Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday storylines: Leafs vs Habs, chapter two

Welcome to the NHL’s “Centennial Birthday Weekend,” in which the league celebrates its 100th birthday. It’s not the anniversary of the first ever games, since that’s in December, or of the league officially forming, since that’s next week. It’s just … uh … a centennial birthday. Stop asking questions. Look, do you want some cake or not?

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens

This is the second time this season that we’ve featured a Leafs-Habs game in this spot, and it probably won’t be the last. There’s just something special about a Saturday night matchup between the two long-time rivals. And since the league is using the meeting as an opportunity to douse us with history, all the better.

It’s worth revisiting what we wrote about these two teams the last time they played, if only to serve as a reminder of how many twists and turns can be packed into five weeks. Back on the season’s second weekend, we were wondering if the Maple Leafs could snap Montreal’s 14-game win streak in head-to-head matchups. They did, earning a 4-3 overtime win on an Auston Matthews goal.

We were also wondering if Montreal was ever going to get the offence going. That happened too, although it took a little longer. The Habs’ inability to score went from a curiosity to problem to an outright crisis over the course of the season’s first few weeks, before the floodgates finally opened and all those stats guys were proven right about percentages and regression and sample sizes. The Canadiens aren’t exactly lighting up scoreboards – they still rank just 24th in total goals – and Thursday’s loss to the Coyotes was the first time they’ve scored more than three in a game since Nov. 4. But at least nobody’s panicking about the offence anymore in Montreal. They’ve got other things to worry about.

Instead, we’re all wondering what’s up with Carey Price, who’s “minor” injury has kept him out for two weeks now. He still says it’s no big deal, assuring fans that they “don’t have to be concerned” and that this isn’t a repeat of 2015. That’s reassuring, and with rookie Charlie Lindgren looking fantastic, the Canadiens haven’t missed their superstar all that much yet. But seeing Price try to play through a second pre-game injury raises some fair questions about the relationship between the team and its expensive star. And you can forgive Montreal fans for being a little nervous about the situation, especially when Antti Niemi suddenly shows up via waivers? If Niemi is ever the answer, the question probably isn’t anything good.

As for the Maple Leafs, the last time they were in Montreal they were riding high and scoring a ton. Since then, we’ve seen them boost their record to 6-1-0, be declared Cup favourites, cool off, hit an outright slump, and then reel off five straight wins even though they were missing Matthews for most of that stretch. It’s been quite a journey. And these days, the Maple Leafs are winning thanks to solid goaltending and team defence instead of by just blowing the doors off whoever’s in the opposing net. They even managed a 1-0 overtime win their last time out. That’s not quite as much fun, but it probably makes Mike Babcock a lot less cranky, and that’s worth something.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Friday, November 17, 2017

Grab Bag: When Teemu sings

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- That Wings/Flames brawl was crazy, but man times have changed
- Your guide to the GoalDNA project
- An obscure player who likes ice hockey, ice hockey
- The week's three comedy stars
- And new Hall-of-Famer Teemu Selanne has a song for you

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Biscuits podcast: Fixing the Hockey Hall of Fame

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:

- Gary Bettman was allowed to speak in public again, so Dave and I are annoyed
- Brian Burke did too, and he didn't disappoint
- We introduce a new feature called Dave and Sean Fix The NHL. This week's project: the Hockey Hall of Fame
- Is Martin St. Louis a HHOFer? Dave isn't sure.
- Should Daniel Alfredsson be a sure thing? I'm not sure.
- We both suggest a longshot defenseman we think should be in.
- Reader questions, and lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or subscribe on iTunes.





Monday, November 13, 2017

Weekend wrap: Are the Penguins broken?

Almost a quarter of a way into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost more games than they’ve won. They have the league’s third-worst goals differential, having given up 17 more than they’ve scored. They’ve lost six of their last eight. And Sidney Crosby is struggling through an extended slump, one that sees him with a bigger number on the wrong side of his plus/minus (-14) than in the points column (13).

Should we be concerned here?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say no, of course not. It’s early, there are still five months to go and these are the Penguins we’re talking about. Most good teams go through a cold spell or two over the course of a season, and we shouldn’t overreact just because the Penguins’ stretch is coming in October and November instead of being buried in February when nobody would even notice.

That’s pretty much the stance we’ve been taking around these parts, where we spent October stubbornly slotting the Penguins into our top-five list even when they were losing games 10-1. That seemed fair – two straight titles should buy you some benefit of the doubt. But as the season wears on and the Penguins continue to look like a decidedly mediocre team, it may be time to start wondering.

After all, this is a team that lost a lot of last year’s roster. They were depth pieces, sure, and in theory the core was even better because Kris Letang is back. But Letang is off to a terrible start, and the team seems to miss guys like Nick Bonino, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz. They’ve missed Marc-Andre Fleury too, as Matt Murray is off to a slow start and the backup spot has been a mess.

They’ve also had issues with back-to-back games. They’ve played two games in two nights six times so far this year, and they’ve lost the second game all six times. That includes three embarrassing blowouts by scores of 10-1 (against the Blackhawks), 7-1 (Lightning) and 7-1 again (Jets). No team likes to play back-to-backs, but seeing the Penguins struggle like this has to be a concern. This team has played a ton of hockey over the last two years, and you have to wonder about fatigue. Seeing them constantly look like their tank is empty in back-to-backs is a worrying sign.

Let’s circle back to those three ugly blowouts. In a weird sort of way, maybe they’re good news. The Penguins were outscored 24-3 in those three games, which accounts for that terrible goals differential. You can’t just hand-wave away a team’s worst games, but it’s not like the Penguins have been as consistently bad as a first glance at the numbers might suggest.

But there’s a flip side to that coin, and it’s that it’s extremely rare for good teams to get blown out this badly this often. Only three teams have ever lost three games by six goals or more and gone on to win the Stanley Cup that year: the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas, 1979-80 Islanders and 1983-84 Oilers. All three of those teams played in high-scoring eras. Since the year 2000, there have been only four other times where an eventual champ was blown out by six or more. On the other hand, two of those included last year’s Penguins, so maybe this is just a thing this team does.

It’s also worth noting that the Pens have been very good at home but lousy away from Pittsburgh. That’s important, because they’ve played 13 of their 19 games on the road. That’s part of a bigger issue, which is that their early schedule has been a tough one. They’ve played the Lightning, Predators and Capitals twice each, as well as the Blues, Jets and Blackhawks. That’s a tough start, especially when you’re on the road for most of it.

The bottom line is that it’s certainly too early to write off the Penguins – as bad as things have been, they’re still sitting in second spot in their division. But they don’t look much like the team that’s rolled through so much of the league since Mike Sullivan arrived on the scene. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s a lack of depth, or maybe it’s just one of those cold streaks that happens sometimes. We don’t know yet, and there’s still plenty of time to find out. But even if it’s not panic time, at least a little bit of concern seems reasonable.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (12-7-0, +8 true goals differential*): The Leafs sneak back onto the list after winning four straight this week, despite not actually playing all that well and missing Auston Matthews. Good teams have to find ways to win when they’re not at their best.

4. San Jose Sharks (10-6-0, +7): Honestly, there’s like a half-dozen teams we could slot into the No. 4 and 5 spots. But we’ll give this spot to the Sharks even though they may not deserve it. You know, kind of like it’s a penalty shot.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday storylines: Duchene vs. Turris

We’ve got a dozen games on the schedule Saturday, including a pair of afternoon games, one of which is being played in Sweden. Let’s dive in.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

We’re going with the Leafs and Bruins as Saturday night’s featured game, for a couple of reasons. First, by using it here we don’t have to worry about having it show up in the “From the Archives” section, meaning we don’t have to revisit this or this. Honestly, that’s kind of the main one. Whoever said “time heals all wounds” was never a Maple Leafs fan.

But even putting all that unpleasantness aside, Saturday night’s game looms as an intriguing one. It’s the back half of an old school home-and-home series played over consecutive nights. Last night, the Leafs beat the Bruins in overtime. Now the Bruins get their chance at revenge.

Both teams have steered through an up-and-down first month of the schedule. The Leafs have more to show for it, thanks to a hot start and a solid last week that balance out a rocky two-week stretch in late October. They’re sitting at 11-7-0, and while even their wins tend to feature uneven performances, holding down second spot in the Atlantic behind only the powerhouse Lightning seems like a reasonable result.

The Bruins are off to a slower start, having lost more games than they’ve won. At 6-5-4, they look like a playoff bubble team, which is essentially what they were last year. But given their injury troubles so far, they’ll probably take it. They’ve been without David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and David Backes among others; Brad Marchand returned Friday night after missing two games with an upper-body injury.

(The Maple Leafs are dealing with an injury issue of their own, of course, with Auston Matthews missing time this week. He’s not expected to play Saturday.)

So it’s the beaten-up Bruins against the still-figuring-it-out Maple Leafs in a matchup between longtime rivals fighting for the same playoff spot. And that fight may have gotten tougher over the last week, since one of their fellow Atlantic contenders just made a few headlines of their own…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet