2013 NHL Preview

Ok, we’ve all gotten the lock-out bitterness out of our systems right? ok, well if you’re still angry, please read elsewhere because WhitSport is moving forward! I’m proud to present a quick look at what to expect for the 48 game season that the NHL will conduct in the coming months.

The last time the NHL salvaged a strike-shortened season (1995) there were also 48 games played, with the Devils taking home the Stanley Cup in the end. Many teams think their teams can get hot and make a run at the playoffs this year, despite disappointing results in 2012. Back in ’95 this was not the case, as only 3 teams who made the playoffs in ’94 failed to do so after the lockout. This does not bode well for teams like the Maple Leafs, Oilers, and Islanders who are looking to end long playoff droughts. Last year saw tons of drama with more upsets than ever before in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The LA Kings took home Lord Stanley’s trophy, and in the process, became the first 8th seed to win the Cup.

With the amount of craziness that continues to go on display once the Playoffs roll around, it becomes nearly impossible to predict who will be vying for the Cup in June. Nevertheless, let’s have a go!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Penguins– with Crosby healthy, and Malkin already warmed up after playing in Russia, the Pens, who finished just 1 point behind the Rangers for the top spot in the East last year, look to avenge their early post-season departure with a deep run this season
2. Bruins– the B’s are a fairly young team and showed some consistency last year after winning their division for the 2nd straight season. Plus, with Tim Thomas on sabbatical, it’s Tuuka time!!
3. Capitals– with new coach Adam Oates around, the culture should improve in Washington. Ovechkin seems to be returning to normal, and may be given a longer leash than he had under Dale Hunter.
4. Rangers– John Tortorella certainly won’t let his foot off the pedal now. The Rangers have the personnel to make a great run, only questions surround whether Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and company can all live up to their billing.
5. Devils– it’d be hard to put the reigning Conference Champs any lower, with Brodeur back and rested, this young team could prove why last spring was no fluke. Watch out for emerging young stars like Henrique and Larsson.
6. Sabres– Nice additions in the offseason. If Ryan Miller steps back up to the level we know he can play, Buffalo has a shot to make some waves.
7. Flyers– with the goaltending situation at a crossroads, there could be bumps along the road. A solid scoring department may barely save them
8. Lightning– I’m expecting a big year from Stamkos. If the defense can improve, even just slightly, they’ll be in the mix.
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9. Panthers– they’re just one of those teams who played well last year, but a shortened season could prove fatal, only saving grace is their division
10. Jets– I like what they’re doing here. Their young consortium of talent is progressing nicely, but might be a goaltender away from the playoffs
11. Senators– I just don’t see enough here to warrant another playoff run, especially since the odds of Eric Karlsson putting up similar #’s to last year are slim
12. Canadiens– slight improvement over last year, but seriously need some scorers to contend for the playoffs again.
13. Islanders– this high? really? I think Tavares has his break out season, but a hefty schedule against the rest of the Atlantic keep the Isles humbled.
14. Hurricanes– the decline has been quick, and shows no signs of turning around this year. Contracts like Jordan Staal and Alex Semin have bad news written all over them.
15. Maple Leafs– goaltending is too flaky, and scoring is too thin behind Kessel. Bottom of the barrel here.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Blues– Ken Hitchcock was St. Louis’ savior a year ago, and they aren’t about to turn back now. Expect the Blues to continue stifling defensive play throughout the year.
2. Canucks– Roberto Luongo is as good as gone, but Schneider is more than capable, and all of the offensive weapons are back. They should contend for the President’s Trophy again
3. Coyotes– this team continues to impress despite a major lack of star power. I like Mike Smith to have another great year in net.
4. Blackhawks– I think the Blackhawks, now healthy, should put together a nice season. Patrick Kane is poised for a bounce-back campaign.
5. Ducks– yep this is my sleeper pick. Bruce Boudreau had this squad playing back up to their potential last year, but ran out time to snag a playoff berth. Look for bounce back years for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
6. Red Wings– losing Nik Lidstrom might take more of a toll than some people think. I like their young talent a lot, but it’d be crazy to put them too much higher.
7. Predators– With Rinne back, they’re pretty much a lock for a playoff spot. Some worries about loss of Suter, but signing Hal Gill and re-signing others will help.
8. Stars- could repeat last year and get off to a red-hot start, but this time, a shortened schedule means they make the cut in April.
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9. Kings- what?! how could I leave the defending champs out of the playoffs? First off, they sneaked in as an 8-seed, and secondly, they’ve still got some major questions on offense
10. Sharks– we saw the decline begin last year, they have some good young players, but not enough depth.
11. Wild– two huge signings, but you need 4 full lines to make a decent NHL team. They could make things interesting if net-minder Niklas Backstrom stays healthy.
12. Avalanche– lots of good young talent, but really just too young for a playoff sprint (their Captain is only 20 years old!).
13. Oilers– just too much talent to finish any lower. Looking forward to seeing Yakupov and his new friends in action, even if the wins aren’t plentiful.
14. Flames– last year they did their normal routine and limped out of contention as the months dragged on. With an aging squad I don’t see much improvement on the horizon
15. Blue Jackets– just nothing here to think they’ll finish above bottom. With Nash gone they can begin to rebuild

In terms of pre-season Cup picks, I have never even been close to correct, but I’ll made some silly picks anyway…

Rangers fans hope to light em up with King Henry this summer

Stanley Cup: Rangers over Blues
Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP): Henrik Lundqvist
Hart (Reg Season MVP): Claude Giroux
Art Ross (Most Points): Claude Giroux
Rocket Richard (Most Goals): Steven Stamkos
Vezina (Best Goalie): Mike Smith
Norris (Best Defenseman): Kris Letang
Calder (Best Rookie): Nail Yakupov
Jack Adams (Best Coach): Adam Oates

Any comments, disagreements, praise, questions, quips, queries, and quandaries are all welcomed here. Looking forward to the puck finally dropping!

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NFL Playoff Predictions

The NFL playoffs are rarely boring, even a 33-14 blowout by the Ravens in New England last year was very watchable. So this weekend’s games are already must-see-TV. But what about the actual match-ups? Many are rematches of games we’ve seen not so long ago. The Chiefs and Ravens battled in a back and forth game in Week 1 last season, and, I’ll use this moment to drop a name I may never mention again: Brodie Croyle threw two TDs in a losing effort. The Jets and Colts met more recently, and in a much more meaningful setting: an AFC Title game just 348 days ago. The Packers also edged the Eagles in Week 1, during Michael Vick’s coming out party.

Ok, so some of this weekend’s match-ups may seem like no contests. But I assure you, despite New Orleans giving a 10.5 point spread to Seattle on the road, expect stronger seeming road teams to still have their hands full. Sure, over the last 3 years, home teams are 6-6 in the first round of the playoffs (hardly home-field advantage). But how many times have we said “that team played in an inferior division, they’ll get crushed”, only to be proven so wrong on Saturday or Sunday? See Arizona the past two years for evidence. Without further ado, a titillating month of football is on hand…

WILD CARD WEEKEND

SATURDAY:

I like the Colts to top the Jets once again. Rex Ryan may have grabbed more headlines than anyone this season, but his football team isn’t looking all that hot lately. Sure they’ve had tough opponents in recent weeks, Bears, Steelers, Pats… but Sanchez is dinged up, and the running game has slowed down a bit. Plus, again when have we been able to say this before, Peyton Manning is practically flying under the radar right now. In a season decimated by injuries, the Colts still pulled out the division, and managed to rediscover their running game over the last 4 weeks of the season. Pick: Jets 13, Colts 24

Along with 95% of America, I am going with the Saints in their contest at Qwest Field. Don’t get me wrong, Matt Hasselbeck has risen to the occasion in the past, but a 35-year old QB who has missed 3 games due to hip problems is past his prime. Drew Brees may be turning the ball over more this year, but with Reggie Bush back in the line-up, the Saints are obviously a more dynamic team, and will be able to find more ways to win… even if this ends up being a tighter contest. Pick: Saints 28, Seahawks 10

SUNDAY:

While most people are handing this game to the Ravens, i am not. I think this may be the closest game of the weekend. The Ravens haven’t been blowing teams out lately, and the Cheifs may be one of the only teams in the league capable of breaking through the Baltimore D with the running game. Expect a mistake here and there from both Flacco and Cassel, but big plays on defense keeping this one tight. Pick: Ravens 16, Chiefs 17

The Packers – Eagles game promises to be the weekend’s showcase match-up. After Green Bay beat Philly earlier in the season, Michael Vick said “I feel like if I had been out there for four quarters, maybe we would’ve had a chance to win the game;” he entered in the 2nd quarter after Kevin Kolb was concussed. Aaron Rodgers is being touted as the next great QB, but on Sunday he’ll simply be looking for his 1st ever post-season victory. I think he’ll get it, based on the Eagles’ lack of defense the last few weeks. Pick: Packers 30, Eagles 20

DIVISIONAL/CONFERENCE FINALS

AFC: With expected match-ups of Patriots v Chiefs, and Steelers vs Colts, more recent clashes come to mind… Practically a third of the Chiefs coaching/management came from New England; will that give them a leg up on the pole-setters? Not likely… As for the Steelers, they beat a favored Indy team in 2006 in their Super Bowl XL march. I expect a solid Steelers defense to stand strong at home, setting up a NE vs Pitt AFC Championship game. The Patriots simply own the Steelers with Brady, no matter where the game’s played. I’ll take New England as my Super Bowl pick

NFC: As the Saints match-up with the Bears, one thing will determine the outcome: turnovers. Both QBs have thrown their fair-share of picks this season, and if one comes when the game’s on the line, it could determine the outcome. Bears have proved me wrong all season, so I’ll take them to squeak out a close game. As for the Packers, they run up against Matt Ryan, in Atlanta. I like it when teams buck history, and will take GB to pull an upset…. thus, setting up an NFC North clash for the Championship. The Packers looked awful good in weeks 16-17, and really seem to be clicking now. Repeat the low scoring game at Soldier field, with the same result.

SUPER BOWL XLV

The game’s in Dallas, meaning both teams on a neutral field, in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXI. Amazing that both Favre and Bledsoe’s understudies, would be the ones to play, 14 years later. I still think New England will come out on top, but something about Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers is really tempting. Since the Pack have developed a tendency for losing close games, I’ll take Bellichick, Woodhead, and Brady’s locks.

Pick: Patriots 27, Packers 23

NFL: Deadlocked Divisional Duels

In the NFL, 8 teams combine for an alliteration-lover’s dream, see blog-title. Fancy naming schemes aside, football consistently boasts the least parity of any of the four major sports, and gives fans competitive treats year in and year out. This is year is no different, as 4 different divisions feature a pair of teams, with equal records, fighting for the division crown, and more importantly… an automatic playoff spot. So which teams should we expect to be playing in January of 2011? Let’s take a closer look:

AFC East: While most people thought the Jets and Patriots would battle things out for supremacy in this division, few could have predicted how things have played out. With the departure of Randy Moss, to the Brady/Beiber haircut controversy, to the Jets being shutout, and Darrell Revis’ lack of dominance, it’s already been an interesting year. Can the Dolphins end their home woes and catch these two? Whitsport Pick: Patriots (2 words: Bill Belichick)

AFC North: While some expected Cincinnati to challenge for this division’s crown, it’s now clear that the Steelers and Ravens are the two best teams in the division. Many are also slotting them for Super Bowl runs. With each squad displaying a mix of solid defense and play-makers on offense, their December 5th showdown in Baltimore could decide the division. Whitsport Pick: Ravens (Better Offense right now)

AFC South: Looks like this division is the best in football. With each team .500 or better, it’ll be a dog-fight to the end for the division championship. Good thing Michael Vick doesn’t play here… too soon? The Colts are always here, and the Titan’s defense has been scary for a few years now. Just one game back lie the Texans, who are the enigmatic team of the year so far, and the Jags, who are a close second. Odds are Manning will do his norm and take home the crown, but with Indy’s injuries, maybe this is the year another team trumps them. Whitsport Pick: Colts (1 word: Peyton)

NFC West: Yet again, it looks like nobody wants to win the division. Will we see a 7-9 team in the post-season?! The Seahawks and Rams currently share the top spot, but something tells me we’re in store for a few more twists and turns over the remaining 8 weeks. Although his notion seemed insane at the time, owner Jed York’s prediction of still winning the division could happen… the Niners are just two games off the pace. Whitsport Pick: Rams (underdog story of the year)

Despite not being completely square, all other divisions in the NFL are separated by just one game or less. The Saints trail the Falcons by just a half game in the NFC South, and two surprise teams, the Chiefs and Raiders, are battling things out in in the AFC West. Throw in the NY-Philly battle, and the Vikings making run after the Packers.

The end of the season is sure to be another memorable one. With no team running away with their division, this could be the closest NFL season we’ve seen in years. Not to mention that pre-season favorites Dallas, Cincinnati, and San Francisco are a combined 5-19. Will we see another 0-16? or will Buffalo finally earn a victory? Either way it looks to be a crowded party for the #1 Draft pick, throwing the Panthers and Broncos into the mix.

Even Dub-ya doesn't know what to make of the Cowboys this year