2013-14 NHL preview: Metropolitan Division

previewusa.jpg

2013-14 NHL preview: Metropolitan Division

We began our four-part series previewing the 2013-14 NHL season with a look at the Central Division on Sunday, the Pacific Division on Monday and the Atlantic Division on Tuesday.

Today, we break down the Metropolitan Division.

Capsules may not include latest injury or roster updates.

Metropolitan Division

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Even though they only have one Cup this decade, the Penguins remain the class of the East just based on sheer talent -- and that's despite the fact that franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has looked very mediocre in the playoffs two years running. Most people would have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their top three of any poll and that says why the Pens are that good despite being blown out by Boston last spring. Key acquisitions at the trade deadline are gone, but the biggest addition was GM Ray Shero bringing back defenseman Rob Scuderi, whose underrated performance helped the Pens win the Cup in 2009. Fleury’s play needs to pick up substantially, given the shinny hockey the Pens often display. Tomas Vokoun’s blood clot injury is huge right now, especially if Fleury goes south.
 
2. New York Rangers
The days of terror at the rink have ended on Broadway with Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella essentially switching coaching locations. The crafty Vigneault promises to be a headache for the East. No one can explain the full meltdown of the Rangers late last season outside of the $60 million-bust, Brad Richards, but goalie Henrik Lundqvist needs to raise his game in the postseason. He is just 15-17 over the last two years. They've got a lot of new faces, though centerman Dominic Moore returns after a year off following the death of his wife. He is the most intriguing in terms of re-energizing a power play that has been mired in the bottom-third of the league. Look for more help in that area from defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
 
3. Philadelphia Flyers
On paper, the Flyers seem much improved with just a few acquisitions -- Mark Streit to move the puck quicker up the ice; rejuvenated Vinny Lecavalier to give them size at center; and a veteran goalie with a Cup -- Ray Emery -- to work in tandem with Steve Mason. Yet in training camp, neither goalie looked particularly sharp and the team’s overall defense and backchecking were terrible. The search for the missing left wing didn’t turn up anyone, instead the team moved some Flyers into different spots to make room for rookie center Scott Laughton. A healthy defense is absolutely essential for the Flyers to compete, let alone make the postseason when it’s anybody game. Danny Briere’s stick and playoff madness will be missed, but if Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn rebound, so could the Flyers.
 
4. Washington Capitals
The Caps won the Southeast Division seven times between 1998 and 2013. They won’t enjoy such success competing in the realigned East’s Metropolitan, which is actually a tougher division than the former Atlantic. Adam Oates’ decision to move Alex Ovechkin from left to right wing last year to jump-start his scoring juices paid off. Ovie’s 32 goals led the league; his 56 points were third-best. Problem has been the Caps never seem to generate postseason momentum and have lost in the conference semis three times this decade. With Alexander Semin gone, Ovie has a new Russian friend in Mikhail Grabovski, the Caps' top free-agent acquisition. There is good talent here led by goalie Braden Holtby (2.58, .920) and defenseman John Carlson.
 
5. New York Islanders
No one could have asked more of the Isles, who gave the Penguins all they could handle in their fascinating six-game playoff battle before folding last year. But the time has come for this young club, which soon will move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, to make some headway in the East. John Tavares (28 goals) assumes the captaincy from the departed Streit. One thing you won’t see is that Rick DiPietro albatross hanging around the Isles’ necks. Evgeni Nabokov is again the No. 1 goalie. Forward prospect Ryan Strome appeared to have won a spot on the roster, but was sent back to juniors. He was the Isles’ fifth overall pick in 2011. More improvement is expected from Matt Moulson and Josh Bailey. Trade acquisition Cal Clutterbuck (skate cut injury) packs some muscle (155 hits).
 
6. New Jersey Devils
What a disastrous summer for the Devils and general manager Lou Lamoriello, starting with sniper Ilya Kovalchuk telling his boss he was leaving for Mother Russia after free agency had pretty much ended. Then came the financial reports of the Devils' misfortunes coupled with the sale of the club and subsequent release of a mountain of lawsuits against the Devils from various entities. Had Kovy made his intentions known sooner, maybe David Clarkson would still be there. He was replaced by Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder and to a lesser degree, Rostislav Olesz. The other news is that Marty Brodeur may or may not be the starter in net by season’s end now that Cory Schneider is there. Jaromir Jagr looked cooked by the playoffs for Boston and may not offer much help.
 
7. Carolina Hurricanes
Injuries wrecked the Hurricanes last season across the board, then forward Eric Staal (53 points) injured his knee at the World Championships. The Canes’ health is vital to this club getting back into the hunt, which is why GM Jim Rutherford took a chance on Mike Komisarek with a one-year deal after he was bought out by Toronto and then rolled the dice in trading for nasty and dirty defenseman Andrej Sekera from Buffalo. Carolina also picked up diminutive forward Nathan Gerbe after he was bought out by the Sabres. In all, Rutherford added six players. Cam Ward’s knee is of huge concern, which is likely why the club added goalie Anton Khudobin. Top prospect Elias Lindholm will start the season with the team.
 
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
There have been a lot of changes in Ohio since the arrival of John Davidson as team president in charge of hockey operations. There is optimism for the first time in awhile coming off the heels of the revamped administrative wing of the organization and the pleasantries of having goalie Sergei Bobrovsky win the Vezina Trophy. Even bigger, however, was how Davidson managed to score a coup with the signing of ex-Bruins forward Nathan Horton, perhaps the best free agent on the market. He’ll have seven years to do what Rick Nash was never able to do -- make this club respectable and a playoff contender. Alas, Horton should still be recovering from shoulder surgery when the puck drops, which puts more pressure on Marian Gaborik to carry the offense.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny fuel Flyers past Blackhawks for season-high 4th straight win

Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny fuel Flyers past Blackhawks for season-high 4th straight win

BOX SCORE

It’s hard to get overly excited by a goal from a player who had scored just once in his previous 17 games.
 
Maybe there’s something to having Travis Konecny out there on the ice force-feeding Brayden Schenn with pucks.
 
Schenn got bounced off another top line recently by coach Dave Hakstol — just as he was bounced around the lineup under Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube. 
 
You never know where "Schenner" is going to land. 
 
Yet Konecny has taken to heart how he might get Schenn going and unleash all those goals in his stick. 
 
Saturday’s splendid pass to his new centerman that made mincemeat out of Blackhawks defensemen Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Michal Kempny was the decisive blow in the Flyers' 3-1 victory over Chicago (see Instant Replay).
 
That’s now four wins in succession for Hakstol’s club.
 
“I watched a lot of video before the game,” Konecny said. “I know that their defense dives in at you, then backs off and give you some space. When I stopped there, the defenseman did exactly what I thought. It opened up a lane to Schenner.”
 
Schenn took his pass in full stride and flipped it over Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling for what was the Flyers’ third goal on just their fourth shot of the second period.
 
“TK sees the ice pretty well, no doubt about that,” Schenn said. “Small guy who can make plays in tight spaces and you could see on that goal. Give him just a little bit of room and he’ll take advantage of it. Nice pass. A great playmaker.”
 
Hakstol has noticed.
 
“That was a good speed play by both of them,” Hakstol said. “Getting up ice and a good play by TK to get him the puck and then a great finish. 
 
“Brayden didn’t have a whole lot of time or space to get that puck away. But he got it away and put it in the one spot where their goaltender couldn’t get a piece of it.”
 
The only thing Darling expected to get a piece of in this game was the bench. He became an unexpected starter in the morning, as Corey Crawford underwent emergency appendectomy surgery during the game.
 
The second period began with the Flyers trailing, 1-0, but quickly turned around with two goals in 31 seconds from another rookie — defenseman Ivan Provorov (see 10 observations)
 
“Score one goal in a game, that’s a pretty good feeling and then score two in one shift, that’s pretty unbelievable,” the 19-year-old said.
 
Recall Provorov had a very forgettable minus-5 game in October against the 'Hawks at United Center. He fared a tad better in this one.
 
“Keep everything in perspective,” Hakstol said. “From a night like that, he’s a guy who has continued to work at his game. He’s built it. He didn’t do a whole lot different tonight from his last 10 games. It was nice to see a couple pucks go in for him.”
 
Provorov also gave goalie Steve Mason an unwitting assist. Later that period, the 'Hawks thought they had scored on a net scrum.
 
The problem was, Provorov’s glove hand was hiding the puck in the net. Therefore on replay, it was inconclusive since the puck wasn’t visible.
 
“I just have to trust they obviously look at it real closely,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “We wanted the goal, but you just have to trust that they are doing everything. They obviously look at is as much as they can, so they know more than I do.”
 
The Flyers did a lot of things right in the opening period and still trailed, 1-0, outshooting the Hawks, 16-6, while outplaying them.  
 
Artemi Panarin scored the lone goal for Chicago at 3:44 during a bizarre sequence in which the Flyers lost a faceoff, cleared the zone, but Duncan Keith sent it back in to Patrick Kane. 
 
Kane threw it down the right boards for Artem Anisimov, who managed to suck all five Flyers to the right side, forcing a collision between Konecny and Michael Del Zotto as Anisimov threw a pass to the opposite circle for Panarin’s one-timer.
 
That was really the last time Mason had to worry about mix-ups or heavy traffic the rest of the game. The Flyers shut things down nicely in the final 10 minutes of the period, too.
 
“When you let an early goal in, the worst thing you can do is get away from your game plan,” Mason said. 
 
“We stuck to ours, which is why we got the result there. Big second period with three goals. Overall, our effort was pretty high.” 

Flyers-Blackhawks 10 observations: Have yourself a day, Ivan Provorov

Flyers-Blackhawks 10 observations: Have yourself a day, Ivan Provorov

It was the Ivan Provorov show at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon when the Flyers took down the NHL-leading Blackhawks, 3-1 (see Instant Replay).
 
The orange and black are now on a season-best four-game winning spree and have climbed past the Capitals for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division.
 
Let’s delve into the game with 10 observations.
 
1. Remember this? When Provorov tripped over his own two skates in Chicago? It was a bit of an embarrassing moment for the 19-year-old. It resulted in an easy Blackhawks goal and, in many ways, served as Provorov’s rookie initiation as he finished a minus-5. Well, you can forget all that. The Flyers’ young, prized blueliner, who entered with one goal in 25 games, showed Chicago his true colors Saturday by ripping off two markers in 31 seconds of the second period. Good for him.
 
2. Brayden Schenn was extra demonstrative after extending the Flyers’ lead to 3-1 in the second period. Can you blame him? The 25-year-old had just one goal in his last 17 games. Schenn has been up and down the lineup, playing on all four lines and at both wing and center. He looked good here with Travis Konecny, who delivered a surgical pass to set up Schenn.
 
3. Patrick Kane had a secondary assist but that was all as the Flyers kept him mostly quiet. Kane, a four-time All-Star and last season’s Hart Memorial Trophy winner for NHL MVP, had 24 points coming in, good for seventh in the league.
 
4. Steve Mason was good in net. He’s now won three straight, a span in which he’s stopped 90 of 95 shots.
 
5. Aside from a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty by Nick Cousins in the third period, the Flyers played with great discipline. Chicago wasn’t awarded any power plays until there was 6:31 left in the game. The Flyers forced the Blackhawks to beat them at full strength and they couldn’t.
 
6. Cousins, Chris VandeVelde and Michael Raffl all tallied an assist apiece. The Flyers outshot Chicago, 30-27, and had just seven giveaways.
 
7. The Blackhawks’ opening goal was a nice one. Artem Anisimov adeptly eluded a sliding Provorov in front of the crease and fed Artemi Panarin for a one-timer. Mason had no chance. Panarin, as you may know, beat out Shayne Gostisbehere for last season’s Calder Memorial Trophy given to the NHL’s top rookie. The 25-year-old has nine goals and 22 points this season.
 
8. Unexpectedly, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford underwent an appendectomy at a Philadelphia hospital Saturday, putting Chicago in a bind. Second-string netminder Scott Darling received the start, but the Blackhawks needed an emergency backup. Enter the pride of Temple, Eric Semborski, a 23-year-old from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, who played club hockey for the Owls. Chicago inked him to an amateur tryout, essentially for one day. He was seen in warmups wearing a Temple mask, which sported “Philly Proud” and “Temple Tuff.”
 
 9. Chicago came in 13-3-2 since Oct. 28. However, the Blackhawks overall are 6-6-1 on the road compared to 10-1-2 at home. The Flyers did catch a break as Chicago was without Crawford and three-time All-Star Jonathan Toews (back). Still, a really good win for the Flyers against a team that was atop the NHL.
 
10. Wondering if there were any “woo” chants in the first home game since Jakub Voracek blasted fans for it? Well, only a select few had the audacity to try it but the woos never gained steam. Fans are past it.