Monday, May 25, 2015

When goalies lose their minds, and more conference finals thoughts

We’re almost there. One conference final is into elimination territory, and the other will be after tonight. We’re just days away from having our Stanley Cup final matchup, at which point the NHL scheduling department will probably give us two weeks off to think about it.

Here are 10 thoughts on a weekend’s worth of conference finals action.

1. Ben Bishop makes his move. Like most playoff series, this Rangers-Lightning battle has largely been about the goalies. After a defensive battle in Game 1 resulted in a 2-1 Rangers win, the Lightning poured it on with a dozen goals over the next two games. That led to speculation over what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. Was he tired? Hurt? Had the Lightning, who’d also lit him up during the regular season, somehow figured something out that the rest of the league had missed?

Apparently not, since he looked fine Friday, as the Rangers stormed to an easy 5-1 win. That meant it was Bishop’s turn under the microscope, with Jon Cooper even being asked whether he’d considered switching goalies for last night’s Game 5 in New York. That led to a weird discussion over whether the word “asinine” could appear in a newspaper (don’t ask), and an assurance that Bishop would be back in the net. And indeed he was, although that briefly seemed in doubt when he took a puck in the groin during warm-ups.

One shutout win later, we can safely say that was the right call. Bishop didn’t make any especially spectacular saves last night, but he didn’t need to. This was a night when a solid performance was all it would take to grab the series lead, and Bishop delivered at least that. He even kind of sort of seemed to take a shot at the empty net when the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with three minutes left; his weak shot was the only thing he screwed up all night.

Bishop is now 6-1 after losses in this year’s playoffs, which is a bad sign for the Rangers if they can win tomorrow in Tampa Bay and extend the series to a Game 7. Of course, Lunqvist is 12-3 when facing elimination since 2012, so go ahead and pick the stat you want to believe in.

Either way, it’s safe to say there won’t be any question about Bishop’s status heading into Game 6. (Barring another shot to the pills, of course.)

2. They can’t all be winners. Last week, we talked about how the Rangers’ tendency to play low-scoring games didn’t necessarily translate into a boring style. In that spirit, let’s just chalk up last night as the exception that proves the rule. It wasn’t a dull game, but it certainly wasn’t exciting, as the Lightning played the sort of smothering road game that coaches love and fans have learned to tolerate.

The teams combined for just 48 shots, with the Lightning blocking more (26) than they got on the Rangers’ net (22). At one point, that included almost an entire half-period without a single save. Every NHL playoff series includes a few memorable games and a few that will be largely forgotten. Let’s chalk this one up as a stage-setter for whatever comes next and move on.

3. Steven Stamkos stays hot. Remember when the main Lightning story line was that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov were producing enough offense to mask a disappointing postseason from Stamkos? You probably do, since it was a week ago. Well, the Lightning captain has now scored in four straight games, including last night’s power-play tap-in off a brilliant tic-tac-toe passing play.

Needless to say, that’s yet another thing to worry about for the Rangers, and it could soon be something to worry about for whoever comes out of the West. The Lightning were the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, and that doesn’t tend to translate to Stanley Cups. When they were largely a one-line team, the Lightning still managed to look dynamic offensively. If the big line stays hot while Stamkos and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula (who also scored last night) also get rolling, look out.

Now, about that third line …

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Friday, May 22, 2015

Mike Babcock's job interview: The top secret transcript


The face Mike Babcock will make when he bolts up
in bed, every night, for the next eight years.

Scene: A meeting room in a high-end office building, sometime in the past few days. Several men are gathered around a large mahogany table. Mike Babcock sits at the head of that table, and gathers his thoughts before beginning to speak.

Babcock: OK everyone, let’s get started. I want to thank you all for coming. I know this is kind of unusual, but I’ve got all this interest in my services and not much time to make a decision, so it seemed like the easiest way to do this was to just get everyone in one room at the same time.

(Murmurs of approval.)

Babcock: Great. Let’s do a quick roll call. From the Detroit Red Wings, Ken Holland.

Holland: Here.

Babcock: From the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan.

Shanahan: Here.

Babcock: Representing the Buffalo Sabres, Tim Murray.

Murray: Right here.

Babcock: Doug Wilson from the Sharks? Doug Armstrong from the Blues?

Wilson and Armstrong: Both here.

Babcock: And finally, from the Oilers… um… huh. Craig MacTavish.

MacTavish: I’m here!

(Everyone turns to stare at MacTavish.)

MacTavish: What?

Babcock: Um… didn’t I hear that you’re not the GM in Edmonton anymore?

MacTavish: Oh, that. Yeah, Peter Chiarelli is in charge now, but I still work there. And he obviously trusts me, because he gave me this super-important assignment.

Babcock: He did.

MacTavish: Yep! “You take the Babcock file, Craig!” he said. “Head out on the road and take as long as you need!” he said.

Babcock: I see.

MacTavish: That was two weeks ago.

Babcock: Are you aware that the Oilers already hired Todd McLellan?

(Awkward pause.)

MacTavish: I was not aware of that.

Babcock: You can go now.

MacTavish: I’ll just see myself out.

(MacTavish leaves.)

Babcock: OK, so where were we? First of all, I want to be really clear with everyone about where I’m coming from. I have three main priorities in all of this. The first is salary. I have a family to provide for and I’m proud of the work I do, and I want to be compensated for it.

(Everyone nods.)

Babcock: Second, I’d prefer to have at least some degree of control over player personnel decisions.

(Everyone nods again.)

Babcock: And finally, I need a realistic chance to win, either now or in the future.

Murray: See you, Brendan.

Wilson: Yeah, thanks for coming out.

Armstrong: Better luck next decade.

Shanahan (calmly): Actually, I don’t think winning is all that important to you.

Babcock: What? Have you never met me? It’s basically my single biggest…

Shanahan (staring intently into Babcock’s eyes): I don’t think winning is very important to you.

Babcock (trancelike): Winning is not very important to me.

Murray: Holy crap. Where’d you learn that trick?

Shanahan: Just a little something Yzerman taught to me.

Wilson: Mind control? That’s ridiculous.

Shanahan (staring intently): Actually it’s pretty cool

Wilson: Actually it’s pretty cool.

Shanahan: (smirks evilly)




Ranking the OGWACs

As we inch our way through the NHL playoffs and draw closer to the appearance of the Stanley Cup, we’ve reached the point when we can get started on one of hockey’s most cherished springtime traditions: It’s time to start hunting OGWACs.

That stands for “Old Guy Without a Cup,” the beloved specimen of hockey player who finally finds himself on the verge of his first championship after a long career. Fans love OGWACs. Their teammates love them, too; they’re often the first guy to get their hands on the Cup when it’s passed around. The greatest OGWAC story ever told is that of Ray Bourque back in 2001, when he finally lifted the Cup in his very last NHL game after 22 Hall of Fame seasons. Other memorable OGWACs include Teemu Selanne in 2007 and Lanny McDonald in 1989; just about every team that wins a Cup has one or two.

But which of this year’s OGWACs should fans be rooting for? Let’s take a look at all the players still left in the playoffs who are (a) over 30 years old, (b) in at least their 10th NHL season, (c) playing a regular role for their team, and (d) lacking a Cup ring. By my count, that gives us 12 guys to consider. And while any of them would make for a good story, some would be better than others.

Antoine Vermette, Blackhawks

Experience: At 32, he’s finishing up his 11th NHL season.

Near miss: He was a kid on the 2007 Senators team that made it to the final. He was also part of the 2012 Coyotes team that made a surprise run to a conference final.

Sympathy factor: If you’re a Hawks fan? Not high. Vermette was the team’s big trade-deadline acquisition, and he’s been a bust so far.

OGWAC rating: 1/10. Wait, how is it that Antoine Vermette is 32 years old but still looks exactly the same as he did in his rookie year?

Tomas Fleischmann, Ducks

Experience: The 10-year veteran turned 31 on Saturday. Happy birthday, Tomas!

Near miss: Fleischmann was a member of those Washington Capital teams that suffered playoff collapses in 2009 and 2010, then was shipped out as part of the misguided shakeup that followed.

Sympathy factor: He suffered a blood clot in 2009 that threatened to derail his career, but recovered.

OGWAC rating: 2/10. Fleischmann is a likable enough player. But he’s been a Duck only since the trade deadline, so even if Anaheim wins he’s going to have to wait at the back of the line for his Cup handoff.

Matt Carle, Lightning

Experience: He’s 30 and finishing off his 10th NHL season.

Near miss: He was part of the 2010 Flyers team that made a surprise run to the final, then lost on an overtime goal by a former no. 1 overall pick that they would have drafted if they hadn’t lost the lottery three years earlier. I feel like we don’t make a big enough deal out of that one when we’re talking about brutal losses in recent sports history.

Sympathy factor: He wants to win a Stanley Cup, but he’s spent most of his career with the Sharks and Flyers.

OGWAC rating: 3/10. Should we be at all concerned that the Lightning apparently looked at their leaky blue line and thought, You know what would fix this? Ex-Flyers!

Braydon Coburn, Lightning

Experience: He’s 30 and in his 10th season.

Near miss: He was a teammate of Carle’s on that 2010 Flyers team.

Sympathy factor: Ideally, you’d like an OGWAC to have overcome some sort of personal adversity at some point in their career. In Coburn’s case, he was drafted by the Thrashers.

OGWAC rating: 2/10. He’s only 30. Give him a few more years and he’d be a decent pick.

Kevin Klein, Rangers

Experience: He’s 30 years old and in his 10th NHL season.

Near miss: Like many of this year’s Rangers, his closest call came last season when New York made it to the final before losing to the Kings in five. He also had a couple of trips past the first round with the Predators.

Sympathy factor: He had to recover from a broken arm to make it back into the Rangers’ lineup last round. There’s also this, via Wikipedia: “On December 9, 2014, Klein lost part of his left ear on a high stick in the first period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had it stitched back on, came back to play, then scored the game-winning goal in overtime.”

OGWAC rating: 4/10. How can you root against a guy who’s basically the NHL’s Mick Foley?

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Leafs land Mike Babcock

After a yearlong circus in which naive Toronto Maple Leafs executives and their delusional fans had convinced themselves that Mike Babcock would ever actually want to go anywhere near that punch line of an organization, we finally found out yesterday where the well-respected former Red Wings coach was really going. And the winner is … Toronto?

Wait, that can’t be right.

But it is, thanks to a mammoth eight-year, $50 million, front-loaded deal that Babcock agreed to after weeks of intrigue and visits with suitors around the league. After 10 years in Detroit that included one Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals, Babcock has been the league’s hottest free agent for the better part of the last year. Speculation about whether he’d leave Detroit has been buzzing since last summer and went into overdrive when the Red Wings were knocked out of the playoffs, with the “Babwatch” getting hyped to almost mythical levels.

And now we’re left with a world where the Toronto Maple Leafs did a good thing. Well, not necessarily good — we’ll get to that in a minute — but they accomplished what they set out to do. They didn’t fail, epically and embarrassingly, as the entire hockey world pointed and laughed. In Toronto, that counts as progress.

So now that we know the details, let’s try to sort out what this means in Toronto and beyond.

The Toronto Maple Leafs

There’s been little doubt that the Maple Leafs wanted Babcock, or at least somebody with the same sort of résumé and name value. That was the case when they were considering their coaching options this time last year. When they couldn’t find someone who fit that profile, they extended Randy Carlyle and then fired him after just half a season, leading to plenty of speculation that they’d be all in once Babcock hit the open market.

But that was a year ago, when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan & Co. were holding out hope that the Leafs just needed a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint to contend. Since then, Shanahan — the “& Co.” have all since been fired has realized that Toronto is facing a far bigger overhaul. That made it hard to picture Babcock wanting any part of spending a few years hitting rock bottom on a team just starting its rebuild, especially with far easier road maps available elsewhere.

Babcock may still be a good fit in Toronto; after a decade in Detroit, he’s clearly not one of those short-shelf-life coaches who wears out his welcome after three or four seasons. And the eight years on his new contract should certainly be enough time for even the hapless Leafs to get things turned around. At the very least, landing him gives the Leafs a boost of something they haven’t had for years: credibility.

And that’s why maybe the biggest winner here is Shanahan. He called his shot on this one, not so much with his words but with his actions over the past year. Talking a big game is nothing new in Toronto, but actually delivering sure is. Shanahan has already faced criticism of his approach to hiring — the team currently has no GM and just parted ways with its AHL coach. With the Leafs seeming to fall out of the Babcock picture in recent days, the narrative of a disorganized organization being led by a rookie, overmatched executive was getting ready to grind into full gear.

Instead, the Leafs actually got it done. Whatever you think of the fit for Babcock in Toronto, it has to be encouraging for Leafs fans to know that Shanahan was able to sell a smart guy like Babcock on his vision for the future. (Although the wheelbarrow full of cash probably didn’t hurt either.)

The Detroit Red Wings

Losing Babcock will hurt for the Red Wings and their fans. The franchise did just about everything right here, essentially putting that whole “If you love something, set it free” idea into real-world practice. The Wings made it clear that they wanted Babcock back, while allowing (and even encouraging) him to explore other opportunities. They never pressured him. And they kept everything cordial, with Babcock and Detroit GM Ken Holland even sitting down together for a fascinating interview with TSN last week.

And over the weekend, it looked like it was going to work. After months of speculation about which new team Babcock would jump to, a consensus emerged that he was going to stay in Detroit after all. He’d looked around, he’d heard from all the suitors, and he’d decided the grass really wasn’t greener after all. It was actually shaping up to be a nice little reunion story.

And then he jumped ship. You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame the Wings for not wanting to get into a bidding war with billionaires. But you have to feel for Detroit fans who spent all year preparing for Babcock to leave, only to be (incorrectly) told he was probably staying at the last minute.

The good news for the Red Wings is that they’ve got Babcock’s replacement lined up …

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The NHL playoffs all-bust team

We’ve crossed the halfway point in this year’s playoffs, which means we’re down to four teams left battling it out for the Stanley Cup. Making it this far is an enormous accomplishment, and we should take some time to celebrate the excellence of the players who are making it happen.

We should, but we won’t, because it’s way more fun to point fingers at the guys who didn’t get it done. So today, let’s assemble a dream team of playoff busts from the first two rounds.

One obvious disclaimer here: “disappointment” is relative. A first-liner who suffers through an awful series may still be more productive than a fourth-liner who meets expectations, but the star still gets the dreaded bust label. Fair? Maybe not, but that’s why these guys get paid the big bucks.

These lists are always tricky, since you’re dealing with a small handful of games and the boxcar stats can be misleading; I fully expect to wake up tomorrow to find the words “small sample size” spray-painted on my garage door. But I’m willing to take that chance, mainly because I just want to write a post about disappointing hockey players that doesn’t include any Leafs.

We’ll pick a full roster of centers, wingers, defensemen, and goalies. Spoiler alert: This is going to end up being a pretty impressive group that would win an awful lot of games under normal circumstances (if you could squeeze them under the salary cap). But if you had many of them in your playoff pool, you’re already out.

Center

Evgeni Malkin, Penguins — Let’s start with an easy one. The Penguins bowed out to the Rangers in five, but all were one-goal games. An extra goal or two could have turned the series around, which is why it was so frustrating to watch a superstar talent like Malkin struggle through a point-less series. That slump extended beyond the playoffs — he had no goals and just three points in his final 10 regular-season games — and it’s contributed to calls for the Penguins to trade him. (So far, it sounds like the team will stay the course.)

Paul Stastny, Blues — Stastny was the league’s biggest UFA signing last summer, at least in terms of average annual salary, and while his 46-point season was well under his career best, his solid two-way play still made him a key component of the Blues’ hopes. But his playoff numbers — just one goal and no assists in six games — were even worse. He didn’t play badly (his lined outscored and outchanced their opponents), and he certainly wasn’t alone, as pretty much every Blues forward not named Tarasenko could make an appearance on this list. But after yet another disappointingly short playoff run in St. Louis, it’s hard to argue that the Blues got what they paid for.

Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens — That Plekanec is, in theory, the Canadiens’ no. 1 center probably says more about the way the roster has been built than it does about the player. But that’s where he’s slotted in, and one goal and four points in 12 games doesn’t really cut it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Monday, May 18, 2015

10 Conference Finals Thoughts

The NHL conference finals kicked off over the weekend with a pair of afternoon games. Both home teams came out with wins, with the Rangers edging the Lightning 2-1 on Saturday and the Ducks beating the Blackhawks 4-1 yesterday.

Here are 10 thoughts on what you missed while you were outside in the sunshine doing something other than watching hockey:

1. It’s time to start talking about Frederik Andersen. Ducks fans will no doubt argue that we’re a few weeks late on this, but you could be forgiven for not quite trusting Andersen heading into the playoffs. He didn’t play well in last year’s postseason, and his numbers this season were decent but not especially impressive. With John Gibson waiting in the wings, there was a decent chance that Andersen would eventually cough up the starter’s job altogether.

Ten games later, Andersen is looking rock solid. Yesterday he made 32 saves, including an early beauty on Patrick Kane that helped the Ducks weather a shaky first period. He’s not standing on his head and stealing games — he doesn’t need to, for reasons we’ll get to in the next section. But with the Ducks firing on all cylinders, they could probably get by with goaltending that was merely adequate. Andersen has been far better than that, and he’s a big reason why the Ducks are now 9-1 since the playoffs began.

2. The Ducks keep finding the net. They beat Corey Crawford three times on just 26 shots, and are now shooting 9.8 percent as a team at even strength in the playoffs. That’s a full 2 percent better than the St. Louis Blues, who rank second, and it’s well above the 9.03 percent with which the Lightning led the league during the regular season (when scoring rates were higher).

This is the place in any discussion of percentages where the word “unsustainable” makes its inevitable appearance, and that’s appropriate here even though the Ducks are certainly talented enough up front that you’d expect above-average shooting. Does that mean they can sustain 9.5 percent? Not over a full season, no, but right now they’re just seven wins away from a Cup, so regression to the mean better hurry up if it intends to put in an appearance for anything beyond a parade.

Another good sign: On Sunday, it wasn’t even the big names who were scoring, with Ryan Getzlaf limited to one assist and Corey Perry held pointless for just the third time in the playoffs. Secondary scoring is crucial at this time of year, and the Ducks are getting it.

3. The Blackhawks really miss Michal Rozsival. The veteran defenseman, who suffered a fractured ankle in the Hawks’ series-clinching win over the Wild nearly two weeks ago, isn’t exactly the first player you’d think of as an irreplaceable piece of Chicago’s roster. But his absence was felt yesterday, as an already thin Hawks blueline now seems stretched dangerously close to the breaking point.

Rozsival’s absence leaves Chicago with two defense pairings that it seems to trust. Veteran Kimmo Timonen barely played, clocking in at just over five minutes. And David Rundblad saw a little over 10 while managing to play a key role in each of the first two Ducks goals. It was a rough night for the 24-year-old, and the Blackhawks will need him to find his game quickly. Their top four defensemen are a very solid group, but it’s asking a lot to expect them to shoulder such a heavy load for up to 13 more games.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Friday, May 15, 2015

Grab bag: Bulletin board material

In the grab bag:
- Enough with "bulletin board material"
- The NHL's playoff scheduling is awful
- Hawks vs Ducks means it's time to celebrate the Grim Reaper
- The second round's comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Lightning's impressive debut.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Thursday, May 14, 2015

Conference Finals preview

Twelve down, four to go. We’re on to the NHL’s conference finals, and if you’re at all confident that you know who’s going to the Stanley Cup finals, then you’re a much smarter fan than I am.

Luckily, the NHL has wisely given us the next two days to think about it, because honestly, who’d actually be in the mood for more hockey now? Instead, let’s all take a few days off to mull over the matchups, comb through the story lines, and come up with some predictions.

Will they be good predictions? No. That would take two months, minimum. But we’ll do the best with what we have. On to Round 3 …

Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Series starts: Sunday afternoon in Anaheim.

Season series: The Blackhawks took two out of the three games; the Ducks never managed to score more than one goal in any of them.

Playoff history: They’ve never met before in the playoffs. But they did meet once in a movie, according to this image that’s shown up 400 times in your twitter feed this week.

Dominant narrative: Two teams that have both looked just about completely unbeatable face each other in a battle of the powerhouses.

In this corner: Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points, plus-34 goal differential)

How they got here: After a hard-fought win over the Predators in the opening round, the Hawks cruised to a surprisingly easy four-game sweep over a Wild team that we’d been led to believe was pretty good.

Conn Smythe candidate: Patrick Kane. Why is Kane so good in the playoffs? Old-school hockey wisdom tells us he shouldn’t be. After all, he’s a speed and skill guy, and while he’s not exactly soft, he’s never been confused for a power forward. Guys like that are supposed to fade in the playoffs, when every square foot of ice turns into a war zone. And yet Kane seems to get even better during the postseason, especially in close games. What’s the secret? Is it the mullet? It’s probably the mullet.

Wakey-wakey: Marian Hossa. Counting back to last year, it’s now been 23 games since Hossa scored on a goaltender in the playoffs. He’s still productive — of his seven assists this spring, six have been the primary — and he’s so good defensively that the Blackhawks don’t necessarily need him to score goals. But he usually does, and when the puck finally does start going in for him, a stacked Chicago roster gets even scarier.

The big question: Which Corey Crawford shows up? In the first round, Crawford struggled and lost his job to backup Scott Darling, who eventually struggled and handed it back. In the second round, Crawford was excellent. Maybe you look at him as a guy who needed a wake-up call in Round 1 and is now locked in and ready to win another Cup, but I’m still a little nervous if I’m a Blackhawks fan.

Health watch: Defenseman Michal Rozsival broke his ankle on this play which I cannot implore you strongly enough not to watch. He’s done for the year, and perhaps beyond. Kris Versteeg is day-to-day.

Key number: 72.7 percent — The Blackhawks’ penalty-killing efficiency in both the first and second round. You always like for your special teams to be consistent, but you’d prefer they weren’t consistently bad. It wasn’t enough to cost the Hawks against the uneven Predators and the overmatched Wild, but the Ducks could be a different story. In what projects to be a physical series, power plays will be crucial — Chicago will need to be much better at killing them off.

Bandwagon status: They’re on the verge of a mini dynasty and a hell of a fun team to watch, but the bandwagon already filled up and left the station during the regular season. Check back this summer after the salary cap dismantles half the team; we should have some vacancies then.

They win this series if: Crawford doesn’t implode, they sort out the penalty kill, and the Hawks’ best players can at least match the Ducks’ best.

And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goal differential)

How they got here: They swept the Jets in Round 1, and had only slightly more trouble knocking off the Flames in five in Round 2. They really, really hate heartwarming underdogs that used to be in Atlanta.

Conn Smythe candidate: Corey Perry, bless his punchable little face, has been on fire, racking up seven goals and 15 points in just nine games. He left the final game against the Flames with what looked like a nasty leg injury after being clipped, and then came back in time to score the series winner in overtime.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lightning move on

We’ve always known what this year’s version of the Tampa Bay Lightning could do. One look at the roster was enough for that, and if you caught them on a good night, the highlight reel would drive it home. What they could do has never been in doubt; we’ve just been waiting to see them do it, and do it consistently enough to be considered a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.

Last night, for one game at least, we saw them do it all. They smothered the Canadiens, choking the life out of Montreal’s comeback hopes in an impressive 4-1 win that ended the second-round series and sent the Lightning on to the conference finals. It was easily their best game of the series, probably their best game of the playoffs, and maybe even their best game of the season, all things considered. The hockey world was watching, waiting for Montreal to continue its comeback. Instead, the Habs got smoked.

So did we learn anything last night? Maybe not. On paper, the Lightning are one of the league’s best young teams. We’ve known that since last year, when they ended a two-year playoff drought with a 101-point season before being swept by the Canadiens in the opening round.1 We knew it when general manager Steve Yzerman spent the offseason patching over all the roster’s visible holes, rebuilding the blue line and adding depth up front. We knew it during the regular season, as they racked up 108 points while posting the second-best goals differential in the league.

And we knew it during the first three games of the series, as the Lightning opened up a 3-0 lead thanks to two close wins and a blowout. Then we tried not to forget everything we knew as Montreal clawed its way back into the series, posting a dominating win in Game 4 and then holding on for a narrow Game 5 win at home. Suddenly, the Canadiens had the momentum, and there was a sense of history in the air. Or at least there was until Game 6 started, when the Lightning looked like champions.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of the Lightning win last night was that they ran over Montreal without their best lineup. They did it without Ryan Callahan, the veteran winger who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Monday. They did it without Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick from the 2013 draft who the team seems to have lost faith in; he was a healthy scratch in all but two games in the series.

And perhaps most impressively, they did it without Steven Stamkos. Oh sure, the Lightning captain was in the lineup last night. He even scored the second goal, snapping one past Carey Price five minutes into the second. But that was a Steven Stamkos; it wasn’t the Steven Stamkos. That Stamkos is borderline unstoppable; the one we got in this series was stoppable. Throughout the postseason, he’s never looked quite right. He’s not listed on the injury report, but if the Lightning season ends and we find out he’s been playing through something and is headed off for surgery, nobody will be surprised.

And yet, half of Stamkos was enough for Tampa Bay in this series. That speaks to the depth this team has put around him, the guys like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. On the opening goal, Kucherov tipped Palat’s feed past Price, and Kucherov later added an empty-netter. Palat scored the 3-0 marker, and Johnson’s key goals this postseason have him solidly in the Conn Smythe picture.

All three of those guys were rookies last year. They’re going to get better, just like 24-year-old defensive stud Victor Hedman will get better. The Lightning are one of the youngest teams in the league. And that’s what made them so hard to project.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A brief history of Washington Capitals playoff collapses

The Capitals and Rangers face off tomorrow night in Game 7 of their second-round series, setting up a dramatic showdown that seemed unlikely just a few days ago. The Rangers looked like they were in big trouble when they fell behind 3-1 in the series, and they seemed all but done when the Caps held a lead late in Game 5. But a New York comeback has flipped the series around, and now the Rangers head into Game 7 in their own building with all the momentum. Who could have seen this coming?

Well, any Capitals fan could have, if we’re being honest. After all, this is a franchise that carries a certain reputation when it comes to blowing playoff leads. In fact, a loss tomorrow would mark the 10th time in franchise history that the Capitals found a way to lose a series in which they held a two-game lead. That’s not easy to do; historically, teams that lead a series 3-1 go on to win 90 percent of the time, with those that lead 2-0 faring almost as well. And yet the Capitals find a way to do it every few years. That’s almost impressive.

So in the lead-up to Game 7 and what could be yet another Capitals’ collapse, let’s take a trip back through the history of some of those series that got away. Maybe we can learn a few lessons that will help this year’s team avoid a similar fate. Or maybe we’ll just call it a dry run for the inevitable. Either way, it should make for a fun look back.1

1985, first round, New York Islanders

The Capitals: This was a good young Caps team featuring three future Hall of Famers just entering their primes in Mike Gartner, Larry Murphy, and Scott Stevens. They finished the season with 101 points.

The opponents: The Islanders were at the tail end of the Bossy/Potvin/Trottier dynasty; they had won the conference five straight years and still had most of the core that had won four consecutive Cups from 1980 to 1983. But they had struggled to stay over .500 and finished 15 points back of the Caps.

The lead: Washington took the first two games in overtime in what was then a best-of-five opening-round format. No team in NHL history had ever blown a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series.

The collapse: The series went back to Uniondale, where the Islanders stayed alive with a pair of wins. That set up a deciding game in Washington, in which goals by Brent Sutter and Anders Kallur were enough for the Isles to edge the Capitals, 2-1, and take the series.

The lesson: Watch out for those New York teams that lost in the Stanley Cup final the year before.

Heartbreak rating: 5/10. It’s never fun to become the first team in NHL history to squander a specific type of lead, but somebody has to be first. At least they got it over with quickly, right?

1987, first round, New York Islanders

The Capitals: A slightly older and wiser version of the 1985 squad, these Capitals featured names like Mike Ridley, Kevin Hatcher, and Michal Pivonka, who would become the core of the late-’80s/early-’90s teams.

The opponents: The Islanders still featured many of their legendary names, but were now four years removed from their last Cup and firmly transitioning into the Pat LaFontaine era.

The lead: After splitting the first two games in Washington, the Caps stole Games 3 and 4 on the road, giving up only one goal in the process and heading back home with a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The collapse: The Islanders took Game 5 by a 4-2 final, then held on for a 5-4 win in Game 6 at home. That set up a seventh game in Washington, and it turned out to be a classic: the Easter Epic, a quadruple-overtime marathon that ended on LaFontaine’s long-distance bomb.

The lesson: Why settle for losing one Game 7 when you can lose the equivalent of two in the same night?

Heartbreak rating: 9/10. This was the first time in NHL history that a team had blown a 3-1 series lead,2 and the drama of the final game made the loss devastating — Bob Mason’s stunned drop to one knee is still burned into the minds of old-time Caps fans. I’d say it can’t possibly get any worse than this, but I’d be worried that this year’s Caps would take that as a challenge.

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