NHL Stanley Cup Finals Set
As expected and predicted in this blog back on May 7th the Stanley Cup Finals are now set with the Pittsburgh Penguins ready to square off against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings raced to a 3-0 series lead in the West only to see Dallas goalie Marty Turco, who was outstanding in this year’s playoffs, almost single handily carry the Stars to a game six. However, Monday night in Big D it was all Detroit from the get go as the Wings raced to a 3-0 first period lead en route to a 4-1 game six win. The Red Wings are one heck of a team and will be hard to beat. The big question will be whether forward Johan Franzen can play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Franzen played in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals but missed the rest of the series with concussion like symptoms. Franzen has 12 goals and three assists in 11 playoff games this season.
As for the Penguins, there were people who picked them to win the Cup before the season but I wrote “No Way” in my pre-season blog. They may still not win the Cup but they have definitely matured as a team much faster than I thought. Credit goes to their coaching staff and players and amazingly two seemingly devasting ankle injuries really helped this team grow. The first was to goalie Marc Andre-Fleury in December who used the three months off to change the color of his goalie pads to white and more importantly, learn how to handle the puck better as a result of watching and working with teammate Ty Conklin (who played great in goal while Fleury was out). The other ankle injury was to league superstar Sydney Crosby in January and all that did was get teammate Evgeni Malkin to explode on the scene and transform himself into an MVP candidate (although there is no way he is beating Alex Ovechkin for that award this year). The Malkin-Petr Sykora-Ryan Malone line has been a monster one for Pittsburgh. The other major key to becoming a Stanley Cup contender were the deadline deals that GM Ray Shero (son of the great Coach Fred Shero of Philadelphia Flyer fame) made in getting top tier forward Marian Hossa (for three young players and a draft choice) and big defenseman Hal Gill (for draft choices). The Penguins have two lines that are serious scoring threats making them very tough to defend.
This will be a great series and NBC and CBC in Canada (because of Crosby) should be very happy with the match-up. I’ll have full analysis and my series prediction posted on Wednesday night. By the way, is there anything better sportsmanship wise than the post series handshake that occurs between two NHL teams after they just finished beating each other’s brains out for several games??
Despite the fact that the Caps were eliminated by the Flyers and the referees several weeks ago there is still a lot of news on the up and coming Washington hockey team. In case anyone wasn’t paying attention, several Capitals players were involved in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships that just concluded on Sunday in Canada.
Russia won the tournament and the gold medal for the first time since 1993 beating host Canada, 5-4, in overtime. Russia had three prominent Caps on its team: Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov. The Great #8 and Semin each had six goals in the tournament while Fedorov pumped in five over the nine games played by Russia. Clearly these three guys like playing together and this should make it easier for GM George McPhee to sign Fedorov for another stint in DC. Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta netted the game tying goal (bad goal given up by Canada’s Cam Ward IMO) and then the game winner for the Russians. In case you didn’t see the highlight of the winning goal on the NHL network, Ovechkin was in front of the net, Fedorov was flanked to the right of Kovalchuk and Semin on the left side of Kovalchuk. The goal celebration was similar to what we saw when Ovechkin scored for the Caps this year with everyone going nuts and piling on each other. This win was a big one for the Russian hockey program, especially since they rallied from a 4-2 third period deficit on Canada’s home ice.
In addition to the help it will provide McPhee in signing Fedorov, this tournament plus the playoffs should be a major boost to the confidence level of Semin who seems to be stepping up his game quite a bit. Prior to the playoffs I would have been in favor of McPhee moving him for a defenseman but after the last month plus of hockey I think Semin is better off in a Caps uniform and at $4.2M next year and $5M the year after he could be a major bargain. Semin has really improved his physical play and was not as much of a liability on defense as he has been most of his short career.
Also playing in the tournament and getting major accolades on Hockey Night in Canada radio (Sirius 122) on Monday was Caps defenseman Mike Green. Green, who played for host Canada, was roundly praised for his skating, puck moving ability, and offensive prowess scoring four goals and adding eight assists in nine games (led all defensemen in scoring in the tournament). Green is going to get big money from the Caps this summer and the media in Canada is already penciling him in on the back line for the Canadian Olympic team in 2010.
Playing for Sweden was center Nicklas Backstrom who had three goals and four assists in nine games. Sweden finished fourth in the tournament.
Caps free agent goalie Cristobal Huet played five games for France going 2-3 with a .9112 save percentage on a fairly bad team. By the way, Caps goalie prospect Semen Varlamov was supposed to play for Russia but had to pull out due to a foot injury. Expect to see Varlamov in Hershey next season. The other Caps goalie prospect, Michal Neuvirth, was also recently injured suffering a torn meniscus in late April.
Given all of the above info, it is clear the future is very bright for the Caps and perhaps Washington could be the team playing in next year’s Stanley Cup Finals given a good off-season and a healthy 2008-09 regular season?
If you have the NHL Network you can actually watch the Memorial Cup in the US! Canada’s junior championship, a very big deal in the Great White North, is being played in Kitchener between the host Rangers (Ontario Hockey League Champions), the Spokane Chiefs (Western Hockey League Champions), the Belleville Bulls (Ontario Hockey League runner up), and the Gatineau Olympiques (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Champions).
The hockey has been very entertaining with Sunday’s game between Spokane and Kitchener, which was won 2-1 by the Chiefs, a real classic. Like most Western Hockey League teams, Spokane plays a very physical game while Kitchener is more puck possession and finesse oriented. The Chiefs dominated the first period but after that it was mostly Kitchener and Spokane’s goalie, Dustin Tokarski, stole the game making 36 saves. By virtue of Belleville’s 6-3 win over Gatineau on Monday night the Chiefs have now clinched a berth in Sunday’s Memorial Cup final at 430pm (automatically goes to the first place team in the round robin portion of tournament).
Mikkel Boedker, who wears #89 for Kitchener, is the highest rated 2008 eligible draftee based on what I’ve seen in most mock drafts. Boedker is a very good skating and puck handling forward but the question mark on him appears to be his ability to handle a more physical style of play. Claude Giroux, of Gatineau, was drafted by the Flyers in the first round of the 2006 NHL entry draft and is considered by some to be a top NHL prospect. Shawn Matthias, of Belleville, actually played for the Florida Panthers this season during an emergency call up.
The NHL network will show each game played this week at 7pm and as mentioned above, the final is on Sunday at 430pm.