In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The two best teams in the NHL are playing each other in the second round, and I'm kind of fine with it
- It's been 80 years, do you we really still need the "if necessary" warning on seven-game series?
- An obscure player who had one of the greatest playoff games ever
- The week's three stars of comedy
- The week's one star of cries for help
- And a YouTube clip of the saddest moment in second round history
Friday, April 28, 2017
In the Friday Grab Bag:
In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I express our love for P.K. Subban
- Did the Oilers win the Larsson/Hall trade?
- Our round two picks
- Nikita Kucherov goes off on the Lightning
- A look ahead to tomorrow's draft lottery
- And lots more...
>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The Washington Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, and hockey fans have some mixed feelings about the matchup. On the one hand, it should make for a fantastic series, one that pits the regular season's two best teams against each other. But on the other, something seems off about a playoff format that serves up a matchup like this in the second round, while also giving us a Senators/Rangers series featuring two teams who finished well behind.
Let's put the playoff format debate aside for today, and focus on the positive: We may be about to see one of the best second-round matchups in NHL history.
That's a tougher list to put together than you might think, since the NHL has a long history of odd playoff formats. For the Original Six era, of course, the "second round" was the Stanley Cup final, so that doesn't really seem to fit what we're looking for. And for most of the 1970s, there was a best-of-three preliminary round that nobody was sure actually counted.
But in 1980, the league switched over to a four-round format that was close enough to what we have today that we can start our search there. So as the Caps and Pens get ready to face off, let's look back on the best second-round matchups of the last 37 years. (We're looking for the best matchups on paper here; we'll save a post on the ones that actually turned out to be the best seriesfor down the line.)<;
1988: Flames vs. Oilers
You could take your pick of four different Oilers/Flames matchups between 1983 and 1988; this is probably the greatest second-round rivalry in NHL history (although Canadiens/Nordiques might have something to say there). We'll go with the last of the group, since by 1988 it had been clearly established that the Battle of Alberta was the unofficial Stanley Cup final.
The matchup: The Oilers had won three of the last four Cups and had put up 99 points. But the Flames won the division (and the Presidents' Trophy) with a 105-point campaign. The series featured two of the league's three best regular season records.
The series: Ironically, the best of the Flames/Oilers matchups on paper produced the worst series. While their 1984 and 1986 matchups were both seven-game classics and gave us one of the most memorable moments of the decade, this one was a bust. While all the games were reasonably close, the Oilers swept the Flames aside in four games en route to one of the most impressive Stanley Cup runs ever -- they lost just two games in the entire playoffs.
Welcome to Round 2 of the NHL playoffs. It arrived a bit early, since the hockey gods cruelly deprived us of so much as a single Game 7 in the opening round, but we're happy to have it anyway.
The action gets underway tonight with the Western Conference, and tomorrow night with the Eastern Conference. And the previewing gets underway right now.
For years, the Western Conference has been the NHL's better half. That wasn't the case this year, and with the conference's two best teams in terms of regular season points already done, the path to the final is wide open.
Pacific Division: #1 Anaheim Ducks vs. #2 Edmonton Oilers
In this corner: The Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points, +23 goals differential not counting shootouts), who should be well-rested after sweeping aside the Flames in four games.
And in this corner: The Oilers (47-26-9, 103 points, +36), making their first postseason appearance since 2006. They went all the way to the final that year, in case you were wondering.
Head-to-head: The Oilers won three of five.
Dominant narrative: The up-and-coming Oilers face a veteran team whose window may be closing. If that sounds familiar, it was pretty much the same story line we had in the San Jose series. The Ducks' situation isn't quite as urgent as the Sharks', but it's not far off, thanks to an aging core that's locked into some long-term deals. It's not quite "now or never" in Anaheim, but in theory they should have a sense of urgency that the young Oilers may not be able to match.
Injury report: The Oilers are relatively healthy. The Ducks have been missing two key defensemen in Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen, but it sounds like both men might be back for Game 1, which would be huge.
The big question: Does momentum matter in the playoffs? If so, the Oilers could be in trouble, because the Ducks have been just about unstoppable lately. They've won eight straight going back to the regular season, and haven't lost in regulation since March 10.
One player to watch: Ryan Kesler. The Ducks went out and traded for Kesler three years ago (and gave him a big extension that lots of us questioned) for exactly this sort of scenario. He'll be tasked with shutting down Connor McDavid, or at least with preventing him from single-handedly winning the series. It's no easy task, but Kesler earned a Selke nomination for his defensive work this year, and he's been around long enough to know how to target the other team's star. McDavid had four points in the first round, which would be fine for most players but was a disappointment for him. If Kesler can limit him early, frustration could set in.
Key number: 79. That's how many games Edmonton's Cam Talbot has started so far this season, including a league-leading 73 during the regular season. That's well above his previous career high of 53, and this is his first playoff run as a starter. Does he wear down eventually? He was very good against the Sharks with the exception of a Game 4 meltdown in which he gave up five goals on the way to a 7-0 loss.
Prediction: Oilers in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: At some point, Kesler does something to McDavid that leads to Milan Lucic making a show of wanting to fight him.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
In the sports world, there's nothing sadder than seeing someone struggle at the one thing that they used to be the best in the world at.
Michael Jordan clanging jumpers in a Wizards uniform. Tiger Woods limping his way to missed cuts. Brett Favre throwing pick-sixes for the Vikings. It can be uncomfortable to watch, bordering on outright tragic.
So you can be forgiven for wanting to avert your eyes at the sight of Toronto Maple Leafs fans this week, because we're failing badly at the one thing you could always count on us for: Being miserable.
This is supposed to be our thing. Other fans do parades and celebrations and enjoy happiness and hope. Not us. We watch our team lose, we internalize it, and we suffer. We remember the worst moments forever; they're scarred directly into our identity as fans. Kerry Fraser. Jeremy Roenick. It was 4-1. This is what we do. Often publicly, often in uncomfortably over-the-top ways, and almost always with the rest of the hockey world pointing and laughing.
This week, we watched the Maple Leafs lose a playoff series that they absolutely could have won. They had a 2-1 series lead, five of the games went into overtime, and all the underlying numbers were essentially equal. The series was there for the taking. But the Leafs lost, in six games to the Washington Capitals, and now their season is over.
And as Maple Leafs fans, we're... kind of fine with it, actually.
I know that comes as a disappointment to a lot of you out there. For fans of other teams, watching Leafs fans be miserable has pretty much become an end-of-season tradition. It's almost therapeutic, because you know that no matter how bad things get with your own team, at least you're not us. And let's be honest, some portions of the Toronto fan base could stand to be knocked down a peg or two. The tears of Toronto Maple Leafs fans water the tree of hockey liberty, or something like that.
But not this year. There's not much misery to be found around Leafs Nation. We're doing good, thanks for asking.
That's not to say that we're happy about the Leafs' first-round loss. Obviously, an upset win over the Capitals would have been something special, right up there some of the most memorable Maple Leaf wins of a generation. They might have even given the Penguins a run for their money. Heck, maybe they could have gone on a deep run, bringing back memories of the 1992-93 Leafs team that Toronto fans will never shut up about.
But it didn't happen. Marcus Johansson silenced a Toronto crowd with Sunday night's OT winner, and the Leafs season is over. One more lost playoff series to throw on the pile. Yet another year without a Stanley Cup. So where's all the misery?