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

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