Sunday, May 29, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Final preview

The Stanley Cup Final begins tomorrow night, with the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the San Jose Sharks. It's an unlikely matchup, but a very good one, and the series has the potential to showcase some great hockey featuring some of the league's biggest stars. Here's how it all breaks down.

In this corner: The Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8, +42 true goals differential). The Pens finished second in both the conference and the Metro Division, behind only the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The road so far: They had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, then knocked off those same Capitals in a tough second-round series. On Thursday, they finished off the Lightning in seven to win a series they'd trailed through five games.

The history books: The Penguins are making their fifth appearance in the final and gunning for their fourth Cup. The first two of those came in 1991 and 1992, when Mario Lemieux and a teenaged Jaromir Jagr led a ridiculously stacked team of future Hall of Famers. It's the third appearance in the finals for the Crosby-era team, which made back-to-back trips in 2008 and 2009 against the Red Wings, losing the first and winning the second. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that it would take that team seven years to get back.

Injury report: They're relatively healthy, with the only major piece missing being Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle against the Lightning. Daley doesn't carry the star power of some of the team's bigger names, but he was eating some tough minutes on the blueline, ranking second on the team in average ice time.

One player to watch: Kris Letang. Blueline depth was never the Penguins' strong point; unlike other teams (including San Jose), they don't have the luxury of a No. 2 guy who could be a No. 1 somewhere else. That's left Letang to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he's done it well, looking like a Norris candidate this year. But with Daley out, he may end up playing 30-plus minutes some nights during this series. He's battled injuries over the years, and he's already earned one suspension this postseason with another near miss. With apologies to Crosby and his high-scoring friends, the Penguins could afford to lose any other player more than Letang.

Key number: 0—Number of times Bryan Rust had scored goals in back-to-back games over the course of his NHL career before doing it in Games 6 and 7 to help the Penguins come back to beat the Lightning. That seventh game was also his second two-goal game of the playoffs, something else he'd never done before this spring. Every Cup champion needs a few unexpected guys to overachieve at the right times, and Rust has been doing it for the Penguins.

Dominant narrative: Sidney Crosby's legacy. The hockey world loves to separate its stars into winners and losers; the guys who Rise To The Occasion versus the ones who Just Can't Get It Done. There's no bigger star than Crosby, and over the last few weeks there's been some questions over which group he belongs in. That was especially true after the Penguins fell behind the Lightning with Crosby slumping by his standards, going 11 games without a multi-point night.

A lot of that analysis was, well, not good, and it seems ridiculous to question the winning pedigree of a 28-year-old who's already captained a Cup winner and two Olympic gold medalists. But being ridiculous never stopped this stuff in the past, so expect to hear plenty about whether Crosby is displaying enough winner-heart-grit-compete over the next two weeks. If the Penguins lose, expect more heat on Crosby, regardless of whether he actually deserves it. If they win, he gets Certified Winner status, and becomes impervious to any further criticism. (At least for a few more years.)

The big question: Matt Murray is the guy, right? He took over the starting duties due to Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion, and held it until Game 5 of the Lightning series, when Mike Sullivan went back to his veteran. It was widely viewed as a mistake (although maybe not as dumb as it seemed); Fleury looked rusty, the Penguins lost the game, and Murray was back in net for Game 6. We all assume that's going to be a permanent state of affairs in this series, but Sullivan has planted just enough doubt that you wonder what it would take for him to make another switch.

OGWAC factor: The OGWAC, or "Old Guy Without A Cup," is a cherished playoff tradition. Most teams have at least one older player, maybe even a guy in the last season of his career, who's never won a Stanley Cup. It's impossible not to root for that guy; if his team wins, he's often the first one to have the Cup handed to him, and you can count on lots of postgame photos of him hugging it and crying. Hockey fans eat this stuff up.

So who's the best OGWAC left on the Penguins? Well... there really isn't one. There isn't a single guy on the roster who remotely qualifies as "old" and hasn't already won. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz already have rings. The oldest guy on the team without his name on the Cup is Ben Lovejoy, but he's only 32 (and had a small role on the Penguins' 2009 team). Eric Fehr is only 30. The team's best OGWAC may not even be a player at all; assistant coach Jacques Martin is making his first trip to the final in a 30-year NHL career.

Then again, maybe Phil Kessel should count. He's technically only 28, but playing in Toronto ages a guy 10 years.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Friday, May 27, 2016

Grab Bag: The lonely end of the rink

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I propose an important new rule for playoff guarantees
- Let's spice up the gameday skate goalie guessing game
- An obscure player who made NHL history, and not just by playing for insane coaches
- The three comedy stars of the week, including Gary Bettman's face on someone's butt
- And our YouTube clip sends us to the lonely end of the rink with The Tragically Hip.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Thursday, May 26, 2016

With the San Jose Sharks eliminating the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night and the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins headed to a seventh game Thursday, we’re just hours away from having our Stanley Cup Final matchup set. We’ll be down to the best of the best, going head-to-head with the greatest trophy in sports on the line.

And so today, let’s do what any true hockey fan does when confronted with greatness. Let’s ignore it, and pick on the guys who weren’t quite good enough instead.

We’re going to assemble a full lineup of the biggest disappointments from the 2016 playoffs – four centres, eight wingers, six defencemen, two goalies, and even a coach and GM. And we won’t shy away from including some big names. In fact, the bigger the name the better, since high expectations bring more disappointment when they’re not met.

When you look at it that way, finding someone from your favourite team on this list could be considered a compliment, which you should definitely keep in mind before immediately heading into the comments section to call me an idiot. (You still will.)

So here we go, starting up front. (All stats are from hockey-reference.com and war-on-ice-com.)

CENTRES

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Let's get this out of the way first: No, Alex Ovechkin, the Caps' leading playoff scorer, did not make this team.

True, as Ovechkin's critics love to point out, maybe he didn't elevate his game – by which they presumably mean he should float around three feet over the ice by sheer force of will. But he wasn't a bust, or anything close to it.

Kuznetsov, on the other hand… ouch. After leading the Capitals with 77 points in a breakout regular season, Kuznetsov was limited to just two points in two rounds of the playoffs, which works out to an average of — *tries to do math in head* — not enough.

As with many guys on our list, a lot of that was bad luck – he went from 11.4 per cent on-ice shooting across all situations during the regular season to an almost comically awful 0.9 per cent in the playoffs. That's not a player (and all of his teammates) forgetting how to play, it's random chance striking at the worst possible time. Still, for a team that was desperate to go deep, having their leading scorer go cold at exactly the wrong time stings badly.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Yeah, I know, I don't like this any more than you do.

Heading into what was likely to be his last NHL post-season, Datsyuk had the makings of a feel-good playoff story.

Instead, the 37-year-old was held pointless as the Wings bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five. We're still not sure if he's heading home, although recent reports sure make it sound that way. If this really is the end, it wasn't the one his magnificent career deserves.

Eric Staal, New York Rangers

When the Rangers acquired Staal at the deadline, everyone cautioned that expectations should be reasonable. This wasn't the 2006 version of Staal, after all. New York was getting a guy on the wrong side of 30 who was having a tough season. And the relatively cheap price they paid reflected that – for once, they didn't even give up a first round pick.

But even given all that, they had to be hoping that a change of scenery and chance to play on a potential Cup contender would give Staal some sort of boost. Instead, they got six points in 20 regular season games and none at all in their first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The bar was low; Staal sailed well under it.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Typically, a one-point post-season from one of the league's best offensive players would be enough to earn a spot at the very top of the list. But given the injuries Giroux was battling, we'll bump him down to fourth-line duties. That will keep Flyers fans happy, right?

[Gets pelted with souvenir bracelets.]

Thought so.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet





Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ranking the best conference finals ever

NHL fans are starting to get a little bit spoiled when it comes to the conference finals. This year’s two matchups have featured plenty of star power, several close games, and more than a little drama. And for the third consecutive year, both series are going at least six games.

That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s actually a relatively rare situation in the modern era. Until 2014, it hadn’t happened at all in the salary cap era. And it wasn’t much more common before that. For example, it happened only once during the dynasty-packed 80s, as teams like the Islanders and Oilers (or both) could often be found cruising through a weaker opponent on their way to the final.

So today, let’s look back at some of the best conference finals, dating back to the introduction of the 16-team format in 1980. Remember, we’re looking for the best combination of two series, meaning some all-time classic series (like Leafs/Kings in 1993 and Devils/Rangers in 1994) won’t show up here because the other conference served up a dud.

Here are my picks for the five best years for the NHL’s final four:

#5: 2015

In the East: Lightning over Rangers in seven. The Rangers were the defending conference champs and looked dominant in blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, but the Lightning went into MSG and shut them out in Games 5 and 7 to advance to the final.

And in the West: Blackhawks over Ducks in seven. Through five games, this was one of the best series in recent memory, including six extra periods of overtime hockey. Then the Hawks pulled away with dominant wins in Games 6 and 7, cementing yet another Ducks late-series collapse.

Add it all up: This is one of only two times in the history of the modern format that both conference finals went seven games, so it pretty much has to be on the list. Neither series will be remembered as an all-time classic a decade down the line, but both were very good despite somewhat anti-climactic endings.

#4: 2002

In the East: Hurricanes over Maple Leafs in six. This was the Leafs’ fourth trip to the conference finals in a decade (and, in hindsight, their last for a very long time). The two teams combined for three overtime games, and all but one game in the series was decided by one goal. In the deciding Game 6, the Leafs tied the game on a dramatic goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds, only to lose the series on a Martin Gelinas OT winner.

And in the West: Red Wings over Avalanche in seven. The series was everything you’d expect, featuring three overtime games and a dramatic Game 6 win by the Red Wings that featured the infamous Statue of Liberty goal. That set the stage for a dramatic Game 7, the only one played between the two teams over the course of their storied rivalry. And that game was an epic dud – a 7-0 Wings win that stands as one of the worst Game 7s ever.

Add it all up: Both series provided plenty of drama, and while the Wings/Avalanche Game 7 was a bust, it was certainly memorable.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RIP John Brophy

If you’re a hockey fan, you know John Brophy.

Even if you’re too young to remember him, or you’re too new to the sport, or you’re not especially well-versed on your minor league record books, you still know John Brophy. The longtime coach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 83, left a lasting mark on every hockey fan, even those who may not know him by name.

That’s because, according to show business legend, Brophy was the inspiration for the most famous depiction of pro hockey in pop culture history: Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop from the classic film “Slap Shot.” That movie, with its over-the-top violence and “old-time hockey” ethos, set the template for how the sport would be perceived for generations. Brophy was where it all began.

But it should go without saying that a well-scripted Hollywood creation didn’t quite measure up to the reality. The real John Brophy wasn’t Reg Dunlop. No, the real guy had a far crazier story than any movie script could ever do justice.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet