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Alex Ovechkin Named NHL 1st Star of the Week

Posted on 18 January 2010 by Ed Frankovic

From the NHL and the Washington Capitals:

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, St. Louis Blues goaltender Chris Mason, and Minnesota Wild left wing Guillaume Latendresse have been named the NHL ‘Three Stars’ for the week ending Jan. 17.

FIRST STAR – ALEX OVECHKIN, LW, WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Ovechkin led all scorers with 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) for the week, helping the Capitals (30-12-6) move into first place in the Eastern Conference by winning three of four games. He began the week by recording two assists in a 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jan. 12. The following night he notched one goal as the Capitals defeated the Florida Panthers 5-4 in a shootout. On Jan. 15, Ovechkin recorded one goal and a career-high four assists in a 6-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He closed the week by notching a penalty-shot goal and one assist in a 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Jan. 17. Ovechkin leads the Capitals in scoring and ranks second in the NHL with 64 points (30 goals, 34 assists) and leads the League in plus-minus with a +28 rating.

This is Ovechkin’s second “First Star of the Week” selection of the season and the 12th time in his five-year career he has been either Player of the Week or one of the three stars (three stars began in 2006-07). He was also named the Second Star for the month of October.

Other Caps Notes: As expected, defenseman John Carlson was returned to Hershey after practice on Monday so he could travel to Portland, Maine to play in the AHL All Star Game on Tuesday night. According to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post injured defenseman Brian Pothier is still not healthy enough to be in the line-up but John Erskine appears ready to play on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. In addition, Tarik mentions in his Capitals Insider blog that GM George McPhee is mulling over whether to bring up defenseman Karl Alzner. Alzner now has enough games played in Hershey to be eligible to be sent down and play during the Olympic break in February.

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A Glorious Festivus Day for Ravens

Posted on 10 January 2010 by Ed Frankovic

It was a super day for the Baltimore Ravens franchise as they put on a first quarter clinic en route to a 33-14 whipping of the New England Patriots on their home turf in the opening round of the NFL Playoffs. There were lots of firsts for the Ravens on Sunday, as chronicled by Drew in this blog, and a city that seemed a little bit skeptical of this team’s ability to win in the post season will no doubt be going purple crazy all week as Baltimore gets ready to head to Indianapolis. We have several days to analyze that matchup and as Glenn mentioned in his blog, there are things that need some correcting. However, for tonight, this blog is just going to primarily talk about the positives (my dad would call this the anti-Phil Jackman blog - and Phil you know I still love ya!):

- I don’t think I am going out on a limb in declaring this the best performance by the team all season. They defeated an elite club that has a one of the best QB’s in the NFL by lining up and just physically beating the Patriots in nearly every aspect of the game. New England had the deer in the headlights look after Ray Rice went 83 yards on the game’s opening play from scrimmage followed by the Terrell Suggs sack and fumble of Tom Brady that set up the Ravens second touchdown. It was smash mouth Ravens football, no doubt.

- After the game Ray Lewis, who was outstanding with 13 tackles and a sack on Sunday, praised defensive coordinator Greg Mattison for coming up with a great game plan. Mattison, however, said that it was not his schemes, it was the players execution that did the job. Whatever the case, the Baltimore defense was the most aggressive it has been all year and clearly that style fits the personnel. New England only had 196 total yards, wow! Charlie Frye threw for 180 yards on the Ravens in the 1st half alone in last week’s victory in Oakland. #52 talked in the post game about disguising the blitz until the last second for fear of Brady recognizing it and checking off, something the 3-time Super Bowl Champion excels at. Well today, #12 had no clue what was coming most of the time and he played like it. Mattison felt that the team could generate pressure rushing just four players and for the most part he was right. If there is one thing I would like to see less of, it would be the three man rush. The NFL rules are set up so much for the offense that if you give the receivers time to get open they either will or likely draw a penalty.

- Speaking of penalties, Baltimore only was flagged 3 times for a total of 15 yards! That was incredible focus and discipline by a team that has struggled to maintain its composure in several instances this year. Yes, the team was winning so it was easier to stay in control, but mentally that may have been the best the squad collectively has executed all year. Not a single personal foul or pass interference infraction was whistled on the Ravens today.

- Did the offense remind you a bit of the 2000 Ravens in Tennessee? Baltimore only threw the ball 10 times and Joe Flacco completed just four passes (but two were huge ones to Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton to keep second half drives going). But when you get an early lead after an 83 yd scamper why not keep pounding the ball like the Ravens used to do with Jamal Lewis? The rushing totals were 52 carries for 234 yards, a 4.5 yard per carry average. The backs were good and the offensive line was flat out dominant. It is clear that a healthy Jared Gaither at left tackle plays a huge role in offensive success.

- The much maligned secondary was superb today forcing 3 interceptions and holding Randy Moss to 5 catches for 48 yards (and most of those came in garbage time). Dominique Foxworth, Frank Walker, and Dwan Landry might have had their best games of the season. The pressure put on Brady certainly helped and having a healthier Ed Reed at safety contributed as well. Ravens fans can only hope that #20 continues to progress physically this week because they will need his smarts against Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and company. Reed even had a good lateral today to Landry on his INT that put the Ravens in the red zone.

- Special teams were fairly solid. Tom Zbikowski’s 30 yard return after New England cut the Ravens lead to 27-14 put the ball near midfield and on the shorter grid the Ravens drove for the score that put the nail in the coffin in this one. Sam Koch punted well with two good kicks that pinned the Pats inside their own 20 yard line and even Matt Katula’s long snaps were better allowing kicker Billy Cundiff to hit on both of his field goals and all three PATs.

- The Ravens came out as healthy as you can be after 17 weeks of football and tight end Todd Heap’s back injury appears to be minor. So could a team that has been banged up so badly since starting 3-0 finally be getting healthier in some key areas (see Gaither and Reed)? One has to hope that is true and Flacco will likely have an easier time getting his aching hip loose in a dome instead of the freezing north east.

- All in all it was a very good day to be affiliated with the Ravens and somewhere heading south on I-95 at 1000pm on Sunday night there are two full buses of very happy people who decided to go on the WNST road trip to Gillette Stadium. Those people, and any other Ravens fan who attended the game in person, are truly great for showing such faith in a team that many thought would get beat today, including myself. As anyone that has traveled with WNST knows, WNST bus trips, whether to a Ravens game, a Caps or Bears hockey game, or to a horse race, is a ton of fun. I’m sure this weekend to Indianapolis will be no exception so sign up, if you can. By the way, it was great to hear Ravens Coach John Harbaugh mention and praise the support the team received from the Ravens fans who attended the contest today. So how about we more than double that for next week’s Saturday night contest and get at least five WNST buses going to Indy?

Happy Festivus! (que the Ravens Mania music now…)

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Hey John: You can’t be 4-4 and seriously talk playoffs

Posted on 09 November 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

Just judging from the sheer volume of social media I consumed all day yesterday, the fan base here is in “quit on the 2009 season” mode. The lofty expectations following a rookie campaign for John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco that ended in the AFC Championship Game led all of us in the Charm City to feel as though this year would somehow be better.

Well, we’re halfway through the race and things haven’t gone according to the best laid plan.

The Ravens have lost four of their last five, including yesterday’s turd in Cincinnati. The team, overall, just hasn’t been as good as advertised in many ways. The Bengals have now embarrassed the Ravens twice in four weeks en route to sole possession of the AFC North lead and have earned the right to crow.

While yesterday’s loss certainly felt like more of a beatdown than the final score — and we’ll get to Steve Hauschka’s missed kick in a minute — the NFL only counts one thing en route to a playoff berth in the tournament: wins. And right now, at 4-4, this isn’t going to get it done.

I could make excuses for all of the other three losses — and losing in the waning seconds on the road to New England and Minnesota doesn’t make you a bad team. But the pair of losses to the Bengals has been illuminating, especially when you consider Marvin Lewis’ recipe for building a team with a 6-2 start.

The Bengals have just about everything you’d want — a world-class quarterback with a world-class wide receiver and a running back who runs like Jamal Lewis with a line that’s got a nasty streak. On defense, they’ve built through a young linebacking corps (sound familiar?) and a pair of first-round cornerbacks who allow the safeties and linebackers to play hardball with the pass rush. Oh, yeah — they also arguably have the best kicker in the sport.

The Ravens, as was in full display yesterday, are sorely lacking in various departments but especially the ability to get off the field consistently on 3rd down on defense. It’s been a defensive franchise for the better part of 11 seasons. All good things must end and the 2009 defense is not up to “Play Like a Raven” standards.

Is that Greg Mattsion’s fault? Is that because of the clear falloff at the cornerback position? Is it not having Rex Ryan? Is Bart Scott missed that much? Is Ed Reed OK? Will Haloti Ngata be injured all year?

The entire secondary was beaten in coverage during the first half and the penalties were dreadful. All over the field. Ray Lewis is still the Ravens best player when Ngata is not dressed and that speaks volumes.

The first three losses were “excused” in my opinion. Yesterday, however, did a lot to expose the Ravens as a team that’s pretty good but not a serious playoff contender, especially not with that secondary and lack of pass rush.

Sure, Haloti Ngata’s absence needs to be factored into the equation in the Bengals debacle, but the Ravens have sufficient depth at that position and I’m not sure Ngata would’ve been a difference maker in the outcome yesterday in Cincinnati.

As for the offense, Joe Flacco just was not good enough yesterday, nor was the offensive line, which played its worst game of the season. Penalties? All over the place and ill-timed. Productivity? How about making their first third-down conversion in the fourth quarter? That’s just putrid, unacceptable and not worthy of the NFL playoffs.

They didn’t run well. They didn’t pass well. They were out of sync all day and Flacco looked bewildered during his short stints in the first half. Flacco has now dropped five straight to teams led by Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.

Derrick Mason and Ray Lewis declined to comment after the game yesterday but I’m sure they’ll have something to say on Wednesday at The Castle.

Harbaugh did his usual tap dance around any tough questions from the media — (memo to John: denying that the team doesn’t tackle well is laughable at this point) — but it’s easy to do what you want when you’re in the AFC Championship Game and things are going better than advertised.

But when the team is a disappointing 4-4 at the turn and the one decision that’s truly pinned to Harbaugh’s special teams badge of expertise — the banishment of kicker Matt Stover in the offseason — costing the team team parts of two of the losses, the questions are only going to get tougher around the head coach and around Steve Hauschka.

This team was supposed to go to the playoffs. This team was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender. The “upgrades” of the offseason were well-calculated and the draft went well. The Ravens and the fanbase were not prepared to be swept by the Bengals and be 4-4 at the turn.

All eyes will now turn to Cleveland, where the Ravens most certainly will awaken eight days from now at 5-4. Right? We can only hope…

The Ravens have amassed four losses and haven’t yet seen the Steelers, the Colts or a frigid December night at Lambeau Field and a West Coast trip to the zoo in Oakland in early 2010. There’s a lot of football left to be played.

The Ravens will sort this out on the field. They need to go 6-2 to have a chance. They need to go 7-1 to be assured of a spot.

If they do it, they’ll be good enough. If they lose two more times to the Steelers, they’ll be playing golf on Jan. 4th and deservedly so.

And if that happens, John Harbaugh’s gonna have a lotta ‘esplainin’ to do at that postseason press conference while he sits next to Steve Bisciotti and the Steelers and Bengals are still playing football…

Things like:

What really happened in the decision to replace Matt Stover with Steve Hauschka?

What really happened with Chris McAlister and how did we get sold that Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr are upgrades?

Why all the penalties?

Where is the pass rush?

Where is Willis McGahee?

Where is the urgency on offense when the team is down two scores with three minutes left?

Of course, Harbaugh doesn’t really like the tough questions but they’re coming. It’s a tough job. It’s been a lot of fun, this honeymoon of riches and a great start to his era in Baltimore. Getting to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie head coach indeed buys you a hall pass for a while.

I have a feeling a lot of that ended yesterday, with a sweep to the Bengals and a 4-4 record at the turn.

But, as Brian Billick would no doubt tell him, these Monday mornings aren’t a whole lot of fun when the town gets disappointed and the team plays poorly.

And someone has to answer the questions…

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Live From Westminster: Mason dislocates finger, causes a scare

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Live From Westminster: Mason dislocates finger, causes a scare

Posted on 11 August 2009 by Luke Jones

4:06 p.m. — With Harbaugh not revealing any plans on which injured players will suit up and play on Thursday, here are some thoughts on the players in question.

Demetrius Williams will play if he feels good during the team walk-through tomorrow.  He’s pushed through a hamstring issue for most of camp.

Todd Heap’s lower back has tightened up over the last couple days, but there’s still a chance he’ll play.  Heap had not missed a practice before sitting out yesterday.

Jared Gaither is still bothered by the shoulder/neck issue, but he took part in plenty of live reps yesterday morning.  He wants to play on Thursday, but it’ll depend how he feels during the walk-through.

Derrick Mason suffered a dislocated finger this morning during practice.  I’d be surprised if he plays, and if he does, I’ll predict he’s nothing more than a decoy.

Ben Grubbs continues to battle an ankle issue dating back to the offseason.  He participated in the early portion of practice today, but David Hale took his place at left guard.  He’s questionable.

Marshal Yanda was given the day off today and is far ahead of schedule compared to where most people predicted he’d be at this point.  However, the team has emphasized they want to take it slow with Yanda.  He’s questionable.

Trevor Pryce has a foot issue, and his status is unknown.  It did not appear serious, so we’ll see how the veteran defensive end is feeling by Thursday.

Terrell Suggs (heel) and Mark Clayton (hamstring) will not play and have not practiced since Aug. 2.  Clayton has been on the field the past two days doing some light conditioning work.

Honestly, the only injury to really be concerned with at this point is Clayton’s.  As much as Ravens fans want to beat Washington, a preseason game on Aug. 13—even against the hated Redskins—is meaningless in terms of wins and losses.  The goal is to get these players ready for Sept. 13.

I suspect that most of these players would be playing if it were the regular season.

4:00 p.m. — In preparation for their preseason opener against the Washington Redskins on Thursday night, the Ravens will hold their walk-through on Wednesday.  The walk-through is closed to both the media and general public.

3:30 p.m. — Chris Carr is still listed as the No. 1 punt and kick returner and looks very fluid while returning kicks.  After watching him work in Westminster, it’s easy to see how he became the Oakland Raiders’ all-time leader in kickoff returns.

3:27 p.m. — The special teams practice lasted an hour and 15 minutes, and the focus of the afternoon was the punt and kick return teams.

Sam Koch was booming his punts and looks to be in mid-season form.  He continues to use the rugby-style kick for placing punts inside the 20-yard line.

Steve Hauschka did an outstanding job kicking off, consistently kicking the ball inside the 5 with great hang time.

Rookie Paul Kruger received praise from John Harbaugh on several occasions.  It looks like the second-round pick will be a major part of the special teams units this season.

1:56 p.m. — As expected, Derrick Mason’s injury appears to be a dislocation and not a broken finger. He’s probably doubtful for Thursday night at this point and it looked painful when it happened.

1:46 p.m. — Today was Baltimore football alumni day at training camp, and we saw a number of Baltimore Colts including Art Donovan, Lenny Moore, Jim Mutscheller, and John Mackey.

Among the former Ravens was wide receiver Michael Jackson (taking us back to the early days of the purple!) and future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.  We had a chance to chat with J.O. for a short time, and you can check that out in the WNST.net audio vault.

Ogden spent some time catching up with his former teammates on the sideline during practice.
Jonathan Ogden chats with Kelly Gregg

1:38 p.m. — It’s been a very quiet camp for Ray Lewis, but the 34-year-old linebacker has been very active on the field, talking to the offense and competing as he always does.  Lewis came into camp trimmer this season, wanting to maintain his speed as he begins his 14th season with the Ravens (hard to believe, isn’t it?).

Here’s a shot of No. 52 working on his hands at the jugs machine.
Ray Lewis

12:51 p.m. — Graham Gano appeared to have a much stronger leg this morning and kicked with much more confidence.  Unofficially (there were no officials underneath the goalpost, so it was difficult to confirm a few), Gano hit field goals from 35, 43, 47, and 51 yards.  He did appear to miss one from 38 yards, but it was very close—again, no official underneath the goalpost.

Steve Hauschka appeared to have the morning off after taking most of the reps yesterday.

12:48 p.m. — With the finger injury to Derrick Mason, there’s a good chance Harper will be starting on Thursday night, and the young receiver made another long catch this morning.  Troy Smith lofted a 30-yard pass to Harper who beat Walker on the play.

12:31 p.m. — Despite all of the injury updates, there were some highlights this morning I wanted to share.  Domonique Foxworth had an impressive pass breakup in the end zone as Mason tried to make the catch.  Foxworth has been very steady in the secondary, and I am eager to see him play on Thursday night.

Chris Carr picked off Troy Smith this morning during passing drills.  Carr continues to work as the Ravens’ nickleback in passing situations.  He’s only 5-10, but he tends to play with a pretty physical style—a good thing as long as it’s within the rules of the game.

Yamon Figurs beat Evan Oglesby for a long completion from John Beck.  In order for Figurs to make the 53-man roster, he will need to show the same playmaking ability in the four preseason games.

Figurs also got into an altercation with Frank Walker on the sideline during 11-on-11 drills.  Figurs hauled in the pass and was then thrown to the ground by Walker.  The two players took swings at one another, but the fight was quickly separated and cooler heads prevailed.

12:29 p.m. — Ed Reed once again tossed away the red jersey this morning and was sporting the white one like his fellow defensive mates, but don’t read too much into it.  When asked about it, Harbaugh said Reed wears the white during non-contact days, so quarterback Joe Flacco cannot pick him out in the secondary as easily as he does in the red shirt.

Harbaugh would not reveal any new information on Reed’s status, so it’s a mystery whether he’ll play against Washington on Thursday night.

12:24 p.m. — The Ravens continue to run single-back sets with Le’Ron McClain lined up on the wing as a tight end and often going in motion.  I imagine we’ll see this look on Thursday night, especially with Heap’s uncertain status.  McClain has also shown an improved ability to catch passes coming out of the backfield so far this summer.

12:17 p.m. — Harbaugh was very tight-lipped when asked which injured players would play on Thursday night, saying the media could probably figure it out.  With that being said, I would predict we’ll see an offensive line (going left to right) of Oniel Cousins, David Hale, Matt Birk, Chris Chester, and Michael Oher.  Gaither had returned to practice yesterday, but it appears the shoulder/neck is still bothering him, and the team will also bring Yanda along very slowly.  Grubbs may see some reps, but I would think Hale gets most of the time with the starting unit at left guard.

Defensively, we’ll have to wait and see on Pryce’s status, but Dwan Edwards took his place on the defensive line today.  Rookie Paul Kruger will take Terrell Suggs’ spot in the starting lineup, but we’ll see Antwan Barnes get some time at the position.

12:15 p.m. — Despite several players missing practice this morning, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo once again practiced and took reps with the second-team defense.  He has been slowed by a toe injury since the beginning of camp and just recently began working out with the team.  While he’s still not 100 percent, he looks much better moving around on the field than he did last week.

12:11 p.m. — Ravens fans will continue to hold their collective breaths as we wait for further news on Derrick Mason.  Harbaugh did not sound too concerned, but Mason will have an x-ray taken on the finger, and I’ve heard some rumblings about it possibly being dislocated.

If Mason and Williams cannot play on Thursday, the Ravens would likely start Kelley Washington and Justin Harper at wide receiver—a scary proposition if it were the regular season.

12:00 p.m. — If Tuesday’s practice is any indication of who will be suiting up for the Ravens on Thursday night, quite a few players will be missing from the starting lineup.  Jared Gaither, Marshal Yanda, Trevor Pryce, Todd Heap, and Demetrius Williams did not practice this morning.  Heap and Williams were dressed to practice, but they did not participate in any team drills and observed most of the practice from the sidelines.

Cornerback Fabian Washington sat out the latter portion of practice with Frank Walker taking his place in the lineup.  Washington has battled tendinitis in his knee for the last week.

Left guard Ben Grubbs practice and took reps in the early portion of practice, but David Hale took his place on the line, and Grubbs was not present at the end of practice.  It will be interesting to see if Grubbs plays on Thursday night, as he continues to deal with the same ankle issue that landed him on the PUP list at the start of training camp.

11:04 a.m. — John Harbaugh just met with the media and said that Derrick Mason will get his hand X-rayed but he didn’t seem too concerned. More to come…

10:15 a.m. — Derrick Mason just left the field with trainer Bill Tessendorf. He appears to have jammed some fingers on his right hand. More to come…

10:01 a.m. — David Hale also getting reps at left guard. Ravens are going to be careful with Ben Grubbs’ ankle.

9:53 a.m. — Yamon Figurs and Frank Walker get into a little altercation on the sideline after the catch.

9:31 a.m. — Art Donovan, Lenny Moore and some other Baltimore Colts are at camp today. Jonathan Ogden also!

9:18 a.m. — L.J. Smith is taking the first team reps. Todd Heap is dressed to practice but not doing much.

9:10 a.m. — Demetrius Williams is not doing much so far.



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Derrick Mason’s return to Ravens was never in doubt at WNST

Posted on 01 August 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

In what has not been a surprise to us – if you go back to Monday July 13th’s blog vault you’ll see we can confirm this — Derrick Mason will in fact play for the Ravens this season, ending his temporary “retirement” from the Ravens and the NFL.

Three weeks ago, it took us about 45 minutes after Mason announced his “retirement” via his agent’s sports website, to begin predicting that Mason would play in 2009 but somehow it’s a major “news” story today. This was in no way a huge upset/surprise/shocker for anyone using common sense and their “sniffer” for facts.

The amount of money at stake, Mason’s lack of true leverage (he would’ve had to refund money to the Ravens if he didn’t play) and the fact that he attended virtually every camp in the offseason and is in world-class shape all were clues that we would be seeing Mason in a purple sweater on Sept. 13 when the Kansas City Chiefs come to town.

So, while others may take the credit for “breaking” the story today we’ve felt all along that it would be a major upset if Mason didn’t play in 2009.

Just this morning I told a friend that if it were a horse race I’d pay no more than 2-to-5 — or .40 cents — if he winds up playing. Even a bet that bad would’ve been a lousy one!

I’ve been told Mason has had some personal issues he’s had to resolve this summer, even above and beyond his situation with the tragedy of Steve McNair and his own contract-extension wishes.

In the end, this was a bit of a stare down — albeit with complications — about money and reward and desire.

No one sensible really ever expected that Mason wouldn’t play.

It’ll be good to have No. 85 back in the fold.

Here’s what baltimoreravens.com is reporting:

“Mason came to the team’s training camp hotel in Westminster, Md., to meet with general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh.

He also called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti earlier today to inform him of his decision.

Mason is sending a letter to the NFL stating his intentions.

He will take a physical either later this afternoon or early tomorrow morning.

The Ravens anticipate that Mason will be on the field sometime Sunday, although like all Ravens, he will have to pass a running test.”

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The “Drew Bennett era” ends before it begins

Posted on 26 July 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

In yet another weird turnabout of July pre-camp events, wide receiver Drew Bennett who signed to become a top option for the Ravens on the edge has decided to retire instead of report to camp on Tuesday in Westminster.

Apparently, he has re-injured his knee and has reconsidered his Friday decision to sign a one-year deal with the Ravens.

“I’ve been blessed to have the opp to play in NFL for as long as I have but it’s time for me to move on to next chapter in my life,” Bennett said in a statement.

After returning home from Baltimore this weekend, a previous knee injury flared up, making me realizing that I am unable to play another NFL season. Therefore, I have decided to retire from the NFL.”

After an offseason of workouts and rehab, I thought I was ready to play again, but it became apparent over this weekend that while my mind is willing, my body will not be able to make it through another NFL season.”

So, just who are the options left on the marketplace?

Matt Jones, Reggie Williams, Marvin Harrison, Joe Horn, Plaxico Burress and Ashley Lelie.

Not exactly a buyer’s market. There’s a reason these guys don’t have jobs.

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Ploy or legit? Derrick Mason shocks everyone, “retires” on his agent’s website

Posted on 13 July 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

UPDATED 9:11 p.m. — In a turn of events that can only be deemed “shocking,” Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason announced his retirement from the NFL via a website called JockLife.net at precisely 5 p.m. tonight.

This much is assured: Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens had NO idea this was happening. And privately, they aren’t as concerned about the announcement as the fan base has been over the last few hours. Honestly, it smells more like a negotiating ploy than a legitimate retirement and Mason’s agent has already responded to the initial purple response of “no response.”

But, one of two things is happening:

1. Mason’s “retirement” is 100% sincere and the death of Steve McNair has affected his desire to play…

or

2. His agent, C. Lamont Smith, who owns the website that “released” the news is angling to get Derrick Mason the final pay day that he cried out for in another story on the same website back in March. See that piece here…

“For any player to retire, he has to send a letter to the NFL stating this. Derrick Mason has not done that,” said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ senior vice president of public relations.

Before I left Limited Access on AM 1570 tonight, I had Quentin Jones, the “reporter” for Jocklife on my show and he said that Mason gave him this statement “a few days ago.” Making the story even more fishy is that fact that two sources told me that Derrick Mason was working out at the team’s Owings Mills training complex earlier today.

This is what Mason told the website, www.jocklife.net, which his agent, C. Lamont Smith, apparently owns or has a stake in with various players and business associates. The domain name is owned by Smith.

For what it’s worth, the web traffic to this “sports” website is negligible per www.alexa.com.

“I have had a tremendous career and I played for two great teams, I had fun. In my career, I have been able to do everything but win a Super Bowl. I’ve had the opportunity to play on great teams and with great players. After 12 years, I have seen it all and done it all,” Mason stated. “Right now, I am content with the decision I am making. All good things come to an end and I am ready to see what else life has to offer.”

“I have been thinking about this since season ended. Emotionally I am just not that enthused. I have not been that enthused to get up and work out…it was getting to that point. This decision has nothing to do with the contract situation; I have made enough money, more than enough money. Emotionally there are things that are more important. It’s time right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but it’s going to be really nice to see what life has in store for me. What I want people to remember about my NFL career is that I played hard…played hard in practice and the game. I tried to make everyone better and would do anything to help.”

More quotes from Mason:

“I have left them in great hands,” said Mason. “Mark Clayton is a younger version of me and Williams can be a true player, he can be in the elite class. Smith, Harper, Washington, they all are a young group that can only be better with Joe in back field.”

The story also states: “Now that Mason has finished his football career, his only plans are to spend time with his family and possibly get into the radio business. As far as what else Mason has in store for the future, he simply proclaims, ‘to be continued’.

Every person I’ve spoken with inside the Ravens organization believes that Derrick Mason will be in uniform for the Ravens on Sept. 13 when the Chiefs come to Baltimore.

But these are STRONG words and emphasize (in writing no less) that it’s “not about the contract.”

So, take this story for what it’s worth and consider the source it’s coming from over the past few hours. And consider that Mason might’ve lost his heart for the game.

Is this Derrick Mason being “not enthused”?

Or is this another July ploy by a slimy agent to grab for money with a holdout before training camp?

Time will tell. But my “sniffer” ain’t happy with this one.

If Mason files his retirement papers with the NFL, we’ll know it’s official.

Until then, it makes for great sports radio during the slowest week of the year.

And it smells more like a holdout than a retirement until further notice.

But there’s no doubt the “next man up” theory will make for some interesting web comments and calls to WNST tomorrow.

During the slowest news week of the year we poor S.O.B.’s in the media were thrown a bone.

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Massive NHL Blog: Caps Advance, Ovechkin for Hart, and Western Conference Semi-Finals Predictions

Posted on 29 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Additional Caps Advance to Second Round Coverage

As promised last night, there is more to tell after Tuesday’s huge Caps win over the New York Rangers in game seven, a series in which the Caps trailed two games to none and then three games to one, yet still prevailed.

How big was this series win for this franchise?

“It’s huge. We worked so hard this year to get where we are now and to be put back in the same position we were last year [losing in the first round] is not a good building block for us. To get this win and move on to the second round now we are more experienced in that aspect and hopefully we can go as long as we can here but we are definitely more experienced than we were last year,” said Caps defensemen Mike Green (1 goal, 4 assists in round one).

“It’s awesome, it’s a great feeling, we are excited about the next round. You never want to lose, especially in a long series like this coming back and fighting. You never want to feel what we felt last year.,” said Tom Poti, who was one of the stars of this playoff series with two goals, four assists, and was +2.

The key point from the above quotes is the Caps, after a 108 point season, improved on last year’s first round exit. Had they lost this series, GM George McPhee, who was quoted afterwards as saying “we had to win,” would have to give some consideration to the thought that maybe this mostly very young team was better assembled for the regular season given it’s high skill level but lack of playoff results. This is a common thing for a GM to do after multiple frustrating post season losses and you need to look no further than the President’s Trophy winning San Jose Sharks for an example of that happening now.

“The frustration is overwhelming. We owe an apology to our fans and our ownership. … Everything will be evaluated. There’s nothing that’s off the table. This is going to be a tough, painful summer, and it should be,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson after his team, that led the NHL with 117 regular season points, lost in six games in the first round to the eighth seeded Anaheim Ducks. Wilson, who added Cup winning defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake last off-season plus fired Coach Ron Wilson for not getting past the second round on several tries (he hired former Wings assistant Brian McLellan to take over behind the bench), may have to make some major moves that could include trading superstar Joe Thornton, who has been heavily labeled as a guy who can’t win in the playoffs.

With Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom both just one year away from unrestricted free agency who is to say that a loss this year to the Rangers might have pushed McPhee into a Wilson-like mode? Fortunately for Washington, that scenario appears to be out the window heading into the Pittsburgh series given the Caps ability to have some postseason success.

Coaching played a big role in the Caps series win and the two biggest moves that made a difference, in my opinion, go to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau. First, he yanked Jose Theodore and inserted rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov after just one game. The young goalie only gave up 8 goals in six games and two of those were in garbage time in game six. The players certainly enjoyed having solid goaltending they could count on.

“He’s a great young goaltender and he’s been the difference in this series. Stepping in and playing the way he has has changed the atmosphere on our team. We are very confident with him in the net. For him to come in and play consistently the way he has every game is great. Not many goalies can play as consistent as that every game. It is incredible at his age,” said Green giving #40 a ringing endorsement as the Caps starting goalie.

Then with the 2nd overall ranked power play in the NHL struggling in games four and five (it went 0 for 13) the crafty coach moved Oveckhin down low (a move he did successfully against the Flyers last season) and inserted Tom Poti on the point opposite Mike Green. After that move the Caps were 2 for 4 on their power plays but it could have easily been 4 for 4 if not for Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist as Washington had the puck in New York’s end nearly the entire time on both attempts in game seven after going 2 for 2 in game six. I asked both Poti and Green if moving Ovechkin down low changed things and opened things up for them.

“Maybe. It is always fun to play on the power play. Haven’t been on it much the last two years but it is nice to get out there and kind of shake things up a little bit, it helped us win the series, I think. We had some nice chances to score but Lundqvist came up big and kept it tied,” said Poti.

“Yeah, Tom is a left handed pass and he can move it to me a little bit better and I can go back and forth with him and we can create and allow the guys to move around down low alot and tire [the penalty killers] out. Alex [Ovechkin] and Alex [Semin] down low, Alex [Ovechkin] in the slot. He’s a big guy and you see that last game in New York he gets a tip on the puck, he’s got great hand-eye coordination so that was a great adjustment that Bruce did there,” finished Green.

Final thought on the series, it will be nice get away from the over dramatic New York Rangers and my least favorite player in the NHL, Sean Avery. Avery has the potential to be  a very good player but he gets too emotional and crosses the line too much. When #16 plays like he did in game seven he is great for his team but Washington did a good job of not letting his antics get to them.

“Just look the other way. I think that frustrates him the most. Just skate away and don’t play into his own games,” was how Poti described Washington’s plan on playing the pesky and controversial forward.

By the way, Avery did cause some trouble in game seven but it was to broadcaster Ray Ferraro, who was at ice level between the two benches for live reports. Avery, after a first period shift in which he was trying to goad the Washington players into taking a penalty, stormed back to his bench but let his stick fly in the air, seemingly out of control, and it struck Ferraro and the former Whaler and Islander had to grab it and yank it off of him. Ferraro then yelled something to Avery and the loose cannon forward leaned up and said something back to the guy who killed the Caps in overtime back in the 1993 playoffs. I asked Ferraro afterwards where the stick hit him but he declined comment not wanting to be part of the Caps-Rangers story.

Next up are the Penguins and there will be extensive media coverage locally and in the US and Canada. These teams respect but clearly don’t like each other. Boudreau’s “Welcome to the Circus” quote from Tuesday night, when he learned the Penguins would be Washington’s round two opponent, appears to be foreshadowing for the next two weeks.

If you’d like to hear my WNST on-air segment from today with Comcast Morning Show host Drew Forrester, please go to the WNST audio vault (http://wnst.net/wordpress/section/audio/).

Ovechkin Named Hart Trophy Finalist

No surprise here, Ovechkin, who won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP last season when he scored 65 goals, is once again nominated for that trophy. The Great #8 is a finalist with two other Russians, Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association submitted ballots for the Hart Trophy at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters announced as finalists. The winner will be announced Thursday, June 18, during the 2009 NHL Awards that will be broadcast live from the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel Las Vegas on VERSUS in the United States and on CBC in Canada. The Capitals are assured of at least two candidates for honors at the show, as Green is a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

Ovechkin could become the first player to win back-to-back Hart Trophies since Dominik Hasek in 1996-97 and ’97-98. The last non-goaltender to win consecutive Hart Trophies was Wayne Gretzky, who won eight in a row from 1980-87.

“It means a lot to me to be up for this award,” Ovechkin said. “I always want to be the best, so this is a great honor. It’s special, too, with three Russians nominated. It is a great thing for our country and our sport.”

Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (56), earning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the second consecutive season. He also led the league in points per game (1.39), shots (528) and power-play points (46). His 110 points in 79 games ranked second in the league, and his goal total was 10 more than any other player. He finished the season recording eight more points than any other player after the NHL All-Star Game (51; Malkin and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh were second with 43 each).

Western Conference Semi-Finals Matchups, Analysis, and Predictions

The NHL is in a great position now as there are 8 teams left in the playoffs and in my mind, any of them can win the Stanley Cup this June. In the East you have Boston vs. Carolina and “The Circus” while out west you have the last two Stanley Cup Champions playing each other in Detroit (2008) vs. Anaheim (2007) and up and coming Chicago vs. Vancouver (who have the best goalie in the league in Roberto Luongo according to Yahoo’s puck daddy, Greg Wyshynski).

Tonight, I’ll preview the West:

(2) Detroit vs. (8) Anaheim

Even though I picked the Sharks to beat the Ducks, I wrote back in my first round preview that I thought the Sharks had the worst draw of the top four seeds. Anaheim has a great defense with Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Ryan Whitney, Jim Wisniewski, and Francois Beauchemin (returned from injury in round one). Rookie Bobby Ryan, the number two overall pick to Crosby in the 2005 NHL Entry draft, is tearing it up on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. In net, Jonas Hiller has been superb and the Ducks also have seasoned Cup winning vets in Teemu Selanne and Rob Niedermayer. You want goaltending depth, Stanley Cup winning goalie J.S Giguere is currently operating the bench door and will continue to do so unless Hiller struggles. Talk about a good insurance policy in net.

On the other hand, the Detroit Red Wings are a big red machine (sorry 1975/76 Cincinnati Reds!). On the back line they have six time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom with Brian Rafalksi, Brad Stuart, and Nicklas Kronwall and up front they have Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, and the best goalie screener in the business in Tomas Holmstrom. The only possible shaky area is goalie with an aging Chris Osgood, but “Ozzie” has won two Stanley Cups as starting goaltender, including last season.

The Red Wings are great at controlling the puck while the Ducks like to be physical and play the cycle game. This will be one outstanding series but I’ve been on the Wings bandwagon all year so I am not jumping off now. Detroit in seven games.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (4) Chicago Blackhawks

Luongo, the Canucks captain, is the whole key to this team. He is so big and takes up so much net that you have to get him out of position or screen him like crazy to score on him. Because of the outstanding goaltending in Vancouver, the Canucks can take a few more chances offensively with the Sedins (Daniel and Henrik), Pavel Demitra, Ryan Kessler, Alex Burrows, and Mats Sundin (added as a free agent midway through the season). Vancouver’s defense is anchored by the powerful and fiery Willie Mitchell but it also boasts solid two way man Mattias Ohlund plus Sami Salo, Alexander Edler, and Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks had alot of injuries during the season (Luongo missed six weeks plus with a groin injury and the defense had numerous man games lost) but came together and blew by a really banged up Calgary team down the stretch erasing what was a 13 point Flames lead in the Northwest Division in January.

Chicago is a highly skilled team like the Caps. Their captain, Jonathan Toews (pronounced Taze [like faze and daze]), is such a good two way player that goes to the net and gets ugly goals to go with some highlight reel ones as well (who can forget the Carrie Milbank/Eddie Olczyk NHL.com commercial?). Patrick Kane, who missed a game against Calgary due to the flu, is all speed and skill and you add in Patrick Sharp, rookie Kris Versteeg, Martin Havlat, plus big #33 Dennis Byfuglien who is effective when he goes hard to the net and that adds up to some serious offensive firepower. On the backline the Hawks have puck mover Brian Campbell who played well against the Flames plus Brent Seabrook (really stepped up against Calgary), Cam Barker, and Duncan Keith. It is not a real physical defense but it has been effective. In goal soon to be free agent Nikolai Khabibulin has been so good that Hawks Coach Joel Quennville has kept former Canadiens and Caps goalie Cristobal Huet on the bench (an expensive backup at over $5M a season for four years).

To me the key for the Canucks is to dump the puck in and hit the Chicago defense. Vancouver has a good cycle game and will need to generate scoring opportunities from that. Chicago has offense but they will now face Luongo and it will be tough to score. They had trouble against St. Louis scoring but Chris Mason gave up some bad goals for the Blues to allow the Canucks to sweep. This is a hard one to pick but I’m going with a well rested Vancouver team in seven games.

Well, that is it for tonight. If you’ve read this far you are a true hockey fan and I thank you. On Thursday night look for some coverage of the Caps-Pens series as I head out to Kettler Ice Plex to catch up with the Capitals after their practice.

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Caps Game 7 History is Not Good. Will tonight be different?

Posted on 28 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

As this Caps team gets ready to play a game 7 for the second straight season (Note: WNST “Rock the Red” viewing party is at the Silver Spring Mining Company in Perry Hall!)  it should be noted that Washington’s game 7 record is not good at all, at 1-5. I’ve been at every game 7 this team has played in franchise history and seemingly have seen it all from hot goalies (remember Ken Wregget and Kelly Hrudey?) to missed offside calls to horrible officiating.

Here is a quick look back at those Game 7′s, in order:

1987: The Caps race out to a 3-1 series lead on a banged up New York Islanders team. Washington’s goaltending struggles through the series and Bryan Murray eventually pulls Pete Peeters for Bob Mason in Game 6, which New York wins 5-4. Game 7 is the legendary four overtime special that is ended by Pat Lafontaine at 1:55am on Easter Sunday. My most vivid memory of that game is defenseman Greg Smith hitting the cross bar in the first overtime and then suffering a broken knee cap in the second overtime. I was a young 22 year old doing statistics for the team that night. I had the duty of keeping track of Islanders time on ice – before we had computer software to track the visiting team. After the second overtime Murray told us to stop logging the ice time because everyone was tired and it didn’t matter anymore.

1988, Round 1- Still my all time favorite Caps memory.Washington trailed Philadelphia in this series three games to one after Clint Malarchuk and the team blew a 4-1 lead at the Spectrum with just under 10 minutes left to lose to a Murray Craven goal in overtime in game four. The Caps, however, dominated games 5 and 6 and then rallied from 3-0 down in regulation to win 5-4 in overtime on Dale Hunter’s goal through the legs of Ron Hextall. Bob Gould was a big hero in that series for drawing Flyers enforcer Dave Brown into a five minute major in Game 6 in Philadelphia.

1988, Round 2- The Caps went into round two against the Devils as the favorites but when Pat Verbeek cut Rod Langway’s calf with his skate late in a 3-1 Caps victory in game one this then became an even playing field. Jim Schoenfeld was the coach of the Devils and New Jersey got physical and this series turned ugly at times. Patrick Sundstrom had a great game three in a 10-4 Devils rout but then the Caps struck back for a 4-1 win in game four (do you remember Pete Peeters getting hit in the head with the puck and Malarchuk getting injured forcing rookie Shawn Simpson to have to rush down and get dressed and sit on the bench?). Game five was a turning point as Schoenfeld put Bob Sauve in net and he stoned the Caps. A Washington rout ensued in game 6 (7-2) and Schoney turned back to Sean Burke who played great in game seven. The winning goal, by John Maclean with under 10 minutes remaining, came on an offsides play that linesman Kevin Collins missed.

1992- The Caps pretty much bury the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the first four games of this series as they take a three games to one lead. Washington likely would have swept if not for some awful officiating by Don Koharski in game three in Pittsburgh. Dino Ciccarelli has a hat trick in a Caps 7-2 rout in game four but then the great Scotty Bowman changes his team’s defensive strategy and the Penguins go on to win the next three games in relatively easy fashion. The only chance the Caps had was in game six when they were up 4-2 midway through the second period but Mike Ridley’s bad cross ice pass in the neutral zone was intercepted by Joey Mullen, who went in alone on goalie Don Beaupre to cut the lead to one and give the Penguins the momentum. Game seven was uneventful as Pittsburgh dominated.

1995- The Caps take a 3-1 series lead again on Pittsburgh thanks to two 6-2 blowouts of the Penguins at the Capital Centre in games three and four. Jim “Ace” Carey, who a couple of years later would tell Schoenfeld and assistant coaches Keith Allain and Tod Button that he didn’t really want to play hockey, appears poised to win his first ever playoff series in his rookie season (this was the lockout shortened season). However, Washington gives away game five in Pittsburgh after leading, 4-3, past the halfway point of the third period. Luc Robitaille wins game five in overtime for Pittsburgh (who can forget Francois Leroux going around Ken Klee to set up a Pens goal?). Game six is a 7-1 Pens rout at the Capital Centre as Wregget gets red hot and he carries that into game seven as Pittsburgh shuts out Washington, 3-0, at the Igloo.

2008- The Caps win game one on Alexander Ovechkin’s highlight real goal, 5-4, but then drop the next three contests to Philadelphia (game four was in overtime). A 2-0 score wins for Washington in game five and then the Great #8 takes over the third period of game six to force game seven. Referee Paul Devorksi then allows the Flyers first goal in game seven to count despite clear goaltender interference on Cristobal Huet and then Don Koharski calls Tom Poti for tripping in overtime and Joffrey Lupul wins it for the Flyers on the power play. The Caps expended a lot of energy just making the playoffs and then even more trying to come back in the series.

So will 2009 be different? This team now has playoff experience and should have much more in the tank than they had for game seven last year. They are a superior team to the Rangers, when they play their game and not get too cute with overpassing and cross ice passes, but New York has potentially the great equalizer, Henrik Lundqvist, in goal. If the Caps play well they won’t need to worry about the officiating (btw, Koharski will not be refereeing tonight, he is now retired). Will Ted Leonsis get his first ever playoff series win as owner and Bruce Boudreau get his first NHL playoff series win as head coach? Tune in tonight to find out as game seven’s are the best the NHL has to offer, but they have historically not been good to the Capitals.

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NHL Playoff Match-ups and Western Conference Playoff Preview

Posted on 12 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The NHL Playoff Match-ups are set and surprisingly the New York Rangers, who will face the Washington Capitals in the first round of the NHL playoffs, knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in regulation today to hand the Pittsburgh Penguins the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Here are the complete match-ups:

Series ‘A’ – #1 Boston Bruins vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
Series ‘B’ – #2 Washington Capitals vs. #7 New York Rangers
Series ‘C’ – #3 New Jersey Devils vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
Series ‘D’ – #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Series ‘E’ – #1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Anaheim Ducks
Series ‘F’ – #2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Series ‘G’ – #3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 St. Louis Blues
Series ‘H’ – #4 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Calgary Flames

Western Conference Preview

Series E: San Jose vs. Anaheim

The Sharks go a league best 53-18-11 under first year coach Brian McLellan and what do they get rewarded with for the playoffs? A first round date with the Anaheim Ducks who have one of the best defensive corps in the NHL and are less than two years removed from a Stanley Cup in 2007. However, some of the quotes I read from the San Jose players indicates that they would rather play the Ducks than the Blues (St. Louis won today to move up from eighth to the sixth seed) simply because of the easier travel schedule. For a team that has designs on winning a Stanley Cup that seems like decent logic.

What do I like about San Jose: The Sharks have some veteran Stanley Cup winning experience on their blue line in Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, something they have not had in recent years. Up front they have Joe Thornton (who has yet to produce in the playoffs) and the resurgent Patrick Marleau to go with a whole host of good forwards to include Devon Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, and Milan Michalek.

The concern about the Sharks: At one time or another, 12 different players spent time out for injuries in March, with Boyle, goalie Evgeni Nabokov, and defenseman Brad Lukowich also spending games in street clothes. The team has maintained that it expects all players healthy for the playoffs.

What I like about Anaheim: Their top four defenseman in Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney, and James Wisniewski plus a top line of Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry. They also have rookie forward Bobby Ryan who netted 31 goals and 57 points in just 64 games. Add in a hot goalie in Jonas Hiller plus 2003 Conn Smythe trophy winner J.S. Giguere as the other net minder and this is a team that could make a serious run.

The concern about the Ducks: They no longer have the solid role players who helped them win the Cup back in 2007 with Chris Kunitz (Pittsburgh), Andy McDonald (St. Louis), Travis Moen (San Jose), and Samuel Pahlsson (Chicago) all moved at this year’s trade deadline or fairly recently. Also, word has it that coach Randy Carlyle will go with Giguere in the playoffs and he has been shaky lately. I think starting Hiller might be the better option.

Analysis: The Sharks have too much depth for Anaheim. They will use their team speed and skill to control the puck for the majority of this series. Only concern is Nabokov, who missed three weeks back in March.

Prediction: Sharks in 6 games.

Series F: Detroit vs. Columbus

The defending Stanley Cup Champions got better last summer when they added free agent forward Marian Hossa for one season. On paper they seem like they have a great chance to repeat but, as I wrote back in February, I spoke with an NHL scout who is very familiar with the Red Wings and he said that this team doesn’t play hard every night and that they play “spot hockey.” I have a feeling Detroit will be more focused starting this week. The Blue Jackets have been one of the big surprises this season thanks to the play of rookie goalie Steve Mason who seemingly came out of nowhere to pretty much lock up the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year).This is the first ever trip to the post season and I’m sure the town is going nuts (but not as crazy as when Buckeye football starts up).

What I like about Detroit: What is not to like? They have the best overall defensemen in the league in Nicklas Lidstrom and they have three of the best forwards in the NHL in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Hossa. Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall, and Brad Stuart round out their top four defensemen. In goal they have Stanley Cup champion Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin, who has been on two Stanley Cup finalists (Edmonton and Pittsburgh) since the lockout ended in 2005.

The concern about the Red Wings: Goaltending has been inconsistent and Hossa is not 100% healthy right now.

What I like about Columbus: Mason. He has stolen games all year so why can’t he steal a playoff series? I also like the season Rich Nash had as he finally played to his potential with 40 goals, 39 assists in 78 games, but more importantly, he bought in to coach Ken Hitchcock’s system and was +11, the highest rating he has ever had in his six year career. Their defense played above expectations and Mike Commodore, who I ripped the Blue Jackets for signing to such a big money and term contract last summer, had a very good year and was +11. Hitchcock even got a +23 out of 30 year old defenseman from Prague, Jan Hejda.

The concern about the Blue Jackets: No playoff experience and they are facing a team with a ton of it.

Analysis: The Red Wings are lucky that St. Louis allowed them to avoid Anaheim and gave them a much more favorable matchup with the young Blue Jackets.

Prediction: Red Wings in 5 games.

Series G: Vancouver vs. St. Louis

This looks like a low scoring series with two hot teams that have had very good goaltending down the stretch. St. Louis came from last in the Western Conference in early February to finish 6th overall while the Canucks rallied to catch and pass the Calgary Flames for first place in the Northwest Division.

What I like about Vancouver: First and foremost, goalie Roberto Luongo who is one of the best in the league. Next, the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel, who both had 82 points in 82 games and seem to have thrived playing on a line with the pesky Alex Burrows (28 goals and 51 points – both career highs). Defensemen Willie Mitchell was a team high +29. Mats Sundin, who came on in mid season as a free agent and is starting to hit his stride. Sundin gives the Canucks the secondary scoring line they desperately needed.

The concern about the Canucks:  Not much as they finished 23- 7-2 after February 1. One could question their ability to be physical in the playoffs as guys like Pavol Demitra, and the Sedins could be pushed around.

What I like about St. Louis: The Blues ended a three year playoff drought by compiling the best record in the NHL in the second half of the season (25-9-7). Chris Mason, who was signed as a free agent in the off-season from Nashville, went 26-21-7 with a .915 save percentage and he had six shutouts this year. Keith Tkachuk (25 goals), a power forward who goes to the net and can get the ugly goals. Brad Boyes (32 goals) and David Backes (31 goals). Rookie forward Patrick Berglund (21 goals and +19) is a future star. Good coach in Andy Murray.

The concern about the Blues: Goal scoring, they have the second fewest goals of Western Conference playoff teams after Columbus. They also lack playoff experience other than Tkachuk and McDonald.

Analysis: Both of these teams are hot and have confidence. I just think the goaltending edge is heavily in Vancouver’s favor and they will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 6 games.

Series H: Chicago vs. Calgary

The Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and Calgary is struggling just to field a lineup due to numerous injuries. Chicago won the season series 4-0 and seem to have Calgary’s number. The Hawks are a tightly knit group, which comes from having a large number of players in their early to mid-20s. Calgary has top two defenseman Robyn Regehr likely out in the first round. Chicago fired coach Denis Savard just four games into the season and replaced him with Joel Quennville and that looks like a brilliant move by GM Dale Tallon.

What I like about Chicago: First, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin OWNS the Flames and he beat them in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Second, young forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Kris Versteeg. Third, a great home ice advantage with the loud and large Chicago crowds (22,000 a game at the United Center). Finally, the addition of Pahlsson, if he can remain healthy, gives the Hawks a good center who knows how to thrive in playoff hockey.

The concern about the Blackhawks: Depth. The “Bulin Wall” is 25-8-7 so why did they need to sign goalie Cristobal Huet to a big deal last summer? That money should have been used on a second line center. Defensemen Brian Campbell is a good puck mover but he isn’t the savior on the back line as the Sharks found out last year.

What I like about the Calgary: Goalie Mikka Kipprusoff, superstar Jarome Iginla, forward Daymond Langkow, talented young defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and the experienced Regehr plus trade deadline acquisitions Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold. This is a very good team when healthy.

The concern about the Flames: Injuries. Regehr is out for the first round and defenseman Corey Sarich is doubtful as well. Second line forward Rene Bourque has been hurt since February and he was having a career year. Todd Bertuzzi does not appear to be fully recovered from his knee surgery and Phaneuf is fighting an undisclosed injury. At least there is no salary cap in the playoffs so they can once again dress 18 skaters after using only 15 in their last two games against Edmonton.

Analysis: Bad matchup for the Flames, even when healthy. Chicago is too fast for Calgary and will bury them. Mike Keenan is a good coach but he hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. Could he be fired if Calgary loses or will the injury situation give him another chance next season?

Prediction: Blackhawks sweep in 4 games.

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