Happy 17th birthday to 106 “The Goat”. How do I know this? Because it debuted the day I graduated, which depressingly was 17 years ago that I celebrated turning 18 and graduating in the same week. Man our grad party was sweet. You know, it’s amazing who and where you get to touch when you’re a good looking freshly turned 18 year old. Oh right, this is a hockey blog…If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve cut back on the “Hot Takes” during the playoffs. There’s lots to talk about, but I tend to be saving it for every two weeks. I probably should just do them after the rounds have completed, but I’m not smart. Trust me, as I’m in the midst of getting my realtors license, and it’s taking probably twice as long for me as it would for anyone of you. And it’s not from lack of effort, it’s from lack of IQ. Regardless of that, I wanted to do the “Hot Takes” today rather than Monday or Tuesday so I could do a bit of a Memorial Cup preview. So lot’s of good stuff to hit on today.
But let’s start with the Bolts/Caps series. I thought last night was a great game. Washington probably deserved to win that game last night, and have been the better team in the series. It’s really tough to get a read on things with the road team taking all four thus far, the Caps have been world beaters on the road all playoffs, as have the Lightning. It’s a toss up and I believe it’s going seven. The first three games of the series were dud’s, but both teams played with a lot of desperation last night and I expect that to continue.
Staying with the Caps, coming off the win against Pittsburgh I figured they’d would go one of two ways. Either they’d be awful and Tampa would dust them in five games with the Caps feeling like they’d won their Stanley Cup, or they’d be loose….and we’ve never seen this Caps team feel loose in the playoffs. Despite it now being a 2-2 series, we definitely are getting the latter. The other big change with the Caps this post season I’m seeing is the emergence of a number one centre, and more impressively is that it’s not Niklas Backstrom, it’s Evgeny Kuznetsov! I was VERY wrong on Kuznetsov! Two years ago (I may have even wrote it) I was saying Trotz was using him all wrong, and that he should have been on the wing yet he was playing the middle. Well the last two post seasons this guy, while I don’t like his stupid little eagle celly at all, he has 31 points in his last 29 playoff games. He’s a first line centre, and it’s something which I’ve argued they’ve lacked the last few seasons. Nik Backstrom has always got that label, but his numbers dip in the playoffs in his career. In fairness he’s been much better in recent years, though over half that production has been on the pp. The clutch goals Kuznetsov produced during the Pittsburgh series were something that had been lacking the previous three seasons in particular with the Caps.
Are the Golden Knights ACTUALLY going to do this?! They just won’t die!! I’m worried about the Jets going into tonight. I’m pulling hard for the Jets, but if they don’t win tonight I just don’t think they can win three straight. Not after the seven game battle they had with Nashville, and now facing a Golden Knights team who are pretty physical themselves and never seem to let up. It’s unbelievable. I HATE this as a fan of a team who has seen nothing but misery the last 11 of the last 12 seasons. The league gave them way too many advantages that an expansion team just didn’t deserve or need in a cap world. They had 75 million to work with, free agency, very good players were going to be exposed already simply due to teams being cap strapped, and they had a lot of teams bent over a barrel. Having said this, that’s the fan POV. I have a ton of respect for the team, because at the end of the day they don’t have a talented team. They have four lines of second and third line guys, they have six D who are a number three and then five guys (who doesn’t love five guys?!) who are four or fives, and then a tendy who a lot of people were pissing all over from 2012-2014 or so. I’m proud to say I never backed off my belief that he was a damn good netminder (and you can go back and read my stuff). Anyway, I still just don’t understand why teams can’t beat them, and the only thing I can come up with is that teams still just don’t have the respect for them that they should. And you might scoff at that notion, but I get it. You look at the matchups heading into the games, especially if you’re Winnipeg, and you win 95% of them on paper. And while the Golden Knights play really fast, they really aren’t THAT fast of a team, so I believe you can get the two confused. I don’t get how it can happen this deep into a season, but looking at how the Golden Knights have scored the last two games every goal is from an overly sloppy play by the Jets that wouldn’t have been made against Nashville or Minny. The Knights very literally do not take a shift off, so you can’t either.
Since my last piece it was made official that the Humboldt Broncos are going to play next season and while I fully expected that news, it’s still awesome to hear. You know, I still get choked up thinking about it, and I just don’t think it’s ever going away. I immediately bought the acoustic/altered version of Big League that Tom Cochrane performed on TSN off itunes, and everyone should since the money is going to the hockey team, but I can’t listen to it. I picked up THN’s draft preview magazine last night without knowing until I picked it up that they had dedicated a portion of it to the Broncos and doing a paragraph on everyone involved. I haven’t been kind to THN over the years, but give credit where credit is due and they did a tremendous job. I don’t care if you’re into the draft or not, doesn’t matter. Pick up that magazine for those stories and the section on the Broncos. While it’ll be a tough read, you won’t put it down.
And obviously we’re going to see more of those heavy moments likely starting tonight as the Memorial Cup kicks off (which, I don’t know if I’m supposed to call it the Mastercard Memorial Cup, or if it’s just Rogers employees who need to call it the Mastercard Memorial Cup. I guess until I see court documents requiring me to say otherwise, it remains the Memorial Cup in my books).
We’ll start with the hosts, who thanks to playing in likely the toughest division in the CHL this season, they face the same scenario as the Windsor Spitfires did last season where they’ve been off since being eliminated very early in the playoffs. And just like the Spitfires, they can win it. This is a squad who lost to Swift Current in seven, and they won the WHL. If they played in the West, they would have went to the dub final. And they might have the best player in the tournament in Sam Steel. They have two kids in Nick Henry and Jake Leschysyn who didn’t meet expectations this season. Leschysyn was coming off a torn ACL, and looked a little better once the playoffs began. As for Henry, I’m not sure what hurt his season so bad, but I know there’s a better player there then what the Pats saw this season. If those two guys can really step up, they got a great chance. Probably boast the most talented blueline in the tournament with Ducks 3rd rounder Josh Mahura, Lightning 2nd rounder Libor Hajek, and Habs 2017 3rd rounder Cale Fleury as their top three. That’s impressive, especially when you remember that Mahura might have been a 1st rounder in 2016 had he not got injured that season. Their goaltending isn’t great, so they’ll need to really fill the net, but they are capable of doing that with Steel and Cameron Hebig leading the way.
I am not going to look to bull shit anyone here, the team I know the least amount about are the Q champs, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. And when I look at their roster, the first thing I ask is “who the f*** are these guys?!?!” Only four players on the roster have been drafted, and maybe the most high profile is Flyers 2016 first rounder German Rubtsov, who frankly is not a stand out player on this squad! Blues 2016 second rounder Evan Fitzpatrick has definitely been the guy leading the way for the Titan with a 2.10 G.A.A. and a .925 Sv% in the playoffs. Probably the second best goaltender, or at least the second hottest goaltender entering the tournament. The big watch for the Titan though will be Noah Dobson. All eyes will be on Dobson from a scouting POV. The kid is starring down the barrel of cementing himself as a top five pick with a big tournament. In my opinion he is right there with Adam Boqvist in the 4-5 range, for others they have him in a group with Boqvist, Evan Bouchard and Quinn Hughes in a battle for the second best D-man in the draft. Despite the lack of star power on this team, these are the types of teams that are just a bitch to deal with historically at the Mem Cup.
The favourites rolling into this tournament are definitely the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs, who are led by MY BOY Robert Thomas. If you read my draft stuff last season, you would have seen me rave about Thomas and this season kick the shit out of myself for not having him in my top 10 like I wanted to do, yet couldn’t bring myself to put him higher than (I believe) 13th. This has now led to an inflated ego when it comes to draft talk and rankings which will likely look humilating down the line. Anyway, the Bulldogs are the favourites, as pretty much every OHL team has been in the last nine years or so. It’s the clear cut best league in the CHL, if you debate it you’re getting proven very wrong. And the Bulldogs are much more than Thomas. Matthew Strome, I’m a big Will Bitten fan, undrafted Brandon Saigeon is dangerous sniper, and I’m really interested in seeing 2019 prospect Arthur Kaliyev. After that, it’s kind of like the Titan where they don’t have many names. I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about their D-men, or goaltender Kaden Fulcher. But I watched them a few times during the season and then again during the finals on Sportsnet, and they’re legit. A really gritty, hard working team.
And finally we have my favourites, the WHL champion Swift Current Broncos. First and foremost I’m pulling for them because of the Humboldt connection. Second, Oilers prospect Stuart Skinner has put on a FREAKING SHOW during their run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup. And third, it’s at least the smallest market and perhaps the smallest market team in the CHL. What worries me with the Broncos is the same as with the T-Birds last year, the Wheat Kings in 2016, and the Oil Kings in 2012. The WHL is so much more of a grind to win than the Q or the OHL. The travel, the style of play, it’s just a massive grind. The Broncos went seven with Regina, then seven with Moose Jaw, then a surprising six with Lethbridge, and finally six with Everett. I THINK with how Skinner is playing that they’re the most complete team at the tournament. Tyler Steenbergen, Aleksi Heponiemi, Glenn Gawdin, and of course Skinner are the names. But they have a big/old school blueline led by undrafted Colby Sissons, which is very ironic considering that head coach Manny Viveiros was an undersized highly skilled D-man on the great P.A. Raiders teams of the mid 80’s. I’ll be pulling for the Broncos, and they have the team to get the job done. It’s just going to be a matter of how much gas is left in the tank.
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