Conference Finals preview and prediction

Conference Finals preview and prediction

Conference Finals preview and prediction

Conference Finals preview and prediction

The NHL’s change to divisional seeding for the playoffs has paid off ten-fold for the league as the Conference Finals are set to begin. A thrilling set of first round series led into another entertaining round two that saw three of the four series go to a game seven. With an Original Six matchup in the East and a rematch of last year’s Conference Final in the West, the third round ought to shake out much the same way the first two rounds did.

Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

Things could change drastically in this series if Carey Price is unable to play for any length of time. The first game shook out in a way few could have predicted as the Rangers tilted the ice in their favor from the opening faceoff and ran the Habs out of their won building with a 7-2 victory.

It was my expectation that the Canadiens defense could serve as their weak spot but that their depth and speed up front would outperform the Rangers. While New York may have more big guns, it seems as if the Canadiens had depth on their side. Both teams had been largely powered by their third lines and those units will likely be the focal point yet again as each team works to shut down the opponent’s top line.

What could ultimately tip the scales in New York’s favor is their slight defensive advantage. As immensely talented as PK Subban is, the Montreal defensive corps don’t impress me as much as the group New York plays on a nightly basis.

The goaltending matchup is also an interesting one, although game one may alter how the rest of the series plays out. Henrik Lundqvist has shown a Hasek-ian propensity to steal games for his team even when they’re overmatched. He’s been nearly impossible to score on and only flukes and perfect tips have been getting the job done lately. Price, meanwhile, has been just as impressive throughout the playoffs. He’d be Montreal’s conn Smythe candidate should the Habs lift the Cup and he will be a key factor in this series.

While game one makes things look bad for Montreal, I think they will find a way to overpower New York thanks to the overall balance of talent. Both teams are very similar to one another but I feel like the Canadiens come away as the winners here.

Montreal in 6

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings

This is the showdown between the burgeoning dynasty and the plucky underdogs who won’t go away. Chicago was likely the favorite to win the Cup from the start of the postseason for many fans and experts. They have show little, to no drop off from last season’s Cup run and they got things off on the right foot in game one of this series.

Los Angeles has stared down two separate elimination scenarios and came away victorious in their first two rounds. After winning four-straight elimination games against San Jose, they did it again against the Ducks. Between their first two series, the Kings have played a pair of game sevens and faced elimination a total of six times.

While goaltending is a major reason both of these teams have made it to this point, I feel that this series will be decided by the team’s top lines. The Stanley Cup playoffs are always about matchups, shutdown pairs and the ability to stymie a team’s best weapons. The Kings and Blackhawks have the luxury of not only having incredible forward depth, but a top line that can double as a shutdown unit. So, depending on how Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews’ units fare in this series may just dictate who comes out on top. Game one tells a story where Toews and his wingers enjoyed the advantage and the score reflects exactly that.

Another potential factor is the fatigue that LA is dealing with versus that of the Blackhawks. Chicago got out of both the first and second rounds in six games while the Kings played seven games in each series. As brief as the rest may have been for the Blackhawks, the Kings have not been able to enjoy as much time off. While their first two series were both played in California, those extra games will certainly take a toll on the players. If they’re unable to maintain against Chicago, it could make for a quick series.

Chicago in 6

Industry Q&A with Matt Hoppe of STX Hockey

STX Composite Ice Hockey Sticks

STX Composite Ice Hockey Sticks

STX, a long running lacrosse powerhouse, has dove headfirst into the hockey market as they unveiled their two elite level sticks earlier this year. The Stallion 500 and Surgeon 500 sticks are on the shelves now and Matt Moulson has been using the Stallion 500 for most of the 2013-14 season.

Matt Hoppe, Senior Brand Manager at STX, took some time out of his day to answer some questions for us about STX’s foray into hockey, the tech behind their new sticks and what else is coming down the pipe in the coming months. Matt offers some incredible insight into the development process and an awesome inside look at the products STX offers to players.

Great Skate: STX jumped headfirst into the hockey market this year, how long of a process has the company gone through from the first discussions of releasing a hockey line to the release of the Stallion and Surgeon sticks?

Matt Hoppe: STX has been eyeing an entry into the hockey category for the better part of a decade and really cranked up the intensity and internal efforts (R&D build out/internal staffing/etc) over the past 3 years.

Up front it was imperative to us that we committed the time and effort to really understand the wants and needs of hockey athletes. Before we made a step toward putting a pen to paper for designing anything we spent considerable time talking to players to ensure we were bringing to market products that would respect and advance the game.

As we spent more and more time in rinks talking to players we found, even in regions where lacrosse happens to still be an emerging sport,  genuine excitement about the prospect of our company bringing a fresh perspective to the game.

GS: STX is probably best known for their lacrosse equipment. Do you have any professional experience with lacrosse or are you strictly a hockey guy?

MH: I am really green when it comes to lacrosse. It wasn’t a sport that was offered at the prep school I attended (Shattuck- St. Mary’s) and it wasn’t really around in Michigan in the late 80’s early 90’s when I was growing up. I really wish it would have been because it’s clear there is a direct connection between the games from a skill set development standpoint. Both games are incredibly fast and demand a really high level of hand eye coordination.

We have a few incredibly skilled lacrosse players in the office and I’ve been badgering them to teach me the game but we haven’t gotten very far in our lessons yet.

GS: Assuming you’ve had the chance to test each of the sticks, which of the two best suits your game?

MH: One of the perks of the job is definitely equipment testing. We skate once a week as a company and I’ve had the luxury of getting to log some serious hours with both sticks. I’m more of a Stallion guy. The constant flex profile is what I’m more used to using.

I tend to swap back and forth between the two (I love the feel of the Surgeon blade) – but given my skill set (or complete lack thereof) no one would ever mistake me for a dangler or an electric playmaker!

GS: One issue that newer companies seem to struggle with is the mental block some players have in using a product that isn’t produced by a big name company. While the tech behind these sticks and STX’s pedigree speaks for itself, have you noticed any sort of trepidation surrounding the release? What would you say differentiates the Stallion and Surgeon from the sticks made by the “big boys”?

MH: There will always be a bit of a barrier to entry with new products from a new company. This is definitely something we are aware of from a consumer standpoint. We know the best way to get someone comfortable with the products is to have them try it first-hand. To that end we’ll be out in the market offering demo days and we’ve worked with our retail partners (like Great Skate) to provide them demo stock for their shooting areas in their stores.

Probably the biggest advantage our sticks have going for them is overall feel and playability. Our sticks have an incredibly high balance point giving them a very good off the rack “feel”). The stick blades have also been specifically tuned to the sticks to give players that extra edge when shooting or receiving passes etc.).

We’ve been making elite level game changing equipment for 40+ years at STX. So while we might be new to hockey we wouldn’t have put our hockey sticks into the market if we didn’t believe in them.

GS: Something that I really like about the line, in addition to the performance benefits, is that the graphics aren’t overdone and the stick isn’t weighed down with extra paint like you see with certain companies. Was there any consideration to dress the sticks up more or was the clear focus to ensure elite performance?

MH: This was a clear choice for a couple of reasons. Luckily we have some really strong brand pillars from our lacrosse and field hockey lines that we were able to bring over to ice hockey (the Surgeon and Stallion product names). So in some respects the color palette, design aesthetics, and player archetypes were already in place.

However, even with that base to work from, I’ve got 30 years in and around the game of hockey and we have several other folks here (for example – Rocco Amonte our NHL rep) who have been around the game even longer and that experience provides a nice base to work from when thinking about providing elite level players what they need.

A LOT of care and thought went into the stick designs. We wanted to balance making them pop on ice, appeal to the up close inspection you often get when kids are picking them up at retail stores, and probably most importantly was ensuring the top down view of the stick wasn’t busy. We know how fast the game moves and any distraction to a player’s peripheral vision can be the difference between making a play and getting run over.

GS: The Power and Precision Flex Profiles are very interesting features for each of the sticks. Could you shed a little more light on the technology that went into each stick and the benefits a player will get from using each?

MH: Absolutely, both sticks benefit from a very high balance point (which naturally extends the taper of the stick). This longer taper allows players to load the stick with less effort.

Speaking specifically about the two sticks The POWER FLEX profile of the Stallion is set up for players who are used to using a constant flex profile stick. The Stallion is going to load with a more traditional feel and will really respond well to players we take a lot of one timers or heavy snap shots etc. This is a stick that is going to give players who like to lean into their shots a little extra boost.

The PRECISION FLEX of the Surgeon line is going to provide players that dual kick point that has become a little more popular over the past few years.  With the Surgeon 500 players are going to notice that elongated taper even more as the lower kick point will load incredibly fast when taking quick wristers or making quick passing plays in tight.

GS: Each stick has its own unique blade construction as well. This is a feature that seems to be the next big thing in stick design and STX is out ahead of the pack in pairing blade stiffness to the type of stick you’re buying. What’s the thought process behind this development and what are the benefits?

MH: Balancing the demand for a stick that really has pop with the desire to offer players that elusive wood blade “puck feel” is the most difficult part of stick design.

We know that certain players really want a stick that enhances their shot speed. While other players really value feel and being able to know where that puck is on their stick at all times. That means offering them options – gone are the days where you can just crank out a composite stick, put a graphic on it, and call it a day. Players are far too savvy to accept that. They want finely tuned performance and we believe that our sticks offer players just that. From the blade, to the flex profile, to the balance point we’ve tried to put together two distinct stick lines that provide players options and performance.

GS: With both sticks catering to the elite player, are there any plans to begin developing price point models for the player who may not be looking for the elite performance offered by these two models?

MH: Yes, we have great price point sticks (for both the Surgeon and the Stallion stick lines) that will be available this fall.

GS: I’m not sure if I’m the only one to pick up on this, but it’s slightly ironic to see a player who was selected in the National Lacrosse League draft as the poster boy for your line. Are you able to talk a little bit about the process of bringing Matt Moulson on to use the sticks and how involved he’s been in developing the line?

MH: Matt is obviously a very talented athlete. His NHL success speaks for itself and yes (great catch) he is/was a very talented lacrosse player. He actually is still very interested in lacrosse and is very knowledgeable about the game itself.

Matt was a guy we identified very early on in the process as someone we really wanted to try to partner with. He’s a guy that has, until very recently, flown under the radar. Which for the amount of points he has produced over the past 5 years is astounding.

We approached Matt early in the season and he was aware of our brand right away (from his lacrosse background) and once we determined there was some interest in working together we immediately had him jump into the product development/testing process with us.

I’ll give you a great example of how his insight has translated over to our product development process. In an early stick sample we sent him he was having difficulties with blade torsion when taking one timers. So we went back in and tweaked the stiffness of the hosel on his sticks until we met the feel he was after. This change was something ultimately migrated over to our Stallion sticks line now at retail. His input had a direct impact on our product development – which speaks to the invaluable nature of our partnership with Matt.

GS: Moulson uses the Stallion and I noticed Cody Hodgson with a handful of Stallions when he was cleaning out his locker a few weeks ago. Should we expect to see more NHLers using the Stallion and Surgeon next year?

MH: Yes absolutely. We knew we wanted to spend a year working with Matt and getting the product right and launched into market. You should expect to see us expand our player relationships in the NHL next season.

GS: Based on the NHL players you’ve dealt with to this point have you noticed that the Stallion is the more popular model amongst them? Or has it been a fairly even split?

MH: It has actually been split pretty evenly the Surgeon has been a stick that has gotten rave reviews from players and the Stallion, with its constant flex profile, is one that is very common among NHL’ers.

GS: Speaking of seeing the sticks in the NHL, it’s my understanding that companies need to pay a fee in order for their logos to be shown on equipment used by players. Was there any consideration to not pay the fee to the league or does the exposure garnered outweigh those costs? (I realize that some of these questions may be off limits, so if you’re unable to answer them or provide detailed descriptions I understand)

MH: The NHL does charge a fee to allow companies to put their products on ice. There was never a consideration to not pay the fee.  We fully respect and value the exposure the NHL brings to the table from a sports marketing and product visibility perspective. The athletes playing in the NHL are at the pinnacle of the sport – garnering their input and approval is something we know is a must for long term success.

GS: Should we expect to see STX gloves gracing the hands ofNHLers next year? If yes, can you drop any hints as to what we might expect?

MH: Matt Moulson is actually wearing our new Stallion glove now. He started wearing it in the last few weeks of the regular season. It was incredible for us to deliver him a glove a few games before the playoffs started and watch him swap right into it without missing a beat.

STX has a long history of designing and developing gloves and protective – so we are very confident what we are working on it going to really impress the broader hockey community.

Looking forward you can expect to see gloves and protective equipment that offer players enhanced mobility, targeted protection, and the usage of materials not super common to the game.

Being new to ice hockey we have the ability to pave our way into the sport in whatever manner we see best. That means you’ll see us doing some things over the next 12-24 months which might feel a bit different (and we view that as a good thing) but first and foremost you’ll always see us respecting the game and only providing products that we believe give players a measurable performance advantage on the ice.

The Surgeon 500 and Stallion 500 sticks are just the tip of iceberg. We have a lot of really amazing, and in some cases game changing, products we are putting the final touches on. It is going to be an exciting 12 months in the hockey department here at STX!

Bauer APX2 gloves preview

Bauer APX2 gloves preview

Bauer APX2 hockey gloves preview

Bauer’s APX line has been adopted by countless professionals and elite players around the world since its first introduction. Bauer responded to the popularity by taking feedback on the equipment, retooling certain aspects and releasing new and improved versions under the name APX2 in 2014.

Among the pieces of equipment that has undergone change is the APX2 glove. The APX2 still features the tapered fit and slots in alongside the anatomically designed Supreme and traditionally designed Nexus equipment lines. The APX2 features a streamlined new look and colorway breakdown compared to last year’s model. It also features a number of technical advances that shouldn’t be ignored.

Bauer managed to shed upward of 30% of the weight off the APX2 to make it that much lighter than it’s predecessor and direct competitors. Additionally, Bauer has introduced the Quattro+ Palm system that’s designed to help wick moisture away. The new palms are full of tech and also feature matching team colors to a number of the gloves. This is an interesting choice given the widespread popularity of the typical beige color seen on most gloves. When I think of colored palms, Claude Giroux immediately springs to mind from late last season when he was trying out orange palmed gloves. I thought he looked silly and the concept definitely has the ability to look odd, especially if the palm sharply contrasts the glove itself.

Bauer also added Proron XRD foam to the back of the hand to increase protection from pucks and sticks. It’s an addition that brings Bauer’s favorite new feature into their glove line. It seems like a wise choice considering adding the material to their helmets and other protective lines has been nothing but a boon for the company.

The Bauer APX2 gloves will be on the shelves soon and will make for a great addition to your bag heading into next season.

New trim, technology headlines the return of the Synergy this summer

ew trim, technology headlines the return of the Synergy this summer

New trim, technology headlines the return of the Synergy this summer

It’s the stick that started it all. The Easton Synergy revolutionized the game both on and off the ice when it was first introduced and now the legendary name is coming back as Easton is prepared to launch the new Synergy HTX line this summer.

Last seen in the form of the ST 16, the Synergy returns to the ice with new technology designed to create a more responsive blade that creates more velocity off the toe. Easton refers to this technology as Hypertuned and Hypertoe.

The Hypertuned technology sees Easton specifically match stiffer blades to stiffer stick flexes to ensure that the blade responds properly to the type of player that uses each flex. For a player that prefers a stiff stick, the blade’s stiffness will match giving that player a stick with a uniform feel from the flex down to the blade. The same goes for softer flex sticks being paired with softer blades. This differs greatly from sticks of the past which uses a uniform blade construction that offered a different response with each type of flex profile.

In addition, the blade itself has gone under a makeover as Easton’s Hypertoe technology introduces a tapered ribbing to the blade that’s designed to add velocity as the puck comes off on a pass or shot. The blades are easier to load up thanks to the dual lies that Easton utilizes, making the new Hypertoe a benefit to anyone using the stick.

The ultimate goal with the Hypertoe isn’t just to add velocity but to make it easier to load the blade to shoot in a combination that serves to increase your shot without any additional effort. It’s a trait that’s been introduced on a few of Easton’s recent products but it should add even more on the HTX as the Hypertune technology ensures a more uniform feel throughout.

The HTX has been popping up here and there around the NHL this season and will officially be on the shelves in June.

MX3 Bauer Skates

MX3 Bauer Ice Hockey Skates

MX3 Bauer Skates

The newest alteration to Bauer’s Supreme line comes in the form of the TotalOne MX3.

Taking over the Supreme banner from the NXG skate, the new MX3 adds features that were originally unveiled with the APX2 line last year while also providing updates exclusive to the new line.

The MX3 features the TUUK Lightspeed Edge holder that features the trigger blade replacement system that came out on the APX2. Additionally, the MX3 also features Bauer’s revolutionary injected stability lace system. This is the square eyelet system that Bauer has developed to reduce or eliminate lace bite, allow the laces to glide through flat as opposed to twisting or catching and, finally, also providing for a better fit and forward flex for the skater. The square eyelets also remove the pesky round, metal eyelets of yesterday that could so easily rip out after excessive use.

Implementing the one-piece eyelet system was a no brainer for Bauer as they’ve taken such a committed approach to the anatomic design for the Supreme line. Further advances to the Curv composite upper design allows for the MX3 to provide a full 360-degree fit after the skate has been properly baked. This ensures a custom fit that’s an anatomically correct as possible.

Additional changes to the interior of the skate include a supple update to the HydraMax liner that’s already been a fan favorite from previous Supreme models.

Bauer has also developed a revolutionary new tongue system that allows a player to completely customize the shape and performance of their skate’s tongue. The 3Flex Tongue features Curv composite inserts that vary in stiffness depending on the type of flex you prefer. Much like a composite stick, the flex options are designed to act like a springboard as the player flexes forward and pushes off with each stride. Ultimately the goal is to provide a fully custom feel that allows the skate to spring backward as each stride is taken.

Another interesting feature is the features included in some of the lower models of the Supreme line. While only the MX3 offers the 3Flex tongue, HyrdaMax 2 liner and the Lightspeed Edge holder an number of features can be found on the 190, 180, 170 and 160. All four are capable of being fully baked, they each feature the Lightspeed Edge holder while the 190 and 180 also feature the Curv composite upper.

Overall the changes to the Supreme line are relatively minor compared to previous years. But the updates that were made provide an impressive upgrade to an already impressive line.

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

A perfectly painted goal mask is the single coolest source of expression in hockey. A painted mask can showcase team pride or provide personal insights. There are a host of mask painters around the world who span from do-it-yourself painters right up to world-renowned artists who are on the speed dial for multiple NHL goalies.

However, getting a mask painted isn’t as simple as the one or two-week turnaround that NHL goaltenders enjoy when they change teams or create new mask art. It is a somewhat lengthy process that should be properly researched before steps are taken to put paint to helmet.

First off, many masks are difficult to paint while others simply shouldn’t be painted at all. Most high-impact plastic molded masks aren’t properly rated to receive paint and even if you’re able to put paint on the mask, any warranties and certifications that accompany the mask will likely be voided.

Most manufacturers higher level masks are designed to take paint and maintain their structural integrity after. Proper research to determine which masks can and cannot take paint should be done prior to making any final decisions. In addition, many companies require painters to be properly certified to paint particular masks. For example, there are specific Bauer-approved painters who have the proper certifications or approvals to paint those masks. These certifications indicate that the artist knows how to properly prepare and paint the mask so the structural integrity isn’t compromised by the process.

If you have any concerns about the quality of the mask you’re thinking about painting or you’re unsure that the painter you were planning on using is properly certified to do the work, there are other avenues to take.

Most companies are now releasing masks with decorative decals already applied so the masks have some color to them right out of the box. Many of Bauer’s junior models feature these decal sets. There is also the option of finding a custom decal shop that could potentially create a high durability decal or sticker set for a helmet that would still have custom artwork but wouldn’t compromise the helmet itself.

This isn’t all doom and gloom, either. Going the decal route is probably the safest route to take in terms of adding custom decoration to a mask. However, if you know that your mask can take paint and you’ve found an artist to do the work, go nuts! Getting my mask painted in college was a very fun experience. It took a couple weeks for the work to be done and I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

My advice for anyone who is going to take this step is to stay involved with the artist. Even if you only have a general idea that you want to let them run with, be clear with what you’re looking for. This ensures you will be happy with the final product for years to come.

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

On the Ice: Warrior Covert DT2 gloves

Warrior’s Dynasty (previously Franchise) glove line has long been a favorite at nearly every level of the game. Now, Warrior has a counterpart to their classic four-roll glove.

The Covert glove line that was introduced last year is built on more of a tapered, anatomic fit as compared to the more traditional fit of the Dynasty gloves. Now that the Covert line is a year old, Warrior has started making some interesting changes to the line. One, is a special Limited Edition “World Tour” line for this year. The Limited Edition glove is designed with the Olympics in mind as the special edition colors that are available include Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Quebec and a blackout version of the US and Canadian gloves.

This line compliments the typical colorway availability in the DT2 glove and offers players a chance to get a unique pair of one-off gloves. While including Quebec is a somewhat odd choice when the rest of the designs are Olympic inspired, but the powder blue glove with a white cuff was too much to turn down and those were the pair I picked off the shelf.

Out of the Box

These are a good looking pair of gloves. The design standard on the line is basic but includes sharp edges that defines the graphic package in each color. The Quebec glove is just powder blue and white, so there is not contrast color on the back of the hand. However, the white trim surrounding the area where a contrast color would go helps the glove to pop.

The DT2 uses Warrior’s Polygiene liner that not only wicks away moisture but also battles odor to keep your gloves clean and smelling fresh for a longer period of time. The Polygiene liner also utilized the Chillwave feature which keeps your hand cool which helps to work in unison with the Polygiene liner for a clean, fresh interior.

As a former lacrosse player, I really like when a glove fits tight on my hand. I’m not overly comfortable wearing a loose fitting glove like a Dynasty or Bauer Nexus as the back of my hand is often separated from the back portion of the glove. The Covert offers a tight, snug fit without limiting mobility in the hand or wrist while playing. The fingers and knuckles are a little tight the first time you put these on, but bending the fingers back and over will help to break the glove in and after a couple of ice times you’ll be all set.

On the Ice

As someone who not only prefers a tighter fitting glove, but coming from a pair of gloves that didn’t fit perfectly, I immediately noticed how much more comfortable I was stick handling, passing and shooting with the new gloves. I had gone from a pair that would sometimes feel perfect but other times would be far too loose for my liking. There’s no wiggle room here (no pun intended) as the fit and build of these gloves allow for a snug, comfortable skate.

The change was so drastic that during warmups I actually was hitting the puck too hard while stickhandling because the gloves moved in perfect unison with my hands.

After a few icetimes I haven’t had a moment where I was trying to adjust how my hands felt on the fly or feeling that I didn’t get good wood on a pass or shot because my wrists felt as if these were slipping out of my gloves.

The gloves only required a pair of games to feel broken in as I did spend a little time breaking in the fingers and knuckles prior to my first game, so that may have sped up the break in process. I’m not only pleased to have made the decision to get an upgrade with my gloves, but choosing an anatomically designed pair will be something that goes a long way for me game-to-game.

Predicting the Olympic Tournament

The Olympic break is finally upon us and, depending on logistics, could be the last Olympics that features NHL players representing their countries.

Each team will have fairly limited practice time given the short time period between the NHL break and beginning of the Olympic tournament. This could serve as an early benefit for some of the assumed underdogs who have fewer NHL players making the hop across the Atlantic, but even those players will need to take breaks from their respective national teams for the Olympic tournament. The games will officially open on February 8 and the tournament will run until February 23.

There are some changes between the 2010 and 2014 games in which the IIHF allowed the 2010 men’s and women’s tournaments to be played on NHL sized rinks as opposed to an international surface. The Sochi ice will be nearly 15 feet wider than the ice most of the participants are used to and that adjustment could also come into play as the tournament moves along.

One interesting feature of this year’s tournament is the pool seeding. Based on the 2012 IIHF World Championships, there are decidedly difficult pools that were determined by the IIHF World Rankings. The US and Russians highlight an impressive Group A that includes Slovakia and Slovenia, a group that will not provide an easy out for anyone. Group B is headlined by the defending gold and bronze medalists in Canada and Finland, respectively. Norway and Austria round out the group as the Norweigians are no longer the new kid on the block for the tournament. Group C is filled out by Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. That is perhaps the one group which could produce a surprising upset given the Swiss’ propensity to play big in international events.

Group B may be the easiest to prognosticate with Groups A and B each having a pair of darkhorse teams that could cause trouble for the favorites.

Group A

While the United States’ run to a silver medal in 2010 was impressive, they’re faced with an equally difficult road to a first round bye this year. Ryan Miller’s preliminary round dominance helped the Americans over Canada and to a top seeding for the quarters. It will take an equally impressive performance in goal (from Miller or Jonathan Quick) and the requisite goal support to lift the US over Russia this year. The US roster has more elite talent this year compared to what may be described as a more complete team in 2010. While leaving Bobby Ryan out was a surprise to many, the US roster still has some impressive talent in their top-six.

The Russians enter the tournament as the hometown favorite with plenty to prove after a disastrous showing in Vancouver. While goaltending and defense show as potential weak spots on the roster, the firepower they boast at forward makes them an immediate contender regardless of who is in net. Should Semyon Varlamov maintain a consistent level of play, he could easily elevate the Russians to the top team in the tournament.

Both the Americans and Russians will need to be aware of the Slovakians in pool play. The Slovaks made a strong run to the bronze medal game and a fourth place finish in Vancouver on the back of a veteran lineup. While some of the old guard has moved on, a number of their young stars have come into their own at the NHL level. They will not only prove to be a tough team to defeat but certainly a squad which will make noise in the quarterfinals.

Slovenia is brand new to the Olympic tournament and boasts just one NHL talent; Anze Kopitar. While Kopitar is truly a world-class talent, he will need a ton of help to lift the Slovenians to victories in Sochi. While I doubt that they escape pool play with a victory, their appearance alone in the tournament is a major victory for their national program.

Outlook: The group winner will likely come down to the US and Russia although I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the Slovaks steal at least one point from one of those two squads in preliminary play. Preliminary Standings: Russia (2-1-0-0), United States (2-0-0-1), Slovakia (1-0-1-1), Slovenia (0-0-0-3). Records are listed in order of Win-OT Win-OT Loss-Loss. Three points are awarded for a regulation win, two for an OT win and 1 point for an OT loss.

Group B

The Canadians earned an easy berth in their pool considering some of the veteran talent that the Finns will have at this year’s tournament. The Canadians are an all-star team. There is no other way to describe the wealth of talent they’ll bring to Sochi. While goaltending was expected to be a question mark for the tournament, one of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo or Mike Smith will be able to carry the load for the stacked roster in front of them.

Goaltending is the precise strength for the Finnish national team as each of their three goaltenders would start for just about every country in this year’s Olympic Games aside from, perhaps the Swedes or Americans. Tuukka Rask is likely the starter but Antti Niemi and Kari Kehtonen are equally capable of stealing a game on a nightly basis. There are some impressive, young talents on this roster that is still anchored by the old guard entering the tournament. If they get hot, they’ll be very difficult to beat.

While Norway was thoroughly dominated in what turned out to be the strongest pool in the 2010 games (Canada, US and Switzerland), they enter the 2014 games with a stronger international resume and the experience of having played in an Olympic tournament just four years earlier. While they’ll surely see little success against the Canadians or Finns, I can see them stealing a preliminary round win over Austria before facing another superior opponent in the quarters.

Austria, like Slovenia, is a new kid on the block. The presence of NHL players on the roster could give them a slight edge over the Norwegians in terms of depth. That NHL talent might just put them over the edge when it comes to their showdown with Norway. But with a pair of teams with very few players in North American leagues, it’s hard to pinpoint where each will end up.

Outlook: This should be cut and dry. The Canadians will likely seize the first seed in the quarters while neither Austria or Norway will threaten Finland. The real key is if the Finns will get help elsewhere to snag the fourth first-round bye. Preliminary Standings: Canada (3-0-0-0), Finland (2-0-0-1), Norway (0-1-0-2), Austria (0-0-1-2)

Group C

This is an interesting group as the Swedes will certainly enter the tournament as the prohibitive favorite amongst their three opponents. Sweden’s roster is an impressive collection of two-way talent with a ton of depth in the middle of the ice. Henrik Lundqvist will carry the load in the crease and I expect the Swedes to present a serious challenge for gold.

A few interesting roster choices makes the Czech Republic a borderline group. While there are plenty of NHL names on the roster, they are bringing quite a bit of age along with them, notably, Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr. While Jagr has proven to be an ageless wonder, some of the other roster choices perplexed those in the hockey community. The Czechs will live and die with Ondrej Pavelec which, depending on your opinion of him, could be a precarious way to go about the tournament.

I expect the Swiss squad to surprise people this year. Jonas Hiller is beyond dialed in at this point and they have seemingly progressed each and every year on the international stage. While they won’t likely pull any Belarussian surprises on the Swedes, I can definitely see them upsetting the Czech’s on their way to the elimination round. If Hiller isn’t at his best the Swiss will struggle. But if he continues the play he’s displayed this season, I’d expect them to grab a few wins.

The Latvians wind up in a very challenging group and their path through the preliminaries may only be topped by the Slovenians. While fans in Buffalo will certainly be excited to see Ted Nolan behind the bench and Zemgus Girgensons on the ice, I doubt that the Latvian’s compete level will do enough to get them a win in the opening round.

Outlook: Sweden takes this group running away with the Swiss stealing a win off the Czech’s and slotting in the second spot in the group. The Latvians will likely be fourth with the Czech’s in third somewhat by default. Preliminary Standings: Sweden (3-0-0-0), Switzerland (2-0-0-1), Czech Republic (1-0-0-2), Latvia (0-0-0-3)

Elimination & Medal Round

Based on my loose prognostications I have the Canadians, Russians, Swedes and Finns advancing with a first round bye, although the US and maybe even Switzerland could be in the conversation for a bye depending on their goal differential. Where I think a curveball might be thrown is in the path to the medal round.

While the Canadians and Swedes will certainly advance to the medal round games, I could see the Russians or Finns upset along the way. I am hopeful that the Americans will be one of the four teams playing for a medal with Switzerland being my surprise pick to advance to the final four. From there I expect the depth of the participating teams to win out with the Canadians defeating Sweden for gold in 2014.

Medal Predictions:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Canada

Bronze: United States

Choosing between a cage or shield

Choosing between a cage or shield - Greatskate.com

Choosing between a cage or shield – Greatskate.com

All players get to the point when they have the opportunity to choose between a cage and a shield (or no facial protection). Typically that time is when you reach adult recreational leagues.

Most adult leagues allow anyone over the age of 18 to play, which means that when players reach 18 years of age, they’ll finally have the choice of taking off their cage and upgrading to a visor should they choose that route.

When it comes down to comfort and overall vision, the visor takes the cake every time. There’s nothing snapped up around your chin and nothing to obstruct your view of the ice. When it comes to safety, however, the cage wins out every time. Despite owning an Oakley visor, I wear a cage for all of my games.

The reason I choose to go with a cage is strictly motivated by safety. I’ve see too many players get caught with sticks or pucks (I’ve caught a puck in the mouth myself) to justify wearing a visor. In addition, my vision isn’t all that bothered by a cage either. Perhaps it is because I grew up playing goalie and a player’s helmet offer so much more in terms of peripheral views as it is. Regardless, a cage is the choice for me.

However, you may be in a different position.

Determining if you want to wear a cage or visor comes down to little more than personal preference. If you’re comfortable with just a visor on, then you shouldn’t even think twice about wearing one. You’ll love the comfort that comes with little to obstruct your view of the ice. Picking that visor is where the decision making process will begin.

There are a number of companies making visors today, but Oakley and Bauer stand above the rest in terms of quality and durability. Most visor purchases will come down to brand and design as each company offers a handful of different options. Great Skate offers both the Bauer and Oakley models in a straight or aviator cut that is more of a personal preference for the wearer. The aviator is a more stylized model with a curved bottom line which could affect what you look at depending on how focused you are on the bottom of the visor and the ice. The straight models are what’s seen a bit more often in the NHL as a majority of players opt for the simple look with their visor.

Bauer recently introduced the Pro Clip visor line which utilizes all of their normal visor models but with a quick release, tool-less shield replacement when it comes time to start using a new visor. It’s an interesting development as putting a visor on a helmet falls somewhere between rocket science and flying on the difficulty scale.

The one thing about the Pro Clip visors that I’m curious about is how often do they need to be changed? It would be somewhat worrisome if they consistently need to be replaced as a lack of durability would certainly be an issue.

If a visor isn’t what you’re looking for, there are a ton of options for cages at Great Skate, including the CCM 580 which is a popular choice amongst a great many collegiate player. The Bauer RE-AKT titanium is a high-end model that offers a super lightweight option. However, the CCM might be the best designed cage out there. Bauer and Reebok each have a decent option for their helmets, but the CCM offers a good view of the ice and also passes the mirror test with flying colors.

One other option, of course, is the full face shield. The Bauer Concept is a design that’s been around forever and has gained popularity in recent years and anti-fog treatments have made these far more manageable to use.

If you’re considering making a switch to a visor or simply looking to pick up a new cage, keep this in mind as you’re making your choice at Great Skate.

Ranking the Winter Classic goalie masks

New York Rangers Winter Classic Goalie Mask

New York Rangers Winter Classic Goalie Mask

I’m a freak for goalie equipment. I’d die to have unlimited access to different paint jobs, custom pads and the like. That’s what makes the NHL’s annual outdoor games so awesome.

There have been some pretty cool masks and gear sets used since the first Winter Classic in Buffalo back in 2008. While it is becoming tougher and tougher to one-up the previous year, each goalie has managed to put his own twist on the gear worn for the special outdoor contests each year.

The easiest and most common change is to simply get a special paint job done for the day. Few goalies have decided against any sort of change for the Winter Classic as most have a new mask painted for them at the very least. While there has been a handful to make no change between the NHL’s Winter and Heritage Classics, here is a ranking of those goalies masks from previous years (and this year’s Winter Classic):

  1. Henrik Lundqvist takes the cake for his mask and gear set up for the 2012 Classic. He went with a full makeover, sporting some vintage white pads and a new paintjob. The pads are only so-so, but the paintjob is phenomenal. The worn look on the mask and cage make this look perfect. A+ for the design and execution.
  1. Tukka Rask is second for his Green Monster mask. The tattered Yankees jersey was a nice touch and incorporating Fenway was cool. Too bad the mask didn’t get a chance to see the ice in the 2009 Classic.
  2. Dany Sabourin didn’t get to see the ice in the original Winter Classic. Had he played better leading up to the game, everyone would have been treated to his phenomenal throwback set up. The pads perfectly compliment the unique helmet. The paintjob isn’t as outstanding as the first two on this list, but the full look gets him in the top-five.
  3. Tim Thomas went with a pretty basic look for 2009. His pads remained but he had a commemorative paintjob done up. It was well executed and the Bruins portion looks great from a distance and up close. The eye black helped too.
  4. Top marks to Jimmy Howard and his Winter Classic mask. Ray Bishop does some excellent work and I love Howard’s mask. It’s clean, simple and works perfectly with the throwback uniform motif. He also has a nifty Santa mask but I doubt we see that on the 1st.
  5. Cristobal Huet could have gotten bonus points for his pads had he not worn them for the first half of the season. However, his special edition helmet looked awesome. A great paintjob incorporating the Wrigley marquee and the “Go Hawks” written on a car windshield (not pictured).
  6. Brent Johnson had a great set up for the 2011 classic. His pads and mask worked perfectly with the special uniforms. A well done setup that trumped the starter’s look.
  7. Ilya Bryzgalov’s best mask for the 2012-13 was barely been worn. His tiger helmet looks strange compared to the solid white-based lid he sported early on. His Winter Classic mask is busy, but an ode to Philly sports history. It looks great and is well executed, especially considering how much is going on the helmet. Add in his vintage Vaughn pads (and sick gloves) and you have a winner.
  8. Ryan Miller’s pads matched the uniforms the Sabres chose to utilize in 2008, so he didn’t need to make a change in that regard. His paint job looked cool, despite being partially covered. He gets points here for the paintjob and the use of the hockey sock hat. Those two combined sneak him into the top ten.
  9. I’ll give the overall edge on Toronto Winter Classic masks to James Reimer. Despite some cool features on Bernier’s mask, the blue cage just doesn’t do it for me. I love the sock stripes on the background of Reimer’s mask and the overall design looks great.
  10. Martin Biron chose to honor Gilles Gratton with his design for the 2012 classic. His brown Bauer pads will look great with the vintage uniform and the helmet. It’s a classic design that unfortunately wasn’t seen on the ice.
  11. A very basic design for Jonas Gustavsson’s Classic Mask. I like the use of the vintage white and the lines are all clean. No complaints in any sense for this mask but his pads are kind of average for a vintage colored set. Credit for Petr Mrazek’s wintry pads even if they don’t see any action in the NHL game.
  12. Michal Neuvirth had the better of the two helmets in the Washington Capitals locker room too. The white based design looked great and had all the right elements. A well done design for sure.
  13. Jonathan Bernier’s Maple Leafs Mask is pretty solid. DaveArt rarely misses the mark with his work. The overall look of the mask is cool, although I’m not fond of the painted cage one bit. It looks out of place and I could’ve done without it.
  14. If Marc Andre Fleury wore his most recent alternate mask and pads in 2011, he would be the runaway winner.  Sadly, he didn’t have those at his disposal then. The mask design looked good, but didn’t come close to matching the jerseys they wore at Heinz Field.
  15. Ty Conklin went with a special design on his helmet in 2008, he chose against it in 2009. However, the paintjob looked pretty good for the original classic. He would have been higher had he scored bonus points for matching gear.
  16. Semyon Varlamov’s helmet design was painted by Dave Gunnarson, the same artist who did the work on many masks on this list. The design isn’t bad, but it looks like a helmet you would find in Dick’s. It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Neuvirth’s.
  17. Sergei Bobrovsky’s mask for the 2012 Winter Classic was somewhat similar to Lundqvist’s but didn’t offer the same wow factor.
  18. Michael Leighton had a simple, but solid design for his 2010 mask. It looked cool from a distance and the skyline was just as cool up close. It doubled as his mask the rest of the season, but it was a solid design for the Winter Classic.
  19. Marc-Andre Fleury is the only goalie to appear on the list twice. Again, his gear from last year was great and the helmet was pretty well done, just not great. However, his helmet from 2008 looked silly. The enormous 29 on the right side looked out of place while the Pens logo on the left just couldn’t make up for the number. An average design, at least no one needed to see it during the game.
  20. Carey Price’s mask for the 2011 Heritage Classic was all sorts of creepy and awful. I understand the look he was going for, but it just failed on so many levels. I blame the eyes. Price, however, was the only goalie in that game to don any sort of special equipment. So good on him for that.