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Thank God Hockey’s Back (NHL Preview)

It's been an offseason to forget in the NHL

If you thought the NBA offseason has been hell then you don’t have the slightest idea about rough. The NHL’s offseason has been a public relations nightmare. The summer was supposed to be about the celebration of the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup after 40 years of futility. Instead every other day there was a tragedy on the ice.

Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the KHL Lokomotiv franchise’s plane crash that killed all passengers aboard including former NHL-ers Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra and Brad McCrimmon to name a few cast a shadow of the sport and brought sadness to everyone over the sport.

Add that to the fact that Rangers bruiser Derek Boogaard died towards the end of last season and you understand the somber mood that the NHL might seem to be in.

When looking at ESPN fashion guru Paul Lukas’s annual uniform design review there were less designs for jerseys and more decals and patches for fallen players. It’s like the NHL has become a graveyard instead the coolest game on earth.

If any sport needs to start their season and get back to the brilliant play on the playing surface it’s this league. Ever since the lockout 0f 2004-05 the NHL has been on a roll. The talent on the ice is the highest that it’s been since the mid to late 90’s with the emergence of the Paul Kariya’s, Keith Tkachuk’s and Mike Modano’s of the world.

The NHL has so many great players playing at a high level that it’s becoming hard to keep up with all of them. At first it was the hype of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf. Then came Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler. Now we have kids like Ryan Nugent- Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Tyler Myers and others who are crowding the ice and making noise.

The Bruins are ready to repeat.

It’s not like the NBA in terms of star power but it’s a beautiful thing to watch when the games are flowing. There are great players on every team in the league and most are under the age of 27.  Every night in every city there is a reason to watch a game just to catch one of these young studs whether it’s Drew Doughty in Los Angeles or Jeff Skinner in Carolina. Even with the sports brightest star status still in doubt (Sidney Crosby is still having post-concussion issues) the league is as strong as it’s ever been and is staring one of its most competitive season in decades in the face.

This year there is no real clear cut favorite. Gone are the days of Detroit being the front runner in the league every year, nowadays they’re not even the favorites in their own division. There are 10 to 14 teams that have a realistic chance at winning the Stanley Cup this year whether it is because of their goaltending, offensive prowess or just the fact they have all of the right pieces in place to make a run at the cup.

The right pieces meaning the right balance of youth and experience. In the modern NHL the young teams win championships as seen with the Penguins, Blackhawks and Bruins in the last three years. Yes I know Tim Thomas is old as dirt and Zdeno Chara is no spring chicken, but the work put in by guys like Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand helped this team win the Stanley Cup last year. Unlike in other sports where the older teams win the titles the young ones take the crown in the NHL.

So who has the best shot at winning the crown this year? Well in order…

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Now I know what you’re thinking… who the hell will score goals for them? Their leader in goals had 23 and their points leader scored 50. The Predators are the NHL version of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2000’s, they can’t score to save their lives, but no one can score on them. The backline led by Shea Weber along with Vezina finalist Pekka RInne were in the top 5 in goals allowed per game and the teams tough defensive play gave teams fits. If they get two goals a game they could win another 44 games and find themselves fighting for the crown.

BUFFALO SABRES

They can score in bunches thanks to Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford. Tyler Myers heads a steady backline and Ryan Miller is one the game’s best goalies. They failed to take care of the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last year but if Miller stays on top of his game they can go very far.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Team Teemu and the Ducks have a shot at the crown.

 

Once upon a time the Habs had more titles than the New York Yankees after raising their 24th Cup in 1993. Ever since they’ve been one big roller coaster, which has included numerous changes in net and on the bench and they haven’t had a real identity for a long time. Now they seem settled on Carey Price who came through big for them last year shaking off an up and down 2009-20 season that had him on the bench in the playoffs. This team isn’t too loaded with playmakers but it gets the job done with guys like Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri as well as dark horse Norris candidate P.K. Subban patrolling the blue line. They can make a run as long as they can hold onto a lead unlike how they did last year against the Bruins.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

I don’t care what they do in the regular season anymore. I don’t care if they win the Pacific division, if Joe Thornton scores 200 points and Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture score 90 goals. This team should’ve won a Cup by now and their time is running out. If they don’t get it done this year then they never will.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Is Ilya Bryzgalov finally the answer in net for the Flyers? He better be. The Flyers let go of fan favorites and team leaders Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to clear space for Bryzgalov. Sure they acquired L.A. Kings power forward Wayne Simmonds (who Flyer fans will love) and Brandon Schenn  (who from preseason reports looks like a beast) but you don’t replace Richards toughness and Carter’s skill overnight. I’m still not a fan of either trade but if the Flyers get back to the finals then it proves that maybe I really don’t know anything about hockey.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

I probably jumped the gun last year in making them Stanley Cup favorites, but they are close. Acquiring Richards from the Flyers gives them a much needed veteran presence in the locker room and they have Doughty, Jack Johnson and Anze Kopitar flying around and making things happen. The only question is will Jonathan Quick be their full time net minder or will it be Jonathan Bernier?

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Without Crosby the Pens had 98 points last year and took the 4th spot in the East (without Malkin also) so once Crosby comes back how do you think this team will fare?

(This Crosby injury by the way is really bad in both a game play and P.R. sense for the NHL. The league needs Crosby on the ice because he is the NHL. Crosby is the league’s most recognizable face and its best player. The league needs him on the ice as much as it needs Ovechkin. When Crosby is on the ice the game changes. He is the best passer and best scorer in the league and can change a game at the drop of a hat. If the Pens had him healthy in the playoffs they may have hoisted their second cup in three years. Once healthy the Pens once again become the league’s scariest team and might be the best team in the league… once he comes back.

His injury is the reason why Brendan Shanahan has been so harsh when it comes to physical play. This isn’t like the NFL where Roger Goodell is turning the game into flag

40 and still going strong.

football, the suspensions that “Shanaban” is handing out are necessary in order to change the culture of the game and protect the players. After the injuries to Crosby as well as Nathan Horton and Marc Savard it has become clear that the league needs to crack down on these types of hits. Hopefully it discourages this type of play and quick. Because if Steven Stamkos gets a Crosby type of injury then the game will really be in trouble.)

DETROIT RED WINGS

I mean when are they not a player for the Cup?

Also let’s pay homage to Nicklas Lidstrom. This is probably his last season in the league and it looks like he can play another five. At age 40 Lidstrom is still better than most of the defensemen in the league and is probably the front runner for his 8th Norris trophy. What he did in replacing the irreplaceable Steve Yzerman as captain in Detroit and leading them to another title in addition to all that he’s done in his career has to put him in the top 10 players all-time right?

NEW YORK RANGERS

I probably just jinxed my team putting them in the top 7 and I’m probably overvaluing the acquisition of Brad Richards (which will help immensely) but after watching this team play together for two years I think that they will contend for a title this year. The Rangers youth movement has been a huge success with Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal and Brandon Dubinsky leading the way. The Rangers are a tough team that is defense driven but can score goals when needed. They just needed more consistent scoring and a veteran to get them over the hump. Enter Richards. Richards was a member of John Tortorella’s 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning championship team and is one of the game’s best scorers. His presence will help Marian Gaborik get back to scoring a ton of goals, should push Cally and Dubz to the 30 goal mark and should keep the Rangers ship steady in those late months. I’m saying they’ll win it all, but they will be a serious contender.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Hey Bruce Boudreau, you don’t get it done this year then you may want to update your resume.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

The thought of Daniel Sedin taking four shots to the face and Roberto Luongo falling flat on his face in key situations is still fresh. If they didn’t get tougher this offseason then they’ll be done in a hurry.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

The trades after the title killed their chemistry for the first half of last year. Once they got it going they looked like a machine. The key is Corey Crawford in net. We know Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp will score, but the reason they were able to turn things around was because of Crawford’s play in net. He is primed for a breakout year and the Blackhawks are looking at a return to the Cup.

BOSTON BRUINS

With Richards the Rangers can contend.

 

Okay, your city won its 7th title in all four major sports in 10 years… now go away. That wasn’t really analysis more like I’m sick of Boston and its championship reign.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

No one, and I mean no one will stop them from scoring goals especially of Ryan Getzlaf stays healthy all season long. The Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan line is the scariest line that the NHL has seen in a while. They can all go for 50 goals and 100 points and they make it easy. It helps when your 40 year-old second line winger can still get you 30 goals and 80 points to help back you up. I don’t know what fountain of youth Teemu Selanne has been drinking from but he needs to share it with others. However it always comes back to goaltending and Jonas Hiller decides whether I’m right about this team making the Cup finals or not. With him in net last year they would’ve won the pacific division. In that period in between before Ray Emery almost saved them the Ducks could’ve scored 10 goals a game and it wouldn’t have mattered because they still would’ve lost. Hiller’s health means so much to this team because they have no real second option behind him. It also doesn’t help that he is one of the top 6 goalies in the league. This team’s title hopes hinge on him, if he’s healthy then put them down for a June reservation. If not, then it’s another first round exit.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Yep, I just picked the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. They have a 41 year-old goalie, I don’t know if their defense can stop the puck from going in the net and Vinny LeCavalier is still possible trade bait… and I don’t care. This team could’ve made the Stanley Cup Finals last year if not for a road game 7. This year I think Stamkos and company won’t fade late in the season like they did last year, which ultimately cost them home ice. They are settled in net and Roloson is a big game goalie who knows how to win also they can score with the best of them. Steve Yzerman put this team together in his image and if that’s the case then I have no doubts that they will be tough enough to get to and win the Stanley Cup.

The first puck is set to drop in a few hours and I’m more than excited. After a long offseason with so much tragedy and heartbreak it will be a welcome relief to see some of the best players in the world on the ice and making magic happen.

The league deserves some good news and good times after a few months of so many bad ones.

ATLANTIC- RANGERS

Stamkos is ready for a run at Lord Stanley.

NORTHEAST- BRUINS

SOUTHEAST- LIGHTNING

EC PLAYOFFS- CAPS, HABS, SABRES, FLYERS, PENS

ECF-  LIGHTNING- BRUINS

CENTRAL- BLACKHAWKS

NORTHWEST- CANUCKS

PACIFIC- DUCKS

WC PLAYOFFS- SHARKS, KINGS, PREDATORS, RED WINGS, BLUES

WCF- DUCKS- BLACKHAWKS

SCF- DUCKS- LIGHTNING

HART TROPHY- STEVEN STAMKOS

VEZINA- HENRIK LUNDQUIST

NORRIS- NICKLAS LIDSTROM

CALDER- RYAN NUGENT-HOPKINS

SELKE- JONATHAN TOEWS

JACK ADAMS- JOHN TORTORELLA


Where Is Alex Ovechkin?

Have you seen Alex Ovechkin?

Have you noticed something different about the NHL this year?

 

Tampa Bay Lightning in first place in the Southeast? No. The Chicago Blackhawks struggles after winning the Stanley Cup? No.  The Dallas Stars regaining some of that late 90’s magic and riding it to the top of the Pacific division again? Nope.

 

Check your stat sheets. Look at the league leaders in goals and points… Crosby, check. Stamkos, check. Sedin… both of em… check and check. Alex Ovechkin, looking, looking… wait, where in the hell is Alex Ovechkin? I’ve been wondering the same thing.

 

To say Ovechkin is having an off-season is like saying the Cleveland Cavaliers miss LeBron James.  Before Saturday night’s tilt in Toronto Ovechkin was 11th in the league in points with 48 and had16 goals, which doesn’t even put him in the top 30 in the league. Guys like Mikhail Grabovski, James Neal, Milan Lucic and Logan Couture have more goals than Ovechkin. Hell the Rangers Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky have set career highs in scoring and we’re ahead of the two-time MVP, goal scoring and points champion.

 

So the question I ask is, what the hell Ovie?

 

As it stands right now Ovechkin is on pace for his worst offensive output in his career. He’s on pace for 80 points and 27 goals, that’s 12 less points than his career low of 92 in his second season in the league and 19 less goals than his tally in the same season, he also has only 2 power play goals and has only scored on 7.5% of his shots. For most people that’s a great season and great averages over a long period of time, but this is Alex Ovechkin. We’re used to seeing him score in buckets and without any problem.

 

So what do we suspect? Well Ovie is still among the league leaders in shots and hits so his aggressiveness is still alive and well. The Capitals have won all thirteen of his multi-point games this year and he leads the team in scoring as well.

 

Maybe the main change in Ovechkin’s productivity is the new team philosophy. You see coach Bruce Boudreau has changed the Caps from a offensive juggernaut and a team predicated on crashing the net to a defensive minded team that plays more physical hockey and takes less chances.

 

The Capitals have gone from a top five scoring team to 14th in the league. Last year at this same time the Capitals scored 183 goals, this year 145. Center Nicklas Backstrom has felt the effects of the new system by  laboring through a 12 game pointless streak, the longest of his career. Plus the teams placement in the standings has also suffered as at this time last year the Caps were 17 points clear of their nearest competitor in the Southeast division. This year, they’re trailing the division leading Lightning by three points and four points ahead of third place Atlanta.

 

You’re probably wondering why would Boudreau mess with a good thing? Well getting dumped in the early rounds of the playoffs three years in a row might have something to do with it.

 

The Capitals had plenty of regular season success leading the league in scoring and getting by with lackluster goaltending in the last three years.

Maybe Ovie's hat trick is a sign of things to come.

Unfortunately once they hit the playoffs they were 1-3 in playoff series, which could have easily been 0-3 if not for a Rangers collapse two years ago (yeah I really did bring that up. I’m still ticked off about It.). In each of those series they were out muscled by the opposition and struggled to score goals against better defenses than theirs while the opposition preyed on Mike Green and company.

 

So Boudreau decided to switch things up. While the offense has suffered the results have to be more than pleasing to him on defense. The Caps are 8th in goals allowed this season and have a great goaltending situation as Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth have looked very impressive in net.

 

With all of that being said you still have to outscore the opposition to win games and you need your best players to provide a boost. That’s where Ovechkin needs to step up his productivity.

 

Ovechkin can play in Boudreau’s defensive system and still be the offensive juggernaut that he’s been in his career thus far. He has to find a way to put some more pucks in the back of the net and stay aggressive. With the second half of the season looming he’ll have his chances.

 

The Caps play a few teams that range from the middle of the pack to poor in the goals allowed department. Ovechkin should raise his goal total against teams like Atlanta, Tampa Bay, San Jose and Buffalo and should approach the mid 30’s  in goals and in the 90’s in points.

 

Maybe the Ovechkin scoring revival has already started. Tonight in Toronto “The Great 8” scored  a hat trick in a 4-1 rout of the Leafs in a game that reminded Caps fans of last year’s team. It was his first hat trick of the season, if this is the beginning of a good run for him offensively then it might not be his last. I’m sure Boudreau wouldn’t mind that.

 


A Banged-Up NHL Midseason Review

Injuries are ravaging the NHL as teams are playing without their best players.

We’re in the NHL’s second half; you know what that means… a New York Rangers second half slide… I mean the NHL Midseason awards.

 

Look I shouldn’t be shocked that the Rangers are having another January swoon. The Rangers are like Tom Coughlin’s stepchild but only worse. They do this every season, start fast, struggle in November, get hot in December and then go on a two-month bender of not scoring goals, losing one goal games and cause Henrik Lundquist to wonder about the benefits of committing Hara Kiri.

 

I should be used to it by now, but I’m a New Yorker, I’m crazy. I want the Rangers to play consistent hockey and I’ve wanted it for years. However, you see the beginning to this piece. The difference in this year’s team is that I can see the drought coming but not from inconsistency. This time it’s injuries. Right now the Rangers are missing 6 starting forwards including leading goal scorer Brandon Dubinsky. Due to the injuries the slide began last week as the Rangers lost three out of four games and dropped to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

 

With the Rangers struggling to score goals, losing our number one guy isn’t exactly the best news in the world right now.

 

If think its bad for us how do you think the Penguins are feeling? Sidney Crosby took a head shots from David Steckel in the Winter Classic and then from Victor Hedman several days later and has been out since. Before his injury the Pens were the best team in hockey and Crosby was Megan Fox in a thong hot since then they’ve been 3-3 and fell from 1st to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

 

Same for the Detroit Red Wings; name a Wing and he’s banged up, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Chris Osgood, Jimmy Howard (yes, both goalies) and Pavel Datsyuk all missed their recent loss to the aforementioned Pens and 3 of their last four.

 

The Colorado Avalanche lost leading scorer at the time Chris Stewart 18 games ago and slipped, The Blackhawks lost Jonathan Toews for three weeks and have had a devil of a time staying in the playoff race, The struggling Kings just lost Wayne Simmonds and have been banged up all year, Montreal… IT AINT SAFE PLAYIN HOCKEY I TELLS YA!!!

 

Fact is if you can stay healthy then you’re hard to beat. Philadelphia, Vancouver and Tampa Bay are all examples that if you stay healthy you stay on top. Right now it’s a toss up between the Canucks and the Flyers for the title of best team in the league. I got a front row look of each team last week as each of them faced the Rangers and I really like the Flyers.

 

Granted there are goaltending issues (It’s Philly there’s always goaltending issues) but the team they have is loaded with guys all playing their best hockey. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux and company are leading a balanced attack that could get better when Chris Pronger returns. They’re proving that last season’s cup run was no joke and that getting back there and winning is all that’s on their mind.

 

I do not doubt the Canucks at all though, not with Daniel and Henrik Sedin playing at a high level and Ryan Kesler scoring goals like crazy. The Sedins are in the top five in scoring and Kesler is number five in the leagues with 25 goals. What does worry me about them is Roberto Luongo tends to give up a few softies in goal. Luongo was the reason that the Canucks lost their Western Semifinals series versus the Blackhawks last year in one of his worst stretches ever.  So to say everyone is a little worried about him possibly sliding back into that form is like saying the Trail Blazers are a little worried bout their entire lineup being injured (Sorry Marcus Camby).

Why is Vancouver number one in the league right now? Ask these guys.

Then there’s Tampa freaking Bay in third place in East (thank you Washington slump in late December.). They couldn’t stop a goal from going in until they acquired 41 year-old Dwayne Roloson, and outside of Ryan Malone, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos they have gotten NOTHING from anyone. However, the guys have all been healthy outside of Vinny Lecavalier (not that it matters because he’s been dead weight.), and Simon Gagne (which doesn’t matter because no one expected him to play more than 50 games anyway.) and they have played consistent hockey and have played within their skill set. No one is being asked to go out of his way to do things that they can’t do and it’s worked.

 

Stamkos has returned to form after a quick start and slow stretch in December and has returned to the MVP that I thought was all but guaranteed in November. If the Lightning are going to be active in the trade market then he should be getting some help to move him closer to the Hart trophy and the Lightning to the playoffs.

 

Speaking of awards at the mid-way point who has the upper hand in the most of the major honors in the league? Well…

 

Hart Trophy- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Now you know I love Stamkos, and I have been watching the Sedin twins, but none of them had a 25 game point scoring streak and had 49 points during the streak. Without Crosby the Pens are a totally different team and it shows. If they want to win it all they need Sid the Kid at 100% and nothing less.

 

My Bad: Stamkos, both Sedins and St. Louis

 

Norris Trophy- Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers

Ok, so Lidstrom might win the thing, but how about the job big buff has done in going back to his natural position in Atlanta? He’s got 41 points, which is second amongst defensemen, and he’s brought the Thrashers alive with his toughness and energy. I actually want to watch a Thrashers game now just because of him (well him and Evander Kane, just saying.).

 

My Bad: Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara and Kris Letang

 

Vezina Trophy- Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

So much for Tuukka Rask taking his job. That’s not happening with Thomas leading the league in GAA and save percentage and is fourth in wins. Because of him the B’s are sitting pretty in second place in the East.

 

My Bad: Henrik Lundquist, Jonas Hiller and Carey Price

Tim Thomas is zeroing in on his second Vezina with the Bruins.

Calder Trophy- Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes

So right at the end of October the Hurricanes come to the Garden and from what I remember from last year I’m thinking this is an easy win. Then comes this Jeff Skinner kid with a three-point game that totally kills us and leaves me stunned. I’m thinking that was a fluke… yeah, um, no.

 

He leads all rookies in points, second in goals to San Jose’s Logan Couture and looks like a great number two to Eric Staal. I guess I was looking at a sign of things to come.

 

(Side note: I really like this year’s class of rookie forwards. There’s Skinner, Derek Stepan, Couture, Taylor Hall and Brian Bickell and they all look good. For years the young defensemen have bean all of the rage in the league and maybe starting with this class the scorers might catch up with them soon.)

 

My Bad: Stepan, Couture and Hall.

 

Jack Adams Trophy- Guy Boucher

Yeah Peter Laviolette has the Flyers in first, Mike Babcock has the Red Wings playing great, but did you think the Lightning would be in the top 3 in the NHL ahead of the Pens, Caps and Habs this year? Yep, exactly.

 

My Bad: Babcock, Laviolette, and Marc Crawford

 

Presidents Trophy- Philadelphia Flyers

Scary good. They’re clicking on all cylinders with Pronger coming back soon. This may change if the Pens get Crosby back but for right now no one has an inside track on these guys.

 

However, that’s the story of this season so far. Injuries are killing lots of teams right now from my Rangers to the Habs, Pens and Blackhawks. As the races tighten up and the season winds down hopefully guys like Toews, Crosby and Datsyuk get back and return to form quick so these games continue to have great meaning. Well, except for the Rangers. I already know what they’re going to do so I’ll just sit back and not worry about it and watch them battle for the 8th seed. I mean I’m used to it by now anyway.

 


The Debate: Is Steven Stamkos The Best Player In The NHL?

The best in the game? Maybe.

So correct me if I’m wrong or a little misguided here… but at some point when we going to realize that Steven Stamkos might be better than Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin?

As crazy as that sounds, as much hype that has been placed around Sid the kid and Alex the great (and rightfully so) maybe we’re wrong about whom the best player in the game is.

It’s kind of hard to prove this point especially when Crosby and Ovechkin play in highly popular sports towns that obsess over their stars and teams while Stamkos plays in the strip club capital of the world. However, if you’ve ever gotten the chance to watch Stamkos play then you understand possibly where I’m coming from.

He is the league’s leading scorer in goals and points while leading the Lightning to a surprising start at the top of the Southeast division ahead of everyone’s Stanley Cup favorite Washington Capitals who are led by Ovechkin. Stamkos’s offensive output is overshadowing one of the league’s most dismal goaltending situations as the Bolts are 20th in the NHL in goals allowed at 3 per game. He’s also carrying a team that is getting little to no production from Ryan Malone, Simon Gagne and high priced center Vinnie Lecavalier.

Stamkos’s production is similar to LeBron James with the Cavaliers, one supremely talented player who is carrying a bunch of scrubs (except Martin St. Louis who is quietly putting together another solid season) and making the entire team look better.

Conversely look at Pittsburgh and Washington.

Coincidence that Stevie Y's hiring has lead to the Lightning's first place start?

In Pittsburgh, Crosby leads his team in scoring but is getting lots of help from Evgeni Malkin and defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski. Also Goaltender Brent Johnson is saving their goaltending situation with his 5-1 start and a 1.70 GAA while Marc-Andre Fleury is floundering (which reminds me, is it time for the Pens to give up on Fleury? He was terrible against the Habs last playoffs and has never truly been a consistent goalie. Sure he was great in their Cup run in 2009 but that was after a rocky regular season. I wonder if Mario Lemieux might be doing some shopping for a backstop before the trade deadline). Crosby has a great supporting cast around him which has helped the Pens to a second place standing in the Atlantic.

Let’s not even start with Ovechkin’s help. Alex Semin is getting better yearly (tied with Ovie in goals with 7) they’ve got one of the best passing centers in the game in Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich is having a breakout season with a +8. As great as Ovechkin is, and as exciting I’m starting to get the feeling that his teammates are catching up to him the production department (which actually may speak volumes about Ovie’s affect on the team. Before it was the Ovechkin show with Mike Green riding shotgun and Backstrom right behind. Now I think everyone’s following balls to the wall way of playing. There’s nothing finesse about these guys anymore, Semin goes hard, so do Laich, Tomas Fleischman and others. Maybe after last season’s playoff disappointment the entire team got the message of maybe it’s time to play hard all the time instead of in spots. Hmmmm, Ovechkin becoming a great leader, who’d a thunk it?).

Crosby and Ovechkin are at a greater advantage than Stamkos. Stamkos is on a young team that really has no great defenseman, underachieving forwards and questions in goal. Yet Steve is coming out every night and controlling the action on the ice and leading the charge as if he doesn’t care. Maybe he’s under the influence of new Lightning VP and one of the game’s great captain’s Steve Yzerman. Yzerman’s hard work ethic and leadership was the sole reason that the Red Wings became the league’s flagship team in the last 20 years and its continued even in his absence with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and others in Detroit.

Stamkos, though he wears no C or A might also be following Yzerman’s way of game play. He’s scoring goals at the same clip but now his passing his better and his defense is improving with a +9 rating which is a vast improvement over his combined -15 from his first two years in the league. He’s getting faster, stronger and just plain better with each game. I know the Lightning have been cooling on the idea of trading Lecavalier but why not? Getting Stamkos a center or wing that can get a few goals to help out would be huge for him and the Bolts. Stamkos is light years beyond Vinnie already and the Bolts don’t need a lame duck center as the team’s captain. You gotta wonder if a few years ago the Lightning wish that they would’ve traded him instead of Brad Richards who is also an early MVP candidate for the Dallas Stars.

Just take the time out this year to watch Steven Stamkos and you’ll understand what all of the fuss is about. I picked him to win MVP this year and he’s not disappointing early on. He’s got the Lightning playing with great confidence and at a high level while leading by example. He also has them ahead of Crosby and Ovechkin’s teams respectively while beating the both of them in the scoring race. I might be wrong in thinking he’s better than those two, the numbers ain’t lying. 91 is greater than 87 or 8.