Saturday, April 30, 2016

Draft lottery live chat

Can I watch the Maple Leafs lose the lottery three times to drop down to #4 without swearing on a major media property? Let's find out!

I'll be hosting a live chat on Sportsnet for tonight's draft lottery. We'll start around 6 ET and go for about three hours. In the meantime, you can submit comments or questions in advance by visiting the page and clicking the "comment" link.

>> Visit the live chat now

Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday Grab Bag: New fans, old feuds, and a YouTube clip that ends badly

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A word about Dan Boyle, Cal Clutterbuck, and when players yell at the media
- The award finalists are being announced, and they're all wrong
- The three comedy stars, including the Blues' newest fan
- An obscure lottery winner
- And a YouTube clip that's light and fun and features the darkest ending in the section's history

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, April 28, 2016

2016 Draft Lottery power rankings

The NHL Draft Lottery will be held on Saturday night. It marks the debut of a new format — one in which separate drawings will be held to determine each of the top three picks, with all 14 non-playoff teams eligible to win one of those spots.

The stakes are high. Presumptive top pick Auston Matthews may not be a Connor McDavid-level sure thing, but he’s considered an elite prospect with the potential to be a franchise player.

So as we wait for the ping pong balls to start bouncing, let’s set the stage with some pre-lottery power rankings. You already know how the 14 non-playoff teams are ranked in terms of their actual lottery odds, so instead let’s try a few slightly more subjective categories.

The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Rankings

If there’s any justice in the hockey world, here are the teams that should be smiling at the end of the night. (Note: There is no justice in the hockey world.)

No. 5: Toronto Maple Leafs – Hey, they finished last, right? And the fanbase hasn’t had anything good happen to them in roughly 30 years, so they’re probably due.

No. 4: Carolina Hurricanes – A bad team that overachieved all season relative to expectations, then wound up with nothing to show for it besides lousy lottery odds. Besides, it would be nice to see a super longshot win one of these things someday. No, not you, Bruins.

No. 3: Columbus Blue Jackets – You have to give them credit: The Blue Jackets never tank. Oh, they’re always bad. They just never do it on purpose. There’s a certain honour in that.

No. 2: Arizona Coyotes – Matthews is a hometown kid, and we all assumed that the Coyotes would spend the season doing everything short of scoring into their own net to make sure they had the best odds at landing him. But they didn’t. Much like the Jackets and Hurricanes, there’d be a sense of karma behind seeing them rewarded.

No. 1: Buffalo Sabres – They finished dead last in each of the last two seasons, then lost the lottery both times. Sure, they still wound up with Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel. But it could have been Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. A basic sense of fairness says they’re due.

The “Who Needs It Most?” Ranking

Yes, of course, everybody wants Auston Matthews. But who really needs him?

No. 5: Toronto Maple Leafs – Granted, they don’t actually need a first-line centre, since they’re signing Steven Stamkos this summer and Johnathan Tavares in two years. Still, depth is always good, right?

No. 4: Montreal Canadiens – These days, it’s hard to remember that it was just a year ago that the Canadiens looked like real Stanley Cup contenders. Now, some are wondering if they’re on the verge of wasting Carey Price‘s prime. Winning the top pick would wipe out a year’s worth of negativity in an instant. (For a day or two. It’s still Montreal.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Round two preview (Western Conference edition)

Oh hey, look who decided to show up.

Thanks to the NHL's annual tradition of always having that one series that drags on a few days longer than everyone else, the Western Conference is a bit late to the round two party. The East is already underway, with the Islanders beating the Lightning, 5-3, in Wednesday night's opener. We previewed the Eastern Conference yesterday.

Today it's on to the West, which suddenly looks wide open with the Blackhawks and Kings knocked out early.

Central Division

The champs are out, thanks to the St. Louis Blues and a pair of posts. That leaves the door open for some new blood in the conference final.

#1 Stars vs. #2 Blues

In this corner: The Dallas Stars (50-23-9, +37 true goals differential), the West's top seed and the league's most productive offense.

And in this corner: The St. Louis Blues (49-24-9, +22), moving on to the second round for just the second time in 14 years.

In round one: The Blues (barely) survived that seven-game war with the Blackhawks, while the Stars had more trouble than expected with the Wild in a six-game series.

Injury report: Dallas center Tyler Seguin's return to the lineup in the opening round lasted one game; his status for this series is unknown. The Blues are no doubt beaten up after the Blackhawks, but don't have any major names on the injury report.

Dominant narrative: Now that the Blues have knocked out the Hawks and at least temporarily slain their playoff demons, is this finally the year that it all comes together and they make a deep run? Despite decades of regular-season success, they've won just a single game past the second round since 1986.

The big question: Can the Stars win this way? Sure, winning 6-5 is all sorts of fun, and it can work in the regular season. But the playoffs are a different beast, we're told, and goaltending and defense are the keys to a Cup. The Stars don't have much of either, and it showed against the Wild. Dallas switched starting goaltenders twice, and might be doing it again to start this series after Kari Lehtonen's third-period meltdown nearly cost the Stars Game 6 in Minnesota. The Stars were still able to overpower the Wild, but it's hard to see them beating a complete team like the Blues without one of their goaltenders stepping up.

One player to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko. The saga of Tarasenko's ice time became a dominant storyline of the opening round, leading to what sure looked like a rift with coach Ken Hitchcock. He may be the most explosive player left in the Western bracket, but Tarasenko just doesn't see the ice as much as you'd expect, and when he does his shifts are kept remarkably short. Like most controversies, it's not a story as long as you're winning. But we know the Stars are going to score, and you wonder if the Blues will eventually have to let their top offensive weapon take the training wheels off.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

History's five biggest first round upsets

The Predators face the Ducks Wednesday night in Game 7 of their opening round series, with an opportunity to complete what would stand as the biggest upset of this year’s first round.

These days, of course, big upsets are relative. The Predators are a wildcard team facing a division winner, but they only finished seven points behind the Ducks in the standings. And the opening round’s other upsets were even closer – the Islanders were three points behind the Panthers, while the Sharks were four back of the Kings. Such is life in the age of parity, where the margin between average and elite is narrower than ever before.

So with all due respect to those plucky underdogs from Nashville, let’s take a moment today to look back at the real thing, by counting down five of the biggest first-round upsets of the 20+ team era.

No. 5 – 2000: Sharks over Blues

The only Presidents’ Trophy in Blues history is one that most of their fans would rather forget. To this day, you can ruin a St. Louis fan’s day by mentioning one name: Roman Turek. That would be the Blues’ starting goaltender during that 1999-2000 season, one in which he posted a career year and finished as the Jennings winner and runner-up for the Vezina while leading the Blues to a franchise-record 114 points.

But then the 87-point Sharks showed up, and things went south. San Jose jumped out to a 3-1 series lead before the Blues fought back with a pair of wins to force a seventh game on their home ice. A tense first period saw the Sharks jump out to a 1-0 lead, one that looked set to hold up as we headed to the intermission. And then this happened:

Owen Nolan’s center ice rocket put the Sharks up 2-0 and sucked the oxygen out of the building. It proved to be the winner, as the Sharks held on for a 3-1 win.

The Blues gained a measure of revenge the following season, knocking off the Sharks in a first-round rematch. They’ve split two more post-season meetings since then. We could be two weeks away from another, this time in the conference final. But if it happens, don’t expect Turek to handle any pre-game faceoff duties. He sometimes struggles with center ice.

No. 4 – 2006: Oilers over Red Wings

The first season after the 2005-06 lockout was one of the most unpredictable on record. Scoring was up, superstar rookies were everywhere, and new rules on and off the ice were changing everything. But there was one constant from the pre-cap era: The Red Wings were dominant. They racked up 124 points and went into the playoffs as a heavy favorite to win their fourth Cup in a decade. And then they ran into Edmonton.

The eighth-seeded Oilers weren’t a bad team, putting up 95 points of their own, and the late-season acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson filled the biggest hole in their roster. Still, not many expected them to be much more than a speed bump for the Wings, and a Detroit win in the opener seemed to confirm that. But the Oilers took the next two, then split Games 4 and 5 to push the Wings to the brink.

The series ended in Edmonton in Game 6, with the Red Wings taking a 2-0 lead into the third period before a furious Oilers comeback leading to Ales Hemsky’s winning goal with just over a minute left.

The Oilers’ run continued all the way to the final, where they fell one game short of winning the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings didn’t lose in the first round again until 2012, including another Cup win in 2008.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

The Blackhawks' season is over. Is their dynasty?

The Chicago Blackhawks season came to an end on Monday night in St Louis, with a Game 7 loss in their opening round series against the Blues. Now, we wait and see what else ended with it.

An era? A dynasty? Something more? Or maybe just a chapter in an ongoing story, one that can’t end with a Cup parade every time even if it’s often seemed to.

The NHL is a far different league than it was before the 2005 lockout that wiped out an entire season and ushered in a new set of rules, and that makes it hard to put what the Blackhawks have done in historical context. In decades past, an NHL dynasty meant an unstoppable force, like the great Canadiens teams of the 50s and 70s. It was Al Arbour’s Islanders winning four Cups and an unthinkable 19 straight playoff series. It was the Gretzky-led Oilers powerhouse that followed them, one that won four titles in five years and only lost when it scored into its own net.

The Hawks, by comparison, have never even repeated as champions. They’ve won Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, making them the only team to win three titles in the post-2005 salary cap era. But they’ve also lost in the first-round three times since that first championship. Is that really a dynasty?

Well, yeah. In today’s NHL, it is. Because today’s NHL is designed to make it all-but impossible for the best teams to stay on top. There’s a hard salary cap in place, one that forces teams to stay under a preset budget. A good team can keep its core – the four or five players who define its identity – but they’ll become increasingly expensive, squeezing out the supporting cast that’s so crucial. Like a crab getting yanked back into the bucket, the NHL’s best teams are relentlessly pulled back to the pack. The system has resulted in an age of unprecedented parity and competitive balance, one that the league relentlessly promotes as a good thing.

Despite that, the Blackhawks have been able to keep winning. Not all the time, like teams could in the old days, but more than anyone else in the league could manage. Since emerging as a contender in 2009, Chicago have won 76 playoff games; the next best team have won just 54. They’ve got three Cups, while only one other team has even won two in the cap era. Hockey fans don’t argue about the era’s best team anymore, because there’s really no argument to be had. It’s the Blackhawks by a landslide.

And yet there they were on Monday, sent home in the first round by a longtime rival with a reputation for postseason failure. The title defense was over before it even really began.

So what happened? And more importantly, what happens next?

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Round two preview (Eastern Conference edition)

We'll have a new Stanley Cup champion this year. We know that much after the opening round, thanks to the Blues' Game 7 elimination of the Blackhawks on Monday. With the Kings already out and the Bruins not even getting an invite, the last six Cup winners are already done. Only two of the remaining teams have won a Cup in the salary cap era, and four have never won one at all.

And so now we're on to round two. Well, sort of.

The NHL is throwing a twist at us this year, starting the Eastern Conference second-round schedule Wednesday with the Islanders and Lightning even though the Western Conference's opening round hasn't wrapped up yet. So we'll split this preview in two, covering the East today and then wrapping up the West tomorrow once we know whether it will be the Ducks or Predators moving on to face the Sharks.

Metropolitan Division

We might as well start with the big one, a series featuring two star-packed teams with plenty of history and what seems like a fairly clear path to the final awaiting the winner. Other than that, not much on the line.

#1 Capitals vs. #2 Penguins

In this corner: The Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals (56-18-8, +57 true goals differential), moving on to the second round for the fifth time in eight years. They've lost each of their previous four visits, including three that went to Game 7.

And in this corner: The Penguins (48-26-8, +42), a team packed with elite talent that stumbled out of the gate before changing coaches and transforming into a powerhouse.

In round one: The Capitals raced out to a 3-0 series lead on the Flyers before losing two straight to resurrect the ghosts of playoff collapses past; they ended that talk, at least temporarily, by closing out the series with a 1-0 win in Game 6. The Penguins speed-bagged Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in a five-game series.

Injury report: The big name is Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins' goalie who missed the entire first round with a concussion. He's been skating lately and could return at some point, but until then the Pens will rely on rookie Matt Murray, who played well against the Flyers. The Penguins did get Evgeni Malkin back during the opening round, and the rest of the key names are relatively healthy.

The Capitals are also in fairly good shape, although they've been missing veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and winger T.J. Oshie looked shaken up by a high hit in Game 6 (but did return for the third period).

Dominant narrative: Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby. The NHL spent years trying to market these two as the Magic vs. Bird rivalry of their era, but they've only actually met in the playoffs once before. That was in 2009, a seven-game Penguins win that many consider one of the best series in recent memory.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Monday, April 25, 2016

Weekend report: Meeting the moment

The playoffs are all about losing. Every year, 16 teams enter and 15 leave with their heads down, defeated and discarded. It's the cruel reality of the most unforgiving time of year.

But all losses are not created equal—some are far worse than others. And all teams aren't created equal. Some seem to take those bad losses a lot more often than the odds say they should. This year's opening round featured three of those teams in the Sharks, Capitals and Blues. All three have earned reputations for coming up small in big moments. All three saw the first round set them up to do it again, which, of course, also meant they had a chance to strike a blow against their demons.

The first team to stare down its past was San Jose, which finished off the Kings on Friday to become the first Western Conference team to punch a ticket to the second round. That doesn't exactly erase a reputation built over a decade-plus of postseason disappointment—remember, the Sharks had already been past the first round nine times since 2000, and that didn't stop anyone from deciding that they'd never gone far enough. But getting that win against Los Angeles certainly sends a message, and offers at least a small measure of payback for the epic 2014 collapse that saw San Jose blow a 3-0 series lead to the eventual Cup champion Kings. This year has always had a different vibe for the Sharks, with so many having written them off that they felt like plucky underdogs instead of pressure-weary favorites. They've still got a ways to go, but if knocking off the Kings doesn't count as getting it done when it matters, not much can.

Next up were the Capitals, facing down their history of taking big leads in playoff series and then watching them slip away. They'd never blown a 3-0 series lead, which is what they held heading into Game 4 against the Flyers. They lost that game, and then the next, outplaying the Flyers in both but being stoned by a red-hot Michal Neuvirth. That had Washington fans nearing panic mode for Sunday's Game 6, but the Capitals held on for a 1-0 nail-biter. They'll move on to face the Penguins, a team that factors heavily into that history of playoff misery, in a matchup that feels a lot like the unofficial Eastern Conference final.

And then you've got the Blues, a franchise with a nearly 50-year history of playing perfectly solid regular-season hockey, then fading out of the picture as soon as the playoffs get serious. They drew the worst-case scenario for their opening round matchup, facing the defending champion Blackhawks, and then responded with three wins in the opening four games. But everything changed once Game 5 arrived and Chicago's late-series super powers activated, and now we're headed to a Game 7 tonight.

Much like the Sharks and Capitals, the Blues can quiet all the history talk at least temporarily with a win. But heading into the game, they look an awful lot like a team in disarray. Ken Hitchcock is coaching for his job, and he's apparently decided to do it by picking a fight with his best player. Vladimir Tarasenko isn't playing anywhere near the minutes you'd expect, and he doesn't seem happy about it.

This all feels like the last thing the Blues need heading into a make-or-break game. And again, if they manage to earn a win, then we will forget all about the drama and start figuring out how well they match up against the Stars. But if not... well, sorry, Blues fan. The postseason narrative beast needs to be fed. And with only one team left to feed on, it won't be pretty.

Conn Smythe Watch

Celebrating those who are making the strongest case for postseason MVP honors.

5. Guys you've never heard of—It happens every year, and it's one of the best parts of the playoffs: The guy who gets to play the hero on the game's biggest stage, forcing the rest of us to pretend we have any clue who he is.

We saw it Friday in Florida, where the double-overtime marathon between the Islanders and Panthers was ended not by John Tavares or Jaromir Jagr or even Aleksander Barkov on the third sudden death penalty shot in playoff history. Instead, it was rookie Alan Quine, a former sixth-round pick who was playing in his seventh career NHL game. At around the same time Quine was playing the hero, it was San Jose rookie Joonas Donskoi who was scoring twice, including the winner, in the deciding game in Los Angeles. Many fans may not have even known Donskoi's name; now they even know his weird nickname.

Donskoi and Quine join other not-so-big names from this year's postseason spotlight like Jeff Zatkoff and Bryan Rust. Here's hoping a few can keep it up, and join the ranks of legendary unlikely playoff heroes like Steve Penney, Chris Kontos and Fernando Pisani.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

The offside review rule that's ruining everything: An explainer

There’s a new rule in the NHL this year. You may have heard about it. It’s a rule we all wanted, it’s working pretty much exactly as designed, and it’s being applied often. And hockey fans hate it.

It’s the offside review rule, and if this is the first you’re hearing about it, go find a hockey fan and ask them how it’s going. Then get ready for a healthy dose of sputtering rage. Because right now, the offside review rule is ruining everything.

So what is this new rule, and why is everyone so angry about it? It gets a bit complicated, so let’s do this Q&A style.

What is the offside review and where did it come from?

The rule is a new one, introduced for this season. It allows for an instant replay review on any zone entry where a goal is scored before the puck comes back out, to see if the play may have been offside. The reviews are initiated by a coach’s challenge until the final minute of regulation; after that, including overtime, the league automatically reviews everything.

Hockey’s offside rule is relatively straightforward – basically, the puck has to cross the opposing blueline before any players have completely entered the zone. But hockey is a fast game, and players have been taught to try to time their zone entries so that they cross the line at the exact moment the puck does. So we’re talking about plays that can be decided by a fraction of an inch and a fraction of a second.

OK, so the officials were missing those calls fairly often?

No! Well, at least we didn’t think they were. Which is kind of where the problem comes in. We’ll get to that in a second.

But no, the idea here wasn’t that there was some sort of epidemic of missed calls. Instead, there had been a handful of notable cases in which an offside was clearly missed. The most famous had been this Matt Duchene goal from 2013, in which he’d been allowed to score even though he was clearly offside by several feet.

That was such an obvious mistake that it seemed like the sort of thing that replay should be able to step in and fix, and there were calls for the league to consider a review process at the time. But the real tipping point came in last year’s playoffs, when the Lightning scored an overtime winner against Montreal that appeared to be offside. That play wasn’t as comically obvious as the Duchene call, but the stakes were so much higher that plenty of fans and media began asking why the NHL wasn’t making absolutely sure they got these calls right.

And so, last summer, the NHL introduced the replay review rule. (They also introduced a review for goaltender interference, which has come under occasional fire but seems to be working more or less as expected.) To be clear: Almost everyone thought this was a good idea. And we all assumed that it would come up maybe a few times all season long.

And then…

Yeah, it turns out that NHL linesman have been secretly terrible at calling offside.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Friday, April 22, 2016

Grab Bag: The beautiful madness of the first round

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- It's the first round and everyone's angry about something, so it's time for the Outrage Lightning Round
- An obscure player who might make Steve Mason feel a little better
- The worse way to argue about dirty hits
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at wonderful insanity that were Fox's pre-game playoff montages

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Game Six Overtime is the NHL's Twilight Zone

They’re almost here.

Over the weekend, hockey fans will get this year’s first look at Game 6. We’ll get one on Saturday night, with the Hawks hosting the Blues. Depending on how things play out, we could have as many as four more on Sunday, and maybe even two more after that on Monday.

It goes without saying that a Game 6 is always crucial. A Game 6 means that one team is guaranteed to be looking to close out the series and move on to the next round. It also means that one team will be facing elimination, just one loss away from seeing everything they’ve worked for all season long end with the crushing disappointment of elimination.

But even more importantly, it means we have a chance to get overtime. And if we do, then the odds are good that we’ll see something truly strange. Because, for reasons nobody has ever been able to explain, Game 6 Overtime is the NHL’s version of the Twilight Zone.

Think back to the strangest, most controversial or just downright confusing moment you can remember witnessing as a hockey fan. The odds are good that it happened in a Game 6 Overtime. Nobody knows why this is. There's no rational explanation for it. But somehow, when it's Game 6 of a playoff series and we're deadlocked after regulation, things get weird. Before the Zambonis have completed their intermission rounds, the generally accepted laws of society, justice and even basic physics are already resetting themselves.

For example, what's the most controversial play in NHL history? Most fans would probably think of Brett Hull's skate-in-the-crease goal to win the 1999 Stanley Cup. And when did that happen? Game 6 Overtime, of course.

That goal and its aftermath still stands as one of the strangest moments that hockey fans have ever seen. Then again, at least we did actually see it. In Game 6 Overtime, there are no guarantees. At any other time, a star player scoring the biggest goal in a decade would be an unforgettable moment. In Game 6 Overtime, you might not even notice that it happened.

This stuff has been going on for decades. And it's not just about the winning goals. Go find the nearest Maple Leafs fan and ask them how their day is going. Then count the seconds until they manage to change the subject to the one play that every Leafs fan has been droning on about for 23 years: Wayne Gretzky's missed high-stick on Doug Gilmour from the 1993 Conference Finals. And when did that happen? Of course.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Five weird NHL rules you may not know

Well, if nothing else, the first round of the playoffs has been educational.

On Saturday, fans learned that a player can be offside even if his skate is clearly still over the blueline, because it has to be touching. That was news to some of us, and leads to some interesting philosophical questions. If a player jumps across the line with both skates in the air, is he onside? Offside? Both at the same time, like Schrödinger’s cat?

Then on Sunday, we found out that you can get an interference call for touching the puck from the penalty box. That one has come up before, but it’s rare enough that many fans were probably hearing about it for the first time. So that’s two new rules that at least some of us weren’t aware of in a single weekend – and that’s without even getting into whatever it was that happened on that Antoine Roussel goal.

Well, why stop there? Every now and then, it’s fun to dig into the NHL’s official rulebook and find some of the oddities, quirks and loopholes hidden within. Many are rarely enforced, or have literally never come up in a real game. But they’re still in the books, and fans might as well get to know them. As we’ve been reminded this week, you never know when an obscure rule will turn out to be crucial.

Here are five actual NHL rules that many fans may not have heard of.

The other area where a goalie can’t play the puck

Every fan knows about the trapezoid behind the net, and the sections of ice on either side of it in which a goalie is forbidden to play the puck. (Well, almost forbidden – there’s a little-known exception for goalies who keep one foot in the crease.) But many fans forget that there’s another section of the ice where a goaltender isn’t allowed to touch the puck. And it’s much larger.

According to rule 27.7, a goalkeeper can’t touch the puck or otherwise participate in the play on the other team’s side of center ice. That’s a minor penalty. And while it’s a situation that virtually never comes up, it probably won’t surprise you to learn the identity of the one guy in recent memory to get nailed for it:

“He’s out of his mind.” Yep, pretty much.

By the way, we can go back even further for some rarely seen footage of Jacques Plante leading a rush through the neutral zone – and being familiar enough with the rulebook to dish the puck off just before hitting the red line.

You’re not allowed to disagree with the referee

Fans know that there’s an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the books for abuse of officials, one that referees can use to hand a minor penalty or even a ten-minute misconduct to players who cross the line. But where is the line? Is it swearing? Personal abuse? Mom jokes?

Luckily for us, the rulebook does offer an explanation as part of Rule 39, Abuse of Officials. And it’s, uh, a little more strict than you might expect.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Finding hope for this year’s playoff outcasts

The first round of the playoffs is a roller coaster for fans of the 16 teams involved, one filled with drama, tension and (hopefully) exhilaration. Sometimes, it can even be fun – at least as far as feeling like you’re going to vomit for two straight weeks can ever be considered fun.

But the first round can be a tough time for fans of the 14 teams that didn’t qualify for the post-season. Maybe you’re left agonizing over how close your favorite team came to making it. Or maybe you’re watching the league’s best go head-to-head and realizing how far away your team really is. In either case, it can make for a frustrating time.

So today, let’s offer up something that can be hard to come by at this time of year: Hope. Let’s go through all 14 of the teams who are sitting at home right now, identify one of their (in some cases many) areas of concern, and match them to a playoff team that can offer them a reason for optimism.

Ottawa Senators

The issue: They can’t – or won’t – spend to the cap.

But just look at: The Ducks. Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk has long made it clear that he doesn’t feel the team needs to spend to the cap to be competitive, even going so far as to infamously claim that cost-per-point is the only stat he’s worried about. But while there are certainly examples of high-spending teams that don’t get value for their money, the recent history is fairly clear – you need to spend to contend.

That’s disheartening news for Ottawa fans dreaming of a Cup but they can draw some inspiration from a handful of teams that have had success despite a lack of spending. And no low-spending team has been better than the one that finished right behind the Senators on this year’s cap list: the Anaheim Ducks. (If the Ducks happen to fall victims to a stunning first round upset, remember that the Predators spent even less.)

Carolina Hurricanes

The issue: They need a major upgrade to their goaltending. Without a top prospect on the way or much to get excited about on the free agent market, they’ll probably have to hit the trade market to do it.

But just look at: The Wild. Granted, this may not be all that comforting to Hurricanes fans, since the Wild were the worst team to make this year’s playoffs and look like they’ll be easy fodder for the top-seeded Dallas Stars. But the Wild are a reminder that it is possible to find goaltending at a reasonable price, having added Devan Dubnyk last year for just a third round pick. So are the Flyers (Steve Mason) and Lightning (Ben Bishop). Those were all mid-season deals; you’d assume the Hurricanes will want a new starter in place by training camp, and prices for goaltenders tend to be higher during the off-season. Still, history suggests there will be good goaltending available at a reasonable cost. You’ve just got to find it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 18, 2016

Weekend report: Embrace the hate

Faceoff: The Hateful Eight

Let's be honest: The NHL has changed over the years. Some might even prefer "evolved." But it's been unmistakable. Fighting has plummeted, reaching levels we haven't seen in five decades. We still argue over suspensions, but the stuff that earns a ban these days is downright mild compared to plays that went completely unpunished years ago. And while some still like to pretend that players had more respect for each other in the old days, truly vicious stuff like this or this or this has all but vanished from the modern game.

And, most fans would tell you, all of that is a good thing. Today's game, while far from perfect, is indisputably cleaner and safer than it's been in generations. The NHL doesn't get enough credit for that.

But here's where the cognitive dissonance kicks in. Because as much as we can all appreciate the strides the game has made over the years, it's hard to deny a simple fact about NHL hockey: Hatred is fun. Bad blood is fun. Playoff hockey is good, but playoff hockey played between two teams that seem to genuinely hold each other in contempt is so much better.

And that's never more obvious than in the opening round, where we're typically treated to eight concurrent hate-based plotlines. That's especially true early on, when there are messages to be delivered and tones to be set. Every hit is finished, every shove is reciprocated, and nobody skates away from a scrum without getting a shot in.

This year has been no different, as even teams that spent the season on their best behavior are suddenly at each other's throats. We expected bad blood in series between established rivals, like the Blues and Blackhawks or Kings and Sharks. And they haven't disappointed, playing some serious big kid hockey over the first few games. But the beauty of the playoffs is that you don't need a history to get to the hatred. The Ducks and Predators series has been full of sneakily dirty plays. The Wild and Stars are going hard. And it only took two games before the Islanders and Panthers were sucker-punching each other below the belt. Literally.

The list goes on. Game 2 between the Rangers and Penguins featured a controversial hit from behind by Ben Lovejoy on Derek Stepan, while the Flyers and Capitals have been dishing out big hits of their own. We've also seen seven fighting majors handed out so far. Three of those came in a wild line brawl between the Lightning and Red Wings in the final minute of Game 2, one that saw Detroit's Justin Abdelkader jump Mike Blunden, bloodying the Tampa winger before he could fight back.

(The two teams very nearly staged a rematch at the final buzzer last night; you know you've got some bad blood when even Henrik Zetterberg is dropping his gloves.)

So is this what NHL hockey should look like? Maybe not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes. If thinking that makes you a hypocrite, then plenty of hockey fans are going to fit the description.

And we should see more of it this week. The rough stuff tends to die down as a series goes on, as the stakes get higher and the cost-benefit of hammering someone at every opportunity starts to drop. By the weekend, as we're getting into games six or seven, things will have calmed down a bit.

But until then, we've got at least a few more games of first-round hockey hatred left to enjoy. Even if we're not supposed to.


So about the power rankings section...

It's early. We can all agree on that. Two or three games is way too soon to be crowning anyone, or to be writing anyone off. Remember, three games into last year's playoffs, it looked like it was finally the Islanders' year to win a series and the Lightning were on the ropes. Two years ago, we'd already finished the obituary for the Kings.

So yes, it's early. A lot can change, and a lot will change.

With those caveats out of the way, who's ready to start drawing some ironclad conclusions? That's what I thought. Onto the postseason power rankings.

Conn Smythe Watch

Celebrating those who are making the strongest case for postseason MVP honors.

5. Kari Lehtonen—The Stars looked like an easy team to figure out heading into the playoffs. They were the West's top seed, and went into their series with the Wild as heavy favorites and legitimate Cup contenders. But they'd have to get there the same way they'd won during the season: By pumping home enough goals to make up for a leaky blueline and shaky goaltending.

We're only two games in, but so far the Stars aren't following the script. They're up 2-0 on the Wild, and the offense, led by Jamie Benn, has looked fine. But Lehtonen has been the story, allowing just one goal on 48 shots. It's early, sure, but that has to feel like a concern to the rest of the Western Conference. The Stars are already the league's highest-scoring team, one that just got Tyler Seguin back from injury and is already apparently bored enough to start scoring physics-defying goals like this. Watching Dallas learn how to actually stop the puck would feel like the raptor figuring out how to work the doorknob in Jurassic Park.

4. Reilly Smith—The Bruins' castoff has put up four goals and eight points through three games, making him the leading scorer through the postseason's first few nights. This isn't quite John Druce territory—Smith is coming off the second 50-point season of his career—but it's fair to say he probably didn't go in the first round of too many playoff pools.

He'd be higher on this list if the Panthers weren't down 2-1 against the Islanders in a series that's quickly emerging as the most sneakily entertaining of the opening round.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, April 15, 2016

Grab bag: When bad teams think about trading good players

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A word about offside replay reviews
- Should you ever consider trading a player like P.K. Subban or Erik Karlsson?
- An obscure player and charter member of the Disappointing Younger Brother Travelling All-Stars
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube clip that features the birth of the Penguins/Rangers playoff rivalry.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The 2016 playoffs pressure index

The playoffs are a pressure cooker. Every moment of every game is massive, every little thing is magnified, and any mistake can cost a team their season. We know this, because for the next eight weeks, we’ll be told about it constantly.

In fact, it’s tempting to say that playoff pressure is a constant, something faced in equal measure by all 16 teams. But that’s nonsense. Not all circumstances are created equal, and some teams are absolutely under more pressure than others.

Every year, there are a few teams for whom just qualifying at all is enough to make the season a success, and any noise they can make from there is just a bonus. Then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum — the teams for whom the playoffs truly feel like a defining moment, the start of a do-or-die quest that will either end in ultimate success or total, irredeemable failure. They walk together in history forever, or they all walk together to the first bus out of town.

So how does it break down this year? Here’s a best guess at how much pressure each team is facing – counting down from least to most.

16. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers are this year’s surprise team, one that was languishing in 12th place in the East back in January and then made a late push to sneak into the last wildcard spot on the season’s final weekend. GM Ron Hextall has the team in a surprisingly patient rebuild mode and didn’t bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, so just making the postseason at all means the season will be viewed a positive step forward.

Now they’ve got a matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, and go into the series as big underdogs. Could they pull off the upset? Sure they could – it’s closer than you think. But even if they’re swept, they won’t look at this season as anything but a success.

15. Florida Panthers

The Panthers are coming off a dream regular season — one that saw them making a big jump up the standings, winning the second division title in franchise history and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in four years. Along the way, they became the hockey world’s favorite story, packed with fun personalities and even the occasional celebrity cameo.

They’d no doubt love to keep that story going by winning their first playoff round in 20 years, and there’s a “strike while the iron is hot” vibe to their momentum right now. But while dropping what looks like a very winnable matchup with the Islanders would be a disappointment, it wouldn’t undo much of the goodwill they’ve built up over the course of a successful season.

14. Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champs are playing for their legacy at this point. Last year’s Cup win boosted them into the “Wait, is this a dynasty?” discussion, and another title would make them a lock.

So yes, there’s unquestionably something on the line here. But even a first round exit would be easy enough to shrug off – remember, it’s already happened twice during the Hawks’ six-year run – and they’d come back next year with some extra rest and motivation. The Hawks didn’t get to where they are today by taking anything lightly. But this isn’t exactly do-or-die.

13. Nashville Predators

The Predators have largely flown under the radar this year; they were never considered part of the Central’s Big Three, but were rarely in much danger of missing the playoffs. Now they head into the postseason as an underdog, crossing over to the Pacific to face a Ducks team that everyone expects to go deep. That’s not to say that there’s no urgency here – Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber aren’t getting any younger, and the Predators will need to make their push into the league’s top tier eventually. But it’s hard to feel too much pressure when everyone has already written you off.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Five big names who didn't make the cut on my awards ballot

Today is the first day of the playoffs, with series kicking off in Tampa, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. That means it’s also the last day for PHWA members to submit their award ballots. So if you noticed your favorite sportswriter rushing around like a flustered kid who left his homework to the last minute, that’s why.

The league prefers that we don’t reveal our ballots before the winners are announced, since if too many of us do that it will kill the suspense. That’s fair. So today, I won’t tell you who got my vote. Instead, I’ll tell you who didn’t.

As background, we get to include five names for each award, listed in order from first through fifth. Sometimes, that ends up being a pretty easy list to fill out – you might move guys up and down as you go, but the five names you’re going to include are a lock. Other times, you might have to scramble to fill out a top-heavy field. And more often than not, you wind up with what feels like the toughest scenario: Too many names and not enough spots, and some deserving candidate has to go.

That happened a few times this year. So here are five names that I went in fully expecting to cast a vote for, but who ended up missing the cut. For what it’s worth, ballots aren’t due until the puck drops on the first playoff games, so if you’re convinced that I’m indefensibly wrong on any of these, make your best arguments in the comments.

Dylan Larkin, Red Wings, Calder

Larkin was easily one of the best rookie stories of the year. He was looking like the Calder favorite early in the year, and was still solidly in the conversation by midseason. He was named to the all-star team, then wowed everyone by winning the fastest skater competition. He relinquished his favorite status as the season wore on, giving way to the great Connor McDavid vs. Artemi Panarin debate on 2016. But surely he had to be on the ballot, right?

Apparently not. In a tough Calder race that featured seven or eight candidates who had a strong top-five case, I was surprised to be unable to find room for Larkin. That’s partly due to a slow finish – after back-to-back two point games in early February, Larkin managed just one multi-point game in his last 29, recording only six points total in March and April. It’s a long season, and you’d expect a young player to have a cold stretch or two. But Larkin’s slow stretch was just enough to drop him behind some of his fellow rookies.

Your thoughts on Larkin’s Calder case probably has a lot to do with how you interpret the award. Some voters factor in a degree of difficulty, especially when it comes to age. Maybe a season like Larkin’s at the age of 19 is more impressive than what Panarin did at 24. I think there’s a great argument to be made that Larkin is a better long-term prospect than Panarin, who may have already peaked.

But the Calder isn’t the Best Prospect award. It’s for the “most proficient” rookie, as defined by the NHL, and you don’t get bonus points for being younger than the competition. Sorry, Dylan.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Round one playoff preview

Metropolitan Division

The Metro is home to the Presidents' Trophy winner and trendy Cup favorite. Those are two different teams, by the way.

#2 Penguins vs. #3 Rangers

In this corner: The hottest team in the league. The Penguins (48-26-8, +42) have been a different group since Mike Sullivan took over as coach, roaring down the stretch to grab the Metro's second seed.

And in this corner: The Rangers (46-27-9, +18) have been one of the league's most consistent teams over the last five seasons, and have gone to at least the second round every year since 2011.

Dominant narrative: Goaltending. We don't know who's going in net for the Penguins, where starter Marc-Andre Fleury is apparently back but has been battling a concussion, rookie Matt Murray seemed to suffer a head injury in the team's final game, and Jeff Zatkoff has never played a minute in the postseason. Even if Fleury is back, Henrik Lundqvist gives the Rangers a big edge in goal. Big enough to steal the series? Quite possibly, yeah.

The big question: Is the Rangers' window closing? They've been to the conference finals in three of the last four seasons, but the core is an old one. Rangers fans will push back on that, and it's true that the team has some young talent (every team has some young talent). But Lundqvist is 34, and Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Derick Brassard, Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello are all 28 or older. In today's NHL, that's old. Not "take them out behind the barn" old, no, but definitely "the point of diminishing returns" old. If the Rangers can't win this year, how do they get closer to a Cup next year, or the year after? At some point, they'll have to hit the reset button.

One player to watch: Dan Girardi. With Ryan McDonagh apparently out to start the series, Girardi will have a greater role. That's not good news for New York, since Girardi has struggled badly at times this year. If he can't hold his own against the Penguins' snipers, this one could get ugly.

Key number: 0.59—Career goals-per-game in the playoffs by Phil Kessel. Despite his reputation as a soft player who doesn't come through in big moments, Kessel actually ranks first among all active players in the category.

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Pittsburgh ends the series with an overtime win, at which point Lundqvist reminds us all that nobody in hockey pulls off a better "devastated goaltender reaction" than he can.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The 2016 bandwagon rankings

Let’s be honest: Playoff bandwagon-hopping is a contentious subject. For some fans, it’s a total non-starter – you get one team and one team only, with no backup plans allowed. If your favourite team didn’t make the playoffs, then you’re just out of luck. You settle in for the playoffs and enjoy watching all the series play out, but you do it as a neutral observer.

But not everyone looks at it that way. Some fans just like having someone to root for, even if it’s only temporary. And those fans are faced with a tough decision at this time of year, as they try to figure out which bandwagon to punch their ticket for.

We’re here to help. So today, let’s take a look at all 16 playoff teams, and rank them by bandwagonability, which is not a word but probably should be. Ideally, we’re looking for a team that has a likable cast of characters, some fun storylines, and a good chance to win – but not so good that you’ll look like a front-runner, because we can all agree that they’re the worst.

Let’s get started, working our way from the worst possible option to the best.

#16. Chicago Blackhawks

Why you should get on board: Because you're also the sort of person who plays video games on the easy level, cheers for the Harlem Globetrotters, and wears a John Cena shirt to work.

Why you shouldn't: Come on. We can debate the ethics of bandwagon hopping in general, but if you're going to make the leap then you can't do it with the closest thing the NHL has seen to a dynasty in decades. When it comes to getting it done on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office, no organization has been better than the Blackhawks, and they have three Cups and counting to show for it. Admire their success, sure. Appreciate the skill on display, of course. Be jealous, absolutely. But if you jump on their bandwagon now, you're a terrible person.

Bottom line: No.

#15 Los Angeles Kings

Why you should get on board: These plucky underdogs will be trying to make the leap all the way from non-playoff team to Stanley Cup champions, according to people who only arrived on the planet during the last year.

Why you shouldn't: See the Blackhawks.

Bottom line: If you bandwagon the Kings, may you be forced to spend the entire playoffs standing between two people having the Doughty vs. Karlsson Norris Trophy argument.

#14. Minnesota Wild

Why you should get on board: If you are what your record says you are, then the Wild are the worst team in this year's playoffs by a pretty decent margin. In theory, that makes them the opening round's biggest underdog. But they've drawn a high-flying Dallas Stars team that looks at least a little bit vulnerable thanks to their shaky goaltending situation. If you're looking for a longshot that could actually pull off the major upset, the Wild might be your pick.

Why you shouldn't: This is a team that lost six more games than they won, and they head into the playoffs having lost five straight. Don't get too attached.

Bottom line: You're swinging for the fences here.

#13. New York Rangers

Why you should get on board: They're a team built to win now, one that features the best goaltender of his generation. But the core is aging, the window is closing, and the sense of urgency is palpable. For a franchise that's won just one Cup in 76 years, this has the makings of a compelling do-or-die story.

Why you shouldn't: It's always hard to shake the image of the Rangers as the league's high-spending big shots, the sort of team you're supposed to hop on the bandwagon to root against, not for. That doesn't make much sense in a hard cap league, but it's a tough hurdle to get past nonetheless.

Bottom line: Lundqvist is one of the most likable players in the game and has won everything there is to win in hockey except for a Stanley Cup, but at 34 he's running out of chances. There may not be an easier superstar to root for in this year's playoffs.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 11, 2016

Weekend report: The dust settles

Faceoff: The dust settles

The final weekend of the regular season didn't bring quite as much drama as we'd have hoped for, with only one playoff race still left to be settled. But that race was a good one, with the Bruins, Flyers and Red Wings all heading into action with a chance at one of the East's two remaining spots.

Thanks to some scheduling karma, we got to sit back and watch it all play out on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, so did Tuukka Rask, who was a surprise scratch for the Bruins due to illness. That forced backup Jonas Gustavsson into action, and it went just about as well as you'd expect. Gustavsson was shelled, the Bruins dropped a 6-1 blowout to the Senators, and the Red Wings were in the playoffs despite losing to the Rangers. The streak lives, and the Wings will get a first-round rematch with the Lightning.

That loss left the Bruins on life support, and the Flyers pulled the plug a few hours later with a win over the depleted Penguins. That completes an impressive late-season run for a team that seemed all but out of the race in January. The Flyers will get the top-seeded Capitals in the opening round.

As for the Bruins, it's hard to see missing the playoffs as anything but a disaster for the franchise, especially after rookie GM Don Sweeney traded away four draft picks at the deadline for veteran reinforcements and is now likely to lose UFA Loui Eriksson for nothing. The bottom line is that the Bruins just aren't good enough, and changes of some kind are coming in Boston. We'll get to what seems like the most obvious of those a few sections down.

The other big news from the weekend were the two Western division titles up for grabs. The Stars grabbed the Central crown with a win over the Predators on Saturday; the Kings had a chance to do the same against the Jets, but blew a 3-0 lead and dropped a shootout decision to leave the door open for the Ducks. They strolled through it, beating the Capitals last night to win the division and set up a first-round matchup with the Predators. The Kings are stuck with a much tougher matchup with the Sharks, and have also squandered home ice in any second-round meeting with the Ducks. Hockey fans know better than to get ahead of ourselves, but that Kings loss to the Jets feels huge.

The full playoff bracket and schedule is now set, and can be found here.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Los Angeles Kings (48-28-6, +31 true goals differential)Yes, still ahead of the Ducks, if only barely. Yes, I can see myself really regretting this about two weeks from now.

4. St. louis Blues (49-24-9, +22)—You always knew their path out of the West would go through Chicago. But in the first round? Ouch.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, April 8, 2016

Grab bag: Loser points, Canada's team, and thrilling finishes

In the Friday grab bag:
- The loser point doesn't make playoff races closer; this year, it ruined one
- Who should be Canada's Team for the playoffs?
- Four players have captained three NHL teams: Gretzky, Messier, Pronger and this week's obscure player
- The three comedy stars, featuring the return of a legend
- And a YouTube breakdown of the time the 1987-88 season came down to its final seconds

>> Read the full post at Vice

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The many objections to the Gold Plan, and why they're wrong

Welcome to the bandwagon, Shane Doan.

This week, the Coyotes’ captain made some headlines by suggesting a radical solution to the NHL’s late-season problem of teams tanking and fans rooting for losses.

Many fans will recognize Doan’s suggestion as The Gold Plan that’s been floating around for years. Many more are seeing it for the first time.

The idea goes like this: Instead of a draft lottery system that encourages losing by awarding the best odds to the league’s worst teams, you’d determine the draft order based on the number of points each team earned after being eliminated from the playoffs. Once you’re mathematically out of the playoff hunt, you start the clock on banking points towards your spot in the draft order. The team with the most post-elimination points get the top pick, and so on down through the rest of the non-playoff teams.

The beauty of the plan is that it still weights the odds of getting the first pick heavily towards the league's worst teams, because they'll be eliminated first. In a typical season, the league's worst teams will get about ten games or so to rack up their points, while teams that come close to the playoffs will only get a couple (and sometimes none at all). We're still offering a hand up to the teams that need it most. It's just that now, they have to earn that prize on the ice. And their fans would be able to feel good about wins again.

Doan didn't invent the concept – the idea became widely known back in 20012 when a then-student named Adam Gold presented it at the Sloan Analytics conference, which is why it's typically referred to as the Gold Plan and not the Doan Plan.

Shane Doan became the all-time leader in goals for the Coyotes franchise.

Others have made similar proposals over the years, and the basic idea has been gaining converts ever since. Who invented what isn't all that important, since nobody's stealing anything here. Sometimes, multiple people just happen to come up with a similar idea, especially when it's a very good one. Which the Gold Plan is.

Sadly, not everyone agrees. Whenever the idea is mentioned, there's an inevitable pushback, as hockey fans do that hockey fan thing where they try to come up with as many reasons as possible to resist change. And some of those reasons are legitimate. After all, the Gold Plan is clever, but it's certainly not perfect.

So today, let's walk through some of the most common objections to the idea – and why you should jump on the bandwagon with Shane Doan and the rest of us anyway.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A brief history of weird NHL award votes

With the regular season ending on Sunday and the playoffs starting a week from Wednesday, we’re now just days away from that special time of year when the pressure ramps up, every decision becomes crucial, and the very best of the best find a way to defy the odds and come through when they’re needed most.

I’m referring, of course, to the media handing in our awards ballots.

This year is a particularly tricky one for members of the PHWA, the writers’ association that votes on most of the awards. You’ve got the ongoing Drew Doughty vs. Erik Karlsson debate over the Norris Trophy, one that’s been waging for weeks and by this point would probably need to be settled by pistols at dawn if sportswriters ever woke up that early. There’s an especially deep field of rookies for the Calder. And even the Hart, which once looked like a lock for Patrick Kane, is facing a late charge by Sidney Crosby that could earn him some last-minute ballots.

We don’t know how the voting will turn out, but we do know this: Somebody somewhere is going to hate it, and they’re going to let us know that we’re all idiots. Whether it’s the poor soul who has Doughty third, or leaves Dylan Larkin off a ballot, or wastes a Selke vote on a player who you once saw commit a turnover, we know we’ll hear about it. Worst vote ever, you idiot.

But in the calm before that storm, let’s take a moment to remember that there’s a long history of truly weird awards ballots being cast. We’re not talking about having a guy a spot higher or lower than consensus or honoring a player whose great season ended up being a one-hit wonder – we’re talking truly outside-the-box picks, the kind of votes that cause a record scratch sound effect to play in the background when they’re first read.

So before you go off on some poor, hard-working, slightly overweight, balding, ill-mannered, unwashed [Editor’s note: That’s enough.] sportswriter for a vote you disagree with, remember – the bar has been set pretty high.

Here are five of the stranger votes cast for major NHL awards over the years, and the logic that was likely behind them at the time.

Sean Burke, 1988

There’s been plenty of debate this year about Connor McDavid’s case for the Calder Trophy. Do you give him your vote, even though he’ll only finish with 45 games played? He’s been great, sure, but doesn’t a major award require a full season’s work? It’s a tough call.

But what if we were talking about the Hart instead of the Calder? And what if the we had a candidate who’d only appeared in a quarter of McDavid’s games, because he didn’t even arrive in the NHL until March?

That’s the situation voters found themselves in when assessing Sean Burke’s 1987-88 season, in which he appeared in just 13 games for the Devils. And at least one voter figured that was enough, as Burke received a third place vote for both the Calder and Hart.

It’s not actually all that crazy when you remember that Devils’ 87-88 season. That was the year the team went on a late-season tear to earn the first playoff berth in franchise history with a dramatic overtime win on the season’s final day. Burke was a big part of that, making his NHL debut on March 2 and going 10-1 during the Devils’ frantic push. If you’re going to lean heavily on the “value” part of “most valuable”, you could make the case for tossing him a vote.

For what it’s worth, 27 years later, Andrew Hammond would get some voter love of his own based on 24 games. What can you say, some guys are just workaholics.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Then ten best potential first round matchups of the 2016 playoffs

With just six days left in the regular season, it’s getting tough to not look ahead to the playoffs. So today, let’s do exactly that, with a ranking of the 10 best realistic first-round matchups that we could be on the verge of seeing.

Of course, your definition of “realistic” might vary, but let’s draw a line in the sand at 10 per cent (based on the odds as calculated by Sports Club Stats). That means that some matchups won’t make the cut, even if they’re still technically possible and would be completely amazing. And yes, I’m talking about the Islanders and Rangers. Look, I’m still not over the way that all fell apart on us over the last few weeks.

Just give me a minute.

For the rest of the candidates, we’ll be considering a variety of factors. We’ll of course be looking for great hockey between two elite teams. A compelling storyline or two always helps. And any sort of rivalry or bad blood, recent or long-term, is a major bonus.

Granted, if you're a fan of a team headed to the post-season (hello, Americans!), you'd probably just prefer the easiest matchup possible and be done with it. But for the rest of us, here are the 10 best matchups to root for over the season's final week.

10. Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning – 38.2%

Contender status: Up until a few days ago, the Lightning looked like an Eastern favourite, but injuries to Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman have devastated those expectations. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have their hands full just making it to the post-season.

Potential storylines: Can a team that went all the way to the final last year be considered a scrappy underdog this time around? Given the Lightning's injuries, they might have to be. Meanwhile, the Wings would have the sentimental story of trying to make a run in what could be Pavel Datsyuk's last season.

Rivalry factor: The two teams faced each other for the first time last year, in what turned out to be an excellent series in which the Wings nearly pulled off the upset. As an added bonus, there's always the Steve Yzerman factor.

Bottom line: It would be a matchup between two teams that a lot of us are writing off this week, one of which would be moving on to the division final.

9. Boston Bruins vs. Florida Panthers – 11.8%

Contender status: Um… well… anything can happen in the playoffs, right?

Potential storylines: Both teams have more likely matchups – the Panthers are at 43.9 per cent to face the Islanders, while the Bruins would be 38.9 per cent to get the Lightning. But we'll pair them together here because we want to get them both out of the way of some intriguing storylines. There's the Shawn Thornton factor, as the veteran enforcer faces the team he won a Cup with five years ago. Jaromir Jagr is a former Bruin, although that's not all that exciting because at this point he's a former almost-everyone. And maybe most intriguing, you get Roberto Luongo's rematch with the Bruins from the 2011 final.

Rivalry factor: Minimal, although there was some minor bad blood in a game a few weeks ago. They also met back in the 1996 playoffs, making the Bruins the only team the Panthers have ever beaten in the opening round.

Bottom line: Whoever they play, the Panthers are looking like a fun bandwagon team. Matching them up against a team that embraces the villain role as effortlessly as the Bruins would be a perfect fit.

Random clip to get you fired up: Can you feel that, Bruins? Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 4, 2016

Weekend report: When injuries change everything

Faceoff: Insult to Injury

With one week left in the regular season and the playoffs drawing near, hockey fans have turned their attention to the usual questions: Who's in? Who's out? Who's playing who? Who's hot, who's cold, and who's got the clearest path to the final?

This year, another question is starting to loom even larger: Who's healthy?

The quick answer, as always, is "nobody" because this is the NHL and everyone is banged up in one way or another by this point. But this year, there are some very significant names showing up on injury reports around the league in the season's final days, and many of them are big enough to change the perception of some team's playoff chances.

The latest bombshell arrived late Saturday evening, with news breaking that Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would need to undergo surgery for a blood clot in his arm. He'll miss at least a month, and could be sidelined until after the final. While the good news is that the clots apparently won't impact his long-term health outlook, the timing is devastating to a Lightning team that had been considered a favourite to come out of the Atlantic, if not the Eastern Conference. The team had already lost key defenceman Anton Stralman to a broken leg that's left him hoping for a return "at some point." Losing Stamkos too may be enough to shift Tampa Bay from Conference favourite to first-round underdog. (And now, even potential AHL saviour Jonathan Drouin is apparently hurt, too.)

The Stamkos story followed on the heels of Saturday morning's news from Pittsburgh that Marc-Andre Fleury has been shut down with his second concussion of the season. That's a major blow to a team that had emerged as a legitimate Cup threat under new coach Mike Sullivan. We don't yet know how long Fleury will be out, but an extended absence would put all the playoff pressure on 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray. (For what it's worth, Murray has looked very good in his nine career games, including a 24-save shutout against the Islanders after the Fleury news broke on Saturday.)

Fleury isn't the only playoff-bound goaltender on the sidelines with a head injury. The Ducks announced Friday that sometimes-starter Frederik Andersen is out indefinitely with a concussion. Anaheim will also be without forward David Perron, who'll miss four to six weeks with a separated shoulder.

Just when things were going right for the Penguins...–Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

And then there's the ongoing mystery of Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford. He hasn't played since March 14 due to what the team is calling an upper-body injury, and there's been plenty of speculation over exactly what that might mean. The team still says it still hopes to have Crawford back in time for the playoffs, but with a tough first-round matchup looming, any sort of absence—or even rust—could spell disaster. Meanwhile, the Hawks have also lost Andrew Shaw to injury and Duncan Keith to a suspension, and could now be without Marian Hossa, who left Sunday's game after a collision and did not return.

The list continues. Tyler Seguin of the Stars. Travis Hamonic and Jaroslav Halak of the Islanders. Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the Sharks. Jay Bouwmeester of the Blues. Marian Gaborik of the Kings. All big names, all sidelined as the season winds down, all hoping to return for the playoffs but none a sure thing.

Any predictions of injury-related doom and gloom at this time of year need to be taken with a grain of salt—the star player who misses time late but manages to miraculously recover just in time for the playoffs is a story we've seen before. But the flood of big names on the injury report could be enough to tilt the balance of power in at least a series or two. And we still have a week to add to the list...

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (46-26-7, +25 true goals differential)I should have slipped the Penguins in here and dropped Chicago off the list. Then I watched the shorthanded Hawks speedbag what should have been a desperate Bruins team for 35 minutes Sunday and I went "Oh yeah, these guys." Then I watched the last 25 minutes and went "Wait, I'm confused." I remain confused.

4. Los Angeles Kings (46-27-5, +30)—They hold their spot in our top five, but the Ducks have passed them again for top spot in the Pacific.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grab bag: Leaked emails, dramatic refs, and the Sabres get foolish

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What's in the NHL's email leak -- and what isn't
- A referee gets dramatic with this goal call
- An obscure Masterton winner
- The week's three comedy stars
- And in the YouTube breakdown, April Fools Day means a 1990 Sabres broadcast gets truly weird

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports