Now that we are officially past the All-Star Game and subsequently the half-way mark of the season, it would be a good time to let everyone know that this is when the real fun starts. The fine line between good teams and great teams starts to become even finer and more blurred. Those teams at the bottom of the barrel start to play better, those teams in the middle of the pack will feel the pressure of game 82 bearing down on them and this is where those great stories are written. Just like last year, there will teams fighting for playoff spots and they will be playing playoff hockey from here on out just to get in. Just like last year, there will be teams who have played well all year and are vying for the top spots in the division and conference. And at the end of it all, after game 82 has been played, none of it will mean a damn thing. It’ll a whole new season once the puck is dropped in the first playoff game and it doesn’t matter where you sit or how well you’ve played during those first 82 games. The 8th seed won’t care that the 1st seed amassed 33 more points or scored 101 more goals or that they had a -6 goal differential compared to a +85 because none of it will matter. All that hard work will be completely meaningless until one team has won 16 games and has that big shiny silver and nickel thingy raised high over it’s captain’s head.
Either way, looking forward to this week, the Philadelphia Flyers have three games against possible contenders in the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Nashville Predators, and the Dallas Stars.
Tampa Bay Lightning
02.01.2011 at 7:30 p.m. in Tampa
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a real good team. They score a lot of goals. They play an up-tempo, go-go-go brand of hockey, and will absolutely try to outscore you if nothing else. They’re inconsistent but can get really hot and this will be a good test to see if the Flyers have gotten into the mode that they really need to get into until they have achieved a playoff berth. The one thing the Flyers have yet to do this season against the Lightning is completely shut down the pair of league leading scorer Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis. In two games against the Flyers, Stamkos and St. Louis have combined for 12 points including a hat trick of Stamkos. The Flyers can play up-and-down pond hockey games and will from time to time, but having to match up against the Lightning is tough for them for whatever reason this year and they’d be much better off trying to force the Lightning to play a style than doing what they often do in conforming to the style of game the team they’re opposite is playing.
One big concern has been addressed by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman since the last meeting between these two teams with the addition of veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson. In his first 10 games with the Bolts, the 41 year-old Roloson has posted a 7-3-0 record, 3 of which were shutouts, and has a 2.25 GAA as well as a .922 SV% to go along with those empty frames. Roloson may be an older guy, but he gets the job done and has made the Lightning that much stronger for the stretch run and playoffs if they can get in, which they should.
02.03.2011 at 7:00 p.m. in Philadelphia
The Nashville Predators have made the playoffs in five of the last six seasons and in five of the last six seasons that they’ve made the playoffs, they were knocked out in the first round. The biggest they’ve been eliminated so early on in their playoff runs is that they are an extremely underfunded team. There are eight teams, according to Capgeek.com, that spend less than the Predators do. For being a mildly successful franchise, if success is measured by making the playoffs, it’s surprising they spend so little. They don’t retain players too often and the Flyers were the beneficiary of two former Predators who are absolutely key to their own success in defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell. Right now though, the Predators success this season has been a byproduct of their great defense corps.
Captain Shea Weber was rightfully selected to the All-Star Game this past week and almost won the hardest shot contest during the Superskills Competition in addition to posting four assists in the game. Weber is the leading scorer on the Predators, he has nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points, and it should come as no surprise being as that they are a defense-first team and have been for the better part of their existence. Ryan Suter is another decent producer for the Preds as he has 22 points in just 39 games. Cody Franson is another important blue-liner as he has collected 19 points including scoring six goals for the Predators. These guys are good and not only get their points, but shut teams down as the team has given up just 119 goals this year.
Up front there isn’t too much to talk about other than Patric Hornqvist (15 goals, 12 assists for 27 points), Sergei Kostitsyn (12 goals, 14 assists for 26 points), Colin Wilson (12 goals, 13 assists for 25 points), Martin Erat (6 goals, 15 assists for 21 points), and Steve Sullivan (10 goals, 10 assists for 20 points). The forwards on this team aren’t an untalented bunch, but since the team plays a more defensively minded game, the numbers aren’t going to be real flashy. This leads us to the topic of the Predators goaltender in Pekka Rinne.
Rinne is playing in his third full season with the Predators and has posted a 17-13-4 record including four shutouts, a pretty low 2.11 GAA, and a nice .929 SV%. The guy is good and at 6’5” 207 lbs, Rinne is a big man. He takes up a lot of net and the Flyers will have to prevent him from stealing two points for the Predators who currently sit in 4th place in the West with 60 points.
If the Phoenix Coyotes were the biggest surprise of last year’s regular season, the Dallas Stars have to be this year’s Cinderella Story. Plenty of hockey writers were trying to discredit the Stars all year long saying their hot start was nothing more than that and with so much made of Brad Richards’ contract situation, as well as the team’s struggling financial situation, it is a wonder that these guys have been able to not worry about anything but playing excellent hockey. The Stars currently sit atop the Pacific Division with an impressive 65 points. Being as that the Stars play in one of the tougher divisions in the league facing the Anaheim Ducks, the Coyotes, the Los Angeles Kings, and the San Jose Sharks who are arguably all playoff contenders and being as that the Kings are only out of the playoffs by one point, it makes those 65 points that much more impressive.
The leading scorer for the Stars is the aforementioned Brad Richards. Richards has 57 points (20 goals and 37 assists), and is ahead of the next highest scorer on the team by eight points. The Stars aren’t short on guys who can score and in fact have six forwards who have 10 or more tallies on the season. Those six players also have 33 or more points and only one of them is of a minus rating. The forwards produce pretty well, but on the back end only two guys are consistent point-getters.
The Stars only have two defensemen with more than 10 points on the season and they are Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas. Daley has five goals and 14 assists for 19 points while Robidas leads the corps with 24 points but has scored just three goals while racking up 21 assists. This shouldn’t be too worrisome for the Stars but they could use some more points, especially in the form of goals, from their other defensemen who guys like Matt Niskanen (six assists for six points), Nicklas Grossman (one goal, seven assists for eight points), and Karlis Skrastins (two goals, three assists for five points).
The Stars picked up Kari Lehtonen last year in a trade that sent defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fouth-round pick for this season’s draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the netminder. Since coming to the Stars last year, the 27 year-old Finland native has played fairly well. In 38 games this season, Lehtonen has a 22-11-5 record, a 2.58 GAA, and a .917 SV%. Lehtonen is on pace to have the best year of his career and his large 6’4”, 215 lb frame has a good portion to do with that as he takes up a lot of net and with the Stars allowing 31.2 shots per game, being a bigger boy certainly has its advantages.