• NHL Playoffs: 5 things to take away from round one

    After one round of the NHL Playoffs, here are five things learned as the second round gets underway. 

    1) New York needs more offense in round two 

    The New York Rangers are a popular pick to be the last team standing at the end of the daunting NHL Playoffs. They did everything you’d expect from a Stanley Cup favorite in the regular season. They were third in both goals scored and goals against rankings, which ultimately led to their third Presidents’ Trophy victory in franchise history. In five playoff games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, however, the Rangers’ overall play significantly diminished in quality. New York scored only 11 goals and went a dismal 3-for-20 on the power play, all of which are serious concerns for the Rangers, who are set to take on the Washington Capitals in Round 2. The lone bright spot for the Eastern Conference’s top seed was goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s evolution into playoff form. Rightfully referred to by the New York faithful as “King Henrik”, the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner posted a 1.54 Goals Against Average and a .939 save percentage against the Pens. If the King continues to stymie opposing offenses and the Rangers’ own offense addresses their woes, then New York will pose legitimate concerns for opponents moving forward.  

    2) Chicago’s depth proved to be the difference

    From double overtime in Game 1 to triple overtime in Game 4, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed to outlast the Nashville Predators by using experience to their advantage. While the Predators scored more goals in the series than the Blackhawks, winning that battle 21-19, Chicago was able to score major series-altering goals including two overtime winners from two different defensemen, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews led the team with 8 points in the series, and four other ‘Hawks had 5 points or more. Offensively, depth has always been a strong suit in the playoffs for Chicago. This year, depth in the net-minding position may have tilted the series in their favor. After surrendering three goals on 12 shots in Game 1, starter Corey Crawford was pulled and relieved by Scott Darling, who stopping 42 shots and surrendered no goals in a double OT win. In Game 2, Coach Joel Quenneville went back to Crawford, and the result was a 6-2 loss. Darling then started Games 3-6, but after only stopping 33 of 40 shots in the last two games, Darling lost the job, and Crawford stopped the last 13 shots the Predators took in the series. Quenneville has stated that Crawford will get the start in Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, but the goalie carousel will continue in Chicago unless Crawford plays the way he did in 2013 when the Blackhawks hoisted The Cup.

    3) St. Louis has the playoff blues

    Despite tying the Anaheim Ducks for the most points in the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues were dispatched in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. St. Louis has the talent to not only get out of the conference quarterfinals but also contend for a Stanley Cup Championship. Vladimir Tarasenko headlines the star-studded lineup, and he played rather well in the series against the Minnesota Wild, finding the back of the net six times. Goal scoring as a team, however, plagued the Blues as they totaled only 14 goals in six games. Captain David Backes and free agent pickup Paul Stasny contributed a mere one goal each. Lower than expected production was a result of both poor execution and opposing goaltending. After allowing six goals in Game 4, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk put together back-to-back games in which he only surrendered one tally. No matter how well Dubnyk played, mustering only two total goals in the final two games of the series is unacceptable for a team of this caliber. Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock’s future with the team may be in jeopardy after another poor postseason showing.

    4) Anaheim looks like a serious contender

    The Anaheim Ducks managed to sweep the Winnipeg Jets by leading just 38 minutes and 26 seconds of the 245 minutes and 12 seconds that were played during the four contests. This may sound alarming for the top seed in the West, but outscoring the opposition 10-1 in the third period and overtime of this series signals that when the game is up for grabs, the Ducks are the more determined team. Corey Perry, who notched 7 points, and the offseason acquisition Ryan Kesler, who added five of his own, led the Ducks in scoring. Acquiring Kesler is proving to be a worthy move for the Ducks as he scored some of the biggest goals in the series, including an overtime-forcing tally on the road late in Game 3. Continued production from Kesler and Perry as well as increased output from Captain Ryan Getzlaf will be key in a second round showdown with the surging Calgary Flames. Both teams are top 4 in the playoffs in both goals per game and power play percentage, so expect this series to be a high scoring thriller out west. 

    5) Home ice is crucial in close out games

    Teams playing at home with the opportunity to end the series were a combined 6-2 in the first round. The only losses were Montreal playing Ottawa at home with a 3-1 series lead and the Detroit Red Wings facing the Tampa Bay Lightning with a three games to two edge at the famous Joe Louis Arena. Home ice advantage proved to be monumental in both Game 7. The Washington Capitals were able to eliminate the New York Islanders in a close 2-1 game, and the Lightning dispatched the Red Wings by a score of 2-0 behind goalie Ben Bishop’s best night of the postseason. Both Game 7 environments were electric, and the home players of both teams certainly fed off the crowds’ energy to seal the games late in the third period. Vigorous playoff atmospheres in the NHL surely give the hometown players an extra spark on the ice, and that extra step over the opposition usually ends up being the difference in a tight series-clinching game. 

  • Cubs’ fans complain about long bathroom waits at Wrigley

    One of baseball’s biggest clichés is “anything can happen,” and at Wrigley Field on Opening Night, something happened that most fans did not expect. 

    Because of ongoing renovations at Wrigley Field, there were only two working restrooms, which caused some serious problems. According to some angry Cubs’ fans, the 45-minute wait to use the restroom became so long that fans started to relieve themselves anywhere they could: empty cups, against walls, etc. 

    Some Cubs’ fans even took the restroom situation to twitter.  

    “I’m all for renovating, but I’ve now missed two innings trying to get into the bathroom,” James Hillebrand said in a Tweet. “Get your act together.”

    The Cubs management made one thing clear; fixing the restrooms is a top priority.

    Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney apologized in an email sent out to Cubs season-ticket holders for the problem and explained that it is already being addressed. Kenney has a plan in place to bring portable toilets into stadium before more restrooms will be available for permanent use in late May. 

    “We will supplement existing restrooms with portable units in the left-field concourse and outside Gate K," Kenney wrote in his letter. "With these facilities in place, we will have approximately the same number of fixtures as we did at the end of the 2014 season. In addition, we are working with our game-day staff to help coordinate concourse traffic by communicating shortest wait times at all concourse facilities."

    The renovations at Wrigley were expected to cause some difficulties but not to the extent that it did on opening night. The Cubs management is very hopeful that their quick reaction to the restroom complications will help eliminate any problems going forward.

    "We appreciate your patience and for bearing with us as we work to restore Wrigley Field," Kenney said. "We are committed to ensuring ongoing construction does not lessen your experience at our ballpark. We will continue to monitor wait times and overall construction activity and will communicate developments as we go."

    According to Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, the $375 million renovations to make the ballpark more “modern” are expected to be completed during the next four offseasons. Wrigley has already started the modernization process as a 5,700-square-foot JumboTron has been placed in left field the day before opening night.

    Right now, the renovations are in the first phase, which will restore the stadium’s bleachers. The upcoming changes to Wrigley will include new clubhouses, umpire rooms, press box and bullpens.  A hotel is also being developed relatively close to the park.

    “There will be four more years,” Ricketts said. “The way we project it now is four more years of construction. A lot of that is subject to how the construction process goes. Once again, with the time horizon we have, making sure we make long-term decisions and not rush the process.”

    Fortunately for Cubs’ fans, the restroom problem will not be extended for the next four years and will hopefully be fixed by their next home game.

  • NHL: first round predictions

    Western Conference:

    (4) Winnipeg VS (1) Anaheim

    Anaheim in 6

    The Anaheim Ducks are once again the top seed in the Western Conference after totaling 109 points this season. In fact, they have been Pacific Division Champions three years running. Alarmingly, they have not reached the Conference Finals since the 2006-07 season, the same year in which they won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup. While Anaheim clearly has a history of early exits from the postseason, expect the experience of veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to carry the Ducks over the Jets, a franchise that has not been in the playoffs since 2007 (then the Atlanta Thrashers).

    (3) Calgary VS (2) Vancouver

    Vancouver in 7

    This battle for supremacy in Western Canada is a tossup. Both teams finished the regular season 6-3-1, and they were only separated in the standings by a margin of 4 points. The Canucks come into postseason play behind their star twin duo Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who tallied 76 and 73 points, respectively. The Canucks’ biggest question coming in is who will be the starting goalie, Eddie Lack or Ryan Miller. Similarly, the Flames have a question mark at goaltender as well. Jonas Hiller appears to be the starter come game 1, but it is important to note that he lost his starting job in the postseason with Anaheim last year. Goalie trouble aside, if the Flames wish to keep their surprise season going, they must get continued production from rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau.

    (4) Minnesota VS (1) St. Louis

    St. Louis in 6

    The St. Louis Blues tout the best goal differential in the Western Conference. Accomplishing this feat has come via a combination of solid play on both ends of the ice, as the Blues are top 5 in the league in both goals scored and goals against. Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the best offensive talents in the league, and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are two of the finest blue-liners you’ll find. While Minnesota put together a solid 100 point season, the star-studded lineup that the Blues bolster will prove to be too much to handle for the Wild.

    (3) Chicago VS (2) Nashville

    Chicago in 7

    The Nashville Predators are coming into the postseason for the first time in three years as the third best team in the Western Conference in terms of points. From Filip Forsberg’s breakout season to the standard solid play of goalie Pekka Rinne, the predators have put together quite the season. Unfortunately, they pair with the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of 2 of the last 5 Stanley Cup Championships. In addition, star forward Patrick Kane is expected to play for the first time in nearly 2 months since he suffered a clavicle injury. Kane, Toews and company will be too much for Nashville.

     

    Eastern Conference:

    (4) Pittsburgh VS (1) New York (Rangers)

    New York in 5

    During the first half of the season, this is not a matchup we would have expected to see in the first round. Ravaged by the injury bug, the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled mightily in the second half of the season, only edging Boston for the final Wild Card spot by 2 points. You have to be at full strength to beat the President Trophy winning New York Rangers, and the Penguins are far from it. The Rangers will keep up their exceptional level of play and will have some time to rest before the next round after a quick ousting of Sidney Crosby and the Pens.

    (3) New York (Islanders) VS (2) Washington

    Washington in 6

    A lot has been made of the potential “Battle of New York” in the second round if both the Islanders and Rangers advance. However, with Alexander Ovechkin playing the way he has this year, fans in the Big Apple will have to wait for an intrastate rivalry for at least another year. Ovechkin, scorer of 50 or more goals in one season for the sixth time in his career, has evolved as a better two-way player. Taking his absurdly awful plus/minus of -35 last season to +10 this year is evidence that Ovechkin has accepted the burden of leading his team to previously unattainable postseason success.

    (4) Ottawa VS (1) Montreal

    Montreal in 6

    The Montreal Canadiens’ season went relatively according to expectations: star defenseman P.K. Subban displayed his offensive talent by notching 60 points, solid forward Max Paccioretty led the team in total goals and points, and Carey Price had himself a Vezina Trophy caliber season by leading the league in just about every goaltending statistical category. The Senators, on the flipside, trailed in the wild card standings by a double-digit point margin less than two months ago.  However, don’t expect Ottawa’s season ending surge to translate into first round success as the Canadiens are simply too sound in all facets of the game.

    (3) Detroit VS (2) Tampa Bay

    Tampa Bay in 5

    Home ice has been kind to the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, as they have accumulated the best home record in the NHL at 32-8-1. Center Steven Stamkos helped his team to the highest goals per game average in the league, and starting goalie Ben Bishop recorded 40 wins on the season. When Bishop was injured for the first round last year, the Lightning were swept by the Canadiens. With a healthy net-minder and a ferocious offensive attack, the Lightning will close out the inconsistent Wings on home ice in game 5.  

  • NHL: Kings late-season heroics second to none

    The Los Angeles Kings have undoubtedly been one of the best teams of the decade thus far. Regular season dominance, however, has not exactly been their strong suit in achieving that title.

    Going back to late December through early February, the Kings suffered through a stretch of 15 games where they earned only three wins. At that point, chances of making the playoffs and having a shot to defend their Stanley Cup Championship were dim.

    Two months and a miraculous eight-game win streak later, LA is poised to once again sneak into the postseason.

    The Kings (39-25-14) currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division, trailing Calgary by 1 point. Los Angeles is tied with the Winnipeg Jets with 90 points, and the Kings hold the tiebreaker for the second and final Western Conference Wild Card spot. 

    With one game in hand on the Flames, and having played the same number of games as the Jets, the Kings control their own destiny.  But the playoff bubble is not unfamiliar territory for Los Angeles, which has won two of the last three Stanley Cup Championships.

    When the Kings won the Cup in 2011-12, they backed their way into the playoffs as an eighth seed. Similarly, just last year the Kings won the Stanley Cup as the last team to secure a divisional bid with a third-place finish in the Pacific Division.

    The best way to describe how the Kings manage to thrive in pressure filled situations might simply be level of confidence. Despite already being in position to secure a wild card berth, head coach Darryl Sutter displayed firm trust that his team will earn an automatic divisional bid.

    “Everybody’s trying to make the playoffs,” Sutter said when asked about playing other desperate teams down the final stretch of the season. “You’ve got to get into that division part of it. That’s the structure of the playoffs.”

    Sutter continued, “[We’re] not going to get a wild-card spot. The wild-card’s out of the picture.”   

    After suffering back-to-back 4-1 losses to Minnesota and Chicago, the Kings responded to their coach’s lofty goal and got back on the winning track with a dominating 8-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers at home Thursday night.

    Their return to the win column after the two crushing blows is an immense victory for both the team’s morale and their playoff hopes. And anybody that has seen the Kings play in the playoffs over the last three years knows that once they get in, they are difficult to beat.

    "We have a lot of guys in here that thrive under pressure situations," said defenseman Drew Doughty after the win over Edmonton. "We have a lot of heart, and we believe in every single player in this room to get the job done.”

    Confidence and team chemistry are two key components to a team’s postseason success, and the Kings seem to have mastered the art of both.

    “We still have a chance, so that’s what I think guys in this room have been really good at, is realizing that the opportunity is there,” Kings Captain Dustin Brown said.

    The Kings have made a name for themselves by making the most of their opportunities. With only four games remaining in the season and every one of them a potential must win, Los Angeles must once again prove there is nobody in today’s game that is better when the game, and the entire season, is on the line. 

  • Report: Texas close to finalizing deal with Shaka Smart

    Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart is close to making his move to Austin to be Texas’ next men's head basketball coach, according to multiple reports.

    Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday night that Smart’s deal with the Longhorns is still ongoing but close to being finished. 247Sports also reported that sources said a deal could be finalized Thursday.  

    Smart, who has been with the Rams for the past six seasons, has been a familiar name thrown around Texas’ search to replace former head coach Rick Barnes. Texas let go of Barnes on Sunday after 17 seasons with the Longhorns, which made him the winningest head coach in program history.

    Smart, 37, has led VCU to an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of the last five seasons. In addition, the Rams claimed a CBI Championship in 2010 and had a Final Four run in 2011.

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