Friday, May 29, 2015

Seven thoughts on a pair of game sevens

For the first time since 2000, hockey fans have a pair of Game 7s to look forward to in the conference finals. The Rangers will host the Lightning on Friday, with the Ducks welcoming the Blackhawks on Saturday, and by the time it’s all over we’ll have our Stanley Cup final matchup.

Game 7s tend to be just about impossible to figure out ahead of time, but that’s no reason not to at least try. So let’s take a look at seven factors that could help decide a Game 7 … or two.

1. Goaltending

It’s the goaltending. It’s always the goaltending. In fact, this seems like such an obvious category that I spent way too much time trying to figure out a way to get around including it at all. But I can’t, because it will be the biggest factor in both games, so we might as well start with it. Here’s the short version: The team with the better goaltender will probably win.

The slightly longer version is that both series feature battles between goalies who’ve taken turns looking both unbeatable and awful, often in the same game. That’s probably caused an ulcer or two on the coaching staffs, but it’s made for some fascinating hockey, where no shot is harmless and no lead is safe.

Let’s break down the numbers. As you’d expect, Henrik Lundqvist has been the best of the four remaining goalies, putting up a .928 save percentage. He’s also been the best in the third round at 5v5, where he’s at .934, although his poor .720 while shorthanded has dragged his overall numbers down. That gives him an edge over Ben Bishop, who’s at .917 overall and just .898 at 5v5. Both Bishop and Lundqvist have had awful games in what’s been a surprisingly high-scoring series, so nobody’s looking unbeatable, but Lundqvist has clearly been better.

Out west, Frederik Andersen and Corey Crawford have very similar numbers over the course of the playoffs. In this series, Andersen has been better 5v5 while Crawford’s numbers are slightly better overall, although we’re dealing with a six-game sample size, so we won’t read too much into small gaps. The eye test says both have looked shaky in recent games, but Andersen in particular has been fighting the puck over the past two games, including this stinker that almost certainly cost the Ducks Game 4.

2. The big stars

We like to think of a Game 7 as the time when the biggest stars shine brightest, and it’s certainly true that it works out that way sometimes. But just as often the stars go quiet, some random scrub plays the hero, and we all agree to never speak of it again.

Given all the star power spread out between these four teams, it seems likely that at least one big name will break through. That would bode well for Chicago, since its top guns are already hot. Jonathan Toews had those two late goals in Game 5, and Patrick Kane has scored in three of the past four. Meanwhile, Duncan Keith may be playing better than anyone else in the playoffs right now, which works out well since at this point he rarely leaves the ice.

By comparison, the Ducks’ big two of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry has had mixed results, combining for just two goals in the series. Getzlaf has been held scoreless but has chipped in seven assists, so he’s creating offense even if he’s started blaming himself for losses. Perry has been quieter, with two goals and no assists after racking up 15 points through the first nine games of the postseason.

In the East, the Lightning continue to get big production from the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos has now heated up (bringing Alex Killorn along with him). They’ve been more consistent than the Rangers’ top stars, although both Rick Nash and Derick Brassard have posted huge games late in the series. Meanwhile, Martin St. Louis has remained mostly invisible, and now has just one opportunity left to haunt his former team.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Win or lose, are we witnessing the end of the Blackhawks?

Heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference final last night, the Anaheim Ducks held a 3-2 series lead, making it impossible not to watch the game without thinking that this might be the end of the Blackhawks.

Not the end of the Blackhawks’ 2015 season, mind you. That wasn’t the source of the drama. It was the realization that had the Ducks eliminated Chicago on Wednesday, they would be finishing off the Hawks for years to come. Finishing off the team that has spent the past seven years winning two Cups, going to five conference finals, and generally being just about the closest thing the league has seen to a dynasty in the salary-cap era.

Those Blackhawks are a brilliantly constructed team, but their pending cap crunch has been an inescapable subplot to their postseason. The question, never quite front and center but always just under the surface, has followed them all spring: Is this finally their last run? Last night, with the team facing elimination for the first time this year, everything that happened carried the weighty possibility that we were seeing something special for the last time.

You thought it when Hawks forward Brandon Saad finally scored the opener, midway through the second period after a lackluster first in which Chicago was outshot and largely outplayed. A harmless-looking play suddenly turned into a breakaway, and Saad snapped one past Frederik Andersen between the legs. The United Center erupted, Saad was mobbed by teammates, and you wondered how the heck the Blackhawks are supposed to get this guy signed when he hits restricted free agency this summer.

You thought it again when Marian Hossa made it 2-0 just three minutes later, and you wondered just how much his heavily front-loaded contract, which stretches until he’ll be 42 years old, will handcuff this team in the years to come.

You thought it when Patrick Kane trickled a shot past Andersen after a beautiful individual effort, which I am linking to here not so much for your benefit but just in case Matt Beleskey is still trying to figure out where Kane went. That one came just two minutes after Hossa’s goal, made it 3-0 for Chicago, and reminded you that both Kane and Hawks captain Jonathan Toews have new deals kicking in this summer, ones that give them the league’s two highest individual cap hits. They’re fair deals, and other stars will catch up and pass them soon enough, but, man, will they eat a big chunk of cap space.

You thought it as Duncan Keith was putting up three assists while logging 28:35 and saving goals in his own end, and you looked at the eight years left on his deal and … well, and you thought Duncan Keith is a beast. Sorry, I can stretch this whole concept only so far. Keith’s deal will look bad someday, but last night he was a bargain at any price.

But you had to keep thinking about the future of these Hawks, whether you wanted to or not. Brent Seabrook played his usual solid game on the second pairing; how do you get him the extension he’s eligible for this summer? Andrew Shaw scored the insurance goal to make it 4-2; he should be in for a nice raise after next season too. Corey Crawford made 30 saves for the win; is it completely crazy to think that maybe he’s the guy they should trade?

You wouldn’t think this way about most teams. Most teams make the playoffs, eventually lose, and go home, and nobody really offers up much sympathy because that’s just how the playoffs work for the also-rans. And you certainly wouldn’t think it about the Ducks, seemingly poised to be back here next year and beyond because of their young talent and solid cap situation.

But the Blackhawks, yeah, you can’t really escape it. Hell, you even had to think it during the pregame pump-up video that welcomed them to the ice. It’s brilliant, a chill-inducing production that juxtaposes the players from the current roster with the stars of the franchise’s past, and it’s a reminder of just how long this team went without a championship. Fans in Chicago waited 49 years for a Stanley Cup, many of those seasons agonizingly ordinary, some utterly without hope. Nobody ever really deserves a dynasty, but these guys at least come close. And they know as well as anyone that once something slips away, it can take a very long time to get it back.

It wasn’t always like this. For decades, more than any other pro sports league, the NHL was a league of dynasties. You had the Maple Leafs of the early ’60s, the Oilers and Islanders of the ’80s, and the Canadiens of, well, just about every other era. That had faded by the first decade of the Gary Bettman era, but teams like the Red Wings, Avalanche, and Devils still dominated, combining to win eight of nine Cups from 1995 to 2003.

The 2005 lockout changed that. In the decade since, there’s yet to have been so much as a repeat champion, and only a handful of teams have been able to put together more than a few seasons as top-tier contenders. The salary cap is the biggest and most obvious reason, although revenue-sharing and liberalized free agency help too. Even beyond the rule changes, the gap between the league’s smart teams and the patsies — which used to be huge — has been narrowing for years. With so much information available to anyone interested enough to look for it, the margins for competitive advantage have grown smaller and smaller.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A look back at 20 controversies from this year's playoffs

I want you to think back to the afternoon of April 15. It was the first day of the NHL playoffs, with the opening faceoff just hours away. Do you remember how you felt back then? Calm. Happy. Even peaceful. Look at you. You were so young back then.

And then the playoffs started, and you’ve been filled with rage ever since.

This is what the NHL playoffs do. They sucker you in with the promise of the world’s greatest sport being played by elite teams with win-or-go-home stakes. Then they sideswipe you with one controversy after another, some serious, but most ridiculous. This continues until you’ve spent so much time screaming at your television that it becomes self-aware and starts automatically switching you to something less exciting, like gardening shows, test patterns, and the NBA playoffs.

This year has been no exception. We’re not even done with the conference finals, and there have already been at least 20 controversies in the playoffs. (I say “at least” because the fun thing about this sort of list is that while 20 controversies seem like way too many, I’m sure there are at least a few I missed. I look forward to hearing from irate Blues fans who can’t believe I didn’t mention that faceoff violation call in Game 4.)

It’s probably a good idea to pause for a look at the list now, before we all lose track and/or get committed. So in chronological order, here are 20 of the controversies we witnessed, debated, and severed friendships and family ties over during the 2015 NHL playoffs.

1. Stick and Stone Might Microfracture Your Bone

When: April 15, in Game 1 of the Senators-Canadiens series. The playoffs were roughly an hour old when all hell broke loose. Or, as hockey fans call it, “a slow start.”

What: Midway through the second period, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban slashed Mark Stone in front of Montreal’s net. The Senators rookie immediately fell to the ice writhing in pain. Subban was ejected; Stone left but returned in time for the power play before missing further action in the game.

That’s the short version; we covered the incident in-depth when it happened. Senators fans saw a vicious, premeditated attempt to injure. Canadiens fans saw a standard front-of-the-net battle gone wrong, made notable mainly by a player embellishing an injury to draw a penalty.

The aftermath: The league saw a five-minute major and nothing more, declining to suspend Subban despite intense lobbying by the Senators, who announced that Stone had suffered a microfracture. After all, Subban is a star defenseman, and those guys just don’t get suspended during the playoffs. (That sound you hear is every Detroit Red Wings fan putting their fist through their monitor.)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 25, 2015

When goalies lose their minds, and more conference finals thoughts

We’re almost there. One conference final is into elimination territory, and the other will be after tonight. We’re just days away from having our Stanley Cup final matchup, at which point the NHL scheduling department will probably give us two weeks off to think about it.

Here are 10 thoughts on a weekend’s worth of conference finals action.

1. Ben Bishop makes his move. Like most playoff series, this Rangers-Lightning battle has largely been about the goalies. After a defensive battle in Game 1 resulted in a 2-1 Rangers win, the Lightning poured it on with a dozen goals over the next two games. That led to speculation over what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. Was he tired? Hurt? Had the Lightning, who’d also lit him up during the regular season, somehow figured something out that the rest of the league had missed?

Apparently not, since he looked fine Friday, as the Rangers stormed to an easy 5-1 win. That meant it was Bishop’s turn under the microscope, with Jon Cooper even being asked whether he’d considered switching goalies for last night’s Game 5 in New York. That led to a weird discussion over whether the word “asinine” could appear in a newspaper (don’t ask), and an assurance that Bishop would be back in the net. And indeed he was, although that briefly seemed in doubt when he took a puck in the groin during warm-ups.

One shutout win later, we can safely say that was the right call. Bishop didn’t make any especially spectacular saves last night, but he didn’t need to. This was a night when a solid performance was all it would take to grab the series lead, and Bishop delivered at least that. He even kind of sort of seemed to take a shot at the empty net when the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with three minutes left; his weak shot was the only thing he screwed up all night.

Bishop is now 6-1 after losses in this year’s playoffs, which is a bad sign for the Rangers if they can win tomorrow in Tampa Bay and extend the series to a Game 7. Of course, Lunqvist is 12-3 when facing elimination since 2012, so go ahead and pick the stat you want to believe in.

Either way, it’s safe to say there won’t be any question about Bishop’s status heading into Game 6. (Barring another shot to the pills, of course.)

2. They can’t all be winners. Last week, we talked about how the Rangers’ tendency to play low-scoring games didn’t necessarily translate into a boring style. In that spirit, let’s just chalk up last night as the exception that proves the rule. It wasn’t a dull game, but it certainly wasn’t exciting, as the Lightning played the sort of smothering road game that coaches love and fans have learned to tolerate.

The teams combined for just 48 shots, with the Lightning blocking more (26) than they got on the Rangers’ net (22). At one point, that included almost an entire half-period without a single save. Every NHL playoff series includes a few memorable games and a few that will be largely forgotten. Let’s chalk this one up as a stage-setter for whatever comes next and move on.

3. Steven Stamkos stays hot. Remember when the main Lightning story line was that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov were producing enough offense to mask a disappointing postseason from Stamkos? You probably do, since it was a week ago. Well, the Lightning captain has now scored in four straight games, including last night’s power-play tap-in off a brilliant tic-tac-toe passing play.

Needless to say, that’s yet another thing to worry about for the Rangers, and it could soon be something to worry about for whoever comes out of the West. The Lightning were the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, and that doesn’t tend to translate to Stanley Cups. When they were largely a one-line team, the Lightning still managed to look dynamic offensively. If the big line stays hot while Stamkos and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula (who also scored last night) also get rolling, look out.

Now, about that third line …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mike Babcock's job interview: The top secret transcript

The face Mike Babcock will make when he bolts up
in bed, every night, for the next eight years.

Scene: A meeting room in a high-end office building, sometime in the past few days. Several men are gathered around a large mahogany table. Mike Babcock sits at the head of that table, and gathers his thoughts before beginning to speak.

Babcock: OK everyone, let’s get started. I want to thank you all for coming. I know this is kind of unusual, but I’ve got all this interest in my services and not much time to make a decision, so it seemed like the easiest way to do this was to just get everyone in one room at the same time.

(Murmurs of approval.)

Babcock: Great. Let’s do a quick roll call. From the Detroit Red Wings, Ken Holland.

Holland: Here.

Babcock: From the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan.

Shanahan: Here.

Babcock: Representing the Buffalo Sabres, Tim Murray.

Murray: Right here.

Babcock: Doug Wilson from the Sharks? Doug Armstrong from the Blues?

Wilson and Armstrong: Both here.

Babcock: And finally, from the Oilers… um… huh. Craig MacTavish.

MacTavish: I’m here!

(Everyone turns to stare at MacTavish.)

MacTavish: What?

Babcock: Um… didn’t I hear that you’re not the GM in Edmonton anymore?

MacTavish: Oh, that. Yeah, Peter Chiarelli is in charge now, but I still work there. And he obviously trusts me, because he gave me this super-important assignment.

Babcock: He did.

MacTavish: Yep! “You take the Babcock file, Craig!” he said. “Head out on the road and take as long as you need!” he said.

Babcock: I see.

MacTavish: That was two weeks ago.

Babcock: Are you aware that the Oilers already hired Todd McLellan?

(Awkward pause.)

MacTavish: I was not aware of that.

Babcock: You can go now.

MacTavish: I’ll just see myself out.

(MacTavish leaves.)

Babcock: OK, so where were we? First of all, I want to be really clear with everyone about where I’m coming from. I have three main priorities in all of this. The first is salary. I have a family to provide for and I’m proud of the work I do, and I want to be compensated for it.

(Everyone nods.)

Babcock: Second, I’d prefer to have at least some degree of control over player personnel decisions.

(Everyone nods again.)

Babcock: And finally, I need a realistic chance to win, either now or in the future.

Murray: See you, Brendan.

Wilson: Yeah, thanks for coming out.

Armstrong: Better luck next decade.

Shanahan (calmly): Actually, I don’t think winning is all that important to you.

Babcock: What? Have you never met me? It’s basically my single biggest…

Shanahan (staring intently into Babcock’s eyes): I don’t think winning is very important to you.

Babcock (trancelike): Winning is not very important to me.

Murray: Holy crap. Where’d you learn that trick?

Shanahan: Just a little something Yzerman taught to me.

Wilson: Mind control? That’s ridiculous.

Shanahan (staring intently): Actually it’s pretty cool

Wilson: Actually it’s pretty cool.

Shanahan: (smirks evilly)

Ranking the OGWACs

As we inch our way through the NHL playoffs and draw closer to the appearance of the Stanley Cup, we’ve reached the point when we can get started on one of hockey’s most cherished springtime traditions: It’s time to start hunting OGWACs.

That stands for “Old Guy Without a Cup,” the beloved specimen of hockey player who finally finds himself on the verge of his first championship after a long career. Fans love OGWACs. Their teammates love them, too; they’re often the first guy to get their hands on the Cup when it’s passed around. The greatest OGWAC story ever told is that of Ray Bourque back in 2001, when he finally lifted the Cup in his very last NHL game after 22 Hall of Fame seasons. Other memorable OGWACs include Teemu Selanne in 2007 and Lanny McDonald in 1989; just about every team that wins a Cup has one or two.

But which of this year’s OGWACs should fans be rooting for? Let’s take a look at all the players still left in the playoffs who are (a) over 30 years old, (b) in at least their 10th NHL season, (c) playing a regular role for their team, and (d) lacking a Cup ring. By my count, that gives us 12 guys to consider. And while any of them would make for a good story, some would be better than others.

Antoine Vermette, Blackhawks

Experience: At 32, he’s finishing up his 11th NHL season.

Near miss: He was a kid on the 2007 Senators team that made it to the final. He was also part of the 2012 Coyotes team that made a surprise run to a conference final.

Sympathy factor: If you’re a Hawks fan? Not high. Vermette was the team’s big trade-deadline acquisition, and he’s been a bust so far.

OGWAC rating: 1/10. Wait, how is it that Antoine Vermette is 32 years old but still looks exactly the same as he did in his rookie year?

Tomas Fleischmann, Ducks

Experience: The 10-year veteran turned 31 on Saturday. Happy birthday, Tomas!

Near miss: Fleischmann was a member of those Washington Capital teams that suffered playoff collapses in 2009 and 2010, then was shipped out as part of the misguided shakeup that followed.

Sympathy factor: He suffered a blood clot in 2009 that threatened to derail his career, but recovered.

OGWAC rating: 2/10. Fleischmann is a likable enough player. But he’s been a Duck only since the trade deadline, so even if Anaheim wins he’s going to have to wait at the back of the line for his Cup handoff.

Matt Carle, Lightning

Experience: He’s 30 and finishing off his 10th NHL season.

Near miss: He was part of the 2010 Flyers team that made a surprise run to the final, then lost on an overtime goal by a former no. 1 overall pick that they would have drafted if they hadn’t lost the lottery three years earlier. I feel like we don’t make a big enough deal out of that one when we’re talking about brutal losses in recent sports history.

Sympathy factor: He wants to win a Stanley Cup, but he’s spent most of his career with the Sharks and Flyers.

OGWAC rating: 3/10. Should we be at all concerned that the Lightning apparently looked at their leaky blue line and thought, You know what would fix this? Ex-Flyers!

Braydon Coburn, Lightning

Experience: He’s 30 and in his 10th season.

Near miss: He was a teammate of Carle’s on that 2010 Flyers team.

Sympathy factor: Ideally, you’d like an OGWAC to have overcome some sort of personal adversity at some point in their career. In Coburn’s case, he was drafted by the Thrashers.

OGWAC rating: 2/10. He’s only 30. Give him a few more years and he’d be a decent pick.

Kevin Klein, Rangers

Experience: He’s 30 years old and in his 10th NHL season.

Near miss: Like many of this year’s Rangers, his closest call came last season when New York made it to the final before losing to the Kings in five. He also had a couple of trips past the first round with the Predators.

Sympathy factor: He had to recover from a broken arm to make it back into the Rangers’ lineup last round. There’s also this, via Wikipedia: “On December 9, 2014, Klein lost part of his left ear on a high stick in the first period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had it stitched back on, came back to play, then scored the game-winning goal in overtime.”

OGWAC rating: 4/10. How can you root against a guy who’s basically the NHL’s Mick Foley?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Leafs land Mike Babcock

After a yearlong circus in which naive Toronto Maple Leafs executives and their delusional fans had convinced themselves that Mike Babcock would ever actually want to go anywhere near that punch line of an organization, we finally found out yesterday where the well-respected former Red Wings coach was really going. And the winner is … Toronto?

Wait, that can’t be right.

But it is, thanks to a mammoth eight-year, $50 million, front-loaded deal that Babcock agreed to after weeks of intrigue and visits with suitors around the league. After 10 years in Detroit that included one Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals, Babcock has been the league’s hottest free agent for the better part of the last year. Speculation about whether he’d leave Detroit has been buzzing since last summer and went into overdrive when the Red Wings were knocked out of the playoffs, with the “Babwatch” getting hyped to almost mythical levels.

And now we’re left with a world where the Toronto Maple Leafs did a good thing. Well, not necessarily good — we’ll get to that in a minute — but they accomplished what they set out to do. They didn’t fail, epically and embarrassingly, as the entire hockey world pointed and laughed. In Toronto, that counts as progress.

So now that we know the details, let’s try to sort out what this means in Toronto and beyond.

The Toronto Maple Leafs

There’s been little doubt that the Maple Leafs wanted Babcock, or at least somebody with the same sort of résumé and name value. That was the case when they were considering their coaching options this time last year. When they couldn’t find someone who fit that profile, they extended Randy Carlyle and then fired him after just half a season, leading to plenty of speculation that they’d be all in once Babcock hit the open market.

But that was a year ago, when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan & Co. were holding out hope that the Leafs just needed a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint to contend. Since then, Shanahan — the “& Co.” have all since been fired has realized that Toronto is facing a far bigger overhaul. That made it hard to picture Babcock wanting any part of spending a few years hitting rock bottom on a team just starting its rebuild, especially with far easier road maps available elsewhere.

Babcock may still be a good fit in Toronto; after a decade in Detroit, he’s clearly not one of those short-shelf-life coaches who wears out his welcome after three or four seasons. And the eight years on his new contract should certainly be enough time for even the hapless Leafs to get things turned around. At the very least, landing him gives the Leafs a boost of something they haven’t had for years: credibility.

And that’s why maybe the biggest winner here is Shanahan. He called his shot on this one, not so much with his words but with his actions over the past year. Talking a big game is nothing new in Toronto, but actually delivering sure is. Shanahan has already faced criticism of his approach to hiring — the team currently has no GM and just parted ways with its AHL coach. With the Leafs seeming to fall out of the Babcock picture in recent days, the narrative of a disorganized organization being led by a rookie, overmatched executive was getting ready to grind into full gear.

Instead, the Leafs actually got it done. Whatever you think of the fit for Babcock in Toronto, it has to be encouraging for Leafs fans to know that Shanahan was able to sell a smart guy like Babcock on his vision for the future. (Although the wheelbarrow full of cash probably didn’t hurt either.)

The Detroit Red Wings

Losing Babcock will hurt for the Red Wings and their fans. The franchise did just about everything right here, essentially putting that whole “If you love something, set it free” idea into real-world practice. The Wings made it clear that they wanted Babcock back, while allowing (and even encouraging) him to explore other opportunities. They never pressured him. And they kept everything cordial, with Babcock and Detroit GM Ken Holland even sitting down together for a fascinating interview with TSN last week.

And over the weekend, it looked like it was going to work. After months of speculation about which new team Babcock would jump to, a consensus emerged that he was going to stay in Detroit after all. He’d looked around, he’d heard from all the suitors, and he’d decided the grass really wasn’t greener after all. It was actually shaping up to be a nice little reunion story.

And then he jumped ship. You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame the Wings for not wanting to get into a bidding war with billionaires. But you have to feel for Detroit fans who spent all year preparing for Babcock to leave, only to be (incorrectly) told he was probably staying at the last minute.

The good news for the Red Wings is that they’ve got Babcock’s replacement lined up …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The NHL playoffs all-bust team

We’ve crossed the halfway point in this year’s playoffs, which means we’re down to four teams left battling it out for the Stanley Cup. Making it this far is an enormous accomplishment, and we should take some time to celebrate the excellence of the players who are making it happen.

We should, but we won’t, because it’s way more fun to point fingers at the guys who didn’t get it done. So today, let’s assemble a dream team of playoff busts from the first two rounds.

One obvious disclaimer here: “disappointment” is relative. A first-liner who suffers through an awful series may still be more productive than a fourth-liner who meets expectations, but the star still gets the dreaded bust label. Fair? Maybe not, but that’s why these guys get paid the big bucks.

These lists are always tricky, since you’re dealing with a small handful of games and the boxcar stats can be misleading; I fully expect to wake up tomorrow to find the words “small sample size” spray-painted on my garage door. But I’m willing to take that chance, mainly because I just want to write a post about disappointing hockey players that doesn’t include any Leafs.

We’ll pick a full roster of centers, wingers, defensemen, and goalies. Spoiler alert: This is going to end up being a pretty impressive group that would win an awful lot of games under normal circumstances (if you could squeeze them under the salary cap). But if you had many of them in your playoff pool, you’re already out.


Evgeni Malkin, Penguins — Let’s start with an easy one. The Penguins bowed out to the Rangers in five, but all were one-goal games. An extra goal or two could have turned the series around, which is why it was so frustrating to watch a superstar talent like Malkin struggle through a point-less series. That slump extended beyond the playoffs — he had no goals and just three points in his final 10 regular-season games — and it’s contributed to calls for the Penguins to trade him. (So far, it sounds like the team will stay the course.)

Paul Stastny, Blues — Stastny was the league’s biggest UFA signing last summer, at least in terms of average annual salary, and while his 46-point season was well under his career best, his solid two-way play still made him a key component of the Blues’ hopes. But his playoff numbers — just one goal and no assists in six games — were even worse. He didn’t play badly (his lined outscored and outchanced their opponents), and he certainly wasn’t alone, as pretty much every Blues forward not named Tarasenko could make an appearance on this list. But after yet another disappointingly short playoff run in St. Louis, it’s hard to argue that the Blues got what they paid for.

Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens — That Plekanec is, in theory, the Canadiens’ no. 1 center probably says more about the way the roster has been built than it does about the player. But that’s where he’s slotted in, and one goal and four points in 12 games doesn’t really cut it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 18, 2015

10 Conference Finals Thoughts

The NHL conference finals kicked off over the weekend with a pair of afternoon games. Both home teams came out with wins, with the Rangers edging the Lightning 2-1 on Saturday and the Ducks beating the Blackhawks 4-1 yesterday.

Here are 10 thoughts on what you missed while you were outside in the sunshine doing something other than watching hockey:

1. It’s time to start talking about Frederik Andersen. Ducks fans will no doubt argue that we’re a few weeks late on this, but you could be forgiven for not quite trusting Andersen heading into the playoffs. He didn’t play well in last year’s postseason, and his numbers this season were decent but not especially impressive. With John Gibson waiting in the wings, there was a decent chance that Andersen would eventually cough up the starter’s job altogether.

Ten games later, Andersen is looking rock solid. Yesterday he made 32 saves, including an early beauty on Patrick Kane that helped the Ducks weather a shaky first period. He’s not standing on his head and stealing games — he doesn’t need to, for reasons we’ll get to in the next section. But with the Ducks firing on all cylinders, they could probably get by with goaltending that was merely adequate. Andersen has been far better than that, and he’s a big reason why the Ducks are now 9-1 since the playoffs began.

2. The Ducks keep finding the net. They beat Corey Crawford three times on just 26 shots, and are now shooting 9.8 percent as a team at even strength in the playoffs. That’s a full 2 percent better than the St. Louis Blues, who rank second, and it’s well above the 9.03 percent with which the Lightning led the league during the regular season (when scoring rates were higher).

This is the place in any discussion of percentages where the word “unsustainable” makes its inevitable appearance, and that’s appropriate here even though the Ducks are certainly talented enough up front that you’d expect above-average shooting. Does that mean they can sustain 9.5 percent? Not over a full season, no, but right now they’re just seven wins away from a Cup, so regression to the mean better hurry up if it intends to put in an appearance for anything beyond a parade.

Another good sign: On Sunday, it wasn’t even the big names who were scoring, with Ryan Getzlaf limited to one assist and Corey Perry held pointless for just the third time in the playoffs. Secondary scoring is crucial at this time of year, and the Ducks are getting it.

3. The Blackhawks really miss Michal Rozsival. The veteran defenseman, who suffered a fractured ankle in the Hawks’ series-clinching win over the Wild nearly two weeks ago, isn’t exactly the first player you’d think of as an irreplaceable piece of Chicago’s roster. But his absence was felt yesterday, as an already thin Hawks blueline now seems stretched dangerously close to the breaking point.

Rozsival’s absence leaves Chicago with two defense pairings that it seems to trust. Veteran Kimmo Timonen barely played, clocking in at just over five minutes. And David Rundblad saw a little over 10 while managing to play a key role in each of the first two Ducks goals. It was a rough night for the 24-year-old, and the Blackhawks will need him to find his game quickly. Their top four defensemen are a very solid group, but it’s asking a lot to expect them to shoulder such a heavy load for up to 13 more games.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 15, 2015

Grab bag: Bulletin board material

In the grab bag:
- Enough with "bulletin board material"
- The NHL's playoff scheduling is awful
- Hawks vs Ducks means it's time to celebrate the Grim Reaper
- The second round's comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Lightning's impressive debut.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Conference Finals preview

Twelve down, four to go. We’re on to the NHL’s conference finals, and if you’re at all confident that you know who’s going to the Stanley Cup finals, then you’re a much smarter fan than I am.

Luckily, the NHL has wisely given us the next two days to think about it, because honestly, who’d actually be in the mood for more hockey now? Instead, let’s all take a few days off to mull over the matchups, comb through the story lines, and come up with some predictions.

Will they be good predictions? No. That would take two months, minimum. But we’ll do the best with what we have. On to Round 3 …

Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Series starts: Sunday afternoon in Anaheim.

Season series: The Blackhawks took two out of the three games; the Ducks never managed to score more than one goal in any of them.

Playoff history: They’ve never met before in the playoffs. But they did meet once in a movie, according to this image that’s shown up 400 times in your twitter feed this week.

Dominant narrative: Two teams that have both looked just about completely unbeatable face each other in a battle of the powerhouses.

In this corner: Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points, plus-34 goal differential)

How they got here: After a hard-fought win over the Predators in the opening round, the Hawks cruised to a surprisingly easy four-game sweep over a Wild team that we’d been led to believe was pretty good.

Conn Smythe candidate: Patrick Kane. Why is Kane so good in the playoffs? Old-school hockey wisdom tells us he shouldn’t be. After all, he’s a speed and skill guy, and while he’s not exactly soft, he’s never been confused for a power forward. Guys like that are supposed to fade in the playoffs, when every square foot of ice turns into a war zone. And yet Kane seems to get even better during the postseason, especially in close games. What’s the secret? Is it the mullet? It’s probably the mullet.

Wakey-wakey: Marian Hossa. Counting back to last year, it’s now been 23 games since Hossa scored on a goaltender in the playoffs. He’s still productive — of his seven assists this spring, six have been the primary — and he’s so good defensively that the Blackhawks don’t necessarily need him to score goals. But he usually does, and when the puck finally does start going in for him, a stacked Chicago roster gets even scarier.

The big question: Which Corey Crawford shows up? In the first round, Crawford struggled and lost his job to backup Scott Darling, who eventually struggled and handed it back. In the second round, Crawford was excellent. Maybe you look at him as a guy who needed a wake-up call in Round 1 and is now locked in and ready to win another Cup, but I’m still a little nervous if I’m a Blackhawks fan.

Health watch: Defenseman Michal Rozsival broke his ankle on this play which I cannot implore you strongly enough not to watch. He’s done for the year, and perhaps beyond. Kris Versteeg is day-to-day.

Key number: 72.7 percent — The Blackhawks’ penalty-killing efficiency in both the first and second round. You always like for your special teams to be consistent, but you’d prefer they weren’t consistently bad. It wasn’t enough to cost the Hawks against the uneven Predators and the overmatched Wild, but the Ducks could be a different story. In what projects to be a physical series, power plays will be crucial — Chicago will need to be much better at killing them off.

Bandwagon status: They’re on the verge of a mini dynasty and a hell of a fun team to watch, but the bandwagon already filled up and left the station during the regular season. Check back this summer after the salary cap dismantles half the team; we should have some vacancies then.

They win this series if: Crawford doesn’t implode, they sort out the penalty kill, and the Hawks’ best players can at least match the Ducks’ best.

And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goal differential)

How they got here: They swept the Jets in Round 1, and had only slightly more trouble knocking off the Flames in five in Round 2. They really, really hate heartwarming underdogs that used to be in Atlanta.

Conn Smythe candidate: Corey Perry, bless his punchable little face, has been on fire, racking up seven goals and 15 points in just nine games. He left the final game against the Flames with what looked like a nasty leg injury after being clipped, and then came back in time to score the series winner in overtime.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lightning move on

We’ve always known what this year’s version of the Tampa Bay Lightning could do. One look at the roster was enough for that, and if you caught them on a good night, the highlight reel would drive it home. What they could do has never been in doubt; we’ve just been waiting to see them do it, and do it consistently enough to be considered a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.

Last night, for one game at least, we saw them do it all. They smothered the Canadiens, choking the life out of Montreal’s comeback hopes in an impressive 4-1 win that ended the second-round series and sent the Lightning on to the conference finals. It was easily their best game of the series, probably their best game of the playoffs, and maybe even their best game of the season, all things considered. The hockey world was watching, waiting for Montreal to continue its comeback. Instead, the Habs got smoked.

So did we learn anything last night? Maybe not. On paper, the Lightning are one of the league’s best young teams. We’ve known that since last year, when they ended a two-year playoff drought with a 101-point season before being swept by the Canadiens in the opening round.1 We knew it when general manager Steve Yzerman spent the offseason patching over all the roster’s visible holes, rebuilding the blue line and adding depth up front. We knew it during the regular season, as they racked up 108 points while posting the second-best goals differential in the league.

And we knew it during the first three games of the series, as the Lightning opened up a 3-0 lead thanks to two close wins and a blowout. Then we tried not to forget everything we knew as Montreal clawed its way back into the series, posting a dominating win in Game 4 and then holding on for a narrow Game 5 win at home. Suddenly, the Canadiens had the momentum, and there was a sense of history in the air. Or at least there was until Game 6 started, when the Lightning looked like champions.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of the Lightning win last night was that they ran over Montreal without their best lineup. They did it without Ryan Callahan, the veteran winger who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Monday. They did it without Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick from the 2013 draft who the team seems to have lost faith in; he was a healthy scratch in all but two games in the series.

And perhaps most impressively, they did it without Steven Stamkos. Oh sure, the Lightning captain was in the lineup last night. He even scored the second goal, snapping one past Carey Price five minutes into the second. But that was a Steven Stamkos; it wasn’t the Steven Stamkos. That Stamkos is borderline unstoppable; the one we got in this series was stoppable. Throughout the postseason, he’s never looked quite right. He’s not listed on the injury report, but if the Lightning season ends and we find out he’s been playing through something and is headed off for surgery, nobody will be surprised.

And yet, half of Stamkos was enough for Tampa Bay in this series. That speaks to the depth this team has put around him, the guys like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. On the opening goal, Kucherov tipped Palat’s feed past Price, and Kucherov later added an empty-netter. Palat scored the 3-0 marker, and Johnson’s key goals this postseason have him solidly in the Conn Smythe picture.

All three of those guys were rookies last year. They’re going to get better, just like 24-year-old defensive stud Victor Hedman will get better. The Lightning are one of the youngest teams in the league. And that’s what made them so hard to project.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A brief history of Washington Capitals playoff collapses

The Capitals and Rangers face off tomorrow night in Game 7 of their second-round series, setting up a dramatic showdown that seemed unlikely just a few days ago. The Rangers looked like they were in big trouble when they fell behind 3-1 in the series, and they seemed all but done when the Caps held a lead late in Game 5. But a New York comeback has flipped the series around, and now the Rangers head into Game 7 in their own building with all the momentum. Who could have seen this coming?

Well, any Capitals fan could have, if we’re being honest. After all, this is a franchise that carries a certain reputation when it comes to blowing playoff leads. In fact, a loss tomorrow would mark the 10th time in franchise history that the Capitals found a way to lose a series in which they held a two-game lead. That’s not easy to do; historically, teams that lead a series 3-1 go on to win 90 percent of the time, with those that lead 2-0 faring almost as well. And yet the Capitals find a way to do it every few years. That’s almost impressive.

So in the lead-up to Game 7 and what could be yet another Capitals’ collapse, let’s take a trip back through the history of some of those series that got away. Maybe we can learn a few lessons that will help this year’s team avoid a similar fate. Or maybe we’ll just call it a dry run for the inevitable. Either way, it should make for a fun look back.1

1985, first round, New York Islanders

The Capitals: This was a good young Caps team featuring three future Hall of Famers just entering their primes in Mike Gartner, Larry Murphy, and Scott Stevens. They finished the season with 101 points.

The opponents: The Islanders were at the tail end of the Bossy/Potvin/Trottier dynasty; they had won the conference five straight years and still had most of the core that had won four consecutive Cups from 1980 to 1983. But they had struggled to stay over .500 and finished 15 points back of the Caps.

The lead: Washington took the first two games in overtime in what was then a best-of-five opening-round format. No team in NHL history had ever blown a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series.

The collapse: The series went back to Uniondale, where the Islanders stayed alive with a pair of wins. That set up a deciding game in Washington, in which goals by Brent Sutter and Anders Kallur were enough for the Isles to edge the Capitals, 2-1, and take the series.

The lesson: Watch out for those New York teams that lost in the Stanley Cup final the year before.

Heartbreak rating: 5/10. It’s never fun to become the first team in NHL history to squander a specific type of lead, but somebody has to be first. At least they got it over with quickly, right?

1987, first round, New York Islanders

The Capitals: A slightly older and wiser version of the 1985 squad, these Capitals featured names like Mike Ridley, Kevin Hatcher, and Michal Pivonka, who would become the core of the late-’80s/early-’90s teams.

The opponents: The Islanders still featured many of their legendary names, but were now four years removed from their last Cup and firmly transitioning into the Pat LaFontaine era.

The lead: After splitting the first two games in Washington, the Caps stole Games 3 and 4 on the road, giving up only one goal in the process and heading back home with a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The collapse: The Islanders took Game 5 by a 4-2 final, then held on for a 5-4 win in Game 6 at home. That set up a seventh game in Washington, and it turned out to be a classic: the Easter Epic, a quadruple-overtime marathon that ended on LaFontaine’s long-distance bomb.

The lesson: Why settle for losing one Game 7 when you can lose the equivalent of two in the same night?

Heartbreak rating: 9/10. This was the first time in NHL history that a team had blown a 3-1 series lead,2 and the drama of the final game made the loss devastating — Bob Mason’s stunned drop to one knee is still burned into the minds of old-time Caps fans. I’d say it can’t possibly get any worse than this, but I’d be worried that this year’s Caps would take that as a challenge.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 11, 2015

Chasing the ghosts of history in Montreal

No team celebrates its history more than the Montreal Canadiens, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing. The franchise has become legendary for reminding us about its legends. That often takes place during inspiring pregame ceremonies that the Canadiens have elevated to a minor art form, thanks largely to no small amount of practice.

It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it works beautifully, as it did before Saturday night’s Game 5 of the Habs’ second-round series against the Lightning. In the moments leading up to puck drop, we were treated to a brief video featuring words of inspiration from Jean Beliveau, the longtime Canadiens captain who passed away earlier in the season. Beliveau remains one of the most universally beloved figures in the hockey world, and his no. 4 is painted on the ice behind the nets at the Bell Centre.

That number loomed over Saturday’s game: four, as in the series-clinching fourth win that the Lightning were chasing for the second straight game. Four, as in the number of consecutive wins the Canadiens would need to string together after having dropped the first three games of the series. Four, as in the number of teams in NHL history that have rallied all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit.

For all their past glory, the Canadiens are not one of those four teams. Not yet. When you put on a Montreal uniform, with all of that history weighing on you, you don’t get many chances to be part of the first Canadiens team to ever accomplish something. By falling behind 3-0 in the series against the Lightning, this year’s team gave itself that chance to write its own chapter in the franchise’s storied history. It took the first step by winning Game 4 on Thursday. And by the end of Saturday night, Montreal was halfway there.

The Bell Centre opened in 1996, which in today’s NHL means it’s straining the boundaries of what can be called a “new building,” but we’ll allow it. It looks like a new building, which is to say that it looks more or less the same as just about any other building you’ve been in. Its main distinguishing feature is that it seats 21,273, the biggest capacity in the NHL. And unlike so many of the league’s other generic arenas, those fans don’t need the scoreboard to tell them when to get loud. They just need the team to give them something to cheer about.

On Saturday, they got it. Even by Montreal standards, the crowd was unusually loud from the start. They roared through the player introductions and national anthems. They buzzed as the two teams traded chances early. And they exploded when Devante Smith-Pelly opened the scoring midway through the first, on a laser beam shot that beat Ben Bishop high and at first glance seemed to hit the crossbar. (Play went on for a few seconds, but replay confirmed the goal.)

In these low-scoring playoffs, one goal often feels like it will be enough, and it was hard to fight that sense on Saturday, as Smith-Pelly’s goal held up well into the game’s second half. But the Lightning eventually started to take over, and by one stretch in the third period they were dominating. The tying goal felt inevitable, and it came from Steven Stamkos, the slumping captain who’s been barely noticeable for long stretches in this series. That quieted the crowd, but only briefly, and soon the fans were screaming and chanting again, almost as if in defiance.

“It was a loud building tonight,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien said afterward. “Even when they tied the game, our fans support the team. And you could see the energy from the players when the fans are behind them. It gave us an extra boost.”

That boost helped set the stage for P.K. Subban’s brilliant feed to P.A. Parenteau, who snapped a one-timer past Bishop with four minutes left. It wasn’t an overtime goal, but it might as well have been. Carey Price was having one of those games — Valtteri Filppula may need therapy after being victimized by a ridiculous glove save — and Tampa Bay couldn’t mount much the rest of the way. There was a minor flurry in the final minute, when Montreal suddenly forgot how to clear its own zone, but this time there’d be no buzzer-beaters for the Lightning.

Game 6 is Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. We’re halfway to history.

In addition to those 21,273 screaming fans, the Bell Centre also hosts a few more important guests: 19 banners for retired numbers (one is for a Montreal Expos player) and 24 more for the Canadiens’ Stanley Cups.

Depending on who you talk to, it may also be home to the old ghosts of the Montreal Forum. That was the team’s old arena, where the Habs won all but two of those Cups, and where all of those legends made their reputation. You used to hear about how those Forum ghosts could always be counted on to guide the team whenever it needed some extra help.

The ghosts were presumably invited to make the trip to the new arena. In the two decades since, there hasn’t been much evidence that they did.

The 20-minute walk from the Bell Centre to the site of the old Forum involves cutting across to Rue Sainte-Catherine, and the trip is … well, ugly isn’t the right word, but it’s not fun. It’s not much to look at, mostly uphill, and half the route seems to be under construction. As a Saturday stroll it fails miserably, but as a metaphor it works remarkably well. That walk back from the new to the old bridges the gap between almost two decades of Montreal Canadiens hockey, and those years have been not exactly ugly, but not much to look at, mostly uphill, and perpetually under construction.

The Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in 1993. Since then, they’ve made it out of the second round only twice, in 2010 and last year. Sprinkled around those two minor successes were a few near misses, lots of mediocrity, and some outright misery. That’s not so much a knock on the organization as it is the new reality of the NHL. This isn’t a six-team league anymore, and in the age of parity, teams aren’t supposed to win Cups all that often. The recent history of the Canadiens isn’t all that bad. It’s just average.

But there was a time in Montreal when average was unheard of. From the Original Six era through 1993, a span of 51 years, the franchise never went longer than seven years without winning the Stanley Cup. That held true even as expansion arrived and the league more than tripled in size. They kept winning those Cups because this was Montreal and they were the Canadiens, and they had the ghosts of the Montreal Forum to help them along.

Today, the Forum is a movie theater. I’d describe it further, but I don’t really need to, because if you’ve ever been in a modern movie theater, with its generic popcorn lines and self-serve kiosks and unused arcade games, then you’ve got the picture. On Saturday, if you didn’t feel like watching Game 5 at the Bell Centre, there was always Furious 7 at the Forum.

There are reminders of where you really are. There’s a small memorabilia store where you can pay $149 for “new” bricks from the original Forum, which sounds impressive until you realize that means somebody is still pulling bricks out of the building you’re currently standing in. They’ve painted a faceoff circle on the floor where center ice used to be, and even put a few rows of original seating around it, but the seats are too close, so the view is all wrong. The whole thing is all wrong.

The Forum is a movie theater. That shouldn’t be depressing, but it is. If you’re a hockey fan and you ever have the chance to make that 20-minute walk back through history, I recommend you don’t take it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 8, 2015

Will that goal count? Take this handy quiz to find out.

The Calgary Flames earned a crucial comeback win over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 3 of their second-round series on Tuesday. But in the days after the game, it’s seemed like all anyone in the hockey world wants to talk about is a disputed goal that almost cost the Flames the game.

Late in the third, Sam Bennett appeared to tie the game when his quick shot seemed to cross the goal line. But after a lengthy review, officials waved the goal off, ruling that there was no indisputable evidence that the puck had actually crossed it. That was news to most fans watching at home, although some postgame analysis made a convincing case that the league got it right.

It was a tough call that could have led to an ugly controversy if the Flames hadn’t come back to win the game. As it is, NHL fans and teams alike are still left wondering: When is a goal really a goal?

Luckily, you don’t have to guess. After consulting with a collection of league officials, retired referees, and experts in quantum mechanics, we’ve put together this handy quiz. The next time a controversial goal seems to have been scored, simply print out the quiz, grab a pencil, and work your way to the answer in mere minutes.

1. In the immediate aftermath of a disputed goal, the call on the ice is very important. In this case, what did the referee do?

a. Emphatically waved his arms, signaling no goal.

b. Emphatically pointed out the puck, signaling a goal.

c. Just kind of awkwardly stood there without making any call at all, although we’re all expected to pretend we didn’t notice that.

2. Review protocol says the referee will make contact with the off-ice officials and describe what he saw from ice level. In this case, what did the referee say?

a. He said he believed that the goal should not count, either because it did not cross the line or because it was not directed toward the net in a legal manner.

b. He said he believed that the goal did cross the line in a legal manner and should therefore count.

c. He said he was a bad and evil man and hated innocent people like me, and he was going to chase me and capture me and then eat me, and there’s a giant dragon that lives in his stomach, and the dragon will also eat me because they are both so mean. Hi, I’m Brandon Prust of the Montreal Canadiens.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Your guide to the World Championship

Right now, a typical NHL fan is spending just about every evening watching hockey. If the game goes to overtime, that can extend well into the middle of the night. On weekends, there are games on in the afternoons, as well. Which leads to an important question: What should we be doing in the morning?

Could I interest you in some hockey?

The IIHF’s Ice Hockey World Championship is taking place this month in the Czech Republic, and, thanks to the magic of time zones, that means we’ve got meaningful hockey to watch all morning. Granted, it may be a little bit tricky to drag yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. to watch Norway play Belarus, but hockey fans will find a way. After all, you can sleep in July.

The tournament has been running since last Friday, but if you haven’t been keeping track, don’t worry. There are still plenty of games left to go, and I’ve put together a handy guide to bring you up to speed. Here are 10 things you need to know about the World Championship.

1. This tournament is for the championship of the entire world!

Sounds pretty exciting, right? This is the big one. It says so right there in the tournament’s name. Whoever wins this one will be the undisputed world champ!

2. It’s not really a world championship in any meaningful sense.

Look, the World Championship is a nice tournament. It’s fun. It matters to the players who go. But it’s not a real world championship, and never really has been.

The tournament’s biggest problem is timing; since it takes place every year while the NHL playoffs are still going on, many of the world’s top players aren’t able to play. And even among those who are available, finding an excuse not to go has become a bit of an annual tradition. So while the World Championship always features lots of recognizable names, it’s never really a definitive best-on-best scenario.

That said, lots of top stars do end up playing (more on that in a bit), and the quality of play is high. But as far as international prestige goes, the World Championship is far back from the Olympics, the World Cup, and even the World Juniors. At this point, you could probably also make a strong argument that the Women’s World Championship is more meaningful, too.

But none of those tournaments are going on right now, so … on to the World Championship!

3. There are a whole lot of teams.

International men’s hockey is generally considered to be a six-country sport, with gusts up to seven depending on how you feel about Slovakia. The big six — Canada, Russia, the USA, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland — tend to dominate, with the occasional feel-good run by an underdog nation mixed in.

Since it’s kind of hard to run a six-team tournament, major events often work in two more teams and run with eight. Occasionally you’ll get 10 or even 12, with some preliminary tournaments to narrow down the field and give the countries with weaker programs a chance to play meaningful games. But once the real deal gets going, you want to avoid having too many teams cluttering up the schedule.

Not the World Championships. This year’s field features 16 teams, divided into two groups. And every team in a group plays each other in the round robin, which means …

4. All of those teams create lots of mismatches.

Most days on the round-robin schedule have a distinct “mid-’80s Saturday-morning wrestling” feel — you’ve got one good matchup if you’re lucky, and then a whole lot of squashes. Luckily, this year’s tiebreaking procedure doesn’t rely on total goal differential, so there’s no incentive for the stronger nations to really run up the score. But hockey is hockey, and you can take your foot off the gas only so much. We’ve already seen Canada beat Germany 10-0 and Sweden drop Latvia 8-1. That will continue as the round-robin portion wears on; there are basically one or two important games on the schedule for the top nations, and the rest are batting practice.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

So you're facing a 2-0 series deficit...

While the Capitals edged the Rangers last night to go up 2-1, the league’s three remaining series each feature a team holding a 2-0 lead. Two games into the second round, the Flames have been dominated by the Ducks, the Wild just can’t crack the Blackhawks, and the Habs … well, the Habs are kind of losing their minds against the Lightning.

The good news is that while a comeback from a 2-0 deficit is unlikely — only about 14 percent of teams pull it off — it’s far from impossible. Over the last few decades, it has tended to happen roughly once a year. We didn’t see any 2-0 comebacks in the first round this year, which means we’re still due.

That said, it’s a tricky proposition, and you really need to have a few things going for you to have a chance at pulling it off. So let’s run through eight factors that should be in your favor as you battle back from being down 2-0, and more importantly, which of these three teams have each going for them.

The Factor: A Goalie Who Can Steal the Series for You

This one’s probably the most obvious. All sorts of factors can contribute to a 2-0 deficit — a superior opponent, an offense gone cold, poor special teams, or just plain bad luck — but a hot goaltender is the one trump card that can overcome everything else. It’s awfully tough to come back without your goalie pulling off at least one or two of those “we just weren’t beating him tonight” games, and you want to have a guy who’s shown that he’s more likely than others to get it done.

Applies to: Minnesota and Montreal. Devan Dubnyk and Carey Price are two of this year’s three Vezina finalists. The Wild and Habs both have plenty to worry about right now, but not their goaltending.

Doesn’t apply to: Calgary. The Flames have already swapped starters in this series, which typically isn’t a good sign when you’re only two games in. Jonas Hiller started Game 1 but barely made it out of the first period. Karri Ramo got the nod in Game 2, and actually played a strong game despite the loss, making several highlight-reel saves. The Flames will need him to keep that up for the rest of the series; his track record says that’s probably wishful thinking.

The Factor: Facing a Goalie Who Could Let You Back In

This is the obvious flip side to the first factor. You need a goaltending edge, and the best way to get that is for your own guy to stand on his head. But if that doesn’t happen, facing an opponent who’ll hand you a few stinkers to get you back into the mix will work too. Just ask the 2002 Red Wings.

Applies to: Minnesota and maybe Calgary. Yes, Corey Crawford has a Cup ring. He’s also already lost his starting job once this postseason, and his 4-1 win on Sunday night was his first solid game of the opening two rounds. As for the Ducks, starter Frederik Andersen was supposed to be a potential weak spot heading into the playoffs. He hasn’t been so far, because the Ducks haven’t had any weak spots at all yet, and if it stays that way the Flames are done. Maybe we’re grasping at straws, but we’re not willing to move Andersen into the “sure thing” pile quite yet.

Doesn’t apply to: Montreal. We gave the “Is Ben Bishop actually good?” coin another flip, and it came up heads, so Ben Bishop is good today. And he’s been pretty darn good for the past week, starting with his Game 7 shutout win against the Red Wings and continuing through this series. So the Lightning probably feel pretty good about him (although they’d feel even better if he didn’t occasionally do stuff like this).

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 4, 2015

The 25 moments in every NHL playoff series

We’re a few games into the second round of the NHL playoffs, and so far this postseason has been a mixed bag. We’ve seen several favorites move on, a handful of upsets, a sweep, and a pair of Game 7s. We’ve had the usual mix of great saves, heroic individual efforts, and controversial moments. And with two more rounds after this one, no doubt there’s far more to come.

But with eight series down and four more under way, it’s hard to escape a certain sense of familiarity setting in. That’s because while every playoff series is unique in its own way, they all tend to follow a pattern. So whether you’re relatively new to all of this or you’re a veteran fan who could use a refresher, now would be a good time to run down the list of 25 moments you can expect to encounter in any given NHL playoff series.

1. The matchup is finalized

If you’re lucky, you get up to a week’s notice. More often, you only get a couple of days. But either way, it’s more than enough time to start building up some animosity balanced with a healthy dose of fear. These guys aren’t bad, but your team should be able to beat them as long as everything goes according to plan.

It should be an enjoyable series. And hey, may the best team win.

2. You familiarize yourself with the other team’s media

Now is a good time to seek out some of the other team’s local media and get to know their work. After all, they know the opponent best, and you’ll probably gain some valuable inside information by keeping up with their work. Follow a few of them on Twitter, just to make sure you’re always getting both sides of the story over the weeks to come. Make sure you get the lead columnist from all the major dailies, plus a radio guy or two. Maybe even throw in the play-by-play guy – you’ve heard he’s quite the card. Always good to hear some voices from across the aisle, right?

3. Game 1

This is the big one. Game 1 sets the tone. It’s the one that determines who gets the momentum. Over the course of NHL history, the team that wins Game 1 has gone on to win the series 112 percent of the time. I may not have that number exactly right, but it’s something close. Game 1 is everything.

(Note: By the end of the series, you will not remember anything that happened in Game 1.)

4. You admit that you respect the other team’s best player

You’re rooting against the guy – that goes without saying – but you have to admit to a certain grudging respect. He’s a hell of a player. Sure, he has delivered the occasional cheap shot and he probably dives a little bit too much for your liking, but you’d take him on your team in a second.

5. The coaches start working the referees

Well, that didn’t take long. Within minutes of the first game ending (and sometimes even before), both coaches are in full-on lobbyist mode. Of course, they can’t actually say that they think the referees are screwing them — there’s no sport in that. No, they have to try to go subtle, feigning confusion over the rulebook and saying things like “I really thought that interference in the neutral zone/setting picks in the defensive end/running over the goalie with a Zamboni was against the rules, but apparently it’s not. So I guess we better start doing it too.”

It’s shameful and laughably over the top. It also works every single time without fail, with the exception of whenever your team’s coach does it.

6. You find that one guy on the other team who looks weird

Do the other team’s fans know about this? It’s always some third- or fourth-liner that you’d never heard of before, and he doesn’t really do all that much in the series. But he’s on camera just often enough that you start to wonder: What’s wrong with this face? Does he realize his jaw does that? Where is he from, and does everyone who’s from there look like that? Every time this guy shows up onscreen for the rest of the series, the next five minutes of the game will be ruined.

7. Each fan base picks one player on the other team to boo

This is always a fun one, since it happens organically. There’s no meeting; nobody holds a vote; nobody sends a memo. But at some point, everyone unanimously decides to boo one (and only one) player on the other team every time he touches the puck. It could be the superstar, the pest, or just some random guy, but it will happen to somebody.

(Underrated moments in any series are the first few times this happens, since it’s really confusing when you’re not used to it yet. One team is passing the puck around during a line change and suddenly everyone’s booing, and you’re left going, “Wait, what’s going on, is something happening behind the play that … oh, right, it’s that guy.”)

8. You fall in love with one of your team’s third-liners

He’s so gritty! And he competes so hard! And his heart! And his beard! And that one time a better player shot the puck and it deflected off his armpit and into the net! So clutch …

This offseason, he’s going to use this playoff run to demand a massive contract. This time next year, you will hate him for ruining your team’s cap. But today, you are willing to name your firstborn after him.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Round two preview

The NHL’s frantic first round ended on Wednesday with the Lightning’s 2-0 Game 7 win over the Red Wings, so now would be a good time for everyone to stop, take a breath, and enjoy some much-needed time off from playoff hockey. Decompress a little. Maybe reconnect with family and friends.

Done? Good. Round 2 already started last night. We’d better hurry up and get to the preview.

Pacific Division: No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames

Series started: Last night in Anaheim, where the Ducks crushed the Flames 6-1

Season series: The Ducks won three of five. Each of the last three games ended in a 6-3 final. That means something. I do not know what.

Playoff history: They’ve met once, in the first round back in 2006; the Ducks came back from a 3-2 series deficit to win in seven.1

Dominant narrative: The well-rested favorite takes on the scrappy underdog.

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

How they got here: They beat the Vancouver Canucks in six in a minor upset, winning all three games at home.

Unexpected first-round hero: Micheal Ferland.2 A 23-year-old rookie, Ferland (or “Ferkland,” as he’ll be forever known to Vancouver fans) drove the Canucks crazy with his physical play early in the series. Then he scored the goal that started the Flames’ comeback in the series-clinching Game 6, and finished the game with three points. His mom wouldn’t let him hit the Sedins, but we can assume she has no issue with him going after Corey Perry, because even moms hate Corey Perry.

Wakey-wakey: Mikael Backlund3 is relied on for secondary scoring from the middle six, but had just one assist in the opening round.

The big question: Can they handle the Ducks physically? The Flames-Canucks series was ugly at times, and Calgary never backed down. But the Canucks aspire to be a dominant physical team; the Ducks actually are one. A massive Jets team went out and hit every Duck that moved in Round 1 and barely made a dent in them. The Flames are a team built on a philosophy of truculence, but they’re not going to intimidate anyone this round.

Health watch: Ferland and Jiri Hudler both left last night’s game and are listed as day-to-day. Captain Mark Giordano remains out after surgery on a torn biceps. That surgery was considered absolutely, positively, 100 percent season-ending, so yeah, he’ll probably be back eventually.

Key number: 329 — Career starts for current Flames goalie Jonas Hiller during his seven years with the Ducks, including 22 in the playoffs. He was pulled early in the second last night.

Bandwagon status: With the Jets, Senators, and Islanders all out, the Flames are pretty much the last team left with any solid underdog cred.

They win this series if: They can handle the physical battle without getting into penalty trouble, the young forwards can keep producing, and Hiller rebounds from Game 1 to write a nice little revenge tale against the team that dumped him. If all of that happens, and about a dozen more things go their way, they’ll make it to Game 5. From there, they’ll probably need a miracle. So, business as usual for these guys.

And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goal differential)

How they got here: They swept the Jets in the first round and had been off since that series ended last Wednesday.

Unexpected first-round hero: Jakob Silfverberg. Guys like Perry and Ryan Getzlaf get most of the attention, but the Ducks can boast some impressive secondary scoring. The 24-year-old Silfverberg, who came over in the Bobby Ryan trade with Ottawa, had six points, including the late winner in Game 2.

Wakey-wakey: Not too many guys can be said to have a bad series when you win in four, but 22-goal man Matt Beleskey was held off the score sheet against Winnipeg.

The big question: Can they sweep again? After last night’s lopsided opener, it sure looks that way.

Health watch: Everyone’s at least a little hurt these days, but the Ducks should be as healthy as possible after all their time off.

Key number: 3 — Number of games in the first round in which the Ducks trailed heading into the third period but came back to win, tying an NHL playoff series record. They also had 18 third-period comebacks during the regular season, another record.

Bandwagon status: Come on. They already beat the Jets and made all their cool fans cry. If they do the same to the underdog Flames, they’ll advance to the third round, where they’ll just kick a boxful of puppies down a flight of stairs.

They win this series if: They look anything like they did in the first round, not to mention in Game 1. On paper, this should be close to a bye for the Ducks.

Prediction: The Flames once again find a way to defy the odds and make this a lot closer than it has any right to be, but the Ducks eventually advance in six hard-fought games.

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Grab bag: Round One edition

In the return of the grab bag:
- Why can't suspension rulings just be consistent?
- Don Cherry needs a reboot
- First round comedy stars
- An obscure player with a very sad record
- And we celebrate the fierce Rangers/Capitals rivalry with a classic throwdown...

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