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As the regular season winds down, Sunday is sadly the final day of regular season NHL hockey, the playoff picture was thrown into stark relief on Saturday night.
We now know what the Eastern half of the playoff tree looks like, at least. And it looks legitimately tantalizing: Flyers vs. Rangers, Detroit vs. Boston, Columbus vs. Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay vs. Montreal. I mean, how good is that?
Out West there are still a few things to be decided, like whether or not the Colorado Avalanche can win Division III and avoid Chicago, but we now know the matchup in two of the first round series' thanks to Anaheim clinching the best regular season record in the conference last night.
The Ducks will play the Dallas Stars in round one, as the Stars become the first post-realignment team to win the Wild Card and as a result be forced to swap divisions, and what a series that could be. Both Dallas and Anaheim have excellent forward groups, questionable defense, and stellar goaltending - which is usually a highly entertaining combination...
In the early game on Saturday, the Boston Bruins man-handled the Buffalo Sabres and sealed up the Presidents' Trophy. The Presidents' Trophy, which used to be the much more respectable Prince of Wales Trophy before expansion, is the Rodney Dangerfield of NHL awards - it can't get any respect. No Bruins fan celebrated the President's Trophy win on Saturday night, and no one will ever refer to this team as something like "Leauge Champions" unless they win four more playoff rounds...
I for one still think the Presidents' Trophy is a vastly under-rated accomplishment, and that being the best team in the NHL for nearly seven months should be celebrated. Of course, because no one really agrees with me, the Bruins will look to avoid becoming the third Presidents' Trophy winner in the past five years to bowout in round one...
Patrice Bergeron - 30 goal scorer - left Saturday's matinee with an undisclosed injury, no injuries are disclosed at this time of year frankly, that was later deemed to be not serious.
I was looking over some of Bergeron's with or without you (WOWY) numbers the other day, and they were like looking at #fancystat porn. The Bruins two-way ace moves the puck possession needle to an absurd degree, and has roughly a 3-4% impact on the shot attempt differential of every skater he's spent more than 200 EV minutes playing with since 2008 (except Aaron Ward, for some reason). This season that impact seems to be closer to 10%.
One key thing I was surprised to see looking at Bergeron's WOWYs, and will have to look harder for when I watch Bruins games going forward, is the extent to which Brad Marchand appears to be reliant on Bergeron to control play.
In nearly 1000 even-strength minutes apart from Bergeron since Marchand joined the league, the Bruins have been out-attempted (or Corsi'd) and have barely outscored their opponents. But put Marchand and Bergeron together and suddenly they're controlling nearly 60% of shot attempts and outscoring their opponents two-to-one.
I was surprised to see the unflattering picture the numbers paint of Marchand - and I'd mention that it's not entirely bleak, it's not as if Bergeron doesn't also see his effectiveness spike with Marchand around. It's particularly surprising because if you watch a lot of Bruins games, you'll notice how reliant that line is on Marchand to carry the puck in the neutral zone and establish possession. Certainly I've never thought of him as a passenger.
But where Bergeron has only been an excellent two-way player away from Marchand (rather than a singularly dominant defensive force), Marchand has performed like a third-line player away from Bergeron. Perhaps Marchand and Bergeron just have a skillset that is particularly well suited to complimenting each other and crushing opponents.
I'd be reluctant to value Marchand as a top-six forward on the trade market, however, if was a rival GM.
A couple of Sabres notes before we bury them until the offseason: Zemgus Girgensons played 23 minutes in the season finale and finished the season playing over 18 minutes in five of Buffalo's final seven games. Girgensons emerged as one of my favorite young players this year, and he's got the shot rate and the the hitting stats to be a breakout multi-cat fantasy hockey star in the next several years.
Also, with just 44 points, forward Cody Hodgson had a disappointing season overall. Hodgson's mobility has been an issue throughout his career, and while no one is doubting the offensive skills, his skating issues have prevented him from being even an average defensive forward. For the last seven games of this season, Ted Nolan bumped Hodgson from pivot over to the wing and Hodgson exploded for seven points in seven games.
Is Hodgson's destiny to battle along the wall, rather than in the middle of the ice? If I'm Buffalo, I'm definitely pencilling Hodgson in on the wing at least to start next year.
The Philadelphia Flyers put four pucks past Marc-Andre Fleury on 21 shots on Saturday, sealing up an overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and setting up the first postseason meeting between the Flyers and Rangers in over 15 years.
Seriously though, that overtime winner was a playoff Fleury special.
At the other end of the rink Flyers netminder Steve Mason sustained an upper-body injury during the game, which throws his status for the postseason into some doubt. He's expected to be ready for the playoffs, however.
Scott Hartnell and Kris Letang got into it during the game, and afterwards Dan Bylsma accused the Flyers forward of picking on a guy who just had a stroke. I'm with Craig Berube on this one: if you're in the lineup, you're fit to be treated just like everybody else.
I love the Flyers power-play something fierce, and suspect it'll power them to at least a victory or two over a Rangers team that isn't the most potent offensive group. I'm not sure, in the final assessment, whether or not the Flyers can overcome their issues on the back-end and in net against a Rangers team that's simply better at even-strength.
To be clear: that's an opinion I'm basing on the assumption that Ryan McDonagh will return to the lineup and be effective. If he's still hurt, however, and it sure looks like he is, that series could prove a toss-up.
The Toronto Maple Leafs season came to a merciful end in a 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
It was a very high-event contest for a 1-0 game, with both James Reimer and Craig Anderson called upon to make a tonne of saves on five-alarm scoring chances throughout. Jason Spezza's second period power-play marker set up by Erik Karlsson and Ales Hemsky held up as the game winner, and the Leafs head into the offseason having lost 12 of their last 14...
I don't mean to skip whimsically through the wreckage with the above paragraph, so much as to underscore that new President/Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan faces an instant wisdom test with his new team. That test comes in the form of a single, simple question "Do you keep Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis?"
The answer is no, you don't, and I'll explain why in a sentence. Nonis and Carlyle, in their first full season of work, took the Ron Wilson/Brian Burke Maple Leafs and somehow managed to make them worse defensively. I'd think many observers and Leafs fans didn't even believe such a thing was possible. It's actually a stunning accomplishment!
But one that should probably result in the franchise moving in a dramatically different direction...
One of the big stories of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games - from a hockey perspective, at least - was the dominance of the mobile defenseman. Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson were arguably the two most valuable players at the tournament, and even lesser players like Sami Vatanen and Marek Zidlicky starred for their respective countries.
I'd very much enjoy watching Morgan Rielly, whose development was one of the major bright spots for Toronto this season, reprise a similar role on international ice. Bringing him should be a slam dunk too, since he's a potentially elite left-shooting blue-liner, and that's precisely what the Canadian national team needs more of.
Senators playmaker Ales Hemsky turned it on in Ottawa after the trade deadline, and surely upped his market value by going on a near point-per game scoring tear.
Presumably Hemsky will re-sign in Ottawa and continue to crush things with one of Jason Spezza or Mika Zibanejad, but I'd love to see him go to Tampa Bay and essentially be the "poor man's Martin St. Louis." Those perfect one-time feeds to Steven Stamkos aren't going to thread themselves!
The Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Florida Panthers 3-2, in a game in which Cam Atkinson scored his 21st goal of the season. Atkinson has had a productive year for the Blue Jackets, and his peripheral numbers suggest he'll be an extremely valuable offensive contributor for a couple of years yet, but you get the sense that he's not properly valued in Columbus.
Though Atkinson soaks up a tonne of power-play ice for the Blue Jackets, he's also been an occassional healthy-scratch, and has been sorely underutilized at even-strength. It sure seems like, should Atkinson go quiet for a miniscule sample of games during the postseason, he could become available this summer. Any team that needs a sniper would do well to give the Blue Jackets a call...
Vincent Trocheck's face-off ability hasn't instantly translated to the NHL - I honestly thought it would - but he's still shown well in his first 20 NHL contests this season.
Trocheck managed a shorty on Saturday, his 5th goal of the year. He's played a tonne of minutes for the Panthers over the latter stages of the season and has mostly acquitted himself very well. I'll probably take a late round flyer on him next season...
Similarly Trocheck's teammate Brandon Pirri finished the year on a run of seven points (4G+3A=7pts) in seven games. Pirri has the chops to put up 60 points and be average defensively, it's just about putting it all together. Definitely worth a look in later rounds next season, I'd think.
In Trocheck, Alex Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Pirri; the Panthers have a lot of young center depth. Really think they might contend for a playoff spot next year; they're not that far off.
From Saturday night's Panthers vs. Blue Jackets game: Roberto Luongo discovers that drinking out of this water bottle is roughly as easy as getting traded out of Vancouver.
The Nashville Predators Guy Fawkes'd Chicago Blackhawks backup Antti Raanta in the third period on their game on Saturday night, ultimately emerging from the contest with a 7-5 victory over the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Blackhawks were resting or without nearly all of their key defensive personnel (including Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Krueger and Jonathan Toews), so it's not as if this awful third period performance leaves the team reeling ahead of the postseason.
Patric Hornqvist finished the season on a tear, which really shouldn't be a surprise to those of us who've paid attention to his astounding underlying numbers over the past several seasons. Fact is: Hornqvist is one of the league's most consistent and prolific volume shooters, so he's bound to get hot for stretches here and there. Really not sure why Par Marts and the Tre Kronor didn't bring him to Sochi...
The Coyotes lost seven straight to finish the season, were eliminated from the postseason as a result, and really, really missed Mike Smith when the Team Canada third-stringer went down with injury. I was thinking yesterday that, if Phoenix had traded for former Coyote Ilya Bryzgalov at the trade deadline, they wouldn't be in this Greiss-y mess.
Maybe they can sign their old star netminder, and philosopher king, this summer. They need to do something about their backup situation either way...
Ryan Smyth has retired officially now and did so in classy fashion, although he did take a five minute shift to try and cherrypick for a goal, but who cares that was awesome.
Every Vancouver Canucks skater went and shook Smyth's hand post game, which is pretty neat, and also a huge departure from the aloof, loathsome front-runner that the Canucks have been in the recent past. I might suggest that competence and classiness have an inverse relationship in the NHL...
New Canucks President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden gave an interview on CBC during the first intermission, during which he namechecked the "Boston model" specifically and went out of his way to praise Shawn Thornton as an ideal fourth-line player.
The Canucks, as an organization, should probably get over the 2011 Stanley Cup Final already.
Finally the Ducks defeated a Kings team that is still resting its best player in a shootout to clinch the top-seed in the Western Conference. If you're going to name-check fourth liners, by the way, I'd look at the Ducks and not the Bruins.
Between Rickard Rakell, Devante Smith-Pelly, Kyle Palmieri, Patrick Maroon and Mathieu Perreault - the Ducks have a really nice mix of size and skill in their bottom-six forward group. It has proved essential to the club as they've rebooted and added a tonne of depth in short order.
Linden's focus on depth in his interviews so far in the Vancouver market is fine, but man, if I'm a Canucks fan (which, wait, I am) and he's looking at players like Thornton as the missing ingredient in Vancouver (as opposed to players like Rickard Rakell); that worries me. A lot.
Thomas Drance is a news editor at theScore.