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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Weekend wrap: The Jets make history

Yeah, I’d say that felt like it was worth waiting three decades or so for.

The Jets took care of business on Friday night, eliminating the Wild in five games to advance to the second round. While the magnitude of the moment made for a dramatic finish, the game itself didn’t provide much in the way of suspense. The Jets rolled over the Wild, scoring 31 seconds in and leading 4–0 before the game was 12 minutes old. That was more than enough, as Connor Hellebuyck recorded his second straight shutout to pad his all-time Jets lead.

It was the first time Winnipeg fans had seen their team win a playoff series since 1987, when the old Jets beat the Flames in the opening round. That iteration of the team didn’t win another series in its remaining nine years before heading to Phoenix, and 15 years without a team and seven more after luring the Thrashers north had added up to a grand total of zero playoff games won until this year. They took care of the first win in Game 1; now they’ve checked off a series to go with it.

Next up, the team takes aim at another first: The two versions of the Winnipeg Jets have never won a game in the second round of the NHL playoffs. Both previous trips to round two ended in four-game sweeps at the hands of the Wayne Gretzky-era Oilers dynasty.

This year’s matchup won’t be quite as foreboding, although it’s not all that far off. The Predators are the Presidents’ Trophy champions, and will have home ice. Their lineup features the likely Vezina winner, a Norris finalist, and a forward in Filip Forsberg who’s doing something ridiculous in just about every game. But while the Jets were dominating the Wild, the Predators looked at least a little bit vulnerable against the underdog Avalanche and took on an extra game’s worth of wear and tear in the process, so this is a series that Winnipeg can win.

Either way, it should be a must-see matchup, quite possibly the very best of the entire post-season. There’s a strong case to be made that these are the two top teams in the league, and their regular-season meetings were fantastic. It might even be tempting to suggest that this series will be for the Stanley Cup, although that implies that the winner will emerge with anything left for the Sharks or Knights in the conference final. As for who we’re picking, well, we’ll get to that in the power rankings.

But first, one other thing a Winnipeg Jets team has never accomplished: Being the last Canadian team standing in the NHL playoffs. They’ll have to wait at least a few more hours to claim that honour, after the Maple Leafs went into Boston and escaped with a Game 5 win to keep their series alive.

That one saw the Leafs build a 4–1 lead midway through the second period, then hang on as a desperate Bruins team dominated the second half. Boston rained 45 shots on Frederik Andersen, including 20 in the third period, and the Leafs spent much of the game in the penalty box. By late in the third, the Bruins had cut the lead to 4–3, and, yes, everyone was thinking it. But this time Toronto held on, if only barely.

Game 6 goes tonight in Toronto, with a potential Game 7 looming back in Boston on Wednesday. It still feels like the Maple Leafs haven’t put a full game together in the series, with inconsistent play from Andersen and the top forwards. But Saturday at least offered some signs of encouragement, with Auston Matthews looking dangerous in the early going and the return of Nazem Kadri giving the top six a boost.

The end result wasn’t pretty, and probably had more than a few Toronto fans suffering through some traumatic memories of 2013. The Leafs still have a long way to go if they’re going to join the Jets in round two. But for now at least, the country still has two teams to root for, and we can save the annual “Canada’s Team” debate for at least one more day.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.

5. Boston Bruins: This is a bit risky, as they’re the only team in our top five that hasn’t already punched a ticket to round two. The safer play would be to swap in the Knights here, but we’re sticking with Boston. Gutsy call, or transparent attempt at the reverse-jinx? You decide.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning: You have to figure they’ll be hoping that the Leafs and Bruins go the full seven and inflict as much damage on each other as possible before the winner crawls their way to Tampa.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Saturday Storylines: Kadri returns

Welcome to the second Saturday of the NHL post-season. We’ve got three games on tap today, down from the originally scheduled four – thanks, Golden Knights – and we’ll start with the lone evening game.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

“If you win, you get to play again. If you don’t win, you don’t get to play again.”

That was Mike Babcock’s post-game message on Thursday night. It’s not fancy, and probably won’t make it into too many books of inspiring sports quotes. But the Maple Leafs can’t afford fancy right now, so simple will have to do.

Before the puck dropped, Game 4 in Toronto felt like a potential series turning point. With Patrice Bergeron out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs’ task was straightforward: win the game, tie the series, and head back to Boston with the momentum. At the very least, you’d expect them to come out flying in a leave-it-all-on-the-ice effort to take advantage of a golden opportunity. Instead they surrendered a goal on the game’s first shift, and failed to find much offence on the way to a 3-1 loss. They played well at times, but couldn’t figure out a way to beat Tuukka Rask while the Bruins buried their chances.

Now the series heads back to Boston, where the Bruins dominated the first two games, and you could be forgiven for assuming it’s all but over. We don’t know yet if Bergeron will be back, although the early indication was that his injury wasn’t a long-term situation. But even if the Bruins’ star sits out again, the advantages all seem to be leaning Boston’s way. They’re getting offence from their other best players, such as Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, while key Maple Leafs, such as Auston Matthews and William Nylander, have been largely quiet. Rask is outplaying Frederik Andersen. And home ice means the Bruins will once again control the matchup battle, one they won handily in the first two games.

It all adds up to a bleak outlook for a Maple Leafs team that went into the season with plenty of optimism, and largely lived up to the hype with a franchise-record 105 points. But an early exit against the Bruins would represent a step back from last season, as well as a tough message about how far this team still has to go. And it will make the team’s stay-the-course rebuild philosophy just a little bit tougher to sell in a town that’s been uncharacteristically patient up until now.

That’s all getting ahead of ourselves – the Maple Leafs could win tonight to extend the series, then head home to try to force a seventh game. But they’ll need to be better across the board to make it happen. Because if it doesn’t, as a wise man once said, they don’t get to play again.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet