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Monday, 27 April 2015

CHL Enters Conference Championship Week
The Road to the Memorial Cup trims the field

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) started with 60 teams scattered over 3 leagues.  Teams from 9 provinces and 4 states began the season looking to hoist one of the toughest trophies to get your hands on, the Memorial Cup.  As we enter May, the field of possible champions has been reduced from 60 to 12!

Each league has entered the #FinalFour on the path to crowing their own league champion and the team who will represent the league at the Memorial Cup.  Here are a few #TwineTime hits and misses from the previous round:

  • The WHL for the most part has produced chalk results.  Overall, I sit with an average record of 10 - 2.  Of course both of those losses come from picking against the same team: Portland.  Will I finally learn my lesson or be burned again?
  • The OHL moved along as expected also.  With the completion of 2 playoff rounds, we have only seen 2 instances where a lower seed prevailed.  Even then, it was a 5 besting a 4 and a 3 beating a 2.  Last round I went a successful 4 for 4 in my predictions.
  • The QMJHL is usually known for upsets, not so much this year.  We have seen 3 upsets so far.  Last round I was a successful 3 for 4.  Oddly enough, I bet on Moncton to beat Halifax, even when I knew they were down 0-2 in the series.  Thanks Moncton for proving me right!  On the flip side, I picked an upset with Baie-Comeau to defeat Val d'Or.  Oh Drakkar!!  They were up 3-0 in the series and ended up losing, in OT, in game 7.

Ok so basically all the favorites have been rolling along in the CHL playoffs.  This should mean we have the best 12 teams in the nation still vying for the Memorial Cup.  This should also result in seeing the best 6 series of the playoffs if these are the best teams right?  Right?

WHL

Eastern Conference Championship

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs (2) Calgary Hitmen

This is the Eastern Conference Final series most people expected at the beginning of the season and neither team has disappointed.  The Wheaties are rolling along quite easily these playoffs, besting Edmonton and Regina in 5 games.  They have scored 39 goals in 10 games entering the series, while only allowing 21.  When you can outscore your opposition 2 to 1, your odds of winning double as well.  Calgary, on the other hand, had a tough opening round series.  The Hitmen barely survived their rivals, Kootenay Ice, in 7 games before squeaking by provincial rivals Medicine Hat in 5 games.  Sure a 5 game series win seems like they controlled the series but 3 of those games went into OT, with the series clincher going to double OT.  Both of these teams have played some close games in the playoffs and both have showed they can put the strong D-men to work to slow down their opposition.  The question will be if Calgary can stave off the Wheaties offense long enough to win 4 games.  I just don't see it happening.  Brandon should dominate the games at home and if they can win at least 1 game in Calgary, the series is over.  Odd Wheaties stat:  The final score in Games 3, 4 and 5 in both series was 3-2...all wins for Brandon.  Creepy?!

#TwineTime pick:  Brandon over Calgary in 5 games

Western Conference Championship

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (3) Portland Winterhawks

Ah the Drive for 5 continues in the Rose City.  Who would have thought?  Ok, most people...except myself.  I really thought Portland could be eliminated against both of their previous opponents, Seattle and Everett.  Boy was I wrong!  Being a UO alum, I should know better than to bet against an Oregon sports team.  The Hawks have looked great all playoffs, especially the duo of Nic Petan and Oli Bjorkstrand.  They have come through with 21 and 20 points so far these playoffs.  But can the firepower of these two top players be enough to derail the, arguably, top team in the country?  Kelowna has been destined for the Memorial Cup appearance since the beginning of the year.  Everyone has talked about his being the year of the Rockets and so far they have not disappointed.  And they are loaded with talent!  Leon Draisaitl and Madison Bowey lead the way in the playoffs but Kelowna has a ton of offense coming at you from all angles, see Josh Morrissey and Nick Merkley.  The pressure will be on PDX goalie Adin Hill.  If he can stand on his head like he has for most of the playoffs, the Winterhawks #DriveFor5 could continue.  But if he shows any sign of weakness, the Rockets will take advantage...quick!!  I know I have bet against Portland and been wrong twice but I just cannot see them stopping the Rockets destiny for another year.  If I am wrong this time, The Winterhawks Army may just want to send me a gift as I clearly am their reverse good luck charm.

#TwineTime pick:  Kelowna over Portland in 6 games

OHL

Eastern Conference Championship

(1) Oshawa Generals vs. (3) North Bay Battalion

The 2 hottest teams in the East meet up to see who gets smoked in the OHL final...how exciting!  Ok, I jest...both of these teams are very good and could give the favored West champion, whomever it is, a good test in the final.  Both of these teams have rolled through the opening two rounds.  Oshawa posted back to back 4-1 series wins while North Bay swept their opening round and "upset" Barrie in 5 games last round.  I say "upset" because those teams tied for the division lead and Barrie just won the tiebreaker.  I said Oshawa was the strong favorite in the East and I still believe it to be so.  Michael Dal Colle and Cole Cassels have been playing outstanding hockey for the Generals.  The Battalion are led on scoring by Nick Paul but their greatest asset is between the pipes with Jake Smith.  Smith is 9-2 in the playoffs with a save percentage of 0.934.  He is the key to the Battalian having a shot in this series.  Unfortunately though for North Bay, Oshawa happens to have the second best goalie in the playoffs protecting their net, Ken Appleby.  Appleby is 9-3 and sporting a 0.918save percentage.  Something has to give in this series.  I expect to see close games and a close series.  While the teams may draw even on the blue line and between the posts, Oshawa has the advantage on offense, scoring 292 goals this season (compared to 237 for North Bay).

#TwineTime pick:  Oshawa over North Bay in 6 games

Western Conference Championship

(1) Soo Greyhounds vs. (2) Erie Otters 

Arguable the two best teams in the OHL this season.  This is really the series everyone wanted to see.  Projected top draft pick Otters Connor McDavid vs Greyhounds stud Nick Ritchie.  Top goalies Brandon Halverson (Soo) vs. Devin Williams (Erie).  Two of the most efficient and highest scoring teams in the league square off.  The Greyhounds scored a league-best 342 goals this season vs. the Otters with a second-best 331 goals.  But let's be honest...this series comes down to McDavid.  If the Greyhounds can hold him in check, they win.  If McDavid goes all Egg McMuffin on the Soo D, Otters swim on.  McDavid has 32 points through 12 playoff games already....nobody has been able to slow this kid down.  Living out West I am sad I cannot watch every game of this series as I expect it to be a classic throw down.  I am really torn on this one...but I do have a soft spot for McDonalds french fries so...

#TwineTime pick:  Erie over Soo in 7 games

QMJHL

(1) Rimouski Oceanic vs. (6) Val d'Or Foreurs

The Q favorite Oceanic find themselves, possibly, one series win away from securing a Memorial Cup berth.  Depending on the result of the other series, more on that in a second, Rimouski is looking primed for a series win here.  The Oceanic have been the top team in the Q most of the season and there is no reason to doubt them here.  Now I should say it is a bit tough to tell how good they are since they throttled the 16 and 14 seeded teams in the first two rounds (4-0 and 4-1).  Are they really that unbeatable or are they just beating up on weaker teams?  The Foreurs enter the series on the other side of the spectrum.  After a 4-2 opening series win, they were pushed to their limits last round by Baie-Comeau.  With their backs against the wall down 0-3 in the series, they did the unthinkable and rattled off 4 straight wins including 2 on the road.  So does that kind of battle tested performance provide motivation and momentum carried forward or did playing so many do-or-die games drain this team of the energy they need to beat an even better team?

#TwineTime pick:  Rimouski over Val d'Or in 5 games

(2) Moncton Wildcats vs. (4) Quebec Remparts

What an up and down previous series for Moncton.  After losing the opening two games at home vs. Halifax, they win the next 3, lose game 6 on the road and fight off the Mooseheads at home in game 7.  At times the Wildcats looked dead in the series, at other times they looked like the best team in the Q.  It really was a case of Jekyll vs Hyde.  Which team shows up this round?  Quebec has taken an opposite path.  They were tested in the opening round, needing a home game 7 win to stave off Cape Breton.  Last round they dominated Charlottetown in a quick 4 game sweep.  They have all the momentum and confidence right now.  And oh by the way, did I mention they just happen to be the Memorial Cup hosts this year?  They already have a spot in the big tournament but are looking to enter not as hosts but as Q champions.  As I mentioned above, the winner of the other series would love to see Quebec win here.  If that happens, the other series winner would automatically qualify for the Memorial Cup.  That would sure take a bit of the stress off of playing the Q final.  Looking for a quirky Remparts stat?  Try this one on.  Remparts have only played and defeated Maritime teams in the playoffs: Nova Scotia in Round 1 (Cape Breton), P.E.I. in Round 2 (Charlottetown) and now New Brunswick.  Can they complete a Maritime sweep in the playoffs?

#TwineTime pick:  Quebec over Moncton in 7 games

So there you have it, the #TwineTime picks for league semi-final action.  Check back in a week or so to see how accurate I am.  And once again if you live in or around any of these cities hosting playoff games, go check out the action.  Junior hockey is fact paced, full of action, affordable and kid friendly (usually).  I think I will be checking out the Hitmen game on Wednesday with the godchildren.  Hopefully we will be in for a good game.  


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
#BecauseItsTheCup hockey excitement has begun


Don't be confused with the title of this blog entry....this really is the most wonderful time of the year.  The Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway.  A time of the year when most Canadian males will no longer speak to anyone other than other, usually, dudes who are watching hockey.  If you are not into hockey and not a fan of hockey, consider yourself muted starting tonight from any dude you know.  Ok ladies, true enough there are many, many fans of hockey and many women who actually know more about icing and slashing than some guys.  So perhaps I am being a bit sexist...let's just say starting tonight, the hockey fan in your life will no longer care what you have to say unless you are also talking about the epic OT from the night before, the jaw-dropping save, the perfect pass and the goal that got our hearts racing.

Having lived in Edmonton for the past 9 seasons, I really haven't had the opportunity to truly experience the playoff atmosphere.  This year will be different.  How perfect was the timing that I move to Calgary to start a new job and the Flames end their playoff drought and make the playoffs?  How more perfect is it that today I found out my name was drawn from the lottery to buy 2 tickets to Game 3 on Tuesday night?  I have never been to a Stanley Cup Playoff game before, to say I am excited for next Tuesday may be a HUGE understatement.

Until then though, as is #TwineTime tradition with all sports, I wanted to offer my preview and picks for the opening round series.  There are usually two things to count on in this opening round:

  1. The Eastern Conference will produce great games but little excitement if you enjoy seeing upsets.
  2. The Western Conference will be a gongshow and should see 1 if not 2 upsets

It should be worth noting the East has not produced a champion since 2011, and that team isn't even in the playoffs this year (Boston).  In fact, in the past 8 seasons, the East has seen only 2 champions, with the other being my Penguins in 2009.  The West is Best...but can this be the year for a change?  Let's get to the preview show.....

EASTERN (CHALK TALK) CONFERENCE

Metro Division

(1) New York Rangers vs. (WC) Pittsburgh Penguins

The President's Trophy winners and defending Eastern Conference champion Blue Shirts look mighty dominant this season.  The loss in the cup final last season to LA seemed to provide huge motivation for the Rangers and they are the overwhelming favorites to win this series, most predicting a sweep or quick 5 game series.  Let's also remember the Rangers upset the top-seeded Penguins in the second round of last year's playoff run.  And they dominated the Pens this season, winning 3 of 4.  This Rangers team is strong and I expect a great series from Rick Nash.  Of course, the Penguins have firepower up front with Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin but neither enter the playoffs looking too good.  The big key for Pittsburgh to even stand a chance at not getting swept early is the play of Marc-Andre Fleury.  Which Fleury will show up this playoff year?  The same one from 2008 and 2009 when the Penguins made back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, including winning in 2009.  Or the one who, since those two seasons really, has choked in the playoffs year after year.  Sure he got better last year but the Rangers still got the best of him.  If Fleury can recreate the 2009 magic, the Pens have a shot (assuming they avoid more injuries and the big boys step up).  But I wouldn't bet the farm on that happening.

#TwineTime pick:  Rangers over Penguins - 6 games (And boy was that hard to pick being a HUGE Penguins fan)

(2) Washington Capitals vs. (3) New York Islanders

Ok raise your hand if you saw this being a playoff match up at the beginning of the season.  Nope, seeing none.  Ok, now raise your hand if you thought both of these teams would even be in the playoffs this year.  Wow, I see tops of heads but no hands.  Both of these teams overachieved this season and give us an interesting playoff match up.  I would expect a close series if the season series is any indication.  They split 4 games and 3 went into OT.  If you are into watching this series, you may want to make sure you don't work early the next morning.  I will say I am excited to watch John Tavares match up against Ovi.  If we go by players alone, I actually would like to see Tavaras outplay Ovi and have a better series.  But even then, would that be enough?  The battle between the pipes is going to be huge in this series.  We have Jaroslov Halak vs Braden Holtby.  If we go by players in this battle, I would like to see Holtby outplay Halak.  Realistically I think Ovi will come out firing and will be the difference.  While I see Holtby shutting down Tavares and the Isles offense for a few games, I struggle seeing Halak do the same.  The Caps are notorious for playoff meltdowns but not usually until the second round.  Let's call them through here...but possibly in trouble next round.

#TwineTime pick:  Capitals over Islanders - 7 games (Of course, as a Pens fan, picking the Caps is VERY difficult)

Atlantic Division

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs (WC) Ottawa Senators

Our first of two All-Canadian opening round series.  Everyone in Canada will be focused on both of these opening round series as Canadian hockey fans will be guaranteed 2 teams in round 2.  This Eastern match up though is going to be quite interesting.  You have the hottest team in hockey right now vs the best goalie of the season.  While one will crack first?  Ottawa has look unbeatable, riding the unexplainable success of Andrew "Hamburgler" Hammond.  Hammond is 20-1-2 since being called up from the AHL.  He has the confidence of his team, his coaches and the fans and that can be dangerous for the Canadiens.  Not that Montreal is struggling in net either.  Carey Price should run away with the Vezina trophy this season...and maybe even the Hart.  Plus he is coming off an Olympic gold year in 2014.  But can he carry this team on his back throughout the playoffs?  The Senators have guys like Mark Stone, arguably the hottest player on the ice at the end of the season.  The interesting stat is how the Senators have made some crazy 3rd period comebacks in games this season, especially during their late-season playoff run.  In comparison, Montreal has given up the fewest 3rd period goals of all playoff teams.  Again, which cracks first?  The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot in February and here they are.  I just don't see that momentum dying.

#TwineTime pick:  Senators over Canadiens - 7 games

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings

Ah playoff hockey is alive and well in the thriving hockey-crazy state of.....Florida?  It still feels weird thinking Florida can possibly see another Stanley Cup graze its state this season but I wouldn't call it a shock or surprise if that happens.  Although, look at California I suppose.  The state has seen 3 champions in 8 seasons.  The fun in the sun is taking over the league.  Is this the season for the Sunshine State?  In fact, the Lightning rank VERY HIGH on the #TwineTime favorite to take the cup home this year.  This is the Stevie Y series.  Yzerman's new vs old.  The Lightning took the regular season series, winning 3 of 4.  Many jumped on the Bolts bandwagon last season until goalie Ben Bishop got injured and they were quickly sweeped out of the playoffs.  Not this year though!  Stamkos, Johnson, Palat...just so much firepower that can come at you from so many different angles.  The storyline in Detroit is more focusing on their coach Mike Babcock rather than their chance of winning this series.  Babcock is likely coaching his final games with the Wings before probably bouncing over to Buffalo.  Let's just have the Babcock-Wings era end quick so Mike can start focusing on how to fix the troubled Sabres.

#TwineTime pick:  Lightning over Red Wings - 5 games

WESTERN (SAY HELLO TO UPSET CITY) CONFERENCE

Central Division

(1) St. Louis Blues vs (WC) Minnesota Wild

What a playoff series to try and predict.  They split their 4 game regular season.  They are two of the best teams in the league and both have strong cases for being considered Cup favorites.  And yet here we are in the opening round debating this series.  The West is INSANE!  You have to love the story of Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.  Dubnyk has been a journeyman goalie the past years, especially since his rough stint in Edmonton.  All of a sudden the Wild came calling and Duby stepped up to the call, leading them right into the playoffs and being a strong upset pick.  The Wild chances will clearly fall on his shoulders.  The Blues have the opposite situation.  They are riding a two-goalie scheme it seems with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott.  But are they riding both because both are hot or because they have little faith in either to be named starter?  I want to say Option A but my head says Option B.  Both teams are healthy, both teams are cup favorites, both are capable to winning this series just as easy as being eliminated.  All we can expect is a great series, close games and hopefully this one going the distance.

#TwineTime pick:  Flip a coin....Blues over Wild - 7 games

(2) Nashville Predators vs (3) Chicago Blackhawks

The last time these teams met in the playoffs (the only time actually) the winner went on to win the cup (Chicago, 2010).  Could we see history repeating this season?  Similar to the other Central Division series, this one is a toss up as well.  This series is a case of old school Original 6 recent dynasty vs the new kid on the block, blue light special.  Fans of old school hockey are going to side with Chi-Town.  Fans of upsets and young, explosive hockey will want to see the Preds prevail.  The 'Hawks are just so hard to beat.  Guys like Toews, Hossa, Keith and now Kane back make is look almost impossible to beat these guys.  But it can be done...ask LA.  The names on the back of the Preds jersey's are impressive as well: Rinne, Weber, Neal, Forsberg.  These are all guys who can make big moves and big plays but can they match the Chicago intensity?  The 'Hawks players have the playoff experience and that could be the deciding factor.  Chicago in recent years has turned into a totally different team come playoff time and for Nashville to pull the upset, Forsberg will need to find the magic he had at the beginning of the season and Pekka Rinne is going to have to play the series of his life....just to survive Round 1.

#TwineTime pick:  Blackhawks over Predators - 6 games

Pacific Division

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs (WC) Winnipeg Jets

Welcome back to the playoffs Winnipeg!  We are all excited to see you back.  I can just imagine how electric the MTS Centre is going to be for games 3 and 4.  I was lucky enough to watch the Jets beat the Leafs at MTS the first season hockey returned to Winnipeg and that was crazy enough.  Now bring playoff action back to town and it will be unbelievable.  So while the crowd, hockey fans and Canadians in general are excited for Winnipeg, can there really be Winning in Winnipeg?  The Jets will need to see goalie Ondrej Pavelec continue his brick wall performance from the end of the season.  He has three straight shut outs heading into game 1.  If he continues the hot streak and burns down the ice, the Ducks will be left doing their best to tread the water.  The Ducks have players like Getzlaf and Kesler to lead the charge and the tag-team of Frederik Anderson and John Gibson between the pipes.  On paper, the Ducks seem to be the team to bet on to win this series.  The swept the season series winning all 3 games.  But something just seems in the air....and this is the West remember.  Upsets are bound to happen and what better series than in the return to playoff hockey in Winterpeg.  Get ready Jets fans....

#TwineTime pick:  Jets over Ducks - 7 games

(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (3) Calgary Flames

Earlier I covered the first All-Canadian match up, now lets preview the second All-Canadian pairing.  What crazy history we have to discuss for this series.  These teams have not met since 2004 but, the last 3 times they met in the playoffs the series went 7 games and the decider went into OT.  How crazy is that?  Want even more mind-bending stats?  The winner of the series the past 3 times has gone on to the Stanley Cup final.  So survive this series and off to the cup you go it appears.  And go figure they split their season series.  This could possibly be the final kick at the cup for this group of Canucks players.  They don't really have a set goalie but expect Eddie Lack to start the series.  If he plays well and get the Canucks at least a win in one of the opening two games at home, he should see more time.  If he gets rattled in Game 1, expect to see the quick hook and Ryan Miller back on the ice.  The Sedin boys are also not getting any younger and the window of opportunity is closing fast.  They are fun to watch but can they do enough to carry the team?  On the flip side, this Flames team feels you are watching Speedy Gonzales.  They are quick, young, inexperienced and ready to just fly out onto the ice and play, play, play.  Nobody can honestly say they expected the Flames to be in the playoffs, especially after losing Mark Giordano.  Enter Johnny Hockey!  Gaudreau should win the Calder as Rookie of the Year and is the hockey version of Speedy Gonzales.  He is quick, dynamic and fun to watch.  His energy alone could be enough to give the Flames at least 1 or 2 wins in this series.  The big question mark for the Flames will be goaltending, similar to the Canucks.  Jonas Hiller will get the start but he has a history of giving up some weak goals, especially early in games.  In the playoffs, especially on the road, you cannot afford to give up those kind of goals and expect to win many games.  Expect a very close series and a few OT games.  But there really is only 1 pick I can go with in this one...

#TwineTime pick:  Flames over Canucks - 7 games (Interesting note: I have been a Flames fan since I was a kid, we share something in common!  We were both established in 1980)

Ok puck heads, there are my picks.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know.  Feel free to share your thoughts with my on here or on my twitter account.  Most importantly, enjoy the playoff action over the many upcoming weeks.  If my opening round picks stand true, we will see 3 Canadian teams in the second round and, possibly, another All-Canadian battle out West.  'Tis the most wonderful time of the year after all....





Monday, 13 April 2015

The Road to the Memorial Cup Continues
CHL Leagues enter Round 2 of the playoffs

The Memorial Cup in Quebec City is drawing closer.  In just over a month's time we will know our 4 competing teams.  Of course we already know the host Remparts will be there, but who will be joining them?

As the WHL playoffs got under way, #TwineTime made predictions on how each series would play out.  For a memory refresher, visit HERE

Now, I will admit it was a small slight on my behalf to only focus on the WHL.  Sure, I am a huge WHL fan and know the league the best but there are some other outstanding playoff series going on across the country.  For my Road to the Memorial Cup Round 2 blog, I figured I would open up my picks to all 3 leagues and make predictions on who will advance to the #FinalFour.

WHL

The first round of the playoffs produced little in terms of upsets....and really only minor intrigue to be honest.  The winners were, for the most part, predictable and the games were not as exciting as many had hoped.  Sure a few series went the distance and of course there were a few great games played but overall it was a lackluster opening round.

For my #TwineTime picks, I accurately nailed 7 of the 8 opening round series.  Oh Portland, I should have known better to go against you.  But I was overcome by the magic of Seattle and thinking they could pull the upset.  We should be in for quite the series in Round 2 though, especially out West.  Let's get to the predictions:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Brandon Wheat Kings vs Regina Pats

Both of these teams dominated their opening round series.  Brandon finally extracted revenge on their playoff rivals from Edmonton, eliminating the defending WHL and Memorial Cup Champion Oil Kings in 5 games.  Brandon looked rough in the opening game but poured on 4 straight wins, 3 in Edmonton, to move on to the second round.  Regina, meanwhile, had no problem ousting provincial rivals Swift Current.  The Pats went one better than the Wheaties by sweeping the Broncos.  So both teams looked strong in the opening round but what gives when they match up against one another?  Well, I expect to see another one-sided playoff pairing.  Yes, I was impressed with Regina in their opening round but I do not see them having the firepower and defense to withstand the Wheaties.  Remember, Brandon is a high-scoring machine and, as proven in their opening round series win, they are also very strong on the road.  Can Regina make it close?  Sure.  But close enough to pull the upset?  I don't think so.

#TwineTime pick:  Brandon over Regina in 5 games

Calgary Hitmen vs. Medicine Hat Tigers

Now this is the second round series we all wanted to see.  Calgary vs Medicine Hat!  These two teams fought back and forth during the season for the Central Division championship, with Calgary pulling it out on the final day of the season.  That title means home ice advantage for this playoff series, a huge advantage for the Hitmen.  Medicine Hat really dropped the puck at the end of the season as they looked to have control of the division for most of the year.  But all the credit to the Tigers, they may have limped a bit into the playoffs but found their new life once they arrived.  I really thought Red Deer could give them a better fight but the Tigers dominated the series and finished off their Alberta rivals in 5 games.  Calgary on the other hand almost suffered a bad case of deja vu.  Last year Kootenay game into Calgary and upset the higher seed Hitmen...but not this year.  Calgary was pushed to 7 games but for some reason I really never thought the series victory was in jeopardy.  This is a very good Calgary team and the more and more I see them, the more I think they could give Brandon a good run in the Eastern final.  But don't tell the Tigers fans I said that....they may disagree.  Another provincial rival, another opportunity to show why they are the top team in AB this season Tigers fans?  The barn in Medicine Hat is ready to close at the conclusion of this playoff run, can the Tigers extend the home life of the building for another round?

#TwineTime pick:  Calgary over Medicine Hat in 6 games

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kelowna Rockets vs. Victoria Royals

The B.C. playoff series everyone was expecting is finally here.  Both Kelowna and Victoria made quick work of their opening playoff opponents, with the Rockets beating Tri-City in 4 games and the Royals dispatching the Prince George Cougars in 5.  The talk all season has been on this being Kelowna's year and nobody being able to stop them.  Well we heard a similar story last year and where were they come Memorial Cup time?  This Victoria team is good....really good.  They have confidence entering the playoffs and have beaten the Rockets during the season.  These teams are very familiar with one another and you have to expect to see a bit of rivalry bad blood in this series.  It will get physical.  And I think that works to Victoria's advantage.  If the Royals can push their weight and size around, especially on defense, they could make this an interesting series.  Kelowna will be the favorite at home so this series could come down to the games in Victoria.  The Royals need to hold ice at home for a shot at this series.  If Kelowna can take either game 3 or 4 on the road, this series will probably end in 5 games.

#TwineTime pick:  Kelowna over Victoria in 6 games

Everett Silvertips vs. Portland Winterhawks

Can anyone beat Portland in the playoffs?  These guys just cannot be eliminated....unless they play Edmonton for some reason.  With Edmonton gone, could Portland return to the Memorial Cup this year?  Yes this is not the same dominant team from the Rose City we have seen in the past but they are still explosive and continue to win.  The 6 game series win over Seattle was impressive.  Seattle has a 2-1 series lead going into game 4 at home remember.  Portland ended up winning the game in style, 8-5, and just continued to win.  But now enter Everett.  The Tips were surprise US Division champions this year and had to battle hard to fight off upset-minded Spokane in round 1.  Three of the 6 games went into OT, in fact we saw the OT trifecta in that series.  A OT, 2 OT and 3 OT game.  How often does that happen?  Everett ended up winning 2 of the 3, including the series clincher in 3 OT.  They are battle tested but are they also a bit tired?  While both series went 6 games, add in the extra OT periods played by Everett and that can weigh on a team.  Portland has the bigger players, the more well-known names and the playoff history on their side.  Everett is going into really unknown territory and is trying to stake their claim to being a championship caliber team.  No better way to make your name known that knocking off the 4-time Western Champs.  The games in Portland will be the difference in this series.  The Hawks were 2-1 in the opening round, losing the opening game.  The Tips were a perfect 3-0 on the road.  Expect a split for the opening games in Everett and then things will get interesting.  Which side prevails:  The strong PDX Home Crowd vs the Undefeated Road Warriors?

#TwineTime pick:  Everett over Portland in 7 games

OHL

There are really 2 story lines being watched for in the OHL playoffs:
  1. Can Connor McDavid carry his Erie Otters to the Memorial Cup?
  2. Can anyone stop the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds?

The unfortunate part about the OHL playoff storylines to watch is both happen in the Western Conference, making for a boring Eastern Conference playoff watch.  Let's take a look at the round 2 playoff pairings.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Oshawa Generals over (5) Niagra Ice Dogs in 5 games - Credit Niargra for the opening round series upset win over Ottawa but I do not see a repeat here.  Oshawa is the cream of the crop in the East and should roll through their opponents until the OHL final.

(3) North Bay Battalion over (2) Barrie Colts in 7 games - These teams tied for Central division title with Barrie owning the tiebreaker.  The Colts won home ice advantage for this expected Round 2 matchup but I don't think it will make the difference they are hoping.  Both of these teams can score and score alot.  They both lit the lamp for 17 goals in 4 game sweeps in the opening round.  So offense is even...here comes the difference though.  The defense of North Bay is stronger.  Barrie gave up 7 goals in 4 games eliminating Belleville but the Battalion only conceded 4 goals against Kingston.  Defense can win championships and win series and that will be the difference in this one.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) SSM Greyhounds over (4) Guelph Storm in 4 games - Congrats on that opening round series win Guelph, you get to now be destroyed by SSM in round 2.  I really do not see the Storm putting up much of a fight against an over-sized, stronger, faster Greyhounds team.  This SSM team lit up Saginaw in their opening series sweep, scoring 22 goals in only 4 games.  These guys can score, score often and score fast.

(2) Erie Otters over (3) London Knights in 6 games - When Erie dropped Game 1 of their opening series to Sarnia, some people grew concerned.  This was a bit premature.  Erie steamrolled the next 4 games, including a 7-0 romp at home in the clincher, to easily advance.  Perhaps call it a case of starting off slow or maybe they slightly underestimated their opponents.  Whatever the case, they corrected it quickly and moved on just as fast.  London, on the other hand, was pushed to 6 games against a strong Kitchener squad.  London has been the face of the OHL for the past few seasons at the Memorial Cup, winning the OHL title and serving as hosts within the past 2 years.  I expect the Knights reign to finally come to an end though.  All eyes have been on McDavid but he is not disappointing.  Besides, we all want to see McDavid vs. SSM for the West Final right?

QMJHL

Ah our friends in the Q.  A league with 18 teams, seeing 16 of them making the playoffs.  How tough is it to be in this league and be one of the two teams NOT able to qualify for the playoffs?  You think you had a bad season, imagine being Drummondville or Acadie-Bathurst right now!  In fact the Titan finished 19 points out of the FINAL playoff spot.  It was a lllooonngggg season in Acadie-Bathurst this year.

But let's focus on the positives now.  I love the playoff action in the Q.  They are the only league where they seed the playoff teams from 1 - 16 regardless of division.  They have no conferences and just have the 3 divisions (Maritime, East and West).  Sure winning your division is nice and guarantees you more home playoff games but, in the long run, you are really all in 1 division competing for 16 playoff spots.  The playoff pairings use the simple 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15 and so on for the opening round.  In each subsequent round, the playoff pairings are based on the seeds remaining with highest vs lowest remaining.  The Q is infamous for producing some playoff upsets as well in the first 2 rounds.  We have already seen three upsets in the opening round, could we be in for more?

(1) Rimouski Oceanic over (14) Gatineau Olympiques in 6 games - This playoff matchup is a direct result of a HUGE opening round upset.  Gatineau knocked off the West champion Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in 6 games.  The Olympiques, also in the West division, finished 23 points back of the Armada but completely dominated them in the playoffs.  The pivotal game 5 1-0 win on the road was the turning point and shows the outstanding goaltending and D the Olympiques bring to the table.  Unfortunately, the Cinderella slipper may fall off this round.  The Oceanic are the cream of the crop in the Q this season and heavy favorites to be in the Memorial Cup.  Rimouski breezed through Victoriaville in 4 straight games, never really being tested.  The Oceanic are the East Division champs and have an explosive offense.  Gatineau's defense probably keeps them in the series longer than expected but unless they can shut them down for 4 games, including at least 2 on the road, it is going to be a hard series for the Olympiques.

(2) Moncton Wildcats over (12) Halifax Mooseheads in 7 games - We have ourselves a nice All-Maritime matchup here and a battle of New Brunswick vs Nova Scotia.  This should be an entertaining series.  Moncton is the Atlantic Division champions and finished 25 points ahead of Halifax in the regular season.  The Wildcats had no problems with Chicoutimi in their opening round series, winning in 5 games.  Moncton also sports the regular season scoring champion in Conor Garland (what's the deal with dudes names Connor/Conor this season being so good?), who won the title by 27 points...it wasn't even close.  Halifax, on the other hand, knocked off favored Shawinigan in the opening round.  The Mooseheads were pushed hard, facing 3 OT games in the opening series and coming away with wins in two of them (including the series clincher on the road in game 7).  The Mooseheads will be riding high with confidence and adrenaline right now.  As of press time, they have already won both opening games in Moncton for the 2-0 series lead.  I will stick with my pick though, regardless of those results, and think the Wildcats can mount the comeback, even though they were completed dominated 7-3 and 6-3 at home.  I could be VERY wrong about this pick in a matter of days.

(4) Quebec Remparts over (9) Charlottetown Islanders in 5 games - The Gatineau upset was a Quebec gain as the Remparts move up a line on the playoff bracket and now would avoid Rimouski until the Q final.  Based on the Halifax series, Quebec could get home ice advantage in the next round as well.  Of course assuming they take care of business vs the Islanders.  Quebec is hosting the Memorial Cup this year so they are already assured of their spot.  But, as with the host every year, nobody wants to take the back door into the tournament (although it worked for Shawinigan a few seasons ago losing in the opening playoff round and winning the Cup at home).  The top teams must also be hoping Quebec keeps winning because, should they make the Q final, whomever they play will also receive the Mem Cup bid, regardless of who wins the final.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves yet.  Enter Charlottetown.  The Islanders were the third upset victors in the opening round, knocking off Sherbrooke in 6 games.  Ok maybe a 9 knocking off an 8 isn't a huge upset but still.  This was a massive victory for the program, seeing a team from Prince Edward Island reach the second round of the playoffs.  It also meant 3 Atlantic teams, from 3 different Atlantic provinces, are still enjoying playoff hockey right now.  I love the idea of seeing Charlottetown continue winning but I just cannot see them matching up well against Quebec.  The Islanders are the lowest scoring team still alive and give up way more goals than they score.  That equals trouble against a more explosive offense.  The Remparts barely survived one Atlantic team in the opening round, defeating Cape Breton in 7 games, but I think this will be a much easier test for them.

(7) Baie-Comeau Drakkar over (6) Val-d'Or Foreurs in 6 games - How often do you see the 6-seed vs 7-seed matchup in the second round of the playoffs?  Only in the Q!  With the upsets ahead of them, these two teams find themselves in an unlikely playoff series.  Huge opportunity for both.  While both teams were probably looking at the initial playoff bracket thinking they may need to face Moncton or Quebec in the second round, they get one another instead.  Val-d'Or will be led on offense by Anthony Richard, 91 points in the regular season and already with 10 playoff points.  This Foreurs team can score in bunches, shown in their opening round win over Rouyn-Noranda (including a 9-2 series clincher on the road).  The problem is they also give up a lot of goals.  During the regular season they scored an impressive 283 goals but conceded 266.  The Huskies dropped a 8-3 win on them in game 2 remember.  The Drakkar can also light the lamp, scoring 26 goals in the 5 game opening series win over St. John.  During the regular season, the Drakkar put up 227 goals but only allowed 237.  Baie-Comeau is used to low scoring, tight hockey games.  The kind you usually find yourself in during the playoffs.  This gives them a huge advantage if they can keep the games close.  This is going to be a battle between the pipes.  I don't see either side having an advantage.  At best, I think whichever goalie can get hot first and find the confidence will be the difference maker.  I like the upset!

So there you have it.  Round 2 playoff previews and predictions for the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.  Let's see how good my predictions will be.  With the NHL playoffs starting this week, don't forget to go support your local junior playoff teams as well, if they are still competing.  You will not be disappointed in the action on the ice...and I am sure we can all agree playoff action live beats playoff action on the TV anyday, regardless of the level.

Feel free to share with my your thoughts, agree or disagree, on these predictions either through a comment below or on my twitter account.  I always enjoy talking playoff hockey with fellow junior hockey fans!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Happy 10th Anniversary Players' Championship
Final Ladies Grand Slam Event Celebrates a Milestone

The best female curlers in the world have ascended into a building previously reserved for the loud cheers of tough guys.  But move over Domi; JJ and the Swiss Domination are rolling into the old Maple Leaf Gardens and taking over. 

2015 will mark the 10th Players' Championship for the best female curling teams.  And the most dominant champion of the event will be back in an attempt to retain her title.  Last year, Jennifer Jones laid claim to her record 5th Players' title (2014, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2006).  She has won this event more than anyone else combined.  The 2014 Olympic champions and reigning Canadian champions will enter this week's event as a huge favorite once again.

This year's event will have a very strong international flavor.  In fact, can we just assume Pool A to be the World Championship Replay Division?  4 of the 6 teams competing in Pool A were at the world championship, plus add in the addition of last year's world champion and you have one strong international pool of talent.  In fact, the 4 playoff teams in Beijing, China are all in Pool A so expect some fireworks.  Pool B is no lightweight though either with 2 more international teams competing.  Half of the teams competing this year are representing nations other than Canada, marking this event as a mini-world championship in a way.  Oddly enough, the last time this event was held in Toronto (2013), we saw our first all-international championship final with Scotland's Even Muirhead besting Sweden's Margaretha Sigfridsson.  Muirhead remains the only non-Canadian, men or women, to win a Players' Championship.

In a slight change from the men, the ladies are in a battle for the Rogers Grand Slam Cup.  During the season, the grand slam events culminate in points earned in a race for the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling season championship.  Entering this event, the race could not be more close.  Current leader Val Sweeting is holding a lose grip on top spot, only three point up on second place Rachel Homan.  The 2014/15 Rogers Grand Slam Cup champion will come down to the final few draws of the season...and just the added intrigue and excitement the players and fans like to see.

The format is similar to the men's competition.  12 teams divided into two pools of 6 where each team will play their pool competitors.  At the end of the round robin, the top 6 overall teams will advance to the playoffs with the top 2 teams receiving bye's to the semifinal.  Let's take a look at our competitors:

Pool A

Team Jones (World Curling Tour Ranking: 1) - The defending champions.  The 2014 Olympic gold medalists.  The reigning Canadian champions.  What more can really be said about this team that hasn't already?  Expect them to battle not just for a playoff spot but for claiming another Players' Championship.  As noted above, this is Jones' event and she seems quite comfortable with keeping it that way.  Plus, you have to think revenge will be on her mind given the recent silver medal finish at in China at the world championships.  And she has the perfect pool to extract her revenge on.

Team Muirhead (4) - The only international team to claim this title, Eve looks primed to do it again.  She won her first grand slam event of the season at the Canadian Open and would like nothing more than to add to her title count.  A disappointing world championships saw them just miss the podium, losing to fellow pool A competitors Team Sidorova (Russia).  Revenge as well?

Team Paetz (5) - Hello 2015 Women's World Champions!  The first of three Switzerland teams competing this week as well.  The Swiss produce great chocolate...great watches...and, apparently, the most dominant female curling teams in the world.  3 world championships in 4 years...and with 3 different teams.  Now that is impressive.  You have to think Paetz will be wanting to prove her dominant performance in China was not a fluke.  Expect this team to give everyone a run for their money.  Just ask Ms. Jones...she fell victim to Paetz three times in Beijing.  When was the last time any team beat Jones three times at one event?  Take the world champions VERY serious this week!

Team Feltscher (6) - And speaking of Swiss world champions, hello 2014 Women's World Champions!  Our second Swiss Miss team worth watching this week.  Ok, so they couldn't defend their title this year because they lost their national championship but look who they lost too...the same team that won it all.  How is that for national competition?  This team is also the current European Champions.  Crazy to think a team that just won the European Championship couldn't in turn get out of their country because they lost to a team that ended up winning the worlds.  Something really is in that Swiss chocolate!

Team Sidorova (8) - The Russian bombshells are back and everyone is ready to watch...for more reason than you may think.  Yes, visually, this is a great team to watch and cheer for.  But don't let the looks blind you to the talent.  This is a team with back-to-back world championship bronze medals and a threat in every event they enter.  They have single handedly put female Russian curling on the map.  Want another impressive resume stat?  Sidorova also claimed the 2015 World University Games gold medal this year in Spain.

Team Nedohin (12) - Another 12th seed, another retirement.  Similar to the men side, the 12th ranked team competing in the women's is a skip who also recently announced her retirement.  Skip Heather Nedohin will be taking a step back from the game at the conclusion of this event.  Her team will survive though adding Chelsea Carey to the skip position for next season.  Nedohin is in tough with this pool but she is a two-time Scotties champ and world bronze medalist, don't count her out yet.  She would love to pull a Marin of her own at this event and shock the field by sliding out of the house for a final time with a championship title to her credit.  Will it be tough?  Yes.  Will it be impossible?  No.

Pool B

Team Sweeting (2) - Sweeting has really been the team of the year, similar to McEwen on the men's tour.  Val picked up her first grand slam title at the Masters and followed that up with a win at the Canada Cup.  With her new team in line, they entered the Scotties once again representing Alberta and, once again, made the final.  Back-to-back silver medal performances at a national championship can be tough on a skip but Val seems to continue looking forward and moving towards improving each event, game, end at a time.  This team is a huge threat to win here.

Team Homan (3) - The grand slam season has been an up and down one for the Ottawa team.  Great results but just unable to close out the win during the weekend.  A semifinal appearance at the Masters and a runner-up finish at Canadian Open, Rachel will be looking to go one better this week.  Interesting enough, she lands in the pool with the team whom are helping to develop the new rivalry in women's curling: Sweeting!  These two teams seem destined to meet again over the weekend.

Team Tirinzoni (7) - The third team from Switzerland to compete and the third Swiss team to have a realistic shot at winning this event.  Tirinzoni has found great success on tour this year, winning the Stu Sells and losing the Prairie Showdown to Homan.  This team may not garner lots of media or fan attention but they should be underestimated.  Just remember last year when they were a semifinalist.  Don't be surprised to see lots of Red and White over the weekend...and I am not talking about Team Canada.

Team Middaugh (9) - Ah Sherry, always a crowd favorite and this week should be no different.  Every event this team enters it seems they have a strong fan base cheering them on...and for great reason.  This is a team with not only a great reputation of outstanding curling but also being a friendly team off the ice to fans.  Why wouldn't you want to see them succeed?  Are they a threat to win this event?  Perhaps not.  But I wouldn't underestimate them either.  How many of you pegged them to get oh so close to being Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics?  Yup, didn't think so and look how that almost turned out!

Team Sigfridsson (10) - Ok, I will admit this was the team #TwineTime fully expected to win the world championship this year.  But the wheels kind of fell off in Sapporo and they missed the playoffs completely.  But this is still the 2014 Olympic silver medalists and, as noted above, finished runner-up here the last time this event was held in Toronto.  Also worth noting, previous Team Homan member Ali Kreviazuk will be stepping in at second for the team this week.  Ali vs Rachel takes place in the opening draw!  (Note: Rachel won in a blowout...better luck next time Ali)

Team McDonald (13) - The long shot to win this week would easily be Winnipeg's Kristy McDonald.  Not because they cannot curl but because they are up against the best in the world and the experience factor can work against them.  Having said that, there is something very freeing about getting to step onto the ice with no pressure and just play your heart out.  While media and fans may have lower expectations for this team, the under the radar image might just be what they need to pull off a few upsets.

Projected Standings

Pool A

Paetz:  4 - 1
Jones:  3 - 2
Feltscher:  3 - 2
Muirhead:  3 - 2
Sidorova:  1 - 4
Nedohin:  1 - 4

Pool B

Homan:  5 - 0
Sweeting:  3 - 2
Tirinzoni:  3 - 2
Sigfridsson:  2 - 3
Middaugh:  1 - 4
McDonald:  1 - 4

Playoffs

Quarterfinals:  Sweeting def. Jones
                        Tirinzoni def. Feltscher

Semifinals:  Homan def. Tirinzoni
                    Paetz def. Sweeting

PLAYERS' CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Alina Paetz def. Team Rachel Homan - I am going with a slight upset here.  This Paetz team was so impressive at the world championships and I just do not see them letting up in Toronto.  I think they have confidence they never really had before and once you feel like you can beat any team matched up against you on the ice, you are almost unstoppable.  The big game for them will be that final round robin game against Jennifer Jones.  The Paetz - Jones game will have huge playoff implications and could be the decider between either a team going home, dropping to the quarterfinal or having that pivotal bye to the semi.  Homan, on the other hand, should roll through her pool games and earn that coveted bye.  But I think this final will continue along the prototype of year Homan and company are having.  Play great during the week, make the playoffs and come up just short against a hotter team.  I think it is time the world champions show Canadian curling fans why they are the best in the world right now.

As always, I highly recommend you Live it Live if you are in Toronto this week and see the action in person.  And, of course, if not, check out Sportsnet and CurlingGeek for draw by draw and shot by shot coverage.  Feel free to share your thoughts with me on my predictions, whether you agree or disagree.  And check out my preview of the men's players' championship HERE

Enjoy the action everyone...it has been a great curling season!
Time To Get Golden...and Say A Fond Farewell?
#GSOC Players' Championship concludes the season

Welcome to the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, previous home to the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and, for this week, home of the final Grand Slam of Curling event for 2015.  An even bigger story, could this be the final event for one of the most popular and well-known curlers around the world, Jeff Stoughton?

Stoughton announced in February his intention to retire from professional curling.  Stoughton is a three-time Brier champion.  A two-time world champion.  And has already completed the career grand slam of curling.  Besides the Olympics, there is not much left for Jeff to accomplish in his storied curling career.  It will be a sad draw when Stoughton's last rock comes to a stop...the question is when will that happen?

Stoughton's team grabbed the final spot in this week's Players' Championship.  For those unfamiliar with the format, the top 12 teams from the world curling tour have been invited to participate.  They will be split into two pools of 6 where they will compete in a round robin format against their fellow pool members.  At the conclusion of the round robin, the top 6 teams will advance to the playoffs with the top two teams receiving a bye to the semi-finals. 

This event has been dominated by teams from Alberta and Ontario...and should we be really surprised by this?  Since it's inception in 1993, Alberta teams have won a record 11 Players' Championship titles.  Leading the pack?  The one and only (and defending champion) Kevin Martin.  Of course Mr. Martin will not be defending his title this year as he announced his retirement last season.  Ontario is close behind with 9 titles, Glenn Howard leading the charge with 4 (2 as a skip and 2 as third for brother Russ).  The only other champions outside of the these two dominant provinces is Saskatchewan (1995, Murray McEachern) and Manitoba (2003, Jeff Stoughton).  Interesting to note, international teams have been invited to participate but have never won, with the best result being Nik Edin's runner-up finish to Kevin Martin in 2011.

So based on history and stats, we should just assume two things:

  1. An Alberta or Ontario team should win
  2. All international teams will fail

However, based on recent results on tour this season and taking into consideration the newly crowned world champion will be competing, it might be time to re-write the history books and throw the stats out the window.  Let's take a closer look at the pools:

Pool A

Team McEwen (WCT Ranking: 1) - The hottest team on tour all season (8 wins) and arguably the favorite entering the event.  Mikey and the boys will be looking to complete a career grand slam and, given how they have played this season, is there any reason to doubt them?  Ok sure, the Manitoba final was a hiccup and blah blah blah....but these guys are still focused on winning.  Remember they are coming off a win at the Elite 10 in Ft. McMurray at the last grand slam event, their second slam of the season (National).  I would count them in for weekend action.

Team Gushue (3) - Already a two-time grand slam winner this season (Masters, Canadian Open), Gushue is ready to bring another slam home to the Rock.  What has to be considered a mild Brier disappointment missing the podium will need to be put in the past to focus on success this week in Toronto.  The deadly combo of Gushue - Nichols will also be looking to complete the career grand slam this week.  Gushue has made it to the championship game at this event twice in the past (2005, 2010) and come up short.  Notice a trend in those years though?  2005, 2010....2015?

Team Koe (6) - So Kennedy and Hebert are back to defend the title they won last season but with fresh teammates Kevin Koe in the house and Brent Laing at second.  A disappointment Brier performance left a few people wondering how motivated this team would be to end the season.  Enter the Elite 10 and erase all doubt.  Koe looked focused and ready to take home another slam.  They completed a nice run to the semi-finals only to come up short against eventual champs McEwen.  They have a tough pool here in Toronto so time will tell how they fare to close out the season.

Team Edin (7) - The Champs Are Here!!  Team Edin/Sweden just wrapped up a world championship on Sunday in Halifax and quickly hopped on a plane to be in Toronto to compete here.  They were red hot in Halifax and looked unstoppable in playoff wins over Finland, Canada and Norway.  The only question here might be coming down from the high effect of reclaiming a world championship (Edin was the 2013 world champion).  Can they carry the momentum and high energy from Halifax into Toronto or will the full schedule of games coupled with some travel in between events cause a playoff layoff effect?  I'd lean more towards the first option.

Team Michel (10) - The 2014 European bronze medalists enter this event waving the underdog flag, as well as the Swiss red and white.  They are going to be in tough with this pool.  Of course there are no easy games when playing at this level, especially in a grand slam event, but Michel might be at an even larger disadvantage.  In comparison, their season has not been as strong as their competitors.  However, sometimes flying under the radar can be a positive.  If a team gets caught looking ahead to a big match-up with say McEwen or Edin, Michel could come out of nowhere and steal a win.  They open the event with McEwen as well so, in theory, they get rid of the hottest team on tour right away.  Win the opening game and watch out.  Lose, nothing lost really.  Still have 4 more games to focus on making the playoffs.

Team Bottcher (11) - Looking for the wild card team to hitch your betting horse too?  Perhaps look no further than Bottcher's rink from Edmonton.  The 2012 world junior champion has surpassed many fans expectations, and perhaps even their own, this season with their results on tour.  A semi-final appearance at the National followed the stunner at the Canadian Open when they upset heavily favored McEwen in the quarterfinals.  This team has two semi-final grand slam appearances under their belt already...could they get the trifecta?  Or maybe go one better?

Pool B 

Team Jacobs (2) - Last year's finalists are back and looking to go one step further this week in Toronto.  Having to put the disappointing Brier final loss behind them, this Jacobs team you know has been hitting the gym (#DrinkThePink) and working extra hard to end this season on a high.  Jacobs took some negative press at the Brier and it was weird to sit in the Saddledome and see our recent Olympic Champions be cheered against in the final.  Yes, they were playing an Alberta team so I get it but it felt like more than that.  This is still one of the best teams in Canada and these are still the same great guys all us Canadian curling fans fell in love with during the Sochi Olympic Games.  I think the friendly confines of Toronto will provide a warmer welcome for the Soo boys.  Expect to see them fight hard every game with the same grit, fist pumping, high energy emotion we are used to.

Team Laycock (4) - Ah #TeamOranje!  Considered by some to be surprise bronze medal winners at the Brier (worth nothing #TwineTime totally expected a podium finish for these boys), Laycock and his Saskatchewan boys will be out looking to once again prove the doubters wrong.  No this team isn't flashy (even with a guy named Colton Flash throwing second stones).  No this team does not display a ton of emotion on the ice.  No this team is not going to jump up and down when they make a huge shot.  But yes, they can and will make huge shots that will get the crowd going.  And yes, these boys can compete with any team in the world.  They are currently ranked #4 for a reason.  A runner-up finish at the Canadian Open this year proved a best grand slam result for Laycock, can he go one better and lay claim to his first grand slam?

Team Carruthers (5) - Looking for a new team this season to keep an eye out for over the next few years?  Welcome Winnipeg's Reid Carruthers team.  Reid jumped out of Jeff's shadow this season by returning to the skip position and made a huge impact on tour.  They have competed in three grand slam events this season and have qualified for the playoffs each time.  Is there any reason to not expect another playoff run this week?  Yes, the Brier was a disappointment for the Manitoba team finishing with a 4-7 record but they rebounded quite nicely at the Elite 10, reaching another grand slam quarterfinal.  Can this team finally get over the playoff hump at the grand slam though and make a deep run?

Team Epping (8) - Last event of the season...so of course why not ice a new team?  Epping will welcome their new addition to the team, Mat Camm, at vice this week.  Camm recently competed at the Brier representing Ontario with Team Mark Kean.  In a shocking move, Camm decided to leave Kean and answer the call of Epping to join his team.  Can a new back end have quick success at this stage of the season against this caliber of a field?  Odds would say not likely...

Team Howard (9) - Ok, how weird is it to see Howard and a #9 ranking next to his name?  It seems like we haven't really much from Glenn recently, with his ouster in Ontario playdowns a long history lesson ago.  Of course, Glenn was in Calgary cheering on his son Scott and Team Ontario but it was different seeing him in the stands.  I had the chance to sit very close to Glenn most of the week though and he seemed to be having a great time...minus the stress of cheering on a child at a massive event.  This will be the final event for this line-up of Team Howard.  Glenn will be welcoming his son Scott to his team next year, joining Middaugh and Hart.

Team Stoughton (12) - Can Stoughton replicate the retirement plan of Kevin Martin from a year ago?  Last grand slam event, an announced retirement around the corner, you shock the field and win the entire thing!  Ok, it may be a bit more difficult for Jeff as the 12 seed entering the event but anything can happen.  All eyes will be on Jeff this week as the curling world says it's goodbye to a top-notch, all-class champion.  Or do we?

Projected Standings

Pool A

McEwen:  4 - 1
Edin:  3 - 2
Gushue:  3 - 2
Koe:  3 -2
Bottcher:  2 - 3
Michel:  0 - 5

Pool B

Jacobs:  5 - 0
Laycock:  3 - 2
Carruthers:  2 - 3
Stoughton:  2 - 3
Howard:  2 - 3
Epping:  1 - 4


Playoffs

Quarterfinals:  Edin def. Koe
                        Laycock def. Gushue

Semi-finals:  McEwen def. Laycock
                     Jacobs def. Edin

Players' Championship Final:  Team Mike McEwen def. Team Brad Jacobs - The Brier final many across the country expected to see months ago will become the perfect cap to a terrific curling season.  Team McEwen will once again prove this week why they have been the best team in the world this season and put the finishing touches on an *almost* perfect season by completing the career grand slam.  The red pants will be out in full force!

If you are in the Toronto area, I highly recommend heading down and watching some of the draws live.  There really is no better experience than living it live!  Of course, for those who cannot join in person, Sportsnet will have you covered airing some of the games.  And, for those of you who really want a new experience, check out CurlingGeek and follow along with the action there.  I had the opportunity to geek during the Brier and it was a great time.  It also is an awesome opportunity to chat with fellow fans and follow shot-by-shot action.  Also, take a read at my women's players' championship preview HERE

Enjoy the action on the ice as we say goodbye to the 2014-2015 curling season.

Monday, 6 April 2015

It's a Swing and...a Miss? How About a Home Run?
#TwineTime steps up to the plate with a MLB Season Preview

Welcome to #OpeningDay everyone!  The day of the year where cleat heads from around North America unite on twitter and begin chirping one another on how this will finally be the season the <insert your favorite team here> will break through and win the World Series.  Today is also the day where we officially declare the Cubs are already eliminated from the post-season race...soon to be joined tomorrow by the Astros and the Rockies.  But hey, who knows, maybe this will be THE year for at least one of baseball's reliable losers.

Ok I will admit it...baseball is probably the major sport I know the least about.  Don't get me wrong, I am not a complete nob when it comes to the sport but I think my knowledge of many other sports is stronger.  Plus there are a few things about every MLB season that just annoy me, such as:

  • The season is WAY too long
  • The playoff format sucks given how many teams there are
  • By the All-Star break, most players/teams are already thinking about what to do over the offseason

Now, having said that, I am still involved in 6 fantasy baseball leagues and get into the season every year just like any sport.  I will rally hard around my two favorite teams (I won't say which ones yet but if you know me, you already know who they are) and hold out little hope they will finally meet in the World Series (Could this be the year though? HINT HINT HINT).

Unlike a few of my other sport preview blogs, I won't go into super long rationale behind my predictions...especially given how many teams there are.  It would take forever to do a team-by-team breakdown and I know none of you want my opinion in that much detail.  Let's be honest, you want to just see who I think will win each division, who lands the coveted wild card spots and who I think will matchup in the World Series, right?  Then, deep down, you want to judge and ridicule and tell me how completely wrong I am and how you know way more right?  Ok...let's get right into it then...stepping up to the plate, #TwineTime....

AMERICAN LEAGUE

East

1. Boston Red Sox
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. Baltimore Orioles
4. New York Yankees
5. Tampa Bay Rays

Central

1. Chicago White Sox
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Minnesota Twins

West

1. Seattle Mariners
2. Anaheim Angels
3. Oakland A's
4. Houston Astros
5. Texas Rangers

Wildcard Game:  Toronto over Anaheim

Divisional Round:  Toronto over Seattle - 5 games
                               Chicago over Boston - 4 games

AL Championship Series:  Toronto Blue Jays over Chicago White Sox - 7 games

NATIONAL LEAGUE

East

1. Washington Nationals
2. Miami Marlins
3. New York Mets
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Philadelphia Phillies

Central

1. Pittsburgh Pirates
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Chicago Cubs
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds

West

1. LA Dodgers
2. San Diego Padres
3. SF Giants
4. Colorado Rockies
5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Wildcard Game:  San Diego over St. Louis

Divisional Round:  Washington over San Diego - 4 games
                               Pittsburgh over LA - 5 games

NL Championship Series:  Pittsburgh Pirates over Washington Nationals - 7 games

WORLD SERIES

NL Champion Pittsburgh Pirates over AL Champion Toronto Blue Jays - 6 games 

Ok I will admit, this may be a bit of heart over head pick here but, let's also be a bit realistic, this could happen!  Both of these teams have what it takes to make the playoffs and, as last season proved, just making it to the playoffs opens up opportunity.  Anything can happen once Fall comes around.  I think the Blue Jays are due for a breakout.  So much potential over the past few years just to see disappointment.  This team has the roster and bullpen to really make a move though.  The AL East is wide open and there for the taking.  Yes, I think they will come up short behind the Red Sox for the division title but the wild card round might just be the blessing in disguise (ask last year's World Series teams, SF Giants and KC Royals, how that feels).  The Jays can easily replicate last year's Royals playoff push.  Only to also duplicate last year's World Series result when they run into a hotter NL team!  Behind Andrew McCutchen and Sterling Marte, the Pirates can easily bring a championship back to the Three River City in 2015.  The tough wild card loss last year to eventual champions SF still rings loud in PNC Park.  Fans in Pittsburgh have waited a LONG time for a playoff run and 2015 should be the season for them to reap the rewards of all those years of losing.  Besides, let's be honest, as sports fans we want to see a few unheralded smaller market teams battle it out for World Series glory right?  What better sports franchises than Toronto and Pittsburgh.  Both cities are in need of a championship team to cheer for (Toronto more than anyone).  However, the chants of #BucsNation and Black & Yellow will ring loud in October!

Selfishly, if you haven't guessed yet, these just happen to also be my 2 favorite MLB teams.  So while this would be a dream World Series for me, I honestly do think there is more reality in this prediction than just me sleeping at my computer.  What say you sports nation?