2013-14 NHL season: A fearless forecast

crystal-ball-base--hockey.jpg

2013-14 NHL season: A fearless forecast

If I owned a crystal ball, this would be about the time I’d pull it out.

I don’t, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to try and predict the way the NHL standings will look six months from now.

Remember: Things work a little differently in the post-lockout era. The top three teams from each division will clinch a spot in the playoffs, as well as the two teams from each conference with the highest points total outside those six teams (doesn’t matter whether there’s one from each division or both come from the same division).

Let’s get down to business …

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division
Predicted winner: Boston Bruins
The Bruins, of course, lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in last season’s Stanley Cup Final. They also lost some talent this offseason (the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jaromir Jagr come to mind), but they’re still dangerous. It will be interesting to see how they fare in their new-look division, but right now, it seems like it’s theirs to lose.

The rest of the pack
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Ottawa Senators
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
5. Montreal Canadiens
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Buffalo Sabres
8. Florida Panthers

Metropolitan Division
Predicted winner: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pens have proven they’re a tough team to beat -- during the regular season, at least. They’ve still got the depth they had in 2013, and if they can get over whatever has plagued them during the postseason over the past few seasons, they should be in for a long playoff run too. The caveat? Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who not only is currently lacking a solid backup option, but has, well, imploded in seasons past.

The rest of the pack
2. Washington Capitals
3. New York Rangers
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. New York Islanders
7. Carolina Hurricanes
8. Columbus Blue Jackets

(Note: I’m really, really sorry Flyers fans. If things were to play out like this … your Philadelphia Flyers would likely miss the postseason for the second consecutive year.)

Western Conference

Central Division

Predicted Winner: Chicago Blackhawks
Last year’s Stanley Cup winning team has still got it. They’re not going to repeat their crazy win streak that started their 2013 campaign, but they should also have little problem staying at the top of their division. Yes, the Hawks lost Ray Emery to the Flyers, but the bulk of the team’s key players remain. Also, Corey Crawford proved that he’s able to carry a bulk of the work -- including through the postseason.

The rest of the pack

2. St. Louis Blues.
3. Colorado Avalance
4. Dallas Stars
5. Minnesota Wild
6. Nashville Predators
7. Winnipeg Jets

Pacific Division
Predicted Winner: Los Angeles Kings
Two years after their ride from eighth seed to Stanley Cup champion, the Kings are still the team to beat on the West Coast. They’ve got the goalie, they’ve got the offense, they’ve got the necessary depth and they’ve definitely got the leadership. Remember, this was the team who sat Simon Gagne as a healthy scratch before trading him back to the Flyers.

The rest of the pack

2. San Jose Sharks
3. Anaheim Ducks
4. Vancouver Canucks
5. Phoenix Coyotes
6. Edmonton Oilers
7. Calgary Flames

Who’s in the Stanley Cup: Let’s have some fun here, and say it’s the St. Louis Blues vs. the Detroit Red Wings, with the Blues bringing home the hardware.

It’s a tough call -- part of me thinks it’s smarter to pick the Blackhawks to do it again instead of the Blues, but where’s the fun in that? I like Ken Hitchcock as a coach, and the Blues have been steadily improving over their last few seasons. They’ve got a pretty balanced lineup and solid goaltending, too. Plus, after living in St. Louis for a few years, I can tell you the city could use it.

What do you think? Am I way off? How do you see things playing out in each division? Let’s take the debate to the comments section.

Claude Giroux's struggles mirroring Flyers' offensive issues

Claude Giroux's struggles mirroring Flyers' offensive issues

PITTSBURGH -- He was plus-1 with an assist.
 
No shots on goal and obviously, no goals.
 
Another day's useless energy spent by Flyers captain Claude Giroux, skating around the rink looking for the net and finding nothing but darkness.
 
He hasn't scored a goal in nine games, which is a major reason why the Flyers are 2-6-1 over that same span of time, including Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Penguins at Heinz Field in the Stadium Series (see game recap).
 
Indoors, outdoors it makes no difference right now for Dave Hakstol's band of minstrels. As goes the captain, so go the Flyers, and it's rough sledding these days with the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference fast disappearing.
 
"Yeah, it’s frustrating," Giroux said this weekend. "You try to do the best you can do to help the team. Right now it’s not going in. I really believe we’re playing some good hockey, playing the right way and we’re going to get rewarded soon."
 
Asked whether he believed his own production is a mirrored reflection of the team he plays for, Giroux hedged.
 
"You try to play the right way, do what’s asked of you," he replied. "I've had a lot of chances, but at the end of the day, it has to go in. We’re done with excuses."
 
Thing is, Giroux really hasn’t had that many chances. Just 13 shots during this nine-game stretch. In four of those games, he had no shots at all.
 
Teammate Jakub Voracek says it’s going to come for Giroux. But when? Time is running out on the Flyers.
 
"He's always been a streaky player," Voracek said. "And not streaky that he's going to go on a tear for 10 games and then disappear for 10. He was streaky for 18 and then struggled for two, then he had another 20 games.
 
"It's only a matter of time. I think the last two games he played really well. For the guys who don't watch the hockey game, they look at the stat sheet and say, 'Oh, he didn't have any points.' But that's the way it is."
 
The Flyers used the word "desperation" before and after their outdoor loss to the Penguins. They played another pretty good overall game, but one thing stood out: they didn't make it difficult enough for Pens goalie Matt Murray in terms of traffic.
 
Pittsburgh's fourth goal was an example of what the Flyers couldn't do – screen out the goalie.
 
"I thought in the first couple periods we – not a whole lot, but I thought there were a few opportunities where we didn't make it difficult enough for [Murray] to find the puck," Hakstol said.
 
"But we had enough quality, no question. We did have good quality. Is it enough? Obviously tonight it wasn't. We didn't win the hockey game."
 
There were spurts where the Flyers carried the play, showed momentum, and then it died. When Shayne Gostisbehere made it a 3-2 affair early in the third, the Flyers needed to seize the moment. They didn't get the equalizer.
 
Eight minutes later, the Penguins scored from the point off a lost faceoff draw between Evgeni Malkin and Sean Couturier. Michal Neuvirth didn't see the puck soon enough. On Matt Cullen's wraparound goal that made it 3-1, Neuvirth was unaware.
 
Neuvirth wasn't very good in this game.
 
"There's no question they had two or three spurts where they carried some momentum for short periods of time, but I thought overall through the 60 minutes, our group did a good job and played the type of game that we wanted to play," Hakstol said.
 
Giroux was asked this weekend how much pressure he is putting on himself right now to salvage the Flyers' fading playoff hopes.
 
"It’s tough not to put a lot of pressure on yourself when it’s not going the right way," Giroux said. "At the end of the day, you have to take a step back and know what you’re playing for.
 
"I’ve been playing since I was three years old and I love the game so much, just try to go out and enjoy the game even if it’s not going your way. You have to find a way to love the game and play with passion."
 
You've seen the Flyers do that throughout all this losing – 3-7-1 in their last 11 – but passion doesn't always result in goals. Voracek had a goal in this game. His second in three games.
 
The Flyers need a bunch of guys to get going simultaneously like last season when they made their playoff charge. Over the last 16 games (6-9-1), the Flyers have scored just 25 goals. That's a bad trend that needs to be reversed immediately.
 
"Obviously, we haven't been able to score a whole lot," Hakstol said. "There's been a lot made of that. And you know what, fairly so. I think that's fair.
 
"Yet tonight, I look at the opportunities at this time of year, the type of opportunities and the number of opportunities that we generated were pretty reasonable.
 
"We've got to stick with it. We've gone through a tough stretch here, and through that stretch we've played for the vast majority, we've played some pretty good hockey.  ... We've got to make sure that we completely stay together as we have, and we've got to keep pushing the envelope."
 
Hakstol was pleading his case.
 
Whether he wins it, is another story.

Brandon Manning to face hearing for hit on Penguins' Jake Guentzel

Brandon Manning to face hearing for hit on Penguins' Jake Guentzel

As if Saturday night's deflating loss to the Penguins at Heinz Field wasn't enough, the Flyers could be coming out of the defeat minus a defenseman in the lineup.

Brandon Manning will have a hearing with the NHL's Department of Player Safety on Monday morning for his hit on Pittsburgh forward Jake Guentzel during the second period of the Stadium Series game.

That means a suspension is looming.

Just over three minutes into the second stanza on Saturday, Guentzel tried to corral a bouncing puck as he exited the Penguins' zone. He did not see Manning, who flattened him with a huge hit.

While the hit did seem a bit late in real speed to the naked eye, no interference penalty was called and play continued. Manning did look to leave his feet to the deliver the hit and make contact with Guentzel's head, though, so both could work against him during the hearing.

Video of the hit in question can be seen above.

Guentzel was not injured on the play, stayed in the game and finished the evening with two assists.

Manning has a clean history as he has never been suspended in the NHL.

If Manning does get suspended by the league, Michael Del Zotto is likely to draw back into the Flyers' lineup Tuesday against visiting Colorado.

Del Zotto, who is a prime candidate to be moved before Wednesday's trade deadline, has sat out the past three games as a healthy scratch.