Wednesday, October 27, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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It's been a long road -- 15,000 miles, to be exact -- but tonight, the Carolina Hurricanes become the 30th team out of 30 in the NHL to host their home opener.
And as a thank you gift, the NHL politely scheduled the reigning Presidents' Trophy champion as the designated opposition. How kind.
Surprisingly, though, the Canes had the number of the Washington Capitals last season. The Canes earned points in five of six games against the Caps in 2009-10, and historically Cam Ward has been stellar against them, with a 13-5-3 record in his career against Washington.
Unsurprisingly, the lineup will remain the same tonight as it was in Saturday's win over Phoenix in overtime. Patrick O'Sullivan and newly-recalled Jiri Tlusty will serve as the healthy scratches. Zac Dalpe and Jeff Skinner will make their RBC Center debuts, and Jamie McBain will go through the motions of his first Canes home opener.
For the Caps, it's a significantly different team than the one that was upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of last year's playoffs. Sure, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and the like are all back, but the goaltending duo consists of youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, neither of whom has ever beaten the Canes (Varlamov 0-0-2, Neuvirth 0-1-0). It's a much younger team, similar to the Canes, but with the burden of high expectations; everyone right up to owner Ted Leonsis expects the Caps to make a deep playoff run, if not a run at the Cup itself.
We'll be here for all of it, as the Canes' thirteenth season in North Carolina and their eleventh in Raleigh kicks off tonight...
1:05 1st: The first good shot of the game comes off a faceoff to Cam Ward's left. A broken play resulted in the puck sitting in the circle on a platter for Mike Knuble, who let a shot go that Cam Ward never saw, even when it was past him. Fortunately for the Canes, the shot didn't beat the post, but it was way closer than anyone thought it would be.
4:55 1st: Jeff Skinner received one of the biggest cheers during the player introductions, and he nearly showed why. A bizarre faceoff to the right of Michal Neuvirth ended up hidden behind linesman Jonny Murray, and for about four seconds no one knew where the puck was. Finally, Tuomo Ruutu found it and fed Skinner at the front of the net. Skinner came within about an inch of a backhanded goal but Neuvirth made a great save to kick the puck out and deny Skinner his first point at the RBC.
10:47 1st: Caps lead 1-0; Hendricks 1 (Steckel, Erskine) Or, as Taylor Zarzour says, "Everyone is angry. I have no idea why but what the hell. WE GOT SCREWED!" Maybe not that easy to explain, but David Steckel did a number on Cam Ward, railroading him just outside the blue paint and causing him to be out of position on the rebound that Matt Hendricks deposited easily. Referee Francois St.-Laurent let the contact go because Ward was out of the crease, but that didn't satisfy Paul Maurice or the Canes' bench, who loudly demanded an explanation. Ward, for his part, didn't protest; it seemed like he knew he had made a mistake and didn't want to dwell on it.
16:05 1st: Lots of good chances from both the Staal-Jokinen-LaRose and the Ruutu-Kostopoulos-Samsonov combinations. Neither one has put a shot past Neuvirth, but they've accounted for most of the Canes' six shots so far.
End 1st: The Canes had plenty of chances to get on the board, including a flurry from a newly-formed Staal-Jokinen-Skinner line with ten seconds left, but they lost the puck and couldn't pot the rebound even though all three players were within five feet of the net. Shots in the first period were 8-7 Canes.
4:03 2nd: The Canes have been pressuring the Caps well early in the period, but still with nothing to show for it. Looks like the Staal-Jokinen-Skinner line was a matchup of convenience, as the Canes are back to their original lines. At the other end, Ward came up huge on what could have been a back-breaking tap-in by Mike Knuble.
7:46 2nd: After Eric Staal was sent to the penalty box for being held by Nicklas Backstrom (yeah, it was rather questionable), Ward robbed Alex Ovechkin from point-blank at the near side of the net. It's been that kind of night for Ward, who has been the best player on the ice for either team so far.
9:34 2nd: By any account, Jeff Skinner deserved a goal there. Michal Neuvirth denied it with an unbelievable save that was possibly a result of Skinner waiting a split second to fire. The play went to a lengthy review, which upheld the call on the ice. Definitely the right call, but a terrible break for the Canes.
10:44 2nd: As a power play expired, Neuvirth absolutely robbed Staal with a glove save on an open net. A fantastic pass from Sergei Samsonov at the top of the crease found Staal in perfect position for a one-timer at the bottom of the near circle, and the net was gaping wide but Neuvirth somehow got across and snared Staal's shot in spectacular fashion.
12:07 2nd: To no one's surprise given how this period has gone, Staal hits the post after a perfect pass from LaRose on a shorthanded 2-on-1 a few seconds into a Tuomo Ruutu hooking penalty. Five seconds later, LaRose goads Mike Green into an awful roughing penalty along the boards in the far corner of the Washington zone. Aside from not scoring, a pretty good sequence from the Canes' PKers.
19:25 2nd: Beautiful play by Joe Corvo to break up an Ovechkin rush one-on-one up the ice. Doesn't happen often that Corvo's noticed for his defense, but he deserves kudos for how he handled that sequence.
End 2nd: The Canes deserved at least one, but they're still down 1-0 after two. Shots in the period were 11-9 Canes, who took a 19-18 lead overall in what has become a goaltending duel tonight.
2:10 3rd: Jeff Skinner has been through a lot in his first three weeks in the NHL, but apparently the Caps felt the need to initiate him a bit more. No fewer than three separate players knocked Skinner down on his first shift of the period. To his credit, he bounced up from every one of them.
6:33 3rd: Staal has done everything you could possibly want from him tonight. His latest escapades involved pulling two Caps defenders into the slot and still managing to get a shot off that forced Neuvirth to make a quick save. Seconds later, LaRose whiffed on an open net. If it wasn't for bad luck...
9:55 3rd: Twice in two minutes Erik Cole has come to a dead stop at the blue line for some reason. The first time it happened, it put Jeff Skinner offside and negated a scoring chance. He just did it again and it didn't put Skinner offside, but it did ruin the play and the Caps cleared the zone without any trouble.
12:23 3rd: Caps lead 2-0; Backstrom 2 (Knuble, Ovechkin) Another bad break goes against the Canes. Cam Ward played a 2-on-2 perfectly with Mike Knuble firing a shot that Ward easily handled. But unfortunately for the Canes, the puck bounced square off the shaft of Ward's stick and right to Nicklas Backstrom, who had an easy one-timer from the far circle to put the Caps up by two.
17:17 3rd: Interesting strategy here: Mike Green goes to the box for tripping Staal, and the Canes call timeout to diagram a play with six attackers on the ice. Paul Maurice is going all-in here.
End 3rd: The gamble failed, as Backstrom hit the open net for his second of the night to salt it away. Neuvirth earned every bit of his first career shutout as the Canes fell in their home opener, the only Southeast Division team to do so this season.
Postgame: A clearly peeved Paul Maurice minced no words after the game in describing the first goal of the game: "[The referee] was absolutely wrong." The consensus was that the Canes played decently, but as you'd might expect after a ridiculous road trip the team didn't have their legs under them for the first part of the game and by the time they got in a groove Neuvirth was in his own and he stymied the Canes the rest of the way.
Click for audio from Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu and Brandon Sutter. Maurice's press conference is attached.
The Canes hit the road again (what else is new) when they head to New York to face the Rangers on Friday, and then they're back here Saturday to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins. No live blog for that one; my wife is running a marathon (!!) on Sunday morning and I'll be out of town serving as the cheering section. Back at it against the Islanders next Wednesday. Until then...
Sunday, October 24, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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Finally, the Carolina Hurricanes are home.
It's been more than three weeks since their last game at the RBC Center, a preseason tilt against the Atlanta Thrashers on October 1st. It's been eleven days since they were able to sleep in their own beds. It's been 15,710 miles since they first took off for St. Petersburg the night after they played the Thrashers.
And, improbably, the Canes return from their sojourn over .500, with a 4-3 record after an overtime win against Phoenix on Saturday night.
It's certainly too early for these statistics to mean anything of consequence, but it should be noted that the Canes currently sit eighth in the Eastern Conference. Of the seven teams below them in the standings, five have played more games than the Canes' seven. And every team in the league has played at least two home games, which is two more than the Canes can claim for themselves. (Yes, the Canes have technically played a "home" game, but when that game is played 4,500 miles away you can't really say there was any home-ice advantage.)
In other words, the Canes should be very, very proud of what they've accomplished in the first two-plus weeks of the season.
Paul Maurice said before the team left Raleigh that the long road trip to open the season could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing. If the Canes went out and came back with heavy legs, poor play and only a few points in the bank, it would be a deep hole for such a young team to recover from and would make the job that much tougher. But instead, the Canes seemingly gained confidence in every game. Yes, there were some stumbles. The games in Vancouver and Los Angeles proved that.
But no one expected this team to steamroll through the early portion of the schedule. Coming home over .500 is a significant accomplishment, and it gives the Canes the confidence to know that despite being one of the youngest teams in the NHL, they can hold their own with anyone in the league. Even when they've flown enough to qualify for frequent-flier upgrades for the rest of their lives.
On this date last year, the Canes were six games into a club-record 14-game losing streak, while playing a normal schedule with one of the oldest teams in the NHL. This year, they're over .500 after seven games, not one of them at the RBC Center, with one of the youngest rosters in the league.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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Short and sweet, here are Puck Drops' predictions for how the 2010-11 season will shake out:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Buffalo Sabres
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Boston Bruins
6. Philadelphia Flyers
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
9. Montreal Canadiens
10. Carolina Hurricanes
11. New York Islanders
12. New York Rangers
13. Atlanta Thrashers
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
15. Florida Panthers
1. San Jose Sharks
2. Vancouver Canucks
3. Detroit Red Wings
4. Los Angeles Kings
5. Chicago Blackhawks
6. Phoenix Coyotes
7. Nashville Predators
8. Minnesota Wild
9. St. Louis Blues
10. Calgary Flames
11. Anaheim Ducks
12. Colorado Avalanche
13. Dallas Stars
14. Edmonton Oilers
15. Columbus Blue Jackets
Washington over Tampa Bay
Pittsburgh over Ottawa
Philadelphia over Buffalo
New Jersey over Boston
Washington over Philadelphia
New Jersey over Pittsburgh
New Jersey over Washington
San Jose over Minnesota
Vancouver over Nashville
Phoenix over Detroit
Los Angeles over Chicago
San Jose over Phoenix
Los Angeles over Vancouver
San Jose over Los Angeles
Stanley Cup Final: San Jose over New Jersey
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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Last season we attempted to predict the Canes' performance with a projected points total for each player. It was a brilliant idea in my own mind that hit a brick wall a month into the season when Cam Ward and Eric Staal both went down with assorted injuries.
So, of course, I'm going down the same road this year. Yes, probably insane (you know, doing the same thing twice, expecting different results, and so forth) but hey, it's decent water-cooler material if nothing else. This year, though, I'm restricting it to three sentences per player, max. (Not that I'm lazy; just trying to consolidate as much as possible.) As with last year, the numbers are pro-rated to 82 games, so that there's some consistency while eliminating the problem of predicting who will miss how many games.
Here goes nothing, in order by projected points...again:
Eric Staal: Last year was an injury-riddled aberration, if you can call only missing 12 games "injury-riddled" -- but Staal wasn't at full strength for most of the year, and still managed a point-per-game pace. No reason he can't do the same again this season, with added incentives coming in the form of starting the season as captain and having the All-Star Game in his home arena. The only truly-dangerous offensive player on the Canes' roster (to start the season, anyway) will continue to answer the bell. Projection: 36/47/83
Jussi Jokinen: Will he score 30 again? Probably not, but Jokinen showed no signs of slowing down last season and 50 points is almost a given. Jokinen isn't as streaky as some other potential one-hit wonders, so while he won't hit 30 he'll put up respectable numbers. Projection: 24/31/55
Brandon Sutter: As opposed to last year, when Sutter was inexplicably sent to the AHL and Stephane Yelle, of all people, won a roster spot instead, Sutter will be on the roster from opening night this year. While it was assumed he would become a 20-goal scorer at some point, next to nobody thought it would happen in his second NHL season. He'll have better linemates this season than he's ever had, so he'll be in the 20-goal club again. Projection: 23/32/55
Sergei Samsonov: Really? Yes, really. Samsonov is in a contract year, and he'll use that to his great advantage. That is, if he isn't buried on the fourth line all season, a realistic possibility given the logjam of forwards in front of him on the depth chart. It wouldn't be surprising if he becomes trade bait at some point, but in the meantime he'll at least hold his own. Projection: 19/26/45
Jeff Skinner: I'll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what Skinner will do. I'm reasonably sure he will stay on the roster all year and not be returned to Kitchener, but to expect world-beating numbers from a rookie is somewhat unreasonable; that said, he has the goods to make a real splash. In the end, I expect Skinner to be more like Stamkos (46 points his rookie year) than Crosby (103). Projection: 23/18/41
Chad LaRose: I had him pegged for 20 last year, and an injury kept him from hitting the milestone number for the first time; he was on pace for 16 goals last season. He'll get regular top-six minutes this year, so while I'm not too confident he'll pot 20 he should come close again. Projection: 18/23/41
Patrick O'Sullivan: The revelation of training camp, O'Sullivan was frequently the best player on the ice during the preseason and his ascendance relegated Zach Boychuk to Charlotte. Will he be able to keep up that sterling play all year? Probably not, but considering he had 34 points in a lost year in Edmonton last season it's not too much to expect him to put a few streaks together this year. Projection: 17/23/40
Erik Cole: At this point it's a truism that Cole's power-forward pedigree has hit a wall since his broken neck in 2006. He has good chemistry with Staal, which will account for more than a few goals, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if this is another rough offensive season. One caveat: like Samsonov, Cole is in a contract year, so he might have a mild bump because of that. Projection: 16/20/36
Jiri Tlusty: Like Samsonov, a tweener that doesn't fit on checking lines but doesn't have enough consistent production to earn a regular spot in the top six. Unlike Samsonov, Tlusty is coming off a serious injury which will probably hinder him through the first part of the season. He'll likely be in the press box for at least a few games early in the season, so he will probably take a while to get up to speed given his injury and rehab. Projection: 12/19/31
Patrick Dwyer: He's not on the roster for his offensive exploits, but Dwyer is an integral part of the Canes' penalty kill and that will likely keep him in Raleigh all year. Any offense he chips in will be a bonus. Projection: 9/18/27
Zac Dalpe: It's a long way from the NCAA to the NHL in less than a year. He likely won't spend the entire season with the Canes, but it is worth noting that he had 7 points in 9 regular-season AHL games last year, followed by 6 points in 8 playoff games. That offensive production won't be in the NHL this year though. Projection: 8/15/23
Tom Kostopoulos: All you really need to know about Kostopoulos is his yearly point totals since breaking into the NHL in 2003-04: 22, 22, 22, 13, 22, 21. Why mess with success? Projection: 8/14/22
Drayson Bowman: Somewhat surprisingly, Bowman has carved out a niche as a defensive specialist even though he was a prolific scorer in junior hockey, much like LaRose. He'll be riding the Charlotte shuttle with Dalpe most of the season, so it's doubtful he'll make much of an offensive impact in the NHL this year. Projection: 7/9/16
Jamie McBain: Just about everyone is expecting a strong year from McBain, who will essentially serve as a clone of Joni Pitkanen. Don't expect him to contribute much on the defensive end, where he'll probably take a little while to adjust to the speed of the NHL, but he should be effective in the offensive zone, and he gives the Canes their first competent power-play quarterback since the days of Sandis Ozolinsh. Projection: 13/41/54
Joni Pitkanen: Just about everyone is expecting a strong year from Pitkanen, who will essentially serve as a clone of Jamie McBain. (Notice a trend here?) Pitkanen is the Canes' best all-around defenseman and he'll quietly put numbers up as he always does. Pitkanen will likely have more of an impact at even strength, while McBain will earn most of his points on the power play, so despite the fact I have them pegged for the same number of points they'll be earned in much different ways. Projection: 8/46/54
Joe Corvo: A poor man's Pitkanen, Corvo doesn't make the same split-second decisions that Pitkanen is brilliant with and his defensive zone coverage, while not in Ozolinsh territory, is fair at best. But you know what you're getting with Corvo, which is why he's back with the Canes after being traded to Washington at the trade deadline last year. He may be squeezed out of power play time with the ascendance of McBain, but he's still good for high-30 point potential, which is about where he's consistently been over the past five years. Projection: 11/28/39
Anton Babchuk: He's continually improved, no matter where he's played. That said, he is still prone to some serious defensive gaffes and it's entirely possible the coaching staff could sit him for the likes of Brett Carson or Bobby Sanguinetti depending on how effective his defensive-zone play is. But no one can deny the potent cannon that Babchuk possesses, and he should at least come close to his career high of 35 points if not pass it by a couple. Projection: 14/23/37
Tim Gleason: Despite the fact that he's down this low on the totem pole, Gleason is the Canes' most important defenseman and, especially this year, the one guy that will throw the entire defense out of whack if he misses time. While there's no shortage of Jim Rutherford's adored puck-moving defensemen on the roster, Gleason is the beginning and the end of the list of tough-to-play-against Hurricanes defensemen. His offense is ancillary to his leadership and defensive-zone play, so the projections are almost irrelevant...but we're doing them anyway. Projection: 7/22/29
Bobby Sanguinetti: Look, another puck-mover! Sanguinetti was decent in the preseason, but not a standout by any stretch, and while he'll start the season in the NHL it's likely he'll be on the Charlotte shuttle as well although he needs to clear waivers to be sent down. Since he's only played five games in the NHL, this projection is a bit of a shot in the dark, but that's not stopping us. Projection: 3/18/21
Brett Carson: A 54-game stint with the Canes last year seems to have given Carson the inside shot at being the sixth defenseman this season, but the organization's infatuation with Jay Harrison might block Carson out. Carson's no great shakes offensively, but like Gleason he's rarely caught out of position and he'll likely see extensive PK time while with the Canes. Offensively, though, there probably won't be much there. Projection: 5/16/21
Jay Harrison: It's rather ridiculous that he's even on this list, given his indifferent play last year and his less-than-stellar preseason. But he has a one-way contract for some reason, and a budget team won't pay anyone NHL money to ride buses in the AHL. So here he is, even though Casey Borer and Bryan Rodney probably have better claims to this spot; expecting more than pedestrian numbers from Harrison on either end will probably result in disappointment. Projection: 2/10/12
Cam Ward: The conventional wisdom is that Ward had a down year last season, but his 2.75 GAA was an indictment of a defense that allowed him to see 1409 shots in just 47 games; prorated to 70 games, that's nearly 2100 shots, which would have ranked him fourth in the NHL. The .916 save percentage was more indicative of his play, even while spending nearly half the season nursing various injuries, and given the fact that the Canes have gotten younger this season the discrepancy will likely be in place again this year. Projection: 2.68/.919
Justin Peters: His first season as Ward's caddy will probably see him in 25 or so games, starting around 15 depending on injuries. Peters looked good at times last year, and playing his introductory games in the NHL for a team going nowhere last season will probably serve him well, since when the games count he'll have some experience under his belt. He's very clearly the second banana in net, though. Projection: 2.85/.902
Justin Pogge: In the Canes' quest to acquire as many goaltenders named Justin, Pogge will probably spend most of the season in Charlotte. He's only on the roster as the third goalie in Finland, and when the Canes return to North America he'll head down I-85. In the event of an injury to Peters or Ward, he'll get the call, but it's pointless to make a projection for a guy who might very well not play an NHL game this season.
Whew...made it before the season starts. Back before noon Thursday with predicted conference standings, playoffs and your Stanley Cup champion.