Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ten more long-lost playoff rivalries fans need back in their lives

It only took three decades, but the hockey gods finally delivered.

For the first since 1991, hockey fans have been treated to a Battle of Alberta. And it goes without saying that it’s been amazing, with a ton of goals, lots of bad blood, and Connor McDavid doing things that would have made 1987-era Wayne Gretzky go “come on dude, go easy on them.” It’s been fantastic, just like we all knew it would be.

It’s also the third time in the last two years that the playoffs have served up a long-awaited rivalry matchup. Last season we finally got the first-ever Battle of Florida, and it was so much fun that we immediately greenlit a sequel for this year, which was probably a mistake. We also got the first meeting between the Habs and Leafs since the 1970s, and I haven’t finished watching that one yet so no spoilers, please.

It all got me thinking about other rivalry matchups that we haven’t seen in a while, or maybe even ever, which seemed like a worthy topic for a ranking. I’ll define “a while” as within the last 10 years, and I’ll rank each matchup based on an objective set of criteria known as “I’m making this up as I go along.”

I’ll try to hit as many teams as I can, but there will be a few repeats in here, and unfortunately, a few teams are going to be left out entirely, especially those that have had lots of playoff action over the last decade and covered off most of their possible matchups. If you’re a fan of one of those teams, please be assured that my heart breaks for you. It must be so difficult to cheer for a team that wins in the playoffs. Couldn’t be me.

If I’d done this list a year ago, the Battle of Alberta would have been an easy No. 1. Since the hockey gods are obviously feeling generous these days, maybe we can inspire them with a few more ideas for next year. Here we go …

10. Blackhawks vs. Canucks

Total matchups: Five.

Last playoff chapter: 2011

The rivalry in one sentence: Two old guys at the bar reminiscing about their glory days, which sounds sad until you realize that their glory days were pretty damn glorious.

I went back and forth on whether to include this one. It kind of came out of nowhere a decade ago, as two teams with little history ended up crossing paths in the playoffs three years in a row and briefly became the best rivalry in the league. Those teams were stacked with talent, pretty evenly matched, and hated each other. No really, those were some nasty series, with the animosity spilling over to the regular season. When hockey fans are debating the merits of hair-pulling, you know you’ve got a rivalry.

The 2011 meeting was a fitting final chapter, with the best Canucks team ever looking to avenge losses in each of the previous two years. Vancouver went up 3-0 in the series, let the Hawks come all the way back to force a Game 7, and then finally slayed the dragon in overtime. Having the winner scored by one of the rivalry’s central villains was a nice touch.

Would a reboot all these years later work? I’m not sure it would, with almost all the key characters long gone and both teams doing quasi-rebuilds. Still, I’m going to include it, if only because it wouldn’t take much for a lot of those bad feelings between the fan bases to come flooding back.

9. Coyotes vs. Jets

Total matchups: None.

Last playoff chapter: Never.

The rivalry in one sentence: Spiderman pointing meme, except it’s two guys in Jets jerseys.

OK, I admit that it’s weird to have a “rivalry” between two teams that have never met in the playoffs, aren’t anywhere near each other geographically, and have barely even had any memorable moments on the ice.

Still … you’d want to see this, right? The new Jets facing the old Jets would feel kind of poignant, at least for Winnipeg fans. You can imagine the home games turning into a battle of the white outs, especially if we wait until the Coyotes are back in a real arena. The Winnipeg fans would win that side of it, obviously, but Arizona fans could fire back by hanging Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk banners in their arena, just to be jerks. This one has potential, is all that I’m saying.

8. Leafs vs. Sabres

Total matchups: One

Last playoff chapter: 1999

The rivalry in one sentence: One playoff matchup in over 50 years, meaning the rest of you don’t realize how insane this would get.

Yes, I double-checked — these teams have somehow only met once in history, back in the 1999 conference final. The Sabres won that one, setting up a meeting with the Stars in the final that … well, you know.

So why have this matchup on the list, when history says it’s barely even a rivalry? Because it would be amazing, that’s why. Regular-season meetings between these two teams are always fun, even when one or both teams are bad. Hell, they served up what might be the only memorable preseason game in NHL history. When Phil Kessel is out here bloodying dudes, it’s a rivalry.

Sabres fans love beating the Leafs, especially when they can send invading Toronto fans off for a sad QEW ride home. Give a young, up-and-coming Sabres team a playoff matchup against a Leafs team that can’t win in the playoffs, and you’d have the perfect recipe for a bandwagon underdog. Trust me, this one is going to happen eventually and when it does, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.

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Friday, May 20, 2022

The right and (mostly) wrong from my oddly specific predictions

One of my favorite things to do each year before the season starts is to make a whole bunch of predictions that are almost definitely going to be wrong.

Most predictions are, of course, especially when they come from sportswriters. We’re bad at this, myself very much included. And I figure that if that’s going to be the case, and I’m probably going to be wrong anyway, I should embrace it and be willing to be really wrong.

I call them my oddly specific predictions, and I make one for each team. Most of them end up being laughably wrong, but even a broken clock finds a nut sometimes. Last season was a good batch, with three predictions that turned out right, including one involving out old friend Jacob Markstrom, who we can always count on when it comes to the prediction game. Or can we? We’ll get to that.

What about this year? As always, you can’t make predictions at the start of the season if you don’t take your medicine at the end. So let’s go through all 32 of my picks from this year’s column, and see how I did.

Tier 1: Not just wrong but extra wrong

You would think that the worst a prediction could be would be just plain wrong, but no. Sometimes a prediction misses so badly that it eats its way through to other side and becomes weirdly impressive.

Winnipeg Jets: I went all-in on the Jets as legitimate Cup contenders, predicting they’d finish fifth overall. They didn’t even finish in the top five of their own division.

Arizona Coyotes: I predicted that since Phil Kessel was obviously getting traded, his new team would win the Stanley Cup. Turns out, the Coyotes didn’t even move him at all.

Calgary Flames: My years of being able to manifest Jacob Markstrom shutouts came to an end, after I predicted he’d get one on December 23 against the Kraken. He didn’t. Also, he didn’t play that night. Also, none of his teammates did either because the game didn’t happen. (It was eventually rescheduled for February 19, when Markstrom stopped 22 of 23 shots in a 3-1 win, so I can’t even claim this one on a technicality.)

Wait, does this mean my Markstrom magic, the one sure thing I’ve been able to count on when it came to predictions over the years, is finally over? Hold that thought for a bit…

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Athletic Hockey Show: The Battle of Alberta lives up to the hype

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- The Battle of Alberta returns, and immediately gets crazy
- The Rangers and Blues almost steal one, but neither team can finish it
- Who should be favored in Tampa/Florida
- Jesse Granger on the Knights finally firing Peter DeBoer
- Scoring is way up in the playoffs so far
- Listener mail on the difference between John Tavares and Claude Giroux, this week in history and more...

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Puck Soup: First round wrapup

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We look at what comes next for all eight teams that lost
- Oh cool, the Leafs are one of those teams, can't wait
- Thoughts on the four second-round series
- Boudreau stays, DeBoer fired, Lambert hired. No, the other one.
- Award finalist thoughts, featuring a weird Masterton rant
- The Coyotes get put on their best behavior, and more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Things not to say to a Leafs fan, who to trade, blaming Tavares and more: DGB Mailbag

It’s the spring, the weather’s getting nice, the lawn needs some work, and the birds are chirping. It must be time for a “the Leafs just lost in the first round” mailbag.

I will say this – compared to last year’s edition, there was far less angst this time around. Many of you are disappointed, or even ticked off, but the doom-and-gloom of last year’s mailbag was nowhere to be found. Everyone who wrote in sounded, dare I say it, reasonable.

I’m not sure if that’s a good sign, or it means we’ve all given up. Either way, let’s get into it.

My question is How can you run the same core out year after year only to watch them fail? Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylandar and Rielly are arguably the most talented core in the league, but they have failed so many times in a row. How can you not look at all of the success that they’ve had in the regular season and see no correlation in the playoffs without changing a couple of them out?

My life would be so much easier if I cheered for Buffalo. – Adam K.

OK, maybe they weren’t all reasonable. Cheer for Buffalo? Dude, back away from the cliff.

But other than that, Adam does a good job of representing the “change it up” side. Maybe not blow it up entirely, but what I described in Monday’s debate column as change for the sake of the change. It’s not an unreasonable take, even if you think the current team is good, because you’d think there can only be so many times that you fail before you have to mix it up somehow.

As I argued in that piece, everything should at least be on the table. We all know that in the cap-era NHL, especially when the cap has been flat for years, it’s hard to pull off major overhauls. We can hot stove a bunch of blockbusters, but we know they probably won’t happen. The most likely scenario is that the core is back, and we all settle in to watch the same movie again. Part seven will have a different ending, right?

Same as it ever was. But with one key difference – compared to the last few years, there was one name that came up way more often in fan frustration, so let’s get to that next…

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