Thursday, April 2, 2020

Puck Soup: Who is this guy playing for?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We break down what the NHLPA got right and wrong in their player poll
- Our thoughts on The Athletic's Top 100 sports movie ranking
- How this year's draft might work
- Zdeno Chara overshares about Tuukka Rask
- A new quiz called "Who is this guy playing for?"
- And more...

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

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Remembering the dramatic tying goals that went to waste (aka the Zelepukins)

With no new NHL action these days, the league’s broadcast partners have been dipping into their archives to fill airtime with memorable games from the past. And it’s been pretty cool. We all miss live hockey, but getting to rewatch some old classics isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

For example, over the weekend Canadian viewers were treated to replays of a pair of classic Canucks Game 7s: their showdown against the Flames in 2004 and their grudge match against the Blackhawks in 2011. A few days earlier, both Sportsnet and Fox Sports West showed the Kerry Fraser game between the Leafs and Kings from 1993.

All memorable games. But they had something else in common, and you may have noticed it. They all featured a very specific type of goal. They all had a Zelepukin.

OK, I’m guessing you don’t call it that, since that’s a label I’ve been using in my own head over the years. But you know the moment. A Zelepukin is when a team scores a dramatic goal to tie a crucial game at the end of regulation but then goes on to lose that game in overtime.

A Zelepukin goal is always a weird moment in hindsight. When the tying goal happens, it’s euphoric for one fan base and crushing for the other. But then the script gets flipped in overtime, and you realize that the Zelepukin just prolonged the misery. Sometimes, the tying goal itself is all but forgotten, replaced in the collective memory by the overtime goal it spawned.

And that’s where the paradox of the Zelepukin kicks in – if your team scored it, you might end up wondering if you’d rather it had never happened at all.

That question has always kind of fascinated me. So today, let’s look at those three Zelepukin goals we’ve been able to relive in recent days, as well as a few more famous ones from hockey history. We’ll start with the one that might have been the most memorable in NHL history. If you’re not sure which one that is, well, the name might give you a hint.

May 27, 1994: Devils vs. Rangers

The setup: It’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, with the Rangers hosting the Devils at Madison Square Garden. New York has won the Presidents’ Trophy and is looking to punch a ticket to the final and a chance to end a 54-year Cup drought. But the underdog Devils are giving them all they can handle. The series is already legendary, having featured Mark Messier’s infamous Guarantee that kept the Rangers alive in Game 6. Now it all comes down to one winner-take-all showdown.

The situation: Game 7 turns into a fierce defensive battle, with Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur trading saves in a 0-0 tie until Brian Leetch gets the Rangers on the board midway through the second. As the third period ticks away, it starts to look like that goal will hold up as the winner.

The Zelepukin: With Brodeur on the bench and 18 seconds left, the teams line up for a faceoff in the Rangers’ end. Messier wins the draw but the Rangers can’t clear, and a goalmouth scramble leads to a golden scoring opportunity. Richter makes what seems like an impossible save, but a certain Devil is there to hack away at the rebound: Tom Chorske!

No, just kidding. It is, of course, Valeri Zelepukin.

And just like that, 18,000 delirious Rangers fans go dead quiet. For at least a little while.

But then: In arguably the most famous overtime of the era, the two teams don’t score through one period before Stephane Matteau’s harmless-looking wraparound attempt ends it. The goal isn’t especially pretty, but the call will live forever.

Do you wish it never happened? If you’re a Devils fan, it’s quite possible that Zelepukin’s goal, at the moment it happened, was the highlight of your entire life as a sports fan. But in hindsight, if you could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, I think you’d have to. Sure, losing 1-0 on a Brian Leetch goal would have been painful. But if you never had to hear Stephane Matteau’s name screamed at you ever again, I think it would be worth it.

April 26, 2011: Blackhawks vs. Canucks

The setup: By 2011, the Hawks and Canucks had managed to brew up a surprisingly heated inter-division rivalry, one that had seen Chicago eliminate very good Vancouver teams in both 2009 and 2010. The Hawks had gone on to win the Cup after that second series, but the Canucks were the favorites heading into their 2011 rematch after a franchise-record 117-point season. All they had to do was slay the dragon.

And through three games, they did. The Canucks built a 3-0 series lead, one that the history books said should be all but insurmountable. But then the Hawks fought back with a blowout win, and then another, and then an overtime win in Game 6 to tie the series. That set up a Game 7 in Vancouver where the Canucks would either fight back with one of the biggest wins in franchise history, or suffer a loss so devastating that they’d have no choice but to detonate the roster. No middle ground.

The situation: Alex Burrows opened the scoring early in the first, and it seemed like that might be enough as Roberto Luongo held off a surprisingly toothless Chicago attack. Late in the third, the Hawks’ chances went from bad to worse when Duncan Keith took a tripping penalty to leave them shorthanded. All the Canucks had to do was play keep away for two minutes, then take it home.

The Zelepukin: A neutral zone turnover led to a harmless looking 2-on-4 rush for the Hawks. But as it turns out, Jonathan Toews is pretty dangerous, even from all fours.

And just like that, the Canucks were headed to sudden death on the verge of what would have been viewed as one of the most epic chokes in NHL history.

But then: Five minutes into overtime Chris Campoli’s failed clearing attempt wound up in Burrows’ glove, and he hammered one past Corey Crawford for the winner.

Do you wish it never happened? Watch that overtime winner again. Do you see how happy Burrows is? It’s the highlight of his entire career. If you were a Hawks fans, would you want to take that away from him? Of course you would. It’s not even a hard question. This Zelepukin clearly needs to go.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

In which I attempt to answer a simple question about jersey numbers that almost breaks me

Every now and then, a reader will reach out to me with a question. Sometimes, I already know the answer. Often, I have no idea where I’d even start. But the best kind of questions are the ones that make me think: “Huh, I’m not sure, but I bet it would be fun to find out.”

I got one of those a little while ago from a reader named Bryce. It was nice and simple. Bryce wanted to know which NHL player had scored the most goals in a single season in which their total matched their jersey number.

That’s kind of a cool question. And it’s one that shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out. I couldn’t come up with an answer off the top of my head, but I knew how to find one: just crack open a list of the highest single-season goal totals and work backward.

So that’s what I did. It will be fun, right?

Let’s begin, the way all great journeys do, at the beginning. In this case, that meant a list of every NHL player to ever score 60 goals or more in a season. It’s not a long list, but it’s probably longer than you might think. There have been 39 seasons of 60+ goals in NHL history. Could we find our answer in that list? I wasn’t sure, but it was the right place to start.

Five of those 39 seasons belong to Wayne Gretzky, and we can obviously eliminate him; he wore No. 99 for his entire NHL career, and he never got that many goals in a season. He came reasonably close, topping out at 92 in 1981-82, which still stands as the all-time record and probably always will. But we’re not looking for close here, so Wayne’s not our man.

He does have an impact, though, because his iconic No. 99 encouraged a generation of stars that followed to wear distinctive high numbers of their own. That was a new thing, and it should make our search easier.

Here’s where we run into our first problem: A lot of history’s greatest offensive talents have worn high numbers, but they were too high. Gretzky’s the only player to ever crack the 90-goal plateau, which wipes out the chances of plenty of today’s 90-wearing stars, like Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos. Eric Lindros and Patrick Kane have posted big goal-scoring years, but neither got anywhere close to the 88 they wore. Alexander Mogilny’s 76 goals in 1992-93 is tied for the fifth-most ever, but he had a long way to go since he was wearing No. 89. Sidney Crosby’s great, but he hasn’t come anywhere near 87.

Brett Hull did, scoring 86 in 1990-91 and hitting the rarified 70-goal mark on two other occasions. But he did that while wearing No. 16, which leads to our second problem: Star forwards who don’t wear really high numbers usually wear relatively low ones. It’s a tradition thing. So right off the bat, we know we can rule out low-numbered stars like Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull (all No. 9), Alexander Ovechkin and Cam Neely (No. 8), Guy Lafleur and Pavel Bure (No. 10). Mike Bossy, Teemu Selanne, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille or Jari Kurri? Sorry. All wore good, solid, traditional numbers that are way too low for what we’re looking for.

There is one player who wore a number in the 70s and had a 70-goal season. But that’s Phil Esposito, and he scored 76 in 1970-71 while wearing No. 7; he didn’t switch to No. 77 until he was traded to the Rangers, so he’s one goal and five years away from being our answer.

After dropping down into the 60s, optimism kicks in because there are two legendary scorers who both wore numbers in this range – Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, with both showing up on the list of 60-goal scorers. But Jagr topped out at 62 goals in 1995-96, missing his iconic No. 68 by a half-dozen. And while Lemieux had two seasons of 69 goals, one of 70, and one of 85, he never landed on exactly 66. He goes down in history as the highest jersey number to be exceeded by his goal total, but our search for an exact match carries on.

The only other candidates left on our initial list are Lanny McDonald, Dennis Maruk, Steve Shutt and Reggie Leach, and they all came along before higher vanity numbers were a thing. So no, we won’t find our answer in the 60+ club after all. No worries, though – we’ll just have to open up the search to the 50-goal club. And as it turns out, that’s a very big club indeed. Dropping our cutoff down to 50 goals opens the floodgates enough to allow 157 new seasons onto our list, so surely we’ll find our answer here.

The good news is that our list now includes dozens of names that we haven’t seen yet. The bad news is that a glance at some of the guys who had seasons in the high 50s tells us that we’re going to immediately run into the same two problems as before. Marcel Dionne, Tim Kerr and Michel Goulet? Traditional numbers that are too low. Pierre Turgeon or Sergei Fedorov? Too high.

And then, the first sense of doubt creeps in: Wait, what kind of star forward wears a number in the 50s?

There sure aren’t many. Typically, if they hand you a number in the 50s in training camp, it’s because they don’t expect you to stick around long. If you do, you get yourself a real number as soon as possible. What kind of self-respecting sniper is going to wear No. 58?

Not many. But that’s OK because we only need one. And the 50-goal tier is where we start to see some names where I wasn’t sure what number they wore. Charlie Simmer? Craig Simpson? Blaine Stoughton? Rick Kehoe? Nope across the board. John Ogrodnick, Wayne Babych or Pierre Larouche? Negative. I held out some hope for No. 55 since the double-digit thing was in vogue after Gretzky, Lemieux and Lindros. But no such luck, as guys like Keith Primeau, Jason Blake and Eric Daze fall well short, and Mark Scheifele has yet to come close. Dave Andreychuk did wear No. 52, but only for one season in 2000-01 when his 50-goal days were well behind him. Same with Dany Heatley wearing No. 51 for the Ducks.

I had a brief flutter of optimism when I remembered Jonathan Cheechoo’s 56-goal season. Did Cheechoo wear No. 56? It seems like the sort of number he might wear, right? He’d never been an elite goal-scorer before that wild 2005-06 season, so maybe he was still wearing a scrub’s number when he broke through. Alas, he was not. He wore No. 14 that year. Not even close.

By the time I got into the low 50s – Rick Martin? Blaine Stoughton? Ray Freaking Sheppard? – desperation was beginning to set in. I felt like I may have made a terrible mistake.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Grab Bag: Buildup to legendary Wings/Avs brawl, time for NHL to get creative

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should the NHL do anything for the teams that traded draft picks for rentals they'll never use?
- A debate about what the rest of the season should look like gets interrupted
- An obscure player with a Wrestlemania theme
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the pre-game coverage of the famous Wings/Avs brawl

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Puck Soup: What was the best team ever that didn't win the Cup?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg makes the case that the NHL should cancel the regular season right now
- Jeremy Jacobs and the Bruins stiff their workers
- That wild lottery idea
- The Memorial Cup is canceled for the first time ever
- And we run through a 16-team tournament to determine the best team ever that didn't win the Cup

>> 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.