the Fifth Line: Championship Time Nears

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Everything is accelerating now. Bubble teams are on their last ditch efforts to make the NHL playoffs, while playoff-bound teams jockey for position. Every little defect of a team is worried over, whether by paranoid fans or bookies.

Meanwhile, the NCAA teams have been seeded for the men’s national tournament. The Golden Gophers from Minnesota have already claimed the women’s national title. But we’ll get to them later. We start here in Chicago.

Consistency, Thou Art Fleeting

The Blackhawks are still the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup… depending on whose odds you’re looking at. If you got in on the New York Rangers a few weeks back when they were still 12/1 odds, well done. At this point, the Rangers and ‘Hawks are about even — 11/2 one way, 5/1 the other.

With that in mind, the recent games between these two teams were previews to the oddsmaker’s likeliest Stanley Cup matchup. The games were split, each team winning 1-0 in extremely tense, mistake-free hockey. They were fast-paced chess matches on ice, and the NHL would obviously love two big markets making the finals.

If you’re a Chicago fan, you’ll wonder why the ‘Hawks can’t play like champions against not-so-good teams. Since defeating the Rangers last Wednesday, they’ve been embarrassed my mediocre teams that’ll miss the playoffs (Philadelphia & Dallas) and barely beat a bottom-tier team in Carolina. It’s hard to reconcile the ‘Hawks team from game to game.

Some of this is Chicago desperately missing Patrick Kane, who was turning in an MVP season. But as blogger and analytics guru Jen LC points out, Chicago’s possession numbers are trending very much in the wrong direction. Kane’s absence might contribute to that, but the defensive injuries and issues are likely an even bigger worry. Add to that Coach Q’s tendency to not roll four full lines, or give high-liability defensemen way too much ice time (Rozsival), and now you’re also factoring fatigue and inconsistency into the mix.

It’s quite possible that the ‘Hawks figure it all out in time for the playoffs. They often do. If a team has pulled out of a dive before, it doesn’t mean they can do it again — and it would be be better to not have to rely on that ability all the time.

This Feels All Too Familiar…

I hate hammering the same notes, lamenting the fact that Brandon Pirri is having a great late season alongside Jimmy Hayes in Florida. Or that Kevin Hayes is scoring highlight-reel goals as he provides unfair depth down the middle for the Rangers. I don’t want to mention that these former Chicago prospects all brought little in return yet are shining after removing the roadblocks in front of them.

But I will mention it again, because it might be happening again.

Now, that link from SI.com reads like a lot of speculation, but the fact is that there is worry about whether Chicago’s 2011 draft pick Michael Paliotta will sign with the club… or pull another Kevin Hayes. College draft picks who stay in college all four years have leverage against the team that drafts them when they’re still 18 — the drafting team gets exclusivity to their pick until August 15th after their senior season. Come August 16th, an unsigned pick can go anywhere.

It’s rare, but Kevin Hayes did it last year and is thriving in ways he would not have in Chicago’s farm system. It’s not unreasonable to think that if Hayes was still with Chicago, he’d waste some of his most productive years in the AHL before Chicago dumped him for whatever they could get. The Blackhawks are a deep team, and Coach Q has a reputation for preferring sub-optimal “grit” players over potential breakouts.

On one hand, a deep team and a stacked farm system are a good problem to have. Most teams would gladly hemorrhage prospects if it meant being in the Cup picture every season. But I worry what will be left when salary cap and age change that picture. Watching well-scouted draft picks walk away or get shipped for poor returns will no longer be minor a concern if Chicago stops making conference or Cup finals.

Senator-Watch

It. Has. Happened.

2015-03-17_20_48_51.0The Ottawa Senators are, for at least this moment, a playoff team. BGSU alum Andrew Hammond has compiled a ridiculous record (14-0-1) as a starter, and the Senators skaters are starting to buy in. Kyle Turris has become the most dangerous man in Ottawa, Eric Karlsson rounding back to Norris Trophy form, and the Boston Bruins have lost all power to their engines.

I can’t stress that last bit enough. For all the unbelievable thing that Ottawa is doing to claw its way to the postseason, they couldn’t get there without the “help” of a flailing Bruins team. David Krecji’s injury has shown how integral he is to Boston’s gameplan. Zdeno Chara is getting old, and top-scoring blue-liner Dougie Hamiltion looks to be done for the season.

I love the Senators’ story this year, but it’s hard not to think that it’ll all blow up in a first-round series against the Rangers or Canadiens. Until then, though, enjoy the ride.

The Other Savior in Net

As our astute editor-in-chief has noted, Hammond isn’t the only “miraculous goalie saves team” narrative this year. Over in Minnesota, the Wild were on life support at the start of 2015. Way out of playoff contention in a chaotic Western Conference, they were still a good team. All the advanced-stats kids were like, “all they need is a league-average goaltender, and the numbers say they would be a playoff-caliber team.” The Wild tested this theory by acquiring backup goalie Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes in mid-January, along with his relatively average .910 career save percentage.

What Dubnyk has done is anything but average.

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He has started all 32 games the Wild have played since the trade. He has put up an insane .939 save percentage on the way to a 24-6-1 record. There’s question as to whether he’ll start suffering fatigue. There’s no question that he’s going to regress. But even if he does, he would still be an average goalie behind a great defense on a team that excels in driving possession, suppressing shots, and killing penalties. As was stated, all the Wild needed was an average goalie to be a good team. They’ve got a goalie playing out of his mind, and until he regresses, his team will be capable of beating any team in a seven-game series.

Even when he regresses, they’ll still be able to match up against any team. Your team wants to play the Senators in the first round. Your team wants to avoid the Wild at all costs right now.

Women’s Frozen Four, BGSU Misses the Men’s FF

This weekend marks the start of the Men’s national NCAA hockey tournament, a.k.a. the Frozen Four. The women’s tournament concluded over the weekend, with the Minnesota Golden Gophers stomping over the rest of the field on their way to the championship. My beloved Wisconsin fell to them in the semi-finals, but there is a bright spot: The #1 overall see in the Men’s tournament is Minnesota State from the WCHA conference. The Minnesota women’s team is also a member of the WCHA. It’s not unreasonable that the WCHA and the state of Minnesota could dominate both men’s and women’s tournaments. The State of Hockey, indeed.

Unfortunately for my alma mater, BGSU, fate was a cruel bastard last week. BGSU lost to Michigan Tech in the men’s WCHA semi-final, and they had a long shot to get into the national tournament. At least six conference tournament games across the U.S. had to go their way for BGSU to squeeze in. By some strange miracle, every such game went in BGSU’s favor… except one.

Michigan Tech was up 2-1 against Minnesota State, and that result would’ve given the BGSU Falcons a national tournament berth. But then Minnesota State scored three unanswered goals, brushing away Michigan Tech like an annoying fly. BGSU ended up the first team outside the bubble, looking in. Ah, well. It was still a helluva season, and the returning players form a solid core to build off. Ay Ziggy Zoomba.

Frozen Four – Regional Games

Sour grapes aside, the men’s national tournament starts tomorrow, and there are some great storylines to follow:

How’s That Working For You, Big Ten?: The Big Ten pissed off a lot of people when it threw money at Penn State’s club team, ensuring a bare minimum of D-1 teams to make a $hiny new Big Ten hockey conference. This lead to the death of the CCHA, the birth of super-conference NCHC, and a lot of silly reshuffling. Only having two teams in the Big Ten who won more than half their games this season, and those two teams met in the conference tourney final. Minnesota defeated Michigan to get the Big Ten’s only bid for the national tournament. They drew a first round game against a higher-ranked team from the same state (Minnesota-Duluth). If they make it past, they get to take on the presumptive Hobey Baker Award winner.

Our Apologies to Miami (OH): In case you didn’t know that Miami (OH) was ranked the lowest of the regional #1 seeds, the bracket leaves no doubt. Minnesota State gets a relatively easy bracket. North Dakota gets to play at home. Boston U. gets to play near home. Miami opens against Providence… in Providence. If they win, they’ll either face a legendary coach (Boston College’s Jerry York) or a conference rival that is fully capable to defeating a #1 seed (Denver, who beat North Dakota in last week’s NCHC consolation game). This is what you get for winning the most difficult conference tourney in NCAA hockey?

AP BOSTON BEANPOT TOURNAMENT HOCKEY S HKC USA MA1st Round Games to Check Out: All of them, but if you can only see a few… The tournament kicks off Friday afternoon with Boston U. versus Yale, featuring future NHL 2nd-overall pick Jack Eichel for BU. Also on Friday is a matchup between in-state (and former conference) rivals Minnesota versus Minnesota-Duluth. Saturday features dark horse Denver taking on York’s Boston College, the winner of which might be an upset candidate for the Frozen Four semifinal.

My Completely Inexpert Picks: Harvard upsets Omaha, but is roundly defeated my Minnesota State. Denver beats BC, and then upsets conference rival Miami (OH). Michigan Tech does the WCHA proud in the first round, but falls late to North Dakota in the second round. Minnesota-Duluth send the Big Ten packing, and then goes to overtime with Boston U., before the hockey gods declare that Eichel must get the game-winning goal.

-J.

-J.

The entity known as -J. would be at home in a place like Carcosa or Night Vale, but instead lives near a far more dreary place -- Wrigley Field. He is the patron Addisonian of whisk(e)y and tabletop games, and is often adorned with a waistcoat & his ridiculous mustache.

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