Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In celebration of the NHL's horrible, awful, brutally unfair Game Sevens

The best team won last night in Washington. Let’s get that part out of the way first.

Last night, the Washington Capitals were the better team. They held the New York Islanders to just 11 shots, an impressive defensive performance that established a new NHL record for the fewest shots allowed in a Game 7. Despite Jaroslav Halak looking like he was going to pull off another elimination-game miracle, the Caps’ effort was enough to secure a 2-1 win. So yes, the Capitals were the better team, for one night at least.

It also doesn’t matter if the best team won. Let’s go there next. It’s not like there’s ever a right answer at the end of a Game 7 in the NHL. There’s no justice. Nobody walks out of a Game 7 feeling good about themselves, or their team, or the future, or the world. Nobody is even happy during a Game 7. If you’re watching closely enough, you may lose the ability to ever be happy again.

And that’s assuming that you don’t care who wins. If you’re a fan of either team, your soul has already set itself on fire by the end of the first intermission.

Game 7s are awful things. In the modern NHL, where parity reigns and every decent team plays an ultra-disciplined system, most games are determined by a lucky bounce here or a bad call there. A seven-game series barely tells you anything these days. Hell, sometimes an 82-game season isn’t enough. One game? You’re going to take an entire year for two teams and try to boil it all down into one game? You might as well flip a coin. It’s madness. It’s borderline cruelty.

It’s awesome.

Last night, the Capitals and Islanders played a classic Game 7, one that hit all the standard notes. You had the scoreless first period, just to build the tension. You had the eerie maybe the next goal wins feel that descends sometime midway through the second. You had the opening goal, this one by Joel Ward, the one that briefly tricks you into thinking it will hold up. You had the tying goal with just a little bit of odor to it. You had the refs who won’t call anything — just one minor all game long, despite plenty of opportunities, because let ’em play, right? You had the one goaltender — Halak this time, although Braden Holtby had a strong series — who starts to seem like he’s just going to say screw it and win the whole thing single-handedly.

And it all sets up That Guy who makes The Play. In every Game 7, there’s always That Guy. Sometimes The Play is a good thing and sometimes it’s a mistake, but it decides the game, and That Guy is the player who’ll never pay for a beer again in one city, and who’ll forever have an F-bomb for a middle name in the other.

Last night, The Guy was Evgeny Kuznetsov, and The Play was a spectacular solo effort to score the winner with seven minutes left. Kuznetsov is 22 years old. He celebrated his very first birthday on May 19, 1993. Three days later, the Islanders beat the Canadiens in Game 4 of the conference final. That still stands as the last playoff win the Islanders have had past Round 1. Like I said, borderline cruelty.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, April 27, 2015

Catching up on round one

Three whole days ago, we headed into the second weekend of the NHL playoffs not knowing all that much except that the Ducks had made it to the next round. By the end of last night, we’d come out of it with five more teams eliminated, two second-round matchups booked, three favorites already out, and two more on the brink. Also, we probably still don’t know all that much, although for the purpose of this post we’ll pretend otherwise.

We’ve got two more big games tonight, including our first Game 7. But first, let’s do a quick roundup of where we’re at with all eight first-round series.

The Blues Exit Early … Again

The Wild held on to beat the Blues 4-1 yesterday, making St. Louis the only no. 1 seed to get sent home in the opening round. Devan Dubnyk was solid and Zach Parise scored twice, while Blues starter Jake Allen was pulled midway through the second after allowing a pair of brutally soft goals.

This one qualifies as an upset based on the standings, but not a huge one: The Wild had been one of the hottest teams of the second half and were widely viewed as a much tougher draw than their seeding indicated. Still, the Blues were supposed to contend for a Cup, and that means being able to beat good teams like Minnesota when you’ve got home ice. Instead, they’re out in the first round for the third straight year.

It will be fascinating to see what comes next for the Blues, who’ve been one of the better teams in the league in recent years but have won just a single playoff round in the last dozen seasons. It’s widely assumed that coach Ken Hitchcock will be fired, and he’ll be in heavy demand among the various teams with vacancies. The bigger question is what will they do with a roster that ranks as one of the league’s best on paper yet just can’t seem to finish during the playoffs. Goaltending will obviously be a focus, given that this team has spent the last few years chewing through an all-star cast including Jaroslav Halak, Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Brian Elliott, and yet still can’t get a save in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Wild just knocked out a very good team in a series in which Dubnyk didn’t even play especially well. That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the West. And Minnesota’s next opponent may sound familiar: another Central Division powerhouse with lots of talent but a question mark in goal. Except this one knows a thing or two about winning playoff rounds …

The Blackhawks Finish Off the Predators

It’s a pretty common story line in an NHL playoff series: One team rides its superstar goaltender all the way through, while the other can’t seem to figure out who’s in net, bouncing back and forth between guys who stand on their head one period and struggle the next.

That plot played out in the Blackhawks-Predators series, but with a twist: Chicago played the part of the team with the goaltending controversy, rotating Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, but still managed to win the series in six games. The Hawks went into the matchup with Crawford firmly established as the starter, but after a shaky first two games Chicago went with Darling, who held the job until getting pulled in Saturday night’s Game 6. The hook came midway through the first after the Predators made it 3-1; Crawford shut the door the rest of the way in what wound end up being a 4-3 Blackhawks win.

That marked the second time in the series that the Blackhawks had won a game in which they’d had to pull their goaltender for poor performance, which must be some sort of record. It also left Chicago facing a goaltending controversy heading into Round 2, although Joel Quenneville appeared to hint that Crawford had regained the job.

As for the Predators, they got solid work from Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne. But they needed better than that to have a shot at winning, especially after Shea Weber was hurt in Game 2. The first-round exit is a tough way to end an impressive season that saw Nashville challenge for the division title before fading down the stretch and getting stuck with a tough matchup against the Hawks. Looking ahead, the Predators are young and well-positioned to contend again next year, although as the Avalanche could tell you, that’s not always enough in the Central.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Can the Senators come back?

The NHL playoffs suffered their first casualty last night, as the Anaheim Ducks completed their sweep of the Winnipeg Jets with a 5-2 win. Two more are in danger of joining them on the sideline tonight, as the Predators and Canucks both trail their series 3-1.

But last night also saw our first team to avoid elimination, as the Senators earned a 1-0 Game 4 win at home to prevent a sweep at the hands of the Canadiens. Craig Anderson made 28 saves for the shutout, and Mike Hoffman scored the only goal midway through the third period, beating a screened Carey Price from the top of the faceoff circle. From there, the Senators went into lockdown mode, smothering the Canadiens so effectively that Montreal could barely get Price out for an extra attacker at the end of regulation.

That capped off a choppy, uneven and, if we’re being honest, fairly dull game. How dull? The evening’s most memorable moment probably came when the Senators took a second-period faceoff violation penalty, which was notable only because nobody could seem to remember the rule ever actually being applied before. When you’re spending the second intermission debating faceoff violations, the odds are good that you’re not watching an all-time classic.1

But that won’t matter much to the Senators, who just needed to escape with a win after falling behind 3-0 in a tight series that had featured three one-goal games, two of which ended in overtime. They’d deserved a better fate, and it would have been hard to blame them if they’d let a sense of discouragement sink in, especially after an opening two periods in which Price looked unbeatable. But after the win, coach Dave Cameron explained that that wasn’t in the team’s nature.

“One of the keys of our team’s success is we say, ‘Stick with it,’” Cameron told Grantland. “Regardless of the score, regardless of who the other team is, regardless of who the other goalie is. That’s all we said after the second period, is, ‘Stick with it.’ And we did, and we got the result we wanted.”

So the Senators are still alive. But can they stay that way? After all, only four teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. With Game 5 in Montreal, the odds are still stacked heavily against the Senators. Chances are, last night’s win will be remembered simply for delaying the inevitable, if it’s even remembered at all.

But there are at least a few reasons to think that this Senators team might actually be able to pull it off. Not many, granted, but I can come up with five:

Craig Anderson: Andrew Hammond was the talk of the NHL over the final two months, replacing an injured Anderson and going on a history-making hot streak to lead the Senators’ late-season charge. All of that made for a great story, but it also made it easy to forget that Anderson is a pretty accomplished goalie in his own right. And while the Senators kept riding Hammond even after Anderson was healthy enough to play, a shaky first two games of the series prompted a switch back to the veteran.

Since then, Anderson has looked great. He shut the Habs out for 54 minutes in Game 3, before allowing Dale Weise to tie the game and later win it in overtime. Last night, he was able to finish the job. He didn’t have to stand on his head to do it, but he made all the saves when they were needed and is now sitting on a .974 save percentage through two games.

A hot goaltender is the great equalizer in the NHL playoffs, and right now the Senators have one. That gives them a shot.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The return of the Whiteout

You have to be careful about trusting hockey fans. We’re generally an honest and principled bunch — call it the Canadian influence — but we’ve been conditioned to lie pathologically about certain subjects. My favorite player never dives. (Yes he does, all the time.) Our gimmicky anthem singer is endearing. (No, he’s really not.) Montreal Canadiens ceremonies are always the best. (Only most of them.)

And there’s no bigger hockey lie at this time of year than this one: “the loudest building in the NHL.” That’s because, come playoff time, virtually every building in the league gets that designation from someone, somewhere. It’s become an annual tradition around the hockey world, this daily anointing of some random town as the loudest building in the league, simply because the fans finally bothered to show up and make some noise for a change. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a press box watching tweets scroll by about how noisy it is while thinking, Wait, did I show up at the wrong building? Because it’s not that loud in here.

And so I went into last night’s heavily anticipated Ducks-Jets game in Winnipeg, the first NHL playoff game played in the city in 19 years, fully prepared for noise. I was expecting noise, even hoping for it. But I also came in carrying along a good dose of prove-it-to-me cynicism. And I held on to that cynicism right up until the moment it melted out of my ears and trickled down onto my shoulders, along with what used to be my eustachian tubes and an undetermined number of brain cells. That moment came midway through pregame warm-ups.

Good lord, Jets fans. Maybe ease it up just a bit. Some of us might want to go home and hear our children’s laughter again someday.

This was the sound of one town unleashing almost two decades of pent-up … I’m not even sure what the right word would be. What’s it called when relief and happiness and civic pride become indistinguishable from primal rage? Whatever it is, it was that. A whole lot of that.

And with the noise came the return of one of hockey’s greatest sights: the whiteout. The real one, not the Phoenix version or one of the various other rip-offs out there. We can argue over whether the Jets invented it,1 but there’s no doubt they’ve perfected it. In the years since the last playoff game in Winnipeg, the concept has been borrowed and repackaged by dozens of teams in various sports, almost always supplemented by free T-shirts left on seats by corporate sponsors, all the better to awkwardly pull over a suit jacket. Not in Winnipeg. They don’t do freebies here. They bring their own white shirts. And pants. And hats, and shoes, and wigs, and face paint, and you name it. I’m pretty sure I saw one guy in a hazmat suit. Leading up to the game, Jets fans’ biggest concern was about whether the team’s white jerseys were white enough.2

And so, 19 years after the original Jets fled to Phoenix, four years after the lowly Atlanta Thrashers moved north to be reborn as Jets 2.0, and two games after the Jets and Ducks kicked off their first-round series, the playoffs had come back to Winnipeg.

Oh, right, the Anaheim Ducks. That’s where this whole feel-good story is going to get a little rough around the edges. The Ducks finished the season with the West’s best record for the second consecutive year.3 With a surprisingly weak Pacific Division fading below them, they feel very much like a Cup-or-bust team, certainly not the kind that would accept losing to a mere wild-card crossover like the Jets.

And through the first two games, the Ducks looked the part. Both times, the Jets held a lead in the third period. Both times, the Ducks roared back to win in regulation. Anaheim came into Monday without having even played its best game but was still just a win away from all but ending the series. It was also the West’s best road team, so if anyone could come into Winnipeg and steal one, it should be the Ducks.

But still, that crowd. Players and coaches had talked about its impact earlier in the day. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau predicted the fans would be “rabid,” adding, “we hope it’s not too intimidating.” He seemed to be only half-joking. Jets coach Paul Maurice talked about Winnipeg fans coming up to him in the streets to say thank you, and how he felt like a teacher who’d finally helped struggling kids turn their grades around. Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd said everyone would be excited to see the crowd’s reaction — “It’s going to give us some energy,” he said, before adding, “we’ll see if we use it the right way.”

In the first, there was plenty of energy available to be used. The crowd cheered icings and offsides like most crowds cheer big hits. They cheered big hits like most crowds cheer goals. And they cheered goals, well, they cheered goals like Jets fans cheer goals. Sorry, that’s where the comparison breaks down.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, April 20, 2015

The winners and losers of the McDavid draft lottery

The NHL held its draft lottery Saturday and you probably heard about the results, assuming you know any hockey fans and were wondering why they were swearing loudly while punching holes into their TV screens.

Yes, the perpetually awful Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery yet again, “earning” the first overall pick for the fourth time in six years. And this year, it’s a big one; the Oilers will get the chance to pick Connor McDavid, the teenage prodigy who almost everyone views as the best prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby.

Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled about this. So let’s take some time to sort out the winners and losers from an evening of Ping-Pong balls and bitter tears.

Winner: Edmonton Oilers — McDavid is a very good hockey player, and he will probably make the Oilers a better hockey team. This is the kind of hard-hitting analysis you look to me for.

There’s honestly not much more to add here; McDavid projects as a generational player, the kind who turns franchises around almost single-handedly. The Oilers still have holes all over their lineup, most notably in net and along the blue line, and the team will someday have to figure out how to surround their talented young forwards with the right depth pieces. So yes, there’s work still to be done in Edmonton. But the hockey gods just gave the Oilers’ perpetual rebuild a great big boost.

Winner: Oilers fans — Another obvious one. After all, no fan base in the league has suffered as much over the last quarter-century. Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 1990, the Oilers went from powerhouse to glorified farm team under the league’s old financial system. Since the cap arrived, they’ve only made the playoffs once, a miracle run that went all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 2006 but ended with a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 after their star goalie got hurt. Since then, they’ve been stuck in rebuilding mode for nine consecutive years. It’s not Oilers fans’ fault that management and ownership was incompetent, the argument goes, and they deserve to have something good happen to them for a change. All of which is true. Except …

Winner: Oilers management — … you have to wonder if winning the lottery hasn’t also doomed Oilers fans to that same awful management group for a while longer. After years of failure, Kevin Lowe and friends had to be hanging by a thread — if the team wasn’t going to clean house in the summer, it was only one more lost season away, at most. Now they have McDavid, and the heat gets turned way down. So Oilers fans end up with a franchise player, but it could come at the cost of a few more years of the status quo in the front office.

If you’re an Oilers fan, do you take that trade-off? Uh, yeah. In a second. But it’s probably the only flaw in the McDavid diamond, so it’s worth a mention.

Loser: The NHL — Oilers fans won’t want to hear it, but the truth is that McDavid winding up where he did is probably the worst-case scenario for the league, and everyone outside of Edmonton knows it. He doesn’t go to a major media center where his presence would be most likely to generate a revenue surge for the league. But he also doesn’t go to a struggling market where he can be the savior who brings stability to a franchise that needs it. He’s not exactly going to disappear into obscurity — it’s worth remembering that Wayne Gretzky did just fine in Edmonton — but this wasn’t the result the league would have wanted.

All of which leads us to …

Loser: Conspiracy theorists — There was a ready-made conspiracy all set to go for just about any lottery winner — except Edmonton. Say what you want about the NHL, but at least we know one thing for sure: The league absolutely positively did not rig the lottery.

Loser, but only a little: Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres tanked their entire season to get the no. 1 pick and came away without it, so it’s tempting to view them as the night’s big losers. Even GM Tim Murray didn’t hide his disappointment. But the Sabres still come away with the no. 2 pick, and this year that means Jack Eichel, a player who’d be the clear no. 1 in just about any other year. He’s not McDavid, but he’s a hell of a consolation prize. And since the NHL stupidly insisted on going with a system that guaranteed the 30th-place team a top-two pick, the Sabres were never at risk of losing out on a franchise player. They didn’t win the lottery, but their lost season still ended up as mission accomplished.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, April 17, 2015

The NHL draft lottery preview and power rankings

The NHL will hold its annual draft lottery tomorrow night, and it’s fair to say that this one will be the most heavily hyped since the weird Sidney Crosby lockout thing back in 2005. With Connor McDavid, the league’s next great franchise player, sitting on top of everyone’s draft list and more than a few teams having blatantly tanked some or all of their season to get him, this one random drawing will quite literally change the course of league history.

So we figured it was only appropriate to put together a draft lottery preview. One problem: That’s kind of hard to do. After all, the odds are what they are. The Sabres have a 20 percent chance of winning, and everyone else has less. Boom. Preview over.

But that would be no fun. So, in addition to looking at the actual odds, let’s see if we can’t come up with a few more ways to slice and dice the 14 eligible teams and analyze what the various winning scenarios would mean to the league and its fans.

The “Let’s Start With the Actual List” Power Rankings

We should begin at the beginning. So here are the 14 non-playoff teams that are eligible for the lottery, and their odds of seeing their number come up. Remember, only one number is drawn and only one team wins; that team moves all the way up to no. 1, meaning everyone else can only move down one slot.

1. Buffalo Sabres — 20%

2. Arizona Coyotes — 13.5%

3. Edmonton Oilers — 11.5%

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — 9.5%

5. Carolina Hurricanes — 8.5%

6. New Jersey Devils — 7.5%

7. Philadelphia Flyers — 6.5%

8. Columbus Blue Jackets — 6.0%

9. San Jose Sharks — 5.0%

10. Colorado Avalanche — 3.5%

11. Florida Panthers — 3.0%

12. Dallas Stars — 2.5%

13. Los Angeles Kings — 2.0%

14. Boston Bruins — 1.0%

The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Power Rankings

Forget about what the odds say. Who actually deserves to land the top pick? We took a crack at this question back in December, but a lot has happened since then. So let’s revisit that idea with an updated look at which teams would win this thing in a fair and just world.

5. The Buffalo Sabres — Hey, the system is designed to help the worst teams, and they were certainly the worst team.

4. Literally anyone but the Buffalo Sabres — Tanking should never be rewarded! (Please disregard the fact that half of the teams on this list eventually started tanking, too.)

3. Toronto Maple Leafs — I know, I know, it’s a homer pick. But Leafs fans have been miserable for almost five straight decades. Don’t they deserve one nice thing to happen to them before they all die?

2. Carolina Hurricanes — They were bad, but they never really tanked, and actually got better as the year went on. Maybe this wouldn’t be the most satisfying result, but it’d certainly be a fair one.

1. Columbus Blue Jackets — They’re in an underrated market that watched a decent team get shredded by injuries, then fight back to screw its own draft position with a late-season nine-game win streak. The Blue Jackets are basically the only bad team in the league that never tanked. They were a surprise no. 1 on our list five months ago, and they should be the consensus pick now.

The “What’s Best for the League?” Power Rankings

In theory, what’s good for the NHL is good for NHL fans. Things don’t normally work out that way, but it’s worth at least considering which destination would be the best from the league’s perspective.

5. Arizona Coyotes — Not only would McDavid stabilize the league’s problem-child franchise, he could also boost interest in hockey in the region just in time for the Las Vegas expansion to arrive.

4. Philadelphia Flyers — Face it: The league is more fun when the Flyers are good. Plus, the NHL would promote the hell out of McDavid vs. Crosby.

3. Buffalo Sabres — Wait, what? You’re going to stick a generational talent in this tiny market? Well, here’s the thing: Despite being terrible for two years running, Buffalo is somehow the league’s best TV market.

2. Los Angeles Kings — This is a championship-caliber team in a big market, and dynasties are good for business — even though the league often doesn’t seem to realize it.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — People would hate it, but the math checks out. The Leafs drive more revenue than any other team, even though they’ve been a joke for a decade, but there are signs that the golden goose may finally be starting to slow down. That would be bad news for a league in which Canadian markets still drive a huge chunk of overall revenue, so hitting the fast-forward button on the Leafs’ rebuild would be awfully convenient for everyone.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, April 16, 2015

10 thoughts on The Slash

The NHL playoffs kicked off last night with four games, and we’ve already got plenty to talk about. The Predators blew a 3-0 lead against the Blackhawks, losing in double overtime on this Duncan Keith goal. The Flames earned a comeback road win in Vancouver, scoring with 30 seconds left in regulation. And the Islanders added to a good night for road teams with a 4-1 win over a surprisingly sluggish Capitals team.

And yet, out of all that, the one play that everyone seems to be talking about is The Slash. That came midway through the game between Montreal and Ottawa, and involved All-Star Habs defenseman P.K. Subban’s overhand chop to the arm of Senators wing Mark Stone.

Here’s the play in question:

Subban received a major and a game misconduct. Stone returned to action shortly after and finished the game, but the team now says he has a microfracture and could be out for the series. The Senators scored twice on the five-minute power play; the Habs added a short-handed goal.

And now, with calls for a suspension on one side and accusations of a faked injury on the other, we’ve got ourselves a mess to sort through. Here are 10 things to keep in mind as we navigate the first big controversy of this year’s playoffs.

1. That’s clearly a penalty. It’s a textbook slash, it’s intentional, and it’s to a vulnerable area of a player who isn’t expecting it. Nobody, not even the most rabid Canadiens homer, would try to claim that Subban shouldn’t have been penalized. The question is whether it should have been a major, and whether Subban should be suspended.

2. The rulebook seems clear. As pointed out by former NHL ref Kerry Fraser, the rulebook says that any slash that causes an injury is an automatic five and a game. That’s pretty cut-and-dried. Good call.

3. That’s a terrible rule. Here’s the problem: NHL referees aren’t doctors, and they don’t get to examine players after penalties. So if the NHL wants to factor injuries into penalty calls, it’s inviting all sorts of trouble. Stone certainly looked hurt; when he sprinted off, my first thought was that he probably had a broken wrist. But when he returned minutes later, Subban was furious — cameras caught him screaming at someone from the hallway between the benches. Habs fans were too.

This whole scenario illustrates the foolishness of basing penalties on injuries; if I’m an NHL player and I get slashed, apparently I should just make a dash for the dressing room and earn my team an automatic five-minute power play. And it’s why the rule, while fairly clear as written, isn’t often called that way. Players get slashed all the time, and they often look like they’re hurt in the aftermath, but ejections for slashing are relatively rare.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Playoff preview: Eastern Conference

Yesterday we previewed the Western Conference matchups, which are ridiculously unpredictable. Today, we handle the East, where the matchups are merely absurdly unpredictable. Get the tough work out of the way first, I always say.

The East hasn’t produced a Stanley Cup champion since 2011, and it has long been the weaker conference. But that gap narrowed this year, and with several strong teams including the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner and closest runner-up, this could be the year the East reclaims the Cup. But first, we need to figure out who gets there.


Last year, we’d joke about this being the division of the Penguins and everyone else. Now, Pittsburgh is holding on by a thread while everyone crowds around and chants for the Rangers to finish them. Uh, Caps and Islanders should be good too.

No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 New York Islanders

Series starts: Wednesday in Washington

Season series: They split four games, three of which went into overtime.

Playoff history: They used to meet every few years during the Patrick Division glory days, but this is their first matchup since the Turgeon/Hunter incident in 1993.

Dominant narrative: Two flawed but entertaining teams that exceeded preseason expectations meet in a series that should be crazy fun.

In this corner: New York Islanders (47-28-7, 101 points, plus-21 goals differential)

The big question: Is the goaltending good enough? Last year, the Islanders’ season was torpedoed by terrible goaltending. They went out and got Jaroslav Halak, who was an instant upgrade and more than enough to stabilize the position. But while he was good, he wasn’t exactly great; he ranked just 23rd in save percentage. He has single-handedly stolen playoff series before, including once against the Capitals in 2010 when he was with the Habs. But the Isles won’t have an edge at the position anywhere along their path to the Cup.

One player to watch: John Tavares. OK, maybe it’s not the most creative call, but Tavares is the franchise on the Island; he led the team in scoring by 35 points, by far the most of any player in the league. Seeing him go head-to-head with Alex Ovechkin will be a treat.

Health watch: Mikhail Grabovski hasn’t played in two months with a suspected concussion, but he could return at some point. Defenseman Travis Hamonic’s return doesn’t appear imminent, and that’s a big loss.

Key number: 115.7, the average even-strength shot attempts per 60 minutes, for and against combined, for the Islanders this year, the most among playoff teams. In English: This team plays high-event hockey.

Bandwagon potential: Put it this way: The last time they were in the playoffs, we had them at no. 1 in our bandwagon guide. And that was back when they had no hope of even making it out of the first round. This year, they’re pretty good and have to be considered at least a long-shot possibility for a Cup run. It’s also their last year at their decrepit arena, so there’s a nostalgia factor in play too.

They’ll win this series if: Tavares outplays Ovechkin, Halak can stay even with Braden Holtby or at least reasonably close, and they get a break here and there, especially in the inevitable overtime games.

And in this corner: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points, plus-38 goals differential)

The big question: Can they finally get it done in the playoffs? After all, there may not be a team out there that has built more of a reputation for regular-season excellence followed by a postseason meltdown than the Ovechkin-era Caps. It’s not a fair reputation, mind you — they’ve made the second round in three of their last five appearances, and the only year that really stands out is their first-round exit in 2010, when they simply ran into a red-hot goalie. But it’s still a reputation, and at this time of year those can end up being self-fulfilling if enough people believe them.

One player to watch: Nicklas Backstrom. I could have gone with Ovechkin, but he’s already had plenty of attention over the last few months, so let’s shine some of the spotlight on Backstrom, the high-scoring center who has quietly developed into a very good two-way player. He could wind up playing head-to-head minutes against Tavares, which would be a tough test but one he could handle.

Health watch: Plenty of depth guys are banged up, but the key players are OK.

Key number: .860, the Capitals’ winning percentage when they score first, the best mark in the league. But their .205 winning percentage when they don’t score first is the worst among playoff teams.

Bandwagon potential: Not bad. They came close to breaking through for years, then fell back and were widely dismissed before a coaching change and some aggressive offseason moves fast-tracked them back into the playoffs. You could do worse.

Prediction: This is yet another series that seems like it should be too close to call. It’s not impossible to picture the Capitals running over the Islanders, but I suspect this one goes long. And since I’ve been driving the Islanders bandwagon since September, I might as well stick to my guns. Isles in seven.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Playoff preview: Western Conference

The NHL playoffs are here, and the consensus in the hockey world can be summed up as this: Holy crap, this year’s bracket is almost impossible to predict.

The playoffs are always tricky, and most years there are at least a few potential upset picks to be had. But generally, you still wind up with maybe six or eight legitimate Cup contenders, with everyone else falling into the “happy to win a round or two” category. Not this season. With nobody emerging as anything close to a clear favorite and at least a dozen teams having a plausible path to the Cup, trying to make predictions is a fool’s game.

Luckily, I am just such a fool, so this year’s preview will include picks for you to bookmark and then laugh at when they’ve all been proven wrong in two weeks. Just don’t pretend yours are any better, because anyone who claims they’ve got this all figured out is a crazy person.

The Western Conference is up first; we’ll dive into the East tomorrow.


It was only a year ago that the Pacific felt like the best division in hockey, powered by the three California teams. Now, the playoffs feature the Ducks and three Canadian underdogs. Things move fast in this league.

No. 2 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames

Series starts: Wednesday in Vancouver

Season series: The teams split four games.

Playoff history: They’ve met six times, most recently in 2004. In the last three of those meetings, the series has gone to overtime of the seventh game. And all three times, the winner went to the Cup final.

Dominant narrative: An aging Canucks core just a few years removed from dominating the league (but never winning it all) makes what could be one last run at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup … but they’ll have to get past the grittiest collection of grits that ever did grit.

In this corner: The Calgary Flames (45-30-7, 97 points, plus-24 goals differential)

The big question: How the hell did they get here? The Flames just aren’t that good — even their biggest fans would probably concede that — and Mark Giordano’s injury should have torpedoed their season. They didn’t even bother to bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, because, really, what was the point? And yet they’re still chugging along, defying the numbers all the way, and they suddenly find themselves in what looks like a very winnable matchup.

One player to watch: Johnny Gaudreau. The rookie is all sorts of fun to watch. He’s also tiny, which makes him the sort of player who conventional wisdom says can sometimes disappear once the playoffs turn into a war of attrition. If that happens, the Flames are probably doomed.

Health watch: Goalie Karri Ramo is day-to-day, meaning Jonas Hiller is the starter for now, and lots of other guys are banged up. And, of course, Giordano has a torn biceps and is out for at least three more months. So, this being the playoffs, expect the rumors of him being mysteriously ahead of schedule to start sometime around Game 4.

Key number: 44.4 percent, the Flames’ score-adjusted Corsi, third-worst in the league. This is one of the most important possession stats for predicting future performance, and the Flames were worse than the Oilers, Coyotes, and Maple Leafs. That’s bad.

Bandwagon potential: Enormous. As we covered a few weeks ago, the Flames may well be the most likable team in the NHL. Their odds of winning the Stanley Cup are bordering on nonexistent, so you’re signing up to have your heart broken eventually, but the ride may be worth it.

They’ll win this series if: Nothing we know about hockey makes sense anymore. Or, as this year’s Flames call it, the status quo.

And in this corner: Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, 101 points, plus-16 goals differential)

The big question: Who’ll start the series in goal? And who’ll finish it? The Canucks spent big last summer to bring in Ryan Miller as the undisputed starter, but he was just OK before getting hurt in February. Miller returned to action Saturday, and he didn’t look sharp while giving up five goals to the Oilers. Vancouver may start out with backup Eddie Lack, who played well in Miller’s absence. But if either guy has a bad game period shift, expect the well-oiled Vancouver Goaltending Controversy Machine to fire up.

One player to watch: The Sedins. OK, that’s technically two players, but close enough. Both twins had rebound seasons this year, and at 34 years old they’re still the driving force behind the Canucks offense. They’re also great fun to watch; check out this sick no-look pass from Henrik to Daniel from last week.

Health watch: They’re in relatively good shape; Zack Kassian remains out, but they don’t have any critical players on the shelf.

Key number: Minus-9, the Canucks’ 5-on-5 goals differential, the worst of any playoff team (via Dave Ebner). The next worst: the Flames, at minus-2.

Bandwagon potential: Minimal. These aren’t quite the same Canucks you learned to hate in 2011, but there are still a few familiar names [cough] … Burrows. And they’re facing the Flames, who are basically the Daniel Bryan of the NHL playoffs.

They’ll win this series if: One of the goalies can stand tall long enough for the Sedins to work their magic one more time.

Prediction: The overmatched Flames refuse to die, but the Canucks eke out a win in seven games. In overtime, obviously.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Bragging Rights: In Living Color

(Note from Sean: This post contains no hockey content.)

Bragging Rights is a series with a single goal: to determine which member of a cast, a team, a band, or a presidential cabinet is killing it the most, years later. Our writers will take turns giving their takes on who has the bragging rights from the posse of their choosing. In this installment, Sean McIndoe reexamines one of the great upstart comedy shows of all time: In Living Color.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Fox Broadcasting Company debuted a new half-hour sketch comedy show. It was created by Keenen Ivory Wayans, with a cast largely made up of his family members and various unknowns, and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen on prime-time broadcast television. It was called In Living Color, and it was brilliant.

By law, any American sketch comedy show must be compared to Saturday Night Live, so let’s get that out of the way right now: From the moment it debuted, In Living Color was roughly 10 times funnier and at least 100 times cooler than SNL.

Remember, this was 1990, right at the end of SNL’s Jon Lovitz–Nora Dunn era, which is to say that the show was a perfectly serviceable comedy program aimed mostly at grown-ups. It was good. It was fine. But this was before Mike Myers took over and Adam Sandler and Chris Farley showed up. If you were under the age of 30, SNL just didn’t have much there for you. Then In Living Color materialized, with an in-house DJ and dance troupe and a mostly black cast, and suddenly “Well, isn’t that special?” didn’t seem so cutting-edge anymore.

Some of In Living Color still works today; other parts, not so much. But at the time, the show felt different and subversive and hilarious. What we didn’t know was that it would also produce an almost ridiculously long list of future pop culture stars. In Living Color didn’t have a long run; technically, the show lasted five seasons, and the last one doesn’t even really count, because there weren’t any Wayans brothers and only a handful of the original cast was still around. But in just the four years it was on the air, you could make an excellent case that In Living Color produced more star power than any era of Saturday Night Live short of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

But who ends up with bragging rights? Before we get to the top three, let’s count down the honorable mentions, in roughly increasing order of future prominence.

Tommy Davidson — One of the only cast members to perform in all five seasons, Davidson went on to appear in various other film and TV roles, maybe most notably as the voice of the dad on The Proud Family.

Anne-Marie Johnson — In addition to various other roles, including a stint on Melrose Place, she was vice-president of the Screen Actors Guild from 2005 to 2010. She ran for the presidency in 2009 but lost.

Alexandra Wentworth — Wentworth appeared from 1992 through 1994. One year later, she played Jerry’s girlfriend in Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi episode. She was also in Jerry Maguire and Office Space, and is married to George Stephanopoulos.

David Alan Grier — Grier was a successful dramatic actor before appearing on In Living Color. In the years since, he’s returned to Broadway with several productions while also making appearances on TV and film in various comedy roles. Somehow, he also managed to host Saturday Night Live once.

Heavy D — Already a successful rapper by the time In Living Color debuted, Heavy D contributed two different themes for the show, both of which are generally considered to be among the best five songs ever recorded. He went on to add acting to his résumé, in addition to continuing his music career and getting name-dropped on “Juicy.” He died in 2011.

Kim Coles — An original In Living Color cast member, she went on to become best known for her starring role on the Queen Latifah sitcom Living Single. If it was the early ’90s and you wanted to make a TV show that had the word “living” in the title, Kim Coles was your first phone call.

Molly Shannon — Before her long run on SNL, Shannon made a handful of appearances on In Living Color.

Larry Wilmore — Wilmore was a writer on the show but never had much screen time (although his brother Marc was part of the cast). Earlier this year, he replaced Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central with The Nightly Show.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, April 13, 2015

Weekend wrap: It's over

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Here Come the Playoffs (and the Layoffs)

Saturday marked the end of the regular season, meaning we now know what the playoff bracket looks like. And no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you — both last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion aren’t on it. The Bruins and Kings missed the playoffs, meaning a good percentage of this year’s preseason picks are already trashed before the playoffs have even started. We’ve got a preliminary look at the matchups down in the next section, and we’ll have a full preview rolling out over the next two days.

Of course, the start of the playoffs for 16 teams also means the start of the offseason for the other 14. That usually kicks off with a bunch of people losing their jobs, and the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t waste any time on that front. Yesterday, the Leafs announced that general manager Dave Nonis and interim coach Peter Horachek had both been fired, along with most of the coaching staff and several scouts. Those were obvious moves (although the future of Nonis had somehow become the subject of debate in Toronto), and the Leafs deserve minimal credit for getting the easy ones right. The bigger test comes over the next few weeks and months, but at least Toronto fans get a chance to have been first at something. The Sabres were the second team across the finish line, just like they were in most of their games this year, firing coach Ted Nolan early Sunday evening.

Now we get to see who goes next. Edmonton fans are desperate for a housecleaning and have been for years, although a slight improvement in the season’s second half means they might not get get one. The Sharks will almost certainly fire one or both of Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan after missing the playoffs. Craig Berube could go in Philadelphia, Lindy Ruff might be in trouble in Dallas, and there have been season-long rumors that Dave Tippett could be on the way out of Arizona. And, of course, the Devils will need to figure out what to do with the two-headed coaching creature Lou Lamoriello put in place in December.

And then we circle back to the Bruins and Kings. It doesn’t sound like any major changes will be coming in Los Angeles, despite reports of a major rift between the players and coach Darryl Sutter (which the team basically confirmed). Boston could be a different story; team CEO Charlie Jacobs had previously made it clear missing the playoffs would be considered unacceptable, meaning neither GM Peter Chiarelli nor coach Claude Julien should feel safe.

That should cover us for the next week or so. Once the first round ends, we can play the same game all over again with some combination of Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock, Bruce Boudreau, and pretty much everyone who works for the Penguins.

Long story short: If you’re an NHL coach or GM, try not to answer your phone over the next few days. Just to be safe.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, +30 goals differential) Studies have shown that momentum heading into the playoffs really doesn’t matter as much as we assume it does. Keep repeating that to yourself, Habs fans.

4. St. Louis Blues (51-24-7, +42) The good: They came on strong to win the division and avoid playing the Blackhawks or the Predators. The bad: They get the Wild instead. The Centralis brutal.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, April 10, 2015

Grab bag: Take me higher

In this week's grab bag:
- The three comedy stars
- Did an NHL conspiracy cost the Senators an overtime goal?
- The Duke is the obscure player of the week
- A draft ranking annoyance
- And get ready to rock out with a tribute to the playoff-bound Jets.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Handing out some regular season awards

The NHL regular season ends Saturday, but come Monday morning everyone will be busy obsessing over playoff matchups, and the 82 games we just spent weeding out 14 teams will be forgotten. So rather than waiting until then, we’ll do our year-end wrap-up a few days early. I mean, how much can really change in just 60 hours?

Let’s take a look back on the 2014-15 season by handing out a dozen made-up awards to the players and teams that made it memorable.

Biggest Season-Long Theme: Goaltending Is Voodoo

Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty Images

Considering how often a goaltender can single-handedly decide the outcome of a game or a series or even a whole season, it might be the most important position in hockey. However, that poses a bit of a problem, because we do not understand how it works. Like, at all.

Look at this season’s top stories: You have Andrew Hammond in Ottawa, which was all kinds of fun but made no sense on any level. Just one year ago, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was considered so awful that the goalie graveyard that is the Edmonton Oilers gave him away to the Predators, who gave him away to the Canadiens, who then assigned him to the AHL even though their other goalies were hurt. Today, he may be the league’s most important player.

We also had Rangers backup Cam Talbot, an undrafted free agent who had to replace injured All-Star Henrik Lundqvist and ended up outplaying him. In Winnipeg, a veteran with one of the league’s worst résumés and a rookie backup with three career games have combined to become unbeatable. The Sabres traded all of their goalies and acquired a guy in Anders Lindback who may well have been the worst in the entire league, and he’s playing so well he might single-handedly ruin their season-long tanking master plan. The Blues have an All-Star as their starter but thought it would be a good idea to sign the ghost of Martin Brodeur. The Stars had one of the most established guys in the league, and he was awful and ruined their season. Jimmy Howard is losing his job to a former 141st overall pick. Also, the Oilers now have a guy named Tyler Bunz, which is neither here nor there, but I still wanted to mention it.

None of this makes any sense, and yet we’ll do what we always do with goaltending: Wait until the season is over, look back at the random chaos that just went down, and pretend we saw any of it coming. Of course, we didn’t, just like we almost never do. How could we? Goaltending is voodoo.

It’s also going to dominate these awards. Sorry for the spoiler, but you had probably already figured that out.

Best Feel-Good Story: The Hamburglar

There’s no better proof of the “goaltending is voodoo” theory than Hammond, a 27-year-old rookie with lousy minor league numbers who gets called up as a we-have-no-other-choice emergency injury replacement and then goes on a history-making hot streak. Next thing you know, fans are throwing hamburgers on the ice and the Senators are making a miracle playoff run that could still see them steal a wild-card spot.

On Tuesday, Hammond was shelled for three goals in the first period of a must-win game against the Penguins. Then he stood tall the rest of the way as Ottawa roared back from down 3-0, earning a 4-3 win in overtime to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was a miracle, but Hammond didn’t seem all that fazed since pretty much every game he’s played this year has been a miracle. After the game, he was asked about the last time he enjoyed hockey as much as right now. “I don’t know if there’s another time in my life,” Hammond said. “It’s the NHL. It’s what I’ve always dreamed about playing.”

Does Hammond’s story make any sense? Not really. Can it last? Probably not. While it’s possible he’ll turn out to be the next Dominik Hasek or Tim Thomas, showing up late before kicking off a lengthy career as a top-tier guy, it’s much more likely he’s the next Jim Carey or Steve Penney. For now, though, that doesn’t matter. Andrew Hammond is making all of us feel like we could be NHL goalies, too.

Best Trade: Dubnyk to Minnesota

This one’s as easy as they come, so let’s up the odds a bit: Where does the Dubnyk trade rank among the best ever?

Remember, when the deal went down on January 14, the Wild were in 12th place in the West, eight points out of the playoffs, and riding a six-game losing streak. Their about-to-be-fired coach was losing his mind. Essentially, they were done. And then Dubnyk shows up, they win their first game 7-0, and they basically turn into the 1977 Canadiens.

Granted, that’s not all Dubnyk, but he’s started every game since the trade, and he’s been consistently fantastic. The Wild are headed to the playoffs as a wild card, and they’ll be just about everyone’s sneaky dark-horse pick to go on a deep run. If that happens, the Dubnyk deal really will have to go into the discussion for the great trades of all time. Not bad value for giving up only a third-round pick.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What were the greatest divisions in NHL history?

Tonight’s schedule features three games between Central Division opponents. Those games will go a long way to determining who gets the West’s final wild-card spot, who wins the division, and maybe even who wins the Presidents’ Trophy.

But even if none of that were true, you’d still want to be watching those games because this year’s Central Division is freaking good. How good? Consider the following:

• The division already features three 100-plus-point teams in Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago, while the Jets and Wild could both join them.

• The Wild have been the best team in hockey since mid-January, yet still won’t finish any higher than fourth in the division and may drop to fifth.

• As of today, the division boasts four of the league’s top eight teams based on goal differential.

• There’s a good chance the Central will claim both Western wild-card spots and send five teams to the playoffs.

• Even the division’s two “bad” teams, the Avalanche and the Stars, aren’t disasters; both could still hit 90 points. The last-place Avs are currently 15 points better than the league’s next-best last-place team, the Hurricanes, and Colorado would rank ahead of four Metro teams.

• Perhaps most impressive of all, the division boasts four teams in the league’s top 10 overall. That’s a relatively rare feat; it’s happened only once since the turn of the century.

So sure, the Central is unquestionably the league’s best division this year, but what about all time? Could the 2014-15 Central belong in the discussion with some of history’s best collections of teams?

Today, let’s look back through the history books at some of the greatest divisions the NHL has ever seen. We’ll limit this to the last 40 years, which would take us to 1974-75 and the start of the four-division era. This is subjective and we’re not trying to create a definitive list, but here are some of the top groups the league has seen since then.

The 1978-79 Patrick

nick-fotiu-rangersBruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

By 1978, the NHL was a 17-team league, featuring three divisions with four teams and one with five. Only six teams in the entire league hit the 90-point mark that year, and four of them came from the Patrick.

The division’s best team was the New York Islanders, who finished first overall with 116 points. This was the stacked Islanders squad — built around guys like Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, and Brian Trottier — that was on the verge of becoming the league’s next great dynasty. They were trailed by the Flyers, who finished with the league’s fourth-best record at 95 points, and the Rangers, who ranked fifth overall at 91.

However, the division’s most interesting team was probably the Atlanta Flames. They posted 41 wins and a plus-47 goal differential, both of which were good for fourth-best in the entire league. Their 41-31-8 record gave them 90 points, good for sixth-best in the NHL but just fourth in the Patrick. That established a record that will almost certainly stand forever as the most points by a last-place team. It also earned them a spot in the best-of-three preliminary round, where they lost to the Maple Leafs in two straight.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Rangers emerged from the division, knocking off the Flyers in the quarterfinals and then upsetting the heavily favored Islanders in the semis before losing to the Canadiens in five games in the final. The Islanders came back strong the next year, and went on to win the next four Stanley Cups.

As for the Flames, they lasted only one more season in Atlanta before moving to Calgary in 1980. Speaking of Calgary …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, April 6, 2015

Weekend wrap: One week to go

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: The Final Act

We’re down to the final week of the regular season, so let’s dispense with any attempts to wrap everything up in some clever theme and get straight to the key matchups and clinching scenarios. Here’s what’s at stake over the season’s final six days.

Already In: The Rangers and Ducks have clinched their divisions. The Canadiens, Lightning, Predators, Blues, and Blackhawks have all clinched playoff spots, and are all still battling for division titles. Each of those seven teams is also still in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy, with the Rangers and Ducks sharing a narrow lead heading into the final week (New York has two games in hand). The Capitals have also wrapped up a playoff spot.

In the West: It’s essentially a three-team race for two spots. The Kings have at least temporarily nudged the Jets out of the final wild-card spot; both teams are at 92 points, but L.A. owns the tiebreaker. The Flames are still very much in the danger zone, sitting at 93 points and having played one more game than either the Kings or Jets.

Of those three teams, the Jets face the most difficult schedule, with tough games against the Wild and Blues early in the week. And remember, Winnipeg won’t get Dustin Byfuglien back from suspension for three more games. They’re in trouble.

While every game for those teams will matter, there are two in particular to keep an eye on. The Kings face the Flames on Thursday in Calgary; L.A. will have made up their game in hand by then, and there’s a good chance that the two teams will be separated by a single point. The game could even represent a clinching scenario for one or both teams.

On the season’s final night on Saturday, the Flames are in Winnipeg. If the Jets are still alive, they’ll get Byfuglien back for what would stand as the biggest NHL game played in Winnipeg in almost 19 years.

In the East: This one looked simple as recently as last week; you had the Senators and Bruins fighting for the final spot, with the Panthers doing just enough to hang around. Florida is out now, but the situation is suddenly much more crowded as slumps by Detroit and Pittsburgh have suddenly made those teams vulnerable. As it stands this morning, the Wings, Penguins, and Bruins are all tied at 95 points, with the Senators sitting two points back. All four teams have three games left.

Of all the teams in that logjam, the shocker is the Penguins, as they’ve gone from “feared powerhouse” to “scary but flawed” to “whoops, the emergency brake just broke off in their hand” over the course of the last few months. Part of that can be explained by injuries, as they’ve missed key players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for long stretches. But that only goes so far; the bigger concern is that a team that has always been top-heavy suddenly can’t score, and doesn’t have the goaltending or defense to go out and win 2-1 often enough to make up for it.

After yesterday’s 4-1 loss to the Flyers, the Pens have dropped three straight and nine of their last 12. The Wings aren’t much better; they lost to the Caps last night and have lost eight of their last 11. The Bruins, meanwhile, have gone super-streaky, winning five straight after losing six straight after winning five straight.

And chasing them all are the Senators, sitting two points back after last night’s shootout loss in Toronto. That’s the second straight weekend in which Ottawa has left a point on the board against the woeful Leafs, which could cost them their season. The good news is that they’re now chasing three teams and only need to pass one; the bad news is that just catching up won’t be enough, since they don’t own the ROW tiebreaker over anyone ahead of them.

We may get some clarity on all this as early as tomorrow night, when the Penguins are in Ottawa in what may be the week’s most crucial game. If the Penguins win in regulation, they’ll clinch a postseason spot and open the door for the Wings to do the same with a regulation win over Carolina. But if the Sens win, the Penguins will be all out of room for error. That scenario would have been unthinkable even a week ago today, when the Pens were sitting a comfortable nine points up on Ottawa. But it’s the reality right now, and we could be looking at what would go down as a historic collapse.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Nashville Predators (47-22-10, +30 goals differential) I have never seen a team this good that nobody, literally nobody, will pick to win its first-round matchup.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (48-24-8, +52) At this point you can pretty much flip a coin between them and the Canadiens in the Atlantic, but fair is fair; the Lightning went into Montreal and won the head-to-head showdown last week, so they get the spot for now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, April 3, 2015

Grab bag: The losers have a point

In this week's Friday grab bag...
- "If the playoffs started today..."
- Let's say it again: death to the loser point
- An obscure player from the days when picking first overall was nothing to be excited about
- The week's three comedy stars
- and a YouTube breakdown of Hockey Night in Canada handing out awards for the 1987 playoffs

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Which playoff matchups should fans be rooting for?

We’re now down to 10 days left in the NHL schedule, which means we can start looking ahead to the postseason. Sure, we’ve all secretly been doing that since mid-January, but now we can admit it. The playoffs are almost here. And it’s time to start figuring out which matchups to root for.

That’s going to be a little bit challenging, since unlike in years past, there’s no absolute sure thing looming. This time last year, we were already 99 percent locked into matchups like Montreal–Tampa Bay and Los Angeles–San Jose. This year doesn’t bring anything even close to that level of certainty.

Still, it’s important to start preparing early, since some of these matchups are better than others and we need to know what to root for. So here’s our list of the 10 most likely first-round matchups heading into last night’s action, as provided by the number crunchers over at hockeystats.ca, and ranked in increasing order of potential awesomeness.

10. Canucks vs. Kings: 48.2 percent

While this would be only an OK matchup on its own merits, it holds one key selling point: It’s by far the most likely matchup that involves the Kings actually making the playoffs.

You may or may not view that as a good thing. After all, the Kings have won two recent Cups, and have a nasty habit of barely squeezing into the playoffs before transforming into an unbeatable powerhouse. Maybe you’re tired of that act and would prefer to see somebody else get a shot.

But maybe the defending champions deserve a chance to go out on their shield, and that means they have to make the playoffs first. Besides, Kings playoff runs tend to be fun. Remember, the last team they beat in the first round was so crushed by the loss that it went completely insane and provided us with a good year’s worth of entertainment. And a long run could even get us a rematch of last year’s Hawks-Kings conference final. So even though this wouldn’t be an especially great matchup, there’s still good reason to root for it to happen.

As for Vancouver, the Canucks have had a surprisingly strong season and probably want no part of a first-round meeting with the defending champs. And that’s fine, because there’s a better matchup looming for Vancouver that we’ll get to down below.

Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Jarret Stoll scores in overtime in 2012, eliminating the no. 1–seeded Canucks and starting the Kings’ first Cup run.

9. Canadiens vs. Red Wings: 32.6 percent

This one would certainly have some appeal for history buffs. You’ve got a meeting of two Original Six teams, with all the nostalgia those matchups come preloaded with. And in this case, the pairing is a relatively unique one: These two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1978. It’s also two great hockey markets, with lots of championships between them.

You’ll notice I’m not really saying anything about the actual teams. That’s because, on paper, this doesn’t feel like a great fit as far as matchups go. For example, the Canadiens have the best goalie in the league in Carey Price, who’s going to win the MVP. The Red Wings don’t even seem quite sure who their starter is right now. Your gut tells you that that edge alone would be enough to turn this into an easy Habs win.

Your gut is probably wrong, though, since goaltending is voodoo, as this year has taught us. In the year of Devan Dubnyk and Cam Talbot and the Hamburglar, “Carey Price gets badly outplayed by Petr Mrazek” would fit right in as a story line. And there would be more to this series than goaltending, with plenty of star power to go around and the whole “Is this the end of Mike Babcock in Detroit?” subplot.

It’s an OK matchup. I’m sure it would be fine. But there are better possible opponents lurking for both of these teams. The Wings one is coming up a few spots down our list. As for Montreal, the matchup we all want to see is clearly the Boston Bruins — the two teams hate each other, and just about every series between them ends up being memorable. Unfortunately, that matchup isn’t looking likely, thanks in part to the NHL’s weird double-crossover system, which makes it possible for the Bruins to finish fourth in the Atlantic but get shipped off to the Metro instead. Hockeystats.ca has the Habs’ chances of playing the Bruins at only 17.2 percent, just a little better than their odds of getting the Islanders. You suck, crossover.

Random old YouTube clip to get you fired up: A vintage highlight reel of the 1954 “World Series of hockey” between the Wings and Habs.

>> Read the full post on Grantland