Chicago Blackhawks – Central Opponents: The Dallas Stars


Chicago, IL — The Dallas Stars is really a changed team from a couple of years ago. They more than any team in the Central is making a concerted push for not only the playoffs but to adapt to the Western Conference style of play.

Last year the Stars made the playoffs but were defeated in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks but it is a first step in a process of trying to get to the Stanley Cup Final.  This past offseason more changes were made to help the organization in that direction.

The Stars picked up Center Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators as a UFA and RW Ales Hemsky from the Edmonton Oilers.  These additions along with the July, 2013 trade for Tyler Seguin should really bolster the offense on this team to make them a contender in the west.

To show you how much the Stars have improved up front what was their second line last year is now dropped to their third line with the additions of Hemsky and Spezza.

The combination on the first line of Tyler Seguin and Jaime Benn as we saw last year really clicked and there is no reason to think they will slow down any time soon. Seguin led the team overall in points but both Seguin and Benn could easily be 90-100 point players. The Dallas Stars have a skilled dynamic forward troop and strong up the middle which is what is now needed to be considered a contender in the west.  This team could also very well be the fastest in the west or at least they are one of them.

The area where the Stars could have problems is on the back end. The defense on this team is somewhat suspect and it remains to be seen if they can actually stop any of the powerhouses in the west. The team was ranked 17th overall on defense and really did nothing in the off season to improve this.

For this reason it is highly unlikely that the Dallas Stars can make the western conference final but they are solid in goal with Kari Lehtonen so one never knows. They also managed to pick up another steady Finnish goalie Anders Lindback from the Tampa Bay Lightning which is a solid addition that should keep the Dallas nets secured.

Dallas special teams were not so special which also could pose a problem for the team ,especially come playoff time. Spezza and Hemsky should help bolster their paltry power play which finished last year in the 23rd spot in the league. The PK was not much better coming in at 21st overall in the regular season.

The Blackhawks last year handled the Stars pretty well and actually had a winning record with winning 4 out of the 5 games they faced them.

The one thing about the Stars that is scary is they have plenty of cap room. They currently are under the cap to the tune of 5 mil +  to make any moves necessary come trade right before the playoffs. If I recall, this worked out pretty good for the Kings when they picked up Marian Gaborik right before the playoffs.

The Dallas Stars had solid Corsi/Fenwick numbers last year but it remains to be seen how much they have improved and will their defense be good enough in a stacked west and that is the question. Can the Stars contend with the powerhouses like Chicago, LA, Anaheim & St. Louis? Still there is a powerful intangible for several members of the Stars.

For Jason Spezza, winning a Stanley Cup he has never won the Cup in his twelve year NHL career. He is on a 1 year contract with the Stars and will be a UFA after this season so he will be motivated to win now.  Nor has Ales Hemsky in his twelfth seasons won a Cup. It has to be bittersweet for Hemsky reaching all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 only to lose to eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes. Hemsky would love nothing better than to finally be able to hoist that Cup.

But maybe the player most motivated is one who has lifted Lord Stanley’s goblet and one who is still very young with tons to prove- Tyler Seguin. Being traded due to off- ice immaturity from the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins had to have left a mighty sting but it also probably left a deep burning to prove not only did Boston make a huge mistake but everyone deserves a chance to change and change Seguin has.

Personally I would have never traded as talented a center as Seguin, who was only 21 years old at the time but everything works out for a reason. Maybe it is destiny for Seguin to lift that Cup again but this time wearing Green instead of Black and Gold. Having won it as a rookie and part of a loaded Bruins team may not have the same profound meaning as it would if Seguin were to win with a young team like the Dallas Stars.

Who knows with a matured Tyler Seguin and the always wiser beyond his 25 years captain Jaime Benn, coupled with veteran leadership from Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza could be enough to push this team to the top. It certainly makes them a very scary team and one who could easily represent the stacked Western Conference.

 

 

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Chicago Blackhawks – Central Opponents: The Nashville Predators


Chicago, IL  —  If there is any team in the central division that is hard to project what they will look like and where they will be it is this one.  This team has gone through a complete make over from the players on the ice to their bench boss and team philosophy.

Gone are the days of departed former head coach Barry Trotz stifling defense first and neutral zone traps. After 15 years under coach Trotz the organization decided to go in a completely different direction which is probably the right approach with the top end offensive talents and skills in the western conference.

Enter new head coach Peter Laviolette who Hawks fans should remember was head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers when we beat his team to take home that chalice in 2010. Laviolette is more of a offensive minded coach and the Predators are looking for him to impart his wisdoms in that area to the team. How Laviolette will relate to this new group of players and how a completely different philosophy will translate remains to be seen.

The changes don’t stop there either. In the offseason there were plenty of changes to roster as well. Gone are Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and Patrick Eaves from the forward slots and Michael Del Zotto from the defense.  While none of these forwards were flashy offensive talents they were solid two way players which could explain their departures.

Coming in the forward position is significantly more offensive talents Wingers James Neal from the Penguins and Derek Roy from the St. Louis Blues. The center position also got a overhaul with Ollie Jokinen coming from Winnipeg & Mike Ribeiro from the Coyotes.

With so many changes up front it is very hard to tell if line combinations will click or not or if this personnel gels at all. The Predators own Mike Fisher will be out for a significant amount of time due to injury which will not help with line combos and overall team chemistry.

The Predators do have a very talented prospect at wing in Filip Forsberg that was acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Martin Erat trade. This trade both then and now looks like a complete and utter hijack that the Preds were able to pull off. The upside for Forsberg who is only 20 years old and 6’1” RW is tremendous. If he develops as he is projected to what larceny for Nashville and Washington what were you thinking? Forsberg is currently in the AHL but could make the jump to the big club this year.

The Predators also have another Swedish prospect Kevin Fiala who is also a left winger that is in their system and is said to be very creative and a real offensive threat. So the Predators do have some significant offensive talents waiting to make the big club. The Predators do love their European forwards that’s for sure.

It is unfortunate for the Predators that their top center is injured which is why I don’t see this team making the playoffs even though they are improved at least not this year. There are too many changes and things that need to be worked through.

The defense is solid with Shea Weber, Seth Jones & the newly acquired Anton Volchenkov from the NJ Devils however last year they finished 23rd in the league and very pedestrian on the penalty kill for such a vaunted defense but some of that was due to their star goalie Pekke Rinne being out with injury.

If there is anywhere the Predators are consistent and steady as a rock it is net with Finnish netminder Pekke Rinne. Rinne can cover up a lot of gaps and can make an average team a contender with his stingy net minding. Behind Rinne, Rockford IceHogs fans will remember is their once netminder Carter Hutton who is solid as a #2.

The Blackhawks last year did not do very well against this team as they dropped 4 of their 5 games but the Hawks did not do good against their own division at all which explains why they did not win the division last year. This probably has more to do with the Hawks than the Predators and with this being a new team you can throw out the past records anyway.

The Predators are a comer and their future looks bright with some really talented prospects waiting in the wings. This year however, there are just too many changes to really see them positioning themselves as a serious threat. It doesn’t help that seemingly every other team in the western conference got better as well but one day they could be a force. That day is not yet though. Patience Nashville your time is coming.

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Chicago Blackhawks -rookie tournament summary


Over the weekend the Chicago Blackhawks rookies and prospects attended a tournament in London, Ontario along with rookies/prospects from the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins.  For the most part the Blackhawks roster mirrored the Rockford IceHogs upcoming roster with a few prospects thrown in and some invitees.

The Hawks prospects did not win any of their games however they were close as two went to shoot out and we all know how well even the big club does with shoot outs. The games were very entertaining. Since this was a basically informal tournament there is not too much to fret over or maybe too much to gleam from but there were some observations worth noting.

In general the boys need to tighten up in their own zone and learn to close gaps better and not get out of position but that comes with experience.  On the defense Stephen Johns was a force. He does remind one of Brent Seabrook not only due to his size but his reach and stick work. Even if Johns gets in trouble he somehow manages to recover which is huge if that skill can translate to the pro levels.

Viktor Svedberg is just flat out huge physically with a booming shot from the point and surprising agility in his skating for a big man.

Dillon Fournier is such a smooth skater and really graceful strides and does not mind jumping up on the rush and getting involved offensively.  Trevor Van Riemsdyk also had a couple of plays where he defended his zone well.

The game against the Pittsburgh Penguins saw Teuvo Teravainen and Mark McNeill sitting out. That being said Phillip Danault had a great tourney he had a lot of assists and one goal in that game with the Pens where he scored a beauty of goal from his knees. Hard work and never giving up on plays and driving the net are Danault staples. What was also evident and maybe something most people have not noticed is his passing abilities are top notch. He had multiple tape to tape crisp passes to set up teammates perfectly. Also Danault was teamed up with line mates that he does not usually play with which made his passing prowess more impressive.

The pass of the tourney however belonged to Teuvo Teravainen which is no surprise. He had a gorgeous behind the net no look pass to a waiting Mark McNeill in front of the net that Patrick Kane was worthy of. What is obvious is Teravainen has innate offensive hockey sense he is crafty and always in the right place at the right time it seems. His hands are soft as butter and his vision is uncanny.

Mark McNeill is going to be a pure sniper, if someone can get him the puck this guy knows how to bury it. The chemistry between him and Teravainen was very good and will only get better if they are both in Rockford together or on the Hawks.

Hawk Invitee Brett Welychka also impressed. He has been invited to a number of camps with the Leafs, Lightening and now the Hawks and it was evident and he has a booming shot as well.

Matt Carey also had a good tournament and was all over the ice and had the game tying goals against the Penguins.

Hawks fans get out to Rockford and catch these guys, you won’t be disappointed.

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Chicago Blackhawks – Central Opponents: The Winnipeg Jets


Chicago, IL — Mediocrity is probably the worse position to be in sports. If you are really bad you get the bonus of getting high draft picks and the tolerance of your fan base with the promise that one day your team will be good. If your team is good there is always the promise of championships. The Winnipeg Jets are stuck in no man’s land on the island of mediocrity and in the tough Western Conference they look to be stuck there for not only the time being but for a while.

It would be no surprise if this team ended up in last place in the central as they were last year. Every team in the central got better so it will be very tough to envision this team not ending up in the cellar of the central again not because of lack of talent but because of inconsistency and focus.

While the team was last in the central they ended the year being 22nd overall in the league.

The Jets have one of the better, most loyal fan bases and their arena is tough to play in which you would think would make the Jets tougher to play at home but that is not the case. Last year they were pretty average both at home and on the road.

The Jets have good leadership in place with former Blackhawk Andrew Ladd as their captain. It just seems for whatever reason they have not been able to consistently put everything together.

The big change this year is the moving of Dustin Byfuglien (remember him) back to the wing from the defensive position which will an already suspect defense even weaker.  Then again Byfuglien was a pls/minus of -20 which is atrocious for a defenseman and probably explains the switch to forward.

The Jets are one of the worse defensive teams in the league.  The Jets have no defensive prospects outside of Jacob Trouba who will be a beast one day, waiting in the wings that will help turn this team around. Trouba alone can’t do this and for that reason alone it will keep them in the bottom of the pack.

The offense is better but middle of the pack even with a boost getting Byfuglien up front is probably not enough to compete with the teams in the west.  The Jets did not change a whole lot up front so there really is nothing to demonstrate significant improvements on this team other than the further development of center Mark Scheifele. Scheifele like Trouba could be a force on this team but again even if they do develop as projected I’m not sure it is enough in the powerhouse western conference.

The other big change on this team was the head coaching change.  Can Paul Maurice change the culture of locker room and get buy in from the team and change a talented yet inconsistent team to compete with assassins like the Kings and Blackhawks? That is probably the biggest hurtle facing this team.

The Jets also face the challenges of bringing out the best of their enigmatic yet very talented winger Evander Kane and finding a way for him to really thrive.  Having Kane on the wing with Scheifele could make that line really fly and scary for opponents. Winnipeg is hoping these two can click. Oh and by the way Winnipeg if you don’t want Evander Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks fan base would love bookends of Kanes on the wings.

The special teams were so so between an awful power play and a very good 9th overall in the league penalty kill. Let’s not forget the Jets have Michael Frolik and we all know what a PK monster he is.

The goaltending on this team is like the rest of the team inconsistent and on a team where the defense is poor it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the goalie.

The good news for the Jets is they have plenty of cap room to make moves and get some defensive help or improve in the nets. The bad news is there are not exactly that many top four impact defenseman or goalie sensations just laying around for the picking.

Unfortunately GM and former Blackhawks front office man Kevin Cheveldayoff has his work cut out for him ahead as it is imperative that the amateur scouting really can’t afford to make any mistakes or take flyers on projects right now.  The Jets need to address their deficiencies through the draft and developing young talents and that will be the test of this organization going forward. The fan base needs to exercise patience.

For Hawks fans last year the Hawks won this series three games to one. This was one of the few teams in the central that the Hawks actually had a winning record against and this probably will not change in the upcoming season as well.

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Chicago Blackhawks – Central Opponents: The Colorado Avalanche


Chicago, IL  —  The second team this blog looks at in the Central Division aims the spotlight on the division champs of the 2013-14 season. Hard to believe but this team of young up and comers actually won the tough Central but stumbled in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Wild.

All year-long it seemed the Blackhawks and the Avs would meet in the playoffs but that never came to fruition and may not again this year either. Still there is a good rivalry building between these two franchises. Let us not forget also Chicago Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville coached Avalanche current coach Patrick Roy in the later days of his career in Colorado.

So to say these two are familiar with each other is an understatement. There also is a respect factor  Roy has for Quenneville that was obviously missing when the Avs faced the Anaheim Ducks last year. Who can forget the ticking time bomb temper of Roy when it exploded against Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau.

 

 

Surprisingly Roy contained that infamous temper with his team and somehow channeled them in a good way last year. Let’s see if that continues. The Colorado Avalanche is the little brothers of the Blackhawks. They admittedly view the Hawks as the team they want to pattern themselves after and who can blame them.

This team has speed to burn and young skilled talent that can give any team fits and in many ways similar to the Hawks. The difference however is vast in experience and the Chicago Blackhawks have much better blue liners.

The Colorado Avalanche did actually hand the Blackhawks a fairly good thumping in the regular season last year winning the series games four out of five.  The Question is can this group of very young skilled talents possess enough know how to traverse the playoff grind?

Even under the tutelage of HOF goalie legend Patrick Roy, it remains to be seen how much this young group learned in last year’s first round playoff dismissal and has this team actually improved, stayed the same or declined in the off-season. Was last year’s success in the regular season just a one year fluke?

The Colorado Avalanche no question can skate with anyone and put pucks in the net with offensive forward talents like Matt Duchene, captain Gabriel Landeskog and last year’s rookie sensation Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon. Matt Duchene is just exciting to watch like Patrick Kane you never know what this kid will pull off with a puck.  Even given all that talent though, is there enough veteran know how to lead this talented group on the ice.

Apparently recently inducted HOF and Jonathan Toews idol, Joe Sakic knew the young Avalanche needed some veteran presence on the team to balance out all of the youth. He brought in Bruins and Calgary Flame legend Jerome Iginla and Montreal Canadiens’ Daniel Briere to the fold to provide experience.

In the process however the Avalanche lost a terrific Center in Paul Stastny to the St. Louis Blues and skilled winger P.A. Parenteau left in the Briere switch due to salary cap issues the Avs just could not keep them.  The departure of Stastny is really going to hurt and put a tremendous amount of pressure on Nathan MacKinnon to step up and develop even more and take on more responsibilities. MacKinnon is no doubt up to the task but one never knows about youth development and maturity. One day MacKinnon could very well be the leagues’ next Sidney Crosby but he is not there yet.

It also remains to be seen how much lost speed with the Stastny and Parenteau departures will affect the Avalanche. There is some serious doubts as to if Jerome Iginla can keep up with the blazing speed of MacKinnon or Matt Duchene. For these reasons I actually thing the Avalanche took a step back since so much of their game was built on team speed but we shall see.

Jerome Iginla is a great character power forward that brings instant credibility I’m just not so sure he is best suited to this team or in fact to the Western Conference. He was a better fit on the Bruins but perphas the youth on this team will invigorate him and Briere to relive their youthful days. If that happens the Avalanche will be a force again.

The weakness of this team is their defense which barring more moves was really not addressed in the offseason. The Avalanche also has minimal cap room as they are only 1.7 mil under the cap. Not much room to pick up a quality defenseman. Their Blue liners are headed up by Erik Johnson and aged Jan Hajda.

Last year this team was a Corsi/Fenwick nightmare meaning they very seldom had puck possession or dictated the pace of games. How were they able to win then?  They relied almost solely on their Russian netminder Semyon Varlamov but can Varlamov have another outstanding year? Is it wise to place all your defensive responsibilities on the goalie? Probably not and this probably explains the team’s quick departure in the playoffs.

The Avalanche had an even worse regular season penalty kill than the Blackhawks and their shots against were one of the worse in the leagues which really does not lend itself to winning formulas. The Avalanche depended mightily on take aways or the other team making mistakes. This again explains their quick departure in the playoffs because at that level teams do not generally make many mistakes so rely on that is probably not a good thing.

Every team in the Central just about got better the Hawks, Blues, Wild & Stars all improved, some significantly. With these teams improving and the Avalanche not improving on the defensive side I don’t see this team leading the division again let alone even making the playoffs. Sorry Colorado I’m not a believer yet. One day maybe but not yet.

Last year their teams motto was “Why not us”? Well for many reasons it probably won’t be you the greatest of which is on ice leadership and know how under pressure. Unless all of their forwards can somehow turn themselves into Toewes, Getzlafs or Bergerons,Kopitars or Hossas Colorado is still lacking champion components on the defense and winning know how regardless of how great a legend their coach Patrick Roy was but they are fun to watch.

 

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Chicago Blackhawks – Central Opponents: The Minnesota Wild


Chicago, IL  — Since we are edging closer to the start of the 2014-2015 NHL regular season, it is time for everyone to get ready. In a six part series this blog will be looking at the opponents the Chicago Blackhawks will have to get past in their own Central Division if they want to win the division which they did not last year.

First on the docket “the state of Hockey” Minnesota the land of 10,000 lakes and hockey rinks, oh Ya you betcha.

The Chicago Blackhawks have faced the Wild in the last two years playoffs and each year the Wild has gotten closer. The Hawks ousted the Wild in 2012-13 in round 1 in 5 games and in 2013-14 in round 2 in 6 games. The Blackhawks lost the regular season series with the Wild winning 3 games out of the five they faced each other.

The Minnesota Wild got a playoff round under their belt last year when they knocked out the Central Division leading Colorado Avalanche that had to be considered a mild upset. Then again the Wild had previous playoff experience in which to draw from.

The Minnesota Wild is a good mix and combination of youth and veteran know how. They are serious playoff contender and will continue to be in 2014-2015 season as well.

The team has its household names and veterans like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Miko Koivu, Jason Pominville but they have added Thomas Vanek from Montreal up front.

The departures were Matt Moulson, Danny Heatley and the physical Clayton Stoner. It remains to be seen if the swap of left wingers Matt Moulson for Thomas Vanek is actually an upgrade, I have my reservations.

The loss of the physical Clayton Stoner will surely make Blackhawks fans happy, remember it was Stoner that injured Andrew Shaw in the playoffs that saw him missing some time that carried over to the LA series where the Hawks could have used him. That physical presence that Stoner provided will be missed in Minnesota. They do still have Matt Cooke who is a supposedly reformed goon but Cooke always manages treading the line if not walking over at the wrong times.

So I’m not sure the Wild have actually improved although their intent was to bolster up the offensive fire power with the Vanek acquisition. Don’t get me wrong when Vanek is on and if he can score 30+ goals this will be what Minnesota envisioned. I’m just not sure even with all of that they have enough to get past the Hawks, Kings, Sharks in the west. The determining factor could be their youth.

The young forwards of Erik Houla, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker could be the difference in pushing the Wild over the top. If they develop as projected these forwards could be a real force of speed and skill. Erik Houla, Hawks fans will remember the speed and skill that kid showed in the playoffs. When Patrick Kane is impressed with your skills you know your trending on the right track.

The Wild have some good prospects in the pipeline as well like defenseman Matthew Dumba & Gustav Olofsson and recently drafted Alex Tuch RW who I did manage to catch on stream during the USA junior hockey evaluation camp in Lake Placid, NY this past month. Tuch was on the top line with 2015 1st rd projected draft pick Jack Eichel and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Tyler Motte and this line was on fire. So there is plenty of bright light ahead for Minnesota Wild fans.

The strength of this team is its defense that is anchored by the workman Ryan Suter who it seems is always on the ice. His leadership keeps that blue line pretty tight. Jonas Brodin the young defenseman is up and coming and full of promise to a top notch defenseman in the NHL.

The Wild weakness was definitely the carousel of goaltenders that they used due to injury or sickness and this will be a question mark going forward as well. The Wild are hoping that the injury problems of goaltenders Niklas Backstrom & Darcy Kuemper are in the rear view mirror but hip surgery especially for goalies is a tricky thing and concussion one never knows. Josh Harding as we all know is fighting MS so that is always a uncertain thing.

The Wild surprisingly during the regular season were not very good on the PK which is a bit surprising for a solid defensive team. Then again the Blackhawks had the same problem in the regular season.

Look for the Wild to battle again in the playoffs and give whoever plays them a good fight. I just don’t know that they have enough to get to the next level as everything is dependent on the development of their young players which is always uncertain. The unfortunate thing for the Wild is they are in west where everyone seemed to get better in the off season including the Blackhawks and Blues.

I see the Wild in the playoffs just not sure they can get past the 2nd round to make it to the Western Conference Finals unless they pick up more fire power at the trade deadline. The Wild does not have cap issues right now they are 9.5 mil under the cap, so they could be a player trade at the trade deadline prior to the playoffs. They however have to manage this because next year in 2015-2016 they have a lot of UFA/RFA’s they need to sign.

The Minnesota Wild is definitely a team the Blackhawks need to keep an eye on as they will almost certainly face them again in the playoffs. The Wild are a young improving team. I’m just not sure that they have improved enough to be a real threat but this team works hard and you can never tell what can happen in a hockey game with a bounce or two. A fact that the Hawks know all too well.

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NHL must see regular season games


Chicago, IL — I had previously blogged there is a disconnect between NHL fans that watch only playoff games vs regular season games and there are fans that only follow their team and not what is doing on in their own division or conference let alone the entire league. If you fall into these categories you are missing out. There is some incredible talents that you simply must tune in for.

There is no question that there is a big disparity between the Eastern Conference teams and the Western Conference teams. Main stream media caters to the east  because they are located in the east, but if you are in the east you are missing out on some really, really good hockey teams in the west. Chicago, Minnesota & St. Louis may be established hockey markets with some excellent teams but there are some non-traditional hockey markets like Dallas and California that you really need to see as well.

If you are in a fan base that is in the West particularly on the west coast the time difference is a big inhibitor but there are some teams in the east you should try and catch if for no other reason than to see the difference between the conferences. Yes everyone knows about the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins but believe it or not there is a team in Florida you should be looking out for & in Columbus, OH as well.

Between NHL Network, NBCSN and mainstream NBC you should be able to catch these teams in a time that is acceptable with your schedule.

For those who normally follow teams in the east, I would strongly suggest you catch a Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers or Minnesota Wild game if you want to see what skating truly fast means. These teams have young, skilled stars or stars in the making you want to catch.  If you thought the transition game was only in basketball these teams show that in hockey transitioning or in hockey parlance “playing off the rush” is an art that is mastered in the west.

California dreaming, ah who doesn’t love the natural beauty of California, it just so happens that all three of their hockey clubs play really good hockey as well. The San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and the defending Stanley Cup champs LA Kings all play a very balance game. All have solid to spectacular goaltending, solid defenses and big power forwards. These teams can hit as well as they can put the pucks in the net.

Then there is the St. Louis Blues who you will like if you’re a fan of the East as their physical style is more closely akin to the east generally speaking. This team however has arguably one of the best defenses in the league. Sure LA has Drew Doughty and Chicago has Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook but you’ll want to check out the quad defenders of Alex Pietranglo, Jay Bouwmeester,Kevin Shattenkirk & Barret Jackman if for nothing else to see how annoying Jackman is. Sorry that is my Blackhawks bias coming out.

Here are 5 games that are must see to really check out the West:

2/8 – Chicago Blackhawks @ St. Louis Blues which is a national broadcast on NBC at 12:30 EST so even if you don’t have cable you can check this rematch out of round 1 of the 2013-14 playoff Central division rivals. This rivalry is shaping up in the central to be equally as good as any in hockey. Simplified this is a skilled finesse team vs a physically bruising defense first team and these teams and fan bases do not like each other. The Chicago Blackhawks are flat out just fun to watch as there is so much skilled talent you never want to miss a Patrick Kane show or a Jonathan Toews vs David Backes battle in the faceoff circle.

2/22 – Dallas Stars @ Minnesota Wild on NBCSN @ 8pm EST. This game features some really good rising young talent and Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center is appropriately named. The fans in Minnesota are among one of the best in hockey and they know their hockey. The Dallas Stars have a great young skilled duo in Jaime Benn and Tyler Seguin who can flat out fly with the addition of Jason Spezza and Alec Hemsky this team is a new force in the Central worth checking out. We all know Minnesota has Ryan Suter and Zach Parise from the big free agency coo but do you know Erik Houla, Mikael Granlund & Jonas Brodin?

3/1 – Anaheim Ducks @ Dallas Stars on NBCSB @8pm EST. This is another revisit of a 2013/14 playoff first round match. If Dallas has a great young duo in Seguin/Benn then Anaheim has the original duo in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf is one of the best team captains in the West and the Anaheim Ducks has one of the most potentially brilliant young up and coming goaltenders in America’s own John Gibson worth tuning in for all the hockey talent alone.

3/30 – LA Kings @ Chicago Blackhawks on NBCSN @8:30pm EST. If you missed the hockey masterpiece 7 game series between these two in the 2013/14 Western Conference Finals you definitely need to catch this one. The difference was literally one bounce that separated one team from the Stanley Cup and the other from raising it. These two teams keep getting in each other’s way in the playoffs and are seemingly on a collision course once again. Chicago knocked out LA in 2012-2013 to win the Cup then LA returned the favor this year the Hawks want the Cup back so this will be a great regular season tune up. The added bonus the game is in the Madhouse in Chicago’s United Center with Jim Cornelison’s rousing hair raising, bone chilling national anthem that is truly must see.

4/11 San Jose Sharks @ LA Kings on NBC @3pm EST. This is one of the best battles in the Pacific division. The San Jose Sharks have consistently made the playoffs but can’t get past LA. Both teams are a combination of youth, skill, veteran saavy and being big physically imposing teams. The difference has been goaltending and resilience. The LA Kings know how to win under pressure which is something San Jose has yet to figure out but they have plenty of star power that you want to tune in for. I know in the east you are used to King Henrik in nets but if you have not checked out your Quickness you have to see the quirky yet brilliant Jonathan Quick in the LA nets.

For those fan bases in the West you need to watch some of the teams in the East who definitely play a different brand of hockey particularly on the defensive side. If you like edgy fight filled brash hockey the east has it with their hate filled rivalries. You thought Pennsylvania was only interesting in the political arena well it’s interesting in the hockey world as well. The best of these in my humble opinion are as follows:

10/16 – Boston Bruins @ Montreal Canadiens on NHLN @ 7:30pm EST. I know this is early for the west coast for a Thursday night but this is a NHL Original Six classic and it is on hallowed ground in Montreal’s Bell Centre. If you have not heard Oh Canada sung among one of the most passionate fan bases you have to check this out. Like the Blackhawks/Blues this is a classic skill finesse vs physical bruising hockey. Ever since Bruins’ big Zdeno Chara knocked out Max Pacioretty the disdain has reached epic proportions between these teams. Montreal star D man and Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban is reason alone to tune into this one couple that with a long standing hatred between these two franchises it is truly must see TV.

10/22 – Philadelphia Flyers @ Pittsburgh Penguins on NBCSN @8pm EST. If there is another rivalry in the east filled with hate you can be sure it is this one but make no mistake there is plenty of skill here as well. The battle between captains Claude Giroux of the Flyers and Penguins Sidney Crosby is worth tuning in for. Both teams are in the process of make- overs and trying to find that winning formula to get them to the next level. Divisional rivals standing in each others way builds contempt and there is plenty here. Both teams have struggled with defense and goaltending inconsistency and are more similar than either care to admit.

12/1 – Tampa Bay Lightning @ New York Rangers on NHLN @7pm EST. This is not a conventional matchup but one that features probably one of the most exciting hockey players in the league in Tampa’s Steven Stamkos. Stamkos is a pure goal scorer and delicious to watch him from the top of the face-off circles blast pucks past goalies. The Lightning also has Canadian junior sensation Jonathan Drouin. The Rangers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup and have former Tampa Bay Lightning beloved forward Marty St. Louis who left the Lightning with bruised feelings towards management and that is icing on this contest as he would love nothing better than to beat his old team. And then there is the King – Henik Lundqvist who is must see in the NY goal. Get your neck ready for break neck speed in this one.

1/28 – Washington Capitals @ Pittsburgh Penguins on NBCSN @8pm EST. This rivalry is not what it once was and the Crosby vs Ovechkin battle has become somewhat irrelevant with neither team really being a playoff force yet there is no denying these teams are entertaining to watch. Alex Ovechkin is one of the most enigmatic pure talents in the NHL when he is on. This year Washington has former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz so the Capitals will be interesting to see if there is any transformation under a primarily defensive coach and how offensive talent Ovechkin responds.

2/19 Columbus Blue Jackets @ Pittsburgh Penguins on NBCSN @ 7pm EST. Ok I know this is the third Penguins game I picked but they have all been divisional match-ups and this Metropolitan division is somewhat a puzzlement in that the teams in this division should be contenders for the Stanley Cup coming out of the East yet fall short. Columbus is not the same team as when it was in the West and was the league’s doormat. The addition of Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers brings instant bite and skilled size up front. The Jackets also have one of the best young goalies in the league in Russian born Sergei Bobrovsky or “Bob” as he is known who manned the team Russia nets this past Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

There are also three regular season games that are must see regardless of what team you follow or what conference you like.

The Winter Classic on New Year’s Day that will feature an inter-conference match-up with the Chicago Blackhawks visiting the Washington Capitals which hopefully will have some snow is must see.

The All Star game that will be held in Columbus, OH this year from January 22-26 at Nationwide Arena and is well worth tuning in not for the game but the skills competitions where I guarantee you will be awed when you see what can be done with a puck. 

The battle of California in San Francisco’s new football Levy Stadium featuring the LA Kings @ the San Jose Sharks. The NHL has figures out how to get ice to not melt when outdoor temps are at 70-80 degrees that coupled with a state of the art new NFL stadium and some great NHL teams is reason to tune in.

Try catching some of these games you will be not only entertained but also get a pulse on the league and other teams either outside your conference or divisions. You will understand the rivalries better in the playoffs and also see the differences between the two conferences. Is it October yet?

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