He answered my questions and now I answer his.
In the latest installment of our ongoing collaboration that will last throughout the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series, I respond to five questions from FromThePoint.com‘s Brian Metzer about the Bolts as they prepare to take on his hometown Pens.
Here’s the first one, as a sample:
BM – Though this series would have been a bit sexier had all of the star power been on the ice for each side, it does still feature one of the most exciting players in the league — Steven Stamkos. Stamkos will certainly leave his finger prints on the series, especially if the Lightning advance, but I have been thinking that Vinny Lecavalier is almost more important to the Lightning’s chances. What are your thoughts? The Penguins defense will be focused on stopping the Stamkos/St. Louis combo leaving Vinny to lift himself and the ‘Ning to greatness…
JJ – While Stamkos has been stymied of late, scoring just one non-empty net goal in the final 13 games, it’s awfully difficult to stop Marty St. Louis. Somehow, the ageless wonder always seems to manage to make a difference. Because of that, and the undeniable fact that St. Louis is still the heart of this club as well as its primo offensive catalyst, I put more value on his performance than Stamkos’ even. That said, the Lightning need Stamkos to return at least partially to the form that had him on such a torrid pace for most of the season. The way he’s fizzled, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that he’s been nursing some sort of unknown injury, though I don’t have any reason to suspect as much and, if so, they’ve done a good job of keeping it under wraps to this point.
More original content from yours truly, as well as a link to my answers to Brian Metzer’s questions at FromThePoint.com, in short order.
For now, here’s a sampling of some other takes on the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series, everything from opinion and commentary to prediction and previews, from the Tampa and Pittsburgh areas and beyond…
Getting there — back to the playoffs — occurred much quicker than anticipated. Yzerman, a Hall of Fame player for two decades in Detroit, spoke of the long-term picture and hired the youngest coach in the league, 39-year-old Guy Boucher. While this season was not to be overlooked — the hope was the team would compete for a playoff spot — the broader plan was to make the Lightning an annual participant in the postseason with an eye on three years, even five years, down the road.
Instead, Boucher and Yzerman turned things around at warp speed, guiding the Lightning to the second-best regular season in franchise history in finishing with 101 points and a record-tying 46 victories.
To accomplish that in Year One of a long-term plan put Tampa Bay on the fast track to becoming a perennial playoff contender and legitimate threat to win another Stanley Cup — maybe more — during the new regime.
Leading up to tonight’s Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinal opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, you’ll probably be gearing up by gathering every piece of information out there about both teams, previews, predictions, news and opinion alike. While I put out my series breakdown yesterday (and probably fell out of favor with some of the locals, as I picked the Penguins to win a true “pick ‘em” series in six games, while recognizing how very possible it is that the series could fall the other way in the Lightning’s favor) and also shared my brief thoughts on the other quarterfinal matchups, that was just me.
And, that’s just not enough.
Instead of relying on my take alone, I’ll be taking advantage of the Tampa/Pittsburgh matchup to do some long-awaited collaboration with a pal and former colleague who does a fine job in covering the Penguins at FromThePoint.com, Mr. Brian Metzer.
Metz has covered the Pens admirably for years at a number of different outlets and his word, on their end, is gold in my book. With that in mind, I thought I’d toss a few burning questions his way, to get his take on the series before it gets underway. He’s returned fire, and I’ve answered a few of his inquiries as well, which he’ll be running over on his site later this morning. (For now, Brian’s posted Ten “Must Sees” for the series…)
We’ll be staying in touch throughout the series and picking each other’s brains with every twist and turn therein, all to be shared right here (and there) for your reading enjoyment. (Make sure you’re following Metz on Twitter as well for further updates on his end.)
And, hurt feelings aside, I’m sure we’ll take a look back at this potentially-epic matchup once all is said and done.
Finally, each of us will be popping in at NHL Home Ice (Sirius 208/XM 204) periodically during the series and we’ll do our best to keep you posted on times for our guest spots. I do know that Metz will be on with Jim “Boomer” Gordon sometime this afternoon, for starters.
To kick things off, here are my five questions for Metz and his insightful responses thereafter. I’ll be posting a link to my retort on his site as soon as possible.
Every year around this time, in writing this very piece, I usually begin with something along the lines of, “I swore I’d never make playoff predictions again.” For starters, everybody does it and I usually try my best to steer clear of being just like the rest of ‘em. But more than that, my repeated attempts to avoid postseason prognostication stem from my overwhelming lack of accuracy in years past. (The postseason underachievers of the world have drawn my ire time and again. San Jose, you still top my poop list for that reason.)
But worse than my failure to pick a set of winners that resembles anything close to accuracy is my perennial failure to avoid picking altogether.
Something always draws me in.
And now, I realize, I’m powerless to fight it. I’ll make my picks here today, do so again round after round and I’ll do it again next year (and the year after that, and so on and so forth). Might as well be honest with myself…
This year, the allure is in the series that will remain my primary focus, Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh. I have to admit, it’s still a bit surreal to see the hometown Bolts actually in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After the last two seasons of uncertainty, four seasons overall since their last playoff game and even despite the regular season success they managed early and often this year, the fact that exit medicals and getaway interviews haven’t already been conducted is still a bit of a walk through bizzarro-world for me. Better get over that, I suppose… The Lightning certainly aren’t thinking that way.
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One final update from AHL regular season action before our weekly stats pack-style showcase of the NHL’s Southeast Division affiliates gets a bit more detailed, focusing on playoff action for the three clubs that qualified for Calder Cup contention, Charlotte, Hershey and Norfolk.
Until then, however, one last look at the week gone by:
Click for individual box scores
Monday, 4/4/11: Adirondack Phantoms 6, Rochester Americans 0
Rochester goal-scorers: none
Rochester goaltenders (saves/shots): Marc Cheverie (29/35)
Three stars of the game: 1 – Denis Hamel, ADK; 2 – Michael Leighton, ADK; 3 – Matt Read, ADK
Monday, 4/4/11: Norfolk Admirals 5, Charlotte Checkers 2
Norfolk goal-scorers: Mattias Ritola 2 (7), Pierre-Cedric Labrie (6), Blair Jones 2 (23)
Charlotte goal-scorers: Chris Terry (33), Bobby Sanguinetti (3)
Norfolk goaltenders (saves/shots): Jaroslav Janus (24/26)
Charlotte goaltenders (saves/shots): Justin Pogge (21/26), Bobby Goepfert (10/10)
Three stars of the game: 1 – Blair Jones, NOR; 2 – Mattias Ritola, NOR; 3 – Marc-Antoine Pouliot, NOR
The playoffs are here and there’s much to do along with that. We’ve got predictions to be made, schedules to coordinate, stories to write and, don’t forget, beards to grow!
As far as scheduling goes, complete playoff dockets can be found all over the place but many folks have a specific focus in mind and you won’t find that readily available just anywhere. But I’ve put together a master viewing schedule for anyone with a Southeast Division focus, in particular, including AHL Calder Cup playoff matchup for Carolina, Tampa Bay and Washington fans looking to track their minor league affiliates in the postseason as well. (I would imagine that AHL Live will make a playoff package available in short order.)
Naturally, many of you (like me) will be watching as much playoff hockey as you possibly can, by whatever means necessary, making the act of planning your viewing schedule relatively pointless but, if you follow along with this, fans of teams in the Southeast (and even those who will only see playoff action through their minor league affiliates) won’t miss a second of their club’s chase for a championship. I’ll certainly aim to update this past the first round, where applicable.
Your master schedule awaits:
For a time, it looked like four teams from the Southeast Division would at least have a fighting chance at a playoff spot. As late as the end of January, while Tampa Bay and Washington remained comfortably among the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff-bound teams, both the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes teeter-tottered in and around eighth place, making a quartet of Southeast clubs fighting to advance through the Stanley Cup playoffs a distinct possibility.
Alas, Atlanta was in freefall mode soon enough, winning just twice in the entire month of February, the Florida Panthers never contended, despite having a better showing this year than many expected, and Carolina’s impressive fight for the eighth and final playoff spot fell just short yesterday, though the final round of that battle last night left much to be desired, losing to Tampa Bay 6-2 at home in a win-and-in setting.
So, it will be the Capitals and the Lightning only representing the Southeast in the NHL postseason, which is about what most pundits put forth in preseason predictions. Flip-flop Atlanta and Carolina in the Southeast’s final standings, and the actual finish is exactly what I’d expected, though I won’t boast that as a feat deserving any sort of special recognition. By and large, the end result in these here parts was an easy call.
That being said, there were some twists and turns and surprises along the way.
Down to the wire, indeed.
Game 82 tonight for the Carolina Hurricanes, against visiting division rival Tampa Bay could very well be a “win-and-in” situation for the home squad, depending on what the New York Rangers end up doing in today’s home tilt against New Jersey (2-1 Devils early in the second, as I type this).
With the ‘Canes currently in eighth, thanks to a greater number of regulation wins (35 to New York’s 34) after an even point total of 91, a Ranger loss in regulation today renders tonight’s game irrelevant. If the Blueshirts earn a single point, Carolina must at least do the same to regain eighth. New York wins, so must the Hurricanes.
Essentially, it’s follow the leader (or the trailer, as it were, in this case).
‘Canes Still Alive (Here’s How They Get In) Plus, Bolts Players in Cut for a Cure & JJ’s “Beard-Off”
Now, it gets fun.
The hockey world thanks you, Carolina Hurricanes, for being one of the scrappiest damn teams in this league. Had you listened to the odds at any point during your playoff chase, you’d have bowed out, oh, eleven times or so by now.
With almost zero wiggle room, and in a home stretch that has them finishing their season on Friday and Saturday with their seventh set (seventh!) of back-to-back games since March 3rd, Carolina has managed a 9-5-2 record in that span to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
After last night’s gutty 3-0 shutout of the visiting Detroit Red Wings (you know, those perennial Western Conference doormats?), the ‘Canes live to fight another day or, at least two, to get all technical about it.
But until they hit Atlanta to tackle the Thrashers on Friday, nothing at all is in their hands and, even then, their fate is not totally their own to decide.
Usually, at this time of the season, I’m making off-season plans, soliciting reader responses for year-end fan polls and compiling the results, pondering summer changes for my primary team of focus, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and finalizing preparations to decrease the workload a bit or take some time away from writing altogether.
Can’t do any of that this year – not with the Bolts in the dance for the first time since 2007 – and the divisional focus is still alive as well, with the Washington Capitals not only Southeast champs for the fourth consecutive season but also in the driver’s seat for the Eastern Conference’s top seed, now leading Philadelphia by two points (and Pittsburgh three) after locking up the division with a shootout win in Toronto last night. Also, the Carolina Hurricanes are still clinging to life, though a home loss to Detroit tonight would kill their postseason dream outright.
So, with two Southeast clubs headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs (and maybe, maaaaayyyyybeeeeee three), I’m in business for a while longer than usual this year – at least in terms of sticking with my assigned beat and not having to look elsewhere for material, unless I so choose.
And along with remaining in work mode this year (hallelujah, by the way) comes the return of my very own playoff beard (and the tracking of progress with pictures, thereof).
If you want to play along, you have to abide by my simple rules: