Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Red Wings/Avalanche brawl: The definitive insanity rankings

March 26, 2017 marks the 20-year anniversary of one of the most beloved moments in recent hockey history, which is kind of awkward because that moment involves a lot of people punching each other.

Today’s fans aren’t supposed to like brawls, especially ones that involve blood, sucker punches and flying goaltenders. We’re supposed to be above that these days, with fighting on the decline and the days of true bad-blood rivalries all but over. The game has evolved, we’re told. This is a good thing, we’re expected to reply.

So you may experience some cognitive dissonance when your caveman brain tells you that this was just about the greatest thing ever:

Yes, Sunday will mark two full decades since the infamous Red Wings/Avalanche brawl at Joe Louis Arena. The fight served as payback for Claude Lemieux’s hit from behind on Kris Draper the year before, and was the catalyst for what would go on to become quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history.

We'll save the philosophical debate about whether everything that happened on March 26, 1997, was good or bad or somewhere in between. Instead, let's agree on this: It was crazy. Madness. Flat-out hockey insanity, the likes of which we'll almost certainly never see again.

So today, let's celebrate shake our heads disapprovingly at the events of nearly 20 years ago in a manner befitting the moment: By assigning insanity rankings to anyone and everyone who was involved in the Red Wings/Avalanche brawl.

Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov

Their role: They started it.

Well, I mean, they didn't really start it. Lemieux did, back in the 1996 playoffs, and there had already been some fallout between the two teams in their previous matchups during the 1996–97 season. That included this game itself, which had already featured a pair of fights and several scrums.

But still, out of everyone who you'd expect to light the fuse that eventually blew the whole rivalry sky-high, two guys who'd get plenty of Lady Byng votes over the course of their careers were an odd choice. Forsberg and Larionov's wrestling match barely involves any punches, but it's enough to draw the full attention of the crowd, most of the players and all four officials. As we'd find out a few seconds later, that last part turned out to be kind of important.

Insanity index: 4/10. Jut for the sheer weirdness of these two being the undercard for everything that was to come. (Although, for the record, when it came to the Red Wings rivalry Forsberg was never exactly a saint.)

Claude Lemieux

His role: Innocent bystander minding his own business and/or notorious cheap-shot artist who was about to finally get what was coming to him, depending on your perspective.

His hit on Draper and everything that followed came to be the defining incident of Lemieux's career, but it's worth remembering that his reputation among hockey fans was already a divisive one well before any of this happened. He was a good player who'd won a Conn Smythe, and was seen as a guy you could tolerate just as long as he was on your team. Fair or not, he was also known as an occasionally dirty player, not to mention a diver and a faker, and more than a few fans already had him on their "most hated" list

Despite a starring role in this brawl, Lemieux doesn't actually do all that much. He gets suckered by Darren McCarty and then immediately covers up. He was widely mocked for turtling, but later explained that McCarty's first punched had concussed him.

Insanity index: 1/10. You can think what you want about Lemieux, and maybe he should have been ready for whatever was to come on this night. But once McCarty drills him, covering up seems like a pretty reasonable choice.

(For what it's worth, Lemieux answered the bell for a more-even tilt with McCarty the following season.)

Darren McCarty

His role: The classic enforcer who's doing his job.

This is where things get a little dicey, and we're going to run into a generation gap between fans. Anyone who did what McCarty did in a game today would face a major suspension, not to mention generating dozens of reputation-stomping think pieces in the process. Just ask Shawn Thornton.

But right or wrong, things were different in 1997. Enforcers were still expected to police the game, and that meant extracting payback. McCarty saw an opportunity and he took it. And to be clear, he's absolutely trying to hurt Lemieux here – in his book, he admits to trying to slam his head onto the ice, and claims he intentionally dragged him over to the benches so the players could see the blood. At one point, he even seems to be trying to knee Lemieux in the face.

Through the lens of today, it all looks brutal. Back then, most of us agreed that it was just a guy fulfilling his job description.

Insanity index: 10/10 by today's standards, but more like 5/10 at the time.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Alexei Gusarov, Valeri Kamensky

Their role: Innocent bystanders.

We'll get to the main event in a bit, but first, let's take a moment to recognize the supporting cast. They don't do much other than stand around and stare, but every great battle scene needs a few extras. It's a talented group – it's not like the coaches had sent out the goon squad for this shift – and we thank them for their contribution.

Insanity index: 2/10. In case you're wondering, five of the 12 players on the ice for this massive and brutal line brawl ended up as Hall of Famers. And yes, that includes the guy we have to get to next...

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Five teams that ended long playoff droughts with a bang

The Edmonton Oilers are heading back to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

OK, sure, they haven't clinched a spot quite yet. But the math will work itself out. Barring some sort of epic late collapse, they're going to be back in the playoffs after a long absence. And they'll have some company. While nobody has an active playoff drought as long as Edmonton's, we're also going to see teams like the Blue Jackets, Bruins and maybe even the Maple Leafs return to the postseason after a few years away.

That's the good news, as far as those teams are concerned. The bad news is that when teams get back to the playoffs after several seasons on the sidelines, they typically make quick exits. That's just the nature of a league where we're constantly told that teams need to learn how to win. That first loss is a necessary step. You show up, you get your behind handed to you, and you regroup for a longer run next year. That's just how it works.

Well, most of the time. But every now and then, a team will skip the whole "just happy to be here" phase and returns to the playoffs with guns blazing. Maybe it's an all-time classic series, or maybe it's a deep playoff run. Maybe it's even both.

That's what Oiler fans will be hoping for. So today, as we get ready for Edmonton's long-awaited return to the post-season, let's look back at five teams that ended an extended playoff absence with a bang.

Edmonton Oilers, 1997

If we're going to pump the tires of Oilers fans, we may as well start with one of the most entertaining first-round series ever.

The 1996-97 edition of the Oilers made the playoffs for the first time since 1992, although they didn't exactly kick the door down to get there. They managed 81 points, good for the seventh seed in the West and a first round matchup with the Dallas Stars. The Oilers went in as heavy underdogs – the Stars had finished with 104 points and were on the verge of ascending into the league's elite tier of teams, including a Stanley Cup win in 1999.

But once the series arrived… well, even if you're not an Oiler fan, you probably remember this one. Curtis Joseph stood on his head while posting a pair of shutouts, and the series went to a deciding seventh game in Dallas. That's where Joseph made one of the most famous saves of a generation, diving across to rob Joe Nieuwendyk (and eliciting a classic "OH MY GOODNESS" from Bob Cole). Seconds later, Todd Marchant blew by Grant Ledyard to score the winner and complete the upset.

That's pretty much where the good news ends for the Oilers; they lost in the next round and then were knocked out by the Stars in five of the next six seasons. But you could argue it was all worth it, in exchange for what remains to this day one of the most famous sequences in sudden death history.

Calgary Flames, 2004

Sticking in Alberta, we can't talk about ending a playoff drought with an exclamation point without mentioning the 2003-04 Flames. Calgary hadn't made the playoffs since 1996, and they hadn't won a round since the 1989 final. But after new GM Darryl Sutter remade the roster, they finished with 94 points, good enough for third in the Northwest and a sixth seed in the Western Conference.

That drew a matchup with the Vancouver Canucks. And for the third straight time, that particular pairing produced a Game 7 overtime. This one came after Vancouver tied the deciding game with a dramatic goal in the dying seconds, and ended with Martin Gelinas scoring the winner to send the Flames into the second round.

The run didn't end there, as Gelinas scoring series winners became a bit of a thing. He knocked out the top-seeded Red Wings with another overtime goal, then had the winner against the Sharks in the conference final. Calgary fans would argue that he had the winner in the Cup final too, but the officials had other ideas, and the Flames' miracle run ended one game short of a championship.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Which non-playoff team was this year's biggest disappointment?

We’ve got just over three weeks left in the regular season, which means this is the time of year when we should be focused on all the teams fighting it out for the final playoff spots.

But this year, that playoff race has been a bit of a dud – realistically, there are 19 teams still alive for the 16 post-season invitations. The Kings are the only team on the outside of the Western race with any sort of shot, and even that’s feeling like a real stretch after last night’s loss. Meanwhile, the East is basically down to the Leafs, Islanders and Lightning fighting for one spot, maybe two if the Bruins fade.

That leaves us with 11 teams that are basically done. Sure, you could still make a case that teams like the Flyers or Hurricanes aren’t quite dead yet. But according to the various sites that run these sorts of numbers, those teams both have less than a three–per cent shot at pulling off the comeback. And everyone else is way behind that.

So we’ve got 11 teams that are already dealing with the disappointment of a playoff miss. But not all disappointment is created equal. So today, let’s turn the focus to that group of 11 with a question: Based on expectations coming into the season, whose season has been the biggest disappointment?

We'll count them down, starting with the least disappointing team and getting more depressing as we go.

#11: Vancouver Canucks

The expectations: Rock bottom. The Canucks were picked to finish dead last by many, a fact that didn't go unnoticed in Vancouver. In fact, the only ones who didn't seem to think this season would be a disaster were Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and friends in the front office. That had some fans worried that the Canucks would become the absolute worst-case scenario for a modern NHL franchise – a bad team that doesn't realize it's bad, and keeps grinding away year after year with no hope of real progress.

But then: Can you be well out of the playoffs in early March and still feel like the season was a success? The Canucks were still bad, but they didn't finish dead last, or even come all that close. And they had a couple of stretches, notably a 4-0-0 start and a six-game win streak in January, that made them look like a real team. Those stretches didn't last, and the second half has been ugly, but the beauty of rock-bottom expectations is that they're not all that hard to exceed.

Maybe next year: The Canucks have to happy with Bo Horvat's season, and the decision to sell at the deadline with some solid moves brought in help for down the line. They'll probably be bad again next year, but at least they seem headed in the right direction.

#10: New Jersey Devils

The expectations: Low. The Devils haven't done a full-scale rebuild, but they're clearly in a transition phase. This year was about seeing the kids develop, making sure Taylor Hall settled in, and hoping that a 30-year-old Cory Schneider would remain a top-tier option in goal.

But the playoffs? Even the most optimistic Devils' fan would have had trouble buying that. Sportsnet's analytics-based view had them dead last in the Eastern Conference, and just about everyone had them lumped in with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets at the bottom of the Metro.

But then: Those Metro predictions turned out to be dead wrong about one of those three teams, but it wasn't New Jersey. They hung around respectability a bit longer than most probably expected, but were a non-factor by the second half and are headed towards that last-place spot in the East.

Maybe next year: The youth has been OK; Pavel Zacha hasn't blown anyone away but he hasn't looked out of place as a teenager. Hall fought through injuries and saw his scoring rates take a slight dip, while Schneider had an off year. Overall, this season felt like a step back New Jersey. But that's what we expected.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekend wrap: The Habs serve notice

The playoffs are still three weeks away, but we got a preview this weekend courtesy of the Canadiens, the Senators and the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The latter served up an old-fashioned home-and-home series between the Atlantic’s two top teams, one that didn’t even drop in the now-traditional extra day off. The result was back-to-back games that had a distinctly post-season feel. We had sellout crowds in both cities. We had a scrap or two. We got two goalies being allowed to play on consecutive nights, in defiance of regular-season wisdom. And we even got some mind games during the warm-up.

What we didn't get were a pair of decisive results; Montreal's win in the opener came in a shootout, which kind of mutes the whole playoff-feel thing. But last night's rematch delivered a more conclusive outcome — another Canadiens win, this time in regulation by a 4–1 final.

It all added up to a demoralizing weekend for the Senators, who went in with a chance to take control of the Atlantic and left facing a four-point gap. That's not insurmountable – Ottawa still holds a game in hand – but it's certainly not where they wanted to be. And while both games were close for the most part, the Canadiens looked like the better team as last night's third period wore on, scoring two unanswered and having a third waved off after an offside review.

The win was the Habs' ninth in their last 11 games, and the two losses came against a pair of the league's hottest teams in Calgary and Chicago. They're finally starting to get scoring from both the top and bottom of the lineup, and with Carey Price up to his old tricks, they're firmly back in the Atlantic driver's seat.

The two teams face each other yet again on Saturday in Montreal. The Canadiens will have the easier week leading up to that clash, facing two Eastern Conference also-rans in Detroit and Carolina. The Senators get much tougher matchups with the Bruins and Penguins, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the race could be all but over by this time next week. Then again, given all the ebbs and flows the division has seen this year, we're probably in for at least a few more twists before the season ends.

(And yes, we're choosing to temporarily ignore the fact that winning this division may not actually be much of a victory, leading to a much tougher first-round matchup with the crossover Rangers. Let's not let the reality of the NHL's weird playoff format get in the way of what should be a good division race.)

So, were two tough wins in a playoff atmosphere enough to get the Canadiens back into our weekly top five? Well, no. But they're inching their way back into consideration, and with a few top-five teams looking vulnerable, we might see Montreal back on the list at some point before the season ends. Just not this week.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. San Jose Sharks (42-22-7, +30 true goals differential*): They had a chance to all but put away the Pacific on Saturday against the Ducks, but lost 2–1. The Sharks are still the favourites, but the door is open.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6, +63): Well, look who's back. With four straight wins, the Blue Jackets knock the slumping Wild out of the top five for the first time since Christmas, and leave us facing that problem of having too many Metro teams once again.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 17, 2017

Podcast: Fleeting happiness

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I are briefly happy but don't worry, it doesn't last
- How to fix the standings and playoff system
- Did Steve Yzerman jedi mind-trick the deadline, or just get lucky?
- Dave compares the Kings to Eli Manning and the New York Giants
- That stupid Leafs fishing trip controversy
- And lots, lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.