DEITELL'S SCORPIONS EYE SECOND STRAIGHT UPSET, CONSOLATION BRACKET IN FULL SWING
BOSTON, MA--Mid way through the World Hockey League semifinals, the list of Championship hopefuls has been whittled down to the two New England-based Commissioners and the two GM's living in California. Josh Deitell's Stuttgart Scorpions are hanging tight as they seek a second consecutive upset, while Sparta's high powered offense looks to stay hot against the hungry and more balanced Portland Pints. Following their Round 1 victories in the consolation bracket, Mount Vernon and Brooklyn have advanced to play top-seeded West Palm and second-seeded Altoona, respectively, while the six most-improved teams in 2014 have entered the fray after a week 1 Bye.
Early Exit for Saginaw: Led by the hot hands of Gustav Nyquist and staunch goaltending from Jonathan Quick, the Stuttgart Scorpions piled up 62.4 points last weekend en route to a massive quarterfinal upset over the #2 ranked Saginaw Spirit. Josh Deitell's dark horse crew outscored the favored seed in goals and assists and kept it razor close in all other categories. The Spirit, meanwhile, struggled to find its legs despite being a regular season juggernaut. Perhaps most frustrating for Saginaw faithful was a pair of miscalculated goalie starts (or non-starts, rather) from veteran GM Tom Lusty, which led to a combined 17.6 points being left on the bench from stalwarts Roberto Luongo and Tuukka Rask. A truly disappointing and surprising fate for a team that owns half of the season's top ten daily points records.
Commissioners March On: No team's goalies made fewer saves in the quarterfinals than those between the pipes for Sparta Praha. Unfortunately for Beantown fans who were pining for some genuine ball busting, Nate Asdourian was unable to take advantage of the sparsely populated Spartan crease, registering a first round low-100 shots on net through the first week of postseason play. To put that into context, the top 8 playoff teams averaged 143 shots on goal in Round 1.
It didn't quite come down to the home ice advantage bonus, but Portland's quarterfinal series with the Boston Beernuts was incredibly tight. Colin Smith's Pints tied Wolfsburg for most goalie wins in the opening round and was dominant in the faceoff circle--a hallmark of the Pints franchise. Similar to the regular season, Joe Mastrangelo's Nuts were paced by Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Steve Mason, but were ultimately done in by an uncharacteristically porous outing from Viktor Fasth. The Beernuts now turn their attention to locking up core pieces such as Boone Jenner and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Consolation Needed in Moscow:Timely offense from leading scorer Wayne Simmonds and a 14-point shutout from Evgeny Nabokov proved to be too much for injury-depleted CSKA Moscow, as Mike Zecca's Brooklyn Cylones emerged from its first round skirmish with a mere 0.8 point margin of victory. Erik Karlsson remained awesome and Mathieu Perreault stepped up for Nate Fournier's hard luck club, which was without starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec as well as Cam Fowler and Jonathan Huberdeau for the entire first round. In other consolation quarterfinal action, Chet Merola's Mount Vernon Blades came alive on the backs of newly-acquired Rick Nash and Derek Stepan and dispatched the significantly favored New Jersey Wall Flowers. Mario Zecca's Flowers outshot the Blades 124-101, but this one boiled down to goaltenders. 317 saves were made during the WTF-MVB series, second only to 352 saves between California and Wolfsburg.
Vipers Show Bite in Loss: Before our playoffs began, this series had all the makings of a first round slaughter, but the result was anything but. If you discount the home ice advantage bonuses, Mike Greeley's Vipers amassed more points during the quarterfinals (137.7) than any other playoff or consolation team, except, of course, the damn Kwijibos. What's a team to do when their PED-laden opposition racks up a whopping 165 points? No other team has cracked 160 puntos in a week this season, and the truly scary part is that wasn't even California's best outing. During the final week of our regular season, the Kwijibos pumped out a staggering 178 points, which unofficially has to be a league record. Short of Jonathan Bernier being healthy and weaving a few miracles, there really isn't much more that Wolfsburg could have done in this one. Deadline acquisitions Joe Thornton and Dustin Brown performed as advertised, and Vanek was Vanek, but in the end, admirable gave way to indomitable.
Semifinals Underway: There's certainly a lot to love about this west coast affair between top-ranked California and seventh-seeded Stuttgart. Carey Price and Jaro Halak vs. Jon Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury is a marquee goalie matchup at no mistake. On the skater front, Andrew Ladd continues to be the straw in the Kwijibo cocktail, followed closely by two red hot contributors that you might not expect given the bevy of talent on this Cup-favorite roster--Scott Hartnell and Radko Gudas.
For Stuttgart, Gustav Nyquist has been dynamite in the postseason with six goals in Round 1, and two thus far in the Semis. The former UMO Black Bear leads all skaters in fantasy points over the past seven days and, at this pace, will easily perform beyond the pay grade of his new two-year, $25 contract. After California's 181.84-point outburst last week and a seasons worth of good fortune, the sharp sting of karma may be in the cards. Meanwhile, in the Commissioner's brawl, Colin Smith's Portland Pints entered the semifinals with hearts ablaze and lingering memories of their quarterfinals loss to the Spartans in 2012. This matchup of perennial contenders is sure to entertain and figures to be a nail-biter to the bitter end.