Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Breaking down the madness of that Penguins/Capitals game

Well, that game certainly took a turn.

Last night’s showdown between the Penguins and Capitals already felt like a big deal going in. The two teams are very good, and Washington’s nine-game win streak had moved them past Pittsburgh and into first place overall. It was also a matchup between longtime rivals, not to mention a rematch of last year’s division final. What more could you want?

Well, how about 15 goals?

After a fairly ordinary first period that saw the Caps take a 2–0 lead into intermission, the two teams held down the turbo buttons for pretty much the entire second period, erupting for nine goals. They added three more in the third to send the game to overtime, where Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary ended it just 34 seconds in.

That's a lot to take in. So let's break it down, with a look at 10 of the more interesting facts from an interesting game.

1. The Capitals pulled off a rare feat in recent NHL history

Washington became just the third team in the last two decades to score seven goals and lose.

That actually used to be a relatively common occurrence. During the high-flying ’80s, it happened 49 times, including three games in which the losing team scored nine times. (No NHL team has ever reached the 10-goal mark and still taken the loss.)

Seven-goal losses continued to be reasonably common through the early ’90s, right up until the arrival of the Dead Puck Era, when a 10–8 loss by the Penguins to the Sharks in 1996 marked the last time it would happen for well over a decade.

That streak came to an end in 2010, when Philadelphia dropped an 8–7 decision to Tampa Bay. And those same Flyers were back at it a year later, losing a memorable 9–8 shootout to the Jets.

(You may remember that game as the one that inspired Ilya Bryzgalov's immortal "I am lost in the woods" soliloquy.)

2. Matt Murray had a weird night

The good news is that Murray picked up the win. The bad news is that he gave up seven goals while doing it.

That makes him the first goaltender to give up that many in a win since Ondrej Pavelec, who surrendered seven in that Jets win over the Flyers. But Pavelec at least got a short break in that game, making way for Chris Mason to come in and give up one of the Flyer goals.

To find the last goaltender who played an entire game and won despite giving up seven goals, you have to go all the way back to 1994 and a game involving, who else, the Flyers. On Feb. 21, they beat the Canadiens 8–7 behind the goaltending of Dominic Roussel.

The funny thing about that game is that Roussel almost didn't make it to the end, because he nearly got ejected. After the Flyers' sixth goal, Montreal starter Patrick Roy decided to take a swing at Eric Lindros. That turned out to be a very bad idea, especially for Roy's unfortunate teammate, Eric Desjardins. Roussel skated the length of the ice to even the odds, but for one of the only times in Roy's career, cooler heads prevailed and the goalie fight didn't happen.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, January 16, 2017

Weekend wrap: Capital Wasteland

So the good news is that the Blue Jackets have cooled off after winning 16 straight, and look like they’re not going to run away and hide with the Presidents’ Trophy after all.

The bad news is that now it’s another Metro team that looks unbeatable, and it’s the team that ended the Blue Jackets’ streak. Apparently ending a team’s shot at the all-time streak record is some sort of Highlander thing where the winner absorbs the loser’s powers, because now the Washington Capitals are running over everyone.

Their two weekend victims were a pair of pretty good teams in the Blackhawks and Flyers. No matter; the Caps smoked both, winning those two weekend games by a combined score of 11–0. That ran their current win streak to nine, and moved them past Columbus into first place overall. Since the puck dropped on that streak game with the Blue Jackets back on Jan. 5, the Caps are 6-0-0 and have outscored their opponents 26–3.

The Capitals are unstoppable. Nobody can score against them at even strength. And if the playoffs started today, they'd head into them as the league's top seed and Stanley Cup favourites.

For most teams, that would be considered a good thing.

But this is Washington, and Capitals fans don't exactly have the best history when it comes to getting their hopes up. That's led to some handwringing over whether the team is peaking too early, and to headlines about the winning streak that include the words "Oh noooooooo."

You can kind of see where Caps fans are coming from. After decades of periodic playoff collapses, this had been shaping up like the sort of year where they could sit back, watch their rivals eat up all the attention and expectations, then sneak into the playoffs as a solid but under-the-radar dark horse.

Then they started winning and, well, so much for that plan. Now it's all eyes on Washington. Braden Holtby is back in the running for another Vezina, Nicklas Backstrom is getting pregame ceremonies, and Alex Ovechkin has people debating where he ranks among the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. And Capitals fans who'd been banking on a nice quiet underdog vibe are suddenly curled up in a ball and dreading what's inevitably to come.

Tonight, the Caps visit the Penguins in what may be the week's best game, not to mention a possible first-round playoff preview. It's the first game of a tough stretch that will see them play seven of nine on the road, so fingers crossed, Washington fans. Maybe they can snap out of this unfortunate hot streak sooner than later.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Montreal Canadiens (27-11-6, +26 true goals differential*) – They're back, if barely. More on that below.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-11-5, +20) – They went pointless on a three-game road trip, and have dropped to third in the Metro.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, January 13, 2017

Podcast: Where do you rank Ovechkin?

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I look at Alexander Ovechkin's place in history
- How do you rate star players across eras?
- My theory of what would happen if you dropped the 1977 Habs into today's NHL
- Death to the shootout
- Reader questions
- I offer up an important warning about where not to pee
- Plus we drop some subtle hints about something cool you'll hear about soon

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: Death to international shootouts

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Shootout must die; let's start with gold medal games
- What's the deal with this year's weird scheduling?
- An obscure player who came this close to becoming a Canadian Olympic legend
- This week's three comedy stars, in which Brock Lesnar is a damn hero
- And we get some classic YouTube tips on how to market an NHL superstar, 1980s style

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, January 12, 2017

NHL stock watch: January

As of today, it’s been exactly three months since the NHL opened. On that night back in October, we all settled in to get our first glimpse of regular-season action, as the league took its initial steps towards the inevitable Lightning versus Stars matchup in the Stanley Cup final.

OK, so not everything has turned out like we thought it would. (Fine — like I thought it would. Never listen to my predictions on anything.) But that uncertainty is a good thing; the league wouldn’t be any fun if we always knew what was coming. And it makes it worthwhile to occasionally take stock of where we stand as the season goes by.

This is something we like to do around here about once a month. Sometimes, the trends end up sticking – back in November, we bought in on the leaguewide youth movement and the rise of the Metro Division, while in December it was time to go all-in on John Tortorella. Then again, back in the season’s first month it also looked like we could be in for a busy season of trading, and, well, we’ll get to how that turned out.

So yes, markets can be volatile and you invest at your own risk. But you knew that already, so let’s get to this month’s stock watch.

Stock rising: Last year's bottom five

Now that we're past the halfway mark, it's becoming clear who the league's truly bad teams are. The Coyotes and Avalanche surely fit in that category, and the Islanders, Devils and Red Wings aren't far from joining them.

But there's some good news for those teams: If this year is any indication, a stay in the league's basement doesn't have to be long-term.

Here were last year's five worst teams, based on the standings: Calgary, Columbus, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto. Of those, three teams are holding down playoff spots right now – Columbus, Calgary and Edmonton. A fourth, the Maple Leafs, are on the outside based on total points but have played fewer games than most of the teams they're chasing, and would be in based on points percentage. And even the Canucks, written off early as the favourite to finish dead last, have been hanging around the playoff race thanks to a recent win streak.

Granted, four of those five teams could still fall out of the race with a bad week or two. But the fact that they're even in the mix offers some hope to the Coyotes, Avalanche and friends. In a league where we still talk about five-year plans and slow and steady rebuilds, it's encouraging to see some evidence that a quick leap up the standings is possible.

Of course, just because something is possible doesn't mean it's guaranteed. Which takes us to our next stock...

Stock falling: Buffalo Sabres

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The Sabres went through years of misery, but it was the good kind: self-inflicted, and with a purpose. That purpose at least partially involved winning draft lotteries, and that part didn't work out so well, but there was still plenty of room for optimism. Last year brought progress, and set the stage for the year when it would all come together and the Sabres would finally contend for a playoff spot.

It hasn't happened. Three months into the season, the Sabres are once again nestled towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Right now, they're on pace to finish with 84 points, which would barely be a step up from last year's 81.

Sure, some of that is injuries, with key names like Jack Eichel, Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly missing time. But even with all those players back in the lineup, the Sabres have been largely spinning their wheels. And patience, which Sabres fans have supplied in abundance, may finally be running out.

Nobody said this rebuild would be easy, and there's still time to right the ship this year. But watching the Sabres flounder yet again while fellow also-rans like the Blue Jackets, Oilers and Maple Leafs soar past them can't be anything but frustrating. These days, even the franchise-savior owner is losing some of his shine.

Something has to give eventually. For the sake of some of the longest-suffering fans in the league, here's hoping it's a few wins.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet