19 April 2006

2006 Eastern Conference playoffs - round 1 preview

Wales Watching - SportsBlurb.com


After a nearly two year wait, we once again are about to witness the best sports tournament of the year – the NHL playoffs. Like most fans, I’m expecting this playoff season to be fantastic; having been starved for it after last year’s lockout killed the season. With so many quality teams in the playoffs (ten reached the 100 point mark), nearly every team can make a claim on having a chance at hoisting the most famous $50 gift in sports - Lord Stanley's Cup.

So many questions will be answered over the next two months: will the Cup return to Canada for the first time since 1993? Can the defending champs from Tampa Bay shake off a mediocre season and regain their form of 2004? Can Ottawa finally shake off recent playoff nightmares (especially now that their nemesis – Toronto – didn’t even qualify this year) and advance to the finals? Is New Jersey really as good as they’ve played over the past two months?

We’ll take a quick glance at each Eastern series below and try to answer some of these questions – of course predictions are mostly pure folly, since so many bizarre and unpredictable events happen over the course of a seven-game series, but we’ll give our best take on who you can expect to win in the first round – read on…

OTTAWA (1) vs. TAMPA BAY (8)

This is an intriguing 1-8 matchup - pitting a regular season force and popular favourite to at least reach the finals against the defending champions. On paper you could make the case for this being a close one…but it won’t be:

Why Ottawa should win the series: Simply, Ottawa is the most talented team in the league. When you can roll out Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on your first line, Martin Havlat on your second, and Daniel Alfredsson on your third, you've got offensive depth. This is not to slight the other talented forwards on the Senators - those are merely the superstars. There are no fillers up front: Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Patrick Eaves, Brian Smolinski... Did we forget the defence? With Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, and super-rookie Andrej Meszaros nobody can better this top four. If they remain healthy, there’s no reason this team doesn’t win the East and finally advance to the finals.

Ottawa should be afraid: The only question mark I see at this point is potentially Ray Emery. Dominik Hasek and his Magic Groin at this point aren't expected to make an appearance in the first round at all. Emery has had a good season, but has had at least two bad stretches of play, the latest was virtually through the entire month of April.

Why Tampa Bay should win the series: Hey, these are the defending champs, aren't they? Vincent LeCavalier led the team with 35 goals, new addition Vaclav Prospal scored 80 points, and when your second line consists of Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and Fredrick Modin, you have talent. They return most of their core that won it all two years ago, and a return to form could in theory spell disaster for the Senators.

Why Tampa Bay should be afraid: Lots of reasons - goaltending, for one. John Grahame? Sean Burke? Who is the answer? Grahame probably gives you higher highs but much lower lows. Also this team hasn’t been consistent all year; after a season-high five game win streak after Thanksgiving they promptly lost seven of their next nine. The aforementioned St. Louis hasn't been the same player he was last season when he took away the Hart trophy. Past success, be it individual or team, looks nice but has no bearing on present play - St. Louis needs to reestablish himself as one of the league's best players, and a big series against the conference's best would go a long way to doing just that.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: This is the first playoff meeting between the two 1992 expansion teams. The first incarnation of the Ottawa Senators won four Stanley Cups, their last in 1927, defeating the so-called “original six” member Boston Bruins (it was the Bruins’ third NHL season). Tampa Bay had only played in three playoff series before winning four in a row to win the Cup in 2004.

Our pick: Ottawa took all four meetings against the Bolts this year, outscoring them 16-6. The Lightning never got on track this year and needed up until the final weekend to clinch a playoff spot. This year's new boss will most definitely not be the same as the old boss - Ottawa in four.


I move for Carolina to bring back the colours of the Whalers - the Montreal Canadiens patented the cool red jerseys, they alone should be allowed to wear them in this series...

Why Carolina should win the series: They are a complete team. With balanced scoring (eight players with at least 44 points) and an up-tempo attack, they will work to put constant pressure on the Canadiens defence. Eric Staal emerged as a star, netting 45 goals and 100 points and being a force nearly every night. Rod Brind’Amour has always been one of the league’s most underrated stars – he has no flaws in his game at either end, and is one of the best faceoff men in the game. Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, Doug Weight, and Justin Williams help to round out a tough-to-defend offence. Their defence is unspectacular yet steady and full of playoff experience led by veterans Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican, and Oleg Tverdovsky.

Why Carolina should be afraid: Recent goaltending issues should have them concerned. Martin Gerber has been good this year, and at times great...but of late, not so much – seven straight games with three or more goals allowed. He’s their number one but in a short series if he slips we could see Cam Ward. The Hurricanes as a whole have not played well over the past six weeks, winning nine of their final 21 games.

Why Montreal should win the series: Goaltending and power play. The highly unlikely emergence of Cristobal Huet was the reason the team surged in the second half and brought them to this point. He has slipped a bit in recent games and there is even discussion of David Aebischer taking over in net, but if Huet regains his March form he could easily frustrate the Hurricane attack and give the Canadiens enough confidence to win the series. Alexei Kovalev and Saku Koivu are their big names on offence and the keys to their top two lines, which also include Michael Ryder and impressive rookie Chris Higgins. Their power play was fifth overall in the NHL while Carolina was only 18th in penalty killing. Gaining the man-advantage will be crucial to Montreal’s success.

Why Montreal should be afraid: As great as Huet was this year, he’s unproven (as is every other Eastern goaltender starting round one, save Martin Brodeur) and has slumped recently. The Habs are a team that will occasionally wilt under pressure. Tuesday's home loss against the Devils was a stunner for them, even if it didn't mean anything in terms of their standings. One game shouldn't mean much in terms of predicting a team's future, but the manner in which they lost was troubling, especially giving up a crucial three-on-one with just over two minutes left, leading to the winning goal.

Random useless but fun playoff fact: Before 2002’s improbable run to the finals, the Carolina/Hartford franchise had only won one series in 10 appearances – their one victory in 1986 led them to a heartbreaking second-round loss to the eventual Cup winners - the Montreal Canadiens – on a game 7 overtime winner by rookie Claude Lemieux.

Our pick: Carolina has had a fantastic season, and although they've slipped of late their top-notch play all year earned them a spot against one of the East's lesser playoff opponents. Unless the Canadiens can get quick leads and stymie the Carolina offence, this goes to the ‘Canes. Carolina in 6.


Here is a classic case of two teams going in opposite directions even though they ended up merely one point apart at the end of the year. At least jet lag won't be an issue in this series…

Why New Jersey should win the series: They have been in another dimension over the past three weeks, winning 11 games in a row, including Tuesday night's incredible third period comeback over the Canadiens to clinch the Atlantic Division and the 3rd seed in the East. They also have Martin Brodeur – one of the sport’s all-time greats – peaking at the right time. Their top line is on fire - Patrick Elias, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta - who not only proved he belonged in the league, he set a team record in goals with 48 - good for sixth in the NHL.

Why New Jersey should be afraid: The defence is their biggest weakness, and fortunately Brodeur has covered up many of their mistakes. The offence is over-reliant on their top line and must get solid production out of others up front, such as Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden, and Sergei Brylin. Rookie Zach Parise could emerge as a hero in the series.

Why New York should win the series: The best player on either team is Jaromir Jagr, who has gone through a rebirth this season which will almost certainly guarantee him at least a top three finish in the Hart balloting. For the first time in years he is using his size along with his speed and playing aggressive two-way hockey - he's a terror every shift he's out there. Rookie sensation "King" Henrik Lundqvist is back from being sidelined for seven games, and although he suffered a rough loss on Tuesday night, he's been a spectacular force for the Rangers all year. If they are to win this series, they cannot do it without top performances from these two players.

Why New York should be afraid: Virtually the same reason - the Rangers aren't very deep offensively and rely far too much on the brilliance of Jagr to win – aside from his 54 goals, only three other Rangers (rookie Petr Prucha – 30, Michael Nylander – 23, Martin Straka - 22) had more than 16 goals. Also keep an eye on Lundqvist – if he’s not healthy, it’s all over - witness their recent slump with Kevin Weekes in goal.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: In three previous playoff meetings the Rangers have come away victorious each time – once in each round of the playoffs – the most memorable being the 1994 seven game double-overtime crusher…. “MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU!”

Our pick: The Rangers have had a great year but bottomed out at a bad time; not only losing the division but having to face the league's hottest team with the only healthy veteran goalie in the conference. Even though the season series was tied at four, I'm thinking it's impossible not to think the Devils have an easy time in this series: New Jersey in 5.


It speaks volumes of the parity of the NHL this season when we have a first round matchup between two clubs who - based on their regular seasons - will treat anything less than at least a Conference Final appearance a complete disappointment…

Why Buffalo should win the series: This is the NHL's most offensively-balanced team. All year commentators have speculated on how the Sabres could possibly have succeeded without having a scorer in the top 50, 75, etc. Would you rather have two or three top players leading a bunch of question marks, or have eleven 40 point scorers, giving opponents nobody to key on? Daniel Briere is as talented a player as there is in the league at forward, one who would likely have been around 100 points had he stayed healthy all season. The Briere-J.P. Dumont combination is deadly and if rock-solid center Jochen Hecht returns, they form a potent top line. Maxim Afinogenov has been breathtaking over the past month, pairing up with center Tim Connolly to form a dazzling stickhandling line. Co-captain Chris Drury already has his name on the Cup and is known for his clutch play – he led the team with 30 goals. Jay McKee is one of the league's top defensive defenseman and the team anchor, leading the league in blocked shots.

Why Buffalo should be afraid:
Ryan Miller is a big playoff unknown. He’s had an outstanding rookie season, and after a late slump seems to have found his game, but what happens if the Flyers take a quick big lead in game 1 – how will he react? The Sabres had a great season but went through two or three slumps where their defensive play looked more like a high school gym class floor hockey game - not clearing the puck, terrible positioning, lack of physical play. It's not their norm, but it remains a possibility and if it happens at the worst possible time it could kill them.

Why Philadelphia should win the series: Their top line: Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble. Presuming they are healthy, the Sabres will have to contend with the size, speed, and skill of this line that can play with anyone. Forsberg is always in the discussion of best player on earth, and Gagne’s speed and deadly shot will have to be minimized by Buffalo if they are going to win. The Flyers have done a good job over the season developing young forwards such as former junior superstar rivals Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and R.J. Umberger who also emerged with a 20 goal season.

Why Philadelphia should be afraid: Goaltending: Robert Esche has been named the game 1 starter but he will be on a short leash – don’t be surprised to see Antero Niittymaki before this series is up – interesting how many times over the past decade that goaltending has been a question mark for Philadelphia. Lack of defensive speed: the Flyers will simply not be able to keep up with Buffalo's small and quick forwards. Their defence must play steady positional hockey and not over-commit or they'll get burnt and likely take penalties, something they do not want to do against the league's third-best power play.

Random useless but fun playoff facts:
This will be the eighth playoff matchup between these old rivals, with the Flyers winning five including their first meeting in the 1975 Stanley Cup finals. Game 3 of that series was one of the most famous in history – “The Fog Game” - with Sabres’ forward Jim Lorentz swatting a bat out of mid-air in the old Aud in Buffalo, and Rene Robert scoring the overtime winner through a thick fog on Bernie Parent.

Our pick: The Flyers were about five minutes away from winning the division and facing the Rangers in round one until the Devils came back against Montreal on Tuesday. The Rangers would have been a much better matchup for them. Obviously someone has to lose this series and it's a shame they have to meet in the first round - this could easily have been a quality conference final. Sadly for the Flyers, it's not. Buffalo’s speed and talent give them the series in 6 games.

13 April 2006

NCAA: Carle, Bill Thomas, Potulny, Greene

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Varsity! Varsity!
U-rah-rah! Wisconsin,
Praise to thee we sing!
Praise to thee, our Alma Mater,
U-rah-rah! Wisconsin!

With the University of Wisconsin’s 2-1 victory over Boston College last Saturday night they clinched their sixth NCAA Men’s hockey title – a big congratulations to the Badgers. Toronto Maple Leaf draft pick Robbie Earl was fantastic in capturing the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, and was surrounded by a talented supporting cast including goalie Brian Elliott and defenseman Tom Gilbert. The BC Eagles, the youngest team in the nation, put up a valiant effort but in the end were fortunate to keep the score as close as they did, thanks mostly to Vancouver draft pick Cory Schneider manning the Eagle crease.

Only a few decades ago this was the culmination of nearly every senior’s career – only a handful of American collegiate players went on to play in the NHL. Starting in the 80s - spearheaded by the now-legendary 1980 United States gold medal team - the NCAA began to produce better players and was no longer ignored by pro scouts. In this year’s tournament, for example, there were no less than 114 players distributed among the 16 participating teams who were drafted by NHL clubs, and others who haven’t been drafted but will doubtless be signed to free agent deals in the coming weeks.

Some of these players have already begun to sign with NHL clubs, and you can expect to see some of them playing in this final week of the regular season and even into the playoffs. Let’s take a quick glance at some players who may still make an impact this year.

The three finalists for the 2006 Hobey Baker Award will probably be seen in the NHL soon: Boston College’s Chris Collins is undrafted but is currently being wooed by a number of teams – after scoring only 29 goals in his first three years at BC, this year he exploded for 34 goals and 63 points, tied for tops in the nation. He’s professed an interest in his favorite team, Buffalo, but Boston is also rumored to be interested. Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott is an Ottawa draft pick and is the top goalie in the nation, leading the country in goals-against average (1.55) and save percentage (.938). The eventual winner of the award, however, is already making an NHL impact on one of the better teams in the league…

Matt Carle – Defense – San Jose Sharks

The University of Denver’s Matt Carle captured this year’s Hobey Baker award, and thanks to Denver’s disappointing early season end, he has already signed with the Sharks and has been seeing quality ice time with them. Carle is a talented two-way defenseman, having put up fantastic numbers over his three years culminating in a big 53 point season this year. The Sharks are a team that has been playing consistently quality hockey since before the New Year and are poised to make a run deep into the postseason – it speaks volumes of Carle’s ability that he has already played eight games with the team, and has been able to contribute two goals and two assists in that time. He is getting between 15 and 20 minutes per game, and has cracked their top six. With this quick progression Carle could be a fixture on their blueline for the next few years.

Bill Thomas – Forward – Phoenix Coyotes

How many of you even knew that the University of Nebraska-Omaha had a hockey team, let alone a quality Division 1 program? They do, and this year they made the field of 16 only to receive a beatdown by Boston University in the first round. Star sophomore forward Bill Thomas led the team with 27 goals and decided to make the next step early, signing a deal with the Phoenix Coyotes. He has already gotten in six games, scoring three points (and adding six minutes in the box). Thomas has been playing with longtime NHL vet Geoff Sanderson and getting quality icetime – the Coyotes will be ending their season next week and can only benefit by giving Thomas as much of a look as possible before next year.

Ryan Potulny – Forward – Philadelphia Flyers

Potulny, who played with the University of Minnesota (victims of what has been called the biggest upset in NCAA hockey tournament history in losing to Holy Cross in the first round this year), signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and is another in a long line of Minnesota snipers – he led the nation in goals with 38 in 41 games, and was tied for the overall scoring title. Potulny has already seen action in two games with the Flyers (registering one assist) but with Philadelphia still pushing for a division title, I wouldn’t expect Potulny to get too much ice time this season, unless injuries hit them hard (keep an eye on Peter Forsberg) - he does have the skills that if needed he could provide offensive value right away.

Andy Greene – Defense – New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils last week signed Miami (Ohio) University defenseman Andy Greene to a contract, although he has not yet seen action with the Devils. Greene is definitely a player to watch, as he became the first player in CCHA (Central Collegiate Hockey Association) history to win both Offensive and Defensive Defenseman of the Year awards. Greene scored 34 and 31 points over the past two years and never missed a game in his four years at Miami.

This is our last regular season Treasure Hunting article, as the season winds up this Tuesday night. Hopefully you are enjoying an easy final week in first place in your league, but if not there is still time to use these final games to your advantage. Don’t forget to take note of how many games each team has left and go crazy with adding and dropping players. And as noted fantasy basketball guru Brian Costello writes – beware of playoff teams resting their regulars down the stretch – if any particular team locks up a particular slot, look for them to try new line combinations and players over the final few games – pay attention and use this to your advantage. Many owners in your league are probably not paying attention this late in the year and you could have a free pass on any free agents out there.

Thanks for reading the column this year – as always feel free to write me with your comments and suggestions. Enjoy the playoffs and we’ll see you back in this slot next season.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

12 April 2006

Wales Watching - eve of playoffs

Wales Watching

Is the return of Pucky the Whale imminent? Will Brass Bonanza be once again ringing in the ears of
Connecticut hockey fans? As the regular season winds down this week, what has been a long one for the Pittsburgh Penguins may have gotten even worse for the fans. Last week reports surfaced of a Massachusetts businessman wanting to buy the ailing Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and possibly move it to Hartford, Connecticut - Lawrence Gottesdiener is a developer who owns a good deal of land in Hartford and has stated that he would like to buy the Penguins and if he couldn’t keep them in Pittsburgh (doubtless tied to a new arena), he would love to move them to Hartford and build a new arena there on his land. Last night he and the mayor of Hartford even planned on attending the Blackhawks-Wild game in Minnesota to begin serious investigation of a franchise shift.

I seem to recall that when the Hartford Whalers moved south to become the Carolina Hurricanes the general feeling was that Hartford as a city could no longer support a big-league franchise – it was merely a symbol of an older time and a relic from the old World Hockey Association. Critics pointed to attendance plummeting over the final years of the franchise but to be fair, the organization was poorly run and the team rarely showed on-ice promise over much of their NHL history, only recording one playoff series victory in 18 seasons. They had a small but vocal fanbase that was slowly alienated by a series of unpopular and awful trades and a lack of vision that saw the team become bad but never quite bad enough to build from the bottom with franchise players – the notable exception being Chris Pronger whom they prematurely traded to St. Louis for the unhappy Brendan Shanahan, who was in turn dealt after one season.

The fact is that there are a few reasons why Hartford could make sense again –the Whalers do still have a vocal booster presence, the consistent success and popularity of the University of Connecticut’s basketball programs demonstrates a rabid area sports interest, and potentially the most important fact: Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the country in terms of per-capita income. These talks have Penguins fans panicking – this is a club that has gone through some bad times on the ice but with rookie Sidney Crosby about to be joined by Evgeni Malkin next year, and a host of young and talented players in their system, it is a club that should be ready to make a move up the standings within two or three years – the coming months could reveal if that move will also coincide with a move out of town.

Moving on to the games, and the playoff race – the teams are still jostling for position but it appears that the top eight teams are secure. Carolina and Ottawa are still battling for first in the East - the Buffalo Sabres are likely to comfortably settle for the number four seed behind the Atlantic division winners, either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers. Currently the hottest team in the East is the New Jersey Devils, winners of eight straight after defeating the Hurricanes last night in overtime. They’ve closed to within two points of the fifth place Flyers, yet are still only just four points ahead of another scorching team, the Montreal Canadiens, led by the still-unconscious Cristobal Huet in net. Pulling up the rear is the defending champ Tampa Bay Lightning, who would need a complete collapse to allow Atlanta to catch them. Of the teams on the outside looking in, I still like the Florida Panthers most of all. I’ve mentioned in a few columns that I can see the Panthers making a strong showing next year – provided they convince Roberto Luongo to stick around.

Being that this is the last regular season Wales Watching article for this year, and a time where many fans are thinking about end-of-year individual awards, I thought I’d throw down my personal awards on a team-by-team basis – focusing on the eight playoff teams this week – I’ll offer a team MVP, a team disappointment (if there are any), and either the most surprising or unsung player.

Carolina Hurricanes

MVP – Eric Staal – Leading the team in scoring and in the league’s top five for most of the season, the young Staal took the leap to stardom this year in leading this most surprising of success stories this NHL season.

Disappointment – anything here would be nitpicking - none.

Pleasant surprise – Martin Gerber – Gerber has become a rock in goal for the Canes and turned a big question mark into an exclamation point.

Ottawa Senators

MVP – Daniel Alfredsson. I could pick any of four or five players but to me when healthy Alfredsson is the best player in the game.

Disappointment – few, but the health of Dominik Hasek has been a constant worry.

Pleasant surprises – Ray Emery however, has taken over in goal and has mostly done an excellent job. Andrej Meszaros has enjoyed a fantastic rookie season on defence.

New York Rangers

MVP – Jaromir Jagr. Enough has been written about his resurgence, and all of it is true. Will likely win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Disappointment – scoring depth. no player really qualifies here, but their reliance on the top scorers Jagr, Michael Nylander, and Martin Straka could spell trouble.

Pleasant surprise – easy: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. In other years he’d win the Calder and Vezina – he’s been that good.

Buffalo Sabres

MVP – tie: Jochen Hecht and Daniel Briere. Hecht is the glue that makes the Sabres strong in all zones (they lost six straight immediately after losing Hecht to injury). Briere has put up superstar numbers since returning from a sports hernia.

Disappointment – Dmitri Kalinin. The big defenseman has the coaching staff’s confidence but I think they’ll have to cut their losses soon on this former first round pick.

Pleasant surprise – Tim Connolly. One of two acquired (Taylor Pyatt being the other) in the much-ridiculed-in-Buffalo Mike Peca deal. Everything changes this year - nobody would take Peca straight-up over Connolly now – Connolly’s stickhandling and speed fit perfectly into the Sabres’ system.

Philadelphia Flyers

MVP – Simon Gagne – Injuries kept him from having an even bigger season, but his 44 goals in 67 games easily lead the team.

Disappointment – Peter Forsberg and his groin injury. Typically fantastic when healthy, his missing nearly a quarter of the season arguably cost them a top three seed.

Pleasant surprise – Mike Knuble – set a career high in goals with 33 to date.

New Jersey Devils

MVP – Brian Gionta. The former college superstar has become everyone’s favourite little big man, with a career season and 45 goals to date.

Disappointment – Alexander Mogilny. Remember him? Currently on the Devils’ payroll…in the minor leagues.

Pleasant surprise – Gionta. Everyone knew he had talent, but nobody thought he could battle and become one of the league’s premier wingers.

Montreal Canadiens

MVP – Holy Mackinaw, is there even a question here? Cristobal Huet.

Disappointment – lack of Jose Theodore’s return to MVP status. Although this ended up being the best thing to happen to the team due to Huet’s emergence.

Pleasant surprise – Huet. OK – Huet only has 34 games played to date and I’m not advocating him winning it, but he should get serious Vezina respect (I’d put him third behind Mikka Kiprusoff and Lundqvist). Hey, John Tucker won the OHL’s MVP in 1984 after playing only 39 games. Yeah, I referenced John Tucker.

Tampa Bay Lightning

MVP – Brad Richards – setting a career high in points and leading the team through a rough title-defence year. Plays nearly 23 minutes per game.

Disappointment – plenty: Martin St. Louis – did he really win the Hart trophy last season??? The abrupt end to the classy Dave Andreychuk’s career. John Grahame not stepping up into the top goalie role. Making the playoffs despite these issues is proof at how talented this squad is.

Unsung player – Fredrick Modin is one of the most unheralded 30 goal scorers in the league and leads all Lightning forwards in +/-.

06 April 2006

Kelly, Aubin, Bernier

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


We now have two weeks to go in this regular season, and with every passing day the playoff picture crystallizes a bit more. In terms of fantasy hockey, if you’re in a head-to-head league this is a week where many leagues are playing their championship rounds, and it could be time to get creative with some quick add/drops.

You might be looking for individual category help – if we look at who has been hot over the past month, +/- is a category where you can pick up a relative unknown and capitalize – sure you’ll have your offensive studs from Ottawa dominating the list but did you know that defencemen Steve Montador (Florida) and Shaone Morrisonn (Washington) are both a +9 this month? They’re probably available in your league and even though you might not get much point production out of them, a solid +/- acquisition can help you win that category. Beware of deceptive players like Buffalo’s Brian Campbell – a thrilling player (both positively and negatively) who will do damage on the Sabre power play but will also give coach Lindy Ruff nightmares if he’s on the ice trying to help protect a one-goal lead (a brutal -9 over the last four weeks). Red Wing defenceman Niklas Kronwall has managed to forge a +12 rating after just 20 games, while Anaheim defenceman Francois Beauchemin has put up a +8 with nine points this past month.

Looking to rough it up over the final few games? Nashville’s Brendan Witt has a nice 44 minutes in the box in the 12 games since being acquired by the Predators, establishing himself as their enforcer on the blue line, and he’s likely to help you on +/- as well, being on a quality team (he is +4 with Nashville thus far). Carolina’s Mike Commodore is another good bet, with 35 minutes on the month, while being a responsible +4 (with 13 points on the season, you might get lucky with a point or two). Up at forward, Capitals’ center Jeff Halpern has been mixing it up of late, with 31 minutes and nine points in his last 15 games.

And now for something completely different, let’s move on from some niche categories to our more traditional recommendations - three other players who are peaking at the end of the season that you should take a gamble on….

Chris Kelly, Center, Ottawa Senators

Ottawa started the season on such a roll that they were inviting (premature) comparisons to such great teams as the late-70s Flying Frenchmen Montreal Canadiens and freewheeling 1980s Edmonton Oilers. In retrospect – and even at the time – it was foolish, seeing as they hadn’t even reached the end of the season; this is also a franchise yet (in its modern-day incarnation) to even reach the Cup finals. The Senators hit a slide in mid-season, due in part to a series of injuries. Yet as often is the case, the injuries may have been a blessing in disguise, as it enabled the franchise to take a look at some youngsters who wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise – Patrick Eaves and Ray Emery are two players who we’ve looked at earlier in the year, and are making strong contributions to the squad and now rookie center Chris Kelly is taking center stage for the Sens.

Kelly had a great junior career spent mostly with the London Knights of the Ontario League, helping to lead a formerly moribund franchise from the depths of the league to the brink of a title in just two years. He peaked at 36 goals and 77 points in 68 games (adding 26 more points in a 25 game playoff run) in his best year in 1999 which culminated in him being drafted by Ottawa in the third round that June.

Kelly has since never been placed in a scoring role; instead he has developed his defensive skills and used his all-around play to help him earn a job with the parent club this year. For most of the first three months Kelly was a role player, earning a few fourth-line minutes each night, but around the new year his ice time began to dramatically increase into the teens. And since then he has started to find himself on the scoresheet – he has 11 points since the Olympic break and within the past few weeks has struck fantasy gold – a home on a line with superstars Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.

His emphasis is still on playing defensive hockey – against the Rangers last week he was given the task of shadowing Jaromir Jagr and helped to hold Jagr to one assist in over 24 minutes of play. Chris Kelly is playing great hockey right now – although he only has 27 points on the season, his scoring rate is increasing and if you need a spot center over the last few games you could do far worse than him.

Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Goalie, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs’ season has pretty much been a disaster – no need to recount it here. Eddie “Billion-Dollar” Belfour was counted on to lead the club between the pipes this year but he calcified before Toronto fans’ eyes and is out for the year with a back injury, not likely to wear the Maple Leaf on his sweater again. But when Belfour hit the disabled list last month it was expected that Mikael Tellqvist would take the reins as Toronto’s goalie-of-the future. Yet here we are in early April, the Leafs pitifully hanging on to hopes of gaining the last playoff spot and they’ve given four straight starts to veteran Jean-Sebastian Aubin instead. Puzzling on the surface. Yet…hard to argue with the results thus far…

When Aubin was recalled from the Leafs’ local AHL affiliate (Toronto Marlies) in mid-March he was expected to ride the bench behind the younger Tellqvist; Aubin’s AHL stats this year were nothing remarkable. Tellqvist did start eight straight in March, winning four of them. Yet after getting blasted in a two game series in Montreal, the Leafs were desperate and turned to Aubin. In the four games since, Aubin has won three, and was spectacular in a tough shootout-loss to the rival Sabres.

Aubin is not a long-term answer for the Leafs (who never seem to see a long-term picture – do they have any sort of development plan whatsoever?). Young Leaf draft picks Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask will be with the team within three years and battling for the goaltending position. Regardless, it seems that Pat Quinn, John Ferguson and whoever else are making personnel decisions for Toronto have little faith in Tellqvist, and enough in Aubin to ride him out. Aubin has undoubtedly been spectacular over the four games, with a gaudy .945 save percentage and only seven goals allowed. If you’re looking for a goalie, he would be a good band-aid for the rest of the season.

Steve Bernier, Winger, San Jose Sharks

Last week I wrote that the Sharks have been fairly top-heavy in terms of their offensive production this year, getting most of their scoring out of a select few premier players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jonathan Cheechoo. I may have spoken too soon, as yet another rookie has begun to establish himself this year as a producer in the NHL – young winger Steve Bernier of the San Jose Sharks. As San Jose desperately tries to make the playoffs, Bernier has notched six points in his last five games; more impressive is that in his last 11 games he has points in nine of them.

Bernier has always been a high-profile scorer, having been the first overall pick in the Quebec League draft in 2001, taken by the Moncton Wildcats. He had a successful career as a scorer in junior, playing four years for Moncton, topping off at 49 goals and 101 points in his second year which caused his stock to soar even more – the Sharks traded up in the draft in 2003 to take him 16th overall. Bernier then developed a physical style of play, giving the Sharks hope that he would eventually become a productive power forward for them. Last year in his final season with Moncton he scored at a point-per-game pace while notching 114 penalty minutes in just 68 games.

This season he had been up and down between San Jose and the Cleveland Barons (their AHL affiliate), but appears to be here to stay after his latest post-Olympic run. While in Cleveland he led the team in points with 43 in 49 games, including 20 goals, and he has carried that over to the big leagues – in his 31 games with the Sharks he now has 23 points and 31 penalty minutes (although 19 of them came in a one-game freak-out against Nashville last month), seeing time on a line with Marleau. Steve Bernier is worth a pickup in nearly every fantasy situation.

Thanks for reading – next week will wrap up our regular season Treasure Hunting – see you then!

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.