Monday, March 19, 2018

Weekend wrap: The beginning of the end

The NHL regular season is a long story. It lasts six months, and there are stretches where it feels like we’ve settled into a status quo. Things happen, many of them important, even if we don’t always recognize them at the time. Every chapter along the way matters, and even a rough few weeks can spell the end of a team’s chances. But for the most part, the season unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, and even a week-to-week feature like this one sometimes struggles to find something new to talk about. It’s never boring. It’s just that things move slowly.

That is, right up until we get to the end. Welcome to the end.

With three weeks left in the season, we’ve hit the part of the schedule where things change quickly in noticeable ways. For example, this week saw the appearance of the first “x.” You know the “x” — the little symbol that appears in the standings next to a team that’s clinched its playoff spot. The first few don’t really tell us much, because they appear next to teams that we already knew were playoff locks. That was the case when the Predators became the first team to earn the honour, and it remained true yesterday when the Lightning joined them.

But the “x” serves as a signal that the urgency is picking up, with every one that appears representing one fewer playoff spot available for the taking. There’s two on the standings page now, but those will be joined by several more in the days to come. Soon, those x’s will be joined by the y’s and z’s and eventually even the “p” for Presidents’ Trophy. Those letters mean we can finally drop all those “maybe” and “probably” and “likely” qualifiers and start talking about what actually is. They mean that there’s no turning back.

Likewise, this was the week that a few teams earned the dreaded “e,” signalling their mathematical elimination from the playoffs. The NHL doesn’t like that one, and doesn’t use it on its own standings page, but we know it’s out there. In recent days, the Sabres, Coyotes and Canucks have all been put out of their misery, and the Red Wings and Senators are days away from joining them. Again, none of this is breaking news to fans of those teams. But the finality of seeing the “e,” especially with weeks still to play, drives home that the season really is a write-off.

That leaves the middle ground of teams who still aren’t sure which letter they’ll get, and that’s where the real fun starts. For the first few months of the season, we’ve all got plenty of time to craft long-range narratives about who’s heading in the right direction and who might fall short. In these final weeks, it starts to feel like everything gets thrown out the window after every game.

The Panthers are on fire and heading towards an inevitable playoff berth? Not when they blow a third-period lead to cough up a game to the Oilers on home ice. The Devils are fading and facing an impossibly tough schedule? Chalk up road wins over the Predators, Knights and Kings, and suddenly they’re looking comfortable again. The Blues have raised the white flag on the season? Wins in four of five have them right back in the mix. The top three in the Metro is locked in? Let’s see what the Blue Jackets and their seven straight wins have to say about it. The inconsistent Flames are fumbling away a wild-card spot? Well, look, we didn’t say that everything was changing.

But who knows, the Flames could always roll off four straight wins this week and send the script careening in a different direction. That’s what one good (or bad) stretch can do when it gets this late. But with only three weeks left, time is running out.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Vegas Golden Knights (46-21-5, +44 true goals differential*): They’d lost four straight at home, giving up 21 goals along the way, and needed an easy win to get things back on track. Luckily for them, the Flames arrived just in time.

4. Winnipeg Jets (43-19-10, +51): Mark Scheifele returned to the lineup and had an assist in last night’s win. But they may have lost Jacob Trouba.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday storylines: Spoiler alert

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a special occasion, one that hockey fans typically spend drinking slightly more beer than usual, thinking, “Wait, why is my team wearing green?” and watching old YouTube clips of people punching each other.

Today, fans can also spend it with 10 matchups, including a classic Canadian rivalry.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs and Canadiens have been back in the same division for nearly two decades now, and they’ve spent most of that time engaged in a strange dance where only one team at a time can be any good. When the Leafs were contending for a Cup under Pat Quinn around the turn of the century, the Habs mostly missed the playoffs. When the Canadiens followed that up by making the post-season in eight of the first 10 post-lockout seasons, the Maple Leafs decidedly did not. And now that Toronto is finally good again, Montreal seems to be on the verge of a rebuild.

But through it all, it’s been a consistent truth that games between the teams always seemed to be good, or at least memorable. Even when one team was awful and had nothing to play for, there was something about the Toronto/Montreal matchup that could be counted on to produce at least a little magic. Whether it was a dramatic goal or some bad blood or a serenade gone wrong, something fun would happen. You can scoff at lame stories about rivalries and history and ghosts all you want, but the Leafs and Habs usually delivered.

Tonight will put that theory to the test. The Canadiens don’t have much of anything left to play for, and come in having lost six of their last seven. With Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty all out of the lineup with long-term injuries, the Habs are clearly in just-get-it-over-with mode down the stretch. Even the usual narrative about playing for next year’s jobs only goes so far, as we’re not even sure whether the current GM will still be around to make those roster calls. You could forgive Montreal fans if they were more interested in making little heart-eyes at John Tavares than in watching what’s left of this roster play out the string.

Meanwhile, the Leafs come into this one riding a franchise-record 11-game home winning streak. It’s been an impressive run, especially with most of it coming without Auston Matthews. But it hasn’t done much to change the standings, where Toronto remains locked into third place in the Atlantic. With 10 games left in the regular season after this one, the Leafs would probably prefer to fast-forward straight to the playoffs, if only to avoid any more injuries like the ones that have claimed Matthews, Frederik Andersen and most recently Leo Komarov.

So two teams, only one of which is any good, and neither with much of anything to play for. And yet… well, it’s still Toronto and Montreal. As eye-rolling as the premise may be, there really is something special about seeing the league’s oldest rivalry play out on a Saturday night. And with the way these things tend to go, would anyone be all that shocked to see a depleted Montreal roster arrive in town and pull off the upset, snapping the Leafs’ record-setting win streak in the process?

If you’ve followed this rivalry over the years, you know to expect the unexpected by now. At the very least, Toronto fans may want to keep the victory songs to themselves until the final buzzer.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 16, 2018

Grab Bag: Ten Commandments of Replay Review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- In an important message for hockey fans of the future, I spell out the Ten Commandments of Adding More Replay Review
- The mysterious injury problem that's sweeping the league, just like it does every year
- An obscure player who snapped the longest goal-scoring drought ever
- The week's three comedy stars are homer-ific
- And a YouTube breakdown of the big brawl from the St. Patrick's Day Massacre. No, the other one.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Podcast: Ovechkin's 600th

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Alexander Ovechkin gets his 600th; where does he rank all-time?
- Why are we surprised that Carolina fired Ron Francis?
- The Leafs front office drama
- Dave makes fun of the way I say "drama"
- Should there be a limit on winning draft lotteries?
- The playoff format is weird, and we come up with a better way
- Evgeni Malkin's case for the Hart Trophy
- Our predictions for who'll come out of the Western wildcard race
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Plotting out the ideal 2018 playoffs

It’s too early to start thinking ahead to how the 2018 playoffs could play out. It’s always too early. Even when you’re down to the final week of the season, it’s too early. As soon as you start looking forward to a matchup that’s all but locked in, the hockey gods will notice your happiness and reach down to smite it.

Remember a few years ago when we were all but assured of the first Toronto/Montreal matchup in 34 years, and then it all fell apart on the season’s final day? That’s because somebody out there got excited and ruined it. (That was me. I did that.)

So if your knee-jerk reaction to the premise of this post is “It’s too early, dummy,” then yes, you’re right. But we’re doing it anyway, if only so we can squeeze some enjoyment out of what might happen before we’re hit with the inevitable letdown of what actually does.

Because here’s the thing: The 2018 playoffs are shaping up to be fantastic. With a break here or there, we could get some truly amazing matchups. And not just in the first round, but all the way through. So today, let’s go through the realistic scenarios and try to settle on the best possible way that the entire tournament could play out.

We’re coming at this from the perspective of a neutral fan — obviously, your ideal playoffs would be the one where your team wins the Cup by going 16-0. And the matchups have to be plausible, so we can’t move anybody up or down too many spots in the standings just to create a dream pairing. But as we’ll see, we don’t really have to. With just a few tweaks to the current standings, things get really interesting in a big hurry.


The matchup: #3 Maple Leafs vs. #2 Bruins

Let’s start with an easy one, since this matchup has felt like it was inevitable for most of the season. There’s plenty to like here. It’s an Original Six matchup, it’s two good teams who’ve had some entertaining games recently, and there would be some fun matchup questions, like Auston Matthews vs. Patrice Bergeron.

And of course, the ghost of 2013 would hang over everything. The Maple Leafs’ legendary collapse in that series would be front and centre, even though most of the current roster wasn’t around for it and Mitch Marner doesn’t even look like he was born yet. Toronto fans will get sick of hearing about “It was 4–1” pretty much immediately, but it will add plenty of extra drama for everyone else.

Ideal outcome: This is a little trickier. If you’re someone who doesn’t like the Maple Leafs — and lord knows, there are plenty of you — then your ideal outcome here is a seventh game in which Toronto blows a 5–1 lead, followed by all their fans abandoning society forever and going off to live in the woods. But we’re trying to build the best possible tournament, so we’ll give the Maple Leafs a redemptive win.

The matchup: #WC2 Panthers vs. #1 Lightning

Florida’s late-season charge to an unlikely playoff berth rolls on. They were a dozen points out in January, but have stormed back to make things interesting. They’re a fun underdog story, led by the ageless Roberto Luongo. And if they go on a run, we all get to throw rats at people.

But here’s the best part. If they sneak into the last wild-card spot, look what’s waiting for them in the first round: The first ever Battle of Florida. The two teams have been in the same division for nearly a quarter of a century and have never met in the playoffs. Our ideal post-season makes it happen.

Ideal outcome: Underdog stories are great. Also great: the Lightning, who should win the series easily. Sorry, Panthers.

The matchup: #2 Penguins vs. #3 Flyers

This is a good rivalry that could use some rekindling, and there’s no better way to do that than with a first-round matchup.

These two teams have met in the playoffs three times during the cap era, but not since 2012. You might remember that as one of the crazier playoff rounds in recent memory, featuring games that ended with finals like 8–4, 8–5 and 10–3, and plenty of bad blood along the way.

A repeat performance is too much to ask for, but anything that even came close would be fantastic.

Ideal outcome: As much as the Flyers would love to be the ones to end the Penguins’ reign, we’re going to send the defending champs a little deeper into this bracket. Pittsburgh wins.

The matchup: #WC1 Devils vs. #1 Capitals

Look, they can’t all be dream matchups. But Devils/Caps would give us a nice old-school Patrick Division pairing, not to mention a fun Taylor Hall vs. Alex Ovechkin head-to-head, which would lead to a bunch of “best left winger in hockey” takes that would make Johnny Gaudreau fans really mad.

But if you wanted to swap in the Blue Jackets or Hurricanes here, go ahead. It won’t really matter, because…

Ideal outcome: The Capitals have to advance for the second-round matchup we all know is coming.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet