Weekend Thoughts, NHL Eastern Conference Preview & Week 6 Picks Post-Mortem

Hello again everybody...

Welcome to another workweek. I hope your weekend was pleasant. I only have a few minor complaints about mine. And I'm sure most of you can guess what one of them was (damn you Ohio State). But in the big picture, it was a good weekend. And since I'm kicking off a 4-day work week, I really shouldn't complain at all.

Today, I'll be offering a few thoughts from over the weekend. Then it's time for the NHL season to get underway, so I've employed the greatest hockey mind I know to bring you a preview. Today we start with the Eastern Conference. And then it's time for my weekly Picks Post-Mortem. Are back-to-back 3-1 weeks possible? Would the planet tremble on it's axis if I exceeded .500 in two consecutive weeks? We'll find out...

"People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history."
- Dan Quayle (1947 - ), forty-fourth Vice President of the United States

Ahem... Pot? Kettle? Moving on...

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First of all, a few thoughts from the weekend...

- My condolences to Brewer fans. You had a nice run. But it wasn't quite enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs. I'm glad the Crew got a win on Saturday, if for no other reason than it allowed a loyal ST reader to attend Sunday's game. It sounds like the atmosphere in Milwaukee was pretty electric. I guess 20+ years of not being in the playoffs will create that.

Well-played Milwaukee. Go get 'em next year.

- My contempt for the Chicago Cubs. Really Cubbies? After all the "100 years of futility" talk during the season. After putting together the best offense and best record in the National League. And that's the best effort you can come up with?! Can I rescind my "Manager of the Year" vote? Okay, maybe not. And I'm not sure it was Lou's fault. Though I do wonder when a team comes out that flat. Personally, I figured the Cubs/Dodgers series to be the least ripe for an upset of any of the 4 series. One more way in which I mis-judged this baseball season!

- If the Dodgers meet the Red Sox (whom I hate) in the World Series, we here at the Sports Take would like to copyright the term "World Series of Suck". Thank you.

- Yes Gopher fans, you're ahead of the Badgers in the Big Ten standings. And yes that pains me. But I fully expect that situation to have righted itself by the time the two teams clash on November 15th. And fortunately, the pollsters have a grasp on reality. The Badgers are still ahead of the Gophers in the polls. It may be small consolation, but I'll take whatever I can get at this point!

Next up, it's time to head back to the hockey rink. The NHL season is set to kick off this week. The Wild open the season Saturday at home against Boston. So that means it's Sports Take Preview time. And while I count myself as a fairly knowledgeable hockey fan, I knew that there was one man who could hands down do a better job of previewing the NHL for you. That's right. It's the return of the Hammer!

Some of you doubted his NFL picks. Some even went so far as to mock his Washington pick. Well the Redskins are now 4-1 with wins over the Cowboys and the Eagles on the road. How do you like him now?

So pay close attention to the Hammer's NHL picks. Better hockey information you will not find!

Without further ado, here is the Hammer's Eastern Conference Preview:

15. New York Islanders- This may be the most dysfunctional team in all of sports. More so than the Lions or Raiders. They are on their seventh coach this decade, their gm is a guy who was the backup goaltender two seasons ago and their franchise player is a goaltender they signed to a 15 year deal despite never winning a playoff series. Honestly this team overachieved the last couple years with Ted Nolan behind the bench. He left after two seasons because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with GM Garth Snow. (If you are scoring at home that is two teams Nolan has now left because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the GM. Not the best way to get another job Ted.) Their big additions this year were adding defenseman Mark Streit from Montreal and forward Doug Weight from Anaheim. I like the Streit signing but I think Weight’s best days are behind him.

14. Atlanta- When you look at this roster it is hard to believe that they won the Southeast Division two seasons ago. They have a great scorer in Ilya Kovalchuk, a solid goaltender in Kari Lehtonen and nothing else. I like the trade last year of Marian Hossa to replenish a young core that was stripped bare to make the post-season two years ago and signing Ron Hainsey is their latest effort to fill the skates of Brayden Coburn who was traded to Philadelphia. That being said, I think this team has a ways to go before they are competing for a playoff spot.

13. Toronto- The New York Islanders are the only thing keeping this team from being the laughingstock of the NHL. Last season they fired John Ferguson as GM and brought in Cliff Fletcher to clear all the dead weight in the locker room. The only problem was Ferguson signed most of the players to no-trade clauses and was unable to move anyone at the trade deadline including Mats Sundin who a lot of teams wanted for the playoff push. This summer Fletcher was able to clear up some roster space saying goodbye to veterans Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood and Bryan McCabe. He also hired Ron Wilson to coach the Leafs. Wilson has a history of overachieving with teams where little are expected of them and underachieving when expectations are high. Fortunately there are no high expectations this season.

12. Florida- When you look at this team on paper and you see Tomas Vokoun in goal, Bryan McCabe, Jay Bouwmeester, Nick Boynton, & Keith Ballard on the blue line you think this is a pretty good defensive team. You then look at the forwards and ask yourself who is going to score goals for this team. To get Boynton & Ballard the Panthers traded captain Olli Jokinen to Phoenix. That relives the team of one headache but with Bouwmeester approaching free agency another one is on the horizon. If they decide to trade him and get a goal score this team might contend for a playoff spot.

11. Carolina- It is hard to believe that two years ago the Carolina Hurricanes were the Stanley Cup champions mostly because they missed the post-season the last two years. It makes you wonder if it was a fluke or not. The big deal the Canes made this off-season was sending forward Erik Cole to Edmonton for defenseman Joni Pitkanen who Philadelphia & Edmonton ran out of patience waiting to develop. He’ll help replace Glen Wesley who retired. What will hurt this team is the injury to Justin Williams who tore his right Achilles tendon and is out four to six months. It will be interesting to see how Carolina replaces him.

10. Ottawa- This is a team that was in a free fall going into the post-season last year. They were able to make the playoffs but didn’t last long after Pittsburgh swept them in four games. They lost goaltender Ray Emery and defenseman Wade Redden this off-season which might be addition by subtraction in the locker room. They also traded Andrej Meszaros to Tampa Bay for defenseman Filip Kuba (remember him Wild fans.) And the goaltending duties are being shared by Martin Gerber & Alex Auld, neither of which sends chills down my spine. I think this is the year the Senators miss the post-season.

9. Buffalo- No team was in better shape after the lockout the Sabres. They had one of the deepest teams and won the President’s Trophy in 2007. Unfortunately they were unable to re-sign Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and they ended up missing the post-season. This year they were able to resign Goalie Ryan Miller and were able to replenish some depth adding Craig Rivet from San Jose to the blue line. Still something is missing from this team and Miller will have to play at a Dominik Hasek type level for the Sabres to claim a post-season spot.

8. Tampa Bay- With the talent this team has I have no idea how they finished dead last in the league last year. It doesn’t matter that won’t happen this year. New ownership has come in and changed everything about this team. They signed Vincent Lecavalier to an 11 year deal making sure he is the face of this franchise. They signed forwards Gary Roberts, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Malone, Mark Recchi, and Radim Vrbata. They added Andrej Meszaros from Ottawa and Matt Carle from San Jose to help out along the blue line. And mike Smith should give them the goaltender they have been looking for since Nikolai Khabibulin left as a free agent three years ago.

7. Boston- This is quietly one of the top young teams in the NHL. They have a good core of players starting with Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic and they have a Norris Trophy candidate in Zdeno Chara to anchor the blue line. What we will have to keep an eye on is if Manny Fernandez can come back from his knee injury to retake the goaltender job away from Tim Thomas and if Patrice Bergeron has recovered from a head injury he suffered against Philadelphia.

6. New Jersey- Every year people want to count this team out and every year they keep finding a way back into the post-season. I’ll say it right now, As long as Martin Brodeur is the Goalie the Devils will be in the playoffs. This season they brought back forwards Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. I like these additions. I’d like it even more if it was 1998 instead of 2008. That being said when you add those two players to a group of forwards that include Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden and Brian Gionta you have a pretty good core there. Paul Martin will continue to anchor the blue line for New Jersey.

5. Philadelphia- Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about the Flyers. (If you don’t know me I hate the Flyers.) That being said this team rebounded from being the worst team in the league in 2007 to being one of the final four teams in 2008. I think they overachieved. They have a good core of forwards starting with Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, & Jeff Carter. They got a steal when they acquired Kimmo Timonen from Nashville and Brayden Coburn from Atlanta two seasons ago but I don’t trust their goaltending. Martin Biron had a good post-season. So did Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Robert Esche. None of those players were able to step up and become a Stanley Cup caliber goaltender. I’d like to see Biron do it in back-to-back seasons before we declare the Flyers goalie situation solved.

4. New York Rangers- Despite my praise for Martin Brodeur I think the Rangers may have the best goaltender in the East in Henrik Lundqvist. They may have lost Jaromir Jagr to the Russian League but I think Markus Naslund will do fine replacing him. Chris Drury and Scott Gomez have another year together which will help. I also expect Brendan Shanahan to come back before the end of the month.

3. Washington- This may have been the best story in the NHL last year. They fired their coach around Thanksgiving last year and kept chopping away before turning it on in the final month of the season and winning the Southeast Division on the final day of the year. They have arguably the most exciting player in the league in Alex Ovechkin. They brought in former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore to play in goal for the Capitals last year. If he can play like he did against Minnesota in the 1st round the Capitals will win the division this season.

2. Pittsburgh- I wanted to put this team number one. I think they have the best one-two punch in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I like the depth they have at forward. I think they have a great goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Then I found out the anchor on the blue line, Sergei Gonchar is out for four to six months after shoulder surgery. This is still a great team but It will be interesting to see if Brooks Orpik, Daryl Sydor, or Hal Gill can pick up the slack in his absence.

1. Montreal- This team is loaded with talent. Saku Koivu leads a good group of forwards that added Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang in the off-season. Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek anchor a blue line that is as good as any in the Eastern Conference. Carey Price will have a full season in goal and will only get better as the year goes on. After losing in the 2nd round of the playoffs last season they will have a chip on their shoulder and will have something to prove.

That ladies and gents, is the wisdom of the Hammer. His Western Conference Preview will head your way on Wednesday. Oh, and to put it in context, loyal readers will by now have a firm grasp on my hatred for the Red Sox. But that hatred is but a candle next to the raging inferno of hate the Hammer harbors for the Flyers. Seriously. I changed the spelling of the "Flier Pick of the Week" for that very reason.

Speaking of which, let's get to my Week 6 Picks Post-Mortem!

Illinois +2.5 @ Michigan: Final Score - Illinois 45, Michigan 20.

I wrote on Thursday that I thought the folks who set this line must've been smoking something. I'm not sure if I was right about that or not, but clearly they were way off.

Michigan started strong in this game and had me worried for a bit. But Juice Williams got the Illinois defense rolling eventually and steamrolled the Wolverines in the second half.

What Dan Learned: Michigan's going to be one of those teams that teases you with what they might be capable of, but then turns around and gets smoked by more established teams.

The other lesson is when you see a line that out of whack, bet it. Even if it is on a road underdog!

1-0 and feeling good!

Arizona State +9.5 @ California: Final Score - Cal 24, ASU 14

Ugh. That lousy half-point. It'll break your heart sometimes.

Leading up to the picks this week, ST reader Scott in Eau Claire pointed out this game asking, "Is ASU really this bad?" Apparently they are.

What Dan Learned: We're avoiding the Sun Devils for the rest of this year. They're just too schizophrenic. One week their offense looks fantastic and you start putting QB Rudy Carpenter on your mental Heisman Watch List. The next week they get handled by a Cal squad who got beat by a Maryland team which just got humbled by Virginia - possibly the worst major conference team in the country.

Follow that? Yeah, I barely did too. Bottom line - we're not betting on ASU to cover any more!

1-1 and not as cocky.

Ball State -7.5 @ Toledo: Final Score - Ball State 31, Toledo 0.

And the Cardinals keep on rolling. This game wasn't available on TV, so I can't tell you much more than Ball State started slow (it was 3-0 BSU at half), but eventually wore down the Toledo defense and ran away with it in the second half.

Ball State is dangerously close to becoming a staple in the ST picks. Of course I thought that about East Carolina too and look what happened to them!

What Dan Learned: When you see a team scoring points like crazy, and they're not a double-digit favorite over a team that's surrendered 90 points over it's last two games? You bet the college fund. Think about it. Is it really that much worse then betting on the stock market right now?! Thanks for that 401k advice Mom! It's working out splendidly.

2-1 and waiting on pins and needles for...

USC -16 vs Oregon: Final Score - USC 44, Oregon 10
*ST Flier Pick of the Week

Believe it or not, I'd actually given up on this game early on. In fact, I'd been second-guessing this pick since I made it on Thursday. I felt slightly better when I heard Lee Corso say, "No way USC's 16 points better than Oregon."

(Aside: I think if you bet exactly the opposite of Lee Corso's picks, you could retire after a season or two. The guy's awfully entertaining, but not much of a prognosticator.)

But I was still worried. Especially when Oregon went up 10-3 early. But 41 USC points later, it turned out I was dead right. USC needed a strong win, and they got it.

What Dan Learned: Stop second-guessing! The two picks I've felt worst about after making them have both come through resoundingly. This is all about pride anyway, so if I'm going to be wrong, I might as well be bold about it!

So yes ladies and gentlemen, that's another 3-1 week. That makes me 15-9 (.625) for the season. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. And I do! The pressure's on to keep it going. We'll see what kind of magic I can conjure up on Thursday!

That's all for today. I'll be back on Wednesday with the Hammer's Western Conference Preview. Until then, thanks for reading!

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