Friday, May 24, 2019

Puck Soup: Final countdown

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We preview the Stanley Cup final, including our picks for the Cup and Conn Smythe
- Where do the Sharks go from here?
- The Senators hire a coach as we're recording
- A conversation about spoilers and the people who complain about them
- And lots more...

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Grab Bag: Stanley Cup preview

In the Friday Grab Bag
- A Stanley Cup previews, as per hockey writing bylaws
- The schedule for the final is kind of terrible but that's not really the NHL's fault
- An obscure player who had a miraculous playoff game
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at what may have been the greatest moment in Blues' playoff history, at least until this week

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Remembering each year’s ultimate playoff losers (and why the 2019 Penguins could top them all)

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the concept of a postseason’s biggest loser. Maybe it has something to do with being into my fourth decade of cheering for a team that never wins the Stanley Cup, but I’ve never bought into the idea that one team wins, 15 teams don’t, and all those losers are basically in the same boat of leaguewide failure.

Nonsense. Not all losers are created equal, and some come closer to the Cup than others. Obviously, the team that loses in the final is a near-miss, one their fans will probably always remember. But depending on how you look at it, other teams could claim to have come close too.

And then you’ve got the other side of the coin: The one and only one team each year that has the worst possible playoff experience. That’s the one I’ve always been interested in.

Specifically, I’m looking for the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that won the Stanley Cup.

That’s a lot of losses. In fact, the first time you read through them all, it feels like too much losing to cram into one postseason. But it all adds up. We’re looking for the team that suffers a first-round exit at the hands of an opponent that goes out in the second round. And then the team that beat that team goes out in the third round. And that team goes to the final, where they lose to the Cup winner.

It all leaves that first team as far from the Cup as possible. Four degrees of playoff failure. The ultimate loser. A quad fraud. The tetrad of bad.

OK, maybe the name needs work, but I love the concept.

Let’s say you’re a team like this year’s Maple Leafs or Jets. Sure, you’re disappointed by a first-round exit, one that initially made you feel like you were still a long way away from contending for a Stanley Cup. But what if the Bruins or Blues go on to win it all? That changes your perception. Now, you gave the eventual champs all they could handle. If you really wanted to, you could tell yourself that you might even have been the second-best team in the entire playoffs, one that just had the bad luck to run into a tough early matchup with the eventual champs.

But if you’re the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the Stanley Cup winners? There’s no sugar-coating that. You were miles away from winning anything. You lost as badly as you could possibly lose.

Or at least, that’s what I always thought. But this year, the concept is getting a new twist that I’m almost afraid to bring up. You know how you’re not supposed to talk about a pitcher taking a perfect game into the ninth inning? That’s where I’m at on this. It’s almost too wonderful to mention. But I wouldn’t be much of a journalist if I didn’t talk about an important developing story, and besides, I know from my recent Twitter mentions that many of you are already on top of this one. So I might as well spit it out.

Ladies and gentlemen, we might actually see the first ever case of a team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the Stanley Cup champions.

That is insane. It shouldn’t be mathematically possible for us to be anywhere close. And yet here we are. And it’s made even better by the identity of the team that might pull it off: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They were swept by the Islanders in Round 1. Then the Islanders were swept by the Hurricanes in Round 2. The Canes were swept by the Bruins in the conference final. If Boston goes out in four straight in the final, the Penguins will have finished as far from the Stanley Cup as is even theoretically possible. They’d basically be 0-for-16. If it happens, I’m pretty sure the entire league has to fold.

Needless to say, I am way too excited about this possibility. I’m not going to go as far as to ask the Bruins to come right out and throw the Cup final, because that would be ridiculous. But if they lose the first two games at home then yes, they should absolutely throw the Cup final. Just devote the rest of the series to hanging a historical embarrassment on a longtime rival. As the song goes, the chance may never come again.

Of course, if the Bruins refuse to play along and actually win the final, that will let the Penguins off the hook entirely. Instead, this year’s ultimate loser honors would go to the Flames, since they lost to the Avs who lost to the Sharks who lost to the Blues. Still fun, but not quite as mesmerizing as the possibility of the quattro-sweep.

As we all wait with bated breath to see which scenario plays out, let’s take a few moments to celebrate the history of the NHL’s ultimate playoff losers, dating back to the first four-round playoff back in 1975.

The recent history

By definition, the quadruple loser has to come from the opposite conference as the eventual Cup winner, so the last few years have been dominated by the West.

Last season, it was the Avalanche who earned the honors – they lost to the Predators, who lost to the Jets, who lost to the Knights, who lost to the Capitals. In 2017, it was Sharks; they lost to the Oilers, who lost to the Ducks, who lost to the Predators, who lost to the Penguins. And in 2016 it was the Wild, thanks to their loss to the Stars, who lost to the Blues, who lost to the Sharks, who lost to the Penguins.

So already, we can start to get some clarity on one of the questions that you may have been wondering about: Does any of this actually matter? And the answer: Apparently not!

The Avalanche followed up their nightmare playoffs by having pretty much the same season, making it back to the wild card this year. The Sharks rebounded to become one of the league’s best teams. The Wild are currently not that. Three teams in, and we’re already all over the map.

That’s where any reasonable person would probably give up on the whole concept. Gentle reader, I am not that reasonable person. We’re just getting started.

Going back a few years, we get to the 2015 Islanders, who lost to the Capitals who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Lightning who lost to the Blackhawks. That one nearly pulls off the opposite of this year’s Penguins scenario, as the first three series were all seven-gamers. Alas, the final only went six.

Next comes a three-year run of dominance by the Atlantic division, who give us the 2014 Red Wings, 2013 Canadiens and 2012 Bruins. Skip a few years and you get to the only repeat winner of the cap era, as the Bruins show up again in 2008.

Other cap era teams include the 2006 Stars, the 2009 Blues, the 2010 Senators, the 2011 Coyotes and our first team that no longer exists: the 2007 Thrashers, who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Sabres who lost to Senators who lost to the Ducks. Considering that Atlanta team was also swept in four straight and was making the only playoff appearance in Thrashers history, and it might well stand as the single worst example of the ultimate loser phenomenon ever. You know, until this year’s Penguins.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sharks vs. Blues: Which franchise holds the crown for making its fans miserable?

We may be just a few days away from deciding the most important title in the NHL.

No, not “Stanley Cup champion.” Those come and go. This is something bigger and more enduring. We’re talking about the title of the most miserable franchise in the entire league. Which team has done the most to torture its fan base over the years?

For a long time, there was a fairly easy answer. It was the Washington Capitals, a franchise that had built a reputation for finding new and exciting ways to raise expectations and then brutally crush them. Whether it was blowing 3-1 series leads, or losing quadruple overtime game sevens, or winning Presidents’ Trophies only to lose to a hot goalie or to the Penguins or to a hot goalie on the Penguins, the Capitals were the undisputed kings of hockey misery.

But then last year, it all came crashing down. They actually went out and won a Stanley Cup. It was confusing and even a little frightening. And it left the hockey world wondering: Which team has the best claim to the vacated throne?

The Canucks certainly have a strong case, one bolstered by nearly a half-decade without a title that includes two heart-breaking Game 7 losses in the final. The Sabres would be right there with them, with a Cup-losing goal that shouldn’t have counted highlighting their resume. The Maple Leafs could be in the mix too since their last Cup came before most of today’s fans were alive. Maybe you work in some consideration for fans in places like Winnipeg, Minnesota or Ottawa.

But the two teams that have to be near the top of just about any list are the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks. Those two teams have spent the last few decades doing what miserable teams do: Being pretty good just about every season, convincing their weary fan base that this just might be the year and then having something horrible happen to crush those hopes and dreams.

As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan, I know a thing or two about misery. And I think there’s a strong case to be made that when it comes to taking over the Capitals’ crown, the Sharks and the Blues are the two best candidates we have. But which one should earn the honors? That’s a tough call. As we wait for the two teams to face off in Game Six of the Western Conference final, let’s compare their cases in a head-to-head battle with even bigger stakes.

How long are we talking about?

True misery isn’t a short-term game, but a slow drip that builds over time. It’s not about a moment or a series or even a season. We’re looking for decades here.

The Sharks: San Jose entered the league as an expansion team (sort of) back in 1991, which doesn’t seem like all that long ago to some of us but actually puts the Sharks right around the middle of the current league in terms of longevity in their market. We are all so old.

They were historically awful for their first two years. But when you’re talking about their history of misery, you’re really starting the clock right around 2001, when they crack the 90-point mark for the first time and start heading into the postseason with expectations. That kicks off a long run of regular season success that’s still going to this day, with only two playoff misses in nearly two decades. But of course, no Cup.

The Blues: The Blues came into the league in the 1967 expansion and were the first quasi-success story among the half-dozen new teams. They won the all-expansion West Division in each of its first three years, earning trips to the Cup final each time but never winning. They didn’t have much success in the 1970s but had turned things around by the start of the 1980s.

That’s when the Blues really became the Blues – which is to say, a perfectly respectable regular season team that never seemed to do all that much in the playoffs. From 1979-80 through to the 2005 lockout, the Blues made the playoffs every year. That’s 25 straight seasons, the same as what the Red Wings pulled off in their much-hyped streak. And yet I’m guessing some of you may have never even heard of the Blues streak because it didn’t deliver any Cups or even any final appearances and only two trips out of the second round. The St. Louis Blues: Just kind of there™.

Misery edge: This one’s a pretty easy call as (furiously punches numbers into his calculator) 52 years is more than 28. The Sharks’ case here is that they may have had more seasons with serious expectations; they’ve had nine 100+ point seasons since 2001, compared to eight for the Blues since 1980. But St. Louis still takes this one.

Signature heart-breaking moment

Every truly miserable fan base has a few of those plays that they still can’t watch without wanting to whip the remote through the TV.

The Sharks: This ends up being a tougher call than you might think, for reasons we’ll get to down below. But for sheer hands-over-head disbelief, it’s hard to beat the way they were eliminated by the Canucks in the 2011 conference final.

That’s just the hockey gods toying with you right there.

The Blues: It’s the opening round of the 2000 playoffs and the Blues have just captured their first and only Presidents’ Trophy. They’re heavy favorites over the eighth-seeded Sharks, but the underdogs have stretched the series to a seventh game. And then, with seconds left in the first period in front of 19,000 stunned fans, this happens:

That ends up being the winning goal and the best season in franchise history ends in Round 1.

Misery edge: For creativity, it’s the Sharks for sure. But for actual psyche-scarring misery, the Blues get the nod here.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Not another replay review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Oh god we have to talk about expanded replay again don't we?
- The best way to react to a waved-off goal
- The week's three comedy stars introduce a new culinary term
- An obscure player who committed mid-game murder
- And a look back at the immediate aftermath of the craziest brawl in NHL history

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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