CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

After a lengthy vacation from the crease, CCM returned last year with a new entry into the goaltending market. The Extreme Flex pads not only represented CCM’s first official entry into the goaltending world again but it also brought about a pad with some impressive new features.

CCM developed a pad with a soft, flexible boot that allows the pad to sit a bit lower than it’s stiffer Reebok cousins. While the rest of the pad shares many of the same traits as the Reebok pads, the flexible boot and softer face (complete with knee rolls) provides a much more traditional pad than the P4 or current XLT is.

Upon first release, the pad offered a different option for goalies who weren’t as fond of Reebok pads while still providing the option to wear equipment produced by the legendary Lefevre design team. The marriage of Lefevre and Reebok/CCM pads doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, but this and the former Reebok Larceny remain as the only pads constructed by Reebok or CCM in recent years with a different take than the flat faced look that helps to define Reebok.

CCM took things a step further this past year as they provided a new design option for EFlex users. The RetroFlex pad has the same construction as the original EFlex but with a basic, vertical stitch graphics package. The only color options on the pad, outside of the face of the shin, will be the knee rolls, outer roll and the darts between the knee rolls.

Jonathan Bernier wore the RetroFlex all season and looked particularly good in his vintage colored RetroFlex pads at this year’s winter classic.

Outside of the aesthetic differences between the EFlex and the RetroFlex, there are no other changes between the two. They’re both inspired by more flexible products in the boot while still utilizing the modern core design that can be found in pads like the Reebok XLT and others.

If you find yourself stuck deciding between the EFlex or the RetroFlex, it’s likely a simple decision between a true retro look over a slightly more contemporary graphic on the face of the pad. While I prefer the EFlex simply due to the design options available, the RetroFlex is a beautiful pad. Especially for those netminders who prefer a classic look.

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

There’s no easy way to keep up with goalie mask art. If you or your child change teams regularly, a brand new paint job can look out of place after just one season of use. Not to mention, many artists charge an arm and a leg for paintjobs and if you choose the wrong one, you’re more than likely going to lose the factory warranty on your mask. Luckily, Bauer has thought of a solution to this conundrum.

Bauer’s NME3 and NME5 goal masks comes with a number of stock designs that feature a wide range of colors, patters and artwork that provides a custom look that will match a number of team’s uniforms.

These designs range from vintage inspired looks right up to designs that mimic the graphics on Bauer’s equipment line – the Reactor, for example. While the colors available are somewhat limited, most of the designs are generic enough that they will match nearly every team’s uniforms. For example, the flame graphic features a red graphic flame against a basic black background. Whether you’re playing for a team with Blackhawks, Devils or even Red Wings uniforms, you won’t run into any issues.

The center racing stripe and vintage jersey stripe graphics play the best in terms of design, but the more creative designs like the Reactor or USA graphics offer a more unique take on the practice.

Taking advantage of what Bauer offers at the junior or youth models of the NME 5 and NME 3 gives you a chance to pick up a mask with unique artwork (as opposed to the basic white or black) without needing to break the bank on a custom paint job.

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

More and more attention and focus in equipment design is being devoted to protecting against rotational impact from hits and collisions. The CCM Resistance helmet has been constructed to add protection against linear and rotational impacts.

CCM has made a few aesthetic changes to the Vector shell that became so wildly popular across the NHL over the past number of years along with adding vital pieces of protection to the liner. These changes and alterations were driven by the desire of CCM to create one of the most protective hockey helmets on the market.

Teaming up with the University of Ottawa, CCM made sure the new features and technology protected the most vital areas of a player’s head by placing the addition padding in strategic locations around the shell and liner.

The R.E.D. System is what sets the Resistance apart from the other helmets that CCM has released in recent years as in brings a whole new level of protection into play. In addition to the traditional foam liner you can find in any high-end helmet, CCM has added two new layers of protection that are specifically combined to reduce rotational impact.

The R.E.D. system combines a series of liquid filled bladders with EEP molded shock absorbers called Impact Pods that aid in reducing linear impacts. Both work in a similar method of absorbing the impact and motion of a player’s head when taking impact during a game. The R.E.D. liquid bladders work to slow any rotation of the head while the Impact Pods expand and retract with direct collisions.

The Resistance joins Bauer’s RE-AKT helmet as two of the most protective helmets that specifically target rotational and linear impacts with specific targeted areas for increased protection.

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final as the equipment giant can claim it is getting the most usage in each major gear category at the Final.

The only close category is sticks, which is the only category in which Bauer doesn’t hold over 50% of the usage. Their 42% share still towers over the next closest manufacturer (Easton) who slots in at 17%. It shouldn’t be too surprising to see the stick category as the most diverse in terms of usage as every manufacturer offers a number of similar, elite products. In fact, Bauer’s dominance in the category is based on their three different lines as opposed to one singular product as is seen by the overwhelming number of players wearing Vapor skates.

One other category that isn’t illustrated above is goaltender equipment. With David LeNeveu currently serving as the Ragners’ backup, there is a 50-50 split between Vaughn and Bauer users. If and when Cam Talbot returns, Vaughn will hold the majority (Quick and Jones) with Bauer and Reebok each having one goaltender wearing their equipment.

To further break down the goaltending category, Lundqvist and Talbot each wear Bauer helmets, Jones wears Pro’s Choice and Quick uses Sportmask.

These are always fun graphics to look at just to see the vast diversity of equipment used by each player. Try to figure out who is wearing what over the rest of the series so you can line up individuals with the graphic above.

Cup Final preview and prediction

Cup Final preview and prediction

Cup Final preview and prediction

The NHL couldn’t have planned things any better for the 2014 Stanley Cup Final as the nation’s two biggest media markets will duel against one another for the Cup as the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings start the final series of the year on Wednesday.

Los Angeles managed to squeak by the Chicago Blackhawks after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final while the Rangers dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in six games after Carey Price was put on the shelf with an injury.

The early returns on the matchup has many fans and experts pointing to the Kings as the expected champs, giving Los Angeles their second Cup in three years. However, the Rangers have more than enough depth and firepower to not only give the Kings a run but even bring the Cup back to the Big Apple.

Henrik Lundqvist will need to serve as the factor that lifts the Rangers to the Cup as I feel that Los Angeles holds a decided edge in nearly every other facet of the game. Lundqvist has been superb this season while Jonathan Quick has had to work through some struggles and consistency issues over the Kings 21 previous games.

One factor that many are pointing to is that Los Angeles has needed seven games to get through all three of their series while the Rangers are enjoying a bit more rest. However, the Rangers needed seven games against both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while taking six more to get by Montreal. So they’ve only played one game fewer than the Kings while going through more travel in the first two rounds than the Kings did in their first two series.

It is understandable that the mental exhaustion pushing against the Kings has likely grown in each round as they rallied from a 3-0 deficit against San Jose, battled through a back-and-forth affair against their cross-town rivals and then had to endure a marathon against the Blackhawks. The Rangers have had slightly less stress on their plate, although they had to win three-straight to get by Pittsburgh in the second. So, while the Rangers got to relax on their couches for a few more days after taking the Eastern Conference title, I don’t think they have stores of energy that will help them run LA out of the building on Wednesday.

One intriguing matchup will be how LA’s potent power play fares against New York’s stingy shorthanded unit. The Rangers boast one of the most effective penalty kills in the playoffs while the Kings sit at the top of the league with the extra man. Most of the focus will fall on Lundqvist when the Rangers are shorthanded, but if the Kings lose that portion of their attack it could drastically alter the series.

LA otherwise has a deeper attack and blueline than the Rangers entering the series. The emergence of Dominic Moore, Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard has aided the Rangers along the way, but the forward depth LA possesses is almost unmatched. One you’re past the top line of Brown, Kopitar and Gaborik and the equally impressive That 70’s Line of Pearson, Carter and Toffoli, the Kings still have Dwight King, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and others to their credit. When you consider that three of LA’s lines are equally impressive in their own end as they are in the attacking zone, it makes them that much more daunting of an opponent.

It’s not all that surprising to see such a terrific roster in LA given that they are two years removed from their first Cup victory and they paced the league in terms of possession for the year. When the defensive depth chart includes Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr there’s a good chance that every unit that hits the ice is going to be effective.

Don’t misunderstand the tire pumping that I’ve given the Kings as an indication that they’re going to breeze through the Final, I just see them as the superior team.

Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis form an impressive forward corps, but I don’t see the same quality of depth in the New York lineup. Once you’re past McDonagh, Girardi and Staal on the backend things seem to get a little thin as well. Overall, the Rangers are a very strong team that are about to showdown with a stronger, more effective squad.

Kings in five

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!

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

I managed to pull together a very respectable record in picking the first round series. Colorado’s late collapse on Wednesday kept me from a perfect record but I’m quite pleased going 7-1 over those eight series. I even managed to peg the length of a number of those series as well, a nice bonus to accompany the prognostication.

The East kicks things off tonight and the full second round will be up and running by this weekend. The NHL must be pleased once again as the divisional format produced an eventful first round and a few very enticing second round matchups.

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

Yet another storied rivalry that will grow thanks to the NHL’s new format. There’s a different type of hate between the fans in Boston and Montreal and there’s even a few rivalries on the ice.

This sets up as an interesting series that sees the Bruins pit the deep, physical lineup against the speedy, skilled group in Montreal. The Canadiens have some beef in their lineup, but from top to bottom their roster reflects differently than that of their opponents.

Both teams made quick work of their opponents in the first round as Montreal was the first team to advance with the Bruins not far behind. Boston’s series against Detroit was the last one to begin which shortened their break between series a bit. But Montreal’s sweep and Boston’s five-game series win will allow both squads to lick any lingering wounds before the next round.

They’re going to need their health, as well, as the Bruins can expect to drive to the paint in both ends and push their opponents around. Montreal will need to gear up to get knocked around during the series and will benefit from producing on the counterattack.

What to watch for

Montreal ousted Tampa in systematic fashion, benefitting from weak goaltending and a team with limited depth. Now they head to a series with arguably the league’s best goaltender a team with four terrific defensemen and at least three sound lines. Montreal will not only need to adjust to the level of competition but also  finding the proper match for Boston’s lines as the series progresses.

Boston should win this series. While the Canadiens have a great goaltender and some impressive talent atop their roster, there are holes that Boston can exploit along the way. First, I expect Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty to see a lot of Patrice Bergeron this series. While you could argue the Canadiens have other scorers, none function on the level of Vanek or Paciortetty.

Between the pipes

BOS: Tuukka Rask

MTL: Carey Parice

Edge: Boston. Only ever so slightly do I give Rask the nod over Price. This is primarily motivated by Rask’s postseason experience the last few years vs. that of Price. Both had strong showings at the Olympics and both have been strong thus far in the playoffs. I’ll take Rask ever so slightly above Price this time around.

Boston in six

Pittsburgh Penguins  vs. New York Rangers

The Penguins have the opportunity to take advantage of New York’s lengthy first round series with the Flyers. Scheduling constraints not only set the Rangers up with a back-to-back set for games six and seven but also puts them in a situation to see them play six games in eight days.

New York is going to be a darkhorse favorite for plenty of fans and pundits as the Rangers showed the ability to score in bunches (at times) while receiving timely goaltending. Meanwhile, the Penguins enter the second round this year much in the way they did in 2013. They clawed their way past a pesky lower seed in six games despite the better efforts of their goaltender to secure early tee times for the summer.

Marc Andre Fleury’s struggles continue to be amplified as the goaltender is looking at a third-straight postseason of a bloated goals against average and a sinking save percentage. He looked to have found his game in the deciding game six against Columbus before the Blue Jackets barrage almost tied the contest. Now, it’s likely that the fans and possibly his teammates are gripping their sticks a little tighter with concern over the play of the guy behind them.

What to watch for

This series is going to be all about goaltending for me. Can Fleury shake the cobwebs enough to string together a few  more wins? Can Henrik Lundqvist steal a game or two in order to put the heat on the Pens stars? Which goalie will take control of the series? It’s fun to think about because Lundqvist has been playing so well while Fleury’s play remains right around average.

The similarities between last year’s win over the Islanders and this year’s win over Columbus are unrelated when you consider the series that is upon these two teams. However, the same storyline now haunts the Penguins. While they dispatched a lesser opponent with a game to go, it never looked easy for the Pens. For a team with so much fire power that’s not necessarily something you want following you around.

Meanwhile, the Rangers simply need to find their offense. They exploded at times against the Flyers but were stymied just as much. This is a team that lives and dies with it’s top six and if Rick Nash, Brad Richards and friends aren’t firing on all cylinders it will be a quick series.

Between the pipes

PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury

NYR: Henrik Lundqvist

Edge: Rangers. Lundqvist was a rock throughout the first round. His game six hiccup came thanks to a number of odd-man chances for the Flyers and not so much weak or soft goals. While Lundqvist has a decided edge over Fleury in this series the jury is out on the Rangers ability to give him proper goal support.

New York in seven

Western Conference second round preview and prediction

There’s little doubt that the Western Conference boasted the better of the first round series now that the dust has settled. The Blues and Blackhawks lived up to expectations and the Kings-Sharks epic was must-see-TV. The Wild and Avalanche didn’t disappoint in their seven-game swing and the Ducks and Stars made things interesting despite not having much of a q-rating at the outset.

Now the challenge is to see if these two second round series can do the same. The Kings and Ducks certainly have the rival fan bases to make for an interesting series, but will it play out on the ice. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks and Wild rekindle their pleasantries from last year’s first round.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blackhawks have had a little more time to rest after their battle against St. Louis and they certainly needed the time off. They played a very physical six-game set and with a couple stars already nagged up entering the playoffs. They’ll have the edge in terms of depth and in net and while this won’t likely be the five-game cake walk that last year’s series was, I expect them to advance past the Wild.

Minnesota enters this series after going the distance with Colorado. They probably should have gotten out of that series sooner than they did but the Avs managed to steal a couple games early on. While I don’t think fatigue will be a major factor for the Wild, it won’t help them in terms of the grand scheme of matching up with the Chicago juggernaut.

What to watch for

The Blackhawks just have to keep playing their game. They have a consistent three-line attack and a fourth line that is serviceable enough to keep the ice time relatively balance across the board. Corey Crawford was terrific in the latter half of their first series and should be able to carry over that momentum to this series. If the Blackhawks carry a 2-0 lead to Minnesota this could be a very short series.

Minnesota needs to find a way to check Chicago’s big guns. The Blues weren’t able to contain them as Kane, Toews and Sharp ran roughshod over them in the first round and can do the same if the Wild can’t keep them on a short leash. Depth scoring will be vital as the Wild’s top line will more than likely be neutralized for a good portion of the series.

Between the pipes

CHI: Corey Crawford

MIN: Darcy Kuemper or Ilya Bryzgalov

Edge: Chicago. This is an easy one. Crawford was the better of the two goalies between he and Ryan Miller in the first round and will be the same against Minnesota’s third and fourth string goalies (technically). Kuemper’s assumed head injury will likely push Bryzgalov in net to start the series and after dropping the first two games to Colorado I’m not sure what he will muster against the Blackhawks.

Blackhawks in five

Anahem Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Freeway Faceoff finally gets to take place in the postseason. The fan bases of these two teams simply don’t get along and while the rivalry may not be as heated on the ice, the arenas will be packed and loud for the entire series.

The Ducks, like the Blackhaws, have had a few days of while the Kings wrapped up their reverse sweep of San Jose. Anaheim played a heated series with Dallas and having the ability to unwind a bit from such a tense series should serve them well. While they aren’t laden with grizzled vets, the Ducks will certainly benefit from the time off.

Los Angeles could potentially enter the series mentally zapped. They just strung together four-straight wins while facing elimination to knock off their neighbors from NorCal in the first round. Erasing San Jose’s 3-0 lead wasn’t going to be an easy task and hopefully the Kings didn’t empty their tanks just getting out of the first round.

What to watch for

Anaheim hasn’t been a sterling puck possession team this year. They’ve had struggles in that neighborhood and are now about to face one of the league’s best possessions squads. The Ducks also stumbled upon some goaltending questions after the first round and it’s looking likely that Jonas Hiller may retake his crease. Of course, it’s also possible that John Gibson gets a call to take over against the Kings.

LA simply needs to do what they’ve done all year. They carry possession and dictate the pace better than nearly every other team. They can rely on their goaltender and so long as their offense remains hot they’ll be a very difficult out for the Ducks.

Between the Pipes

ANA: Jonas Hiller

LA: Jonathan Quick

Edge: Los Angeles. Quick was spectacular once game four began. While Hiller has stolen series in the past he also lost his crease to two rookies this year. Bruce Boudreau seemed hesitant to go back to him against the Stars and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Boudreau go in another direction. Quick is the winner here no matter who plays for the Ducks.

Los Angeles in six

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

As the talent at the top of the NHL Draft continues to rise each year the topic of tanking to ensure higher odds at the first overall pick is becoming a hot topic. While the current system is designed to give the 30th place finisher the best opportunity to pick first, there is a better chance that team picks second given the odds.

With next year’s draft featuring a pair of generational talents at the top of the prospect pool, rumors and chatter have abounded regarding change to the lottery system in hopes of curbing the practice of tanking.

There doesn’t seem to be a good system that is strictly based off the order of finish in the standings. The system floated by Elliotte Friedman a few weeks back included a few nuances that wouldn’t only decrease the 30th place finisher’s chances but take into account a number of seasons as opposed to the one that had just passed.

However, it’s a fairly nuanced system that points towards even more complicated and convoluted systems for determining the first overall pick while preventing teams from taking nosedives to the bottom of the standings.

One idea I’m particularly fond of is a version of something similar I heard on NHL Network Radio a while back. If I’m not mistaken the original thought came from Mike Brophy, so direct the appropriate praise to him for the genesis of this idea.

The plan would be to still reward the worst teams with the highest picks in each year’s draft. You can’t have parity and turnover within the league unless you follow such a pattern. It also ensures that bad teams will improve – or should improve if you’re the Oilers – by picking high. In a league driven by revenues, perennial basement dwellers will eventually see lots of red ink if they can’t bring in players to overhaul their roster.

My plan would include the league’s five worst teams – although this could be expanded if necessary – in a competition to determine who wins the first overall pick. I stress the term win because this would be a standings-based competition that would be evaluated on each team’s performance after a certain point in the year. This way you can’t simply hit the brakes on your year, sell off your assets and wait to see what the lottery balls do for you once the season wraps. Meanwhile, if you finish 30th you’re still assured to draft high enough to get some help.

The competition wouldn’t affect the regular season schedule, nor would it be a separate postseason tournament – although that would rule. It would simply be standings based just as each division race is determined. Whichever team ends the year with the most points after the competition begins wins the first overall pick.

Beginning this competition, let’s call it the NHL Draft Challenge, would likely be the toughest thing to determine. You could either run it over a certain number of games each year to ensure similar results each season or you could run it from the first game after the fifth worst team is eliminated.

There are a few issues with this portion of things, I know. First, the team in fifth on March 1 could wind up finishing ninth by the end of the year. Just as the team in 12th could nosedive and wind up 4th by the end of the year. This lends credence to using a set number of games each year towards the end of the regular season. The last 10 games for the league’s five worst teams, for example. That not only provides a concrete definition of the games being considered, but it also can provide a failsafe for those teams who surge or regress in the final weeks of the year.

Ideally this would be something that you would track in realtime. Almost like the NASCAR standings. That way each night the teams in the running are truly competing for that top pick as opposed to simply evaluating the standings once the year is out. If that means you need to expand this beyond the bottom five teams, so be it. But I’d rather determine the participants by a certain point in the year – probably shortly after St. Patrick’s Day – and officially begin the NHL Draft Challenge at that time.

That way, as the end of the season approaches the teams in the cellar would have something to play for over their final 10 games. The team with the best record would win the first pick. I’d also reward the second and third place finishers in the Challenge with the second and third overall picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings. This way you reward the teams who succeed in the challenge while not completely handcuffing the 30th and 29th place teams if they’re truly horrible.

One way to avoid that would be to install a sliding scale, of sorts. This Challenge could still encompass the five, seven, ten or even fourteen non-playoff teams but rather than using a set number of games a point percentage of games once a team had been eliminated. While teams who are eliminated on the final week or weekend may need to be excluded, it would eliminate some of the confusing elements to picking the participants. This way teams eliminated later could still be part of the Challenge while not being at a disadvantage in terms of the number of games they could play upon their elimination from playoff contention.

One other wrinkle this would add would be regarding the trade deadline and impending free agents. There is the potential to limit the number of true sellers at the deadline because of the potential interest in grabbing that first pick. Simply selling off UFAs for draft picks would be far less prevalent than true hockey trades so that even the league’s worst teams maintain some competitiveness.

Obviously there will still be sellers as a team like the 2013-14 Sabres who know they need to build through the draft will still value trades like the one that sent Matt Moulson to Minnesota. But I’d assume that some teams may hold onto certain players in the event they believe they can land the first pick.

This isn’t a perfect system. Picking the right time to choose the teams who would be participating and not excluding teams who may enter the bottom five later in the year would complicate matters. But it would also add excitement and interest for the teams and fans who would otherwise be wallowing through a 29th or 30th place season.

Here’s the rundown of the system once again:

–          The league’s bottom five teams would compete over their final 10 games to determine who wins the first overall draft pick

o   The number of teams could be expanded if necessary.

–          The number of points accumulated in the standings over those final 10 games would determine the winner

–          The competition would occur in real time as each of the final 10 games are played by each participating team

–          The top three finishers in the Draft Challenge would win the top three picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings.

–          Teams that qualify for the Challenge would be determined once the fifth worst team was officially eliminated from the playoffs.

–          If the point percentage system is used, the Challenge would begin for each team once they were eliminated from the playoffs

o   Under that system, the percentage of points earned vs. available would determine the standings for the Draft Challenge

o   Teams eliminated on the final weekend or week of the season may not be eligible for participation depending on the number of games they’d have remaining

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.