January 20, 2010
The First City?

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Still fresh off a visit to the stirring and chilling Winter Classic, the NHL season now shifts into short sprint mode. More exacting, a four week rush to the Olympic break and with a condensed schedule, there's sure to be one or two significant injuries that will occur before the nations of hockey convene in British Columbia in the quest for gold.

As we've now past the halfway point in the season, we're pondering which team will emerge at the top of the mountain in June and wrest the Stanley Cup from the other 29 combatants. While I won't disavow my original pick of the Boston Bruins (but given my track record YOU should), at the 45 plus game mark, there are a handful of serious contenders that populate the landscape.

The Penguins floundering of late has to be a concern for Pittsburgh fans. What GM Ray Shero should do is fire the coach and give the team a fresh voice, whoops, that won’t work two years in a row, now will it? Any team with jersey numbers 87, 71 and 29 surely stands to be there late in the race,

The Devils are a nice team, leading the East and hovering 20 games or so over .500. Zach Parise is doing his best imitation of a Hart Trophy finalist, Niclas Bergfors is a possible if not probably Rookie of the Year candidate and when he’s not breaking NHL goaltending records, and Martin Brodeur just wins games. Coach Jacques Lemaire has returned to the old swamp (oh, how silly of me, beautiful downtown Newark is the home to the Devils now) and it’s like he never left. Not only is New Jersey not surprisingly leading the NHL in defense but their offensive production is greater than Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia and the Rangers. While this team may not be sturdy enough to win all four rounds of the post season tournament, there’s not a better balanced team in the East at this juncture.

The Capitals are the most explosive team in the East but their performance on their current western road trip has done nothing to convince me that they’ve acquired the mental toughness to win it all. Alex Ovechkin is always a game changer, an X factor but with three goaltenders in the mix (rookie Michal Neuvirth has performed marginally in Semyon Varlamov prolonged absence) and none of them able to win a Game 7 would you bet on them if they came up against Pittsburgh again? A rock solid veteran defender wouldn’t hurt either before I’m ready to anoint them further.

Then there’s the most unsung team of all, those pesky Buffalo Sabres. They’re a great story; they have longest tenured coach in the NHL in Lindy Ruff and are a nice team. Can you tell me the last time a nice team won the Stanley Cup? This one won’t either even with Vezina candidate Ryan Miller between the pipes. Statistically, Miller has put together an awesome season and it will be interesting to see how he does on the big stage in Vancouver as opposed to his daily toiling in relative anonymity in Western New York. His Olympic performance could be direct predictor of his Cup playoff work, so watch this cat closely. The red flag on the Sabres is that when Tim Connolly is your leading scorer and you probably won’t have a 30 goal scorer on the roster at Game 82, you can’t be serious about your championship hopes.

Turning to the West, although their presently on the outside looking in, the Detroit Red Wings are always scary. They’ve been slammed more than most with the injury plague that’s enveloped the league and their supporters say, ‘just you wait until we have everyone back at full strength!’ Time waits for no one in the NHL, not even for the Winged Wheel, so the wounded better get back sooner than later. The missing have turned the Red Wings into a passive, mediocre road team and the one position that has been devoid of injuries, goaltending, has huge question marks surrounding it. Chris Osgood has been marginal so far, no surprise to anyone who follows the regular season exploits of Detroit. The 15 year veteran has been supplanted by good solider Jimmy Howard, who has served as goaltender in waiting while riding the Grand Rapids shuttle for the better part of four seasons. No one knows how Coach Mike Babcock will play it if the Red Wings get to the top eight (and how strange does that read?) but could you be surprised if Ozzie started Game 83 with his body of playoff work? If it’s Howard that gets the first call, how confident would Wings’ fans be riding a goaltender with one (1) regular season victory coming into this season?

Vancouver, hmm, the last time I saw them they were getting run out of the United Center by a Patrick Kane hat trick and they’ve provided great entertainment when Mikael Samuelsson told the entire country of Sweden what to do with their Olympic selections. They’re presently in a great dogfight with Calgary and Colorado (nope, I’m not considering them OR Phoenix) and if they emerge from the pack, they be battle tested for the post season. Henrik Sedin has laid down an excellent first half, you have to like the depth of the forwards and I bet San Jose GM Doug Wilson is thinking that Christian Ehrhoff would be looking pretty good in teal these days. The problem here is that this is a finesse team and when push comes to shove in the chase for the Cup, they won’t push back. For all his statistical greatness, would it surprise you to know that goalie Roberto Luongo is a .500 goaltender (11-11) in the post season? When I think of Looie, all I see is that wicked backhander by Patrick Kane beating him in Game 6 of the Conference Semis last year.

The Calgary Flames are the best team in the Northwest but if they can’t get by the likes of the Canucks and the Avalanche in the divisional race, would they really be a factor in the post season? You can vote yes due to the deepest defensive corps in the league or you could vote no because Brent Sutter was the coach that oversaw the Devils late third period collapse against Carolina in Game 7 last season. You could vote yes because Miikka Kiprusoff is a strong Vezina contender or vote no because with Daymond Langkow and Olii Jokinen at their 1-2 punch at center, that’s not exactly Crosby and Malkin. Too many minus balancing out the pluses for me, thanks.

As we get closer to home, the San Jose Sharks are always an intriguing bunch. GM Wilson definitely wanted more sandpaper on this squad and they do look to be tougher this season without giving up too much talent. He guessed right a few times with his moves; Dany Heatley has provided a lot of points without any controversy and Patrick Marleau has flourished without the misplaced “C” on his jersey and with less responsibility as a wing for Joe Thornton. Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Devin Setoguchi have built chemistry and points on the second forward line and Dan Boyle has shown that his destined to be team captain with his combined play and leadership. The goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov has once again posted sterling regular season digits and the Sharks look to devour the competitors in the West on the way to another division title. The downside in this pretty picture is the same one that’s been hanging heavy over this team like the fog does so many mornings in the San Francisco Bay. Can they survive four rounds of madness after an 82 game calmness that is their regular season? Though changes have been made, it’s the same core players (read: Thornton, Marleau, Nabokov) that was woefully underachieved during all post seasons in recent Sharks history. We’ll take a timeout and wait until April to see if anything’s changed in the Tank.

So that leaves just one and a pretty good one at that. Some say they’re the glamour boys of the league, the franchise to model rebuilding projects after (LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi publicly admits it) and certainly one of Commissioner Gary Bettman’s favorites. They play in a major US market; have revived the echoes of an Original Six team’s deep history and routinely sellout to crowds of 20,000 plus every night.

No, not the Montreal Canadiens.

The Chicago Blackhawks meteoric rise has continued on pace for the first half of the season. Even with the biggest fish in the free agent offseason frenzy Marian Hossa, out for most of the first half, the Indian hasn’t missed a beat. They play a hard, fast and most importantly, an entertaining game especially at the United Center where they’re virtually unbeatable.

But naysayers argue that the Chicago goaltending tandem, Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet only have six playoff victories between them or just five more than the aforementioned Jimmy Howard and indeed, a definitive fatal flaw in the quest to win 16 post season games. But supporters will counter with the fact that these two fine gentlemen are on track to win the Jennings Trophy, symbolic of the team with the lowest goals against average in the league. While regular season hardware means little in the pursuit of the grand prize (just ask the Sharks), it’s the ‘why’ there in contention for the award that is the moral to the story.

As it stands now, there isn’t a team in the NHL that can beat the Blackhawks in a best four out of seven series. Going down their roster, they have the most talent in the league man for man, so much so that they are the primary player in the embryonic Ilya Kovalchuk trade talks. The grand Chicago rebuilding plan that started in 2003 has come to fruition, last year’s conference final at the hands of the Red Wings was the precursor and this year appears to be both the culmination and coronation.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.

Dec. 29, 2009 From Us to You
Dec. 02, 2009 Not so Quick, my friend
Nov. 16, 2009 Selling the Avalanche
Oct. 26, 2009 Sometimes reality is worse than the perception
Sept. 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup
Sept. 03, 2009 Ray to Heatley's rescue


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