Eastern/Western Conference playoff preview and prediction

Eastern and Western Confrence playoff preview and predictions

Eastern and Western Confrence playoff preview and predictions

Western Conference playoff preview and prediction

Now that the season has finally wound down the real fun can begin. The NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday evening as three different series kick off the 2014 postseason.

While the Boston Bruins claimed the President’s Trophy this year, the Western Conference boasts four of the league’s top five teams based on the final point standings. The West has been regarded as the stronger conference this season, but there’s a strong possibility that the team coming away with the Clarence C. Campbell Cup will have taken a savage beating to get there.

Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

The Avalanche used a late run and a backslide by St. Louis to sneak into the top spot in the Central Division. The surge not only lifted the Avs to a division title but also out of a first round showdown with Chicago. They’ll face Central Division rival, Minnesota, who finished with a stranglehold on the first wild card position in the West.

Minnesota worked through a goaltending carousel in order to capture what would have previously been considered the seventh seed under the old playoff format. They finished seven points clear of Dallas and wound up with a nice cushion in the standings as Dallas and Phoenix fought for the final position.

What to Watch For

Colorado has been powered by their young core that features three top-three selections. Matt Duchene (3rd overall 2009) is on the shelf with an injury but captain Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (1st overall 2013) have kept the ship on course over the last few weeks. While Duchene won’t likely factor in this series, the Avs have solid scoring depth and have received stout goaltending for much of the season.

Minnesota features a more veteran laden lineup with a few elite talents that power their engine. Ryan Suter is their minute eating stalwart and his fellow free agent classmate Zach Parise headlines a forward group with plenty of offensive pedigree. There may be some question marks in the crease, but the players playing in front of Ilya Bryzgalov can skate with just about anyone in the league.

Colorado is the favorite entering the series despite Duchene’s absence. While I think that Suter’s ability on the backend and Minnesota’s ability to match a great deal of Colorado’s lineup will keep the series close, I think that the Avs have enough depth to really give Minnesota fits. If the Wild’s scorers are able to get free it could be a long series. But if cast behind Landeskog and MacKinnon

Between the pipes:

COL: Semyon Varlamov

MIN: Ilya Bryzgalov

Edge: Colorado. Varlamov is going to get some votes for the Vezina and could potentially be a finalist. Bryzgalov’s resurgence in Minnesota has been nice to see after the rough ride he got in Philadelphia the last few years. While his play has improved, his countryman has been a rock for the entire year.

Colorado in six

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues

Things couldn’t have ended much worse for the Blues as they’ve seen a bevvy of injuries underscore an ugly losing streak that knocked them from the top spot in the west and into an incredibly challenging series against the defending Cup champs.

Chicago enters the series a little banged up as well with both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are nursing injuries of their own. The Blackhawks dropped the season series against the Blues but seem to have had their number lately, winning their last two meetings quite decisively.

What to watch for

This series is going to hinge on two things for the Blues: their goal scoring and goaltending. Ryan Miller has had a rough streak to end the season and has plenty of Blues fans questioning why they spent so much to acquire him. He hasn’t gotten much goal support despite the incredible puck possession the Blues exhibit each night. St. Louis has been shutout in three of their last six and they’ll need superhuman goaltending from Miller or Brian Elliott if they expect to get by the Hawks. But hoping to win four 1-0 games wouldn’t work if Dominik Hasek was in net.

As for the Blackhawks, they have the depth to be a very scary team even when Toews and Kane aren’t at 100%. If those two return and dominate this will be a very short series. If they remain hobbled the onus will fall on Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to carry the load. Given their collective skillset it shouldn’t be an issue.

The Blues will need to hope they heal up quickly if they plan on advancing past the first round. Should they get healthy prior to the series I could see them matching Chicago player-for-player should Toews and Kane not see considerable minutes. Depth scoring will likely drive the series as I expect each team’s top guns to be locked down for the duration of the series. If that is the case I’d say the Hawks come away winners.

Between the pipes:

STL: Ryan Miller

CHI: Corey Crawford

Edge: Chicago. On paper you might choose Miller over Crawford but the former has hit the skids hard as of late and Crawford is the proud owner of a Cup ring. Whether or not both teams return to full health, Miller will have far more to prove in the series and I expect the Blackhawks to be victorious.

Chicago in six

Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

This is expected to be a series that advanced stats fans watch very closely. The Ducks finished the year with below average possession numbers while the Stars were quite respectable in that department. Many who track advanced stats closely see the Stars as a legitimate threat to the Ducks in the first round despite how the standings shook out.

Anaheim has a solid blueline and a pair of world-class scorers in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf is probably going to finish second to Sidney Crosby in the Hart Trophy voting while Perry continues to pour in goals like it’s going out of style. Bruce Boudreau will have a tough choice to make in net as Jonas Hiller has been okay but not tremendous this year. Meanwhile Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are both viable options to roll with. However, the youth of the latter two makes them tough to roll with right off the bat.

Dallas saw a major roster overhaul kickoff last summer and the result is a playoff berth. Pairing Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn has created a scoring duo that can run with any team’s top line across the league. Seeing if they can outscore Getzlaf and Perry will be fascinating although their success may hinge on Kari Lehtonen’s performance. If he’s on, I expect the Stars to pull the upset.

What to watch for

Anaheim needs sound goaltending and I suspect that Hiller isn’t the solution to that particular issue. While he’s started the majority of their games this season, it would appear as if Andersen or Gibson could be the direction to follow. I would assume that Hiller starts but is given a very short leash to operate on. Goal scoring won’t be a problem for the Ducks as they have a very deep lineup, but they’ll be relying heavily on their netminders to advance.

What could serve as Dallas’ Achilles Heel is their depth. It’s not so much that it’s lacking but I don’t know how well it matches up with what Anaheim will roll out. If Benn and Seguin are locked down, I’ll be interested to see where their goal scoring will come from.

This is setting up to be a home team series as line matching and locking down scorers will likely drive each team’s respective game plan and success.

Between the pipes

ANA: Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen, John Gibson

DAL: Kari Lehtonen

Edge: Dallas. Lehtonen is always one wrong move away from injury but he’s been very steady for the Stars all year. While Hiller could be described as dependable, he hasn’t been outstanding and, in turn, hasn’t inspired much faith with his play. Lehtonen is the constant here while the Ducks are in limbo.

Ducks in seven

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

It’s safe to say this series is precisely why the NHL switched back to the divisional format. The opportunity for the Sharks, Ducks and Kings to see each other in the postseason along with other rivalries like the Canadiens and Bruins and Penguins and Flyers were the blueprint. It’s safe to say that this one shows they might have gotten things right.

The Kings did their thing yet again, cruising through the regular season and locking up a playoff spot relatively early on. Their goaltender captured the Jennings Trophy and they made some adept moves at the deadline to strengthen their depth, particularly up front, and they appear to be poised for another run.

San Jose isn’t easy to ignore as their up and coming stars have taken over from the old core that couldn’t get over the hump in the early 2000s. The fact that the old core still remains adds to the ridiculous talent pool the Sharks boast as Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski compliment Joe Thornton, Partrick Marleau and others.

What to watch for

The Sharks talent up front features two lines that would be the top line for a majority of the teams around the league. The fact that they are able to spread that talent over not two, but three lines speaks to the roster they’ve built. I think they are left wanting on the back end to an extent and while they have some elite talent on the blue line (see Vlasic, Marc-Edouard) that might be the only weak spot they have.

Los Angeles has the talent to completely blow games open with their dominant puck possession style. They boast a likely Selke Finalist in Anze Kopitar, an explosive scoring winger in Jeff Carter and a number of complimentary pieces that rounds out their top nine. They also have Justin Williams, who has proven to be beyond clutch come playoff time. Their blueline is sound and I’d definitely give their group the edge over San Jose’s blueline in terms of a head-to-head comparison.

This has all the makings for a knock down, seven game series which the winner will likely crawl, not walk, away from. I really have no idea who I’d favor between the two teams, although a recent Cup and the edge in net likely favors the Kings.

Between the Pipes

SJS: Antti Niemi

LAK: Jonathan Quick

Edge: Los Angeles. While Niemi has had a great year, Quick’s has been better. He captured the Jennings Trophy (with some help from Martin Jones) and already has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his record. He’s been terrific yet again this year and there’s no reason to think he isn’t good for at least one series win this spring.

Los Angeles in seven

Eastern Conference playoff preview and prediction

A pair of Eastern Conference series kick off this year’s postseason and while the East may not be as deep or talented as the West, their best teams can run with anyone in the league.

Boston and the Penguins are the favorites to come out of the East but I won’t be surprised to see one, or both, upset along the way.

Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

Detroit extended their impressive playoff streak to 23 seasons despite battling a ridiculous number of injuries down the stretch this year. While most of their walking wounded are preparing to return, the level of health the team will be playing at is certainly going to be a focal point.

Boston, meanwhile, captured the President’s Trophy and steamrolled the East on their way to a 117 point season. The Bruins bully their way around with an impressive combination of size and skill throughout their lineup.

What to watch for

Patrice Bergeron is going to win the Selke Trophy again and he’s going to garner votes for the Hart Trophy as well. He’s not an offensive powerhouse but his positive puck possession numbers make his line a lethal trio to handle. Offseason acquisition Loui Eriksson was beat up a bit this season but if he can return to full health for the playoffs he’d present the Bruins another tremendous scoring option. The obvious story along the blueline is Zdeno Chara but his countryman Andrej Meszaros has proven to be a terrific deadline acquisition for Peter Chiarelli and has shored up what was already a strong group.

The Wings get a nice treat in their first year in the East with a berth against last year’s Cup finalists coming off a stretch run where their playoff streak was in jeopardy due to a number of injuries. Pavel Datsyuk is back on the ice but isn’t likely back to full strength just yet. Henrik Zetterberg appears to be somewhat close to a return. However, even if he does make it back for this series, what sort of condition will he be in?

Detroit’s youth will have to carry them to victories as players like Gustav Nyqusit, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco will be looked to as important cogs to any success the Red Wings will have. The key for Boston will be to lean on the Red Wings defensive corps. They’re a youthful bunch who could be targeted by the Bruins, especially at the TD Garden when Claude Julien has the last change.

Between the pipes

BOS: Tuukka Rask

DET: Jimmy Howard

Edge: Boston. Jimmy Howard is a terrific goaltender but Tuukka Rask happens to be better. Rask is a lock to win the Vezina and I expect him to steal at least one game on his own this series.

Boston in five

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens

If the San Jose/Los Angeles series is the perfect example of the division format I’d argue that this series is the antitheses of that. Both teams are talented groups with a handful of exciting players dotting each roster. However, there’s no real meat to the matchup itself.

The Canadiens feature a tremendous goaltender and nice depth up and down their lineup. They might be a little thin on the blue line and their five-on-five scoring leaves you wanting but when you have a forward group that features Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek on the same line, it’s likely that you have something working in your favor. Finding scoring beyond those two could prove to be a challenge.

Tampa Bay suffered what could be a major blow at the end of the year as Ben Bishop went down with an injury and is a question mark for this first round series. Steven Stamkos is on a level that few other NHLers can reach and will be a major factor for the Bolts in this series. Like the Canadiens, Tampa will rely on their secondary scoring to advance past the first round.

What to watch for

Montreal’s power play is tremendous. Vanek and Pacioretty are both lethal scorers and PK Subban is equally potent from the point. However, if that top line gets shut down by the Lightning, the Canadiens could be in a lot of trouble. However, their special teams are phenomenal and could certainly wind up as the difference maker in this series.

If Ben Bishop doesn’t come back in time to make a difference in this series the Lightning could be cooked before the first puck drops. Even if he does return, his physical condition could make him more of a hindrance than a benefit. Tampa will need to match Montreal on special teams and their young stars will need to shine.

I believe Tampa Bay has a little more depth than Montreal up front. Should that depth start producing early I could see the Lightning coming away with the win. However, Bishop’s status likely condemns the Lightning to an early exit which is unfortunate considering the season they enjoyed.

Between the pipes

TBL: Ben Bishop, Anders Lindback

MTL: Carey Price

Edge: Montreal. If Bishop was at full health this would be a dead heat. Both Price and Bishop are going to garner attention for the Vezina and have been two of the league’s best goalies this year. Lindback has been quite streaky and represents a significant drop off when compared to Bishop.

Montreal in five

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

At some point the Blue Jackets will catch a break. Their first playoff appearance in franchise history saw them face the Red Wings who were in the middle of a run where they played for back-to-back Cups. Columbus was overmatched by a Red Wings roster that is starting to tail off when compared to this year’s team. Now the Blue Jackets are treated to a showdown with Sidney Crosby and co. in the 2014 first round.

While the Blue Jackets have some nice pieces, Ryan Johansen immediately comes to mind, they don’t have that cornerstone talent you can look to for a big performance. They score by committee and are a team that defines the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. They have a number of exciting young talents to keep an eye on, but lacking that big gun could hurt them in the end.

The Penguins come as advertised. They have one of the best forward groups in the league that is top heavy with offensive dynamos like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and others. They’re blueline is a little thin and Marc-Andre Fleury is surrounded by question marks. Their shortcomings are well documented but they’re often overshadowed by their strengths.

What to watch for

If Columbus hopes to compete in this series they’ll need to have all four lines rolling with their top nine chipping in on a regular basis. If they’re able to quiet one of Pittsburgh’s top units they’ll have a punchers chance based on the overall depth they possess.

The Blue Jackets certainly have the edge in net and the mental makeup of Fluery heading into this series is going to be something to focus on. He is likely operating on a short leash even with an unstable situation behind him. However, even if Fleury struggles, Tomas Vokoun was part of last year’s Eastern Conference Final appearance. I find it hard to say that they don’t have enough talent and fire power to get past Columbus.

Pittsburgh will wind up taking this series simply because they have too many heads to contain. While the Blue Jackets feature a lineup with more than one line that can score, the Penguins take that to a whole different level.

Between the pipes

PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury

CBJ: Sergei Bobrovsky

Edge: Columbus. While I’m not the biggest fan of Bobrovsky, he’s shown much more promise and success than Fluery this season. While Fleury benefits from playing behind what almost equates to an All Star team in some respects, Bobrovsky handles a more difficult workload. While I see the Penguins taking the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in spite of Fleury.

Pittsburgh in six

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

It may not be the Flyers and Penguins, but this series still boasts some nice background to build on. While neither squad started the year well, each rallied hard to not only qualify for the post season but avoid a serious push at a wild card position.

The Rangers come in with the edge in net but I’d argue that the Flyers have the edge in terms of talent up front. I suspect that a lot of New York’s success will come from the ability to match Ryan McDonagh and friends against Claude Giroux. If Giroux’s line is stymied the Rangers will have a lot of success in this round. If not, watch out.

Philly doesn’t necessarily live and die with Giroux, of course, but he’s clearly their MVP. While the Rangers probably have the stronger blue line, I don’t think the Flyers will be outdone with their ability to shutdown New York’s top scorers thanks to Sean Couturier. It sets things up for a chess match of line matching and shutdown players as both coaches have specific targets they need to hone in on.

What to watch for

The Rangers are an interesting case as they have a number of recognizable names but don’t boast the scoring depth like many other teams in this year’s playoffs. Martin St. Louis hasn’t caught on as of yet and his struggles highlight a forward group with big names but lack big numbers. If Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello are shutdown, the Rangers may struggle to score goals.

Philly has the most dynamic line between the two teams and Giroux, Jakub Voarcek and Scott Hartnell are a lethal trio who will be difficult to contain. They’ll see a whole lot of McDonagh and Craig Berube will need to be clever to try and work them away from that matchup. They also have a potential question mark in goal. While Steve Mason seems to have shaken the poor play that chased him from Columbus, exactly how well he will play remains in limbo.

The Rangers may luck out with the question marks in goal and the thin blue line the Flyers will ice. If they can get players not named Nash and Zuccarello scoring this could be a quick series. If not, watch the Flyers advance.

Between the pipes

NYR: Henrik Lundqvist

PHI: Steve Mason

Edge: New York. Lundqvist probably won’t walk away with any hardware this season but he’s a perennial Vezina Candidate for a reason. Mason happens to be good but that’s probably where the scale stops. While Lundqvist can be relied on to steal a game it’s more likely that Mason will be relied on not to lose a game.

Rangers in seven

Stay tuned here for more previews and predictions as each series progresses.

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

A honky tonk hockey roadtrip

Last month I shared some thoughts on making a trip to catch a junior hockey game. For those who live close enough to a major junior team, it’s an affordable, worthwhile trip to take. I recently returned from another type of hockey trip that’s a little larger in terms of scale.

I traveled to Nashville to take in a Predators game at Bridgestone Arena. It marked the third NHL game I’d seen in a building besides First Niagara Center and the fifth NHL venue I have attended. Technically it was the six as I saw the Penguins play at Mellon Arena while I witness a hockey game at their new home, the CONSOL Energy Center. The other arenas I’ve been to are Air Canada Centre, Rogers Arena and then FNC, CONSOL and Mellon.

The trip to Nashville was centered around a larger trip to take in the sights and sounds of Music City. But the game served as the main event with visits to local watering holes and music venues serving as a nice compliment to the game itself.

When it comes to sports road trips I’m a complete novice. Luckily Nashville has more than enough to keep you occupied during the day and night. Broadway is packed to the gills with bars that feature live music every night and you’ll be hard pressed to find a poor act, especially at the larger joints. We saw at least two acts each of the three nights we were out and none of them disappointed. In addition, the Midtown area provides a much different vibe with a more laid back vibe at each of the patio bars along that strip.

But Broadway is not only where the live music is bountiful but where Bridgestone Arena resides. It makes for an awesome pre and postgame atmosphere as the bars are full with Preds fans at all times and almost the entire arena empties to that one strip.

Bridgestone itself is an attractive building with open concourses and an interesting layout. Like First Niagara Center, Bridgestone has a large entry atrium with the ticket office, team store and access to each level right as you walk in. I really like this type of layout because you’re not funneled into a cramped space upon walking in the front door. You know where you are and you have options as to where you can go.

The sightlines in the arena are nice as the seating bowl isn’t arranged in an odd manner and the focus is on the game. Perhaps the coolest thing is that the press box isn’t separated from the 300 level. I very nearly ran over David Poile in the first intermission and Seth Jones was chatting with a couple fans when I walked by in the second intermission. It’s certainly an odd setting to have visiting scouts, scratches and other media personalities wandering around the concourse. I didn’t notice any fans asking for autographs, which is honorable, but it did seem as if they weren’t afraid to approach anyone they recognized.

As for the fans, they’re terrific. The Preds promote a loud, college-like atmosphere at their games. The fans are engaged from the drop of the puck and stay loud the entire night. The Preds help to promote this by keeping in-game promotions to a minimum, keeping the focus on the game you’re watching and primarily using pump-up videos and music between whistles. This means the Kiss Cam, Blooper reel and fans on the video board shots are saved for intermission. I can’t express how much I enjoyed that. Replays were queued up almost immediately, from multiple angles after nearly every stoppage and there was only the odd fan shot prior to play beginning.

The Preds led for most of the game and the 4-3 shootout win for the home side was back-and-forth, which helped keep everyone interested for the duration of the contest. There was one pump up feature I grew tired of after two periods and it was the combination of a movie clip and a “make some noise” graphic that was used consistently. While it served to keep the crowd raucous, it got old after a while.

I should point out that I did not make the trip to see my hometown team, but simply a game at the arena. This isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but the new NHL schedule provides for a home-and-home for every team in the league. That means your hometown team plays at least one road game in every arena if you must see them on any future trip.

Nashville is quite a haul from Buffalo, especially if you’re driving. But cities like Columbus, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toronto and every New York are a manageable drive from the Nickel City. Boston, Philly and Washington DC aren’t too far away either. That’s ten teams within a reasonable drive from Buffalo that would make a terrific road trip for any fan. Find a hotel close to the arena or an entertainment district, snag a set of seats (aftermarket or box office) and hit the road.

STX’s entry into hockey market starts with a pair of elite sticks

Matt+Moulson+Minnesota+Wild+v+Phoenix+Coyotes+8tNuMAMulFyl

A well known powerhouse in the lacrosse world, STX has jumped head first into ice hockey this year as their new stick line has hit the shelves.

 

STX wasted little time getting their name onto people’s tongues in hockey circles as Matt Moulson was sporting an STX Prototype stick for a good portion of the season. With the release of the Stallion 500 and Surgeon 500 now official, Moulson graduated to production model of the Stallion since his arrival in Minnesota.

 

Geared towards elite level players, the Surgeon and the Stallion share a number of visual similarities to the Easton Stealth and Mako sticks. The Stallion looks like a near replica of the Stealth RS stick while the Surgeon’s graphics package is very similar to that of the Mako.

 

The Stallion’s focus in on power transfer and balance in order to allow players to maximize the power they can get behind each shot. STX has implemented a high balance point to keep the stick from feeling blade heavy while limiting the affect that change has on the flex profile. In addition to moving the balance point up the shaft, STX also built the Stallion with what they call the Power Flex Shot Profile; a constant flex profile designed to increase the load you can place on the stick while shooting.

 

While the Stallion is referred to as the power tool, the Surgeon is more of a precision device. The Stallion and Surgeon share a very similar relationship to that of the TotalOne and APX. While the Stallion’s uniform flex profile promotes power and strength, the Surgeon is built with a dual flex profile to complement a quick release while also allowing for a player to load up the stick for a powerful shot.

 

This Precision Flex Shot Profile also features a high balance point but gives a little more feel for those players seeking a quick release for their shots. The Surgeon’s blade is softer than that of the Stallion for enhanced puck control and feel.

 

Both sticks utilize a grip finish that is lighter and has more of a matte finish than most other sticks on the market. This ensures that they’re not cumbersome with weight which has been a downfall of many sticks that have come out as a challenge to the traditional powers in recent years.

 

There are also expectations that STX will be releasing a glove in the near future and while there has been no concrete news or sightings during gameplay, it will be interesting to see what type of technology STX pulls from considering their lacrosse background.

Both sticks can be found both in store and online at  www.greatskate.com.

Vaughn 1000 goalie pads

Vaughn VPG 1000 Velocity V6 Goalie Pads

Vaughn VPG 1000 Velocity V6 Goalie Pads

The newest member of the Velocity family is the V6. Vaughn shifted gears a bit in how they categorize their pads this year, as the V6 2000 and 2200 headline the set with the 1000 just below. This is a change from recent years as Vaughn was in the high 7000s with many of their new pads.

Numbers aside, the new 1000 is a continuation of a tremendous line at a competitive price point. Vaughn has included a number of new features in the V6 line in total and the 1000 has benefitted from many of these changes.

While some of the additions to the V6 that you see Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller wearing aren’t featured on this pad, the 1000 continues Vaughn’s commitment to a somewhat traditional look with full knee rolls to promote flexibility in the upper portion of the pad. Outer knee and thigh breaks serve in the same manner as this continuation from past Velocity pads is a hallmark of the line in general.

What’s new for 2014 is Vaughn’s Pro Core design. It is a feature that utilizes a full length and width foam core to keep consistent form up and down the pad while still keeping a flexible fit and profile that allows the pad to break-in according to the style of play the goalie uses. Like with the Premier XLT, Vaughn is using bindingless landing gear to minimize friction and increase the sliding area on the knee and calf wing.

One interesting feature that actually makes the pads look odd in pictures is that Vaughn overstuffed the thigh rise, in a sense. While the build still conforms to the 11-inch requirement, Vaughn made sure to eliminate the taper that many pads have at the thigh, thus ensuring maximum five-hole protection.

The 1000 comes with Vaughn’s newest graphic, one that I feel is an improvement over the past few Velocity models. It is a simple design that gives the illusion of height in certain color combinations (mostly with a white base). It’s ultimately a sleek, simple design that looks great when a goalie is in his or her stance or a butterfly.

One of the best things about Vaughn’s production process is that they often maintain nearly every feature that can be found in their pro pads down through their price point models. They consistently build a quality product that is hard to beat when considering senior, intermediate or junior pads.

Junior Hockey trips

phenom named Connor McDavid

Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

There are 60 teams across the three leagues that make up the CHL. There are 16 more teams that make up the USHL and between the two leagues, they span across Canada and into 13 American states. Depending on where you live, you’re probably a lot closer to a major junior team than you think.

From Great Skate’s driveway you could make it to St. Catharines to see the Ice Dogs in 30 minutes or less. The Erie Otters are just about 90 minutes door-to-door while many of the OHL’s other clubs aren’t  much further away.

I was able to make three separate road trips to see junior hockey played this season, making two trips to Erie and another to St. Catharines.

The trip to see the Ice Dogs was particularly interesting as Niagara was playing their final season at Jack Gatecliff arena, which was originally built in 1938. The Ice Dogs will be moving to a new, state-of-the-art arena for the 2014-15 season and having the opportunity to see one of junior hockey’s last great barns was a special treat.

The intrigue of seeing a game played at the junior level is multifaceted. Young players, competing not only for their team’s success but their own futures adds to the narrative on a nightly basis. Each team has at least one established draft prospect who is often playing at another level as compared to his teammates and opponents. The fans a passionate and informed and the atmosphere is different than many professional games you may have seen.

Jack Gatecliff Arena has a small ice surface with no more than 10 rows of seating in the stands. Standing room fans pack in the tiny concourses and the low rafters and press box overhangs add to the intimate atmosphere. Only a handful of these smaller, “old school” buildings are left as more and more teams are moving into shiny, modern buildings with better amenities and a more professional set up.

If you’re looking to track down some of the older, more intimate arenas that are left, Stadium Journey has documented the homes of all 20 teams with full reviews of each building.

The trip to St. Catharines was mainly motivated by the chance to see hockey in a building that had maintained for so long. It was also motivated by the fact that the Ice Dogs are the closest franchise to Buffalo and if there was any team I’d latch onto each season, their proximity would play a major role.

My two trips to Erie were similarly motivated (proximity) but the Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

As many hockey fans are already aware, McDavid is expected to be the crown jewel of next year’s NHL Entry Draft and he’s already dazzled in his first two years of junior hockey. Seats are increasingly hard to come by in Erie as the local fanbase is augmented by visitors from cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and more coming to see McDavid play. He’s worth the price of admission.

My first jaunt to the Erie Insurance Arena resulted in having to buy standing room only tickets for $17 each. The arena’s procedure for standing room landed us about seven rows behind the bench on the blueline, not a bad deal.

Instead of missing out on a seat the second time down, our group used the box office to buy tickets ahead of time in the section of our choice. We pad $16 to sit on the glass. Even without McDavid, the level of play far surpasses the price to get in the door at any arena, let along Erie.

What’s even better is that these trips are a piece of cake to plan. Many teams run cool promotional giveaways – we happened to be too late for the McDavid player posters they were giving away – and the tickets aren’t hard to come by if you buy them ahead of time. Another fun fact regarding those promotions, the player or players featured often sign autographs after the game to add to the unique souvenir.

You’re not going to be disappointed with your choice of a junior hockey road trip. The atmosphere is different than that of an NHL game, there’s rarely a bad seat in the house as the arenas are all right-sized for the crowd and the level of play is high. Maybe put together one or two for next season and grow from there.

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.

Reebok Premier XLT takes

Reebok Premier XLT takes

Reebok Premier XLT takes

Reebok took a very different direction with their newest set of pads. Part of the development of the new Premier XLT pads was to add features that promoted rebounds. But not in the traditional sense.

Reebok’s new ultra-lightweight pad features Crosslink Foam that actually adds life and power to the rebounds that come off the pads. This is designed to act almost like a springboard in order to kick pucks out of the danger zone and to allow for additional recovery time.

It’s an interesting feature as the traditional train of thought has long been to keep your rebounds close or eliminate them altogether. Typically, a big rebound that is kicked into the slot or the circles is in a prime danger zone for a goaltender. The Crosslink Foam should boot those pucks even further into the zone and ultimately further away from trouble. The ultimate goal is to give the goaltender more control over where the rebound is going. Having the ability to get a puck to the boards or into a dead area aside from the corner will provide a ton of recovery time that would otherwise be laying in a prime scoring area.

One of the coolest features of the XLT is the bindingleess inside edge and landing gear. Most pads, including previous Premier models, have nylon bindings that wrap around the knee and calf wing that make contact with the ice in the butterfly. The XLT eliminates these bindings, allowing for the crap and knee wings to be full jenpro. This may seem like a small change but it’s quite the opposite. Not only will binding less landing gear increase slides and provide a better seal with the ice, it makes the pad exponentially more durable. It’s not uncommon for the nylon and stitching that attaches to the wings to wear and fray faster than most other areas on the pad. Reebok adds seasons to the life of these pads by removing the bindings.

To further their tinkering with the interior of the XLT, Reebok also changed the design of their leg channel, making it shallow and open. Combined with an adjustable strapping system, Reebok is catering directly to goaltenders who like to strap their pads loose for more pad rotation and movement.

As is expected with new pads, Reebok also introduced a new graphic. For the first time in a few seasons, it doesn’t appeal much in terms of the mirror test. Perhaps this is because the Premier 4 graphic was so excellent, but the XLT graphic certainly leaves something to be desired. Aside from the aesthetic alterations, the XLT is an improved pad compared to that of previous Reebok releases.

At a time when new technology is creeping into goal pad design, Reebok has done a great job of putting that new technology to work in what may be considered an unconventional way.

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

The return is coming. CCM will be reintroducing the world to the Tacks line in the coming months as the manufacturer brings a new skate line to complement the RBZ line that burst onto the scene last year.

Already being used in the NHL, Nathan MacKinnon made the unofficial news official when he posted a picture of his new skates to his Instagram account earlier in the season. While MacKinnon’s picture simply added fuel to an already burning fire of rumors and whispers about the skates, the official unveiling of the line won’t come until July ‘14.

The Tacks, on the surface look like a combination of the RBZ and Bauer TotalOne in the aesthetics department. It’s a sleek skate with bright yellow graphics that pop off a basic black boot. The design of the boot has plenty of surface similarities to it’s cousin, the RBZ. Adding in a Speedblade 4.0 holder and Hyperglide blade provides even more similarity between the two skates. Additionally, you can deduce that the Tacks will share the aggressive stance and turning radius that the RBZ boasts.

The comparison to the TotalOne is simply drawn from the yellow trim on a black base. However, the Tacks will utilize a stiff carbon boot construction designed to add straight-line explosiveness. Two features, the AttackFrame and T6 Pro Core will combine to add stiffness and high-end performance for the wearer specifically for explosive acceleration.

Exactly where the skates will fall on the fit scale is an unknown as many specific details about the new line are still under lockdown. Understandably so as CCM is bringing back perhaps the most storied and celebrated skate ever and introducing new technology that will put it on the same level as the most popular skates in stores today.

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

2014 NHL Trade Deadline Primer

Just over seven days separate 30 general managers from the feeding frenzy that is the NHL trade deadline. Of course, recent years have resembled a salad bar more so than an all-you-can-eat buffet. While the blockbusters that fans and media love have become rare, the action at the deadline will still be there.

There are already a host of names floating around the rumor wires as real and make believe insiders and sources report on the whispers they hear about the players who will end up being moved in the coming days. Marquee names like Ryan Miller and Ryan Callahan are making the rounds with fans of contending teams are waiting to see what their GM can poach from the annual swap meet.

The 2014 deadline ought to provide a few fireworks specifically because of teams like the Sabres, Islanders and Oilers. All three are sliding towards the draft lottery in hopes that they win the right to pick first overall and each will likely unload some stars prior to the deadline.

Based on many reports, Edmonton appeared to be very close to dealing Sam Gagner to Los Angeles prior to the Olympic break and Gagner is still said to be on the block along with Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. The Oilers could certainly market a few of their other young stars in hopes of shoring up their blueline, but their five-year rebuild will likely continue into yet another draft lottery where their number of top-3 selections will grow to four after winning the draft lottery three years in a row (2009-2012).

Losing John Tavares will likely ensure that the Islanders begin playing for 2015 as they’ll try to get a king’s ransom for Thomas Vanek and Andrew MacDonald as the two pending free agents will attract plenty of attention from teams battling for playoff positioning. Moving the two may also allow Garth Snow to protect his 2015 first round pick as Vanek and MacDonald could potentially net a first round pick each, giving Snow a security blanket, of sorts, for this year when he may need to give up his potential lottery pick to the Sabres as part of the Vanek/Moulson deal.

Buffalo is expected to be very busy as Miller, Moulson and Steve Ott are all expected to be moved and each has their own market value as the deadline approaches. A few teams are said to be interested in Miller, although the number who will likely make a legitimate offer won’t likely eclipse five. My gut tells me he ends up in Washington where George McPhee is on the hot seat and his team’s goaltending has kept them from playoff contention this year.

Ott and Moulson are said to have many more suitors and exactly where they end up is anyone’s guess. I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see Moulson end up in Ottawa where Tim Murray not only knows the prospect pool that he’d be gaining talent from, but his time with the organization may make negotiations go a bit quicker. Ott’s landing spot could be quite literally anywhere as his game can adapt to a number of different styles and any contender would be interested in adding an energy player like him. My money would be on a Western team, but that’s about as far as I would go in terms of guessing his destination.

It’s also rumored that Ryan Callahan will likely be skating in a new city after the deadline and he’d also add the two way element that so many teams find valuable. While trading Callahan may be expected, I’m fully expecting to see at least one big trade that catches everyone off guard. It could be something similar to the Marian Gaborik trade last year that saw a host of players swapped between New York and Columbus. Regardless of who is moved, count on at least one of those to catch you off guard before the day is out on the 5th. Also keep an eye on the trade wire in the days leading up to the deadline as a few moves could easily come prior to next Wednesday.