Monday, January 22, 2018

Weekend wrap: Crossing the Atlantic

Hey, remember how the Atlantic Division race was all sewn up, the Lightning were walking away with the top seed, and we could all get to work on our Bruins/Maple Leafs round one previews?

Yeah, hold that thought.

For maybe the first time all season, the Lightning are starting to look mortal. They’ve lost three straight by a combined score of 14–4, including Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Wild that kicked off a brutal eight-game road trip. They’re already missing Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos hasn’t scored in eight straight, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is struggling badly, giving up at least four goals in five straight starts. Their coach says they’re “out of synch,” and while you can blame the bye week for some of that, their best players aren’t leading the way anymore. At some point, it’s going to be fair to start wondering if this team deserves the dreaded “peaked too early” label, and had things a little too easy during a first half where everything seemed to be clicking every night.

That mini-slump has opened the door for the Bruins, and they’re making a hard run at it. They’ve won three in a row and have points in 16 straight. When they last lost a game in regulation, way back on Dec. 14, they were 14 points back of the Lightning. Now the gap is down to just three, and the Bruins hold a game in hand.

That’s not bad for a race some of us had written off just a few weeks ago. (Yes, guilty as charged.) And it creates a fascinating stretch run. The two teams have met only once all season, a 3-2 Bruins win in November. But they play three times in the season’s final dozen games, and now those look a lot like the ones that could decide the division.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are hanging around as the division’s awkward third wheel. They’d been fading out of contention thanks to eight straight without a regulation win, but snapped that streak with Saturday’s third-period comeback in Ottawa, a result that felt like it could be bigger than two points for a young team that was starting to turn on itself.

The Leafs didn’t lose any ground to the teams chasing them during their slump; in fact, they gained some on them thanks to some shootout luck and the loser point. But they certainly haven’t looked anything like a Cup contender, and it’s led to the first real wave of criticism Mike Babcock has faced since arriving in Toronto. Being on the right end of a third-period collapse for once will quell that for at least a few days, but things don’t get any easier with the red-hot Avalanche in town tonight.

For now, the Leafs seem more locked into third spot in the division than ever. But now it’s an open question as to who they’ll play. And maybe more importantly, who they should want to face.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (28-13-7, +27 true goals differential*): Last night’s 1-0 win over the Canucks wasn’t pretty, but it moves the Jets back into top spot in the Central.

4. Nashville Predators (28-11-6, +20): Make it five straight wins, all by one goal. Next up is what should be a fun matchup with the Lightning tomorrow night.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday storylines: A Western Conference final preview

Welcome to another NHL Saturday, you’ll want to get comfy, because we’re going to be here a while. With the bye weeks over with, we’re back to a nearly full schedule for the first time in a few weeks. We’ve got 13 games on tap including three all-Canadian matchups as part of the Hockey Day in Canada festivities, and we’ll start with the best one.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Flames

Man, this is going to be a great conference final.

OK, sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but the Jets are already a point out of first place in the league’s toughest division, and the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with seven straight wins — and neither team’s path to the third round looks all that foreboding.

Based on the standings, the Flames will have the conference’s best team to get past in the Pacific, but that team is an expansion squad. Granted, it’s the best expansion team in the history of sports, but do we really think they’re going to roll through their first ever post-season? (Thinking.) Yeah, they might.

However, with the Kings fading, the Sharks looking ordinary, the Ducks struggling to even make the playoffs, and the Oilers and Coyotes all but done, the Flames’ road out of the Pacific goes through an expansion team. You’ll take that every time.

The Jets are facing a tougher path, but the Predators had been inconsistent before their recent win streak and are fighting through various injuries. And after last year’s run to the final there’s a risk of fatigue setting in at some point.

The Blues haven’t looked like the same dominant team they were in the first half, and while the traffic jam for a wild card means that whichever teams grab those spots will probably have closed off the season hot, if the Blackhawks lose Corey Crawford for the season then we can probably write off the division’s most experienced playoff team.

And remember, the Jets are already arguably the division’s best team even with Mark Scheifele injured and Dustin Byfuglien only now waking up. Give them a healthy Scheifele, a hot Byfuglien, and a trade deadline rental or two, and who’s beating them?

Well, maybe the Flames.

One way or another, it would be a hell of a matchup, one that would bring back memories of Smythe Division battles long past, only without Wayne Gretzky and friends waiting to crush the winner in Round 2.

It might be the second-most fun you can have in a plausible Western Conference Final (trailing only the obvious Vegas-Nashville dream matchup). Plus, it would carry the added bonus of guaranteeing Canada a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2011.

On Saturday, the two teams face off for the first time since the second game of the season (a 6-3 Flames win). With both teams coming off their bye, we can probably expect a sloppy game as they work the rust off. We’ll have to wait until April to see them again, as they meet in their second-last game of the season.

And after that, we’ll just have to wait for the main event May.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, January 19, 2018

Grab bag: You can look for answers but that ain't fun

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the NHL hiring Kid Rock to perform at the all-star game
- Debating the HHOF care of Willie O'Ree
- An obscure tough guy with a fantastic nickname
- The week's three comedy stars
- And the legendary Chico Resch has one of history's greatest meltdowns over a phantom goal

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Podcast: Put your skates in the air like you just don't care

In the Vice Biscuits podcast:
- On Andrew Cogliano's suspended streak
- Making the case for Nathan MacKinnon as MVP
- These offside reviews are so stupid that even the NHL has to do something
- Why isn't Willie O'Ree in the Hall of Fame?
- Dave and I agree to move in together
- Plus the reader questions get R-rated and lots more

>> Stream it now

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Assembling the NHL's all-time snub team

With the all-star rosters announced last week, everyone has spent the last few days compiling their lists of snubs. That’s pretty much an annual tradition at this point, and it’s all in good fun, even though a lot of the “snubs” are players who probably didn’t want to go in the first place.

But what if we aimed a little higher? What’s the best all-time roster you could assemble out of players who went their entire career without ever being recognized with a significant NHL honour?

We’re not talking midseason all-star picks here – with the one-player-per-team rule, those don’t really tell us much about who deserved what. Instead, let’s go with the big stuff. We’re looking for players who went their entire NHL career without ever:

1) Being a finalist for one of the major awards: Hart, Norris, Vezina or Calder; or

2) Being voted a first- or second-team all-star at the end of the season

You can call them the all-snub squad if you want to. Personally, I’m going to go with the Flying Federkos, in honour of the player who pretty much epitomizes the concept. Longtime Blues centre Bernie Federko scored 1,130 points over a 14-year career, which was good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. But he never finished higher than fourth in all-star voting, and a 10th-place finish in 1986 was his best Hart Trophy showing.

So Federko’s our captain. But without getting ahead of ourselves, he’s not our best player, or even our first-line centre. And he’s far from the only Hall of Famer who’s going to make our squad. Let’s start up front, where there’s plenty of firepower to go around.

(All award-voting data comes from the invaluable Hockey Reference site.)


Centre: Ron Francis

Yes, despite a 22-season career that left him holding down spots in the all-time top five for points, assists and games played, Francis qualifies for our team. He did win some secondary honours, such as a Selke and three Lady Byngs. But he was never a post-season all-star, and never even finished in the top five in Hart voting.

How is that possible for a guy widely regarded as an all-time legend? For one, Francis was a two-way player, and they often don’t get the respect they deserve. But the bigger problem here can be summed up in two words: Gretzky and Lemieux. The two greatest centres of all time dominated the ’80s and early ’90s, leaving players like Francis and Federko — whose career overlapped theirs — with a tough path to recognition.

Winger: Mike Gartner

Despite finishing as one of only seven members of the 700-goal club, Gartner never earned so much as a single Hart Trophy vote during an 18-season career. And his best finish in all-star voting was fourth, which he managed twice.

Winger: Glenn Anderson

We’ll finish off our first line with another Hall of Fame winger who never received a Hart vote. It’s not hard to see why — during the Oilers glory years, Anderson was typically only the fourth-best forward on his own team. He came close to earning an all-star spot in 1986, but finished just behind Mats Naslund for second-team honours. It was one of five top-five finishes in Anderson’s career.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet