Thursday, April 26, 2018

Second round playoff preview

Well, that was a bit of a letdown. After a first-round that saw just one Game 7, no significant upsets and only a handful of especially competitive series, we're onto round two. If you're keeping track, our round one picks were seven-for-eight, with three of those also nailing the correct number of games. That's not bad, but let's see if we can do better with a look ahead to round two.

Metro Division: #1 Washington Capitals vs. #2 Pittsburgh Penguins

In this corner: The Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18), who survived a scare against the Blue Jackets, dropping the first two before winning four straight.

And in this corner: The Penguins (47-29-6, 100 points, +22), who beat the Flyers to make it nine straight series wins since the start of the 2016 playoffs.

Head-to-head: They split four games.

Injury report: The Penguins had to finish off the Flyers without Evgeni Malkin, and right now he's expected to miss Game 1 with his status for the remainder of the series unknown—obviously, any absence there would be huge. Carl Hagelin is also a question mark. The Capitals should have everyone other than Andre Burakovsky.

Dominant narrative: History. Every Capitals series has the cloud of past playoff failures hanging over it, and by this point the whole "How will it all go wrong?" story has probably been done to death. But with the Penguins waiting for them in round two, the past is unavoidable. The Caps have had home ice in a second-round meeting against the Penguins in each of the last two years, and each time they've lost in heart-breaking fashion. Stretching back further, they've lost seven straight series to the Penguins since 1995, and nine of ten going back to 1991. Four of those losses have come in seventh games, including last year's.

For the Capitals, the Penguins are basically the bully who stuffed you in your locker in grade school, if you'd been stuck in the same grade school for nearly 30 years and the bully kept showing up every few semesters wearing another Stanley Cup ring.

The big question: Who wins the goaltending battle? That's a big question in every series, of course, but it's especially relevant in this one. Heading into the season, you'd have figured that both teams were all set at the position, with Vezina winner Braden Holtby in Washington and two-time Cup winner Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. But Holtby struggled this year and actually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of the Columbus series. And Murray has been inconsistent, looking brilliant one night and shaky the next. Both these guys can steal games, but neither is inspiring much confidence right now.

One player to watch: Alexander Ovechkin. Sticking with our obvious theme, let's turn to Ovechkin. You may know him from such narratives as "never wins the big one" and "always disappears in the clutch." The first one has been kind of true, if we're being honest. But the second one hasn't been—he scored his 51st career playoff goal in the clincher in Columbus, and ranks near the top of the cap era leaderboard despite never playing past the second round.

But it doesn't matter, because nothing he does will matter until the Capitals win. If he lights up the scoreboard and the Caps lose again, he'll be the guy who only puts up numbers when it doesn't matter. If he has a quiet game or two, it will be because he's a choker. It's not fair, but that's sports. The good news is with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins showing up, Ovechkin's got yet another chance to have the sort of climb-on-my-back performance that wins the series and shuts up his critics once and for all. (At least until the next round.)

Key number: 1.10 – Career points-per-game in the postseason for Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel. That ranks second in the cap era among players with at least 30 playoffs games, trailing only Crosby's 1.15. In case you're wondering, Malkin ranks third, and Phil Kessel shows up 14th. The Penguins have a little bit of scoring depth.

Prediction: Capitals in five.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Ovechkin's big breakout finally comes, as he has two hat tricks in the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Could the Golden Knights beat an all-star team from every other expansion draft in NHL history?

The Vegas Golden Knights are the greatest expansion team we’ve ever seen. That point isn’t really up for debate anymore — by earning 109 points during the season and then sweeping their way to the second round of the playoffs, the Knights have already surpassed anything any other newcomer had ever accomplished. Forget the NHL — they’re the best expansion story in pro-sports history.

So today, as the Knights prepare to open their second-round series against the Sharks, let’s see how they stack up against the rest of the NHL’s expansion teams. As in, all of them.

We’re going to put this year’s Golden Knights up against a roster made up of the best picks of all the other NHL expansion teams of the modern era combined. That’s 25 teams, if you’re keeping track, assembled through a dozen different drafts dating back to 1967.

First, a few ground rules. We’ll count the four WHA teams from the convoluted 1979 process as part of our pool, but only the players who were part of the actual expansion draft, not the dispersal or reclamation portions — sorry, Wayne Gretzky and his personal-services contract can’t suit up for our team. We’re also looking at only the first year after the player was picked (since that’s all we have to go on for the Knights), so players like Bernie Parent and Billy Smith that blossomed into stars years later won’t help us. And we’re only counting players who were chosen in the expansion draft, not any first-year draft picks or trade acquisitions.

That last bit gives the Knights a slight advantage, since they had the benefit of adding players like Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore from trades, but we’ll allow it given they’re otherwise outnumbered 25-to-1 here. The Knights may be the most successful expansion team ever, but surely the best of the rest of the league’s history can unite to take them down.

Or can they? Let’s figure it out.


Starter: John Vanbiesbrouck (Panthers)

This one isn’t an especially tough call. Vanbiesbrouck had already won a Vezina in New York, but with only one spot to protect a goalie and a younger Mike Richter on the roster the Rangers couldn’t keep both. He was phenomenal in the Panthers’ first season, finishing as a finalist for both the Hart and Vezina while leading the team to within a point of the playoffs.

Backups: Glenn Hall (Blues) and Guy Hebert (Ducks)

Goaltender is historically the deepest position for expansion teams to choose from, so there’s no surprise that we have plenty of strong choices available. Heck, arguably the greatest goalie of all time was once exposed in the same expansion draft that saw Vanbiesbrouck and Hebert snapped up — but Dominik Hasek went unclaimed, one year before winning his first Vezina.

Still, we could have also gone with names like Terry Sawchuk, Doug Favell or Tomas Vokoun, among others. (But not Darren Puppa — he didn’t join the Lightning until their second season.)

The Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s season rivals Vanbiesbrouck’s as the best ever recorded by an expansion goaltender. But while the rest of the Knight’s goalies filled in admirably early in the year when Fleury was hurt, they don’t match up to Hall and Hebert.

Edge: The all-expansion squad wins on the basis of depth, although it’s closer than it should be.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Five reasons the Maple Leafs are definitely winning tonight (and also five reasons the Bruins definitely are)

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins face off tonight in the only Game 7 showdown of the opening round. It’s been a roller-coaster series, one that started with a pair of blowouts and then transformed into a nail-biter, with a key suspension, a surprise injury and more than a few subplots along the way.

Now it comes down to one game, and you’re looking for a prediction. Well, we’ve got you covered. Here goes: One of these teams will win.

Oh, you were looking for something more specific. But here’s the thing: In the salary cap era NHL, any one game is pretty much a coin flip. A slightly weighted coin, maybe, but still a coin flip. Either one of these teams could win, by a lot or a little, and it wouldn’t come as much of a shock.

But that’s not what fans of either team are looking for, so here’s a compromise. Today, we’ll look at five reasons why Bruins are definitely going to win tonight. And we’ll also offer up five more reasons why the Maple Leafs are an absolute lock. Pick the ones you like best, and then ignore the others. Or even better, wait until the game is over and then come back and only read the ones from the winning team.

Either way, we’re guaranteed to be right. And also wrong. But mostly right.

The Bruins will win because: They’ve been the better team in the series

We’ll start with the simplest factor: Through six games, the Bruins have been the better team.

Not from start to finish, and not necessarily for every game. But overall, it’s fairly clear that the Bruins are outplaying the Maple Leafs. Pick any measure, from goals scored to shots to possession to expected goals, and the Bruins have the edge. It’s not always a big edge, and the Maple Leafs have certainly had their moments. But on balance, the Bruins have been better.

That may not mean much in a seventh game. Hockey isn’t fair, and we’ve seen plenty of series where the best team didn’t win, often in cases where the margin was much bigger than in this one. But if you’re trying to figure out who’s going to win a single game, the easiest question to ask is “Who’s been better so far?”

In this series, the answer is Boston.

The Maple Leafs will win because: They’re getting stronger as they go

The Bruins have been the better team in the series, sure. But that includes the first two games, which Boston dominated. Since then, things have been far more even. Granted, those first two wins count just as much as any others, but the trend in the series is clear – Toronto’s been getting better, while Boston peaked early.

That’s not to say that the scales have tipped in Toronto’s favour, because they haven’t – even in losing the last two, the Bruins controlled play for long stretches, and there hasn’t been a single game in this series where you could say the Leafs were clearly the better team. But they’re headed in the right direction, and the third period of Monday’s Game 6 was probably their best of the series so far.

Momentum is overrated in pro sports, and it would take one early Bruins goal to put the Leafs right back on their heels. But if you’re trying to predict what will happen tonight, a pair of blowouts from almost two weeks ago doesn’t tell you all that much. You want to let some recency bias creep in, and the gap between these two teams has been getting smaller as we go. If the trend continues, tonight might be the night that the pendulum finally swings over to the Leafs’ side.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Podcast: Shipping down to Boston

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
In a new and jam-packed Vice Biscuits podcast:
- Lots of Leafs/Bruins talk
- Is Dave still driving the Capitals' bandwagon?
- We make our picks for the other second-round series
- The Flames hire Bill Peters
- The Wild fire Chuck Fletcher
- A look ahead to the draft lottery
- Plus DOPS, the Sedins, reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

The 2018 draft lottery power rankings

We’re headed towards the second round of the playoffs, where eight teams will continue their quest to play for the Stanley Cup in June. But for almost half the league, the season culminates on Saturday. That’s when we’ll get the annual draft lottery, in which all the league’s non-playoff teams gather to find out which ones will luck their way into top-three picks at this year’s entry draft.

After last year’s Nolan-vs.-Nico debate, we’re back to having a clear-cut first-overall pick. Rasmus Dahlin will be the first defenceman taken with the top pick since Aaron Ekblad in 2014, and he’s already being hyped as the sort of prospect who could turn a struggling franchise around. That’s good news, because there are plenty of struggling franchises to be found. Fifteen teams are entered in this year’s lottery, and all of them will be hoping their logo comes up in the top spot. Well, all of them except one. We’ll get to that.

You can find the full set of weighted odds here. This is the third year under the new system, in which the top three spots are up for grabs and teams can move all the way up if the ping pong balls bounce their way.

The first year of the system saw a predictable outcome, when last-place Toronto kept the top spot. Last year was big for the long shots, with the worst four teams all falling out of the top three. What will this year bring? We don’t know yet, but we’ll take our annual look at the possibilities from a few different angles.

The “Which Team Needs It Most?” Ranking

We’ll start with the obvious category. Every team that missed the playoffs would love to add Dahlin — heck, every team in the league would. But some teams certainly need him more than others.

Not ranked: Florida Panthers: No doubt they’d love to add a talent like Dahlin. But they’re already a good young team built around a No. 1–overall pick on the blueline.

5. Arizona Coyotes: After suffering through yet another miserable year, they head into the last year of Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s deal wondering what the future might look like without him. The answer is probably “not good,” but adding another elite offensive defenceman would help.

4. Vancouver Canucks: Between Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, the future looks reasonably bright up front, and Thatcher Demko appears to be the goalie of the future. But with Olli Juolevi off to a somewhat-underwhelming start, the defence could use a future stud. (Also, can we talk about how weird it is that the Canucks have been around for nearly 50 years and have never really had an elite defenceman?)

3. Buffalo Sabres: Their blue line is terrible, and there isn’t much in the way of elite help coming from their prospect pipeline beyond maybe Brendan Guhle. Plus, their fans are completely miserable and could desperately use some good news.

2. Ottawa Senators: Despite half-hearted denials, the Erik Karlsson situation seems set to drag on into the off-season. Adding an elite Swedish blueliner might help nudge Karlsson towards sticking around. And even if it didn’t, there’s no better way to ease the pain of losing today’s Karlsson than by adding the next version.

1. Edmonton Oilers: Yes, I know, the thought of the Oilers winning yet another lottery is a touchy one, and we’ll get to that. But they’ve been chasing a top blueline presence for years, and adding Dahlin to the Connor McDavid show for the next decade would just about guarantee a Stanley Cup or two. Nobody could screw that up. [Thinks for a minute.] Almost nobody could screw that up.

The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Rankings

The short answer: Nobody, since we’re relying on a system of ping pong balls and random chance that’s designed to reward failure. Here’s the longer answer.

Not ranked: Chicago Blackhawks: Yes, yes, your Stanley Cup mini-dynasty finally missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Hearts are breaking for you all around the league.

5. Ottawa Senators: The team itself probably doesn’t deserve it, given the mess they’ve made of just about everything over the course of the season. But the fan base? Yeah, they could probably use a break these days.

4. New York Islanders: They make the list for pretty much the same reasons as the Senators. But we’ll move them one spot higher, since a lottery win will help ease the pain when John Tavares signs with the Rangers.

3. Arizona Coyotes: They haven’t had much lottery luck, missing out on McDavid and local boy Auston Matthews among others. They were this year’s worst team early on, with a record-setting start that had them out of contention by November, and you could have forgiven them for going in the tank to protect their top odds. Instead, they won their way up a few spots in the standings. It would be nice to see that rewarded.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet