line shuffling that people don’t realize.  What about Spooner-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Paille-Kelly?  Or make Kelly the center for that line, depending on what Claude feels is best.

What about Kelly-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Spooner-Paille, but then you switch Kelly and Spooner every so often when you want more specialized lines?  I put Spooner on the left and Paille the right, because I think Paille would have an easier time going on his off wing.  Then again, part of the Merlot Line’s appeal and effectiveness is its chemistry, and Kelly would probably be better suited to retain that chemistry for the line with Thornton out of the lineup.  Since I don’t think that Thornton should start in the playoffs unless somebody starts doing terribly, I’d go with Spooner-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Paille-Kelly, but leave the door open for Kelly to swap with Spooner when the lines need to be more well-rounded.  Spooner and Paille together on a line would be intriguing, after all, given their speed.

If Kelly can play like he did in 2011 and 2012, then he’s the answer.  If he plays like 2013 Chris Kelly, he could be the weak link for the B’s up front.

4) The 2nd line being the best in the league, as expected.

If that sounded like high standards, it was.  The Bergeron-Marchand-Seguin line was the best in the league for parts of both 2012 and 2013, and Eriksson is still a little better than Seguin this year when he’s healthy and playing well.  Remember, Loui has the second-best Corsi for the Bruins this year, and he is probably better suited to play with Bergy than Seguin.  That line should be the best in the league, especially and at least defensively.

If the Bruins win the Cup mainly through their defensive system, it will likely be because of the 2nd line.  They have the potential to shut down the opponents’ top lines and take a ton of defensive faceoffs — all while scoring at a good rate.

5) Tuukka Rask

I put this one last because it seems like the smallest question mark.  Tuukka just went apeshit at the Olympics, and he looks like the best goalie in the world right now.  Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, and maybe Jonathan Quick could make claims, but Tuukka definitely seems like the king now.

(Two things to note from that last paragraph: One, anyone who says that Quick was good but not great, or not as important as hoped, at least, should be shot.  Quick’s only bad game was against Finalnd, but I’m pretty sure that Ryan Suter was a double agent for Finalnd in the Bronze Medal game.  Literally no one cared.  He was awesome against Slovakia, very good against Russia, very good against Slovenia, and absolutely brilliant against Canada.  That was the biggest game the US could’ve had in the tournament, and he did everything that was needed and more.  Not his fault that Weber, Doughty, and Price just shut down the US.  Two, it is interesting that the four best goalies in the world, in my mind, were on the top 4 finishing Olympic teams.  Price, Lundqvist, Rask, and Quick.  Good group.  The “hot goalie in the playoffs” thing might be somewhat overrated, but let’s not overdo our reactions to that cliche.  It still has a hell of a lot of importance.)

If Tuukka plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, I see the Bruins winning, barring.  They may not have won it last year behind his 94.0 SV%, but they’re a little deeper than last year, and I see them scoring better than they did.  Even if Tuukka isn’t absolutely lights out again, if he’s “just” great, that can easily be enough.  And he’s the best in the world, so I’d say that “great” is a reasonable expectation.

Celtics Come up with a Huge Loss

The Celtics have been a fantanker’s dream recently.  They literally just lost their last 3 games to the 3 teams that are just ahead of them in the standings.  Huge losses.  Utah, Sacramento, and Kobe’s bitches are all now within 2 games ahead of the C’s, and it they all woulda been at least 2 games behind the Green if Stevens and Co. had been dumb enough to win all of their last 3 games against definitely beatable opponents.  The Kings are actually not terrible, with just a point differential of -1.9.  That’s bad, but not horrible, so the Celtics “should have” lost to them anyway.  But Utah and LA are both worse than -5.  The Celtics are just -3.9, but that wasn’t gonna stop the tanking.  Love it.

Even with that, Jeff Green has put up 71 in his last 3 games, and Rondo had double digit assists in the LA and Utah games (He didn’t play in the Sac one).  The core of the team is still improving their value for when they’re either traded or the core of a hopefully OK team next year.

Celtics still have 24 games, and I’m a little worried that Rondo will knock off just enough rust to start banking some wins.  Still got the 76ers twice, but it’s not like the C’s will catch them after their pathetic but awesome absolute gutting of the roster.  That probably means 2 C’s wins right there, and each one could really hurt.  Let’s hope that the Lakers are dumb enough to wanna win.

More useless but fun speculation about the Callahan trade

Last night, Boomer Esiason tweeted that a Ryan Callahan trade was imminent. He then answered a lot of questions about what he was referring to, so we have a lot of details, actually.  Esiason actually has a pretty good track record with Rangers news, and he answered enough to really narrow down the options.  You can find that here (props to SNYrangersblog for writing such a great blog post to narrow it all down).

But first, let’s note that it’s not Marchand or Iginla, and Esiason said that Callahan isn’t going to Boston.  Given that he said it’s most likely a 1 for 1, which means no three team deals, at least we know that our guys aren’t moving.  I wouldn’t want them to — I like the makeup of the Bruins’ forwards now, even if Callahan would be a Bruins-type player.  However… if they decided to say “fuck it” and get Cally as a rental 3rd line forward, probably put Reilly on the 4th line, then that would make the B’s the clear favorites to win it all… fine, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s look around the league.

If you didn’t click on that link to the SNY blog, do it.  It’s helpful.  But on my own, I should list the teams that Esiason ruled out: Anyone in the west, Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and probably Washington, Ottawa, New Jersey, and Buffalo (Buffalo wasn’t specifically ruled out, but Matt Moulson was, and the only other forward on the roster that’s even in Cally’s stratosphere is Cody Hodgson).  That leaves:

Philadelphia (I’m giddy over just thinking about these two teams trading), Carolina, Columbus, New York Islanders (but it’s not Vanek, so that’s unlikely), Detroit, Florida, Montreal, (Please no, I actually like Callahan), and Tampa Bay.

There have been thousands of guesses, from Martin St. Louis to Scott Hartnell to just about everyone.  I’m assuming it is a 1 for 1 deal for a winger, because the Rangers are pretty good at center.  Here are the most likely candidates, for my money.

Honorable mentions, starting from the most ridiculous to somewhat plausible:

(Note: for these ones, I’m not ruling out Washington, Ottawa, or New Jersey.  They’re probably out, but not for sure.)

Max Pacioretty:  Salaries work basically perfectly, but Montreal would riot even more than usual if they gave away a 24-year-old scorer like that without getting something more than Cally.

Jaromir Jagr: Highly doubt that the Rangers would want a rental, and that’s all that Jagr would be given his 42 years on this earth.  Would make all the sense in the world for the Devils, as they’d get a guy that they could resign and build around.  But I don’t think Rangers GM Glen Sather is going for it.

Jakub Voracek: Too young, too good.  Similar to Pacioretty.

Troy Brouwer: Similar style to Callahan, but just not good enough.

Cody Hodgson: This seems really unlikely at first, but think about it.  Callahan might actually resign in Buffalo, as he’s from Rochester.  He’d be the only marquee guy singing for a lot in Buffalo, so Buffalo would do it in a heartbeat.  If they use their two amnesties on Ville Leino and Tyler Myers, they’ll have a pretty clean cap sheet and the top pick this year and next.  But they’ll also be probably trading Miller and Moulson soon, so that means that Cally would be accepting a trade to a bad team for a few years… Nevermind. Might have overthought this one.

But here are the three most likely, going from third to first:

Bobby Ryan:  He could be a little too much for the Senators to give up, but the Rangers could have to put in a draft pick.  This would be a smart move for both sides, assuming Callahan would be willing to resign.  The Rangers would get a scoring winger that they need, and the Senators would get the two-way forward they could use and have said they’re in the market for.  Ryan is from southern Jersey, and many have felt that he would like the idea of playing in the Mid-Atlantic region where he grew up (he was a Flyers fan, though…).  The Rangers would want Ryan to resign after his contract is up in 2015, but they could probably get it done.  This would be contingent on a stingy Senators organization resigning Callahan, which could be a problem.  This would be the second most likely, ahead of the next guy, if the Senators weren’t sort of/probably ruled out by Esiason.

Alexander Semin: Same exact reasoning for the Ryan trade, in terms of the Canes getting an all-around player and the Rangers getting scoring.  But Semin makes $7 million a year, and the Rangers have about $1.7 million in space in addition to Cally’s $4.275 million price tag.  That leaves them a million short, so they’d have to throw in the terrible Derek Dorsett or something to get it done.  (As always, thanks to capgeek for their salary figures.)

Martin St. Louis: This is the most likely guy, because Esiason also hinted that the guy was still playing in the Olympics, and St. Louis had the Gold Medal game this morning.  He said that an injury could be the biggest problem to the trade, and that would make sense.  Also, they’re both right wings, and St. Louis’ contract would barely fit under the Rangers cap numbers.  He has another year, and it would make sense that the Rangers wouldn’t want to go rental for rental.  I could see this from the Rangers perspective, but not much from the Lightning’s.  There may be something with Yzerman and Marty, and it might be more than we realized when Yzer didn’t pick him originally for the Olympic team.  But the Lightning will still be contenders next year, and I don’t know why they’d sacrifice another year of St. Louis for Callahan unless he resigns.  How likely is Cally to resign in Tampa?  I don’t know, but maybe it’ll all be about the money for him.  If it is, so be it, but if it isn’t, then I doubt he’d stay.  Tampa would likely have to negotiate with Cally before the trade would go down, and that’d be the sticking point.  This one would be a blockbuster, and it would finally make the deadline that much more interesting again.

Backstrom Situation Thoughts

As you probably know, Nicklas Backstrom had to withdraw from the Gold Medal game against Canada because he tested positive for something that’s banned.  It seems pretty clear that it came from an allergy medication, and the Washington Capitals and Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, also accept that.  The Swedish hockey GM said, “Our opinion is IOC destroyed one of greatest hockey days in Swedish history.”

And I think he’s right.  The IOC has gotta improve upon their testing protocols in general.  It has to be noted that 6 players have been busted in the Sochi Olympics, and 5 of them were busted for stuff that’s either found in food or normal medication.  That’s a problem.  I’m all for greater testing, and I, like many, have actually held the Olympics as a standard for how all sports leagues should test.  But this isn’t right.  No shit the guy has to take allergy medication, because I’m pretty sure it’s necessary.  Everyone admits that whatever the substance was in the medication can’t be used as a PED, so there is no reason to bust a guy like Backstrom.  Also, he apparently tested positive in connection with the Slovenia game, and that was TWO GAMES AGO.  Gotta feel for Backstrom.  Never should’ve happened, and the IOC has to address their testing protocol.

USA-Canada Preview: Get Jacked.

This Friday, the US men’s hockey team will face Canada in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament.  This is the game we’ve been waiting for, as Canada ended our Gold Medal hopes in the title game four years ago.  The two countries have a sibling rivalry, but they don’t feel much like family members now.  To put it nicely, Fuck Canada.  Let’s break down the game, starting with our evil northern neighbors.

            The Canadians come into this game looking far shakier than expected.  In the preliminary round, Canada did beat Austria 6-0 in their first game, but then they only beat Norway, probably the worst team in the tournament, 3-1.  The Maple Syrup Lovers then won a hard-fought 2-1 game in overtime against Finland and its netminder Tuukka Rask, probably the best goalie in the world.

But the game that is freshest in Canadians minds’ and will probably scare them the most was their 2-1 Quarterfinal win against Latvia.  Canada had a bye through the first playoff round and into the quarters, while Latvia had played a day earlier and beat the heavily favored Switzerland.  Latvia was the 11 seed after the prelims (out of 12 teams, and only Norway was worse), so nobody gave Latvia a chance to even keep the game close – myself included.  Well, Latvia did keep it close – or, more accurately, goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis kept it close.  He faced a ridiculous 57 shots (the average in an NHL game is around 30), and he stopped an even more insane 55.  Despite Gudlevskis singlehandedly keeping his team in the game, defenseman Shea Weber ultimately buried a slap shot on a power play with under five minutes remaining, and the Canadians held on for the nerve-racking win.

Even if you were to disregard the fact that Canada has won a few games in an underwhelming fashion over clearly superior teams, there are other reasons to worry.  Sidney Crosby, the world’s best player, has looked iffy at best.  He has registered only 0 goals, 2 assists, and 6 shots on goal in 4 games despite getting the second-most ice time among the team’s forwards.  To put that in perspective, a good guess before the tournament for Crosby’s stat line through four games against Norway, Austria, Finland, and Latvia would be about 2 goals, 4 assists, and 12-15 shots on goal.  Team Canada also selected Crosby’s linemate in Pittsburgh, Chris Kunitz, largely so that Crosby would have chemistry with his left wing.  Because Sid is simply so smart and quick, he is known as a difficult player to play with.  That’s what makes it all the most surprising that Crosby’s new right wing on Team Canada, Jeff Carter, is performing well while Kunitz isn’t.  Kunitz has a line of 0 goals, 0 assists, and 6 shots on goal to Carter’s 3-1-17.  Carter is performing mainly without Crosby’s or Kunitz’s help, as Crosby has assisted on just one of Carter’s three even-strength goals.  The best player in the world simply isn’t playing like it.

Team Canada has also received a whopping seven goals from its top two defensemen, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, who are playing out of their minds.  No other defenseman has scored, Carter has three goals, and then three other players have one.  The fact that just six players have scored in four games against inferior challengers is not the kind of scoring layout that we would expect from the deepest and most well-rounded team in the world.  Seven goals from two defensemen is impressive and speaks to their overall awesomeness, but it’s unlikely to hold up.

But, are Team Canada’s supporters worrying too much?  In the past few years, closer analysis of hockey statistics has shown that the biggest factor to winning for any hockey team comes down to shot differential.  Canada has more than doubled its opponents’ shot output, at 168-74.  That’s insane, and it would likely lead to bigger wins than we’ve seen.  While outshooting the other teams did lead to a 6-0 win over the lowly Austria, it did not translate to big wins over the other three teams.  For instance, Canada outshot Latvia 57-16 against a goalie that doesn’t even play in the NHL, but they simply ran into a hot goalie playing the game of his life.  Canada can be expected to score more than five goals in 120 minutes against teams like Norway and Latvia.

Canada’s doubters are also discounting a very basic facet of hockey: Team Canada’s defense and goaltending has been insane!  Carey Price has given up three goals on 51 shots, which is excellent, even if those three games were against Norway, Finland, and Latvia.  Backup Roberto Luongo went 23 for 23 against Austria, which is obviously not too shabby.  And when a team has surrendered three goals in four games, it’s evident that their defensemen deserve a ton of credit.  There is something to be said for Team Canada’s inability to finish when they have had quality scoring chances, which is definitely a huge aspect of hockey, but it’s usually a good sign when you outshoot the other team buy that much.  Even if the forwards don’t pick up the slack, Team Canada could ride its strong defense to a Gold.

But that is a perfect segue to the United States team, because the US is the best scoring team that Canada could face in this tournament.  Team USA has scored 20 goals, which is the best in the tournament.  Any line for the Americans can score, and they’ll give Canada’s defensemen and goalie everything they can handle.

Team USA’s scorers should be at full throttle during the game against Canada, as Dan Bylsma – who is coaching extremely well, in my opinion – decided to reunite the first line from Vancouver four years ago.  In the preliminary round, center Ryan Kesler and right wing Patrick Kane had been playing with Dustin Brown on the left, but the line wasn’t clicking as well as expected, particularly Kane.  Kane is the most electrifying and offensively gifted player in our country, but he is only mediocre defensively, and Bylsma had started out the tournament by matching him with great defensive forwards Kesler and Brown to offset his slight weakness.  Left Wing Zach Parise had been on the third line with C David Backes and RW Ryan Callahan to create a defensive super line.  But neither the first nor third line were working as well as we had hoped, and Bylsma luckily realized that before the quarterfinals.  While both are great defensively, Parise is a better scorer and had chemistry with Kesler and Kane from 2010, so the switch was only logical…  and it worked.  Parise scored his first goal of the tournament in a 5-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarters, Kesler recorded two assists, and Kane recorded one of his own in addition to playing all around better hockey.  Brown scored with his new line, and his new linemate Backes scored once and assisted once.

Then, there’s the second line, comprised of Joe Pavelski and two Toronto Maple Leafs, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel.  Wow, is this line on fire.  Kessel has earned a whopping five goals, three assists, and the title of “Tournament MVP if it ended today.”  JVR (van Riemsdyk) netted his first goal Wednesday to go along with his four assists, which match Pavelski’s stats exactly.  This has been the best scoring line in the tournament, and they haven’t showed many signs of slowing down.  Compared to the rest of Team USA’s lines, they’re a little weak defensively, which means that Bylsma should and probably will use them primarily for faceoffs that take place in the offensive zone.  Given that JVR and Kessel play together on Toronto’s power play, their chemistry with the man advantage has already proven itself helpful in the Olympics.

The Americans’ fourth line of C Paul Stastny, RW T.J. “Soshie 2014” or “The Hero” Oshie, and Max Pacioretty has played well at times in the tournament, but they’re a little inconsistent.  The line accounted for two goals in the first game rout of Slovakia, but it has struggled defensively at other times.  Team USA will rely heavily upon their first three lines against Canada and then their opponent in either the Gold or Bronze Medal game, not very much with the fourth line or the 13th forward of Blake Wheeler.

Defensively, Bylsma has also been shortening his bench, which is both smart and necessary.  However, if there was one thing that I was going to nitpick about Bylsma’s coaching thus far, it would be how he’s been distributing minutes to his blueliners.  He correctly is relying primarily upon Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh as his top two, and you can expect the pair to play approximately 187 minutes against Canada on Friday.  Suter is used to playing tons of minutes for the Minnesota Wild, where he currently leads the league in minutes played.

But after the top two, it’s been a little questionable.  I, and many others who have followed this team and its players at a borderline-religious level, feel that the next two best guys are Paul Martin and Kevin Shattenkirk.  The final three guys in order would be Cam Fowler, Brooks Orpik, and John Carlson.  After Fowler, there seems to be a little bit of a drop off to Orpik, at least in my opinion, but Bylsma disagrees.  He might be too loyal to Orpik, who plays for him in Pittsburgh and is actually Martin’s partner on the blue line.  I understand him wanting to pair them together due to chemistry, but not at the expense of cutting into Shattenkirk’s minutes.  Orpik played over 18 minutes Wednesday, and Shattenkirk played just over 13.  That should probably change, and the top four of Suter, McDonagh, Martin, and Shattenkirk should be played more than the rest.  If Bylsma would like to put Martin with Orpik and Shattenkirk with Fowler for some shifts, that’s fine with me, but it can’t cut too heavily into Shattenkirk’s ice time.

Finally, we have Jonathan Quick, Team USA’s goalie.  Quick went Beast Mode in the 2012 Playoffs, leading the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup.  From then until a little over a month ago, he only resembled a league-average goalie.  Luckily, he picked it up around the start of the new year, and he’s continued his success in Sochi.  He has not played out of his mind, but there has been nothing to complain about with Quickie.  That being said, he’ll really make his Olympic legacy in the next two games.  Nobody will really remember the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds.

America is an underdog against Canada in the semifinal game, as Canada simply has a ton of firepower, and they’re hard to stop.  Team USA may have the advantage in goal with Quick over Carey Price, but Canada is undoubtedly better at both forward and defense.  Many have drawn comparisons between this game and the two times the teams faced off in 2010, in which Ryan Miller was the key.  Miller gave the United States a chance against Canada, and Quick may have to do that again.  Quick could be the deciding factor, but no hockey game has just one x-factor.  It will be key for one of Team USA’s four lines of forwards to go off against the Canadians in terms of scoring, and it will likely have to be the second line.  After all, it would be pretty cool to see James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel return to Toronto after taking away Canada’s gold medal hopes.  But the first line will also need to step up and really play like a first line, and it might be time for Patrick Kane to net his first goal of the tournament.  Finally, the Ryans on defense – Suter and McDonagh – will have to play like the top defensive pairing that they are.  Team USA will have to play above itself and win on matchups, which makes Bylsma’s coaching all the more important.

As for a prediction, I would have entirely expected myself to pick Canada in this game before the tournament happened.  But now, it’s clear that Team USA’s biggest advantage over Canada, even more than the goaltenders, is chemistry.  Chemistry is overrated in sports, but probably not in a six-game tournament.  Team USA is playing more like a team for which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, while Canada has struggled to do the same.  Maybe I’m biased (actually, yes, I am), but I’ll pick the Americans in a 3-2 thriller.  Give me one goal from Kaner, one from JVR on the power play with an assist from Kessel, and a third from Parise.  And if the game goes to a shootout, well, we have T.J. Oshie, so good luck Canada.  And Fuck Justin Bieber.

Stats for US Hockey Olympians So Far

Just to analyze how each guy is doing, I’m gonna post the point totals and average ice time for each player.  Obviously, the point totals matter a little more for the forwards, and the ice time is bigger for the d-men.

Kesler: 1 Goal, 1 Assist, 2 Points AVG TOI: 18:27

Kane: 0-3-3, 17:18

Brown: 1-1-2, 11:45

Pavelski: 1-3-4, 15:23

Kessel: 4-3-7, 14:46

Van Riemsdyk: 0-4-4, 14:38

Backes: 2-0-2, 14:57

Callahan: 0-1-1, 14:50

Parise: 0-0-0, 17:11

Stastny: 2-0-2, 13:19

Oshie: 0-3-3, 11:37

Wheeler: 0-1-1, 5:36

Pacioretty: 0-1-1, 10:00

Stepan: 0-0-0, 4:59

Suter: 0-0-0, 23:27

McDonagh: 1-0-1, 20:38

Shattenkirk: 0-2-2, 17:01

Martin: 0-0-0, 17:28

Fowler: 1-0-1, 16:04

Orpik: 0-1-1, 14:51

Carlson: 1-1-2, 11:02

What to take away:

First, it has to be said that this is an unbelievable small sample size, and I’m not even giving the game by game totals or ice time.  That will be done in a post leading up to the gold medal game if the US gets there, because that’ll be after two medal round games, which should tell us more.  Also, at that point, we won’t be able to get enough analysis of the team.

Bylsma’s three top forwards in terms of ice time are the ones expected coming into the tournament: Kesler, Kane, and Parise.  This begs the question why they’re not on the same line, especially because Brown has enough defensive chops to fill in really well with Backes and Callahan.  I’d put Parise’s better scoring ability — and all around better game — on the ice with Kesler and Kane and try to re-create the chemistry they had in 2010.  Parise isn’t playing as well as he should, and neither is the 3rd line for the most part, so this switch seems logical.  Kesler isn’t performing that well in terms of points, but he’s been big in other ways, especially PK.  Kesler took a slap shot straight on his left hand in the Russia game and stayed in.  Of course, Pierre McGuire cited a brief interview that he conducted with the team doctor, who was obviously in awe of Kesler’s toughness.  As if there would be any other kind of report from Pierre McGuire.  Kane is playing well, but not well enough to meet his standards.  His presence on the PK will be huge, as his zone entries are so impressive and so key for the US.  The second line is playing their asses off, especially scoring wise.  Just look at those numbers, and you’ll see that no more analysis is really necessary.  Bylsma is smartly playing them all between 14.5 and 15.5 minutes, which is the same for Backes and Callahan.  That’s fine by me, so long as he continues to see the second line as a primary scoring line and the third as a defensive line.  As I said, the third line isn’t doing that great, but they’re still doing well enough for Team USA to be a top dog.  The 4th line is a question mark, partly because we don’t know who will play on it.  I loved that Stepan was in for the Slovenia game since I’m a big fan, as he was rotating in sometimes the way that Wheeler did in the first two games.  Wheeler finally played really well in the Slovenia game, but he was a nightmare in both the Slovakia and Russia games.  I’d rather put Pacioretty, who sat the Slovenia game out, back at his natural LW and try to get back what the 4th line had in the Slovakia game, and then I’d make Stepan the 13th man.  Give me the more versatile center over the more one-dimensional wing in Wheeler.

The defensive minutes look like they should, in my opinion, for the most part.  Suter should be playing as many minutes as possible, like his ridiculous 29:56 in the Russia game.  McDonagh is up next, followed by Shattenkirk and Martin.  That should be the top 4, although Orpik playing more than Martin in the Russia game is inexplicable.  Fowler is fifth in ice time, which I like, and then Orpik and Carlson come in last.  But Orpik clearly has a lot more of Bylsma’s trust, based off of playing in Pittsburgh and his 15:47 in the Russia game to Carlson’s 3:56.  I’m not a huge fan of that last stat, because I’m not a huge fan of Brooks Orpik, as you can tell.  It’s a testament to how shallow Pittsburgh’s defense was in last year’s playoffs that Orpik was on the “shutdown pair” with Martin.  He’s a good defenseman, but idk about top 6 for Team USA.  I’m not saying that Carlson is much better, but both of them should be way below Fowler and the rest in terms of ice time, as evidenced by Pavel Datsyuk’s first goal being almost entirely due to their inability to cover the center of the ice on his break.

All in all, Bylsma seems to be doing a great job.  The 4th line looked like it was slapped together, but they played better than expected the first game, and I do think there’s more to be had from them than what we saw in the Russia or Slovenia game (the latter of which they weren’t even together because of Pacioretty’s scratch).  No line is letting anyone down, and putting the Maple Leafs with a scorer like Joe Pavelski was crucial for the team, although it wasn’t that difficult of a decision.  With the exception of how he handled Orpik in the Russia game, Bylsma is doing a great job with the defensemen, also.  The hierarchy of the blueliners seems about right, and I feel pretty comfortable with the national team in Bylsma’s hands going forward.

Looking ahead in Olympic Hockey

If you care about Olympic hockey, you’ve probably seen the bracket, but I’m still gonna post it, because it’s pretty easy to forget the seedings when you’re down to the terrible teams.

Game A) 5-12 Russia vs. Norway

Game B) 6-11 Switzerland vs. Latvia

Game C) 7-10 Czech Republic vs. The Charas (Slovakia)

Game D) 8-9  Slovenia vs. Austria

Should I analyze these games?  Nah. (Except to say that either Krejci or Chara will play another game beyond this one, because they’re playing each other, and it sucks that Krejci’s legs come playoff time could handle the extra game better than Chara’s, but Chara’s team would obviously be the easier opponent for the US in the Quarters, so that blows.)  But there’s no point because Russia and Switzerland will both beat crappy Norway and almost as crappy Latvia, the Czechs will likely beat the Slovaks, and Slovenia-Austria doesn’t matter because both teams suck and will get spanked by Sweden in the next game.  So who cares.

What’s more interesting is that they finally told us the times for each game on Wednesday:

Sweden vs. Game D winner at 3:30 am EST.  Thank God this one drew the middle of the night game, because it’ll be the worst and probably most lopsided.  This is probably why Putin (sorry, the IOC) scheduled the game then.

Finland vs. Russia (aka Game A winner) at 7:30 am.  This will be the best game, so it’s questionable that they’d make it early in the morning here, at 2:30 pm in Finland, and 4:30 pm in Russia (not that anyone in Russia will be working that day).  Well, the reason is that the next two games are at the same time, so Russia wanted both the American and Canadian games to be readily watchable over here, and they also clearly wanted Russia’s game to be the only attraction in the middle of the afternoon over there.

This matchup is brilliant, because it pits both strength on strength and weakness on weakness.  The Russians are weak defensively, but Finland, without its top 4 centers of both Koivu brothers, Alexander Barkov, and Valtteri Filppula, are weaker than expected up front.  Where is Russia the strongest?  Well, with its superstar scorers on the top two lines: Malkin-Ovechkin-Semin and Datsyuk-Kovalchuk-Alexander Radulov, who most people will (and maybe should) know just for his two really stupid penalties in the USA game.  But Radulov is the highest point-scorer in the KHL’s brief history, cementing a fearsome top 6 scoring collection.  They’ll be up against Finland’s biggest strength, our own Tuukka Rask.  Finland will go as far as Tuukka takes them, and he may have to pull a Dominik Hasek in 1998 to pull out the Gold for his home country.

Also, I have no idea who I’d root for here.  Even when factoring in that I don’t want Tuukka to play too many games, I’ll probably be rooting for Finland.  Finland is barely the better team of the two now, and it’d be helpful to have the better team go against Sweden in the semifinals and maybe knock off the top seed.

USA vs. Game C winner at noon EST.  God, Slovakia would be an easy opponent, but I don’t want Chara to have to play an extra game.  My gut reaction was that the CZE-SVK game would be a blowout, and, despite some trying to talk me into a close game, I still feel that way.  The Czechs had a -1 goal differential, which is kinda bad obviously, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Slovakia’s -9.  Slovakia lost to freaking Slovenia.   So we’ll be playing the Czechs, and we should still win.  I don’t see the Czech Republic slowing down our American scorers, not when Tomas Kaberle is on their second defensive pairing (HAHAHAHAHAHA).  And not with Ondrej Pavelec in net. USA advances.

Canada vs. Switzerland (aka Game B winner) at noon EST.  We’ll all be checking in with the Canada game during the USA game, but we all know the result.  No chance Switzerland beats Canada, although we’d all like to see it happen.

Going into the tournament, it seemed like the top 4 were Canada, Sweden, Russia, and USA in that order.  Then Finland would be with CZE, Slovakia, and Switzerland in the second tier.  Now, the final three teams are on the outside looking in at the top 5 of Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, and Russia in that order.  The semifinals already look to provide some justice, as they should consist of Sweden, Canada, US, and either Russia or Finland.  Too bad that the USA has to go through Canada a round earlier than we wanted, but hopefully it’ll make the story better when they’re getting their first Gold medal in 34 years.

Team USA rolls on

The US now has 2 wins in the Olympic tournament after taking a bat to Slovakia and barely escaping the evil Russians.  I gotta talk about the Russian game first, which is fresh in my mind.

Holy shit that game was amazing!  The US played their ass off but actually looked like the team some expected at the start of the tournament — one that might not be able to score.  There weren’t that many scoring chances during 5on5.  Both goals were scored on the power play, and even Kaner’s breakaway in OT was 4on4.  There were opportunities to score, but not enough, and it made the Americans rely on their power play

…which delivered and then some.  After Datsyuk scored on a Datstukian shot on a break, JVR and Kessel played beautifully on the PP together, and JVR said during the intermission (in a shockingly somewhat interesting comment during an intermission interview in any sport) that it mainly happened because of the chemistry.  I guess that’s the last good thing that Randy Carlyle has made happen.  Cam Fowler was the beneficiary of JVR and Kessel’s assists.

In the 3rd, Patrick Kane made up for what was otherwise a mediocre day for him by making on orgasmic-to-watch saucer pass.  Pavelski buried it, and it had looked like the US was pulling away from Russia in the previous few minutes, so we were feeling good.  Alexander Radulov had taken both penalties, causing a Twitter frenzy.  You know how it’s almost always annoying when everyone on Twitter makes the same joke?  Yeah, this time the joke about how “Putin is gonna kill this guy!” was actually still funny, and it was a precursor to a whole other set of jokes that you’ll see in two paragraphs.

But it’s true, Putin is sending him to Siberia as we speak.

Annnnd then Dustin Brown had to one up him.  Took an incredibly stupid penalty, his second of the day, for no fucking reason.  Knee on knee hit to Slava Voynov, giving the Russians a power play.  Datsyuk capitalized again.  Things looked real bad when Fedor Tyutin had apparently scored, and, although it’s incredibly overrated, the Russians seemed to have all the momentum.  But it turned out that Radulov might have deflected the puck with a high stick, so the refs had to take a look.  McQuire and Olcyzk correctly noticed that the puck hadn’t hit his stick, which would have been so funny because Putin actually would have strangled him on the ice.  The broadcasting duo was then shocked when the ref waved it off, because they hadn’t realized that Jonathan Quick had accidentally knocked off the net, which warrants a whistle in international hockey.  Twitter then unleashed the “Putin is gonna kill these refs!” joke that, again, was somehow funny.  My favorite was this:

The refs had made the right call though, and the game rolled on.  The last five minutes was tense but didn’t have any serious scoring chances, and we were on to overtime.  Two minutes in, Patrick Kane had a breakaway that Bobrovsky read from the start.  Kane went five hole, and it was closed when the puck was less than halfway from Kane to Bobrovsky.  We head to a shootout, where Kane doesn’t get a turn to shoot.  Some may think that it had to do with his miss on the breakaway, but, by percentages, it was actually a good move not to use him.  He’s only 39%, but who’s a little higher is Zach Parise, who also didn’t get to shoot.  Parise is over 45%,, so it surprised many, myself included, that Joe Pavelski was picked over him.  TJ Oshie, who is second-best all time in shootouts among anyone with 20 attempts or more, was an easy choice.  James van Riemsdyk was a defensible one, but he’s only had 7 goals on 14 attempts.  I’d have rather taken Parise and Kane, but I would understand JVR and Parise.  The Pavelski pick was dumb, though.

The Russians went with Malkin, Datsyuk, and Kovalchuk.  Datsyuk is the easiest choice ever, and Kovalchuk and Malkin are smart choices.  Semin and Ovechkin were in play, but when you actually check the stats, their percentages are lower than you think.

Oshie started off… you know what, you just gotta watch. I can’t describe this shootout:

So how many T.J. Oshie jerseys are gonna be bought in the next 24 hours?

The Americans beat the Russians on their home turf with Vladamir Putin eagerly watching in the crowd.  That feels pretty good.

Now, because I just spent over 800 words on the Russia game, I can’t describe the Slovakia game too much.  Let’s just say that the US seemed to answer questions about their inability to score.  All the offensive firepower showed up, with big games from Kane, Kesler, Pavelski, van Riemsdyk, Kessel, and the fourth line. As well.  Brown also netted a goal while being the kind of edgy-in-a-bad way guy that annoyed Americans.  (Foreshadowing.)  The third line didn’t play that well, and Zach Parise hasn’t looked like the supposed best forward on the team.  Backes played better today though, as well as Callahan.  Parise just hasn’t looked like 2010.

So, going forward, it looks like the Power Play will be huge for the US.  They didn’t score two days ago, but only had two chances, and it still looked good.  Today, it was their savior.  Well, that and TJ Oshie.  Suter played almost a half hour, and McDonagh played almost 24.  I can dig that, but the fact that Brooks Orpik played about a minute more than Paul Martin is downright insane.  John Carlson barely played, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Faulk play over him next game, considering his mistake gave Datsyuk the break on the first goal.

Also, Derek Stepan needs to play over Wheeler from here on in.  Wheeler took a terrible penalty and played a total of 38 seconds.  The US will need Stepan especially because Kesler is now playing with 1.5 hands.  What a block of a shot there. He’s the one Canuck that doesn’t deserve to get called a pussy.

Tomorrow, it’s on to thrashing Slovenia, and then the US should have a bye through the qualifyer round.  Go USA.

Gotta talk about the Mario Balotelli Situation

It won’t surprise many that I’m not a huge soccer fan (except of the US men’s national team, because the World Cup is insane), considering that there isn’t even a “soccer” category for posts on this site, but the Mario Balotelli issue goes beyond soccer.

Balotelli was seen crying after Italian fans made racist chants at him, which they’ve done somewhere between a million and a billion times before.  As Deadspin points out, the tears may not have been due to the chants, but other stuff.  What exactly it was about is up for debate, we’ll just say that. But here’s the thing about the source of the tears…

WHO FUCKING CARES?!  It doesn’t matter whether or not the tears started pouring out because of the chants.  The point that everyone seems to be missing, including Deadspin, which is usually not one to miss the most important take on an issue, is that there were still racist chants from many, many people.  Not as in one idiot throwing a banana at Wayne Simmonds in a preseason game a few years back, not a few dumbasses taking racist shots at Joel Ward.  This was large sections of a stadium making racist chants at a guy that they expect to play for their very own national team this year in the World Cup.  That’s right, this was a crowd in Italy hating on an Italian simply because of his race.

Too often in Europe and especially Italy, fans feel that race is within the lines of how to chirp a player.  Any person with some sense knows that it’s not.  America has way too many faults racially, and the ways that some of our current laws are written or enforced prove that.  And an Italian would point out that their country didn’t have slavery like we did only a little more than 150 years ago.  That’s all true, an America needs to improve on these issues.  But, when a level of racism happens towards an athlete in North America, at least we condemn it.  Wayne Simmonds had one banana thrown at him in Ontario.  The entire hockey community, and really anyone in America or Canada who paid attention to it, condemned it.  However, it was only about a year ago that hundreds of Italian fans held up bananas at Balotelli as he returned to the stadium of the team for which he used to play.  And that was cool by them, just like the racist chants this past Saturday seem to be ok with the Italian media and people because that’s not actually what caused the humiliated black man to cry.

Obviously, I can’t change the thinking of thousands of Italian soccer fans, much less all of Europe.  Even the most well regarded columnist probably couldn’t.  But you know who could at least make a dent in it?  FIFA.  FIFA has all those signs on the side of the field in the World Cup that say “Say no to racism,” as if FIFA is actually doing all it can to fight racism.  Now, I won’t pretend to know everything about what FIFA does, much less what it does about racism on a regular basis.  But what I do know is that Mario Balotelli yet again faced racist chants, and no one in Italy really condemned it.

You know that announcement at the start of Bruins games where the PA guy says “Throwing objects onto the ice may result in a two minute penalty on the Bruins.”  Let’s steal that idea and apply it to something far more important than throwing beer cups on the ice: trying to fight racism.  If the Italian soccer fans really only care about the game and think that it’s far more important than human decency and dignity, then let’s actually hit them where it hurts by penalizing the team.  Any time that opposing fans chant something like that against Balotelli, assign a yellow card to the best player for the home team.  If someone has another suggestion of how to punish them, given that I’m not a soccer expert, I’m all ears.  But not doing something about actions as vitriolic as racist chants only allows it to continue.  Step up, FIFA, and stop being chicken shit on this issue.

Just How Good Are the Bruins?

Now that the Olympic Break has started but the men’s hockey tournament (aka the only really awesome event in the Olympics) hasn’t started yet, I gotta find a way to talk and analyze hockey.  So let’s dissect just how good the Bruins are, and what their Cup hopes are.  For the purpose of this post, I’m really looking at how they’ll match up come playoff time.  The final 25 games are important, but we all know the real reason why we’re NHL fans.

The narratives/intangibles/shit that annoying talking heads will say but might have some value:

The Bruins have “Been there before!,” “Been battle tested!,” and “Aren’t intimidated by anyone!”  David Krejci has led the playoffs in point scoring twice in three years, and Patrice Bergeron could die and his corpse would still gut out 20 minutes in a Cup Finals game.  The B’s should have a “Hot goaile in the playoffs!,” because Tuukka Rask is always hot. (Did that sound weird?)

Not too worried about the forwards from an intangibles perspective…

But the defensemen are a legitimate concern.  Chara and Boychuk should both be studs in the playoffs, but they both will carry legitimate concerns as far as their stamina goes.  Chara wore down in the final 3 games of the Cup Finals, which probably cost them the Cup — not that he’s to blame, he played his ass off throughout the playoffs.  Boychuk will be seeing his first playoff action as a top 2 defenseman.  And then it looks like they’ll have 3 second year players, none of whom played in all four series last year, and Adam McQuaid.  When looking at it like this, it seems clear that the Bruins should trade for someone.  But that’s gonna be hard to do (I’m gonna have another post on that soon), so we may have to make do with the best defenseman in the game, a solid but not great no. 2 man, and 4 question marks.  If the Bruins lose a series because they gave up too many goals, expect to hear a ton of naratives about how the defensemen weren’t “ready for the big stage” or some shit like that.

Stats that matter:

Fun fact that might cause diehard Bruins fans to get a little sexually aroused.  The Bruins are no. 1 in the Eastern Conference in Fenwick% (FF%, thanks to Extraskater for that info), and 4th overall behind the Kings, Blackhawks, and Sharks.  The B’s sport a 53.7% in FF, and the Penguins are only at 51.5%.  The Rangers and Devils are close to the B’s as far as East teams go, and the Devils are actually better than the Bruins in Corsifor% (54.2% to 54.1%).  The Rangers, Devils, Penguins, and also Lightning, Habs, Leafs, and maybe Flyers could all knock the Bruins off in the playoffs, because that’s how hockey goes.  But the Bruins should be definite favorites — not heavy favorite, but definite favorites — against anyone else in the East.  They have the best goal differential in the East, and having the best goalie in the Playoffs will never hurt.  While one can definitely say that the Pens have played the whole year with a ton of injuries, most of which will clear up by April, it’s also important to note that the B’s have been without Eriksson for such long periods of time, and, of course, the Bruins swept the Penguins in the playoffs last year, so they’ve gotta be favorites.

Then there’s the fact that the Bruins are f5th in the league in Goals Scored and 2nd in Goals Against.

For some more fancystats, the B’s have an 8.2 shot percentage, which is better than average, but not so good that we have to worry that they’re lucky.  It’s tied for 9th in the league with the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs.  The Bruins should be better than average, since they’re just a good team offensively, but they shouldn’t be way too high, because that would suggest just good puck luck.  They’re where they should be.

And they’re getting contributions from everyone.  Eight guys have 30 points, and Chara has 26, and Loui has 20 in just 37 games.  His offensive production should and hopefully improve, but it’s easy to see why he’s just a little better than .5 p/g.  It’s a really small sample size, but Ryan Spooner also tacked 11 assists in 22 games.

But, even for individual players, possession stats are the most important stats of all, so let’s look at them.  Of all non-Seidenberg guys who have played at least 15 games, only Kelly, Miller, Caron, Paille, Campbell, and Thornton are lower than 50% CF.  Caron and Miller probably, and hopefully, won’t see any action in the playoffs, and Kelly and the Merlot Line aren’t even expected to be over 50% (mayyybe Kelly).  All of these guys will be there in the playoffs for mainly defensive and PK purposes, and they’ll probably all have their offensive zone starts rate (OZS%) below 45%.  Their Corsi won’t be that good anyways.

What all the possession stats in general tell you is that there really aren’t any weak links on the Bruins, at least for the forwards… except Shawn Thornton, but that’s why they need to figure out a way to get Spooner into the playoff lineup.  I root for a bottom 6 (once Eriksson goes back to 2RW) of either Soderberg-Kelly-Smith Paille-Campbell-Spooner (or switch Paille and Spooner, since Spoons on his off wing could be a problem or Soderberg-Spooner-Smith for an all offensive line and Paille-Campbell-Kelly for a ridiculous defensive line.  The latter would more intriguing, because it would create one mainly offensive but good defensively line (Krejci line) one mainly defensively but also really really good offensively (Bergeron line with Eriksson on it, which would seriously be the best defensive line in recent memory), a second mainly offensive line, and finally a second mainly defensive line (Ok, fine, an ONLY defensive line).  But I’d probably go with the first choice so that Kelly’s defensive abilities could hide Soderberg’s and Smith’s lack of defensive expertise.  But still, no real weak links.

Competition:

Just like with the Celtics and Pats, the Bruins find themselves in the easier of their league’s two conferences.  Did you notice how there are three teams ahead of the Bruins in FF% are in the West?  And that doesn’t include the St. Louis Blues, who are a good team, but maybe not as good as their point totals indicate.  The Bruins can definitely beat the Dupuisless Penguins, as we saw them beat the Pens with Dupuis last year.  They also had Tomas Vokoun in net and not Marc-Amnesty Fleury.  They can easily beat just about any other team in the conference.  The B’s might not be favored against a few of the West’s elite, but they’re not heavy underdogs against anyone.

What does this all mean?

If this piece came off as me being really high on the Bruins, it’s because I am.  They wouldn’t be considered the best team if the playoffs started today, but they have the best chance to win it all.  How that paradox is possible is because Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose, and St. Louis all have a greater chance of being knocked off before reaching the Finals, just because their conference is that much tougher.  I’d take the Bruins against any team in the Finals, personally, because I think that they’ve improved from last year.  Iggy is a slight step up from Horton, Eriksson is a slight step up for Seguin this year (just not at all for the future), and the third line, whoever it’ll have, is way better than last year.  Even with Seidenberg’s injury, the young guys on defense will have a little more experience, and Boychuk is now better than ever.  The defense isn’t better than last year, but the positive difference between the forwards this year and last is greater than the negative difference defensively from 2014 to 2013.  I could completely understand someone picking the Hawks, Kings, Sharks, or even Blues over the Bruins in the Finals, and that’s a legit debate.  But what I don’t think is debatable is that the Bruins have the best odds of any team to win the Cup, just because their road to the Cup Finals is easier in the East.

tl;dr version?  The Bruins are a damn good team.  Happy Olympics.